Moments out of Time 1996

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 33 Number 1, January/February 1997, reprinted by permission]

• The car materializing out of the whited-out mystery of snow/land/sky—the opening of Fargo

The English Patient: closeup, the look of pearls against Kristin Scott Thomas’s sweat-dampened throat … rediscovering the sensuality of the camera eye…

• Nobody (Gary Farmer) among the white birches, Dead Man

Mars Attacks!: a herd of cattle—in flames—stampeding down a country road…

Breaking the Waves: Touching her husband’s penis for the first time, Emily Watson blows a strand of hair away from her face in delight and amaze…

Lone Star: During a seamless elision into a dim, long-gone taqueria, deputy Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) gravels out “No” when his corrupt boss (Kris Kristofferson) orders him to collect mordita … and suddenly, shades of a Peckinpah Western rise….

• Nine minutes at a café table, Secrets & Lies

• Dawn (Heather Mattarazzo) taking a cleaver to her sister’s pink-maned Barbie doll—Welcome to the Dollhouse

• Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.)’s almost subliminal moue as Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) tells him, “You are wildly charismatic”…

• Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You, his appearance and bearing suggesting that F. Scott Fitzgerald is still around, writing characters for the Nineties….

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Moments out of Time 1998

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 35 Number 1, January/February 1999, reprinted by permission]

• Shrapnel hanging in the air, every shard in razor-sharp focus, as if molecules of the film itself had been startled out of the emulsion by the battle: Saving Private Ryan

• A bird born dying in battle: The Thin Red Line

• A tumbleweed in L.A.: The Big Lebowski

• Sopping-wet black thing drags out of swamp water and mist… the swinish sound of lungs laboring to relearn breathing: Beloved..

• The most genuinely felicitous meet-cute in living memory, Out of Sight: In the trunk of a getaway car, Federal marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) and prison escapee Jack Foley (George Clooney) talk movies—e.g., Three Days of the Condor, with Faye Dunaway “and Robert Redford when he was young”…

• A dying woman (Meryl Streep) opens her arms to her lost husband (William Hurt) and spoons him—fully dressed—in their bed: One True Thing

• Burning Dad, the brute (James Coburn) who, having let his wife die of cold, wraps himself in fake grief: “I should a froze.”—Affliction

• In an elevator, at war with her asshole husband (Martin Donovan), Living Out Loud‘s Judith (Holly Hunter) aims a sudden-death glare at the hapless nerd caught in close-quarters crossfire—without missing a beat in her rant….

• Four bare legs wavering in the air: Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) and friend trying to fuck standing on their heads in Without Limits

• A token of love, Rushmore: Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) asks the affectless suitor at her door (Bill Murray) if he would like a carrot: “Sure,” he answers with passionate diffidence….

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The Devil in the Details: “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”

A rickety wedge of a gypsy wagon with walls a couple of stories high wobbles through modern London streets, pulled by a couple of tired horses and carrying a tired old souse playing out the role of the carny showman on pure instinct. These traveling players could have ridden right out of the medieval era on the cobblestone streets that have brought them to the waterfront pub where a rowdy bloke decides to have a little fun with these threadbare dandies, especially the succulent young moonfaced beauty (Lily Cole) he chases through the stage mirror that, like Alice before him, takes him into another world, but this is one dreamscape he’s not prepared to handle. Though it’s not exactly explained, the Imaginarium apparently offers those who step through the mylar gates visions of their own dreams, desires and creative will, but only those who do so with open minds and hearts. This bloke, barreling through with no good on his mind, isn’t coming back. “Gone,” sighs Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with a weary resignation. “Will we miss him? I don’t think so.”

Step right up to the Imaginarium
Step right up to the Imaginarium

You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, a steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. (The Imaginarium is also Gilliam’s first embrace of CGI as a primary tool for creating images onscreen; like any tool, both are only as good as the mind behind it, or inside it, as the case may be.) His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.

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Moments out of Time 1976

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

• The premiere of The Clansman, and D.W. Griffith’s stately acknowledgement of the cheers-the night we’d like to have attended, and thanks to Peter Bogdanovich for enabling us to be there: Nickelodeon….

• The duel in the barn: shafts of blue light, the flutter of pigeon wings, and the inexorable progress of ritual and fatality—Barry Lyndon

All the President’s Men: the daft imperturbability of the country club lawyer (Nicolas Coster) who, asked by Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) why he’s here at the plumbers’ arraignment, replies “I’m not here.”…

The duel in the barn: "Barry Lyndon"
The duel in the barn: "Barry Lyndon"

• The men weeping over chopped onions and the slowness of social change—Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000

• The sexual eagerness of Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem) and the old widow (Brigitte Mira) when they find one another in front of her apartment the second night—Ali—Angst essen Seele auf….

• An interview in an airport restroom—Alice in the Cities

Welcome to L.A.: Ken Hood (Harvey Keitel) gets his Christmas bonus—a partnership in the yogurt company—and rides down in the elevator. “Youuuuuu—you did it, you Kenneth! … Give me a K! Give me an E!…”

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Moments out of Time 1997

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 34 Number 1, January/February 1998, reprinted by permission]


• The death of Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), L.A. Confidential: The gunshot comes as a cinematically rare and genuine shock, but this is crowned by a supreme actor’s-moment: Jack’s multivalenced chuckle—shoulda known better—as he plants the clue with which his killer will betray himself. “Rollo … Tommasi”…

• A blue, figured rug drifting over a rocky streambed: the beginning of Gabbeh‘s motion picture magic ..

Kundun: the crane up from the Dalai Lama amidst a virtual sea of slain monks…

• The happy promiscuousness of the camera in Boogie Nights: tracking the trajectory of various characters through the first party scene at Jack Horner’s house, it notices an anonymous girl and follows her … into the pool … and under the water … and surfaces to frame Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) … and goes under again to meet Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg)….

• The tour-boat scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, the last time that former lovers Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney will ever be alone together: “…If you love someone, you say it out loud, otherwise the moment just—” “—passes you by,” she finishes, as, passing under a bridge, the boat draws out of privileged shadow into the sun….

• Overarching tree limbs—the curve of a mother’s loving embrace—in Mother and Son and Ponette

• “Never ignore a man’s courtesy”—good advice from Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), Hard Eight

• In The Apostle, the way Sonny (Robert Duvall) kicks out at the cop who tries to interrupt his seduction of a soul for Jesus … a dying accident victim he touches through the window of his wrecked car…

• “Told ya it was here”—where Louis (Robert De Niro) parked the car, that is. Melanie (Bridget Fonda) is no longer interested. Jackie Brown

• Stalin (F. Murray Abraham) and Australian fan Joan Fraser (Judy Davis) getting up close and personal on a settee in Children of the Revolution

Alien Resurrection: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) unfolding her long limbs as she emerges from a cocoon of gauze: elegant as a praying mantis…

Absolute Power: Ed Harris’s cop and Clint Eastwood’s master thief “flirting” over lunch at the museum: two good men, two good actors in perfect rapport…

• Out of the reeds on the other side of a river, Russian soldiers rise—as though from hidden graves—to renew the hostilities Capitaine Conan lives for….

• Wounded men: the compulsive, politicking charisma of D.A. Ron Leibman, and the smiling, embarrassed guiltiness of cop James Gandolfini as honest man Ian Holm’s partner; Night Falls on Manhattan

• Barely visible in Amistad‘s opening dark, a bloodied black finger scrabbles desperately to tease a nail out of wood….

• A dark, hushed kitchen crowded with ursine menace, rehearsal for the real thing in The Edge

• Don’t go there: the unclean atmosphere of the house where Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette live in Lost Highway

L.A. Confidential: Seconds after two men have been machine-gunned through it, a picture window crashes in sheets ….

• Most startling intertitle of the year: RENO, NEVADA – TWO YEARS LATER, after the mesmerizing first reel of Hard Eight

• The almost unbearable sweetness of the duet between Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), as close to perfect union as they ever come in Washington Square

• The hopeless, utterly endearing croaking of the bride-to-be (Cameron Diaz) in the karaoke bar: disaster become triumph in My Best Friend’s Wedding

• The polite raptness of The Colonel (the late, great Robert Ridgely) checking Eddie’s goods—Boogie Nights

• The preternatural self-possession and serene preposterousness of Ken Sherry (George Shevtzov), Love Serenade

• Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) vamping in his opera cape with satanic red lining, Face/Off

• “I love Chow Yun Fat but I don’t see him as Batman”—overheard at a comic-book con in Chasing Amy

• The falls—a Herzogian coup in Happy Together

• Dead faces reflected in a muddy pool of leftover rainwater … epitaph for Deep Crimson‘s grotesque Bonnie and Clyde wannabes…

Smilla’s Sense of Snow: Below the frozen tundra, a seal rolls over in a grotto of blue ice, lit like a stained-glass window from another dimension…

• A teacher reaches into a landscape to pluck out a bouquet and “blue,” the color of the sky: directorial sorcery in Gabbeh….

• The hard, fast exchange of blows in a duel of will and wit between damaged boy and shrink (Matt Damon and Robin Williams) in Good Will Hunting

• Kurt (Ricky Jay) engaging Little Bill (William H. Macy) in a discussion of “minimal” while, just beyond, a rapt audience watches Little Bill’s wife getting dicked on the driveway—Boogie Nights

• Just before the end of Donnie Brasco, Lefty (AI Pacino) leaving open a drawer containing his jewelry and cash so that his wife will find them…

Washington Square’s Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith) spews overripe platitudes about love as she flirts with her niece’s fortune-hunting fiancé (Ben Chaplin). Behind her, glimpsed through a scrim, a whore’s legs pump up and down….

• A father’s lullaby, the grave face of a sick child, and a small knife: The Sweet Hereafter

• In the middle of a stormy night, a tiny black foal nests in the snow outside a grandmother’s yurt … a magical gift in A Mongolian Tale….

• The muffled thump of great combs trimming and shaping heavy hanks of wool: the beating heart of Gabbeh

• The first appearance of Sam Neill’s many-times-turned spy in Children of the Revolution: in ironically menacing silhouette, with a smoking cigarette cocked in his leather-gloved hand…

• Philip Baker Hall in excelsis: in Hard Eight, the matter-of-fact awe of just tracking around the casino in Sydney’s wake; and in Boogie Nights, the entrance of Floyd Gondolli…

• The brute, sudden horror of death in the dark: Harold Perrineau Jr.’s savaging by the bear in The Edge

• Behind the Victory Motel, headlights in the trees: classic air of menace at the climax of L.A. Confidential

• A father’s hand, raised from the steering wheel to wave at his kids, suddenly spasms impotently … signaling the loss of all bearings in The Sweet Hereafter….

• The way Billy Bob Thornton’s kneeling sinner turns his face away during his conversion at the tender hands of The Apostle

L.A. Confidential: Jack Vincennes’s glance at the one-way mirror in the chief’s office—behind which Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) stands—after he has copped to the grand jury…

• “This isn’t E.M. Forster!” … Upper-class British novelist Giles DeAth (John Hurt) realizing he’s in the wrong movie auditorium in Love and Death on Long Island

• Sensual short-circuiting in Female Perversions: utterly self-absorbed Eve (Tilda Swinton) making out in a hammock with her latest, lovely conquest (Karen Sillas)…

The Ice Storm: Seconds after a passionless quickie in his car’s front seat, a suburban spouse (Jamey Sheridan) draws back in horror—”Awful … that was awful”—from his neighbor’s wife (Joan Allen)….

A Thousand Acres: A woman scorned (Jessica Lange) disappears—as though she never existed—into a field of corn….

• The story about the girl that got away as told by Silent Bob, aka writer-director Kevin Smith, in Chasing Amy

• Hotshot lawyer Jon Voight, momentarily tripped up by tyro attorney Matt Damon in The Rainmaker: “You little pissant!”…

• “Jan-et!”—Judy Davis’s outraged shriek when Woody Allen accidentally calls her Jane, after her thinly disguised character in his latest novel; misogynistic metacinema in Deconstructing Harry

• A reforming junkie (Malcolm McDowell) injects his hand-puppet self with an overdose of the old “rang dang do,” in Hugo Pool

• “Earl Grey rules!”—Sudden Manhattan

• In Anastasia, ghosts from a lost age of Romanov splendor drift down from floor-to-ceiling portraits in a great, decaying ballroom….

• An image cinema waited a hundred years to frame: in Amistad, a low-angle shot up past the helm of the ship as a strong man looks skyward and steers by the stars…

• In Chasing Amy, Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams)’s sweet, wise “sermon” about all the ways her lover’s proposed three-way could go wrong…

The Apostle: The joy and regret that illuminates an old minister’s (John Beasley) face as he explains why a weak heart keeps him from preaching: “When I get up to the pulpit and the spirit moves me … I can’t hold back.”…

• Early in The Devil’s Advocate, the virtually nuclear toilet-flush sound effect as lawyer Keanu Reeves scrubs his hands in the courthouse restroom…

• In Boogie Nights, the cap-gun verisimilitude of Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell’s shooting…

• Gary Oldman as Zorg, The Fifth Element‘s best special effect: a weirdly skewed stick-figure who seems to have been dismantled and reassembled on several occasions by repair teams with radically conflicting theories of prosthetics…

• “What the fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful.” Ordell (Samuel 1. Jackson) to Louis, no longer listening. Jackie Brown

Boogie Nights: During the unaccustomed near-silence while his musical tapes change over, Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) suddenly feels impelled to account for the thirty-seventh firecracker since the sequence began: “Cosmo … he’s Chinese”….

The Saint (Val Kilmer), having immersed himself in a near-frozen Moscow river, watches up through the water as an enemy stands above looking for him…

• After the woman he’s hot for tells him “next time,” The Apostle spins around on her front steps to aim a stiff finger at her door, shooting off steam and punching out a promise of future good times….

• In Deep Crimson, a reluctantly murderous “mother” prepares a little girl for her bath—both knowing it will be her last….

• The miraculous presence that appears behind Ponette as she grieves by her mother’s grave…

Mother and Son amid white birches on a hill that tilts inexorably down-frame…

Alien Resurrection: The horrific yet ennobled visage of Ellen Ripley’s unholy child at the moment it registers its Virgin Mother’s betrayal…

• Mother and child reunion: Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) tenderly bringing Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) home in his first big sex scene in Boogie Nights

• .Slowly closing in on the target of choice—a lost son—at the beginning of Hard Eight

• Julie Christie all aglow in anticipation of love in Afterglow

• The hair-raising shooosh of a boy’s suddenly dead body sliding along a frozen road … The Ice Storm

• A romantic melody on the radio, a slow dance on a nighttime pier … the sweet, doomed passion of an IRA soldier (Brad Pitt) and his girl (Natascha McElhone) in The Devil’s Own

Jackie Brown: Max Cherry (Robert Forster) listening to the Delfonics on his car tapedeck, and just not quite singing along…

• A sweetly demented “stalker” (Mel Gibson) sits in his car gazing up at the apartment window of the woman he loves (Julia Roberts), Conspiracy Theory. After a moment, he begins to hum, “scoring” her workout on the treadmill….

• Unable to maintain proper manly restraint under the influence of “I Will Survive,” Kevin Kline breaks out in exuberant dance—In & Out….

• An unexpected, deadpan rendition of “Wichita Lineman” by a middle-aged Asian restaurateur in Australia’s Love Serenade

My Best Friend’s Wedding: George (Rupert Everett), “radiant with charisma,” let loose on the wedding-rehearsal luncheon and drawing the entire assembly into an ecstatic rendition of “Say a Little Prayer for Me”…

Love and Death on Long Island: the delicate obtrusiveness of the proprietor of Chez d’Irv (Maury Chaykin), especially when he asks Giles DeAth whether he’s ever bumped into a guy named Stan Brickhouse—”an attractive man … average-size hands, breasts like a woman”…

• Observed from a god’s-eye view in Smilla’s Sense of Snow: a man and his dog team trying to outrace a frame-filling, moving wall of snow…

• A red car drives down a turnpike curving gently through misty green countryside: Good Will Hunting heading for his own private Idaho….

• Any of Judy Davis’s orgasmic rants in Children of the Revolution, but especially the one that ends by radically changing tune, as she sighs a mild “Ta, love” to the patient husband (Geoffrey Rush) who hands her a cuppa…

In & Out: Seen from overhead, the incidental passage of a car, driver unknown and irrelevant, that somehow validates, even blesses, the tender reunion of former student (Matt Dillon) and very rattled teacher (Joan Cusack) in the Midwest evening…

Boogie Nights: a New Year’s Eve flashbulb goes off in Little Bill’s face as he heads outside to his car to get his gun….

• Apotheosis in Gattaca: onetime übermensch Jerome (Jude Law) immolating himself in a purification chamber while “blood brother” Vincent (Ethan Hawke) rockets to heaven…

• The face of a man buried alive at the end of Taste of Cherry

• Max Cherry watching Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) depart, then turning to walk out of the focus she gave his life…

• In Washington Square, an orange parasol makes a sunflower of Catherine as she warms to her handsome suitor…

My Best Friend’s Wedding: George, improvising, making a well-meaning grab for his “fiancée’s” breast in the taxicab…

• The argument we never learn about at a neighboring table while Sydney buys Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) a late-night cup of coffee—Hard Eight

• “I’ll never let go,” Rose (Kate Winslet) promises Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Titanic, and proves it … by letting go….

The Sweet Hereafter: the camera seeming to crane up around the very curve of the earth as it finds and follows Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood)’s truck following the school us…

• At the climax of L.A. Confidential, a flotilla of cherry-topped cop cars cresting the hill and approaching past the pumping oil well, as a man walks toward them with hands raised …

• Long way down, Boogie Nights, in the midst of the Quentin-Tarantino-eat-your-heart-out set-piece of the year, Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler seems to know that he’s going to die right here, right now, inevitably and with abject pointlessness. But only “Marky Mark” dies; Mark Wahlberg gets out of there a winner….


Moments out of Time 2005

[originally published in Steadycam No. 49, February 2006]

Broken Flowers: Bill Murray fitting himself around a forkful of perfectly formed carrot slices…

Maria Bello, Viggo Mortenson and family: "A History of Violence"
Maria Bello, Viggo Mortenson and family: “A History of Violence”

The Squid and the Whale: The father (Jeff Daniels), coming by what is no longer his own home to pick up one of his sons, points at a TV set and says, “That’s my television! I paid for that television!”…

A History of Violence: The wife (Maria Bello), a couple of minutes after the angry fuck on the stairs, walks out of the bathroom with a towel on her head and her robe hanging open, her casual nakedness (not “nudity”) an acknowledgment that (1) she doesn’t give a shit how she looks to her husband (Viggo Mortensen), and (2) they’ve been married for years—what’s the big deal anyway?…

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: After having invaded their trailer home, knocked her husband senseless, and bound the young wife (January Jones) in a chair and gagged her, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) makes sure she has some television to watch and gives her a pat on the hair….

Jarhead: Leaving white foot tracks in the black sand of Kuwait…

Good Night, and Good Luck.: The forlorn, embattled decency of Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise)…

Capote: After the Pullman porter departs, having made his little speech about how Mr. Capote’s books just keep getting better and better, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) favors her cousin (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with a jaundiced smile and says, “You’re pathetic — you paid him to say that”….

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Good Things in Big Packages: DVD Box Sets of 2009

I’m winding down my year in DVD coverage with this highly subjective survey of the box sets of 2009 that brought new titles to DVD (no collections of previously released titles in new packages here). To be clear, I didn’t see every set that came along, or even every film in those that I did see, but I made an effort to see as many interesting things as I could over the course of my duties as the DVD reviewer for MSN Entertainment. (Conspicuously absent is Criterion’s lavish AK 100, simply because I did not receive a review copy and couldn’t afford to plunk down the purchase price for a set with only four DVD debuts.) Here are the most interesting sets I had the pleasure to see in the course of my DVD reviewing in 2009, in brief sketches. I have written at more length about some of these releases and offer links to those reviews where possible.

10. The Secret Policeman’s Balls (Shout! Factory)

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman
Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman

When Amnesty International needed to raise money and their profile, John Cleese called up his buddies (which included the members of Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to help put on fundraiser. And then another. And the rest is history. This three-disc set collects the films made of five of these benefits, beginning with the 1976 Pleasure At Her Majesty’s, part documentary (with extensive footage of rehearsals) and part performance film. Adding to the fun is role swapping: Peter Cook in a Python sketch, Terry Jones joining Beyond the Fringe, everyone belting out “The Lumberjack Song.” Pete Townsend provides acoustic musical interludes in the 1979 The Secret Policeman’s Ball, where Rowan Atkinson (among others) joins the fun. Musical guests became more prominent in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981), including Sting, Bob Geldoff, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and downright dominate The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987), but the skit comedy focus returns in the final benefit film. The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989) opens with Michael Palin and John Cleese doing “Pet Shop” (with a twist punchline) and features Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (in their first live appearance together in years), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The set also features a wealth of unseen skits and musical performances and the feature-length 2004 documentary Remember The Secret Policeman’s Ball? among the supplements.

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Moments out of Time 1994

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31 Number 1, January-February 1995, reprinted by permission]

• At the beginning of Pulp Fiction, Amanda Plummer laying her head on the coffeeshop table and smiling: “I’m not gonna kill anybody”….

• Just-right treatment of place, climate, community in the main-title sequence of Nobody’s Fool

• Bunny (Bill Murray) dipping a toe in the pool before stepping in to be baptized—Ed Wood

• Orson Welles’s photograph banished upon the waters, Heavenly Creatures

• Panhandling with comb kazoo (and fly open), Three Colors: White

• In Being Human‘s medieval chapter, Robin Williams crests a hill to espy a little clot of battle at a bridge in the middle of nowhere. When a wounded man staggers up from the bloody fray, gasping “Help me!”, our hero retreats, declining an invitation to that particular story….

The Hudsucker Proxy: Shadow of clock hand pointing Expressionistically at Norville (Tim Robbins) as he enters the executive. suite….

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Moments out of Time 1975

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Keith Carradine in "Nashville"
Keith Carradine in "Nashville"

• Keith Carradine singing “I’m Easy” to one or all of four women—and also, to be sure, himself: Nashville

• The awful pale blue oblong of Guinevere’s window, Lancelot du Lac: is it the only light in the world, or a glimpse into the void empty even of darkness?…

The Man Who Would Be King: Danny Dravot’s (Sean Connery’s) pleased hesitation before closing his fist on the Masonic symbol Kipling (Christopher Plummer) has just presented him at the outset of his journey—”For the sake of the Widow’s son”…

• Marvin Hollinger (Ben Johnson) rising, standing canted against the backdrop of the stadium crowd, wondering why his name is being called over the loudspeaker: his daughter lies in the morgue downtown—Hustle

Love among the Ruins: the barrister (Laurence Olivier) peers down from his window at the limousine stopped below, casually slanted across a rain-washed lane and containing the fabulous woman (Katharine Hepburn) who passed through his life for three days and nights forty years ago…

• Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), nicely disheveled from sex and sleep, springing into vitriolic rage when she learns d’Artagnan (Michael York) has discovered her secret—The Four Musketeers: The Revenge of Milady

The Return of the Pink Panther: the return of Inspector, presently Patrolman, Clouseau (Peter Sellers), tipping his baton in salute to a passing lady and elegantly tapping his eyeball…

A Woman under the Influence: At an impromptu spaghetti breakfast for tired but happy sewer workers, an endearingly ugly dago succumbs to an operatic impulse. His croaking rendition is interrupted and superseded by a more mellifluously Italianate voice, offscreen and down the table. As the shot zooms back in leisurely curiosity, a hand waves into the frame and we discover the true Caruso is black. A minor but by no means negligible example of the film’s lovely faith in unlikely potentiality…

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Moments out of Time 1991

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 28 Number 1, January/February 1992, reprinted by permission]

• Best shot of the year: A motorcycle tops a rise on a lonely road in sagebrush country, followed (though not, strictly, pursued) a beat later by a police car. The timing of the vehicles’ apparition; the casual left-to-right pan that observes them till the cyclist realizes he should pull over; the way the shot-movement incidentally sums up the roll of the land, its distances and layers and colors … My Own Private Idaho

"La belle noiseuse"
‘La belle noiseuse’

• Most triumphant moment: in the doctor’s office in Rambling Rose, Daddy (Robert Duvall) admitting “I was wrong”; his tears of love and fervent pride for the wife (Diane Ladd) who has set him right…

• World and time shrink down to the limits of a sketch pad, while an artist’s hand consumes sheet after sheet with inked images of an unseen nude; the relentless scratch of his pen like death’s feather on the nerve—La Belle Noiseuse

• Véronique (Irène Jacob), lying on her back on a bed in a hotel room she has just rented impetuously, watches an offscreen something sail down past the window, its shadow brushing her face—The Double Life of Véronique….

Barton Fink: The bellhop—CHET! (Steve Buscemi)—rising through a trap-door behind the Hotel Earle reception desk to ask Fink (John Turturro) whether he’s to be “trans or res”…

• That last, endless shot of The Silence of the Lambs: an emptying street, dimming at the onset of evening, down which Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) has long since disappeared on the scent of “an old friend”…

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DVD Discoveries and Rediscoveries 2009

A sexy giallo thriller
"A sexy giallo thriller"

My oh my how spoiled we get. Once upon a time, we cult hounds would hunt through neighborhood video stores to uncover off-brand VHS releases of obscure Italian horror films and dubbed editions of foreign movies, which we would devour no matter how grainy the transfer or censored the print. Now, more than ten year into the DVD age, we have become so… demanding. Uncut prints. Restored masters. Clean soundtracks. And widescreen films should be anamorphic. Otherwise, they look soft and fuzzy when blown up to fill our widescreen HD home theater screens.

The following films are not the necessarily of the finest video or audio quality, but they are all much appreciated releases of forgotten, unavailable or otherwise enigmatic foreign rarities and cult items with irresistible (credentials). Some of these films I knew by reputation only, some I had never even known of, until the DVD release introduced me to the glories of these films. There are surely many other films that slipped by me this year, but these were my discoveries of 2009. This is why I love DVD.

5. Lookin’ to Get Out: Director’s Cut (Warner) – Hal Ashby’s 1982 gambling comedy, directed from a script co-written by star Jon Voight, was a critical and commercial flop on its original release. Seen today, in a longer cut than was originally released (Ashby was pressured to edit it down by 15 minutes by the studio), it’s hardly a lost masterpiece but it is a revelation of sorts, a shaggy dog gambling caper with characters whose eccentricities are so passionately embraced by the performers that they come to unexpected life. Voight is Alex, a hopeless gambling addict with unflagging optimism in his own abilities who sets off to Vegas with his schlub of a best friend Jerry (Burt Young) for a “big score” to settle a gambling debt. Alex is flamboyant, effusive, a perpetual motion hustler racing with out-of-control momentum. Jerry is constantly worried and unceasingly loyal, but at root he’s a good-hearted romantic who takes everyone at their word until they prove their word isn’t worth anything.

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Moments out of Time 1973

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January/February 1974]

• The death of Slim Pickens in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: “Knock knock knockin’ on Heaven’s door”…

• The cut from Calvero the performer staring out at an empty theatre to Calvero the man sitting on his bed in the night, staring into the camera with haunted eyes—Charles Chaplin in Limelight

two english girls
Two English Girls

Two English Girls: Anne (Kika Markham) paying Claude (Jean-Pierre Léaud) the forfeit, a kiss through a chair-back: in the spectacles of the onlooking Muriel (Stacey Tendeter), the firelight burns a demonic red; she turns her gaze away and the light goes out; Truffaut fades before the kiss….

Charley Varrick: A wordless contract made between Varrick (Walter Matthau) and his dying wife (Jacqueline Scott), while Harman (Andy Robinson)—and perhaps the audience—remains unaware, thinking her dead already…

• Enrico Mattei (Gian Maria Volontè) striding about the Libyan desert at night in the science-fiction glare of a blazing gas font—The Mattei Affair

• A desperate run from the outhouse by Maggie Smith, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, which ends with her encircled by toilet paper…

• The first time in Such a Gorgeous Kid like Me when the night club singer (Guy Marchand) beds down with the gorgeous kid (Bernadette Lafont): we cut outside his dressingroom and the soundtrack roars with his record of the Indianapolis Speedway (the second time Truffaut uses it, it falls rather flat)….

• Robert Blake sitting in the middle of the road, his blood in his hands and his head sunk in eternal reverie, as Conrad Hall’s camera … recedes—Electra Glide in Blue

• The duel between the god-men (Peter O’Toole and the late Nigel Green)—The Ruling Class

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TV on DVD 2009 – The Great, the Rediscovered and the Timeless

What I love about TV on DVD is the sense of discovery, of rediscovery and celebration of great television from all eras. You’ll not find Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or even The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency on this list. Those shows and other hit series and cult shows and top-notch special presentations, as superb as their DVD presentations may be (and yes, Lost and Terminator are beautifully produced DVD and Blu-ray sets), are well represented and don’t need me to draw attention to them. Here’s a collection that includes classic drama, contemporary comedy, timeless non-fiction, stand-out science fiction and various points in between. Not necessarily “the best” of TV on DVD, it’s a selection of shows, old and new, archival and ephemeral, that been given a new life on DVD and a whole opportunity for audiences to discover them.

Sesame Street
Sesame Street

10. Sesame Street: 40 Years Of Sunny Days (Genius) – Celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the longest running children’s television show in history with a combination video scrapbook and greatest bits compilation. After an intro that eases us into the cultural flashback with snapshots from each season we join Gordon leading a child onto Sesame Street, promising that it’s a street like no other, for the show’s debut episode. Ernie sings “Rubber Ducky” and Kermit sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” there’s an orange Oscar the Grouch (he went green later; apparently, it was easier for Oscar to be green, the color of mold), and Alistair Cookie (Monster) introduces Monsterpiece Theater’s production of “Me Claudius,” all in the first half hour.

There’s a greatest hits of musical guests from Diana Ross and James Taylor to Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keyes (plus the crazy quilt of guest stars imploring Ernie to “Put Down the Ducky”) and Muppet skits (spotlighting the great comedy chemistry of Ernie and Bert and the surreal humor of Jim Henson’s crew) sprinkled through the programs. Pop culture flashbacks—R2D2 and C3PO help Big Bird to count, The Fonz teaches us the difference between on and off in his own inimitable way and the Cookie Monster discos—place the show unmistakably in its various eras. And touchstone moments of the street portion of the show are revived, including the day the grown-ups finally see the Snuffleupagus, the marriage of Maria and Luis and the birth of their daughter, and most touchingly the discussion with Big Bird as they try to explain the death of Mr. Hooper (after the real-life actor, Will Lee, passed away). That’s the draw this show has for baby boomers who grew up on the show. For the current crop of tots, we get closer to the present with the first appearances of Elmo and Abby Cadabby and the contemporary guest stars, from Robert DeNiro explaining his own brand of method acting to Elmo to Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing as The Shoe Fairy. The nostalgia factor is pretty irresistible for adults and playful approach of education and gentle tenor of its skits makes it perfect of children of any generation, making it one of the few kids DVDs that adults may enjoy just as much as (if not more) than their kids. The two-disc set also includes a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews (which can be accessed while watching the show or viewed as a separate supplement), an optional pop-up trivia track and a few bonus bits.

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Moments out of Time 1978

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

The American Friend: Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) removes a sheet of gold leaf from its packing, lets it fall shivering onto his hand, blows it snug like a second skin, then uses that hand to seize the telephone receiver and make the call that will commit him to Ripley’s game….

• Standing in the middle of the prairie listening to the wheat lean with the breeze, as the call of a blackbird draws near, then passes by—Days of Heaven

• Full shots of the Basin in Comes a Horseman: Ewing (Jason Robards) left alone by his only son’s grave; dynamiting and horsefall; quelling the stampede; the tiny glow of an evening dance, while a light plane drones over the mountains…

The American Friend
The American Friend

The Duellists: D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), having been wounded by his implacable adversary, lies in a steaming tub discussing matters of high import with his mistress (Diana Quick). His voice grows more and more pinched. “Don’t sneeze!” the lady implores; then, desperately, “Describe honor!” “Honor is … indescribable!” d’Hubert all but weeps, and the sneeze comes, rending his wounded side….

• The littlest ship in the world, and a fart lit fondly in farewell—Stroszek

An Unmarried Woman: Erica’s friend (Kelly Bishop) manages to stop weeping and resumes their conversation about favorite actresses; smiling, “I liked Rita Hayworth—she was pretty”…

• For Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), the impossible, inexplicable, intolerable, inevitable split-second glimpse of Clouseau the Godfather (Peter Sellers) as the doors of a Hong Kong elevator close—The Revenge of the Pink Panther

• Can Roberts Blossom be … that is, would he … is he really eating his dog for supper?—Citizens Band

The Buddy Holly Story: Buddy (Gary Busey), Jesse (Don Stroud), and Ray Bob (Charlie Martin Smith), in a car on their way to Nashville, browsing toward the realization of “Peggy Sue”…

• Pushups in the empyrean—Heaven Can Wait

• And an echo of the real Heaven Can Wait in The Man Who Loved Women: Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner) dies reaching from his bed for the redheaded vision of feminine beauty…

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Moments out of Time 1993

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 30 Number 1, January/February 1994, reprinted by permission]

The Age of Innocence

• Willing his warmest fantasy—Ellen Olenska’s embrace—into motion behind him, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) gazes out at a window-framed winter’s cape along the Hudson: the aesthetics of desire in The Age of Innocence

• The one that got away in Short Cuts: a woman’s body in the water, neither lady of the lake nor rainbow trout, just dead meat for Kodak consumption…

• Anyone of Johnny’s (David Thewlis) psychiatrically Socratic inquiries of a night’s worth of Naked pilgrims: to an affectless Elvira-punk in obligatory black lace, leather, and chains—”Would you describe yourself as a happy little person?”; to the thick Scottish lout whose head jerks in massive tics as he periodically bellows a lost girlfriend’s name into empty London streets—”What’s it like being you?”…

• Opening of Fearless: A blank-faced man (Jeff Bridges) clutching a child leads a gaggle of grimy refugees through rows of green cornstalks; disaster’s raw shock unanchored from time or place…

• The wired quiet and summer evening dark that presses up around a prairie farmhouse, death heavy in the air; the opening of Flesh and Bone

• Loveliest main-title sequence: The streets of Philadelphia, according to Bruce Springsteen and Jonathan Demme; promise of an epic of contemporary America—unfulfilled…

• Lizard climbing out of vase, The Scent of Green Papaya

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