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12 Strong

“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.

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The Final Year

A documentary about the final year of foreign policy during the Obama administration, and incidentally about the grim surprises that life sometimes has in store…

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Ballad of Narayama

"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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The Magnificent Ambersons: What's Past is Prologue

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I've always felt Orson Welles' second feature, the memory-movie masterpiece "The Magnificent Ambersons," got a bad rap because: 1) it isn't "Citizen Kane"; and 2) it isn't the perfect creation Welles intended it to be because, as we all know, RKO re-cut and re-shot parts of it, including the last two scenes (which are so not Welles they don't really affect you much; they're like background noise that wakes you out of a deep sleep). Well, OK, "Ambersons" isn't "Kane" -- it's not as much fun as "Kane" (few movies are), but it's every bit as accomplished and it goes deeper into its characters and its evocation of the past. And, yes, I'd give my (fill in portion of anatomy here) to see the lost footage restored (although you can read the cutting continuity of the unfinished 132-minute version Welles left behind when he went to Brazil in March, 1942, and see stills of the missing scenes -- so you can imagine the finished movie, even if you can't actually see it).

All of this is to say that AltScreen has published a long piece I just wrote about this, one of my favorite movies. It begins with a more-or-less shot-by-shot analysis of the nine-minute prologue, and how it sets up everything else in the movie. You can read it here: "The Magnificent Ambersons: The Past is Prologue." The film has only recently been made available on Region 1 DVD (and even then as an Amazon-only bonus with the new Blu-ray of "Kane," though it shows up on TCM occasionally). A few excerpts, to give you a taste:

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Deeper into Kael

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"Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know." -- Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963)

"She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don't mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising." -- Woody Allen, to Peter Bogdanovich, quoted in the introduction to the book This is Orson Welles (1998)

The imminent publication of two books devoted to Pauline Kael -- "A Life in the Dark," a biography by Brian Kellow, and a collection of reviews and essays called "The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael," both due Oct. 27 -- has provided an excuse to recycle all the old arguments about her. And that's not something I can imagine being said for many of her American contemporaries, mostly because nobody argues about them. Is there another American film critic who has inspired such a biography, published 20 years after her retirement? Does anyone still read, say, Vincent Canby, the powerful, impressively independent but rather lackluster successor to Kael's much-ridiculed Bosley Crowther at the New York Times? (Canby covered the film beat at the Times during the height of that institution's "make-or-break" authority from 1969 to 1993, when he switched to theater, succeeding Frank Rich.)

Some have pointed out that Kael was often wrong. Well, I should bloody well hope so. What critic isn't? By "wrong" these critics evidently mean that she did not agree with them about which movies were good and which weren't, or that her verdicts did not align themselves with the Judgments of History, lo these many years later. Were "Bonnie and Clyde," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Last Tango in Paris," "Shampoo," "Nashville" and "Casualties of War" really as great as she claimed? How could she be so dismissive -- even contemptuous -- of "La Dolce Vita," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," "Shoah," "L'Eclisse" (and all Antonioni after "L'Avventura"), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and all Kubrick thereafter) and Cassavetes pretty much across the board? (If you don't find at least a couple things in those lists that raise your hackles, you should be worried about the integrity and independence of your own critical values.)

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From zombies to Pasolini: Movies as schoolyard dares

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"The Last 15 Minutes... Will Mess You Up For Life." -- tagline for "Paranormal Activity 3" (2011)

"Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does." 
-- Michael Haneke on his first version of "Funny Games"

In 1982, I took my 21-year-old sister to see "Poltergeist." When it was over, she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, "You have ruined my life." It was traumatic for her. I showed John Carpenter's "Halloween" in college and the experience so deeply shook a good friend of mine that she spent several sessions in therapy talking to "The Shape" (as he was billed).

So, we don't always know what we can handle. The question sometimes arises: Do you have an obligation to yourself, your friends and family, your fellow cinephiles/cinephiliacs, readers or viewers to expose yourself to films that challenge you, that push you out of your comfort zone? Sure you do. Everybody needs to test their limits, if only to find out what they are. Does that include shock cinema, so-called "torture porn," or movies that otherwise present themselves as a schoolyard dare ("Bet you can't watch this without puking!") -- the feature film equivalents of "2 Girls 1 Cup"? I think not.

This entered my mind while watching the second-season premiere of AMC's "The Walking Dead" last Sunday night (the zombies are metaphors for zombies) -- the monotonously gruesome series that featured a squishy backwoods autopsy scene in which two humans decide to cut open the stomach of a head-shot "walker" to find out if he'd recently eaten the little girl they're looking for. The obvious analogue is to the shark-belly autopsy from "Jaws," but this one was just an excuse to make the audience squirm on the way to a dumb punch line (How much woodchuck could a zombie chew up before it makes you upchuck, Chuck?).

Part of the thrill of watching a horror movie is the sense of triumph and relief you have at the end: "See? I made it through that -- and I survived!" Some movies are conceived and sold that way. It isn't so far from the William Castle-like gimmicks of having ambulances outside the theater or nurses in the lobby or barf bags at the concessions stand, to the hysteria of "The Exorcist" in 1973 (considered a rite-of-passage test of courage for teens and college students everywhere) to more recent phenomena like the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies.

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Melancholia: This is The End

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"Melancholia" is now available On Demand; in theaters November 7.

Of the Four Bodily Humours -- sanguine (blood), choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile) and phlegmatic (phlegm) -- Lars von Trier has probably been most closely associated with the choleric, as expressed in angry, violent, inflammatory, irritating and caustic films such as "Breaking the Waves," "The Idiots," "Dancer in the Dark," "Dogville," "Manderlay," "Antichrist"... The latter felt to me like a glossy fashion magazine's idea of a horror movie ("Evil Vogue" -- all it was missing were the scratch-n-sniff Odorama perfume ads), but von Trier¹ claimed it grew from deep inside a cocoon of depression.

"Melancholia" strikes me as a more focused and harrowing portrait of clinical depression, a glowing, black-bile-on-velvet portrait of despair so bleak that it destroys the entire planet. Two planets, in fact: one is Earth and the other (quite similar looking but much, much larger) called Melancholia, a kind of massive-planet-sized anti-matter particle which we see collide with and engulf the Earth (from deep in space) in the opening montage... and again, from a terrestrial perspective, at the end.

If Terence Malick's "Tree of Life" is, as I described it earlier in the year, "a movie about (and by) a guy who wants to create the universe around his own existence in an attempt to locate and/or stake out his place within it," then "Melancholia," by my reckoning, is a movie about (and by) a person whose depression is so inescapably great and soul-destroying that it envelops and annihilates the world. Because it has to. There's nowhere else for it to go. Also, it's important for the depressed character/filmmaker to firmly assert that the only life in the universe is on Earth, and that all of it is annihilated. Hope of any kind is not an option. Besides, anything less that than the obliteration of absolutely everything would spoil the perfection of the happy ending for von Trier and Justine (Kirsten Dunst), his Bride of Oblivion.

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VIFF #3: Almodovar gets skin deep

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Pedro Almodovar's movies are so beguiled by lustrous surface textures and colors (fabrics, hair, makeup, architecture, upholstery, jewelry) that the title "The Skin I Live In" (or "The Skin That I Inhabit," as I've seen "La piel que habito" translated elsewhere) would serve well as the name of his artistic autobiography. It's a shimmering horror-farce-melodrama quilted together from scraps of Georges Franju's 1960 "Eyes Without a Face," Andre de Toth's 1953 "House of Wax" (without the one-eyed 3D) and Douglas Sirk's 1954 "Magnificent Obsession" and 1959 "Imitation of Life" -- though it doesn't stop there -- about a mad doctor, a pioneering plastic-surgeon Dr. Frankenstein named Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, of course) whose personal life has been scarred by tragedy.

That's all I'm going to say about the plot because stitching together all the parts is so much of the pleasure of watching the movie. It begins in the middle, folds back to fill in a few mysterious spots in the patchwork, and then unpredictably pieces together the rest of the picture, bit by bit, for an absurdly touching and tentative finish.

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In the Cut: Salt action previsualization

Thanks to Joshua Frankel, who worked closely with director Phillip Noyce and stunt coordinator/director Vic Armstrong on the animated storyboards for the sequence I examined in "In the Cut Part II: A Dash of Salt," for sending me his previsualization sequence, above. As he explains on his site:

created previsualization animation for several major sequences in Salt. The film was not based on a book or other pre-existing property and the director, Phillip Noyce, had a lot of freedom to craft the story. Phillip worked with our team in previs to experiment with story options and push every moment in the film to be as unexpected and exciting as possible....

What is previsualization animation?

We build scale versions of the characters and sets inside the computer and create virtual cameras with lenses that match exactly the lenses being used by the cinematographer. I then work with the director to block in the actions, design camera moves and cut together a rough edit. We are able to do quite a bit of experimentation before anyone walks on set. The previs becomes a foundation for the sequence that the director can then build upon throughout the rest of the filmmaking process.

Compare with the sequence in the finished film, below:

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VIFF #2: Come into my painting said the spider to the eye

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Lech Majewski's "The Mill and the Cross" takes place inside Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel's 1564 The Way to Calvary -- as the artist observes, imagines, designs, sketches and paints it. I like to think of it as "Bruegel's 8 1/2," and I have rarely seen more absorbing and imaginative uses of blue-screen and CGI in movies.

Not that it's that simple. An article in American Cinematographer describes the film as "a three-year project that took [the filmmakers] to the Jura Mountains of Poland, the Czech Republic and New Zealand for 48 days of filming, followed by 28 months of postproduction at Odeon Film Studio in Warsaw. Production and post immersed them in digital technologies that included the first Red One to arrive in Poland, 2-D compositing in Flame and After Effects, 3-D compositing in Nuke and Fusion, and 3-D graphics in LightWave." Yeah.

Breugel (Rutger Hauer, acting in a world as fantastical and visually striking as that of "Blade Runner") wanders through the landscape of his painting, occasionally explaining his plans and methods to a patron played by Michael York. Charlotte Rampling is also featured as a model for the mother of Christ. But mostly they, and we, just watch. Breugel examines a dew-bejeweled spiderweb and is inspired to structure his painting along the same lines, with the principal event (Jesus stumbling while carrying the cross to Golgotha -- transposed to Flanders) in the center, yet surrounded by so much other activity (hundreds of other figures going about their business) that it is nearly lost, like the titular event in the artist's "The Fall of Icarus." At the upper left is the Tree of Life and the Circle of Life (the town); on the right, the Tree of Death (breaking wheel raised on a tree trunk) and the black Circle of Death (Golgotha).

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Aboard the movie to Vancouver

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Vancouver, BC, is a lovely town (not that I ever get to see any of it during the Vancouver International Film Festival, where I'm writing from) -- comparable in scenic beauty to my beloved home burgh of Seattle, and only three hours north by train. That is one dreamy train ride, too. (And Amtrak Cascades service has free Wi-Fi in coach and business class!) To me, a train is a movie on rails: the windows are like frames, the track is like the ribbon of film winding its way through the projector...

And, of course, how can you not have movie-memories whenever you board a train? "North By Northwest" is the first thing that always comes to my mind -- and "Twentieth Century," "Some Like It Hot," "That Obscure Object of Desire," "The Major and the Minor," "The Lady Vanishes"... (no, I am not going to think about "Unbreakable" or "Source Code").

Here are a few location "stills" from this year's VIFF production...

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VIFF #1: The "normal" pedophile nobody notices

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I wasn't sure how much I was going to be able to take of Markus Schleinzer's "Michael," at first, given that it begins as the "Jeanne Dielman" of Austrian kidnapper-pedophile movies. Fortunately, once the opening title appears on the screen it gets better. What I mean is, the movie starts by plunging us into the middle of a horrifying reality and treating it as mundane, reflecting the attitude of the title character (Michael Fuith), an insurance bureaucrat and sexual predator who keeps a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger) locked in the basement of his nondescript, steel-security-shuttered suburban home.

We have no idea how long this has been going on. All the more horrifying, we soon see, is that for Michael it's all quite "normal," like any other family. He treats the boy as if he were his (cold, rigid, distant -- then impetuously playful) father -- sitting down with him for dinner, doing dishes with him side by side, taking him on outings to a petting zoo, decorating the Christmas tree, working with him on a jigsaw puzzle -- except that he also regularly rapes him, while keeping him imprisoned in a soundproofed, vault-like underground room which is otherwise decorated and stocked with toys like any other middle-class child's bedroom.

Maybe that's the most disturbing aspect of the film: It's not just that, beneath his flat affect, Michael is a sex criminal and a psychopath (he's a dull, mousy little man, which allows him to hide in plain sight); it's that, the sexual abuse aside, he's not all that much different from millions of other parents all over the world who, day in and day out, unthinkingly and unfeelingly treat their kids like chattel. Did I mention that writer-director Schleinzer is a former casting director for fellow Austrian aueteur Michael Haneke? Yeah, he is. You will find no sympathy for the devil here -- just icy, clear-eyed observational detachment.

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