Tuesday, January 31, 2012

soderbergh as iconoclast, non-conformist: a guest post by dan braun

Iconoclast. Non-conformist. Dares to be different. From the time his fiery roundelay sex, lies and videotape took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in January of 1989 (and cast a broad light on the world of independent cinema), Steven Soderbergh has defied any and all concepts of what a filmmaker is ‘supposed’ to be.

Working in the studio system (the Oceans films; Out of Sight and Solaris – both discussed in my previous post; Erin Brockovich; Traffic). Experimenting with unconventional methods of storytelling (Che; Full Frontal; Bubble; Schizopolis). Taking on the responsibilities of cinematographer, producer and editor. Soderbergh has embodied the definition of restless artist and professional, harboring a deep love of film and a desire to expand and reshape its borders and its possibilities.

Some of his most notable works:

sex, lies and videotape (1989): The aforementioned cinematic game-changer, which put not only Soderbergh on the map, but also the Sundance Film Festival, several actors and actresses (Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, James Spader and Laura San Giacomo) and two then-nascent film distributors, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who via Miramax, won a heated bidding war for domestic theatrical distribution rights. As for the film’s plot, MacDowell plays Ann, a woman living in Baton Rouge and caught in a miserable, repressed marriage with John (Gallagher). When an old college friend of John’s, Graham (Spader), appears, everyone’s lives are soon irrevocably changed.

The Limey (1999): Soderbergh’s initial pairing with screenwriter Lem Dobbs and featuring one of Terrence Stamp’s finest performances. With a focused and alternately subtle and blunt vengefulness, Stamp stars as Wilson, an Englishman and ex-con who, fresh out of prison, heads to L.A., determined to strike back against the man whom he believes to be responsible for his daughter’s death.

Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000): A one-two array – the first a highly entertaining, populist entertainment, based on a true story, with Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning title role as a feisty, take-no-prisoners, unemployed single mother who leads a civil action against a major public utility company accused of poisoning a community’s water supply; the second, a powerful indictment of the failed war on drugs, told from the perspectives of an enforcer (Benicio del Toro), a politician (Michael Douglas), a trafficker (Steven Bauer) and a user (Erika Christensen).

Che (2008): Mostly following a release pattern similar to the theatrical roadshows of the 1960s and ‘70s (limited, patterned engagements, glossy program handouts, and intermissions during each screening), Soderbergh’s epic chronicled in two parts (The Argentine and Guerilla) the story of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, telling of his success in helping to lead the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, and the difficulties he and his compatriots faced several years later during the Bolivian Insurgency.

Haywire (2012): Turning the action genre swiftly on its heels with several forceful upraised clouts of shoe leather, rapid fist swings and bullets fired from a wide array of guns and varied artillery, Soderbergh and Dobbs team again for this crisp, immersive story of a covert government operative (Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter) who, after being double-crossed, has to rely upon all of her skills and abilities to escape from an international manhunt, protect her family and exact revenge upon her betrayers.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

top 10 films of 2011

Here are my Top 10 Films of 2011.


Bill Cunningham New York

This was a pleasant fashion doc for the first half (and oddly more illuminating about the Gray Lady than this year's Page One: Inside the New York Times) but then it struck an unexpectedly deft emotional chord and became a truly moving story about an elusive man with a keen eye who could have easily been overlooked.

"Bill traverses so many disparate layers and overlapping social milieus of New York City. I thought it essential to interview people who not only have a relationship with Bill but who span the spectrum of New York to help tell his story. I tried to lessen the tyranny of the bland talking head by filming each character in the form of a photographic portrait – one that gives as much visual insight into who they are and how they live or work—and trying to make each person a character in the film in their own right." - Richard Press, Director.



Writer/ Director Mike Mills crafts a bittersweet elegy for his father, who like Christopher Plummer's (a beautiful performance) character, came out as a gay man late in life.

"My dad was very poised and polite. He was born in 1924, kind of shy and very aesthetic. He wore a suit and was very proper.... I had seen my real dad gravitate towards all these guys – not just romantically, but his gay friends – who were way wilder, way more messy, way less aesthetic, way juicier, more emotional, less 'boundaried' and kind of messy. It was really beautiful and heartbreaking to realize, 'Wow, that’s what he wants. He wants to be more like that. Consciously and unconsciously, he’s attracted to these guys.' I knew that, but I knew it better after writing about it." - Mike Mills.



Andrew Haigh's poignant look at the lives of two men who spend a few days together.  A strong, naturalistic script by Haigh and lovely acting by Tom Cullen and Chris New.  One of the best, most authentic gay films I've seen.

"I spent a long time working on the script, trying to make it feel as real as possible, make it sound like actual dialogue rather than script talk. Then when we got to shooting the film, I always left room for improvisation. I would sit down with the actors each night and we would go through the script, taking out what didn't work, adding things we felt necessary. And then during shooting, we would continue this method. If the actors wanted to add things, then they did and if they wanted to take things away, they did that also. I was always looking for something spontaneous." - Andrew Haigh, from my interview with him.


Midnight in Paris

It's been a while since Woody Allen has made such an indelible comedy.  His nostalgic and whimsical ode to the City of Light hits the sweet spot.

"I was an amateur magician, and to this day I can do sleight of hand and card tricks and coin tricks. And I always feel that only a magical solution can save us. The human predicament is so tragic and so awful that, short of an act of magic, we're doomed. Many people feel they will be saved by their religion in some way, and that's a version of magic -- some all-powerful magician is going to give them an afterlife or in some other way make life meaningful. But in fact, that doesn't seem to be the case. If they suddenly discovered tomorrow that the universe had been created by a god and there was meaning to it, then everyone would be very cheerful and it would be a big help. You'd notice a lot of smiling faces." - Woody Allen.


Young Adult

Mavis Gary is quite ridiculous in her quest to reignite an old flame but her insecurity is palpable and raw.  Banal discussions over how 'likable' Gary's character is have undermined the brilliance of Theron's performance, Diablo Cody's darkly funny script and Jason Reitman's precise, sensitive direction.

"I feel like I'm part of a generation of people who are stuck in the past and are really self-absorbed. I mean, we're actually taking pictures of ourselves and posting them on Facebook, and keeping in touch with people that should have been out of our lives 15 years ago. Obsessing over who's getting married, who's having kids, who's more successful. It's like we're recreating high school every single day using social media. And it's weird." - Diablo Cody.



An arresting, bleak film of a man's addictions in contemporary New York with a wonderful performance by Michael Fassbender.

"We all use our bodies, that’s how we are. We hardly ever talk. In film, people are talking all the time about how they feel and whatnot, and in reality that’s just not the case. We made Hunger in the way we did to reflect some kind of reality, and I feel the same way about “Shame.” The whole idea of back story and what could have happened to them — I wanted to make that situation familiar rather than unrecognizable. I wanted it to be about what we know, about what happens to them in everyday life. You meet someone for the first time and you have no idea who that person is really. What they do is present themselves the best way they can, and possibly through a period of time, after getting to know them, through the present you might see the past in them. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do with Sissy and Brandon and the audience." - Steve McQueen.


The Descendants

George Clooney gives another impeccable performance as a father of two young daughters, grieving over the comatose state of his wife after a boating accident.  Writer / Director Alexander Payne's adaptation of a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings is rife with distinctive observations.

"I had never seen exactly this story in a movie before, and then the fact that it was told in Hawaii, and not just generally in Hawaii, but amidst that decaying aristocracy, made it very interesting to me. I wasn’t so much interested in Hawaii as I was Honolulu. I had never seen Honolulu in a film. So I was eager to see it. As the years go by and I make more films, I am increasingly interested in capturing place as a vivid backdrop for my films." - Alexander Payne.


The Artist

It's a bit of a stunt and a message to craft a silent film in an era of noisy blockbusters, but the supple direction of Michel Hazanavicius and lead performances of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo make this a joyous homage.

"In my mind, he [the film's main character, George] is everything but an artist. He is a film star, but that’s his job in a way. That’s not his principle characterization. To me, he is a proud man. That’s what defines him. He refused to adapt himself to a changing of his world. I think he’s afraid of losing something that he thinks he controls."  - Michel Hazanavicius.



I enjoyed this movie more than any other this year since its slick 70s / 80s neo-noir atmosphere is in my aesthetic wheelhouse.  And Gosling is so magnetic (and hot!) in the lead.

"I wanted to lift the notion of time, because like fairy tales, they're symbolic storytelling. They're metaphors. The fairy tale always takes place in worlds that are between, unidentifiable." - Nicolas Winding Refn, Director.


A Separation

This portrait of the unexpected consequences of a disintegrating marriage of a middle-class Iranian couple is both taut and timely.

"For the Americans it is not attractive to hear what the similarities are between them and the Iranian people. It is attractive to hear how different the Iranians are. These kinds of films, however, can fill that gap that the media doesn't show. Of the similarities between us. This is the most recurrent of the things I've been saying these last two days. That the similarities between people are far greater than the differences between people." - Asghar Farhadi, Director.


There were many great, memorable films this year which didn't make the Top 10.  They are:

Incendies, MargaretMartha Marcy May Marlene, The Skin I Live InTomboyEverything Must GoMoneyballWe Were HereThe Tree of LifeSing Your SongA Screaming ManMeek's CutoffJane EyreMelancholiaHugoProject NimRise of the Planet of the ApesThe Girl with the Dragon TattooCarnageLe HavreParadise Lost 3: Purgatory, PariahBeautiful BoyTrustPoetryThe Myth of the American SleepoverSuper 8The Black Power Mixtape 1967 - 1975The TripBridesmaidsA Better LifeMission Impossible - Ghost ProtocolThe Guard, PinaBeats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called QuestBuckUncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesTinker Tailor Soldier SpyCertified CopyLast NightSennaAttack the BlockIn A Better WorldContagionNedsWin WinHouse of ToleranceCave of Forgotten DreamsHannaTuesday, After ChristmasThe ArborOf Gods and MenTabloid

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

destruction & creation: an interview with aaron krach

Aaron Krach is an artist and writer living in New York.  I asked him a few questions about his work and creative process.

You work with so many different types of textures and materials. What is your studio space like?

AK: My studio is…a mess. Well, yes. But it changes. It’s a total mess while I’m deep into a project. Then, as it nears completion I have to go crazy and clean so that I can see what I am really making. Then I usually hate what I’ve made and so I make a smaller mess fixing whatever it is I am working on that time. But then I clean it up super-super clean to show and see what I’ve finished. I think it’s some kind of tortured cycle of destruction and creation, and hopefully the byproduct is something interesting.

Sweet Smell of Success, 2011

When did you first fall in love with photography? Do you remember the very first camera you used?

AK: I was about 5 and it was a small Kodak Instamatic—though it wasn’t “instant” in any way. Film had to be exposed, developed and then the pictures could be printed. But it was small and I was dumbstruck by how what I could see through the little glass box-shaped viewfinder would end up on a small piece of paper. Unfortunately, my father was a photographer and also terrible cheap, so experimentation was kept secret and to a minimum. Thank god for digital!

from 100 New York Mysteries, 2006

You curated a show for Visual AIDS. Can you tell us more about the project and the artists involved?

AK: Visual AIDS is a fantastic organization. What started as a way to keep, protect and archive the work of so many artists dying of AIDS has turned into a clearing house and massive storage center/library of images by artists with HIV. When you visit the office in Chelsea, they have old slides in cardboard sleeves that would belong in a Carousel that goes click-click-click and then they have digital images. So many images! It’s amazing how quickly the AIDS-issues can either come front-and-center in the work or slip away. For me, the most interesting pieces went intensely in either direction. One example: Bob Burnside is an San Francisco artist who makes incredible wall art for office buildings and also sexy structures about masculine virility.

I met you as the author of the novel Half-Life. Are you still working on writing these days?

AK: Writing is a strange beast. I wrestled a second novel to the finish line only to have the economy tank and leave my book homeless. Then, my first publisher went bankrupt. Not that they would have published the second one, but… just another sign of the times. I am thinking of putting a few vampires in the opening pages and maybe tricking someone into publishing a gay-straight relationship novel about two weeks in NYC. It’s got sex and snow and infidelity. It’s just lacking vampires!

Do you go through phases in terms of what kind art you're doing? Like do you write a lot or paint or photograph a lot in the same period of time or is it more scattered, broken up?

AK: Completely. See previous answer about cycles of creative mess-making. Last month I was really focused on this text-based public art installation in Macedonia. The words EVERYTHING TAKES TIME were printed on billboards around the town of Ohrid, but in Macedonian not English. This week I am building a 20-foot-tall tower and a 50-foot-long ramp out that will be an interactive workshop-classroom. I’m making it with Chris Robbins, a great artist who I went to Kosovo with last summer.

Longer Periods of Happiness, 2006

Are there ways you find these forms of artistic expression intersect?

AK: I like to say that I’m an Emotional Conceptualist. Everything I care about involves feelings—sometimes intensely happy, sometimes sad, and then there are all the good and bad and messy emotions in between. That’s life. That’s what I want my art to be about. So whether it’s a photo of some magic found on the sidewalk (www.thingstotellyourlover.com) or a Balkan-inspired architectural installation or a novel—it’s about the feelings I can inspired in the viewer, that I can represent.

Longer Periods of Happiness, 2006

On a scale from one to four stars, how many stars do you give your day so far?

AK: Today: 2 stars. I took this self-assessment exam. I’m obsessed with these kinds of things. And one of my “strengths” is achieving things. And these can be small things. And if I do not achieve even small things, my mood goes south, dark, ugly. Right now, I’m only achieving at a moderate pace. I may go do something simple like laundry so I can feel more productive. God that’s embarrassing.

Beer + Bird = Beerd, 2011

Madrid, Spain, 2009

Friday, January 13, 2012

grace beckoning: a guest post by frank j. miles

He’s new, revolutionary, genius – my three great loves. Brian Eno is my favorite musician, forevermore. I’ve known this for more than a decade. But I didn’t know why until I saw a version of his first album performed live by New York musicians at Joe’s Pub on January 8.

He used his entire arsenal to create grace beckoning and rising to clasp immortality.

Eno was contracted to do an album after he left Roxy Music. This was 1973. He didn’t have a plan. But he wanted crosspollination. He put musicians together, to instigate, to see what would happen. Alchemy did. Using this Gesamtkunstwerk approach, what the office kids today call combinational creativity, he created a total artwork, everything altogether, yup – right there, which thanks to his gloire (French for “out of the box”) and his triomphe (French for “batshit weird strange crazy huh?”), is what all timeless art is. That seminal album, Here Come the Warm Jets, released in 1974, is all music, a glam rock, art rock, imperial mulatto – even the words on each song are sounds not meanings, internal rhyme and expressions of voice there as music and as texture.

There are 10 songs on the album. Go in knowing there is a balance where dissonance becomes consonance and interplay, where chiaroscuro is all there is and ought to be. Listen in full – and think of this riddle we remember from the childhood playground: “Which creature in the morning goes on four legs, at mid-day on two, and in the evening upon three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?” The album’s journey: the stages of life, from birth to life to senescence and death to what comes next – all with the wow and pop of Shakespeare. “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” (my favorite song of all time) – infant. “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch,” “Baby’s on Fire” – schoolboy. “Cindy Tells Me” – lover. “Driving Me Backwards,” “On Some Faraway Beach” – soldier. “Blank Frank” – justice. “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” – pantaloon. “Some of Them Are Old” – second childhood. “Here Come the Warm Jets” (a reference as much to airplane sounds as urine) – what comes after death, what comes next, ascending, carrying you to the afterlife, your rise to heaven, if that’s what you believe in.

Eno, a creature of the studio and not the stage, never himself attempted performing the full album live. The emcee of the evening, John Schaefer, of WYNC, said Eno recently told him: “I didn’t think anyone could play this music.” The cross-generational musicians came together to make great and workable arrangements to perform the album. And they did. Among the highlights of the night: Vernon Reid of the rock band, Living Colour, doing a super cover of King Crimson founder Robert Fripp’s hard-as-a-motherfucker guitar solo on “Baby’s on Fire.” And if you want to know which guitarist has the best stage presence in New York City, and will upstage even the lead singer, do yourself a favor and watch Brooklyn-born Glenn Mohre of Acid Problem on stage. It’s rarely someone’s je ne sais quoi makes me leave my space and leave me exhaling breathlessly. He did it – particularly on the album’s eponymous track, “Here Come the Warm Jets.” Go see him.

Now, I am going back to Eno’s first masterpiece that in youth made me feel like homecoming and home – finally an album that sounded like my essence. Here was Here Come the Warm Jets, triumphant, playful, puckish, Zen only tricksters understand, dirty, a bit seedy – rather than sleazy, not harsh, muddy, makeup smeared by a light rain, bombastic – yet humble, overwrought and chilled, blissfully alive, aural manifestation of things free men do together that heartland Republicans care too much about – on speed. Try it. You won’t be sorry, either.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

the best of everything

Perhaps working in publishing in New York City myself, The Best of Everything--the 1959 film version of the Rona Jaffe's bestseller--had a particular appeal.  It's not a perfect film by no means and the tragic moments are handled a bit awkwardly (as they often were in films of the fifties) but it has a deeper texture than most movie soaps of its time.  The title, taken from a Times classified ad for secretarial work, is clearly ironic; the multiple storylines are driven by strong, unique women.

Hope Lange plays ambitious Radcliffe grad Caroline Bender who works for a publishing company and its caustic editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford).  Bender slowly works her way to the top and befriends and rooms with two workmates April (Diane Baker) and Gregg (a glammed-down but still utterly stunning Suzy Parker).  The three of them experience sexual harassment and victimization from men in one way or another.

Sometimes the drama feels slack, underwritten (the adaptation is overly streamlined), especially concerning April and Gregg's predicaments, but Jean Negulesco's glossy melodrama is such a beautiful thing to behold.  The elegant main titles sequence sets the mood and supple fifties atmosphere of the film, showing the sweep of the city in Cinemascope.  Johnny Mathis provides a gorgeous vocal on the title song. It may look gilded but it's grounded by Jaffe's source material, which offers a portrait of what it was like in this environment in this particular time.  Since the cable TV success of "Mad Men," the office antics and mid-century set decoration have become familiar to a new generation.  But this refreshingly offers a woman's perspective, not Don Draper's, and Lange plays her part exquisitely (two years after her knockout performance in Peyton Placeand emotionally and movingly conveys a sense of ambivalence for her success.  ***

-Jeffery Berg

Check out B.e.l.t. for a comprehensive historical perspective on the film's set design.

Monday, January 9, 2012

joan crawford chiller double feature: 'i saw what you did' & 'trog'

Poor Joan Crawford at the end of her career.  You can tell her heart is just not into these B-movies even though she tries her darnedest to rise above the drivel material.

It has its moments but the William Castle flick I Saw What You Did is more like a gag than an actual motion picture.  Two chirpy teens (Sara Lane & Andi Garrett) and a kid sister (Sharyl Locke) decide to spend their sleepover randomly picking names from the phonebook to prank call.  When one of them utters, "I saw what you did, and I know who you are" to a man (John Ireland) who just murdered his wife, they fall into trouble.

The premise is fun and the movie is watchable and hokey though a bit too glib (there's a somewhat irritating insistent rinky dinky 'nanny nanny boo boo' mid-60s pop rock musical cue).  The blatant rip-off off of the Psycho shower scene is amusing.  Crawford doesn't add much as the murderer's mistress.  Castle's great trademark gimmick trailer is almost as good as the film itself.

Oh, Trog.  You lifted the fog off of these January blues (with the depressing chatter of the 2012 Republican primaries in the background).  You are the funniest movie I've seen in a while.  I love the way your title character (in a cheap mask and makeup) and Joan Crawford [in an incredible array of pantsuits and skirt suits (and surgery scrubs!) in all shapes, pastel colors, and fabrics] interact with one another.  It was cute when Trog showed how a windup doll works.  You got a bit boring in the courtroom scenes however I howled when Crawford compared Trog to a "retarded child."  Your rubber dinosaur montage is ludicrous. When Trog goes on a rampage and scares schoolchildren in a sleepy English hamlet you spark to life.  You're a camp classic.  You give Joan's last moment in film a wistful, appropriately melancholy touch.  Thank you Trog for existing in this gloomy world.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

a woman's face

Known for his classic sparkly comedies, A Woman's Face is somewhat of a departure for director George Cukor.  This unusual and dark story was originally a play by Francis de Croisset that was later adapted as a 1938 Swedish film with Ingrid Bergman.   Joan Crawford is haunting in the lead role, the facially disfigured Anna--a notorious blackmailer.  Her beauty is restored with the aid of renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Segert (Melvyn Douglas).  She then becomes a governess for the prominent uncle (Albert Bassermann) of Torsten (Conrad Veidt), with hopes of abandoning her shady past and making a fresh start.  Mostly told in flashback from the courtroom testimonies of an eclectic array of characters (a unique storytelling device which works fairly smoothly here with such a vivid cast).  This is one of Crawford's most emotional roles and at times she is devastating.  The make-up is effective as well.  The film works less well in the third act when she moves to a chateau to take care of the almost unbearably shrill Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols), even though there's a few suspenseful scenes between them, including one that takes place in a cable car high above a mountain range.  Overall A Woman's Face is a fairly compelling mystery enhanced by Crawford's enigmatic presence. ***

-Jeffery Berg

ball of fire!

Check out my list of the best movies I saw in 2011 that aren't from 2011 on the excellent blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

see you on 'flamingo road'

Flamingo Road is a classic tale of an outsider shaking up an idyllic town.  Joan Crawford is Lane Bellamy, a salty and street-smart carnival dancer, who, with the help of deputy sheriff Fielding (what a name!) Carlisle (Zachary Scott), finds a new job as a waitress in a sleepy southern town.  Lane and Fielding hit it off a bit romantically, much to the disdain of abominable, corrupt Sherriff Titus Semple (an excellent Sydney Greenstreet) who has his sights on shaping Fielding to be Governor.  Lane and Fielding soon clash, thanks to Semple's meddling, and Lane winds up working in a roadhouse run by tough, well-respected  Lute (Gladys George).  There she meets and wins the affection of a rich business man Dan Reynolds (David Brian).  Soon enough Lane ends up in fur coats, living in a mansion on the town's most enviable street, Flamingo Road, but not without some bumps along the way.

Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) shows fine craftsmanship with this clunky but winningly entertaining drama.  Crawford is strong in the lead role and George makes an appealing, no-nonsense roadhouse ringleader but it's really Greenstreet, in one of his last film roles, who makes this thing burn.  Utterly contemptible and creepily hostile, with his slick, fat white face, he makes the perfect villain (and reminded me somewhat of John McCain).  The scenes between him and Crawford are a hoot and the most emotionally compelling.  This also became a short-lived, early-80s primetime soap (NBC's answer to Dynasty) of which I am now curious to see! ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, January 6, 2012

timeless clooney: a guest post by dan braun

You know he's not perfect. Of course he's not. Minus the luxuries, the casual grin emanating from countless magazine covers, ultimately he's as human as you and I are. But if there was ever anyone who, as a guy, you'd want to be your wing man in the Meatpacking District on a Saturday night or, as a lady, proof that velvet ropes are sometimes little more than a formality, it's George Clooney.

It's the rare screen talent who qualifies as timeless. Meryl Streep, Russell Crowe... a short list and one that Clooney fits in with ease. His early acting credits are typical of just about any actor or actress looking to establish a professional foothold: the TV series one-off appearances and recurring roles ("Riptide," "Hunter," "The Facts of Life," "Roseanne") and the cluster of B-movie roles (Return to Horror High, Return of the Killer Tomatoes!, Red Surf). Then came the breakthrough; "ER" and the part of Dr. Doug Ross. Suddenly an established star and the eventual transition to feature films.

Confidence, charm, talent, and an underlying sense of humanity can open a million doors and it's that combination of traits which have allowed Clooney the ability to slip with seeming ease into the shoes of characters from several walks of life - among others, bank robber, U.S. Army Major, television news producer, corporate downsizing expert, and, in his most recent role, a business and family man trying to hold his life together in The Descendants.

Some of his most notable performances:

Out of Sight (1998) - The first pairing of a highly successful professional partnership with director Steven Soderbergh (the Oceans films, as well as the vastly underrated Solaris remake and The Good German) featured Clooney as a career bank robber who breaks out of jail and kidnaps a U.S. Marshal (Jennifer Lopez) in the process. Fun and loose, with a highly palpable on-screen chemistry between Clooney and Lopez.

Three Kings (1999) - Clooney - as U.S. Army Major Archie Gates - and his fellow soldiers (Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze), post-Persian Gulf War, go in search of a cache of gold stolen from Kuwait which they hope to keep for themselves and encounter an unexpected humanitarian crisis.

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) - With Senator Joe McCarthy at the height of his anti-Communist crusade, CBS News reporter Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), with the support of his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), decide to take on McCarthy and expose his tactics, but at a great personal cost for both Murrow and Friendly. A stunning film and powerfully subtle.

Up in the Air (2009) - In a performance which lingers within one's mind long after, Clooney portrays Ryan Bingham, a specialist in corporate downsizing and a motivational speaker who approaches his personal life with as minimal an amount of emotional involvement as he does his professional one.

The Descendants (2011) - Alexander Payne's first feature since 2004's Sideways and similar in its observations on the complexities of human emotions and relations. Clooney is Matt King, a Honolulu-based lawyer who, with his wife on life support after a boating accident, works to build a relationship with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) he's barely made time for previously, and finds himself dealing with the news of an affair his wife was having at the time of her accident, all while handling a complex family trustee matter. His performance brilliantly embodies the unenviable position most of us have been in at one time or another: dealing with a series of personal crises coming at us in rapid succession and presenting a bold front while, on the inside, we've never felt more scattered.

-Dan Braun

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

a woman 'possessed'

Joan Crawford often played characters desperately in love with men who didn't love back.  Brave, serious, and bold, Crawford could illuminate complex emotions with a simple glance.  The 1947 film Possessed, directed by Curtis Bernhardt, begins with Crawford aimlessly wandering the streets of Los Angeles.  She's admitted to a hospital, where she begins to remember what led her to her disoriented state.  Possessed is a rather sudsy (though bleakly filmed), unusual story of Louise (Crawford), in love with a pipeline engineer named David (Van Heflin) who is tired of Louise's smothering affection.  Their weak love affair is kept secret from David's neighbor, Dean Graham (Raymond Massey).  Louise takes care of Graham's invalid wife (shades of Norma Bates here) until her death.  Graham falls in love with Louise; David falls in love with Graham's college-aged daughter (Geraldine Brooks) who is disapproving of Louise.  Louise is both haunted by Graham's dead wife and driven to madness and despair in her unrequited love for David.

Possessed is often described as film noir--the shadowy and shaky shots mimic Louise's deteriorating mental state.  The camera is a bit more unflattering toward Crawford than it is in her other star vehicles.  In fact, the opening glimpses of her are in distant, overhung shots with her in shadow (vividly done on location; nicely disconcerting and seemingly modern for a big '40s studio pic).  Like the aforementioned Psycho, there's an unfortunate, talky coda where a psychiatrist gives a lengthy explanation of Louise's psychosis.  Yet Bernhardt gives the picture a languid, gloomy air and Crawford is our anchor in a female performance unique for its time. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

the claws come out

"No pride at all.  That's a luxury a woman in love can't afford."  These are the final lines Norma Shearer utters in George Cukor's classic 1939 comedy The Women featuring a stellar all-female cast.  The Code may have toned down the original satiric bite though watching this film today and uncomfortably witnessing its politics (women are compared to animals in the opening credits), it's fortunate to see how much things have changed.  Yet fluffy romantic comedies revolving around a man's affections do still exist.  Hollywood even attempted to remake this in 2008.  It isn't too different from watching an episode of "Real Housewives of New York," except these Park Avenue fur-wearing queens have better dialogue, fights, and wardrobe.  Shearer plays likable Mary, whose husband Stephen (unseen in the picture, one of the brilliantly clever choices of Cukor and the film's female screenwriter Anita Loos, an adaptation of a play by Clare Boothe Luce) is cheating on her with Crystal (Joan Crawford), an icy shopgirl who pushes expensive fragrances like 'Summer Rain.'  Rosalind Russell is Syliva Fowler who joyously and deliriously dishes out the gossip to the Park Avenue set with 'Jungle Red' nails.

Overall The Women is a fun, glossy flick from the Golden Age. It's a treat for the eyes with all the fabulous costumes (those dazzling patterns and drapes and Shearer's enormous, fluffy white fur coat!) and oddball sets (exercise rooms and spas galore).  There's even a hilariously bizarre and flamboyant fashion show for the ladies (tennis apparel!) in Technicolor.  The patina-thin plot buried under mile-a-minute dialogue sometimes grows tiresome and the picture occasionally lags in energy but it zings to life whenever Russell (a comic marvel) and Crawford appear.  There's a brawl between Russell and Paulette Goddard that's one for the ages.  Legend has it that Russell left a permanent scar on Goddard's leg.  A hilarious emotional breakdown from Russell is a highlight and perhaps where Kristen Wiig's Bridesmaids meltdowns originated. ***

-Jeffery Berg

making music in the dark, a review of 'humoresque'

Jean Negulesco's 1946 film Humoresque is a far cry from Dvoark's sprightly lilt.  It's a gloomily lit portrait of two love affairs: a violinist's (John Garfield) unrelenting passion for his musical craft and his relationship with a hardened, alcoholic socialite.  The film begins in a dark room with a mournful Paul Boray reflecting back upon his more carefree years when he first discovered the violin.  Soon Boray devotes his young life to playing and practicing the instrument and becomes quite good.  As a promising young musician, he struggles a bit to survive.  His friend Sid (Oscar Levant) offers some help (and the film's comic relief). Then Boray meets the wealthy, unhappily married Helen Wright (Joan Crawford) who wants to see him "only as an artist" and she ends up jumpstarting his career.  As Boray becomes more and more successful, Wright and him become cautiously enamored with each one another.  After Wright's marriage crumbles, it seems as if they could begin a love affair.  Yet there is something cold and distant about their relationship.  They both suffer in their unrequited loves: Boray is in love with his music, Wright in love with Boray.

Humoresque is bolstered by a gorgeous selection of music impressively adapted by Franz Waxman.  Including both classical and (of its time) contemporary songs (a painfully sad cocktail bar singalong to "Embraceable You" is pulled off beautifully by Crawford), the music both speaks for and in spite of the language of the characters' longings.  An orchestral version of Bizet's music from Carmen is featured in a scene where Helen is unnerved by Boray's insensitivity.  The music is loud, jaunty and joyful in contrast to her emotions.  Gorgeously photographed by Ernest Haller, the riveting finale features Crawford on a windswept beach set to a radio broadcast of Wagner's "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde.  This memorable scene is definitely one of the highlights of the film and of Crawford's career. ***

-Jeffery Berg