12.31.2011

happy new year

well, i was looking back at last year's entry for about this time and i see that things worked out like i thought they might. 2011 felt like a much better year, overall, than 2010, though not necessarily for reasons i expected. the move to cedar park did a lot of things for me. first and foremost, it was a huge relief. the subconscious weight of always worrying about my sister's safety and whether or not my possessions would still be there when i got home was taking a heavy toll on me, as it turns out. it is nice to be free of that burden. it has also provided me with a lot of needed isolation. i haven't been as diligent sometimes about turning that isolation into time to make entries here, but that's the way it goes. there's an entirely different rhythm to my life since august and i am beginning to figure out the best way to fit everything into that. on the plus side, the blog was up and running for its first entire calendar year, averaging better than one post every other day, so i guess i was more diligent than i thought. i would still like to take more time to write about specific individual films, so expect more of that in the year to come, in addition to the ongoing queue de grâce madness. another bright spot this year was our starlite cinema series. we took it all the way to the east coast this summer and here at home we have gotten it down to a science. it's always such a good time. also, i saw more films this year than in any year prior and made some incredible discoveries; some new filmmakers, some just new to me. all in all, a pretty good way to spend 365 days. thanks to all my friends for going to the movies with me, supporting my events, leaving me to my self-imposed exile when necessary and listening to me talk about movies an awful lot and thank you to everyone that comes here. whether you just read or contribute to the discussion, i am grateful that you visit and share.

good luck in 2012 and i hope to see you around. happy new year, gang.

12.27.2011

trailer tuesday

the last trailer tuesday of the year offers you one last must-see from 2011, nuri bilge ceylan's once upon a time in anatolia (2011).

12.23.2011

yeah, just keep giving this asshole your money

i always get testy this time of year. i don't really like christmas all that much and i detest new year's eve. on top of that, everywhere i look i am surrounded by trailers for event movies that i must be out of my mind for not being appropriately excited about and banal best of 2011 lists, the one from the american goddamned film institute being one of the most egregious. so, what better time to roll out what i am sure will be a recurring feature every time i am sick to death of popular culture? welcome to the inaugural installment of yeah, just keep giving this asshole your money, a rogue's gallery of people who obviously don't give a single shit about cinema that the american public still insists on making rich with their hard-earned moviegoing dollars. ground zero? ashton kutcher.

yeah, just keep giving this asshole your money.

12.20.2011

trailer tuesday

this week's entry is the most hotly anticipated clip to come down the digital pike in a while, christopher nolan's the dark knight rises (2012).

12.18.2011

season's greetings by starlite

what to our wondering eyes did appear tonight? starlite cinema series' christmas program, that's what!

we had a lot better weather this time around than we did last year. summer can be rough but it certainly is a nice trade off to be able to comfortably do these outdoor shows this late into december. in anticipation of st. nick's arrival, tonight we screened jalmari helander's rare exports: a christmas tale (2010) and the pair of shorts from 2003 and 2005 that spawned the feature. appropriately, lauren made ginger snaps with which to keep an army of homicidal father christmases at bay so we made it out alive and full of cookies. at starlite we keep things merry and bright year-round.

we will be back in late january to redeem a rain check from last year. in the time that we have been doing this we have had to cancel one show and shorten another, leaving us with a short list of films that we had to abandon. last january we had to cancel the program that included, among other things, norman z. mcleod's it's a gift (1934), a problem we are going to happily rectify next month.

what better way to ensure a great year than to begin it with the great man himself, w.c. fields? this is one of - maybe tops on the list - my all-time favorite comedies. it is relentlessly funny, filled with gags and bits of business that fields had honed to a razor's edge over a lifetime on the vaudeville circuit. he paid attention to language in a way that no comedian has done before or since and every aside and oath muttered under his breath is a victory for literate, beleaguered everymen, everywhere. combine that with an unerring instinct for physical comedy and you can't miss. if you like to laugh this is one you shouldn't miss. our program will begin at 7 p.m. on saturday, 1.21.12. here is the facebook event page if you would like to rsvp via that. if facebook is not an option, just let me know and i will get you the details. it would be great to have you there to kick off 2012 with us. upcoming screenings in the new year are going to include a return to france (of course) for valentine's day and spring is going to see our first two part program that spans march and april with one of my favorite cinematic gumshoes. lots of good times ahead. come and see.

12.14.2011

a li'l kurosawa

i see your old king cole and three billy goats gruff and raise you a toshirō mifune! these kids have thrown down the gauntlet with their production of akira kurosawa's seven samurai (1954). your elementary school needs to step its game up.

12.13.2011

trailer tuesday

a gray film for a gray day. this week's entry is for martin ritt's the spy who came in from the cold (1965).

12.12.2011

kill me, kate

one more round of queue de grâce is now history. everyone say so long to kate, our guest programmer for the past week.

kate knows all the best people.

before i began her list, kate intimated that, in keeping with the holiday theme, this week would be a half naughty/half nice proposition. she also hinted that i would win some sort of magnificent prize if i could correctly guess which on her list were which. so, here, for posterity and a shot at everlasting glory, is what i watched this week, the asterisks denoting my choices for the nice list:

brazil (1985)*
edward scissorhands (1990)
giorgio moroder presents metropolis (1984)*
christmas cupid (2010)
emmet otter's jug-band christmas (1977)*
cooper's christmas (2008)
holiday in handcuffs (2007)
the sasquatch gang (2006)*
you again (2010)
dead men don't wear plaid (1982
)*
meet pingu (2003)*
ballerina (2006)*
miracle on 34th street (1947)
the bells of st. mary's (1945)
peter and the wolf (2006)*
the last song (2010)
angus (1995)*
santa claus: the movie (1985)
batman returns (1992)
a smoky mountain christmas (198
6)*

let me know where to pick up my prize. after this week, i deserve it even if i didn't guess right. i feel like i should explain a few things in the wake of this week's experiment. i know we all tend to project the way we do things onto others so there may be some of you, based upon how you do it, that haven't thought a lot about how i approach movies and, therefore, why weeks like this are so unpleasant for me. i often go all day long, sometimes days at a time, without having a significant, satisfying conversation. when the day is over and i come home, to my own space, i want to be be challenged, engaged. i don't want to just put something on and not think about it. this time i spend with movies is frequently the best time i spend all day. i am in conversation with herzog, fellini, akerman, bergman, countless others. i am getting to think about things, i am being surprised, i am being introduced to new ideas and having my old ones challenged. it is not just mindless entertainment or white noise for me. this is what makes me happy. i have never subscribed to the myth that thinking and fun are mutually exclusive. the thinking is the fun part for me. when i have weeks like this where, instead of the interesting and unconventional, i often have to invite - virtually - unimaginative morons and cretins into my home for hours on end, it is not exactly my idea of a good time. in addition to this, it takes up every spare minute of my time. subtract work and sleep and that leaves no time to do anything except watch, think about and write about these movies. i don't get to read. i don't get to go outside. i don't get to spend time with my friends. ask everyone who has tried to do even a miniature, tailored version of this. practically none of them have been able to even finish, and that's with a fraction of the films and a lot more flexibility on the timeline. it's a chore even if it was twenty films i was dying to see. the degree of difficulty increases geometrically when they're not.

i know that there are some of you that are going to file this under "film snob" but i don't think that is a fair assessment. i think of snobbery as trying to achieve and maintain some level of exclusivity. nothing could be further from what i try to do here. i want to share things that i am excited about and if you're a regular around here i hope that you can clearly see that in my editorial policy. barring queue weeks, i really only spend time talking about the things i love. i don't want to keep this information to myself. i want to share it and i want people to go out and see movies that have something extraordinary to offer them. i don't like to waste time on things that don't merit it. i know blood in the water sure raises the ol' hit count and i exaggerate those bits for comic effect (especially this week, since half of the choices were made explicitly to irritate me) but i would much rather be telling you about something that knocked my world off its axis than something that depresses me just by its very existence. i have seen a fair amount of movies in my life - not that i don't have a long way to go in my film education, i read people all the time that remind me that, in that regard, i am still in my infancy - so there are some things that just don't satisfy anymore. you can call it fluency, competency or just plain familiarity but i feel like it is a waste of time talking about the crude, insulting and elementary when there are so many more deserving things out there, things that aspire to greatness rather than just being a commercial enterprise. i prefer to tell you about something that might add something to your world. i am always digging, searching for new things that give me that feeling of discovery that i can then, in turn, pass along to someone else. i do it for no other reason than i feel it adds immeasurably to my life. it's not like you win cool prizes for sitting in your apartment at three in the morning reading essays about mehboob khan or max ophuls. i do it because i really love it. i write about it in hopes that you will really love it as well. you can call me a snob if you like, and i'm certainly not going to mince words if i think something is garbage, but, because of all these things, i prefer to think of myself as an enthusiast.

the queue will return in january to start a whole new trip around the sun. if you would like to be added to the list of participants just let me know. there's always room for one more. as always, thanks for following along and a special thanks to kate for taking the time to alternately torture and delight me this holiday season. since you split naughty and nice right down the middle, i'll leave your final judgment to santa claus.

oh no he didn't!

12.11.2011

citizen kate: day seven

holy finish line! it is, mercifully, day seven and we begin the end with more snow-covered bondage gear from tim burton in batman returns (1992).

i think out of all the pre-christopher nolan batman entries this one is my favorite, though that's not saying much. i think nicholson's joker was awful, embarrassing even, and everything that followed this in the franchise was more and more ridiculous. i don't really need to go into the plot here, do i? penguin origin story, catwoman origin story, bruce wayne has his supposedly "secret" identity exposed for the second time in two movies and all the hot latex action in the world can't save a romance this bat signal-crossed. this is like the carnival ride version of batman. lots of brightly colored whirly things at the entrance, music piped in from everywhere, goes really fast, is fun if you didn't eat too much funnel cake beforehand and then you end up right back where you started. i did like the two-villain angle in this one, something i am not always fond of. michelle pfeiffer makes a decent catwoman and danny devito was an inspired, and gross, choice for the penguin. it's easy to forget between viewings how vile and extremely violent they made him. in the middle of broad comic book action, a lot of it played for laughs, he is downright homicidal. he is pathetic and wounded and truly villainous. he understood the material about a decade plus too early. michael keaton, on the other hand, never really cut it for me as batman. the guy can't brood. wrinkling your forehead and pursing your lips all the time isn't brooding, it just looks like you have a slight headache, and "billionaire playboy" just isn't a weapon in his arsenal. the bruce wayne i know would damn sure know what vichyssoise is. he looks befuddled more often than haunted or conflicted. at least he looks good in the suit. ultimately, i just don't like this much silliness or whimsy with my caped crusader. it's a real shame because there are hints of darkness running through this one that you don't see again until nolan takes over. if he could have committed to that fully it might have been better but, unfortunately, tim burton only seems to know one way.



and, bringing us home, as she ought to, is dolly parton in henry winkler's a smoky mountain christmas (1986).

well, it wouldn't be appropriate if we didn't end this week with a little bit of made-for-television holiday lunacy that attempts to graft christmas onto snow white. first things first - i am of the considered opinion that if you don't like dolly parton you are just an asshole. that being said, this movie is out of its cotton-picking mind. dolly plays, get this, a popular country music star. she is disillusioned with the glitz and glamour that are pushing out the more down-home elements of the music so she decides to take a sabbatical to the smoky mountains where she will spend christmas and recharge her folksy batteries. the thing is, she doesn't tell anyone. she arrives at a cabin belonging to her friend only to discover that it has been commandeered by a ragtag group of seven orphans. of course, no one calls child protective services. instead, they hole up together and spend a week writing songs that teach valuable lessons and keeping the law and an enterprising paparazzo at bay. in the meantime, they are menaced by a mountain man that turns out to be the six million dollar man that turns out to be a lawyer that turns out to be prince charming and by a "witch woman" who feeds dolly a hexed pie that puts her into a sleep from which she might never awaken. yes, you read that right. they turn the tables on the witch, however, and attempt to bust the kids out of the children's home they have been put in. they are captured by the police and brought before judge john ritter, who is having such a ball with how ridiculous the material is that he might as well be winking straight at the camera. dolly realizes mid-hearing that she wants to adopt this crazy bunch and judge john ritter decides what the hell, it's christmas! god bless us, everyone! once again, the sincerity thing goes a long way but this is really pushing it. if this starred anyone but dolly parton it would fall flat on its batshit crazy face. credit her genuineness and strength of personality for making me think it would actually be fun to be sitting at that christmas dinner table as the credits begin to roll. joe turner, who curated last month's queue for me, has coined the phrase "the new camp" to apply to all manner of over-the-top, out-of-its-tree wretched cinematic excess. well, merry christmas, buddy. we have just found what is sure to become a christmas tradition in the turner household.

and so, my week ends weirdly and with obvious commercial breaks. it could have gone no other way. i'll be back tomorrow with one last wrap-up. i am sure i will have quite a few things to say. in the meantime, what is the opposite of christmas? whatever it is, that's what i am going to do now.

12.10.2011

citizen kate: day six

day six begins with a double barreled blast of schmaltz with julie anne robinson's the last song (2010).

for those of you who don't work in bookstores, and therefore aren't surrounded by more copies of them than you can give away, nicholas sparks has built an empire on writing the same book over and over again: two american eagle outfitters customers fall in love, against all odds, one of them probably traveling from the other side of the tracks to do so. just when things are going well, tragedy strikes, usually in the form of cancer, cancer or cancer. about half the time they are standing in or near the ocean. rinse. repeat. for the last song apparently sparks turned out the script before he actually even finished the novel. i wonder if this new approach will inject a breath of fresh air into the proceedings and take sparks in bold new directions. let's see. here's the movie, in a nutshell: hannah montana is a troubled teen spending the summer with her estranged father in a coastal town. hanging out at the beach, she meets a nice-guy rich kid who courts her until he breaks through her gruff exterior. even though his parents don't approve, they spend all summer making out in or near the water. third act? her dad gets cancer. you can fill in the rest. on nicholas sparks' website it describes the novel as being "in the tradition of his beloved bestseller, a walk to remember". how do you have the nerve to refer to sucking from the same exploitative, manipulative teat until all it produces is dust as "tradition"? i notice that he describes his latest book, released about six weeks ago, as being about "two small-town former high school sweethearts from opposite sides of the tracks". i haven't read it. i'm afraid it will give me cancer. the movie was awful, of course, unless your favorite thing to watch are films that look like extravagant massengil commercials. the only thing i was really prepared to compliment was the fact that miley cyrus and liam hemsworth seem to have genuine chemistry, as the bulk of the film is miley's weird, crooked face mashed against liam's big buffalo head. let's be honest, though. how hard can it really be to find two teenagers that want to bone each other in the summer vacation, all-bets-are-off atmosphere of a three month film shoot at the beach? way to shoot fish in a barrel, gang. meanwhile, keep throwing your money at sparks, you saps. if there's no incentive for him to do anything else, why shouldn't he carry on his grand "tradition"?

having now gotten through all the worst films of the week, i would like to point out, while we are in the coming-of-age section of the program, that kate's original list contained françois truffaut's the 400 blows (1959). netflix didn't have it available to stream and she didn't notice i owned it. this image from that fine film expresses how i feel about how that all worked out.

c'est la vie.

on we go, learning a few lessons from patrick read johnson's angus (1995).

this wasn't too bad, if a bit predictable. i've seen it done better but i've seen it done a lot worse. angus is on the verge of high school, a smart kid, decent football player, but insecure about his weight and awkward with girls. tormented by the attractive, popular quarterback and his henchmen, he is considering opting to attend a prestigious magnet school where he will fit in a lot better and not spend every day admiring the unattainable girl from afar. in angus' favor, he has grandpa george c. scott in his corner reminding him on a daily basis that if they don't like you then "screw 'em". i couldn't agree with grandpa more. eventually, angus takes it to heart and has his moment, learns that maybe the girl of his dreams isn't unattainable after all and delivers a speech at the big dance that makes it so that every disenfranchised, picked on, or even just plain normal kid can hold their head a little higher the next time they walk down the school hallway. it's pretty standard fare but its strength lies in the fact that nothing (except maybe how articulate angus' big speech is) is exaggerated. angus is smart, but not too smart. the villains aren't so cartoonish that they don't show a little bit of their own insecurities, which fuel their bullying. the best part of this film? these kids are actually working this stuff out as adolescents - when you're supposed to. if only everybody listened to angus we wouldn't be inundated with movies like this week's you again (2010) - just one example, but they are legion - where grown-ass adults live in abject fear of things like their high school reunions. take a page out of angus' book, screw 'em.

and, finally, like a fat, jolly zombie, santa rises again to feed on our holiday cheer with jeannot szwarc's santa claus: the movie (1985).

i swear to god, i watched this thing three times (a queue de grâce first) to try to make heads or tails of it. couldn't do it. it begins as a santa claus origin story and then, in the second half it splits time between chronicling the exploits of a less than charming street urchin and an ambitious elf unknowingly gone over to the dark side, assisting an evil toy manufacturer. what a botchjob this is. the performances range from dudley moore's bored elf to john lithgow eating scenery like it's so much peanut brittle to christian fitzpatrick as a thoroughly unappealing orphan. do you know how many kids must have auditioned for this? surely a number of the others didn't make you prefer that they stay homeless and destitute. much like every salkind family production, it hasn't exactly aged gracefully and it generally looks pretty terrible. at first i thought it was just a bad print but then i realized it probably looked just like this in 1985. at times it is so dark that it makes mccabe & mrs. miller (1971) look like days of heaven (1978), the special effects would have knocked you out of your chair in 1945 and santa's workshop looks like you and i made it over the weekend. the first half is at least minimally interesting (note, i am not saying clever) in the way they work in tidbits of santa's mythology while trying to keep the story moving. once it gets to the second half, though, and santa is out of the picture a lot of the time, you quickly realize that you just don't care about anything or anyone on the screen. there is a small handful of films that are universally held examples of films that broke hollywood/destroyed studios, et cetera. they almost all have a certain look and feel to them - a sort of incompleteness, a cheapness, a general missing of the mark. though, historically, this isn't one of those, it bears all the hallmarks. it seems dashed off and conflicted, like every element of the production was constantly being reconsidered at each step of the filming and editing processes. it is utterly baffling, not charming, even as kitsch, and is not the least bit entertaining. one more time this week, christmas loses.

home stretch now, gang. check in tomorrow for the showstopper.

you, me, dolly and a six million dollar santa.

12.09.2011

citizen kate: day five

yes, virginia, there is a day five and it begins with george seaton's miracle on 34th street (1947).

a kindly old gentleman by the name of kris kringle is tapped as a last minute replacement for a tanked-up santa in macy's thanksgiving day parade. he is such a natural fit that he is hired to be the store santa for the holidays. the reason he does such a bang up job? the old nutter actually thinks he's santa claus. he's thoroughly convincing as well, what with his genuine care for every child he meets and outlandish ideas like spreading happiness at the expense of corporate profit. of course, the same thing happens to him that happens to most revolutionaries that interfere with the status quo - the man drops the hammer on him. they throw santa in bellevue and he has to go to court to prove his sanity. an idealistic young lawyer decides to go one better and not only prove he is sane but that he actually is saint nick. with the help of the prosecuting attorney's son and the u.s. postal service, santa wins the day and with the imprimatur of the new york supreme court he is freed just in time to go on his appointed christmas eve rounds. edmund gwenn is the real deal here. he is excellent as kringle, and not too cloyingly sweet. yes, he loves all the children of the world and is eager to spread joy everywhere he goes but he's not above rapping you on the sconce if you get out of line and attempt to exploit or harm a kid. as with most christmas fare, it often veers toward overwhelming sentimentality but in this case it is saved by two things. first, it occasionally injects a tiny note of cynicism into the proceedings to keep its footing. nothing overt, mind you. just enough to remind us that we live in a world that can really use a guy like santa claus. second, and most important, sincerity. you can be as schlocky as you want and i will grant you a wide berth if i am convinced you truly mean it. when christmas material fails it is almost always because it lacks this vital quality. watch this side-by-side with the abc family movies i endured earlier this week and you will see exactly what i mean. i am not so naive as to not understand how and why these movies get made but at least they used to make them with a fair amount of personality and a whole lot of heart. yes, it was a more innocent time but that doesn't mean the new formula has to be so empty and crass. santa used to be a pretty cool guy. if they needed him that much then imagine how much we could use him now.

we keep the forties yuletide log burning with leo mccarey's the bells of st. mary's (1945).

bing crosby reprises his role as father o'malley from going my way (1944) and this time around he bumps heads with the hottest nun in the world, ingrid bergman, as they figure out the best way to run, and then save, their school. in the end, it comes down to whether or not they receive help from the businessman next door in the form of a donated building. whether guided by the hand of god or father bing's machinations, the old man decides to lend a helping hand and the day is saved, but not before sister ingrid is scheduled to be transferred because she has contracted tuberculosis. this one, unfortunately, didn't quite work for me. i love leo mccarey. he made duck soup (1933), for pete's sake, along with many other of my favorite films, but his skills just don't translate here. with him and ingrid bergman on board i was predisposed to like it, but there were too many negatives for me to truly enjoy it. first and foremost - bing crosby. i have never liked the guy and his rakish, sleepy-eyed, bullshit irish charm makes for one smarmy, creepy priest. the material itself is bland, for the most part, and only really rises above comic fluff/weepy melodrama when the kids are directly involved. it's a pretty uninspired production, overall. maybe it suffered this time from immediately following one of its superior contemporaries. maybe it's just because i like this version of the bells of st. mary's better:



who can say?

closing the show today we have suzie templeton's beautiful piece of animation, peter and the wolf (2006).

this was a real highlight this week. a joint british/polish collaboration, it won the academy award for best animated short film that year and it is easy to see why. it is a painstakingly crafted re-telling of sergei prokofiev's classic musical children's tale in which a young boy, peter, lives with his grandfather on the edge of a clearing in the forest. peter's companions in this rendition are an awkward and shabby, but completely endearing, duck, a bird with a broken wing that peter helps to fly by tying a balloon to it and his grandfather's anti-social cat. they cavort in the woods, rambling about, skating on the frozen pond until peter's grandfather awakes from his nap, corrals them all and scolds peter for being so cavalier while dangerous wolves roam the forest. on cue, the wolf shows up, swallows the duck whole and terrorizes the others while peter best figures out how to trap him. after a mighty struggle, peter captures the wolf and they take him into town to sell him to the zoo. while in the square, though, peter notices the wolf being taunted by bullies much the same way he was early on in the film and he can't abide that. he decides to release the wolf, opening the cage and coming face to face with him. they warily regard each other with a mutual respect and understanding for just a moment and then the wolf runs off, free to roam the forest once again. what is really astounding about the production is that all this is communicated without the benefit of speech. templeton has jettisoned all dialogue and narration for this version and all of those complicated notions are communicated exclusively by prokofiev's iconic score and the incredibly detailed and evocative expressions of the animated figures. the attention to detail cannot be overemphasized. every frame is filled with things to look at, as the sets almost have as much to offer the story as the characters themselves. i can't imagine how much time and effort went into this production. the characters' movements and facial expressions are elegant when they need to be and frantic when the story calls for it. the tale itself packs so much tension, adventure and fun into its short running time that it's almost hard to believe. you definitely don't want it to be over. i would really love to see this one in the theater with an accompanying orchestra. it would bring down the house, i'll bet. as it is, just watching it this way was great, far and away my favorite thing i have seen this week. it was a gift.

or maybe it was more like a last meal for a condemned man.

don't i at least have the option of a blindfold?

12.08.2011

citizen kate: day four

day four begins with an attempt at reconciliation, a film noir peace offering, if only a parody. we begin the proceedings with carl reiner's dead men don't wear plaid (1982).

steve martin plays opposite some of the greatest stars of the forties in this, as a philip marlowe/sam spade type gumshoe on a case. what case? doesn't matter. its irrelevance is matched only by its incoherence. it's just a peg on which to hang copious gags and the novelty element on which the film hinges, the interaction with almost a score of films from noir's golden age. clips from everything from double indemnity (1944) to the big sleep (1946) are shoehorned into a convoluted mystery story to give the illusion that martin is getting leads from and being shot at, and sent on wild goose chases, by the likes of veronica lake, cary grant and humphrey bogart. the clips are incorporated fairly well and it's fun to play "spot the noir" - is that johnny eager (1941)?! - but the novelty soon wears off and it's only as effective as the current gag is funny. fortunately, a lot of the jokes are decent. i couldn't help thinking, though, that if mel brooks had done this it would have been a riot. it reminds me a little of one of those novelty records like mr. jaws where some interviewer has their questions answered with snippets of whatever songs were popular at the time, except with a multi-million dollar budget. i remember being really excited about this back when it came out but, as is the case with everything from 1982, it's not as great as you remember it being. still, it's nice to see steve martin doing material with at least a little more bite to it than the family comedy purgatory he has been consigned to lately. what happened to that guy? our bbc correspondent, dennis pennis, puts a bow on it for us.



next, we head south, as far south as you can go, for marianne noser and otmar gutman's meet pingu (2003).

this is a collection of claymation shorts that follow the adventures of a young penguin as he kicks around his antarctic village with his folks, little sister and best pal, robbie the seal. they are reminiscent - though considerably less sophisticated, artistically and thematically - of the work of aardman studios, home of wallace and gromit. these were amusing and i could see why young children would love them. language isn't a barrier, as all the characters mainly speak a nonsense, but still highly expressive, language called pengeese. pingu is easy to like, though his trademark honk is a bit annoying, because he a solid li'l dude. he loves his little sister, always looking out for her and making sure she is included in the fun. he is responsible and industrious, but not above getting into a little mischief now and then. all in all, a well-balanced, fun-loving kid. i'd probably never watch these of my own volition, though i know some adults love them, but if you have youngsters they would probably really enjoy them. plus, they'll learn a thing or two about being a decent penguin along the way.

we end the day with the odd film out this week. our only non-fiction entry this time around is bertrand norman's ballerina (2006).

i found this pretty fascinating. it provides unprecedented access to the lives of five ballerinas who dance for the kirov ballet company at st. petersburg's mariinsky theatre. beginning with the selection process at the vaganova ballet academy, we meet a group of girls who are set on an arduous, grueling career path from about the age of ten, their ultimate goal being prima ballerina status. as the field narrows, so does the focus of the film, selecting a group of five diverse dancers, all of very different temperaments and styles, all at very different points in their careers. they range from naif only beginning to find her way to the veteran attempting a comeback after a significant injury. the most beguiling of the lot was diana vishneva. holy cats. even my untrained eye could tell she was something special, that she has that inexplicable thing that separates artists from technicians. she dances because, as much as she doesn't even want to sometimes, she would probably die if she couldn't. not that the other dancers weren't impressive. they were all incredibly graceful, athletic and skilled. she is just operating on an entirely different plane. she is expressing something powerful. you might as well be watching her have sex, fight and eat an animal she has just killed with her bare hands simultaneously. it is that primal. obviously, she is a bit undisciplined compared to the rest of them but it is a trade i would make any day. she was undeniable, majestic when she was in motion. her segments alone make up for the film's shortcomings, the worst of which are some lame narration and a horribly squeezed full-frame presentation. if ever there was a city that needs widescreen, it is st. petersburg. this aspect ratio doesn't do justice to these beautiful venues and incredible dancers. overall, though, it was a very interesting look at a select group of extremely talented women. air this rarefied is never boring.

well, that was a day of blessed relief. hardly a homicidal impulse at all today. maybe i'll be back on santa's nice list just in time for his return tomorrow.

so long, suckers!

12.07.2011

citizen kate: day three

as day three dawns, so does a realization. i am in a bad relationship. i find myself staying at work longer than i have to now. i look for something, anything, to do rather than come home. time spent at home now is mostly grim with just enough flashes of what used to be to remind me of how things aren't anymore. i would say it's not you, it's me but that would be a lie. queue, it's definitely you. it feels like we are manacled together for eternity. speaking of, we start today with another abc family production, ron underwood's holiday in handcuffs (2007).

hi! i only shop in malls. i only eat processed foods. i get up at 3 a.m. for black friday. i think wedding cake toppers with the bride dragging the groom are a real hoot. have you checked out the latest self-help/diet/inspirational publication they were talking about on good morning america? it will change your life! don't forget to have a drink, watch football and have babies!

abc family thinks you're an idiot. 6.7 million of you are eager to prove them right. i only bother to outline the plot here to illustrate how asinine this is. a floundering waitress who can never please her parents needs to make a good impression over the holidays so she does what anyone would do in that situation - she kidnaps a complete stranger at gunpoint in the middle of a busy restaurant and takes him to the country to pass him off as her handsome, successful boyfriend. wouldn't you know it! they fall in love, he calls off his wedding and instead decides that life with an imbalanced felon is preferable. what a crazy world! these productions are to real movies as contemporary christian is to rock music. at a glance they seem like they could be the genuine article but there's almost immediately something about the way they sound, the way they move, some frequency they hit that clearly sets them apart and somehow only their fans are deluded that they pass for the real thing. anyone on the outside just sees a collection of pastels, marketing triggers and code words that no one but them uses in that context, like "joy". if i have to watch another one of these this week i am going to commit seppuku with the shards of a precious moments figurine. look for my suicide note scrawled on the back of the nearest thomas kinkade painting.

let's take a break from christmas for a bit. instead we'll hang out for a while with tim skousen's the sasquatch gang (2006).

it's the story of a group of nerdy misfits who stumble upon evidence of a bigfoot while walking in the woods. unbeknownst to them, it was planted there by a couple of nitwits who plan to exploit its discovery for enough financial gain to pay off a delinquent credit card bill and buy more corn dogs. young love blooms, friendships are tested, lessons are learned and carl weathers licks sasquatch poop. here's what happens: an indie movie comes out of left field, becomes a surprise success and a number of imitators try to cash in on that before the corpse gets too cold to hump. for example, tarantino blew up and as a result we are stuck with truth or consequences, n.m. (1997). well, in the wake of napoleon dynamite (2004) there was a glut of transmissions from off-kilter loserville and this is one of them. it's actually the most closely related, as our director here was that film's first assistant director and both jons, gries and heder, show up in this. it's all in the family. actually, if it was all in the family it would have been funny. instead it was mostly irritating and mawkish. justin long's mullet is a stillborn joke ten years too late and carl weathers hits an all time low, and i am saying that about a man who participated in this:



that may not be the original music.

i did like addie land as sophie. she seems like a sweet kid and, while maybe not a stellar actress, she has a quality about her that makes you pull for her. can't say the same for the rest of them, the most egregious case being joey kern as shirts (he never wears a shirt! get it?!) jokum:



who, in developing his characterization, was apparently under the impression that none of us had ever seen american movie (1999).



the sasquatch gang - i'm sure it's funny when you're too high to remember where you put your copy of napoleon dynamite.

the last volley fired by the hate tank that is today is andy fickman's you again (2010).

so many of my favorite tropes in one delectable bon bon (am i right, ladies?) that i don't even know where to start. take two cups "high school sure is hard and you never get over it", one cup "how things work in the girl world" (a direct quote) and ladle on a hearty dollop of wacky wedding shenanigans. half-bake in a lukewarm oven for 105 minutes and then stick it directly up your ass. i'm not talking about it anymore. i've had enough today.

tomorrow we're going to blah blah blah. who even cares?

12.06.2011

citizen kate: day two

day two of the queue is wall-to-wall holiday cheer!

actually, that is a filthy lie. beginning the day with gil junger's abc family production, christmas cupid (2010), we have arrived at an all new nadir. this now replaces whatever used to be at the bottom of the list as the single worst thing i have ever had to endure courtesy of the queue. this dreck is a retelling of a christmas carol updated for millennials, a description which already makes me want to vomit. christina milian plays a shallow, conniving publicist who must see the error of her ways before it is too late. the jacob marley to her scrooge is a vapid starlet in the lindsay lohan mold who can't seem to not shoplift expensive coats or drunkenly roll on the floor in the most public of ways. instead of marley's chains we have the incessant clink of her martini glass sounding in our ears as she introduces us and the aforementioned publicist to the ghosts of x-mas - they're all ex-boyfriends, get it? - past, present and future. she has her eleventh hour epiphany, finds true love and her dead, superficial, alcoholic client gets her wings. oh my god, this is insipid garbage. there is no way to emphasize how many ways this is terrible. it looks like a commercial, it smells like make-up and was quite obviously written by a computer program. i would say television can go to hell but it looks like it's already there. 3.4 million people tuned in to this when it originally aired last year. i hope at least a few of them noticed that in their abc family-approved production no lessons were learned. in a christmas carol ebenezer scrooge learns magnanimity, generosity, a love for one's fellow man and sympathy for their plight. this character, sloan is her name, is motivated by her desire to not be alone, so when she "changes her ways" in the grand finale it is simply one more strategy she adopts to achieve what she wants. she doesn't learn anything and i learn only that television is often even worse than i think. i kind of want to quit now.

so thank jeebus for jim henson and his magnificent emmet otter's jug-band christmas (1977).

this li'l charmer was jim henson's first real attempt to branch out from the skit-based, full-tilt zaniness that was the muppet show into longer narrative work and it is both a fine family outing and a nice little time capsule. like the previous film, it is a twist on a classic christmas tale, in this case o. henry's the gift of the magi. unlike the previous film, it doesn't make me hope christmas never comes so i don't accidentally stumble across it ever again. the story is a simple one: ma otter and her son emmet live on the river, scraping by on odd jobs, taking in laundry and the kindness of other river folk since pa otter died a few years back. they get wind of an upcoming talent show and each make secret plans to participate, hoping to use the prize money to buy each other christmas gifts. the hitch is that emmet has to put a hole in ma's washtub to make his bass for the band and ma has to sell the tools emmet uses to buy fabric to have something presentable to perform in. they both rock the house but ultimately lose to the shady last-minute entry, the riverbottom nightmare band, a muppet explosion of edgar winter, alice cooper and felt. ma and emmet's band soon discover that they are a natural fit, though, and land a gig at doc bullfrog's with regular pay and all the mashed potatoes an otter can eat. turns out all they needed was each other. it is a sweet, homespun tale from back when the state of the art was still an actual puppet and if you don't like it, well, i'd venture to say you're just broken inside. the puppetry is, of course, wonderful and expressive. not to keep harping on our disastrous beginning today, but do you know what a testament it is to henson and crew (and an indictment of every living being in christmas cupid) when an inanimate object exhibits an array of feelings that not one of the actual human beings in that first movie seemed capable of? the elaborate sets are a marvel and, being the seventies, paul williams provides his usual batch of snappy tunes. most importantly, it manages to tread a delicate line of being sentimental without tipping over into maudlin. it comes dangerously close a time or two, i'll admit, but always manages to pull back just shy of it so what we end up with is a simple fable, heartfelt and warm. we should all be so rich.

we end the day with the mixed holiday blessing of warren p. sonoda's cooper's christmas (2008).

originally titled cooper's camera but changed for subsequent dvd release, it is a simple idea: a man accepts a camcorder in lieu of payment for a debt and, using this cutting edge technology, he records the chaotic family meltdown that is christmas, 1985. i was surprised at how much i ended up liking this. it is a peculiar mix of high concept and lowbrow that caught me off guard now and then. it's essentially a one-joke bit stretched out to feature length, that joke being family dysfunction over the holidays, and i'm not saying it's great, but sometimes they nail it. sometimes boner jokes, getting punched in the pills or dad on the toilet is just plain funny. sue me. they actually deliver this kind of material in a way that doesn't seem tired. it's more than that, too, though. it's weird family secrets that foster ill feeling and distrust. it's pushing up just to the edge of improper (and going over) with your hot cousin. it's being comfortable enough with the people you love that you are more apt to lose control in front of them. you shouldn't lump it into national lampoon territory. it trafficks much more in the comedy of discomfort that is so prevalent these days, rather than set-up/punchline type humor. they certainly aren't afraid of being unattractive or taking chances. it takes a little while to get rolling and it suffers now and again from trying too hard (it also suffers from dave foley's penis being introduced in the first five minutes, but that's a different story) but there are a number of oddball moments like gord trying to hit the high notes during caroling that make it worth your while. i suspect this is one of those that twenty different people will laugh at in twenty different places, depending on what their family and holiday experiences have been like. i do wish they would have had the guts to stick with the weird darkness and not have their version of the "everything's going to be o.k." ending. it severly undermines the preceding eighty or so minutes, in my opinion. too bad they couldn't take it all the way. they might have really had something. as it is, if you like christmas not so holly-jolly, you could do worse than this.

so i have fulfilled my abc family christmas tv movie obligations as of today, right? tomorrow is a new day and all that jazz, right?

aw, hell. can you just point that over here? consider it an early christmas gift.

trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for lynne ramsay's we need to talk about kevin (2011). it is also a lifeline for me, giving me hope this week that all movies aren't terrible.

12.05.2011

citizen kate: day one

queue de grâce kicks off this month with one of my favorite christmas movies, terry gilliam's brazil (1985).

it's a bleak dystopia that awaits us, it would seem. sam lowry is there already. he lives in a dark and paranoid world, passing his days as a drab cog in an immense, ugly machine. his only escape comes via his dreams, where he becomes something of an avenging angel, soaring through endless skies, sword in hand, haunted by a vision of a particular damsel in distress. in his waking life the most excitement he sees is rectifying clerical errors, like the instance where a fly in the teletype results in an innocent man being mistaken for a terrorist ending in his detainment and death. on a visit to the man's widow to get some paperwork signed, sam catches a glimpse of their upstairs neighbor who turns out to be the literal woman of his dreams. the potential to live out these dreams, at least a little, is enough to make sam throw caution to the wind and risk everything in pursuit of this woman. his life comes off the rails as he attempts to balance a new promotion, his mother's meddling, what has to be his first love and keeping the orwellian darkness from encroaching on his new-found happiness. he seems to succeed, but it turns out that, like everything good in his life, it is only a dream and the film ends with a catatonic sam receding further and further into his own broken mind. i think, uneven though it is, this is still gilliam's masterpiece. all of his trademark themes get their best going over in this wicked satire. orwell's menacing totalitarian state has been replaced by one that is run more by mindless bureaucrats, not so much inherently evil as inept and cowardly. the most evil thing you can do in this universe is be ambitious. those lean, hungry ones are always the ones you have to look out for. along this tangled way, he takes shots at rampant consumerism, human vanity and air conditioner repairmen, all with a backdrop of the most commercial holiday we have ever created. every human physical interaction is awkward. every living space is crowded with ductwork. every other camera angle is vertiginous. it is absurdly funny. it is probably the closest gilliam has ever come to putting his own personal struggle with the world as we know it onscreen, at least until he finishes the man who killed don quixote. the problem with putting so much of gilliam's mind onscreen at once is that it becomes a little disjointed and overwhelming. i would rather have that, though, than some competent middle manager of a filmmaker, playing it safe. it made me think of how gilliam is the antecedent to the charlie kaufmans of the world and how without the messy brilliance of brazil we wouldn't have the undisciplined and fantastic risk taking of something like synecdoche, new york (2008). funny how the bleakest, most paranoiac film on the list this week is the one that fills me with the most hope.

from there we move on to everyone's favorite magical fairy tale about goths who cut themselves, tim burton's edward scissorhands (1990).

i don't have a lot of patience for tim burton. the only things i have really enjoyed of his were pee-wee's big adventure (1985) and sleepy hollow (1999), both of which are still comfortably in burton's wheelhouse by being about misunderstood outsiders, both of which succeed primarily because they aren't tim burton-y misunderstood outsiders. you probably all know edward's story. it seemed to me while watching it i had seen it once before...when it was called frankenstein (1931). edward was created by a kindly, if a little mad, doctor - vitagraph favorite, vincent price! - who lived in the gothic castle on the hill. his creator died before edward was quite finished leaving him with scissors for hands and finishing school applications unfilled. edward is discovered by another kindly type, this time the local avon lady, who brings him home and tries to integrate him into polite suburban society. things go awry, as they are wont to do - you know, fire bad and all that - and the angry villagers chase the monster back from whence he came, only satisfied when they think that he is dead. there were some things i enjoyed about it. without a doubt, burton has a truly idiosyncratic visual style and i liked a number of the set design elements a great deal. danny elfman's score was predictably decent, if occasionally christmas jewelry commercial-ish. johnny depp had some great moments in the margins, little throwaway things that were charming and appropriate for his goth-out-of-water character. where burton loses me is in his attempts here to generate pity. it doesn't come across as pathos, just pathetic. and i think it was a huge mistake on his part to spend so much time in a suburban landscape that was an obvious pastel cartoon knock-off of john waters' usual stomping grounds. here's what you underline when you do that (note depp in both):

john waters: freaks (and i mean that lovingly) who wouldn't spend five minutes giving a shit what you think because they have their own thing going on.

tim burton: freaks who spend an hour and a half trying to get you to feel sorry for them.

no contest! i know which ones i would rather hang out with. if john waters had made this then you might have something. as it is, not so much. and winona should never go blonde again. next!

we end things on a synthesized note with giorgio moroder presents metropolis (1984).

this is one odd duck that leaves me with all sorts of conflicted feelings. in the early eighties, disco/synthesizer impresario giorgio moroder took it upon himself to restore fritz lang's silent science fiction masterpiece metropolis (1927). an admirable idea, right? lang's film had suffered terribly at the hands of editors, rendering some of it nonsensical. in addition to redressing these cuts, though, moroder also composed a new contemporary score. contributing to the synth-driven proceedings are such luminaries of mtv's infancy as pat benatar, billy squier and adam ant. don't get me wrong. i love how music and film interact and i really don't think anything is off limits when it comes to mixing the media and watching them recontextualize each other. fantastic planet (1973) is brilliant for this, for instance. you can play anything as you watch it and each new piece of music brings out something different in it. in this case, though, whether lang's film doesn't lend itself to this type of experimentation or it's moroder's score, it mostly doesn't work. a couple of times something subtle and thoughtful happens but, for the most part, it is unremarkable. for a "contemporary" score the music from 1984 seems more dated than the film from 1927 and for a "restoration" this print is pretty bad. it was amusing to see the intertitles at the beginning talking about how missing scenes had been lost forever, knowing now that that's not true. if you want to see an exquisite version of the film, check out kino's restoration of the complete metropolis. i appreciate moroder's passion for the film and his invaluable contribution in keeping interest in the film alive, unfortunately it just doesn't help his version pass beyond the bounds of novelty.

and with that we bring an end to probably the only day this week that won't make me want to gouge my eyes out at least once.

ho ho ho!

12.03.2011

starlite advisory: you'd better watch out

prepare for starlite cinema to deck your halls! our december program is going to feature a holiday confection unlike any you've seen before, jalmari helander's rare exports: a christmas tale (2010).

a group of finnish reindeer herders find their holiday disturbed, first by ominous, mysterious excavations on their mountain and then even more so by what the excavations have seemed to unleash upon the countryside. santa claus has come to town and has set his sights on the naughty. in the finest brothers grimm tradition, this digs back through centuries of christmas tradition (with nods to the pagan forebears they stole their ideas from) and unearths for us a most dangerous, blackly comic lump of coal. it's actually a feature-length expansion of a pair of short films from a few years ago. they will give you an idea of what sort of holiday cheer you have to look forward to. they aren't necessarily all that spoiler-ish. sort of apples and oranges to the feature film, if those apples and oranges were put in a sock so as not to leave bruises. enjoy!





the festivities begin at 7:30 p.m. on saturday, 12.17.11. here is the event page if you would like to rsvp there. if you're not facebook enabled and you would like to attend, just let me know. i will get you the pertinent information. we hope to see you there!

p.s. HE SEES YOU WHEN YOU'RE SLEEPING!

12.02.2011

let it queue, let it queue, let it queue

queue de grâce returns to ring in the holidays early next week!

the rules: for a full week i turn over complete control my netflix streaming queue to one of you kids. during the week, excluding visits to actual theaters and screenings i host, i will only watch what you choose. no other films, no other television, no respite from the cinematic rigors that you have assigned me. i then report in on a daily basis, detailing my travails and triumphs.

this time around our guest programmer is intrepid newshound kate ludlow.

she appears to be skeptical of my ability to withstand her cinematic onslaught, no?

kate can be found most days keeping the community informed at the liberty hill independent. when not occupied there, she can be found ruminating on more personal matters over at achromatic places, which i suspect may feature rebuttals, defenses and encouragements for me during the week to come. her week at the helm runs 12.5.11 through 12.11.11. please stop in and see what sort of holiday cheer she has in store for us.

11.30.2011

like clockwork

an overwhelming love of the magic of movies issues forth from martin scorsese's delicately intricate new machine, hugo (2011).

adapted from brian selznick's excellent children's book, the invention of hugo cabret, it tells the story of an orphan who secretly lives within the walls of a paris train station. he passes his days surreptitiously performing maintenance on the station's clocks and scavenging wheels, pins and gears from toys he has stolen from the station's toy shop. he must take care to avoid the overzealous station inspector, who takes great delight in sending wastrels off to the orphanage. he must also avoid being caught by the embittered, sorrowful old man who runs the toy shop long enough to accumulate the materials he needs to refurbish his mechanical man, which he believes bears one last message from his father. he doesn't manage that bit very well. the old man lures him into a trap and confiscates hugo's notebook that contains his father's sketches of the automaton, partly out of spite, partly because he finds the contents of the notebook upsetting. hugo enlists the help of the old man's niece to retrieve his notebook and their resulting adventures together, sneaking into the cinema, haunting bookstores and libraries and repairing the automaton uncovers wounds, connections and significance they could never have imagined. if you want to be surprised by these revelations, stop here and come back after you've seen it. i cannot effectively talk about what i enjoyed about the film from this point on without revealing one of its essential secrets.

as it happens, the proprietor turns out to be georges méliès, retired magician and one of the pioneers of early cinema. it was méliès who first saw film's potential to go beyond documenting the everyday, to understand that the magic of film and the worlds it could transport you to were limited only by the filmmaker's imagination. his genius in editing and developing fantastic special effects made it possible, for the first time, to put dreams on the screen. by the time we find him, though, he is a relic. his art is lost to the world and he sits all day in the station, morose and forgotten. the kids slowly begin to unravel the mystery of his identity with the help of one of the coolest booksellers ever, christopher lee, and an academic and film historian who originally believes méliès to be dead. their diligence leads to a revival of both the man and his work. as a result, some of the world's most important pieces of cinema are saved from oblivion and the message hugo was waiting for has led him home.

it is a beautiful film and the leading candidate this year for film most likely to be lost on most of its audience. ostensibly a kid's movie, i don't think that's quite right. yes, there are things in it kids will enjoy, mostly embodied by sacha baron cohen's gangly station inspector. his (at times incongruous) broad physical comedy and cartoon menace provide the best place for kids to find purchase in a film that otherwise might test their patience. it's also not truly for holiday viewers in search of a blockbuster to while away a couple of hours, though it may be marketed as such. it is appropriately magical and entertaining and those folks will enjoy looking at it. its 3D is only the second legitimate use of the technology that i have seen this year and it certainly qualifies as spectacle but it's also much, much more than that. at its heart, it is essentially a paean to antiquated technologies, the magic of movies - from their very inception - and is the most eloquent and lovely argument in favor of film preservation that you may ever see. it was made for people like me and i am grateful. i would accuse scorsese of reading my diary, if i kept one. it's made for those of us who love things made of iron, wood and burnished brass and painted by hand, steam trains, sleight of hand, leatherbound books, snow falling and that special girl with a good vocabulary whom you can share all your secrets and greatest adventures with. most of all, it's made for those of us who genuinely love the movies and who envy those fortunate people who were there when pictures moved for the first time. it's funny to think that it took all this time and adapting a piece of children's literature for martin scorsese to make the movie that might be his most personal. if you are familiar with the man, you know how much he is in love with the movies and how infectious his enthusiasm for them is. i could listen to him talk about the movies for as long as he could go on. case in point: his documentary my voyage to italy (1999), in which he talks for four hours about all the italian films he grew up loving and it seems like it's over in thirty minutes. his lengthy reminiscences are interspersed with long clips, many without the benefit of subtitles, and the whole thing is absolutely riveting, even if you only have a cursory interest in world cinema. with hugo he is finally able to combine his prodigious technical abilities with this seemingly limitless enthusiasm for being transported by the magic of the movies. he brings all of his skill, knowledge and love to bear on the material and it is wondrous. it comes at an opportune time, as well, as it seems film is in danger of extinction. i hope people are paying attention. years from now, i'd like to think back on this as a love letter to film, not a valediction. if you love movies and all that they are capable of, you owe it to yourself to see it.

if you have some time, and are so inclined, you might also check out the film foundation. it is a nonprofit that scorsese founded in 1990 dedicated to film preservation and education. they do good work.

trailer tuesday

blogger wasn't working for me most of the night, so this one is a little late to qualify for tuesday. by way of apology, we will turn things up a notch. this week's entry is for steve mcqueen's shame (2011), which i cannot wait to see.

11.22.2011

i'll love you until the end of the world

if i made lists, i have no doubt that come the end of the year jeff nichols' take shelter (2011) would be on it.

in the film, michael shannon play curtis laforche, an everyman living in small town ohio (though it could be anywhere). he is a loving husband, devoted father to a young, hearing-impaired daughter, good friend and solid worker. he is the embodiment of main street, u.s.a. in these troubled times when a lot of bad things are happening to a lot of good people. in addition to the very relatable pressures of making ends meet and health care costs that must be dealt with, he begins to suffer from dreams of an apocalypse. every night's sleep is fitful and he is plagued with visions of a gathering storm, the likes of which has never been seen. a viscous rain similar to motor oil falls, cyclones and tremendous arcs of lightning fill the horizon, birds careen through the air in dazzling and troubling patterns only to fall from the sky and humans and animals are driven violently insane.

the dreams begin to edge their way into curtis' waking life. pain from wounds obtained in the dreams lingers throughout the day. he begins to doubt his sanity. true to his character, he quietly, pragmatically tries to address it. there is a history of mental illness in the family, as his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and has been in the hospital or assisted living for twenty-five years. he takes reasonable steps; visiting his doctor, doing research at the local library, seeing a counselor. none of it is enough, though. as much as he wants to keep a lid on things, the overwhelming fear of the coming storm compels him to obsessively work on the family's storm shelter. his increasingly erratic behavior results in him losing his job and friends. small town whispers about his precarious mental state come to a head at a lions club dinner and the approaching storm becomes very real, resulting in a long, dark night of the soul for the family as they wait in the shelter for it to pass.

from the first frame, it is riveting. it begins with one of the increasingly terrifying nightmare sequences, quickly establishing an atmosphere of cold dread and unsure footing that nichols expertly maintains throughout. michael shannon proves once again that he is one of the best american actors working today. he and nichols pick up right where they left off with the excellent shotgun stories (2007) and craft an even more assured and quietly harrowing portrait of american unraveling. he conveys every painful nuance of a good man who fears his own mind. all the little things that you count on in a husband and a father are there and, though much of it is elliptical, as the film finds him turning inward for the first half, all that he does is clearly for the benefit of his wife and daughter. his secrecy is never meant to deceive, only to protect, as he struggles to maintain and understand his own thoughts. as his compulsion to expand the shelter overrides all other concerns, putting his family's house and daughter's health at risk, it is only because he knows that the storm in his visions will render these other concerns moot. you can see his constant struggle to contain himself in every nearly-imperceptible wince and in the simple rigidity of how he sits just a little too straight. when he finally breaks and reveals the extent of his madness to the whole town in a very public meltdown, it leaves you with such a sick, sad feeling and when he shouts at them, in a perfectly written phrase, that "if this thing comes true there ain't gonna be any more" it is frightening enough to make every single person in that room wonder just how much he has right.

the photography is simple and elegant and the nightmare sequences are very effective, relying mainly on tapping into fears that must be universal to a simple family man, rather than computer-generated animation (they use that judiciously). the electrical storm is also a beautiful metaphor for both looming socioeconomic troubles and curtis' mind, constantly growing more imposing, firing uncontrollably. the whole cast does a fantastic job with well written material. shannon isn't a surprise, of course. the guy is a powerhouse. the film's best kept secret, however, is jessica chastain.

she is just outstanding in this, matching michael shannon step for step, no small feat in itself. it wouldn't be half the film it is without her. she is steadfast and true, protective of her family, patient but no pushover. she is a wife that a husband can trust implicitly. it is her strength that makes it believable when curtis finally confesses his fears to her. she deserves to know and makes it easy to take her into his confidence. she deftly walks the delicate line between being tough enough to keep her household intact and being the understanding, loving caregiver to a husband who may be losing his mind. as frightening as it must be to feel your mind slipping away, and being acutely conscious of it, there is an entirely equal set of anxieties and helpless fears for the person who has to watch it happening to the person they love. the pressure on her to be a wife and mother, while having no one to help carry her burden, would have to be immense. chastain gives us every bit of this and more. it's never cartoonish or exaggerated, just good, real people, devoted to each other, an understated and fine portrayal of a marriage that could survive everything up to the apocalypse.

i know that some folks have had a problem with the ending of the film. i am not one of them. i think that it works and i think that, while a more ambiguous ending would have left you with a puzzle about curtis' mental state that was satisfying in a different way, this resolution reinforces all the things i liked about the movie and was in keeping with the horrors that curtis couldn't suppress. it is a beautiful, stark and terrifying survey of an american landscape that finds a lot of people full of fear, one bad break away from being on the street.

what is in that storm on the horizon?