Thursday, April 26, 2007

Aguirre, der Zorn Myspace

Paul Clark's thoughts after attending an Ernie Gehr screening and Q&A got me thinking about the two times I've seen Werner Herzog at such an event (he was invited by Williams College to appear as part of a documentary forum in 2006, accidentally arrived a year early, hung around for a few days, then returned the next year). During that first visit, on a Friday afternoon, Herzog screened a documentary about the scoring of Grizzly Man at the cinema where I work as a projectionist (we were treated to an advanced screening of the film the night before, and on Friday night we saw a rough cut of The Wild Blue Yonder before his investors). With most people at work, only a handful showed up for the making-of screening, so the Q&A was more conversational. I decided to ask Herzog about the final shot of Stroszek, one of the greatest and most elusive endings ever - why a chicken? Herzog explained, simply, that he never makes a cut before he loses interest in an image, and the shot runs as long as it does because he just found that dancing chicken so damned interesting. It was an unpretentious, insightful answer, and now that I've started to make my own films, it's guided me through many a tough directorial decision.
The next year, when Herzog appeared at the "Extreme Documentary" forum, one audience member asked him what he thought about YouTube.

Let that sink in for a moment - he asked the director of Aguirre the Wrath of God about a site where people post videos of their babies farting.

I agree wholeheartedly with Clark's assertion that films are best experienced viscerally and psychologically - I want to see the world through the filmmaker's eyes (as Clark eloquently describes the moviegoing experience). While an intellectual understanding of the filmmaking process greatly helps one articulate one's response to a film, knowledge should never supercede understanding. Especially if you end up standing in front of a living legend, with one chance to ask him about anything at all, and you ask about a frigging website (although Herzog gave a hilarious answer about Bavarian teens recording their sexual exploits with cell phone cameras, which he called "beautiful"). I far prefer canonical to topical analysis, which could explain why I reacted so strongly to my peer's question. Or maybe he was just a schmo. Could be both.

What are your best/worst Q&A experiences? And if you could ask your favorite filmmaker one thing, what would it be?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Gratuitous Nudity #1

Gilda Texter, Vanishing Point (1971)

Monday, April 23, 2007

By the power of Greyskull!

Each of the directors who contributed a fake trailer to Grindhouse demonstrate very different reasons for their affection for schlock; for Eli Roth it's boobs and gore, and for Rob Zombie it's tasteless kitch. But Edgar Wright's Don't is a tribute not in content but in style, lovingly recreating the disjointed, nightmarish shocks of Fulci and Argento. He also demonstrates meticulous attention to detail in referencing the look of Eurohorror, understanding that the soul of any film rests not in its plot but in its very composition (in this way, he's far closer to Quentin Tarantino than either of his co-contributors). This is key to understanding what makes Shaun of the Dead and Wright's new movie, Hot Fuzz (both films starring and co-written by Simon Pegg), so unique - neither satire or farce, they're homages that are also superior examples of their respective genres. If I prefer Shaun of the Dead to Hot Fuzz, it's because I prefer zombies to hyperbolic action, but this is just another way of saying that Hot Fuzz is not only hilarious, it's also out-Michael Bays Michael Bay.

The film's opening, which is oddly reminiscent of The Departed, introduces us to Sergeant Nick Angel (Pegg), the best cop in London. He's so good, in fact, that he makes his co-workers look bad, and so he's promptly relocated to Sandford, a bucolic village where the biggest crime is loitering and the Inspector (Jim Broadbent) regularly treats the station to cake and ice cream. Angel is partnered with the Inspector's well-meaning but inept son, Danny (Nick Frost), who dreams of being Patrick Swayze in Point Break. As Angel begins to investigate a series of "accidents" that seem less than accidental, the film manages to pay tribute to Chinatown, Bad Boys II and everything in between, with sudden detours to accomodate nods to The Wicker Man and gialli (complete with surprisingly strong gore). But while it mines jokes from the inherent toxicity of the Simpson/Bruckheimer mold, it also avoids condescension, instead acknowledging the righteous cop as the modern, agnostic arbiter of justice. This extends to Wright's filmmaking strategy, which never misses an opportunity for a whip-pan or an extreme close-up when a fixed medium shot would do - while this approach is sometimes headache-inducing, there's no denying its fidelity to its sources.

Wright also smartly packs his cast with a who's-who of great British actors (Belloq!). The best would be Broadbent, who gave me the biggest laugh in the movie with the line "A great big bushy beard," and (oddly enough) Timothy Dalton, who reeks with smarm as a local market owner who repeatedly lets us know that he's a serial killer. And at the heart of the film is the relationship between Nick and Danny; as with Shaun of the Dead, Wright and Pegg have written relatable, sympathetic characters into an over-the-top story. There's a sweetness to the way that Danny idolizes Nick and in turn gets him to open his heart in a way that no woman ever could. Of course, this touches upon the inherent homoeroticism of the buddy cop genre, but it's to the filmmakers' credit that there are no "Ewww! Boys kissing!" jokes. If Danny and Nick had made love, Hot Fuzz would be a masterpiece; even so, it's a pleasure to see a comedy aimed at young males that embraces real affection between men.

Hot Fuzz misses a few opportunities, mainly contemporary action movies' celebration of dead-eyed nihilism. The film's final half hour - a symphony of carnage captured in slo-mo, dutch-angled glory - would give Tony Scott a hard-on, but by keeping his heroes from getting their hands too dirty, Wright sidesteps the casual disdain for human life that typifies the genre (Robert Rodriguez's Machete trailer nails this). But I'm happy to admit that this is essentially nitpicking from a fan; Hot Fuzz is unabashed fun from beginning to end. Wright has succeded admirably at a dubious goal, making a film that perfectly captures the undeniable pleasure of turning one's brain off from time to time.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!

This post is part of the William Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon.

"Macbeth", as Jan Kott has noted, "begins and ends with slaughter. There is more and more blood, everyone walks in it; it floods the stage." Kott's reinterpretation of Shakespeare through a modern lens no doubt influenced both Peter Brook's King Lear and Roman Polanski's Macbeth, both released in 1971. But while both films are among the best Shakespeare adaptations, Brook's film is deliberately inert, while Polanski's film is wonderfully, terribly alive. From the opening scene, where the play's three witches congregate on an empty shore before departing into the gray, oppressive horizon, Polanski influses his Macbeth with a palpable sense of menace. This is fitting given his faithful but distinctly personal take on the material; if Shakespeare's play is ultimately intended as an affirmation of the inevitable restoration of order over chaos (and, by extension, the triumph of good over evil), Polanski presents evil as an endless, impenetrable cycle.

The film's visual canvas is at once beautiful and repellent - every frame is filled not only with blood but also drizzle, mud, shit and grime against images of the Scottish highlands (actually Wales) that are chilling in their blank impassivity. This is mirrored in a Macbeth (Jon Finch) who seldom reveals his emotions and instead remains chillingly inscrutable as he is transformed from a noble thane into a murderous, corrupt king. The decision to underact the character creates a protagonist for whom evil is not the result of madness but rationalization - from a pragmatic standpoint, Macbeth's decision to murder Duncan (Nicholas Selby) makes a perverse kind of sense, which makes the senseless violence it spawns all the more incomprehensible. And with Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) portrayed not as a calculating femme fatale but as a blithe impetuous young woman who lacks a moral barometer (her famous delivery of the "out damn spot" speech in the nude underlines the childlike vulnerability beneath her cunning). When she manipulates her husband to kill the king, she's like the worst result of centuries of "daddy's little princess" paternalization, craving power without even beginning to understand its significance.

Polanski is unflinching with Macbeth's extensive violence and brutality - the film is at points a catalog of the things that steel can do to human flesh. This could have easily veered into grand guignol territory, but Polanski isn't after shock so much as matter-of-fact observation of our tendency towards carnage. The film's extensive use of handheld cameras and natural lighting give it an immediacy that extends to its supernatural scenes. This is most notable in the scene when Macbeth is confronted by Banquo's ghost; by at once presenting the ghost as tangibly present and subtly creating a feeling of temporal dislocation, Polanski touches the uncanny (Kubrick was likely influenced by the scene, which is echoed in The Shining's Room 237 sequence). If the horrors of the film seem more psychological than supernatural, it is because Polanski refuses to let Macbeth (or us) off the hook that easily; when Macbeth arrives at the famous "tomorrow and tomorrow" soliliquy, detached from his people and his own fate, it becomes clear that, to Polanski, the world is only as good or evil as we each perceive it to be.

By replacing Malcolm's final speech in favor of a coda that bookends the film with the witches (those purveyors of senseless mayhem), Polanski denies us any sense of real resolution - the film doesn't end so much as stop. While Polanski's films are characteristically bleak, it's not much of a leap to assume that, as the film was made so soon after the senseless murder of Sharon Tate, the director couldn't find a way to justify a final note of hope. The strength of Polanski's films (unavoidably echoed in his often tortured personal life) is his ability to stare directly into the abyss with open eyes. While his more recent films suggest that, like Shakespeare when he wrote The Tempest, Polanski has made some sort of tentative peace with the world around him. Whatever the case may be, his films from Knife in the Water to The Tenant represent an unparalleled examination of dread, and if Macbeth is his darkest moment as a filmmaker, it's also a thing of shivery beauty.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Trim Bin #56

- The trailer for Rob Zombie's Halloween remake can be found here. At this point, I feel like it could go either way. I like that Zombie has apparently taken his own brutal approach to the opening murders, and I'm at least confident that it won't be a generic retread. If I'm afraid of anything at this point, it's that it will be too much a Rob Zombie movie to be recognizably Halloween. If he achieves the right balance of honoring the original and making it his own, it could end up deserving mention alongside Phillip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter's The Thing. But if not, than Zombie had better watch out, because you do not want to piss off Donald Pleasance's ghost.

- Several fine eulogies have been written about the passing of Bob Clark (you can find two here and here), one of the most eclectic filmmakers of all time - few men could have made both Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Baby Geniuses. But while his filmography is spotty, he's also reponsible for creating one cultural institution (A Christmas Story) and the original Black Christmas. I revisited the film last holiday season with the intention of writing about it here, then found I had little to say except "eek!" So thank you, Mr. Clark, for creeping the hell out of me.

- Walter Chaw calls Robert Rodriguez "the Salieri to Tarantino's Mozart." As for reports that Harvey Weinstein may chop Grindhouse, I hope he comes to his senses. This will only tarnish the movie's image: it's an underperformer, but this sort of action makes it seem like a bomb on the level of Heaven's Gate, which it's not. I'd love to see Death Proof with the missing reel intact - I think it's one of Tarantino's best movies, and in its complete form, it might be the best. But wait for DVD or a limited late-summer/fall release. Give it some breathing room. To put it simply, DON'T. DON'T. DON'T. DON'T.


- Finally, here are David Lynch's thoughts on product placement:

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Saturday, April 07, 2007


There's a moment in Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino's half of the exploitation double-header Grindhouse, when one of his leads mentions a guy who made her a mix tape. Not a CD, she clarifies, but a tape, and the other women riding with her swoon as one of them exclaims, "That's so romantic!" Grindhouse is a celebration of the romance of analog - namely, the kind of schlocky B-movie double-feature experience that died with the dawn of video. And while Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have both responded to this meta-moviemaking experiment in drastically different ways that will leave most audience members strongly preferring one over the other, they both deserve a great deal of credit for recreating the terrifically cheap thrills of a bygone era.

After a fake trailer for a Danny Trejo-starring action vehicle called Machete (think Shooter, but awesome), a go-go-dancing Rose McGowan introduces us to the world of Rodriguez's Planet Terror, a zombies-gone-amok picture set in a rural Texas town. A descendant of George A. Romero and John Carpenter's early low-budget efforts, Planet Terror pits a small gang of survivors, led by McGowan's Cherry Darling and her mysterious truck-driving ex, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). The schlock aesthetic frees Rodriguez to make his most entertaining movie since From Dusk Till Dawn, his hyperactive imagination serving up a smorgasbord of explosions, severed limbs and burst pustules without the burden of logic or character development (it's like a more honest Once Upon a Time in Mexico).

Rodriguez even succeeds in recalling the best grindhouse movies' goofy but sincere attempts at social commentary, supplying us with a sneering, inarticulate Lieutenant played by Bruce Willis (another sometime actor does a surprisingly effective job as a rapist) and positioning Osama bin Laden as the 21st-century replacement for Hitler as the go-to real-life boogeyman to lend one's monster movie some gravitas. While Planet Terror's take on grindhouse is mostly superficial (and the obvious digital effects are a slight compromise), it's a great deal of gross-out fun, using genre staples like Tom Savini, Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey to wonderful effect. And when the film arrives at the awesome, already famous sight of McGowan toting a machine gun leg, Rodriguez succeeds in giving us an iconic movie image that perfectly summarizes the transgressive appeal of chicks with guns. Planet Terror is the sort of movie that Avco Embassy might have released in 1981, and I mean that as a tremendous compliment.

While the pleasures of Planet Terror are overt, Death Proof is a subtler and at points confounding take on slasher, car and rape-revenge pictures. This is evident in the way each director approaches the digital touchups designed to make their prints appear old and degraded - Rodriguez fills every frame with scratches and dirt, while Tarantino employs them less, allowing the film to speak for itself. Death Proof's credits play out through a haze of pot smoke, and Tarantino has indeed finally made a stoner movie, languorously paced and amiably unfocused. Basically two extended action sequences bookended by a great deal of chitchat between its mostly female cast, Death Proof follows Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), an ex-stand-in with a few crayons short of a box, as he stalks one group and is then pursued by another group of young women. Tarantino takes a lot of time letting his story unfold, observing a local celebrity (Sydney Poitier - how mean were her parents?) and her friends as they get drunk, flirt with guys and dance to T-Rex. This is mirrored in the film's second half, where stuntwoman Zoe (Zoe Bell, essentially playing herself) and her posse spend their day off from a movie shoot tracking down a 1970 Dodge Challenger (the Vanishing Point car, as Zoe excitedly informs us) to perform an extremely dangerous stunt for kicks. Tarantino is not so much deconstructing as distilling the essence of 70's exploitation, which counted among its charms a tendency towards rambling plots (see Dennis Cozzalio's take on the unexpected sweetness of Revenge of the Cheerleaders); we learn about the characters not through extensive exposition but in asides and brief exchanges, and it's a weirdly subversive surprise to see Tarantino celebrating grindhouse cinema's understated qualities as well as the sex and violence.

This approach is destined to be off-putting to a lot of audience members (a friend I saw the film with eloquently summarized Death Proof as "fucking shit" and "Duel meets Spice World"). But while both films are a great deal of fun, Death Proof is just a great film, period. It's odd and unwieldly, but deliberately so. The hangout scenes not only establish an unusual amount of investment in the characters for a slasher movie, they also serve to create a Hitchcockian air of menace - when Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) notices Mike's ominous muscle car has followed them, she represents every pursued woman with an instinctive awareness of nastiness around the corner since Janet Leigh. A self-described wolf, Mike might have emerged right out of the female protagonists' collective unconscious - virile but unknowable, he's a living representation of the collision of sex and death, and Russell's incomparable talent for dead-eyed nihilism makes Mike an unforgettable villain. When Bell, Rosario Dawson and Tracy Thoms take over in the second half, the film becomes a potent celebration of female strength. But where Planet Terror relies on a machine-gun leg for its impact, Death Proof's leading ladies possess a truly death-proof inner strength - it's a hokey conceit, but Tarantino is smart enough to play it sincerely, remembering that there is an underlying truth in even our trashiest celluloid fantasies. Stick with Death Proof and you'll be rewarded with some jaw-dropping chase sequences, an orgasm of an ending, and a wealth of ideas about the power of genre that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

But while, yes, I definitely prefer Tarantino's film to Rodriguez's, they both honor their ancestors in different ways. And they were nice enough to invite their peers to contribute some memorable trailers that play between the features - Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS (featuring Nicolas Cage in the part he was born to play), Edgar Wright's drily hilarious Eurohorror Don't, and Eli Roth's grisly holiday slasher Thanksgiving (which makes awesome use of the Creepshow score). Add to this a grab bag of appropriately period headers, ads for the taco shack next door, and a few missing reels bound to piss off many an oversexed audience member, and it's clear that this is a labor of love for everyone involved. I'm too young to have experienced the real thing - when I was visiting New York City, a billboard featuring a Times Square marquee advertising a double bill of Night of the Creeps and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 with the tagline "THINGS HAVE CHANGED" pissed me off something fierce. Now I can say that I too have been to the Grindhouse, and for that I am most thankful.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Let's start building some hurtin' bombs.

Rocky Balboa is unprecedented, a Sylvester Stallone-directed film that's actually pretty good. Stallone, who also reprises his most popular character here, could have easily thrown together a by-the-numbers retread and made a few bucks off the nostalgia craze - easier still, he could have just sold the remake rights. Instead, he's made a surprisingly low-key and personal character study that honors the qualities that made the first Rocky such a rousing moviegoing experience. The result is far from perfect, but it is likeable, entertaining and oddly moving.

Sixteen years after the execrable Rocky V, the film finds the Italian Stallion living a modest but comfortable life, spending his nights entertaining guests at his restaurant with stories of his famous fights against Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang (no mention of having defeated Communism). The biggest change in Rocky's life is the loss of his beloved wife Adrian, who died of "lady cancer" (as Rocky puts it) several years earlier. The opening scenes follow Rocky on the anniversary of her death as he visits spots (such as the lot where an ice rink once stood) that remind him of Adrian, her brother Paulie (Burt Young) reluctantly tagging along. These scenes set a surprisingly melancholic tone for the film, which eschews the overblown theatrics (and talking robots) of previous sequels in favor of a muted color palette and a quiet, observational style. And while earlier entries in the franchise have taken a by-the-numbers approach, Rocky Balboa has a structure that hearkens back to the first film, following the characters as not much happens - Rocky befriends a younger woman and her son, Rocky gets a dog, Paulie is still a prick - and allowing the interchanges between the characters to propel the story. The main villain in the film isn't any fighter but Rocky's own advancing age; while this isn't the most original of premises, Stallone invests it with a level of insight and wit that reminds us of how the star of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was once a promising voice for our populist myths.

Stallone also takes the piss out of any jokes at the near-60 fighter, not to mention his own checkered filmography - imagine what it must be like to live with the fact that you starred in Tango and Cash, and you'll get an idea of the pathos behind Rocky's indirect admission that, yes, you can call him Punchy. When Rocky agrees to fight heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Vodka Drunkenski was unavailable), his goal isn't to knock out the younger fighter but to leave the ring with his dignity intact (and to teach the young whippersnapper a thing or two). There's something charming about Stallone's modesty, making a movie that not only appeals to serious fans but demonstrates that he's trying new things as a filmmaker. This is nowhere more evident than during the fight, which is filled with sudden cuts to moments from Rocky's (and our) memories. It's not entirely successful - a purple-tinted closeup of Burgess Meredith is sort of terrifying - but it does reveal Stallone as an auteur in his own way, preoccupied with the persistence of memory.

Rocky Balboa has a lot of problems - the scenes between Rocky and his son don't work, the narrative is weirdly compressed (probably due to the small budget), and there's far too much A.J. Benza. But watching Rocky, calcified joints and all, training with Paulie and Duke (the eternally awesome Tony Burton) to Bill Conti's classic theme, it's impossible not to smile, not just out of nostalgia but geniune fondness. This is Stallone's The Straight Story, and whether this is a good or bad thing is for you to decide. All I know is, I'm now illogically excited to see John Rambo.