Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 September 2012

Foreign Language 2012 Round-up

These last two weeks I have been able (finally) to see the nominees for last year's Foreign Language Academy Award.

Last year's winner was a film from Iran called A Separation which was definitely the best entry in the category. A Separation is an incredibly powerful film that builds slowly but by its ending has become absolutely incredible. I ranked it as my #5 film from last year. It is just that good. If you haven't seen it yet, you need to rent it immediately. Move A Separation to the top of that Netflix queue.

I have written about Belgium's entry, Michaël R. Roskam's Bullhead here.

Israel's entry Footnote was also pretty excellent. It is a rather hard satire of two academics, a father and a son. One is a theorist and the other has decided that what he does is "science", although what he really is a philologist, a student of language and language patterns. He, of course, wants to be a scientist so that he can think of his own work as more important than the work that other people (in this case his son) do. Foucault talks about this tendency among scientists. (If I may, sometimes I think that the turn toward cognitive science in performance studies and theatre studies smacks of this kind of scientist discourse – understandable in a discipline [art] that constantly needs to justify itself.) Blah blah blah. Anyway, Footnote makes fun of this man outright, and isn't much kinder to his academic son, whose work is actually appreciated by the academy. Both men are figures of ridicule in Joseph Cedar's movie, and Footnote manages, therefore, to be both quite funny, and quite politically pointed. As an academic, it resonated.

Less interesting was Canada's film Monsieur Lazhar. It is about a teacher who substitutes for a primary-school classroom after the students' teacher commits suicide in the classroom. I was mostly bored by this movie. It is fairly standard fare, but it makes a few unobjectionable points about the nature of grief as well as an (obvious and rather conservative) argument that we don't listen enough to kids, and that they know how to deal with things better than adults know how they ought to deal with them. The best thing about the movie is the performance by a young man named Émilien Néron who might rival Quvenzhané Wallis as the most heartbreaking child of 2012. Little Émilien is absolutely incredible. He might be reason enough to watch Monsieur Lazhar.

And that brings us to Poland's entry, Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, which is honestly not interesting at all. This will sound dismissive, but In Darkness is The Diary of Anne Frank in the sewers of Poland. To be sure, it is beautifully filmed, and the acting is great. But... I guess I am not sure what the point of another Manichaeist film about Nazi Germany accomplishes. Nazis are bad. Nazi-sympathizers are bad. People who help European Jews are good people. I believe all of this. And I understand that not everyone does believe this. But for me a film like In Darkness has as much conflict as, say, Captain America. There are so many good movies about this period in history, but In Darkness is no more interesting than a film like Defiance, and I think that's saying a lot. But enough about how uninteresting In Darkness is. Let's talk about its star, the beautiful Benno Fürmann.

I mean, do you know what I'm talking about?

He's just... so... good looking.

One of the points of conflict in In Darkness is whether or not this girl is going to fall in love with Benno Fürmann or not. This is presented as a conflict. Frankly, I don't see one.

24 September 2012

Telluride at Dartmouth #4

I am so frustrated for not having posted yet about Pablo Larraín's No, which played at Telluride and will play at the New York Film Festival next month. You will note that though I liked this film quite a bit it is not ranked in my 2012 rankings because (as far as I can tell) it does not yet have a U.S. distributor. I should also tell you that it is, as of today, Chile's official selection for the Foreign Language Oscar.

Plus, it's a really good film. It stars Gael García Bernal (everyone's favorite Mexican actor) who I know you all remember from Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, Bad Education and a million other movies. No's subject matter is the plebiscite in Chile that functioned as a referendum on the government of General Augusto Pinochet. García Bernal is an advertising man who runs the "No" campaign, which calls for Pinochet to be ousted.

Okay, now here's how the film works. No is shot as though it is a piece of 1980s South-American television: the aspect ration is closer to 1:1.33 than I have seen in a movie in a long time, the lighting is decidedly televisual, and the film stock looks really old to eyes used to watching things like, say, Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

At first I found this conceit irritating. I know it's a movie about the 1980s, but I don't wanna watch a 1980s movie, mom! Why can't you just film it like all the other pretty movies from 2012, thankyouverymuch. But I'll be damned if the whole thing doesn't just work after a while. We watch so much advertising footage in the course of the film, witness so much of what Chileans saw on their small screens at home, that what is an advertisement and what is reality becomes strangely blurred. So much so that by the time Gael and his son go to a political rally in the film's third act, I wasn't sure whether Pinochet's advertising team had captured the pair on video, if they were broadcasting that video on television as a smear campaign, or if it was really happening. In this way, Larraín's film manages to conflate anti-Pinochet propaganda, footage of Pinochet himself, the blatant semiotics of advertising imagery, and the narrative of No itself. The more I think about it, the smarter it becomes.

Furthermore, No, this film about the overthrowing of a dictator who proclaimed a "dirty war" on his own people, who committed countless atrocities, is unapologetically comedic. In fact, No is really funny. Larraín is able to balance the material dangers that his protagonists faced as they combated Pinochet's regime, the potential for violence that always hangs over them, with a true spirit of victory and fun. And there is something funny about Pinochet and his uniform (in the same way that Chaplin proves that there is something funny about Hitler in his delightful burlesque). This directorial skill seems to me to be a rather extraordinary one, a feat rarely pulled off by even the most experienced of directors (I am thinking now of that painfully unfunny fowl in Mr. Spielberg's War Horse.) That No is also an entertaining piece of historiography, an important political commentary on the reasons why people vote against their own interests, and a catalog of Pinochet's crimes against the Cuban citizenry is truly remarkable.

20 September 2012

Telluride at Dartmouth #3

Last night's movie was called Rust and Bone and it will not be France's official selection for the Foreign Language Oscar. The film in competition will be Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano's Intouchables.

And, frankly, who cares, because Rust and Bone is an excellent picture, no matter what kind of crowdpleaser the French Film Academy selects.

What is important for you to know is that the Jacques Audiard – the director of Un Prophète, Sur Mes Lèvres, and De Battre Mon Coeur S'est Arrêté – has made another tough-as-nails picture about working-class people trying to make their way in a world that doesn't want them to succeed. Rust and Bone is about a pugilist with a young son and his affair with a woman who trains killer whales in a Sea-World-like theme park.

The boxer is played by the awesome Matthias Schoenaerts (who was in Bullhead from earlier this year and whose praises I've been singing), and the orca-trainer is played by Marion Cotillard.

Rust and Bone is a plot-heavy drama, filled with reversals, and knowing nothing about the movie, I was constantly surprised by what happened as the film moved forward. I don't think Rust and Bone is quite as extraordinary of a picture as Un Prophète, but Audiard is an excellent storyteller, and he loves his characters, even when they make terrible decisions.

Audiard's films are also always concerned with class and with the material situation of his characters. They do what they do because of the tight financial constraints placed upon them and he never lets an audience forget that about his characters.

I don't want to spoil anything about the plot, so I'll be quiet about what happens, but I can say with confidence that both Schoenaerts and Cotillard are superb in Rust and Bone. Cotillard proves, again, that she is a serious actor that demands attention, and Schoenaerts is plainly an actor who is here to stay. Bullhead was not a flash-in-the-pan performance. This guy is fantastic.

17 September 2012


Obviously I would never, unless forced to do so, see a film called The Babymakers. I don't really watch romantic comedies about straight people, and watching this one doesn't look any more appealing than any other one. Actually, I didn't see this movie. I just want you to look closely at the poster because the only reason I looked twice at this movie was that it stars Paul Schneider. You know, Lars's brother in Lars and the Real Girl, the amazing amazing romantic lead in All the Real Girls, the quirky character in George Washington, the soulful member of Jesse's gang in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I love that guy.

So who is the guy on this poster?

It looks like Paul Schneider and Rupert Everett's love child. Olivia Munn looks like she, too, has been insanely photoshopped. I mean, the more I look at it, the more grotesque the whole thing appears. Who did this? These people aren't even human.

Telluride at Dartmouth #2

Last night's film was Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair (in Danish – En Kongelig Affære) which stars Mads Mikkelsen (who you might recognize as the villain Le Chiffre from the Bond-movie Casino Royale, but who is much more important as the brother Jacob in Susanne Bier's After the Wedding).

A Royal Affair also stars Alicia Vikander and (in an amazing performance) Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as Denmark's King Christian VII. Arcel's film is a beautiful costume-piece, a historical epic about 18th-century Denmark and the country's movement towards the Enlightenment, greater freedoms for its citizenry, and the end of serfdom.

The film's main character is the Christian's queen Caroline, who was an English royal, sent to Denmark as the King's bride. The King, as it turns out, is either insane or incredibly moody, and the Queen's life is decidedly unhappy.

Mikkelsen plays an avid reader of Voltaire and Rousseau who is also a surgeon. He becomes, through a series of intrigues, Christian's personal physician, and comes to the palace in Copenhagen to live. Drama ensues as the Queen and the doctor begin to fall in love and the King becomes more and more ill. The Enlightenment, of course, also has its enemies, and even if the two were not in love, they would have been targeted by other forces among the nobility and the church. The stakes are quite high, indeed.

Arcel films this story like one of the French historical epics from the 1980s – something like Bruno Nuytten's Camille Claudel or Patrice Chéreau's La Reine Margot or one of the Jean-Paul Rappeneau historical epics (films like The Horseman on the Roof or Cyrano de Bergerac). A Royal Affair is much better made than a film like Jean-Marc Vallée's The Young Victoria.

Denmark has not, of late, selected films like this as its submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, but this may be the year, depending on how good this year's Susanne Bier movie is. (We find out tomorrow, September 18th, in any case.)

I found A Royal Affair quite moving. Its subjects are fascinating, its costumes are gorgeous (I cannot imagine it not getting an Oscar nomination for this. I mean, if Anonymous can get one...), and the acting is wonderful. I was a fan.

16 September 2012

Telluride at Dartmouth #1

One of the perks of working for a College that is a thriving arts institution is that I get to see a few films from the Telluride Film Festival before they are given a nationwide release. I had no idea this kind of thing happened at schools like this one. (I have clearly gone to public school for too long. It is fancy here.)

The first movie I got to see here was Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson which stars Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Honestly I don't actually think that there is much more to say about this movie.

If you look to the poster at left you will see that the movie is plainly a comedy. And it is a comedy, of the whimsical, fast-and-loose-with-history type. FDR is reimagined as a charming womanizer who also manages to be the generous, forgiving father we all wish we had. And life at Hyde Park on Hudson (which is a kind of summer home for FDR) is portrayed as identical to life in a fairy tale.

All of this, of course, got on my nerves, although the film does have one really beautiful moment where the King of England (George VI, at this time, who was most recently played to great acclaim – and with lots of sentiment – by Colin Firth in The King's Speech) gets really frustrated by his stutter while talking to FDR. Goddamn this stutter, he says. And FDR thinks for a beat and says, What stutter? It brought tears to my eyes, and it's a lovely moment.

But upon reflection, this bit of fantasy felt to me as phony as the rest of the movie. I mean, it's a lovely thought, but it's hardly realistic. The film is narrated by Laura Linney's character Daisy, and neither this character, nor anyone else in the President's retinue, could have known what FDR said to King George.

The movie's larger problem is Roger Michell's direction. He is never sure whether what he's directing is a comedy or a drama. In Hyde Park on Hudson's more serious moments, one feels awkward, as though the laughter suddenly stopped. And Michell doesn't know how to feel about FDR, either. Is he a bad man? Is he a great man? Are we supposed to understand that even great men are "human"?

There is a lot of hilarity about the King and Queen eating hot dogs, and Olivia Williams' Eleanor Roosevelt is the butt of countless jokes which felt to me both unkind and rather misogynist. Samuel West and Olivia Colman are both great as the King and Queen, and I loved Elizabeth Marvel, who plays the President's assistant. Mostly, however, I was unimpressed. It was like a candy-coated historical drama in the vein of The Help or a Lasse Hallström movie. Not my cup of tea.

14 September 2012

From 42nd Street

My favorite part of 42nd Street is when Ned Sparks, one of the producers, says of one of the other producers: "I don't like his face or any part of him. He looks like a Bulgarian boll weevil mourning its firstborn."

And then... mostly I thought this movie was pretty awful. It's terribly directed – the ending happens without any warning at all and without tying up two of the main storylines – and the two big musical numbers which close the show have nothing to do with anything, do not include both of the romantic leads, and generally make no sense. (Now, I don't always expect a musical number to make sense, but as the penultimate scene of a movie?)

I, of course, love Warner Baxter and George Brent. And Bebe Daniels, whose star faded pretty soon after 42nd Street, is just fabulous in this film - her drunk scene is absolutely amazing.

I am also a fan of Dick Powell, and the supporting cast is pretty uniformly good, but Ruby Keeler? She's awful. I am probably going to see Gold Diggers of 1933 in a week or two, and she's in that too, so I guess I will have another chance to see what she can do, but so far I just don't get it. She's flat and boring and just not that interesting. She dances beautifully, but next to a diva like Bebe Daniels, she looks like someone who could never have made it as a Hollywood star.

The important thing here is that the synopsis of this film says it is a Dick Powell-Ruby Keeler romance. It's not. It's a backstage musical with a single Busby Berkeley, ten storylines, and a romantic plot about George  Brent and Bebe Daniels (which is actually interesting).

Lest I sound like too much of a curmudgeon, 42nd Street did give us this fabulous song, and for that we should be grateful:

07 September 2012

From The Smiling Lieutenant

Claudette Colbert: So you... play the piano.
Maurice Chevalier: Mmmhmm.
Claudette Colbert: Some day we may have... a duet...?
Maurice Chevalier: I love chamber music.


For a while, as I was watching Michaël Roskam's Bullhead, I thought that the film I was watching was a kind of artfully done melodrama – something like Götz Spielmann's Revanche, which got lots of great reviews and which I liked but didn't quite love. And for a while, Bullhead is precisely that: an artfully made melodrama.

And then something breaks in the film, or lurches. Roskam's film is able to describe – in a moment that I found totally unexpected and in clear filmic language – an event that is horrific and unspeakable. It is an event that is small, really, but which has an absolutely enormous emotional impact. This is something that will stay with me for a long time.

This event, however, doesn't really change the way that the film is attempting to function, and Bullhead stays a kind of melodrama, a film about a man's suffering and his inability to make his life work. The characters in the film's present day are all the same as the characters in the film's flashback sequences; they're just twenty years older now. It's a narrative we've seen before: young man cannot reconcile his own past; his past comes back to haunt him anyway.

Bullhead is also a crime thriller, a story about gangsters. And the flashback sequences, which happen quite early in the film, give us a backstory that makes whatever is to come  in the movie feel completely unpredictable. This is a man whose motives we do not understand, whose pain we cannot comprehend, whose actions we cannot anticipate. It makes the main character (his name is Jacky, but the police surveillance team calls him "Rundskop" / "Bullhead" in Flemish Dutch) absolutely terrifying. He's not scary in a traditional way either. He's scary rather like Ryan Gosling is in Drive – although this character is more lost, more confused, simply more stupid than Drive's protagonist.

Matthias Schoenaerts is absolutely phenomenal. I loved this character, and yet I knew he would do the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing. I never knew what he was going to do next, but I wished I could help him. This is a man who is simply caught in a trap – like so many cattle being led to slaughter. (The bulls are a central metaphor in Bullhead, but their metaphoric presence never overpowers, never feels contrived.)

And then, all of a sudden, Roskam's film is so much more than a simple or even a complex melodrama. It becomes clear in act three that everything from the film's first two acts was all about class. The people who carry the guns are the people in power, sure, but power differentials in mafia circles work in similar ways to power differentials in places like chic Belgian clubs where the owner makes you buy a dress shirt at the door or boutiques devoted entirely to luxuries like perfume.

Bullhead is a film made in Flanders, and the movie nods explicitly to the old tradition of Flemish landscape painting. Think of work like this:
Roskam shoots these kinds of landscapes (complete with bovine inhabitants) as a backdrop to his scenes with his protagonist, and each time he does this it felt to me as though he was recalling a history of the land in which his story took place. These views struck me not as nostalgic ways of looking at Flanders but rather as images of the Flanders that we think we know – tourist images from the history of European painting. The rest of the film is a battleground, filled with unimaginable violence and unexpected brutality.

I don't want to spoil Bullhead any more than I already have – and my narrative here omits the other character, le doulos, who is central to the film's story – but I want also to say that this film's ending is just superb. I needed to take a walk outside after it was over.

If you can handle the violence, I cannot recommend this film enough.

05 September 2012


There is, perhaps, a lot to say about Sally and its preservation by Warner Bros, but you should read about it here instead of listening to me talk about it.

Sally itself is mostly unremarkable, but it's interesting enough as far as film history goes, particularly for its star, Marilyn Miller.

Aside from the dancing, Sally features extended comic sequences starring the very funny Joe E. Brown (you will remember him as the gentleman who says "Nobody's perfect!" at the end of Some Like It Hot). In one of these sequences, he plants a kiss on the straightman T. Roy Barnes. It is a bizarre, funny sequence, and immediately after the kiss, both men wipe their mouths and Barnes lights a match or something in order to clear the air (this part is in a long shot, so I couldn't quite tell what he was doing).

Anyway, check this out:
Strange, huh?

1920s cinema just keeps surprising me lately.

04 September 2012

More from the Romans

Some random quotations from the six plays of Terence (which I've been reading this week):

From the Andria:
SIMO: Boys who are having an affair always take it hard when they're made to marry.
DAVOS: So they say.

From the Hecyra:
PHILOTIS: What's that you're saying? A boy went to bed with a girl, when he'd had plenty to drink, and managed to keep his hands off her? That's not a plausible story.

From the Hecyra:
PHIDIPPUS: I knew he had a mistress long before you did, Myrrina. But I've never judged that to be a fault in a boy; it comes naturally to them. The day will certainly soon come, though, when he even hates himself for it.

From the Heauton Timorumenos:
CHREMES: I'm a man; I don't regard any man's affairs as not concerning me.

From the Heauton Timorumenos:
SYRUS: The highest legalism is often the lowest cunning.

From the Phormio:
DEMIPHO: A man returning from abroad should always expect his son to have behaved badly, or his wife to have died.

From the Phormio:
CHREMES: Old age itself is an illness.

From the Phormio:
NAUSISTRATA: I wish I'd been born a man; I'd have shown him –
(It is clear to me that this sentence was repeated nearly word for word by Shakespeare in Much Ado about Nothing.)
From the Adelphoe:
MICIO: Is there a tart hereabouts that he hasn't had an affair with?

From the Adelphoe:
SYRUS: It was your fault!
SANNIUS: What should I have done?
SYRUS: You ought to have been obliging to the young man.
SANNIUS: How could I have been more obliging? I only made my face his punch-bag, didn't I?

From the Adelphoe:
HEGIO: As slaves go, he's not bad. And he's competent.

From the Adelphoe:
SYRUS: Can't you say you were giving them some help?
CTESIPHO: When I wasn't? It can't be done.
SYRUS: ... Yes it can.

Reading Terence was fun. These plays were read by nearly all the important playwrights in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and this becomes apparent while reading the texts. I saw Shakespearean flourishes over and over as I read; John Ford uses Terentian names in his plays; Molière explicitly adapted these dramas; and any reading of Ben Jonson must also credit Terence as his obvious predecessor.

It is one thing to know this from theatre history books but quite another thing altogether to really sit with an author like this and get to know his work.

Also: ancient attitudes about rape are fascinating. Half of these plays involves a young man who has raped a young lady. In each case no one seems really to mind that he has raped her. Ancient Rome. So interesting.

02 September 2012

Things I Didn't Know about Wings

I finally saw William A. Wellman's Wings from 1927, the silent film that won the very first Best Picture Oscar. (I have seen lots of movies from that first year of Oscar – my favorites have always been Murnau's Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans, Borzage's 7th Heaven, and Vidor's The Crowd; recently I also fell in love with Josef von Sternberg's Underworld – but I had never been able actually to get my hands on a copy of Wings. Until today. I came home (to my new digs in New Hampshire) and what was sitting on my stoop, but the Wings DVD from Netflix (thanks, Netflix).

And so:

Ten things I didn't quite expect from Wings:

1. Butts! Click on this image and you will see what I mean. When the two male leads go to sign up to be in the Air Force or whatever it was called in WWI, what does the camera find, but a room full of naked men behind door number one! I was shocked, to say the least! It is a film that was made before the Hayes code, of course, but that doesn't mean William Wellman needed to include a shot of naked men. In fact, the nude rear ends are in the center of the shot. The eye is unavoidably drawn to the door at the center of the shot, and then when the door opens: butts! It is an odd thing, indeed.

2. Gary Cooper! Coop isn't in Wings for very long, and I hadn't even noticed his name in the opening credits, but there he is in the film's first act. His appearance was so unexpected to me that I didn't quite believe it was even him until I realized that he was nearly a foot taller than his castmates, and then I was sure.

3. This movie loves Buddy Rogers who plays the lead, Jack. And I have to admit, I've never even seen any of his other films. I guess he married Mary Pickford and then started making music or something, because his film career didn't quite live up to his appearance in Wings, but Wellman loves this guy, and you can see why. He is a handsome devil.

4. There was a moment when I truly feared I was going to have to sit through the original Spielberg duck joke – this is a WWI film, after all. Thankfully, however, I was spared. This is the lone shot of ducks (or geese or other waterfowl) in the picture.

 5. Let's talk about Fokkers. I had never heard the term, but evidently it was in such common usage in the 1920s that it needed no explanation for Wings' first audience in 1927.


6. And while we're looking at title cards, let's speak briefly about typography. Wings' title cards all have that gorgeous elaboration behind their first letter (you can see it in the P above. And then look at this amazing typeface being used to indicate intermission. It's just so elegant! I want this for my résumé.

7. More butts. Wings is also interested in the female anatomy. It-girl Clara Bow appears nearly nude somewhere in act two, and during an extended sequence at the Folies-Bergères there are lots of lovely shots of butts and breasts. The camera, for example, has no reason to focus on the derrières above left, and yet it lingers there. Ditto the breasts above right. The woman in the shot fastens that pin, and the camera never looks away the entire time she does that.

8. Also: lesbians. This is no joke. Look very carefully at this image. It is extraordinary. As far as I can tell those are two women, dressed more or less as men, caressing each other and holding hands. Am I right?

9. The next image is the other amazing thing about Wings. The photography is excellent. You can see in the following image that the female couple is not in the foreground as the camera has moved through them to the couple behind them. There was a couple in front of the lesbians that the camera treated similarly.
Again and again, Wellman and his photographer, the great Harry Perry, show an artistic, unique flair with angles and tracking shots and perspective. Not only in the air during the spectacular flight sequences, but in the Folies-Bergères, at training camp, in No Man's Land. It is lovely work.

10. Wings is so homoerotic. I thought I had remembered a sequence in The Celluloid Closet in which we are shown the image of the two men whose friendship means more than anything else in Wings. But I hadn't quite remembered what it looked like. Well, it looks like this:

But what I wasn't prepared for was this:
Oh my goodness. It is lovely. These two men love each other so much, and while they are clearly not gay – it was 1927, after all – the whole thing is just so sweet! As I said earlier, much of Wings is erotic, and much of that is heterosexual, but the homoerotic is unmistakeably present in this film, and I found it just delightful.