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I was surprised how good I thought Paper Moon was. Like so many, I had become accustomed to the fall from grace narrative that has followed Peter Bogdanovich. His Sopranos appearances. His books on cinema. His incessant references to Welles, “Hitch” and others, always wearing the ever-present ascot. It’s all had the effect of someone playing a cameo in his own life, cobbling together bits and pieces of what he used to be.

But maybe Paper Moon shows us all that Bogdanovich ever was: a gifted critic with a gift for mimicry. The film feels something like The Grapes of Wrath played as a screwball comedy. John Ford fused with, I don’t know, Howard Hawks? There’s some Wellesian deep focus photography mixed in too. Bogdanovich’s influences are splattered everywhere. This was also true for The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? (both fine films in their own right). As the saying goes, you could do worse than to have Ford, Hawks and Welles as your influences. But which one was the real him? Or was it the director who later made At Long Last Love and Mask?

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Two things struck me about Humphrey Bogart in this picture: One, he’s in color. Like his contemporary Cary Grant, Bogart seemed to lose a little bit with the Technicolor revolution. The two stars were made for black and white.  Bright colors dulled their edge, even in terrific entertainments such as North by Northwest or The African Queen.

The other was the looseness and the warmth with which he played the role of Charlie Allnut, such as in the well-known sequence where he imitates hippos and monkeys. The pensiveness, the mistrust, that is such a hallmark of the Bogart persona is almost entirely gone, replaced by a sort of dimwitted generosity.

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Every generation gets its “coolest teen” picture. This was ours. And in a strange way, it presaged the geek, individualistic culture so dominant now. Ferris is entrepreneurial, anti-establishment, anti-institution. He seeks his own path, as they say. That’s what made the commercial during his year’s Super Bowl so disappointing. The mere suggestion that Ferris Bueller would grow up just to be another suburban, Honda-driving schmoe was a bridge too far. Too might light was let into the fantasy. What else? Sloane’s on her third marriage, addicted to Oxy or Jesus? Cameron’s a reality-show producer?

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Paul Schrader’s characters fight their primary battles with themselves: Think DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull as written by Schrader. They are plagued by guilt. They seek redemption. They’re at the mercy of forces that they can’t overcome—or sometimes perceive.

The films can be rough sailing, especially Schrader’s Affliction, which features a (never better) Nick Nolte muddling through life in such a manner that you’re either empathetic or exasperated. Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse Is a small-town cop and toady who seemingly has never gotten a break in his life, his fate apparently sealed because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father (James Coburn). When I think of Schrader’s films, I think about men eternally at war with modern life, even those who seem to effortlessly sail through it, such as Schrader’s lead characters in American Gigolo and Light Sleeper, urbane sophisticates who believe they’re the players until the world flips over and crashes down.

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As Rian Johnson’s Brick unfolded, I felt increasingly thrilled. To quote Ebert from way back: I had never seen this movie before. A neo-noir that suggests that high school is as rough and dangerous as any LA bowery where Marlowe may roam, the movie shines largely through its terse, coded dialogue.

The films Brick made me think of while I was watching: Bugsy Malone (kids as gangsters), A Clockwork Orange (an impenetrable youth culture with its own slang), and, of course, The Maltese Falcon. (Lukas Haas’ character has a walking stick adorned with a falcon.)

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You sure you didn’t want to make that fourth Bourne movie?

“What’s a dick?”

This was the question my almost seven-year-old daughter asked me near the end of We Bought a Zoo, prompted by the use of the word by a seven-year-old girl in the film. While I am typically a fan of precocity in almost all its forms, it still had me wondering why director Cameron Crowe felt he needed a laugh line like that. (I am indeed getting old. If I had a lawn, I would be telling you to remove yourself.)

Maybe because there are precious few other laughs in this mostly family-friendly comedy, which I found to be unexpectedly dark.  Yes, they bought a zoo, but hilarity did not ensue. The wife of Matt Damon’s character has died of cancer and left him alone to raise his two kids. Fortunately, Damon is pure “super Dad” material. How many grief-stricken fathers buy animal preserves for their kids? It’s all I can do to plunk down $14.99 for a Littlest Pet Shop house at Target and he’s off buying his kids real animals. Nice way to ruin it for the rest of us.

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Emotions in motion

Magnolia is a movie stuck in overdrive.  It’s been years since I’ve screened it, but watching it again was a reminder of how Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t simply show you his story, he hurtles it at you at Strasbergian speed.

To watch it is to witness a filmmaker giving license to all of his ambitions at once—and it’s both a good and bad thing in this case. It’s why writers need editors and directors need producers (and editors). Magnolia has been called a beautiful trainwreck and that’s a good way to think of it. It overheats and then melts down. Read the rest of this entry »

Schemin’ in the rain

Robert Altman does John Grisham. If that sounds like a combination made in Hell, you’re right. This was the late 90s, when Grisham ruled the best-seller lists and studios wanted a big cut of the action. Altman and big studios have never gotten along (see, Player, The).

I recall being confused about the link back the first time I saw The Gingerbread Man. What was Altman doing here? Gambling debts? Blackmail? No matter—the results are pretty much as you might expect: a legal thriller with a side helping of quirk. But make no mistake: It’s not even close to the other way around.

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Image

More has likely been written about Lisbeth Salander in the last few years than any other literary character—at least until a certain Hunger Gamer came along. Even though I hadn’t read any of the Swedish trilogy featuring Salander, I was certainly aware of her, and the three Swedish films featuring her to the point that screening David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo felt a little like coming late to the party.

A side effect was that I was conscious, more than usual, of Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth being a product of a series of choices rather than a more spontaneous entity, choices evidently made by Fincher and Mara together. Mara’s version of Salander is the key to the film of course. Without it working, the film, the trilogy, nothing works, no matter how good Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist is (and he is).

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In Algiers, Charles Boyer threatened to smack a woman in the face, but Sean Connery, in The Wind and the Lion, actually goes through with it, striking the kidnapped Candice Bergen across the mouth early in the picture.

Explanations for the act include: the film being set in 1904, 34 years before Algiers, that Connery is a Berber chieftan, that Connery is well, Sean Connery, or that this is one of the infamous John Milius’ portrayals of Manly Men Doing Manly Things in a Manly Way. Read the rest of this entry »