Monthly Archives: November 2010

81: Tiny Furniture (2010)

Few movies have left me as confused as Tiny Furniture, a meandering portrait of pampered post-college ennui.  Not that there’s much to puzzle out about the story, such as it is: Aura (writer-director Lena Dunham) returns home to TriBeCa after four years at a liberal arts school in Ohio to sponge off her artist mom, reconnect with her drama-queen best friend, blunder her way through cringe-worthy romantic snafus, and generally figure her shit out.  What confounded me so much was the “why”s of the film: why this character?  Why does she do what she does?  Why is this chunk of time so vital to her formation of a self?  Why is her hair so ratty?


I suppose that’s a compliment, to say this movie raised more questions than it answered.  Its sparseness and intimacy certainly set it apart from the usual Oscar-season offerings, to say nothing of the big-budget holiday blockbusters.  But uniqueness of vision alone does not a good picture make, and the flaws in this particular film outweigh the stuff it got right, at least for me.  Much has been made of the semi-autobiographical content of the picture and of Dunham’s decision to cast herself as the protagonist and her real-life mother and sister in their corresponding roles in the film.  So I’ll confine myself to saying that I was OK with her mother and sister playing themselves but found Dunham herself painfully awkward to watch onscreen.  The larger problem I had with the film was its almost complete lack of conflict, tension, progress, or anything else that resembled a plot.  To be fair, I think “people talking about stuff” is a perfectly valid film genre, and some of my favorite movie moments involve characters talking about things that never come up again during the rest of the movie.  The reason it doesn’t work for me here is that the subject of all the dialogue is the film’s central non-event: the protagonist’s quarter-life crisis.  Instead of showing us Aura’s frustration and lassitude by having things happen to her, she does nothing and then picks fights with her family that revolve around everything she’s not doing.  She’s not “into” anything, as she confesses to her douchey sous-chef crush after getting high with him; and with the exception of this scene, she doesn’t seem to want to be into anything.  In fact, it’s never clear that she wants anything at all, except maybe to sleep with the sous-chef.  Again, the quarter-life crisis is just as valid for subject matter as anything else, but I think the film would’ve been better served with this concept as an underlying theme rather than as the “event” around which all the film’s non-action revolves.

OK, OK: there are some good bits.  The dialogue is pretty funny when it’s not overly cute or self-conscious; and Jemima Kirke, one of the only professional actors in the cast, is hilariously outrageous as Aura’s childhood friend.  I also liked the relaxed cinematography and the elegantly composed shots of Aura’s mother’s apartment (which, to be fair, is probably pretty elegantly composed to start with).  But as a whole, the film didn’t work for me as anything more than a journal entry written during a time of drastic upheaval in the life of its creator — she needs perspective.  Here’s hoping she finds it in time for her next installment.

80: Son of Rambow (2007)

One of the first Netflix reviews of Son of Rambow begins “OH MY.  WHAT A DELIGHT!”  Can’t argue with that!  Or you could, but why would you want to?

In all seriousness, this is one of the most hilarious and adorable movies I’ve ever seen.  Will is a shy nerdy kid whose family belongs to a strict religious sect that forbids him to watch TV or movies.  When Lee, the school delinquent, gets hold of Will’s notebook full of vibrant sketches and cartoons, he enlists Will’s help in making a movie inspired by Rambo: First Blood.  All sorts of boyish mischief ensue and everything’s going along swimmingly until a too-cool-for-school French exchange student, Didier, requests roles in the movie for him and his entourage.  They start to elbow Lee out of the production, which he understandably resents.  In the meantime, Will’s strict mother gets wind of her son’s heathen new hobby and threatens to send him away to live with her fuddy-duddy gentleman friend so he’ll be better supervised.  Will the young auteurs’ vision prevail?

I was probably unfairly biased to love the crap out of this movie, since one of my happiest childhood memories is of making amateur shoot-em-up movies with my brother.  But even if you didn’t have the same experience, it’s a difficult film not to love.  The child actors all give disarmingly natural performances, especially the kids who play Will and Lee.  It’s also a beautiful and interesting film to look at, with animations of Will’s drawings superimposed over the regular shots in order to show how he imagines the world.  Normally I don’t use verisimilitude as a standard for cinematic excellence (i.e. “I liked X movie because it was true to life”), but in this case I think Son of Rambow deserves a special shoutout for its portrayal of the manic vividness of the childhood imagination.  It’s a difficult thing to illustrate without making the kid seem delusional or schizophrenic, but they pull it off beautifully here — using the same sketches we saw earlier in Will’s book is a good move.

The movie’s light touch is what keeps it from veering into sappy or under-13-only territory.  The soundtrack is mostly pop songs from the early 80s rather than sweeping orchestration, and while it’s impossible not to love the wee protagonists to bits, we’re clearly never supposed to find them cool.  When everyone’s likable and everyone also gets made fun of, the audience always wins!

79: Helvetica (2007)

What a delightful little bit of esoterica!

There’s probably no one who knows less about graphic design or typography than I do, so those of you with experience in these fields might have a different response to this film than I did.  But I found Helvetica informative, accessible, and a great deal of fun.  The director, Gary Hustwit, interviews designers from all different schools of thought about their experience with the ubiquitous typeface, how it fits or doesn’t fit into their aesthetic, and what it “says” to the reader.  In between the interviews are little montages of all the places Helvetica crops up in various cities (New Yorkers will recognize lots of signage that directs their daily commutes).

One of the things I loved about all the interviews is the unbelievably evocative ways the designers found to talk about something visual — after all, what can you say about a typeface?  Quite a lot, as it turns out.  One protests that trying to describe Helvetica is like trying to describe eggshell white — it’s just always there.  The proponents of Helvetica as well as its antagonists both describe it as a blank slate that allows the reader to interpret it as he or she will — in one rather comical scene, one of the creators of “grunge” typography points at a series of words rendered in Helvetica that are tacked to a board and complains about their plainness.  I never knew the expressiveness (or lack thereof) of a typeface was such a divisive issue, but that seems to be the issue separating Helvetica’s adherents from fans of more inventive, hand-drawn typefaces.  I love that I learned something new, and I especially love that I never felt like I was being shepherded onto one side of the debate or the other.  The tone is always lighthearted and intellectually curious; and while it’s hard to imagine taking any other attitude toward a subject like this, it’s also unusual to find a documentary that doesn’t take a pretty clear stand for or against something.  More please!

78: Batman: The Movie (1966)

So I can’t in good conscience devote a proper review to this redonkulous bit of fluff.  Come on: it makes Beach Blanket Bingo look like Citizen Kane.

What I will do is strongly encourage you to watch it, either A) in a large group of like-minded individuals, or B) accompanied by the Film Sack commentary track (notice there was no option C for watching it alone).  You  should probably be drinking heavily as well.

In the words of Scott Johnson, “Oh my hell.”

Carlos (2010)

Hey!  Check out my review of Carlos on

Do eet!

77: Dracula (1931)

I don’t want to belabor this one too much since we’re so vampire-d out right now, but I had to at least put in a plug for everyone who thinks they know the story to give it a try, because it’s truly spectacular.

So this is the classic, the first authorized screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel.  Interestingly, even though it’s based on a stage play that was in turn adapted from the novel, the screenwriters and director studied F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu for inspiration in bringing the story to life, a good move in my opinion.  Director Tod Browning wanted his friend Lon Cheney to play the title role, but Cheney was in the later stages of terminal throat cancer and couldn’t do it.  Lugosi had to lobby hard and accept a ridiculous pay cut to get the role (he made something like $3,500 for seven weeks of work).  Side note: Jack Foley, who’s credited with inventing the process of adding sound effects to movies (people who do this today are called Foley artists) works his magic here.

I wanted to include as many stills as possible from Castle Dracula because the sets are absolutely mind-blowing, by far my favorite thing about the film.  I couldn’t find any trivia about where it was filmed, but I think they must be shooting in a real castle for at least part of the movie, like the shots I pictured above.  There’s a shot near the end that’s staged so majestically that literally made me gasp with delight.  Apparently the movie had to be scaled down during production due to budget cuts, so clearly they spent their money wisely (though Lugosi probably deserved more than the chicken feed they paid him).  It’s not as scary as the earlier Nosferatu, but they do a fine job creating a real sense of impending doom just on the strength of a decrepit castle set, Lugosi’s stage presence, and a fog machine.

76: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

This was another one of those horror classics I’d never been brave enough to watch before, though now that I’ve seen it, I’d classify it more as suspense than horror.  Which is not to say it didn’t creep me the heck out.

Y’all know the story by now, right?  Rosemary and her husband Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) move into a new building and get pregnant shortly thereafter.  They hear rumors of strange doings going down in the same building in years past, but they ignore them and become friends with the nosy old couple living next door.   Their meddling starts to freak Rosemary out and she begins to fear for little Baby Woodhouse’s safety, and the closer she gets to her due date, the more trapped and desperate she feels.  What’s a pregnant lady to do when Satan wants your baby?

So like I mentioned before, I think this is only a horror movie in the sense that evil supernatural forces are at work (classifying it as suspense would imply otherwise, I think).  There are no real “boo!” scares, and the money shot at the end never really happens unless you count the disembodied evil eyes — we have to rely on Mia Farrow’s reaction to her lil’ Satan Spawn for the scares (and to be fair, she does a fine job of projecting that kind of terror).  I’m a big fan of movies in which the protagonist gradually finds out that he or she can’t trust anyone — that device, done well, never fails to terrify me.  That’s part of the reason I think John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon (the next-door-neighbor) are both so well-cast.  The former has just a touch of the creepy, but he’s so likable as the struggling-actor husband that it comes as a surprising but inevitable development that he’s in on the Satan-baby plot too.  Ruth Gordon, on the other hand, is so believable in the crazy-auntie role that you find yourself resisting all the clues pointing you toward her as the real villain.  I did find the ending a bit anticlimactic — why bother cloaking their plot from Mia Farrow and driving her crazy with paranoia if it’s no big thang for her to finally bust into their coven?  But that’s a minor complaint, and in fact I found parts of that particular scene pretty funny.

Some interesting trivia, at least to me:

  • Dr. Hill is played by a very young Charles Grodin
  • the movie basically broke up Mia Farrow’s marriage to Frank Sinatra — when they got married, he’d demanded that she give up her acting career (which hadn’t even taken off yet), and he was so pissed at her for accepting another role that he served her divorce papers literally during filming
  • when Rosemary calls the actor for whom Guy has been an understudy, the voice on the other end (both during the filming and in the finished movie) is Tony Curtis.  Mia Farrow didn’t know who would be reading those lines but recognized his voice, so her confusion in that scene is totally genuine.
  • a remake was recently in the works starring Jessica Alba as Rosemary and with Michael Bay as one of the producers.  *So bummed* that didn’t happen!
  • (just kidding)