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Black Swan

Don't Believe the Hype
I really don't understand all the awards buzz surrounding this film. It is so over-the-top campy! Maybe a little bit of this was on purpose--casting Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder is already perhaps something of a clue to where this film's sensibilities lie. Even Vincent Cassel camps it up, and he is too good for this not to be on purpose. The premise is just so tired: "You must break through to the dark side to create real art, even if it means destroying yourself." Yawn. Maybe the film was really, at heart, making fun of this credo? I just don't give it that much credit. But credit is due to Natalie Portman, who manages to weather the storm and play her role convincingly enough. Maybe this is what is so jarring--she plays it straight while most of the other actors in the movie do not. Anyhow, this film didn't gel for me, though I could not fail to be moved by Tchikovsky's music for "Swan Lake," the most beautiful ballet score of all, and overwhelming in its beauty.

Les nuits fauves

Hot Mess
This film was a succès de scandale when it was released twenty years ago, and although (in Europe and America) HIV is not the death sentence that it was at the time, the film still packs an emotional wallop. It is the portrait of a completely self-centered man who is willing to put others at risk in search of his own pleasure and self-actualization. Is he a despicable character? Yes. Does that mean the film is automatically bad? No,however...

The film contains too many unfocused scenes of characters lashing out. By the fourth or fifth scene of the young female protagonist screaming on the phone, screaming in the street, screaming at the door of the apartment, it becomes overdetermined. The film tries to tackle too many subjects--sadomasochism, skinheads, internalized homophobia, bisexuality, AIDS and responsibility, teenage love... it ends up something of a hot mess. I gave it six out of ten because I feel that it is worth seeing, because it captures a certain zeitgeist of the pre-antiretroviral moment, but one does feel a bit on watching it today that it has not aged all that well.

Los abrazos rotos

This is yet another gorgeous film from Almodovar--a 9 because it isn't as great perhaps as his truly great films of the last decade (Talk to Her, Volver, Bad Education), but almost. Whatever happens in an Almodovar film of recent vintage, I always find viewing it an extreme pleasure. He is a visceral and visual director, and I don't know of anyone who is currently making more beautiful movies.

Penelpe Cruz... a star, an absolute goddess of the cinema... one of the few actresses working today who really deserves the big screen. I don't want to give away plot points, so I won't say too much--but the scene with the tomatoes, making the gazpacho! There are myriad references to film history, clever use of film-within-a-film, both hallmarks of Almodovar that put his film-making on a higher plane. If, in his early films, he made a mockery of melodrama through high camp, in recent years he has used melodramatic storytelling as a useful framework for cinematic experimentation, and I think in the process he has made a unique and enduring contribution to world cinema. I loved this film.

Valentino: The Last Emperor

This portrait of Valentino shows a vain aging giant and his devoted business partner, who provides the center of the film, as Valentino does not seem to be very interested in participating in this feature-length glamour-shot. The clothes are lovely--Valentino is an extremely talented designer, wedded to a solid, if traditional, notion of female glamour.

The main problem with this film is I didn't learn anything from it--the portrait of Valentino in the New Yorker a couple of years back was far more revealing and informative. While this film has its entertaining moments, anyone who has seen documentaries about, or witnessed first-hand the fashion world has seen it all before. The film should have gone into more detail about Valentino the man, rather than just giving us a superficial portrait. Assolutamente not essential viewing.

Julie & Julia

Meryl Streep
Ms. Streep's performance alone makes this film worthwhile--in recent years she has really shown her great talent as a comedian (Adaptation, Devil Wears Prada, this film). She has great comic timing, and always goes just far enough for the laugh, and usually not too far that it feels staged or unnatural.

From the reviews I read, I was really expecting not to like the "Julie" half of this movie--but I was pleasantly surprised. I read both "Julie and Julia" and "My Life in France" earlier this summer, and I have to confess that I didn't love the Julie Powell book. Amy Adams really brings this character to life and makes you care about her (more so, I think than the book did). One problem with the balance in this project is that Julia Child did something really important for cooking in America, and so her story is inherently interesting. Julie Powell wrote a book. That became a movie. Add to that the fact that the heavy hitters in the film all live on the Julia side--Streep, Stanley Tucci, and a great cameo by Jane Lynch--and the deck feels fully stacked. Full credit to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, then, for making us care about the half of the film that teetered on the edge of the perfunctory.

This film is all the more remarkable in that it is so rare to see a film these days that just revels in joie-de-vivre. I'm sure a lot of the rough edges of Julia's personality are smoothed over--but some of the stressful moments are there. I just felt so much affection for Streep's Julia Child in this movie--and I laughed repeatedly and heartily at her antics. A fun time at the movies--which is a rarer pleasure than it should be.

I, Claudius

Camp Fest
I think this series is terribly overrated. I kept watching through the whole thing, hoping it would get better, but it just got campier and campier when Caligula came on the scene. Sian Phillips anchors the first half of this series with fine acting, but after Livia's death, I felt my interest wane. There is some good acting, but quite a fair amount of bad (Augustus Cesar in particular). The series is overly driven by plot--even over 13 episodes the series feels like a rote telling of events rather than a fully realized drama. This is an historical soap opera, all surface and no depth. For those who rate this the finest television series ever, I would refer them to "The Wire," which maintains characters and a narrative over five seasons brilliantly.

Sex and the City

I was underwhelmed. Most of the negative criticisms ring true to me--too long, too sophomoric, ridiculous plot. The Mr. Big jilts Carrie at the altar premise is soooo tired, and soooo predictable. Perhaps we have just had enough of these characters...

But as fluffy candy, it largely works. For those who think that the product placement and label worship run contrary to the spirit of the show... please, spare me. Carrie was always a label queen, and the montage of wedding gowns is beautiful. The costume design by Patricia Field is the best thing about the movie. And the actresses all look great. Is this enough to "carry" a movie (insert lame pun per SATC writing handbook)? Eh. I saw it, because as a gay New Yorker I somehow felt obligated. Would I see it again? No. But there are worse ways to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Fauteuils d'orchestre

Un navet
The French have a term for a film this bad--un navet (a turnip). But turnips are much tastier than this tired, cliché-ridden mess of a film. I can handle a frothy film if it is done well, but this one is careless, with plot, with acting, with everything. Valerie Lemercier gets a couple of laughs as the aging TV serial star, but the conceit that Sydney Pollack would hire her character to play Simone de Beauvoir after viewing a couple of seconds of her absolutely mediocre TV series, plus some scenery-chewing in a Feydeau production, is absurd.

The acting here involves lots of smiling (Cecile de France) and trying to look pensive (Albert Dupontel), but no subtlty, no nuance. The only joie de vivre really comes from the gardienne of the theater, who dances around to French pop songs she remembers from her days at L'Olympia. Everything about this film feels forced, especially the budding romance of Fred and Jessica--absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. If you're going to make a romantic comedy, you at least have to have that.

Bottom line--a total waste of time.

Margot at the Wedding

This is a somewhat tedious dysfunctional-family-slice-of-life picture. That the director had already given us a great film from this genre (Squid and the Whale) makes this one all the more disappointing. Pit overachieving, manipulative sister against underachieving manipulative sister--and go! That's about all you get from this film. The acting was very good all around, and some of the scenes rang true of petty family dramas, but overall it is just an average picture.

Nicole Kidman does show her remarkable range in this film. Her character is caught in a trap of wanting something more from life and not knowing how to get it. She runs through a range of complex emotions, and it is particularly interesting to see how she uses her son as a locus for the problems of her marriage. She loves her son but pushes him away, she at times wants to hide her true feelings, and at other times she is brutally honest. The whole film works like a bit of Freudian analysis for her, and ultimately allows her to work out her demons and choose her son, and by extension her family life. This is a good showcase for Kidman, but ultimately one finds oneself thinking that this is not enough to carry the film.

Before Night Falls

Gorgeous, evocative political art
This is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. Julian Schnabel has a superb visual sense, evident from the very first scene of the dense tropical forest with voice-over narration. At every moment, Schnabel's visual poetry accentuates, compliments, illustrates the poetic life of Arenas. While he gives the story room to breathe, he never abandons the narrative thread which takes keeps us involved from beginning to end.

The core of the film is in Javier Bardem's wonderfully charismatic performance of the censored Cuban poet and novelist Renaldo Arenas. If one compares this performance with his others (e.g. "The Sea Inside" and "No Country for Old Men,") it is hard not to conclude that he is one of the very best actors working today.

The film is a ruthless look at the abuses inflicted upon art in totalitarian regimes. Arenas is persecuted because he is gay, but chiefly because he is an artist who refuses to compromise his ideals or stop writing. His story is inspirational, and it is a great testament to Schnabel that he was able to make a film that makes such a strong artistic statement of its own, but compliments and accentuates Arenas's story, rather than overwhelming it.

A masterpiece.

American Gangster

Good, Entertaining
This was a good film--coherent script, fine acting, interesting story, efficient directing. Ridley Scott gives an effective picture of the New York that was, the one that threatened to implode in the 1970's, and of the rise and fall of the gangster Frank Lucas. Lucas took the lessons of American capitalist entrepreneurship to the heroin trade, offering a better product at a better price than his competition, and was rewarded with wealth and a certain sort of fame.

Washington and Crowe are excellent throughout, especially in their long scene in the prison interview room near the end of the film. The other actors are fine, especially Josh Brolin, who should pick up a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his work in this film--he was utterly convincing as a corrupt cop. And Ruby Dee was a pleasure to watch in her few scenes as Lucas's mother.

Though long, the film kept the viewer interested through effective pacing of events. The Vietnam War is the background of this story, as it allowed Lucas to develop his drug distribution network, and events of the war are always peeking through on televisions throughout the movie. All in all, it is an effective evocation of a time and place, and a singular story that unfolded in that environment.

There Will Be Blood

An American Epic
This film pulls together three key elements of American mythology--the West, capitalism, and religion. It is an incredibly ambitious film, which doesn't operate by making statements about these elements, but juxtaposes them to provide the audience with a chance to ponder their relationship--that is, until the end, where an over-the-top, and overly simplified final scene brings the movie to an unsatisfying end.

But, up until the last 15 minutes, the film takes one's breath away. And it could not be so without Daniel Day-Lewis' fine portrayal of a misanthropic oil man. He is both hero (for holding out against the monopoly of Standard Oil) and villain (for his treatment of his son, and the townspeople). He is not wholly bad, but one realizes that his good deeds ultimately are in service of his greed, and, paradoxically, are a function of his hatred of others and his desire to ultimately be alone.

The other acting is good as well, especially Dillon Freasier in the role of Day-Lewis's son, H.W. I felt that Paul Dano was outmatched by Day-Lewis (who wouldn't be?). Whereas Day-Lewis played magnificently the juxtaposition of irony and sincerity in his "conversion" scene, I felt Dano tilted too much towards an ironic portrayal in his early scenes as an evangelical preacher. Yes, we do find out in the end that he was a charlatan, but, in order for him to gain a following, he would have had to come across as more charismatic in his preaching scenes. And there is the problem of his looking and acting the same as an older man in the problematic final scene.

The score was amazing. Many film scores just linger in the background, having more of an unconscious effect. This score constantly intruded, sometimes contradicting the action, sometimes reaching a climax before the filmed image did, which helps to heighten the uneasy feeling of danger one must have felt working on an oil rig at the time. The use of silence, especially in the opening scene, where we just observe Day-Lewis alone as a prospector, was very effective. The cinematography was beautiful, and the film was a pleasure to watch.


Most educated people know the facts about the Shoah--we learned them in school, we've seen the documentary footage of the liberation of the camps, we've read Wiesel or seen "Schindler's List." I don't think anything prepares us for the devastation we feel watching Lanzmann's remarkable film, a unique and irreplaceable document of the attempted extinction of European Jews by the Nazis during WWII. This film lasts a long time, true. But when you think of the hours and hours of harrowing testimony that ended up on the cutting room floor, and the intense anguish Lanzmann must have felt about which interviews to include and which to leave out, it is easy to understand why it is this long. It has to be--the length of the film makes the viewer understand that the recounting of the holocaust is eternal, never-ending. The film could last 100 hours, or a thousand.

Now, with the advent of the DVD and superior home viewing equipment, we have the ability to watch it over the course of several viewings. I am sure that there is something to be gained by watching the whole thing at one go--but can one read "War and Peace" in one sitting? Does that mean that we shouldn't read it or that it shouldn't exist? Complaints about this film being too long just don't make any sense.

Lanzmann has some brilliant touches--at the beginning of the film he institutes a reverential silence by having a long preparatory text scroll down, forcing the viewer to read, to engage in the subject matter that the film will present. Then we hear the singing of Simon Srebnik, and disembodied voices in Polish, and we are there--not in the Chelmno of the War, but Chelmno as it is now. Lanzmann refuses to use documentary footage with voice-over--he is not here to reinterpret old information, but to extract testimonies from those people who are here, now, and who experienced the Shoah then. The film is a fascinating study of memory, of the desire to forget, and the necessity to testify to what happened.

If the length seems daunting to you, try watching the first 15 scenes--they last all of 35 minutes, and I doubt you will feel that you want to stop watching after feeling the force and power of Lanzmann's film.

La Môme

La Mome Cotillard
Whether or not one appreciates this film depends on one's opinion of Cotillard's performance--the rest of it is perfunctory. I think that her performance is indeed remarkable--she is the Piaf that this film wants us to see. Others have mentioned omissions and deviations from Piaf's life story--but a lot of it is here. It is just filmed and told in such a conventional and plodding manner that it can be hard to get through. There are some very moving scenes--when Piaf loses her lover in the plane crash, her struggle with drugs--again, a testament to Cotillard's acting. I am not unhappy that I saw this film--the parts where Piaf/Cotillard is singing are pleasant enough, but on the whole, not a great film.

Michael Clayton

Well Crafted
This is a very good film. The plot is tight, focusing mostly on the suspense-at-hand. The secondary plot elements relating to Michael Clayton's family are brought in neatly at the end, and help to flesh out Clooney's character. The director Tony Gilroy maintains a level of suspense throughout--largely by opening the movie as a framed narrative with a flashback, which leads us through the events that cause the film to end the way it does.

The most extraordinary thing about the film are the performances. Tilda Swinton as the corporate lawyer wandering further and further away from any sense of moral decency as she rehearses her doublespeak. Tom Wilkinson embodying the maybe-I'm-crazy-or-maybe-the-world-is-crazy character who finally breaks free from the corporate veneer. George Cloony keeping his character's morals tightly under wraps so that we're not sure which side he is on until the very end. And Sydney Pollack's pitch-perfect chief of a law firm. They are all helped by a literate, well-crafted script, also by Gilroy.

While this film really doesn't do anything new--it tells a fairly staple Hollywood story of corporate greed and maverick insider whistle-blower--it is an extremely pleasurable version of that story.

Erasure: The Tank, the Swan, and the Balloon - Live!

This concert DVD is from Erasure's 1992 tour, and it captures them at the peak of their popularity. With five albums of original material under their belts, and twenty Top 20 hits (in the UK), there were a lot of good songs to choose from in creating the set list. All of Erasure's big hits pre-1992 are here, in new arrangements programmed specifically for this tour--and the audio quality is superb. Andy Bell is in great voice, and it is rewarding just to hear the songs. The backing vocalists for this tour were the best they ever had--and this is essential considering that one of Erasure's strong points is the three-and-four part harmonies created by overdubbing Bell's vocals in the studio.

But it is the stage performance that really shows why Erasure were one of the very few techno-pop acts to attract large audiences at their concerts. Andy Bell is an energetic crowd-pleaser, and the show is divided into mini-vignettes that showcase a troupe of talented dancers strutting their stuff. True to the period (early 90's), there are lots of moves reminiscent of the "In Living Color" dancers and C & C Music Factory--lots of hard, jerky motions--but they are fun to watch. It is a testament to Bell's stage presence that he is never upstaged by these dancers. One outstanding moment among many others is the "ABBA" set they do in the middle of the first act--with Ms. Bell in knee-high silver lame go-go boots, thank you very much. Just when you think you've had enough kitsch, there's the too-revealing blue-rhinestone studded cowboy suit, worn for the cover version of "Stand By Your Man." It would all be too-too much if it weren't for the consistent quality of the music. Vince Clark and Andy Bell wrote some of the great pop tunes of the last 30 years, and this is an excellent way to experience them.

Brokeback Mountain

Big movies like this are reviewed and reviewed to death--over 2000 people have written here alone. And yet I write one more, because this movie moved me and means a lot to me as a gay man and a human being. I don't think this movie would have worked without the transcendent power of Heath Ledger's portrayal. When Ennis Del Mar ends his life ruined by his internalized homophobia, the pain he makes us see brings us all immediately to his experience. This is what can happen to you if society and your relationship to it conspire to keep you from attaining something so important to the human condition as love.

This is a big Hollywood Epic, but masterpieces are not the exclusive terrain of quirky, off-beat films. When everything works right--superb acting from all four principles, restrained yet purposeful direction, a fantastic story--you must admire the result. This is a beautiful movie, a gay movie, a human movie, an example of high achievement in the art of film.

Se, jie

Accomplished film
Ang Lee is well-established as a great filmmaker, and I think that many of his films are superb. I think this film has some wonderful elements to it, but there are a couple of problems that I think hold it back from being a 9 or 10.

First the good points: the acting is strong from the entire cast, but especially from the leads Wei Tang and Tony Leung. Wei Tang perfectly conveys the conflicted emotions she has towards Mr. Yee (Leung) during the lovemaking scenes. Often love scenes in movies tend towards the rote, but here they are essential to moving the plot forward. Another of Wei Tang's remarkable moments is when she describes her interactions with Yee to the resistance leader--powerful.

Ang Lee also captures the naive enthusiasm of the college radicals, and the atmosphere of the time, place and class differences very well. I think the reviews of this film have been mixed because it is such a traditionally told and shot film--it doesn't break new ground filmically, but old forms when well shot have their own pleasures.

The film does suffer a bit from the drawn-out beginning section in Hong Kong--I think the first hour and a half could have been made tighter--but after the arrival in Shanghai the movie picks up the pace. Overall, another good film from Lee.

Across the Universe

Very Good
I think this is a very good film that succeeds on its own terms, as a musical revue of the 1960's. A lot of the criticism of the film centers around the fact that it glosses over the tremendous upheavals of the 1960's by reducing them to glorified music videos. It is expecting too much to ask for a musical to really deepen our understanding of such a large historical moment. What the film does do well is remind us that there was a context for the Beatles' music. The settings for the songs serve as a kind of shorthand reminder of the larger context. Case in point: the setting of "Let it Be" as a funeral hymn sung at the funeral of an African-American boy killed in a race riot. On the one-hand, it reduces the racial tensions of 1960's America to three short minutes--on the other hand, it reminds us that "Let it Be" is really a hymn, a prayer for peace in a time of tremendous upheaval. And it is exquisitely sung. It is a moving moment in the film.

On the whole, Julie Taymor really makes the music come alive on the screen. Some of the voices are fantastic. Dana Fuchs is wonderful as the Janis-Joplinesque singer, and T.V. Carpio's tender rendition of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" early in the movie drew me in completely. One of the other criticisms of the film is that the versions here can't hold a candle to the originals, and here I have to vehemently disagree. Lennon and McCartney were great performers AND great songwriters, and it is a testament to their strengths as the latter that their music can be reinterpreted with such success. But it is also a testament to the music producers, arrangers and singers that the new versions work so well. "Helter Skelter," for one, is every bit as engaging as the original. The film is all the more impressive as many of the Beatles' recordings have become almost cliché--especially now that they have begun to be used more in advertising.

On the whole, a very imaginative film, which leaves you wanting more from director Julie Taymor.

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