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by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2009

Some filmmakers wear their influences like a clandestine coat of arms. While they’ll never really admit it, they are clearly borrowing from the wealth of directorial prowess that came before them. True originals are hard to come by. Instead, we usually wind up with post-modern moviemakers channeling their heroes and paying homage to elements both obvious and obscure. When he first hit the scene in late ‘60s, Dario Argento was seen as a part Hitchcock, part Italian cultural heritage. After all, his father Salvatore was a famed producer, and he himself had helped script several successful spaghetti westerns, including the classic Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West.

But with his first film as a director, the brilliant Bird with the Crystal Plumage (new to Blu-ray DVD from Blue Underground), he was out to prove that he was more than just a Mediterranean copy of the Master of Suspense. Using innovative camera work and a novel twist on the standard thriller type, he invented the language of the “giallo” - the Italian crime film based on the famous ‘yellow’ novels that provide the genre’s moniker. Bird itself was actually an un-credited adaptation of Fredric Browne’s The Screaming Mimi, but as he would throughout the rest of his illustrious career, Argento takes the basics of the artform and transforms them into something original and wholly unique.

After a prosperous stay in Italy, American author Sam Dalmas is about to return to the US with his glamour gal model girlfriend in tow. On the way from picking up his final check, he sees a woman brutally attacked by a sinister dark figure. Helping the police, he learns that there have been several such incidents in the last few months - and he was lucky. All the other victims have ended up dead. While not a suspect, his passport is confiscated. Unable to leave, he decides to investigate the case. Turns out, there are several suspects, including the woman’s wary husband. As he gets deeper into things, Sam finds himself threatened both verbally and physically. Seems he is getting close to solving the crimes, and the killer will stop at nothing to make sure that doesn’t happen.

As a first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a startling achievement. It’s technically proficient, visually arresting, and quite suspenseful. It features remarkable work from Tony Musante (a truly underappreciated American actor) and Suzy Kendall and a script that does a decent job of keeping the last minute surprises in check. As he does with many of his films, Argento employs an unusual combination of found locations and studio set-ups to create his uncomfortable worlds. When Sam sees the assault, it takes place in an art gallery overloaded with baroque and downright surreal pieces. Toward the end, our hero visits a hermit who lives in what looks like a broken down barn. Always a stickler for detail, you can practically smell the rot surrounding the cat-eating recluse.

As with many giallo, Bird is basically a police procedural, except this time, an American writer with some time on his hands does most of the grunt work. This gives Argento the opportunity to indulge in some dopey scenes of serio-comic clue gathering. They include a stop over at an antique shop where Musante’s rugged good looks give a fey clerk the veiled vapors. Later, a conversation with the victim’s husband reveals more red herrings than a Swedish banquet. Argento always plays his reveals close to the vest, so it’s almost impossible to guess who the killer really is. Even when we revisit Musante’s “memory” of the attack, the obvious misdirection offered by the editing keeps identities in check. Of course, the sadism of the murders and the manner in which they are choreographed suggest their own suspects as well.

Indeed, anyone coming to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hoping for a fascinating foreign whodunit clearly don’t understand Argento. Some call him a technician, someone more interested than cinematic style over narrative or emotional substance. True, we don’t really care about Sam or his girlfriend. When threatened, we don’t respond with compassion or caring. But as he showed in such other masterworks as Suspiria, Inferno, and Profundo Rosso, we don’t have to identify with the people onscreen to get caught up in Argento’s approach. Instead, the combination of skills - the brilliant camerawork matched with a stunning soundtrack (this one offered by none other than acclaimed countryman Ennio Morricone) and an unusual take on the material or type can literally lull us into an entertainment trance.

Because of the way Argento’s films look, fans have longed for the day when his movies would make the transition from standard home video formats to the latest high definition developments. Blue Underground’s treatment of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has always been stellar - but this new Blu-ray release is something else all together. It’s like stepping back in time and revisiting the film for the first time during its theatrical run. There is plenty of grain and a few flaws in the 2.35:1 anamorphic image, but that’s par for the course circa 1970s Italy. The Blu-ray really enhances both the evocativeness of Argento’s compositions and the hard boiled qualities of the technical limitations he had to work within. Similarly, the differing audio mixes (DTS, TrueHD) and variations (English Dub, Italian translation) reflect the film’s international success. Be wary of the subtitles, however. They do not match the Western version of the film very well.

Blue Underground also treats us to the wonderful bonus features they offered when the title first hit Special Edition DVD in 2005. They include interviews with Argento, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, actress Eva Renzi, and composer Ennio Morricone. All are insightful and quite fun. Then there is a commentary track from journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Informal and rather superficial, the two discuss the influence of Argento and his provocative style as scenes demanding conversation gracefully flow by. This is not a bad alternate discussion, just one that seems to miss the point of most DVD tracks.

For those reviewing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with a full knowledge of everything Dario Argento can and cannot do, the lack of outlandishness and the conventional nature of the film overall will probably be rather surprising. After all, there’s none of the beautiful violence of later films, or the cold and calculated anti-social sentiment of giallos like Tenebre, Opera, or The Stendhal Syndrome. As with any audition, Argento almost failed (a producer wanted to fire him after his secretary saw some dailies and was truly terrified), but in the end, he used its overriding success to become one of the true Masters of the macabre. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be his most daring or controversial effort, but it certainly certifies the Hitchcock tag. Just like the British moviemaking maverick, there has been no one like Dario Argento - not before or since.

by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2009

Back in the late 1920s, when the fledgling Hollywood studios were looking for a way to further extend public awareness of their increasingly popular product, the Academy Awards were invented. Unlike the high security scripting of today, winners were determined in a kind of conspiracy theory cabal, with the individual heads of MGM, Warners Brothers, etc. determining who should receive the coveted gold trophies. Backs were indeed slapped and favors forwarded and returned. Over the course of years, executive influence (and the eventual birth of the publicity-based campaign) made Oscar a known necessary evil. You could almost guarantee that certain names would never be acknowledged, while overblown efforts with bloated budgets and high profile stars typically walked away with far too many prizes.

Now, eight decades later, things are back to the way they were. No, we don’t have suits sitting around a table divvying out the coveted accolades. In their place, however, is a series of pre-Academy awards shows that have all but taken the guessing out of the game. Look at this year for example. Of the many trophies handed out on 22 February, only two were a real shock - Okuribito winning for Best Foreign Film (over the considered given Waltz with Bashir) and Dustin Lance Black’s nod for Best Original Screenplay (in what was truly a “you pick ‘em” category). Every other victory, from Slumdog Millonaire‘s many titles (eight in total) to the Sean Penn/Kate Winslet/Heath Ledger/Penelope Cruz domination of the acting categories meant that, as recently as a month ago, the Academy Awards were already pre-determined.

That’s what Oscar means now. It used to signify glamour and a misguided sense of what represented the best in film. The Academy frequently got it wrong, and still does (Penelope Cruz? Really?), but today such erroneous hype judgment is certified by a process that takes every event from May’s Cannes Film Festival to the numerous critic’s and guild awards to whittle down a monster list of possibilities into some kind of consensus. Gone mostly are the days when a wild card like Marisa Tomei can walk away with an unexplained (and much discussed) Best Supporting Actress nod. By the time they get to the red carpet, the new meta-nominees have been positioned, polished, and poised to become yet another name in what is increasingly becoming a meaningless Hall of Fame.

Does Ms. Winslet deserve an Academy Award? Absolutely. Was The Reader the movie that should forever be associated with said merit? Absolutely not. For this British beauty, this Oscar was a pay-off, industry graft admitting that past times when the actress was overlooked (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children) were not really slights. Instead, they were character building lessons in moving up the AMPAS ladder. Of course, not everyone has to travel such skewed paths (right, Helen Hunt, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Mairon Cotillard). For years, no one thought Sean Penn would ever receive Academy recognition, let alone stop his political grandstanding long enough to actually show up and claim his prize. Now, with a second gold man to match his Mystic River statue, he’s suddenly one of the artform’s best.

And then there’s Slumdog Millionaire, the little independent exile that apparently could…and did. It’s interesting to look back at the Summer of 2008, to all the press surrounding the “dumping” of the film by Warners Independent - and the 50% stake eventually bought by Fox Searchlight - to remember that this multiple Oscar winner was almost sent straight to video. Naturally, there were issues with money and studio security (WIP has since shuttered), but there was a vocal contingent who thought Danny Boyle’s episodic epic was too slight, too stylized, too ‘foreign’ to represent the best of Western cinema. Yet here it stands, the winner of as many trophies as Gone with the Wind, On the Waterfront, and My Fair Lady. Even without the acting nods, it stands as a monumental achievement for a well-deserving work.

But there is no real surprise in the result. Ever since it became the frontrunner, Slumdog was seen as the answer to many of the Academy’s lingering issues. It was a small film outside the studio system. It was multicultural in cast and approach. It offered a chance for Oscar to recognize another underserved race in its historic cavalcade of inferred (and sometimes overt) prejudice. And, in many ways, it represented the perfect upset fodder. With such an unusual choice in the mix, many felt that a true Hollywood heavy hitter like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Frost/Nixon could sneak in and steal the limelight. But ever since the end of November, when the snowball started rolling in Slumdog‘s favor, there was no denying its ability to win.

It’s the same with the others. Ms. Winslet walked away with TWO Golden Globes, the double barreled statement daring Tinsel Town not to respond. Some felt that Mickey Rourke, making the comeback route after years in self-imposed banishment, would win the actor trophy. But with the political positioning of Milk, and the recent events of California’s election season, gay rights trumped a personal downward spiral. Only the Foreign Film category remains a puzzle, Bashir‘s animated take on Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in the early ‘80s as searing and visually unforgettable as any war film, pro or con, could be. Many an office pool underperformed thanks to the pre-Oscar spin on that one. Besides, Bashir deserved to be in the Animated category, leaving room for equally stellar entries like Italy’s Gommorah and Sweden’s Let the Right One In.

Perhaps it’s best to remember what the Academy Awards truly represent. This is not the people’s choice, where popularity and commercial appeal almost always overrule talent and timelessness. This is not a critic’s choice either, since getting a group of self-important scholars to agree on anything would be virtually impossible. Over the years, the studios have stepped aside to allow an elite group of past nominees, winners, and invited members to sit back and study the year in film, find a series of nominees, and then vote on who they think is the best. Some categories, like Best Documentary, have consideration rules so arcane and complicated that tax lawyers look over the by-laws and thank God for the IRS code.

It’s all so insular. Go back over the last decade of nominees and winners and mark how many of your favorites made the grade. The Oscars are not a chance for you to share in the glittering prize of motion picture perfection. It’s the annual attempt by an occasionally out of touch organization to put their stamp of approval on the year in film. It’s the last word, the final statement, the frequently whacked out wrap-up of all the politicking, hype, consensus, disagreement, box office totals, international spin, personal vendettas, corporate positioning, PR missteps, and ever-present backlash. That it attempts to address so many of the movie industry’s needs over the course of three and a half hours is somewhat noble. The eventual winners can even outshine such self-serving righteousness.

So here’s to WALL-E and The Duchess. Here’s to the unheralded sweep by Slumdog in many of the so-called minor categories. Here’s to the short films no one saw and the terrific tightrope act of Man on Wire. There will be those who state that the nomination itself is all that matters, and actually, that’s pretty accurate. It’s amazing to look back over the hundreds of films released in 2008 and comprehend that, indeed, these are the five actors/actresses/writers/directors/cinematographers/set designers/special effects technicians/costumers/sound engineers/make-up artists/animators picked to represent the business’s best. They may not get it right, but at least the Academy Awards have remained true to their roots - sort of. They are serving no other needs than their own. We should feel lucky they let us in at all.

by Bill Gibron

22 Feb 2009

In a little less than 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will finish up the 2008-9 awards season with the handing out of their precious, publicity-oriented Oscars. In preparation for the critical shoulder shrug to come afterward, SE&L offers these articles written about the coveted little gold statues. They range from reaction to the nominations, a discussion of the Dark Knight snub, and an overview of the multiple times when the Academy got the winner wrong. So put on your designer duds and get ready to walk that torn and tattered red carpet. It’s time for the movie biz to pat itself on the back - and as usual, we can’t resist being spectators.

The Race is (G)On(e): Oscar Surprises and Snubs

The Darkest (K)Night

Critical Confessions: Part 14 - The Art of Backlash

Who’s Number 2?

And the Winner Isn’t…10 Oscar Blunders Revisited (Part 1)

And the Winner Was WHAT?...10 More Oscar Blunders (Part 2)

by Bill Gibron

20 Feb 2009

by Bill Gibron

19 Feb 2009

It’s bandwagon jumping time, and since Hollywood is about ready to hand out its own brand of bewildering backslapping, the nearly three-year-old SE&L figures it too can champion its own choices for award winners. Oscar might have the hoopla, the bags of swag, and all that staggering star power, but what the newly christened SEALS have is something the Academy can never boast – artistic integrity. Granted, the gray hairs in the group sometimes get it right – can’t argue with all their choices, Crash aside – and it’s possible that these new prizes will clash with conventional thinking. But when it comes right down to it, if Blockbuster Video, MTV, and The National Rolling (Down a Hill) Association can declare their preferences for the year’s trophy-deserving best, why can’t we?

That being said, we have to set up some guidelines. First and foremost, as joking Johnny-Come-Latelys, we will avoid the already nominated Academy entries. If it has already been pointed out by Oscar, we will let the Gold One have his glory and simply move on. After all, nothing smacks more of Tinsel Town tonsils to tushy than agreeing on who they feel deserves Best of Year recognition. Secondly, we will try to mine the ENTIRE previous 12 months in film. We won’t skip over efforts from January or March just because most of the cachet pictures wind up playing between November and December. And finally, this isn’t a competition. Other choices may be mentioned, but the SEALS don’t play the nomination game. Either you’re a winner, or you’re not.

So, without further ado, lame jokes from a PC host, or an interpretive dance number based around the choices for Best Song, here are the 2009 SEALS:

Cloverfield Best Film

The idea sounds hokey, when you think about it. A giant alien monster attacks New York City, and a group of spoiled 20-something yuppsters capture the whole thing on a handheld video camera. It’s like The Blair Witch Project mixed with Godzilla. But thanks to the production input of overseer J.J. Abrams, the brilliant direction of Matt Reeves, and the amazing CG work that turns the Big Apple into an even bigger catastrophe, we buy every intense minute. Certainly you can nitpick the notion of an escaping group of friends playing everything to the camera, but the rollercoaster results definitely speak for themselves.

Michel Gondry - (Be Kind, Rewind) Best Director

Of all the filmmakers in 2009, Gondry had the hardest job (well, perhaps second to Matt Reeves making a monster attack on Manhattan seem viable and believable). He had to take well known works of modern pop culture memory - RoboCop, Ghostbusters, Driving Miss Daisy - and covert them into the surreal “Sweded” versions within his masterful love letter to the VCR. Then he had to balance those obvious spoofs with the story featuring a sense of community and shared cinematic sentiment. He even managed to make both Jack Black and Mos Def loveable and lamentable at the same time. He definitely earned his accolades on this one.


Jason Segal - (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) Best Actor

It’s always hard to strike out on your own, especially when you’ve been successful as one of the ‘FoA’ (Friends of Apatow). But with Sarah Marshall, Segal suggests that he’s always been an original comic voice just waiting for a chance to be showcased. He’s remarkable in this role, literally baring it all to play a decent guy dumped by a demanded, TV star diva. We definitely feel Peter’s pain as he goes through the breakup, making his eventual hook-up with hotel clerk Rachel that much more satisfying. And then there’s the amazing finale featuring a puppet opera take on Dracula? With Segal singing? Priceless.

Elizabeth Banks - (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) Best Actress

Banks was the “It” girl of the last 16 months. She was in Fred Claus, Definitely, Maybe, Meet Dave, W. , Role Models, and The Uninvited. But none of these roles captured her true performance personality and outer/inner beauty better than her turn as Miriam “Stinky” Linky. Her no BS approach to life matched effortlessly with an ever-present vulnerability, and the look on her face during her love scene with co-star Seth Rogen is enough to break one’s tragic, tender ticker. Miri makes for the ultimate gal pal - sexy, smart, sensible, spontaneous, spirited, and oh so very special…kind of like Banks herself.

Craig Robinson - (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) Best Supporting Actor

In a movie filled with funny people, in a narrative that needs both an audience window and a sense of streetwise sense, Robinson fulfills all roles - and then many, many more. He gets many of writer/director Kevin Smith’s best lines (“Her name’s Bubbles.”) while maintaining the kind of cautious perspective that give the narrative its zing. His domestic scenes with costar Tisha Campbell-Martin are sensational, encompassing everything we need to know about Delaney in five minutes of ferocious infighting. With equally great work in The Pineapple Express, this was definitely Robinson’s year.

Rosario Dawson - (Seven Pounds) Best Supporting Actress

Granted, some may see her as the co-star in this Will Smith weeper, but by applying the proper definition to the term ‘supporting’, we can see that Dawson both determined and defied description here. She’s the heart and soul of a film that’s supposed to feature its far more famous leading man, and she carries us through the convolutions that turn the story from sentimental to almost indecipherable. As an example of sexy seriousness or serious sexiness, she’s both eye candy and a strong emotional core - and that’s the perfect complement to an often confusing drama.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg - (The Pineapple Express) Best Script

The stoner comedy needed a cleverer comeback. Harold and Kumar just weren’t going to make it. Leave it to the Apatow crew to reinvent the genre while brining something new - read: action-packed firepower and crime thrills - to the mix. Director David Gordon Green, best known for his slow ensemble dramas like Snow Angels and All the Real Girls steps up and redefines his career with his work here. But its Rogen and Goldberg, last seen giving Superbad it’s profane polish that deserve the most credit. They managed to find a way to make both the weed and ass kicking work and work well.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired Best Documentary

While his latest bid to throw out the warrant against him has so far failed, the famed Polish director still has this movie to vindicate his cause. No, Polanski doesn’t deny having sex with an underage girl (he does claim it was consensual). His problem lies with the judicial system of ‘70s California, a cabal conspiring to teach the famous - and infamous - a legal lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. With the help of a media that actually insinuated Polanski bared some blame for the death of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson clan, we witness justice perverted for the sake of personal fame.

Igor Best Animated Film

In the feast or famine arena of animation, you’re either on your way to Oscar Gold (Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, WALL-E, Waltz with Bashir) or scraping the part of the bottom of the barrel where fellow films like Space Chimps and Fly Me to the Moon lie. That makes picking a decent title here rather tough. Igor, however, definitely eases said pain. It’s a peculiar little effort, part Mad Monster Party, part standard CG effort. Thanks to the character design and voice acting, we forgive most of the flaws. And when compared to crap like Delgo and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, it’s positively inspired.


Let the Right One In Best Foreign Film

Something is definitely wrong with the Swedes. Instead of picking what it perhaps the best vampire film of the last three decades as their official Oscar selection, they go with some nepotistic choice from a filmmaker last acknowledged by the Academy for 1971’s The Emigrants. Huh? Anyway, this brilliant little effort, taking the entire bloodsucking mythos and boiling it down to a story about the struggles of adolescence is ten times more moving than most horror films and about a billion times more inventive than that sloppy tween-romance shite known as Twilight. If you want good foreign fright, this is the movie to see.

The Spirit Best Guilty Pleasure

Samuel L. Jackson in full Nazi regalia! Scarlett Johannsson as a half serious, half sketch comedy creation, providing the perfect real world balance to the visual’s overreaching hypereality. Frank Miller pulling out all the stops as he tries to mimic the work of others who’ve better interpreted his neo-noir graphic novels. This and many more reasons make the update of Will Eisner’s comic strip crime fighter a true culpable delight. Better than “so bad, it’s good”, this is the kind of filmed failure that’s so unbridled in its desire to drop dead and implode that, instead, it becomes a kind of crazed masterwork.

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