Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Trim Bin #37

- A quick reminder: The Gauntlet begins tomorrow. Ready the cannons.

- I'm not a huge fan of In the Bedroom, but after seeing the trailer for Little Children, the second feature from director Todd Field (aka Nick Nightingale), I can't wait. Field's adaptation of a Tom Perotta novel is set up in two minutes of quiet, fragmented, haunting images. This sort of thing is hard to do well, and it's done brilliantly here, hinting at unspoken menace; I hope the film lives up to it (that it stars Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly couldn't hurt).

- And here's the trailer for Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell's sex film that I mentioned a while back. It's candy-colored and cheeky, and it looks like way more fun than Nine Songs.

- A must-read: Walter Chaw brilliantly demolishes Fried Green Tomatoes.

- Finally, a tip of the hat to Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Psycho, who died last week at the age of 84:

"It is sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. I can't allow them to think I would commit murder. Put him away now as I should have years ago. He was always bad and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man, as if I could do anything but just sit and stare like one of his stuffed birds. They know I can't move a finger and I want to just sit here and be quiet just in case they suspect me. They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching... they'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, 'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly...'"

Films watched this week:

Scoop 4
Rushmore 10
The Untouchables 9
Wayne's World 6
Little Miss Sunshine
Reservoir Dogs
Taxi Driver
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Saturday, August 26, 2006

We have to build a barrier between us and the snakes!

Andre Bazin wrote that "The fantastic in the cinema is possible only because of the irresistible realism of the photographic image. It is the image that can bring us face to face with the unreal, that can introduce the unreal into the world of the visible." This is the secret behind the appeal of Snakes on a Plane. The title caught on not only because of its hilarious directness, but also because it is a matter-of-fact promise of six reels of the uncanny. While the film's appeal is solely as a superficial internet in-joke for much of an audience, there are some of us who want to laugh and squirm and really believe in motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane. And for us, Snakes on a Plane really delivers.

After surfer Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a murder at the hands of vicious gangleader Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson), he is escorted by FBI Agent Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) to testify at Kim's trial. Unfortunately, their red-eye flight is carrying some extra passengers - a variety of poisonous snakes (as Kim puts it, "We've tried everything else!"). The setup is easily the worst thing about Snakes on a Plane - the opening scenes tread clunkily through stale action movie conventions, and the characters are mostly disposable (this excludes Jackson, the pilot [David Koechner], a snake expert [Todd Louiso], and a stewardess [Lin Shaye]). But what would normally add up to substantial criticism feels like nitpicking here; Snakes on a Plane is ultimately a "Boo!" movie, and once it kicks into high gear, it succeeds wonderfully on that level.

The smartest thing that director David R. Ellis does is to a find a tone that is toungue-in-cheek without being overly ironic or self-referential. Principal photography on Snakes on a Plane wrapped last fall, so you'll find none of the lame "Best Week Ever"-style quipping that has ruined the fun of a film called Snakes on a Plane here. Instead, it's a direct descendant of films like Piranha and Alligator that turned outlandish concepts into unpretentious, good-natured moviegoing film. While Snakes on a Plane surely knows it is ridiculous, it doesn't wink at this fact, instead assuming its audience is intelligent enough to get the joke. It's a stupid film made by smart people.

But the key to Snakes on a Plane is Samuel L. Jackson, who has seemingly promoted this film with more pride than he did Eve's Bayou. Perhaps the only actor in the universe who can have total conviction as he tasers a snake, Jackson confirms his status as one of the greatest actors of all time. He's so frequently wasted in generic crap that it's encouraging to see him given a truly unique premise; when he delivers his much-anticipated line regarding his desire to see the snakes exit the plane, he commands not only laughs but respect. He's as cool here as he was ten years ago, and that's as much of a reason to see Snakes on a Plane as the sight of an agitated serpent sinking its fangs into a pot-smoking passenger's improbably large tit. Movies like this are made for scenes like that, and Snakes on a Plane loves us enough to live up to the promise of its title. There are indeed snakes, and a plane as well, and for this, we can be thankful.

Friday, August 25, 2006


It's at best frivolous and at worst totally irrelevant to try to place movies in competition with each other. But let's assume for a second that this is not the case - that awards ceremonies or top-ten lists are at least valuable for the debate they spark. It is out of this assumption that The Gauntlet is born. To commemorate the upcoming first anniversary of this, I'll be running an ongoing contest to determine Cinevistaramascope's Favorite Film. And to do this, I'll need the support of you, faithful reader.

E-mail your top ten list to me at before August 31st (please use the subject "Top Ten." Beginning September 1st around 6pm, all of the nominated films will be paired up randomly and placed in a series of elimination matches updated daily, culminating on October 27th with the announcement of the winner. There will also be prizes.

If this all sounds convoluted, it is. Let The Gauntlet begin.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Trim Bin #36

- I had the pleasure last night of seeing Snakes on a Plane at the Hollywood Drive-In in Averill Park, NY with Jess, Doug and Jack. A review of Snakes is forthcoming, but the drive-in experience was something special. The last (and only) time I've been to a drive-in was a screening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit when I was five; I was happy to find that a movie screened under the stars had lost none of the magic from my childhood. It's a valuable thing to learn that some joys don't fade with age (such as the joy of watching a snake chomp on a bare breast - but more on that later).

- The early-70's video zine Radical Software is now online (thanks to Wiley Wiggins for pointing me in the right direction). It's about video art, technology, and philosophy, and it sort of makes me hot. A sample passage from an article by Dean Evanson entitled "Open Ended Nervous System:"

"Each of us is a channel and source for the life force which nature sings to. We are emitters of energy on many levels and bandwidths. We are each producing a song deep inside which, when unfettered, can join with others in a choir of harmonious sound. We have the ability to control our technology by learning of our life source, our energy song. The ego in us wants to force the gross parts of our songs down other people's throats. But harmony and beauty swell not from homogenity from diversity and love."

Get addicted now.

- I've been revisiting a lot of Brian De Palma's films this month, and I feel more strongly than ever that he is one of the most underappreciated filmmakers working today. From a purely technical standpoint, he's a master - even his failures are grounded by an inspired, witty visual style. Whether his subject is vengeful telekenetic teens, transvestite slackers or cocky Cuban coke dealers, he manages to elevate even the schlockiest subject matter to an operatic level without ever becoming pretentious. At once subtextual, metatextual, and sometimes self-referential, his films continue to inspire passionate analysis and debate; he's achieved the rare feat of making ambitious, artistically rich films that are also incredibly fun. An ongoing retrospective at Slate promises to shed light on De Palma's elusive appeal. I'd love to hear your choices for underrated filmmakers (you can also see the trailer for De Palma's upcoming film noir The Black Dahila here).

- This means something. This is important.

Films watched this week:

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension 10
Die Hard
Dressed to Kill
Monkey Shines
Henry and June
Fahrenheit 451
Snakes on a Plane

Monday, August 21, 2006

Play the game (8/21/06)

Last week: Y Tu Mama Tambien

Friday, August 18, 2006

Wyoming's not a country.

The only music in Dog Day Afternoon is Elton John's "Amoreena," which plays over an opening montage of a summer afternoon in Brooklyn in the early 1970s. The music and images establish the tone of the film, which is a perfect distillation of the zeitgeist - anti-authoritarian sentiment, radically changing social politics, police brutality, etc. - in a way that never feels didactic or forced. The opening titles inform us that the bank robbery we are about to see really took place in 1972, and it feels inevitable; there's a sense of momentum even in these early, seemingly irrelevant images. And Dog Day Afternoon never loses that momentum - it's like a runaway train.

Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson tell the story of Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino), who decides to rob a bank in order to pay for his wife Leon (Chris Sarandon)'s sex change, with precision, starting right outside the bank as Sonny and his partners enter. Things start going wrong almost immediately - one of Sonny's partners bails, leaving him with the intense, dull-witted Sal (John Cazale). Before Sonny knows it, the bank is surrounded by cops and he finds himself buying time with the earnest, affable Det. Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning). The standoff quickly becomes a circus, with television cameras circling and massive crowds cheering Sonny on. Lumet and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper create remarkable tension as the camera constantly weaves its way through the bank and the street outside. This is a masterpiece of filmmaking designed to not call attention to itself; each cut is perfectly timed, and each lighting cue is at once natural within the setting and illustrative of the emotional motivation behind the scene. This is the sort of movie they should be teaching on day one of film school: it is totally believable without falling victim to the faux-gritty "realism" plaguing character-driven cinema today.

And while it is a heist movie, Dog Day Afternoon is first and foremost a character study, one than cuts far deeper than Spike Lee's overrated Inside Man (which doesn't earn its Dog Day references). Pacino turns Sonny into a man under severe pressure - nagged by his shrewish first wife (Susan Peretz) and burdened by his turbulent relationship with Leon, Sonny seems capable of both extreme sensitivity and violent rage (it's fascinating to read Sonny's real-life counterpart John Wojtowicz's response to the film). His famous "Attica!" outburst works as more than a then-recent reference; its an exclamation of his (and much of the country's) basic distrust of the system. As the crowd outside paints Sonny as an antihero, Pacino refuses to let him become a stereotype or a joke - he's an everyman pushed to his limits.

Pacino is ably supported by Durning, whose Moretti is an honest man trying to resolve the situation without violence (a more complex portrait of "The Man" than the one-dimensional hicks in Easy Rider). The ensemble playing the hostages are never less than believable, yielding achingly true moments like timid bank teller Jenny (Carol Kane) reassuring her husband over the phone that he can make dinner on his own. And John Cazale once again performs the trick of making a supporting character every bit as compelling as the lead (he even improvised his famous line, "Wyoming"). His Sal is alternately spooky, silly, pathetic, and tragic. Cazale appeared in only five features before his death, but those performances are enough to establish him as one of the all-time great screen actors. Even the bit players have classic moments, like the pizza delivery man who excalims, "I'm a fuckin' star!"

Revisiting the film after many years, I was suprised to find that the film deals with its "gay" material with candor and maturity unusual in films today. While Sonny's sexual confusion, and the responses of others (Sal asks news reporters to stop referring to them as "two homosexuals") are an important part of the film, Dog Day Afternoon is, in a larger sense, about a man unable to come to terms with himself. This is evident in the phone call between Sonny and Leon. Sarandon creates a vulnerable, unbalanced pre-op transsexual that manages to avoid stereotype, and as the two men talk, Lumet allows his camera to rest on their faces, in close-up. On their faces, we can see the entire story of a failed relationship - confusion, frustration, self-loathing, anxiety, and a lingering affection that never quite seems to fade. It's a rueful scene, and it's at the heart of a film about a tragicomic moment in the middle of a tragicomic decade. It's films like Dog Day Afternoon that give the 1970's its reputation as the greatest decade in American cinema, but I suspect that it was the exception even it its day; art this truthful and humane is all too rare even in the best of times.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Trim Bin #35

- I intended to begin this week by remembering actor Bruno Kirby, only to find that Bill Chambers at Film Freak Central had already done so with more eloquence than I could hope to match. Let it suffice to say that The Legend of Curly's Gold was nothing without him.

- Unfortunately, I'll be working tomorrow and will have to miss the opening night of Snakes on a Plane. It's nobody's fault, but it is a shame. So, plans are afoot to see it at a drive-in on Tuesday. Whether you've seen it or not, you're welcome to come (I can take three passengers). This invitation extends to anyone reading this. Prism, Craig in Ottowa, Mr. President, Hogarth - this means you.

- A general request: two of the three short films I'll be filming soon require songs as background. Rather than jump through hoops trying to license songs, I was wondering if any of the musicians that read this have always wanted to hear their songs in a movie. Each song is integral to the story, so it'd have to be a perfect match. If you're interested, e-mail me at and I'll send you the screenplays and details shortly.

- The double feature at Images this week, Sketches of Frank Gehry and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, offered two films documenting the experience of making art. While neither film was perfect, it was still a pleasantly inspiring evening at the movies. What was your best double feature - the time that two movies hit you in the right place at the right time?

- Finally, the following, from the IMDB, made me laugh for ten minutes:

"Veteran actor James Woods has dumped his 20-year-old girlfriend, Ashley Madison, after the stress from the May-December relationship sent him to the emergency room. The 59-year-old star was distraught after his brother Michael died unexpectedly of a heart attack last month and was shocked by Madison's insensitivity during his funeral. Woods' friend Scott Sandler tells the New York Daily News that Madison showed up for the service dressed inappropriately 'in a 3-inch miniskirt and chain-smoking.' He explains, 'At the funeral she was concerned about the amount of magazines she was in. Jimmy was on his knees with tears staining his shirt, and she was showing pictures of herself. Jimmy was so overcome by grief his blood pressure went through the roof early last week, and he had to go to the hospital. When he came out, it was like he had seen the light.' The actor has known Madison, the pal of a golfing buddy, since she was five-years-old. Adds Sandler, 'She's the anti-Christ. She truly has the soul of a moth and the brain of a dead trout.'"

Films watched this week:

The Toxic Avenger 7
Dog Day Afternoon 10
Sketches of Frank Gehry 7
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man 7
Scarface 10
Network 9
Big Trouble in Little China 9
Phantom of the Paradise 10

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Zardoz is pleased.

I owe a good deal of my film education to the Sci-Fi Channel. Back in the cable channel's early days, the schedule relied heavily on reruns of new-to-me shows like The Prisoner and movie marathons that captured my impressionable nine-year-old imagination on many solitary weekends. One on such weekend I discovered Zardoz, a film that completely overwhelmed me with its strange, sprawling vision of the future that featured an Olmec-like floating idol, weird sexual situations, and Sean Connery in a red loincloth. Upon revisiting Zardoz, I was happy to discover that my appreciation for the film has deepened beyond delight at its bizarre antics; it's a genuinely one-of-a-kind film, perhaps the quintessential example of the kind of work that somehow managed to squeak through the studio system in the 1970's.

Nearly 300 years from now, humanity is divided between the violent, inarticulate Brutals and the "civililized" Eternals, who harness extrasensory mental powers and are blessed (or cursed?) with immortality. The Brutals worship Zardoz, a giant stone head that bellows commandments like "The gun is good! The penis is evil!" and travels the countryside vomiting weapons from its permanent grimace. But when one of the Brutals, Zed (Sean Connery), discovers an old library where a mysterious stranger teaches him how to read, he learns a secret about his god and stows away in the stone head as it returns to the Vortex (the isolated community where the Eternals live). As Zed lives among the Eternals, he learns of the vast plan that led him to the Vortex, and how his own fate is tied in with the Eternals' wish for the release of death. Zardoz is the kind of science fiction driven more by ideas than special effects (although the floating Zardoz head is pretty sweet), and director John Boorman deserves a great deal of credit for the sheer audacity of following his hit Deliverance with a film that defies all conventional filmmaking wisdom; it's a film that never slows down for the audience to catch up. While Zardoz is frequently baffling, it's also totally mesmerizing.

Boorman's vision is relentlessly fatalistic; we find out that not only Zed but all of the characters have been manipulated by some unseen force, represented by a powerful computer called the Tabernacle. He seems to argue that the inarguable fact of death is nothing to lose sleep over; the Eternals either become Renegades punished for negative thoughts with extreme old age or Apathetics who stand silently, indifferent to the world around them. Zed begins to change the order of things by reintroducing bloodlust and carnality into the Vortex (casting James Bond as a singleminded killing-and-screwing machine was an inspired move). Zardoz is also curious as an affirmation of the patriarchy; the Vortex is mostly populated by women and effeminate men who are fascinated and disturbed by Zed's ability to achieve erection. But eventually, Zed teaches the women, particularly the man-hating Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), to respect the cock. It's loopy stuff, for sure, but Boorman never lacks the courage of his conviction, achieving a delicate balance of solemnity and knowing humor. The cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, who also shot 2001, the meandering pace and gloomy, understated score by David Munrow create a dreamy, soft-focus vision of the future that proceeds inexorably to its violent climax - the audience, like Zed, has been carried along by unseen hands.

Ultimately, though, Zardoz is an affirmation of humanity, for all its limitations and flaws, as noble. There's plentiful nudity of the free-spirited early-70's variety on display, and the performances are gleefully unhinged (particularly Niall Buggy, who plays the demented genius behind Zardoz). Not all of Zardoz works, and it's extremely questionable if read as an angry response to women's lib (which it very well might be). But this is what it looks like when a filmmaker takes genuine risks, and it's intriguing to see Boorman, who would later dive into the Arthurian legend with his masterpiece Excalibur, create his own skewed mythology here. The film ends, as Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 soars on the soundtrack, with a sweeping demonstration of the passage of time that is at once devastating and hopeful. And to achieve that sort of insight into the human condition, sometimes you have to put Sean Connery in a diaper.

Play the game (8/13/06)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Trim Bin #34

- I've been thinking up the remaining three chapters of the short film series that Jess C. and I began with Chrissie earlier this year, and feeling that wonderful snowball effect that comes when ideas begin piling up exponentially - it's been too long. But here's the thing: one of the films revolves around a blowjob. While it would be, of course, a simulated blowjob, I don't intend to use any coy cutaways or tricks; I find titillation much more offensive than explicitness. And I'm also not interested in repeating Warhol's Blow Job; while the action may be obscure as the film ultimately focuses on one character's interior action, I'm still interested in representing the interaction between the two characters (both men, which is its own thing) in some way. I realize the extreme pressure this would put on most actors, who are already willingly putting themselves in a vulnerable place. And this all has me thinking about artistic responsibility.

On the one hand, a filmmaker (or any artist) has a responsibility to tell a story as honestly as possible. If I were to alter the film as I've imagined it out of modesty or insecurity that the final product might be ridiculous (as it could very well be), I'm denying the audience my authentic vision. Artistic evolution is directly tied in with personal growth, and as I find myself in the process of confronting and understanding my rough edges, I'm beginning to explore the same instincts in my films. And while the audience may find that vision off-putting or obscene, at the very least I can know that it's sincere. I know it's a well-worn observation, but I find it befuddling that the appropriateness of cinematic sex is even up for debate - it's an integral part of the human experience, and if porn has taught us anything, it's that even the ugliest sex is at least visually compelling. Part of me wants to totally commit to the film, go the Catherine Breillat route, and hold out for actors who are comfortable enough with themselves and each other to just do it.

But that brings me to the other side of artistic responsibility, namely the responsibility I have to the people I work with. In just about any other medium, I wouldn't even be giving this a moment's thought, but film, like theatre, is collaborative, and I have great respect and awe for the mysterious, electric relationship that can develop between the director, cast and crew under the best of circumstances. One of the most important things a director can do is to create an atmosphere that allows these sparks to occur. This is not to say that sex automatically prevents such an environment; ideally, it can help create intimacy and trust. I had such an experience once playing Adam in Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World and Other Business, where I spent the first act wearing little more than briefs. Charlotte (the actress playing Eve) and I were equally self-conscious, and had to rely on each other to block out the fact of the audience and commit to our characters. By helping each other, we helped the play.

Most actors are inherently exhibitionistic (I know I am), but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to offer one's own body up for scrutiny. I remember a few years ago, when I asked Jess if she wanted to send in an audition tape for John Cameron Mitchell's upcoming Shortbus, a narrative film featuring real sex. She was surprisingly willing to take her clothes off on the big screen, but balked when I told her it was a real movie, not porn ("You mean I'd have to act?"). It's easy to take your clothes off, but it's hard to be naked - to really let the audience in. The same is true for the filmmaker; many of the greatest directors (Hitchcock, Lynch, Scorsese) were unflinching in examining their own fetishes, obsessions and anxieties, and I'm learning how to follow their example. But I'd hate to finish the film only to find that it is nothing but a pretentious byproduct of my own misguided self-indulgence. In other words, it's a fine line between Breillat and Vincent Gallo.

So a question to my readers: which films succeed in walking this fine line and achieve truth without exploitation? How do they do it? Is such a thing truly possible?

Films watched this week:

A Prairie Home Companion 8
A Scanner Darkly 9
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby 7
Halloween III 3
The Fury 8
Zardoz 9
The Descent 4

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Smooth. That's how we do it.

One of Michael Mann's most distinctive talents is his ability to recontextualize mediocre pop music into something more evocative - think of Clannad's "I Will Find You" in The Last of the Mohicans, or Audioslave's "Shadow on the Sun" in Collateral. Add to that list Jay-Z's decent remix of Linkin Park's less-than-decent "Numb," which opens Mann's Miami Vice with a collision of flashing lights and writing bodies. His approach to pop cues mirrors his overall storytelling approach - he's busy turning schlock into art. There's a palpable electricity as cinematographer Dion Beebe's cameras prowl a Miami nightclub, introducing us to Detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) through a series of sideways glances as they spy on a pimp - Mann has perfected this sort of purely kinetic filmmaking, and here, he's basically whipping his dick out. And while Miami Vice doesn't quite sustain the high of its opening scene, it's still a blast.

Fortunately, Miami Vice doesn't go for kitschy nostalgia; it discards the iconic fashions of the original while retaining the concept of archetypal warriors dropped whole into the zeitgeist. The plot could be straight from any number of Vice episodes, following Crockett and Tubbs as they are recruited by FBI Special Agent Fujima (Ciarin Hinds) to infiltrate a drug trafficking network; before long, Crockett is sleeping with Isabella (Gong Li), the Chinese-Cuban mistress and business partner of drug kingpin Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), and he must decide between his job and love (in a manner of speaking). It's completely formulaic, but this is Mann doing a variation on a familiar theme. Between the stark immediacy of the cinematography and the sparse dialogue, it appears that Mann is more preoccupied than ever with boiling the mechanics of an action film down to its barest essence. An early scene announces a character's death with a single streak of crimson, and standoff in a trailer reminds of the climax of Sanjuro with its blunt resolution. While there is little philosophical difference between Mann and Andy Sidaris, the former elevates well-worn territory with an intelligent and genuine approach to machismo mythos.

Miami Vice (perhaps intentionally) lacks the depth of characterization that Mann usually excels at, so it falls upon the leads to color between the lines. Farrell, in particular, suceeds brilliantly at this, making Crockett a crazy-eyed, scraggly son of a bitch as adept at rough sex as he is at gunplay. He still has a lot of maturing to do as an actor, but he's always fun to watch, which is more that can be said for most of his action-star peers. And Foxx does a fun riff on the "driven cop" routine, investing a love scene with Tubbs' girlfriend and coworker Trudy (Naomie Harris) with enough wit to make an obligatory scene seem fresh. Without them, the procedural stretches of Miami Vice, evocative as they are, would collapse under the weight of their portentousness. The actors instead liberate Mann to explore his fetishes to gleeful effect - the director shows us exactly what various models of guns can do to a person's body, and the action sequences are as potent as the ones in Heat, albeit of a more popcorn variety.

This is far from a perfect movie: I would have liked to see Gong and Harris, whose characters have a lot of unexplored potential, to get more involved in the action. Foxx has some great tension with Hinds' FBI agent, but the subplot gets lost along the way. And all films could use more Barry Shabaka Henley. But really, it's a small miracle that an influential but dated 80's cop show could be reinvented by its creater with such ambition and confidence. Whatever complaints one can raise about Miami Vice offset by that all-too-rare feeling that we are in the hands of a filmmaker with a singular, confident vision. Miami Vice isn't the best movie out right now, but it's the coolest by far.