Sunday, February 29, 2004

And the Oscar goes to...

Time again to make myself look like a prognosticating genius. The Academy Awards take place in a couple hours, and while I haven't finalized all my picks for the pool--really--I'll slap some quick guess up here and report back on how I do later.

Locks: THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING wins Picture. Peter Jackson wins Director. Charlize Theron is named Best Actress for MONSTER. Tim Robbins nabs Best Supporting Actor for MYSTIC RIVER. FINDING NEMO wins Animated Feature.

Not locks but awfully certain: LOST IN TRANSLATION and MYSTIC RIVER win in the Screenplay categories.

Take your pick: Actor looks like a three horse race rather than a two. I'm probably going to pick Johnny Depp, mainly on the basis that he won the Screen Actors Guild Award. If I chicken out, I'm taking Bill Murray over Sean Penn. Supporting Actress was once thought to be Renee Zellweger's official coronation. As it gets closer, I'm not so sure. If I'm still feeling gutsy, which I am right now, let's go with Shohreh Aghdashloo for HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG.

Who knows: I don't even have all the Foreign Language Film nominees in front of me, but I have a hard time believing that the overrated THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS is going to muster a lot of support. So something other than that, which goes against the conventional wisdom, even if it means I'm essentially picking eighty percent of the nominees. I still don't know what everyone saw in GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING'S cinematography, so it's obviously the one that will win. The Documentary Feature category is really interesting this year, and the films are pretty good too. My preference (and pick) is CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, but I won't quibble with THE FOG OF WAR, unless it costs me the pool. C'mon, though, Errol Morris is probably happy to get that nomination he's deserved for some time, so he can't win, right?

OK, time to head over to the shindig and keep tabs on the red carpet fashions.


Monday, February 23, 2004

Unassembled thoughts on The Passion

In an effort to get these thoughts down, I'm putting them here as notes rather than a cohesive review. I'm too tired to write a proper review, which I expect will follow eventually, so this at least lets me get fresh impressions recorded.

-Jesus as action movie hero, albeit a passive one. Perhaps more apropos, Jesus as professional wrestler. Gets clobbered within an inch of his life several times--no folding chair, though--until he's finally killed, but he has the ultimate resurrection and victory. The pro wrestler comparison may sound glib, but the over the top elements--the exaggerated villains, the hammy acting--are to the film's detriment, mostly in the lesser first half. The bad guys have comically awful teeth and hygiene--historically accurate, to be sure--but coupled with their cackling at Jesus' suffering, it makes for cartoonish distinctions. And don't get me started on the Barrabas stuff which could be straight out of Vince McMahon's scripting for the WWE.

-Other corniness...the pale (hairless?) devil character and the devilish kids, the buffoonish portrayl of Herod, the jump moment with the demon, the joke about the table that sits high will never catch on. Hey Mel, why not have them say, "Leavened bread? No one will eat that!" It's a rare moment of levity, but talk about a joke as creaky as a hinge in need of oil.

-The fears of anti-Semitism are unfounded, although if you go in looking for it, you'll probably find it. Easy for me to say as a Protestant, I suppose. People have selectively interpreted the Bible to serve their own purposes for ages. Some may do that with THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST in regard to stirring up hatred for Jewish people. These people are idiots.

-The fixation with Christ's suffering, leaving his teachings mostly as flashback asides, focuses the emphasis on the wrong thing. THE GOSPEL OF JOHN may have been ploddingly literal, but it does a much better job of fleshing out Jesus as a human, as a revolutionary, and as a philosopher. I realize that Gibson wanted us to understand deeply the sacrifice that Jesus made, but isn't the thought of crucifixion or knowing that he gave his life sufficient? Do we really need a nine-minute flogging scene and other slow motion violence done to him to figure out that Jesus paid the ultimate price?

-Many of the best moments are when we get flashbacks of Jesus' teachings crosscut with his suffering. It puts his pain and anguish into context even if it doesn't reveal why his words made him a subversive. The moments at the cross when he says, "Forgive them for they know not what they do" are pretty powerful when seeing his body covered in open wounds and bathed in blood.

-The crosscutting of Palm Sunday and Jesus carrying the cross through the streets provides an effective contrast. The moment that turned my opinion of the film from mixed to mildly positive cuts between a bloodied Jesus falling in the street and Jesus falling as a child. Mary rushes to his side in both instances. You can really feel the horror that she must have felt as a mother in not being able to protect her child.

-It was also at that point that I thought a more interesting way of telling Jesus' story, or parts of it, would be through Mary's perspective. A fascinating film could be made in following her learning she would give birth to the son of God through the his resurrection and the aftermath. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is called "the greatest story ever told". It's also one of the most repeated stories. The Bible even gives multiple accounts. I don't know that Gibson does enough in the narrative to make the story fresh. Plus, there are times when shots look like direct quotes from somewhere, whether other films or iconic images.

-As Mary, Maia Morgenstern gives the most notable performance. Her face says all that needs to be said about a mother seeing her son beaten, tortured, and killed.

-Jim Caviezel plays Christ with passive strength. His Jesus is no victim but one who accepts his fate fully aware of what awaits.

-Monica Bellucci's Mary Magdalene doesn't have much to do except to stand beside Mary during the ordeal, but there's a wonderful flashback when Jesus draws a line in the sand to stop her stoning. Brief but moving.

-Gibson originally intended for the film not to have subtitles for the spoken Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew. Rather, he hoped that he could convey his vision through the images and performances. I think some of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST would play better without subtitles. The exaggeration in the broad acting styles would likely be minimized.

-The most unique moment that sets Gibson's film apart from other cinematic Christ stories comes near the end. Considering that almost nothing in the film except for this can be spoiled, I won't reveal what it is. Suffice it to say that it's one of the most memorable parts of the film and a very nice artistic touch.

-In reflection, much of what I've written probably seems negative. I wasn't exactly crazy about it, but it clicked for me around the halfway point, enough to give it a marginal recommendation. That first hour or so could use a lot of work. The second hour still has some Roman caricatures, but they're not as distracting as those in the first half. If my memory is correct, the second half is less reliant on dialogue too.

-In the end, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a flawed, intermittently powerful telling of Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection. Like THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, I think it will appeal most to the faithful. I'm not exactly sure that non-believers are going to take much from it, in large part because the film isn't about Jesus' life.

Linked Passion

Here's something to chew on while waiting for me to write about THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

One Last Introduction

My thoughts on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which I saw earlier today, are forthcoming. In the meantime, here's the last of my introductions regarding Gus Van Sant's visit to Otterbein this past weekend. This was how I introduced him at Saturday night's presentation:

Good evening. I’m Mark Pfeiffer, Assistant Director of Television and film critic at WOCC TV3. You have just seen a montage of the feature films in our guest’s distinguished career. Tonight it is my great pleasure to introduce the award-winning director Gus Van Sant. Serving as moderator with him is Dave Filipi, Associate Curator of Film/Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University.

Those living in society’s margins frequently populate the films of Gus Van Sant. From drug addicts and male hustlers to an aspiring TV anchorwoman who plots to kill her husband and a brilliant but troubled janitor, the characters in his films find themselves searching for ways out of their current situations. One of Van Sant’s most recent films, GERRY, strips this recurring theme to its basics in having two men get lost in the wilderness.

Van Sant’s ability to treat his characters objectively, choosing to observe rather than to judge, is one of his strengths as a filmmaker. You can see this in how he presents the pharmacy robbing junkies in DRUGSTORE COWBOY. Their behavior is neither demonized nor glamorized. Instead Van Sant shows how their choices affect their reality.

Gus Van Sant’s ten features range from artier fare like MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO and ELEPHANT to more mainstream pictures like GOOD WILL HUNTING and a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. In 1987 the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named his debut MALA NOCHE Best Independent Film. He won Independent Spirit Awards for his screenplays for DRUGSTORE COWBOY and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO and in 1998 received an Academy Award nomination as Best Director for GOOD WILL HUNTING. Last year the Cannes Film Festival recognized Van Sant as Best Director for ELEPHANT. That film also took the festival’s top prize, the Palm d’Or. Please welcome Gus Van Sant to Otterbein College.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Another introduction

The train keeps a-rollin' with preparations for this weekend's Gus Van Sant visit to Otterbein. Here's the introduction I'm giving to tonight's screening of GERRY:

GERRY is a challenging film from a director at the peak of his craft. Opinions on it have been sharply divided. The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson opened his review with, “The most screamingly obvious reaction to GERRY is: what a load of pseudo-arty you-know-what.” The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman said, “Gus Van Sant's new film, GERRY, is an anxious movie-object that might well wonder whether its minimalist aspiration is a matter of ambitious purity or empty pretense.” On the other hand, Roger Ebert said, “The movie is so gloriously bloody-minded, so perverse in its obstinacy, that it rises to a kind of mad purity. The longer the movie ran, the less I liked it and the more I admired it.” The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington said, “GERRY…will drive some audiences crazy, and inspire in others a kind of guilty rapture.”

I believe that GERRY is an existentialist masterpiece and pure filmmaking at its finest, but you may come to a completely different conclusion after tonight’s screening. The premise is quite simple. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck play two unnamed characters who get lost in the wilderness in search of “the thing”. They walk and walk and walk and walk. Sometimes they engage in mundane conversations about TV shows and video games, but there are also long stretches of time when both are quiet.

GERRY finds Gus Van Sant returning to an art film aesthetic that may jar those most familiar with his more commercial projects FINDING FORRESTER, PSYCHO, and GOOD WILL HUNTING. This film has great ambition and a stubbornly consistent vision, aspects that will either make you love or hate it.

I think that GERRY works best as a meditative experience. The long takes of Harris Savides’ gorgeous widescreen cinematography, the minimal dialogue, and the ambient soundtrack allow you to get lost in the film, to engage with it in, what the influential French film critic AndrĂ© Bazin called, “the holy moment”. In this way, GERRY provides a transcendent experience.

GERRY will not appeal to all tastes, but I encourage you to be open to non-narrative filmmaking and view it with patience. In my opinion, GERRY was the best film of 2003, but whether you embrace or despise GERRY, I think you’ll be hard pressed to forget this unique film.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

An Introduction

Busy, busy, busy... For lack of other updates, here's the introduction I gave to last night's screening of Gus Van Sant's DRUGSTORE COWBOY:

The drug movie presents quite a challenge for the filmmaker. On one hand, depicting the use and enjoyment of drugs can glorify the behavior, which such films typically do not intend to communicate. At the same time, there’s a desire to avoid being little more than a public service announcement about the scourge of narcotics. With DRUGSTORE COWBOY Gus Van Sant finds the middle ground between demonization and glamorization of drug use.

The film stars Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros, and Heather Graham as a de facto family of addicts and thieves who get their fixes by robbing pharmacies in 1971 Portland, Oregon. Van Sant takes a decidedly objective view of these people, watching them as they conduct lives that are preoccupied with getting high and staying in that state. The drugs keep them on an even emotional keel, except for when they don’t, leading to paranoia most prominently. DRUGSTORE COWBOY doesn’t bother with what got them hooked. Instead, it looks at what keeps them that way.

In watching this film, consider what drugs substitute in these characters’ lives and how Van Sant conveys this. Pay attention to the shots of the drug preparation in the beginning and the corollary shots later in the film. If you’ve been viewing the other films in this retrospective, take note of the wide shots of clouds and how often they are presented through time lapse photography. How do these shots fit in this film and in Van Sant’s oeuvre?

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Open Letter to the Highway Shooter

Hey bud, this is not cool. Not that what you've been doing has been cool, mind you, but this decision to move around could seriously start freaking out people. Previously you were confined to one area, which, I'll admit, isn't where I live or travel, so I didn't pause to think about it except for if you'd be caught by the time the Reds start the new season. Then I'd be passing through your neck of the woods. (Yes, this is pathetic, but it's the truth.) Now it looks like you've decided to mix things up and get more random as to where you try to pick off motorists. How about you just turn yourself in? I guarantee you'll get the attention you obviously crave even if it's the same day Ohio State lands some major football recruit. Deal? Great. You've got your marching orders.


Saturday, February 07, 2004

Finnish What You Started

I can't say with all certainty that Aki Kaurismaki is a filmmaking genius, but THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST is definitely a major work. I saw it tonight at the Wexner Center, which is running a Kaurismaki retrospective this month. (The film was paired with a French/Finnish documentary about the director.)

The only other Kaurismaki I'd come across was DRIFTING CLOUDS, which I liked well enough but was tired when I saw it via a non-region one DVD. I appreciated his strong use of color and extreme deadpan in crafting a film that was equally hilarious and sad. Due to schedule conflicts, tonight is probably the only night of the retrospective that I'll be able to attend, but what a film to see.

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST follows a man who was almost beaten to death--the hospital staff actually pronounce him dead--but comes around and goes about his life even though he doesn't remember his name or any personal details. A family living in a shipping container takes him in and helps him get back on his feet. Before long he has found love and a job at the Salvation Army, not to mention a band whose repertoire he expands from traditional spirituals.

It's almost shocking to see Kaurismaki's generosity for the people on society's margins, which is largely why he can get away with a gallows humor that would seem meanspirited in other contexts. One man, dressed up in his suit, tells the nameless man that he'll take him out for dinner. Then we see them in line for the soup and bread the Salvation Army are distributing. The film's key exchange finds an electrician, who has hooked up the nameless protagonist's shipping container with power, turning down money for his work and saying, "If you see my lying face down in the gutter, turn me on my back." These aren't people dreaming of riches or even significantly better lives but just hoping to get by in their own ways. That they can find love and hope amid the detritus--like the man literally living in a dumpster--provides inspiration for the rest of us.

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST is implicitly about the homeless--people without pasts and futures--as well as being a Christ-like tale. The nameless man rises from the dead, lives and communes with the outcasts, and brings salvation. This is an extraordinary film that I'd like to talk about more, but I'd better go to bed rather than be the man without sleep.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

A Quick One

Who gets booted from SURVIVOR: ALL-STARS tonight? I'm sticking with two that I picked to go on the first show. As an inexplicable winner, Jenna M. seems to be prime to go. If she doesn't, farmer Tom gets an early exit.

Bernardo Bertolucci's THE DREAMERS lives up to its NC-17 rating, but I can't help but have the sneaking suspicion that the "explicit sexual content", of which the movie rating warns, is present for the sole purpose of stirring up publicity. I haven't seen the director's similarly controversial LAST TANGO IN PARIS, so I'm unable to compare. THE DREAMERS strikes me as formally accomplished film that, while captivating at times, doesn't have a lot going on in it. The fall of self-absorbed Sixties idealists is set against a more interesting story, that of the response provoked by the dismissal of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque. Put me down for a mixed response on this one. More organized thoughts to come, hopefully.

While pulling some of my comments on the year's best and worst films for upcoming special editions of NOW PLAYING, I noticed I accidentally omitted SHATTERED GLASS from my honorable mentions. I'll fix that in the next day or two.

Monday, February 02, 2004


Today's entry comes courtesy of some luck in not frying my computer by trying to install RAM backwards in the slot. Seriously, I thought I'd really cooked my goose when it wouldn't boot up. OK, onto the frivolous stuff...

I swear I'm not trying to be contrary when I say that last night's Super Bowl wasn't a great game. (It isn't the best Super Bowl ever, which I'm sure I heard or read somewhere today.) Did you watch the whole game? Except for the last few minutes of each half, it was a monumental snore. Sure, it had a fantastic finish, but the majority of the game was pretty boring.

The quarter worked very well in helping me fill out the Super Bowl party sheet, but I came up one point short from winning. The quarter just got a renewal for next year's picks.

I paid partial attention to the halftime show but missed the major news story that was Janet Jackson's exposed breast. To think that I wondered if Nelly singing "good gracious, ass bodacious" from his let's-get-naked hit "Hot in Herre" was pushing it for the mass audience the game attracts. Oblivious to the nation-shaking event, I still thought the halftime show was grossly misconceived. Janet Jackson performs a couple old songs--isn't she irrelevant anyway?--followed by P. Diddy, Nelly, and Kid Rock doing songs that are a year or two old. Whatever.

SURVIVOR lived up to my expectations. I felt previous winners would be competing on borrowed time, and sure enough, Australian outback winner Tina was bounced first. This season should be great. The cast has been well chosen, and it looks like Mark Burnett is going to shake things up to keep the players off balance.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Super Bowl/Survivor Sunday

This weekend has brought two duds at the movies--CATCH THAT KID and YOU GOT SERVED--and a steady dose of work, either on the special editions of NOW PLAYING or the Central Ohio Film Critics Association 2003 awards. I'll keep it short, but I can't let the opportunity to make some predictions on the two big TV events of the day.

My friends Rob and Suzanne have hosted a Super Bowl party for as long as I can remember (or since 1998). One of the traditions is a contest in which you pick teams in various categories (coin toss winner, first to score, how first points are scored, etc.) in addition to choosing the winner and the final score. It's winner take all, although I've usually done so poorly that it wouldn't matter if the winnings were split among the top five. Rather than relying on my keen NFL knowledge, I have put my picks in the prognostication power of a 1996 quarter. Obviously the coin is no help in the numerical or MVP categories, so I'll still need to exercise some judgement beyond tossing a quarter in the air.

My instinct was to pick New England to win. The twenty-five cent piece agrees. So I'm going with New England 20 Carolina 17. Tom Brady is your MVP. Talk about the percentages playing out--the quarter split its decisions evenly between the two teams. Mathematics in action!

Of course, the real prediction of interest is who will win SURVIVOR: ALL-STARS. I understand that there are three tribes rather than two, but I don't know what other surprises may be in store for the players and viewers. Just on a lark, here are the contestants I'm picking to make it to the final four: Amber, Ethan, Kathy, and Rupert. Let's go with Ethan to win again. Getting voted off on the first's hard to imagine Richard getting very far, but maybe he has hatched another scheme to reinvent how Survivors play. An Axis of Evil with Richard, Shii Ann, and Kathy in their tribe? Yeah, I could see him doing something like that. OK, voted out tonight will be Jenna M. I don't think the make-up of her tribe benefits her, and I still don't know how she won the first time. Tom is my second choice to get booted tonight. I don't see him staying in this for long.