Thursday, July 7, 2022

James Caan (1940 - 2022)

I have more fond movie-watching memories of James Caan than I can confidently recount. As a kid I thought Rollerball was a genuinely superlative picture—a sentiment that embarrasses me less now than it would have in my twenties, seeing as how Rollerball kinda-sorta **is** a superlative picture. Maybe not in exactly the way I thought it was at the time, but only because there was no chance that a six-year-old was ever going to get the real point of that movie. It’s a remarkable performance in an improbably tricky role, and Caan hits every single note. And the most remarkable thing is that, in the context of Caan’s filmography, there was nothing remarkable about any of that. 

From Freebie and the Bean to a Bridge Too Far, from Bottle Rocket to Dogville to The Way of the Gun, everything James Caan came anywhere near was made instantly and enduringly better in the process. To say that he will be missed is like saying that we’d miss the sun if it exploded: It’s not so much untrue as it is a fatally insufficient sentiment. We won’t miss him because it’s impossible to miss a force so implacably indispensable as Caan. He just won’t be there. 

But the story I want to tell on this occasion is one I learned from watching a years-later interview about the making of Michael Mann’s scandalously underrated crime-noir from 1981, *Thief*, also starring Tuesday Weld. If you’ve seen the movie then you know that it opens with a long-take scene of Caan’s character, alone in the dark, confidently and professionally breaking into an enormous safe. You would also remember that Caan has an impressive array of tools, the star of which is a huge and frankly heavy looking drill. You would know, or at least it would come as no surprise, that they shot the scene practically.  

What you may not know is that Mann—with that special and unforced aplomb of geniuses diagnosing genius—decided not to train Caan or employ anyone else to do so. Caan would have to figure out how to crack a safe while he was quite literally on the job. 

“So, they laid all these tools out," as Caan explained for the interview, “and Michael came over and he said, ‘Okay, Jimmy: Get into the safe.’ And I said ‘What?’ and he smiled at me and said, ‘Get into the fucking safe, Jimmy,’ and then he walked away.”

If the story ended there it would be a perfect example of the kind of story that I love exhausting people with regarding how movies are made. But here’s the thing: James Caan got into the safe. He stared for a long moment at the tools, surveyed the situation, then shrugged and picked up the drill. It was clearly a one-take proposition and, knowing this, Caan kept his wits and his coolly professional character, and figured out on the spot how to get into the fucking safe.  

No one but James Caan could have done this. Nobody could have gotten into that safe in one take. Most career criminals couldn’t have gotten into that safe at all if they had all night and nobody watching. 

That’s the kind of guy he was, the kind of actor. A man for whom the need to stay in character and get the shot and be enthrallingly believable and entertaining in the process were more important than the literal and objective fact that he didn’t actually know what he was doing. James Caan didn’t care about that particular fact, and once he didn’t care about it, it ceased to exist. And so it would continue to be. For decades longer, playing role after role with easy realism and a rarely noticed range, James Caan methodically broke into the safe of our suspended disbelief and our permanent affection. He did it quietly, and professionally, using only the tools that had been set in front of him to work with. 

And he got away with it.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Star Wars (1977) 2h 11m

On Saturday, 25 June, at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club will savor one of the most impactful motion pictures in history, Star Wars (1977), directed by George Lucas and starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, and the voice of James Earl Jones.

Really, what is left to say? Shall I recount the story of how, convinced that the film would flop, the suits at 20th Century Fox re-negotiated Lucas’ compensation, with the merchandising rights transferred back to Lucas as a way of making up the difference? So that, until very recently, every Star Wars action figure sold, every in-game purchase online, every parody, every adaptation, every Halloween costume put yet more money in Lucas’ bursting pocket? No, you know that one.

Should I tell the story of David Prowse—the man who wore Darth Vader’s costume and spoke his lines all through principal photography, having no idea that he’d be looped-over by the leaden gravitas of James Earl Jones? Indeed having no idea, as legend has it, until he heard Jones’ voice instead of his own while sitting next to family and friends at the Hollywood premiere? You know that one too. 

In fact you probably know them all. And maybe, maybe that’s the point. Maybe the cachet of Star Wars is really all about the stories that we all already know, and the simple fact that we all already know them. Maybe that’s what’s left to say. At its beating, luminescent heart, Star Wars is after all a story in which people tell stories. Primitive, fire-in-a-cave oral tradition is everywhere and at all times the unlikely backbone of relevance for this galactic war saga, not Hyperdrive Motivators or NaviComputers or moon-sized space stations with curiously un-defended tractor beam controls. Story is the thing. 

Luke tells his uncle a story about a young man’s readiness to leave his desert-planet home. Obi Wan Kenobe tells Luke a story of swashbuckling galactic intrigue. R2D2 interrupts to tell a story of damsels in distress, albeit on video. Not far away, Han Solo tells a story of fast ships and dumped cargo bought with dangerously borrowed money. And so on. And so on. And so on, and so on, and so on, each story more affecting and momentous than the last. How fitting, then, that our enduring love affair with the franchise should hinge so essentially on our own, primitive, water-cooler-in-a-cave commitment to the awesome power of small-bore word of mouth. How perfect that we have all heard the many stories about the making of this story about stories. 

Of course a sci-fi story about stories will need a good deal more going for it if it hopes to steal our hearts: It’s going to need unforgettable visual effects, a thrilling score, iconic characters and circumstances, and vignettes so pitch-perfect that they literally redefine the popular culture in real time. Lots of movies aspire to this ideal. But none of them is this one. None of them captivate us the way we were so permanently captivated by this clumsily written, ham-acted schmaltz-fest with wooden conflicts and planet-sized holes in plot continuity. And Star Wars captivates us, still after all this time, as much because of these problems as in spite of them. Star Wars is as homely as it is homey. Star Wars is your grandma’s quilted housecoat. Star Wars is family. We don’t care that a visibly green Hamill could barely even read his icky lines, any more than we feel cheated by a tie-fighter battle with results so predictable that we could have excused ourselves to the concession stand for the entire scene and still not missed a beat. All of these are petty quibbles. Story is the thing.  

I resisted Star Wars as a child—a sentiment you wouldn’t have heard often from the square-pegged male offspring of Poughkeepsie IBM’ers in the 1970s, but so it was. This is mostly because Lucas had (cleverly, except where I was concerned) positioned his cinematic opus not as a sci-fi shoot-em-up, but rather as a fantasy adventure. Yes, the TV ads showed spaceships grappling in existential combat but, just as the movie itself, the marketing always emphasized eccentric characters living inscrutable lives on exotic fantasy-adventure worlds. But I myself had never been drawn to exotic fantasy-adventure worlds. Tolkien? Pass. Narnia? Nah. Dungeons and Dragons? Thanks, I’m good. The universe I actually lived in was plenty inscrutable enough for my tastes, without the added suspension of disbelief that it took to ride shotgun while some  reluctant hero bought casting stones from a dude who just called the waitress ‘Wench.’ 

Thus it was that for an entire summer in ’77 (while my single and more-or-less abandoned mother struggled to keep me fed and relatively quiet), a village-sized support network of kindly adults kept telling and retelling me the primitive story of how much I was surely going to love this movie. Bill ‘Booga-Booga’ Gordon told me the story of how much I’d love Star Wars. Helen and Ed Klaas told me the story of how much I’d love Star Wars. Jimmy Kolfrat, Linda Muller, George Pixley, Bob Manotte. The Neumanns, the Ryans, the Nussbaums and the Avnettes. Our cave fires flickered and very often burned themselves to ash, but for a calm and languid summer—for what would be the last calm and languid summer before Khomeini and blindfolded embassy workers and $1/gallon gas—the story was always there. All I had to do was ask and someone would tell me, all over again and patiently from scratch, the one about how sure they were that I’d love Star Wars when I finally climbed down enough to go and see it. 

And you know how that one ends, too. 

I think often about many of the films we’ve shared in our short time together. I think often of Blow-Up and Baraka and Blazing Saddles, of Chinatown and Crouching Tiger. I think of Alien and Pulp Fiction and Cleo 5 to 7 and The Third Man. But no other movie in our repertoire chokes me up just thinking about it—just because it’s *there*—like Star Wars. We were all a different people the moment that first Imperial Destroyer thundered down the screen. From the moment Obi Wan serenely raised his light saber and gently shut his eyes, we would literally never be the same. The story of this silly movie is, for a great many of us, the story of our very lives. Story, *that* story, is the thing. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of joining us, Saturday, 25 June at 6:31PM, for this indelible masterclass in cinematic storycraft. It’s been an incredible ride, sharing so many excellent (and more than a few excellently cheesy) movies with such a fantastic group of smart and patient people, and I thank you all. If Star Wars is to signify the final curtain in our grand experiment, then I say let it be the perfect symphony with which to play us off.
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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Parasite (2019) 2h 24m

On Saturday, 18 June, at a special start time of 6:01pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club digs into one of the most ambitious and complex pictures ever to be considered a family drama, Bong Joon-Ho’s *Parasite* (2019) starring Song Kang-Ho, Sun-Kyun Lee, Cho Yeo-Jeong, Choi Woo-Sik and So-Dam Park.  

Not long ago, when our co-founder and long-suffering host confessed to a lack of clarity regarding my own motivations vis-a-vis the club, I invited her to think of Jeff Albertson—the unappealing and generally insufferable comic-book store owner from The Simpsons. (“Worst. Episode. Ever.”) The suggestion wasn’t altogether serious but it’s not without merit, either: Square pegs like me who allow themselves to get too deep into a specific socio-cultural diversion such as comic books or role-play games or movies are very often pretty hard to take—or, hopefully in my case, occasionally hard to take. We don’t try to be, trust us; we just are.

This matters here because fanatics of this type are often reflexively unwilling to accept the cachet of any successful offerings from the more commercial end of the form. If a movie is popular without really adding much to the state of play of the medium, a devoted cinephile is supposed to hate it (think *The Notebook*). If a movie is popular despite unconventional positioning or craft—perhaps embraced as the result of clever marketing designed to foment over-heated word-of-mouth—a cinephile is supposed to really hate it (think *The Crying Game* or *The Blair Witch Project*). And if a movie is popular despite unconventional positioning or craft, but also because of its conscious attention to the retail-moviplex aesthetic (*The Hurt Locker*, *The Departed*, *Intersteller*), then our poor cinephile is supposed to really, really, REALLY hate it.     

Where am I going with this? I’m going to the unforced brilliance carried off by Korean superstar-director Bong Joon-Ho with his surprise 2020 best-picture winner at the Academy Awards, Parasite. I’m going to a film with mall-cineplex polish, brisk unconventionality, and clever marketing, but one that also works better as a thought experiment than even some of the most anti-commercial indies.  And once I’m there, I’m very happily staying for about the next hundred and fifty minutes. 

In Parasite, writer-director Bong-Joon Ho (the phenomenal craftsman of such modern Korean epics as Snowpiercer, The Host, and Memories of Murder) has somehow outdone even himself. In Parasite he has crafted a picture so delicately constructed and so unpretentiously cohesive that its eventual payoff feels less like a device, and more like the real-world-plausible turn of a story that we hadn’t even realized we’d accepted with such intimate absorption. In Parasite he has given us a quibble-free gem of escapist narrative.  

The first ninety minutes or so of the picture are relatively straightforward and relatively easy to relay without spoilers: A South Korean family, struggling to stay (lower) middle class is beset on all sides by a series of unlikely misfortunes. They struggle, but the struggle feels normal--or at least unsurprising--in the context of their neighbours, friends, and the unfolding of the city's economic and political and even climatological fortunes. Things keep going from bad to worse, vignette after vignette, until a scintillating opportunity presents itself in the form of a potential grift. The marks for this con are a household of privileged economic elite, and the simple plan is to discredit their staff, person-by-person, in order to replace each of them with yet another “recommended” (and false-credentialled) member of the family. 

If all is not as it seems here, then it certainly seems unfamiliar in a familiar way. Grifts are crucially about misdirection, and movies about grifting are implicitly expected to leverage that uncertainty in order to keep us guessing right along with the mark(s). That’s the contract we’ve signed from the moment we sat down, however unwittingly. Dog bites man stuff, to this point.

But the real genius of this picture is that the familiar set of conceits is a grift in and of itself. The actual movie, the movie that we’re watching, ends up scarcely about the family’s attempted grift at all—a fact we learn in precisely the sort of bolt-from-the-blue reversal that we imagine would befall us after being grifted in real life. This choice is scrupulously intentional and it resides at the beating heart of an almost chemically compelling story, the sort of sudden misdirect that has been tried so very often in big-twist movies, and has fallen so very flat in those lesser films with less vision and less craft. 

This being said, it’s worth the attendant risk to let slip here that the last third of the movie is coloured with a radically different tonality from what has come before, to an extent that at least some audience members might find the new situation unusually challenging to watch. Parasite is a long movie that starts out not-quite-a-comedy, and stays that way long enough to give us the clear sense that we know what we’ve gotten ourselves into. By the time it’s over, though, “not-quite-a-comedy” is just about the very last thing that any reasonable person would ever think to say about it all.

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, 18 June, at a special start-time of 6:01pm, for this superlative accomplishment in thrillingly ambitious storycraft. Many movies get described as ‘unforgettable’ but this one really, truly, is.  

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Thursday, June 9, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Snatch (2000) 1h 43m

On Saturday, 11 June, at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club sets aside its film-studies notebook for an evening of unadulterated criminal mayhem, Guy Ritchie’s *Snatch*, starring Jason Statham, Stephen Graham, Vinnie Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Farina, Alan Ford, Lenny James, Robbie Gee, Ade, Rade Sherbedgia and Brad Pitt.  

Was 2000 the single greatest year in the history of motion pictures? Well ... okay, look, 1974 is going to be pretty tough to beat, ever. If you need convincing, consider that The Godfather II, The Conversation, Blazing Saddles, A Woman Under the Influence, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Murder on the Orient Express, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Towering Inferno, and Chinatown were all in wide-release in theaters AT THE SAME TIME, and then tell me there’s ever been another year quite like ‘74 when it comes to motion pictures. But with its own dizzying assortment of superlative pictures, y2k certainly makes for a fun runner-up, with Crouching Tiger, Almost Famous, O Brother Where Art Thou, Memento, Cast Away, and Snatch. 

Chronologically the second of the three Guy Ritchie / Matthew Vaughn fractured-narrative gangster movies (book-ended by the earthier and less polished Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, on one side, and the darker, somewhat ponderous L4yer C4ke, on the other), Snatch is unquestionably the pick of the litter. First and foremost it is the only one of the three that steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously—indeed is most often found on streaming service listings under ‘comedy’. But it’s also a much more professionally complete and tonally consistent work than its companion pieces, with none of Lock Stock’s blind-alley monologues or L4yer C4ke’s inexplicable commitment to showing us a truly hardened antihero as our supposed vessel. And the plot complexity just simply and objectively could, not, be, more, perfect.  

In the A-story, Jason Statham and Stephen Graham are east-end London ne’er-do-wells (“Turkish” and “Tommy,” respectively) who split their time between managing a slot-machine parlor and a stable of illegal bare-knuckles boxers. When Turkish dispatches Tommy and their top-card fighter Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty) to a gypsy (“pikey”) campsite to acquire a new camper/caravan from which to operate their business, the pikeys double-cross the pair, with the clan’s leader Mickey (Pitt) threatening violence if they don’t immediately take their leave. Whereupon George challenges Mickey to a fight, and is of course knocked out cold--and pretty seriously injured--by the wiry and indefatigable gypsy.

So far the boys are out a fistful of money, an out-of-commission fighter, and an afternoon. Pretty humdrum stuff for this pair, surely. Trouble is, Turkish has already booked George for a bout with one of the many fighters under the management of a certain Brick Top (Alan Ford), himself far shadier and more menacing than Turkish or Tommy could ever hope or want to be. With their own fighter suddenly off the card, our heroes must approach the unapproachable Brick Top and hope they survive delivering the news—until, that is, they hit on idea of hiring the pikey to take George’s place (and George’s fourth-round dive), instead. I mean, gosh—what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, in another part of east-end London, pawn-shop owners Sol and Vincent (Lenny James and Robbie Gee) have been hired by Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia) to knock-off an illegal bookie’s office and steal a briefcase being carried by compulsive gambler Frankie Four-Fingers (Benicio Del Torro) because it contains an eighty-four carat diamond, stolen the previous week in Amsterdam. The two pawn brokers enlist the aide of getaway driver Tyrone (Ade), who turns out to be so immensely oafish and overweight that it takes him whole minutes to get into and out of the car, and who, as an added bonus, can’t drive more than a few feet without slamming on the brakes or hitting something, either. 

As one might expect by this time in the film (we’ve already seen these three characters behaving in ways that are far from competent), much goes awry at the bookie’s—though it’ll be a while before they learn the true nature of their problems. And let’s just say that bad driving is the least of it.

This is to say nothing of the myriad cast of ancillary and thrillingly eclectic characters in hot pursuit of either the diamond, the pikey, Turkish and Tommy, the pawn-shop guys, or some combination thereof. There is Avi (Dennis Farina), who’d hired Frankie to steal the diamond and bring it to New York; there is Boris the Blade, whose failure to obtain the diamond from the hired pawn brokers lands him in hot water with his own contacts back in Amsterdam; and then there is Bullet-Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones), hired by Avi at the behest of Doug The Head (Mike Reid) to locate Frankie when Doug himself cannot.

All of it adds up to a veritable theme-park ride of de-saturated, character-driven chaos. With its breathless pacing, near-slapstick photographic devices (including the use of literal title cards for introducing the dramatis personae at the film’s outset), and the sumptuously un-serious musical stings clobbering us over the head with how ridiculous everyone’s being, Snatch pushes hard on the envelope of the “MTV” style of film conceit that made other, lesser films of its era (e.g. The Fifth Element) so palpably unbearable to sit through. 

It would be astonishing enough that director Guy Ritchie and script supervisor Matthew Vaughn manage to spin their unwieldy and polymorphous tale into something credible and understandable, and thence manage to bring the complex facets of the story together at just the right moment with a hilariously improbable but instantly believable coincidence. But they also manage the far more subtle and refined challenge of coaxing us into a trance of comedic sympathy for all these should-be villains along the way. By the time of that momentous coincidence, not a single figure in the tangled fabric of our story is regarded with anything other than a downright acrobatic suspension of disbelief, and almost all of them with unqualified goodwill.

The ‘comedy’ classification can and does evoke some thoughtful head-scratches from audience members who might not associate the word with body counts, but make no mistake: The humor in this script is deep, abiding, and ubiquitous. For starters there is Pitt’s indecipherable accent (so indecipherable that the subtitle track reserved for his lines eventually gives up and places strings of question marks at the bottom of the screen). Then we have Tyrone’s all but willful inability to do the only job he’s been hired for, paired with the recurring (and incidentally mostly un-scripted) antics of the gypsies’ dog, who crops up in each of the many different storylines for at least as long as it will take to bite one of the actors in real life. At all events scarcely a full minute of screen time elapses without something from memorably funny to wheeze-inducing to take away with us. 

In lesser hands all of this laugh-out-loud funny would represent its own kind of trap, of course—since there comes a time in the lives of all these people when, if you’ll pardon the pun, the gloves must come off. These are serious problems into which these folks have gotten themselves, and the serious business of getting out again must thus be taken seriously. It’s no secret that most filmmakers who try such a maneuver fail, either because the antecedent comedy is rendered unfunny by the eventually serious subject matter, or for just the opposite reason: because the comedy works so well that the getting-serious part is impossible to swallow.

Ritchie and Vaughn play both sections of the orchestra simultaneously with this picture, and with such high command of form that each facet of the recipe serves only to accentuate the other. The end result is one of the great gifts to the modern moviegoer, period. In Snatch they have made a movie that is at once thigh-slappingly funny, and a surprise to find mixed-in with the comedies on your favourite streaming site. They have made in Snatch a movie that it as once fabulously complicated in its narrative, and instantly accessible. They have made, in Snatch, the eighty-four carat diamond of heist movies. If you have not seen it, you must see it this weekend.

A short coda just to drive the point that last few hundred meters home. In 2009, and with no idea what I was letting myself in for, I decided on a larf that it might be fun to blog an annotated countdown of my own choices for the hundred greatest movies ever made. Chronicled in countdown-style, the exercise quickly swelled from a four-part series to a sixteen-part series, and would end up taking an entire summer and much of my productive energy for the year in question. I don’t regret a second of the project of course, and scarcely a week goes by without me thinking about those columns. But here’s the thing: Snatch was number six. 

If that seems anticlimactic, it’s only because you haven’t been walking around for thirteen years, now, composing various apologies to Guy Ritchie and company for having somehow excluded this picture from my overall top five. That’s how effortlessly perfect this film is, folks: I feel actual guilt—real, out-of-nowhere remorse—that I ever dared to call it only the sixth-best movie ever made. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, 11 June at 6:31pm, for what is, at worst, the sixth-best movie ever made. I can’t guarantee that you’ll agree with such a lofty ranking, but I can guarantee that by the time the end-titles are rolling up the screen, you will have had a great enough evening that the ranking ceased to matter either way.

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Thursday, June 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

On Saturday, June 4, at a special start time of 6:01pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club treats itself to Werner Herzog’s *Fitzcarraldo*—a film about a crazed zealot, directed by a fevered madman and starring an unhinged lunatic.

It isn’t known exactly when German director Werner Herzog was shown the story of Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald López, or why, but what is known is the impact that the story had—first on Herzog and thence on basically everyone who’d ever come within a hundred meters of him. In the end a movie would come of it—though by the time it did, few associated in any way would find the whole thing remotely worth what they’d just come through.    

For his part Fitzcarrald himself had lived a lavish if over-leveraged life as a nineteenth-century Brazilian rubber baron. A wily and likable fellow who’d counted for decades on an inheritance, a boom in the rubber industry, and a rich wife, but who ultimately found himself with the benefit of none of the above. 

Believing he had no other choice, Fitzcarrald hatched a bizarre plan to reverse his fading fortunes by staking claim to a hitherto untrammeled expanse of rain forest on the banks of the Urabamba River. The property in question had been considered terra incognito, owing to a slew of lacerating cataracts between the parcel and the nearest city, but Fitzcarrald had studied maps of the area and noticed a narrow isthmus between the Urabamba and the parallel-running Madre de Dios, upstream from the impenetrable rapids. Thus it was that, in 1894, Fiztcarrald took a 30-tonne boat up the parallel tributary, disassembled it, and recruited a legion of indigenous locals to carry the pieces up and over the rise of jungle isthmus and down the other side—whereupon he reassembled them, floated down the Urabamba, and staked the claim. It should have been the moment that made for his ultimate redemption, but alas Fitzcarrald would go on to lose everything in a rubber crash, a gambling spree, a messy divorce and a knife-injury gifted to him by the local mafia. He died a lonely and un-celebrated pauper.  

Most of a century later in the late 1970s, his would-be chronicler, Werner Herzog, had already distinguished himself as a director for whom the term “method” meant “we’ll all be literally lucky to survive this thing.” Already an eminently respected auteur filmmaker going back to his student-film days, Herzog’s early projects had also wrought levels of intentional discomfiture that, today, border on incomprehensible. From his choice of a riverside jungle bivouac with no connection to the outside world (Aguirre The Wrath of God), to abruptly ordering an actor to extract one of his own teeth using a pair of pliers (Stroszek), and with countless other examples, Herzog was by 1979 essentially a walking synonym for comically melodramatic and indulgently risky international productions. As the privations became ever more tangential and ever more harrowing over the years and movies, his favourite lead actor, Klaus Kinski, came to exhibit more and more erratic behaviour from one collaboration to the next—eventually hiring a hit-man in an attempt to kill Herzog while they were together on a set. Clearly this was *not* the director to whom to show the story of a Brazilian nutter who thought he’d save himself by dragging a boat over a hill, but in 1979 this is exactly what happened—with results that may only reasonably be described as ... predictable.

To commence pre-production on the perfect tonal footing, Herzog chose to offend essentially everyone by re-imagining the titular character as a white westerner, ten times less connected to reality than his loose-namesake. The westerner in question would be named “Brian Feeny Fitzgerald,” dubbed “Fitzcarraldo” by locals who couldn’t say his name, and for this version of the story of the claim would serve as a mere stepping stone: His true motive would be the even more far-fetched dream of bringing Enrico Caruso to perform opera in Iquitos, the largest but still arrestingly primitive hub city of the upper Amazon basin. 

Herzog also insisted that his film would feature a 350-tonne boat, rather than a 30-tonne one, and he also confidently built the storyboards, shooting schedule and financing around the presumption that his boat really *would* be dragged over an isthmus somewhere in the upper Amazon rain forest, but *without* first having been disassembled. Surely no one would ever find out that these were needless complications of the original story, and surely the added challenge (and the attendant suffering of cast and crew) would make a more compelling finished cinematic product. What could possibly go wrong.

Almost immediately things began to go wrong. In 1979, Herzog and his team built a camp in the jungle near the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border, despite the fact that the two countries were waging a minor border war in the area at the time. No one had thought to explain the movie-shoot to the indigenous locals, many of whom had been previously warned to stay vigilant for extra-legal settlers dispatched from Lima to tip the balance of the war. When the production was mistaken for the colonizing pioneers, the team was driven from the expensively-built location under threat of lethal violence and the entire compound was subsequently burned. 

In early 1981, with a new bankroll and a new shooting location and schedule, Herzog may have been forgiven for thinking that at least his unintended troubles were behind him—but not long afterward the original lead actor for the film, Jason Robards, became so ill that he was evacuated back to the United States. When Robards was forbidden by the film’s insurers to return, Herzog woke on an idle Tuesday to the knowledge that his film adaptation of Fitzcarraldo was suddenly without its Fitzcarraldo. Not long afterward the star playing Robards’ sidekick, Mick Jagger, also abandoned the project—in his case because The Rolling Stones were about to drop an album and start a worldwide tour. Herzog himself had meanwhile found and purchased a boat but, only after taking possession, found that it couldn’t be steered because its ballast tanks had to be stuffed with empty fuel-oil barrels to keep the damn thing afloat—in consequence of which Herzog accidentally grounded it on a sandbar, where it would stay for a full cycle of the dry- and rainy seasons, essentially pushing back photography by yet another entire year. 

When matters re-convened for the third time and with the fourth round of funding, the film’s replacement for Robards would of course turn out to be the aforementioned Kinski—who hadn’t been told that the logistics of the film’s ambitious visuals were unsorted, and that in consequence he’d be required to stay in yet another primitive jungle camp, on 24-hour call to be available for scene-shoots that never came. Kinski, already at the end of his tether in dealing with Herzog, and grappling mightily to keep his own troubled career righted and productive, soon descended into a frightening emotional instability. His on-set rages became so frequent and so predictably discursive that they would eventually form the backbone of a separate documentary about the tortured relationship between himself and Herzog (entitled, without evident irony, “My Best Fiend”). 

While Kinski wailed on, Herzog secured yet another round of funding and bought two more boats. One of these would serve the sole purpose of being destroyed in a down-river cataract of its own, but not before Herzog had staffed it with his best talent on both sides of the camera, more than one of whom were seriously hurt. Back on dry land the set was raided twice by neighbouring indigenous communities, resulting in savage injuries to a beloved crewman and two other members of his family. A chartered Cessna carrying personnel and vital supplies pitched over on landing, seriously injuring all five occupants—one of whom was paralyzed. Kinski celebrated the news by spending the next four hours chest-deep in the river, screaming incomprehensibly and trying to tear down a filming platform with his bare hands. Two of the men who tried to stop him were hurt badly enough to be evacuated to Iquitos for medical attention. 

In one crucial scene, Kinski’s character was supposed to seal a deal with locals by drinking “masato”—a milk-like alcoholic beverage made by chewing a boiled yuca root and then spitting the masticated results into a dugout canoe where it is left to sit out in the sun as it ferments. Kinski, who was also a raving germophobe (because of course he was), insisted that his own masato bowl would be filled with evaporated milk; Herzog readily agreed, then switched the bowl for one containing real masato at the last moment and filmed Kinski’s reaction. In fairness it makes for a pretty compelling scene, as one might imagine.

At some point in all of this mayhem, the matter of actually pulling the actual boat over the actual hill became the actual problem that nobody involved had actually formed the faintest idea how to address. 

Storyboarded for the original location near Ecuador, the first issue was the utter dissimilarity of the flora and terrain. Crucially, the grade which had been planned for the project was twenty degrees but, upon arriving at the site, it was discovered that the true grade at the new locale was almost twice that. Herzog had secured a second-hand bulldozer for the clearing of a path over the ridge, but the combination of the much steeper slope and the de-synchronized timetable meant that the machine was largely left to spin its treads hopelessly in crotch-deep mud. Spare parts had to be flown in from Miami, through three sets of customs and two language barriers, and when they arrived at all they were very often wrong. 

Looking over the capstan-and-pulley rig that had been devised and just about installed to pull the boat, the studio’s hired engineer took Herzog aside and calmly explained that when the capstan failed, as it surely would do, dozens of underpaid indigenous extras (playing underpaid indigenous rope-pullers) would be thrown from the site with a force sufficient to fling them essentially into near-earth orbit. 

“How many killed if it fails?” Herzog asked him.

“Well, all of them,” replied the engineer. Shortly after which, unsurprisingly, he quit. 

Herzog’s solution was to continue without an engineer. And when a structural failure *did* occur a few days later (mercifully just a massive U-bolt that caused the boat to slide unbidden back down the hill, killing nobody but costing the production weeks of lost effort), Herzog’s only outward reaction was to rewrite the scene in real time in order to still use all the footage. I mean, Jeebus Christmas on a bicycle, not even Sisyphus himself was stupid enough to use a fucking boat. 

To say that the resulting film is an epic masterpiece is neither fair and honest, nor the opposite: it’s just hardly the point. Yes, Fitzcarraldo is an extremely well-made film in the sense of its performance as a work of cinematic entertainment. Yes, Fitzcarraldo is probably the apotheosis of Herzog’s filmography as a brilliant storyteller and auteur. But to watch Fitzcarraldo, at least for those who know what happened, is to experience a palpably unique duality. We sit there, not so much watching, as *knowing*. Once upon a time, a fevered genius made a movie about a fevered genius, with a fevered genius for his star, and everyone just about lived through it. Lucky for us, they came up with a terrific picture in the process. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us this Saturday, at a special start time of 6:01pm, for this incredible triptick through the depths of unshaken principle and toxic inspiration. To watch Fitzcarraldo is to watch an entire team of people having their lives utterly changed, and this alone is more than reason enough to come and share the simple pleasure of knowing that we didn’t have to be there too.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Pulp Fiction (1994)

On Saturday, 28 May at a special start time of 6:01 PM, the Phnom Penh Film Club celebrates one of the most iconic modern American classic movies, Quentin Tarantino’s positively seismic pop-culture statement piece, *Pulp Fiction*, starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Julia Sweeney, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Maria de Medeiros and Harvey Keitel. 

When it was first released, Pulp Fiction’s reception formed a stark dividing line. People either loved this movie to the point of recommending it to strangers on street-corners, or hated it to the point of begging close family and friends to ignore the hype and do themselves a favor. And—here’s the thing—the two camps were, to a first approximation, the same size. Fifty years from now someone will make the same observation about this astonishing work of undiluted genius and folks literally aren’t going to believe it. Indeed they can scarcely be brought to believe it now, so total is the transformation that has been wrought by this very movie on the fabric and ground-rules of American pop culture. Already today it is one of the most well-known and appreciated motion pictures in history. It has friends in the remotest corners of the world. It deserves them. 

Quentin Tarantino’s playfully fractured narrative about the lives and times of suburban LA’s seedy underbelly (“I hope Jimmy’s ass is home, ‘cause Marsellus doesn’t have any other partners in 818”) is wrapped as tight as a tourniquet, quick as lightning, yelp-inducingly violent, lush with profanity and coarse sexual innuendo, peppered with stars, and acted, framed, directed, and edited to within an ace of literal perfection. All true enough. But none of these things are what make the experience. No, what makes the experience, and what makes this film so sumptuously enthralling that I can’t go more than a few weeks without re-watching it, is Tarantino’s (fleeting?) gift for the hilarity of a perfectly de-saturated gangster-deadpan badinage, some of it only hilarious once the shock of all that profanity and bloodshed can be safely shunted to a less acutely aggrieved sphere of consciousness.

“Ain’t nobody allowed to kill anyone in my store, except for me or Zed,” is but one example of a sort of line that, for some people, takes a second trip through the movie to thoroughly appreciate. 

“Oh, I’m sorry baby, I had to crash that Honda,” is another. 

“You have any idea what my father went through to get me that watch? I don’t have time to go into it right now, but it was a lot,” is a third. 

“You know what’s bothering me right now? It ain’t the coffee in my kitchen….” is a fourth. 

And I, much like the IMDB quote page for the movie, could go on and on and on. Essentially every line of dialogue is its own unforgettable little jewel of either comic hilarity, scalpel-like social comment, or both. This is the case to such an extent that, these days, starting a scene from the movie among close friends will earn not the completion of the scene by those friends, but the laughter that should have followed from the scene’s completion, with the ten or twelve lines of dialogue in-between rendered utterly implicit. No movie since Caddyshack has enjoyed the same iconic durability of stand-alone reportage, and Pulp Fiction brings the added benefit of being an engrossing dramatic tale with happy- and unhappy ends for some of the least expected characters in it, to boot.

Tarantino has sworn repeatedly that his ongoing casting philosophy has nothing to do with rescuing self-marooned acting careers, but if he’s lying as shamelessly as I think he is, then the crowning achievement in his ability to reach for the improbably out-of-circulation talent must surely be his choice of John Travolta as Vincent Vega—the short-fused and cynical bag-man for local heavy Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and the closest thing to a protagonist that this utterly fragmented saga will permit. 

Bouncing his coolly vicious menace off colleague Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), low-end suppliers Lance and Jody (Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette), Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), and one-man cleanup crew Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), Travolta leads us with hair-raising understatement through the life and times of a casually homicidal lieutenant in the drugs-and-shady-dealings rackets. By turns Vincent is newly arrived from Amsterdam, argumentative for argument’s sake, disinterested in thematic restaurants, adoring of his lovingly restored Mustang, reluctant to entertain the boss’ wife, an impeccable dancer, lamentably trigger-happy, un-self-consciously addicted to heroin, and, above all, ready to escalate any difference of opinion to the point of bloodshed, at the all but literal drop of a hat. (“Jules, you give that nimrod fifteen-hundred dollars, I’m gonna shoot him on general principle.”)

Meanwhile Bruce Willis is Butch—the dive-agreeing and over-the-hill prize fighter who, when fight-night arrives, naturally decides to skip the dive. There is also the tale of would-be-café-hold-up artists Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), whose chosen café to hold up is patronized at that very moment by a class of customer that will prove far more than the duo had quite bargained for (“I been through too much over this case already to just hand it over to your, dumb, ass”). Then there’s Jimmy (Tarantino), the unwilling host of a delicately tight-spotted Jules and Vincent (“When you two came pullin’ in here, did you notice a sign on my front yard that says ‘dead n----r storage’?”), and Brett and Roger, the aspiring double-crossers, soon to experience the sum and substance of Jules’ bible-quoting wrath (“Hey you, flock-of-seagulls: wanna tell my man Vincent where the case is hidden?”). There are also (second-viewing?) uproarious scenes involving near-fatal drug overdoses, twist-dancing contests, jokes that fell flat on pilot TV-shows, a disquieting exposé into the goings-on in the basement of a Compton-vicinity pawn shop, a poignantly unruffled exchange over the cleaning of a crime scene, and on through the night into the chill dawn air of such Tarantino-childhood stomping grounds as Redondo and Englewood and Toluca Lake. (“Where’s Toluca Lake?!?” “It’s just over the hill, man!!!”)

It may take some people more work to accept than perhaps it should or would with other great films, but the fact remains: To have found Pulp Fiction’s peculiar rhythm of ghastly carnage and comedic timing is to realize, as if in one of those shaft-of-light moments from other movies, just how brilliant and unique this movie really is. 

“I watched it again on your advice,” a friend of mine once said to me, a few years after the film came out on video. “An’ normally yo’ ass would be as dead as fried f*ckin’ chicken right now,” he continued, “but you happened to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period.”

…And, just like that, I knew I’d scored another convert.

I hope everyone (convert and otherwise) will make a special point of joining us this Saturday, 28 May at 6:01 PM, for this no-holds-barred thrill ride of Gothic bloodshed, cinematic hilarity and time-capsule perfection. There may be many movies like it, today and into the future, but there will never, ever, ever be another moment quite like the one that this film had. It simply demands to be watched.  

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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Fellini's 8-1/2 (1963) 2h18m

On Saturday, 21 May at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club enters the far turn of its Big Movie May with a screening of one of the most iconic touchstones of Euopean cinematic excellence, Federico Fellini's *8-1/2*, starring Marcello Mastroiani and Claudia Cardinale. 

I've heard it said that most of the cachet of this film is dependent on having seen a significant portion of director Federico Fellini's other works, in general, and on appreciating the title as a self-directed jab at the creative drought that descended over him after completion of his previous -- and eighth -- film, La Dolce Vita in particular. And I'm here to tell you that it doesn't matter. Just as Airplane works without having first seen Zero Hour, this film works regardless of one's familiarity with Fellini the director, or with the angst-ridden impetus that went into this particular project, either one.

In a move that must have been the inspiration for Charlie Kauffman's often ham-fisted metacraft, Fellini wrote and directed this story of Guido (Marcello Mastroiani), himself a famous but suddenly uninspired director. When we meet him Guido is struggling to complete a picture in a town not quite remote enough to spare him from the demands of paparazzi, would-be crew, long-estranged friends, or assorted female lovers, either. Already doubtful as to his facility to complete the project, Guido careens from one preposterous request being placed upon him to the next -- eventually retreating into a blurred simulacrum in which the best fever-dream vignettes infect his waking life, and ultimately his plans for how to change the direction of the picture.

As a young child in the extreme exurbs of New York in the 1970s, I grew up with neither home video rentals nor 250-channel television. I saw many, many movies -- but they were the movies that happened to be showing on one of the two channels I could consistently watch. Thus it was that I ended up taking this particular Fellini film before any other, and over the decades since, the approach has had both an up- and down-side. On the one hand, it has rendered all other Fellini films far too accessible and linear for me to place them on the same tier of greatness that they enjoy in the eyes and hearts of so many other film buffs. But it also rarefies the experience of 8-1/2 itself, which commands a special place in my heart as one of those "I'll always know where I was the first time" sorts of films.

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 21 May, at 6:31pm for one of the truely iconic specimens of the modern canon. We owe it to Guido, to Fellini, and ultimately to ourselves -- to find out whether the crippling impostor syndrome, scrambled priorities and last-minute re-writes of this world can be counted on to build us something truly great. 
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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Apocalypse Now (1979) 3h 1m -- Starts 6:00pm

On Saturday, 14 May at a special start time of 6:00pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club dives almost literally into the inky-black inscrutability and psychedelic pathos of Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam-war arabesque: *Apocalypse Now*, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forest, Sam Bottoms and Robert Duvall.

Frequent attendees of our post-film discussions will have noticed our proclivity to invoke the concept of “story circle.” There is, it happens, a reductive metric for narrative storytelling, from which almost any familiar and/or successful tale can be confidently strung. A reluctant hero is forced to leave a comfortable situation, entering a new aspect in which he or she will lose all prior ego-crutches, reach a deep point of crisis, summon the strength necessary to make the bigger choice, pay a heavy price for it, vanquish the antagonist, and return to his or her tribe as a conquering master of both worlds. 

This metric works equally whether one is describing Oscar Schindler or Ellen Ripley, but the success of the model’s adaptability is also a trap: Yes, it’s an axiomatic law of superlative storycraft, but only because it doesn’t—once we slow down enough to really think about it—really prescribe all that much specificity regarding how to navigate the specific stations along the way. 

If one wishes to tell a story about the grim absurdity of American imperialist folly in Southeast Asia, the mere fact of knowing that our hero must face a deep crisis and pull himself together is tautological to the ragged edge of useless. Will he find the courage to rescue a stricken buddy? Will he frag his C-O instead of burning a village? Will he testify before Congress? If he can’t do all three, then how does the storyteller rely on best practices to recount such a grim and pointless episode in history, where any one of those choices would and does feel manifestly unjust as a favoured vehicle? 

Fortunately for us, every now and again in the history of stories, someone comes along with just the right genius, just the right fervor, and just the right dash of tortured madman to seize the vertiginous challenge of such a structure-free tragedy. To brandish it as his liberating summons for carrying us coolly and just-about-perfectly in directions that we never thought we’d ever want to go. It would seem, in other words, that to tell the tale of a genocidal farce that had no purpose, no allegiances and seemingly no end, you first need to get yourself a screenwriter/director who will look at all that pointlessness, and see it as the point.    

Adapted very loosely from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now pairs us with the slowly self-consuming Army yes-man Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen). An utter failure at civilian life back home, Willard has volunteered to return to Vietnam, a semi-freelancer in the special forces whose prowess at bagging the tough assignments wins him the job of traveling upriver into Cambodia to find and cope with one Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), apparently gone rogue. To fulfill this mission, Willard will need to cajole an unwilling swiftboat crew, stare down its openly hostile captain, and avoid persuading himself that carrying out the mission will make him officially no better than the man he’s been sent to neutralize. And that isn’t even the half of it.

What follows can only be described as history’s most terrifying zoo—with vignettes featuring bizarre characters holding positions of unacceptably high responsibility, slammed hard against competing scenes where terrified nobodies do whatever they can to stay alive in the absence of leadership. In other words, the movie brilliantly captures precisely what America’s presence in the Vietnam War must have felt like for the soldiers on the ground: rudderless, savage, incomprehensible. Horrific.

Confronted with the simultaneous micro- and macro-absurdity of his bosses’ collective lack of rationale or plan, Willard improvises a clay-footed spread of coping skills, intended as much for his own continued sanity as for the fulfillment of his charge. His motivation is pointless. The objective is pointless. His path is pointless. The death that happens all around him—when it isn’t objectively his fault—is pointless. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we in the audience come to understand. We get it. 

As a thought-provoking and subversive message, Apocalypse Now is a triumph. As a film, it is a literal masterpiece. By the time it was even finished the movie had taken on near-mythic levels of word-of-mouth cachet. The Director had gone preposterously over his already mammoth budget. A Philippine general in the vicinity of the shoot had demanded ever more lavish considerations to continue withholding his considerable and inventive wrath. Marlon Brando had showed up overweight, obstinate, and lacking the most basic awareness of his character or lines, and then refused to be directed. A typhoon had torn the host city to rubble. Martin Sheen had had a serious heart attack. He'd spent the next day sitting on a fallen tree bare-chested, defibrillating himself. Against reasonable expectations, he just-about survived, exactly as we did.

It is impossible to ignore, if also difficult not to celebrate, the perfect coincidence that all this mayhem presented for enhancing the immediacy of this specific story. At some indeterminate point in the creative process, fairly early on, the notion of “method” no longer applied to an individual actor or his performance as much as it applied to the literal existence of the entire effort. These people didn’t make a movie about the absurdity of Vietnam; they lived it. Little wonder that the finished film instantly became an iconic runaway commercial and critical success.

Over the years literally hundreds of lines of dialogue from this film have forced their way into the pop-culture vernacular (“I love the smell of napalm in the mornin’”), with almost everyone harboring his or her own favorites, and I am no exception. Honorable mention in my own quotable-line award ceremony goes to, “Charging someone with murder around here is like handing-out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500.” But the cake-taker, the line that still raises the skin on my forearms, has to be the snippet of v/o that we receive when Capt. Willard is released from captivity by Col. Kurtz and simply left to roam Kurtz’ compound un-escorted. “On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him I’d know what to do, but it didn’t happen,” Sheen tells us in that trademark drowsy voice-over for which the film has become so widely emulated. “I was there with him for days, not under guard, I was free, but he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did.”

I hope everyone will plan to join us, Saturday, 14 May, at 6pm, for this astonishing cinematic accomplishment, about which there is simply little more to say. Of the thousand or so movies that a person really ought to see, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top hundred. Of the four-hundred or so movies that a person really ought to view a dozen times, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top twenty. See it again, for the first time; get goosebumps again—for, the, first, time.
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Monday, May 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Princess Bride (1987) 1h 38m

On Saturday, 7 May at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club relishes its chance to share the simple joy of one of the simplest and most joyful films we’ve yet seen, Rob Reiner’s *The Princess Bride*, written by William Goldman and starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, André René Roussimoff, Fred Savage and Peter Falk. 

Movies were never intended to change the world. They weren’t supposed to awaken you to the outrages of post-modern cultural decay, they didn’t embolden you to tip your life over and shake it by the ankles, and if they kept coming up later in your outlook and your thoughts it was because something somewhere had gone horribly wrong. In the early days, the point of movies was pure escape: A top-of-the-craft cast set its egos aside to plow gamely through shaky concepts and shoestring budgets and hazardous d-i-y stunts, and no one involved ever took him- or herself seriously enough to forget that entertainment was supposed to be the bloody point of the thing. 

This is important for cinephiles like me to remember, especially when struggling to process the universal cachet of a film like The Princess Bride. Yes, it offers a fun evening, spent with a fun story, with a fun structure and a quotable script and the perfect director and cast. But ask me on the sidewalk why this movie is such an abiding worldwide favourite and, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to mostly look at my shoes and mumble. 

Just why, exactly, is “Never bet against a Sicilian when death is on the table” a more memorable line than, say, “...Well, yeah, plus half of all the graft I take in!” [1] ? What is it about the line, “You keep saying this word; I do not think it means what you think it means” which elevates it so completely above, “There’s a foot in your way?!? Well why don’t you just eat it!!!” [2] ? How exactly do we all come to know “My name is Inigo Montoya...” when almost nobody knows, “You ain’t goin’ anywhere until you tell me who shot this guy Rembrandt!” [3] ? I’m genuinely not sure. Truth is, until we scheduled this picture for our club, I wasn’t sure that I even had a theory.  

Let’s be clear: I love this movie. I love it for its basic and unassuming innocence, for its delicate balance of alternating subplots and perfectly unfussy dénouements, for its writing, for its directions, for its cast. For its effervescent joie de vivre. I love it because it knows exactly what it wants to be and how seriously it doesn’t need to take itself if it wants to work. None of which is good enough reason for a picture to amass the sort of cross-cultural iconography as this one has.  

No, it seems to me that in the counter-examples of some other pictures that could have “been” the Princess Bride [1-3], some magic element of an evocative connection to early cinema just isn’t quite as immediate. A struggling used car lot somewhere on the muddy outskirts of Phoenix is a great platform for a story, but the resulting story—even at its funniest—won’t work at all unless there are some real and possibly even ugly stakes.  A murder mystery on a trans-continental train will find plenty of opportunities for laughs (on the train and off, come to that), but to do that story well in the modern era, the resulting movie will require budgets and soundtracks and a self-seriousness that had all been chosen to please the accountants as much as the theater-goers. Meanwhile Joseph Bologna is a fine actor, yes, but nobody is ever going to mistake him for a maestro performer who consciously elected to put his well-earned ego aside in order to play along with a silly romp and just see folks enjoy themselves. 

The Princess Bride, by contrast, is a deft, cagey, impeccably-cast yet deliberately un-serious, great big popcorn box of stakes-free escapist nothing. Indeed it is as close to literally nothing as a person can get out of a movie crew and a completion bond without accidentally making Koyaanisqatsi In Tights instead. 

The story (such as it is) is easily told and just as easily forgotten. A doddery grandfather reads a tale of adventure to his sick and jaded grandson, while the tale itself unfolds before our eyes into a sort of Narnia-by-Mel-Brooks—complete with a beautiful princess, a dashing hero-boyfriend, a duplicitous count, and enough needless b-story players to keep us continually guessing about which one will come along next to disgrace himself for our amusement. Eminently quotable lines compete for screen-time with costumed sight-gags and touching chemistries. Music swells and dips and never makes the vaguest real impression. Nothing matters, nothing happens, nothing crystallizes in the minds of any of the main characters, and when it’s over nothing’s changed. 

That, friends, **that** is why we love this film so much. It demands to be watched; it demands to be loved; it demands to be quoted and it demands to be remembered as one of the great movie-watching experiences of our often troubled and complicated lives. And all without striving for the first, tiniest shred of importance or cultural cachet. Its cultural cachet is that it hasn’t any. Its claim to our hearts is that it started from inside them. It is known and loved by everyone because it is simply ours, and always has been.    

I hope everyone will make a very special effort to attend this, perhaps the most widely beloved movie we’ve yet screened, Saturday 7 May at 6:31. To miss it would be inconceivable.   


[1] *Used Cars* (1980) directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Kurt Russell, Jack Warden and Deborah Harmon

[2] *The Big Bus* (1976) directed by James Frawley and starring Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing and John Beck

[3] *Silver Streak* (1977) directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Clifton James, Ned Beatty and Jill Clayburgh  

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Friday, April 29, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Animal Kingdom (2010) 1h 53m

On Saturday, 30 April at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club straps in for one of the most stark and relentless films we’ve tried, *Animal Kingdom* (2010), written and directed by first-timer David Michod, and starring Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and, in a positively thrilling debut performance, James Frecheville. 

In fairness a tough and gritty narrative isn’t really all *that* unusual an ingredient for successful, or entertaining, or critically acclaimed films. Indeed already in our short time together we have shared some outstanding examples of each. But what’s probably much less common are the films that manage all four things at once. Especially when also offering brilliant first-time directing, elite cinematography, a pitch-perfect score and, above all, an entire cast’s worth of performances so bang-on perfect that at some point, very early along the way, it becomes essentially impossible to remember that we’re all just taking in a movie. 

Adapted loosely from the true-life story of the notorious Pettingill crime family of Melbourne, Animal Kingdom sees Frecheville playing the lead role of “J,” an unnervingly impressionable young man who finds himself bunking up with a gang of vicious bank robbers. Oh, I forgot one small detail: The bank robbers in question just happen to be his own extended family. 

After some uneasy opening notes to set an appropriately uneasy tableau for J’s new place in his new domesticity, the various gang members take their turns showing him in no uncertain terms how they feel about his sudden presence, neither decorum nor basic self-consistency withstanding. Gradually it emerges that neither J nor the others are comfortable with his front-row seat to the family business, nor is anyone prepared to finally take the taboo step of severing that sole remaining hereditary provenance in J’s young life. Nobody ever actually says, “Where else would [he/I] go” but the question is always hanging there among us, the acrid stench of an unforeseen, inescapable, and literally existential Hobson’s Choice. 

Naturally, matters turn in chilling directions for which J is obviously neither prepared nor the least bit pre-adapted. And then they turn again in ways that make J’s situation even more intractable. And then it happens again, and again, and again, and *again*. All while a kaleidoscope of brilliantly drawn supporting characters struggle to recruit, coopt, cajole, turn, ignore, or in some cases even neutralize, this our most reluctant hero. Eventually, when the final twist must surely, surely have come and gone, we allow ourselves to trust the surety of a lifetime’s experience of cinematic denouements—and we exhale. Big mistake, that.   

The film was a smash-hit runaway success in both Australia and the U.S., with Jacki Weaver nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the coolly psychotic family matriarch, “Grandma Smurf.” Pay special attention to exactly how she casually shows her own sons how happy she is to have them around her home, and then feel about it exactly as you’re tempted to allow yourself to feel. Especially as J takes a mantle that has much less to do with accidental custody and much more to do with steering the entire family’s grim and sordid near-term prospects. 

I hope everyone will plan on joining us, Saturday 30 April at 6:31pm, for this very special event. If I can promise anything, it’s that our usual policy of respectful silence for the end titles will require absolutely no policing whatsoever for this one—as we all sit thunderstruck and unsure how to even process its very final moments. Never mind the stunning performances, the improbably confident directing, and the story that grabs us from page one and never once lets go. For all these reasons, Animal Kingdom is a film that I can promise that none of us will soon forget.
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Friday, April 22, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Bandit Queen (1994) 1h 59m

On Sunday, 24 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh plunges headlong into an arresting world of contemptible authority and sympathetic law-breakers, *Bandit Queen*, starring Seema Biswas and written and directed by Sakhbar Kapur.

Among aspiring fiction writers it is very often said that ‘heroes have motivations, while villains have backstories’. And it’s a sneaky-impactful aphorism, insofar as the implied distinction so clearly comes down to whether the character in question can bring him- or herself to let the past be the past and just move on. Those who can, go on to the channel their ugly pasts into a constructive impetus for the betterment of all—their “character-building” experience as literal as anything in literature. 

Cue the entrance of one of the most driven and iconoclastic characters in modern history, Phoolan Devi: the real-life woman who really did just about single-handedly kick over one of the most brutally misogynistic patriarchies on the planet, that of rural India in the 1970s and 80s. A figure of pluck, vengeance, audacity, all but unbearable pathos, and ultimately of one of the least probable redemptions of all time. Cue the rule-defying movie about her harrowing path to that redemption, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. 

Regardless of medium or adaptive license, Phoolan Devi is not a figure whose story would suit the little kids at bedtime, to be sure. From forced betrothal at age eleven (and from exactly the sort of treatment one may imagine with only that much news to go on), Devi’s journey proceeds through a withering chronicle of false flight, violent reversals, shocking police misconduct, caste-based humiliation, banishment, bloody double-crosses, and extra-legal justice. 

In time her unique combination of self-galvanizing purpose and ever-higher-profile escape will come to earn her the legendary status of heroic outlaws, particularly among a cohort of impoverished rural women whose own heartbreaking backstories had robbed them of similar empowerment. Indeed in watching the film for the first time not long ago, I was reminded of what David Sedaris once wrote about a comically over-distressed cashmere sweater in his closet: “Because it is destroyed, it is indestructible.” So too the stunning life of Phoolan Devi. 

The challenge that this simple reality presented for domestic movie-adaptation was so basic as to be almost deal-breaking, with Indian cinematic tradition so deeply antithetical to the unflinching and relentless grit that Phoolan Devi’s tale demands. There are no sappy song-and-dance numbers to chase the gunplay from the screen. There is only a life, here and now, set before us on the rails of an unsinkable ideologue’s ferocity in fighting City Hall. 

We take our seats expecting the typical Indian film experience—a saffron Andrew Lloyd Webber—and what we get is a saffron Lars Von Trier. Complete with that same peculiar gift for folding our judgements about visceral gratuity back in our own laps for the sociopolitical accusation that they are. Make no mistake, Bandit Queen is not a happy-go-lucky romp through fields of brightly-clad backup singers and star-crossed romantic entanglements. But it just might be, indeed probably is, the most important movie we’ve yet seen. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of joining us at 6:30pm on Sunday 24 April for this stunningly impactful motion picture. We really and truly have taken in nothing remotely like it in our filmography thus far. 

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Thursday, April 21, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Arrival (2016) 1h 56m

On Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh will screen Denis Villeneuve’s touchstone of contemporary storytelling excellence, *Arrival*, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. 

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage in these pages from the linkage between the ugly real-world circumstances befalling the planet in the early to mid-1970s, and the unprecedented wave of superlative films that graced the planet’s theaters at that time. Perfectly sensible, this bit: If one couldn’t bear to face the era of Watergate transcripts and Kent State shootings and Sinai offensives, the natural vector of escape was a plush-velvet theater seat and all the suspension of reality that it promised to confer. 

Except I wouldn’t have to tell anyone reading these words that 2016 was no picnic, either. From Brexit to Aleppo, from the rise of Donald Trump to the death of Princess Leia, hiding from the real world in that fateful year took on a mantle of gallows-chic that hadn’t been so prominent in popular culture since ... well, since the early to mid-1970s. And the world’s filmmakers delivered again, too—with Risen and Perfect Strangers and Nocturnal Animals and How to Be Single. 

And then there’s Denis Villeneuve and his jewel of throwback cinematic escapism, Arrival. A film that defies not just genres and conventions, but the far more sacred taxonomy of commercially- vs. critically important work. 

Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, the cracker-jack linguist who finds herself visited in her academic office by a shadowy military detachment (led by Forest Whitaker), seemingly out of the blue. After some appropriately uneasy back-and-forth, it develops that the military folk want Dr Banks to come with them to interrogate a group of uninvited guests. If I told you why they need a math expert (played by Jeremy Renner) along for the ride, I’d spoil the movie. But they do. And a CIA observer (Michael Stuhlbarg), too.  

The four of them must work together, and to say this spoils nothing. And none of them know what they're doing, or what the consequences of what they're doing might be, good or otherwise. The whole of the story is a deep-dive into the samurai arts of professionally faking it and hoping for the best. There are turns of a sort we might expect under high-pressure, high-stakes, without-a-net circumstances such as these, and then, just when we think we're clear on where we're being taken, the entire flow of the movie and the story that we thought we were being told, is dumped all but literally on its head. Everything about this picture is a feint, and everything about it is a reminder that feints don't have to end with travel bans and slatted border walls in Arizona. They can be beautiful, and thrilling, even as they are dangerous and difficult to comprehend. Yes, Arrival is a science fiction movie. But in the end it hardly matters.   

Many great films have enjoyed box-office prosperity, and many successful movies have attracted the eye of the world’s critics and awards, to be sure. Most of the films we’ve shared in our screenings straddle this boundary to at least some degree. But far, far fewer films have ever dared to actually be both of these things, with conscious intent, from the moment they were green-lit at the studio’s top-floor offices. That Arrival succeeds so completely in both aspirations—as a commercially entertaining movie, and as a work of cultural durability—is little short of miraculous, especially for its time. A bonbon of mall-cineplex escapism, just when we needed it most, which manages to be genuine art at the same time.

But to succeed as well as it did, Arrival had to match its moment into the bargain. Had Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi been released in 1971 it would still have evoked spirited intellectual discussion and deep reservoirs of fan loyalty, but it wouldn’t have broken the freaking world. (Indeed it would have been Werner Herzog’s *Fata Morgana*, which ... didn’t.) Coppola’s The Conversation is a fantastic picture, sure, but part of the reason it works so well is because it was screened over a summer when tape-recorded conversations were all anyone could think about. The lesson is clear. To make that kind of impact, a film must lay its hands in just the right folds of our collective consciousness at that particular time. 

In 2016, those folds wouldn't have been much fun to think about. They would have prominently included fear of outsiders, an even greater fear of those who were afraid of outsiders, and existential geopolitical uncertainty. But they also would have included breakneck technological progress and an almost foolish-feeling reach for optimism and self-betterment. Villeneuve would have needed to resonate with all of these disparate cultural overtones, and, in that last extra little challenge, he would have needed to at least nod in the direction of society's desire for cinematic escapism itself. Somehow. Perhaps by featuring some venue or shooting aspect that happened to be of a sixteen-by-nine dimension. I dunno, maybe have it look white when there’s nothing to see on it, just to be nutty.   

For those who know his work, it will come as no surprise that Villeneuve hit every single note with this gorgeous picture. Writing for The London Telegraph, Robbie Collin called it “introspective, philosophical and existentially inclined—yet [it] unfolds in an unwavering tenor of chest-tightening excitement. And there is a mid-film revelation—less a sudden twist than sleek unwinding of everything you think you know—that feels, when it hits you, like your seat is tipping back.” Across town, The Guardian was busy deciding it had been the third-best movie of the year, and the nineteenth-best scifi movie. Ever. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm for this stately and breathtaking puzzle of overlapping narratives, nuclear statecraft, and the sometimes, but not always, reckless-seeming currency of hope. 

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Monday, April 18, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Rope (1948) 1h 20m

On Wednesday, 20 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh kicks off its outdoor shoes and cozies up with one of the most audacious and criminally underrated pictures we’ve yet seen, *Rope* (1948), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring John Dall, Farley Granger, and the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. It was Hitchcock's first film shot in colour, and few of his efforts more richly deserved the added dimensionality and depth of field that colour offers, afterward. 

We don’t think of him this way now, but in his heyday as an A-list Hollywood actor and script-adapter, Hume Cronyn bore a well-earned reputation for being a ripe miserable bastard—particularly toward anyone who dared to tell him no. Thus it was that, on an improbably rainy spring afternoon in Los Angeles in 1947, Cronyn barged in on a studio meeting to present Alfred Hitchcock with one of the less circumscribed and deferential movie pitches ever to that time: He wanted Hitchcock to make a murder mystery, adapted from a one-act, one-room play, and filmed so as to suggest that everything we witness is unfolding in real time. 

The story of the narrative is easily told and almost impossible to spoil. Dall and Granger play two well-polished collegiate aesthetes, bored and lonely after having just completed a mesmerizing course from a philosophy professor obsessed with Nietzsche’s Superman. After a brief conversation in which the philosophical underpinnings of their thinking are revealed to have been suitably and explicitly misunderstood by them, the two young men decide to exhibit their self-appointed superiority. And to do this, it follows (-?), they will commit an act of unspeakable private barbarism—and then confidently host a cocktail party immediately thereafter in the same space. Apparently without so much as washing up first. 

The guest of honour is naturally their would-be mentor, the prim and tweedy Professor Cadell (Stewart), invited by the pair with a clear intent of showing off, without actually revealing to him what they’ve done. No stranger to overzealous college-boy idolatry, Cadell’s simmering discomfiture is at first mistaken for a professor’s natural remorse at seeing enthusiastic converts get it wrong. But gradually, as innuendos find lubrication through the force of drink, Cadell comes to realize that the discomfiture in this case very possibly, indeed probably, counts for so much more than mis-quotation ever could. 

More than anything, this is what makes Rope such a brilliant work of cinema: It’s not how the boys change over the course of this claustrophobic little evening of boat-house protocol and WASPy badinage; it’s how Stewart changes. He knows something is up from the moment he hits that door, of course—but like a man struggling to process the news of a fatal accident, he must drag himself through the stations on a passion-play of self aggrievement and denial. If it’s as bad as it starts to sound, he is indirectly responsible for an act from which he will never quite release himself. If it’s worse, he might not get the chance.  

You may have seen Aleksandr Sokurov’s *Russian Ark* with us a few months ago, and you may have seen Alejandro Inarritu’s *Birdman* without us, a few years before that. If either is the case, then you know how difficult it is just to make a movie look like it was filmed continuously, even in contemporary times. For its era, then, Rope is nothing short of norm-shattering. No one but the 1948 version of Hume Cronyn could have marshaled the Superman’s private conviction of his craft, to devise such a comfortably subversive concept for a film. And no one but A. J. Hitchcock could have carried it off with such riveting aplomb. 

I hope everyone will join us, Wednesday 20 April at 6:30pm, for this spellbinding little keepsake-box of macabre suspense and relentlessly onrushing dread. It’s not true that movies don’t get made like this anymore, but it may as well be.

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Friday, April 15, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Apollo 13 (1995) 2h 22m

On Sunday, 17 April, at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh checks that its carry-bags are secure around its shoulders and its hands are wrapped securely around the safety bar, as it embarks down the gentle start-slope for the ride of its young life, Ron Howard's soaring masterpiece of technical achievement and immutable emotional resonance, *Apollo 13*, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Chris Ellis, Jean Speegle Howard, Clint Howard, and Capt. James Arthur Lovell, Jr, USN O6-SpecDty (ret.).  

Our gracious and long-suffering host gets a lot of mileage out of reminding me from time to time that "nerds are cool" -- though goodness knows I can't imagine who she might be thinking of when she does. And yes, nerds are indeed cool: It's an axiom on which our entire platform has depended and will, I hope, continue to succeed. But taken by itself the conviction that nerds are cool doesn't gift us with Apollo 13. To get us there, we needed maestro director Ron Howard's innate understanding of another, equally important axiom. Schmaltz is underrated. Especially when you're at the movies.

We know the story by now: A third moon-mission bearing the number 13 lifts off from Cape Canaveral with three astronauts aboard—Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and backup Command Module Pilot Jack Swaggart (Kevin Bacon), while original Pilot Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinese) sits grounded in Houston on suspicion that he will soon contract the measles. It’s a routine mission to whatever extent any mission outside of earth’s gravity could possibly be thought of as routine. 

When, on the third day out (April 13), an explosion cripples the spacecraft, what was supposed to be a voyage so banal and un-inspired that the networks refused even to cover it becomes a global vigil in which all stops are pulled to do whatever can be done on the ground to bring the astronauts home. “The President wants odds,” Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) tells Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) as they quietly confer over his console at Mission Control. “What do I tell him, one chance in three?” To which Christopher Kraft (Joe Spano) replies unbidden, “I don't think they're that good.”

Most people don't know just how not-that-good the odds really were, but the astronauts did. “We were looking for a trajectory that intersected with the earth's path in some way,” the real Jim Lovell once told a documentary interviewer. “What we didn't want was to become an orbiting memorial to the space program for all time.” 

This is how not-that-good it was, friends: The three men, trapped in an all but impossibly confined and quickly freezing space, weighing the alternatives of a slow death in orbit or a quick one in the atmosphere, and then calling-down their preference for the quick one. That anything different happened, in the end, is a literal monument to the guile and dedication of some of the smartest and most zealously committed nobodies in the history of humankind.

So how do you tell a story like this one? It’s compelling for what it was, of course, but the trap of that starting-point is that its ending-point is available to any kid who’s heard of Wikipedia. How do you make it not just compelling, but involving? 

Perhaps you start with Faulkner, who wrote that for every southerner it is always possible to imagine himself standing in ranks in a Pennsylvania field on an early July afternoon in 1863, the flags not yet out of their casings, before the war was going to be lost. It happens that a great and consequential war was about to be lost in the United States in the 1970s as well—not just a physical one, but one over the very cohesion of what it meant to be American. From Vietnam to Kent State to unprecedented racial strife and the crisis in the Middle East, no one who came home to the evening news during this time could have anticipated living through one of the most collective and universalizing crises of their lives. 

With that simple awareness, Howard’s prescription for telling this story was as bounded by circumstance as an actual marching order: What you have to do, if you’re going to tell this story in a way that transports us back, is you have to tell it cheesy. You have to gently overplay the family emotions, and the crane shots, and the dry-witted Houston badinage, and the soundtrack—everything about the story needs just that extra little bit of schmaltz. Just as we did as we lived through it.   

Of course you also have to tell it in a way that works cinematically, and that is never going to be easy when it comes to pre-CGI-era pictures about traveling to space. Fortunately for us, Howard is a bona fide creative genius, and nowhere does his own star shine anywhere near this bright. 
This may not be true of all great films—even all the great films on this list—but what makes this one worthy of an earlier claim to my top overall spot is the total, absolute, unwavering suspension of disbelief: There comes a time in each viewer's experience of this movie, when the very idea that we are sitting in comfy seats on the ground simply and unceremoniously leaves us. For me that moment comes just after liftoff, as the spacecraft is climbing out. We see an interior shot of the command module, the rumble everywhere around us, with a clear view of the instrument cluster. And there is just enough shake, just enough terror, just enough mechanized life to the thing, to let me know that I'm on the ride of my life. I wept like a baby when I first saw that moment in a theater—and I was on a freaking date.

Inspired genius abounds in this one, suffusing even the seemingly minor details with as much timely creativity as Howard's unfailing loyalty to the historical record would abide. His decision to crane-shoot the scenes at Mission Control, providing us the very sort of un-grounded, call-to-greatness vibe experienced by the controllers themselves, is but one example. The pitch-perfect performance of Jean Speegle Howard as Lovell's aging mother Blanche, is another. Upon being introduced to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (tasked with keeping her preoccupied during the tension of reentry), Blanche raises her eyebrows and asks, “Are you boys in the space program too?”

Then there is the zero-G footage—which actually comprises far less of the film than our credulous brains would lead us to suspect (much of what looks like zero-G is instead good actors, planted firmly on the ground, swaying rhythmically). The true weightless shots were accomplished by building a second command module and a second LEM inside a zero-G training plane, meaning that each shot could only last a few seconds and could not be immediately re-taken if it didn't go right, a fact that only added to the realism and tension of the actors' performances.

The set for Mission Control, meanwhile, had been replicated from the real one to such exacting standards that the real Gene Kranz would leave the set at the end of each day in his capacity as creative consultant, only to find himself startled anew by the absence of an elevator to take him “down” to a Houston parking lot. 

Shortly after this movie came out on video I had occasion to stroll the aisles of one of those icky big-box electronic stores, noticing in passing that one of the end-cap displays was playing Apollo 13 as its demonstrator. When those first desperate moments of emergency broke over the astronauts, every single customer in the store—and most of the staff—ceased whatever they were doing and crowded around the screen, as if this were really happening and we were really standing there, in a store someplace, terrified for the safety of our three brave astronauts. They say millions of people missed their trains when John Glenn lifted off for the first time; well, tens of people were made late for their next errand by watching a movie depiction of a crisis for which every last one of us knew the outcome. That, friends, that is the brilliance that we prepare ourselves to relish at the conclusion of this weekend. 

I hope everyone will make a special effort to join us Sunday, April 17, at 6:30, for this thrilling and enthralling triptick of technical prowess and heart-plucked inspiration. I can absolutely, positively guarantee you won’t regret it. Schmaltz and all.
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