Sorry I’ve been slow to update lately! It’s mostly because I’ve been working on my other never-ending side project. Take a look at QueerPortraits.com if you’re interested.
The American West has rarely been as beautifully captured as it is in Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS. The German director somehow knows exactly how to use the vast, empty landscape of an American desert, along with the vast, empty landscape of an American city, to tell the story of crossing those expanses and filling in that emptiness. The film opens on Harry Dean Stanton wandering the desert, sunburnt, dehydrated, and mute. Slowly it’s revealed that he has a brother, and a son, and somewhere, a wife, and slowly he begins to put those pieces of his life back together. Everything about the film’s pacing is gradual, without feeling stagnant. If there are long silent stretches, they’re generally filled in with excellent acting (no surprise, because Harry Dean Stanton is wonderful always) and striking cinematography. And the themes of family and human connection at the heart of the film are carefully explored. I really enjoyed that the entire thing is pure eye candy to look at, but I think my favorite aspect is the humanity and respect given to each character by Wenders and screenwriter Sam Shepard. I’m a sucker for any story that has a conflict without villains.
The description of SECRET HONOR tells you right away that this is the kind of movie that can either triumph or fail. Phillip Baker Hall plays a recently resigned President Richard Nixon, who delivers a 90 minute monologue into a microphone, surrounded by portraits, whiskey, and a gun. And that’s it. With the wrong actor or director, this could have been a pretty painful 90 minutes. But Phillip Baker Hall is incredible, careering between depression, rage, joy, shame, and manic bouts of paranoia that are constantly engaging, even if it’s not exactly clear what he’s talking about. (My very limited knowledge of politics meant that I was furiously Googling everything as he spoke.) Robert Altman’s deft direction doesn’t hurt either, and he makes full use of his single actor and set. Particularly memorable are the row of television screens that sometimes display security footage, but more often are trained on Nixon’s face. It’s fear and ego wrapped up into a nice little visual, just as Nixon’s complexities are wrapped up into this deceptively simple film.
Those who know my tastes know that I love a good dystopia. And when it comes to building an anxiety-inducing world, both comedic and disturbing, Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL delivers. Jonathon Pryce plays Sam, a government worker who’s perfectly content with being an anonymous cog in a machine while daydreaming of being a hero. It isn’t until a clerical error introduces him to the woman of his dreams—literally—that he suddenly finds himself fighting against that machine. And losing. In Gilliam’s totalitarian alternate reality, stifling bureaucracy takes the place of Big Brother. Incorrect paperwork leads to murder, torture is just a day at the office, and competency is an act of terrorism. (Enter Robert De Niro as a rogue mechanic, doing battle with ducts and pipes.) The pacing doesn’t always hold together, and the story and characters seem a bit underdeveloped. But BRAZIL is all about the atmosphere: wonderfully detailed set design, unsettling imagery, darkly comic slapstick, and Terry Gilliam’s unmatched imagination.
By sheer coincidence, this film was recommended to me right around the same time that Silver Screen Society chose it for their own month long tribute. So if you want to see more WINGS OF DESIRE inspired art, might I recommend heading over here.
Wim Wenders’ poetic WINGS OF DESIRE is a sweepingly romantic film. In a world where angels walk silently among us, bearing witness to our lives, one angel falls in love with a trapeze artist and decides he wants to be a part of the physical world. Yet this central relationship, which constitutes the only real storyline, is just a single thread in the film’s fabric. The rest comprises beautiful black and white aerial shots of Berlin and intimate fragments of people’s thoughts. It’s about the city as a whole, or maybe life as a whole, so much more than any individual characters. And although angels usually aren’t my thing, here they seem to be more of a symbolic device than a spiritual one, which I enjoyed. Peter Falk playing himself along with a performance from Nick Cave were both delightful bonuses.
I made a mistake with this title. The first time I sat down to watch it, I thought the theatrical release was the unabridged one. Only afterwards did I realize that the televised version is the five-hour-plus original. Now that I’ve watched both, I can confidently say that the television version is superior, worth every additional second. FANNY AND ALEXANDER, one of Ingmar Bergman’s later accomplishments, is mostly the story of Alexander, a quiet, perceptive ten-year-old growing up in an affluent family in turn-of-the-century Sweden. In the span of a few years, he is faced with death, ghosts, captivity, and mysticism. It’s difficult to summarize the film since it spans so many events and touches on so many themes. Yet the story is also deeply personal; despite the omniscient camera, it seems as though everything is being viewed through Alexander’s eyes. Thus the laws of nature tend to wobble, and supernatural threats become real. All of this is offset by the wonderful ensemble cast that portrays the warm and charming Ekdahl family. Just don’t be intimidated by the length: all four episodes are mesmerizing and moving for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint.
I was so glad when Criterion chose to release this film (and not just because I had already seen it and could immediately cross it off my list). THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK is a beautiful documentary that drew attention to California’s first openly gay elected official long before Gus Van Sant’s biopic. Through archival footage and interviews, the director, Rob Epstein, looks at Milk’s life and career, up through his tragic assassination and the turmoil that followed. But the documentary is about more than a single civil rights activist and the impact he made on those around him. It’s also a time capsule of San Francisco’s Castro District in the 70s, and a piece of LGBT history. If that history seems accessible and well-known today, it’s partially thanks to documentaries like this one, just as Harvey Milk can be thanked for paving the way for out politicians.
When a young woman goes missing in the middle of a crowded rest area, her boyfriend Rex embarks on an obsessive three year search to discover what happened. But George Sluizer’s THE VANISHING is so much more than the psychological thriller it pretends to be. Much of the film looks at the protagonist, his relationship with his girlfriend before her disappearance as well as his search for her after. Yet just as much time is devoted to the abductor himself and his meticulous planning of the crime. The only thing that remains a mystery is what actually transpires at the rest area, and as Rex hurtles toward the dangerous truth, I was right there with him. But be warned before you also get sucked in: this film has no qualms about staring everyday evil right in the eyes.
On a particularly hot day in Brooklyn, I sat down to watch this movie about a particularly hot day in Brooklyn. Appropriate, right? Of course, I don’t live in the racially charged neighborhood of 1980s Bed-Stuy, the setting for Spike Lee’s powerful DO THE RIGHT THING. The film features a talented ensemble cast as they go about their daily routine. But what starts as a comedic series of vignettes soon escalates into something more far more threatening. I’ve been meaning to watch this one for ages, and I’m happy to say it completely lived up to expectation. I love a movie that can show conflict without villains, and no one here is vilified — well, okay, except for the police. I also loved the editing and everything done to give the film just as much vibrant energy as the streets of Brooklyn. Plus, I learned that the ice cream truck jingle hasn’t changed in over twenty years.
I wish I had seen this film as a kid. Terry Gilliam’s fantasy adventure features a band of dwarfs who have stolen a map from the Supreme Being (aka God) in order to pilfer through the ages. They’re joined by Kevin, a smart young boy with disinterested parents, and hunted, of course, by the Evil Genius. Watching as an adult, TIME BANDITS feels disjointed, and the humor sometimes falls flat. But I can tell that as a child, the inspired imagery and dark dreamscapes would have affected me in a big way. Some parts are great, like an overly courteous Robin Hood played by John Cleese, and an ending that goes from cliché to outlandish in seconds. Mostly, however, the charm lies in the film’s childish logic and spectacular visuals.