Classic Review: Ishtar

ishtar posterThe first time I heard of Ishtar was when I was about 13 years old spending a nice summer’s day inside watching television. Elaine May’s comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty was on the wrong end of various jokes during an episode of VH1’s ever present I Love The 80s. It was labeled stupid, idiotic and everything else by an almost innumerable cast of D-list celebrities. Easily influenced, I began making jokes around the house about Ishtar, despite the fact that I hadn’t ever seen the film. At the time the film’s lack of merit was so culturally understood that my comments appeared to make sense to anyone older than 20. Soon I thought I would be hitting the stand-up circuit.

With the recent appearance of Ishtar on Netflix’s Instant Streaming service and the release of Peter Biskind’s biography on Warren Beatty (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America), many will likely take interest, yet again, in the colossal financial failure that was Ishtar. While I was interested in seeing the film I only made it a priority when I saw Roger Ebert’s half-star review from 1987 in which he claimed the film was both “lifeless” and “dreadful.” Ebert punctuated his distaste suggesting that watching the movie unfold was “interesting only in the way a traffic accident is interesting.” What was this traffic accident known as Ishtar that I had made so many blind jokes about? Could it really be that bad?

The answer is quite simple: no (my apologies Mr. Ebert).

Ishtar opens in New York where we meet our two zany protagonists the skittish Lyle Rodgers (Warren Beatty) and the confident Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman). Both have quit their jobs in the hopes of achieving their dreams—becoming successful singer/songwriters. Together they make up the musical duo Rodgers and Clarke, a Simon and Garfunkle rip-off, if Simon and Garfunkle were an 80s band. Rodgers and Clarke spit out inane song after inane song, with little cohesion among their oeuvre. They are certainly no Beatles. Rodgers and Clarke don’t sound just like Simon and Garfunkle, they are also the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Hall and Oates, and Flock of Seagulls; they are electronica, rock, pop and folk. Just never at the same time.

In the hopes of finding success Rodgers and Clarke hire an agent. After a few shows in New York it becomes more than clear the only place the two could have a stable singing career is outside of the U.S. With nothing to lose the two take a gig at the appropriatly named “Chez Casablanca” in the dangerous fictional Middle Eastern country of Ishtar. Overcome by civil unrest, Ishtar is a nation torn by factions trying to overthrow the American puppet regime. As is often the case in Hollywood depictions of the Middle East, danger is around every corner (emphasized by loud speakers continuously repeating that an after dark curfew is in effect). It is inn Ishtar that the film begins to turn into an action-thriller with Rodgers and Clarke getting lost in the confusing world of politics and love.

While the first twenty minutes of the film anticipates the style of humor that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay have made famous, the middle of the movie dives into the standard action-comedy genre. It is in Ishtar that the jokes become rote and the story dull.

But what makes Ishtar interesting is that amidst the overly long chase sequences, and the convoluted and quite frankly stupid plot there is a certain self-awareness of it all. The film establishes the traditional plot arc of white heroes coming to save the day in a foreign land, only to acknowledge that trope and reject it. The unflattering depiction of Arabs is met with an equally unflattering depiction of Americans. Ishtar is a movie about two sad schmucks (or as Lyle pronounces it “smmucks”) living in a world dominated by schmucks. While this doesn’t excuse the film its poor politics, and occasional bad taste (there is one scene where Dustin Hoffman is forced to imitate a Berber, and it culminates in random screaming of vaguely Arabic terms and names such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar) it makes it slightly more bearable.

Towards the end of the film Lyle and Chuck gather up various weapons, which they blindly unload into everything around them: Arab trucks, American helicopters, American jeeps. This is a world where there is little good. Everyone seems to be trying to make a cheap buck or a smart political move. This is perhaps best represented in Charles Grodin’s hilarious portrayal of a C.I.A. Agent Jim Harrison who repeatedly tries to manipulate Chuck. Elaine May’s world is one subsumed by cynicism.

If it is not the complete insanity of the story or the occasionally clever dialogue that is funny, it is the film’s original songs penned by Paul Williams and Elaine May. What starts out as an average pop tune, “Telling the truth can be dangerous business/ honest and popular don’t go hand in hand” slowly devolves into a slightly off-kilter, silly song, “if you admit that you can play the accordion/ no one will hire you in a rock and roll band/ but we can sing!” Actually Mr.Hoffman and Mr. Beatty neither of you can really sing.

The majority of the songs follow this pattern – they are relatable but instantly ridiculous. It is the proximity of Williams and May’s lyrics to those of real songs that make them work so well. Like the songs of Spinal Tap, Ishtar’s soundtrack perfectly straddles the line of being completely outrageous and entirely legitimate.

Ishtar may not be one of the defining comedies of the 1980s but it certainly holds up better than much of that decade’s output. Ishtar is loud, proud and occasionally offensive, but hidden under all of its absurdities lies a glimmer of heart and sincerity. Ishtar was said to have a cost Columbia $55 Million, and it ended up only bringing in about $14 Million at the box office. There was at one time no other word than “failure” to describe Ishtar. The film was certainly a victim of unreachable expectations and hype but perhaps Ishtar was just ahead of its time. Not only is the film not a failure, it is more than just a minor success; Ishtar is funny, farcical and even hypnotic. Perhaps telling the truth (about this film) really can be dangerous business.

I guess this means I have to stop telling those jokes now.

-Nicholas Forster

Ishtar is available on VHS and on Netflix’s Instant Streaming Service. It has also been released on DVD in Europe.

Directed by Elaine May; written by Elaine May; director of photography, Vittorio Storaro; edited by Richard P. Cirincione, Williams Reynolds, Stephen A. Rotter; produced by Warren Beatty; released by Columbia. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.

WITH: Warren Beatty (Lyle Rogers), Dustin Hoffman (Chuck Clarke); Isabelle Adjani (Shirra Assel); Charles Grodin (Jim Harrison)

Great Scene: The Third Man

third_man_ver6_xlgIn his Criterion DVD introduction to Carol Reed’s The Third Man, director Peter Bogdanovich explains the stage concept of “Mr. Woo,” also called the “star part.”  Here’s how it works:  For the first hour of the play, all the characters talk, in hushed voices, about a mysterious fellow named Mr. Woo.  “Just wait until Mr. Woo arrives,” they say, and, “Yes, but what will Mr. Woo think?”  Mr. Woo dominates the narrative without so much as a cameo.  Finally, at the end of the first act, with great dramatic flair, a small figure appears out of the shadows and—my word, it’s Mr. Woo!  The curtain falls, and members of the audience remark to each other, “Isn’t the actor who plays Mr. Woo great?”  It’s “your reputation precedes you” in action.

Carol Reed’s 1949 noir thriller The Third Man, among many things, boasts the finest Mr. Woo moment in all of film.  For more than an hour of this 104-minute feature, the talk is all about a fellow named Harry Lime.  In Vienna during the war, we learn, Lime was a racketeer of a particularly vile sort, stealing penicillin from sick children for use on the black market.  He was successful both in his work and in eluding the authorities.  Now it appears Lime has died, struck by a car in the street under murky circumstances.  Was it a freak accident, or retribution from his former comrades for God knows what crimes?  The chief of police, familiar with Lime’s history, doesn’t seem to care.  “The important thing is he’s dead,” he remarks coldly.

The great scene occurs when Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), Lime’s best friend who knew nothing of his wartime dealings, has nearly given up his investigation into what really killed him.  Wandering drunkenly down the Viennese cobblestones, Martins calls out to a mysterious figure shrouded in darkness across the way.  A stray cat rests between the figure’s shoes.  As Martins continues his goading, suddenly a light flashes from an apartment above the street, illuminating the mystery man’s face and—why, it’s Harry Lime!

We know immediately that this man is Harry Lime.  Just know it, even before Martins does.  Even though we have never seen him before, haven’t been told what he looks like and, indeed, have been informed all along that he is dead, our instincts point to no other conclusion.  More than anything else, however, we know who this most built-up of movie creations is because he is played by none other than Orson Welles.

Harry Lime might have been a star part on its own, but the casting of Welles, a star in his own right, is what made the character immortal.  Welles knew a thing or two about colorful entrances by 1949—his first film, Citizen Kane, opened with no less than the death (and last words) of its subject—and his time with the Mercury Theatre on radio and on stage gave him a deep appreciation for the clever and the dramatic.  He could be a horror to work with—as chronicled in Richard Linklater’s marvelous new film, Me and Orson Welles—but the results suggested a genius at work

In The Third Man, Welles’ contribution was to elicit sympathy—or, in any event, a fascination—for a character who was a scoundrel.  Harry Lime’s entire being—his evil, his intelligence, his playfulness—is suggested in that smirk he wears when we first see him.  Like Welles, Lime was a man with the confidence that he could get away with anything, who attempted anything, and who relished every moment of it.

-Dan Seliber

St. John of Las Vegas Review

saint_john_of_las_vegas_xlgLet’s get it out of the way from the very beginning: Steve Buscemi needs to be the lead actor in more films. No matter the movie, Buscemi is always interesting to watch and such is the case with St. John of Las Vegas. Starring in a film based on Dante’s Inferno and produced by an interesting collection of artists (most notably Stanley Tucci and Spike Lee) one might just think that St. John of Las Vegas could be an edgy, offbeat, even original film. Yet, while it may be a little quirky, St. John is nowhere close to being edgy. It is so restrained, so held back, that the film verges on being moribund.

St. John is the story of John Alighieri (Buscemi), an insurance-fraud investigator who has had a great deal of luck in his life. Unfortunately, it’s all been bad luck. At one time a compulsive gambler, John moved away from Las Vegas to New Mexico in order to could cut his addiction (though he still loves those Instant Jackpot Madness! tickets). John tells us “For now I’m taking it slow and steady.” Still there seems to be something missing.

So, when he goes to ask his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage), for a raise, John is instead set up with new responsibilities. If he can prove himself, a raise will come! As a sort of test, John is partnered with Virgil (Romany Malco) and sent to investigate a possible fraudulent claim from a Ms. Tasty D Lite. Ms. D. Lite unfortunately lives in Las Vegas, where all of John’s demons reside. As John prepares to head out he begins falling into a relationship with his eccentric, overly cheerful and slightly crazy coworker Jill (Sarah Silverman). Of course John’s bad luck returns: Jill is also already romantically involved with Mr. Townsend.

On the road, the oddball John and the terse Virgil have to work together to solve the case. Along the way there are some twists and turns (and a couple cameos including a bizarre turn by Tim Blake Nelson) but predictably St. John develops into a stereotypical road movie. The film is littered with inter-textual references both in names like Alighieri, Virgil, and in images of hell Instead of being smart and elucidatory, the allusions to Dante’s Inferno just sort of exist in the film. They serve no higher purpose. Mere allusion for no reason is uninteresting, and even banal. Director/Writer Hue Rhodes seems to be attaching these names in an effort to force a false importance on the film.

The insignificance of the many allusions is indicative of the St. John’s problems as a whole. Characters float in and out of scenes, jokes fall flat, and the entire world seems lazy. Just as the characters appear and disappear on screen, the humor barely seems alive at all. Most of the jokes will result in a guffaw but little more. St. John sets up plenty of potential jokes (a carnival performer, the flaming man, is trapped in his flame repellent suit, which repeatedly catches on fire) but they never go anywhere. Instead of laughing I was left saying, “huh, well that’s interesting.”

While there is clearly a level of care in the script, Rhodes’ direction is unfortunately bland. The film is visually rudimentary and at times it seems as though a machine could have been programmed to shot the film. Every shot features its main character placed directly in the center of the frame. There is little variation or curiosity.

The desert and Las Vegas could have provided for some interesting imagery, but none of the settings are taken advantage of. St. John may as well take place on the east coast, with Atlantic City being a substitute for Las Vegas. There is a minimalism here that echoes in the film’s use of music. Actually, it’s more like muzak.

Even in scenes of supposed intensity, everything is restrained. There are no crescendos just as there are no decrescendos. Little tension is built either visually or aurally. Everything runs on autopilot at this extremely low-key level.

Yet as quiet as the film is, it is not without merit. Performances all around are good, and it is not devoid of humor. But the structural issues of the script and overall lack of vitality make St. John seem almost heartless. That Buscemi is the lead here makes it all more depressing. St. John of Las Vegas might just become a cult hit because of its refusal for easy laughs (or even perhaps its refusal for any laughs). While it isn’t a great work of art, Rhode’s work is not a horrible waste of time either. Like its characters, St. John just sort of floats along.

-Nicholas Forster

Saint John of Las Vegas will be playing at Kendall Square Cinema starting February 12, 2010.

Written and directed by Hue Rhodes; director of photography, Giles Nuttgens; edited by Annette Davey; music by David Torn; production designer, Rosario Provenza; produced by Mark Burton, Matt Wall, Lawrence Mattis and Kelly McCormick; released by Indie Vest Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

WITH: Steve Buscemi (John), Sarah Silverman (Jill); Romany Malco (Virgil); Peter Dinklage (Mr. Townsend)

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Review

mysonposterIf you had come up to me a year-and-a-half ago, told me that David Lynch was producing a Werner Herzog film and asked me what it was going to be about, “guy kills his mom with a samurai sword to act out Aeschylus’ Oresteia and takes two flamingos hostage” probably wouldn’t have been too far down the list. If you had told me there would be a dwarf in the film, it probably would have been my first choice. I think the surprise would have come if you’d told me that My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? would be one of the best things either one of them has ever been involved with. I’ve never been stingy with my praise of Herzog and his work. In my review of Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (his other surreal , awkwardly titled cop movie from last year, which I’ve been assured was just a coincidence), I called him “almost unquestionably the most influential living European filmmaker after some of the surviving members of the Nouvelle Vague,” a group that sadly shrunk by one recently with the death of Eric Rohmer. I stand by that, and I would like to add that Herzog is also one of the few still pretty routinely putting out great films, as My Son, My Son is his best since Stroszek, and, of the fifteen or twenty of his films that I’ve seen, I honestly believe it would rank third. Herbert Golder, a professor of classics at BU and the film’s co-writer, presented the film and mentioned, among other things, that Herzog considered this an intensely personal film and preferred it to the more studio-driven Bad Lieutenant. Of course, Herzog is right to do so; it is the better film.

The film is loosely based on a true story of a young actor in San Diego who killed his mother with a samurai sword while rehearsing for the role of Orestes, a major character in Greek myth who killed his mother with an antique sword. In the film, he’s named Brad McCullum, and played to perfection by Michael Shannon, who could have taken any easy Hollywood role he wanted after his Oscar nomination a year ago, and has instead taken parts in two Werner Herzog films. His mother is Lynch-regular Grace Zabriskie. He thinks she controls him and forces him to stay at home and do what she wants, but he somehow managed to go on a rafting trip in Peru with his friends, so I don’t know how much of her control was real and how much was imagined. That Peru trip was the apparent catalyst for his entire mental breakdown. His friends wanted to kayak down some very dangerous (and, for the Herzog aficionado, very familiar looking) rapids, but Brad had an inner voice tell him to stay back, and the others all drowned. When he got back to America, he started acting strange and searching for God in random places. I won’t tell you where he finds his answer because it ruins one of the film’s funniest scenes. His fiancée Ingrid, played by Chloe Sevigny, and his friend Lee, played by Udo Kier, try to help him and decide to co-write and produce Aeschyluss’ Oresteia with Brad as Orestes. At one point, Brad and Lee go to Brad’s uncle’s Ostrich farm to pick up a samurai sword that his uncle Ted (Brad Douriff) has lying around and they want to use as a prop. The ostriches eat Lee’s glasses and provoke some bizarre insights from Brad. Uncle Ted doesn’t understand the importance of the theater, but he seems to support Brad in ways that his mother never does. All of this comes from flashbacks told to the two detectives who are investigating Brad’s mother’s murder as Brad sits in his house with two hostages. The detectives are played by Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena, who both do a very good job with some very strange dialogue.

This is an extraordinarily unsettling film. It becomes clear early on that everything, even the other character’s flashbacks, is shown from Brad’s perspective. Everyone in a scene will occasionally stop and stare at the camera, a glass tube becomes a tunnel through time, flamingos and ostriches become symbols of something greater and people talk about dwarfs riding horses and being chased by giant chickens. Early on in the hostage crisis, he yells out “God is in the house with me, but I don’t need him anymore,” and then he rolls his God out of the garage. His hostages are flamingos, although the cops don’t know it. The dialogue, especially the stuff involving the cops seems like it was written by an insane narcissist who watches too much TV, and many of his best lines were taken from the real killer. This awkward, occasionally nonsensical dialogue gives the film some much-needed humor (as he’s arrested, Brad proclaims “I hate it that the sun always comes up in the east”). There are also some very serious sequences involving Brad’s mental illness. He walks around a market in Western China (why he’s there is never explained), asking why everyone is looking at him, and the entire scene is done from his point of view. People stare at the camera, and we begin to feel Brad’s paranoia, which is only compounded by the music. The score is ambient and atonal, and it never lets up. Brad is, presumably due to his mental illness, an incredibly narcissistic character, so obsessed with his own observations and ideas that he completely shuts out everyone else in the world, so his actions ultimately make a bizarre sort of sense. He took a myth that’s been around for 2000 years and acted it out so that he would be remembered for just as long.

Lynch was not involved with writing or directing the film, but his touch is there, most notably in the use of handheld digital cameras, although Herzog never takes it to the same extreme as Lynch did in Inland Empire, and instead uses the technology to create one of his most aesthetically pleasing films to date. Even though he’d never admit it, I really think this may be Herzog’s most personal feature. The scenes in Peru were meant to be shot in northern Pakistan, but that wasn’t going to happen, so Herzog returned to the river of Aguirre and Ftizcarraldo. Lee is played by the unquestionably German Udo Kier, and the reasonably sane German director being forced to deal with his completely insane, incredibly talented actor brings up memories of Klaus Kinski and My Best Fiend. There are ideas and themes here that have played a major part in so many of his greatest works, including his fascinations with mental illness and the alienated individual in America. When it was over, I realized something. It may eventually be remembered as one of his better films, but that will take a while. If it had been made in the seventies with Kinski or Bruno S as Brad, Bruno Ganz in Dafoe’s role and Eva Mattes as Ingrid, it may have been considered his masterpiece, and I think it should still be in that discussion. Hopefully it will get a national release soon, so that discussion can begin.

-Adam Burnstine

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is unrated.

It will screen at the Boston Museum Of Fine Arts on Saturday, February 6th at 7:00 PM

Directed by Werner Herzog; written by Werner Herzog and Herbert Golder; director of photography, Peter Zeitlinger; edited by Joe Bini and Omar Daher; original music by Ernst Reijseger; art director, Danny Caldwell; produced by Eric Bassett and David Lynch; distributed by IFC films. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.

With: Michael Shannon (Brad McCullum), Chloe Sevigny (Ingrid), Udo Kier (Lee Meyers), Willem Dafoe (Detective Hank Havenhurst), Michael Pena (Detective Vargas), Grace Zabriskie (Mrs. McCullum) and Brad Dourif (Uncle Ted).

Sombre Review

sombrebigVerite camerawork has been a major force in the modern horror film, but to mixed success at best. I always hoped that somewhere out there, someone had gotten it right. That someone was Philippe Grandrieux. He did it back in 1998, a year before Blair Witch made the technique into a style, with his film Sombre. To be fair, I can only call it a horror film because it certainly isn’t anything else, and I guess it does fit best into that genre. There are no people jumping out of the darkness and there is no gore, but there is an all-enveloping sense of doom that permeates every single frame. What separates the film from others of the type is that Grandrieux doesn’t create his mood through the disorientation inherent to handheld camerawork, but instead through lighting and focus. The title is, in a way, kind of a joke as “somber” barely even begins to describe this work, but I guess Misery was already taken and “sombre” also translates to “darkness,” which fits perfectly. This is a dark film in every sense of the word and even many of the film’s brightest shots are out of focus, as if the director wants to call the audience into the prevailing darkness. This lack of light does something vital to the film as a whole. It takes people and objects and turns them into abstract forms on a means eerily reminiscent of Brakhage. Grandrieux appears to have a rare talent for pulling something vital out of every image in his film. All those vital little images come together to form one of the greatest horror films of all time.

In the beginning, a car drives through a valley, setting up the film’s obsession with shadows and showcasing some of the more beautiful imagery. We then see some schoolchildren watching a show of some sort and shrieking at the stage. A man, Jean (Marc Barbe), comes out of the darkness. He wanders around the countryside, occasionally stopping to watch the Tour De France and kill a prostitute. He begins to sleep with them, but then blindfolds and strangles his victims as part of his routine. After half an hour of this, he meets two sisters who couldn’t be more different, Claire (Elina Lowensohn), a dark, brunette, short and moody virgin, and Christine (Geraldine Voillat), who is her sister’s opposite in nearly every way—she is blonde, tall, pale and reasonably happy and overtly sexual. There is something deeply allegorical about this relationship and how their roles shift over time. They travel together, even if it isn’t totally clear why. They drive around for a while before Jean’s urges take over. He tries to fill them at a club, but that doesn’t seem to work. They stop for a swim, and he tries to rape and kill Christine, but Claire stops him and tries to get away. He catches them, ties Christine up and takes Claire to a club. From here, things shift in ways you wouldn’t expect, and the film begins to ask if Jean can be redeemed by pure love alone. Or maybe it’s asking if anyone can, or if it’s even worth trying.

“Mood” is a word you hear about a lot today in film discussion. It is generally used to describe the masters of Hong Kong’s art film circuit and their contemporaries throughout southeast Asia: Wong Kar Wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some Europeans are occasionally mentioned with them, maybe Clair Denis and Bela Tarr, but from this film alone it becomes clear that Grandrieux belongs to that group. There’s an obvious reason why he must labor in relative obscurity as the others enjoy international success: the other directors I’ve listed (with the possible exception of Tarr, whose fame comes for other reasons entirely) create mood out of emotions that we can all comprehend. Even the sadness and loneliness in the work of the other great filmmakers comes packaged in beautiful poetic lyricism. Sombre is still a beautiful film, but that beauty comes packaged in suffocating misery and darkness. Whatever plot there may be doesn’t make total sense, and as much happens between frames as within the film itself, but that doesn’t matter because Sombre is more than that. It achieves what most worthwhile film set out to achieve: it is a constant succession of near-perfect images. Sure, the film’s soundtrack is significant, as Grandrieux makes great use of ambient noises and expressive music, including goth-rock pioneers Bauhaus, but it never becomes central to a scene. The performances are all pretty great as well, especially Barbe, but it is in no way a performance piece. It expresses interesting ideas in regards to redemption, humanity, love and morality, especially in the connection between redemption and love, but these ideas aren’t what makes this an important film. That falls to the imagery. That beautiful, overpowering darkness. That perfect motion in and out of light. Grandrieux has crafted the perfect horror film because he knows exactly how one must move the camera, and exactly what should be allowed in front of it. Since the film ended, I have been racking my brain in a search for a better horror film, but unless I stretched the limits of what constitutes horror beyond what I think is right, I just can’t think of one. This may truly be the masterpiece of the genre as a whole. Needless to say, as it will only be in town for one showing as part of an HFA retrospective on Grandrieux, I can’t even begin to say how much I encourage you to go. Films like this just don’t come around often enough.

-Adam Burnstine

Sombre is not rated. Needless to say, I probably wouldn’t bring kids to see it.

It will be showing on Friday, February 26th at 7:00 at the Harvard Film Archive with Grandrieux appearing in person. On Saturday, he will be presenting his latest film, Un Lac.

Directed by Philippe Grandrieux; written by Philippe Grandrieux, Sophie Fillieres and Pierre Hodgson; cinematography by Sabine Lancelin; edited by Francoise Tourmen; production designer, Gerbaux; original music by Alan Vega; produced by Catherine Jaques. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

With: Marc Barbe (Jean),  Elina Lowensohn (Claire) and Geraldine Voillat (Christine).

Great Scene: Raging Bull

raging_bullMartin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is often called a “boxing movie,” and grouped alongside the likes of Rocky in discussions of such things.  The American Film Institute, for its part, proclaimed it the No. 1 sports movie of all time.  The label is erroneous.  Raging Bull concerns itself with many things, but sports is not chief among them.

Raging Bull is a poem about jealousy and paranoia above all else.  Specifically, it’s about the guilt and hunger of its protagonist, Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), who uses the boxing ring to unleash his rage against, not his opponents, but the people in his daily life, especially his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), of whom he suspects nothing but unsavory deeds.

Aspiring writers are told “show, don’t tell,” and Raging Bull, written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin from LaMotta’s autobiography, contains one scene after another that suggest Jake’s jealousy without him ever having to confess it outright.  The cinematic techniques are well-known—particularly Scorsese’s use of slower camera speeds that observe Vickie with careful attention—but the film’s most effective means of portraying Jake’s monstrous character is through dialogue.

To be sure, Jake is not the kind of man to express his feelings directly or articulately; he functions entirely through action and instinct, and this gives the boxing scenes their brutalizing power.  However, the heart of the matter plays out well before Jake strings up his boxing gloves, and it nearly always seems to stem from his suspicions about his wife.

Consider the great sequence regarding his fight against Tony Janiro, a young up-and-comer with a “pretty boy” image.  During a fast-paced argument in the kitchen about Jake’s prospects, Vickie casually and innocuously calls Janiro “good-looking.”  Jake stops the discussion dead in its tracks, demanding Vickie explain what she means.  Impatiently, she does so, but Jake is unsatisfied:  How dare she feel anything for another man, let alone one of his opponents.  Vickie calls him crazy.  Later, he asks his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) what Vickie might be up to; he calls him crazy, too, but Jake is undeterred in his suspicions.  His way of latching onto a single word or phrase, twisting and exhausting its meaning until he has driven himself absolutely up the wall, is hypnotic and frightening for a man whose profession is to beat the stuffing out of his fellow travelers.

The payoff to this sequence—the LaMotta v. Janiro showdown—is doubly effective because it has been set up so clearly.  Jake does not merely defeat Janiro; he pulverizes him, landing punch after punch with a ferocity unparalleled in his career up until then.  This fight, more than any scene in the film, illustrates boxing’s contradictory function as both an outlet for violent, abusive men, but also as a means (often to futile ends, as here) of preventing that violence from spilling into the domestic sphere.  As the fight ends, Jake shoots a triumphant look directly at Vickie, who sits uneasily amongst the crowd.  The point is made.

The year 2010 marks three decades since Raging Bull premiered, and I cannot say with confidence that a finer film has been made in the intervening time.  Scorsese’s picture considers the most base and horrid facets of human behavior—envy, suspicion, male subjugation of women—and, for all its technical mastery, ultimately succeeds only because it is so dreadfully, painfully true.

-Dan Seliber

John Ford’s America: Monument Valley at the MFA

MBDMYDA FE002There are perhaps few directors whose films have suffered as much as John Ford’s have in the transition of big screen to televisions. While the politics can be oppressively conservative Ford’s films, without question, always look beautiful. It is this beauty that defines the current series at the MFA running right now, The Making of the Western Myth. Using Monument Valley as an emblem of the west, Ford created a cannon of ten films, all shot in Monument Valley, which came to define the Western.

What is so fascinating in seeing these films together is that the major themes of Ford’s films become much clearer. Ford often uses the same devices. He consistently portrays the bar the single most important place of social gathering. It is not only a place of death but also birth. It is both grimy and immaculate. Other tropes of Ford include the power of song as a unifying device. Music becomes important not only to credit sequences but to the very plots of his films. Above all of however is the (perhaps overly) sentimental attachment to the land and consequently the history of that land. The love that always exists in Ford’s films is a love of the land.

Each of these films is photographed beautifully. Ford’s aesthetic is, to say the least, unique. To watch a Ford film is to watch a painting come to life. To watch one on “the big screen” is breathtaking. While Monument Valley is beautiful enough to be made pretty by any director, Ford makes it distinctive in each film. More importantly, Ford does not rely on the sheer magnificence of the Valley’s “mittens” as a crutch. My Darling Clementine, and even Stage Coach are films that exist in the West, and for Ford, this is merely what the West looks live – drained of fertility, but with a certain desolate beauty. It is of a certain painful irony that the film that features Monument Valley most prominently in beautiful color, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, ultimately devalues it.

Monument Valley functions best in Ford’s films when it is part of the story, rather than the story itself as in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford presents us with the clash of pastoral past and emerging modernity vis a vis Monument Valley in My Darling Clementine leaving the indelible image of Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp leaning back in his chair and staring into the desert. In Stagecoach Ford literally brings us through the desert.  At the same time he createst a world of its own in the titular vehicle. Other films like Rio Grande play upon the diversity of the grand landscape. One thing for certain is that Ford never used Monument Valley in exactly the same way in two films (though he may have recycled a few of the same shots). Context was always different.

What becomes imminently clear is that few have the stylistic flair that Ford had. He is an auteur in every sense of the word. His Monument Valley films are not only evidence of the creation of the western myth, but they mirror the growth of one of America’s most interesting filmmakers.

-Nicholas Forster

The Bounty Hunter Review

the-bounty-hunter-posterAs I sat on the Green Line on my way to the screening of Andy Tennant’s The Bounty Hunter, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to see.  In fact, I even began writing this review in my head.  However, I was pleasantly surprised.  Sure, there was the obvious scene or cliché joke here or there, but ultimately the film is a contemporary screwball comedy, a modern-day His Girl Friday, with a twist of course.

Milo Boyd (Gerard Butler), an ex-cop, is working as a bounty hunter when he is assigned to take in his ex-wife, Nicole Hurley (Jennifer Aniston), a reporter, for jumping bail.  But Nicole doesn’t have time to go to jail; she is working to uncover a mysterious murder that seems to involve members of the NYPD.  Milo and Nicole embark on a cat and mouse chase that leads to Atlantic City, all while being targeted by dangerous murderers and Milo’s bookies.  As Milo and Nicole become more involved in the murder investigation, they discover that their lives are in danger.  More important, the former couple begins to analyze their past relationship and question if divorce was the right decision.

Those fond of Andy Tennant’s work (Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch, and Fool’s Gold) will enjoy The Bounty Hunter.  It has the same average performances and predictable plots that make it perfect for a date night or girls’ night out.  But, at the same time, one must appreciate the genre of the screwball comedy, something that Tennant aces with The Bounty Hunter.  Viewers (and fans of Hawks’ His Girl Friday) will be pleased with the outrageous plot, the satire of high society as Milo and Nicole visit a country club, the irreverent attitude towards romance and domesticity (especially in scenes between Nicole and co-worker Stewart, played by SNL’s Jason Sudeikis), the sexual innuendo, and the unconventional view of gender (Milo’s super-tough bookie is Irene, played by Cathy Moriarty) – all components of the screwball genre.

Viewers may also enjoy seeing some familiar faces in the film, such as Christine Baranski, who plays Nicole’s mother, Kitty Hurley, an aging Atlantic City performer.  Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin appears as Sid, Milo’s boss, and Carol Kane plays Dawn, the owner of an Atlantic City bed and breakfast.

The performances of Aniston and Butler are mediocre, with Aniston re-hashing her character from The Break-Up.  Butler does get quite a few well-deserved laughs from the audience, especially in his attempts at taking in his ex-wife, from tracking her down at a race track to tackling her on the shoulder of the New Jersey Parkway.  There is not much chemistry between the pair, which works well, considering that the two are at odds for the majority of the film.  By the end of the film, the couple is more of a partnership than a romance, but it will have to suffice for this screwball comedy.

Overall, The Bounty Hunter is not for someone looking for an intellectual comedy or a fall-out-of-your-seat-laughing film, although it is reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s.    But it is light and enjoyable, perfect for the girls’ night out crowd or Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston fan clubs.

The Bounty Hunter opens in theaters on March 19, 2010 and is rated PG-13 for sexual content including suggestive comments, language and some violence.

-Melissa Cleary

Directed by Andy Tennant; written by Sarah Thorp; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Troy Takaki; original music by George Fenton; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Donald J. Lee, Jr., Ori Marmur, Robyn Meisinger, and Neal H. Moritz; released by Columbia Pictures.  Running time: 106 minutes.

With: Jennifer Aniston (Nicole), Gerard Butler (Milo), Christine Baranski (Kitty), Dorian Missick (Bobby), Peter Greene (Earl Mahler), Jeff Garlin (Sid), Siobhan Fallon (Teresa), Cathy Moriarty (Irene), and Carol Kane (Dawn).

Eric Skillman Interview

You may not know the name, but you'll know the work.  He creates a feeling for an entire film, distilled down to a tiny rectangular image.  The best of his colleagues and the best of the artists of the past have been able to stop you in your tracks as you've walked around the video store.  Maybe it was Saul Bass' cover of Vertigo that made you rent it for the first time.  Maybe you passed by the DVD of Jules Dassin's Thieves Highway and needed to know why those apples lay strewn across the road.  Eric Skillman has been designing DVD covers for the Criterion Collection for a few years now, and each one is a work of art.  Serving as either the primary designer or the art director, Skillman has helped to create some of the most memorable discs to come out in the last few years--including the epic designs for Berlin Alexanderplatz and the upcoming Stagecoach.  I'll let Eric speak for himself below, but make sure to check out his own blog: Cozy Lummox and

-Rob Ribera

All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection and Eric Skillman.

L&S: How did you begin designing the artwork for DVDs?

ES: I was hired to do production work at Criterion, and part of my job was designing "sellsheets" for our discs. Whenever a cover wasn't ready in time for the announce date, I would mock up a fake cover for the sell sheet, and I tried to make those as good as possible, until I was allowed to design an actual title.

L&S: What was your first design?

ES: First Criterion design? Akira Kurosawa's, Red Beard. First design ever? I think it might have been The Cultural Resistance Reader from Verso Books, unless you mean the high school literary magazine, or the dozens of logos I designed for bands I liked in middle and high school.

L&S:  What were some of those bands you designed posters for?  Any memorable designs?

ES: Just friends of mine, mostly: the Randy Bandits, Red Rooster, SOAO (Son of an Oracle), Stumblebum Brass Band, Mr. MacGregor... I was pretty happy with the first Randy Bandits album cover I did for them, "Live from Otto's Shrunken Head."

Red Beard_coverL&S: Are there limitations or aspects that force you to sometimes change a design?  (I'm thinking Downhill Racer as one specific, but I'm sure there are others.)

ES: I don't think Downhill Racer specifically changed all that much, to be honest... sometimes there are contractual guidelines from studios, generally relating to size and placement of names, titles, and credit blocks, but luckily that's not too common at Criterion.

L&S: How long is the process?  Where do you start and how does it end?  Do you watch the movie and use specific images that you think would be perfect to represent the movie, or do you go more for an atmospheric design?

ES: The design process starts with the cover, then moves on to the menus and packaging, and tends to take around four to six months. I always watch the movies, and the specific approach ("atmospheric" vs. image-based) is dictated by the film.

L&S: What are you looking to accomplish with the artwork for a DVD cover?

ES: Ideally, to create a new icon for the film, maybe add a little something to the legacy of the great films I get to work on.

L&S: One interesting aspect of movie advertising is its opportunity to have freedom to create an image that really gets to the heart of the film, like Saul Bass did for countless films.  Do you hope to create new images from these films, or do you like working more with established images?

ES: Oh, it's much more fun to create something new. I'll use established imagery on occasion--sometimes it would just plain be foolish not to--but those jobs aren't anywhere near as fun as creating new iconography.

L&S: Do you have more leeway when it comes to the DVD menus?  Because Criterion DVDs are always loaded with extras, there are a lot of menus to add in.  Do you try to match them to the cover, or go in different directions?

ES: There's some leeway, although we do always want a set to feel like a coherent whole. The main limitations are technical, actually--the interface has to be controllable via a remote control that only has up, down, left, right, enter to work with, so you have to structure information much more simply than you might on a website or something like that.

L&S: What and who are your influences?  Are there some designers you admire, and things you hope to avoid?randybanditslive2

ES: Plenty of designers I admire, from Saul Bass to Art Chantry to Rodrigo Corrall to Neil Kellerhouse, and I also take plenty of influence from comics artists, music, film, and really wherever I find it. I suppose one thing I hope to avoid is being bland.

L&S: Neil Kellerhouse is another interesting designer who creates a great mood with simplicity--like his covers for Tin Drum, or the poster he did for The Girlfriend Experience.  Have you worked with him over at Criterion?

ES: That Tin Drum cover is amazing, but I wouldn't exactly call it "simple!" I've worked with Neil a lot, actually--on Seven Samurai; The Ice Storm; Paris, Texas; etc etc. He's great, always full of ideas that I would never come up with on my own.

L&S: Can you talk a little about the difference between designing and art directing?

ES: Designing is the nuts-and-bolts, actually sitting down at the computer (or drawing table or wherever) and making it work. Art directing is about coming up with ideas, usually for others to execute, though of course there's some overlap between the two.

L&S:  Is there a design that you've loved, but didn't get used?

ES: Oh, absolutely... that's the whole reason I have my blog, to post all my favorite rejects! One favorite example is the "cut paper" cover for An Angel at My Table that was rejected in favor of a simpler photo-based treatment.

angel1L&S:  Was there a specific reason why the cover for Angel was rejected?

ES: Yeah, it was because the producer on that disc didn't like the underlying concept of placing Janet Frame (the novelist who is the main character in the film) in a "constructed" world, and wanted an earthier and more naturalistic feel.

L&S: Can you talk about the task of creating the design and illustrations for Berlin Alexanderplatz?  This is a design you created from scratch--how did you decide the tone and content of that design?

ES: Well, the first time I tried to answer that question, it took me two long blog posts to do it here and here, but the short version is that the typography was inspired by some Egon Schiele posters--there's not a direct connection between Schiele and Fassbinder, but they share some preoccupations and for some reason it made sense to me--and the drawing was done in a style I played around with a lot in college (and have come back to a bit since Berlin).

L&S: One of my favorite art direction jobs you did was for the Monsters and Madmen box set.  How did you go about picking the design for each of those covers and the overall tone for those films?  Is it more of a challenge to design something so fun while keeping it classy?

ES: To be honest, my main contribution to that set was just having the idea to call Darwyn Cooke; he deserves all the credit for that one. We gave him some concepts ("space ships and submarines: go!") and asked him to create some imagery in the style of his wonderful covers for his own New Frontier series. As I recall, we didn't even need more than one or two sketches for any individual cover, he hit all of them right out of the gate. I'm usually a bit more involved as an art director, but sometimes the best thing to do is just find the best person for the job and let them do their thing.

Berlin Alexanderplatz_coverL&S: Can you talk about The Bad Sleep Well and the balance of minimalism and detail in your work?

ES: I do tend to think the simpler the better, (though that particular design takes it to an extreme). I guess the principle is similar to Scott McCloud's idea about cartooning, that the more simple the iconography the more universal it becomes. The trick, then, is to boil the film (or book or whatever) down to the simplest icon that is still unique to that film. That's not a hard and fast rule or anything, I'm really kind of thinking about this for the first time now, but maybe there's something to it.

L&S: Schiele was amazing at distilling an emotion down into a messy but simple painting or poster--did you catch the show at the Neau Gallery a few years back?

ES: I did not catch that show, but I do like me some Schiele.

L&S: Another great design is for Amarcord.  Whose idea was it to make the mural painting?  I think it perfectly encapsulates the tone of the film as a dynamic between family/community and self.

ES: The concept was mine, the execution was by the great Caitlin Kuhwald. I agree, she did a great job capturing the manic energy of the film. That's another one I wrote extensively about on my blog, where you can also see all of Caitlin's sketches here.

Bad Sleep Well_coverL&S: And the obligatory question about advice for future designers?

ES: The closest thing I have to advice is this: if you're doing what I call "interpretive" design (i.e. a cover for someone else's novel, or film, or album, or whatever), step one should be thinking like an English major--'what are the major themes, motifs, metaphors, etc?' THEN move on to thinking like a designer--i.e. 'how do I make this look pretty?'

L&S: Could you share any of your favorite rejected mockups for covers?

ES: Sure, I've attached a few.


How Subtitles Change Everything

Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy is not exactly a DVD release that needs to be reviewed. To put it simply: if you are a lover of cinema, especially Italian Neo-Realist films, these DVDs are a must-own. With improved transfers of image and sound, and loaded with extra features, the new Criterion Collection releases have finally brought these films to the standard they deserve. I would like to point out one of the vast improvements that can now be enjoyed--an understanding of the language. For years, I have watched Rome: Open City, only to be disappointed each time by the lack of proper subtitles. To be certain, the power of Rossellini's film about the occupation of Rome by the Nazis during wartime does not need each word documented onscreen for the audience not proficient in Italian. However, in a recent classroom experience, I was amazed at how just my mediocre knowledge of the language improved the moments of humor as well as those of horror. If only for this, we should be grateful. Below, I've added three random places where I think the subtitling has improved an audience's understanding of, and enjoyment of the film.

The first is a moment that is clearly understandable in the film. Pina is caressed by a German soldier before Francesco is taken out of the building. She is consoling a woman whose son has just been taken away, and must stand up for herself--a moment of strength for her as well as the women around her. In the old DVD release, we only hear German words, without subtitles. Now, we know what he said.

Pina Abused_Old Version

Pina Abused_New Version

Next, we have a better sense of the quasi-lesbian relationship between Ingrid and Marini.  When Ingrid calls in the old version, she merely breathes into the phone, "I'm waiting."  But now, we have a clearer picture of the relationship between the pair.

Betrayal_Old Version

Betrayal_New Version

And finally, a moment of humor.  One of the great aspects of Open City is its use of humor to balance the drama.  When the little rebels set off a bomb after curfew, they must then run home and face, perhaps, a scarier judge--their parents.  Although the screaming of the children is enough to realize that they're getting a well-deserved whacking for threatening their lives by staying out after dark, these new subtitles clear it up a bit.

There You Are_Old Version

There You Are_New Version

As a bonus, a line of dialogue that was lost on non-Italian speakers before, is restored thanks to some subtitles.  Now, we can all laugh at something that I know my parents have said to me:

There You Are_Bonus

Just another reminder that although film is a visual medium, and Rossellini's film has the power to move audiences to tears without knowing all the details of the dialogue, these new subtitles are a wonderful addition.

-Rob Ribera