Monthly archives of “February 2007

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The Barefoot Contessa, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1954)

“Life, every now and then, behaves as though it had seen too many bad movies, when everything fits too well – the beginning, the middle, the end – from fade-in to fade-out.” This from Humphrey Bogart as the cynical has-been director Harry Dawes in the opening scene of this melodrama, and how right he is. Ava Gardner is the passionate Spanish actress who can’t get it through her head that success in the world of the rich and famous means never being genuine. Her failure to fail herself kills her, and her death further deadens all the fascinated zombies that have surrounded her. An overbaked and decadent movie, but somehow affecting nevertheless.

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Flying Leathernecks, Nicholas Ray (1951)

Very little in this bit of standard-issue WWII business anticipates the Miltown-era genius of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (a picture everyone should watch every five years or so, so as to marvel at its perpetual contemporaneity), but there are some glimmers. The medic at one point makes clear to John Wayne that his XO (Robert Ryan) suffers from neurosis, and there’s a really weird scene when John Wayne, very improbably, goes home to see his perfect wife and perfect kid in their perfect suburban house. As in Rebel Without a Cause, you can feel the weirdness just beneath the surface, especially from the kid, who presses his father for gory details of combat, then runs to embrace him. Predictable patriotic/archal ending where Wayne, kicked upstairs to a desk job, passes on the birthright of command to Ryan. Eh.

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The Dying Gaul, Craig Lucas (2005)

Remember all those promises about Los Angeles cracking off the edge of the continent and falling into the sea? When’s that going to happen already? I’m actually willing to go out there with a hacksaw to try to help out, if there’s a chance we can get the job done before they manage to make another movie about an idealistic screenwriter forced to struggle with his conscience when given the chance to sell out.

All right, that’s not quite fair. The movie’s not exclusively comprised of cliches about writers and the film industry. There are also a lot of cliches about gay people.

The star of the movie is actually the amazing giant house, probably the producer’s, where the “producer” lives.

Ooh. Meta.

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T-Men, Anthony Mann (1947)

Great noir procedural from the great Anthony Mann. Two Treasury agents infiltrate a counterfeiting ring in Los Angeles by posing as hoods. Lots of close scrapes and disasters narrowly avoided thanks to the bottomless ingenuity and, even more so, clenched-jaw stoicism of the good guys. And I’m talking stoicism; here, as in Border Incident, one of the Feds is put in a position where he literally stands by and watches while his comrade is murdered.

Lots of great hats, suits, nightclubs with cigarette girls, 10-cent hamburgers, big black boxy cars, cigarette holders, steam rooms, bottles of rye, tough-talking voice-overs, etc. Great fun.

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Halflife, Meghan O’Rourke
A Form of Optimism, Roy Jacobstein
Lions Don’t Eat Us, Constance Quarterman Bridges
Ruin, Cynthia Cruz
Ooga-Booga, Frederick Seidel
Logorrhea, Adrian C. Louis
Iliad
Odyssey
Aeneid
Metamorphoses
Rediscovering Homer, Andrew Dalby
Homeric Moments, Eva Brann
Controvertibles, Quan Barry
Blue Front, Martha Collins
Selected Poems, Medbh McGuckian
Vacationland, Ander Monson
Other Electricities, Ander Monson
Poeta en San Francisco, Barbara Jane Reyes
The Cradle of the Real Life, Jean Valentine
Rain, Jon Woodward

Plus other things I’m sure I’ve forgotten . . .

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To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch (1942)

I thought I’d seen every Lubitsch movie in English; how could I have missed this?! An absolutely sublime comedy. A troupe of grade-B Polish stage actors in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation rise to various outlandish occasions, pushing their acting skills to the limit to foil the Gestapo. Sort of a blend of I Love Lucy and The Third Man. It’s hugely bizarre to find yourself chuckling at Jack Benny‘s concentration camp jokes and then remember that as this movie was being made the real concentration camps in Poland were in full operation. Hugely bizarre like if a Saudi expatriate director in Hollywood made a screwball comedy about Osama bin-Laden in 2002 starring Jim Carrey bizarre. I’m not the only one who thought so; according to the gentle old goat commentator on Turner Classic Movies, the movie flopped at the box office, since no one, in those early days of the war, wanted to see a comedy about Hitler. It didn’t help either that the lovely Carole Lombard–and her mother!–had died in an airplane crash just weeks before the film opened, while on a tour to sell war bonds. Lombard was just 33. This was her last film. It is a beauty.

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Vers le sud, Laurent Cantet (2005)

Beguiling and ugly little movie about a trio of white middle-aged American women who, for distinct and individual reasons, take their holidays at a ho-hum beach resort in Haiti expressly in order to have (paid) love affairs with beautiful young Haitian men. The most sympathetic of the women is from Canada, works in a warehouse, looks forward to her week with her lover “Neptune” all year, and, while she feels very tenderly toward him, even thinks she may love him, has no illusions about their future. This character acts as the fulcrum, in that she remains constant throughout the film; the other two, though, change utterly. Karen Young, who you may recognize as FBI agent Robyn Sanseverino from the Sopranos, is a romantic who thinks she’s in love with her gigolo at first but later turns into a steely pragmatist; the terrifying Charlotte Rampling makes a parallel journey in the other direction.

Cantet of course wants us to be thinking about power, colonialism, race, sex, gender, economics, politics, etc., and so we dutifully and inevitably do, but the movie is oddly unaffecting given the explosive potential of its content. Part of the failure, ironically, is due to Rampling’s astonishing brilliance as an actor. Because no one else in the movie has anywhere near her force or presence, I found myself growing impatient during scenes in which she doesn’t appear. The movie’s also extraordinarily boring to look at. I think Cantet very consciously intended to make Haiti look like the desperate third-world country it is, rather than an idealized tropical paradise the women want to imagine it is, and he succeeds brilliantly, but forgets that it’s still necessary for him to make the place’s pathos visually interesting; too many scenes look to have been shot with an amateur tourist’s camcorder.

Not as good as Cantet’s truly wonderful L’Emploi du temps, but utterly worth watching.

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Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (2006)

Intense and oddly beautiful documentary about a camp for evangelical kids. The filmmakers seem at pains not to seem to have an agenda, but it’s clear they do. The agenda isn’t anti-Christian or anti-fundamentalism, though; the agenda is to question whether fervor is interchangable with certainty, particularly among young children. You see these kids speaking in tongues and weeping with emotion as they profess their faith in Christ, and it suddenly strikes you that with the proper encouragement, they could be made to feel just as passionately about Justin Timberlake or Santa Claus. I find the childrens’ intensity and vulnerability heartbreakingly beautiful, but the adults channeling that intensity into anti-abortion chants and impressing upon that vulnerability an adamant intolerance for diversity are sinister as hell.

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Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Irwin Allen (1961)

Really, really weird. Partly a sci-fi movie, with a very large and good-looking atomic submarine, complete with tailfins that look a lot like a ’57 Chevy and tons and tons of switches and flashing lights. But it’s like it was directed by Douglas Sirk or something. It’s really hard to know where to start on this one. A bigshot admiral with a Caesar complex has built the Seaview. His secretary is Barbara Eden. Barbara Eden’s fiancée is the captain of the ship. Peter Lorre is the chainsmoking homunculus right hand man of the admiral. Some ill-defined meteorological disaster has raised the temperature of the world to insane levels. The admiral has a plan, requiring him to fire a missile to create a sort of radiological vacuum to put the fire in the sky out. But everyone’s against him. The scientists at the UN—especially the French one, in nifty anticipation of the Iraq war debate at the UN—don’t buy the admiral’s science, but the admiral says the only authority he cares about is that of the president of the United States. The religious fanatic the crew rescues from a research station on a melting polar icecap is against the plan, because it seeks to contravene God’s will. The captain is against it because there’s no consensus in the decision. The psychiatrist on board—a feisty Joan Fontaine—is against it because she believes the admiral is suffering from paranoia and delusions of grandeur. But of course, in the end, the admiral is right. This is really a Cold War parable, warning audiences to submit to the judgment of old hawks, and not to pluralists, psychoanalysts, Christians, or, worst of all, Frenchmen. A deeply pessimistic movie, but full of optimism when it comes to technology. This is probably the most magnificent sub I’ve ever seen in a movie. It has windows in front, with red leather easy chairs to watch the sea go by. And about 12 foot ceilings in the admiral’s quarters. Extremely swanky.

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Inside Mecca, Anisa Mehdi (2003)

This National Geographic television documentary has some of the most amazing and revealing footage of the Arab world I’ve ever seen. It’s one thing to read that 2,000,000 people come to Mecca at the height of the Hajj season; it’s quite another to see the images and to follow the journeys of three particular pilgrims, one a caucasian American woman convert, one a black South African journalist, one a wealthy Malaysian businessman. I wish they’d also shadowed a more “traditional” pilgrim from the Middle East; much of the documentary’s narrative thrust comes from its relation of the difficulties its three subjects have as a result of being different from the majority. Still, the images themselves outstrip the somewhat deliberate narration, providing a concrete visualization of a phenomenon that I, as a non-Muslim, am literally forbidden from ever seeing for myself.