Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category


Woolly Hats and Jump Cuts: The Touch

November 6, 2009


This is a post I started writing in the summer of 2008 and then abandoned for some reason, but since this unmissable film is playing this evening at MoMA I thought I’d resurrect it in its unfinished form.

The Touch is Ingmar Bergman’s Zabriskie Point: an English-language detour made at the height of its director’s international reputation that, because the eyes of the world were upon it, suffered far worse from critics than it might have done and gained an undeserved reputation as a giant turkey. Rarely seen, and unavailable on DVD, New York’s cinephiles were treated last Thursday to Elliott Gould’s personal print of the film. I had seen it on VHS*, back in the mid ’90s, but I remembered almost nothing about it beyond the fact that it was much better than I’d expected.

Usually when I see a film that I haven’t seen in over a decade there is one striking, unusual scene, or sometimes just a gesture, that unleashes some buried synapse in my memory banks. With The Touch there was little that I could recall having seen before, beyond, for some reason, Bibi Andersson’s woolly hat. That hat plays a pivotal role in the film’s most egregious scene: a what-not-to-wear montage of Bibi getting ready for her first tryst, scored to Burt Bacharachesque barbershopping and filmed with—zut alors—jump cuts! It’s like nothing else in the entire Bergman canon, but it’s very like scenes you’ll have seen in Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan or Lyndsay Lohan movies. But was Bergman the first to explore this particular cinematic dead-end?

Since I never got around to discussing much more about the film, let me just quote from MoMA’s synopsis: The Touch is a low-key, intimate drama set on the island of Gotland, just south of the filmmaker’s home in Fårö. Shortly after her mother’s death, a Swedish woman has an adulterous affair with the American archaeologist friend of her doctor husband. Andersson creates a finely tuned portrayal of a woman facing a midlife crisis, and the sparsely lit, claustrophobic interiors and subdued autumnal exteriors are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The Touch, a Swedish-U.S. coproduction, was shot and released in two versions: one with Swedish and English dialogue, and one entirely in English. The original bilingual version—the version released in Sweden and now presented in this Festival—has been unavailable for a long time.”


*What is the deal with this VHS cover that I found on eBay? “Produced and Directed by Lars Owe Carlberg”? “Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman”? Did Bergman hate this film so much that at one point he tried to disown it?

Meanwhile, an anecdote about meeting Gould and discussing The Touch here.


ZZ Top

November 4, 2008

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is such a completely unique, of-the-moment, 21st century piece of cinema, unlike any film I’ve ever seen, that it came as a bit of a disappointment to discover that the film is actually two years old and came out in France and the UK in 2006. It’s already on DVD there but this is a film that, despite its ultra-modernism, demands to be seen in that most archaic of information delivery venues: a dark cinema. For those who don’t know, Zidane follows French-Algerian soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane over the course of one single match played between his club Real Madrid and Spanish rivals Villarreal on April 23, 2005 (just one year before Zidane’s infamous last ever game, the 2006 World Cup Final, and the headbutt felt around the world.) Directed by Scottish conceptual artist Douglas Gordon (24 Hour Psycho) and French-Algerian artist Philippe Parreno (both of whom are currently showing at the Guggenheim’s theanyspacewhatever show), Zidane was filmed with 17 cameras with zoom lenses set up all over the stadium, with cinematography overseen by Darius Khondji (who has already had three other films released this year with Funny Games USA, My Blueberry Nights and The Ruins). Focused almost entirely on the bullet-headed midfielder as he prowls the field—generally doing nothing much more than jogging, scowling into space, spitting, shouting at unseen teammates—the film lulls you into a meditative trance, ably abetted by the soundscape music of Mogwai and broken only occasionally by a sudden frenetic burst of activity. Zidane’s loneliness on the field is so pronounced that it comes as a shock (for those not up on the club careers of Europe’s football icons) when David Beckham pops into view midway through the second half. As unique as this experiment seems, I’ve just discovered that it had actually done before, in 1970, when German director Helmuth Costard filmed George Best with eight 16mm cameras over the course of one Manchester United game. But from what I can tell from the priceless clips of Football as Never Seen Before on YouTube (here and here) the results are quite different. Costard keeps Best in the middle of the screen, framed from head to toe, whereas Gordon and Parreno use military-strength long lenses which flatten perspective and fill the screen with Zidane’s head against a sea of blurred faces, or his feet pacing the tuf. Though there are definitely narrative pleasures to be had from following the game, as well as one can, Zidane ultimately becomes an experience similar to that of Into Great Silence: a study of men absorbed in their own private passion and forbearance. And it’s also the best film about soccer since Gregory’s Girl.


Movie poster of the week: The Headless Woman

September 20, 2008

The Headless Woman

The New York Film Festival starts next Friday, opening with Laurent Cantet’s Cannes winner The Class and closing with Darren Aronofsky’s Venice winner (and Mickey Rourke resurrection) The Wrestler. On the auteur front there are new films by Mike Leigh, Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, Agnes Jaoui, Jerzy Skolimowski, Joao Botelho, Jia Zhangke, Hong Sang-soo, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood and Kelly Reichardt, as well as a near-complete restrospective of Nagisa Oshima, and restorations, playing on the same day no less, of two of the most rhapsodic films ever made: Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes (1955) and Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994).

But the film I was looking forward to perhaps more than any other was Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza). With La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004) Martel has established herself as one of the most important filmmakers of the decade, a director with an amazing eye (and ear) who is constantly nudging at the corners of the envelope. I saw The Headless Woman at a press screening this week and it is a stunning piece of work, as visually assured and challenging as anything I have seen this year. Yet it is also an aggravating experience: Martel withholds so much information from the viewer that one is quickly as disorientated as her protagonist, a hit-and-run bourgeoise named Vero who looks like Glynis Johns and moves like the living dead. In Vero’s world the indigenous underclass of Argentina are phantoms that hover and bustle, out of focus, in the background and while that is beautifully conveyed by Martel it also feels a little glib.

The poster, while maybe too poppy and glam for this film, is fabulous. This is after all a film in which hair is regularly mentioned and assumes an iconic importance. I love the font too. Thanks to D-kaz for finding this; as ever he writes far more intelligently on the film than I ever could.

You can watch the trailer (in Spanish) here.


Vicky Cristina Barcelona

September 12, 2008

Poor Rebecca Hall (daughter of Peter, the sensible girl in Starter for 10); she is pretty much the central character of Woody’s latest, and the best thing in it, and yet she doesn’t get a look in on the poster which is all about Penelope Scarlett Javier. (Faring even worse is Wire alumni Pablo Schreiber, brother of Liev, who gets what Dennis Miller once called the “expository eunuch” role as Vicky’s boyfriend of five minutes). I liked this a lot, though I’m not sure what it was I enjoyed because frankly I agree with most of Michael Atkinson’s dismissal of the thing. But it’s a pleasant way (and place) to spend some time, despite some annoyances (the narration that tells you what everyone is thinking or about to do; the stilted talk about the nature of love or the nature of artists) which I chose to indulge as Woodyisms rather than severe lapses of imagination. Compared to Scoop or Hollywood Ending this was like Casablanca (or should that be Ricky Ilsa Casablanca?) so be thankful for small mercies. Oh, one other thing that bugged me: while Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are arguing in private, Bardem repeatedly insists “Speak English in this house!” (translation: “Speak English in this movie!”). There are few things more exciting than listening to Penelope Cruz spout invective in Spanish (those sibilants!) so I really wished he would shut up.


Blue Planet

June 22, 2008


I’d never heard of Franco Piavoli’s 1982 Blue Planet (not to be confused with the David Attenborough-narrated Discovery Channel series) until I saw an ad last week for a 25th Anniversary re-release with a pull quote from Andrei Tarkovsky: “[A] poem, concert, journey into the universe, nature, life . . . truly a different vision.” That, and a rave from Michael Tully, was all I needed to get me to the Pioneer Theater for the last day of its sparsely attended run (so sparsely attended thanks to a pan in The New York Times that a rep for the film—bless him—stood up afterwards and quizzed the eight people in the audience—one by one—as to how they’d heard of the film.)

At its most banal Blue Planet is a pretty bog-standard nature documentary with close-ups of murderous spiders and copulating snails and a fairly obvious season-to-season and day-to-night progression. Though Godfrey Reggio is a big fan, it is neither as original nor as bombastic as Koyaanisqatsi. But at its best it has some stunning passages: a sequence of light dancing on water reminiscent of Ralph Steiner’s H20; an Olmi-esque tableaux of an Italian farmhouse at dusk; an abstract sequence of motorbike lights flashing through a dark forest; a field pulsing in the wind à la Tarkovsky (and, yes, there is wind in the trees, of course); and a shot of caterpillars inching up invisible skeins (so that it looked as if they’re climbing the scratches on the celluloid).

Turns out Il Pianeta Azzurro was never released in the States, but played for a year in a theater in Rome in ’82. I found out about it too late to catch a Piavoli retrospective (he’s made five films) at Anthology the week before. Too bad.


It’s the trees, stupid

June 14, 2008

Two things I love: apocalyptic movies and Zooey Deschanel, so hells yes I went to see The Happening on opening day. Little did I know, or could even dare to hope, that M. Night Sham’s new one is a wind-in-the-trees movie par excellence. Nearly every other shot of the film is a shot of rustling trees, a ratio that Jean-Marie Straub would be hard-pressed to keep up with. And, even better, mid-way through the film there’s a complete steal from the greatest wind-in-the-trees shot of all time: from Tarkovsky’s Mirror (talking of which, the trailer right before the film was a Kiefer Sutherland movie called Mirrors, which I’m hoping is to Mirror what Aliens was to Alien).

Beyond trees and wind, The Happening is an entertaining enough little B movie that, were it signed by John Carpenter or George Romero, we’d be cutting a lot more slack, which is not to say that it’s any good. Marky Mark’s salary aside, it looks like it cost a few hundred thousand dollars to make, and on top of that it feels like it was made up as it went along. The premise is ludicrous and gets ludicrouser minute-by-minute (of which there are only 91), the acting stupendously bad (Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are two of the most unlikely high school teachers you’ll ever see, and the back-story of Wahlberg and Zooey’s relationship is awfully labored) and M. Sham makes some really odd choices in the simplest of set-ups. But, that said, and until it peters out at the end, I had a blast watching it. It’s no Philip Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though it does its damnedest to rip that off, but it makes for an OK episode of The Twilight Zone, and an amusing companion piece to this happening.


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.