Saturday, September 27, 2008


The movie shoot starts today - I'll try to post on its progress at The Black Light Journals. Other than that, I'll be too busy to write until after Columbus Day. Expect a review of The Sweet Hereafter, notes on working as an extra on Taking Woodstock, and a proper appreciation of Paul Newman when I get back. The image-guessing game will resume in November.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm not set up to mold hard rubbers.

I've never talked about politics much in this blog except when relevant to the movie I'm discussing. While I enjoy the political rants Jeffrey Wells and Dave Poland mix in with their box-office rants, I don't really feel qualified to publish my opinions on the subject, and I don't want to end up stammering through a segment on The O'Reilly Factor. Plus, while I'm for one candidate, I've never found it constructive to focus one's energy on being against the other, so a poster in the sidebar has felt like enough. However, there's been something in the air for a while - let's say since, I don't know, August 29 - that has made it harder not to vent my suspicion our country actively becoming more ridiculous. For that reason, Burn After Reading, the Coens' latest comedy, is not only a pleasure as a return to form after the disappointment of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, but as a series of cathartic belly laughs. The Coens take dead aim at a type of anti-intellectualism, self-absorption and willfull ignorance that is, sadly, uniquely American in character. It's cynical, even smug, but it couldn't have come at a better time.

Reminding of an absurdist version of Syriana, the movie revolves around dim-bulb gym employees Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) as they find a disc containing the memoirs of recently fired CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). Mistaking Cox's memoirs and financial statements for top-secret information, Linda and Chad attempt to blackmail the pompous, alcoholic analyst. Cox's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, womanizing federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) are eventually drawn into a plot through a chain of events too nonsensical to describe, and I mean "nonsensical" as a compliment. Since Blood Simple, the Coens have returned again and again to the idea of plans gone awry, becoming masters of the convoluted plot. In Burn After Reading, it's the characters' superficial, self-centered natures that spirals the plot into levels of comic absurdity. The film's comic approach recalls Dr. Strangelove, starting as a straight-faced thriller before the plot is led astray by plastic surgery, sex toys and Dermut Mulroney. No less a comment on the state of our union than No Country For Old Men, the Coens' newest comes with the suggestion (like an R-rated version of the second half of Wall-E) that our self-destruction will be brought about by our desire to have things newer, faster, easier, cheaper and now.

Handsomely shot by DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Burn After Reading actually works pretty well as an example of the genre it's subverting. Exposing the essential arbitrariness of the topical thriller, the Coens succeed at deflating the self-importance of the "serious" thrillers that have become fashionable in recent years. Many of those star Clooney, of course, who gleefully sends up his macho appeal here - Pfarrer is like a comic flipside of Michael Clayton (the Coens would have correctly seen that film's protagonist as a schmuck), a barrel-chested masculine archetype who, at heart, wants his mommy. There are no heroes in the film, and no Lebowskis either; the only reasonable and decent character, gym manager Ted (Richard Jenkins, on a roll this year), is eventually punished for his decency. The audience's only surrogates are two CIA officers (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, both brilliant) left to pick up the pieces. If we don't see ourselves in the buffoons, we're left, like Simmons, to lean back in our chairs and exclaim, "Jesus fucking Christ."

It'll be interesting to see if Burn After Reading improves after repeat viewings. The first time I saw The Big Lebowski I liked it, but it only revealed its brilliance around the third or fourth time. Right now, Burn After Reading seems like a top-notch comedy, its sharp dialogue worthy of Hawks and Wilder complete with the needless vulgarity their movies would certainly contain were they working today. It's a movie filled with acidic pleasures, among them Malkovich's upper-class twit, Swinton's low-key sadism, and Pitt, as much of a revelation playing a perpetually upbeat moron as he was playing Jesse James. Best of all is Frances McDormand as Linda, who, with her shallow, self-serving provincialism, tendency to act before thinking and lack of understanding about contemporary U.S. relations with Russia, reminded me exactly of - well, it was a much-needed laugh.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Title Card #80

Here we are at the edge of the world of human history.

First, a confession: I opted to watch the animal cruelty-free version of Cannibal Holocaust. I have a high tolerance for shock, but actual death is too much for me, and the death of adorable turtles and monkeys is even worse. While my view of nature is closer to Herzog than Pocahontas, I want to know that if I'm going to see cute little animals offed, it's for a valid artistic reason. And though the movie's defenders claim that the animal snuff add to the movie's verisimilitude, I don't expect to rewatch it to find out. Cannibal Holocaust's crass mix of vulgarity and self-importance places it near the bottom of the barrel even by grindhouse standards.

Director Ruggero Deodato frames Cannibal Holocaust from the start as a commentary on representations of violence in the media. The movie starts with a team led by an anthropology professor (Robert Kerman) who travel deep into the Amazon to find a missing documentary crew. They return with the crew's footage, and the second half is a first-person account of the shocking practices of the native tribes and the manipulative and cruel steps the filmmakers take to improve their footage. Deodato's explicit point is that more "civilized" Westerners are no less capable of cruelty than the "savages," literally ending with the professor's line "I wonder who the real cannibals are." Any claim to sociological importance is deflated by Deodato's sleazy approach to the material. When the rescue team observes the ritualistic rape of a woman guilty of adultery, the camera is less unflinching than prurient - prolonged shots of the woman's writing, mud-caked body give the impression that Deodato isn't commenting on the image as much as he's getting off on it. The entire movie is just as crass, demanding to be taken seriously even as it caters to the lowest common denominator. Worse still, the film's criticism Vietnam-era media is incoherent, as the images of wartime atrocities broadcast on the nightly news was largely responsible for ending the war. I can appreciate disturbing material employed for a purpose, but Cannibal Holocaust says very little as loudly and obnoxiously as possible.

That the film has been taken seriously by some very intelligent film writers suggests the level to which shock has lost all meaning. We can see its influence in unexpected places; watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, I was struck by the lingering close-up of an a bloody aborted fetus late in the film, after the filmmakers had earlier opted to cut away from a tense but conventional sex scene. Interesting how sex is deemed exploitative and gratuitous, yet the fetus, which offers no insight into the film's meaning, is worthy of inclusion. Cannibal Holocaust is similarly disconnected from any pleasure (the consensual sex is literally dirty) or anthropological interest in the tribes beyond shock value. The difference, of course, is that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is serious-minded and skillfully crafted; Cannibal Holocaust is devoid of any real perspective on its subject beyond the simplistic nihilism that is currently trendy in my generation. Both versions of Funny Games are similarly didactic, but Haeneke is able to make the same points with precision and tension (and with little gore) because we're invested in his characters and scenario. And a sense of humor would have helped - Eli Roth cited Cannibal Holocaust as an influence on Hostel and Hostel: Part II, but those movies work well as gallows satires of Western arrogance and unchecked masculinity. Only Riz Ortolani's hilariously deadpan score offers any such pleasures here.

But even on the level of its shallow aspirations, Cannibal Holocaust is a failure. The actors can't pull off the transition from "civilized" to "primitive," and when they turn violent, it's arbitrary and difficult to buy. Deodato is terrible at generating tension - without any suspense or investment in the movie's outcome, it just made me feel annoyed and grossed-out, like I was eight again and hanging out with dumb kids who like to torture animals. And while the movie is frequently cited as a predecessor of The Blair Witch Project, it can't hold a camera to that movie in terms of believability. I', all for using shocking material to make a point, or even to entertain. Cannibal Holocaust takes a dump on the floor and gets in your face to argue that the smell is your fault.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Title Card #78/79

I believe God is a sadist, but probably doesn't know it.

Sam Peckinpah reportedly viewed Stanley Kubrick as his rival through much of his career. Why he felt he was in competition with a director whose work had little in common with his is unclear, but Peckinpah probably didn't feel the need to explain his grudges. With this in mind, it's easy to see 1977's WWII drama Cross of Iron as Peckinpah's Paths of Glory. Both films have as their protagonist a strong, rebellious officer at ideological odds with an officious, conformist superior, and both feature a pivotal scene where the protagonist tells a seemingly sympathetic commanding officer that he's a hypocrite. But where Paths of Glory unfolds with chess-like precision, Cross of Iron is more tuned to the chaos of battle. It's a shaggy, sometimes aimless, but always entertaining variation on one of Peckinpah's favorite kinds of stories - the rugged individualist vs. the world.

Sargeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is the archetypal Peckinpah hero, a fearless soldier with no allegiance to ideology. Steiner commands a Wehrmacht platoon on the Eastern Front; the platoon is being pummeled by the Russians, and the German commanders we meet, like the pragmatic Brandt (James Mason) and the disillusioned Kiesel (David Warner), are not the nefarious, mustache-twisting Nazis we're used to. Peckinpah is less interested in the inexplicable evil of Hitler and his devout followers than in the nationalistic pride and conformity that enabled the party's rise. This is personified by Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell), whose single-minded desire to win the Iron Cross and bring honor to his family name leads to his corruption. The opposition between Steiner and Stransky is not unlike the one between Pike Bishop and Deke Thorton, with self-reliance (and huge balls) held up as the only reasonable choice in a corrupt society.

The tension between Stransky and Steiner is effectively played by Coburn and Schell, and Cross of Iron appears to be headed towards an epic battle of wills between the two men. Then the film takes a left turn midway and never really regains its focus. Whether the troubled production or Peckinpah's own demons are to blame, Cross of Iron becomes an uneasy mix between an allegory of the absurdity of war and a meat-and-potatoes combat movie. The film lacks the poetry of Peckinpah's best work, with his trademark preoccupations seeming more crude than usual as a result. Steiner's heroism in stopping the rape of a Russian hostage is weakened by Peckinpah's obvious distrust of women. The implication that fascism is a form of repressed homosexual desire, provocative in Bertolucci's 1900, is only a cartoonish expression of hetero panic. Yet Peckinpah is blissfully oblivious to the homoerotic undertones of the slow-mo, bullet-riddled martyrs' deaths he awards his heroic soldiers. The romantic quality that defined these scenes in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid becomes so predictable and protracted that it feels like self-parody.

Still, Cross of Iron is worth seeing as an example of a kind of action movie that doesn't exist anymore. If the sensory assault of Saving Private Ryan is the logical end to what Peckinpah began, than it follows that there was no where to go except the aestheticized, hyperreal action of The Matrix and its imitators. In Cross of Iron, when a tank crashes through a brick wall, we know it's a real tank and a real wall, and the physical reality alone lends the film the kind of tension that a computer can only simulate (it hasn't been taught about the flesh). Cross of Iron isn't the smartest or most elegant of Peckinpah's films, but it has guts, and guts is enough.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Title Card #77

How do you like that, dad?

On the recent subject of remakes we'd like to see, reader Matthew H. suggested an Alfonso Cuaron-helmed Nightmare on Elm Street, since that series generally served as a showcase for new directors. And he's right - taken as a whole, the Elm Street series is the strongest of the big three slasher franchises, largely because of each film's distinct personality. While some are better than others, they never become generic like the later Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels. Even the low point in the series, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, is interesting, albeit for reasons its makers didn't really have in mind.

Part of the franchise's distinctive style can be attributed to New Line Cinema's protectiveness of what was, until Rush Hour and The Lord of the Rings, its biggest cash cow. Rumor has it that the company developed Freddy's Revenge and the far superior A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors at the same time, then rushed the former into production to keep awareness of Freddy high and put more time and effort into the latter. Whether or not this is exactly what happened, Freddy's Revenge, which opened just under 12 months after the first film, does feel like a rush job. The plot, which follows teen Jesse (Mark Patton) as he is possessed through his dreams by Freddy (Robert Englund), betrays a basic misunderstanding of what made the first movie scary and memorable. The atmospheric, Bunuel-inspired imagery of Craven's film is gone - here, the dream sequences amount to Freddy yelling variations of "Kill for me, Jesse!" while Patton emits high-pitched squeals. The biggest sequence in the movie takes Freddy into the real world to terrorize a pool party, but surrounding him with Tiki torches sort of downplays his fearsome persona. Director Jack Sholder made the entertaining slasher movie Alone in the Dark before Freddy's Revenge and followed it with the awesome alien cop movie The Hidden, but here his attemps at scaring us - a melting record, an exploding parakeet - mostly just provoke unintentional laughs. There are few mentions of Freddy as a child killer, and his creepy boiler room hangout is replaced with a dreary industrial park. And while it's not necessary for the lead in a slasher movie to be female, Patton's histrionic performance makes for an awkward Final Girl.

Of course, the performance makes sense if you accept the popular subtextual reading of Freddy's Revenge. It's been noted by many writers before me that Freddy's Revenge can be interpreted as the story of a teen struggling with his repressed homosexuality. It's not even subtext, really; the first time I watched the movie, when classmate Ron (Robert Rusler) pulls down Jesse's pants during gym and wrestles him to the ground, I thought to myself, "Don't be immature." When Jesse falls asleep in class and summons a python around his neck, I thought, "That wasn't supposed to be a penis." When Jesse sleepwalks into a leather bar and gets busted by his leather-clad gym teacher, I thought, "Okay, that's actually really gay." When Jesse, possessed by Freddy, ties his teacher up, naked, in the gym shower and violently towel-whips him - well, if that isn't gay, neither is Querelle. The filmmakers claim the subtext is unintentional, and though I find this hard to believe, it'd be amazing if, in the rush to get a sequel out, they accidentally made a movie where Freddy is the personification of one teen's confused sexual desire. Sidenote: my first boyfriend was a slasher film nut, but when I mentioned Freddy's Revenge's hidden meaning, he had no idea what I was talking about.

But whether one reads Freddy's Revenge as a progenitor of New Queer Cinema or simply a quick cash-in, it's worth watching for scenes so inexplicable that they're practically Lynchian (Hope Lange, who plays Jesse's mother, would go on to play Jeffrey Beaumont's mom in Blue Velvet the following year). There's the weird framing sequence that tries to make a bus ride into a hellish desert scary but instead suggests a bad peyote trip. Or the single silliest dance montage of the '80s (no small feat), as Jesse, cleaning his room, prances around like a hyperactive 8-year-old, at one point using a plastic cup-and-ball toy as a phallus. Or my personal favorite moment, the completely ridiculous scene after the bird explodes, as Jesse's dad (Clu Gulager) accuses him of somehow having rigged the bird to spontaneously combust in an attempt to tear the family apart. As I said before, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 is the more logical continuation of the series, and it's actually better than the original in some ways. But sometimes I find myself more in the mood to watch Freddy's Revenge - it's a sublime failure, one that does everything wrong in all the right ways.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Play the game (9/4/08)

Cross of Iron is hopefully arriving tomorrow.

Top 5: Movies Within Movies

While I'd been looking forward to Tropic Thunder, it actually exceeded my expectations a bit. More than just Three Amigos in 'Nam, it's a deceptively silly satire not only of action-movie cliches but of the state of the film industry in 2008, from the self-delusion of stars to the cynicism of movie execs who greenlight disposable crap to the base expectations of the moviegoing audience. It's the best-looking comedy of the summer (John Toll was an inspired choice of DP) and well-acted across the board, with the standouts being Robert Downey Jr.'s brilliantly self-depricating performance as method actor Kirk Lazarus and, surprisingly, Tom Cruise as a foul-mouthed exec (I wondered if Tom got the meta-joke of his presence in the film; either way, it's his best work since Collateral). Perhaps director/star Ben Stiller is paying penance for Night at the Museums past and yet to come; while it's not unique among contemporary comedies in its unapologetic vulgarity, it does in a surpisingly pointed and even subtle way. Too subtle, perhaps; as an employee of one of the agencies that protested the film for its Simple Jack subplot, I can only conclude from conversations with coworkers that nobody gets irony anymore (exploiting special needs kids for political gain is apparently a-ok, though).

But I digress. One of the highlights of Tropic Thunder is the mock trailers that open the movie. After a commercial for rapper Alph Chino's (Brandon T. Jackson) energy drink Booty Sweat that elicited a "Wait - what?" from my wife, we're treated to a sneak peak at action hero Tugg Speedman's (Stiller) ripped-from-the-headlines climate change disaster epic Scorcher VI, comedian Jeff Portnoy's (Jack Black) CG-and-latex extravaganza The Fatties: Fart 2 and, best of all, Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) and Tobey Maguire in Satan's Alley, an awards-season film about unrequited love between Irish monks. Each trailer is frighteningly believable, and honestly, I'd Satan's Alley, and so would a lot of gay comic fans (who would be the top, Iron Man or Spider-Man?). Here are five other fake movies that I'd pay to see.

1. Habeas Corpus Pitched by a pair of high-minded screenwriters (Richard E. Grant and Dean Stockwell), to venal exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), this thriller about a woman on death row starts as an indictment of our judicial system that ends on an uncompromisingly depressing note. After a disastrous test screening, it becomes a love-conquers-all crowdpleaser. The biggest laugh in Robert Altman's The Player is the final scene of Habeas Corpus, as Bruce Willis gets to save the day, sweep Julia Roberts off her feet and deliver the frighteningly authentic one-liner, "Traffic was a bitch."

2. Thanksgiving Of course, Tropic Thunder's fake-trailers gimmick was also used to awesome effect in last year's Grindhouse. Edgar Wright's Eurohorror-inspired Don't was the popular favorite, and Machete and Werewolf Women of the SS are both terrific. But my personal favorite is Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, a grimy holiday-themed splatter movie that feels exactly like one of the cheap Halloween knockoffs released at the tail of the slasher film's popularity. Maybe it's the sleazy juxtaposition of blowjobs and decapitation, or maybe it's my nostalgia for the underrated Creepshow score used to great effect here. Either way, if Thanksgiving were real I'd probably own the 2-disc Blue Underground DVD.

3. Angels Live in My Town A porno-action hybrid starring Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) as sexy crime fighter Brock Landers and Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly) as his partner, Chest Rockwell as they dispatch of bad guys before getting "some of that Saturday Night Fever." Angels Live in My Town allows Paul Thomas Anderson to address porn's misogyny while still depicting the relative sweetness of '70s adult movies, with Brock torturing information out of female suspects by making love to them. "You don't fuck with Chest and Brock" - indeed you don't.

4. Mant! Joe Dante's Matinee is a loving tribute to the low-budget monster movies that wowed Dante as a kid, and its highlight is Mant!, an atom-age creature feature "based on scientific fact" according to its producer, "master of movie horror" Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a loving tribute to all-time great movie showman William Castle. Best of all, it's presented in Atomovision!

5. On High in Blue Tomorrows A southern Gothic melodrama revolving around a tragic affair starring Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), On High in Blue Tomorrows is also notable for being cursed. A remake of a Polish film that was never completed due to the deaths of the principals, On High in Blue Tomorrows is known to trigger strange, psychosexual odysseys through real and possible worlds, punctuated by out-of-nowhere dance numbers. I suspect that The Fatties: Fart 2 has the same effect.