Category Archives: Anthologies

Anthologies — The Decameron

By Nathanael Griffis

A cover for the book. See, it's all medieval and stuff.

In my research through easily available anthology films I came across Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron, which is an adaption of nine shorts from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Quick literature lesson, students: The Decameron  is a 14th Century text with 100 thematically tied-together stories. There’s a frame story involving the black plague and a group of people fleeing to live in the country and tell stories to each other. As far as the book goes there’s a lot of interesting analysis to be done. It’s a great way to find out about 14th century Italian values, but we’re talking movies. Listen, what you need to know is it’s a bunch of medieval tales taking place in Italy.

It’s a natural book to adapt into an anthology film and, I am told, an important anthology film. Pier Paolo Pasolini is a name that had passed between my ears before, I’m sure. I knew he was Italian. I knew he made movies before my time. I knew that film people watched his films. I knew he liked nudity for some reason too. I knew all these things, so I was clearly prepared to watch The Decameron. Then I started reading up on it, and as the words “lewd,” “provocative,” and “shocking” came up, I became intrigued. It seems to have made quite a stir in its time.

What I was rewarded with was an accurate adaptation of The Decameron that is not nearly as interesting as the rumors about it are. Yes, there are a lot of full-frontal nudity shots, and perhaps this is Pasolini’s point, but they’re shot so naturally and become so ubiquitous that they become boring. It’s an interesting effect to be bored by a completely nude man or women, but when a nude woman is played up for laughs and I’m bored, it’s a failure on some level. There are nine stories, most being humorous and revolving around sex and poop jokes, which is an accurate adaptation of The Decameron. Turns out people have always had dirty minds.

I suppose I should give you a rundown of the nine segments, huh? That’s the critical thing to do, and of course that’s why you read a review of The Decameron. So here’s what I’ve got: a summary and moral for each segment follows.

Here's exactly what it looked like when ten people got together and talked in the 14th century.

#1 – A rich young  horse merchant, sporting an afro, by the way, gets robbed of his money by falling into a toilet and is then tricked into falling into a coffin, which is full of jewels.

-Moral: As long as you have a period-inappropriate hairdo, it doesn’t matter how much shit you get into, it’ll all be okay. (P.S. This segment’s not that bad–it’s probably the funniest.)

#2 – A handsome young gardener pretends to be a deaf-mute so he can carouse with a bunch of sex-deprived nuns.

-Moral: I’ve got 99 problems, but a nun ain’t one.

#3 – An adulterous wife hides her lover in a big jar, tricks husband into thinking she’s selling the lover the jar. Husband cleans jar, which is very big, and wife and lover get it on while he’s cleaning it.

-Moral: Jars are big and dirty, and brushing one’s teeth is a good thing.

#4 – The world’s most despicable man, who dies during an Italian drinking song, lies during his last rites and is giving a sainthood.

-Moral: You can murder, cheat, steal, lie, rape, and anything else, but if you so much as miss a note, well then… it doesn’t matter ’cause you can just lie some more.

#5 – Allievo di Giotto tries to find inspiration for a mural. Oh yeah, and there’s a couple of gay priests holding hands. (This segment is interspersed throughout the remaining four segments.) In the end, though, everyone’s happy, but Giotto prefers dreaming about his painting to its completion.

-Moral: Artists are lazy.

#6 – A boy sneaks onto the roof to make love with a girl. Parents see them and “trick” the boy into marrying beneath his stature.

-Moral: Don’t have sex or you might wind up with a pretty wife.

#7 – Three brothers protect their sister from the shame of intercourse with a servant by killing the servant. Sister then chops off dead lover’s head and puts it in a flower pot.

-Moral: Family is complicated.

#8 – Priest tells a man who has a beautiful wife that he can turn a woman into a horse. Man asks priest to show him. Priest shows man how to do this. You do this by playing a precursor to pin the tail on the donkey.

-Moral: ?

#9 – Two friends, one a sex fiend and the other a virtuous religious man, make a pact to come back from the afterlife, whichever of them dies first, of course, and tell the other what the afterlife is like. The sex fiend dies and tells the virtuous man they don’t care about sex. Virtuous guy runs in elation to the woman he’s been pining for, on the way punting a cat, to engage in relations.

-Moral: Sex is fun, but you’d better hope they don’t care about animal cruelty, too.

There, for all you undergrads writing papers and looking for a quick summary, you’re welcome. I understand if you skip the rest. Now, back to my honest review.

I don't know, really -- um, this guy on the horse was mad he wasn't invited, I suppose, so he loosed a naked woman on the party, then charged in and killed them all?

I knew the acting was going to be crappy, so that wasn’t a detractor. It’s just the jokes fell flat for the most part, and because each story leads up to a punchline, or a supposed dramatic climax, flat jokes ruin too many of the segments. It could also be a sign of a different time. We just have different tastes today. We like our jokes rapid fire, but Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks had that style for years, so what’s the deal, Pasolini? His film relies on slow scenery shots to build some semblance of symbolism that isn’t obvious to me at least. They also were probably funnier in the 14th century, because a man pretending to be perfect on his death bed and earning sainthood probably slayed at The Globe, but falls flat on Netflix.

Pasolini was clearly trying to push boundaries with how much male and female nudity he could show, but that in and of itself isn’t a film. It’s also not porn. I want to be clear, what he’s doing is artful in some ways, that’s not the issue. The issue for me is, it’s boring. We can see the lecherous priest seducing the farmer’s wife a mile away and the punchline falls flat, because there’s a long awkward strip scene that Pasolini seems more concerned with.  He himself seems to be conflicted with the end product as he quotes the painter Allievo di Giotto (whom Pasolini also plays), “Why create a work of art, when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Kind of a challenging question, right? One that could keep you up at night if you think about it. It also challenges the entire film, because it falls short of any ideal it’s trying to achieve.

The work of art placed before us is not nearly as good as an idea. It would be an amazing thing to make an accurate depiction of The Decameron, to really challenge convention, to show male and female nudity in such a way that they became a natural thing–yeah, that would be amazing. I guess the genius of it is that he acknowledges this in his final statement, but just because you know you burnt the food doesn’t mean I have to eat it.

I was going to watch the other two anthology films Pasolini made in his pretentiously titled Trilogy of Life, but The Decameron simply wasn’t good enough to warrant it. So, how about an anthology film were each short is based on an aria?Alright, yeah, that sounds… bizarre. Next up, Aria.

Anthologies — New York, I Love You

By Nathanael Griffis

I suppose you could call it a sequel, which perhaps could excuse or explain some of the problems, but New York, I Love You is in a lot of ways an entirely different film from Paris, Je T’aime. Sure, they’re both comprised of love stories all taking place in a single city. The major difference though is that Paris, Je T’aime is good.

I may have been a little harsh in that sentence, but I had such an amazing time watching Paris, Je T’aime that there was no chance New York, I Love You could have lived up to it. Still, that’s no excuse to be bad a movie. It has its moments, but they’re sporadic at best. It ends strong, which was a pleasant surprise considering the awful opening. Any film that relies on Hayden Christensen, though, is immediately in danger of… well… sucking, is the only appropriate term I can think of.

Before I break down the various segments, let’s get the complaining out of the way.  The film has a different, almost montage structure, which could have been interesting, an added challenge, but instead feels contrived. There are little transition segments throughout the film that jump out and merely seem to take up space and give you cliché pictures of New York. The opener is the worst. Bradley Cooper and Justin Bartha get into a cab and argue about the best way to get somewhere while avoiding traffic. Eventually, the cabbie joins in and we have an annoying picture of what the world thinks of New Yorkers. This is not the case; they are not all argumentative people who are selfish, brusque, and yet charming for being such. Some are, but not everyone. To be honest, a lot of this movie feels like the idea of what people think New York is instead of an actual fresh look at the City.

The transition segments, which are normally barely over a minute, also cause confusion more than anything else. It’s harder to tell when one story ends and another begins. They detract from the power of the previous segments by creating new implications as we see past characters interacting in new and different ways. This could have been used to add complexity, but no, it’s used to show us Hayden Christensen playing basketball to impress a girl.

They also don’t take full advantage of New York as a setting. There is no clear sense, like in Paris, Je T’aime, that each of these segments is in a different place. Every now and then there is a shot of a street sign, but that’s not enough. Natalie Portman and Joshua Marston’s segments are the only exception as they give us excellent, complex looks at Coney Island and Central Park. Still, where’s Chelsea, East Harlem, Washington Heights, Grant City, Van Nest, Roxbury, SoHo, Hollis, Gravesend?–and that list hasn’t even scratched the surface. Heck, they could have done Long Island, which keeps insisting on being included in NYC until they start feeling elite again.

Please kick his ass, Andy Garcia, please.

My point is that for the most part, with a few exceptions, this film failed to grasp the point. They didn’t utilize their setting and give us love stories that matter within said setting. In fact a lot of times the love stories are weak and cliché. The dialogue is not as good. It can’t manage to create rounded-out characters. This wouldn’t be a problem if the directors wanted to make segments with less talking, but most segments, even the good ones, rely heavily on dialogue. It was like a Quentin Tarantino movie written by Skip Woods (he wrote X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The first few segments are weak and taint the rest of the film. The first segment with Hayden Christensen as a pickpocket who gets shown up by Andy Garcia is especially clunky. Brett Ratner’s prom segment could have been good if he hadn’t been more concerned with a surprise ending and forcing a voice over, and also if he hadn’t directed. There’s also a definite preoccupation with sex, which I believe people may think makes it edgier or more realistic, but just reduces the most complex of emotions into a single physical action. One or two segments about sex, sure, that could be an interesting chance to explore some dynamics; four or five and you’re lacking depth and originality.

There are good moments, though. Ethan Hawke is great anytime he’s on screen, and he single-handedly makes his segment worthwhile. Skekhar Kapur’s segment, which was written by Anthony Minghella and stars Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf, and John Hurt, saved the entire movie. It pushed the film back up to the level of quality it needed to be at. The segment Natalie Portman directed of a father walking her daughter through a park is a sweet look at love within a family. The final segment with Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachmen as a bickering old couple makes it all worth it, though. They are two amazing actors proving they are still on their game. It’s heartbreaking, hilarious, and ultimately sweet despite the slight clichés it evokes. The Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci one wasn’t bad, but his whiny persona got annoying by the end.

Best scene in the whole film.

There are also two interesting bonus segments on the DVD that weren’t including in the film. One was directed by Scarlett Johanssen and stars Kevin Bacon as a film noir-esque character who travels to Coney Island for a hot dog. It’s technically very good and a pretty cool little short film, and that is all. The second film by Andrei Zvyagintsev is good as well. The story is simple: A young man films two people breaking up and builds and emotional connection to them without ever meeting them. At first it surprised me that these weren’t included, because they’re better than most of the others in the film, but after thinking about it, they just didn’t fit the aesthetic. They would have fit in Paris, Je T’aime, because it was more free-form. New York, I Love You has a stronger montage feel. Everything has to connect and flow together, which may be the restriction which tears the entire thing apart.

If Paris, Je T’aime is the reason to watch anthology films, New York, I Love You is the reason to avoid them. There is just too much you have to bear watching to get to the three good seven-minute segments. The amazing city of New York is better than this. It deserves so much more. It is a diverse, rich, and complex place that is like no other, and when you reduce it to bars, proms, and one-night-stands, it’s a little insulting. There is so much more this film could have done with its setting and theme, and it should have been easy with New York as inspiration, but apparently not.

Anthologies — Paris, Je T’aime

By Nathanael Griffis

Without ranting too much I need to explain where I’m coming from. I don’t like romantic comedies because I think they take the most complex and powerful of all emotions, love, and cheapen it. (Go ahead and enjoy them though, because I admittedly like action films, which cheapen the complex issue of violence.) I adore successful romances or good romantic comedies like (500) Days of Summer, Lars and the Real Girl, and Amélie, because these movies treat love and romance with the respect they deserve and still entertain. Now that you know that, it can inform what I’m about to say. I loved Paris, Je T’aime.

It really is an astounding feat what this film accomplished. The attempt in and of itself would have been impressive. Twenty directors each make a five minute short film, and those are all combined into one film–it’s fascinating. What is amazing, though, is that these short little five minutes carry more heft and speak to a range of complex emotions that come with love better than most movies I’ve seen.

Emmanuel Benbihy came up with the concept of getting several directors to film love stories in a specific part of Paris. If that weren’t enough, he placed restrictions on them. They only had two days to film, and the film could only be five minutes long. What’s genius about this concept is that it creates boundaries without being constricting. They weren’t told how to tell their story or what to talk about.  A setting as wonderful as Paris is easily inspiring. Love is a broad and powerful emotion. The quick filming schedule kept the stories simple, which meant the writing and the filmmaking had to utilize each frame. No shot feels wasted; everything tells you something about characters.

Willem Dafoe as the cowboy harbinger of death was pretty awesome too.

It worked out astoundingly well–better than any way that I could have hoped for, as one moment I’d be crying as Juliette Binoche holds the apparition of her dead child and the next moment I’d be laughing at Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant or smiling at the sweet reunion of Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer’s struggling lovers. This film really is lovely, charming, and full of twists and turns. Gus Van Sant’s “Le Marqis” segment and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Parc Monceau” have some wonderful surprises that add to the story and aren’t merely gimmicks. It’s just a pleasure to sit through. I was taking notes the entire time since it was so dense, but wanted to throw my notebook away the entire time and just enjoy what was on screen.

If anything this movie reconfirms the genius of several directors and makes me marvel at others. Wes Craven really shined here for me. His segment “Pere-Lachaise” where two very different people are reunited by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, is charmingly sweet and at the same time honest. It also manages to establish characters exceedingly fast and impress with the complex story it can tell in only five minutes. It made me wish Craven would make more than horror.  The Coen brothers’  “Tuileries” gives you that sense of being a tourist and a voyeur at the same time. It also provides their trademark humor, and Steve Buscemi on a bench. Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’ “Loin du 16e” reconfirms that they can combine a human story and still make social commentary without preaching, because there is a genuine concern for the characters they create. It also just makes me excited for On the Road.

I don’t really have the time (you might, but I’ve got better things to do, like eat cake) to go through each small bit, but they are all amazing. From the sweet relatable honesty with a slight fairy tale quality of the opening “Montmartre” to the bizarre send off to silent gothic vampire films of Vincenzo Natali’s “Quartier de la Madeleine.” From start to finish it’s a fantastic achievement. There’s even a mime segment that doesn’t make me want to shoot myself, or a mime, which is very impressive. The only other anthology film I have seen that succeeds this well is Short Cuts, which hopefully I’ll write about. There’s just too many names and too much to talk about. I could literally do a twenty part series on each short, but then my year of blogging would disappear; still, it’s tempting. If you’ve been curious about what a good anthology film is, this is it.

And for sex appeal--Steve Buscemi!

Anthologies — The Ten

By Nathanael Griffis

David Wain is an interesting writer and director and an acquired taste in some ways. If you’ve seen his shows Stella or The State you’ll understand; even Wet Hot American Summer is somewhat bizarre. He gets really good actors, though, and has a knack for taking the strange and making it stranger. The Ten is no exception: it’s ten shorts with a loosely connected premise revolving around the ten commandments. Narrating it all is an 11th short with Paul Rudd as the narrator deciding between Famke Jenssen or Jessica Alba.

I’d heard a lot of bad things about this anthology film: “not funny,” “offensive,” “a big waste of time,” so naturally I decided, yeah, let’s watch that. What I walked away with is supremely more disappointing. The movie is hit and miss, so I can’t bash it because it’s not bad enough to be torn apart. It’s also not great enough to recommend. The ten sketches have little bright moments that made me laugh, and it was interesting how they were all held together and how characters continued on through the sketches. Overall the concepts were strange, which is to be expected. David Wain does some real absurdist stuff. The first short, for example, is about a man (played by Adam Brody) who jumps out of the sky without his parachute and ends up being stuck in the ground. He has to stay there and becomes a celebrity, getting his own TV show, T-shirts, that sort thing.

The problem is the concept is so strange and funny in a lot of ways, but everything around it doesn’t hold up to the brilliant concept. With only one exception the fifth segment with Jo Lo Truglia and Liev Schreiber as competing neighbors who can’t stop buying catscan machines is perfect. The easiest way to discuss this film is to give you a rundown of the 10 shorts and the 11th which breaks them up, so if you do decide to watch this film you can skip what is dumb.

1 No other gods: Adam Brody gets stuck in the ground and Winona Ryder his fiancé struggles with living in an empty field as Brody’s celebrity rises to idolatrous levels. This wasn’t terrible. There are some funny bits and a few good lines, plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Jon Hamm cameo, but only worth it to explain a later and better sketch.

2 Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain: Gretchen Mol travels to Mexico and meets up with Jesus (Justin Theroux), the real Jesus Christ who’s just bumming around Mexico carving prosthetic legs instead of starting up the apocalypse. They make love a lot and Gretchen’s librarian character calls out his name during sex, breaking the rule you see. There’s a strange Spanish narration in this segment that cuts in on the sound a lot and is distracting and not funny enough to matter. The subject matter could clearly offend, but even worse it lags and relies too heavily on sex jokes.

3 Murder: Ken Marino’s Dr. Glenn Richie makes a goof and kills a patient, so he’s thrown in jail. This segment is really a big waste of time. It’s not funny in the least.

4 Honor your mother and father: Kerri Kenney-Silver has to tell her two black sons who their real father is, but she gets Arsenio Hall confused with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then hires Oliver Platt to do Schwarzenegger impressions so the boys can have a semblance of a father-son relationship. This one is strange, but pretty good. It has a few moments, but doesn’t really tie in with the rest of the film like the others do and that might be a strength.

Liev Schrieber and Jo Lo Truglia deserve a lot of credit.

5 Don’t covet goods: Liev Schrieber and Jo Lo Truglia get into a competition over who can own the most catscan machines and then accidentally cause the death of 75 children with radiation poisoning. This short is amazing. I laughed a lot and it was great from start to finish. Just skip ahead to this one and watch only it and you’ll be happy.

6 Don’t covet wife: Return to Dr. Glenn Richie in jail, but instead of coveting a wife, it’s about coveting a prison bitch. This one is grossly bizarre, and we get the concept a minute which makes it drag after that. The Shakespeare monologue over a rape scene at the end is unsettling too. Avoid this one.

7 Stealing: Winona Ryder’s character who’s now engaged to Mather Zickel’s news anchor from the first segment falls in love with a ventriloquist dummy. This one’s pretty good, mostly because of the acting and the strange concept. You don’t really need to watch the earlier segments though to get the jokes, because the jokes are mostly spoofs of bad lifetime movies.

8 Bear false witness: An animated segment that is a retake on the boy who cried wolf, except about a lying rhino. Naturally, H. Jon Benjamin is involved, because it’s an adult cartoon. This one is disturbing with a lot of blood and orgies and such. Skip it.

9 Adultery: Paul Rudd’s narrator is the focus of this story when he dumps Dianne Wiest (who does not appear on sceen but is just name dropped) for his former wife Famke Jenssen. This is really short and kinda feels like a rush to finish up the movie. No reason to watch it really.

That's the luckiest ventriloquist doll I've ever seen.

10 Sabbath: A bunch of men avoid church, hangout naked, and listen to Roberta Flack. This is a pretty funny concept that devolves into the final musical number and a bunch of orchestrated nudity.

Oh right, the 11th segment with Paul Rudd. It’s got a few good one liners and some strange bits. It’s the best I’ve seen of Jessica Alba; no wait, not really, I’m lying. It’s not that good and just feels like more failed jokes. This film is an attempt at pushing absurdist sketch comedy onto the big screen, but David Wain isn’t Monty Python. Even when their jokes failed they still succeeded. Here most of the jokes fall flat, and since the movie is trying to do little more than make you laugh, because it never really addresses the whole Ten Commandment things, it fails. Not miserably enough for me to hate it, which kinda makes me hate it all the more, actually.

Next I’m going to transition to anthologies that have to do with just a place, and I’m looking forward to Paris Je T’aime.