If you're familiar with documentarian Ross McElwee's earlier films (SHERMAN'S MARCH, TIME INDEFINITE), watching this one is like fondly catching up with an old friend. The latest, long-awaited chapter in his series of autobiographical cinematic memoirs, BRIGHT LEAVES finds McElwee (who currently lives in Brookline and teaches film at Harvard) traveling back to his home state of North Carolina. There, his cousin (a film enthusiast with an archive of rare prints in his home) screens BRIGHT LEAF for him, a justly forgotten Gary Cooper melodrama from 1950 that may have been based on McElwee's great grandfather, a tobacco baron who created the Bull Durham brand but was eventually run out of business by his more famous rivals.

McElwee uses this discovery as a jumping off point for a mostly free-form essay about his family's forgotten place in the tobacco industry and the lingering effects of that industry on small town North Carolina. He also interviews old friends (the audience practically cheered when the fiesty, outspoken Charlene, a constant figure in his earlier work, appeared on screen) and cancer patients of his deceased physician father about the presence of smoking in their lives. However, this isn't an anti-smoking PSA--only one scene feels a little preachy. Instead, tobacco is simply a focal point, interspersed with updates about McElwee's life, his now teenaged son, reminiscences about his past via home movie footage, and the occasional detour like an unforgettable interview with eccentric film theorist Vlada Petric and another with ancient BRIGHT LEAF co-star Patricia Neal.

No more focused than his earlier films and maybe less essential than them, BRIGHT LEAVES is nonetheless a delightful new chapter. McElwee's highly personable style, best exemplified by his wry, incessant narration and sense of humor, influenced a generation of documentarians, but he still does it masterfully. At its best, the film is like a Southern, nonfiction equivalent to NOSEY PARKER, exploring a region not well-known to anyone outside its borders. McElwee was present at the screening I attended, and in a Q-and-A afterward, he emphasized how important it was for him to shoot this on film instead of video and show it on a big screen. Check it out if you're able to and you'll see why.



Still searching for the next LOST IN TRANSLATION... I've seen a lot of good, just OK, and just plain mediocre films this year, but only BEFORE SUNSET, DOGVILLE, and THE RETURN were exceptional. Here's ten coming out over the next three months that I have high hopes for.

1. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. Can Wes Anderson top RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS? Have you seen the trailer?!

2. GOODBYE DRAGON INN. Tsai Ming-Liang's sixth feature, first shown at Toronto last year, finally makes the rounds. Every film of his has been an advancement on the last, and this nearly dialogue-free, 82 minute meditation on a crumbling moviehouse could be his masterpiece.

3. SIDEWAYS. Exceptional buzz over fourth film from Alexander Payne, who helmed CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION and ABOUT SCHMIDT. It'll either be a breakthrough or a major disappointment.

4. UNDERTOW. Will the talented David Gordon Green (ALL THE REAL GIRLS, GEORGE WASHINGTON) finally find a sizeable audience with what looks like an early '70s-style New Hollywood thriller?

5. I HEART HUCKABEES. David O. Russell returns five years after THREE KINGS with what looks like either the most inventive or quirkiest offering of the season. Jason Schwartzman leads a massive ensemble that includes Naomi Watts AND Lily Tomlin AND Isabelle Huppert!

6. TARNATION. Much hype about Jonathan Caouette stitching together home movies and other ephemera to construct an psychodrama or autobiography of sorts, all edited on a Mac for $218.

7. BAD EDUCATION. Pedro Almodovar intriguingly switches from melodrama to noir with Gael Garcia Bernal in and out of drag.

8. THE MACHINIST. Christian Bale does a De Niro a la RAGING BULL, only in reverse. Brad Anderson's latest sounds worlds away from NEXT STOP WONDERLAND, but like a logical extension from HAPPY ACCIDENTS and SESSION 9.

9. THE WOODSMAN. A year on, I'll admit Kevin Bacon was better than Tim Robbins in MYSTIC RIVER... he gave the less showy, more nuanced performance for sure. Can't wait to see him as a recovering pedophile.

10. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. I've already heard this trounces HERO because it has more of an emotional core to match its surface beauty. Sounds perfect to me.

Also looking forward to seeing VERA DRAKE ('50s abortion melodrama from Mike Leigh), KINSEY (biopic from the director of GODS AND MONSTERS), A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (Jean-Paul Jeunet and Audrey Tautou together again!), PRIMER (PI-like Sundance winner) and TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, because South Park's still funny, dammit.



After reading Gerald Peary's scathing review earlier this year in his Cannes 2004 report (likening it to the wretched LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL!), I feared the worst for this biopic about the young Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

It's not nearly as reprehensible as Roberto Benigni's feel-good/bad-taste abomination, but it's still not a great film. It has that faux-prestigious"Oscar-Approved" stamp all over it. The obvious parallels to Kerouac's ON THE ROAD highlight how much depth it lacks in comparison. And worst, it occasionally lapses into sentimental mush, especially in a particularly hokey climactic sequence that would be harder to swallow if it didn't come out of the memoir this screenplay is an adaptation of.

As director Walter Salles' CENTRAL STATION was partially redeemed by a grand lead performance from Fernanda Montenegro, for me, this film just squeaks by due to a good one from Gael Garcia Bernal as Guevara. As written, his character is a bit of a saintly cipher, but he manages to inject some life and soul into what he's given. His scenes with Rodrigo De La Serna, who plays sidekick/co-traveler Alberto Granado, are charming and well-done. And I admit their parting at the film's conclusion choked me up a little.

As a Latin American travelogue, this is pretty sublime, with two underdogs roaming from Argentina to the Andes, traveling for the sake of travel. As a social critique and an examination of the issues/conditions that influenced Guevara to become the revolutionary "Che", however, it's not as convincing. In all, the film plays like an inspirational, romanticized, glossy magazine-spread account of a life-changing road trip. Enjoyment of it will depend on how compelling or trite that prospect sounds to you.


YOUNG ADAM features Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton having lots of steamy, hot sex in the repressed 1950s. It's not a skeezy film, nor a really pleasurable one. At least no one pays too dearly for their sins; Ewan's just left with lots of guilt. Not really sure what the director was aiming for with this artfully told but generally boring tale. Anyway, the cinematography was almost as pretty to look at as McGregor.

BARBARELLA is freakishly a cinematic equivalent to The Gobbler. Instantly dated and incessantly trashy, it is a capsule of "the future" filtered through cheapo '68 lenses. Not a horrible film (nor, sadly, a so-bad-it's good film) but an incredibly ridiculous one. Fortunately, the mere presence of star Jane Fonda and her waspy, authoritative voice lends some creepy fascination to the whole enterprise (no, not that one.) It's like something her book-ish character from 9 TO 5 would've hidden away in the deepest, dankest recesses of her closet. No one could ever duplicate it, but it needs to be seen, if only once--perhaps, director/Fonda hubby Roger Vadim really was an alien with absolutely no good taste.

THE EMMY AWARDS were great this year. Highlights included big awards for ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (the best show on network TV), THE SOPRANOS (which I've never been a big fan of, but it was deserving), and ANGELS IN AMERICA, which, like Meryl Streep, is not overrated. Elaine Stritch gave exactly the wired, larger-than-life acceptance speech you'd expect, and the two "real people" unwittingly recruited to present the award for Best Reality TV Show (Yay, THE AMAZING RACE!) was a sweet idea. Garry Shandling? Eh. Awards for David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer again? At least voters didn't cave in and sentimentally award the late John Ritter for three piddly episodes of 8 SIMPLE RULES...



"Wedding Day" by Rosie Thomas, from the album When We Were Small

Strength and resolve at a time when I really need it. Click on the album title to link to the mp3. That pause in the final chorus stops my heart every time.



A schlock masterpiece. No matter what Stephen King thought of the liberties taken with his novel, Stanley Kubrick was the perfect director to adapt his work, perhaps second only to Brian de Palma. Despite all his arty, ponderous tendencies, Kubrick strove to entertain the pants off you, while King simply wanted to scare 'em right off. Call the registry, it was a match made in heaven.

10 Reasons Why THE SHINING is Transcendent, Genius Bad Art (Apart from "Here's Johnny!!!"):

1. Opening credits roll over portentous overhead shots of the Rocky Mountains, rendering man as puny and helpless against ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING.

2. As Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson is clearly krraazzzyy from the get-go, his eyes bulging, his grin gaggingly sinister, even in the early interview scenes!

3. Tony: Danny's "imaginary friend who lives inside his mouth". REDRUM!

4. A piercingly loud and melodramatic but effective orchestral/electronic score, with contributions from Bela Bartok and Wendy Carlos.

5. Jack fucks around with a dead woman in room 237.

6. Poor Shelley Duvall, so fabulous in any Altman film, is reduced to an irritating victim who nonetheless gets to work out just a little aggression (and a lot of screaming).

7. Scatman Crothers refers to the Torrances as "irresponsible assholes", hours before getting the ax.

8. Voluminous quantities of Cran-Grape juice gushing from an elevator.

9. That amazing climactic chase through the snowy labyrinth, echoing endless shots of Danny studiously driving his Hot Wheels through the Overlook's corridors.

10. "Darling. Light, of my life. I'm not gonna hurt ya. You didn't let me finish my sentence. I said, I'm not gonna hurt ya. I'm just gonna bash yer brains in."



Culled from a 1976 Parisian concert... Unsurprisingly admits she's "half-high" midway through... invites the audience to sing ever so softly along to an ineffably sorrowful rendition of the easy listening standard "Feelings"... insistently calls out for her good friend David Bowie in the audience (he's not there) and scolds someone to "sit down!"... partakes in climactic African dance number... bows before the audience by kneeling and raising her hands to heaven as if in prayer... shows off her 200-year-old necklace and likens herself to a queen, and no one dare argues... alternately playful, stubborn, talented, idiosyncratic, commanding, wavering, sexy, androgynous, defiant, pleading, lackadaisical, vulnerable, bewildering, mesmeric...


Jacque Tati's 1967 masterpiece is all concrete and glass, with something always transpiring in the foreground and the background. It's about Mr. Hulot, of course, and a gaggle of American tourists in Paris admiring how "everything here is just like home". It's about modernism and futurism and their adherents to architecture and a fascinating time capsule of how at once everything was breathtaking and ridiculous and clever and redundant. It's about updating silent-era slapstick only making it subtler than Chaplin and more cerebral than Keaton. It's about carefully constructing a world prone to chaos, and really taking advantage at what one can do with film and a widescreen lens. It's about playfully dissecting a society without obscuring his obvious affection for it.



I was lucky enough to see these guys in 1995, a year before their final concert. True, Dee Dee was long gone and the venue was less than ideal (an all-day outdoor festival hosted by a corporate modern rock radio station), but it was still awesome--they enthusiastically churned out 25 songs in 35 minutes, with barely a breath in between.

This is a must-see for Ramones fans and recommended to anyone who loves punk or even popular music (after all, the band essentially made classic pop dressed up in loud, fast, punk clothing). A definitive documentary about four guys who really did change the world without ever cracking the Top 40, this touches on every significant chapter in their history: those humble Queens roots... wowing/confusing audiences at CBGB's in the Bowery... their infamous recording sessions with Phil Spector... my only gripe is barely fifteen seconds on ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL--I wanted to know, did any Ramone ever hit on P.J. Soles (or Mary Woronov)?

Even better, this film amusingly, honestly documents all the rampant dysfunction between the bruthers--not a "happy family" by any means. Lead singer Joey was a hopeless romantic and an obsessive compulsive, guitarist Johnny a shrewd businessman and a thorny Republican, bassist Dee Dee a drug-addled screw-up but also a lovable underdog.

Like the best music documentaries, this one celebrates the band without sugar-coating them, and the performance footage suggests that for all their influence on other acts like The Sex Pistols, The Clash and endless copycats indulging in the punk lifestyle, they still sounded (and acted) like no one else. 1, 2, 3, 4! stars from me.


Brattle Film Notes

(They still haven't published 'em yet, so for now, they remain a Lymejello exculsive).

An amputated-below-the-waist, tiara-wearing beer baroness… an ex-alcoholic who can only play an upright piano when pushed over on its side as he kneels down before it… a contest structured not unlike a boxing match which ejects each round’s winners down a voluminous slide into a giant vat of rich, delicious lager… with all this inspired, surreal madness (and Winnipeg as its beloved epicenter), it has to be a Guy Maddin film.

Set in snowy, Great Depression-era depths, The Saddest Music in the World is both an affectionate tribute to and a revisionist take on period melodramas and musicals, not to mention a wry social satire of patriotic rivalries. Faced with sagging sales, that beer baroness, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) comes up with an ingenuous promotion: Since Winnipeg has just been voted the World Capital of Sorrow, why not cash in with a global competition to determine who can perform for her the weepiest tear-jerker on Earth, with a generous prize of $25,000? In addition to groups as disparate as Burmese funeral marchers and a Mexican Mariachi band, the contestants include slick-talking, failed Broadway producer Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), an ex-lover of Port-Huntley’s; Fyodor (David Fox), the ex-alcoholic mentioned above who is not only Chester’s father, but also the man chiefly responsible for Port-Huntley’s untimely, embarrassing loss of legs; and Roderick (Ross McMillan), Chester’s even more tortured older brother, a Serbian refugee torn apart by his wife’s abandonment of him and his young son’s death (he tenderly carries the latter’s heart with him in a mason jar).

Also playing a crucial part in this fable is Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Chester’s exotic, amnesiac muse. With plainspoken directness, she argues, “I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac!” A performing puppet to Chester’s Svengali, she’s only one of his cunning strategies to win the contest. However, his master plan veers wildly off course as Roderick claims Narcissa to be his long-lost wife and Fyodor crafts some most unusual replacement legs for Lady Port-Huntley. Tension between the brothers comes to a foamy head as the competition heats up to a nail-biting, literally fiery finale.

While made with a more lavish ($3.5 million) budget and (in Maddin’s words) “real movie stars”, the film snuggly fits into the Canadian experimentalist’s canon. Its dark-verging-on-grotesque droll undercurrents go all the way back to his first feature, Tales from Gimli Hospital (1988). Its mostly black-and-white, deliberately antiquated tableaux borrowed from that key cinematic era when silent film transitioned to sound is reminiscent of films like Archangel (1990). Isolated scenes (like a delirious, pancultural rendition of “California, Here We Come” at the film’s climax) were shot in the two-strip “Melancolour” of Careful (1992). And the editing rhythms are occasionally as frenzied as those in the densely-packed six minute short The Heart of the World (2000) and the opulent balletic dream that is Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002).

In the year preceding the film’s American release, The Village Voice published installments of Maddin’s production diary. Alongside a phantasmagorical account of “descending into Rossellini’s mouth” with his camera (where he claims to find some ballet slippers way in the back, presumably from White Nights?) and the usual neuroses that surface with any independent film production, Maddin writes, “I want to unlearn how to watch movies, I want to flip dyslexically the images of my film to jangle their readability for the viewers. I want to re-create the thrill I felt as a boy when I finally recognized three words in a row!”

Although Maddin works with a larger canvas than ever before, The Saddest Music in the World is by no means a bow to the mainstream. However, it’s arguably the first effort where his narrative proficiency finally matches his inimitable, imaginative style. As weird and otherworldly as films like Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) were, they occasionally felt a little too quirky and stilted for their own good. While still unapologetically silly, this film has a wallop of an emotional impact. You can see it in some of Maddin’s visual schemes: those brief, scattered moments when the film suddenly switches from black-and-white to color are as immediate as your first viewing of The Wizard of Oz for the transitions alone. While eccentric, though, his characters feel more developed and personable than ever before. Even as Rosselini plays out an iconic, Marlene Deitrich-worthy fantasy as Lady Port-Huntley, when she receives and tries out the new “legs” given to her by Fyodor, her delight and gratification over such a ridiculous but heartfelt gift is unexpectedly poignant--as appropriate and intoxicating as the liquid sloshing around inside those legs.



Spending lovely Labor Day weekend getting over a lingering cold, socializing with old friends, and summoning up the energy to write film notes on HAIRSPRAY for the Brattle (which I have to admit is my favorite John Waters film). I'll resume regular (and hopefully, more frequent) posts in another week.