The Muse (1999, Albert Brooks)

Trying to pick a title from the endless scrolling netflix crap, we surprised each other by agreeing on this Albert Brooks comedy. Brooks plays a screenwriter (envisioning a Jim Carrey comedy) who learns through his friend Jeff Bridges (one of the few celebrities not playing himself) that all the hugely successful filmmakers are getting advice from Greek goddess Sharon Stone. So Brooks hires her, eventually moves her into her house where she takes to helping his wife Andie MacDowell start a cookie empire, while Brooks brings her meals and looks for clues as to what he should do with his script.

K. Uhlich: “I love The Muse‘s vision of Hollywood as a town in thrall to a disarmingly flighty mental patient.” Fun cameos, low-key at first, leading up to Rob Reiner, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese. But the highlight is Steven Wright as the director’s cousin Stan Spielberg. Katy gets annoyed at Albert’s characters’ total lack of compassion for those around him, even though she recognizes that’s where much of the comedy comes from.

Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)

I’ve watched this before, and both times I knew the general idea (documentary footage is being faked, people involved in real events are restaging them for the camera), but I was noticing this time how in some movies Kiarostami never tips his metafictional hand. We know from interviews and DVD extras that the movie theater (and the movie) never existed in Shirin, that the drivers and riders of Ten were never in the car at the same time, and that everyone in Close-Up is performing the role of themselves, but you can’t necessarily tell these things when watching the films.

Farazmand is a reporter who hears about a man (Sabzian) impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf, receiving money from a middle-class family while acting like he’s prepping a film shoot. He arranges to get Zabzian arrested for this, after which AK visits the man in jail and records his court date, discussing his intentions in pretending to be a filmmaker.

When Sabzian is interviewed by Kiarostami, realizing AK knows the real Makhmalbaf:

In the commentary, Rosenbaum calls it “a film about impersonation” right as Farazmand is telling the taxi driver and policemen that he aspires to be a famous journalist while he’s clearly unprepared (can’t find the house, not enough cash for the cab, didn’t bring a tape recorder). They discuss how the film is called Close-Up when Kiarostami loves to film in long-shot.

Asking directions from turkey man while looking for the Ahankhah house:

They also discuss the dead time and story distractions, how the film spends time in turn with almost every character.

JR: “Most people would agree that the members of the family come off overall less sympathetically than Sabzian does … they’re more defensive.” His co-commentarian Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa says the rumor is the family originally did not withdraw their complaint against Sabzian, but later agreed to do so for the film. She also says that Sabzian points out that because of Close-Up, the family did in fact get to be in a film as he promised them. Even these experts don’t know whether the filmed trial is real or staged.

The Complainants:

I get the two sons confused, but can you blame me?

JR: Many of Kiarostami’s films from here on are “about the unequal relationship between filmmakers and the people they’re filming who are much poorer and are relatively powerless”.

Two Makhmalbafs:

JR: “I think the real subject of this film … is not impersonation or fraud, it’s the social importance of cinema and how it affects everything – how it affects things socially, how it affects people’s sense of power, their sense of ethics, their sense of identity … and their sense of truth, and perhaps truth is the thing that gets the most severe unpacking in this film.”

Jamón, Jamón (1992, Bigas Luna)

In a small town (interests: bullfighting, the local underwear factory), wimpy Armando del Rio gets his girlfriend Penelope Cruz pregnant, to the horror of Armando’s mother (Stefania Sandrelli of The Conformist), who hires virile Javier Bardem to seduce Penelope. Kinda weird and fun movie, with some uneven melodrama.

Quoting myself in an email: “Favorite part is how they emphasize that this is a nowhere town by showing tractor trailers blowing past in every scene.”

And again:

That scene [the battle to the death with legs of jamon] is the movie’s downfall in a nutshell. It all started out a wacky, bizarre comedy with nude bullfighting, topless Penelope Cruz, confused young lovers, bitchy feuding parents, oedipal complexes and lots of jamon… then gradually turns dark and serious, while still trying to remain focused on giant testicles. So in that final jamon-fight, one character is comically whacked in his comically huge groin area, and three seconds later another character is tragically killed and everyone is sad. We didn’t buy the tonal shift.

Marsha Kinder’s Film Quarterly review points out that we missed lots of cultural references:

In its violent climax, Jamón Jamón uses a pair of ham bones to parodically reproduce Goya’s famous painting, “Duel with Cudgels.” In the process it also evokes Saura’s serious adaptation of this image in Lament for a Bandit (1963), with its overly dramatic music and its stylized movements between distancing long shots and brutal close-ups – an alternation that makes it difficult for us to miss the studied allusion. Yet Bigas Luna’s bathetic choice of weapon also brings to mind Almodóvar’s murderous ham bone in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984).

Luna won an award in Venice and Bardem was noticed for his acting. Nominated for all the Goya awards, but trounced by the other Penelope Cruz movie in her debut year in film, Belle Epoque. Luna figured his movie’s success was due to casting Javier Bardem as a guy with big balls, so he did that again the following year with Huevos de Oro.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998, Julio Medem)

Dreamy and free-flowing, the story spiraling into mirrors and coincidences, feeling sometimes like a less grim A Very Long Engagement. The story traces back and forth along their lives with kinetic editing and glowing camerawork – pretty much my favorite kind of movie.

Palindromic couple Ana and Otto are destined for each other, seen at different ages. The oldest Ana was 20-year-old Najwa Nimri, of Before Night Falls and Abre Los Ojos – which also featured oldest Otto Fele Martínez (also of Thesis and Bad Education). Writer/director Medem made Sex and Lucia, and last year he had a Salma Hayek movie at TIFF.

The Last Ten Minutes Vol. 18: Shabby Studio Flicks from the 1990’s

Wing Commander (1999, Chris Roberts)

I played the first Wing Commander video game a fair amount, the second one a ton, and I think my computer was underpowered for the third (1994) so that one not so much. When the movie came out too-many-years later and I saw its posters splashed all over Barcelona, I ignored it. Looks like that was the right choice. Euro-accented spaceship crew is yelling the standard space-movie stuff about shields, then there’s a solo-flying Freddie Prinz Jr. with a cool monocole. I’ve got nothing against Freddie, didn’t see any of his poorly-received movies of the era and he was alright on The Brak Show. This movie is so full of jargon and effects, I doubt anyone knows or cares what is happening. Cool to see David Warner as the admiral, anyway. I don’t approve of the Kilrathi being slow-motion underwater green-tinted puppets speaking in subtitled death-metal voices. Appearance at the end by Saffron Burrows of Klimt. Why is Mark Hamill credited as “?” when he appears in all the games?


Star Trek 7: Generations (1994, David Carson)

I went back further than ten minutes because I didn’t want to miss Kirk dying. He and Picard fight Malcolm McDowell in the desert trying to get some magic remote control that makes a missile turn invisible. Doesn’t seem like a plot worth dying for, but Kirk gets crushed under a metal bridge, freeing up Shatner to do more important work, like that amazing Se7en parody in 1996. Epilogue: Data has emotions and a pet cat, Picard has a monologue about time being a flat circle and Frakes makes a sly joke about living forever (he will). Director Carson went on to make Unstoppable (the Wesley Snipes one, not the Denzel Washington one).


Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

I don’t remember the novel, other than I hated it but it was the only book I had while stuck in a Costa Rica airport for six hours… or maybe that was Sphere… anyway, why are army people machine-gunning monkeys, and why is one monkey speaking English while wearing a nintendo power glove? Good to see Ernie Hudson, and weird to see Laura Linney blasting monkeys with lasers and oh now a volcano is erupting and burning all the monkeys. Do NOT watch this movie if you love monkeys. Joe Don Baker!! After all the digital motion-capture shit of recent years it’s nice to see one monkey played by an actor wearing a furry suit. Director Marshall went on to make a Paul Walker sled dog movie and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley was slumming between an oscar win for Moonstruck and a nomination for Doubt.


The Relic (1997, Peter Hyams)

I guess this is the one that wasn’t Species or Mimic. Apparently it stars Penelope Ann Miller (Big Top Pee-Wee) and Tom Sizemore (Dreamcatcher), but I can’t see a damned thing. Looks like figures running through a dark chemical plant. When we finally see the Relic and its gross long tongue, it looks like some Alien/Predator/Pumpkinhead/Krang mashup for the ten seconds before Penelope uses confusing editing to set it on fire, then she spits some weak Hellraiser catchphrase and it blows up. Was this movie about anything? Hyams made a Sean Connery movie called Outland 16 years earlier which I apparently watched (I gave it a 6). He also made Timecop and End of Days, which I would totally watch the last ten minutes of either of those if available, so get your shit together netflix.


Deep Impact (1998, Mimi Leder)

This was the asteroid movie that wasn’t Armageddon but came out at the same time. Sure enough, the asteroid hits the Earth and kills everyone. It kills the loving couple on the beach. It kills New York City. It kills everything. Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski escape, chuckling at the devastation. Meanwhile some crying astronauts led by Robert Duvall are saying goodbye and it gets real weepy before they crash into a second asteroid and blow it to bits then President Morgan Freeman gives a boring speech. This looks like it was a boring movie. Mimi Leder went on to make the movie that shook my faith in movies, Pay It Forward.


The Phantom (1996, Simon Wincer)

In today’s superhero-fueled world, it’s quaint to visit the superhero movies of yesteryear, which were medium-budget and starred Billy Zane. Billy is a fine actor as long as he never has to speak, so he’s always cast in major roles and given tons of dialogue. Some bad guy picks up a crystal skull and says “at last!” and someone else is accused of kiling Phantom’s father. All movies are basically the same, aren’t they? Phantom has a pathetic, sub-lightsaber effects-duel with the baddie, whoever he was, then everything explodes. Where is Catherine Zeta-Jones? Holy shit, Patrick McGoohan cameo as Phantom’s dad. Phantom’s girlfriend is Kristy Swanson, the lead in Mannequin 2: On The Move. This has kind of a Rocketeer / Sky Captain / Indiana Jones throwback look which I appreciate. It was director Wincer’s follow-up to Operation Dumbo Drop, and he’d go on to make Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.

After each of these movies, netflix assumed next I’d want to watch their new Adam Sandler flick. That is either persistent self-marketing or a sadly accurate attempt to predict the tastes of people watching Congo on a thursday night in 2016.

Happy Together (1997, Wong Kar-Wai)

Responsible Lai Yiu-Fai (Wong fave Tony Leung) and impulsive, promiscuous Ho Po-Wing (Ashes of Time star Leslie Cheung) took a trip to Argentina, ran out of money and got stuck there. Now they’re trying to make money to get home, while the pressure of being together so long has destroyed their relationship. Ho disappears for long periods, returning dramatically without warning, while Lai persistently works menial jobs at a nightclub, a kitchen and a slaughterhouse. Lai meets Chang (young Chen Chang, lately The Razor in The Grandmaster) in the kitchen, but Chang isn’t sticking around Buenos Aires long, is on his way around the world (with ITMFL-like mention of a remote place people go to leave their troubles behind). Lai finally gets the money to leave, can’t find Ho so he returns to Hong Kong, where he can’t find Chang either (only finds his family’s restaurant).

Mostly great, eclectic music choices, including my favorite Caetano Veloso song from Talk To Her. But, well, my love for Frank Zappa is eternal, and I complain that his music isn’t played enough, and I appreciate the connection between him and the Turtles song of the film’s ironic title, but “I Have Been In You” did not fit the wistful mood of the city montage after Chang left.

Lai at the waterfall:

Chang at the end of the world:

A sustained mood piece, where nothing really happens and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant cinematography heighten the emotions of everyday life – just like In The Mood For Love. But ITMFL was about the possibility of an ultimately doomed romance, and this one’s about the lingering feelings after romance has ended. It’s a much more bitter movie, and though I enjoyed seeing it in HD for the first time, it doesn’t seem like one to revisit regularly.

M. D’Angelo:

Happy Together features all of the elements that have consistently impressed me in his other pictures: elegantly moody characters; stunning cinematography (courtesy Christopher Doyle, as ever); a loose-limbed narrative that careens from shot to shot without deliberation; a general air of cinema as possibility. All that’s missing is the powerful romantic yearning that suffused Chungking Express, Fallen Angels … and even parts of Ashes of Time and Days of Being Wild. In its place, to my irritation, is endless squabbling.

Whispering Pages (1993, Aleksandr Sokurov)

My preparatory viewings of various Crime and Punishment adaptations didn’t end up preparing me at all for Whispering Pages, which uses none of the main events from the novel, instead taking minor scenes and mashing them up with other novels, creating a general tone of miserablist 19th century Russian literature without bothering itself with a story.

Extreme Slow Cinema here, but Sokurov keeps it short, under 80 minutes. He seems to love paintings and long takes. Motion shots turn to stills. The color temperature of shots changes. The picture sometimes looks blurred or stretched or warped, but given the stills I’ve seen of Mother and Son, this is probably intentional. Film grain and rolling mist are more main characters than our lead actor A. Cherednik, who speaks with a breathy Peter Lorre voice and seems to have killed someone offscreen.

Overall I wasn’t a fan, but it does have some mesmerising moments. There’s the main dialogue scene with E. Koroleva, in which he tells her that he’s killed someone and they debate him turning himself in and the existence of God, and she reacts like this:

There’s an obscure bureaucracy scene with this weirdo:

And there’s an inexplicable (dream sequence?) where everyone around our hero is leaping in slow-motion into unknown depths. Stills can’t do that shot justice, so instead here is some mist.

Hyènes (1992, Djibril Diop Mambety)

“The reign of the hyenas has begun.”

The famously wealthy (“richer than the World Bank”) Linguère Ramatou is returning to her village of Colobane after 30 years away. The village has fallen on hard times lately, so is doing everything it can to impress her so she’ll leave a generous gift, including promise the upcoming mayoral “election” to shop-owner Dramaan Drameh, a former flame of Linguère’s.

Turns out she has returned to take revenge on Dramaan, who got her pregnant 30 years ago but wouldn’t marry her, leaving her exiled from town to become a prostitute. We don’t know how she became rich and renowned after this, but it doesn’t matter – she offers the town more money than they can spend if they’ll just agree to kill Dramaan for her. Everyone says aloud that this is absurd, that lives aren’t for sale and they’ll never agree to sacrifice the beloved Dramaan, but everyone starts stealing from his store, denying him privileges, following him around and not allowing him to leave town. The women, including Dramaan’s wife, stockpile modern appliances on credit and won’t answer when Dramaan asks them how they plan to pay the bill.

Dramaan leading the welcome party:

In the end, the townspeople tell themselves they’re enacting delayed justice, carrying out a sentence on Dramaan for his unfair treatment of 17-year-old Linguère Ramatou. Though they’re cynically murdering him for the money, at the behest of a bitter woman who tells her servants “The world turned me into a whore. I’ll make the world a whorehouse.”

Ramatou and her entourage:

Played Cannes in competition with The Long Day Closes, Fire Walk With Me and Simple Men. I guess I’ve seen all available Mambéty films… nothing more to look forward to. Based on a popular Swiss play also adapted by Bernhard Wicki (with Ingrid Bergman) and about ten others.

California Newsreel:

Hyènes was conceived as the second installment, following on Touki Bouki, of a trilogy on power and insanity. The grand theme, once again, is human greed. As Mambety himself observed, the story shows how neocolonial relations in Africa are “betraying the hopes of independence for the false promises of Western materialism,” and how Africans have been corrupted by that materialism … After unleashing this pessimistic vision of humanity and society, Mambety began a trilogy of short films about “little people,” whom he called “the only true, consistent, unaffected people in the world, for whom every morning brings the same question: how to preserve what is essential to themselves.”

The director, playing an ex-judge now working for Ramatou:

Mambety:

The hyena comes out only at night … He is a liar, the hyena. The hyena is a permanent presence in humans, and that is why man will never be perfect. The hyena has no sense of shame, but it represents nudity, which is the shame of human beings.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993, Dave Borthwick)

Happy to come across this again – haven’t seen it since the VHS days. Awesome, hour-long stop-motion with live actors interacting with the miniature creations, which must’ve been difficult. Dark sci-fi fairy-tale following tiny Tom, born to normal-sized parents, then abducted away to a torture-lab, adopted by a tiny-people society, and brought on a guerrilla mission with a well-armed little guy. Death and horror is around every corner, and pretty much everyone is doomed. The grimy, insect-filled design is marvelous, would be cool to see this in HD someday.

Stills cannot convey the majesty:

Oh no, writer/director Dave Borthwick died a few years ago, after codirecting a kids’ animated feature. Dave’s “Bolex Brothers” partner Dave Alex Riddett is a stop-motion cinematographer (Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, way back to the Sledgehammer video), and the Bolexes also produced the great short The Saint Inspector.