Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Trim Bin #12 - The Discovery

Yesterday I woke with a strange urge to drive to Video Stop in Bennington. It's one of those mom-and-pop places that has been open for a few decades, and they've surmounted a pretty impressive selection in that time. My intention was to rent the three Jaws sequels for a marathon (expect reviews soon). While the store clerk was looking for their copy of Jaws 3-D, I glanced at the "Used - For Sale" rack. And there it was, just sitting there.

The Peanut Butter Solution. Four dollars.

So here's the deal: this Wednesday at 8PM, we will be screening this mid-80's nightmare at our apartment for all interested parties. Feel free to pass word around - I'd love to have a crowded living room for this. All are welcome (please bring food, we'll be serving something or other as well). Leave me a comment here to RSVP - hope to see you there.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Top 10: Trailers

Movie trailers are a tricky business, an attempt to summarize the story and mood of a film in two minutes or so without giving too much away. Too often, trailers are edited to mislead an audience, fooling people into seeing films that weren't made for them. The trailers listed here give you a tantalizing glimpse of the world of the film without spoiling the fun.

1. The Shining - One sustained shot, with some scrolling credits and text, of the Overlook Hotel's iconic elevator. Simple, elusive, and haunting.
2. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III - The trend of "prank" trailers that blindside an audience reaches its high point with this Arthurian teaser.
3. Kill Bill - Back when Tarantino's revenge opus was a single film, this teaser, set to "Battle Without Honor or Humanity," let us know what a kinetic, crazy ride we were in for.
4. Magnolia - Another trailer defined by its momentum, introducing us to the film's numerous characters and engaging us with brief, visually stunning moments (including a glimpse of the infamous frogs).
5. The Exorcist - This montage of demonic faces, set to Penderecki, is as spooky as any scene in the film.
6. Eyes Wide Shut - Another sustained shot from Kubrick, this one the famous "Baby Did A Bad Thing" scene, filled with equal parts eroticism, despair, and ambiguity.
7. Alien - A brief journey through space, ending at a barren-looking planet, where we see the egg featured on the poster. The juxtaposition of images and sounds has a wonderfully sparse, creepy effect.
8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Set to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky," this trailer manages to set up the basic memory-erasing premise quickly before turning loopy and intriguing.
9. The Phantom Menace - Remember how exciting this was? Yeah, the film was varying degrees of disappointment for most of us, largely because of what this trailer stirred in our inner children.
10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Another trailer that is better than the film, which was fun but not as purely, dangerously trippy as is promised here.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

You don't know what death is!

"It's a little sad to witness a fall from greatness, and that's what we get with Halloween II." - Roger Ebert

In many ways, Ebert is right; Halloween II is a failure on many levels. The new characters are interchangable, and there are quite a few scenes that exist only to pad the film to ninety minutes. And yet on a purely visceral level, Halloween II is almost as effective as its predecessor.

The screenplay for Halloween II, which has Michael Myers stalking the halls of Haddonfield Hospital, was written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Carpenter has said more than once that he had no interest in directing a Halloween sequel, and that the screenplay was a rush-job (if I remember correctly, he did admit to stealing the central plot twist from The Empire Strikes Back). Yet the artlessness of Halloween II is partly why it works. In Halloween, as in all of John Carpenter's best movies, you find yourself comfortably resting in an auteur's good hands - while you may be frightened, you can rest assured that someone is in control. With Halloween II, nobody is in control; Carpenter's script is uncharacteristically mean-spirited and cynical, and director Rick Rosenthal is more interested in quick, brutal scares than sustained tension. Halloween took place in a warm suburban universe invaded by a purely evil presence; the Haddonfield we see in Halloween II is cold and vaguely depressing. The absence of an auteur results in cinema without meaning; it may not be the most elegant approach, but it does manage (albeit indirectly) to mirror the irrational malevolence of Michael Myers. In other words, it's dumb and empty, but that's paradoxically a good thing.

The film begins right where the last one ended, Halloween night, 1978, with Myers (played in this installment by Dick Warlock) still on the loose. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been taken to the hospital, and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is still trying to find his missing patient. The first reel is captivating because of its aimlessness - we follow Myers' POV as he wanders from house to house, collecting a knife and then dispatching a character we'd only just met. Warlock is one of the best Shapes to grace the series - Nick Castle's version in the original was chillingly dispassionate, but Warlock has a crueler edge (highlighted in the moments that we see Myers' eyes). The film eventually makes its way to the hospital for most of its runtime, introducing us to mostly forgettable characters, save for the totally unlikable ambulance driver Bud (Leo Rossi). Bud is sexist, irresponsible, and gross. So of course, he has a sex scene. I didn't say Halloween II was perfect.

So most of Halloween II alternates between effective scare scenes and disposable filler. But I can't emphasize enough how memorable its best moments are. The visual strategy of placing Myers in unexpected corners of the frame is repeated here, sometimes to better effect (see the early scene in the Elrods' home). And the over-the-top violence has the flavor of 1970's gialli (notably a hot-tub scene that pays homage to Deep Red). The film also benefits greatly from the presence of Donald Pleasance, one of the most underrated actors of all time. Even in the worst Halloween sequels, he never approaches the material with anything less than total conviction and commitment. The "Samhain" business here is pretty goofy, but Pleasance's delivery elevates it, finding spooky undertones in the mumbo-jumbo exposition.

Finally, the last twenty minutes, which place Curtis back in the center of the action (she's waylaid in a hospital bed for the first hour), are near-perfect. I'm increasingly certain that Tarantino had Halloween II in mind during the hospital scenes in Kill Bill vol. 1 - Beatrix Kiddo crawling along a hospital floor is identical to Laurie Strode here. The extended chase is a bit crude, but it's genuinely compelling; having seen this film dozens of time, it still makes me quite tense about the outcome. A lot of credit must go to cinematographer Dean Cundey, returning from the first film. The look of Halloween II, which ranges from sickly yellow and white light to rich shadows to bright red in the final scences, has the banal yet surreal feel of a nightmare. And while Halloween II is certainly a mixed bag, its best moments touch that nightmare.

A fun game to play during the film: John Carpenter shot some additional scenes to take the film to eleven after principal photography was completed. Try and guess which scenes are his. Of course, I want to credit him for the best bits, but then, you never know. Maybe he's just responsible for Bud.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Play the game (1/25/06)

Now run by a certain Ms. Sargent.

P.S.: Note the slightly off-putting graphic in the corner. If anyone knows of a freeware BMP-JPG converter that won't carry such a tacky ad, please let me know.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Top 10: 2005

The true test of a film is how it stands up over time - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would certainly jump up a slot or two on my 2004 list at this point. But year-end lists are interesting to me because they stand as a record of where I was at a particular place and time. It was hard whittling down this list (I was certain that The Devil's Rejects would end up on here), but then, difficulty is kind of the point. Along with the titles are the moments when I realized that each film was a great one.

1. Munich - Avner (Eric Bana) breaks down and weeps during a phone call with his infant daughter. More than being a typical tearjerker moment, the scene brings the moral and emotional turmoil of Avner's mission into sharp focus.
2. A History of Violence - From the very first shot, which echoes the opening of Blue Velvet in its cryptic suggestion of darkness hidden beneath a banal surface, A History of Violence is a sustained, tense journey from which Cronenberg never falters.
3. Grizzly Man - Werner Herzog covers his face in horror while listening to the audiotape of self-proclaimed bear expert Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amy Hugenard's last moments. All the gallows humor of the first hour is quickly replaced by Herzog's terrified peek into the abyss.
4. The New World - The sight of Pocohontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) swaying in the wind, repeating the word over and over, is perhaps the most lovely, heartbreaking moment in cinema from 2005. All of Malick's reasons for retelling this familiar story can be found in that moment.
5. King Kong - I wish I could give a highbrow answer for this one, but really, it was the dinosaur fight. Just the pure glee of witnessing a filmmaker make the movie of his dreams - it really shines in the bloody spectacle of Kong curbing a T-Rex.
6. The Squid and the Whale - In the last moments, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) confronts the titular scene that has frightened him since childhood, and in a subtle, slight moment, we see a boy on his way to becoming a man. It's a sweet, funny moment that is characteristic of the entire film.
7. Brokeback Mountain - Many, many great moments. This one deserves the hype. The moment that sealed it for me is the the confused, wounded look on the face of Alma (Michelle Williams) when she accidentally discovers the truth about her husband Ennis (Heath Ledger). More than being a "gay" movie, it's a film about people afraid to speak aloud what they feel; Ang Lee is an expert at such films, and Williams deserves all the credit in the world for perfectly conveying the pain of unrequited love.
8. Last Days - Blake (Michael Pitt) finally performs a song, "Death to Birth." We have watched Blake wander, alone, for over an hour, barely conscious. Suddenly we are reminded that this depressed, strung-out person is also an artist, and the tragedy of Van Sant's version of Kurt Colbain sinks in deep.
9. Broken Flowers - Bill Murray can do more in a gesture than many actors can do with a three-page monologue. As he sits alone on his couch, barely moving, looking at a glass of wine but not drinking it, he speaks volumes about Don Johnston's emotional inertia without saying a word.
10. Sin City - When Marv (Mickey Rourke) finds out that his beloved Goldie was a prostitute, we see Rourke's face register a range of bittersweet emotions. The miracle of Sin City is that it is at first so defiantly one-dimensional, only to transcend its pulpy origins to uncover the emotional truth beneath the surface. It's the kind of moment that, as with all the moments on this list, could only happen at the movies.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

I aim to misbehave.

I wanted to like Serenity, Joss Whedon's feature-film adaptation/follow-up to his short-lived cult tv series Firefly. After all, it's fun to be part of such a subculture - under the best of circumstances, shared interest in a work of popular art can create a rich significance that transcends the work itself. The very existence of Serenity, which came about after diehard Browncoats voted with their wallets, buying DVD sets at Best Buy, is an encouraging triumph of the geeks. I wish I could be more excited; how unfortunate it is, then, that Serenity is actually pretty terrible.

The film follows Mal (Nathan Fillion), the captain of Serenity, and his crew as they attempt to protect the telepathic River Tam (Summer Glau) from an operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of the Alliance, the totalitarian government that rules over a host of planets colonized by refugees from earth (think Earth 2 without Grendlers). The Alliance wants River because she knows secrets (too convoluted to spoil here), and Mal is determined to solve said secrets. Fillion stands out from the rest of the cast; while his character is a blatant Han Solo knockoff, he approaches the role with humor and conviction. The rest of the crew are like a spaceship full of your average MCLA students - horny, sarcastic and middlebrow - and are basically interchangable.

The biggest problem with Serenity occurs at the most fundamental level - writing. I know a lot of people find the jumble of old west-speak, Chinese culture, and vague mysticism clever, but I found it grating and contrived. The culture clash doesn't emerge organically from the story, the way it does in Blade Runner, for instance (another world where eastern and western culture collide). As for the space western thing - it's been done a thousand times, everywhere from Buck Rodgers to The Last Starfighter. The only difference here is that the comparison is made more overt through the dialogue (and the goddamn fiddles). The effect is smug. It distances us from the characters, and most of the actors seem uncomfortable wrestling with the dialogue. Eventually a few characters are killed off, because it made people cry in Star Trek II. But here, it doesn't matter, because after two hours, I felt no closer to the crew of the Serenity than I did in the opening moments (or in the handful of Firefly episodes I'd seen before).

Whedon also has simply horrible visual instincts. I'd estimate that more than half of Serenity is close-ups - a technique that is used out of necessity on tv (wide shots are harder to decipher on a thirteen-inch screen) but makes no aesthetic sense in a scope movie. The frame feels crowded when it should feel expansive, and the effect is claustrophobic. It's also possible that Whedon was trying to hide the shoddy special effects - during the rare wide shots of space battles I found myself thinking "EXT - GIANT COFFEE POT - NIGHT." I realize that Serenity was made on a relatively small budget, but much smaller movies like The American Astronaut have gotten around this problem imaginatively. And while Serenity may be filled with "clever" moments, it suffers from a dearth of imagination.

I'd love to hear from fans - why does Serenity mean so much to you? Is it the smart-assery? The vaguely subversive tone (the government is the bad guy - ooh!)? It can't possibly be the design, can it? The film received few bad reviews even from typically tough critics like Walter Chaw, so if there's some aspect of it that flew over my head, I'd love to hear about it. I will suggest this, though - the weekend you were all dragging friends to Serenity in the hopes of making it the new Star Trek, a film called A History of Violence went into wide release. Cronenberg's film is massively entertaining, thought-provoking, and emotionally wrenching - in short, everything Serenity aims for and misses. In short, you backed the wrong pony.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Trim Bin #11

- Tonight is the Golden Globes telecast, the unofficial start of the televised awards season. I remember watching the Academy Awards as a child and being told by my mother that someday, I'd make it to Hollywood, be famous, and win awards. Mom meant well, but the whole concept of movie awards now seems so essentially corrupt and antithetical to real artistry that if I ever won anything, I'd question whether it was a sign of creative failure.

But will I watch the Oscars? Yeah, of course. Beats the Grammies.

- Check out this article about Eric Red, writer of The Hitcher and Near Dark, director of Body Parts, and possible murderer. Spooky.

- It's nice to know that I'm not the only one who has a bone to pick with Crash. From an interview with David Cronenberg (who directed his own Crash ten years ago):

"I have now met Paul Haggis and he knows exactly how I feel. I thought it was a really stupid thing to do because when we both end up in the DVD racks together, it's going to be very confusing."

That's right, Haggis: watch your back or you're gonna get scanned.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Top 10: 1995

1. 12 Monkeys (Gilliam)
2. Seven (Fincher)
3. Safe (Haynes)
4. The Usual Suspects (Singer)
5. The City of Lost Children (Jeunet)
6. Casino (Scorsese)
7. Crumb (Zwigoff)
8. Dead Man Walking (Robbins)
9. To Die For (Van Sant)
10. Braveheart (Gibson)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

There's no peace at the end of this.

The first thing you need to know about Munich is that no, it does not have a Spielbergian ending. While Spielberg's tendencies towards reassuring resolutions have never troubled me as much as they do most film fans I know, the ending of Munich is anything but comforting - by the time its 2 1/2-plus hours are over, we have more questions than when the film began. Working closely with screenwriter Tony Kushner on this film, Spielberg has eschewed any of his usual filmmaking crutches, and the result is exhilarating. There are plenty of valid reasons to dislike Munich, but anyone who declares the ending a cop-out simply shouldn't be talking about movies.

With any auteur (and Spielberg is inarguably an auteur), a body of work can be divided into progression, regression, and rebellion. Rebellion is evident in some of Spielberg's best and worst films - the undefined anarchy of 1941, the slight comedy of The Terminal, the majority of War of the Worlds and Minority Report - pointing towards a desire to step outside of critical expectations, to explore areas that, if not personal, are still of interest. Regression results in films like Hook, both Jurassic Parks, and the finales of War of the Worlds and Minority Report that conform, with varying degrees of success, to Spielberg's comfort zone.

And then there is progression - those films notable not only for their quality, but because they demonstrate a filmmaker expanding his vision to new, sometimes ill-fitting, but nevertheless unique places. For Spielberg, these films include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I. And now comes Munich, the most dramatic leap forward for Spielberg yet in both maturity of storytelling and subtletly of craft. This leap is evident from the first scenes, which document the 1972 Olympics hostage crisis from the POV of the outside world - a crisis documented largely by news anchors in a pattern that reflects the growing importance of television as a record of our history. Spielberg, a child of television, cuts masterfully between Black September's invasion of the Olympics compound and the surrounding ripple effect. The famous shot of a terrorist on a balcony is seen on a tv in the foreground while we see it reenacted simultaneously from a different angle - the effect is nothing short of revelatory, a masterpiece of representation, and Spielberg never falters in this sort of stunning, almost clinical detail for the rest of the film.

Eventually, we meet Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard to Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who is recruited by Mossad to lead a revenge squad (one of many, as we will later learn). "Forget peace for now," Meir declares, and while Munich is in many ways a meditiation on the futility of retribution, Kushner and Spielberg still clearly find Meir's action to be righteous. This isn't a movie about who is right, but rather about what is right; it is angry at the very concept of vengeance. Avner's team includes Steve (Daniel Craig), an assassin who is unapologetically proud of their mission; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the cleaner; Robert (Mathieu Kassiovitz), a toymaker who now finds himself making bombs (echoes of Spielberg?); and Hans (Hanns Zischler), a document forger who is in many ways the most elusive member. At the heart of Munich is the effect the mission has on these men, a theme hinted at in Saving Private Ryan but explored more throughly here. Patriotism and honor give way to cold-bloodedness, then paranoia and doubt. It's been much-remarked that Spielberg is dabbling in 70's-esque cinema here; in a period equally marked with self-doubt and uncertainty regarding the machinations of government powers, this return to a post-Watergate aesthetic has been visible everywhere, and it feels organic.

We follow the team as they eliminate targets, gathering names from the mysterious Papa (Michael Lonsdale) and his son Louis (Mathieu Almaric). Munich works wonderfully as a thriller - the assassination sequences have a Hitchcockian tautness married with a queasiness of purpose reminiscent of The Conversation. Yet Kushner's script also allows scenes, such as a dialogue between Avner and a PLO member who doesn't know who he is talking to, that bring the underlying humanity to the fore. I'm not really interested about readings of this film as pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; I've always felt that anyone who makes a concrete stand in favor of either nation is kind of a presumptuous asshole (and I'm including Dr. Chomsky here). It's too chaotic; each side has committed grave crimes, and both are fighting a war that neither created. What is important to me is that Munich addresses, in a powerful way, that we are all ultimately in this together. It's a theme that Spielberg first started exploring in E.T., and it comes to full fruition here.

Except for Avner's wife (Ayelet Zorer, who, incidentally, is radiant), we don't meet the families of our leads, yet through terse, suggestive dialogue, we feel that we know these men. So we are on this journey with them, and the film hinges on our identification with the hit squad. A scene where Avner breaks down on a phone call to his infant daughter brought me to tears, and while it's far from the first time I've cried thanks to Spielberg, this was also the first time that the emotional response was provoked entirely by character and not through any manipulation. At the same time, Spielberg gives moments to the targets (note the heartbreaking moment with the cat) that denies us any satisfaction in their deaths. In the end, there is no redemption here for the tragedy at Munich. It's a mess, and Spielberg never shies away from it for a moment. The final lines of dialogue force us to question what has been won (or lost); a last-minute nod to 9/11 could have been unbearably heavyhanded, but instead it has the impact of a slap in the face. Munich is bigger even than its subject matter - it's about where we've been and where we are headed if we don't fundamentally change our relationship with violence. Earlier this year I said that War of the Worlds was the best Spielberg film in almost ten years; this is the best in more than twenty, maybe ever. It's a powerful cry for understanding and tolerance; it's the best movie of 2005.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Trim Bin #10

- Apologies for not posting any reviews in a while. Munich looms on the horizon; it's a big, complex movie that has been largely overlooked this awards season because of Spielberg's overwhelming baggage. Expect a take on the film and its context in the Spielberg canon soon. And, as the rush of interesting fall and winter offerings has changed to the mostly irrelevant spring lineup, expect more vintage reviews soon as well.

- Roger Ebert's defense of Crash marks a sad turn after his recent, invigorating essay on Dark City. His writing here is as sloppy and dull as Crash is dishonest and placatory. I know the popular explanation is that he's gotten older, been through some health scares, and is more laid-back about the process. To me, this is not a reasonable justification, it's a problem; if Ebert is disinclined to engage in real film criticism, than I might as well read reviews by Leonard Maltin. Or my dad, for that matter.

- Finally, I have to quote one Jessica Sargent, who's been doing progressively more interesting writing over at her myspace (even if I hate the medium):

I hope that one day someone has a sweaty moment with one of my novels, films, or plays. I have a long way. It's ok though, I love travel.

And there, folks, is the entire artistic process, from creation to experience, in a nutshell.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Top 10: 1985

Looking over the releases of 1985, I was surprised at what a strong year it was. Films like The Goonies, The Color Purple, Explorers, Fright Night, and The Peanut Butter Solution linger outside this list. Here's what made the cut:

1. Brazil (Gilliam)
2. Ran (Kurosawa)
3. After Hours (Scorsese)
4. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Schrader)
5. Blood Simple (Coen)
6. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (Burton)
7. Day of the Dead (Romero)
8. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Miller/Ogilvy)
9. Re-Animator (Gordon)
10. Back to the Future (Zemeckis)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Trim Bin #9

- I've been making the case for a while that the Berkshire Mall 10 isn't worth our money. This just ends the argument for me. Jess and I were there seeing King Kong when the theatre was evacuated; it was as chaotic as the article suggests, and the bit about the kids seeing Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is just shameful. Even if they were done a favor in the long run.

- Cinephiles continues its solid selection of midnight shows at Images in January. Friday the 13th is American Psycho, and the 20th is - at last - The Shining. I can check another title of my list of movies I need to see on 35mm in my life - at the top of the remaining list are Jaws, Taxi Driver, and Vertigo (which is actually playing the Brattle on the 5th; here's hoping that the trip will be feasible).

- The Brattle in Cambridge, which was in danger of closing at the end of the year, has raised enough money to stay open at least through February. Their schedule for the next few months has some great films, including a Herzog program (complete with the local premiere of The Wild Blue Yonder!). So see a movie there sometime if you can - everyone wins.