David Fincher, whose brilliant career as a director of music videos encompassed such highs and lows as Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Rick Springfield’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop,” has helmed an almost overly stylish thriller about the evil that men do and the myriad ways to punish them. And this thriller is so unlikely on its surface that when the machine kicks into high gear and the characters really start to matter to us, its impact seems all-encompassing and lingers for days after viewing.

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Who would have thought that one of the year’s most satisfying movies would be a 79-minute documentary about a clothing designer? A year ago, who would have guessed that Robert Altman’s fashion industry barbecue, Ready to Wear (then called Pret-a-Porter), would seem so baggage-laden, and that unknown documentarian Douglas Keeve’s doting portrait of Isaac Mizrahi would seem lighter than air?

Your mileage may vary, but for this jaded moviegoer, Unzipped is an unmitigated treat, as much a relief from the practiced heaviosity of Hollywood buckbusters as an air-conditioned movie house is from the burning city streets. Keeve’s movie feels so free because it’s a portrait of the fashion industry from the inside, from a vantage point that those with cynical intent could never reach (it’s no secret that Keeve and Mizrahi were in the throes of a relationship during the shoot, but any reference to this has been excised from the finished product).

This is perhaps the most absurd of all big-ticket industries, and Keeve shows what it feels like from the inside, when it lets its guard down. Mizrahi looks as much like a Peter Pan as any pop superstar, using Nanook of the North as a springboard for his fall collection or cavorting with beautiful supermodels as though all the streets of New York lead to Neverland. What’s at stake, though, is his professional reputation. In the opening scenes, we see a little clowd following Mizrahi through Manhattan as he reads the decidedly unflattering reviews of his latest collection. This tragedy in miniature sets the story in motion, as we watch Mizrahi struggle to recreate his own image as well as some cool clothes.

Followers of the biz will no doubt enjoy seeing Mizrahi at work, expounding on his personal philosophy, switching into depressive mode when he learns that Gaultier may beat him to the “Eskimo chic” punch, and confessing to his mother that he used to steal money from her purse as a child (home movie footage reveals that he sported that Eraserhead ‘do even then). Douglas Keeve works stylishly enough to suck in the unconverted, as well, with sometimes-arty composition within the frame and occasional inserts of film leader to remind us of the documentary process.

The centerpiece is the all-important fashion show in New York’s Bryant Park, captured in full brilliant 35mm color with swooping crane shots and a throbbing soundtrack. The glossy shots of the catwalk itself are intercut with more jittery footage from backstage, as the models struggle to change from outfit to outfit, and Mizrahi himself hops around, coaching them like a high school drama teacher. These scenes are breathtaking, and Keeve helps us understand what all the fuss is about, even if we still believe the whole business is a little weird. We come away feeling like we know a little bit about Isaac Mizrahi, even if the movie concentrates conspicuously on painting a picture of the fashion industry as a perfect world, and turning Mizrahi into a hero. But when you consider the standard Hollywood alternatives for hero worship (Stallone, Segal, et. al.), that might not be such a bad thing after all.

Three Colors: Blue

Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue

It’s hard to defend the artiness of Blue. With a Kieslowski movie (maybe with all Kieslowski movies), either you get it or you don’t. If you get it, you’re a fan. The movie becomes a mystical, dream-like experience. You recall the most indulgent camera angles and close-ups at the oddest moments of your day. Perhaps you hum a few bars of Zbigniew Preisner’s formidable score as you drink your coffee in the morning, or you have a nightmare about the kind of car crash that sets this story in motion. And when a friend doesn’t appreciate the film — in fact, they think it’s a dull, pretentious throwback to the French New Wave or somesuch — you find yourself speechless. It’s hard to use words to explain the cinema’s moments of great beauty, and you may as well give up before you begin.

Three Colors: Blue is the first film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy built around the precious themes of liberty, equality, and fratenity (the second and third films are White and Red, respectively). The concepts correspond to the three colors of the French flag, and the conceit is actually less a stricture than a simple excuse for Kieslowski to make a set of movies that meditate on love, loss, and our essential humanity. Liberty is personified in the newly-widowed Julie (Binoche), who survives the automobile accident that kills her husband Patrice (a famous composer) and daughter Anna. This sea change in her life drives her to divorce herself from familiar people and surroundings, but she’s dogged by an unwelcome artifact from her husband’s life. His unfinished composition, Song for the Unification of Europe, is the subject of intense interest, and although Julie disposes of Patrice’s notes for the piece (and tries to dispose of all her own memories), it continues to insinuate itself into her life until she confronts the music as well as her own devastated psyche.

It sounds very color-by-numbers, but the film is actually anything but. Kieslowski is a bold filmmaker, with a knack for hypnotizing an audience. As much as Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique seemed concerned with lenses, this one dwells on reflections — Julie’s face reflected on the curve of a spoon, a doctor’s face reflected in the iris of her eye, filling the screen. The richness of imagery occasionally rivals that of a novel (Julie touches a sugar cube to coffee; as we watch, the sugar turns the luminous color of her own skin). And Kieslowski works at capturing the essence of memory and the passage of time. At four moments during the film, the screen fades completely and music swells – Patrice’s unfinished piece – and then the music cuts, and the scene fades back in at exactly the moment where it faded out. It’s part of the mystery of the film that a viewer can have an immediate and intuitive grasp on such an abstract device.

Intuition, indeed, is the driving force behind Kieslowski’s films. The relationships and imagery are drawn so intricately that the pictures reward repeated viewing, and it’s only on the second or third time around that the whole power of one of these films really becomes apparent. It’s easy to belittle a film like this, with its languid pace, elliptical dialog, and propensity for introspection (navel-gazing?). Don’t these somber sequences substitute a content New Age-ism for any real statements in response to the questions they pose? Isn’t Kieslowski living in a blithe, egocentric dream world? How can we be expected to identify with the rich widow of a French composer as she mourns her way through Paris?

Yet through Binoche’s performance and Kieslowski’s guidance, we do identify. We feel Julie’s aloneness even as we understand her resolve to cast off her sentiment and distance herself from the inexorable sadness. At the end of Blue, as Preisner’s music swells up on the soundtrack, all of the disparate characters and situations that make up Julie’s story finally come together. Pictures recall pictures as Julie is finally reflected in the eyes of another, and the delicate shape of another character is traced on a video monitor, echoed in shades of blue. These final moments articulate character and contradictory emotion in one crystalline, irrefutable passage of images, absolutely wordless — the very definition of great cinema. If you’re asking the same questions as our director, the simple clarity of such images provides answers enough.

Three Colors: White


Bookended as it is by Blue and Red, the second film in Kieslowski’s liberty/equality/fraternity trilogy is a welcome relief from the sometimes tragic sensibility of the other two films. White is about post-Communist Poland. It is about the tricks that hold up our own quests for “equality” (is there really such a thing outside of mathematics?). But most of all, it’s a love story.

Of course, all three of the films are love stories in a way; but Blue is a love story that ends as the film begins, and Red is a love story once removed. White is a story about stubborn love, a sort of codependent relationship that endures despite the best efforts of both lovers. Zbigniew Zamachowski plays Karol Karol, the impotent hairdresser who is abandoned in Paris by wife Julie Delpy. Unable to support himself, the spurned lover eventually returns to his native Poland, smuggling himself in inside a friend’s suitcase. Seething with resentment, he makes a fortune in his newly capitalist homeland, and then sets off on an elaborate plan to revenge himself on his wife. Kieslowski makes some wry observations about the nature of capitalism and the lust for “easy money.” Karol doesn’t simply want to make himself the financial equal of his wife; he wants to become “more equal” than she is. That being the case, it’s not enough for him simply to make a fortune. He wants to humiliate her, as well.

He manages that, but the circumstances are an idiosyncratic delight. White isn’t lofty enough to avoid an occasional detour into sober, existential territory, but the side trips add a little weight to the story, which is at heart a marriage farce. The sublime Zamachowski pulls his best Chaplin routine here, and it pays off charmingly. It’s no surprise that Delpy is radiant, and plays the ice queen well (my favorite shot of Delpy is still her cameo in Red, where all three films touch briefly). In most ways, this film is the least of the trilogy — White is so conciliatory that it threatens to float away. But at the end, it’s anchored by a Chaplinesque moment of revelation that justifies our attention and respect, and this film’s solid place in Kieslowski’s admirable trilogy.



David Cronenberg’s debut feature prefigured both Alien and AIDS with its tale of parasites — a metaphorical sexually transmitted disease — that turn humans into nymphomaniacal zombies as they move from host to host, infecting the residents of a Canadian apartment complex. Like other early Cronenberg films, the movie has a low-key immediacy that makes the perversions of its milieu all the more distressing. Shivers is the original Canadian title of this film. If you’re looking for it in the U.S., the title is They Came From Within. The movie was originally edited for U.S. consumption, but as far as I can tell, the most recently released TCFW videocassette (Vestron Video VA4403) is identical to the Canadian cut of Shivers except for the title.

Update 09/18/10: In the intervening decade and a half since I originally wrote this paragraph, Shivers has come into wide, easy availability on DVD and then gone back out of print again. Cronenberg deserves better distribution.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare


One of the neater tricks in recent memory was Wes Craven’s reappearance in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, once again holding Freddy Krueger’s puppet strings. The directorial possessive is deserved here, since the filmmaker has made a movie about the making of one of his movies. I can’t think of another film that casts its own director and studio executives — let alone its own actors — playing themselves in addition to their characters.

You follow? The concept is that once New Line stopped releasing movies in the Nightmare series (remember, the previous entry was titled Freddy’s Dead), the very real evil that was embodied in Freddy’s character has been stripped of its outlet in the movies. As a result, it’s crossing over from the world of fiction into the real world, apparently giving creator Craven some very bad dreams. To stop it, he has to make another movie in the series, with the original star — a reluctant Heather Langenkamp. If the film’s execution lacks the stuff it struts in conception, it’s still quite a concept, and a unique, cerebral horror film.

On laserdisc, the concept goes one step further, with a movie-length commentary from Craven himself on one of the supplementary audio tracks. Quite a treat.


Elias Koteas in Exotica

After the final reel of Exotica had unspooled, like a slender key filling the last hole in a wooden puzzlebox, a woman at the New York Film Festival screening last year had a question for director Atom Egoyan. She wanted to know what happened at the end of the movie. Visibly perturbed at the question, Egoyan dodged it. Heads craned as the woman pressed for his answer. She explained that she had seen each of Egoyan’s previous films, had enjoyed them tremendously; it was just this film, she said, this was the one that she didn’t “get.” Finally, Egoyan gave in and answered her question. Here is what the last scene in the film meant, he explained, his four- or five-word declamation a stark and numbing negation of the gentle, almost languid spirit of the film, which invites the audience to its own discovery. The “what happened” is simple enough to explain, but you can’t really understand it unless you’re fully caught up in the cinema when it unfolds in front of you.

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Pennies from Heaven


<i>Pennies from Heaven</i> key art

How cynical can a musical be? Director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Dennis Potter did a neat job of distilling the British TV miniseries (also written by Potter, who died last year) into the length of a U.S. feature film. Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, an unpleasant idealist who sells sheet music (or “songs,” as he puts it) during the American Depression. When Arthur falls in love with schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters), he abandons (then returns to) his wife, who is less accommodating sexually, but does have an inheritance that Arthur wants to exploit to open a record store. In glimpses into characters’ minds, the actors dance and lip-sync with canned recordings from the era to bizarre and ironic results, as when Vernel Bagneris mouths “Pennies From Heaven” in front of a photographic blow-up of Depression-era homeless. Later, Christopher Walken (yep) puts on a show-stopping version of “Let’s Misbehave.” “I want to live in a world where the songs come true,” Arthur tells Eileen (now Lulu), in a tableaux drawn from an Edward Hopper painting. “There must be someplace where them songs are for real.” Only in your dreams.