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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…


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#155 February 13, 2013

Marie writes: If I have a favorite festival, it's SXSW and which is actually a convergence of film, music and emerging technologies. However it's the festival's penchant for screening "quirky" Indie movies which really sets my heart pounding and in anticipation of seeing the next Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman. So from now until March, I'll be tracking down the best with the zeal of a Jack Russell terrier!  Especially since learning that Joss Whedon's modern B/W take on Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" is set to screen at SXSW 2013 in advance of its June 21st US release date; they'll cut an official trailer soon, rubbing hands together!

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Faster, Quentin! Thrill! Thrill!


Rating: Four stars

Consider now the curious character of Dr. King Schultz. He is an itinerant dentist who works from his little wagon, traveling the backroads of the pre-Civil War South. As Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" opens, we see a line of shackled slaves being led through what I must describe as a deep, dark forest, because those are the kinds of forests we meet in fairy tales. Out of this deepness and darkness, Schultz (Christoph Waltz) appears, his lantern swinging from his wagon, which has a bobbling tooth on its roof.

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Django America

Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012) is a very good Tarantino movie. Save for "Pulp Fiction," I tend to appreciate and respect Tarantino movies more than I enjoy them. "Pulp Fiction," however, was so entertaining that I did not want it to end. Such were my feelings with "Django Unchained." As a mash of bloody pulp cinema with great aspirations, it is as entertaining as anything I have seen from Tarantino. For Tarantino diehards it is as Tarantino-esque as everything else from him.

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The best greatest movies ever list


UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.

Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.

Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)

Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.

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Tim and Eric Mediocre Movie, Great Job!


"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is available for streaming/download on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu and YouTube. In theaters March 2.

"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is a lot like "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!." They're both experimental video art posing as sketch comedy. In them you can see DNA from Ernie Kovacs, John Waters, the Kuchar brothers, Robert Downey, Sr., Tom Rubnitz, early Beck music videos, Damon Packard, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (and every other Adult Swim psychotic episode) and Harmony Korine, to name just a random few. But it's likely that actor-writer-directors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim took inspiration from none of these freaks.

The duo's work seems to flow directly from three sources: Bad corporate promotional and instructional videos, absurd local TV programming and assaultive blockbuster films. Their collages of chopped-and-screwed sounds with spastic motion graphics and sloppy green screen don't seem much different (in effect, if not production values) from what's on cable any given Sunday. It's just that they put unattractive, demented-seeming people in front of the green screen instead of the usual telegenic emoters. They spout nonsense where platitudes and corporate messages usually go. When celebrities appear on the show, they flub and stutter like robot hologram versions of themselves. It's as if the show's editor was a spam bot.

Whether any of it is funny is almost beside the point. The creeping surrealism often takes away your ability to blink, especially, I suspect, when, like me, you have no history with the show.

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In the meadow, we can pan a snowman


You better watch out You better not cry You better have clout We're telling you why Two Thumbs Down are comin' to town We're making a list, Checking it twice; Gonna find out whose movie was scheiss. Sandy Claws is comin' to town. We see you when you're (bleeping), We know when you're a fake We know if you've been bad or good So be good for cinema's sake!

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It moves! It speaks! It smells!

This week we'll be treated to a big advertising campaign for "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D." I have not seen the film, but I have experienced the process.

Yes, the Scratch-n-Sniff card is back, this time advertised as Aromascope. We have come a long way since Odorama and Smell-O-Vision. Well, maybe not that long a way.

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Elizabeth Taylor, pagan goddess


Camille Paglia is known for being both brilliant and wacky (possibly wacko) -- often at the same time, which is probably when she's at her most inspired. A founding contributor at (and co-star of "It's Pat: The Movie"), Paglia spoke on the phone to Salon editor Kerry Lauerman yesterday after the news of Elizabeth Taylor's death, and offered up an extraordinary tribute. I just wanted to share some of it with you. Lauerman begins by quoting something Paglia wrote about Taylor in Penthouse in 1992:

"She wields the sexual power that feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy. Through stars like Taylor, we sense the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy. Feminism has tried to dismiss the femme fatale as a misogynist libel, a hoary cliche. But the femme fatale expresses women's ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm." Paglia takes it from there:

Exactly. At that time, you have to realize, Elizabeth Taylor was still being underestimated as an actress. No one took her seriously -- she would even make jokes about it in public. And when I wrote that piece, Meryl Streep was constantly being touted as the greatest actress who ever lived. I was in total revolt against that and launched this protest because I think that Elizabeth Taylor is actually a greater actress than Meryl Streep, despite Streep's command of a certain kind of technical skill. [...]

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John Waters: Don we now our gay apparel


The notion of a Christmas Show by John Waters is somehow alarming, as if the Big Bad Wolf had decided to perform as the Easter Bunny. Waters has made a career of cheerfully exploiting the transgressive and offensive. When he appears at the Harris Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, he promises to discuss such questions as whether Santa Claus is erotic, whether it's a gay holiday, and why stars on Christmas tours always seemed to go crazy onstage when they get to Baltimore.

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'Precious' wins as many Indie Spirits as it possibly can


LOS ANGELES -- I wonder what this might mean. "Precious" did about as well as it possibly could have Friday might at the Independent Spirit Awards. It won for best picture, best actress (Gabourey Sidibe), best supporting actress (Mo'Nique), best director (Lee Daniels) and best first screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher). Supporting actor Lenny Kravitz was in the house, but couldn't win because he wasn't nominated.

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Name That Director!


Click above to REALLY enlarge...

UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...

Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.

In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)

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Precious Based on the Movie Female Trouble by John Waters

May Contain Spoilers

My previous post, Impressions Based on the Hype for the Movie Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, was an account of exactly that -- how even limited exposure to advance word for the movie over 11 months, from Sundance in January to theatrical release in November, created expectations that made me not want to see it. What follows are my impressions when I finally did.

* * * *

UPDATE (12/24/09): "I didn't have the sensibilities of your ordinary filmmaker, let alone your ordinary African-American filmmaker. My heroes were John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar, and actors that were part of that world. Different." -- Lee Daniels, June 2009

* * * *

None of us is immune to movie publicity, unless we're lucky enough to see the picture well in advance of its theatrical release (perhaps at an early film festival screening) -- or stay away from publications, television, radio, the Internet and any form of communication with other people until we can see it. In the case of "Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," I reluctantly came to feel that I knew all-too-well what to expect: a grueling torture-fest of a movie that would culminate in an equally manipulative upbeat ending.

Turns out, it is all that, but it's also something else I hadn't anticipated: funny. Yes, it's a rags-to-redemption "social problem" movie, but at the same time it's a consciously camped-up fairy tale, complete with Evil StepMother. It's a showcase for two heartfelt bravura performances (by Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe) and an often laughably overwrought melodrama -- not just because of the horrors it depicts but because it's fully aware of how shockingly high it stacks the decks against its heroine. "Precious" is a virtual remake of John Waters' 1974 "Female Trouble," which makes for a crazy, volatile clash of tones and textures.

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Impressions Based on the Hype for the Movie Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

This is the first of two posts about the movie "Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire." In this one, I talk about the impressions I got from the movie's press coverage, advertising, reviews and word-of-mouth, and why they put me off the film. In the second part I'll write about my response to the movie when I finally, reluctantly, went to see it... (Part II: "Precious Based on the Movie Female Trouble by John Waters")

I put it off as long as I could. For months I tried not to read about it, but I knew it had won a bunch of awards at Sundance back in January, 2009, when it was called "Push." That, in itself, is enough to make me want to avoid it. The Sundance Film Festival is notorious for hailing a certain type of dilettantish formula movie -- the feel-bad/feel-good story of degradation and redemption, set in a colorful, semi-exotic subculture -- and the picture eventually known as "Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" sure seemed to fit the profile. There's nothing I hate more than a voyeuristic lesson-movie that goes slumming and then presents itself as an inspirational triumph of the spirit. By the time Oprah (Winfrey, that is -- promoter of bogus New Age twaddle like "The Secret") and Tyler Perry (maker of amateurish chitlin' circuit teleplays) signed on, with great fanfare, as "presenters" I was beginning to think (as I used to tell my newspaper editors about movies I was fairly or unfairly predisposed to despise) that nobody had enough money to pay me to see this thing.

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Brüno is WWE wrestling

If those screwball lovers Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner ever hooked up and had sex, they'd do it the way Brüno and his "pygmy" paramour do in "Brüno": with ACME slingshots, projectiles, champagne bottles and a customized Rube Goldberg device that appears to have been built with materials from Home Depot by George Clooney's character in "Burn After Reading." The matinee audience with whom I saw "Brüno," Sacha Baron Cohen's partially improvised Üniversal Pictures remake of RW Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (with a happy ending!), howled at the grossness, the perversity, the preposterousness of it -- the same way audiences laughed and groaned at the explicitly cartoony perv-sex in John Waters movies of the 1970s. "Brüno" is rather tame compared to "Pink Flamingoes" or "Female Trouble" -- in part because it's 2009 and not 1974, and the experience of "shock value" has changed considerably. Truth is, it's hard to be too terribly shocked by anything in the bland, artificial cocoon of the mall-tiplex, no matter what's playing.

Inevitably, in all comedy, the joke comes down to: What is the joke? I've had a grand old time reading bewildered critics -- amused, disgusted, even shocked -- try to puzzle out what Borat and Brüno (the characters and the movies) are really saying. The most entertaining explanations are by writers who don't necessarily know they're bewildered, or how much they're revealing about their own prejudices when they claim the movie is revealing the prejudices of the "real folks" on screen. (Hint: Even more so than in "Borat," the butt of the joke is the title character, not the "real people" with whom he interacts. Tricking people is not exactly the same as making fun of them -- and most of those who get punk'd react about the way you'd expect them to.)

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Mickey Rourke lets his Indie Spirit fly


Based on his show-stopping speech at Saturday night's Independent Spirit Awards, if Mickey Rourke wins an Oscar on Sunday night the Oscarcast is going to be a lollapalooza. As his comeback film "The Wrestler" won for best film, male actor and cinematography, Rourke brought the show to a halt and the audience to its feet with an acceptance speech that was classic Mickey. The Indie Spirits are telecast live and unbleeped, which added considerably to the speech's charm.

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Dude, where's my breakfast?

Breathless reports have swooped around the web about John Anderson, film critic for Variety, pounding the legendary publicist Jeff Dowd (aka The Dude) at Sundance. There was a jab to the chest! One to the shoulder! Dowd kept his guard down! A punch to the head! Anderson turned and walked away, then came back and threw his best right to the jaw!

I have this blow-by-blow account from The Dude himself. Park City Police Officer Bob deBotelho responded after a call from the Yarrow restaurant, collected eyewitness testimony, and offered

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