Monday, October 30, 2006

It is more cruel not to be able to die.

The following was written as a contribution to the Vampire Blog-a-Thon hosted by Nathaniel R. at Film Experience Blog. Check it out for more Halloween goodies.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht lacks many of the conventional elements of a horror movie. There are no shocks designed to make the audience jump out of their seats, no elaborate special effects, and very little blood. The film's horror is philosophical, and it springs from our most intimate fears (fear of death, fear of madness, fear of entropy). The mummified corpses that open the film stare vacantly at us, as if they were posing an unanswered question. Werner Herzog, who seems constantly driven to stare life's all-encompassing mysteries straight in the eye, is the perfect fit for a vampire film; few directors are so familiar with the uncanny.

Herzog's remake stays close the the plot of F.W. Murnau's original (although, unlike Murnau, he was allowed to use the characters' original names as the copyright on Bram Stoker's had expired). The film follows Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) as he journeys to a village in the Netherlands in search of Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani), the object of his desire; a plague follows Dracula, killing and consuming nearly everything in his path. Herzog's changes to the film aren't structural but tonal. In Murnau's film, the plague that threatens to destroy an entire village is presented as an occasion for suspense - can anyone stop the monster before it is too late? But Herzog tells the same story with a silent inevitability. As Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), Lucy's husband, makes the long journey through the Carpathian Mountains to his new employer, the prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold takes the place of typical horror film music on the soundtrack (the piece was also used wonderfully in Terrence Malick's The New World). Herzog subverts our expectations throughout the film; while it's bleak and arguably nihilistic, our response isn't dread, but wonder. Herzog presents fleeting images - a ghoulish cuckoo clock, a bat slowly climbing a curtain - that create a world perched between realty and dreams. Herzog is often labeled a naturalist, but he's really a romanticist - he's drawn to the beauty of decay, collapse, and the end of all things.

At the center of Herzog's vision is Kinski as the lonely Count Dracula. Max Schreck's version of the character is an iconic boogeyman - a feral predator consumed by hunger and singleminded lust. Kinski is equally fearsome, but he's also more recognizably human. Dracula's feelings for Lucy are more romantic than carnal, but he is constantly betrayed by his own nature; the vampire appears embarrassed as he enter's Harker's bedroom late at night for a snack. Kinski weighs down the Count's movements with the fatigue of a thousand years - he almost seems to welcome the respite of a death at sunrise. Kinski is primarily known for his intensity and psychotic temper, but in this and Woycezk (which started filming just days after Nosferatu was completed), he displays astonishing vulnerability. Like the monster in Fuseli's The Nightmare, he is doomed to destroy everything he touches, even that which he desires most.

The saturated reds commonly associate with vampire pictures are absent here, replaced with funereal blacks, cold blues and vacant grays. The always-overcast sky looms over shadowy mountain passes, remote villages and barren landscapes that extend to the horizon. A ghostly palor covers not only Kinski but also Ganz and especially Adjani, whose porcelain beauty has never seemed more tragic. The story progresses with inexorable silence, accompanied by the ethereal score by Popol Vuh. The entire film is driven by a sense of creeping inevitability - only Renfield (played with scenery-chewing glee by Roland Topor, author of The Tenant) possesses a vitality and a gleeful brand of gallows humor. His madness puts him in harmony with the escalating chaos surrounding him.

As the plague and madness overwhelm the village, its residents (including an unusually ineffectual Van Helsing) try in vain to rationalise and solve the problem. A scene depicting members of the upper class going through the motions of a banquet and party among the rats carries a darkly funny charge as a reflection of the ever-changing state of European culture in the 20th century. The vampire here represents not only physical death but also the death of civilization, of enlightenment - of the soul. And Herzog provides no resolution, only the suggestion that evil cannot be stopped, but only travels unnoticed from one place and time to another, carrying out its unknown purpose. Herzog not only honors the original film but surpasses it with his Nosferatu, which is a deeper and more resonant experience; it finds poetry in the horror of the unreal.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

My Top 101

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
4. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
5. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
6. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
7. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
8. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
9. Kill Bill vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

10. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
11. El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)
12. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
13. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
14. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
15. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
16. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
17. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
18. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
19. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

20. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
21. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
22. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
23. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)
24. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962)
25. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
26. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
27. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
28. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
29. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

30. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
31. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
32. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1979)
33. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
34. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
35. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
36. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
37. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
38. Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
39. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

40. Aguirre the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
41. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
42. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
43. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
44. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
45. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
46. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
47. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
48. Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)
49. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)

50. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
51. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
52. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
53. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
54. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
55. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
56. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
57. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)
58. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
59. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

60. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
61. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
62. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
63. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
64. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
65. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
66. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
67. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
68. Barton Fink (Joel Coen, 1991)
69. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

70. Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998)
71. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
72. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
73. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
74. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
75. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
76. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
77. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
78. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
79. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)

80. Betty Blue (Jean-Jacques Beneix, 1986)
81. Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)
82. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
83. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
84. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
85. Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)
86. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
87. Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)
88. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
89. Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)

90. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
91. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
92. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)
93. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
94. 3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)
95. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
96. The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)
97. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
98. Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
99. Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
100. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
101. Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Cinevistaramascope's Top 40

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
3. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
4. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
6. Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)
7. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
8. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
9. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
10. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
11. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
12. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
13. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
14. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
15. Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
16. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
17. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
18. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
19. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
20. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
21. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
22. Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
23. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
24. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
25. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
26. Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)
27. Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988)
28. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
29. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
30. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
31. Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2003)
32. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
33. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
34. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
35. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
36. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
37. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
38. Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973)
39. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
40. El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)

Cinevistaramascope's Favorite Film

"Dear Mr. Clarke: It's a very interesting coincidence that our mutual friend Caras mentioned you in a conversation we were having about a Questar telescope. I had been a great admirer of your books for quite a time and had always wanted to discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial 'really good' science fiction movie. My main interest lies along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character: 1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. 2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of an impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future. 3. A space-probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars...[W]ould you consider...coming [to New York] with a view to a meeting, the purpose of which would be to determine whether an idea might exist or arise which would sufficiently interest both of us enough to want to collaborate on a screenplay." - Stanley Kubrick in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke, March 31, 1964

"The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize or analyze it."

"There are certain areas of feeling and reality which are notably inaccessible to words. Non-verbal forms of expression such as music and painting can get at these areas, but words are a terrible straitjacket. It's interesting how many prisoners of that straitjacket resent its being loosened."

"I think that if 2001 succeeds at all, it is in reaching a wide spectrum of people who would not often give a thought to man's destiny, his role in the cosmos, and his relationship to higher forms of life. But even in the case of someone who is highly intelligent, certain ideas found in 2001 would, if presented as abstractions, fall rather lifelessly and be automatically assigned to pat intellectual categories; experienced in a moving visual and emotional context, however, they can resonate within the deepest fibers of one's being."

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Night WE Stayed Home

Tonight, Jess and I embark on an epic viewing of the first five Halloween films. Why not parts six through eight, you ask? There are three reasons. First, because the fifth film is the last made in the 1980's and represents the end of an era before the drastic paradigm shift towards irony. Second, because Halloween 6 is not fit to be watched by humans. Third, because we need sleep.

Stay tuned.

6:13 PM: And so it begins.

6:15: Halloween is one of those rare movies (like Alien and The Shining) that is immediately scary. The classic synth score and all-time best opening titles make a perfectly creepy marriage. John Carpenter equals atmosphere.

6:18: Has any director ever gotten so much sustained tension out of a window light going out accompanied by a sustained high note?

6:27: The first film is a model of restraint compared to the rest in terms of body count. The nurse at the beginning lives because there's no narrative reason for her to die; it's hard to imagine her escaping the same fate today. Speaking of body count, we're currently at one.

6:35: I totally love P.J. Soles.

6:40: Carpenter uses the Sergio Leone style of spatial logic - that is, anything that exists outside of the frame is also invisible to the characters. Example: when Laurie Strode bumps into Sheriff Brackett, she should have seen him coming down the street several minutes earlier. I don't bring this up to nitpick; I'm actually quite fond of this kind of thing.

6:46: "Don't Fear the Reaper!" More cowbell!

6:54: Donald Pleasance is one of the all-time great screen actors, and Dr. Sam Loomis is his greatest creations. The monologue he delivers about Michael Myers' evil could have is pure hokum (and I think Carpenter knows it), but Pleasance makes us believe it with the conviction of his delivery and the fear in his eyes.

7:09: It's great how Carpenter juxtaposes sex and death with the foggy windshield in Annie's death scene. Slasher films afterwords always tried to capture the sex and death motif, but few did it with such subtlety. Body count is at two.

7:11: Jamie Lee Curtis is usually praised for her ability to scream, but I love the scenes of Laurie babysitting. We don't find out much about her - she's bookish and has no luck with the guys - but she's completely believable. And a great screamer.

7:21: Poor Bob, we hardly knew you. Body count is three.

7:23: P.J. Soles is totally dead. Body count: 4.

7:41: The unmasked Michael Myers looks like a young Jimmy Smits.

7:43: One of the all-time best final lines: "As a matter of fact, it was."

8:12: It's funny when a sequel to a surprise hit that costs a lot more than the original revisits the ending of the previous film with an inflated sense of self-importance. Such films include Back to the Future Part II, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and Halloween II, which opens with a crane shot, for Crom's sake. There's something endearing about it - the filmmakers are goofily acknowledging our heightened sense of anticipation.

8:15: "You don't know what death is." You rock, Mr. Pleasance.

8:17: Confession: between the ages of 7 and 9, I must have watched Halloween II at least 40 times.

8:30: It's sad that most Michael Myers masks sold around Halloween look more like the faux-Myers who gets blown up.

8:32: There's a humanity to the Halloween films that is absent from, say, Saw. For instance, it's nice that they took some time to depict Sheriff Brackett's grief over his daughter. The characters in this may be one-dimensional, but they're not just fodder.

8:55: On the other hand, that faux-Myers is none other than Ben Traimer, Laurie Strode's crush. That's pretty callous.

(pause for phone call with Mom)

9:28: "[G]ive the filmmakers credit. They use that gimmick to deliver the one scene I've been impatiently expecting for years and years in gore films: Finally, one of the characters kills himself by slipping on the wet blood and hitting his head on the floor. Sooner or later, it had to happen." - Roger Ebert

9:33: Whatever problems Halloween II has, the last 20 minutes are basically perfect. The extended chase sequence manages to outdo the first film's - I'm nervous even though I know the outcome.

9:37: I could listen to Donald Pleasance talk about the Druids for hours. I'm going to try to only refer to Halloween as "Samhain" from now on. That's so metal.

9:51: My review of Halloween II earlier this year was a bit too harsh: for whatever its flaws, I really love it. It's hard not to appreciate a gory slasher movie that begins and ends with The Chordettes' "Mr. Sandman."

9:54: Also, the body count on that one was 12, or 3 times the first film.

9:59: If Halloween has the best opening credits, than Halloween III has the silliest. They suggest that the film will be about fear of Colecovision. The Carpenter/Howarth score is pretty great, though.

10:04: I sure hate the Silver Shamrock jingle. Yes I do.

10:06: ATKINS

10:13: Clearly, robots were just the thing to keep the Halloween franchise alive.

10:17: Something about having the original Halloween on a tv set in Halloween III just feels wrong (even if the plot is unrelated to the first two).

10:29: The obligatory sex scene involving Tom Atkins and the much younger female lead is only slightly less unsettling than the tree rape scene in The Evil Dead.

10:35: "How old are you?" "Don't worry, I'm older than I look." Shudder.

10:43: Halloween III does have one excellent performance: Dan O'Herlihy as evil toymaker Conal Cochran. Even though Cochran's plot makes absolutely no sense, O'Herlihy seems to really get what a sick joke the film is, and he approaches his role with sinister glee.

11:09: I sort of respect Halloween III for its genuine nastiness. It unflinchingly kills an entire family with a miniature plague of snakes and bugs, and it does it with a wink. Like the tanning scene in Final Destination 3, it's crude but effective.

11:18: "Millions of years ago, before the dawn of history, there lived an ancient race of people - the Druids. Noone knows who they were, or what they were doing. But there legacy remains etched into the living rock...of Stonehenge."

11:31: The last scene of Halloween III, a nod to the unresolved, downbeat endings of 50's sci-fi like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders From Mars, is terrific. Final body count on this one is ten, plus a lot of dead robots.

11:38: The makers Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers clearly understood that this series is all about atmosphere, opening the film with a montage of midwestern harvest imagery. I, for one, appreciate the effort: it's a stark, effective little sequel. I love the idea that it was once number one at the box office.

11:41: Weird: the first few minutes, set in Smiths Grove Mental Hospital, remind of The Silence of the Lambs even though Halloween 4 was released three years earlier.

12:02 AM: Unfortunately, I need sleep more than I used to. This isn't over yet, though - parts 4 and 5 will make a nice Saturday morning double feature.

9:12: "Jamie's an orphan!" Wow, that's evil even for fifth-graders. The filmmakers lucked out with Danielle Harris, though; she's better than a little kid in a third Halloween sequel has any right to be.

9:14: This movie is so 1988.

9:29: One of my favorite 80's horror staples is the marauding truck-driving gang of shotgun-toting hillbillies who try to stop the monster only to get brutally killed (see also: Silver Bullet).

9:32: Why are parts 4 and 5 always on AMC? Remember when AMC had credibility?

9:52: Generally, shotguns aren't used for impaling. But to each his own.

10:23: Looks like blogger's sluggishness will bring this marathon to a close - I'm spending so much time fixing HTML that I can't keep up with the film. Perhaps I'll give Halloween 5 its own review sometime soon. Final body count on part 4 is fifteen or so. Donald Pleasance, you are sorely missed.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Trim Bin #45

- Cinevistaramascope turns one today. I promise that my writing will be at least 13% better this year. Low overhead - we pass the savings on to you!

- The full trailer for Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro's newest film, is here. I'm anxious to see it because Del Toro has become a stronger and more ambitious director with each film, and because if you've seen or read any interviews with the guy, you know that he is undoubtedly one of us. If Bravo repeats its 100 Scariest Movies special ad nauseum again this year, try to catch Del Toro talking about The Thing - the guy isn't faking it, he's a fullblown geek. And as I am also afflicted with geekdom, I'm always excited at the prospect of fully realized fantastic worlds. This film looks like it achieves that, and even better, it's not for the wee ones. The vibe I get is like Nightbreed, only much better; I can't wait to see if the film delivers on that promise.

- Tomorrow Jess and I will be embarking on a marathon viewing of Halloween 1-5 starting around 5:30, hopefully accompanied by a running blog commentary (if I think of anything interesting to say). Which slasher icon is your favorite? What is the strongest slasher series overall?

- Another holiday season begs the question: Why? Why? Why? Louis Black, you should know better. Amy Sedaris, I'm disappointed in you. Get bent, Martin Short.

- I hope The Gauntlet has been as fun for me as it was for you. Would anyone be interested in another game like this a while from now? Any suggestions for a new topic? I was thinking of worst movie; I'd like to see an argument about the merits of Leprechaun 4 vs. Troll 2.

- Finally, with October 31 just around the corner, it's important to remember this:

Films watched this week:

Ed Wood 10
Silver Bullet
Marie Antoinette
The Hidden
Week End
The Mummy (1932) 8
The Thing
(1982) 10
The US Vs. John Lennon
The Nightmare Before Christmas

Final Round



Tuesday, October 24, 2006

UPDATED: My two favorite movies will be competing against each other in the final round. This means two things. First, I'd like to congradulate you all on your impeccable taste. Second, huzzah! Congrats as well to the missus, who also had 2001 on her list and whose choices survived longer than anyone else's. I plan to arrange a proper top 40 based on a few factors after The Gauntlet is all done - everyone who initally submitted their top 10s contributed strong, unique choices. And now, The Gauntlet reaches its dramatic conclusion...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

This, Madame, is Versailles.

The films of Sofia Coppola are remarkable in their stillness. The depressed suburban languor of The Virgin Suicides and the unspoken loneliness felt by the two main characters in Lost in Translation are portrayed with silent contemplativeness, sidestepping plot contrivances in favor of dwelling on the poetry of a moment. The latter's famous opening shot, a closeup of Scarlett Johansson's backside as she lies idly in bed, summarizes Coppola's preoccupation with ennui; this shot is echoed in the first shot of Marie Antoinette, which introduces us to the titular character, clad in a ridiculously ornate blue dress and reclining, distracted, as she is attended to by a servant. The image has a painterly quality that evokes the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau (or, consequently, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, which is a clear influence on Marie Antoinette); accompanied by Gang of Four's "Natural's Not in It," about "the problem of leisure," the image sets the tone for the film, which is preoccupied with the monotonous excess of the queen's short life. And while this results at points in a maddening sense of emotional claustrophobia, there's no denying that Coppola exerts impressive control over every painstakingly created image - brings 18th-century France to life with the immediacy of a John Hughes movie. The film is Barry Lyndon meets Pretty in Pink, and the result is more compelling than you might expect from such a marriage.

We are introduced to Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) as she is about to be married to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), future king of France; she's a typical teenage girl in most respects, giggling over a portrait of her husband-to-be and crying as the French authorities confiscate her puppy (assuring her that she can have as many French dogs as she likes). Coppola invites us to consider what it must have been like to assume such power and status at fifteen; indeed, Antoinette behaves like an Age of Enlightenment-period Paris Hilton, throwing lavish parties, spending wildly on shoes and remaining happily oblivious to the problems of the outside world.

Coppola doesn't try to defend this blithe spirit, exactly; instead, she encourages us to understand that Antoinette is a product of her circumstances. The film wisely never departs from the queen's sheltered point of view to depict the poverty and suffering elsewhere; like Antoinette, we are presented with a narrow reality defined by privelege, status and routine (demonstrated in the series of hilariously repetitious wake-up calls orchestrated by the Comtesse du Noailles [Judy Davis]). It's not only a world where the poor are as tangibly real as Babar the Elephant, it's one where all vitality has been replaced with a paralyzing sameness. The problem of leisure, indeed.

Coppola's camera captures weddings, funerals and official court receptions with a deliberateness worthy of Kubrick; the royal family and various partygoers move from one point to another like the spacecrafts in 2001. As the characters are designed to be static, the vitality of the film lies in its detailed, vibrant surfaces - the costumes by Milena Canonero (who did Barry Lyndon as well as The Shining) are not only stunningly crafted, they're also playfully expressionistic, lending us insight into the psychological states of the characters (who are truly defined by what they wear). Director of photography Lance Acord also does stunning work here, both in the candlelit interiors and the pastoral vacuum of Antoinette's getaway in the country. And the soundtrack, which alternates Rameau with The Cure, helps define this not as a period piece but as merely another point in the ongoing human story.

The film is not quite as successful as Coppola's previous efforts (which are admittedly a tough act to follow). There are a handful of moments, such as one where complaints about Antoinette are literally written across the screen, in which the director's intentions are spelled out in a way that her other films avoided. Luckily, the film is guided through any rough spots by Dunst, who does fine work here - she creates a complex version of Marie Antoinette that is at once unsentimental and touchingly believable. The entire film is just as perfectly cast; Schwartzman, whose young king has trouble consummating the royal marriage, is hilariously understated and also demonstrates unexpected gravity and range as the film draws to its inevitable conclusion. Rip Torn is a delight as the lusty Louis XV, and Judy Davis summons remarkable reservoirs of bitterness as the joyless Comtesse. But it's Asia Argento that really steals the film in her handful of scenes as Madame du Barry, the older king's devoted courtesan; she's the most fully alive character at the film (thus inviting the scorn of royal Heathers played by Shirley Henderson and Molly Shannon), and Argento embraces the role with such gusto that we miss her once she's left the film (though that may be the point).

The Virgin Suicides is one of the most remarkably self-assured feature debuts of all time, so it's a little disappointing to see Coppola's intentions occasionally falter here (a sex scene between Antoinette and Count Fersen [Jamie Dornan] is uncharacteristically routine). However, this is only relative to Coppola's other films; like Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic a few years back, it's a small step down from the director's other work but it's still more compelling and brilliantly crafted than almost anything else out right now. The final shot is a heartbreaker - Coppola succeeds in finding a singular visual metaphor that ties the film together and expresses worlds of unspoken sadness at the fleeting nature of the present. While Coppola's vision and the formal restrictions of a period piece are often at odds with one another, the resulting friction is spellbinding.

Round 5



UPDATED: Not even an opium-smoking octegenarian can stop 2001, which will face either a nitrate-inhaling Dennis Hopper or a raw meat-munching Mia Farrow in the final round. It's nice to see Harold and Maude make it this far - a little heart can go a long way (especially if it's delivered in a hearse).

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Trim Bin #44

- Kate sent me this video made by her stepbrother and our elementary school classmate. I idolized him then - we would repeatedly watch Halloween 4 and debate the merits of Pink Floyd vs. Nirvana. Now he's become an auteur - I'm completely blown away by how playful, inventive and exciting this is. Cheers, Dave - I can't wait to see what's next.

- Jack was kind enough to share a link to Subterranean Cinema - I don't know how I ever lived without it. If you want to download the El Topo soundtrack, watch Godard's Weekend in its entirety, or read the screenplay of the unfilmed, Romero-directed version of The Stand, this is the place to go.

- This week was a big one for Jess and I, as we made a significant step into the next stage of our life. That's right: we bought an HD-DVD player (Toshiba's A1, to be precise). It was completely worth it. Watching Jarhead, I could practically make out individual grains of sand. And Full Metal Jacket looks every bit as searing as the 35mm print that Jess, Doug and I saw a few months back. If you're willing to place a bet on a format that might be gone due to a format war or lack of interest within a few years, I recommend this one.

Now I must go about the daunting process of deciding what is HD-worthy (it's like "sponge-worthy," only geeky and sad).

- I'm embarrassingly captivated by Asia Argento's video blog.

- What are you watching this Halloween?

Films watched this week:

The Science of Sleep 8
Friday the 13th Part VI 5
Manhattan 10
Batman Begins
The Fly (1986) 10
Jarhead 9
Sleepy Hollow 8
The Dead Zone

Wild Card #2

This round is simple: make the best argument you can for any of the films voted out of The Gauntlet. You have until Saturday night at 8PM. The winner may choose one of the following
five prizes:

A DVD copy of the director's cut of Natural Born Killers.
A giant wall-sized banner of The Good Thief.
Ten 35mm frames from Nadja.
A Boobah.
Any one DVD burned from our collection.

The full list of eligible films is included below. Best of luck.

Kill Bill vol. 2
The Wild Bunch
My Own Private Idaho
Stop Making Sense
Ed Wood
Punch-Drunk Love
Eyes Wide Shut
Enter the Dragon
El Topo
The Shining
King Kong
Night of the Hunter
Before Sunrise
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
It's a Wonderful Life
Raging Bull
The Wicker Man
Rosemary's Baby
Blade Runner
Apocalypse Now
Dazed and Confused
Mulholland Drive
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Bringing Out the Dead

UPDATED: In the absence of votes I decided to leave this round up to chance, which puts Rosemary's Baby back in competition. Blogger was having unknown problems last night, so the first part of round 5 should begin shortly and run until Tuesday night. We're in the home stretch.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

UPDATED: Hooray! My favorite film bounces back to win 6-0 against Bringing Out the Dead (an excellent film in its own right). I couldn't be more pleased. It's been gratifying to see the momentum behind Scorsese's film, and who knows - it could still make a comeback. But for now, here's to your fuck.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

UPDATED: It's another tie, and of course I have to give it to 2001. It's no less awe-inspiring than it was when I first saw it more than fifteen years ago - in fact, it keeps getting better as I get older and (relatively) wiser. It's the kind of film that expands the possibilities of what cinema is capable of expressing. It's the kind of film that reduces me to hyperbole.

It is nice to see a Cronenberg movie make a strong showing, though, and I wouldn't mind at all if it were voted back in during the next wild card round; rewatching The Fly last week, I was reminded yet again of what a compassionate, humane filmmaker Cronenberg is when you strip away all the gore. He's got a sharp eye, a brilliant mind, and a surprisingly warm heart, and that's a fantastic combination for a director.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A bird in the hand is worth my bush.

Perhaps no artistic medium is as closely tied with the language of dreams as film. This results in an enormous challenge for any filmmaker who attempts to depict dreams in cinema - how does one differentiate a dream from the inherently dreamlike texture of any film without creating something overly self-conscious or contrived? And this is also the larger question for any artists concerned with dreams - how does one deliberately craft the uncanny? With The Science of Sleep, a film about a man who has trouble separating dreams from reality, we are given a possible answer. The film suggests that dreams are no more or less real than waking life; while this is not a new idea, The Science of Sleep is unique in that its dream sequences are not designed for critical analysis; for director Michel Gondry, the mind is magical, and dreams are depicted not intellectually but with a whimsical sense of awe (he took a similar approach to memories with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The result is often wondrous, sometimes frustrating, and ultimately quite sweet.

Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal), an aspiring artist and self-proclaimed inventor, arrives in Paris to live in his mother's apartment building after the death of his father. Spending his days working at (or skipping) a boring job at a calendar company, Stéphane becomes smitten with his neighbor, Stéphanie, who shares his sense of childlike eccentricity. But Stéphanie is also more mature than Stéphane, who is unable to cope with his emotions on an adult level; his bouts of self-destructive adolescent behavior, her tendency towards emotional remoteness, and their shared insecurity and fear of loss keep them from connecting. And Stéphane retreats into a dreamworld somewhat reminiscent of Sam Lowry's in Brazil, where he can assume the role of a celebrity, a visionary, or an adventurer. Dreams and waking life collide and reverborate throughout the film; what could have quickly become jarring and chaotic is held together by Gondry's sense of play and his inventive visual style, which ties together handheld camerawork, Pee-Wee's Playhouse-esque stop motion animation, rear projection and other sleights of hand to create a fully realized cinematic world created out of the director's own intensely personal dream logic.

The film teeters precariously on the edge of self-indulgence; during the first reel, I found myself detached from and increasingly impatient with the nifty yet seemingly disconnected and emotionally hollow images. But as Stéphane and Stéphanie race around her apartment planning an animated film about a "vegetable Noah's Ark," the film finds its heart and its narrative focus. Bernal and Gainsbourg create a believably idiosyncratic pair; as they fiddle with a one-second time machine, it's impossible to imagine either character belonging with anyone else (for what else is love but the embrace of a dream that has not yet proven itself to be true?). It's agonize to watch these two dance around the obvious - at first, it seems like Gondry is trapped in that horrible romantic comedy formula that introduces two obvious soulmates and then conspires to keep them apart for no other reason than to pad the running time. But as we get to know the characters, Gondry reveals a bittersweet truth in their inability to embrace their dreams, reflecting the ways in which we all make love harder for ourselves to experience than it has to be.

Bernal succeeds in creating a character that is essentially sympathetic even when his behavior is creepily self-serving (such as breaking into Stéphanie's apartment to leave her a present); no matter how many times the guy fails, you keep rooting for him. Dressed in his father's too-small coat, he's like a boy playing at being a man. And Gainsbourg is a revelation as Stéphanie; while Stéphane wears his heart on his sleeve, Stéphanie remains in many ways an obscure object of desire, and Gainsbourg creates layers of elusive meaning with poignant grace. The Science of Sleep is a delicate contraption held together by the airest bits of cinematic trickery (a prancing stuffed pony, Spin Art, a city made of cardboard) that sometimes undercut the film's emotional impact. And yet, upon leaving the film, you may experience that wonderful sensation of viewing the world through slightly different eyes. It's an effect, of course, that is not unlike waking from a particuarly strange and beautiful dream.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Round 4

UPDATED: The two most lovey-dovey films in competition go head to head, and Harold and Maude emerges victorious over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I would have chosen Michel Gondry's film by a very narrow margin; its visual inventiveness and narrative originality edge out Hal Ashby's more laid-back filmmaking style. But Harold and Maude is completely loveable, Ruth Gordon's performance is one of the all-time greats, and I'm always pro-Bud Cort.

Top 10: Zombies

There seems to be some ambiguity about what constitutes a zombie; most of the "zombie movie" lists I consulted include Re-Animator but not Frankenstein, even though the two films have identical concepts of the undead. So for the purposes of this list, zombie is defined as a reanimated corpse with a tangible physical presence* that may not but most likely will be partial to eating human brains.

1. Bub (Howard Sherman), Day of the Dead
2. Shark-fighting zombie (?), Zombie
3. Madeleine (Madge Bellamy), White Zombie
4. The Monster (Boris Karloff), Frankenstein
5. Nathan Grantham (John Amplas), Creepshow
6. Baby Selwyn (voice of Vicki Walker), Dead Alive
7. Hare Krishna zombie (?), Dawn of the Dead
8. Tarman (Allan Trautman), Return of the Living Dead
9. Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), Re-Animator
10. Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun of the Dead

*As opposed to a spectral undead presence, like Griffin Dunne in An American Werewolf in London - that's another list.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Trim Bin #43

- On the one hand, I'm not actually in The Departed. I sort of am - I'm technically in the frame, but I'm hidden behind an ambulance. On the other hand, the scene is more important than I thought it was the day of filming. There were actually two scenes being shot on the same day at the location - an alley near the Children's Museum - and I worked on a tracking shot of a crime scene that begins the film's denouement (if you've seen it, you know the one I mean). So I'm happy to have witnessed a semi-important scene, and I'm even more happy that the shot looked exactly as I thought it would - that is, I was able to look at the setup and the lens and envision the final result accurately. It's a small thing, but at least it means I'm learning something.

I left War of the Worlds off my top 10 last year because I figured Spielberg was well-represented with Munich and there were plenty of great films in 2005 anyway. But it would be absurd to leave The Departed off the list this year - I'm not sure if I'll see a better film this year. It's mordantly funny, boasts a brilliant script and all-around great performances (including Jack Nicholson's best performance since The Shining), and represents Scorsese at the top of his game, from the staccato cutting to the seductive camerawork to the perfect soundtrack (he may have used "Gimme Shelter" before, but he's never used it better). It's a film filled with unexpected pleasures ("A boot! He hit him with a boot!"), and it filled me with that electric sense of awe that comes from being taken on a journey by a master storyteller.

Fuckin' rats.

- Jack sent me this montage of scenes from Grind House (they appear to be from the RR-directed segments). That faux-trailer for Machete (starring Danny Trejo) taught me how to love again. I can't wait to get a glimpse of Tarantino's Death Proof (with Kurt Russell!).

- Another Halloween, and the question remains: will this ever be released on DVD?

- On October 2o and 21, Pothole Pictures is showing a double feature of Ed Wood and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?

- David Lynch plans to self-distribute his newest film, Inland Empire, in North America. The film received wildly mixed responses after it played the Venice and New York Film Festivals. But good or bad, Lynch is incapable of being uninteresting, so I can't wait to see it. The short featured below, Rabbits, is the first in a nine-episode series from, and the titular characters appear in Inland Empire. I repeat - I can't wait to see this:

Films watched this week:

The Road to Guantanamo 6
The Departed
The Lost Boys
Body Double
Raising Cain
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(2003) 7
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
(1971) 10
Mutual Appreciation
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Wild Card #1

Time for revenge.

When I was in high school, I was known for basically one thing: my mastery of the Kevin Bacon game. It's about as impressive as being a master cup stacker or a pro Jenga player, and I wore the badge of "Kevin Bacon Guy" with self-loathing. Now it's your turn.

Below, I've listed two actors; your goal is to connect them in six steps or less. For instance, if I were to say "Buster Keaton and Michael Keaton," you might respond with the following:

Buster Keaton was in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel, who was in Watership Down with John Hurt, who was in Dogville with Nicole Kidman, who was in My Life with Michael Keaton.

The person who does this in the fewest steps by 8pm tomorrow night wins the choice of one film previously voted out of The Gauntlet as the wild card choice in the next round, as well as one of these five fabulous prizes:

A VHS copy of The Wizard, starring Fred Savage.
A DVD copy of the director's cut of Natural Born Killers.
A giant wall-sized banner of The Good Thief.
Ten 35mm frames from Nadja.
A Boobah.

The challenge is as follows:

Liv Ullman and Hulk Hogan

Best of luck.
UPDATED: Congrats to Jess C. for bridging the gap between Ullman and Hogan in just two steps! I applaud your tenacity - please leave a comment here with your wild card choice and your preferred prize. Another contest is coming soon - anyone can win!

Monday, October 09, 2006

UPDATED: Faithful readers, you have again chosen uplifting over scary. And while I would have gone with De Palma's finest film, it pleases me to see that Bringing Out the Dead is finally getting the sort of recognition it deserves. Next comes the first of two wild card contests; feel free to continue enjoying Mother, Jugs and Speed.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

UPDATED: The star child beats the monster behind Winkie's. No hay venda, Dave.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Trim Bin #42

- The season opener of Lost had a great opening, but the rest of the episode, while gripping, felt a bit off (and marred by too many commercial breaks). But whenever M.C. Gainey, as an "other" named Zeke, entered a scene, I was completely creeped out and riveted. Gainey is one of those great, unheralded character actors that consistently does dependably strong work (check out his hilarious brief turn in Sideways). Gainey may be the closest thing we have to a Tom Atkins working today; if you're still not impressed by Lost's dense (and unusually meditative for television) central mystery, than check it out for Zeke.

- Taschen, publisher of the Kubrick Anthology, continues to do strong work with Erotic Cinema, a history of sex in the movies. The text covers a variety of sexual preferences and fetishes that have been represented over the years in film, as well as the ongoing calls for censorship surrounding sexually frank cinema. And the book is gorgeously illustrated - it did what any film book should do, which is to motivate me to seek out films I've never seen (Querelle and In the Realm of the Senses are at the top of the list). We found our copy at a Borders, so if you, like me, are both a cinema devotee (I assume you are if you're here) and a perv (who isn't?), I highly recommend keeping an eye out for it.

- The teaser for 300 is visually stunning and promises the sort of unapologetic phallocentrism that we associate with the name "Frank Miller." Let's just hope it's not another Troy (which also had an awesome trailer).

- Dennis Cozzalio at SLIFR and Jim Emerson at Scanners both recently linked to a survey at Andy Horbal's No More Marriages that asks, "What is the single best American fiction film released during the last 25 years?" Like The Gauntlet, it's an attempt to identify the definitive films of our time. And besides, these things, whether they are at all important or just completely trivial, are always a whole lot of fun.

- While I won't be writing a review of The Departed due to my obvious bias, I will note its 95% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes and encourage you to check it out (if for no other reason, because if that Dane Cook movie beats it at the box office, I'm going to eat my own hands). And, just to remind you that Martin Scorsese is the greatest director alive, here's his majestic short "Life Lessons," from New York Stories:

Films watched this week:

Phantom of the Paradise 10
Dennis the Menace
The Road to Guantanamo
Mean Streets 10
Shaun of the Dead
Maximum Overdrive DOES NOT COMPUTE

UPDATED: Just when I've praised you, loyal readers, for having hearts three sizes too big, you let me know that you still have plenty of love for cigarette burns, cancer guns and TVs with guts. I'd have gone with Dazed and Confused and for me the best Cronenberg movie of 1983 is The Dead Zone (a film that anticipates A History of Violence in a number of fascinating ways), but any movie where Debbie Harry gets seriously kinky is okay by me. Plus, it's, like, smart and stuff. And you just can't beat that trailer.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What's a mook?

Charlie (Harvey Keitel), the protagonist of Mean Streets, has a habit of holding his hand over a flame, testing himself to see how long he can bear the pain. It's an act of penance, but more than that, it's a confrontational gesture. Charlie is constantly daring himself to look the fact of his own moral fallability and the seemingly predetermined circumstances of his life - what he calls "the pain of hell" - square in the eye. It's a problem we all have to deal with: we don't know why we're here, where we're going, or if we're doing alright, and we all live with it in our own ways. Some of us go to the movies. And the cathartic joy of Mean Streets comes from Martin Scorsese's uncompromising declaration that movies do in fact have meaning. One of the first shots disappears into the blinding light of a film projector; it's a moment that exclaims, boldly and brilliantly, "LIFE IS A MOVIE!"

"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it."

Charlie is a small-time hood who works for his uncle in Little Italy. Too sensitive to succeed at being a gangster but stuck in a state of inertia that prevents him from leaving the neighborhood, Charlie takes a stab at redemption by trying to help out Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a smirking rebel without a clue who is first seeing blowing up a mailbox for no apparent reason. Charlie is also sleeping with Theresa (Amy Robinson), a fact he keeps secret because she's Johnny Boy's cousin and because his uncle disapproves of her (Theresa is an epileptic, and there is little patience in this world for the sick). Charlie's failed attempts to get Johnny Boy to pay his debts to his friend Michael (Robert Romanus) and his inability to have a real relationship with Theresa drive Mean Streets to an inevitable, violent conclusion. Scorsese documents the ways that things can go wrong - our tendency towards personal entropy - with unflinching precision. Charlie recounts a dream to Theresa where "We're just about to make love and I come. The only thing is, I come blood." In the world that Charlie (and Scorsese) is born into, their higher aspirations - towards love, towards faith, towards transcendence - are constantly undercut by the reality of their hypermasculine masculine way of life. And for Scorsese, who famously considered becoming a priest before finding his real calling, the question becomes: where is God in this mess?

Ah, but the genius of Scorsese is that he would never put things in such didactic terms. He lets the camera ask such questions - there has never been any other director with such a seemingly effortless command of manipulating the frame to imply unspoken layers of meaning that even his characters remain blissfully unaware of. The camera is the subtext with Scorsese; witness the handheld work in Mean Streets, which in a full-blown brawl, a lighter moment as Charlie and Johnny Boy joust with trash can lids, or a bracingly intimate post-coital exchange invests the film with both vitality and a sense of impending doom. When Johnny Boy struts across a bar in glorious slow motion, a girl in each arm, to the mesmeric opening guitar riff of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," the image is seducing us with everything that is at once magnetic and pathetic about this cocky kid. Scorsese elevates the people from his neighborhood to an almost mythic status, and why not? Don't most of us try to find the grander narrative - the big picture - in our stories every day?

This grandiose approach is saved from becoming totally overblown by Scorsese's meticulous attention to detail. The famous "Joey Scallops/Joey Clams" exchange between Keitel and De Niro rings true because it resembles the awkward back-and-forths we all struggle through as we attempt to understand each other. Keitel is fantastic here, allowing Charlie's existential doubt to remain internalized, revealing itself in subtle ways (note Charlie's tendency to retreat to the movies). And De Niro has simply never been more fun - Johnny Boy's perpetual "fuck you" smirk renders a defiantly static character totally compelling (he's an idiot, but you can't take your eyes off of him). The leads are supported by the underused Robinson, as well as Romanus and David Proval as Charlie's friends. The cast is completely believable; the film feels as authentic and unaffected as the Super8 home movies that play under the opening credits.

For Scorsese, who made Mean Streets after the Roger Corman-produced cheapie Boxcar Bertha, the film represents a decisive step into the world of telling personal stories, and whether it's another crime film, a departure like The Age of Innocence, or a potboiler like Cape Fear (Scorsese, thank God, has no pretentions about genre filmmaking), his oeuvre is unique in that for more than thirty years, it features not one film that could have been directed by anyone else. And Mean Streets, which carries in its DNA both a European aesthetic and the punch-in-the-gut impact of The Public Enemy, can be read as a cinematic declaration of independence. From this point on in Scorsese's career, life and the movies would become inseperable, and there would be no turning back.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

UPDATED: It seems that my readers are a bunch of softies - you sure do love, well, love. And while I'm the kind of bleak-minded miser that prefers "this is the end, my only friend" to "if you want to be free, be free," I'm glad to have such unabashed romantics around - you bring good mojo.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Round 3

UPDATED: I'm sorry to see Alien go, as it's one of the two or three most visually stunning horror movies ever made, and it's still scary to me after countless viewings. Also: It's. Better. Than. Aliens.

However, it's interesting to see the support that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is getting. It'd be very interesting if a newer film ended up winning The Gauntlet, and it couldn't happen to a sweeter film.

You never go ass to mouth!

I recently received my first negative feedback; a person who said he usually enjoys my articles for Focus Arts Monthly objected strongly to my defense of Kevin Smith in September's issue. I'll stand by the article, which praises Smith's laid-back visual style and unpretentious, honest characterization. Unfortunately, Smith does little to help my argument with Clerks II, a disappointingly bland return to Leonardo, New Jersey. Here, the writer/director isn't just laid-back - he's practically asleep.

Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (a weird-looking Jeff Anderson) are now working at a Mooby's fast food restaurant after Randal accidentally burned the Quick Stop and RST Video to the ground (this is Smith's first mistake - Mooby's isn't nearly as funny as the convenience store). Dante is about to leave New Jersey and move to Florida with his overbearing girlfriend (Jennifer Swalbach). Dante and Randal are torn between the comfort of familiarity and the desire for personal growth, but Smith has little to say here - it's a sitcom-y premise that recreates the episodic structure of Clerks without capturing its endearing observational style. Aside from the pop-culture references and bestiality humor, there's little hear that bears Smith's signature; this plays more like a Kevin Smith knockoff directed by Shawn Levy. The raunchy humor here isn't transgressive, it's just pureile and dull. And the grainy black and white of the first film has been replaced by a color palette that is flat and cheap-looking; although I've always enjoyed (or at least shrugged off) Smith's tendency towards medium two-shots, this one just looks straight-to-video.

There are two strong performances in the film that actually serve to highlight how unlikeable the leads have become. Trevor Fehrman provides most of the film's sparse laughs as Elias, a Transformers-loving born-again Christian who suffers Randal's torment. Fehrman creates a character that is ridiculous yet somehow endearing, so Randal's constant insults just come off as mean-spirited and unfunny. When he bashes Lord of the Rings as "three movies of walking," even this Star Wars loyalist found the scene stupid and pointless. And Rosario Dawson is charming and luminous as Becky, the manager of Mooby's (she looks great in uniform), who quietly carries a torch for Dante. Dawson jumps into Smith's vulgar humor with such cheer that it's not only improbable to believe that she's stuck at a burger joint, it's impossible to believe that she pines for O'Halloran, who comes off here as leering and creepy. The leads are whinier and less relatable than they were in the first film, and since Smith has nothing interesting to say about their arrested development, watching them mope around for ninety minutes is an interminable affair. And aside from a terrific reference to The Silence of the Lambs, Jay and Silent Bob don't have much to do here; Smith gives Jason Mewes repeated references to his real-life drug problems, which just feels exploitative.

I fear that Smith may have cast Swalbach, his wife, as a metaphor for Jersey Girl: Dante's conflict between the desire to conform to expectations of maturity and his affection for his youth could be read as Smith's justification for returning to the same characters over and over. But even though Jersey Girl wasn't a very good film, I find that I respect it more than Clerks II - the attempt to tell a mushy story about parenthood bound to alienate his fans, for all its faults, was a genuine artistic risk. It's Clerks II that feels calculated - with every strained joke and self-conscious reference to a previous film, the movie reeks of desparation. The final scenes are actually sort of sweet, as Dante and Randall find a way to grow up without losing their identities. I hope that Smith eventually does the same.