Film 2010 #33 – The Imposters


The Imposters (1998, dir. Stanley Tucci)

Starring Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Alfred Molina, Lily Taylor, Billy Connolly, Tony Shaloub, Campbell Scott, Allison Janney, Richard Jenkins, Isabella Rossellini, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Michael Emerson
After seeing so many films in the last decade it is rare to come across one that literally makes me giddy and my enthusiasm for film completely and utterly refreshed. The Imposters did exactly this in the most wonderfully expected way. The film is a follow up to Big Night (my review here), this time around Tucci directs but brings all the same players from before plus some more. The love is very apparent here, just like in Big Night. These are people who love to making movies working on a movie they love. Something like that is contagious for the audience and its wonderful.
The premise is fairly simply starting out: Two brothers, Arthur and Maurice (Tucci and Platt respectively) are down on their luck actors in the 1930s who practice their craft by staging incidents at outdoor cafes and bakeries, and also try to steal some food while they are at it. Their nemesis is the blustery British thespian Sir Jeremy Burtom (Molina), whom they go to see perform an incredibly comical version of Hamlet. Later, they are caught by Burtom insulting the man and he convinces authorities that the two men threatened his life. Arthur and Maurice hide inside a wooden crate on the docks while police search and, when they wake up in the morning, find they’ve been loaded onto a luxury ocean liner.
The film is pure classical farce, with every character played to the extreme by the talented actors in the film. It’s obvious these filmmakers know their cinematic history and tropes as we have a pair of con artists on board to scam rich socialites out of their fortunes, an exiled queen form a fictional nation, a young couple in love whose positions keep them from being together, and many many more classic types. What really catapults the film into another realm are the wonderful meta jokes sprinkled through out. Characters seems to almost be aware they are in a film. For example, during a Steadicam shot of the ship’s ballroom meant to establish that all of our main characters were present, the exiled queen behaves as if she can see the camera, lets out an “ooh” and hides her face with her scarf. This is just one of the many little treats Tucci and his cast and crew give us. The best is one I won’t give away but is an extremely clever cheat to push the plot forward.
Films like The Imposters are a rarity. Most comedies playing in the local theater are ones generated by studios and marketed to specific niches. The sad part is so many of these comedies, their screenwriters, actors, and directors seem to have a very low awareness of the roots of their craft. Tucci proves he’s not just an actor and director, but also a true student of film who understand and appreciates how comedy has grown and where it came from.
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Film 2010 #32 – Ragtime


Ragtime (1981, dir. Milos Forman)

Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, James Cagney, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Moses Gunn, Debbie Allen, Donald O’Conner, Howard Rollins Jr.
I first became familiar with the story of Ragtime from the 1996 Broadway musical, script written by the talented Terrence McNally and based on the novel by E.L. Doctrow. The story (in all mediums) is an attempt to create a slice of life in America right before World War I broke out. Milos Forman was an interesting choice to helm this project; he doesn’t really take on historical epics, instead when he does period pieces he chooses to focus on specific individuals and analyze them down to the grain. In Ragtime, we get broad painted strokes that only give us glimpses.
The interwoven plots contain a mix of fictional characters given vague names like Father, Mother, Younger Brother and historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit (the focal point of what was called the Scandal of the Century at the time). The novel and musical version contain even more historical figures including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Admiral Peary, and Emma Goldman, but I assume they were cut for the sake of time.
In the core plot of the film an upper middle class family in New Rochelle, New York discovers an African-American infant crying in their garden. The police bring a young woman to their house who admits the child is hers and that the father abandoned them. Mother decides to take Sarah, the girl into their home against the wishes of Father. Eventually, piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. arrives on their doorstep revealed to be the father of the child and stating that now that he has a job he is willing to ready to provide for his family. However, tragedy occurs that sets the characters down a path where they witness a change in the entire world. Alongside this plot, Mother’s Younger Brother falls in love with former dance hall girl Evelyn Nesbit and is played for a fool. There’s also Tateh, a Jewish immigrant talented in making silhouettes who eventually makes it big as an early silent filmmaker.
The film presents the world of New York in 1917 with amazing accuracy. Clothing and vehicles and set dressing are spot on and anachronisms are non-existent. However, the broad nature of the film left me feeling indifferent about every character on screen. Every thing feels like it is played towards cliche rather than reality. Part of me feels that uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis played a part in the films broad, flat nature. It’s an interesting film, most notable for the costume design and art direction, but definitely a weaker entry into Milos Forman’s work.

Film 2010 #31 – The Constant Gardener


The Constant Gardener (2005, dir. Fernando Meirelles)
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite

I am a huge fan of Meirelles’ 2002 breakthrough film City of God and am a big supporter of the devastatingly panned Blindness (2007). For some reason, I felt trepidatious about this film since it came out. I think part of my worry was the fear of a “sophomore slump”, meaning Meirelles was moving from an independent foreign flick to a Hollywood producer studio movie. A lot could go wrong. While The Constant Gardener isn’t a disaster, it is definitely a weak film compared to Meirelles’ other work.
The story follows Justin Quayle (Fiennes), a low level British diplomat stationed in Kenya. His activist journalist wife, Tessa (Weisz) has grown more and more distant from him while pursuing a story she is apprehensive to let Justin in on. Everything comes crashing down around his head when Tessa and her doctor friend are found murdered. The Kenyan government immediately spins it as bandits but Justin delves into Tessa’s research to discover a larger and sinister conspiracy at work.
The highest achievement of this film is its editing. Until I really started consuming movies I completely glossed over the importance of editing. Once I did a little reading and self-education I began to see how editing can make or break a picture. In the case of The Constant Gardener without the incredibly tight and skilled cutting, this would have been another yawnfest film vying for Oscar attention. That’s not a good thing. In the moments where editing can’t work around the film’s flaws it comes across an annoyingly didactic. While I agree with the weight of the subject matter, it is a failure because it doesn’t get that message across in a very entertaining way.
There are some very noteworthy highlights though, in particular, the way Meirelles tells us the story of Justin and Tessa’s relationship. Tessa is dead within the first five minutes of the film and, after a trip to the morgue, the film detours for a good 40 minutes with a series of fragmented moments from their lives and from the work Tessa was doing. The dark secret that Tessa uncovered is never explicitly revealed during this sequence but all the information that is important comes across. We know why someone like Justin would fall for Tessa and we question what it is she wanted out of him. On a totally different note, I was impressed that Weisz did a nude scene while full on pregnant, it felt very real and was used in way that showed Justin’s deep care and tenderness for Tessa.
This will not be remembered as a highlight of Meirelles’ career. For one of his films, it is a low point, but its light years better than most “issue” movies made by Hollywood.

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part One

When I was five years old or younger, I remember going over to my Uncle Wallace’s house around Christmas and everyone was sitting around watching the film version of Popeye. I have faint memories of recognizing a strangeness in that film even at such a young age. I don’t have pieces of plot from back then, what is floating around in the mist of my young brain are the way the characters spoke. They mumbled and talked over each other. The language was what made it strange. I wouldn’t realize until years later that this was how I met Mr. Robert Altman.

Robert Altman passed away in November of 2006, leaving behind one of the most prolific bodies of American film work. It’s said a lot that certain filmmakers are uncompromising and eventually they take a film and follow the studio’s demands, but Altman was a director who truly held fast to his ideas about cinema. There were films, that on reflection, he didn’t feel was his best work, but he always made them how he felt they should be made. He was vocal about his political beliefs, which definitely didn’t make him many fans, and he was very explicit with sexuality in films, but always in an honest, realistic way. It was that desire to capture fiction as close to reality as possible that makes many of his films somewhat uneasy to sit through.

With this four part essay, I plan on taking a look at his filmography and highlighting those signatures that make a film Altman-esque. In addition, I want to look at periods in his career where he veered dramatically from his traditional style and experimented with different modes of storytelling. I’ve seen 18 of his films but that still leaves many others I’ve yet to see. My hope is that you discover a film whose description intrigues you enough to seek it out.


M*A*S*H (1970)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, Rene Auberjonois

If your familiarity with this concept comes purely from the long-running sitcom then you are in for a surprise with this film. The humor here is much less sitcom-oriented and a thinly veiled swipe at the madness of the Vietnam War, something Altman opposed strongly. The novel the film is based on was about the Korean War and the film makes certain to say it is set in that conflict, yet everything being said on screen is about Vietnam. The plot is a very loose series of episodes featuring Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper John (Sutherland, Skerritt, and Gould respectively), a trio of doctors drafted into the war and helping tend to the devastation. Throughout the picture, Altman doesn’t miss an opportunity to skewer authority, whether it be the daft commanding officer Col. Blake or the disturbingly religious Maj. Frank Burns (Duvall). What M*A*S*H is most noted for are the gruesome surgery scene where the humorous banter between doctors and nurses is played in contrast to the sounds of saw scraping through bone.


Brewster McCloud (1970)

Starring Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Shelly Duvall, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, Bert Remsen, Stacy Keach, Margaret Hamilton
Altman continues his subversive assault on authority, this time focusing his sights on the police. This film also introduces some playful elements that would pepper the director’s early work and take more prominence in the 1980s. A framing device is used where Rene Auberjonois plays a bizarre birdlike professor telling the story of the reclusive and eccentric Houston youth Brewster McCloud (Cort). McCloud is feverishly working to build a pair of mechanical working wings a la Leonardo da Vinci. Simultaneously, a series of murders occurs around the city that all have an odd bird motif to them. Altman diverges at a few points and the story can be a little hard to follow, but overall a wonderful early picture. Be on the look out for Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West) in the opening credits.


McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, Shelly Duvall, Keith Carradine
This is widely considered the first of Altman’s naturalist films. In these types of pictures he took a common film genre and instead of subverting, in what might be called an experimental fashion, Altman would try to present the genre as realistically a possible. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was Altman’s spin on the Western and it is unlike any Western made up to that point. There is no glamor in this interpretation, everything is intentionally dirty and bleak. McCabe (Beatty) is an opportunist who arrives at a mining town in Washington and proceeds to open a brothel. Mrs. Miller (Christie), a successful madam arrives and negotiates a partnership with McCabe which leads to a very profitable enterprise and McCabe assuming leadership of the town. Eventually, a larger mining company comes in wanting to purchase the town and its businesses and a very atypical showdown occurs. The film also features a beautiful original soundtrack by Leonard Cohen.


The Long Goodbye (1973)

Starring Elliot Gould, Henry Gibson
This is most definitely my favorite Altman film from this period and possibly of his entire body of work. Elliot Gould plays iconic detective Phillip Marlowe (a role originally made famous by Humphrey Bogart). True to Altman’s form, this is a total subversion of the detective genre. Marlowe is not the cool and collected direct gumshoe Hollywood cultivated in the 1930s and 40s. This Marlowe is a man who almost stumbles into the clues and leads for his case. This Marlowe is a smartass who intentionally taunts the cops at every turn. The soundtrack for the film was composed by John Williams and consists only of variations of a jazz tune title “The Long Goodbye”. There is something so satisfying to me about how this picture plays out, most likely because it doesn’t happen like every other mystery film. There’s also a wonderful subplot involving Marlowe’s finicky cat whose appetite plays a key role in how the detective ends up in the predicament of the film.


Thieves Like Us (1974)

Starring Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall, Louise Fletcher, Tom Skerritt
Check out my thoughts on this film in my full review.


California Split (1974)

Starring Elliot Gould, George Segal
This was Altman’s attempt to take on the gambling/poker genre. Two men (Gould and Segal) meet and immediately click over their love of gambling. Underneath it all, I believe the film is actually a love story between these two men. When they first meet sparks fly and they are caught up in the thrill of the risk. Gould’s character becomes more and more immersed in their antics while Segal remains realistic about it all. Eventually, Gould’s debt forces them to travel to Reno where Amarillo Slim appears as himself in a high stakes game. The film ends on a bittersweet note, not with a huge loss and lesson learned, but with the risk fading as they just keep winning. In another way, nothing changes except how they see their relationship. What used to be exciting is now dull and so its inevitable that things will end between them.

Hypothetical Film Festival #6 – Unusual Love Stories

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to compile a film festival of unusual love stories. Some of them are romantic, some of them are funny, and some of them are even deeply disturbing. Enjoy!


Belle et BĂȘte (1946, dir. Jean Cocteau)

If you enjoyed the world of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast then you have this 1946 French film to thank for it. Disney’s animators referenced this film in deciding what the Beast and his castle would look like. Cocteau was a poet, writer, and filmmaker who decided to adapt the original French folktale for the screen. There are some haunting images in this picture, in particular the hallways of arm-shaped candelabras that follow Belle as she first enters the castle. This film is the closest I’ve ever seen a fairy tale being captured on the screen. Composer Philip Glass was so moved by seeing the film that he composed a ballet based on it, and the Criterion edition allows you to watch with both the original score or Glass’ music.


Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Hal Ashby is one of two of my most favorite directors of the 1970s (the other being Robert Altman). This film cemented him as as an icon of the counter culture movement and served as the inspiration to many other filmmakers to come, in particular Wes Anderson. Ashby got folk singer Cat Stevens to write original songs for the film and they perfectly score the love story it tells. 18 year old Harold is a depressed aristocrat (sort of a prototype emo) who meets 80 year old Maude, a woman with more life than women 60 years her junior. Maude helps Harold to move beyond his forlorn nature and he falls in love with her. One of the best love stories ever told in film.


Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)

Brazil is not just a film about two people in love, but also about being in love with dreams. Sam Lowry (played by the brilliant Jonathan Pryce) is a cog in the machine of a surreal variation on Orwell’s Big Brother society. In his dreams he is an armored, winged hero fighting to save a damsel in distress. In reality the woman of his dreams is a mistrusting dump truck driver trying to find some justice in a corrupt system. When the two meet things hardly go well. But Sam learns to trust in his dreams, a decision that leads to a very bizarre and bittersweet ending for the couple.


The Crying Game (1990, dir. Neil Jordan)

One of THE most controversial films of its day because of the love story it tells. Fergus is a member of the IRA who is forced to interrogate someone his compatriots believe is working for the British government. The prisoner begs Fergus to visit his girlfriend in London, Dil. After the prisoner is killed, Fergus journies to meet Dil and what he learns about the woman is very shocking. Despite all the hub-bub made about the love story, its a very beautifully made film that has some interesting things to say about the British and Irish conflict in the U.K.


Audition (1999, dir. Takashi Miike)

Never thought Miike would end up on a list of love stories. This interesting picture is about Shigeharu, a widower whose friend encourages him to set up a fake movie audition for actress to find a date. Shigeharu meets Asami at the audition, a young soft-spoken woman who claims to have been on her way to a career as a dancer until an injury halted that. Shigeharu goes on one date with her and gets an odd feeling about the whole situation. As more and more is revealed about Asami the weirder things get, ending in one of the most intensely gruesome finales in film history. I remember being terrified simply from the trailer for this film.


Secretary (2002, dir. Steven Shainberg)

If you like your love stories BDSM-style, then this is the flick for you. Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lee, a young girl just released from a mental hospital and placed back in the midst of a horrendously dysfunctional family. Lee takes a job as a secretary at the law office of Edward Grey (James Spader) who she begins to develop feelings for. The two begin a dominant-submissive relationship that, while unlike traditional Hollywood romance, is filmed in a very beautiful way here. The thing to remember is that in such a relationships, the subtext is that the submissive is actually the one in control. Edward becomes ashamed of their actions and pushes Lee away and she decides to do whatever she can to convince Edward what they have is right.

Film 2010 #30 – The Secret of Kells


The Secret of Kells (2009, dir. Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey)

Starring Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
When the 2010 Oscar Nominations were announced I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered “What the hell is The Secret of Kells?” Well, it’s an independently produced Irish film that played for a week in L.A. to qualify for the Academy Awards. The nomination will definitely garner attention for the film when it receives an expansion on American screens on March 12th, but is the picture deserving of the nom? A million times yes, and while Up will probably win because of its notoriety and box office, The Secret of Kells brings a style drastically different from the Disney formula that dominates American animation.
The story of The Secret of Kells is based in the history of Ireland circa 1006 A.D. The Vikings are massacring and raiding any village them come across in the hopes of amassing gold. The Abbey of Kells has become a sanctuary for many monks whose island homes have been burnt to the ground. Now, surrounded by the deep forest, they have gone back to creating gloriously intricate illuminated texts while the Abbot Cellach works to finish the wall before the Vikings arrive. Cellach’s nephew, Brendan befriends Brother Aidan, the monk who has been working on the Book of Iona, believed to be the most beautiful illuminated manuscript ever made. Aidan enlists Brendan’s help in gathering the supplies needed to finish the text by gathering inkberries for him in the forest. Brendan sneaks away, meeting the fairy Aisling, who introduces him to the wonders of the world outside the walls of the abbey.
The intricacies of the animated work in this film are astonishing. From the moment of the prologue, narrated by Aisling, there is no doubt that the love put into the picture is remarkable. The clever reasoning behind the level of detail is a direct nod to the craftsmanship put into illuminated manuscripts by monks. The same swirls, flourishes, and Celtic crosses seen in the texts can be found hidden amongst the gnarled roots of trees and clusters of leaves and flowers. The subtext here is that Brendan can only rise to the level of his hero, Aidan, by journeying beyond the walls of his limited experience. Someone like Aidan has been able to create such a beautiful piece of art because he has confronted his fears and conquered them.
While Brendan’s story does follow closely to the accepted hero’s journey archetype, there are many story beats that separate this film’s plot from others. The unblinking look at violence at this period of time and this part of the world is very much there. When the Vikings rear their ugly heads it is apparent that they leave few alive in their wake. There is also tragedy of other sorts in the film’s climactic sequence involving the unfinished abbey and its weak scaffolding. But the subtext throughout is telling us fear will be your end. Running frightened and unthinkingly at the sight of your fear leads you into destruction, but those characters who use their wits and remain calm are able to escape.
My own personal opinion is that the originality of content and artistic achievement of The Secret of Kells earns it the Best Animated Feature. However, the Academy Awards is usually more reflective of a mix between artistic elements and public awareness, meaning Up is the most likely candidate. Not to take away from Pixar, they would probably argue in favor of Kells as well, but I am excited for this film to reach a wider audience and gain more enthusiasm like mine.