Tiny Furniture (2010, Lena Dunham)

“I saw that your dyslexic stripper video got like 400 hits!”

An inventively well-shot movie with mostly static camera, the opposite of the handicam mumblecore thing I’d expected. Apparently most people can’t tell one kind of movie from another, so Criterion enlisted Paul Schrader to explain exactly how this is not a mumblecore movie, and they also put writer/director/star Lena Dunham in a room to converse with Nora Ephron – an unlikely but pleasing set of extras. I liked the movie more than I expected to, and kept liking it more after it ended. A good comedy that never acts outright comedic – not overwritten, with flawed characters who are obviously not idiots, just people with real problems dealing with ordinary life.

Lena at left, with skeptical-looking friend:

P. Lopate: “Lena Dunham’s work is related to this mainstream comedy of embarrassment, but she takes it one bold step further, producing a much more subtle and sophisticated comedy of chagrin. And in Dunham’s world, there is no happy ending, only an enlightened realism.”

Looks like a Dylan album cover:

Lena plays “Aura,” back in NYC after college in Ohio, and casts her actual mom and sister as her mom and sister, which makes some of the character conversations even more awkward/hilarious if you think about it. Aura sabotages her relationship with her college-best-friend Merritt Wever (hotel girl in that short The Strange Ones) and falls back in with her NYC best-friend Jemima Kirke. She hosts an internet-famous artist (Alex Karpovsky of Beeswax) at her house, gets a restaurant job with sous-chef David Call (the older boy in The Strange Ones, “kinda American Psycho-looking”) and spends most of the movie trying to get either of them to want to have sex with her.

Lena and her sous-chef:

Anyway, I’m sure I should have watched Creative Nonfiction first, because now it’ll probably take me years to get to it, as newer, shinier movies keep coming out and screaming for attention.

Lena’s mom tells her that lightbulbs are “in the white cabinet”:

The Immortal Story (1968, Orson Welles)

Hour-long, splendorously Wellesian, elegant little movie about storytelling, made between Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake. Why does nobody ever talk about this one? A French production (I watched the English-dubbed version) based on a novel by Karen Out of Africa Blixen and shot by Willy Les Creatures Kurant.

On Macao (a Chinese island then controlled by Portugal), Welles is a fat rich man who takes things very literally, cares only about his accounts, which his accountant (filmmaker Roger Coggio) reads to him every night. One day, Coggio reads his boss the prophecy of Isaiah instead. Welles doesn’t like prophecies, things that are not yet true, so he counters with a “true” story he heard about an old man who hires a sailor to sleep with his young wife, to produce an heir. He’s enraged when the accountant tells him this is a fable, retold by many sailors with variations, and Welles insists that they perform the story for real so that somebody in the world will be able to tell it truthfully. He’s got the old eccentric rich man part covered, now just needs someone to play the young wife and poor sailor.

A poor sailor:

In the town square, the great Fernando Rey (a couple years before Tristana) gives some back-story. It seems that Jeanne Moreau (same year as The Bride Wore Black) grew up in the house Welles now occupies, until her dad killed himself over a 300-guinea debt to the old man. Coggio talks her into playing the wife out of curious revenge – she agrees for a price of 300 guineas. They pick up an honestly down-and-out, recently-shipwrecked sailor (Norman Eshley of a few 1970’s murder films – one thinks of Welles’ own role in The Lady From Shanghai) and pay him five guineas to play the role (he doesn’t seem familiar with the fable).

Coggio awaits Moreau’s reply:

Afterwards:
– “Now you can tell the story”
– “To whom would I tell it? Who in the world would believe me if I told it? I would not tell it for a hundred times five guineas.”

And the accountant finds Welles dead in his chair.

This Is Orson Welles reveals that there were supposed to have been a series of short films based on Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) stories. The Heroine was canceled after a single day’s shoot, and A Country Tale was to star Peter O’Toole. Welles would later adapt another Blixen story into The Dreamers.

PB: You were interested in the idea of power…
OW: No. He doesn’t have the power – you show that it’s meaningless.
PB: He fails-
OW: It doesn’t even begin to work – it’s a dream. That’s the whole point of the story. He has no power: not that he does have it, but that he pretends that he does. It all turns to ashes.
PB: Why does he die?
OW: He’s getting ready to die when the story begins. And he dies when the thing can’t work. He dies of disappointment, in his last gasp of frustrated lust.

Senses:

Welles was only in his early 50s when he made The Immortal Story for French television, but it appears as an almost too perfect summary of his career; a metaphorical tale of impotence, memory, power and mortality made on a tiny budget in Europe it both chases its own tail and is a deeply felt film of melancholy mood and sensibility. The film has the quality of a miniature; short in length and minimalist in design. It also appears depopulated, as if the product of a fragmented dream or imagination.

1984 (1984, Michael Radford)

Cool adaptation, with fine visuals by Radford (Il Postino) and the great Roger Deakins (pre-Coens), and a wonderful John Hurt performance. Hurt is not killed at the end (at least not explicitly), and the phrase “Big Brother is watching” never appears. Surprisingly good/subtle musical score by Eurythmics, which the director hated. Hmmm, or is it subtle because we heard the Dominic Muldowney score instead? Watched on netflix, so it’s hard to tell.

Hurt (in The Hit the same year), a government newspaper revisionist, falls for Suzanna Hamilton (of the Sting version of Brimstone & Treacle), dreams of escaping control of the party and finding a place where love is still possible. Richard Burton (of Exorcist II, argh) is on to their plan, and subjects Hurt to torture until he comes to truly love Big Brother. Katy didn’t much like it, putting a damper on the beginning of Dystopia Month.

Super (2011, James Gunn)

“Shut up, crime!”

Rainn Wilson plays sort of a comic-book version of Michael Douglas in Falling Down, pushed to the breaking point by a dissolving marriage and life’s constant irritations. He becomes superpowerless superhero Crimson Bolt, armed mainly with a pipe wrench, and sets out to defeat wife-snatching drug-dealer Kevin Bacon, plus people who butt in line at the movies.

An extremely dark comedy, hilarious and truly horrible, which manages to hold onto its heart through Rainn Wilson’s sheer lovability and the exceptional script. It’s possibly better than Gunn’s great Slither. Can’t compare it to other fake-superhero movies like Special, Defendor and Kick-Ass since I haven’t watched those, but now I’m afraid to. This one set the bar too high. Can you tell I’m excited?

Skin (2008, Anthony Fabian)

An extremely by-the-numbers account of a girl named Sandra born with black skin to white parents and what that means in apartheid-era South Africa. A couple of surreal moments (after a law change, Sandra’s dad Sam Neill proclaims that his daughter is white again) but mostly a straightforward story with oscar-wannabe production (no dice, but won two major awards at the Pan-African festival in L.A.) and no particular interest.

Young Sandra grows into Sophie Okonedo (who had hands-for-feet in Aeon Flux). She and her mom Alice Krige (star of Institute Benjamenta) are the powerhouse actors of the film (that’s not Sam Neill’s fault – he just has to be a bitter ol’ racist, and does a fine job at it). The movie is (of course! apartheid!) full of easy-target racist characters calculated to inflame audience emotion. Surprisingly, Sandra’s older brother becomes one of them late in the film. She gives up on the white life, runs off with a black man (Tony Kgoroge of Invictus) and has two kids, but leaves him after a beating, moves to Jo-burg and gets a factory job. Dad never gets a reconciliation, but mom (with decent old-age makeup) does.

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross)

Just like the book, plus a bunch of good actors (hello, Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson), minus all depth or feeling, and with the worst camerawork I’ve seen in years. Ross made Pleasantville and his DP shot all the latter-day Clint Eastwood pictures, so what happened here? The soundtrack is nice, anyway.

Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku)

Watched with Katy because of the Hunger Games connection. Kind of a not-so-great summer teen-action flick, but it’s still fun and interesting enough to justify rewatching. Also it’s got Beat Takeshi. Has the same-ish final line as teen deathmatch story The Long Walk (not counting all the weird special-edition dream sequences that follow the proper story, like a selection of extended/deleted scenes).

The Battle isn’t televised (even the gov’t overseers don’t have cameras, only microphones inside the kids’ explosive necklaces), and its very existence seems to come as a surprise to the kids, who don’t realize its seriousness until they’ve been in the island-arena for a while. Katy points out that this would make the Battle less of a deterrent than the Hunger Games – more of a personal vendetta by Kitano against his former students.

Mild, oft-injured Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his sweetie Noriko (Aki Maeda of Gamera 3) are the survivors/escapees who head to the inferior sequel. They’re helped by Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), winner of a previous Battle forced to fight again. Fortunately, all teens in movies circa the year 2000 knew how to hack into government systems, so one group concentrates on taking down the surveillance machines, and Kawada figures how to remove the necklaces. The other “transfer student” is friz-haired Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando, the tough one in Big Bang Love), who signed up for the fun of killing people, finally blinded in an explosion set by the hacker group and killed in a machine-gun battle with Kawada.

Among the others: Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill), evil gal Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki, star of One Missed Call), and Nanahara’s best friend Kuninobu who gets killed by exploding necklace during Kitano’s introductory speech.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, William Dieterle & Max Reinhardt)

Wonderful adaptation, filled with Cocteau-like movie-magic. Introduced at Emory by Rushdie, who calls it “The Dream” for short, and isn’t a huge fan of James Cagney’s performance.

Katy and I already watched the McNutty version from 60-some years later, so I’m familiar with the story. Dark-haired Olivia de Havilland (her film debut, later in Gone With The Wind) is coveted by both Dick Powell (star of Christmas in July and The Tall Target) and Ross Alexander (short career: suicide), while blonde Jean Muir (star of The White Cockatoo) covets Ross. The lovers (particularly Olivia) give it their all, making their segments more welcome than Cagney’s. I noted that Kevin Kline brought “a touch of sadness to his mostly ridiculous comic-relief role,” but Cagney instead brings an entire can of ham. When he’s not wearing a donkey mask, Cagney works with slate-faced Joe Brown (the guy in love with Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot) on their play to be performed for The Duke (Ian Hunter of Hitchcock’s The Ring) and his Amazon conquest/bride (Verree Teasdale of The Milky Way).

Interference comes from fairy queen Anita Louise (of Judge Priest, bringing less personality than Michelle Pfeiffer did) and sparkly-costumed elf king Victor Jory (Power of the Press) with his loyal minion, a cackling pre-Andy Hardy Mickey Rooney. The Queen has mini-minions Moth and Pease-Blossom (both sadly unaccounted-for), Cobweb (appeared in a pile of 1950’s westerns, costarring with Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter) and Mustard Seed (Billy Barty, had already been in fifty movies as Mickey Rooney’s brother, would live to appear in such acclaimed 1980’s dwarf-filled fantasy films as Legend, Willow, Masters of the Universe and UHF).

Lost best picture to Mutiny on the Bounty, but cinematographer Hal Mohr was history’s only write-in oscar winner. He later shot Underworld USA, Rancho Notorious and a Tashlin feature. Banned in Germany for being based on the Jew-music of Mendelssohn. Reinhardt had staged the play ten or more times, left nazi germany and staged Midsummer in Hollywood, then hired to make the film alongside cinema vet Dieterle (The Devil & Daniel Webster).

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, Werner Herzog)

“the illusion of movement, like frames in an animated film”

Cave drawings from 25k to 40k years ago, during the last ice age, including drawings of extinct animals. The earliest recorded human artworks. Somewhat ecstatic movie, between the cave camerawork and the string/choral music, with notes of Herzogian strangeness (a master perfumer speaks of trying to sniff out hidden caves). The first half suffers from having to use a subpar camera, without the time or equipment needed to set up perfect shots, but the crew gets to return with better stuff later, slowly moving a light source while the camera remains still to expose the rock’s textures. Herzog faithfully edits their two journeys separately instead of just using images from the second trip and pretending like they got it perfect the first time.

Cave sniffer:

Sidetrack interviews with cave explorers, engineers plotting the cave with laser imagery, a historian who demonstrates statuettes, ornaments and musical instruments from the ice age, carved from mammoth tusks. Then an unexpected poetic epilogue about albino alligators in a steamy greenhouse warmed by runoff waters from a nuclear plant.

Herzog in Cinema Scope:

There’s not much room for intentionality. You have one week. You have four hours a day to shoot. You have to build your cameras and then reconfigure your cameras on a 60 centimetre-wide walkway. You’re allowed only three people with you. You’re allowed only three small panels of light. So intentionality is reduced to having to film like crazy and deliver.

Of course there was a very clear idea about why 3-D was necessary, and clear ideas about music. There was a clear idea about not trying to define what things represent… because we do not know. There are a number of hypotheses made by scientists, but what’s construed to be a ceremonial site could just as easily have been the traces of children playing. I think we have to keep possibilities open if we want to understand what can look to us like the sudden awakening of the modern human soul.

Ode to the Dawn of Man (2011, Werner Herzog)

Also on the DVD, Herzog takes a camera to the recording of the film’s score by really amazing cellist Ernst Reijseger. I could watch this a bunch more times. Probably I should just buy the soundtrack.