Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Curious Case of President Brundlefly

Dennis Cozzalio's latest movie quiz arrives just in time for a bit of reflection before 2009 is upon us. This time the test is administered by Professor Kingsfield, whose lessons in The Paper Chase were part of a recent management training I had to attend (along with "lessons" from Breaking Away and Young Frankenstein, for some reason). Let's begin:

1) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD or Blu-ray?

Theatrically, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - schmaltzy, but well-crafted and heartfelt enough that I didn't mind. On DVD, the original My Bloody Valentine (pretty soon, every mention of an '80s horror movie will be preceded by "the original").

2) Holiday movies— Do you like them naughty or nice?

At least a little bit naughty. For instance, my favorite Scrooge (one I've watched every December since I was a tot) is the 1970 version with Albert Finney. It features decaying ghouls and a tour of hell along with the obligatory jolly, dancing British people - a good reminder that Dickens' story, and the holiday, are as much about religious guilt and keeping our wintry demons at bay as they are about tinsel and elves.

3) Ida Lupino or Mercedes McCambridge?

Ida Lupino

4) Favorite actor/character from Twin Peaks

My first thought was Audrey Horne swaying to Angelo Badalamenti's "dreamy" music at the Double R Diner. But The Little Man From Another Planet also deserves mention.

5) It’s been said that, rather than remaking beloved, respected films, Hollywood should concentrate more on righting the wrongs of the past and tinker more with films that didn’t work so well the first time. Pretending for a moment that movies are made in an economic vacuum, name a good candidate for a remake based on this criterion.

Kindergarten Cop. Great premise, bland execution. I'd love to see what Terry Zwigoff would do with it.

6) Favorite Spike Lee joint.

Do the Right Thing

7) Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady?

"Why am I Mr. Pink?"

"Because you're a faggot, alright?"

8) Are most movies too long?

I'm much more likely to criticize a movie for being too rushed. I rarely understand the "too long" complaint - to paraphrase The Age of Innocence, it seems like people are faster to leave a movie than to go to one.

9) Favorite performance by an actor portraying a real-life politician.

Fred Willard as Ron Alberston as President McKinley.

10) Create the main event card for the ultimate giant movie monster smackdown.

Brundlefly vs. Blairmonster: Requiem. Christmas 2010.

11) Jean Peters or Sheree North?

Sheree North

12) Why would you ever want or need to see a movie more than once?

The movie stays the same, but I change. Plus, I like movies.

13) Favorite road movie.


14) Favorite Budd Boetticher picture.

Alas, I haven't seen any.

15) Who is the one person, living or dead, famous or unknown, who most informed or encouraged your appreciation of movies?

My mom, who encouraged my early interest in film by sharing her favorite movies, discussing them with me and encouraging me to form my own opinions and preferences.

16) Favorite opening credit sequence. (Please include YouTube link if possible.)

Vertigo. Can't beat Saul Bass.

17) Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?

Kenneth Tobey

18) Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that the more popular the movie, the less likely it was that it was a good movie. Is he right or just cranky? Cite the best evidence one way or the other.

Godard is wrong about a lot of things. Some great movies are inherently divisive, while others touch a collective nerve. The best evidence I can think of is E.T.'s premiere at Cannes, where it recieved rapturous applause from the toughest possible audience.

19) Favorite Jonathan Demme movie.

The Silence of the Lambs

20) Tatum O’Neal or Linda Blair?

I really like one performance of theirs apiece, so on that basis...Linda Blair.

21) Favorite use of irony in a movie. (This could be an idea, moment, scene, or an entire film.)

Haven Hamilton singing "200 Years" in Nashville. Actually, all of Nashville. Actually, Altman's entire body of work.

22) Favorite Claude Chabrol film.

Never seen any Chabrol either. Couldn't you have asked for my favorite Renny Harlin?

23) The best movie of the year to which very little attention seems to have been paid.

When I caught up with Snow Angels this fall, I was surprised to find that it's subtler and more moving than its mixed reviews would suggest, with a strong central performance by Sam Rockwell. While it's more conventional than Green's previous work, the bittersweet contrast of the idealism of young love and a marriage gone tragically awry rang true to me. Pineapple Express was good for a laugh, but this is the best DGG movie of the year.

24) Dennis Christopher or Robby Benson?

Christopher, for his performance as Eddie Kaspbrak in the miniseries adaptation of It.

25) Favorite movie about journalism.


26) What’s the DVD commentary you’d most like to hear? Who would be on the audio track?

The conversation between Werner Herzog and Crispin Glover on Even Dwarfs Started Small is pretty great. I'd love to hear Herzog interview Glover on What Is It? (actually, I'd just like to finally see What Is It?).

27) Favorite movie directed by Clint Eastwood.


28) Paul Dooley or Kurtwood Smith?

A few years ago, my wife recognized Kurtwood Smith walking by, and he responded by kissing her on the cheek. So I'll go with Dooley, for not being a homewrecker.

29) Your clairvoyant moment: Make a prediction about the Oscar season.

Heath Ledger will win the 2009 "Montage of the Dead" applause contest.

30) Your hope for the movies in 2009.

That, after a so-so 2008, a year that brings new Scorsese, Malick and Tarantino lives up to its potential.

31) What’s your top 10 of 2008? (If you have a blog and have your list posted, please feel free to leave a link to the post.)

I'm going to have to ask for an extension on this one, Professor - limited release strategies prevent me once again from catching some of the highest-profile winter releases until mid-January. So far, I've awarded two movies an A+ this year: The Dark Knight and Wall-E.

BONUS QUESTION (to be answered after December 25):

32) What was your favorite movie-related Christmas gift that you received this year?

A Videodrome t-shirt from my mother-in-law.

Happy new year, everyone!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mother, now I know where you live.

The New World is bookended by quiet, immersive nature sounds that begin before the first image (running water enveloping the frame) and continue after the last (light peering through trees). We don't begin this story so much as join it in progress - the tragic romance between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) as a microcosm of a world that, director Terrence Malick reminds us, began and will go on long after the movie (and our time) is over. The movie's title is bitterly, beautifully ironic, with the movie's point of view belonging not to Smith but to Pocahontas, sharing her perception of this world without beginnings or endings - out of time, eternal. This could be florid, pretentious stuff in the wrong hands, but Malick is one of the cinema's few poets and, I suspect, incapable of making a bad movie; at turns meditative, hallucinatory and plain breathtaking, The New World is one of the rare films that touches the infinite.

The prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold (like Malick's film, a work that anticipates the end of gods) announces the arrival of English colonists, led by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), to what will become known as Jamestown (though the film largely avoids names and other historical cataloguing). The meeting between Europeans and "naturals" is rescued from paternalistic cliche by Malick and DP Emmanuel Lubezki's vibrant, immersive images (particuarly astounding on the big screen), which lend our country an otherwordly quality that allows us to see the narrative through fresh eyes. Focusing on the brief, fleeting romance between Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell), The New World both revises and honors the affair's status as a myth of Paradise Lost. The film is steeped in metaphor, using a language of images to explicate the film's meaning in place of conventional dramaturgy. Words are of secondary importance here; the dialogue is largely sparse and functional, and the use of voiceover, as in all of Malick's films, is not meant to explain but to show the gap between what the characters say and what they mean. By decontextualizing Smith and Pocahontas (who is never referred to by name), focusing instead on their fleeting intimacy, Malick paradoxically says worlds about the nature of diaspora.

The production design (by the great Jack Fisk) and careful recreation of Algonquin culture reveal a strong commitment to authenticity, but it would be inaccurate to say that Malick is striving for realism. Malick is after a poetic, romantic truth, his camera constantly darting and weaving around his actors like a silent, disembodied observer. The performers rise to the occasion admirably - Farrell is underrated for his willingness to find vulnerability in his action-man persona, and Christian Bale, as John Rolfe, excels at playing an uncomplicated, genuinely good man (harder than it seems). But the movie belongs to Kilcher, a then-14-year-old acting novice who is completely believable as she navigates her character's journey through first love, separation, banishment, heartbreak, migration and transcendence. Thanks to Kilcher, Pocahontas is at once a personification of Malick's ideals of purity and oneness with the world and a typical lovestruck kid. With The Thin Red Line, Malick seemed to have lost interest in the individual, observing his characters from such a distance that they became a collective, hard to distinguish from the foliage. Pocahontas is a return to his more humanistic '70s work; a direct descendant of Badlands' Holly and Days of Heaven's Linda, she's an innocent who (like the film itself) gives life to the world she inhabits.

The marketing for The New World sold the film as something it wasn't - the above poster is going for sweeping romance, while the horrible DVD cover tries to make it look like an action movie (though the one battle scene demonstrates that Malick could make a great action movie if he wanted to). The result was that the film was hated by people for what it isn't and overlooked by people who would appreciate it for what it is, and it promptly bombed. And there's no question that Malick's esoteric approach to storytelling is too much for most people - almost everyone I've shown the film has nodded off, citing either the deliberate pace (which affords every moment the same importance) or half-complaining that it's "too rich." But I don't think The New World is inaccessible, or even a primarily intellectual experience; I showed the movie last Thanksgiving to a group of mentally challenged people that I work with, and most were engaged, curious, and asking questions (this doesn't happen when we show Firehouse Dog). Perhaps The New World works best when it's less analyzed than experienced; if you let it wash over you, the film's aesthetic and emotional power is indelible. It'd be nice if Malick was more prolific (though with Tree of Life coming out next year, perhaps he's picking up the pace), but when each of his films give us enough to experience and discuss for decades, it's hard to complain.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

This howling is the most exciting thing I've ever heard.

Is it inappropriate to refer to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom as funny? I've been putting off watching the film for years and had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. But while Salò more than lives up to its reputation as a deliberately offensive gross-out, I'd read little that prepared me for how thought-provoking, skillfully crafted and - at points - blackly funny the film would be. During the infamous "Circle of Shit" sequence, just when I thought I couldn't take any more, one of the pervy middle-aged fascists reponsible for the film's horrors flashes an adoring smirk, his face flecked with feces, as he plants a kiss on one of his young prisoners; all at once, my nausea turned to uncontrollable laughter at the film's sheer insanity. Salò pushes bodily horror to such an extreme that it becomes completely absurd, translating political outrage into a sustained scatological outburst (the Mr. Creosote scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is its direct descendant). While Pasolini may have intended Salò as an anti-entertainment, it's a shame to see the movie get lumped in with dreck like Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit On Your Grave on "Most Disturbing" lists. Though I can only recommend Salò to cinephiles who can stomach just about everything, it's an uncompromising work of art that is well worth the challenge of sitting through it.

Transplanting the Marquis de Sade's book The 120 Days of Sodom to fascist Italy, where four men - the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President - kidnap 18 young men and women, capturing them in a palace and putting them through all forms of torture and degradation. The Republic of Salò was created near the end of WWII as a puppet state, and Pasolini's film is an aggressive dramatization of the unchecked decadence that signifies the end of an empire. Pasolini, like Bertolucci and Vischonti, dramatizes Wilhelm Reich's theory that fascism is a form of sexual repression; the exuberant depictions of budding sexuality shown in the director's Trilogy of Life appear only briefly, as a forced performance that is quickly interrupted. The frequent nudity of Pasolini's young, beautiful captives has a disorienting effect - if the desire towards beauty and vitality is natural, is the desire to corrupt and destroy also natural? Pasolini's deliberately distancing techniques only serve to further obscure the answer to that question, as does the captives' suprisingly passivity in the face of annihilation, the strange affection evident in the captors' faces, and the scenes where an aging maitresse entertains the captives with winsome stories of her humiliation and abuse. Whether or not these horrors are natural, Pasolini argues, we accept them without hesitation.

Pasolini's use of theatrical alienation also adds a kinky metatextual layer to the film. A performance between the older and younger maitresse late in the film calls attention to the sadomasochistic dynamic between the actors and their director. All have willingly taken on the roles of torturers and victim, with Pasolini frequently revealing to his actors the nature of a scene just before shooting. While this is an extremely manipulative approach, I haven't read any stories about actors quitting the film. Salò carries an perverse but undeniable charge as an experiment in how far its actors were willing to go, and if they might in some cases be enjoying their respective roles; I must admit that I found myself frequently observing whether the actors were visibly aroused as they assumed dominant or submissive roles. Like de Sade, Pasolini is exploring the darkest areas of sexuality, but while the Marquis was having a wank, Pasolini examines the lizard brain with a critical eye. The dark side of his Arabian Nights and the entire flood of '70s Europorn, Salò introduces a cinema born out of the sexual revolution and the liberation of content that is not an endless Bacchanalic orgy but also the release, Pandora-like, of the basest qualities of human nature.

About the shit-eating: 30+ years after after Salò and Pink Flamingos, after Jackass and the birth of "extreme" as a selling point, when corprophagia can be found in a studio-released comedy like American Wedding, once-transgressive content exists as nothing more than a dare between giggling teens (or, frighteningly, people my age) looking to prove how desensitized they've become. How is it, then, that Salò has lost none of its power? This can partly be attributed to the very convincing shit - a mixture of chocolate and orange marmalade - but what really sets Salò apart from its descendants in gross-out is that, to quote Videodrome, it has a philosophy. With the film newly available on DVD, it'd be great if it gained a reputation as a triple dog dare for the Goatse/"Two Girls One Cup" crowd, unexpectedly blindsiding its new audience with its lacerating indictment of their late-empire decadence. That is, if they can get past the weird gay stuff.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Paul Clark has tagged me with The Alphabet Meme that orignated at Blog Cabins. The original concept - to pick a favorite movie to represent each letter of the alphabet - has been tweaked by various authors who've written about alternate favorites, guilty pleasures, underseen movies and movies they'd like to revisit (or see for the first time). But I'm going to be boring and stick with the "favorite movies" idea - the appeal of memes like this, to me, is to follow the formula and discover anomalies. I like the idea of this list as an alternate all-time top 26. It's not really Bizarro me, but a me-not-me who I basically agree with but has omitted a few favorites and (thanks to Q and X) has a special place in his heart for Marvel adaptations and Australian sci-fi.
Apocalypse Now
Blue Velvet
Dawn of the Dead
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Fly
The Godfather Part II
Kill Bill vol. 2
Lawrence of Arabia
The Man Who Fell to Earth
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Quiet Earth
Raging Bull
The Shining
2001: A Space Odyssey
Un Chien Andalou
Wings of Desire
Y tu mama Tambien

Edited to add: Oh yeah, I forgot to pass this on. Let's go with Neil, Greg, Allen, Jess and Jess.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The curves of your lips rewrite history.

This is my contribution to Nathaniel's Musical of the Month at the Film Experience.

You can count on one hand the pop soundtrack cues that match the exhilarating high of Brian Eno's soaring "Needles in the Camel's Eye" played over images of throngs of young, tarted-up glitter kids in perpetual motion, serving as track 1, side 1 of Todd Haynes' glam rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine. The movie hits the ground running and never loses momentum - Haynes depicts the glam scene as no less than a teutonic shift in our cultural and sexual identity. Of course, the real heyday of artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and T. Rex was nowhere near as huge as depicted here; Bowie was essentially a cult star who found his biggest success in the '80s with "Let's Dance," and much of the music from the period is largely dismissed as pretentious and silly today (at least by many of the passengers in my car). But the genius of Haynes' film is that it treats its subject as big, capturing the thrilling immediacy of being part of (or wanting to be a part of) a subculture, the feeling that your own revolution is - or can be - everyone's.

Named after Bowie's horniest song, Velvet Goldmine starts with the delivery of an infant Oscar Wilde to earth via spaceship before jumping to the staged assassination of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a Bowie-inspired, androgynous pop idol who has his own Ziggy Stardust in alien persona Maxwell Demon. Ten years after the hoax and Slade's disappearance, rock journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned a "Where are they now?" piece about Slade; his investigation starts a Citizen Kane-like story where we learn pieces of the Slade story from those who knew him. At the heart of the film is Slade's doomed romance with American rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) - two parts Iggy Pop and one part Lou Reed, Wild gleefully wags his privates for his audience one moment before setting fire to the stage the next. The combustible affair between the openly bisexual Slade and the sexually malleable Wild, and the breakdown of Slade's relationship with wife Mandy (Toni Collette)* set the stage for Haynes' kaliedoscopic, visually stunning meditation on sex, performance, identity, drugs, celebrity, genderfuck and - above all - music. Haynes correctly identifies glam, wedged between the misogyny of the "free love" '60s and the defiantly aesexual rise of punk, as the moment when sex was a means of personal revolution. That this sexual revolution was rendered superficial through its contrived nature is arguable, but Haynes uses surfaces to argue for a deeper truth; when Wild and Slade, driving through a light show, serenade each other with a lip-sync of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love," the moment becomes swooningly romantic precisely because of its obvious unreality.

Velvet Goldmine is filled with precisely such surface pleasures, from the wonderfully over-the-top costumes by Sandy Powell to the marvellously intricate sound design. Haynes is, above all, an aesthete; having studied semiotics at school, his films are like two-hour lessons in signs and signifiers, only they're actually fun to watch. When Haynes appropriates the out-of-time editing of Nicolas Roeg, the visual excesses of Ken Russell or the long-abandoned use of the zoom lens (Oh God, the zooms! Why did they ever go out of style?!), it's more than mere homage. Velvet Goldmine so thoroughly reenacts the sonic and visual textures of the period that each shot, each cut takes on an erotic charge. To the charge that the film is too cerebral, I can only respond that thinking can be very sexy - this is part of glam's appeal, descending not just from Wilde but from Rimbauld, the idea that the divide between introspection and experiential realities is a false one. What I mean to say is that this movie is really fucking hot.

To access the emotions of the film, one has to pay attention to Bale's journalist - the film is punctuated by Arthur's memories of the early '70s, as an awkward teen prone to hiding in his room listening to The Ballad of Maxwell Demon. When Arthur, watching Slade at a press conference on tv, imagines exclaiming "That's me!" to his parents right before Slade opines that we're all bisexual, it reminds all of us of our own adolescent identification with a particular rock star, and what it taught us about ourselves (if you claim you never obsessed over a rock star, you're probably lying). When the film arrives at a tryst between Wild and a young Arthur that may be real or imagined, Haynes doesn't shy away from the intensely personal attachment one can feel towards an artist who, in a sense, deflowers us (the scene is also bound - and Haynes couldn't have anticipated this - to take on special meaning to slash fiction fans as a visual record of Obi-Wan Kenobi buggering Batman). Velvet Goldmine is, more than anything, about what it feels like (to borrow from Almost Famous) to love some silly piece of music so much that it hurts. More than any movie I've seen, it captures the pure high of playing your favorite record (as the opening titles demand) at maximum volume.

* Sidenote: McGregor, Bale, Meyers, Collette - might this be the sexiest cast ever? I couldn't find a way to fit this into the review proper, but it's worth noting.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Title Card #84

The Trim Bin #73

- A must-read: Walter Chaw's interview with Charlie Kaufman, who articulates (better than I could hope to) about a dozen things I've been thinking/feeling/worrying about lately. I've talked to people who've loved everything Kaufman has done and hated Synecdoche, New York, so I really have no idea what to expect, which makes me more anxious to see it.

- I skipped reviewing The Happening because I'd just be hitting the same points most critics did in June. But when Shyamalan cut to Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher asking his students about disappearing bees, Jess and I laughed hard and didn't stop until the movie was over. Can anyone think of a more dramatic directorial flameout than M. Night Shyamalan? I hate to kick a guy when he's down, but Jesus...

- After I wrote about Mother of Tears, Paul Clark sent along a link to his recent review of Tenebre - fine reading, and I'm envious that Paul just had the pleasure of seeing Tenebre for the first time. Big agreement that Argento's best at his craziest.

- Phil Nugent shares a personal appreciation of Two-Lane Blacktop (via GreenCine Daily). His memories of late-night movies as "one of the things that settle and restore my soul" hit home particularly hard, as TV-38's Movie Loft had much the same role in my formative years. I'll write about it more sometime, perhaps - seems like kids raised on satellite, On Demand and a multitude of options are missing out.

- Between the movie shoot and Tommy's arrival, I didn't devote as much time to Halloween as I would have liked. Hopefully I'll be able to make up for this next year; in the meantime, here's a montage of gore courtesy of barringer82:

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The mind is kind.

In the winter of 1997, as audiences were making Titanic the highest-grossing movie of all time, a smaller but no less moving film about a tragedy was also playing. The Sweet Hereafter, the story of a small town in Canada reeling from the loss of its children in a schoolbus accident, uses its nonlinear narrative to circle around the accident without showing it for its first half. When the moment finally comes, in an extreme long shot, we only see the bus in the distance as it skids across the ice and rests on its surface for a terribly pregnant moment before silently falling through. The moment is restrained but not detached; when I saw The Sweet Hereafter shortly after going crazy for Titanic, it was an important lesson in my cinematic education - that a few moments of silence can have as much emotional impact as three hours of spectacle.

Based on the novel by Russell Banks, the film follows lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) as he travels to the town in order to convince the grieving parents to sue the bus company for damages. Through Stevens we learn about the lives of the parents and the survivors of the accident - bus driver Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) and teenager Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), who has been confined to a wheelchair. In one of the movie's best scenes, Stevens delivers an impassioned speech to one couple about the need to search for justice; while it would have been easier to write the lawyer as a cynical opportunist, Banks and screenwriter/director Atom Egoyan choose to depict Stevens as an essentially good man who believes his work is just even as he is shaken by frequent phone calls from his own troubled, drug-addicted daughter. Though there is no clear cause for the accident, Stevens argues repeatedly that someone must be at fault and must pay; as we observe (again, at a distance) the parents and people of the town, their need to find answers in the face of incomprehensible loss is painfully identifiable.

Though the snowy landscape practically imposes a somber tone on most Canadian films, Egoyan uses the surroundings to particuarly strong effect here. The camera obsessively follows the image of the yellow bus against the blinding white snow, retracing its route over and over as if trying to unveil a clue it won't find. Coupled with Mychael Danna's icy score, the film - which juggles chronology, taking as its framing device the Pied Piper story - is remarkable for its sustaned austerity. Where other directors would fall victim to forced sentiment or false uplift with this material, Egoyan is attempt to let the story and performances unfold and trust in the strength of his source. This discipline occasionally works against the film, giving it a hermetic quality, particuarly when we learn that Nicole was sexually abused by her father (Tom McCamus). Egoyan reveals this fact in a shot of daughter and son embracing in a hayloft, by candlelight - the film hesitates at really dealing with the implications of this provocative image. Since Nicole's actions towards the end of the film are apparently motivated by her relationship with dad, Egoyan satisfies some insight into Nicole in the name of good taste. Thankfully, Sarah Polley's terrific performance, her piercing eyes serving as our own through the film, tells us all we need to know about Nicole.

I used to think The Sweet Hereafter was a masterpiece; watching it again, I found it to be merely an excellent one. What remains perfect is Ian Holm's performance. One of the most underrated actors, Holm is able to find as much truth in a simple gesture - standing before a mirror, peering at himself through his hands - as most actors can only begin to find in an extended monologue. At one point, we hear Stevens' story about having saved his daughter's life when she was still young; we can hear the bitterness and undying love for his child choking at Holm's throat. The question of whether any life is worth saving hangs, unanswered, in the air, and though Egoyan doesn't placate us with easy answers, his film finds dignity and even grace in our uncertainties.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hell yes.

The other day, I was wondering whether it's still possible to bring people together and work towards a common goal. Tonight I got my answer. As incredible as it is to casually refer to "President Obama," it's the sight of thousands upon thousands of people - maybe a million! - flooding Grant Park that makes me go all misty-eyed. While I've been hoping for a Barack Obama victory since 2004, I realize that the real test lies ahead. I'm confident that Obama will meet the challenges ahead with intelligence, clarity and strength of character, but he's not Superman (though this is still kickass) and besides, not even Kal-El could fix all the horrifying mistakes of the past eight years. The true measure of an election is what it says about us, and tonight is, for me, resounding proof that in America, change is not only possible, it's happening.
Thanks, America, and don't let this be a fluke - let it be a beginning.

Selfishly, I'm happy for two reasons. One, the candidate I've liked all along actually won, which is surreal. Two, I can sleep more soundly knowing that the world Luna and Tommy are growing up in makes a little bit more sense tonight.

And whoever you voted for, the fact of a black man being elected President of the U.S. is a beautiful and long-overdue thing, and something we can all be proud of. Bush apparently congratulated Obama by saying "What an awesome night for you." Actually, George, it is pretty awesome.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Vote Camacho!!!

Because he knows shit's bad now, with all that starving bullshit, and the dust storms, and people running out of french fries and burrito coverings.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Title Card #83

Getting back to the garden.

I went to Woodstock and I left Woodstock, but I can't really say I took Woodstock. I auditioned for Taking Woodstock, the new Ang Lee movie, in July. The movie is based on the book by Elliot Tiber, whose job running his family's motel in upstate New York put him at the chaotic center of the titular festival. The filmmakers have chosen Columbia County - about 40 minutes from where I live - to stand in for Sullivan County. This means that the cast, which includes Dimitri Martin as Tiber, Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano and Eugene Levy as Yasgur, will be filled in with hundreds of locals. The prospect of playing a hippie for Ang Lee is a no-brainer, so I go the casting call, am advised not to cut my hair, and wait for the call.
Two months later, after sweating through August (my hair doesn't grow down, it grows out), I'm given a Monday morning call time. As it turns out, I could have gotten a haircut - I'm playing a "wannabe hippie," a geek who wants to be cool (how could they tell?). I'm costumed in a plaid shirt, regular-cut jeans and brown loafers before being sent to hair and makeup, where my hair is blow-dried and awkwardly side-parted. I look like the loneliest guy at an orgy.

We're taken from holding to location, a winding country road in Scotia that has been closed to traffic so the filmmakers can create their own traffic jam. Dozens of classic cars fill the road, the owners sitting nearby and comparing the scene to their own memories of the '60s (mostly variations of "We used to have the best weed, man"). As they place us in the scene, I realize crew and principals are a couple hundred yards away - we're here to fill in an extreme wide shot. We're instructed to walk away from the camera towards Happy Av. In the distance, I hear drums and see what looks like a group of hippies dancing naked around a fire. I keep almost making it to the party before "cut" is called and I have to go back to my first position. Story of my life, man.

Given little to do but walk, I'm given plenty of opportunity to enjoy the perfect mid-September weather and admire the period detail - the above picture from the festival could have been taken on-set. The shantytown of tents on Happy Av., populated by kissing couples, acidheads and nudists, coupled with the rural location's lack of contemporary details, makes it feel as though I've stepped into a time machine. If nothing else, Taking Woodstock will definitely look fantastic. As the crew moves closer, I'm instructed to walk down Happy Av. while Dimitri Martin exchanges dialogue with an actor playing a motorcycle cop. When I read about the movie, Martin seemed like an out-of-left-field choice, and still seems that way. Between takes, I find myself mistaking him for an extra before remembering to myself, "Oh yeah, it's that guy." Perhaps that anonymous quality is what Lee is after; either way, Martin seems like a generally nice guy. But if Paul Dano was here, I would have told him I was going to drink his milkshake. He probably never gets that.

During lunch, we're asked who would be willing to get muddy, and of course, I get in line. The best job on the set might be "mud wrangler," as the crew member given the task has a big grin on his face as he pelts us with mud. When we get back to set, the streets are also mud-splattered - I guess Woodstock's over. I shuffle, muddy and tired, down the street as Martin walks the other way. My first position is behind the camera, so I'm able to watch Ang Lee work with DP Eric Gautier and the crew. Watch, but not hear, as Lee is the most soft-spoken director I've ever seen. He's also the warmest and most unassuming, frequently chatting with extras between takes. When the scene is over and some of us are wrapped, Lee thanks each of us as we walk by. It's a sweet gesture, and I feel a little bad about my lukewarm review of Lust, Caution. I'm tempted as I pass to let him know how underrated Hulk is and ask why he thinks people didn't get it, but there's probably not enough time to get into that.

Everyone is just as nice all day. The costumes and location have caused everyone to act like it's 1969. I wonder to myself why people aren't this nice to each other out of costume. I wonder (as I did with Farlanders) why it's easier to get people my age to play protestors in a movie than to really stand up for something they care about. But it's fun to pretend for a day like people still believe that change is possible. And I heard about 800 "brown acid" jokes, and yes, there was a lot of dope-smoking, which the production seemed to be tacitly condoning. But there was one important way that the set was nothing like the real Woodstock - nobody was sharing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Title Card #82

Who wants to eat the girl?

The recent work of Dario Argento reminds of Trainspotting's Sick Boy and his theory that all great artists decline with age. Watching Argento, a master stylist, reduced to making thrillers involving internet poker makes one approach each new film with trepidation. This is especially true of Mother of Tears, the long-awaited conclusion of Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy. The first two chapters, Suspiria and Inferno, are perfectly realized cinematic nightmares made by a more inventive, audacious Argento, and there was hope that Mother of Tears would mark a bold return to form. Unfortunately, Mother of Tears is a missed opportunity, a sometimes entertaining splatterfest that never comes close to the earlier films' macabre elegance.

The film opens with the discovery of an ancient urn that, when opened by art student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), unleashes an evil force spreads chaos and sensless violence Rome and threatens the return of Mother Lachrymarum (Moran Atias) and a "second age of witches." An early scene that ends with a curator strangled with her own innards is impressively sick, and Sarah's subsequent escape from the museum promises some of the fairytale atmosphere that made Suspiria and Inferno so distinctive. Sadly, any sustained atmosphere is in short supply here - visually, Mother of Tears is flat and strangely generic. The baroque cinematography and bold color palettes of Argento's best work is replaced here with an perfunctory visual strategy straight out of a Sci-Fi Channel movie. The scenes of ordinary citizens committing random acts of violence were a perfect opportunity for Argento to recapture the hallucinatory mayhem that made Inferno so brilliant, but he eschews tension, even creative bloodletting, for matter-of-fact gore. Mother of Tears is a thuddingly literal-minded betrayal not only of the earlier films' marvelously sustained dream logic but of Argento's initial inspiration - shouldn't any work inspired by de Quincey at least aim for the uncanny?

The absence of any of Argento's strengths also makes his weaknesses more obvious. The setup could have been effective, but when the "age of witches" is represented by a bunch of sneering Goths led by a usually-topless Mother of Tears, it's more hokey than eerie. The cast, even the usually interesting Asia Argento, look bored as they go through the paces. And while Argento has done wonderful things with low-tech special effects in the past, CGI proves to be an uncomfortable fit - it's obvious and only draws further attention to Argento's distressingly anachronistic attempts to be hip and contemporary. Worst of all, Goblin's Claudio Simonetti trades the unnerving soundscapes of Deep Red and Suspiria for a loud, oppressive and completely forgettable score.

There are a few things to enjoy in Mother of Tears: there are a few impressively sickening moments, and the orgies Mother Lachrymarum hosts in an underground dungeon are impressively kinky. There's also some fun to be had in spotting Argento's recurring fetishes and obsessions - Asia has another questionable gratuitous nude scene shot by her dad, Argento's still working through tortured relationship with Daria Nicolodi (Asia's mother in the movie and real life), and monkeys are still threatening. And when Argento nods to his past successes - the recitation of the Three Mothers passage that opened Inferno, Asia wading through a pool of human decay exactly like the one in Phenomena, the self-consciously too-happy ending reminiscent of Opera - I got a slight buzz remembering those films. Unfortunately, those moments play less like a variation on familiar themes (as they often did to great effect in Inferno) and more like a slapped-together greatest hits collection for an underserved fan base. Mother of Tears is just good enough to hope that Argento has another classic up his sleeve, but bad enough to realize what an unlikely bit of alchemy that would be.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thomas Jerome Bemis

Born on Tuesday at 7:10 AM. Mom and baby are good, we're all exhausted but having a great time getting to know this delightful new member of our family.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Top 101 (2008 Edition)

Things that have changed in the past year: I've shot a feature and my second child is weeks (maybe days) from arriving. Things that have not changed: my near-fetishistic love of '70s cinema and my preference for movies that aren't afraid to go big, whether in scale, ambition or emotion. This list is a reflection of what I value most in the movies in 2008; that said every year making the list becomes less pleasurable and more difficult. While anything beyond 101 feels like cheating, I must note that any list that doesn't include Pulp Fiction, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, A.I. and Birth (to name a few) can't properly be called a list of my favorites (I always joke to people who comment on our large DVD collection that they're my 800 favorite movies). This is the VIP list, the movies that have become such a part of me that I wonder how I ever went without having seen them.

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
3. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
6. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
7. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
8. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
9. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
10. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

11. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
12. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
13. Kill Bill vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
14. Kill Bill vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
15. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
16. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
17. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
18. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
19. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
20. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)

21. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)
22. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
23. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
24. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
25. Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
26. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
27. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
28. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
29. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962
30. El Topo (Alexandro Jodorowsky, 1970)

31. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
32. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962)
33. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
34. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
35. Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
36. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
37. Aguirre the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
38. Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)
39. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
40. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

41. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
42. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
43. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
44. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
45. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
46. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
47. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
48. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
49. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
50. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

51. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
52. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
53. Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)
54. All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)
55. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
56. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
57. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
58. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
59. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
60. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)

61. Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
62. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
63. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
64. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
65. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
66. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
67. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
68. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
69. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
70. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

71. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
72. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)
73. Betty Blue (Jean-Jacques Beneiex, 1986)
74. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
75. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
76. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
77. Miller's Crossing (Joel Coen, 1990)
78. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
79. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
80. Orphee (Jean Cocteau, 1949)

81. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
82. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
83. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
84. Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
85. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)
86. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
87. Black Moon (Louis Malle, 1975)
88. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
89. Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)
90. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

91. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
92. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
93. Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967)
94. Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
95. Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)
96. Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)
97. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
98. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
99. The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)
100. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
101. Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)

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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Title Card #76

Lumet, Lazarescu, Ringwald

Another season, another movie quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. This one comes courtesy of interstellar explorer and fop Dr. Zachary Smith. Read on, and take the quiz over at SLIFR if you dare, you bubbleheaded booby.

1) Your favorite musical moment in a movie

Awesome Mix Tape #6 serving as a perfect Greek chorus to a drug deal gone terribly wrong at the end of Boogie Nights.

2) Ray Milland or Dana Andrews

The Man with X-Ray Eyes.

3) Favorite Sidney Lumet movie

Dog Day Afternoon, easily. Lumet's always great at directing actors, but the heavyhandedness that occasionally creeps into otherwise great movies like 12 Angry Men and Network is totally absent in Dog Day Afternoon. It's a pitch-perfect character study, one of the most entertaining movies ever made, with an ending that breaks my heart.

4) Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season

I can't honestly say there were any surprises. While I enjoyed all of the big movies I'd been highly anticipating to varying degrees, this summer really lacked an out-of-nowhere sleeper for me to get excited about. And, as an art house projectionist, I can't remember a summer in at least five years with such a dearth of interesting indie counterprogramming. I did love Encounters at the End of the World, but that's Herzog, so hardly a surprise.

5) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth

6) What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?

On DVD, Amelie - I've been testing out different movies with my one-year-old daughter (she loved the Amelie-as-little-girl opening, but lost interest with Audrey Tautou). In theaters, Encounters at the End of the World (still thinking about that poor, crazy penguin).

7) Irwin Allen’s finest hour?

Gene Hackman cursing God as he does a parallel bars routine in the upturned bowels of the Poseidon.

8) What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?

The teaser poster for Jaws 2, with the sun setting over a blood-red sea, is far creepier and more atmospheric than anything in the movie.

9) Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung

Tony Leung

10) Most pretentious movie ever

Pretentious is one of the most horribly misused terms in talking about movies. I might not like all the movies of Michael Haneke or Oliver Assayas, but they're still intelligent and coherent enough to be worthy of argument. A truly pretentious movie is Aria - a murderer's row of directors making shorts scored to famous arias for NO APPARENT REASON.

11) Favorite Russ Meyer movie

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but I really need to see more.

12) Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

You're asking someone who personalizes the movies he watches to an unhealthy degree. I think of of the reasons that Blue Velvet is my favorite movies is because it's like watching my psyche projected onto the screen. Make of that what you will.

13) Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo

Marlene Dietrich

14) Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?

Best - Reese's Pieces. Most vile - any form of malted milk balls.

15) Current movie star who would be most comfortable in the classic Hollywood studio system

When Vanity Fair did that Hitchcock gallery earlier this year, Naomi Watts made an absolutely perfect Tippi Hedren.

16) Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?


17) Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?

Pretension alert: lately I've been realizing that most of my favorite movies - and, by extension, my cinematic ideal - are movies that render the divide between high art and pop meaningless. So, three movies that do just that: Psycho, Chinatown and Altman's Popeye.

18) What’s the name of your theater? (The all-time greatest answer to this question was once provided by Larry Aydlette, whose repertory cinema, the Demarest, is, I hope, still packing them in…)

Well, I already used the Vista. I'd love to be the one in charge of programming the Mohawk, an old movie house that my town is gradually raising funds to renovate. I think I'd keep the name.

19) Favorite Leo McCarey movie

Duck Soup

20) Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.

Malcolm McDowell in if...

21) Biggest disappointment of the just-past summer movie season

Well, Mamma Mia! was terrible, but I can't say I was disappointed, exactly...

22) Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung

Maggie Cheung

23) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

24) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated

Smiley Face

25) Fritz the Cat —yes or no?

Not really.

26) Trevor Howard or Richard Todd

Trevor Howard

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

I think the most meaningful examples of this today don't happen in alternative cinema, but in mainstream films that deviate from the rules in meaningful ways. Three of the best films of the past few years - There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Knight - were partly defined by their defiance of expectations. And the response to their left turns, particularly in the case of No Country For Old Men, continue to reverberate not only in the cinephile community but among everyday moviegoers who were genuinely shaken.

28) Favorite William Castle movie

The Tingler

29) Favorite ethnographically oriented movie

One of my favorite things about the work of Jim Jarmusch is its unspoken study and celebration of cultural diversity in microcosm. Down By Law is probably the best example of this.

30) What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher's coming off Zodiac, and the trailer's a beauty.

31) What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?

That's sort of a sad question, isn't it? Reminds me of the ending of A.I. Hey, let's go with zombie Kubrick's Napoleon.

32) What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?

It's reassuring to see so many people citing Brett Ratner before I did. Just rewatched Red Dragon - only Ratner could take that cast and source material and make something so hacky.

33) Your first movie star crush
I wish I had something cool to say, like I was really into Anna Karina at five. But really, Molly Ringwald.