Wednesday, November 24, 2010


"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

So, it seems I am developing a bit of a theme here.

It occurred to me when I wrote my piece on My Man Godfrey [review] a couple of weeks ago that if I dug through all my reviews, I probably reference Sullivan's Travels more than any other movie. The message in Preston Sturges' script had a profound effect on me. He reminds us all that, whatever else our intentions, always entertain. That is the primary objective.

I considered making Sullivan's Travels my next choice, but then Modern Times [review] came in, and though the Chaplin picture postponed my taking my kajillionth look at Sturges, it actually added to the overall exploration that has distinguished the movies I've watched this November. Even better, the delay means Sullivan's Travels lands right when we're all preparing for Thanksgiving, and despite the big swamp of family dysfunction the holiday has come to signify for most of us, the adventures of one John L. Sullivan will remind us that maybe we really should take a moment to be thankful for what he have in these troubled times.

Sturges made Sullivan's Travels in 1941, when America was still recovering from the Great Depression and WWII wasn't yet our concern. (The film premiered in January of '42, and so was in the can well before Pearl Harbor.) This meant Hollywood had several years of wrestling with the modern condition, including a host of message pictures. (If only Sturges knew the kind of propaganda Tinsel Town had waiting right around the corner!) Apparently having had his fill of the self-importance of these movies, the writer/director decided to give his moviemaking peers the what for. So, he created the character of John L. Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea), a movie director known for light comedies like Ants in the Pants of 1939, but who wants to embiggen his image by making a serious movie about the American poor: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Unsurprisingly, this isn't good news to the ears of the studio head. They'd rather their cash cow keep milking the teats that make them money. They taunt Sullivan for being raised a rich boy. How can a man who has never had to struggle possibly make a movie about struggle? It's a fair point that backfires: Sullivan decides to dress up as a tramp and go on the road, armed with only a single thin dime, and learn about life amongst the impoverished. Naturally, this is a worse idea than sinking their money into his serious artistic endeavors, but they are forced to go along with the plan. They try to send along a marketing crew, led by Sturges perennial William Demarest, to keep tabs on the golden boy, but Sullivan makes a deal with the publicity platoon to get 'em off his back. He also shrugs off his servants, including the haughty butler (Robert Greig) who dismantles his boss' desire to caricature the poor with the utmost of skill. Sullivan will not be deterred.

Except when he is. Over and over, too. For the first half of the movie, every road Sullivan takes out of Hollywood ends up taking him right back to where he started. On one such boomerang, he meets "the girl." I never realized we don't ever get a name for her, but she's played by Veronica Lake, so I will call her Veronica Lake. Veronica is on her way out of Hollywood, finally deciding her career as an actress isn't going to happen. Thinking Sullivan to be a bum, she buys him breakfast. When he asks how he can repay her, she asks if he can recommend her to Lubitsch. Oh, if she only knew!

Of course, she does find out eventually, and seeing that Sullivan is entirely helpless in the real world, Veronica insists on going along with him. She's a spunky beauty with a bit of a smart mouth, a perfect sparring partner for the wisecracking know-it-all. In fact, up until this point, Sullivan's Travels has mostly distinguished itself as a vehicle for Sturges' whipsmart dialogue; however, when Veronica learns Sullivan's secret, we also learn what a wily writer Preston Sturges is. He has spent this early part of the movie distracting us, making us think that for all his noble intentions, Sullivan will never burst out of his bubble and start to really see true poverty and strife.

The movie takes a sharp turn here. Sturges crafts an elegant montage that begins with Sullivan and the girl walking through a shantytown and ends with them finally losing their nerve when they are reduced to foraging for food in a garbage can. They've seen how real it can get, and they've had enough. Right there, without breaking his stride, Sturges has buried his message smack dab in the center of our good time. We were laughing at Sullivan, but suddenly we find ourselves feeling with him.

Sturges isn't done with us yet, though. His story has yet another turn to take. (Long before post-modernism, Sturges even had his character be conscious of the need for that twist. As a filmmaker, Sullivan is always aware of the structure of his own narrative, however accidental it may be.) On his last night out, Sullivan takes $1,000 in $5 bills and goes back to the streets to hand the money out to the poor and homeless. Being an optimistic man, but also a realist, Sturges sees the danger that Sullivan does not: a selfish hobo (Georges Renavent) hits Sullivan over the head and takes the money. Another turn of fate follows, and not only does everyone believe Sullivan was murdered, but he ends up on a chain gang to boot, unable to prove who he really is.

It's in this final twist that Sturges serves us with his real message. Having hit rock bottom, Sullivan's faith in himself and creativity is restored by the moving image. More precisely, by a Pluto cartoon. It turns out that on Sundays the gang boss takes his prisoners to the local African American church to watch movies with the congregation. I know some people bristle at the early slapstick scenes where the black cook is reduced to a racial stereotype, but one should consider the far more important and substantial image of the black preacher and his church. They open up their doors to the cast-off men of the chain gang, and the pastor reminds his group that they must not judge the criminals because everyone is equal before God. Think about what a powerful statement that is: here is a man who could not have been further marginalized by American society acting as the reminder that we aren't all so different from one another.

Sullivan doesn't hear any of this, though. His reminder is Pluto. As the cartoon plays on the screen in front of him, Sullivan is more interested in the reaction of the people around him. Everyone is laughing. It doesn't matter who they are, prisoner or guard, preacher or parishioner, white or black, they all forget their troubles and their differences and unite in the common bond of entertainment. There are no movies more important than the ones that transport people from their everyday lives. It's what the butler told him: poor folks don't care about seeing movies about living in poverty, they know exactly what that's like. Give them something that makes them feel good, and they'll turn out in droves.

The message of Sullivan's Travels isn't manipulative. There isn't a manipulative bone in Preston Sturges' body. That doesn't mean he doesn't lead us where he needs to go, but like My Man Godfrey and Modern Times, this movie informs our souls without ever alerting us to the fact that we're being taught a lesson. In his most important move yet, the final scenes of Sullivan's Travels, the character's rescue and redemption (this is a light comedy, you can't call that a spoiler) put this theory into practice. Think about how you feel at the end of Sullivan's Travels. Don't you feel good? Are you smiling? Didn't Preston Sturges prove his point?

Sullivan isn't wrong. The intention of any artistic endeavor, be it heavy or light, is to show us the life we didn't live. Fiction is meant to transport us, to show us a different point of view. With this movie, Preston Sturges is reminding his fellow entertainers to remember why they do what they do. He's also reminding his audience why it matters. We need to be like John L. Sullivan in that church and pause to take a look around, to really see what the world around us is like and empathize with the people we share it with. Otherwise, what's the point? Why even share the communal experience of going to the movies at all?

Even further, though, we need to empathize because though that fellow over there's problems may not be yours, it doesn't mean you can't have some understanding of them. Is there any personal divide so wide that we can't find a way to traverse it? If we watch a Charlie Chaplin or an Ernst Lubitsch film, we don't laugh as Republicans and Democrats, we just laugh. We should solve our problems in the same manner. Beyond rhetoric, we're just citizens trying to make our way. If one of us is going hungry or is hurting because he doesn't have health care or depressed because she can't love who she wants to love, then what good is it that any of us is satiated, healthy, or cared for. In the dark of the movie theater, we all laugh and cry the same, and so, too, should we go forth in life.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

MODERN TIMES (Blu-Ray) - #543

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is arguably the last great masterpiece of the silent era. Made in 1936, it was intended to be a full sound picture, but Chaplin decided to instead use sound as merely another comedic prop. The result is absolutely charming, effortlessly spanning the divide between two eras and never failing to generate a grin.

The story of Modern Times begins with Chaplin's signature character, the Tramp, working in a steel factory. He is on the assembly line turning lug nuts. The monotony of the job and the inhuman treatment by his bosses is getting to him. The need for efficiency is superseding basic decency. In one of the film's funnier scenes, an inventor brings in a machine that will feed the workers so that they never have to pick up a utensil or wipe their own chins. Naturally, this doesn't work properly, and though the Tramp is strapped into the malfunctioning contraption, the men pay him no mind as they keep trying to get their device to work. It's all about progress, who cares if the little man keeps getting pie in his face?

The elaborate sets and effects in the factory scenes are amazing. Most famously, there is a bit where Chaplin falls into the cogs and wheels and is cycled through, just another piece of the machine. It's this event that causes the Tramp to have a breakdown, getting him out of the factory and onto the series of unfortunate events that will make up the rest of Modern Times. It's an episodic story, the Tramp tumbling from one spot of trouble to the next. After a stay in the sanitarium, he accidentally happens into a Communist march and gets arrested; in jail, he foils a jailbreak and gets released; and so on. Along the way, he also runs into a young girl, billed as "the gamine," played by Paulette Goddard. Her father was killed in some kind of demonstration by unemployed men, her sisters were taken by social services, and she is all alone. The Tramp helps her, and they try to make a life together, getting a series of jobs and dodging the police where they can.

Charlie Chaplin, who wrote the music, scripted, produced, and directed Modern Times in addition to starring, has an uncanny knack for social satire. The events in the movie showcase situational comedy at its most basic: whatever the Tramp stumbles into leads to laughs. Given the theme of the picture, the things he stumbles into have something to do with life in 1936. At a time when many were out of work and going to bed hungry, the audience could identify with the Tramp. The fear that technology could eclipse the individual probably seemed like a very real prospect, and the introduction of assembly line worksites made it possible to manufacture more products at a faster rate, but at the cost of the personal touch. All of this is shown here, but it never edges out the pratfalls or Chaplin's ingenious visual gags.

Perhaps it's because he doesn't physically say anything that allows Chaplin to say so much. Without dialogue, the Tramp can never make a speech or explain himself, and so he can never get preachy or otherwise let the message overtake his primary objective: laughter. There is spoken dialogue in the movie, but it's only ever heard via broadcast. The boss in the factory addresses his workers over a loudspeaker and an Orwellian television screen. Other information is heard on the radio. Technology has made communication a distant practice accessible to only those with the means--one of many aspects of this movie that still speaks to us today, as we grapple with an ever more complicated and alienating digital age (he says, ironically, writing his words about a state-of-the-art high-definition video disc on the internet). The only other synchronized sound is sound effects and, in the final reel, a couple of songs. Most notably, Chaplin performs "Je cherche après Titine," a bawdy musical number that he sings as French gibberish. Listen carefully to the nonsense while watching his gestures, and the meaning is clear (we also get a peek at the English lyrics just before). The Tramp speaks, but he doesn't really say anything. His mystery stays intact.

As does his unflapping optimism. The tone of Modern Times is "up." The Tramp and his gamine have a sweet rapport that borders on romance and gives each of them the strength to carry on even when things look bleak. Indeed, the final title card is "Buck up - never say die! We'll get along," and Chaplin can be seen mouthing the words "Smile!" Those familiar with the song will even notice strains of what would become "Smile" woven throughout the movie. (Lyrics wouldn't be added until 1954; though Chaplin never performed it, due to the tune's origins, it's usually associated with him.) The Tramp never despairs, never gives in, and despite his bending the law from time to time, he always tries to do what is fundamentally right. It's no wonder that he was such an enduring and popular character throughout the era.

I know a lot of people who have never seen a silent film. The perception of these old movies is that they are antiquated and, worse, boring. How could they be interesting if no one ever says anything? Naturally, those of us who watch silent movies know how wrong this is. Modern Times would be a good start for anyone who hasn't tried silent comedy before. It bridges the gap enough that it has a curiosity factor going for it, and the impressive sets and camerawork should prove both impressive and surprising. Even better, the comedy in Modern Times is as novel and hilarious as you're likely to find in any contemporary films. Chaplin always intended his routines to have universal appeal so that his movies could be watched all around the world. That worked out. Borders could not hold him back. It turns out, neither could time. Modern Times is a comedy that knows no age.

Recently, I've watched a bunch of the Warner Bros. Chaplin discs that came out years ago, and though most of them looked pretty good, there were definitely some problems, including fuzzy resolution and print damage. With this in mind, I am all the more amazed by the high-definition, 1.33:1 image on the Modern Times Blu-Ray. There is nary a hint of dirt or digital noise, and the overall picture is clear and beautifully rendered. Darks and lights are contrasted well, and the surface grain on the image gives it the right kind of vintage polish. This is an extraordinary restoration.

The Criterion release of Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin's final performance as the Tramp, is about as modern as it gets. This is the way to take a film from 1936 and release it in a 21st-century format! The fantastic restoration job means we can enjoy every frame of Chaplin's upbeat social critique. And are there lessons to be learned for us all these years later? Are we still struggling with the place of the common man in a technological world, still wrestling with unemployment and worker's rights? You bet. Thankfully, we also still know how to laugh, and so Modern Times still manages to pack its punch. If you're ever feeling pessimistic about what tomorrow holds, just put Modern Times in your Blu-Ray player, and you're sure to smile.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


"The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job."

I recently did an interview with a film student who was working on a project about how the current economic troubles in the U.S. and around the world were effecting cinema. It was hard to come up with titles for contemporary fictional films that had addressed the situation directly except for Up in the Air [review]. Hollywood has not yet pulled on its big boy pants and gotten relevant to the times. Not like in the Great Depression, when movies by the likes of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges regularly looked at America as it was in the here and now of the moment.

This hadn't come to mind when I chose to re-watch Gregory La Cava's 1936 comedy My Man Godfrey. I had picked it for this week's feature because I had seen someone else mention the title and realized I hadn't viewed it in a long time. My Man Godfrey would make for a light afternoon matinee. What with me stuck behind a deadline and a little hungover, why not laugh a little?

My Man Godfrey opens at the city dump. Two socialite sisters, Cornelia and Irene (Gail Patrick and Carole Lombard), are on a scavenger hunt. One of the items on the list is a "forgotten man," the euphemism for the homeless and displaced. Cornelia goes up to Godfrey (William Powell) and offers him $5 to go back to the party with her and help her win the hunt. Godfrey is rightly offended by this, and he tells Cornelia off. When he quizzes the friendlier, flightier sister, Irene explains the nature of the hunt to him. He agrees to go back with her, if only to beat Cornelia in the game. The hunters are all congregating in a hotel ballroom, and when Godfrey sees the madness and the decadence, he gives the entire party a piece of his mind. There is clearly something different and unexpected about this particular forgotten man: he's remembered to retain his dignity.

Feeling bad for dragging Godfrey into this vapid insanity, Irene attempts to make it up to him by offering this displaced fellow a job as the Bullock family butler. ("Do you butle?" she asks him.) He takes it, because a job is a job. Irene even gives him money to buy a new suit. He shows up the next day cleanly shaven and newly dressed, only to find the Bullocks in a state of disrepair following their extensive partying the night before. Mother Bullock, Angelica (Alice Brady), sees pixies in her room, Cornelia is a holy terror, and Irene barely recognizes the man she hired--though once she does, she declares him her protégé and says she will guide him in life. It will be just like the way her mother guides the young Spanish pianist (Mischa Auer) who is always around. Oh, and Irene is also falling in love with her new manservant.

It's enough to make a butler run screaming. Apparently, it did the last guy, and many before him. (Actually, the last guy also stole from them, though given later events in the movie, it's possible Cornelia framed him.) The only one in the Bullock family who seems to have his head on straight is the father (gravel-voiced character actor Eugene Pallette), and he spends most of his time chasing behind his wife and daughters and paying off their bills. He insists they are going to cause him to go broke, but they think he's fooling. He's not.

Meanwhile, Godfrey comes into his own as a butler. He masterfully glides through the chaos, finding his purpose through honest work. As he does, his story begins to emerge. He is not so much the down-on-his-luck moneyman that we suspect, he is the son of a wealthy Boston family who dropped out of society when he got a divorce. It was a rash, selfish decision, and his hooking up with the lost souls who ended up sleeping in the garbage heap for a real reason shows him how rash and selfish it was. One of his old Boston pals, Tommy Gray (Alan Mowbray), spots him at the Bullocks, and after Tommy agrees to keep his secret, they start to hatch some plans for how to rectify Godfrey's place in life.

My Man Godfrey was written by Morrie Ryskind, one of the Marx Bros.' writers, and Eric Hatch, one of the scribes on the Topper screenplay, and it was based on a novel by Hatch. It's a compact story, despite spanning a lot of time within its fictional world. In a lot of ways, the narrative progresses off screen. The scenes the writers and La Cava choose to show stand alone as individual comedic situations, and the actual plot is artfully tucked in between as connective tissue. You almost don't notice there is a story at all, the way these characters bat each other around is so funny. My Man Godfrey is full of witty dialogue and quotable lines.

William Powell is marvelous as Godfrey. He starts the movie with a hint of menace, but that turns out to be a defense mechanism. Godfrey softens as he regains his confidence. The actor is able to deliver an erudite joke with natural ease, lacing the words with amusement or withering disdain depending on what is called for. He can also be genuinely nice, something that is particularly evident in his rapport with Carole Lombard. Though they had been a real-life married couple, Powell and Lombard had divorced by the time My Man Godfrey went into production, but if there was any animosity between them, it doesn't follow them onscreen. Lombard is a brilliant comedic performer. She manages to make Irene as ridiculous as she needs to be, but you never get the feeling that she is ridiculing the character to do so.

That's because the whole of My Man Godfrey is made with compassion. Yes, it's a screwball comedy and a light romance with an ending that drops an out-of-leftfield solution on us. More importantly, though, La Cava has crafted a movie that is sensitive to what is happening all around, and it addresses the situation in a way that manages to keep the levity without forcing a message or condescending to the people whose lives it's meant to uplift. Five years before Sullivan's Travels [review] and Preston Sturges torpedoed the pomposity of socially conscious motion pictures and vindicated the effectiveness of popular entertainment, La Cava made the perfect example of how to do both. My Man Godfrey is poignant and touching, but it's also very funny and as breezy as they come. The film reminds us to put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow man, regardless of whether they live in a penthouse or in a cardboard box. Everyone has their problems, and it's just a small shift that can put us on one side or the other of the social dividing line. Going from upstairs to downstairs is just a quick tumble.

This is also why Up in the Air worked. Jason Reitman's movie isn't so much about the social condition or economic pitfalls as it is about the people it depicts. Characters living a believable life in a world that is recognizable as our own is far more effective than a contrived object lesson. The message is that there is no message, you just have to live and be human. One shudders to think what might happen were someone to decide to remake My Man Godfrey today (please, don't ever let Adam Sandler read my blog), but it really is a movie that speaks to our times. It may have felt very specific when all of these fine folks got together to make it, but what they came up with is timeless and thus eternally relevant.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

ANTICHRIST (Blu-Ray) - #542

Lars von Trier, how do you do this to me? And why? I can't think of a single filmmaker whose films I admire this much but that I have to gear myself up to watch. Knowing what a difficult, provocative director you can be, and advance word that your new movie Antichrist was extremely harsh, I prepared myself as best I could. It wasn't enough.

Francois Truffaut had a theory that a viewer was not properly prepared to critique a film until he or she has seen in three or four times. I would agree with that in the case of Antichrist. There is a lot to sort through here. Unfortunately, I'd be lucky to sit through the movie a second time without closing my eyes at crucial moments, much less give it a third or fourth viewing. This is a movie that is profoundly unsettling by design. It is erotically charged, graphically violent, visually creepy, and disturbing in its philosophy. I can't say I loved it, I am too nauseous, but I am astonished by it. It's incredible work from von Trier, who is easily one of the most challenging filmmakers working today. He is perhaps best known for Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville--all films that feature a female protagonist that must in some way contend with madness, be it personal or societal. Antichrist boldly continues this tradition.

The story is simple enough to set up: a married couple, known only as "He" and "She" and played with unflinching resolve by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, lose their son when he falls out the window while they are having sex. The woman is overcome by grief, and when all her doctor does is try to medicate her pain away, the husband takes over her treatment. He is a therapist by profession, and he believes human emotion, no matter how tragic, must be explored. Realizing that the symbol of his wife's greatest anxiety is the forest cabin where she spent her last summer with their son, he takes her up there to make her face her fears head-on. The cabin is in a part of the woods referred to as Eden. Obviously, paradise this is not.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Eden, the man starts seeing the woman's madness manifest, though he's not aware that's what he is witnessing. Nature itself is reacting to her, and he is witness to sights both grotesque and ominous, some of it perfectly natural, some of it more mystically symbolic. Alone in their cabin, they ride the stages of her mourning together--she can turn cruel or horny or depressed in a heartbeat, and the film is split into three states: grief, pain, and despair--until the weirdness becomes too overwhelming and the full insanity is unleashed.

Antichrist is sure to stir up debate. The film opens with an explicit sex scene, one of many, and its climax is full of upsetting images of very real violence, including genital mutilation. Lars von Trier understands the power of both things, and Antichrist requires a balance between them. Were he to shy away from either, the impact would be lessened. The violence is sexual, the sex is violent, the physical punishment is an exertion of control on an out-of-control world. I can't even imagine what the actors must have subjected themselves to in order to give von Trier what he wanted. Both Defoe and Gainsbourg are remarkably real and frighteningly honest on screen. If they were any less, this movie would not be so excruciating. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who is a regular von Trier collaborator and who put the gloss on the dross that was Slumdog Millionaire, captures an environment that is quite beautiful, even when it is sickening. Images of death and decay are just as lush and colorful as the life that thrives all around. Profound nightmares are enacted with a dreamy sort of peace. In this, I see parallels with the on-Earth scenes in Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. von Trier dedicates Antichrist to his former mentor, and from that venerated filmmaker, the Danish director has learned to demand patience both of himself and his audience.

The extremes of Antichrist are purposeful, this is not just shock for shock's sake. Lars von Trier is definitely saying something with this movie, though I am not sure everyone will agree on what that is. The writer/director has been charged with misogyny before, and Antichrist has him in hot water again, even winning a special anti-prize at Cannes. I've always found his portrayals of women to be sympathetic and, in their way, empowering. Dogville, for instance, ends with Nicole Kidman's character punishing those who had wronged her. Though many may argue that von Trier's ruthless portrayal of all those misdeeds is suggestive of diseased motives on his part, it's not a label I'm willing to hang on him. Nor am I willing to do be so quick to judge here. I think Willem Dafoe's reaction to his wife's revelations are key in interpreting the piece overall. She is a woman who has studied the history of violence against her gender, and her belief that maybe this is deserved, that there is something uncontrollable about women that must be contained, is not just a symbol of the madness she suffers, but a product of that abuse. Like a self-punishing version of Stockholm Syndrome that casts history as the captor.

More than the Tarkovsky influence, I actually see Ingmar Bergman's fingerprints all over Antichrist. You wouldn't have to work too hard to con me into thinking this was one of his unproduced scripts. Like von Trier, Bergman always wrestled with spirituality. In their films, mankind wants there to be something greater but fears that there is nothing to be had. Nature serves as a stand-in for God, a force that operates without our input or understanding. The division between our social constructs and our base nature is tragically thin, and efforts to contain either will be fruitless. Willem Dafoe's character is the one who sees all of the supernatural visions in Eden, yet he makes no effort to engage with or understand them. His mantra for his wife is that she should not attempt to explain the irrational, just let it happen. In this way, he may be more ill than her, possessed of a kind of cultural disorder that keeps him outside of the deeper experience and in turn pushes her further into the insanity. He is outside of nature, she is within it, even subject to it. When the woman's prophecies about the "Three Beggars" come true, manifesting as a deer, a fox, and a crow, he can only say they don't exist. This leaves us to ponder what we have seen, as well. He embodies a white knight syndrome that says a woman's problems are fixable, and his drive to compartmentalize her anguish turns her into a male nightmare, the crazed female who will do everything to prevent you from leaving her.

Does this make the woman more knowable, even if her behavior is harder to understand, just because she is more open to feel and to expressing those feelings? Antichrist is ambiguous to be sure, and von Trier isn't above punching a few volatile buttons. That title alone is meant to provoke and will likely be central to any arguments that the movie is misogynist. (Though, as Roger Ebert reminds us, the literal translation of the original term is "opposed to Christ," and so a being devoid of goodness rather than a theological opposite; religion doesn't even really come up in the context of the movie.) The final image of the movie doesn't help either. It's one of the things that haunts me the most about the film, even more than the brutality. How you interpret that scene, whether you see what arrives as coming to positively reclaim their own or to destroy what has created them all, is going to be crucial to how you ultimately feel about Antichrist. Regardless, it is not a film you will soon forget.

I recommend Antichrist highly, but I do recommend it with caution. The squeamish will not fare well watching it, and it may be a strange movie to screen with a member of the opposite sex, particularly one you care about. (If someone takes you to this on a first date, don't agree to a second.) It's a film I liked, and one I'll like talking and reading about, but not one I particularly liked watching.

In fact, I chickened out with how I watched the movie this time, now that I've seen it on Blu-Ray. The above were my first impressions, written when I saw the theatrical release...goodness, it was over a year ago. I had no idea it was that long. The wounds were still fresh, and though I was going to try to pull the wool here and make an excuse about how my second impression of the movie is fueled by the conversations I have had since, and so the best way to go about it a second time was by furthering that conversation, it would be a crock. I just wasn't ready to watch the film on its face, so instead I let others lead the way. Namely, I viewed it while listening to the audio commentary with Lars von Trier and film professor Murray Smith.

It's not an approach that lacks merit. I am seeking out a fundamental understanding of what von Trier was after with Antichrist. I had hoped for more from him on the commentary, and Smith does try to engage him in a dialogue about the things that inform his script, but von Trier is, not surprisingly, recalcitrant. He is more open about discussing the technical aspects of what was achieved instead of the why of the story. Part of that is natural, I get the sense that he is an intuitive artist who trusts his impulses without having to attach an explanation to them. Another part, and probably the main reason, is revealed in the closing portion of the movie, when Murray asks him what seems to be obvious, if the finale was meant to be ambiguous. von Trier says that in Antichrist, more than any of his other films, he pushed himself to be more mysterious. I would suppose, then, he must leave the movie unexplained; now that it's out there, it's not his mystery to expose.

Film scholar Ian Christie, on the other hand, is an expert detective, and his dissection of the film in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion release is well worth diving into. His theories on the title are particularly interesting. I won't give them here, go and read for yourself. There are also multiple interview selections on the disc that help in terms of exposing the story behind the production to a fuller degree.

Antichrist, as von Trier does explain in the commentary (as I said, there is much discussion of technical filmmaking), was shot with the Red digital camera. This makes the movie particularly suitable for High-Definition, and the transfer on the Blu-Ray is remarkable. Every blade of grass is sharply rendered, each has its own particular green. The optical effects really come alive, the way the story bends under Charlotte Gainsbourg's gaze, the intentional artificiality of the "magic," and the antiseptic black-and-white of the prologue and epilogue are given an increased visual potency in this format. Every gory detail is there to be seen, fulfilling von Trier's goal that there would be nowhere for the viewer to avoid the harsh particulars of his fictional reality. Say whatever else you want about it, but Antichrist on Blu-Ray looks phenomenal.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Below are other movies I reviewed over the last month.

But first, some belated Hausu-themed artwork by Nicolas Hitori De, featuring characters from our comic book Spell Checkers. I figured you all might get a kick out of it.


* The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the Swedish crime trilogy yawns and stretches to completion.

* Hereafter, Clint Eastwood's meditation on the afterlife fails on nearly every level. A serious contender for worst movie of the year--or at least the most boring.

* Never Let Me Go, an undercooked contender. I was really underwhelmed by this. Needed more of the story explained and more character material.


* Agora, a thought-provoking historical epic about the Christian takeover of Alexandria in 4 AD. Starring Rachel Weisz.

* Eccentricitie's of a Blonde-Haired Girl, Manoel de Oliveira's not-so-eccentric literary adaptation.

* The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford's astonishing adaptation of John Steinbeck, with Henry Fonda in the lead. Repackaged, not reissued.

* I Am Love, melodrama as a sumptuous feast. Starring Tilda Swinton.

* Kisses, an excellent Irish drama about two kids on the run from the abusive lives. A fairy tale, both light and dark.

* The Pacific, the television miniseries about the campaign against Japan in WWII. The follow-up to Band of Brothers.

* Richard III, Ian McKellan's inspired take on the Shakespeare classic, reset in fascist pre-War Britain.

* Samurai Vendetta, a tepid swordplay story that is strangely light on the revenge.

* Theater of War, an uneven documentary about the 2006 staging of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage starring Meryl Streep. It's best when it's just about Brecht himself.

* William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann's innovative modern adaptation of the classic doomed romance.