Monday, November 11, 2013

The Lodger (1927) -- with piano accompaniment! -- at the Dryden

 Ivor Novello as the mysterious titular character in Alfred Hitchcock's 
silent masterpiece The Lodger.

I have sung the praises of Rochester's Dryden Theater before, and will likely continue to do so, as it remains my favorite movie theater in the region. This past weekend I had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing a recently restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's seminal silent film The Lodger, a thriller based loosely upon the unsolved Jack the Ripper case, at the Dryden Theater.  Not only was the print of the film quite beautiful -- I cannot wait until the restored Hitchcock silents referred to as the "Hitchcock 9" are available on home video formats -- but enhancing my experience considerably was the live piano accompaniment of Philip C. Carli.

  The very talented and knowledgeable Dr. Philip C. Carli, who frequently provides musical accompaniment to silent film screenings at the Dryden Theater.

First, Dr. Carli knowledgeably introduced the film, offering a detailed account of The Lodger's production history, its importance to Hitchcock's body of work, and its status as a "problem" film due to many still-unresolved questions about the extent of the artistic contributions made by scenarist Eliot Stannard and editor Ivor Montagu, Hitchcock's then collaborators. Carli has a natural flair for public address and gave a very engaging talk; while I always appreciate the pre-film introductions given by various Dryden staffers, Carli's talk ranks as one of the best introductory presentations I've yet seen there.

Then, no sooner did Carli finish his delightful verbal introduction of The Lodger than he sat down at the baby grand piano and masterfully accompanied the entire movie as it screened! I have attended just two other silent film screenings with live musicians before, once back in Oregon and once at last year's "Night at the Movies" concert on my campus. I enjoyed both of those prior performances a great deal, yet Carli's performance accompanying The Lodger took this kind of experience to a wholly new, more emotionally impactful level. His musical choices throughout were impeccable; he knew the film inside-out and timed his cues perfectly with the onscreen action. I am not sure if he was improvising, or what score he might have been working from, but in any case I was totally blown away by the performance and plan to see another film accompanied by Carli as soon as I can.*

I strongly recommend that if you live in the Rochester area, you do the same as me and take advantage of this golden resource. Even if you do not typically consider yourself a fan of silent cinema -- and if you don't, believe me, you are missing out on some of the most visually arresting and beautiful films ever shot -- I still strongly suggest you see one accompanied by the talented and dynamic Carli. His musical presence adds so much to the experience of seeing a silent film that I really cannot fully account for it in words; you should simply go to the Dryden and find out for yourself.**

Lillian Gish sez: "Come see me suffer -- to the soulful musical accompaniment 
of Philip C. Carli!"

* Fortunately for me, I already know when I will next be seeing and hearing Carli: at the Dryden's screening of The Scarlet Letter (1926) on November 26, 2013 at 8:00pm.
** If you have never been to the Dryden before, or if you have only been prior to Spring 2013, you may want to check out this well-produced short video about the renovation of the theater earlier this year.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Carter's Top 40 Films (November 2013)

"Forget it, Jake -- it's Chinatown."

I was recently asked by a couple of my students to give them a list of my favorite movies. I usually resist composing such lists, for my "favorite" movies change quite a bit from day to day and year to year, according to the whim of the present moment. For example, I have been on quite a "Golden Age of Hollywood" and "Foreign and/or Art Cinema" kick over the past several months, so that is kind of where my tastes are at right now. Check back with me in six more months, and I will likely have drifted into other periods / genres / cinemas.

Furthermore, while I am pretty sure my students had in mind that I might give them a list of about ten "favorite" titles, once I actually decided to compose the list for them, I jotted down almost 100 films pretty damn quickly. However, I knew that giving them a list of 100 movie titles would be both ostentatious and unwieldy, plus I wanted this list to be "from the gut," not too thought-out or self-conscious. So I weeded my longer list down to the 40 titles below with great swiftness and without too much thought. In the end, this is NOT a list of "must-see" classics provided by a film scholar or "expert," but rather a slapdash list of my "favorite" films at the present moment, the main criterion of value being how much pleasure I take from viewing and re-viewing these particular movies.

Ryan O'Neal in the criminally under-appreciated Kubrick masterpiece Barry Lyndon.  

You will see that this "Top 40" list reveals my longstanding love for films noir and certain genres of horror.* Some of these movies -- ThunderballThe Terminator, Blade Runner, and especially Chinatown -- are the ones that made me fall in love with cinema in the first place, and a couple of the others -- Stranger than Paradise and Gummo -- date back to my 1990s love affair with low-budget, independent cinema. I put the entries here in no particular order, but if I had to single out a few as being my very top favorites, they would be The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the two Kubrick films, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon. 

Bubble (2005)
Heat (1995)
The Sting (1973)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Zodiac (2007)
Videodrome (1984)
Fargo (1996)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Blade Runner (1982)
Chinatown (1974)
Double Indemnity (1945)
Nashville (1975)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Psycho (1960)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Gummo (1997)
Rules of the Game (1939)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Shame (2011)
The TV Set (2006)
Memories of Murder (2003)
Caché (2005)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Lovely and Amazing (2001)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Melancholia (2011)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Chuck&Buck (2000)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Planet Terror (2007)
The Devil's Rejects (2005)
Duel (1971)
Alien (1979)
Thunderball (1965)
The Terminator (1984)
The Parallax View (1976)

* I am not generally a fan of zombie films yet I rate Romero's Night of the Living Dead among my all-time favorites. I am a Rob Zombie fan. I love all Cronenberg's stuff but Videodrome is by far my favorite.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

EW #3: Casablanca (1942)

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942).

Michael Curtiz's Casablanca is widely considered the most perfect movie ever made within the Hollywood studio system, telling one of the most compelling romance stories of Golden Age cinema. Casablanca is the film that launched soon-to-be screen icon Humphrey Bogart to stardom, moving him from roles as tough guys and "heavies" in pictures such as The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Three on a Match (1932) to center stage (screen?) as a romantically viable leading man.

Despite its centrality in Hollywood lore and its massive popularity and quotability, I have very little to say about this film. I like and enjoy it but, perhaps ironically, I am not very passionate about it. If I want to see Bogey in a romantic lead, I strongly prefer Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944), which is much steamier than Casablanca mainly due to the fact that Bogart and costar Lauren Bacall were falling in love for real as they made the picture. If I want to see more or less the same stellar supporting cast, including Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, I turn to John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, which gives these first-rate character actors meatier and more interesting roles than does Casablanca. The one thing that stands out most for me in Casablanca is Claude Rains' wonderful turn as Renault, a performance and actor I enjoy very much. But again, I could point to Hitchcock's Notorious as a better overall showcase for the actor.

But clearly I am in the minority in my lukewarm-to-warmish response to Curtiz's undisputed masterpiece. Noting the film's thematic richness and harmoniously multi-layered narrative construction, Sidney Rosenzweig writes that
In Casablanca it is the complex connection between political and personal feelings that shapes nearly every situation and every relationship. Even the most minor characters suggest the problems of the major ones.*

Michael Wood claims that this image of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) represents "what isolation looks like at its best: proud, bitter, mournful and tremendously attractive." **

And indeed, the film is near-perfect in its narrative construction, its beautiful black and white photography, and (of course) its performances. Yet at the end of the day, I guess I prefer films that have a bit more roughness around the edges; or maybe I have simply never had a personal "bonding" moment with this film. I do not dispute its impact upon audiences nor its place in Hollywood history, though, so I commend Entertainment Weekly for placing it so high on their Top 100 list. I'm sorry I don't have anything more thrilling or insightful to say about it.

* Rosenzweig, Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz pp. 84, 85.
** qtd. in Rosenzweig pp. 80-1.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Five Directors to Watch Out For

As my friend and fellow movie reviewer A.J. Snyder recently wrote, tuning into who directs and writes the movies you like most can be an easy way to track down more movies you will enjoy. As A.J. points out, while some movie stars -- George Clooney leaps to mind -- do a pretty effective job at consistently choosing high-quality projects, others -- Michael Caine, for instance -- are more liberal in said choices, and have starred in just as many terrible movies as decent ones. However, following a particular director or screenwriter allows you to engage with the work of someone who "[goes] to work to establish their vision within their medium," as A.J. writes, and if you choose well, the rewards can be great.

Of course, as A.J. also cautions us, auteur theory -- the notion that the quality of a given cinematic work is largely determined by who directs it -- does not account for all great movies; far from it. Filmmaking is a collaborative and industrial art form, and there are a great many creative (directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, costume designers, actors) and non-creative (studio executives, MPAA Ratings Board workers) personnel who contribute significantly to the final product we see onscreen. Many of the best directors (and even some bad ones) tend to collaborate with the same creative team again and again, a move which speaks volumes about the importance of those other staffers' contributions. For example, many visually talented directors like Ridley Scott, J.J. Abrams, and even Zack Snyder often have their movies utterly ruined by shitty-ass screenwriters like Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and David S. Goyer.*

However, in many cases the director does have a fairly direct impact upon what makes it into the final cut. This can sometimes lead to excesses which may or may not represent artistic growth (I'm looking at you, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson), but at the end of the day, I would rather see a "noble failure" by filmmakers with something interesting or unique to show me rather than something formulaic and cliched that simply "plays it safe."

So with that in mind, here are five directors working today who produce consistently good, even great work, whose filmographies are well worth checking out:

Nicole Holofcener
Writer/director Holofcener's latest film, the superb Enough Said (2013), has been getting a great deal of positive press lately (also here and here), perhaps largely due to the passing of one of its stars, James Gandolfini. While I really enjoyed Gandolfini's terrific performance in the film -- what a relief to see him doing something other than a stereotypically thick New Jersey mobster accent -- the real star of the show is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She gives a nuanced, multi-layered portrayal that benefits from her impeccable comedic timing.

Yet the wonderfully engaging Enough Said is no fluke; Holofcener is simply one of the best writer/directors working today. Her grasp of the subtleties of human emotions and her ability to mine comedy from the most unexpected aspects of interpersonal relationships is unparalleled by any other American filmmaker of whom I am aware. My personal favorite of her films (unless Enough Said trumps it upon subsequent viewings) is 2001's Lovely and Amazing, an ensemble piece about how several different women deal with issues of beauty, body image, parenting, and romance. Starring Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener, Lovely and Amazing is a must-see for anyone who enjoys offbeat slice-of-life type stories; Holofcener is a master of that form. I also strongly recommend Holofcener's recent efforts Friends With Money (in which Jennifer Aniston plays a delightfully likeable slacker) and Please Give (another solid ensemble piece). Walking and Talking (1996), while a bit lower budget and rougher around the edges, is worth a watch for its excellent dialogue sequences and its inclusion of one of Liev Schreiber's finest onscreen performances (after Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers of course -- Schreiber's best role).

 Jennifer Aniston as underemployed slacker Olivia in Friends With Money.

Holofcener finally deserves our attention not just because she is so good at capturing the nuances of human interactions onscreen but also because she consistently treats subject matter almost never tackled by mainstream Hollywood cinema: the stories of women's lives, and (more recently) the lives of middle-aged, post-divorce men and women. And while she typically places more of the narrative focus upon female subjectivity, her male characters always shine as well -- see, for example, Jake Gyllenhaal and Dermot Mulroney in Lovely and Amazing or Oliver Platt in Please Give. That Holofcener renders these characters and their cinematic stories with such delightful humor, emotional sensitivity, and impeccable aesthetic craftsmanship (craftswomanship?) is what vaults her into the first rank of American film directors.

Director Steve McQueen with frequent collaborator Michael Fassbender.

Steve McQueen
McQueen's forthcoming picture, 12 Years a Slave, is already wowing festival crowds and film critics, and promises to be one of the most talked-about films of 2013. However, even if a riveting drama about the realities of American slavery is not your cup of tea, you owe it to yourself to check out one or both of the UK director's previous two features.

Hunger (2008) is a beautifully shot, unflinchingly written account of the last days of Bobby Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer who went on a hunger strike in 1981 in order to protest the conditions in the British prison where he was being held as a political prisoner. Michael Fassbender -- surely one of the top four or five actors working in the world today -- delivers a riveting performance as Sands, and McQueen's camera and editing techniques raise this film from the realm of the simply harrowing to the artistically sublime. In particular, watch for the insanely long take during Sands' dialogue with the priest midway through the movie -- GoodFellas and Children of Men, eat my shorts!

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame.

However, for its subject matter alone, McQueen's second feature, Shame (2011), is a true must-see film: depicting several days in the life of a present-day sex addict, again played by Fassbender, Shame deals quite frankly and artfully with the issue of how contemporary internet sex culture impacts our ability to experience true intimacy. Essentially a drama about a dysfunctional family that omits most of the family melodrama, Shame drives its potent and timely message home via an intense focus on Brandon, its male lead, and his sister Sissy, played with convincing pathos by Carey Mulligan. Shame is tightly written, inventively shot and edited, and brilliantly acted, and, while not for the sexually faint-hearted -- it surely earns its NC-17 rating -- it is on my short list of all-time best films.

Lars von Trier
Probably the world's most talented living filmmaker, the iconoclastic von Trier's work is admittedly not for everybody. His films, while visually breathtaking, tend to be somewhat grueling emotionally -- von Trier excels at rendering poetic the suffering and pain of his (usually female) protagonists. However, I think his most recent film, Melancholia (2011), is accessible to almost anyone, and while a bit "slow" by Hollywood blockbuster standards, it at least features well-known stars (Kirsten Dunst, Keifer Sutherland) and a dramatic, apocalyptic science fiction plot that, art-film moments aside, should resonate with anyone who appreciates a well-made movie. I would also strongly recommend his earlier revisionist musical, Dancer in the Dark (2000), in which Bjork delivers a surprisingly compelling performance and the song sequences alone, stunningly shot and choreographed, should take your breath away if you have any appreciation for the visual dimension of cinema. Once you have checked out a couple of these more palatable films and decided if von Trier's challenging but rewarding work is for you, you can make your way toward seeing his more relentlessly harrowing masterpieces like Breaking the Waves (1996), Dogville (2003), and his recent horror film, Antichrist (2009).

Steven Soderbergh, probably the greatest living American film director.

Steven Soderbergh
I hereby predict that in fifty years, when future film critics and scholars look back at this period in U.S. film history, Soderbergh will stand out as the representative figure of late 20th century and early 21st century filmmaking. His substantial body of work is impressive for its volume (37 directorial credits since 1985), for its consistent quality, and for the wide-ranging breadth of its subject matter and aesthetic experimentation. Soderbergh is the undisputed master of the "one for them, one for me" style of independent filmmaking, in which he alternates between, on the one hand, big-budget studio-produced films like Ocean's Eleven (2001), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Contagion (2011) and, on the other, low-budget, experimental passion projects like The Limey (1999), Bubble (2005), Schizopolis (1996), and The Girlfriend Experience (2009).

While John Cassavetes is surely the godfather of (the recent wave of) American independent cinema, and Jim Jarmusch's (somewhat Cassavetes-derivative) Stranger than Paradise (1984) constitutes the opening salvo of the 1980s-'90s independent cinema boom, it was Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape (1989) that made the American general public aware that independent cinema existed, arguably paving the way for the arrival of Quentin Tarantino a few years later. Shot on location in Louisiana on a budget of $1,200,000, sex, lies was the first independently produced film to screen in wide release in the multiplex theaters, and its release and success showed indie distributor Miramax how to market independent fare "wide" to mainstream audiences.**

It is difficult to narrow down Soderbergh's vast body of high-quality films to just a few succinct recommendations, but here goes:

sex, lies, and videotape (1989) is an absolute must-see, a compellingly shot and acted ensemble piece about exactly what its title indicates. The fact that this film relaunched '80s icon James Spader's career should be incentive enough to check it out; but its intimate, character-driven narrative and intelligent editing style (including inventive use of sound bridges) would also set the tone for so many great Soderbergh films to come.

The Limey (1999) is an intense revenge thriller whose main stylistic innovation is an unusual use of editing and sound bridges that creates a very strange -- possibly physically impossible -- chronology. It is as if Soderbergh set out to out-Tarantino Tarantino here (in the non-chronological editing sense, not the wacky, offbeat dialogue sense), pushing the whole "let's fuck with the chronology of this story" trick that QT uses in Pulp Fiction onto a wholly different (and much more subtle) level. The beauty of what Soderbergh achieves in The Limey is that his editing tricks could easily go unnoticed by the average viewer unless s/he tunes in carefully and/or has been forewarned that they exist. No showoff, Soderbergh prefers to execute this particular cinematic experiment in a way that does not call undue attention to itself or interfere with the viewer's ability to simply sit back and enjoy The Limey as a badass revenge thriller starring Terence Stamp. In other words, this is a great film for cinephiles and casual filmgoers alike.

Bubble (2005) is probably my personal favorite Soderbergh film, but it isn't for everyone; it is essentially Soderbergh "doing the Jarmusch thing," i.e., shooting most of the film in long takes in an extremely low-budget style with a cast of non-professional actors. If you like offbeat, low-budget indie fare that is understated yet packs a serious dramatic wallop, don't miss Bubble. 

Contagion (2011) is simply one of the best disaster movies I have ever seen, and I have seen a great many, being a big fan of the genre. The film is a smartly intertwined multi-strand tale of a global disease outbreak, shot in Soderbergh's preferred "personal" style, i.e., more focused upon individuals and their varied responses to the catastrophe rather than grandiose set pieces and a cast of thousands. In this case, the intimacy of the cinematography and screenwriting contribute to the film's overall intensity, and the whole thing ties together quite brilliantly by the closing shot. I recommend Contagion to anyone, it's simply a great film by any scale of evaluation.

UPDATE 1/17/2016: This nice IndieWire piece affirms my claim that Soderbergh is the most important and artistically daring filmmaker of his generation.

Nicolas Winding Refn
This is a tough one because I put Refn on this list knowing his work will not be for everyone. Sure, three-fifths of this list, with the exception of Soderbergh and Holofcener, consists of "art film" directors, so few of these filmmakers are likely to appeal to you if you require your movies to stick to cause-and-effect-driven plots, adhere to "action beats," and conclude with comfortingly pat resolutions.*** However, even more so than von Trier, Refn is out to challenge the mainstream filmgoer, because his sustained cinematic project seems to be to artfully revise and reinterpret certain Hollywood film genres. Sure, this is broadly true of von Trier (Antichrist is a horror film, Dancer in the Dark a musical, and most of his early films are female-centered melodramas) and even Soderbergh (who revises the revenge film in The Limey and the disaster film in Contagion), yet Refn revises the genres in which he works even more radically than these other two.

The great Mads Mikkelsen as One-Eye in Refn's Valhalla Rising.

Refn is an emphatically visual director, and many of his films -- Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive (2011), and Only God Forgives (2013) -- unfold with very little dialogue. He also favors stunning mise-en-scene, liberal use of slow-motion, and long takes. Therefore, folks approaching Refn's work expecting standard genre fare will likely be thrown off by his bold, "artsy" aesthetic strategies. But that is the whole fun of appreciating Refn, to see how he takes a basic generic structure like the heroic fantasy film (Valhalla) or the martial-arts revenge film (Forgives) and turns it inside-out with his long takes, verbally reticent characters, and insanely artistic production designs. In short: you have to see these films to believe them. And for me, that is the hallmark of a truly great filmmaker.

To conclude, I bestow Honorable Mention upon directors Michael Haneke, David Fincher, Bong Joon-ho, Jake Kasdan, Harmony Korine, and, lest ye think I overlook action film directors, Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow. I will save discussion of these other meritorious filmmakers for a future post.

* I also think Peter Jackson was somewhat ill-served by his Lord of the Rings trilogy screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, but that is a more complicated case that I shall return to in a later post.
** This knowledge would pay off even more dramatically when Miramax mounted their extremely expensive, innovatively aggressive, and highly successful Oscar campaigns for Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture) in 1998 and for Hilary Swank (Best Actress) in 1999 -- see Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures for more on this interesting subject.
*** The definitive essay that outlines the parameters of art cinema is David Bordwell's "The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice."