Category Archives: Movies

Wordplay

Wordplay PosterAs fate would have it, I was prevented by a contentious Wednesday afternoon sell-out from seeing my first choice of films (the new Leonard Cohen biography) this afternoon in Manhattan; I am a better man for this blockade, for it led me to see what is likely a much richer, informative, and entertaining documentary: first-time documentarian Patrick Creadon’s engaging look at crossword puzzle culture, Wordplay.

Although the film’s first act spotlights puzzle maven and New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, the film wisely and agilely widens its radius to encompass personalities as diverse as John Stewart, Mike Mussina, and (as he is honorably billed in the credits) William Jefferson Clinton as they expound quite articulately on their relationship with and understanding of the crossword puzzle. With the exception of dome-haired ass-clown Ken Burns (whom Christopher Guest has been unintentionally, retroactively mocking for years), the interviewees’ commentaries are keen and illuminating. In perhaps the most provocative moments of the film, Clinton’s candor and intelligence make our current chief executive officer seem even more the dufus (if that is possible) by contrast. John Stewart is typically amusing in the ironic trash talk he hurls at Shortz through the camera while engaging in the latest challenging grid. Although a variety of puzzle philosophies are offered, one unifying tenet seems to be the unanimous respect and worship of the New York Times‘s crosswords puzzles as the long-standing pinnacle of the art form.

Plenty of hardcore puzzle enthusiasts earn due screen time, especially through the film’s final act, a play-by-play tour through the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held each year since Shortz established the contest in 1978, in Stamford Connecticut. In this aspect, the film most resembles its obvious forerunner in contemporary American language-game documentaries, Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 hit Spellbound — in this case, the focus is a more relaxed adult pastime rather than adolescent obsession. While Wordplay lacks the wonderfully taught suspense of Spellbound, its portrayal of people like Shortz who have followed their bliss and achieved rewarding success with a hobby is just as vital a glimpse into what sustains human happiness. Shortz, the ultimate example of this phenomenon, claims never to have expected the financial success (with dozens of books of puzzles in print) or minor fame (in the puzzle community he is a demagogue) that followed his graduation from Indiana University with a self-styled degree in “enigmatology” (the study of puzzles), but always expected to be rewarded by making his lifelong passion his line of work.

The film is most brilliant in how it uses innovative but sound tricks to keep what many would regard as banal subject matter consistently stimulating: crisp but unpretentious title sequence, effective and creative editing, and (like any great documentary) the luck to have captured a string of legitimately meaningful human moments on film. Most of all, it manages to be glossy without coming off as slick (or vice versa), insightful without seeming pedantic or condescending. It plays to all audiences, but especially to those already interested in puzzles or in trivia in general. Shortz put it best when he observed his greatest happiness being his privilege to work for both the Times and NPR, to create work for an audience he knows will appreciate and understand it.

Although it didn’t need it, the film’s excellent soundtrack only adds to its appeal. While the Indigo Girls’s affinity for the pastime is featured in the film, tunes from Cake, They Might Be Giants, and a charming cover of The Talking Heads’s “Naive Melody” performed by Shawn Colvin somehow lend even more credibility to the project, in that in choosing to share their craft with the filmmaking process, the musicians likewise submit their genuine approval of its aims and merits.

Anyone who has ever wondered how a crossword is constructed (those who write them are known as “constructors”, not authors), or has ever tried, will no doubt gain some appreciation for the talent and dedication it requires, even as professional constructor Merl Reagle drafts one from scratch for the camera with apparent ease. Like Spellbound and The Stone Reader, Wordplay will surely make any lover of words and language quite pleased. No hard feelings, Leonard.

The Break-Up

The BreakDespite its many predictable mistakes, the new Hollywood summer comedy The Break-Up concludes its economically-told story by remaining faithful to the suggestion of its title. The choice of filmmakers to offer a non-Hollywood ending, in this age of studio-committee calculated crowd-pleasers, is to a small degree refreshing. The sour taste formed throughout the movie’s denouement lingers in the mind of any viewer who managed to identify with its depiction of love’s domestic incompatibilities — as if, by serving up its more realistic alternative, the director’s intention were to spite every film buff who ever poo-pooed a pat Hollywood coda. The two stars, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, are shown falling in love during a clever (if sentimental) slide show of realistically composed photographs that unfolds during the opening credit sequence. Although they bask in a new love’s glow, often lip-locked, the stars share only one filmed kiss (and a feeble, awkward one at that), and spend the majority of the film at each other’s throats. Although their affection for each other remains visible in their body language, it is a steadily waning affection. The film wittily captures exactly what it purports to: the dissipation of a typical thirty-something pre-marital urban relationship.

The movie is worth seeing more for its wit than for the risks it takes. Vaughn, playing an overweight, slightly weary, version of his suave swinger type, carries the show. His banter, both friendly and mean-spirited, heightens any scene to manic brilliance; John Favreau holds his own in such dialogue (as usual) while Aniston’s acting improves by it. The excellent supporting (Favreau, Judy Davis, Joey Lauren Adams, Justin Long) cast is largely wasted on C-grade “character”-parts, especially Davis (who nonetheless gets one of the film’s funniest bits, a sly Telly Savalas reference). Favreau is favored with solid screen time, playing his scenes with conviction but also a bit of the arrogance afforded by a bit-part he knows those in the vanguard of the pop-cultural know will appreciate.

In fact, the film’s appeal is doubtless special to those who came of age with 90s fare such as Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Swingers; who, like the film’s stars, are now also encountering the malaise of life around thirty.

Oscar Nominations Announcement Reaction/Year in Film Review

Regardless of in what little esteem I hold The Academy, Oscar Week is nevertheless a meaningful time to reflect on what was made, what was made well, and what was made well enough to be remembered (for whatever reason). Unlike the collective known as The Academy, I have not seen all the nominated films; neither am I influenced by big money or industry bias. If I had a Best Picture category, it would not be limited to fiction or nationality, and for the last year’s worth of viewing, here are the films of the past year that mattered to me:

  • Grizzly Man: An incredible documentary (for reasons I list below and here) about one man’s inability to acknowledge the chasm between man and beast over which he is attempting to fly. Superb filmmaking.
  • Brokeback Mountain: A true tragedy filmed and paced with genuine elegance and emotional intelligence. The best performance of the year is Ledger’s. Great sheep footage. Reduces notions of masculinity to mere byproduct of predominant culture, revealing the genderless joys and agonies of genuine human love.
  • A History of Violence: A possible criticism of this film is that it’s as close as Cronenberg will ever come to Lynch — although that can also be construed as a compliment. Although it contains elements of the auteur’s body of work (bodily mutilation, mental illness, antiseptic tone) it follows a late trend initiated with his previous film (Spider) away from science fiction and technology and into archetypal family tragedies (even if they are dysfunctional families). Certainly well-crafted, with an excellent third-act performance from William Hurt. Mortenson and Bello are also strong in their work.
  • Fateless: Most reviews have referred to this Hungarian historical fiction as a real stand-out in the Holocaust film genre, and in this case I think that is justified praise and not just reductive pigeon-holing. With such a topic and subject (a Hungarian teenaged boy), there is always the risk and responsibility of treating each respectfully, accurately, and meaningfully. But can we add “originally” to that list? Yes. Otherwise the films lumped together in this category would never be seen as individual takes on this great human tragedy. There is not just one truth to the events of the Holocaust, and as such there is not — can never be — simply just one cinematic truth about it. What distinguishes this film is its use of formalism to convey the process of dehumanization of one soul as he processes through the ____ (to say “horrors” or “tragedies” would be of course inadequate, so I’ll leave this blank for now)s of concentration camp. Although filmed in color, the compositions grow increasingly grayer and bleaker; near the end, it could pass for black and white. Also worthy is its portrayal of Hungarians in this time period, a viewpoint previously mostly uninvestigated in feature filmmaking.
  • Munich: A film made with careful attention to portraying moral characters moved to commit immoral acts. It’s still the typically dumbed-down approach to script-writing, but Eric Bana’s character is thoroughly developed and provocatively understandable. Cleverly, it’s a thriller with a moral center, which makes each murder more squeamish for the audience than the previous. A well-edited film, slightly more ambitious than usual from Spielberg, and unconventional-for-him use of slow motion during a sex-scene to complete a character arc. Also, meticulous use of documentary footage to enhance fictional reenactment. Also also, probably his most graphically violent film (yes, more so than Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List).
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: I didn’t learn anything new from this film, but I learned more about what I already knew — which is probably better. Despite the human, political, and economic flaws pointed out in this film, it is probably most disturbing that nothing is really changing in our culture to prevent it from continuing to happen.
  • The Squid and the Whale: It’s comedically-tempting but disingenuous to say that Jeff Daniels’s beard is his greatest feat of acting in this period-Brooklyn coming-of-[divorced-parents]-age drama; he’s actually quite good at embodying blind, unscrupulous sophism (even as he decries his son’s intentions to be a philistine). The brothers have all the best lines, and the set design is great. The movie follows a predictable arc, but arrives at its conclusion soundly and movingly. A great New York movie.

A winner? Some of these films will likely be forgotten. Only half will probably linger with me for good; only two or three would ever be useful as a pedagogical tool; and probably only Grizzly Man will enter my own personal canon. These were the films that were most immaculately written, acted, shot, crafted, and assembled. I endorse them as worthy of their running time, worthy of their medium. They communicated important ideas about humans of the past and the present, how and what we loved and how and what we coveted.

Of all these, I can credit only The Squid and the Whale with eliciting genuine laughter (although its tone is mostly one of somber, confused crisis). On the whole, these were staid, stark, sober works. They questioned, unsettled, weakened, and challenged the good things we like to think are true about humanity; they confirmed what we secretly know to be. They are all, fundamentally, tragedies: historical, marital, personal, American, ecological, economical, and mostly masculine. Maybe I just don’t see enough mainstream comedies anymore.

Most disturbing moment in a fictional film: Despite the atrocities portrayed in Schindler’s List, I think perhaps the single most disturbing shot Spielberg has ever composed was scene in which the female assassin is murdered in Amsterdam. It is graphically violent not because she is shot (we see that all the time) but because she realistically suffers in real time, gasping for air. She is also partially nude. Somehow, the scene is not merely lurid or R-rated, but beyond: it is cruel. What redeems it is its significance to the moral climate of the film, to the characters’ attempts to justify their revenge. I have seen plenty of death in movies, and this is one of the spookiest.

Most disturbing moment in a documentary: Herzog wisely avoids allowing his audience to see or even hear the recording of this most disturbing moment: it’s when his subject — the deceased Timothy Treadwell — is fatally mauled by a starved male grizzly bear. This is a moment so powerfully dark and awful and real that even approaching its periphery I was moved to the limits of emotional composure. Instead, Herzog burdens himself with the role as witness: we see him listen to the recording on Treadwell’s camera of the killing for the first time. His reaction is what ours would have been, but we are spared its full force. Although perhaps merely following the common wisdom once perfectly expressed by Dickinson as “Tell all the the truth, but tell it slant/ success in circuit lies”, in a way I think this shows how all great artists are responsible for sharing some vision of truth they have glimpsed, even though in its purest form that vision can never been fully expressed. In this case, the purest documentary form of truth was too dangerous to fully express without the director as middle-man. Had we been allowed to hear it, I suspect I would have been momentarily satisfied but soon after, and permanently, regretful for have to carry it around in me; and I would have lost a lot of respect for the film.

Best Actor: I love awarding actors, but not the way as is normally done. Why nominate five actors each year? Why not just award as many as seem worthy of the award? Aren’t we diminishing the value of a nomination (if not the award itself) if there is a designated quota to fill each year? How do these arbitrary quotas relate at all to the standards of artistry for which they purportedly commend? This goes for all the categories. Shouldn’t we use up those extra spots to give decent films more exposure? Only if they are good enough to deserve that exposure. If something or someone is not thoroughly worthy of winning the award, it or he or she should not even be mentioned with the other deserving candidates. Perhaps in some years, there may not even BE a Best Actor or Supporting Actress. It is possible for ONE YEAR to pass, is it not, that there is not an EARTH-SHATTERING PERFORMANCE. Okay, okay. I know, the awards are just to award the Best of the Year…but doesn’t that detract from the value previous wins? Anyway, this year only one actor truly astounded me: Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. This is far and a way the biggest accomplishment of the year: every bit as technically challenging and nuanced as P.S. Hoffman(who has been just as good and better in countless other roles)’s Capote, while also carrying and enriching a tremendously tragic story behind and inside of it. At times Ledger was so convincing and compelling that Gyllenhal came off cartoonishly ridiculous alongside him (especially attached to that lame moustache late in the film).

Films I Didn’t Get to See But Wanted To: Murderball, March of the Penguins, No Direction Home.

Finally, I’d like to comment on something else that makes reviewing the value of a year’s worth of films difficult: what about all the films I saw this year that were not necessarily new, but which left indelible impressions upon my understanding of love, life, art, history, faith, etc. ? This year I started using Amanda’s library card to access the outstanding media collection at the Middle Country Public Library. The number of great films I’ve taken in just in this past few months is far greater than that of the new films I appreciated this year. Midnight Cowboy, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, The Last Waltz, Mean Streets, Fanny and Alexander, Hoop Dreams, All About Eve, Throne of Blood, The Stones of Summer, Cheers: The Complete 4th Season, Slacker… The list goes on, and I’m still just trying to break even.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

Heart of Gold PosterFor an artist who once proclaimed (mid-career) that it’s “better to burn out/ than to fade away,” Neil Young has now successfully thrived as a singer-songwriter in five consecutive decades. Who else can boast such longevity? Never one to boast, he has cause: of McCartney, Wilson, Robertson, Mitchell, Diamond, Dylan (or even your own favorite), none matches Young in terms of consistent quality output. Last August, having recently buried his father and harboring a potentially fatal aneurism in his brain, Young stepped onto the legendary Ryman Auditorium stage for a two-night debut of the songs constituting his latest collection since the 2002 film/music project Greendale, 2005′s Prairie Wind. Sensing history, veteran filmmaker Jonathan Demme was on-hand to capture the evenings for a feature documentary — had Young not survived the surgery that would ultimately alleviate his condition, these might have been the last songs he shared publicly. Now in February 2006, Young is still with us.

Despite all the foreboding personal baggage behind Young’s wily visage, the performance is rich, worthwhile, and life-affirming. The lighting and “set” design are sentimentally warm, glowing variations on the wheat-hued horizons backdropping the songs of Prairie Wind. Buoyed perhaps by the presence of friends and family on stage (Stray Gators Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham, for example, or wife Peggi Young), Young and his songs betray not one shred of bitterness at the foot of life’s twilight. In a revealing bit of banter, after mentioning his daughter’s recent 21st birthday, he jests at how he once wrote love songs for girls her age. Never indulging beyond a few sentences between songs, he nonetheless makes genuine recognition of the memories behind his new material (his Canadian hometown, his father, his influences), most notably a song written ostensibly for the very acoustic guitar slung from his shoulder in the film — former owner: one Hank Williams, Sr. A poster of country music’s progenitor grinning mug shows up in the film’s introductory shots, and Young’s outfit (in addition to his guitar and the stage he commands) is worn in homage to Nashville’s great forefather.

Demme having already crafted perhaps the quintessential rock movie (Stop Making Sense, with the Talking Heads), does not make any bold directorial moves, and wisely lets the performance stand for itself. While the aesthetic of Byrne et al. circa 1985 certainly involved high-concept, postmodern smoke and mirrors; a Neil Young show in 2005 brings an entirely different agenda. The presentation of concert is straightforward, unpretentious, even obvious — fitting the feel new tunes like “The Painter”, “When God Made Me”, and the album’s title track.

So, if the set opens with over forty-five minutes of music from Prairie Wind only, why title the film Neil Young: Heart of Gold? Considering that, to many diehard fans, Young’s greatest hit (and Harvest, the biggest selling album whence it came) is considered an over-played and merely mediocre number, why not just call the film Prairie Wind? The answer is also the reason why the film merits being released as a feature and not just as a DVD component to a limited edition release of the album: performing in Nashville, where he cut Harvest, with the musicians who helped craft some of his most enduring songs, where the greats of American music soared and fell, Young completes a circuit of work capturing the effect of time on human perspective he began when he first composed “Old Man”. When the lights come back up on the stage nearly an hour in, and the chords of that song ring from Williams’s guitar, the moment is soulful, shattering, human to the core. Here is Neil Young singing to himself from 1970 in 2006, simultaneously the young hippie and the hexagenarian spook, as if he had planned it from the start. He closes the concert with oldies: “The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Harvest Moon”, “Heart of Gold”, and an incandescent rendition of the aforementioned “Old Man”.

Although he already revisited Harvest in the 90s with the critically favored Harvest Moon, this re-revisiting of the country-rock sound and country-rock personnel (minus Taylor and Rondstadt but plus the ageless Emmylou Harris) that gave him his one big commercial success debunks the idea that swan songs need always be swan songs. With two under his belt, we anticipate what this visionary will see as he moseys toward seventy, and how he will turn those visions into music fashioned from the bottom of his golden heart.

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man PosterOne of the novelties I brought back from two years growing up in South Central Alaska was a book titled Alaskan Bear Tales. From the gruesome to the amusing, the stories within captivated my pre-adolescent imagination; years of violent action films had desensitized me enough to be able to handle (and in fact relish in) holding the images conjured by the text – images involving bloody maws and men fleeing with appendages or eyeballs dangling uselessly – in the screen of my mind. Funny that I should end up more than a decade later encountering a documentary about a man who lived among wild Alaskan grizzlies for thirteen summers before meeting a horrific end at the hungry paws of one of his beloved subjects and be thankful that the director spared me having to bare witness to anything so graphic.

Timothy Treadwell was, by society’s standards, a failure. A college dropout who fled native Long Island for California at 19, he was by midlife an unsuccessful actor, an alcoholic, and a drug addict running in dangerous crowds. Had his life ended in a shootout or an overdose, his would be no different than thousands of other common tragedies – an inconspicuous absence from your high school reunion.

Instead, he reinvented his persona as an amateur expert in the behavior and well-being of grizzly bears, fooling everyone from Animal Planet to David Letterman. Starting in the summer of 1990 (coincidentally the year I obtained the aforementioned chronicle of mauling), Treadwell spent the summer months in the habitat of one of the most ferocious carnivores on the planet, toting only camping gear and, for the last five years, a video camera.

Narrator and veteran director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Lessons of Light and Dark) stumbled upon Treadwell’s story after his death in 2003 and found in the hundreds of hours of raw footage left behind a complex, immeasurably moving account of the human condition. From the start, Herzog’s intentions with Grizzly Man are clear: man is far more compelling than beast.

Were he alive to screen the finished film, Treadwell might adamantly contradict. Although many of his former love interests and friends make substantial appearances, the Treadwell captured on his own videotape is hopelessly enamored of bears (and foxes), and to an abnormal degree. A fervent vigilante, he constantly makes reference to his dual mission to both study his companions and protect them from poachers, despite his lack of any formal training. In his off-seasons, Treadwell toured his information from school to school educating elementary students free of charge. Herzog observes a gradual turning away from civilization in Treadwell’s last few summers, and letters to friends at this time likewise indicate the man’s almost spiritual identification with bear culture and his desperate wish to, in his word, “mutate” away from humanity and into bearhood.

A less experienced or sensitive filmmaker might have spun this material into something with more immediate shock value, but Herzog has managed to craft an incredibly rich piece rife with pathos. Ever the chilly existentialist, Herzog cannot share in his subject’s idealistic and perhaps deluded conceptions of man and nature, even when he sympathizes with Treadwell. In one of his most helpless moments, Treadwell mourns the body of a fox pup that had fallen prey to a starved male grizzly, muttering between tears “I just don’t understand.” It is this confusion which fascinates, which so effectively elicits empathy from the audience. This is not an escapee from the psych ward, but a real human as confused and afraid as any of us; although we observe him at numerous moments of seeming madness, it is inaccurate to write Treadwell off as a freak. Were that the case, the film would be merely a nasty exploitation.

In perhaps his most adept maneuver, Herzog’s manages to treat the fatal attack tastefully, approaching the moment from all angles save the most devastating. In the film’s most moving moment, Herzog himself appears on camera from behind, listening through headphones to the audio recording of their demise. His reaction is the closest we get to the horror; were we allowed any closer, it would render the film almost unwatchable.

Nevertheless, each segment of Treadwell interacting with the immense creatures is more squeamish than the previous. Lost fool or flawed genius, he lived longer on the edge than most humans can conceive; and although he may not have achieved any of the goals he so passionately, obsessively pursued, he has left us with a more honest and naked self-portrait than most would dare begin.