quick plug for Ajami, the israeli/palestinian film that was nominated for an oscar last year. it takes place in the eponymous section of jaffa, where christians and muslims live uneasily together. the tension, though, is not so much between christians and muslims as between crime gangs whose ruthless illegality intersects with the equally ruthless israeli occupation. even though jaffa is an israeli city, the occupation permeates the movie — through the presence of the wall (which is handily penetrated by cross-border drug and weapon smuggling), through illegal border crossings of migrant workers, through legal border crossings of israelis who need to get into west bank, and through the general violence perpetrated by israeli security forces against arabs (muslim or not).

in the meantime, we also get a sense of the way in which arab justice structure and community support systems continue to operate in what would otherwise be a waste land of violence and lawlessness. elders of both christian and the muslim faiths get together and figure things out, brokering precarious truces and stopping seemingly unstoppable carnages. Continue reading ajami

Three good films

I’ve fallen behind on scribbling thoughts, so my apologies for this unwieldy lumping of three disparate films into a catch-all “worth seeing.” But they do share a central focus on character development and outstanding acting, and they all fall a few points shy of being outstanding–‘though still definitely worth your time. (Two of them are on dvd, and didn’t play far/wide in theaters; one of those didn’t, as best I can tell, play anywhere in the states.)

Continue reading Three good films

Deliberate filmmaking

I haven’t much to say about Hickey & Boggs except that it’s got a certain kind of crime-film vibe rare today. Starring Robert Culp (who also directed) and Bill Cosby, from a script by Walter Hill, and populated with a huge range of recognizable character actors, it’s not the “caper” I half-expected from the stars. Instead, the two play rumpled, barely-surviving private eyes who collide in a case with a slew of people trying to get the loot from an old bank robbery.

For the first hour, it’s great fun — exactly the “under-appreciated gem” some Netflix user claims. The dialogue is precise and slangy, the story edited to get some intertwined plots in motion but without expository blathering. Cosby is fantastic, and Culp’s pretty good — both playing their roles low-key, tough. And the film works the slow burn — a sense of plot emerges; the characters are allowed to do human things. What I mean by “deliberate” is the sense of world-building: Hickey & Boggs is as interested in milieu and methods as it is in big reveals, and I enjoyed enormously Culp noodling about an apartment trying to find some meaningful information (and finding, as you would, a lot that is meaningless), or Cosby talking with a new client, his eyes carefully taking in details about this guy but revealing next to nothing in dialogue or action. (Did I say Cosby is great? He’s great.)

Unfortunately, once Culp has to shoot an action scene, that deliberateness goes kablooey. There’s a “big” sequence in the LA Coliseum which is confusing and very, very, very drawn-out. Lots of people watching other people, cutting around as they move in ways that further confuse where exactly they are (or where they’re going). It’s almost incompetent, and it lasts about 5 minutes–culminating in an equally-incoherent gunfight. There are later 2 other similarly crap action sequences.

But if you set your expectations low, stream the film from Netflix some evening — it was in many ways a real joy to see. The kind of film I’d delight in catching on the old cable superstations late at night…

School for Scoundrels (1960)

The original 1960 film, based on the the Stephen Potter novels, and directed by Robert Hamer. It’s quite good. Alastair Sim is terrific. And he has the fuzziest ears in all of movie history. This is the story, which is not exactly like that of the Todd Phillips remake, which came out a few years ago: Henry Palfrey (played by the late Ian Carmichael, of I’m All right Jack and Lucky Jim fame) is the head of a small firm (very small, not very firm). He is a nitwit and everyone knows it but him–that is until Raymond Delauney, with whom he occasionally plays tennis, makes him all-too-aware of this fact. But the film doesn’t begin here, it begins a little later then jumps backwards. Continue reading School for Scoundrels (1960)

The Other Guys

I probably never laughed out loud, lost in the utter looniness as with their masterpiece Anchorman, but Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s latest collaboration made me smile like I was riding a bear.

The only thing wrong with the film was a slight bit of drag–Hot Fuzz beat them to the loving recreation of action tropes, and even in that film I found myself wondering if I needed so exact an echo. But The Other Guys is happy to ride the bear into whatever back-alleys come along, embracing their own sublime surreality while underscoring the silly surreality of a) the performance of masculinity in cop films and b) the American fascination with rogue cops (fighting drug cartels, guns blazing) while blinking nervously then looking away from the high crimes of our financial overlords. It’s smart and it’s always funny.

Scott Pilgrim

This was a blast. I was sucked in from the opening of the Universal logo done in old NES-style graphics with an 8-bit version of the studio melody. And if that last sentence confuses you a couple of different ways, then this probably isn’t the right movie for you.

In the same way that zombie movie lovers got many more of the jokes in Shaun of the Dead, same goes here. You’ll get this movie more if you play video games and are one of the 20-something man-children that the NYTimes and Time Magazine are so upset about. But what’s also bugging those guys probably has a bit to do with the fact that who the hell still buys Time Magazine or the New York Times? Definitely not the N. American Man-Child. Thing is, that sub-species also doesn’t pay $12 to go sit in a movie theater. The movie kind of flopped this weekend. But as of right now on Piratebay, 1100+ people are seeding the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack and 1200+ are seeding the comic book series the movie was based on. That means with a decent connection you could download both for free in about 4.5 minutes. And in a couple of days a crappy version of the movie will be uploaded and spreading everywhere to be watched on iphones and 13″ computer monitors, possibly with Russian subtitles.

And that’s too bad because this movie really looks good on a nice big movie screen, preferably at a single screen theater, like the Vista. Continue reading Scott Pilgrim


sugar, directed by anna boden and ryan fleck (female director alert!!!!), is a feature film but could have been a documentary about the meat market that thrives on the dominican republic-US border and draws poor young men to the great country to the north with a hope and a prayer of hitting it big in the baseball world. from what i understood (and from listening to a great fresh air interview with the directors), possibly talented kids get signed for a pittance while they are still in the DR. there, they participate in rigorous baseball camps where they can end up being parked for as long as a couple of years. these camps are owned by big US teams, which send regular scouts to see how the chickies are doing. occasionally, some talented young guy gets picked and sent to the minors. there, he either makes it or he crashes. Continue reading sugar

The Kids Are All Right

Funny, sweet, moving–with the kind of casually-excellent and embodied acting that mutes the occasionally-too-sharp definitions of the dramedic plotline.

I’ll get the churlish out of the way. About half-way through, there’s one of those utterly-tedious establishing shots that clutter so much American film: the outside of the family home, a woman strategically walking her dog through to show us the everyday reality of the neighborhood. You can almost feel the movie’s IQ drop a couple points. And Lisa Cholodenko *does* rely upon an arc familiar to any number of comic melodramas. I found myself gritting my teeth on a couple of occasions, and overall wishing for a bit more of the actors’ counter-intuitive naturalism inflecting the plot.

But I also saw this in a big mall multiplex on a summer Saturday night, with a mostly-packed crowd. This is a film about a long-time lesbian couple, their two kids, and the raffish sperm donor father who re-enters (and massively disrupts) all of their lives. It is frank and open about a variety of desires — yet it is also a sweet film about family values, about the difficulty of living with one another–and the joys that come with such. MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD. Continue reading The Kids Are All Right

Art, motherfuckers!

The doc Art of the Steal is smart and engaging. It opens on the mayor of Philadelphia touting the move of a huge collection from a private trust into the city, and then you hear a talking head talk about this as a monumental theft. The backstory–adeptly narrated by talking heads and found footage–is that Arthur Barnes accrued an astonishing range and depth of paintings in the early part of the 20th-c, now acclaimed as the most important collection of post-Impressionist and modern works in the world. That’s key: the most important. Not the most important private trust collection–but outstripping MOMA and Getty and everyone.

And when he first put it together for a public exhibition at the Philly museum, it was roundly trounced by the snobs and elites of the city, and Barnes–already constitutionally inclined to despise the shallow trappings of high society–vowed to craft a trust that would keep the work out of the hands of the ‘morons’ who didn’t understand art. The Barnes trust was shaped as a school; visiting the collection confined to a couple of days and invitation, the collection arranged and displayed in a lovely “cluttered” series of rooms which defied many conventional approaches to display in museums.

And when Barnes died, the battle to strip the trust’s authority began. Continue reading Art, motherfuckers!

City Hunter

What good fun this movie is. My colleague loaned me his copy of the film–I have to confess I wouldn’t have sought this out on my own. But it brought me back to those heady days of 1992-1993, when Hong Kong cinema was the rage in L.A. This film captures that national cinema at its absolute peak. It’s so full of energy. I recall how excited I was by Kung Fu Hustle a few years back, and how a few weeks ago hearing from a professor from Hong Kong, who knew I admired Stephen Chow’s film, a variation on the “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” line: “you sure have missed a lot.” He listed off title after title that he considered superior to Kung Fu Hustle (though he admires that film). Particularly 1994’s Hail the Judge–which I had never heard of. Anyway, I feel there is much for me to discover about Hong Kong cinema. I suppose I’ve known this all along, but it’s perhaps out of laziness or…I don’t know what…that I’ve not delved back into that area of cinema that enchanted me, for all too brief a period, some 16-17 years ago. Everything that follows I owe to a colleague of mine (not that what follows is good, but that I have something at all to say about Hong Kong cinema). Continue reading City Hunter