El Crítico [2013)

Fucking masterpiece.

A fucking masterpiece.

God damn…

It’s not often that a movie strikes me this way.

I had every reason not to even WATCH this film.

The premise was too perfect.

Too good to be true.

In English (and on Netflix in the U.S.), it is listed as The Film Critic.

But we pay our respects to international films even if the template of our website goes haywire in so doing.

El Crítico is an Argentine-Chilean coproduction.

Sounds like a wine, right?

Well, this beats any Malbec I’ve ever tasted.

I cannot say enough good things about this picture!

First things first-Hernán Guerschuny is a goddamned genius.

From the very start of this film we get the Godard whisper…that voiceover which started (si je me souviens bien) circa 1967 with 2 ou 3 Choses que je sais d’elle.

The majority (80%?) of El Crítico is in Spanish, but the remaining 20% (in French) makes all the difference.

We have an Argentine film critic, played masterfully by Rafael Spregelburd, who thinks in French.

We are thus privy to his internal monologue throughout the film.

For anyone who writes about motion pictures, El Crítico is indispensable.

Priceless.

Just right.

[not even a pinch of salt too much]

Dolores Fonzi is really good, but Señor Spregelburd is outstanding.

Spregelburd plays a Godard-obsessed film critic (are you seeing why I like this?) whose fumbling attempts at romance stem from his total immersion in cinema.

Guerschuny deftly interpolates scenes which are “meta-” in the same sense that Cinema Paradiso was essentially a film ABOUT film.

And I am a fan of this approach.

It worked perfectly for the greatest artistic creation in the history of mankind (Histoire(s) du cinéma) and it works exceptionally well for Guerschuny’s film [of which James Monaco and la Nouvelle vague I think would be proud].

Guerschuny, like his main character Tellez [Spregelburd], wants to explode the genre of romcom.

Yes, you heard me right:  romcom.

And it thus places El Crítico in the same tradition as Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste and Godard’s Une Femme est une femme.

But something happens to our protagonist Tellez.

And something, I suspect, is in the heart (!) of director Guerschuny.

This is, in fact, a film about appreciating naïveté.

It is a postmodern idea.

And an idea dear to my heart.

It’s quite simple, really…

I can appreciate Arnold Schoenberg as much as AC/DC.

Abel Gance as much as Napoleon Dynamite.

The idea is that pretentious films (and film reviews) can become just as tiresome as trite, Entertainment Weekly boilerplate.

Does that magazine even still exist?

I don’t know.

It’s an honest question.

In fact, I wasn’t even sure I had the title correct.

It’s supermarket-checkout-lane film criticism.

But it’s not worthless.

Sometimes the most esteemed, erudite film critics become blind to the beauty around them.

They don’t give simple movies a chance.

On the other hand, there are a ton of crappy movies out there today.

But El Crítico is not one of them.

But let me tell you about the secret weapon of the film under consideration:

Telma Crisanti.

Without her, this movie fails.

Not miserably, but the façade falls apart.  And then the superstructure…

Ms. Crisanti plays Ágatha, the 16-year-old niece of our film critic Tellez.

It is she who plants the seed within Tellez’ mind that romantic comedies can be sublime.

But the salient point is this:  the masses are not dumb.

I will stand by Thomas Jefferson on this point till the bitter end.

And so The Film Critic speaks to young and old.  And middle-aged.

It is about miracles.

But it is real.

Simply put, this is the Sistine Chapel of romcoms.

Or, what Michelangelo would have done with the genre.

Simply stunning!

-PD

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [1975)

Lots of commas.

And sub-clauses.

And finally Santa.

Enfin.

That something happens in this film is a miracle.

It is a monument of nothingness.  [hang on]

A monument of boredom.  [wait for it]

A truly glorious feminist film.  [truly]

Quite simply, this is one of the hardest films I’ve ever tried to watch (much less review).

I was familiar with the late Chantal Akerman’s style at least a bit.

[may she rest in peace]

Nothingness.  An obsession.

It’s closer to the Warhol end of the spectrum than Bergman.

Uncomfortable shots.  The time-image.

We don’t have time to read about the time-image. [Bergson]

Deleuze.  De loser.

We.  Miss out.

And so when we are thrust into a film such as this…

There ARE no films like this.

The nausea of which Sartre spoke.  Wrote.

I knew that Akerman admired Godard.

She was already in my good graces for that.

But I almost didn’t make it through this 3-hour-21-minute film.

From one J.D. to another.

Jeffrey Dahmer to Jeanne Dielman.

Dielman’s life is just as horrible.

She might as well work the 11 p.m. – 7 a.m. shift at a chocolate factory.

Belgium.

Every activity she caresses.  Like finest lace.

And so we see the Godard of Vivre sa vie.

That is the premise.

The “ooh-la-la”.

But it is much more Marina Vlady than Anna Karina.

2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle.

Washing dishes.  Interminably.

That lifeless, empty stare.

Perhaps it is Brecht.

Distancing.  Reality.  But symbolic.  Unreal.

Verfremdungseffekt.

Epic.  201 Dalmatian minutes.

Force the issue.

We dummies still worship Delphine Seyrig.

In the same way we worship Anamaria Marinca.

Because we’re sick of Western women…sick of soul-sucking Western culture.

Sick of the Easter bunny.  Sick of Santa Claus.

We want the East.  The Eastern bloc.

And further East.  Chinese acting.

Brecht.

Delphine from Saussure.

Cup and Saussure.

Such amazing acting by Seyrig.  To not act.

To act as if she wasn’t being watched.

To shine shoes and drop the brush.  [An event!  Here…]

To disturb the cream bottle.  Precariously returns.

To not apologize to the camera.

To get her apron caught…

The hardest button to button.

And the adrenaline-pounding rush of shopping for buttons.

Buttons.  Those little things which go through eyelets.

Like trying to find the correct shade of mauve.  All over town.

And so in the end it ends as an action film.

You think I kid.

But Akerman must have had a soft spot for Chabrol…(viz. Hitchcock).

Let’s play the quiet game for three hours…and see if it will drive you nuts.

Doniol-Valcroze pays a visit.

But it doesn’t matter.

What matters is the can of Ajax on the side of the tub.

The green and red.

Might have my brands wrong.

Tiny daggers of color.

Nowhere.

But there’s one.

 

-PD

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 19 [1976)

The show was really rolling by this point.

The sets are more elaborate.

The budget seems to have increased.

And the humor is worth it.

The cold opening (I’ve avoided that term for the first 18 episodes) is a killer.

Chevy Chase (of course) as Ronald Reagan…prefiguring the stilted-hip of Bill Clinton on Arsenio Hall by a decade and change.

What we learn…Chevy can actually play the organ.  Some nice B-3 licks.

But the killer is Garrett Morris’ priceless contribution.

Like a silent film actor, Morris takes each condescending, racist jab from Reagan and grows more and more outraged…in such a believable Miles Davis kind of way (if we ignore the alto sax he’s holding).

What a start to a great episode!

Morris is in another high-art bit of humor later…for the fake donation solicitation Fondue Pots For Namibia.  Yes, it sounds like the title of a Zappa song (or perhaps Captain Beefheart), yet it is Saturday night variety show humor from 1976 at its best.  Bloody genius!

Some of the more elaborate skits are guest host Madeline Kahn as the “bride of Frankenstein” singing Leonard Bernstein’s “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story.  Howard Shore and band are great in this skit (especially pianist/vocalist Paul Schaffer…of future Letterman fame).

Another amazing skit involves Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon.  Rounding out this bizarre, vast set piece is John Belushi as Henry Kissinger.

Now for the bad.  Carly Simon is godawful in her first prerecorded number “Half a Chance”.  I mean, really godawful.

What is apparent over the course of the show is that Madeline Kahn was a much better singer than Carly.

At least Simon somewhat redeems herself on the ubiquitous “You’re So Vain”.  It’s obvious Carly had talent.  She has a great, soulful voice.  Not sure what the problem was on “Half a Chance”.  Perhaps it was the cheesy, out-of-tune, canned backing vocals.  Also, the song is a clunker.

Alternately, I could listen to the line “…clouds in my coffee” from now till eternity.  It has that 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle vibe to it which is truly profound…the transcendental moment of spotting a microcosm in the mundane.

As The Mighty Favog said, “Talk to me…”

 

-PD

Playtime [1967)

This took a lot of watching.  Rewatching.

Last night…so tired.

Watched half.  Then rewind.  Dozed off.  Watch same half again.

First time I saw this (years ago) was on the big screen.

It really makes a difference.

That janitor at the beginning.  His strange pause and crouch.  His peering left and right.  His broom and dustpan.

Very little sweeping.  Just clanking.

Yes.  Sounds.  Sounds.  Sounds.  (Zounds!)

The vinyl chairs which return to their shape after you sit and dent.  The strange sound.  The strange quality.

“Quality”

Tradition of quality.

It might lead you to ask:  what was Jacques Tati trying to say with this film?

Answering that is no easy task.

Sure, this seems like a simple, lightweight film.  In some ways it is.

It’s enjoyable.  It’s lighthearted.  And yet…

There is more than a smidgen of Modern Times here.  And Tati, with his pipe…  More than a pipe-full of Sartre.  Sartre with his publication Les Temps modernes.  Even Sartre apparently thought highly enough of Chaplin to work under an homage headline.

And so, Tati…lost in the supermarket.  Lost in the buildings from 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle.  Same year.  1967.  Paris.  In the banlieues.

And very few words.

As I said.

A movie of sounds.

Yes.

But images.

Reflections.

Illusions.

It appears.

Optical.

Illusion.

And its reflection.

Double.

Mirror image.

Flipped.

Paris.

It appears that the buttons have been switched.  Very nice, WordPress.  Now I am “publishing” every time I intend to merely “save” (and vice versa).

That is the theme of the film.

Thingamajigs.

No no no.  Take your time.  Uh uh uh…hold on.  [click click click click]  Ok, now rise.

We wait for the entire hallway to be traversed in an absurd observation of ritual.

And from above…the cubicles.

One needs must occupy higher ground to see the big picture.  All of these busy bees become lost in the fray.

Afraid.

True.

And so it is not farfetched to guess that Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards were influenced in their masterpiece The Party (1968) by Tati’s Playtime (1967).

But with Tati there is even more.  An industrial ballet.  The poise of the service industry (and its opposite).  [Both]

A constant counterpoint like a comic Górecki.

Perhaps I have been hitting the wrong button all along.

Have I been saying these things out loud?

Yes, we wonder.

Technology.

We grew up in a different time.

The chairs were different.

The doors were different.

And since we are quiet and meek we spend an eternity in the antechamber.  In the darkened hallway.

How do we get out?

Yes, Paris…even then, perhaps?  A drugstore?  Yes.  Too depressing for anyone to look each other in the eyes.

The hum.  The constant hum.  Like Alphaville.  Like Oskar Sala’s Trautonium.  The Birds.  Bernard Herrmann as musical consultant.  But those noises.  Mixtur.

And several waiters will salt the troutonium…and grind pepper…and spread the sauce…and the couple has moved.

The main course has stayed behind.

Heated.  Reheated.  Set on fire.  Jubilee.

Turbot.

And lobster boy just cares about his hair.

Nerval.  Hugo Ball.

But that humming…like Metal Machine Music way ahead of time.  But creepier.  Like Raymond Scott’s music for babies crossed with Erik Satie’s musique d’ameublement.

Waiting waiting.  That’s a theme.  And all the illustrious portraits of CEOs past.

Is it a job interview?

And that’s Orly?  It seems more like a hospital.  Little hummingbird nuns and swaddled kids.

But we shall always live in Barbara Dennek’s dimples.  It sounds weird to say.

But it is luck.  Bad luck.  And then good luck.

And random error.  Entropy.

Chaos.

Can anyone here play the piano?

Yes.  Yes I can!

And some half-rate Edith Piaf gets up to sing her long-forgotten hit.

Except no one has forgotten it.  Once a hit, always a hit.

More or less.

The new religion.

The hum of neon.

All the desserts look sickly.  Even to the “chef.”  Must hide his mystère.  An apple with some sputtery whip?  An upside-down coffee mug?

Mmmm…

William S. Burroughs would doubtless have approved.  The man in the gray flannel suit (book).  But taken to theatrical limits.  Choreography of male primping.  Like Cary Grant on hallucinogens.  A surreal ritual.

Ritual.

This is sociology.

Anthropology.

Paris.  The modern man.

See him in his natural habitat.

See her shop.  See her sell.

See him work.  See him drink.

If you travel, you will see the tourist side.

On a trip.

With a group.

Activities planned.

Like a cruise.

And God forbid you become separated from the group.

Yes.

That is our little romance.

And Tati is meek enough to barely suggest to suggest (x2).

That M. Hulot might find love.

It would be a random day.

He would get pulled this way and that.

And winding up in some crazy, unplanned situation he would become sweet on dimples.

See him in his fishbowl.

Before there was Mr. Bean, there was Monsieur Hulot.

Before there was Forrest Gump.

Tell me…where are the “fancy goods”?  Perhaps silk.  Hermès.

Always caught at the turnstiles of life…

-PD

Daydream Nation [2010)

This film had a lot to live up to by bearing the same name as Sonic Youth’s best album.  I was afraid I would either hate it or love it.  Turns out, my experience with it was much more on the positive end of the spectrum.  The viewer “in on” the title might be, like I was, reassured a bit early upon learning that one character is named Thurston (in honor of Thurston Moore, guitarist/vocalist with previously mentioned band).  This film is a nice try…and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

Around the time of Godard’s film Le Gai savoir (1969), its auteur started to ideate the concept of “essay” in a particularly French way by having his characters go back to a sort of year zero (which, ironically, never occurred in Western calendar chronology).  The etymology of essay (from French essayer) can be described as “to try” or “to attempt.”  It was really even earlier that Godard started to feel this need to “start from the beginning” in order to express ANYTHING true AT ALL…around the time of 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967).

In Daydream Nation we know ostensibly little about Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings) until she makes explicit late in the movie to let us in on her true personality.  But that’s not really accurate.  The film betrays the script.  It is little wonder then that Godard at age 83 himself no longer uses a script (i.e. Adieu au langage).  “The script can only be written after the film is finished,” he said recently in an interview.  And he even means after editing!

But let’s be clear:  the script under consideration is excellent.  References to Atom Egoyan and the Algonquin Round Table don’t hurt!  Yet, these deft drops of name are merely the spice to what is genuinely a well-written piece of drama.

And let’s be even more clear:  director Michael Goldbach did an excellent, excellent job.  I just feel that his best filmmaking might be ahead of him.  That is not at all a bad thing.  Were there no indications of greatness herein, there would be little upon which to base a future hope.

The Lolita element to this film is not entirely believable…at least not at first.  Something about the mise-en-scène (young adult comedy/drama genre conventions) prevents us from believing that Kat Dennings is really that perversely Machiavellian.  The Monica Lewinsky element, while funny, is frankly ludicrous.  Yet, here the script betrays itself.  We know much more about Caroline Wexler early on than she seems to think we know.  This brings into question the form (literary/dramatic) of the work as well as the tired narrator cliché which has become ubiquitous in its present from since American Beauty.  This enters into the arena of “nice try”…because I am thoroughly convinced that Michael Goldberg can do better.

Josh Lucas does a nice job of going from eliciting our sympathy to creeping us the fuck out.  It is in the latter that director Goldberg excels at casting aspersion on this character’s innocence in the serial killings which are plaguing our film’s small town.  There is an elegance in the thrilling suspense which nicely pays back in homage any debt it might owe to Hitchcock.

Ted Whittall plays Caroline’s icy father.  Poor Thurston, the slacker suitor, can’t even get a foot in the door (literally).  It takes the wonderful Andie MacDowell as Thurston’s mother to break down Mr. Wexler’s curt, cynical exterior.

Reece Thompson really blooms into a strong presence over the course of the movie.  Even as an actor, he seems hopeless early on, but his contribution to this film should not at all be overlooked.

The true star, however, is Kat Dennings.  She deserved to be in a film where she gets to romp around to Sonic Youth.  Her acting is up to the task of sharing an editing table with Lou Reed’s “Lady Day” from his best album Berlin (1973).  An ambulance can only go so fast, but the text message generation (SMS=save my soul, says JLG) can put its highest hopes in this young actress from Bryn Mawr, PA because she is already as timeless as Neil Young’s “Expecting To Fly.”  Writers, director, and actress prove themselves worthy of that Buffalo Springfield song which all but wraps up this film as it ascends to a final high.  After all this doom and gloom, I’m ready to see Kat on the beach.  She deserves it.

-PD