Monday, July 31, 2006

The Trim Bin #33

- My plans to write a review of Miami Vice (summary: sort of silly, extremely fun) were cut off by the trailer for The Departed, which came at just the right moment. Apparently the trailer actually went out with prints of Miami Vice, but Regal denied me the chance to see it on the big screen in favor of a football movie with The Rock. Anyway, this summer hasn't been as active, creatively, as last year - there hasn't been much going on, I haven't gotten any calls (we're through, Affleck), and there isn't anything on the horizon but another football movie with The Rock, oddly enough. So it was a nice little reminder of why I've chosen this life, or perhaps why it has chosen me. A few thoughts:

- The brief shot of a man falling from a building is from the scene I was present for, which features Matt Damon, Martin Sheen and (I think) Ray Winstone. I worked quite a bit less than on War of the Worlds (an hour on set, six waiting around), was used for only a few setups, and will likely be hidden behind an ambulance in the final cut. But I got to watch Scorsese direct for an hour. So I got that going for me. Which is nice.

- "Brutal violence...strong sexual content...pervasive language" - good lord, I'm in a hard R!

In any case, this looks like classic Scorsese. I can't wait for it to come out in October and receive lukewarm reviews.

- Speaking of The Departed (and Infernal Affairs), I recently named Christopher Doyle one of the best cinematographers around. Unfortunately, he's also kind of a dick.

- And Mel Gibson is a huuuge dick.

- Read CHUD's interview with Brett Ratner. Pay particular attention to Ratner's comments about why X3 outgrossed Superman Returns. Weep.

- Alex Jackson's take on Eyes Wide Shut. I agree with half of his ideas and disagree with the other half. Try to guess which!

- Wiley Wiggins has a blog - and he's awesome!

- Hearts on fire, burning, burning with desire for the steel.

Films watched this week:

Mad Dog and Glory 7
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 9
The Devil Wears Prada 5
The Goonies 8
Miami Vice 8
Final Destination 3 7
Fright Night 9
Harry and the Hendersons 5
Friday the 13th Part 3 6

Sunday, July 30, 2006

URGENT


SCORSESE. DICAPRIO. DAMON. NICHOLSON. WAHLBERG. WINSTONE. SHEEN. BEMIS. BALDWIN.

The Departed.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Trim Bin #32



- I've repeatedly forgotten to mention Rogerebert.com editor Jim Emerson's ongoing Opening Shots Project in this space, and for that I'm sorry, as it's one of the most interesting film discussions happening right now. Emerson has invited readers to send in their own detailed descriptions of their favorite opening shots (first shot only - no sequences), and the results have included insightful write-ups about the openings of films like Aguirre the Wrath of God, 2001, and Altered States. My favorite so far has been Robert C. Cumbow's take on the tracking shot that begins Halloween; the entire film rests on the strength of that first shot, and Cumbow nails the method of its madness. I suspect I'll have to deal with the subject myself soon in the form of a top ten.

- Speaking of Halloween, I highly recommend that any fans of the series pick up the new documentary Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (yes, the titular math is sketchy - it was largely filmed at a 25th anniversary convention in 2003). The filmmakers have gotten a remarkable amount of detail and insight about the making of the entire series, from the indelible first film to the varying quality of the sequels. Interviewees include not only stars and directors, but also the many character actors, screenwriters, makeup effects men, composers, and bit players that contributed to the films over the years (including, of course, most of the stuntmen who wore the Shatner mask). Most valuable is the footage featuring the late Moustapha Akkad, who was to Halloween what the Broccolis are to Bond, except that Akkad had genuine affection for the series and its fans that went beyond the bottom line. Also included are interviews with filmmakers Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie - after hearing Zombie's comments on where the series went wrong (faceless characters, faceless killer), I'm confident that he's the man to make Halloween 9 a film worth seeing. The bits with the hardcore fans are wonderful, as I find myself both frightened by and sort of wanting to be them (particularly the cutesy-looking young woman who declares Michael Myers to be a "turn-on" before flashing the camera for no decipherable reason). The 2-disc set is jam-packed with extras, but there's one thing above all that makes Halloween: 25 Years of Terror a must-see:

Atkins.

- Anyone else following Kevin Smith's protracted smackdown of Joel Siegel following Siegel's vocal walkout of a press screening of Clerks II? Granted, Siegel's behavior was unprofessional, but when Smith confronted him on Opie and Anthony (what is this, 1995?), the critic apologized before taking several minutes of Smith's mean-spirited, self-righteous, and jarringly unfunny schtick. Now, just last week I was expressing my problems with the critical community. But there's a world of difference between me giving Jack a good-natured hard time on his blog about Superman Returns and if, say, Bryan Singer showed up and made fun of Jack's glasses or something. This kind of behavior is petty and vaguely sad, and makes the scene in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back where the titular characters fly around the country to beat the snot out of teenage internet critics a whole lot creepier. Also, note that Smith does little to actually defend Clerks II, focusing on ridiculing Siegel's mustache and penchant for puns while Opie and Anthony hoot and holler like the apes that they are. Well, yeah - that's what guys like Siegel exist for. It's not like anyone watches Good Morning America for the depth of content. I'll probably see Clerks II soon and I'll keep an open mind. Here's hoping that Smith doesn't send me human feces in a Sister Act box.

- Films watched this week:

Excalibur 10
Halloween: 25 Years of Terror 7
Wordplay 5
Lady in the Water 2
Halloween 5 4
River's Edge 9
The Watcher in the Woods 4

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mr. Heep is a playa!

There exists the distinct possibility that M. Night Shyamalan is actually insane. And if not, he's got a lot of explaining to do. I liked The Sixth Sense and loved Signs, respected Unbreakable on a second viewing despite its goofiness, and had hoped that The Village was a rare misstep. But Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's "bedtime story," is an unqualified disaster. It's brutally disappointing to see a filmmaker that once exhibited the potential to create an important body of work disappear down a sinkhole of self-absorption, incoherence, and plain foolishness. And the painful irony is, Shyamalan seems to believe that he's doing the most important work of his life.

After an animated opening explaining how humanity has detached from its water-dwelling neighbors, the narfs, because of capitalism or something, we open on Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), janitor at a Philadelphia apartment complex called The Cove, squashing a large bug residing under a family's sink (it's the best scene in the film). Cleveland leads a solitary existence after a personal tragedy left him with a bad stutter. One night, while investigating some strange goings on around the pool, Cleveland falls in and is rescued by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a narf sent to our world in order to give us hope, and more specifically to inspire a writer named Vick Ran (played, in an act of unbelievable hubris, by Shyamalan) to finish a book that will save the world. Story must return home, but she is thwarted by scrunts - dog-like monsters with grass-like hair that stalk The Cove at night. To stop the scrunts, they will need to summon three wooden fighting monkeys ("tartutic") before Story is carried away by the Great Eatlon, the last of the giant eagles. But Cleveland cannot do this alone; he must recruit the help of the various cultural stereotypes of The Cove who have been predestined to fulfill roles such as the healer, the guardian, and the guild. And he must do this before he's written his letter home to his mother, unless he's getting his hair cut, in which case he should put his clothes on the lower peg before lunch. As you can tell, Lady in the Water is filled with plot convolutions that Shyamalan seems to find whimsical and charming, which supports the insanity theory.

But giant eagle aside, the real problem with Lady in the Water is that it seemingly exists primarily to demonstrate how clever and important M. Night Shyamalan believes himself to be. Ran is told by Story that he will be martyred for his work, which will be misunderstood in its time; Shyamalan seems to be anticipating Lady's scathing reviews, and his naked insecurity is evident in his apparent argument that if we don't like his hodgepodge of underdeveloped modern myths cribbed from Joseph Campbell and The Lord of the Rings, it's because we're not ready for its visionary brilliance yet. Shyamalan's vanity sours the whole film, and it's unfortunate - Giamatti and the ensemble cast (particulary Jeffrey Wright as a puzzle enthusiast and Jared Harris as the king of the stoners) do their best to give this misbegotten fairy tale humor and warmth, but no actor could redeem this lunacy. The most underused is Howard, who has shown promise in the past but is given little to do here except silently exclaim "I have huge eyes!"* Story remains such an undefined character that it's possible Shyamalan never gave much thought to what exactly a narf is. Worse, the film wastes the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, who has done stunning work with Kar Wai Wong, Yimou Zhang, and Gus Van Sant. His images here are as impressive and ambitious as ever, rich in shades of melancholy blue. But Shyamalan has no idea what direction his movie should take (how sad in a film about the importance of storytelling), and so the story cannot support the images, which become pretty but inert.

The absolute worst thing about Lady in the Water (other than the giant eagle) is a subplot involving a film critic, Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), who lives in the complex. Flatly stating that "there is no more originality in the world," Farber is ultimately punished for his incorrect assumptions about the formula of the film he is in. But while there is a lot of humor to be mined from satirizing critics, Farber's main crime seems to be that he doesn't like everything. Again, Shyamalan is preemptively attacking his critics, at one point even demonstrating how Farber's reliance on formula proves wrong in the case of this narrative. Except that he's still right - his assumptions about the conventions of the story are accurate, but Shyamalan does a little tap-dancing to pretend that he's redefining the linear narrative as we know it. We're left with the suggestion that anyone who didn't like Signs deserves to die, and it's an ugly, hostile message for a film supposedly meant to inspire wonder.

What absolutely confounds me is that I actually strongly believe in most of the ideas that Shyamalan is expressing here. Our lives must have purpose beyond our immediate understanding. We are connected to the people in our lives, and sometimes we unite for a common purpose. Art does have the power to change the world. And important symbols from my own life and work - butterflies, water, even Bob Dylan and David Bowie - pop up here and there. The film even has some thematic and stylistic overlap with Worlds, the screenplay Jess and I wrote, particularly in Story's mannered dialogue (though we meant it as a joke). I want to believe in Lady in the Water, but ultimately even the most resonant concepts on display are tainted in the service of a pretentious little megalomaniac with a pathetic leading man complex who imagines himself as John the Baptist. Lady in the Water is the kind of movie I would make if I was an insufferable dolt. I spent four years depending Signs as fun pop theology coupled with crackerjack filmmaking, but I'm officially done; whatever promise Shyamalan once showed has been carried away on the wings of a giant eagle.

*Credit goes to Jess for this line.

Play the game (7/22/06)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

This is a BOY'S bike!

A man under a variety of chemical influences is driving home when he notices a police car in his rear view mirror. The man imagines a violent death at the hands of the cop, so he pulls into a parking lot. The police car pulls up next to him, and he looks away, terrified. Then his attention turns to an empty jar sitting on his passenger seat. The man examines the jar, suspicious. Is this suspicion an artificial consequence of his drug-induced paranoia, or is that paranoia justified by the unexplained presence of the jar? What is that jar doing there, anyway? These are the sort of questions that drive A Scanner Darkly, Richard A. Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel. Like many of Linklater's best films, it's a labyrinth of unanswered and sometimes unspoken questions. I bring up the jar because if your response is "Who cares?" then you're likely to be very annoyed by the detours that A Scanner Darkly takes; on the other hand, if you let the movie sink in, then it's the kind of mindfuck that makes you breakfast the next morning.

Set in the near future, the film follows an undercover drug narc codenamed Fred (Keanu Reeves) whose identity is concealed even from his superiors by a "scramble suit" that constantly rearranges the details of his appearance. Fred is actually Bob Arctor, who spends his days posing as the drug user that he actually is. Arctor shares a house with the pseudophilosophical Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and archetypal stoner Luckman (Woody Harrelson). The film follows the effects that drug use has on its characters, opening with twitchy Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) being beseiged by aphids that only he can see (it's Freck that puzzles over the jar later on). The most prominent drug in the film is Substance D, a brain-splitting concoction that leaves Fred in the dark about which is his true self - the heroic officer of the law, or the aimless druggie. And worse, it isn't clear which he'd rather be.

The film is concerned with notions of identity and the ways that we escape ourselves - drugs, but also religion, routine, and junk culture. The irony, then, is how we can never quite shake the fears we hope to escape through self-medication - Freck, for instance, is at one point confronted by an alien who reads him his sins. And at any point, we can be suddenly yanked back towards our most basic truths; our willful desire to stay alive (the "no thanks" to God from Linklater's Waking Life), or the sting of unrequited desire evident in Fred's tenuous relationship with the elusive Donna (Winona Ryder). Like the look of the film itself, our perception is constantly shifting and readjusting along with the characters, for whom an object as simple as a used bicycle can trigger obsessive speculation. The cast, particularly the always-compelling Robert Downey Jr. as a living compendium of half-brilliant, half-insane theories, ably guides through Dick's hall of mirrors, and while A Scanner Darkly could have easily become didactic, it's instead a wonderful case of everyone involved serving a haunting, indelible vision of a future overrun with questionable ideas.

The smartest decision Linklater made in adapting Dick's book was to keep the author's vision of the future, which is still populated with the same strip malls and drive-thrus. The familiar banality makes the connections to the present (the constantly increasing presence of surveillance, the commodification of the self) all the more resonant, not just because it seems plausible but because it feels like we're already there. Yet this is not a defeatist statement; the final scene contains the promise that clarity, and by extension understanding, can still break free. I must admit that it took a while for A Scanner Darkly to properly sink in - my first impression was that the heart of the book had been lost in translation. But now I think that detachment is part of the film's design; in a season of cinema largely designed to placate us, it forces us to discover our own meaning. The heart is there, but it's ours to find; the effect is a potent cinematic high.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Perhaps I'll make you disappear.


There's a running gag in The Illusionist about the elusive secret behind the trick of an orange tree that materializes from thin air. And while the trick is apparently based on a real one, the answer here is obvious: computers. Whenever famed magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) performs one of his increasingly astounding sleights of hand, period detail gives way to crisp, jarring CGI where practical effects would have been more compelling and believable. This detail alone wouldn't be enough to sink The Illusionist, but it is unfortunately typical of a film that promises magic and mystery yet remains disappointingly literal-minded.

Set in early 20th-century Vienna, the film opens with Eisenheim onstage arrest at the hands of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), right-hand man to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). As Uhl tells Leopold the story leading up to Eisenheim's arrest, the film jumps back to the illusionist's childhood romance with Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). The two are separated because of their class differences, and the boy sets off on a years-long voyage around the world, returning as an expert illusionist. He is soon reunited to Sophie, who is now engaged to the prince, and they must find a way to...this is as boring to write as it is to watch. Basically, The Illusionist is a formulaic love triangle gussied up with turn-of-the-century tomfoolery. Though writer/director Neil Burger has Eisenheim deliver several ponderous speeches about life, the universe and everything to the audience, he's content to let his film be driven by the machinations of a period mystery.

The cast tries gamely all around, but the characters are underwritten and never make much of an impression. Norton is usually dependable for his ability to embody a character, but Eisenheim is never more than a vague collection of period details, and the actor simply isn't given enough to work with here. The same goes for Biel, who isn't given much to do except look pretty. Only Giamatti makes any sort of an impression - he seems to be making a deliberate departure from his usual schlep typecasting, and he creates a compelling enough inspector Uhl, torn between ambition and conscience, that we laugh along with him in the film's final scene. But even Giamatti is buried between piles of hamhanded visual cues and the film's misguided look, which aims to recreate the faded quality of early silents but fails entirely by overstressing the effect (probably every third shot irises out). I'm a big defender of style for style's sake, but even the style here misses the point. The excellent score by Philip Glass, like the actors, deserves a better picture.

The second half of the film revolves around a mystery that resolves itself in the final scene with one of those everything-comes-together montages that reveals nothing more than the director's desperate wish to be M. Night Shyamalan. The worst thing about The Illusionist is the way that the twist undercuts any hope of wonder (much like Shyamalan's The Village, actually). Burger has his characters repeatedly remind us that there is much truth in illusions; unfortunately, it's not a sentiment that the director seems to believe much himself.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Trim Bin #31



- Two trailers of note: The Prestige, which contains not nearly enough Bowie but still looks very promising (at the very least, it has to be better than The Illusionist) and The Science of Sleep, which looks just plain delightful (I think Michel Gondry is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors).

- This week I want to talk about a troubling trend in cinema-related discourse, inspired by CHUD writer Devin Faraci's advance review of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. Some excerpts:

"I walked out of the film dumbstruck with awe, having just seen something brilliant. Brilliant is really the only word I can use to describe the film."

"I don’t want to create unreasonable expectations, but for me the question about The Fountain isn’t 'Is this one of the best films made in decades?' but 'What are the handful of films in my lifetime as beautiful and profound as this one?'"

"The Fountain is beautiful, gripping and utterly transcendent. It’s the best film of 2006."

Final score? 9.8.

The thing that irks me is, doesn't this review read like Aronofsky earned the extra .2 points? It reminds me of Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman's refusal to give any film an A+ on the grounds that only Citizen Kane has truly earned one. These ratings say more about the writers than they do about the films. It's partly a method of hedging one's bets, but it's also a statement of self-importance and, worse, detachment. Other ways that this beast rears its ugly head:

"The only thing I didn't like was..."

"That was very satisfying."

"Meh." (And I feel personally terrible about this one, because I suspect I may have helped invent it)

It used to be that critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris expressed opinions positive and negative with passion; Kael, in particular, would laud a beloved film to no end and could mercilessly disembowel a film she found insincere or stupid. While film writers like Walter Chaw and Dennis Cozzalio have carried that torch, film writing is too often marred by a writer's attempt to demonstrate his/her own cleverness or insert a self-satisfied bit of snark. It's hard to believe that many of the film writers out there really love movies; their relationship to a work is indifferent and parasitic. Faraci's 9.8 is an insufferable stab at the heart of film lovers, smugly suggesting that it wasn't, y'know, perfect or anything.

Things that need to stop:

- Lists of a film's pros and cons. A film is the work of hundreds, sometimes thousands of artists and craftspeople. To weigh one like meat is an essential misunderstanding of the entire filmmaking process.

- Automatic dismissiveness of conventionally attractive people. Yes, there are a lot of meatsticks in film who get buy on their looks. But here's a dare: admit the competence of a teen icon. I'll get the ball rolling by stating that Kirsten Dunst, scatterbrained though she may be, is consistently talented, and her performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind deserved a supporting Oscar nomination. And I'm man enough to admit it.

- Condescension aimed at the reader ("You can't really appreciate The Matrix unless you've read Baudrillard.")

- The cult of "cool." This one is broader and thornier than the others. I'm actually a big supporter of the idea that pure style can translate into substance. However, this one comes with a standing dare for my fellow bloggers: write a rave review of a film that is totally square (I'm talking, like, You've Got Mail here). Avoid irony or self-deprecating humor. Really try to change our minds. Be fearless. Be enthusiastic. I triple dog dare you.

And to clarify, my criteria for a ten is as follows: an emotionally resonant, exhilarating experience that captivates my mind and heart for its duration. This is still pretty rare - I'd say there are about five a year (in a good year). But 9.8 is for sissies.

That said, films watched this week:

The Muppet Movie 10
Videodrome 9
Chinatown 10
A Scanner Darkly 9
Phantasm II 7
The Illusionist 4
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me 8
Escape From New York 8

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Shark's in the water. Our shark.

The opening of Jaws rivals Psycho's shower scene as the definitive example of primal horror in cinema. After a creeping view of the ocean's depths from the point of view of the film's agent of death, we cut to two young partygoers flirting on the beach. As they run towards the ocean for some late-night skinnydipping, the silliness is accompanied by frantic tracking shots that at once accentuate the carelessness of the horny couple and foreshadow something more violent. As the man (Jonathan Filley) passes out on the beach, the woman, (Susan Backlinie) plunges into the water. After the briefest pause, we return to the underwater POV shot as it creeps towards the woman's suggestively lit torso. Our sense of voyeurism is quickly replaced with a palpable unease as we realize what is about to happen; it's not so much an indictment as it is a hard right turn. Then the woman disappears underwater for a moment, surfaces with a shudder, and chaos breaks lose. We must struggle to locate the woman as she is tossed around like a rag doll by a great white shark (who remains out of frame). The scene ends with the woman crying out to God for help and then being suddenly, brutally silenced as the ocean's calm is restored. If the rest of Jaws were like this, then it would be more nihilistic than Irreversible; as it is, the opening gives the film a gravity sorely lacking from most of its imitators. It's the best "boo!" movie ever.

As we are introduced to hydrophobic Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), his family, and the people of Amity Island, Steven Spielberg uses every possible opportunity to punctuate our anticipatory glee and anxiety. The dull "thwack" of a typewriter's keys announces "SHARK ATTACK" in extreme close up; Brody's early attempts to close the beaches are repeatedly interrupted by the petty concerns of the people of Amity ("There's a truck parked outside my store with New Hampshire plates!") before being squashed by the pressure of the island's commerce-minded Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). The tension builds to the untimely end of young Alex Kitner (Jeffrey Voorhees) and the goosebump-inducing smash-zoom on Brody as he realizes that his worst fears have come true.

Amity's business owners try to deny the seriousness of the situation in order to salvage the summer, local fishermen salivate at the promise of a $3,000 reward, and Brody tries in vain to prevent further attacks before setting off on the Orca to kill the shark in the film's daring second half. Consider that the last hour of Jaws features only three characters and has the tiny ship as its only set (with the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean as backdrop). What is often overlooked with Jaws is just how crucial the three lead performances are to its success. Scheider is excellent as Brody, a man torn between fear and a sense of moral responsibility; he's the perfect ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Spielberg deserves all the praise in the world for the achievement, both here and with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for eliciting likeable performances out of Richard Dreyfuss; the actor's characteristic smugness is offset by an endearing geekiness when paired with two men's men.

And then there's Robert Shaw. Consider that we know very little about Captain Quint. He interrupts a town meeting with nails on a blackboard and offers to kill the shark for $10,000, and an hour later, he's hired. We never find out what makes Quint especially qualified to hunt a great white; presumably, we're supposed to accept that it's because he's played by Robert Goddamn Shaw. And we buy it completely, because Shaw runs away with every scene he's in, whether he's reciting a dirty rhyme or quietly, chillingly recounting the tragic story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Quint is clearly batshit insane, and he's also a hero. Much of the pleasure of Jaws comes from the tension between the leads, which makes the shark's appearances all the more pleasurable. I won't rehash the same old stories about how broken sharks led to creative inspiration, but the effectiveness of Jaws can be credited to the seemingly arbitrary way that Spielberg alternates suggestion and confrontation so that we can never be sure what where or how the shark will approach yet. The best effect in the world repeated over and over becomes monotonous; instead, Spielberg keeps us on our toes.

One of the best scenes in Jaws has nothing to do with the shark. It is the "mirror game" scene between Brody and his son Sean (Jay Mello) while eventual revenger Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) looks on. It's an important pause in the action, raising the stakes with an authentic depiction of family life that avoids schmaltz in favor of genuine warmth. It's that warmth, of course, that Spielberg would become known for more than the dread of Jaws. However, that humanity is the most important element of any great genre film; if we can't believe in the characters, then they're merely shark fodder.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Trim Bin #30


- Tonight I was interviewed by Janet Curran for an ongoing project documenting the history of Images Cinema. I definitely felt a bit "Groovin' Gary" as I rambled on aimlessly about how Images is awesome, realizing after the camera had stopped that I had forgotten to share just about every humorous or interesting memory from my time here. Still, I think it's a fascinating project, and I can't wait to see what kind of shape it takes.

- The teaser for Spider-Man 3: you've probably seen it already, but it bears repeating.

- The record-setting opening weekend for a Johnny Depp-starring pirate movie has led me to one conclusion: the influence of the Mookymen is greater and more insidious than I could have ever anticipated.

- Friday brought the incredible double feature of Jaws at Pothole Pictures in Shelburne Falls followed by Terminator 2 at the Cinemark in South Hadley. Expect reviews of one or both soon - it was a refreshing reminder that summer tentpoles are capable of wit, intelligence and artistry. Actually, Superman Returns succeeds at all three, but the box office numbers are lower than anticipated, which makes it an artistic failure, I guess.

- More Images news: the Williamstown Film Festival has arranged for an advanced screening of The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti next Sunday at 11am. The film's editor, Naomi Geraghty, will be in attendance. Best of all, there will be brunch.

- Borat!

Films watched this week:

Superman II 8
An Inconvenient Truth 5
Jaws 10
Terminator 2 10
Tommy 9
Dark City 10
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest 7

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Why is the rum always gone?

In the opening minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a character mentions the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow, and I found myself snickering with anticipatory glee. The smartest thing about Dead Man's Chest is that it presents the perpetually off-balance Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as not only a comic figure but also a full-blown romantic hero. Depp's creation has become an icon among adolescent girls, his braided, leathery profile tacked above countless beds. The former teen heartthrob has clearly tapped into something here; I can't say exactly what it is, but if the young Regal Cinemas employee I saw lovingly caressing Depp's face on a Pirates standee is any indication, it sure is potent. Dead Man's Chest, like the first film, relies on Depp's performance for its success, and while the filmmakers have delivered a sequel overstuffed with state-of-the-art effects and grandiose action setpieces, its greatest pleasures arise from its star's perfect delivery of a line as simple as "Oh, bugger."

The overcomplicated plot follows Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as he attempts to retrieve Jack's compass to save his betrothed, Elizabeth. This leads to the matter of a key, and the titular chest, which belongs to Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), the tentacled captain of the Flying Dutchman, to whom Jack must repay a blood debt or else face an eternity of servitude. Factor in the return of every forgettable character from the first film, the addition of voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) and Will's barnacled father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), a visit to a cannibal island, and the vague involvement of the Dutch East India Company, and it all adds up to a lumbering, plot-heavy contraption. And that's not even factoring in the Kraken.

While the first film was meandering, Dead Man's Chest often stops dead in its tracks to marvel at its own costly production values. And while Gore Verbinski is a talented visual director, the results are often monotonous. There are some thrilling moments in Dead Man's Chest (the Raiders-esque water wheel bit, and everything involving the Kraken), but there's also a strain here that wasn't present in the first film, as though the filmmakers are trying to hard to make an epic out of a film series that is, after all, based on a ride. The final scenes of the film hint at a potentially thrilling third installment, but for all the noise, very little actually happens in Dead Man's Chest; it exists mostly as setup for a payoff that we've yet to see (echoes of The Matrix Reloaded? I hope not).

That's not to say there isn't a lot of fun to be had here. As with the first film, Dead Man's Chest's saving grace is that it never takes itself too seriously. Orlando Bloom is typically boring, but then, so is his character, and the film develops his relationship with Elizabeth in a way that wryly acknowledges this (let's hope that the third film puts Knightley's considerable comic talents, seen in Pride and Prejudice, to greater use). Bill Nighy brings his wry delivery to the fearsome Davey Jones, and the effects artists do a magnificent job of turning Jones and his crew into a belivably waterlogged gang of creepy creatures. And then there's Depp, who alternates rock-star swagger with fey charm. The film gives Jack Sparrow plenty of room to roam, and while Dead Man's Chest is remarkably free of any subtext, there remains the question of the strange effect the Captain has on women young and old. It's gratifying to see Depp finally get the sort of rabid attention that should have met Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, William Blake, Hunter S. Thompson, and countless other roles - America has finally caught up to one of its greatest actors.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bumpy Jonas, John Merrick, and the mother ship.


Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infinite Fly Rule has just presented another fascinating quiz, and I figured I'd share my answers here as well. I encourage you to share your answers over at SLIFR, one of the liveliest and best-written film blogs around.

1) Does film best tell the truth (Godard) or tell lies (De Palma) at 24 frames per second? Truth, though I'd argue that Godard and De Palma are equally manipulative, and that De Palma uncovers greater truths by embracing the heightened reality of film.

2) Ideal pairing of actors/actresses to play on-screen siblings Tilda Swinton and David Bowie

3) Favorite special effects moment The reveal of the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

4) Matt Damon or George Clooney? Clooney.

5) What is the movie you’ve encouraged more people to see than any other? Probably The Shining, because it's brilliant and because a person's response to it tells me a great deal about the person.

6) Favorite film of 1934 The Black Cat

7) Your favorite movie theater The Coolidge in Brookline, MA. Beautiful old movie house, great programming, fun midnight series. Well worth the three-hour drive.

8) Jean Arthur or Irene Dunne? Arthur, for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

9) Favorite film made for children E.T., which completely engages a child's capacity for awe.

10) Favorite Martin Scorsese Movie Raging Bull. Stark, visceral, spiritual.

11) Favorite film about children Small Change. The scene of the teacher talking to his students about the perils of childhood is one of Truffaut's finest moments.

12) Favorite film of 1954 Seven Samurai.

13) Favorite screenplay written by a writer more famous for literature than screenplays Peter Benchley (with Carl Gottlieb, John Milius, et. al.), Jaws

14) Walter Matthau or Jack Lemmon? A very tough call. But between Shelley Levene and his heartbreaking monologue in Short Cuts, I'll give the edge to Lemmon.

15) Favorite character name Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), Shaft.

16) Favorite screenplay adapted from a work of great literature, either by the author himself or by someone else Apocalypse Now - few film adaptations have reinterpreted their source material to such staggering effect.

17) Favorite film of 1974 The Godfather Part II

18) Joan Severance or Shannon Tweed? Man, I don't even have an opinion.

19) jackass: the movie-- yes or no? I'm in a generous mood - yes.

20) Favorite John Cassavetes Movie The only one I've seen is A Woman Under the Influence, and it was great. So there it is.

21) First R-rated movie you ever saw On video, Halloween. On the big screen, JFK (I was seven, and it was deemed important to see by my grandmother).

22) Favorite X-rated film (remember that, while your answer may well be a famous or not-so-famous hard-core film, the "X" rating was once also a legitimate rating that did not necessarily connote pornography) A Clockwork Orange (former X, but still).

23) Best film of 1994 Pulp Fiction. It's like naming The Beatles as one's favorite band, but whatever - it's just fun as hell.

24) Describe a moment in a movie that made you weep There are many scenes in The Elephant Man that reduce me to a blubbering mess. The final scene, scored to Barber's "Adagio For Strings," is the worst. If you haven't seen The Elephant Man, do yourself a favor, skip ahead, and rent the film as soon as possible.

After saying goodnight to the compassionate Dr. Treves, Merrick adds his signature to the model cathedral he has been carefully working on for most of the film. Then, he reclines on his back, ending his own life with normal sleep. The film then dissolves to a limitless field of stars, and the frozen profile of Merrick's mother as we travel through space. Before the film fades to black, we hear Merrick's mother in voiceover, whispering:

"Nothing ever dies."

It's a transcendent moment.

25) Ewan McGregor or Ewan Bremner? The scene in Velvet Goldmine where McGregor, as Iggy Pop surrogate Curt Wild, covers himself in glue and glitter, exposes himself, and starts a small fire, sort of clinches it.

26) One of your favorite line readings (not necessarily one of your favorite lines) from this or any year "We stop at pancakes house." - Peter Stormare, Fargo

27) What, if any, element in a film, upon your hearing of its inclusion beforehand, would most likely prejudice you against seeing that film or keeping an open mind about it? The involvement of Chris Columbus, for personal as well as obvious reasons.

28) Favorite Terry Gilliam Movie Brazil. We're all in this together.

29) Jean Smart or Annie Potts? Just rewatched Pretty in Pink, so I'll have to go with Annie Potts.

30) Is it possible to know with any certainty if you could like or love someone based partially on their taste in movies? If so, what film might be a potential relationship deal-breaker for you, or the one that might just seal that deal? Absolutely. Popeye. She liked it.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Trim Bin #29



- Thanks to everyone who helped make this weekend an unforgettable one for me and Jess. As for newlywed life, I'll simply say that I'm lucky to be married to a hip, hip lady who continues to surprise me at every turn. Just the other day she proclaimed Brian De Palma the best director of the 1970's - how cool is that?

And that's to say nothing of the sex.

- Thanks to all who offered me constructive responses about Chrissie. Not that I intend to change anything; the film is what it is, and I have to stick with my instincts. But hearing what the film means and the feelings it elicits in others helps me to understand why I made it.

- I've been listening to Tommy a lot these past few days, remembering all the time I spent between the ages of seven and fifteen in my basement, playing the album over and over. I'm still sort of amazed that the album has such mass appeal, which leads me to a question: which seemingly obscure or offbeat work (album, film, book, etc) surprises you with its popularity?

- Warwick Davis hates himself.

- Steve Almond is a great writer. His book Candyfreak, about the candy industry and his lifetime love affair with sweets, is pure fun. And his regular contributions to Nerve.com are consistently great - witness his recent take on Betty Blue. I saw the film a few years ago and thought it was good, but Almond has convinced me to seek out the director's cut DVD. A highlight:

Beinix refuses to romanticize the turmoil. His cinematography is achingly beautiful, but always tinged with the florid. In one shot, we see Betty staggering through the dusk in a flaming red dress, in another the sun has broken into fragments. Zorg refuses to abandon her. Loving her is clearly the most reckless act of his life, but he's utterly helpless to do otherwise.

- Pray for Roger Ebert's swift recovery. He may have gone a bit soft in recent years, but he's still done a great deal to define film love for so many of us over the years. No many how many questionable three-star ratings he hands out, I return to his website every Friday.

- Films watched this week:

Lifeforce 5
Superman Returns 10
Punch-Drunk Love 10
Jurassic Park 9
Creepshow 10
The Hills Have Eyes (2006) 8
Pretty in Pink 8
The Wall 9
Life of Brian 10