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Only Cineastes Left Alive.

I’m currently working on my own year-end list, as per GitM tradition, and be advised: I’ll probably give myself a few more weeks into 2015 since I have so many holes still to plug. (Even if I was in top movie-going form at the moment, which I’m not, DC is still a second tier town in terms of the release schedule.)

But in the meantime, and also as in year’s past, David Ehrlich has assembled another very impressive Best of the Year video with his choices. I disagree mightily with some of his picks — let’s just say Nymphomaniac won’t be cracking my list — but, once again, Ehrlich’s infectiously fun Super-Cut makes me wish I’d seen more movies this year.

When They’ve Raised Hell, You’ll Know It.

“So, to quote J. K. Simmons in his magisterially wicked coda to Burn After Reading, ‘What did we learn, Palmer?’ Well, for my part, I learned a few things…More significantly, I learned — or rather re-learned — that the Coens have made an awful lot of really good movies. Out of all 16 features, I enjoyed re-watching all but two: The Ladykillers, which I have always considered their worst effort by orders of magnitude; and, somewhat to my surprise, The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’d always placed in their bottom tier, but which I had looked forward to giving another try.”

On the thirtieth anniversary of Blood Simple — and as we all await Hail Caesar!The Atlantic‘s Chris Orr has revisited and ranked all sixteen Coen films in sixteen days. I’d quibble with some of the rankings of course — Lebowski and A Serious Man are top-shelf, imo, and Intolerable Cruelty is oft-overlooked — but anybody who has Miller’s Crossing atop their list is my kinda people. Character. Ethics.

The Balcony is Closed.

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear…I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”

Roger Ebert, the reigning Dean of film critics, 1942-2013. As a movie reviewer, I often didn’t agree with him – I found his sensibilities a bit too saccharine for my taste. But as a writer and convivial voice, he was always inviting, and and always worth reading, and few established columnists have embraced the democratic give-and-take of writing on the web as much as he did. R.I.P.

“I am the one who lists.”

“This illustrated countdown represents my favorite 25 films of 2012 (with a few red herrings thrown into the intro sequence just to mess with you)…I tried my best to play fair and really stick to movies that played / are playing / will play in American movie theaters at some point during this calendar year, but at the end of the day I can’t resist taking a Walter White approach to these things: ‘I’m the one who lists.'”

Criterion Corner critic David Ehrlich makes a video announcing his top 25 of 2012. This isn’t my list by any means — I still have some catching up to do, but suffice to say, The Master won’t be on whatever I come up with — but this is a beautifully edited video nonetheless.

Showdown in Gotham.

Resolved: Chris Nolan is a sloppy action director. For the prosecution: film critic Jim Emerson, who dissects the second-act car chase in The Dark Knight to explain his reasoning. For the defense: Torque director Joseph Kahn, who similarly dissects Emerson’s essay: “This is old film school thought. It’s not even oversimplification, it’s wrong. It stems from the technological origin of silent filmmaking.

All in all, an interesting debate. In terms of the macro-arguments about film, I find myself leaning toward Kahn: After hundred years of film-going, I think audiences are savvier about the basic syntax than Emerson suggests. But I also agree with Emerson that Nolan is not a particularly impressive action director,and that his action sequences do feel choppy and confusing at times. This is great for something like Batman Begins, when Bats is trying to sow confusion, but otherwise not as satisfying as, say, the truck chase in Raiders.

Le Prisonnier.

“Three fingers on the trigger and the mind is on the plan. I got my prescription, and every citizen got his.” One of the most blatantly Dylanesque ditties to appear in a crime saga since QT popularized Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs, Turner Cody’s “Corner of my Room“ delivers a jaunty kick to the middle-going of Jacques Audiard’s otherwise somber and compelling prison tale A Prophet (Un prophete). And, speaking lyrically, it’s a very good choice.

For even as our main character Malik (Tahar Rahim) wiles away years in “the corner of his room” in a French prison, he’s always watching, his mind’s always whirring. A Prophet is possessed of that same quiet, impressive, and inexorable intelligence. Audiard’s movie feels a bit on the long side, and, as you might expect from any movie about life in the Big House (even a French Maison Grande where everyone has separate cells and au bon pain is served on the regular) it can be hard to sit through at times. But it’s also a film that keeps making clever choices, lingering on a small detail or adding that little extra flourish that really makes various scenes resonate.

As A Prophet begins, our young prisoner is being processed for a six-year-stint in the joint for crimes unknown, although it sounds like roughing up a cop was involved. With no family or friends to speak of and a lousy public defender (Rabah Loucif) who just wants the paperwork cleared so he can get paid, Malik enters jail with nothing to his name except a desiccated cigarette and one 50-franc note. How could things get worse? Well, for starters, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) — the head of the Corsican gang who are the reigning ethnic power in Malik’s prison — may decide he wants an Arab prisoner (Hichem Yacoubi) murdered, and that Malik is just the fresh meat who can get into the Muslim block and get the job done. Hey, everybody’s got to start somewhere.

After wrestling with this dirty deed and its consequences, and picking up an unorthodox roommate, Malik goes from working in the prison’s blue jean factory to being the Corsicans’ new cook, maid, and whipping boy. He starts to make more friends, like Ryad (Adel Bencherif), the testicular cancer survivor who teaches him to read, and Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), the guy to go to for the quality hash. He starts to understand the prison’s racial fissures, like the great divide between the Corsicans (who treat like him an Arab, and who happen to have the guards in their pocket) and the Muslims (who treat him like a Corsican, and whose numbers are growing.) And, particularly after he establishes some friends on the outside, he starts seeing some angles to make some real money…if his Corsican masters will let him and live.

As critics go, I’m not usually a fan of the NYT’s Manohla Dargis, but her blurb in this trailer — “precisely observed” — is a very good way of putting this movie’s main strength. Time and again, A Prophet colors in its margins with small, wordless, and often devastating details. We watch Malik slice up his mouth over and over again as he tries to learn how to squirrel a razor blade in his cheek. After a day-long furlough that brings him to the beach, we see him slowly run the sand from his shoe through his fingers. When Malik one day gets on a flight, he initiates his full-cavity-search rigamarole in the security line, expecting no different from the French TSA than what he gets in prison every night.

Like I said, there are some scenes in A Prophet that can be hard to watch, and a few of the usual arthouse types at my Saturday afternoon viewing walked out. This is prison after all, and no Green Mile Oscar-bait prison either. Still, while I don’t think I’d want to see it again anytime soon, the movie definitely has moments of real grace, beauty, and haunting power. (Along with the aforementioned penchant for great novelistic details, I especially liked some of the deliriously creepy “dream” sequences in Malik’s prison cell, and particularly as they become normalized to him over the years.)

Did I like A Prophet better than Terribly Happy? Hmm, hard to say — they’re very different kinds of films, this one as sprawling and Scorsesean as Happy was lean and Coen-y. But, of the Best Foreign Film nominees in 2010, this was a much more worthwhile flick than The White Ribbon, and if The Secret in Their Eyes is better, it must be really something.

God Help the Beasts in Us.

Take one low-rent apartment on the wrong side of London. Add the two most woefully underused actors in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Throw them together with the two most libertine Americans in Paris, circa 1784. Then add a sizable dollop of (Big Gay) Al Swearingen and what do you get? Why, enough bottled-up testosterone to kill a small horse, naturally.

Well, that and Malcolm Venville’s very theatrical-seeming 44 Inch Chest, a play-like disquisition on primal, wounded masculinity-in-early-winter brought to you by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the writers of Sexy Beast. (In fact, by the transitive property of fandom, I could’ve opened this review instead with 2/3rds of Beast + 2/3rds of Paris, 1784 + a very ornery Winston Smith, most definitely post-Julia, and the math still works out.) Put in brief, this film was aptly summed up by David Edelstein in one sentence: “It starts to feel less like a thriller than an actors’ workshop.” That’s very true, but, ah, what actors they are.

Edelstein is entirely correct that 44 Inch Chest is mostly all dressed up with no place to go. More than anything, this film just tries to convey a mood of wallowing in the wounded male id for 90 minutes, and the movie ultimately has so little to do that it eventually starts adding random, ill-thought-out dream sequences and clips from the 1944 version of Samson & Delilah just to pad the running time. Still, much like The Men Who Stare at Goats, I’m inclined to forgive a movie some serious flaws if I enjoy the company of the actors involved. And, in that sense, I’ll concede to having a better time at 44 Inch Chest than it probably deserved.

The story here is very simple: Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) is a broken man. His beloved wife of 21 years (Joanne Whalley) has not only fallen out of love with him, but betrayed him with a handsome French waiter (Melvil Poupaud, who took the same situation much more sanguinely in A Christmas Story.) And now he’s a weeping, blubbering, suicidal, homicidal mess. So much so that his four best mates — amiable Archie (Tom Wilkinson), suave Mal (Stephen Dillane), the happily out Meredith (Ian McShane), and the vindictive Old Man Peanut (John Hurt) — decide to take drastic action.

They capture “Loverboy,” throw him in a wardrobe in the aforementioned rundown flat, and wait around for Colin to exact his revenge. And if he won’t “man up” enough to get the dirty deed done, well, somebody else will have to step in to do it. Because, in this day and age, and men being what they are, cuckoldry is a crime against nature that simply cannot go unavenged. As this crew tell us time and time and time again, usually using even more colorful language, “you just don’t f**k another man’s wife.” But, to paraphrase the inimitable Lloyd Dobler, if these guys know so much about women, how come it’s 3am at the London equivalent of the Gas-and-Sip, and there are absolutely no females around?

If this all sounds like a Harold Pintery, foul-mouthed cockney version of those egregiously mook “men under the gun” Superbowl ads we were regaled with last weekend, well, maybe we’re sorta in the same ballpark. But I would qualify that. First off, just as NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine or, say, (500) Days of Summer capture some of this angst on the young-man side, 44 Inch Chest is really less about misogyny as a dubious lifestyle choice and more just about Men of a Certain Age being burned alive in the horrible flames of thwarted love. Put another way, this movie is a pretty exact cinematic equivalent of Tom Waits’ towering “Make it Rain” or Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” — which, as you know if you have one, is “restless by day, and by night, rants and rages at the stars…(God help the Beast in Me.)

And speaking of the Beasts in Us, the Sexy Beast influence is pretty strongly felt throughout this movie, and not just because Winstone, McShane, and countless iterations of the C-word are back. Most obviously, John Hurt is now in the over-the-top Ben Kingsley role (also appropriated by Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges), and he has a good deal of fun with it. But other elements of Sexy Beast also came to mind throughout Chest — the dream sequences (better executed in Beast), the men-writhing-underwater bank heist (surely a good visual metaphor for the delving into the male id here), and, maybe most notably, Gal’s memorable profession of love over the phone from London: “I love you like a rose loves rainwater, like a leopard loves its partner in the jungle, like…I don’t know what like.” (And, come to think of it, Sexy Beast has a cuckolding subplot too, with Aitch, Don, and Jackie.)

To be clear, Sexy Beast is, by all accounts, a much better and more interesting film. (It made #29 on my Decade top 100.) But, even though this movie doesn’t really work on its own, I enjoyed 44-Inch Chest as sort of an extended, actors-studio riffing on the same themes. For all the posturing machismo in both movies, Chest and Beast are really both about closet romantics bottling up their feelings behind a tough guy veneer, and the awful consequences that arise when those feelings finally, irrevocably spill out. (In addition, both films feature crimes of passion, and here Winstone is even more tortured by his horrible deed as he is his initial predicament.) To put it another way, 44-Inch Chest is Sexy Beast with its leg caught in a coyote trap, gibbering and howling into the wind in primal misery.

Now, if you haven’t seen Sexy Beast, and don’t much feel like dwelling at length about the similarities, I’ll leave it at this: 44 Inch Chest is basically a filmed play about manliness-gone-sour that’s far too meandering after awhile, and it completely loses the thread in its last half-hour. Still, to my mind, there are worse ways to pass the time than seeing Ray Winstone sweat out several choice monologues, a snarling John Hurt getting to chew the scenery for once, Ian McShane deadpanning a few choice quips, and Stephen Dillane stealing several scenes just by his very presence. (Wilkinson, for his part, should’ve been given more to do.)

This, by the way, is the same trick Dillane often pulled on poor Paul Giamatti in John Adams. Give Mr. Jefferson his due — he might just be operating at a Tony Leung threshold of cool right now. The guy needs more parts and stat…and he’d make a great Doctor when Matt Smith retires the police box

A Brooklyn Scorcher.

“It’s worth remembering how Vincent Canby began his review on June 30, 1989, in the New York Times: ‘In all of the earnest, solemn, humorless discussions about the social and political implications of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, an essential fact tends to be overlooked: it is one terrific movie.’

In The Root, Henry Louis Gates reflects on the 20th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, and checks in with Spike Lee on the film. “None of us back then could possibly have imagined all that has transpired for our people, and for this country, in the intervening two decades: a black prince and princess so elegantly sitting up in the White House, and their very first date was in a movie theater in 1989, watching–what else? Do the Right Thing.

Emerald Dream. | Watching Watchers of Watchmen.

“It would be insulting to the genre and its readers, as well as fundamentally untrue, to say that Moore reinvented comics. Moore loved comics, in all their overheated melodrama and violence and passion and romance, and simply wanted them to fulfill their potential. He wanted comics to be better written (and more beautifully drawn; he has consistently brought out the best in his artists), to be more alive to the outside world and to other forms of culture, to be less imprisoned by the emotional ghetto of pre-adolescence.” On the precipice of Watchmen, Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir sings the praises of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.

As for Watchmen itself, the early reviews for Zack Snyder’s adaptation are coming in pretty poor, unfortunately. Still, I remain cautiously optimistic that, with expectations suitably lowered, there’ll be some things to like about Snyder’s version. For one, a lot of the worst reviews of the film wallow in exactly the type of insecure, i’m-too-cultured-for-funny-books douchebaggery I just noted in my review of A Christmas Tale. (See, for example, Anthony Lane’s spoilerish New Yorker review, whose good points — for example, that Snyder’s film revels in the same fetishizing of power that Moore was trying to subvert — are buried beneath his puerile sneering at both the author and fanboys in general. (“‘Watchmen,’ like ‘V for Vendetta,’ harbors ambitions of political satire, and, to be fair, it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear — deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation — is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along.“) Even for him and The New Yorker, which famously whined of The Matrix that we should all be reading Cheever instead, this review is a new low.

For another, and as I’ve said here many times before, Snyder isn’t my preferred choice of director for this project either. But, heck, even a stopped watch is right twice a day. So, here’s hoping there’s something salvageable from this long-awaited adaptation…I’ll know when the clock strikes midnight tomorrow.

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