Tuesday, December 31, 2013

BEFORE THE SHIP TIPS: 2013's TOP 10 (+5)

There aren’t but a few ticks left in 2013, a year which found me more divorced than ever from the theatrical moviegoing experience, an activity that over my lifetime has often seemed as commonplace and even as essential as breathing. But the past year in personal economics has forced some sea changes in my habits, in terms of what I have available to spend on movies in dollars and in time. And to be honest, I don’t entirely look upon this as a bad thing—another shocking realization given my lifelong enthusiasm, especially when I consider how many times the spending of the effort and those hard-earned dollars to get to the theater has resulted in frustration over the deterioration in civility and consideration among audiences, not only for fellow viewers but often for the movie they too have paid to see.

There also used to be a time when I felt an obligation, more or less, to see everything that came down the pipe. But no more—my sense of completism is no longer such that I feel any compulsion to see movies like About Time, or The Fifth Estate, or The Hobbit: Bilbo vs. the Smaug Monster, or whatever the hell that last Die Hard sequel was called, just because they’re out there. It’s hard enough to keep on top of the multitude of movies that I actually want to see. And in 2013 I’ve done an even less thorough job of staying in the conversation vis-à-vis new release than ever before, which makes participating in the year-end rituals of ranking and taste-flogging even more difficult.

But I enjoy those rituals enough, despite the often numbing sameness of the majority of lists that get aired out even before all the movies of the year have even had their week-long Oscar qualifying runs, that this year, as in years past, I bemoan the fact that my own top 10 list for the year will have to wait till February to be posted.  It’s often that long before I’ve seen enough of what’s out there to give me a sense that I have even a rudimentary handle on the year in film.

So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, this year I’ve decided to make a little game of my shortcomings and publish two lists. There will be that February-ish one, which will come after I’ve had a chance to see American Hustle and Nebraska and Her and The Past and The Great Beauty (I have a screener!) and Short Term 12 and Frances Ha and August: Osage County and Byzantium and The Armstrong Lie and Blue Jasmine and The Wolf of Wall Street and Inside Llewyn Davis and the seeming hundreds of others I have yet missed.

And then there’s the one I’m posting today, the one comprised of the best I’ve actually had an opportunity to indulge in before the ship tips at midnight. Given the frequent refrain being that on any given day the critic’s list might be different, in either ranking or selection, today’s list is one that is by its nature in flux, one which I know must be different than the top 10 I’ll compile two months from now. I just felt like it might be an interesting exercise (at least for me) to look at the two lists in February and consider how much effect the year-end push for “quality” in the typical American movie industry release schedule actually has had on what I value most in my own favorites. It also seemed like a nice way to highlight the movies that are likely to get pushed out of the top spots, another way of saying, “Hey, these movies are good too!”

So behold the movies I’ve thought most highly of in the calendar year 2013. I’ve written no words here on the individual films—I’m up early ostensibly to work and am already behind schedule just by writing this introduction, so I’ll have to table my final takes on them until February. These are, as Sergeant Joe Friday often said, just the facts, the names only. The hopefully impassioned reasons are, like the rest of the movies of 2013 yet unseen, coming soon to a theater near me.

My top 10 (+1) favorite films of 2013 so far, in descending order:

(Abdellatif Kechiche)

ALL IS LOST (J.C. Chandor)


THE EAST (Zal Batmanglij)

GRAVITY (Alfonso Cuaron)

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Richard Linklater)

THE WORLD’S END (Edgar Wright)

MUD (Jeff Nichols) 


PAIN AND GAIN (Michael Bay)

Honorable Mention: CURSE OF CHUCKY (Don Mancini) 

Favorite Documentaries (in alphabetical order):

AFTER TILLER (Martha Shane, Lana Wilson)

BLACKFISH (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)


(Alex Gibney)


Wednesday, December 25, 2013


From my house to yours, may you and your friends and loved ones write a new holiday standard of love and happiness and togetherness during this Christmas season. Kick back, pour a drink, stay in your jammies late, open some presents, toast your fortunes, have some wonderful food and companionship, and above all be blessed. And while you're at it, see a movie! Maybe some of the SLIFR 12 Days of Christmas will in some way inspire your choices or just add to the happy buzz of what I hope will be your best Christmas holiday yet.  

Day One: Out of the past and into your stocking...

Day Two: One to make any grinch's heart grow three sizes!

Day Three: I put the star on top of the tree... and I liked it. I liked it!

Day Four: Santa Say There's Trouble Every Day!

Day Five: A Christmas Carole!

Day Six: The Peter Cushing Appreciation Society UK sends its cheer!

Day Seven: Don't Call Her Savage, Call Her Santa's Favorite Elf!

Day Eight: Happy Horrordays!

Day Nine: Some good little girls and boys get on Santa's gift list, and some not-so-good little girls and boys get on Santa's shit list...

Day 10: Just Swimmin' in Seasonal Good Tidings!

Day 11: It was December 1966. I was in first grade. They (They!) dressed me up like a Christmas tree and forced me to read to the entire school. I slipped in some choice words though-- Santa was never so salty as he was that chilly morning, and I got even saltier as they hauled me to the principal's office. That'll show 'em. I got a lot of dates as a result of this memorable performance too. Uh-huh...

And finally, Day 12: How could your holiday party go wrong with such a guest list?

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Perhaps not the most holiday-y of classics, but it's the one I'm seeing into midnight on this night before Christmas, now that no one believes in Santa Claus under this roof any longer. Sleep tight, my dears, and if the gunplay gets too loud just come and tell me to turn the TV down. The movie's almost over and I'll be going to bed soon too, after finishing off a plate full of cookies, carrots and a glass of milk in remembrance of more innocent times. There's a hopeful and happy day awaiting us all, and this ex-Santa is gonna need his rest. To all those who have read this blog over the past nine Christmases (!) and to those who may have only recently stumbled upon it, may your days be merry and bright and may this Christmas in particular be full of light.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a while since Miss Jean Brodie asked you firmly but politely to put your pencils down and seal off your answers to the last SLIFR movie quiz. But we here at SLIFR University know that even if you, as a student body, have not been as rigorously tested of late as you may have become accustomed to in previous sessions, your education has most certainly gone on, the inexorable accrual of knowledge and experience as impossible to deny as it is impossible to justify your outrageous tuition bills.

And after all, what is a ridiculously expensive education good for if not for flaunting all that knowledge, which probably seems at best trivial to those outside the grueling scrutiny of academia, in semester-ending exercises such as these exams? For those inside the confines of that intense world, the incessant intrusion of such a bombardment of book-learnin’ simply must coexist with the pleasures of art and music and the occasional bacchanalian beer blast. The awareness of this apparently paradoxical coexistence creates, for the distanced yet interested observer, a consideration of conditions that have become standard operational procedure for the typical SLIFR student, that is the condition of being simultaneously both dead-- crushed by oppressive forces within academia like, you know, Dean Wormer or somebody-- and alive to the possibilities of life opened up by exposure to the likes of Vermeer, Whitman, the Renoirs and, of course, a seemingly endless supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

We here at SLIFR U feel that there is no one better to guide you through the challenges of this year-end testing experience than one who is well acquainted with this sort of quantum physics-derived philosophical conundrum, the sort of challenge which you may face in this new quiz when forced to choose between two art film sex bombs of the ‘60s, or to justify wanting to put a ballpeen hammer upside the head of some guy in line at the hardware store when you overhear him start to diss Last Year at Marienbad, which just happens to be your favorite movie. Yes, there is only one man on the teaching staff here who we feel is up to that Herculean, or perhaps more appropriately that Schrodingeresque task. He is, of course, Professor Larry Gopnik, head of the mathematics department here at SLIFR U, an esteemed educator, master scribbler of figures, amateur philosopher and occasional dabbler in the niche arena of religion-based hauntings. Professor Gopnik has concocted, for your delectation and frustration, with all awareness toward the multiple religious festivals and perspectives being celebrated during this season, his very own Post-Hanukah, Pre-Christmas, Post-Schrodinger, Pre-Apocalypse Holiday Movie Quiz, which he assures us is imminently finishable well in advance of the end of the world.

The usual request applies as much to this quiz as to all the ones previous. For each query, copy and paste the question into the comments field and provide the question along with your answer, so the reader will be able to more easily track which question it is you are answering without having to constantly scroll back up to the top of the post. There are no other restrictions or guidelines. And there are, of course, no wrong responses. Short answers are, of course, quite acceptable, though the more detailed your answer, the more entertaining it is likely to be for the scholars who hold your grade, and thus your fate, in their hands. And if you have your own blog, please feel free to post your answers there and leave a link below to your own page.

So let’s get crackin’. Blue Books open, spit out your gum, sharpen your Metzenbaum scissors (we think outside the box here at SLIFR U), and for God’s sake, get that Schrodinger’s cat out of here! You may have as much time as you need to finish, or until that twister blows through town. Have fun!


1) Favorite unsung holiday film

2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved

3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?

4) Sam Peckinpah's Convoy-- yes or no?

5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past

6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere

7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie

8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray?

9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)

10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?

11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping

12) Second favorite George Cukor movie

13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!)

14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction

15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover

16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?

17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)

18) Director with the strongest run of great movies

19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?

20) Second favorite Tony Scott film

21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?

22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy

23) Video store or streaming?

24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter

25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?

26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?

27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest

28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it

29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree

30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014


Friday, December 06, 2013



“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” 
― Mark Twain

A movie bearing the title Penn and Teller Get Killed (1988) has a built-in inevitability which, masters of the perverse and debunkers of tricks and scams that they are, screenwriters/stars/instigators Penn Jillette and Teller would never consider not fully embracing. The movie’s very inertness as a narrative exercise built around an escalating series of deceptions and practical jokes (many of them either derived from or recreated entirely from their live act) seems strangely deliberate too, a willful deflation of the very expectations they themselves have set up.

I’m not sure just how much actual cinema most who managed to see this movie in a theater in 1988 thought they were entitled to, but when I bought a ticket to see it during its brief one-week run in Los Angeles I wasn’t surprised by its halting, lurching, episodic structure, and I more or less enjoyed it. Speaking again of inevitability, that very lumpiness seems a natural byproduct of any attempt to impose a filmed story on P&T’s brand of gasp-inducing hijinks, the sort that work to such breathtaking, wisecracking, yet deadpan effect on stage, where matters of editing and camera tricks aren’t an issue.

Not that Penn and Teller don’t give camera creativity a fair shot. The bit that opens the movie—a talk show appearance in which they use the studio cameras to disguise the fact that they’re seated at a desk upside-down, “levitating” objects through the “magic” of gravity—hints at the ways they might use the techniques of filmmaking to heighten their already ghastly, blackly funny trickery. During the interview that follows, one in which their contempt for the host (and the audience) is barely veiled, Penn feigns exasperation-- or maybe it’s genuine (part of the running P&T joke is that sincerity is almost impossible to discern, and even more unlikely to actually appear)—over how tiresome putting one over on the crowd has become, how blasé their responses to the repeated puncturing of illusion have become. In a typical moment of bombast, he speculates, on national television, how much fun it would be if someone were to actually attempt to kill him and his partner. Their manager (Caitlin Clarke, spewing a curious Mexican accent which eventually morphs into an even less believable Noo Yawk variation) may roll her eyes, but she also sees and dreads the possibilities. It’s an invitation to assassination mounted as pugnacious performance art, and a juicy way to kick off what promises to be a delirium-inducing death dodge of a movie.

Unfortunately, seeing it again 28 years later, after a couple of decades witnessing the sort of wise-assery that is coin of the Penn and Teller realm become that of mainstream pop culture, Penn and Teller Get Killed seems to sputter almost right from the beginning. The theme of the duo out-pranking each other is kicked off with a familiar and funny bit— Teller impishly orchestrates Penn’s blustering, frustrating attempt to pass through airport security. That’s quickly followed by a great gag in which Teller and Penn, working in concert, provoke a coin-throwing scuffle in the middle of an Atlantic City casino. But the movie’s central section, involving the boys’ increased paranoia and disillusionment over having attracted the homicidal intentions of a genuine psycho (David Patrick Kelly), gets quickly bogged down in subplots involving film noir parody—a sequence shot in black and white until, suddenly, it’s not—and the appearance of a policewoman girlfriend for Penn… who looks sort of familiar…

It won’t take long for even the dullest of viewers to sniff out what it takes a cynically prepared illusion deconstructionist like Teller seemingly forever to figure out—he’s being duped, and we see through it, a strange development indeed. Teller doesn’t wise up until it’s too late, which certainly sets up the sour fulfillment of the movie’s titular promise. But by the time one half of our heroes is hanging by his heels upside-down at the mercy of a maniac, a faint reversal of that first gag in which he and his partner were in control, the manic energy powering Penn and Teller Get Killed has been eaten away, like a chocolate Easter bunny with a hollow center-- nothing inside, most definitely not resurrection, the strains of the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke” hanging in the air.

The aggressively nihilistic tilt of the movie’s finish might have some bite if what came before were made with anything of the pompous carny glee over the upending of illusionist’s tropes that marks Penn and Teller’s live performances. I kept thinking, upon seeing it again, that the movie needed a magician behind the camera as well, someone like Brian De Palma, whose own cinematic sleight of hand might have meshed well with the macabre irony that is Penn and Teller’s calling card. But somehow Arthur Penn ended up directing the movie, and apart from one Penn directing another there’s not much of interest, certainly not the spirit of foreboding or real danger, or even much sensitivity to black comedy, that one might reasonably expect from the director of Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. 

The closest thing to a lark on Penn’s résumé, Alice’s Restaurant, is still weighted with its voice-of-a-generation convictions, but even a jolt of the lunacy coursing through The Missouri Breaks would have been welcome, if only to shake up the static air within P&TGK’s  relatively lifeless frames. Instead, Penn directs like a TV veteran marking time, which might seem like the only other legitimate approach to this material were the end result itself less moribund. Penn and Teller Get Killed, which turned out to be Arthur Penn’s last theatrically released feature, stands as little more than the period at the end of a fascinating career, one which in 1967 set the spark to a great, disruptive decade of American film culture and by the end of that same decade had already begun to settle into faint echoes of its own promise.

It just so happens that my latest encounter with Penn and Teller Get Killed was prompted by my participation in David Cairns’ Late Show Blogathon, which concludes tomorrow at his Shadowplay blog. The blogathon features writing dedicated to examining and celebrating the final films of famous and/or fascinating film directors, and to my eye, P&TGK made for a perfect example of a once-vital director whiling away his working days, taking a project presumably for the sake of keeping occupied (perhaps with the only work available) and failing to invest much of his own personality and concerns in the process, thus ending his creative journey on a decidedly low note.

But when I set to thinking about Penn’s opposite in this regard, a director who was fully engaged and creatively inspired right to the very end of his life, as a filmmaker and on Earth, the first person that came to mind was my favorite director, Robert Altman, and the film that capped his gloriously inconsistent and unpredictable career, A Prairie Home Companion (2006).

Based on Garrison Keillor’s only slightly self-conscious throwback to the regional radio variety shows of old, APHC deliberately accesses memories of a near-completely arcane style of programming by calling up faint folkloric echoes of a past that may or may not have even fully existed, at least as anything other than the object of sweet nostalgia. As one character, house detective Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) observes, Keillor’s show, which at the beginning of the film is about to be ushered permanently into memory by the inexorable march of economic progress, has been on the air “since Jesus was in the third grade.” (Or the mid-‘70s, if you value the actual historical record.) The Minnesota theater from which the show has traditionally emanated for all those years has been designated for demolition by a faceless corporation, and what makes up the heart of the film is the salutary last performance by Keillor’s imagined stock company—musicians and actors from the actual Prairie Home Companion stage/radio show intermingled with an impressive roster of actors (including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and Lindsay Lohan, among many others)  assembled by Altman.

The movie begins on a shot of a radio tower at dusk, transmitting voices gathered out of the electric mist of memory. This ethereal opening connects APHC with other Altman movies immediately, most obviously the Grand Ole Opry live radio shows that inform Nashville (and Keillor’s original conception of APHC), the beautifully reconstructed broadcasts that punctuate the milieu of 1930’s Depression-era Kansas in Thieves Like Us, and even the cacophony of a.m. radio advertising that kicks off O.C. and Stiggs. But the device also helps make clear that, rather than indulging an empty exercise in prefab nostalgia, Altman’s film will operate on a mournful frequency of its own. And as unlikely and unexpected as it may seem at first, in its themes and even its basic structure it creates a curious link with Penn’s far less personal and compelling farewell.

Both movies, as it turns out, are concerned with death. In Penn and Teller Get Killed, the fascination is superficial, immature, valued only for its ability to shock the presumed bourgeois nature of its audience. (The movie’s meager theatrical and home video audience probably has a far different perspective on itself.) The eventual demise of the entire cast is intended as the grand fulfillment of some nasty cosmic joke. But the punch line has no sting because everything in the movie unfolds in a context in which nothing “real” is ever at stake, where ironic detachment isn’t so much a temporary stance as it is the movie’s lifeblood, a defiant operating philosophy. When the other shoe fails to drop and the bodies remain limp on the floor, we need only imagine that it will do so once the lights come up, Penn’s self-satisfied narration notwithstanding.

The slender thread that connects these dissimilar movies turns out to be their relationship to their central performers. Death in both films is a concern that is framed and colored by the reflection of performances derived and adapted from other media. P&TGK reconstitutes vaudeville stage magic but fails to translate any of its mystery, or even (curiously) much of the satisfaction to be had from its debunking, into cinematic language that manages to address the Grim Reaper with anything more than facile attention .

Altman, on the other hand, reimagines Garrison Keillor’s dense, theatrically presented universe as one that exists perhaps on the other side of a stage mirror, a world which can only adequately be investigated by the curiosity of his roving camera. The difference is that Altman feels the quiet urgency underlying his material. Without sacrificing humor or the joy he takes from this latest permutation of the community of performers he has consistently celebrated, whose world he insists we not just observe but inhabit, Altman allows himself to take the terminal trajectory of his subject very seriously. In APHC, as Keillor and Streep and Tomlin take over the dressing rooms, lofts, wings and eventually the stage of the doomed theater, Altman’s gently probing camera finds its corollary in Virginia Madsen’s visiting angel of death. She roams these same spaces, even inhabiting the backdrops onstage during the show, searching out souls which are quite unaware that they are next to depart the material world, in the same way that the theater itself has no clue its days are numbered.

Some can see this angel, sense her presence, but most cannot. When the singer/raconteur played by grizzled veteran L.Q. Jones retires to his quarters after his big numbers, the angel takes him quietly, and Altman makes plain his purpose. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” says Madsen in a cool attempt to comfort the woman who discovers Jones’s lifeless body. “Forgive him his shortcomings and thank him for all his loving care.” Altman, who knew during production of A Prairie Home Companion (if few else did) that he had only about a year left to live, serves Keillor’s material in the most resonant way possible by fashioning it as his own cheerfully unsentimental goodbye, a valedictory statement on mortality that is in its modest way painfully profound.

But, befitting Altman’s career-long tendency to exalt in folly as well as the need for crucial human relationships, whatever the end result, the 81-year-old wheelchair-bound director nimbly avoids the opportunity to turn the movie into either a narcissistic dirge or, in the manner of Hollywood, a hollow triumph of the human spirit. (Or worse, an empty, cynical joke.) There’s room enough, as it turns out, for plenty of humor and spirited exchange even among the shadows of inevitability, as evidenced by the movie’s loving, irony-free recreations of Keillor’s deadpan tales and familiar folk tunes, some of which have been refashioned into dryly hilarious jingles for products you just can’t do without. (“Powdermilk Biscuits, in the big blue box.”) Such generosity is APHC’s primary currency, and Altman spends it well.

The movie ends on one of the most gracefully sorrowful of all movie codas, so graceful that even the melancholy it inspires can’t fully dampen the happiness generated by the movie’s love of performance and performers—another consistent Altman trait that links him with the forgiving, unflinching humanism of Jean Renoir. The final show that has made up the film we’ve just seen is months past, and the central cast members, Keillor, Guy Noir (Kline), the Johnson Sisters, Yolanda (Streep) and Rhonda (Tomlin) have gathered in a booth at Mickey’s Dining Car for a reunion of sorts, with ribald cowboy songsmiths Dusty and Lefty (“The Pachelbels of the Prairie, the Brahmses of the Bunkhouse”) seated at the counter. After some relaxed catch-up chatter and a visit from Yolanda’s daughter (Lohan), who has since the end of the last show apparently become an investment counselor-- she advises poor clueless Mom on her retirement portfolio—there’s a cut to a view from the inside out through the rain-spattered window of the dining car.

A subtle evocation of the reflections that have played such an integral part in Altman’s visual poetry over the years (think The Long Goodbye, Elliot Gould aimlessly staring at the surf while inside the beach house Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt argue), the group gathered in the booth can be seen reflected in the window. And just as we registered the double meaning of the neon sign shining “Checks Cashed” into the night, Madsen’s angel of death appears once again from the left of the frame, gazes into the restaurant, sees the group and moves frame right toward the entrance to the diner.

There are a couple of cuts to the friends chatting, oblivious to the presence of the figure who has once again made her presence into their lives. She continues to stand silently at the door, watching, and they finally see her. The camera, again assuming her point of view, or at least her observing nature as it has  throughout the film, moves in slightly. The four of them are obviously uneasy to be seeing her now—Guy Noir tries to catch her eye, to draw some indication from her as to who it is she’s there for. But she never speaks.

She only moves toward them, the stationary camera watching her as she overwhelms the frame.

A cut to the exterior of the diner, the camera slowly craning up, heavenward…

and dissolving slowly…

…back to the movie’s central image of heaven, the performing stage…

…where we will last glimpse the actors and musicians, in their graceful element, before the credits roll.

That Altman could choreograph this moment of reckoning and bliss as his deliberate valedictory to film and to life ought to put a smile on the faces of everyone who has ever cherished the great moments and great movies, and even the less-than-great ones he and his talented collaborators created over the course of a 40-year career as a director. In its terms of clear-eyed summation, love of life and acceptance of what will visit us all (sans the familiar synthetic comforts), Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion might just qualify for me as the best movie farewell ever made.