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Delirious [Aug. 15th, 2007|10:59 am]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, New York]

I've got this camera click, click, clickin' in my head.
—ELVIS COSTELLO,
"I'm Not Angry"

Although it doesn't appear until the end credits, Elvis Costello's classic 1977 spitfire anthem serves as one of the best movie theme songs—theme in every sense of the word—of recent years. Jealousy, voyeurism, paranoia, acceptance, rejection, denial, the potential for violence, the recognition that it's all so damn unfunny that it becomes funny—Costello's song has it all, and so does the fine film to which it's now been wed.

Director and writer Tom DiCillo's Delirious, which had a special screening last night in Manhattan at the Angelika, works effectively on so many different levels that it gives new meaning to the term cross-genre. At once a comedic and dramatic Midnight Cowboyish character study of downtrodden friendship, it's also a love story, a meditation on fame (those who have it vs. those who want it), and a potential stalker flick. Despite its vastly disparate characters, shifts in tone, and wildly divergent plot lines, the movie hangs together remarkably well. Its debts to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver aside, Delirious is the best movie about wanting to be famous since that other great Scorsese paean to obsessive behavior, 1983's The King of Comedy. (Both Scorsese films starred Robert De Niro, who receives mention several times in Delirious.)

"Sometimes I see too much," says Steve Buscemi's Les Gallantine (even his name is a worthy successor to Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle) to Michael Pitt's Toby Grace. What he doesn't see is how his chosen profession—that of paparazzi—with each click of his shutter takes something away from his subjects. He proudly displays on his apartment wall two long-range photos of Elvis Costello (who effectively appears as himself in the movie) as if they were big-game trophies.

Following last night's screening, Tom DiCillo spoke about the making of Delirious, which he spent the last six years bringing to fruition. He couldn't say enough good things about his star Steve Buscemi, who delivers what might well be the best performance of his career (right up there with his starring role in DiCillo's 1995 indie classic, Living in Oblivion).

One thing DiCillo couldn't stress enough about his new film and whether or not it succeeds: "Tell your friends about it." Indeed, in a movie marketplace where big-name films boast advertising budgets larger than what it cost DiCillo to make his movie (he had to reduce his budget from five million dollars down to three million), word of mouth is more important than ever.

DiCillo told The New York Times last week: "'Look at the movies people are watching.... They’re about nothing. You invest nothing.'"

Not so with Delirious.

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Shopsin's [Jul. 14th, 2007|10:05 am]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, NY]

I learned about Shopsin's last year when I visited Evergreen Video to interview owner Steve Feltes for my book about Paul Nelson. Deciding we'd eat while we talked, we walked across the street to Shopsin's, at 54 Carmine Street in the West Village, where we were presented with menus the length of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novella (there are supposedly over 900 dishes listed).

On the way over, Steve told me that the restaurant's proprietor, Kenny Shopsin, was somewhat legendary for yelling at — and even tossing out — his customers. He also mentioned that someone had made a documentary about Shopsin.

Now that film from 2004, I Like Killing Flies, is out on DVD (I watched it online yesterday via Netflix). Lo and behold, Kenny Shopsin is indeed a veritable Soup Nazi (his refusal to seat parties of five or more is only one of his endearing predilections), albeit one with a fouler mouth and a more philosophical bent. Imagine a cross between a kinder, gentler Charles Bukowski and perverse, dyspeptic Mortimer J. Adler — then stick a spatula in one hand and a flyswatter in the other, and voilà! you have Kenny Shopsin.

Director Matt Mahurin's documentary is about as bare bones as you can get, and the pace is rambling and frenetic at the same time; all of which serves his subject well. And, indeed, Shopsin likes killing flies, which functions not only as a metaphor for how he treats his customers but also for the United States' terrorist problem and for the human condition as a whole.

The day I was there, Shopsin was on his best behavior, occasionally emerging from the kitchen to sit down and visit with a customer, and the food was great (reminding me of one of my favorite restaurants from Salt Lake City, Over the Counter). And, perhaps because it was late in the year, there were no flies.

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Gun Crazy [Apr. 26th, 2007|10:18 am]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, New York]

I'm not sure how this one escaped me for so many years. Directed in 1949 by Joseph H. Lewis from a screenplay by MacKinlay Kantor (based on his 1940 Saturday Evening Post short story) and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo masquerading as Millard Kaufman, Gun Crazy reset the standard for film noir and paved the way for the attractive, sympathetic -- albeit sometimes psychotic -- antiheroes that showed up two decades later in movies like Bonnie and Clyde (whose real-life characters inspired Gun Crazy's lovin' couple on the run) and The Getaway.

Cinematically, the film's often expressionistic; its startling and (then) innovative use of extended "backseat driver" takes, shot from within the getaway car, and get the viewer caught up not only in the characters' predicament but the sexual excitement their larceny generates. And Russell Harlan's black-and-white cinematography is right up there with his work on Red River, The Thing from Another World, and Blackboard Jungle.

Not again until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would the screen see crooks as charismatic as Peggy Cummins and John Dall. Director Lewis told critic Danny Peary in 1981: "I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions."

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Year of the Dog [Apr. 23rd, 2007|11:32 am]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, New York]



For his directorial debut, Mike White chose to make a movie (based on his own original screenplay) that's a treatise about loneliness and people who have love but can't find a place to put it. Like many of the characters in White's previous scripts (to name a notable few: Chuck and Buck, School of Rock, Orange County, three episodes of Freaks and Geeks, and one of my all-time favorite films, The Good Girl), Year of the Dog's Peggy (played by Molly Shannon) doesn't quite have a sense of herself; her strong feelings and opinions locate her a little outside of the mainstream. The thing is, the people in the orbit of her life who don't get her, whose eyebrows and judgment she raises, are no less idiosyncratic.

Following the surprising but inevitable course that Peggy's life takes, Shannon is excellent, as is the rest of the cast, with the ever-dependable John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Pais particularly outstanding.

As exemplified by a user comment at IMDb, the film is far from the chick flick that its plot and advertising suggests: " I thought I was going to see a funny movie. I came home feeling suicidal. If I wanted to see a pathetic over-40 woman who has bad dates and lives alone with the pets she dotes on too much, I woulda stayed home and stared in the mirror!" Year of the Dog -- the chick flick from hell?

Regardless, by movie's end, as in all of White's work, he manages to humanize his offbeat characters so that we, too, can understand and perhaps even identify with them -- if we hadn't already all along.

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We Don't Live Here Anymore [Mar. 29th, 2007|06:17 pm]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, New York]

"Too sad," Mark Ruffalo's character says toward the end of this film from 2004, succinctly summing up the preceding hour and a half of marital warfare. Arguably, director John J. Curran's greatest accomplishment is managing to end the movie, which is sometimes almost too painful to watch, on a hopeful note without resorting to maudlin platitudes or a song by Sarah McLachlan. 

Woody Allen's Husband and Wives without the laughs, Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage without the subtitles, and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut without the masks, We Don't Live Here Anymore boasts terrific performances from Ruffalo (fine in this year's Zodiac), Laura Dern, Peter Krause, and co-producer Naomi Watts.

Larry Gross's screenplay, based on Andre Dubus's novella We Don't Live Here Anymore and short story "Adultery," guides -- but doesn't drag -- the viewer through a psychic minefield fraught with every imaginable method of harm we humans can inflict upon one another without actually drawing blood.

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Pauline Kael, Reviews A-Z [Oct. 22nd, 2006|12:18 pm]
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chidder
[Current Location |The Writing Room]
[mood |bouncyspirited]
[music |"Kill Him Again" by Birdland with Lester Bangs]



Some lunatic has put online all 2,846 of Pauline Kael's capsule reviews from her fine compendium, 5001 Nights at the Movies. While I don't advocate the unauthorized hijacking of anybody's copyrighted works (the site's been out there for a while now, so who knows whether or not it's been sanctioned), it's indeed handy having these insightful cinematic kernels available at one's fingertips. (Which is to say, it saves me the arduous task of getting up off my butt and taking the book itself off the shelf.) Such is the insidiousness of the Internet.

On paper or in cyberspace, one thing these reviews reveal is that Kael was at her best writing in the long form. Reduced to the amount of space usually permitted in Entertainment Weekly, often lost are the insights, the snap of her words, and the sense of enjoyment that shone through her writing. Kael, like Paul Nelson, was as much a stylist as she was a critic, in some cases rendering the reviews she wrote better than the films she was writing about.

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The Abominable Snowman [Oct. 10th, 2006|02:56 pm]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, New York]
[mood |rejuvenatedforging ahead]
[music |The Abominable Snowman]



While it certainly wouldn't qualify for Paul Schrader's canon of great films (or anybody else's, for that matter, including mine), whenever I happen across this 1957 movie (sometimes calling itself The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) when it airs on Turner Classic Movies, I inevitably watch until the end. Director Val Guest treats screenwriter Nigel Kneale's intelligent script so matter-of-factly that parts of the movie achieve a documentary feel (helped along, admittedly, by the wealth of stock footage of the Himalayan mountain range and avalanches). 

I remember staying up late one night to watch this, for the first time, as a child, and being absolutely mesmerized by Peter Cushing's long-awaited face-to-face encounter with the Yeti. The effect remains the same for me today: menace mixing with mystery as the unbelievably tall beings step from the shadow into the light, finally revealing the eyes of the Yeti. Those age-old eyes. 

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The Rules of the Game [Oct. 7th, 2006|01:36 pm]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, New York]
[mood |confusedunfocused]
[music |"TB Sheets" by Van Morrison]



"You see, in this world there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons."

I've known that quote well for many years, thanks to the writings of Paul Nelson (who referenced it often), just as I've known that the man responsible for originally uttering those words was Jean Renoir. But until last week, when I watched his fine film The Rules of the Game for the first time in over twenty years, I didn't know (or I'd forgotten) that the quote emanated therein. Spoken by the pivotal character Octave, played by Renoir himself, hearing the words spoken aloud, in French, was a surprise and a revelation.

(In writing a biography of Paul Nelson and collecting his best writings into book form, and trying to understand how someone so talented and so loved came to an end that few of his old friends could comprehend -- living a life that was solitary at best, lonely at worst, while no longer writing for publication -- I've been tempted to rely on Renoir's words to explain and excuse what happened. Thus far that strikes me as too easy; but then, I've more than once used Renoir's quote to explain my own actions.)

In the September/October 2006 issue of Film Comment, director Paul Schrader writes an ambitious, lengthy (the longest article the magazine has published in its 42 years), erudite, and sometimes impenetrable piece entitled "The Film Canon" (the introduction to which may currently be found online). Supposedly sans favoritism and "taste, personal and popular," based on "those movies that artistically defined film history," he cites The Rules of the Game as the number one greatest film of all time.

According to Schrader: "For me the artist without whom there could not be a film canon is Jean Renoir, and the film without which a canon is inconceivable is The Rules of the Game."

It is no doubt a great film: funny and poignant and heartbreaking and, ultimately, very moral (thus satisfying Schrader's dictum that "no work that fails to strike moral chords can be canonical"). But even if it were not, if it were only a so-so movie that happened to contain Renoir's memorable quote, which spoke to me last week as if it were Paul Nelson trying to help me understand, there'd be a place in my heart for The Rules of the Game.

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Edmond [Aug. 15th, 2006|01:27 pm]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, NY]
[mood |crankyheadachy]
[music |"Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks]



When this film first opened in Manhattan, its run was so short that, by the time I read about it, it was gone. So it was with considerable delight when I discovered the film had returned, this time to Brooklyn, last week. 

Edmond seemed to have everything going for it: a script by David Mamet, based on his 1982 play of the same name; starring the incomparable William H. Macy, always marvelous but especially so in Wayne Cramer's wonderful 2003 film The Cooler; and director Stuart Gordon, who did HP Lovecraft proud with his adaptations of Re-Animator and From Beyond. On the surface, this film seemed like a winner. 

Therein lies the problem: Edmond is all surface. 

Edmond is the same character at the end of the film as he is at the beginning -- but it's not Macy's fault. The way the story is written, we don't know if the racial epithets Edmond spews are a sudden eruption or part of his daily routine, whether he's at the tail end of a journey toward violence or whether it's a destination he's inhabited for some time. It's not a one-note performance but a one-note character, devoid of any sense of what, if anything, has been lost. Just as Gordon's direction plods from one scene to the next, Edmond is a dead man walking from the first shot to the last (where he becomes a dead man lying down). Because we are not permitted to experience his fall, but rather just follow his somnambulistic walk on the wild side, there is no tragedy. We, like Edmond, feel nothing. 

Unlike Cape Fear's Max Cady, who promised, "You're gonna learn about loss," Edmond offers no such lesson. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker's famous obvservation, the film runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Similarly, a litany of usually fine actors are put through their paces so quickly and without distinction that often they're gone from the screen by the time we realize who they were: Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Dule Hill (fine here in a role that's about as far from The West Wing's Charlie as he can get), Joe Mantegna (always amazing, but especially so as Dean Martin in The Rat Pack), Denise Richards (the Charlie Sheen-Denise Richards divorce), Julia Stiles (so memorable in Mamet's State and Main), Mean Suvari (the American Beauty herself), Rebecca Pidgeon (also fine State and Main -- and married to Mr. Mamet), and Debi Mazar (not used nearly enough in Entourage). Despite all this thespian firepower, the only onscreen chemistry occurs in the scene between Macy and Stiles in her character's apartment, when, for a fleeting moment, it seems as if she and Edmond might have found in each other a twisted kindred spirit. Alas, even that spark is extinguished before it can ignite anything else.

A gentleman, a few rows ahead of us, served as spokesman for the sparse audience when the film faded out and the lights came up. "That's it?" he said. Indeed.

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"Sip the Wine" [Jul. 19th, 2006|01:16 pm]
The film review community.

chidder
[Current Location |Brooklyn, New York]
[mood |contemplativecontemplative]
[music |the air conditioner's hum]

Asked by Rolling Stone back in 1977 to name his ten favorite records of the last ten years, Greil Marcus wrote: "Every record on this list includes some element -- a riff, a guitar line, a vocal inflection, a, shall we say, moment of truth -- that is beyond the ability of the mind to conceive, or even completely absorb. These records seem like miracles to me." 

For me that moment appears in the third line of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" ("They'll stone you when you're trying to go home)" when Bob Dylan cracks up and evokes a camaraderie that invites the listener to come along and have fun with him. It's how close Van Morrison's mouth is to the microphone on "Crazy Love" (I especially listen for his staccato inhalations at the beginning of each line in the final verse). Or the inflection in John Lennon's voice at the end of "God," first when he declares, "I don't believe in Beatles," then upping the ante with his simple and elegant phrasing of "The dream is over." 

There are similar moments in movies. For Harlan Ellison it's the pure cinematic note which ends Coppola's The Conversation. Werner Herzog never forgot the look on Klaus Kinski's face the first time he saw him onscreen, in a Fifties war film. For Pauline Kael it was the silence shared by Jason Robards (as Howard Hughes) and Paul Le Mat (as Melvin Dummar) in their drive across the desert in Melvin and Howard

Re-watching Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz the other day, I was reminded of -- and swept away again by -- a moment of truth that's cinematic and musical. It's not Dylan's fiery performance -- or his look, which falls somewhere in between a bearded Born to Run Bruce and Bella Abzug:

                          +    =     

Nor is it Van Morrison's marvelously mad leprechaun performance wherein he seemingly channels both James Joyce and the Radio City Rockettes. And it's not Neil Young's transcendental rendition of "Helpless" (so gorgeous that even the wad of cocaine lurking inside his left nostril, especially visible on DVD, doesn't detract). 

No, for me the defining moment of The Last Waltz occurs after the Band has purportedly played its last concert and the members have gone their separate ways. Away from the boisterousness and bravado of the rest of the group, bassist/guitarist/violinist/trombonist Rick Danko gives Scorsese a tour of Shangri-La, their recording studio, and the two men sit down alone at the mixing board.

                                                 
                                                                                    Rick Danko

Scorsese asks him what he's doing now that "The Last Waltz" is over. Danko fumbles for words as he shyly looks around for his hat, which he puts it on as if to hide from not only from the director and his question but from his own new role as solo artist. 

"Just making music, you know," he says. "Trying to stay busy... It's healthy." 

He queues up a new song he's recorded, the lovely "Sip the Wine." As his heartbreaking vocals commence and the camera closes in, Danko, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 56, disappears into listening to his creation. And perhaps because he feels uncertain about sharing something so new with someone sitting right in front of him (let alone that someone being Martin Scorsese, who happens to be filming the experience), or maybe it's because he's embarrassed by the intimacy of the song's lyrics --

I want to lay down beside you
I want to hold your body close to mine


-- but Danko nods his head, and the camera captures in slightly slow motion his face completely disappearing into darkness beneath the brim of his noirish hat. 

The effect is breathtaking and, to paraphrase Marcus, ineffably honest.

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