Saturday, September 30, 2006

UPDATED: It's surprising to see Bringing Out the Dead, a critical and box-office disappointment upon its release, beat out an established classic like Vertigo. But then, was met with a mixed response as well, and it took decades for the film to be recognized as the masterpiece that it is. So while my choice would have been Vertigo, I think that Alfred Hitchcock himself would have appreciated the irony of the outcome.

The third round begins shortly, and from now on, each match will last for two days rather than one. Forty films have been whittled down to ten - who will survive and what will be left of them?

Friday, September 29, 2006

UPDATED: It's a close call, but I'll have to crown Carrie the winner of this particular match. Blade Runner is amazing - it's the most fully realized vision of a possible future since Metropolis. But I love every moment of Carrie, from the God's-eye view of a highschool gym class that opens the film to the porno-synth that accompanies the mean girls' detention to the closeup of Nancy Allen tonguing her overripe red lips as she executes the humiliation of poor Carrie White. But most of all, I love the performances, particularly Piper Laurie as the homicidally repressed Mrs. White and (of course) Sissy Spacek as Carrie - they're the strongest performances in the De Palma canon, and they give an already perfectly crafted film depth and pathos.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Trim Bin #41

- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has never looked as good as it does on Dark Sky's new 2-disc set. I was afraid that too much digital tweaking would detract from the low-budget grittiness that is key to the film's success, but the picture strikes a perfect balance: it's well-defined but not too clean, enhancing details such as dust on the lens rather than removing them. To any TCM fan, I'd say it's definitely worth the upgrade (even if the new making-of documentary, which mostly features the actors bitching about not getting paid, is sort of a drag).

- I'm looking forward to Casino Royale more than any Bond film made in my lifetime. The casting of Daniel Craig, and the slick, brooding tone of the new trailer suggest the Bond I loved in the Ian Fleming novels that Sean Connery came closest to capturing - the amoral, horny killing machine. Of course, it could turn out to be a totally generic retread. Either way, we'll have the original Casino Royale (with Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond) to treasure forever.

- A reminder: Jack Nicholson is the coolest man alive.

- I rewatched The War of the Roses this week for the first time in years; it's a near-perfect black comedy. I say "near-perfect" entirely because of one shot - the insert that reveals a canine character alive and well and takes the bite out of a dark plot twist. A trip to the IMDB confirmed my suspicion that the shot was added to appease sensitive test audiences; it's an unfortunate compromise in an otherwise uncompromising film. Which leads me to the question: which films would be perfect with the removal of one moment?

- I'm proud to announce the emergence this week of a witty, perceptive new voice in film blogging: my lovely wife, Jessica! Her articles on The Virgin Suicides and Ghost World put my writing to shame with their nimble wordplay and innate understanding of what makes each film tick (I particularly like the observations about hair in Ghost World). I can say without nepotism that these do not read at all like the work of a beginner, and they are well worth your time.

Films watched this week:

Clerks II 4
Femme Fatale
(director's cut) 8
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Watership Down
The War of the Roses
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Look Who's Talking
Look Who's Talking Too

UPDATED: Another 1-0 victory, this time for David Lynch's most recent masterpiece (five years between films is just too long). I'm sorry to cut this match short by a few hours, but I'm about to hit the road; Michael Biehn has already filed a letter of protest.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

UPDATED: In the Battle of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey emerges victorious. I love Rosemary's Baby and had the opportunity to see a gorgeous print of the film at the Brattle this year - seeing on the big screen only enhanced the claustrophobic sense of paranoia that Roman Polanski is the master of. However, having just seen 2001 on 35mm again last week, I must say that the marketing folk weren't lying - it is indeed the ultimate trip. I'm holding a review I've written until the film is eliminated or wins, because I don't want it to come off like a campaign speech. But wow, what a picture.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

UPDATED: The tiebreaker vote falls on me again, and I'll go Dazed and Confused. Both Ikiru and Linklater's film are true "feel-good" movies - they have heart and wit, and both directors have a genuinely humane worldview. But Dazed and Confused slightly edges out Ikiru because of its terrific ensemble work (I can never truly hate Ben Affleck because of his performance as O'Bannion) and its success both as a teen comedy and an insightful commentary on the 1970's. It's up there with Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Small Change as one of the best youth films.

Monday, September 25, 2006

UPDATED: The way of the flesh prevails. Videodrome would be my preference as well, and I agree with what Sam wrote during the last round - the DVD packaging is wonderfully creepy and original.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

UPDATED: Apocalypse Now beats The Wicker Man 2-0. Smells like victory.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

UPDATED: Jess told me today that the ending of Harold and Maude makes her feel alive, and I think I know what she's talking about. There are few more uplifting films, and I can see why that wins out over the aggressively downbeat Raging Bull. But I will say that Raging Bull is personally important because it leaves me confident that cinema is a meaningful art form. That said, any movie that has Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort stealing trees is okay by me.

Friday, September 22, 2006

UPDATED: I have a game I play in my head during slow moments at work where I try to think of two films that are the exact opposite of each other. For instance, Body Double is the exact opposite of Shirley Temple's Heidi, and Tango and Cash is the exact opposite of My Dinner With Andre. While Alien and It's a Wonderful Life may not be exact opposites, they're pretty close. And in this case, chestbursters beat angels, and horror beats uplift. Appropriate with Halloween right around the corner...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Do you think you're capable of playing sadness?

The publication of Chuck Klosterman's essay collection IV coincided nicely with the release of Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, in that Klosterman provides a useful term to contextualize the often misunderstood auteur - he's Advanced. Advancement theory, Klosterman reports, was created in 1990 at the University of South Carolina, and defines Advancement as "a cultural condition in which an Advanced individual—i.e., a true genius—creates a piece of art that 99 percent of the population perceives to be bad. However, this is not because the work itself is flawed; this is because most consumers are not Advanced. [...] The bottom line is this: When a genius does something that appears idiotic, it does not necessarily mean he suddenly sucks. What it might mean is that he's doing something you cannot understand, because he has Advanced beyond you." In the Advanced camp, Klosterman cites Lou Reed, David Byrne, and Val Kilmer, and I'd argue that De Palma belongs on that list. With The Black Dahlia, he has made a movie that isn't at all about what it claims to be about, and he doesn't seem to care whether or not we like it, or even get it. While there are plenty of valid reasons to hate The Black Dahlia, it seems foolish to dismiss it - you may not like it now, but let's talk about it in five years.

Adapted from a James Ellroy novel that told a fictional story centering around the real-life unsolved 1947 murder of an unknown young actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), The Black Dahlia first introduces us to two L.A. cops and ex-boxers, Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) as they meet each other during a zoot suit riot, become partners after a bout staged for publicity, and become close friends who love the same woman, Blanchard's articulate, elusive girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). But when Blanchard, obsessed with the desire to avenge a personal tragedy, gets them assigned to the Short case, both men, to paraphrase another of De Palma's tormented heroes, forswear themselves and break laws they swore to defend. But Blanchard's old sins, the love triangle, and Bleichert's affair with Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) - an upper-class whore with a connection to the Dahlia - transform a police procedural into a tangled web of hidden motives and secret desires. Critics who complained that the plot is convoluted are better off watching old episodes of Columbo; it's transparently obvious that De Palma (like Ellroy) is both employing and distorting genre archetypes to expose the underlying truths and ambiguities that motivate our stories and, consequently, the ways in which we understand our own lives. Love it or hate it, but at least acknowledge that it isn't a mistake.

De Palma's films often contain a Rosetta Stone, and here it comes in the form of Betty Short's studio audition reel, which Bleichert revisits throughout the film, obsessed. Kirshner is fantastic as Short, creating in just a few scenes a young girl with dreams of stardom that allow her to ignore the bleak reality of her life - she's alternately flighty, endearing, distant, and deeply sad, and her recitation of Vivian Leigh's dialogue from Gone With the Wind is more emotionally affecting than the real thing. De Palma cameos offscreen, impatiently barking direction at Short; like Michael Powell in Peeping Tom, De Palma has taken the role of the cold, manipulative director. It's a comment on his perceived misanthropy, and it's also an acknowledgement of his ability to hold a young ingenue's dreams in the palms of his hand. De Palma hasn't been this reflective since Body Double, another film that both satirizes the crasser aspects of the dream industry and indicts the filmmaker in the process (ironically, that film was also panned upon its release, yet one review of The Black Dahlia complained that De Palma may never make a movie as great as Body Double again). In these scenes, De Palma is acknowledging the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience - we have asked to be manipulated, and De Palma wishes to manipulate us. But while The Black Dahlia, like most of his films, delights in that manipulation (the staircase sequence is phenomenal), it's also a profoundly personal exploration of the morality of that relationship. At the end, our hero is haunted by the memory of all he has experienced, and the audience, having taken the journey with him, also shares that memory. De Palma is clearly aware of the influence he has on our experience, and here, as with Femme Fatale, he is concerned with the implications of that power. While De Palma's trademark smartass behavior and playful camerawork are on display, this is also an exceptionally mature film.

It's true that all the metatextual games at play here sometimes detract from the film on a surface level. De Palma adheres dogmatically to the style and conventions of noir, which results in several scenes that are overly talky and heavy with exposition (not usually a problem for the director). And Johansson, while luminously shot by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, is stuck playing an underwritten archetype - the devoted blonde with a sad past (though she does as much as she can with very little). But it's a worthwile exchange for the pleasurable tension that occurs as De Palma simultaneously analyzes and indulges his fetishes. This is clear in the creepy stag film that unexpectedly references The Man Who Laughs, the strange all-lesbian musical number featuring K.D. Lang (I'm not kidding), and in the appearance of none other than the great William Finley as a silent villain - De Palma is not only referencing Hollywood's distant past, he's referencing his own.

Deconstruction and self-perception dovetail most succesfully with Swank's terrific perfomance. Casting Mo Cuishle as a vampy, Bette Davis-esque tart dressed in black, De Palma is at once using Swank to remind us that in a less shallow time, unconventional beauties who possessed authority and strength could become sex icons, and he's also confessing his admittedly unusual attraction to Hilary Swank (which I admit that I share, so I may be biased). As for complaints that Swank looks nothing like Kirshner (though the characters repeatedly say so), I can only respond with a McBain-esque "That's the joke." The same goes for Fiona Shaw's hilariously over-the-top performance as Swank's mother - either you get it or you don't. But then, that's how it always is for De Palma.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wins 2-1. While I would have gone with The Good the Bad and the Ugly, I do think that if Michel Gondry's film is too recent to be a classic, it's well on its way.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Trim Bin #40

- Monday brought the joy of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the second time, this time at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. The Mahaiwe is a grand old movie palace with a balcony and a stage, and while the projection was a bit jittery, it was still the perfect environment to get caught up in Kubrick's Blue Danube-driven sci-fi tone poem. It's magic, I tells ya. The Mahaiwe's upcoming movie schedule includes Jaws, Cabaret, Blade Runner and Jurassic Park - you can check it out here.

- Great news: Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 and The Conformist will both be making their R1 DVD debuts on December 5. 1900 is an overwhelming experience that I can't wait to revisit and share with the missus; I've never seen The Conformist because of my reluctance to rent the dubbed VHS, so I can't wait to check it out for the first time. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is being released on DVD the same day, so if you need a break from the Disney marketing machine, Bertolucci's your man.

- CHUD ran a great interview with Brian De Palma last week. He's one of the smartest guys working in film today; notice how he seems to be completely anticipating the mixed response to The Black Dahlia and almost shrugging his shoulders about it. That sort of dogged dedication to one's vision is rare, and critics who claim that The Black Dahlia could have been directed by anyone just weren't paying attention. He's just the coolest. Here's an example:

"I try to tell stories with pictures. I usually have quite elaborate designs, and I spend a lot of time picking these architectural places precisely because they will take root in your subconscious. But the critics sort of dismiss it as nice camera work. (Laughs)"

- The second round of The Gauntlet starts tomorrow, complete with big pretty pictures. The first round has brought some very surprising results, both pleasant (hooray for Bringing Out the Dead!) and baffling (The Wicker Man over Blue Velvet? Aliens over The Shining? Really?). Of course, all of this is intensely subjective, which is a lot of the fun for me - I hope those of you who have been chiming in are as alternately happy, grumpy, and flummoxed as I am.

- This week also marked a personal triumph for me: the missus finally let me buy Krull. Usually, if I were to reach for a copy, I would be rewarded with a slap on the wrist. Turns out she was mistaking the goofy 80's fantasy movie for the just plain unwatchable 90's Kevin Sorbo vehicle Kull the Conqueror, so I can't blame her for the violent resistance. Anyway, Jess now knows of the awesome power of the glaive. And that's an important part of any marriage.

Films watched this week:

The Black Dahlia 8
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Real Genius
Empire of the Sun
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Beaver Trilogy

Brazil or Vertigo?

UPDATED: Vertigo takes it. This is easily the most difficult match so far, because both movies are essentially perfect, and because they are alike in many ways (shifting identities, dream imagery, downbeat endings). I'd have to agree with Vertigo - it's an almost unbearably haunting and romantic film that has permanently burrowed into my subconscious. If you don't like it, we probably don't have much in common. Plus, it features my all-time favorite score.

Round 2 begins shortly. Bring galoshes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Oldboy or Bringing Out the Dead?

UPDATED: Ambulance beats hammer. I must say that I put off seeing Oldboy for a long time because I can't stand self-serious, dour Asian action movies that deliver formulaic violence with a grimace. So I was delighted to find out that Oldboy isn't that at all - it's witty, philosophical, and visually stunning, and the violence is both believably awkward and kinetic.

That said, I'd have to go with Bringing Out the Dead as well. The combination of Scorsese, Schrader, and driving led to the film being stupidly identified as a retread of Taxi Driver. It's actually a profound, meditative and humane story about nothing less than life and death. It also boasts one of those all-too-rare terrific Nicolas Cage performances, blood-red cinematography by all-time best DP Robert Richardson, a perfect supporting cast, the always-adorable Patricia Arquette (easily the best Arquette), and an amazing soundtrack (the use of "Bell Boy" gives me chills). I think it will eventually be widely recognized as the masterpiece that it is, but until then, remember: the first step is love, the second is mercy.

The last match of Round 1 goes up soon, and it's a doozy.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Before Sunrise or Blade Runner?

UPDATED: Blade Runner wins 3-2. That'd be my choice, because it's amazing. Case closed.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Carrie or Night of the Hunter?

UPDATED: This is very close, but I'll have to cast my vote for Carrie. Robert Mitchum's performance in Night of the Hunter is one of the all-time greats, and Charles Laughton does an incredible job of investing the film with palpable dread. However, the last scene is unberably maudlin, whereas Carrie follows through with almost clinical precision until its shock ending. It's a remarkably effective horror film, a subtle character study, and a virtuosic display of cinematic craft.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

King Kong or Mulholland Drive?

UPDATED: Looks like the tiebreaker vote is mine, and I'll go with Mulholland Drive. Lynch's films, especially his most recent films, escape the dry, detached intellectualizing that often goes hand in hand with the term "postmodern." Mulholland Drive is a complex cinematic experiment, but it's also thrilling, sexy and boldly emotional. Few films are as alive.

As for King Kong, it's a great deal of fun and has a bunch of awe-inspiring scenes, but it's also painfully dated in many ways. When I saw it on the big screen in May, I had a big smile on my face half of the time, but the rest of the time I was cringing at the racial stereotypes and creaky acting (excluding Fay Wray, of course). Blasphemy alert: I think I prefer the Peter Jackson version.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Shining or Aliens?

UPDATED: James Cameron beats Stanley Kubrick. Everything that Max and everyone else said about Aliens is 100% true - it's a completely kickass masterpiece that is essential to any film lover's appreciation of what movies are capable of.


The Kubrick Anthology mentions that the director of With a Friend Like Harry watched The Shining hundreds of times, learning nearly everything about filmmaking from one movie. And I feel the same way - The Shining (which I wrote about here) is one of the most perfectly composed, thematically rich, labyrinthine, visually enthralling, sonically compelling, challenging, total and pure film experiences of all time. There isn't a better horror film.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What you feel only matters to you.

As reluctant as I am to admit it, Zach Braff is adorable. His directorial debut, Garden State, is too earnest, openhearted, and just plain "golly-gosh" to truly hate. Braff is like the male Amelie, which makes his presence in The Last Kiss extremely disturbing. Because in director Tony Goldwyn's adaptation of a recent Italian film, Braff's impish, hangdog face becomes the vehicle for a neverending torrent of dull-witted, misanthropic bile. He may be cute, but he's completely evil.

Braff plays Michael, a nondescript dude on the verge of thirty who is going to have a baby with his girlfriend of many years, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). But he's bored, so he flirts with the idea of sleeping with a vapid, smarmy college student named Kim (Rachel Bilson). Michael's hijinks as a sexual predator are juxtaposed with the mind-numbingly offensive exploits of his friends - Chris (Casey Affleck), who enjoys screaming at the mother of his child; Izzy (Michael Weston), who possessively stalks his ex-girlfriend; and Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen), a grinning dipshit who describes his airheaded, indifferent, barely alive fuck buddy as "the perfect woman." Also, Jenna's parents (Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner) work through their own mundane marriage troubles. It's not the subject matter I find abhorrent - there have been many fine films about relationships and the growing pains of early adulthood. But The Last Kiss is so witless and free of any original or meaningful insight into its characters that it becomes a hateful, depressing death march. It panders in ugly cliches and lazy, sitcomlike observations - men are superficial and afraid of commitment, women are vindictive shrews, and there is no escaping a lame middle-class existence. And yet a tearful montage set to Coldplay makes the whole world better. Movies like this cause brain fever.

I wish I could say that I'm being hyperbolic, but I'm not. There were some talented people involved in this film - Braff, Wilkinson, Danner - but rather than elevating the material, they sink to its level. I can't decide which is the most disturbing scene of the year, Braff and Bilson's sex scene or the scene where Braff screams "FUCK YOU!" at his pregnant girlfriend. These characters are impossible to like, which wouldn't be a problem if this were directed by Todd Solondz or any director who can find the essential humanity in even the most repugnant characters. But the horrifying thing is, I think we're supposed to love these people. Paul Haggis' script does for infidelity what Crash did for relationships, namely to dumb things down to the point where we can only gawk at the inhuman, cartoonish, feeble-minded characters as they squawk nonsense at each other and wonder "Good lord, who are these people?" I assume at this point that Haggis' script for Million Dollar Baby was actually ghostwritten by Sir Francis Bacon. The Last Kiss is shot like a tampon commercial, and the soundtrack is a sub-Garden State mix tape assembled by Braff. Note to Goldwyn: don't let your star choose the music cues. That is the director's job (that's you). I can't imagine any possible reason why anyone would like this movie.

Here's why The Last Kiss really, really sucks: I am a twentysomething newlywed going through the challenges that these characters are dealing with. This movie is about the exact point that I'm at in my own life. And I cannot relate to one second of it. There's not a single moment in this movie that rings true - it's a complete and utter lie. It's the sort of bullshit that is actually dangerous, as it encourages complacency and adherence to routine. Marriage, and relationships in general, can be an adventure. The Last Kiss reduces life to a funeral procession. A funeral procession set to Coldplay.

Never see this movie, ever.

Rosemary's Baby or El Topo?

UPDATED: Hail Satan! While I love El Topo, I realize that its limited availability has kept most people from enjoying its insane genius. And Rosemary's Baby is one creepy, creepy movie (plus I'm always pro-Ruth Gordon). Sorry, by the way, for the late update - I went straight from work to The Black Dahlia, so I'll let the next round run a little later into tomorrow evening (say, 9ish) to compensate.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Trim Bin #39

- A while ago, I posted a link to the teaser trailer for Shortbus, the new John Cameron Mitchell movie. Here is the uncensored trailer. Excuse me while I go wash my eyes.

- Intrigue at Images Cinema on Monday night: the Williamstown Film Festival's advance screening of The Last Kiss sold out, largely on the strength of Blythe Danner, who was scheduled to appear and introduce the film (Blythe cancelled due to back problems but sent her love). When the cans containing The Last Kiss arrived, I noticed they were sealed with combination padlocks. The cans could only be unlocked with a special code - but wait, it gets spookier. Paramount hired two security guards to stand in the lobby during the movie, prepared to oust anyone using a camera. One of the guards sternly lectured the audience - a largely fifty-plus festival audience - about the damage that cell phone cameras are doing to the motion picture industry, and the negative impact this has on our filmgoing habits (more expensive popcorn, for instance). The guards even asked a photographer from the Advocate to hand over his camera - his still camera - before the film could begin.

It's been a while since I've casually thrown around the term "fascist," so I'll use it now. Have things really gotten this paranoid in the film industry? The sheer effort expended to keep a grainy, out-of-focus video file of a Zach Braff movie from ever hitting the seedy underworld of black-market video piracy is so transparently crazy that I cannot belive an audience of several hundred people didn't collapse in hysterical, jeering laughter at the sight of it. And oddly enough, they didn't even ask me any questions, even though the best-shot bootlegs are usually made in the projection booth.

As for The Last Kiss, director Tony Goldwyn did attend the screening, and he seemed pleasant, thoughtful and ambitious. It's too bad he directed one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

- The Gauntlet seems to be moving along nicely. Thanks to readers who keep coming back day after day to participate; I always look forward to checking the results, and I hope you do too.

- I Viddied it On the Screen's Alex Jackson was kind enough to provide me with a link to My Best Friend's Birthday, the unfinished movie Quentin Tarantino made with his friends in the 1980's. Like Kubrick's Fear and Desire, it's a genuienly encouraging experience, a seriously bad movie that nevertheless suggests future genius. It's the sort of movie that shows you what is innate and what is learned, and while it can be cringeworthy at times, it's impossible to hate. At the moment, it seems like only part one hasn't been made friends-only, so check it out while you still can.

"Friends-only video" - wow, what a concept...

- On October 6, The Departed opens. On October 6, Cinemark Friday Night Rewind will be screening The Lost Boys. October 6 will be a fine, fine day.

Films watched this week:

Mission to Mars 4
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Squid and the Whale
True Romance
Strangers with Candy
Scarlet Diva
The Last Kiss
The 400 Blows
Friday the 13th
Natural Born Killers

2001: A Space Odyssey or Enter the Dragon?

UPDATED: "2001 is god," indeed. Apologies to John Saxon (a demigod).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Eyes Wide Shut or Ikiru?

UPDATED: I'm sorry to see the missus' favorite movie lose, but Ikiru is as sweet and loveable as a chocolate covered puppy. Incidentally, these two films are closely tied in my head, as I took a class called Kurosawa and Kubrick in college, and had the pleasure of hearing both movies get grotesquely misinterpreted.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Dazed and Confused or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?

UPDATE: Dazed and Confused wins. Just keep livin', penis breath.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Videodrome or Nashville?

UPDATED: The way of the flesh wins it. Cronenberg is one of the most exciting directors working today, so it's a fair defeat. I will say this: Nashville is one of the defining works of American cinema. It's essential. But, in its own way, so is Videodrome. The thing is, everyone who submitted top tens chose such excellent films that every showdown feels like a triumphant victory and a bitter defeat. Oh well, it don't worry me.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

There is no escape from the funhouse!

Was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a fluke? Since his grisly 1974 masterpiece, Tobe Hooper's career has been wildly uneven, from the ongoing debate over who directed Poltergeist (has there ever been any solid reporting on this?) to fun but admittedly goofy movies like Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars to dreck like Spontaneous Combustion. And I won't even get into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, one of the most confounding films I've ever seen. Perhaps the best argument for Tobe Hooper's auteur status is The Funhouse, an unusually smart and atmospheric entry into the early-80's slasher boom.

The Funhouse
was released in 1981, the same year as Blow Out, and it has more in common with De Palma's brand of self-reflexive exercises in pure cinema than generic fodder like My Bloody Valentine. The opening scene, like the opening of Blow Out, references archetype-setting films like Psycho and Halloween in a way that resonates more deeply than simple cinematic name-dropping. While it is eventually revealed that the scene is a preteen boy's prank on his older sister, the echoes of Halloween's underaged sister-killer reverberate in creepy, unexpected ways. This is not to say that The Funhouse drowns in subtext; in fact, it's a refreshingly straightforward and unpretensious "boo!" movie. But Hooper and screenwriter Lawrence Block are smart enough to recognize the conventions of the then-new genre and defy them in interesting ways.

The prank victim in the opening scene is Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge), a fresh-faced teen preparing for a date with the Dorothy Hamill hairdo-sporting Buzz (Cooper Huckabee - best name ever). Amy's parents warn her against going to the carnival in town; apparently, after the same carnival passed through a nearby town the year before, two young girls were found murdered. Amy assures her parents that she won't go to the carnival, but of course, she and her friends go anyway. The teens smoke pot and giggle uneasily at the goofy attractions, like a macabre magic show by Marco the Magnificent (William Finley!). They also have a spooky run-in with a crazy old lady who prophesies death and despair (I love "crazy old prophet" characters). While the characters are somewhat underwritten, the actors succeed at making them likeable and relatable (particularly Berridge, who went on to play Mozart's wife in Amadeus). Eventually they decide to hide in the carnival's funhouse for the night, and as they fool around, I found myself admiring Hooper's resistance to the shallow moralizing that too often sinks these films - these are just kids having a fun time. But when the kids inadvertently witness a murder and learn the dark secret of the carnival barker's quiet, mask-wearing son, they find themselves trapped in the funhouse, trying to survive until morning. It's a straightforward horror premise, executed with remarkable style and atmosphere.

Much of the film's success can be attributed to the setting - the carnival isn't an over-the-top Hollywood set, but instead captures the eerie mixture of makeshift "amusement" and grungy carnyfolk that makes carnivals such a compelling experience. Hooper set up an actual travelling carnival on his Florida location, and the exterior lighting is mostly provided by the rides and attractions themselves. The result is uncanny; Hooper guides us to look our desire to be frightened in a new light. And as the film descends into the backstory of the central monster, it becomes impressively sleazy - when a monster mask is pulled away to reveal a much more horrifying face (this is one of Rick Baker's best works), it's a reminder that our "innocent" boogeymen are often rooted in something deeper and more horrific. The final scene of The Funhouse mirrors the hopelessness of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's ending in a knowing way; if there's a recurrent theme in Hooper's work, it's the idea of the neverending nightmare. It's an idea I wish he'd pursued more, but all the Manglers in the world don't change the fact that The Funhouse is an unheralded gem. Watch it this Halloween season in its original aspect ratio with the lights turned off - it's creepier than you remember.

Punch-Drunk Love or Yojimbo?

UPDATED: The samurai beats the plunger salesman. I would have liked to see Punch-Drunk Love win; it's the kind of movie that gets better with each viewing, and I think it will be an established classic in fifty years. Yojimbo is expertly made and lots of fun, but it's sort of cold and impersonal compared to Ran or Ikiru. However, Masaru Sato's score is undeniably awesome.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Psycho or Apocalypse Now?

UPDATED: When it becomes a contest between Psycho and Apocalypse Now, it's a little like trying to decide between the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. Coppola's acid-rock vision of Vietnam wins it by a vote. The horror...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Wicker Man or Blue Velvet?

UPDATED: I hate to be a sore loser, and The Wicker Man is a great movie, but really - the naked Britt Ekland movie? Over Blue Velvet? Over the severed ear and the bugs in the grass and the lady dancing on the car?

Ah well, that's that. This is a contest to inaugurate Cinevistaramascope's favorite film, so I like the idea that my opinion is no more or less valid than anyone else's. I sort of hate it when internet film critics make fun of their readers for having different taste, so let it be known that diverse opinions are embraced here. And and least my favorite film lost to an indisputably chilling and thought-provoking horror movie. Jeffrey, Sandy, Dorothy, Frank, Ben, you were beaten by the best. More to come soon. Sorry for rambling, but this has been a positive learning experience.

Yep, that's a human ear, all right.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Trim Bin #38

- I hope those of you who have participated in The Gauntlet are having fun, as I know I am. It's been a good way to find out where your loyalties are. The parings in this first round were completely random, and it's fun to watch people choose between two movies that are completely apples and oranges (though, as Chuck Klosterman points out, apples and oranges aren't actually very different). As the field narrows, upcoming rounds will examine each competing film in more detail, and hopefully you'll all get less polite and resort to childish name-calling - stay tuned!

- Yesterday, Jess and I saw Monster House in digital 3-D at the Crossgates Mall. Although I prefer the IMAX 3-D format (it's sharper and more immersive), the process was still a lot of fun, bringing the titular monster to creaky, spooky life. It's a nifty gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless; while it's a fun change of pace, ultimately good storytelling is the bottom line on how to get people back into cinemas. Truthfully, I stopped paying attention to the 3-D once the story - Monster House is a fun, surprisingly creepy movie very much in the vein of 80's Amblin productions, and it would have been on my all-time top 10 list when I was eight years old. I'm looking forward to The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D, but I found the trailer's assertion that the film has been stuck in two dimensions sort of smug; I heart Jack Skellington without the aid of special glasses, thank you very much.

- Check out these pictures of Kurt Russell's deadly car from Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Finally, a reason to look forward to Easter.

- This just became one of my most-anticipated movies: The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, a history of sexual subtext in cinema starring Slavoj Žižek and featuring a score by Brian Eno.

- This week has been encouraging for me. A piece I wrote about Marta Renzi's Porch Stories, my first for a newspaper, is running in the North Adams Transcript tomorrow. And Dennis Cozzalio ran a very kind mention of Cinevistaramascope in his Labor Day Weekend Reading List. I must confess that until recently, I thought this blog was read by about six people, so it's exciting to know that it's making tiny ripples in the world of online film writing (and that I don't completely suck at this). I don't want to overstate its significance; I just wanted to say thanks for reading.

Films watched this week:

The Godfather 10
A Wedding
Up in Smoke 7
Monster House
The Funhouse
The Howling 8

Ed Wood or Harold and Maude?

UPDATED: Harold and Maude wins by a vote. This is the closest pairing for me so far - Ed Wood is Tim Burton's best movie, Harold and Maude is Hal Ashby's best, and they're both completely sweet and inspiring. So I'm relieved that I didn't have to cast a tiebreaker vote - they're both just too wonderful.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Stop Making Sense or Raging Bull?

UPDATED: Looks like I'll have to cast the tiebreaker vote again. This pains me to do because the pro-Stop Making Sense comments are very sweet (always go with your heart). But my heart tells me to go with Raging Bull; borne out of desperation (Scorsese had just gone through a period of physical and emotional breakdown), it speaks to me in a way few films have - it touches the transcendent. But you emphatic Stop Making Sense fans, please hang around for the eventual wild card races.

Monday, September 04, 2006

You stopped talking because of Friederich Nietzsche?

I wasn't particularly looking forward to Little Miss Sunshine, as the trailers made it seem like a too-familiar collection of self-conscious "indie" quirk. And as the entire concept of independent cinema has been so frequently copied, co-opted, bought, sold, and processed, I wasn't in the mood for yet another movie that reminds us how every dysfunctional family is adorable in its own way. Luckily, while Little Miss Sunshine doesn't reinvent the mold, it cuts deeper than I expected. From the title card displayed over Steve Carrell's broken, teary-eyed face, the film displays an understated wit and sensitivity; it earns its laughs.

At the heart of the film is Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), a little girl who dreams of becoming Miss America. After Olive qualifies as a semifinalist in the Little Miss Sunshine competition, her entire family (for reasons too complicated to relate here) accompanies her on a two-day road trip to the pageant in California. A rickety old VW bus with a tempermental transmission houses Olive's dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker struggling to keep his finances and marriage afloat; mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), who stares at her husband with silent disdain; Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carrell), the self-declared "premier Proust scholar," who is recovering from a broken heart and a suicide attempt; teen son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence and jots "I hate everybody" on a notepad; and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who snorts heroin, swears like a sailor, and adores his granddaughter. The film could have easily devolved into a sitcom, turning the Hoovers into a group of one-dimensional caricatures. But while Little Miss Sunshine has some broad laughs (particularly at the expense of beauty pageant contestants), it never panders to its characters. Some of the funniest moments come from small bits of observation, such as Carrell's hilariously painful encounter with his ex-boyfriend and his new, more successful lover. While the scene ends on a punchline, the real humor can be found in Frank's wounded expression as he feigns happiness. It's the kind of moment that goes beyond the joke to reveal an underlying truth, and Little Miss Sunshine is full of such moments.

Husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, working on their first feature (previous credits include episodes of Mr. Show and the video for The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight Tonight"), and they achieve a fun, sunshine-yellow visual style that emphasizes the vast empty spaces that punctuate the American landscape - comedies are rarely this good-looking. But they're also smart enough to let the actors dominate the proceedings, and the well-cast ensemble has a field day with Michael Arndt's screenplay. Collette and Dano both project a quiet, seething anger that make them sweetly believable as mother and son. Kinnear has made a career out of playing smug authority figures, but he uncovers new shades of meaning in this particular smug authority figure. Arkin delivers Grandpa's profane words of wisdom with gusto, refusing to fall victim to the "horny old guy" cliché. But the real standouts here are Carrell, deserves an Oscar nomination for his subtle, bittersweet work as Frank, and Breslin (previously seen as Mel Gibson's hyperactive tot in Signs), whose wide-eyed, solemn dreams of being Miss America carry us through the film - you can't help but root for the kid.

Dayton and Farris balance slapstick with tragedy with the lightest of touches, creating a film that avoids sentimentality but inspires our optimism. As the Hoovers make their way towards the pageant, we observe how, no matter how hard they try to alienate themselves from one another, they remain a family. It's not the newest or boldest message, but Little Miss Sunshine earns it honestly. And the climax, which blows a big, gratifying raspberry at the "#1" mentality, is worthy of The Bad News Bears. The term "broad appeal" too often refers to completely generic films that have been made for noone in order to placate everyone. But Little Miss Sunshine is the best kind of crowd-pleaser; it's about our collective hopes and anxieties, our secret dreams, the ways in which we struggle to make any emotional connection, and the joy that comes from learning to understand one another. After a typical summer of prepackaged "fun," its a breath of fresh air.

Alien or My Own Private Idaho?

UPDATED: A unanimous victory for Alien. It's a bummer to see one of my personal favorites get so thoroughly beaten, but Alien is in my top twenty, and it's one of the films that started my obsession with movies, so it's an honorable defeat. Plus, I get to post a bloodied John Hurt, which is nice.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

It's a Wonderful Life or Akira?

UPDATED: It looks like I'll have to cast my tiebreaking vote for the first time with two very different films. I love Akira, but I'll have to go with It's a Wonderful Life. Even if it's overplayed, it's a lovely film with one of James Stewart's best performances. And if you think that this match was apples and oranges, wait for the next one.

Play the game (9/3/06)

Last week (sort of): The Untouchables

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or The Wild Bunch?

UPDATED: And it's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in another 1-0 victory! That's my choice as well, though if it had been Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it'd be another story.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Round 1

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Kill Bill: Vol. 2?

UPDATED: It's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in a landslide with a whopping 1-0 lead over Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Thanks to Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule for keeping the game alive (for at least another day). It's a bit saddening to see one of my top ten lose right out of the gate, particularly when all it took was one vote. But Leone's film is a masterpiece and a worthy adversary (even if I prefer Once Upon a Time in the West). Round 1 continues shortly.