Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Celluloid fetishism takes on new meaning with Film Forum’s massive 45 movie screening series Fox Before the Code, beginning December 1. The line-up contains a diverse mixture of genres and subjects later deemed too racy when the strict Hays Code clamped down on Hollywood in 1934. First established in 1929, conniving filmmakers managed to ignore the Code in order to bring hedonistic pick-me-ups to downtrodden Depression-era audiences. By the middle of the decade, however, traditionalist values dominated the national perspective, and the movies fell to the whims of religious zealots.

Continue reading about "Fox Before the Code" in the New York Press...

The Fountain

There are several reasons why it makes sense to hate The Fountain, the third helping from indie prodigy Darren Aronofsky, least of all being its pretentiousness. The enigmatic plotting, transmitted through overt spiritual symbolism and heavy-handed mythologizing, spanning three separate time periods and featuring the same central performers in each era as star-crossed lovers is not really such a rotten idea—but that density hardly befits a director whose first two films possessed more focused contemplation. Now Aronofsky has taken the Jackson Pollock route: spewing a million ideas in as many directions across a canvas 96 minutes long. You can’t blame him for trying.

Read the rest of the review in the New York Press...

Friday, November 24, 2006


Iraq in Fragments

Sorry, Michael Moore: The best political documentary of 2004 was Jehane Noujaime's Control Room. Viewing the nascent American invasion of Iraq from the hectic center of an Al-Jazeera newsroom, Noujaime created a focused critique of the rushed warmonger tactics plaguing the Bush Administration. As locals and foreigners alike scrambled to hide from some very unwanted bombs over Baghdad, the media's proverbial chattering class—noticeably more frantic in Iraq than in the Home of the Brave—provided a mouthpiece to the troubles at hand. "The Americans will defeat the Americans," says the worldly journalist Hassan Ibrahim in the film. "I have faith in the American Constitution."

If only John Kerry had aimed for a more nuanced attack on the events overseas than the ham-fisted bullet points that comprise Fahrenheit 9/11. Noujaime managed to capture the disaster at its heart, illustrating how the desire for worldwide Westernization neglects the ability for a war-torn country to find its own stability. It was clear, even in the early stages of the invasion, that imposing American democracy on a radically different cultural and political establishment will ultimately tear it apart. So now comes Iraq in Fragments, a documentary that fulfills that neglected prophesy, elucidating the inevitable conclusion that we've lost control and run out of room.

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The Aura

The Aura is a small movie with big dreams. It toys with the heist genre, wielding the audacity of a French New Wave experiment, then pads out the running time with additional levels of subtlety—some more successful than others. Argentinean director Fabián Bielinsky (who passed away this June) focuses on a nameless taxidermist (the wonderfully subdued Ricardo Darín, who also starred in Bielinsky’s first film, Nine Queens) with dreams of a life drenched in thievery and espionage, an admittedly more exciting prospect than the droll routine of stuffing fluff into expired animals. He becomes animated with childish delight while recounting his hypothetical how-to scenario for the perfect bank robbery to a colleague. As the two men stand in line to make a deposit, the plan is acted out according to the taxidermist’s inventive scheme. It isn’t an altogether untenable operation, but cold truth rushes in as our hero realizes a genuine predicament: Such ambitious movie fantasies don’t match his timid tranquility. “Who do you think you are,” mocks the colleague, “Billy the Kid?”

Read the rest of the review in the New York Press...

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?

“Who’s the expert? Who’s the faker?” Those are the provocative queries put forth by Orson Welles, playing omniscient narrator in his masterful quasi-documentary on art forgery, F for Fake. Three decades hence, the enigma remains unanswered. In Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock, authenticity among the cultural elite is called into serious question. The documentary, directed by broadcast veteran Harry Moses, recounts the odd tale of elderly truck driver Teri Horton, a raunchy Southerner who, in the early 1990s, purchases a canvas covered in messy paint strokes for five bucks in a thrift store and gives it to her friend as a joke. When they decide to pawn it off at a garage sale, Horton learns that she may be in possession of an original Jackson Pollock. She reacts with an uncensored version of the film’s title.

Read the rest of the review in the New York Press...

Saturday, November 11, 2006


The jury will always be out on Brian De Palma’s addiction to homage. Insistently quoting from earlier works, he builds a subcontext that often works tangentially to the main narrative. His innumerable references to Hitchcock demonstrate that suspense can finagle into practically any scenario, but they also inevitably invite comparison between De Palma’s own abilities and those of his referents. This makes him either pretentious or brave—depending on how he’s skewed—but always divisive, especially when a particular film features a high percentage of precedent material. He doesn’t so much invite moral outrage as toy with cinematic sacrilege, shamelessly culling from the holy library of moving pictures and making no apologies for his ambition.

In the case of his thrillers, De Palma recycles formula beautifully, filtering it through his own cine-quixotic vision (Sisters and Dressed to Kill are terrific examples). However, unlike his other two contributions to the crime genre, Scarface and Carlito’s Way, The Untouchables is mostly a mess. Working from a script by David Mamet that takes equal cues from the early Sixties television show and legendary copper Eliot Ness’s famous prohibition-era takedown of Al Capone, De Palma’s version is a jumble of half-developed plotlines and incredulous impersonations (particularly egregious are Robert DeNiro, in a minor variation on gangsters he’d done in the past, as Capone, whose fragmented scenes shed no light on the strengths of the crime lord’s personality, and Kevin Costner, sounding as if he’s reading Ness’s lines off a cue card.) Only Sean Connery, in an Oscar-winning role as keen and ornery lawman Jim Malone, brings any sort of believable presence; unfortunately, his character’s bloody death before the final act destroys any chance for the film’s redemption.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006


As thousands of troops face mortal danger in Iraq, debate on the prevalent usage of “fuck” in American society seems like a discussion for another day. So if the smog lifts sometime soon, Steve Anderson’s like-named documentary will be there waiting. Reveling in vulgarity with charming, child-like glee, Fuck is a libertarian’s wet dream. But unlike the endless rounds of tiring obscenities that defined the vaguely discernible narrative in The Aristocrats, Anderson uses a familiar storytelling structure, mixing interviews with archival footage and trendy graphics to create a coherent essay. The man obviously cares deeply about his curse words.

Read the rest of the review in the New York Press...

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

The improvisatory performances of Sacha Baron Cohen may have finally earned a spot in intellectual discourse, but appreciation for his original comic routine is way overdue. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan arrives as the culmination of many years the actor spent duping people around the world under three wildly exaggerated guises on Da Ali G Show. The basic premise found him embodying characters culled from the crudest stereotypes out there: the title thuggish hip-hop impresario; a German punk fetishist named Bruno (the star of Baron Cohen's next movie, according to the trades), and Borat Sagdiyev, a messy conflation of false conceptions surrounding third-world savagery hailing from a brutally fictionalized Kazakhstan. All three creations purport to be journalists, interviewing unsuspecting real-life subjects who often become outraged; almost as frequently, they readily accept the actor's performances as authentic personalities, revealing their own racist tendencies in their lack of surprise and disbelief. Viewed in light of these results, it seems natural that the actor wrote a college thesis on the Civil Rights movement.

The second feature-length treatment of a Baron Cohen creation (the first being the uninspired, fully-scripted Ali G Indahouse) maintains a fascinating anthropological perspective. Still, those unfamiliar with the character's history on television are unlikely to comprehend the range of his comic potential. The movie is undoubtedly an experience worth having; it's infuriating and bold, immersive and disorienting, surreal and yet uncomfortably familiar. That shouldn't detract from the merits of noteworthy Borat skits from the show, where the laughs have been much larger, and the "wow" moments -- when seemingly regular folks reveal their inner biases -- much more frequent.

Read the rest of the review at The Reeler...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Directed by John Ford

Fans of John Ford’s Western panache know the unique flourishes of his movie landscape: As magnificent silhouettes ride horseback across a desolate horizon—their heroic forms outlined with the gorgeous palette of a setting sun, their cadences set to a glorified soundtrack—he creates a fantastical vision of the American frontier. Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, Directed by John Ford, extracts this aesthetic from the director’s half-century career, essentially making clip-show pornography. You couldn’t ask for a better subject. Ford’s movies speak for themselves as relics of sincerity from a forgotten age; the ’70s introduced us to Clint Eastwood’s lone rider, and the genre began a slow decline toward self-parody and cynicism. The regular faces that populate Ford’s oeuvre—particularly John “Duke” Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda—battled to uphold a moral system in a world suffering from disrepair. They weren’t always successful (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a steely-eyed reporter retorts to Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but the messages were unmistakable.

Read the rest of the review in the New York Press: