Saturday, December 29, 2007

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Chevalier. Fidelio. Ratatouille.

Just in time for the New Year, Dennis at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly rule presents us with the latest quiz (by one Bertram Potts) certain to encourage much cinematic and personal reflection. Head over to SLIFR to share your answers, peruse others', argue or celebrate. Here are my answers:

1) Your favorite opening shot

Boogie Nights. It's audacious, seductive, and arrogant in the best way.

2) Tuesday Weld or Mia Farrow?


3) Name a comedy you’re embarrassed to admit made you laugh

Around the tenth time I watched Heavyweights, I realized with horror that my laughter wasn't ironic.

4) Best Movie of 1947

Black Narcissus

5) Burt Reynolds was the Bandit. Jerry Reed was the Snowman. Paul LeMat was Spider. Candy Clark was Electra. What’s your movie handle?


6) Robert Vaughn or David McCallum?

Both have strong jaws, but only one ambushed Superman with carcinogenic Kryptonite.

7) Most exotic/unusual place/location in which you've seen a movie

My wife and I saw The Darjeeling Limited at the Majestic in North Conway, NH. The theatre was in a cafe - we bought our tickets from a waitress, got snacks at the bar and discovered a 50-seat auditorium at the end of a long, winding red corridor.

8) Favorite Errol Morris movie

Gates of Heaven, because it's haunting and funny, and because without it, my answer to #17 wouldn't exist. But I must admit some difficulty embracing Morris since his petulant Oscar speech.

9) Best Movie of 1967

Bonnie and Clyde

10) Describe a profoundly (or not-so-profoundly) disturbing moment you’ve had courtesy of the movies

During the trailers before Juno, the entire audience laughed at and mocked the premise of the border-crossing drama Under the Same Moon. Ah, those wacky Mexicans - when will they learn?

11) Anne Francis or Julie Newmar?

Don't feel strongly one way or the other, but Forbidden Planet is pretty great.

12) Describe your favorite one sheet (include a link if possible)

The Alien one-sheet is so simple and suggestive, but even when I was a small child and knew nothing about the film, it (and the tagline) were genuinely unsettling.

13) Best Movie of 1987

Wings of Desire

14) Favorite movie about obsession

Looking at my 100 list, there are a startling amount of movies about obsession. But yeah, Vertigo is almost inarguably the ultimate statement on the subject.

15) Your ideal Christmas movie triple feature

Gremlins, Eyes Wide Shut and Black Christmas (the original - duh).

16) Montgomery Clift or James Dean?

James Dean, but they both kick Ryan Gosling's ass.

17) Favorite Les Blank Movie

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

18) This past summer food critic Anton Ego made the following statement: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Your thoughts?

I can't wait to show Ratatouille to my daughter.

19) The last movie you watched on DVD? In a theater?

On DVD, Two-Lane Blacktop, a movie I've been dying to see for a while that lived up to its reputation. The latter is Margot at the Wedding, a movie I liked a good deal more than most (I dig Harris Savides, and I'm sort of mean).

20) Best Movie of 2007

I have yet to see at least one film that I suspect will be high on this list (I'm referring, of course, to The Bucket List). As of now, it's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

21) Worst Movie of 2007

The Number 23 is the worst movie Joel Schumacher's ever made. Really think about that.

22) Describe the stages of your cinephilia

3-10 - Pure, unqualified adoration. Anything horror or sci-fi. Lots of Spielberg, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam. Anything muppet. A complete lack of critical discernment (2001 is awesome, so is Hook).

10-12 - Onanism. Anxiety. Self-loathing. Movies that validate my pubescent existential crisis (Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Vertigo). Anything with boobs. Pulp Fiction is a potent gateway drug to a new way of looking at cinema.

13-15 - Loss of religion dovetails with the concept of cinema as transgression. Boogie Nights. A Clockwork Orange. Blue Velvet. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Anything with weiners. Anything that would piss off dad.

15-18 - Intro to world cinema - Herzog, Truffaut, Bergman, Argento. Expressionism. Anything with brains. A soft spot for earnest, overwrought emotionalism (American Beauty and Magnolia).

18-22 - College. Forgetting how to just watch a movie. Lots of posturing and one-upmanship. "Hey, you know what would be an awesome way to watch Tron?" Lynch, Altman, De Palma, Malick. I'm starting to get the hang of this.

Now - The blog. Liking what I like. "Hey, you know what would be an awesome way to watch Barry Lyndon?" Roeg, Bertolucci and Malle all touch a nerve. Romanticism. Uncertainty. Watching my daughter freak out with delight whenever Superman, Willy Wonka or robots are onscreen.

23) What is the one film you’ve had more difficulty than any other in convincing people to see or appreciate?

Right now, pretty much anything. My generation is bombarded by hype and infotainment into complete indifference. If my friends would rather see Smoking Aces than The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it's because the latter is an unknowable challenge while the former is reassuringly familiar. The movies become comfort food, a sensory snack with the same value as a video game or a viral video played on a cell phone. In such a climate, how can I convince anyone that cinema has the ability to be beautiful, even transcendent?

24) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth?

Rita Hayworth

25) The Japanese word wabi denotes simplicity and quietude, but it can also mean an accidental or happenstance element (or perhaps even a small flaw) which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. What film or moment from a film best represents wabi to you?

The dog crossing the path in the opening shot of Birth, unknowingly violating the images' symmetry and creating a pleasurable dissonance.

26) Favorite Documentary

Gates of Heaven again.

27) Favorite opening credit sequence

While I love elaborate, Saul Bass-style opening collages, I've always admired the plain yellow titles of McCabe and Mrs. Miller silently, craftily snaking in and out of the gloomy landscape like McCabe himself.

28) Is there a film that has influenced your lifestyle in a significant or notable way? If so, what was it and how did it do so?

Eyes Wide Shut not only changed the way I thought about film, it challenged my 15-year-old assumptions about relationships, fidelity and even identity. I think it had a strong effect on my friend Tara as well (happy birthday, Tara!), as she took a classmate to see it again the next night and was shocked when the girl complained of boredom. Truly a case of "Did you see the same movie I did?"

29) Glenn Ford or Dana Andrews?

Glenn Ford

30) Make a single prediction, cynical or hopeful, regarding the upcoming Academy Awards

In honor of No Country for Old Men, a Chuck Workman-edited montage of the greatest head shots in film history.

31) Best Actor of 2007

Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

32) Best Actress of 2007

Carice van Houten, Black Book

33) Best Director of 2007

Andrew Dominik

34) Best Screenplay of 2007

No Country for Old Men

35) Favorite single movie moment of 2007

Jason Schwartzman showing Natalie Portman the view from his suite in the Hotel Chevalier. It touched a nerve more deeply than any moment this year.

36) What’s your wish/hope for the movies in 2008?

For the happy surprises. The other day I saw Sweeney Todd, a movie I wasn't really dying to see, and I loved it - there's no better feeling than that. 2007 was a year of one movie after another exceeding my expectations; let's hope it's the start of something.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday Title Card #39

The Trim Bin #65

- Between the badass Drew Struzan poster above (please don't suck please don't suck please don't suck...) and this trailer (which, clearly, will not suck), 2008 looks to be 1989 all over again. But without the New Kids on the Block, so, y'know, better.

- Speaking of blockbusters, Vol. 1, No. 3 of the International Journal of Zizek Studies, titled "Zizek and Cinema," focuses on the Slovenian philosopher's film writing. It's must-read stuff, particuarly if this is your introduction to Zizek.
- I saw the terrific, underrated Two-Lane Blacktop for the first time, so it was a pleasure to find Kim Morgan's ode to the film waiting for me (she's right - it's a seriously sexy movie).

- I thought I was the only one!

- An interesting discussion is forming over at SLIFR with the debut of Andrew Blackwood's short film Slap, a film that has invited both praise and scorn. Alex Jackson hated it so much that he posted his own film over at the Film Freak Central blog, though Hieronymous Bosch's HECK shares more spiritual DNA with Slap than Mr. Jackson would probably care to admit. But as for the question "Who's more pretentious?," the answer is me.

- Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?

First, about the coin toss. Nearly every review of No Country for Old Men has discussed the method of judgement preferred by the fearfully principled killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Barden) as symbolic of some ancient morality, or a comment on the absence of a greater intercessory figure. These things are both true, but the metaphysical reading also sidesteps the coin's literal role as currency - as Chigurh reminds a frightened gas station attendant, it's just another coin. That the moral and philosophical quandaries of Cormac McCarthy's novel hinge on a narrative driven by money makes it a natural fit for the Coens. Their America is one where commerce is the immobile reality behind status, identity, ethics, culture, nearly everything - a country run by powerful men barking orders from behind large desks, where both the decent and the corrupt imagine the American dream as a large sum of found money (or, at least, a rug that really ties the room together). The Coens perpetually return to their pithy, deadpan reminder that crime does not pay while teasing our desire to witness the attendant chaos; No Country for Old Men, their best film in a decade, is their most honest and mature exploration of this endless cycle of man's fall, perdition and rebirth - it's the Coens at their bleakest and most humane.

A western that romanticizes the genre's poetics even as it demolishes them, No Country for Old Men gives us as its progatonists three distinct masculine archetypes. There is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the stoic everyman who, stumbling upon a violent crime scene and two million dollars in cash, acts as most of us would. There is Chigurh, Moss' pursuer, a villian of elemental violence who cuts a bloody path towards his prey with a dogged, businesslike precision. And there is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a man of old-fashioned integrity devoted to a moral code and, ultimately, the mourning of that code's percieved passing. All three actors do excellent work here - Brolin is able to convey with a glance or quick aside his character's inner turmoil, Jones finds new insight in what is, for him, familiar territory (my friend Rory pointed out that Jones played basically the same character in Man of the House). But it's Bardem's implacable killer who sticks with you long after the film is over, his pale, crooked visage worthy of Conrad Veidt as he pronounces Moss' (and our) impending doom, sotto voce, at once monstrous and chillingly logical - he's one of the great screen villains.

As Moss barely evades his pursuers, the Coens stage the action with a subtle mastery of filmmaking craft that reminds how comedy and suspense require the same understanding of perfect timing. Small details - the crinkle of a discarded cellophane wrapper, a plume of smoke on the horizon - take on the same power as moments of unflinching violence. The cinematography by Roger Deakins gives the film's western landscapes a stark, mythic grandeur (Deakins also shot the similarly elegaic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The Coens excel at this sort of thing, which is why, when they suddenly abandon the story's genre's trapping, the effect is unforgivably jarring for many (a large portion of the audience I saw the film with visibly turned on the film in its last third). I think this effect is entirely intentional, both in the McCarthy book and in the film, forced to examine both our own complacent expectations and, by extension, our own assumptions about our relationship to a country that, impossibly, claims protection from entropy.

But while the film is extremely faithful to its source, in its telling there is a slight but important difference in its emotional impact. Upon finishing McCarthy's book, I was drained, depressed, persuaded of the author's message of constant hopelessness. While the film does not compromise on the story's unrelenting darkness, a sort of dialogue between McCarthy and the Coens' unsentimental yet basically amiable outlook emerges, reminding of Sartre's summary of our relationship to God (whether he doesn't exist or is merely hidden, we've got to take care of ourselves). Consider the fate of Moss' wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, heartbreakingly sweet), whose defeat in the book becomes a uniquely cinematic pardon, an acknowledgment of her refusal to participate in any of the story's masculine games (another recurring message of the Coens: listen to your wife). And Bell's sad resignation, so final and definitive in the book, lingers here like an open question. It's in his admission of defeat against the tides of change that, paradoxically, renders him immortal - an old man sailing towards the artifice of eternity.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Of all the meat-and-potatoes journeymen Stephen King prefers to adapt his work, Frank Darabont is the best. His previous King adaptations were smart, well-crafted crowd-pleasers, even if they suffered from the sort of bloat (particularly with The Green Mile) that came with Darabont's religious fidelity to King's books. But The Mist owes less to those films than to the Darabont-scripted A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Blob, B-movies that never pandered to their core audience even as they delivered the required buckets of viscera. King's novella was originally written in the 80's, and Darabont's film (CGI aside) could have been released in that heyday of Fangoria-endorsed creature features. The Mist is brooding and merciless, and, for all its very contemporary thematic concerns, works best as a proudly old-fashioned "Boo!" movie.

A poster of The Thing visible early on in the studio of poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) indicates the film's biggest influence. Like Carpenter's film, The Mist is a Hawksian narrative that traps a cross-section of residents of a small Maine town in a grocery store enveloped in the titular weather activity. Darabont succeeds in mounting tension both with the threat of mysterious, Lovecraftian creatures hiding in the mist, waiting to attack and in the conflicts between people in the store over real and perceived class and cultural differences. This is familiar genre territory, but the cast, largely made up of veteran character actors, succeeds in creating a fresh variation on old themes. A particular standout is Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Carmody, a zealous evangelical Christian who uses the crowd's fear to preach her apocalyptic message. King is fond of these broad portraits of the devout, and a less skilled actor could have easily reduced Mrs. Carmody to a hammy, one-dimensional caricature. But Harden delivers her doomsaying prophecies with quiet certainty, making the characte more human, more recognizable and more disturbing (especially if you've met women like her).

The emphasis of human conflict at the forefront of the drama gives The Mist an unusual seriousness, and it's hard not to draw analogies between the faith vs. reason conflict in the film and our own cultural divide. If there's a flaw with the film, it's that Darabont stacks the deck too far in favor of the lefties - a moment of action by a pragmatic grocer (Toby Jones) late in the story invited applause from the audience that felt uncomfortably close to the bloodlust experienced by the characters. Luckily, the ending (taken straight from the Twilight Zone playbook) makes this more complicated, forcing us to question our own reponse to the horror the sudden, violent paradigm shift we're a part of. The final moments play like the dark side of The Shawshank Redemption, depicting loss of hope as the ultimate, irreversible horror. It's heavyhanded stuff, but it works.

If I'm forgiving of The Mist's flaws, it's because I can't remember feeling so pleasurably creeped out by a movie in a long time. King's greatest strength has always been his unsparing, treament of the gory details (matched only by Lovecraft), and one of the biggest failures of most films adapted from his work is that they keep the genre conventions but never get sick enough. The monsters here (designed by Berni Wrightson!) live up to the book - they're truly otherworldly beasts that have seemingly emerged straight from the characters' (and my) nightmares. In other words, they're mean, nasty and disgusting, just the way monsters should be. King once wrote that "If I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." Darabont goes for the gross-out, and he should be proud.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Top 10: 80s Fantasy

Even with its newfangled three-dimensional gimmickry, Beowulf is a drag. A pair of wonderfully strange, kinky performances from Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie aside, Robert Zemeckis' film is a leaden affair, bogged down by Zemeckis' misguided allegiance to motion capture. The CG is so consistently plastic-fantastic that Zemeckis sacrifices texture, scale and depth in favor of instantly-dated kitsch - by the end, all I wanted was to look at a real sky, real faces, perhaps even a real nipple (or two).

The sad thing is, the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary could have made a hell of a movie were it made in a leaner, more practical fashion - in Ireland, say, on overcast days, with actors knee-deep in mud, blood and viscera. My hypothetical version of Beowulf would probably make about twelve dollars, but it would have more integrity. This got me thinking about the 1980s, that wonderful period in fantasy filmmaking, when the success of Star Wars led studios to throw enormous amounts of money at lavish, tremendousy geeky epics. These films took place in meticulously designed fantasy worlds built at places with fantastic names like Shepperton and Pinewood. They were usually earnest and self-important, and sometimes completely laughable. But for every Yor: The Hunter From the Future, there were a wealth of sword-and-sorcery tales that captured the imagination of many a young geek (present company included, of course). They were tangible in a way that most fantasy films today are mostly synthetic, and the list below could double as a primer for any of today's indoor kids who think that The Chronicles of Narnia is as good as it gets. It's not their fault.

1. Excalibur A serious retelling of the Arthurian legend, filled with blood, breasts and mayhem, that succeeds in making an oft-repeated story feel stunningly immediate. John (Zardoz) Boorman's greatest strength and failure is his willingless to show us the ridiculous with a straight face; the result is that the sword in the stone, the lady in the lake and other cliches that had already been brutalized by Monty Python suddenly felt relevant and even knowingly funny without falling into self-parody (largely thanks to Nicol Williamson's wry Merlin). It's a beautiful film, too, bathed in shadows and driven by Orff long before Carmina Burana became an action-movie cliche.

2. The Dark Crystal I'm only half-joking when I tell people that this movie is closer than any religion to my belief system. Directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz, along with artist Brian Froud, succeed in creating a world as fully realized as George Lucas', complete with a more developed philosophy - that it stars Muppets is all the more remarkable. Also, this movie scares the bejesus out of my wife.

3. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Criticized unfairly for its massive budget and dumped upon its release, Terry Gilliam's lavish tall tale transported me and many other small children who discovered it, unheralded, on video or cable (it's amazing to me how many of my friends can extensively quote an unqualified flop). The Baron's fabrications and delusions become the basis for a wildly ambitious farce that literally journeys to the farthest reaches of heaven and earth. Plus, Gilliam gives Robin Williams a role (king of the moon) that he cannot possibly overact.

4. The Neverending Story Revisiting this as an adult, I was shocked at how dark it really is. The villian is nothingness, the conflict a race against the death of imagination in the face of childhood's end. It's a must-see for any kid who'd prefer to hide in a book than put away childish things. Fantasia, the film's imaginary world, retains its immersive beauty even as the effects date, demonstrating that photorealism is not nearly as important as artistry. Plus, Falcor is soooo cool.

5. The Princess Bride A satire of sorts, but one that retains an affection for the stories (and movies) it pokes fun at. Plus, no list of sword-and-sorcery movies is complete without one of the very best swordfights in cinema (isn't it weird that Mandy Patinkin was once briefly cool?)

6. Conan the Barbarian An unapologetic display of pure phallic might directed by the inspiration for John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski (indeed, I imagine that Walter Sobchak's wet dreams are something like this). The Terminator is the better movie, but Arnold was never more Arnold than he is here. The tits are ripe, the decapitations are plentiful, Thulsa Doom is present and accounted for - few films make total idiocy feel so good. Also, Ron Cobb rules!

7. Labyrinth A little more kid-oriented than The Dark Crystal. But The Dark Crystal didn't have a spandex-clad, Goblin-ruling David Bowie (thus began my latency period).

8. Legend Strictly the Jerry Goldsmith-scored director's cut, not the choppy, incoherent theatrical version (though that Tangerine Dream score is pretty boss). Ridley Scott creates another world as fully realized as Blade Runner's future. It's embarassingly earnest at points, but is ultimately unforgettable thanks to Tim Curry's terrifying, sexy performance as Darkness (aided by Rob Bottin's excellent makeup work).

9. Dragonslayer The most direct ancestor of Beowulf, one that more enthusiastically embraces its unapologetic paganism. Made during Disney's attempt to change its kiddie-movie image, it's at points shockingly dark and gory - the baby dragons munching on a virgin is not only nightmare territory for youngsters, it also raises the stakes of the young hero's quest immeasurably. Deeply derivative of Star Wars, but in a good way.

10. Fire and Ice Frank Frazetta is the ultimate geek, and his jaw-droppingly insane illustrations come to life thanks to Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoping (a predecessor of mo-cap). And while the hand-drawn animation is often crude, particuarly compared to its 2007 incarnation, it has one thing that Zemeckis' film doesn't: balls.