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 With "Hail Caesar" about to be released, Mark Kermode has come up with his top five Coen Brothers films. They were:
5: Miller's Crossing
4: No Country For Old Men
3: Blood Simple
2: Barton Fink
1: Fargo

Films that missed out (in order of predicted disagreement)
The Big Lebowski
A Serious Man
Inside Llewyn Davis
Raising Arizona
The Hudsucker Proxy
O Brother Where Art Thou

I think I would agree with three of Kermode's top five (but not in the same order. NCFOM and Blood Simple I would leave out simply because I think that A Serious Man is horribly underrated, and that Inside Llewyn Davis has Carey Mulligan.
NCFOM has magnificent cinematography and a superb performance from Javer Bardem, but I think it's narrative is a bit weak.
So my top five is:
5: Inside Llewyn Davis
4: A Serious Man
3: Barton Fink
2: Fargo
1: Miller's Crossing

Spotlight

Mar. 2nd, 2016 11:59 pm
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 It was something of a delight to see that Spotlight had won the Oscar for best picture. This was because I have for quite a while been singing the praises of director Tom McCarthy based on the two of his films (after tonight, three) that I have seen.

Those were Win Win, starring Paul Giamatti, and McCarthy's debut, the absolutely magnificent The Station Agent.

Tonight I watched The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins, and once again I was struck that McCarthy has a rare director's talent - as with Wes Anderson, no matter what the topic of the movie, there is something indefinably Tom McCarthy about it. Perhaps it's the degree of understatement; or his refusal to pander to stereotypes. 

The Visitor is about a late middle-aged academic suffering from ennui; he hasn't written anything original or taught anything original, indeed, thought anything original, for years. He is forced to head back to New York from Connecticut when the co-author (for which, read, real author - the Jenkins character merely put his name to it to give it gravitas) of a paper goes sick, so Jenkins has to go to a conference to present it.
Turning up at his apartment in New York (academics in the US are clearly better paid than they are in the UK) he finds a couple living there. They have been scammed by a fake landlord.
Jenkins lets the couple stay, and gradually comes alive again. 
But then the husband is picked up by police for jumping a ticket barrier (he didn't) and is discovered to be an "illegal". Jenkins is thrust into an underworld of New York that he has never before seen.
As the critics observed, it would be easy for a director to fall into sentimentality and stereotypical liberal masochism. But somehow he avoids it. In a way, a sad film is uplifting, perhaps because Jenkins is, in a very small way, redeemed. One man, at least, was saved.

Win Win, starring Giamatti, covers somewhat similar psychological ground, but the subject matter is completely different. But the key to the success is that McCarthy somehow gives the viewer hope. Even in a shit world, with imperfect people who sometimes do dishonest things, there is an undercurrent of decency. Through it all, keep the faith, and make the best of the small pluses.
 
Oh, and small minor factoid. McCarthy has also been an actor, and he played the ambitious journalist Scott Templeton in the final series of The Wire - the guy who ends up winning a Pulitzer for a story that was, at base, a fake.

Dreyer

Apr. 21st, 2014 06:19 pm
peterbirks: (Default)
I seemed to have a bit of an upset constitution last night, brought on by eating a couple of slices of honey on toast. "Cripes, I thought, can my body no longer cope with any kind of fast carbohydrate?" A broken night's sleep and occasional vomiting ensued
Anyway, the net result of that was that I lay in bed until 8.45am, despite having gone to bed at 10.30pm the previous night. I woke up with no appetite and with a headache, as well as feeling a bit sick.

That was a good excuse to do fuck all, for the first time this break.

I flopped onto the sofa and I watched "Vampyr", the first talkie directed (and produced) by Carl Th. Dreyer, which arrived from Lovefilm a few days ago.

In fact I watched it twice, once with an excellent commentary from a guy from the BFI. Dreyer's take on the Dracula theme is perhaps one of the oddest films made in the 1930s. One of the real oddities is that the "star" , one Julian West, was actually Nicolas de Gunzburg, whom you can look up on Wikipedia here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas_de_Gunzburg

 photo de_Gunzberg.jpg

Not many people can have fewer than 20 mourners at their funeral, of whom two were as significant as Bill Blass and Calvin Klein. But that was how influential de Gunzberg was in terms of style.

"Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey" was Dreyer's first film since Joan of Arc in 1928. That, as not many people remember now, was a financial flop. So he had to go outside the studio system to get the financing for Vampyr. Enter de Gunzberg, who agreed to help finance it if he could take the lead role.

The film is more French than German or Danish. Dreyer was influenced by the Expressionists such as FW Murnau (although he claimed that he did not like Nosferatu) but this film is closer in metier to the works of Cocteau and Bunuel (L'Age d'or and Un Chien Andalou spring immediately to mind). It has also quite clearly influenced Kubrick in the filming of The Shining (a point that I have not seen mentioned anywhere else). That, or Kubrick came to the same conclusions independently on how to "disconcert" the viewer.

 photo giselle.jpg

I refer of course to the "impossible" layout of the hotel, the deliberate breaks in continuity. Dreyer does the same here, although less blatantly. We see the Doctor upstairs, but then we see him climbing the stairs. It's impossible to put together a "map" of the inn in one's head. This was radical stuff for 1930. Dreyer quite deliberately wants to keep the viewer off balance. Unfortunately for Dreyer the audience wasn't as keen on being kept off balance as he was on making them so. The film flopped. Dreyer, as producer, took the inevitable hit -- he also had a nervous breakdown -- and would not direct another film for 12 years.

Which is all very sad, because this really is a great movie, certainly one that deserves to be up there with the Bunuel/Cocteau/Dali classics in terms of public recognition. Dreyer plays with narrative in a way which would seem brave even today. Indeed, and this is one of the many oddities, the only time that the narrative becomes internally consistent in terms of cutaways and scene-splicing is when the lead character is having a dream -- the reverse of what one might expect.

 photo Dreyer.jpg

I've now seen five of Dreyer's 14 or so films. I have no idea how many of the other nine survive. I am sure that the 1943 Day of Wrath still exists, and I hope that at least a couple of his early silent stuff can be found on DVD. Vampyr was not restored until 2008.

 photo Vampyr.jpg
+++++++
peterbirks: (Default)
Giuseppe Tornatore's Baaria was not treated particularly kindly by the UK critics -- The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw was particularly harsh, seeing it as something like a two-and-a-half-hour Stella Artois ad – and perhaps for this reason it has not entered the public consciousness here in the way achieved by Tornatore's most famous film, Cinema Paradiso.

But I'm not quite sure what the critics want. Sure, Baaria is sentimental. And it's beautifully shot, and it has a Morricone score. The same kind of accusations could be levelled against Once Upon A Time In America, with which it shares some structure.

Baaria is the local name for Bagheria, where Tornatore was born, and this is an adult's sentimental memory of his childhood, heading through the more cynical period of adulthood. I suspect that critics would still prefer all Italian films to be in the mould of Bicycle Thieves – gritty and in black and white – or Gomorrah a far more modernistic take on the Italian south. Tornatore is, in other words, too much of a sentimentalist for them.

The narrative covers the entire life of one man – Peppino, who as a child in the early 1920s was sent away to work for his shepherd uncle because the family simply did not have enough to eat. He becomes a Communist, and much of the film covers his adult life working through the Italian political system.

There are scores of minor characters (most of them related either to Peppino or his wife), and back stories cover both Peppino and his wife's parents, and their five children. Other characters reappear throughout the story as kind of extensions of Bagheria. I particularly like the man who stands in the same spot, throughout the film, shouting (for the first half) "I buy dollars" and for the second half "three pens for 60 lira". He never ages. Why not? Because he is not a human being. He is as much a part of Baaria as the pavement. He is part of the lead character's memory. And we all remember people like that -- who seemed old when we were young and who seem exactly the same age now.

I think the UK critics got it wrong on this one and that Baaria will, in time, be seen as one of Tornatore's best – his Once Upon A Time In The America compared with The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.


Carl Dreyer's Mikael (Michael) is a great discovery. Long thought lost, it was recompiled in the 1990s and a DVD released in Germany 2004. There are still a couple of continuity errors and three or four points where I think they have got the order wrong.

However, as Brownlow has observed with Napoleon what happens is that you are never reconstructing a single film. You can never be sure which bits of film that you have got were actually the final versions used in the original film. In effect you might be putting stuff back in that the original director had left out. In a couple of places it looks to me that they had a bit of footage that looked suspciously like a bit of footage earlier on -- probably a bit of film that Dreyer did not use. For that reason the running time is put at "84-93 min".

Michael is a film about a famous painter's love for his model Michael. It's a "Chamber film". It's mostly shot indoors, and, for a silent movie, very "talky". It seems plain to us today that the painter, Claude Zoret (played brilliantly by the then famous Danish director Benjamin Christensen) is homosexual, while Michael (Walter Slezak) is less absolute in his sexuality.

A gold-digging Russian Countess, whose accustomed style of living was no longer matched by the size of her funds, looks to get some of Zoret's money, but "the master" as he is called, is less responsive than the Countess would wish. Michael, however, falls for her, and promtly starts spending money on her that he does not have. The Master bails Michael out time and time again because of his devotion to his muse. But, as we know, once love is lost, no amount of kindness or expenditure can win it back.

It's a deeply touching film and not for nothing known as one of the finest early examples of "gay cinema". That's a rather stupid piece of genre classification (you might as well call it "intergenerational love cinema". It's a film about love and about the unequal balance in all relationships, about the frequent occasions when it's given in one direction but is not given in the other. Or, as that great philosopher the cook Mrs Patmore said at one point in Downton Abbey "You're all in love with the wrong people!"

Of course, not many movies made in 1924 are going to be of much interest to the modern film-viewer from an objective viewpoint. But from a historical angle this is a fascinating film. Dreyer was only 34 when he made it, and there has been speculation that there's a certain degree of autobiography about Dreyer's own sexual preferences. The directorial technique is in places very forward-looking (his use of close-ups are very different from the mode at the time, although they are so standard today that we do not notice this) while in others it seems very old fashioned (the "iris" technique to make us focus on a particular person). Dreyer was extremely influential, not least on Hitchcock, who borrowed many of Dreyer's innovations for his own silent efforts.

But what makes it most interesting is that here we have a film that isn't horror, or comedy, or "blockbuster". It's a quiet serious film about human relationships. The "commentary" version is both good and bad -- the Danish academic makes some interesting points, but does so in such a fashion as to make them boring unless you are determined to sit it out. Academia does not have to be boring and you do not need to read a commentary as if it is a written thesis (which I suspect this commentary is). But, better there than absent!

_____________________
peterbirks: (Default)
I see that Anshul Rustagi, superstar of complex derivatives at Deutsche Bank, has been sacked for overstating his position by a mere £30m. As DB will doubtless say, this is not very much in the grand scheme of things when it comes to DB's derivatives book, so perhaps Mr Rustagi should appeal, claiming that the amount was "trivial".

Much though I would love to use this as evidence of some kind of portent of doom in the credit derivatives market, I won't, because it just wouldn't be true. All that this incident showed was that these guys are dealing in areas so complex that the risk managers aren't brainy enough to keep up with them (since once reason that they are risk managers is that they are not fast and sharp enough to be traders).

Could Rustagi have carried on for longer and "done a Leeson"? I doubt it. Unlike Barings, DB is not run by total tossers who preferred to believe mythical profits rather than hard numbers like cash flow.

But we can see how it all developed. Young stud in big gambling game (non zero-sum) wins money, thinks he's good, plays bigger, gets unlucky, is too embarrassed to reveal that even he can occasionally make a big loss, conceals loss, chases loss, loses again, and so on. Gets discovered, and yet another blow-up. Taleb chuckles into his soup.

more observations )
peterbirks: (Default)
You really have to visit AOL's "Shopping Buddy". Many years ago, Doonesbury mocked the Apple/Microsoft dichotomy with a new Apple interface called "mellowspeak" -- kind of a Dude Lebowksi behind your monitor screen. AOL's Shopping Buddy is more like the infuriating toaster in Red Dwarf. In fact, if it spoke, I'm sure that is how it would sound. "Who R U Shopping 4?" "My secretary." "OK, I'm searching for matches for you. Gimme a sec."

You feel like saying. "Look, I'm not your friend. If you were a human, you wouldn't be my friend. But you aren't even human. You are a piece of software. Just GET THE FUCKING PRESENT SUGHESTIONS!"

++++

A truly significant film on TV in the UK this weekend, rarely shown. Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979) features Brad Dourif, John Huston, Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty. Dourif founds "The Church Without Christ" in the south, after returning from Vietnam. Is it a satire? Is it an anti-religious tract? Huston returned to this kind of attitude to religion with his last film - an adaptation of Joyce's The Dead. Perhaps it's the film's ambiguity that made me like this film. Hard to credit that the guy who directed this directed The Maltese Falcon.

+++++
peterbirks: (Default)
Walking from the station to the office on winter mornings is a slightly surreal experience. The inhabitants of central London at 6.30am are very different from those seen three hours later. The normal cleaners, drunks, and late-night revellers.

Just occasionally, you stumble across a film crew. This morning was more surreal than usual, in that they were filming a set just off Oxford Street, but changed into New York. Why they would choose such a central part of London to do this is beyond me. But there were the New York cabs, New York street signs, and motley actors hanging around waiting for something to happen.

The weirdest of these was a few years ago when I was still on the train one June morning. Just as I was passing London Bridge, it turned into Christmas (sorry, Festivus). Borough Market was absolutely covered in snow. They were filming Bridget Jones' Diary.


+++++

It's hard to be happy for Mike Matusow winning the million bucks in Vegas -- although I would rather see him win it than Hellmuth. As I've written in the past, Matusow is obviously a great talent. In the past he has been unable to avoid blowing up. It would appear that he has managed to avoid it this time (or maybe he just, finally, got lucky!). But it's hard to warm to him.

Hellmuth, on the other hand, just isn't very good. I don't know if I was one of the earliest people to point out that one of the guy's major flaws was that he was crap and that the advice he gave would send you broke. This was before Poker madness set in, kind of "a long long time ago" in Star Wars terms.

Matusow's comment to Hellmuth that it was better to go out with nothing than to be blinded to death almost had me rooting for Mike. How long before Hellmuth gets the nickname "weak-tight bitch"?

Get this from the post-match interview. You need to be an experienced tournament player to truly understand the bollocks that Hellmuth is talking here.

“I played so great. But, so what? It doesn’t mean anything. The American public doesn’t understand how unlucky I got. I had Hoyt stealing my blinds over and over and just when I have a chance to bust him (with A-Q), he wakes up with Aces. I mean, how unlucky is that?”


This, recall, is the man who would go ballistic if you took a stand with 98s (which has considerably more chance in this situation than AQ). Nice read, Phil.
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Bill Hicks used to do a short piece in his shows which ran roughly along the lines of "Anybody here work in marketing? Yes? Well, kill yourself now. (Nervous laughter from audience. Bill pauses, looks serious). No, I mean, it. Kill yourself. It will be your one positive contribution to humanity".

It sometimes feels as if all the myths, all the problems relating to promises about products and services that can't be delivered, all the unfair expectations suffered by ordinary joes and joellas, causing them to pile up debts that they can't afford, can be laid at the door of marketing. Arthur Miller spotted this long ago, in Death of a Salesman and the wife's addiction to the new consumer culture. Hicks, as one might expect, was less tangential about the point, but it was essentially the same. Marketing is the scum of the earth, the soul-sucking hole of hell.

So it was nice to read a confirming story this morning, and one in which the bad guys lost and (I hope) were sacked as a result. Sony has been ordered to refund the ticket price (presumably to anyone who asks for it, because it's hard to imagine people keeping ticket stubs from three years back) for anyone who suffered the misfortune of paying to see "A Knight's Tale" and "The Animal". A Knight's Tale apparently contained Hollywood's "hottest new star" in Heath Ledger (yes, well....) while The Animal was "another winner". Or so said David Manning of The Ridgefield Press in various publicity pushes. Which would have been all well and good, except that David Manning was made up by the Sony marketing department.

I mean, what drugs were the department on? Did they think that no-one would notice? Or did they think that people would notice, but that no-one would care (marketing people, unlike the courts, have a twisted view to the degree that truth is important)?

Anyway, the whole deal will cost the company about a million bucks. Good.
peterbirks: (Default)
Many of you will be aware of my love of quality cinema, particularly Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Herzog. I can think of no happier Sunday than watching, for the umpteenth time, Mirror, or Three Colours Blue. But in addition to my enjoyment of "art" cinema, I have a second love — great kids' movies. Ever since film producers realized that you had to keep the parents as well as the kids entertained, good kids' movies have been as multi-layered as Tarkovsky at his most opaque. Not many would disagree with the argument that Toy Story and Toy Story II are two of the best movies to have hit the screen in the past decade. I have another favourite, in Small Soldiers, not least because it features Phil Hartmann at his best (except for when he was Lionel Hutz, of course).

To this should be added a movie perhaps in the second division, but still up there with the "well watchable", in Galaxy Quest which I saw for the first time today. It's hard to go wrong with Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman, but Tim Allen is an actor who is rather looked down upon, perhaps because he came via stand-up and TV. But I always enjoyed the earlier series of Home Improvement (although I accept that part of the reason for this was that I found Patricia Richardson sexy).

Galaxy Quest is typical of the genre, being both an enjoyable space opera adventure that also contains a fair degree of wink-wink nudge-nudge "we know better" bits for the adults. But it is great fun, with Alan Rickman on top form ("I was in Richard III, you know") and Enrico Colantoni (better known as Eliot in the TV series Just Shoot Me) quite brilliant as the alien Malthesar. Another interesting character is Missi Pyle, an actress with a quite amazing name and an even more amazing face. Clearly she has been slightly typecast, since she also appears as the mad Russian woman in Dodgeball. But in real life she is, well, a stunner.

In a fit of movie watching, I also sat through the first half of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam before other things intervened. This could be a who's who of acting on the east coast. Anthony LaPaglia (Without A Trace), Ben Gazzara (millions of films), Mira Sorvino (Paul's daughter), Michael Imperioli (later Chris in The Sopranos), John Turturro (as the voice of Harvey the Dog!) and, apparently Evander Holyfield as "man in riot". Oh, and Adrien Brody as a punk. Awesome and full of almost Scorsesian power.

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