DVD Traffic Report: February 5, 2008

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner) Sometimes I wonder if I overrated this one, starved as I sometimes am for a sense of lyricism — anybody’s sense of lyricism — at the multiplex. And then I remember the arresting cinematography by Roger Deakins (this, No Country for Old Men, and In the Valley of Elah seeing release in the same calendar year constituting some kind of triple play, even if I have a few problems with Elah); the presence of Brad Pitt as a laconic but intensely charismatic icon; and a sneaks-up-on-you performance by Casey Affleck as a kind of emotional parasite. And I decide that no, it is pretty great, and I look forward to catching it again this week. Here’s what I wrote about it in October: Tracing the roots of celebrity culture all the way back to 1883, writer/director Andrew Dominik imagines the last few months of the life of Jesse James as a hazy battle of wits between the sharp, charismatic bandit (Brad Pitt) and the gang of thieves he no longer trusts. James has good reason to be wary — two of his men are plotting to turn him in for the reward money, and another, the young wannabe Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), exhibits a neediness that borders on creepy. (He even sneaks up on James in the bath.) Close to three hours in length, the film has time to precisely detail the ways Ford’s idolatry of James turned to resentment and betrayal, with an ironic reversal in the last reel. Pitt invests James with charm, humor and occasional murderousness, effectively imagining a man on the downhill side of his own legend. As the outlaw loses his drive (the clear suggestion is that his death was a form of suicide), the film becomes more clearly Ford’s story, and Affleck’s fine performance snaps unexpectedly into sharp focus for the film’s final third. The result is a languorous masterpiece — a revisionist western about myth, moral compromise, and the male ego. (This review was originally published in the White Plains Times.) Buy it from Amazon.com: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [Blu-ray] or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Combo HD DVD and Standard DVD) [HD DVD] Continue reading

10 Things Movie Theaters Get Wrong

One of my favorite things about the Manhattan screening rooms where press screenings typically take place is the pitch darkness you fall into before every show. The room dips to an even black — and the best ones are designed thoughtfully enough that you won’t even be distracted by a red “Exit” sign during the show. Also the sound is excellent. Reference-level dynamics might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there’s a tightness and immediacy to the mix that you just don’t get in a larger room, even when that room is properly tuned up for audio.

Sadly, your average multiplex does not boast particularly good sound — nor even a particularly dark room. I grew up in Colorado, and when I moved to New York in 1994 I noticed a definite uptick in presentation quality in Manhattan theaters, where theater management is likely to be hassled by filmmakers themselves if the specs are out of whack. Of course, New York theaters have their peculiarities, too — unidentifiable odors, radically uncomfortable seats and/or angles of sight, sudden explosions of indecipherable verbalese from the octogenarian gentleman in the back row, and the intermittent but unmistakable rumble of subway cars running underneath the floor.

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DVD Traffic Report: October 16, 2007

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480_planet-terror.jpgPlanet Terror (Weinstein Company)

I recently found the following quote from actress Marley Shelton (she’s terrific as the creepy nurse with the blonde hair and black eye make-up) that explained a thing or two about Planet Terror: “[Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino]

really co-directed, at least Planet Terror. Quentin was on set a lot.

He had notes and adjustments to our performances and he changed lines

every once in a while. Of course, he always deferred to Robert on Planet Terror and vice versa for Death Proof. So it’s really both of

their brainchild. So that’s why I enjoyed Planet Terror, oh, an order of magnitude more than anything else I’ve seen that Rodriguez directed! (Happy note: according to reviews, the “missing reel” gag—one of the best laughs I’ve ever had in a movie theater—is still missing from the film on this DVD.)

Buy it from Amazon.com: Grindhouse Presents, Planet Terror – Extended and Unrated (Two-Disc Special Edition)

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James Gray and We Own the Night

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Shortly after I saw We Own the Night back in August, I spent about an hour talking with writer/director James Gray at a midtown hotel about his movie for a Q&A over at Film & Video. Could not have been a nicer guy, and I think my estimation of his movie grew a notch or two over the course of the interview. (This is one of the reasons why it’s troublesome, I think, for movie critics to do interviews or have any kind of relationship with the filmmakers they cover — for many of us I think it may be just that tiny bit harder to say something unkind about a movie by someone who’s gone out of his way to be friendly to you.)

We were set to talk mainly about the film’s big car chase scene, which was shot in sunlight but had computer-generated rain added after the fact. But one of the things that interested me was he seemed to come out swinging right away over the idea that his movie had a predictable story — or at least over the notion that “predictability” by itself is a deficit. I trimmed a big chunk of the published interview, partly for reasons of word-count and partly because it wasn’t on-topic for F&V, but also because it contains SPOILERS related to the very last scene of the movie.

Here’s a pretty lengthy excerpt (with SPOILERS) from the cutting-room floor, as it were — and, by all means, please click over to F&V to read the more technical stuff if you find that kind of thing interesting.

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Link Dump #1

The 10 Most Incomprehensible Bob Dylan Interviews of All Time

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Interviews in which Bob Dylan fucks around with his questioner (most

of them, in my experience) are always good for a chuckle. For me, none

of the video clips collected here by New York‘s Vulture column really rivals the 1966 Playboy interview,

rightly placed at number one, that set the gold standard for sheer

cheekiness. Check out the whole thing if you haven’t; it’s a really

good read. (I also love the weird screed against Time magazine

that kicks off the list.) But what interested me, as someone who spends

his days interviewing people, is the way these clips and excerpts,

especially the raw, unedited footage, where you can really feel the

reporters trying to regain control of the situation, cast some light on

how difficult it is to be interviewed — to try to give your

interrogator the insight he desires into your life, thoughts and

creative process while simultaneously keeping yourself from spouting

something embarrassing, or easily misconstrued. (I think this is why

politicians, increasingly, come off as either soulless automatons or

dopey hillbillies.) Dylan’s strategy has remained pretty simple: refuse to give a straight answer.

Don’t Open This Cookie

Not movie-related, but I really welcomed this news from The New York Times of a Queens fortune-cookie maker that has actually created some alternatives to the feel-good postprandial platitudes dispensed to date. Like this: “Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on yourself.” Or, “Your problem just got bigger. Think, what have you done?” Sweet.

Listen to a Movie

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Listentoamovie.com (tag line: “For the Cubicle Workers of the World”) has a fairly novel approach to copyright infringement. The site offers free streaming copies of movie audio tracks. Only. This wouldn’t be terribly interesting in our age of DVD, zillion-channel digital-cable packages, and Bittorrent, except that some of the audio files are commentary tracks. So far I don’t see the awesome original Criterion laserdisc commentaries by Martin Scorsese and Co. for Raging Bull and Taxi Driver — but somebody has posted the three James Bond laserdisc commentaries for Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger that Criterion had to withdraw from the market after somebody squawked.

Queens of the Stone Age: “3’s and 7’s”

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No Fat Clips has a new QotSA video that’s patterned on Grindhouse, complete with guns, blood and boobies. (Scroll down to download it. Who pays for this guy’s bandwidth?) You can see a tamer version on YouTube, but this one is the uncut version. Why not fill your new rock video with tits and blood? I’m flabbergasted at how quickly the Internet has become, essentially, the only place to see new music videos.

Zoom: A Filmmaker Uncovers the Hidden Truths of Photos

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Errol Morris is two installments into a thought-provoking investigation

of the story behind two very similar, and crucially different,

photographs taken during the Crimean War showing cannonballs scattered

across a road in an area known at the time as the Valley of the Shadow

of Death. In one photo, cannonballs are only seen littering the ditch

beside the road. In the other, taken from the same vantage point on the

same day, cannonballs can be seen strewn across the road itself. Morris

was intrigued — and not terribly impressed — by Susan Sontag’s claim,

in her book Regarding the Pain of Others,

that photographer Roger Fenton had decided to have the cannonballs

scattered across the road in order to add drama to the second picture

taken. Skeptical that Sontag could tell for sure what the story behind the two non-identical landscapes was, Morris set out to find

any evidence  — both textual in the photographs and extratextual —

supporting her argument. He eventually traveled all the way to the

Crimea in an attempt to gather enough information to figure out which photo was taken first. These blog entries are

thousands of fascinating words long and make engrossing reading for

anyone interested in issues of photography and documentary — or just jonesing for some Errol Morris goodness. I can

hardly wait for the third part, due this week (although I have a good

idea what his conclusion will be) and he’s suggested that a fourth

entry, responding to the many hundreds of comments the original posting

drew from readers, may be forthcoming. It’s not really bloggish reading, but it does illustrate what can be done when a writer is freed from the column-inch restrictions of a daily newspaper.

DVD Traffic Report: September 25, 2007

Recommended

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Black Book (Sony)

After the crash-and-burn that ended Paul Verhoeven’s career as a director of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, the director took some time off from filmmaking before returning to his native country, the Netherlands, to make this World War II potboiler reeking of sex and betrayal. Star Carice van Houten is all wide eyes and pursed, pouty lips — shoot her in monochrome and you’d swear you were watching an actress from a 1940s melodrama. (Well, but for her copious nudity, I suppose.) It’s not a great film, but a very entertaining one — certainly good enough to qualify as Verhoeven’s comeback. Looking back at my original review, I’m surprised I gave it only a B, not a B+.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Black Book or Black Book [Blu-ray]

Knocked Up (Universal)

There’s something so close to offensive simplemindedness about this whole enterprise that it’s a wonder the results are so strong — dirty, funny, and only suffering from a general adherence to mainstream formula. The subjects of pregnancy and childbirth really do add a new dimension to the ever-present sex comedy, and Judd Apatow’s witty, family-values approach (only glancing reference is made to abortion, and you have to figure a Hollywood comedy isn’t going there anyway) manages to avoid pandering.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Knocked Up (Unrated Widescreen Edition), Knocked Up – Unrated (Two-Disc Collector’s Edition), or Knocked Up [HD DVD]

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DVD Traffic Report: September 18, 2007

Recommended

Death Proof

Death Proof (Weinstein Company)

OK, boo and hiss to the Weinsteins’ decision not to release the complete, underrated and underpatronized Grindhouse experience to DVD. (At least not yet.) While I’m not sure how Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror will play divorced from its nudge-and-a-wink omnibus context, Death Proof should be a strong experience on its own. Tarantino’s idea of girl talk may be more than a bit indulgent, but he backs it up with one hell of a car chase. And who doesn’t want to see the “missing reel” that includes Vanessa Ferlito giving Kurt Russell a lap dance?

Buy it from Amazon.com: Grindhouse Presents, Death Proof – Extended and Unrated (Two-Disc Special Edition)

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Film Editor Christopher Rouse on The Bourne Ultimatum

Over at Film & Video, I’ve just posted my interview with Christopher Rouse, the virtuosic film editor on The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, and now The Bourne Ultimatum. He’s worked with director Paul Greengrass on three films (going on four), and man oh man, nobody makes movies more intense than these two.

Q: Have you heard the complaints from some viewers that this specific style of filmmaking — handheld camera, quick cuts — makes them physically ill?

A: Often. [Laughs.] At the end of the day it’s a big tent. There’s room for many, many styles of filmmaking. Probably my favorite filmmaker of all time is David Lean, who has a style that in many ways couldn’t be more antithetical to the way we shoot a Bourne film. I’ve had people say to me, “Gosh, I watched your film from the third row of the theater, and I was getting physically ill.” Fair enough. Personally, I wouldn’t watch any film from the third row of a theater, and if I were to watch Lawrence of Arabia from the third row of a theater I’d probably get physically ill myself. It’s an aggressive style, so it’s going to attract more attention, but I think it’s a style that absolutely supports the film and the narrative. If you like it, great. And if you don’t, that’s fine too.