Archive for April, 2008

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(Bad) movie poster of the week

April 25, 2008

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL

I post this UK version of the Sarah Marshall campaign not because it’s a good poster—it isn’t—but for two reasons. One for the way that Russell Brand—unknown here but a huge celebrity in the UK—has been positioned as the star of the film, and the other because it reminds me of the Local Hero poster to which I have a fond attachment.

LOCAL HERO

Back in 1983 I saw a TV programme about the making of Bill Forsythe’s second best film which showed the marketing department going through various drafts of the poster until they came up with the final design of Peter Riegert wading by the red telephone box. (The phone booth was dropped for the more vertical and wordy US campaign and, in a reversal of the Sarah Marshall scenario, Burt Lancaster was added). Back then I made a mental note that designing movie posters seemed like the best job in the world, but I was about to head to London to study English literature. Somehow I found my way back.

As for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I saw it yesterday and even for this Apatow apologist it was disappointing. Great cast, not least Brand and the most beautiful Ukrainian actress outside of a Paradjanov film, but droopy exposition. Not memorable.

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Music Poster of the Week

April 16, 2008

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS

It’s business time.

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Blue Berries and Red Balloons

April 13, 2008

A remarkable red letter day for cinephiles, April 4th saw theatrical openings of new films by both Hou Hsiao Hsien and Wong Kar Wai, the two greatest Chinese-born filmmakers working today. There was a time (briefer for Wong than for Hou) when neither director’s films could find distribution in the States so this is cause enough for celebration. Coincidentally both films—both of which premiered at last year’s Cannes—are set abroad (one in France, the other in the States), star A-list actresses and center their stories on an introverted outsider who quietly observes the maelstrom of life around her. In My Blueberry Nights it’s heart-broken Nora Jones who leaves New York and travels cross country in search of solace. In Flight of the Red Balloon it’s Fang Song who goes to work as a nanny for harried single mom Juliette Binoche. Both films are more mood pieces than narratives. Both flirt with whimsy: a wandering red balloon—a hommage to Albert Lamorisse’s children’s classic of course—that bobs and weaves through the action; and a labored metaphor about blueberry pies. Both films are, in their own way, as light as air…or pastry crust.

As airy as it is, Flight of the Red Balloon is by far the stronger film, one of Hou’s best in years while My Blueberry Nights, dubbed a failure at Cannes, comes to us with its tail between its legs. Seen with low expectations, Blueberry is not unwatchable. Its screenplay (co-written with—WTF?—crime writer Lawrence Block) is terribly corny and adolescent and full of Hallmark sentiment, but the film looks gorgeous. WKW and his cinematographer, the great Darius Khondji (who has three films in theaters right now along with Funny Games and The Ruins!) fill every inch of the frame with a blur of color and light which is almost enough to distract us from the banality of its shopworn scenarios. Flight of the Red Balloon on the other hand is less spectacularly but more subtly beautiful. HHH and longtime DP Mark Lee Ping-bin work miracles in small spaces. Much of the action takes place in the cramped, cluttered apartment of Binoche’s puppeteer and her six year old son and one of the wonders of the film is the way Hou gradually redefines space. At first he films only one wall, with its central table at which everything seems to happen (reminiscent of so many other bustling family tables in earlier Hou films). But as the film progresses Hou reveals staircases, lofts and tiny chambers, like a dream in which you discover a room in your house you never knew was there.

But what really separates Hou’s film from Wong’s is that in Red Balloon, which overflows with incident and life, we feel as if we’re listening in on conversations, catching glimpses of people’s very real lives. (The scenes with the furniture movers and the blind piano tuner in particular are wonderful). In the far more hermetic Blueberry Nights we feel we’re being lectured about people’s lives that don’t ring true at all. And while Nora Jones is passable in her film debut, in Red Balloon Juliette Binoche (not the center of the film but definitely the star) gives the most surprisingly vibrant, mercurial performance of her career. That said, My Blueberry Nights still gets points for Cat Power, whose “The Greatest”—one of my favorite songs—plays at least three times in the film and who appears herself in a lovely, unexpected cameo.

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Two Portuguese Monsters

April 7, 2008

francisca_colossal2.jpg

I’ve been too busy to write or see much recently, but last month I caught up with two behemoths whose considerable reputation preceded them. By pure coincidence both are from Portugal. The first, Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, which premiered in Cannes two years ago and has since become one of the most praised films in the cinerati blogosphere, popped up at MoMA. I missed its week long run (preceding a Costa restrospective) at Anthology last summer, maybe deliberately (on the last night of its run a friend—who shall remain nameless—and I bailed on it at the last minute and went to see The Simpsons Movie instead). Not for the impatient of heart, Colossal Youth is 155 minutes of artfully composed monologues set in the slums of present day Lisbon and shot on grainy video.

Then a week later at BAM I saw Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca from 1981 (made when Oliveira, who turns 100 this year and who showed up a couple of times in Brooklyn last month for his retrospective, was a boyish 72). Francisca is a film I’ve wanted to see ever since I read in the early 90s that J. Hoberman voted it his favorite film of 1984 in the Village Voice (placing it over Stranger than Paradise, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and, notoriously, Cindi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video). Francisca is 166 minutes of artfully composed dialogues set in the drawing rooms of 19th Century Oporto and shot on grainy film (at least the print we saw was grainy, not to mention out of focus half the time).

Both films are tough going but both have an incredible cumulative impact and an indelible strangeness. They also have a lot in common. I haven’t read anything about Oliveira’s influence on his younger compatriot but it seems inevitable. Neither Costa nor Oliveira move the camera much, most of their scenes are composed of long single shots, and in both people often speak (or rather declaim) while facing the camera. Both films are fond of gloom and shadows, both films center on love letters, both involve repetition of texts. And both are horror movies of sorts. Colossal Youth, with its wandering hero Ventura appearing in room after room visiting acquaintances has been called a zombie movie (though it’s the zombies of Jacques Tourneur not George Romero), and in Francisca, whose eerie atonal soundtrack adds to the fear factor, the main character is at his nadir described as a werewolf.

The other highlight of the Oliveira retro for me was the programme of his early shorts, all in stunning restored prints. His first film, Working on the River Douro was made in 1931 and though it’s become almost banal to talk about Oliveira’s age in relation to his work, it’s still extraordinary to imagine that the man who made this silent city symphony is still working today. A stirring synthesis of Eistenstein and Flaherty, River Douro probably has more individual shots in its 19 minutes than his past ten films combined. After that we leapt forward a quarter century to another urban rhapsody, this time in glorious color, The Painter and the City; the commissioned seed-to-dinner table study of Bread; and the rambunctious and slightly bizarre 1963 short The Hunt which preys on my childhood fear…drowning in quicksand.