Wednesday, February 27, 2008


This is the first in an occasional feature highlighting some “produced and abandoned” or otherwise overlooked gems from the past eight years, at least the ones I can remember. You know, this one’s actually from 1999, but I saw it in 2000 – so whatever. “JUDY BERLIN” was my first exposure to future Soprano Edie Falco, and this small independent film has resonated with me for years afterward. Set in a fictional suburban town called Babylon, New York, and filmed entirely in stunning, high-contrast black & white, the film centers on the titular character (played by Falco) getting ready to leave this Long Island town for Los Angeles. Naturally, she’s leaving to become an actress, despite minimal training nor experience. Her last day in town is a somewhat aimless sojourn through the streets of a place that you get the sense she’s been for a long, long time – and it happens to also be the day that a very rare solar eclipse is taking place (of course, this only heightens the great black & white contrast of the film).

“JUDY BERLIN” is populated with odd characters, including a mildly unhinged Madeline Kahn in what would be her last role. Thankfully these aren’t necessarily “lovable, odd” characters; they’re the sort of “real, odd” oddballs you’d truly expect to find in any suburban locale, full of mild eccentricities the way folks from your own family likely are. These suburbs are also not savaged the way they are in so many Hollywood films (think “American Beauty”, also from around the same time), but infused with equal doses of hope and the requisite ennui. The solar eclipse casts a strange spell on the town, and the film sort of jumps from neurosis to neurosis, without really showing anyone caving in or going under as they reflect on their lives and how they got to where they currently are. You obviously root for Judy throughout the film – she’s radiant and good and full of life, and she appreciates the world around her, almost to a fault. When she inevitably fails in LA (though who knows?), she’ll probably keep her balance and her bearings, and come right back to Babylon to start again. The film leaves you with the same sort of strange optimism that Judy herself has, and I’d love to do my part in helping you to see and rent it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Julie Delpy is a French actress with whom I’ve been smitten ever since I saw her in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “WHITE” in 1994 and in “KILLING ZOE” the same year. I believe the nature of my admiration was as critical as it was “animal”, but, um, one can never be sure with these things. Anyway, Ms, Delpy made her first film last year, an indie comedy/romance called “2 DAYS IN PARIS”, and I gave the DVD a good college try last week. It’s not a bad film, it’s just a bit of a “trifle”, if you will. Delpy stars as a self-obsessed, sneaky and evasive Frenchwoman who now lives in the US with her boyfriend (Jack, played by Adam Goldberg) of two years. He’s neurotic and confused about the status of their relationship, especially when they pass through her hometown of Paris to spend 2 days on the way home from Venice, and continually runs into ex-boyfriends of hers. She finds as many ways of changing the subject as she can, but a combination of events (along with her crazy ex-hippie/radical family) snowballs into more neurosis and ultimately a “relationship crisis” for both. In some ways the whole thing is a bit of a snore, with too many cutesy, indie-by-the-numbers moments and loads of dialogue that seems wholly unrealistic. That said, I soldiered on for the whole movie & found it kinda charming and laugh-out-loud funny in parts. One of those “rental only” films, best viewed in the company of a spouse or female partner, and not with the bowling league nor Rotary Club gang.

Celluloid Hut Rating – C+

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Finally went and saw this one in a theater a few weeks ago, and if you haven’t yourself yet done so, I strongly urge you do so at once. “THERE WILL BE BLOOD” deserves just about every drop of hype gushed upon it, and just narrowly misses out on being the best film I’ve seen this year (that would be the equally-hyped “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – for once in my life my personal favorites match up with those of “The Academy”). I read that “There Will Be Blood” cost a paltry $25 million to make, and yet it’s a movie that absolutely screams to be seen on the big screen. As you've no doubt heard, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance is as outsized as his character, and as a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson's films (especially "Punch-Drunk Love"), I'm satisfied that this is his best one yet. It's at least likely to be the one he's remembered for at the grave. More reflection on this film makes me that much more rapturous over it, so I guess I'm glad I'm finally putting ink to paper now.

"THERE WILL BE BLOOD" is an epic broadside to both entrepreneurial capitalism and to evangelical Christianity. I'm not sure which gets off worse, but I'd probably go with religion, even though most folks will look at the Daniel Fairview character (Day-Lewis) & conclude that, because he's on screen for 99% of the film, his chosen profession of money-making is what's on trial here. Fairview is quite a complex character, not a total monster but certainly bordering on obsessive psychopathy. To the outside world, outside of his desire to drain California of oil, he's a total blank slate. He lies, he ignores questions, he reveals nothing, and masters every encounter with either charm or a nasty threat. He looks dangerous every second of the film, even when he’s showing a sliver of tenderness toward his son. One of the great nuances of his character is that he is so proactive and loving at times of this son - who (and I don't think it's a spoiler to day this, since it happens at the very start of the film) as it turns out isn't even his son (!). I think the Day-Lewis performance resonates so strongly with people because you know the man is capable of totally exploding at any time, and yet, until the last 30 minutes or so of this long film, he really doesn't. It has been very hard for me to get two phrases from this film out of my head: "I Drink Your Milkshake!" (already becoming a worldwide catchphrase) and "A bastard in a basket!!". Once you see the film, you'll know why.

His nemesis - perhaps the only one he's ever been truly threatened by, is a holy-roller preacher named Eli Sunday (played extremely well by Paul Dano). What might be the single best part of this entire great film is Daniel Plainview's churchhouse "conversion" by Sunday (which you can actually watch right here!), a step he takes solely to be allowed to drill more oil and to get even more filthy rich. It's possibly the one lone time in the man's adult life he's ever been humiliated, and it's absolutely excruciating for him to go through. It sets in motion the film's violent end. At the end, when Plainview truly is finished vanquishing his final foe, he exclaims, "I'm finished", and with that, so is the film. Total black comedy in an weirdly funny, very disturbing film that I half thought was going to be one long anti-oilman trip. I think I'm going to pay real cash money to see it in a theater again.

Celluloid Hut Rating: A

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


One might have never known that competitive Donkey Kong could be so full of intrigue, backbiting and petty rivalry, but then, one would think you could only dream up the character of Billy Mitchell, one of the two real-life rivals for the glory of “Donkey Kong high score”. The 2007 documentary “THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS” portrays the Sisyphean struggle of one Steve Weibe, a great geek in his own right, to beat Mitchell’s world high score on 80s arcade game Donkey Kong, and in the process achieve triumphs that he’s been unable to obtain in quote-unquote real life. Standing in his path is Mitchell himself, and the entire competitive video game establishment, which is portrayed in the film as being totally monolithic, but in actuality is about a dozen geeks and a couple guys working for official scoring agency “Twin Galaxies”.

Mitchell is the real story here, a guy so hilarious in both look and in attitude that he almost seems made up. Back when he was 18 he started setting and breaking high score records on a number of arcade video games like “Pac Man”, “Donkey Kong Jr.” and of course, “Donkey Kong”. He wears an awesome mustache-and-mullet combination that goes way beyond “hockey hair”, and would instantly provoke laughter in virtually any major or minor metropolis. Mitchell is given to wearing American-flag and Statue-of-Liberty neckties, runs a successful hot sauce business, has a wife with some fantastic breast implants, and carries with him a chip on his shoulder like you wouldn’t believe. HE alone will be the King of Kong. Any challengers to his record must be vanquished. The film lets him run his mouth and incriminate himself ad nauseum. I have to admit, some of it does seem a little staged, but then again, the filmmakers could just be outstanding at editing & arranging clips. “The King Of Kong” is very fast-paced for a documentary, and we get to meet some pretty great characters beyond Mitchell, all involved in this tiny netherworld of trying to beat previous high scores on archaic 80s video games.

I enjoyed the pace and the well-done contrast between Mitchell and Weibe. Weibe even cries at one point, and you just know that given his compulsion to “be #1 in something”, those tears are real. I think the filmmakers might’ve been able to mine the whole sad crew for laughs a little more than they did, and again, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mitchell was a little bit “coached”. But overall, this was a solid 1:19 of quality entertainment, and a rental I’ll heartily recommend.

Celluloid Hut Rating: B

Monday, February 11, 2008


I’ve noticed that Europeans are just as swoony and starry-eyed over the politically radicalized late 60s and 70s as Americans are, and in a recent spate of films, there have been a number of ham-handed attempts to “come to terms” with the We Decade and start of the Me Decade. For whatever reason, when these European films portray newly-radicalized individuals, they fall all over themselves painting the era’s left and right wings into the worst possible caricatures. Take this recent (2006) French film “Blame It On Fidel” from director Julie Gavras. I’m going to say right up front that I could only stomach about half the film before leaving the comforting confines of the living room couch, so I guess it kinda rubbed me the wrong way. My wife, whose taste in film is generally stellar, stuck with it & said it was pretty good. But when you have bearded, newly-indoctrinated left-wingers frantically making pamphlets and mooning about “Allende’s revolution in Chile”, and the right-wingers screaming at children about “communist rats”, all nuance and character development take a total backseat to slapping paint on the era with the broadest possible brush.

This, and other recent backward-looking Euro films like “The Best Of Youth” and “What To Do In Case of Fire” (which was otherwise not too bad), feel the need to show a European left totally in harmony with oppressed peoples across the globe, to the point of renouncing their families, their religions, and their friends, before – poof – waking up from the era and coming to grips with their foolishness. “It was all a silly folly of youth”. Now I didn’t see the end of “Blame It On Fidel” but I saw where it was headed and it make my head ache. Trite, boring and already said many, many times. The little girl made some cool little girl pouting faces, though.

Celluloid Hut Rating for first half of film = D