Monday, December 25, 2006

Happy holidays

Some more ratings of recently-seen movies, until my computer gets fixed:

12/20- The Long Voyage Home (1940, John Ford) [***1/2]
12/21- Fort Apache (1948, John Ford) [***1/2]
12/22- /She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford)/ [***1/2]

(Guess what I got for an early Christmas present)

12/23- /Cars (2006, John Lasseter)/ [still **1/2]
12/24- /Miami Vice (2006, Michael Mann)/ [**1/2, was **]

Happy Holidays to all.

Monday, December 18, 2006

More computer woes

Well, looks like it was a software problem that was hampering my computer. Unfortunately, it's gotten worse. Whereas before it was only affecting the media output, now my Windows won't boot up at all. I'm having the guy who built my computer in the first place re-install Windows, but until that happens my access is severely limited (I'm stealthily posting from work, constantly looking over my shoulder). So, until I can update the site proper, I'll post my screening log updates here. Enjoy.

12/6- #/The Age of Innocence (1993, Martin Scorsese)/ [still ****]
12/7- #$ The Happiest Day of His Life (2006, Ursula Burton)
# The Saga of Anatahan (1953, Josef Von Sternberg) [***1/2]
12/8- # Volver (2006, Pedro Almodovar) [**1/2]
% /A History of Violence/
12/9-10- # Out 1 (1971, Jacques Rivette) [****]
12/11- % /Pandora's Box (1929, G.W. Pabst)/ [****]
12/13- % The Missing (2003, Lee Kang-Sheng) [**1/2]
12/14- # Classe Tous Risques (1960, Claude Sautet) [***1/2]
12/15- # Army of Shadows (1969, Jean-Pierre Melville) [****]
% /Point Blank (1967, John Boorman)/ [still ****]
12/16- # /Army of Shadows/
% 4 (2005, Ilya Khrzhanovsky) [**1/2]
12/17- % The Road to Guantanamo (2006, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross) [**]
# Apocalypto (2006, Mel Gibson) [*1/2]
# /The Depahted/ [still ***1/2]

Can't promise that I'll comment on these in the near future, but I'll see what I can do.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Melting down the canon

I realize I’m a little late to the party with this, but having recently re-read Paul Schrader’s piece on cinematic canons in the Sept/Oct issue of FILM COMMENT, I’ve got to say that I was left with a lot of questions. The biggest, in my mind, was “what purpose does a canon serve in our cinematic culture?” Personally, I think Schrader overestimates its importance. I believe that the primary reason for a canon is educational- if one wishes to build a foundation of cinematic knowledge and experience, a firm foundation is necessary. Thinking back to my school days in the D.A.R.E. program, I recall the phrase “gateway drugs,” used to describe alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, the use of which presumably could lead to the taking of harder drugs. Similarly, a filmic canon would serve as a list of “gateway movies.”

But to be honest, once you’ve seen the canonical movies, do you still need the canon? Honestly, I don’t think so, especially in our current critical climate. Many have bemoaned the decline of the critical establishment following the rise of the blogosphere, but one happy side effect of this has been a greater diversity in the types of films that can be labeled “great.” This is perhaps the most glaring way in which Schrader reveals himself to be a critical fuddy-duddy. Naturally, I don’t expect a cinematic canon to overlook CITIZEN KANE or RULES OF THE GAME, but looking at the genre offerings on the list illuminates how little Schrader cares about the full spectrum of great cinema.

Out of sixty films on the list, five are Westerns, and musicals are also well-represented. However, important though these are to film history, they’re all fairly safe fallbacks- all three genres are well past their prime, notable in today’s cinematic landscape not so much by modern-day popularity as by the long shadows they cast. In the past decade or so, both Westerns and musicals have experienced a resurgence of sorts, but whereas the classic offerings in these genres were intended first and foremost as populist entertainments, today they’re seen as specialty fare, for the purpose of garnering Oscar™ attention.

But to cite a counter-example, horror (a genre that’s as commercial viable as ever) has no place in Schrader’s canon. Part of this is no doubt due to the author limiting himself to one film per filmmaker, or else PSYCHO might have found a place on the list. The fact remains that Schrader proudly proclaims his goal of keeping his canon “highbrow”- a dubious claim for a list that includes zero experimental or documentary works- and a scruffy genre like horror has no place among the likes of A PLACE IN THE SUN (perhaps the most glaringly out-of-place “classic” on the list, a film I’ve never been able to watch more than half an hour of before stopping). Personally, I can’t fathom trying to acquaint someone with classic cinema without directing him toward the hallucinatory imagery of FREAKS, the sly subversiveness of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, or even the gory satire of DAWN OF THE DEAD.

Perhaps the issue here isn’t one of ‘brows at all, but rather Schrader’s stressing of the director above all else. Naturally, when compiling a list of this nature, all of the greatest filmmakers should be represented. But concentrating one’s attention on the directors of the films rather than the works themselves tends to lead to great films by less-than-legendary filmmakers getting overlooked. There are a few exceptions on the list, notably SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, which tends to be singled out for Ernest Lehman’s screenplay and the tart performances, but for the most part auteurism has won the day. In particular, many of the great comedies in the cinematic medium (silent masters notwithstanding) have succeeded as much due to performance and writing as direction. So where are Fields and the Marx brothers? If nothing else, one’s cinematic development would no doubt be a dreary one without these guys to help brighten the way.

Similarly, by limiting his canon to one film per director, Schrader begs the question of how he selects which of the director’s works is the most canonical. In the essay, he somewhat long-windedly explains his criteria for the list- beauty, strangeness, morality et al- but I can’t for the life of me see how he uses these criteria in practice. Perhaps the lack of writing on the films themselves is to blame here. But when I was recently making a failed attempt at creating my own list along these lines, I found myself faced with the same problem.

With some filmmakers it’s easy- not many would argue with CITIZEN KANE being the most feted and influential work of Welles’ career, for example- but some of the great filmmakers have created such a uniformly excellent body of work that boiling it down to one is a formidable task indeed. For example, when looking at the career of Ingmar Bergman, how does one select the most “canonical?” So many possibilities- PERSONA may come closest to summing up Bergman’s greatness as a filmmaker, but THE SEVENTH SEAL has been the most culturally-pervasive and arguably the most influential. And those are just two films in a career that has produced dozens of works.

Another issue I have with the list is Schrader’s insistence on ranking the films in order of preference. How does it benefit the readers of the list to tell us that one thinks a certain canonical film is greater than another? If a film is deserving of its place in the canon, placing it on the list should be enough (also, Chaplin at #3 and Keaton at #60? What gives?). In my opinion, any ranking (or if I was doing it, grouping) that is done of canonical films should be done for reasons of accessibility rather than preference. You won’t get any argument from me that both John Ford and Andrei Tarkovsky belong in the cinematic pantheon, but if I was going to make a list of “canonical” films for a newcomer to film history, I’d try to make damn clear that he should probably take on Ford before he tries Tarkovsky.

But perhaps the biggest issue I have with Schrader’s compiling of a canon is that, at the end of the day, it’s a unilateral act. Yes, many of the titles on his list are fairly widely accepted as being significant works of the cinema, but a number of them are not. Of the most recent entries on his list, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is probably the only one that has been widely acknowledged as a timeless work by the critical cognoscenti. The others- MOTHER AND SON, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, TALK TO HER- are all good-to-great films, but what exactly makes them more worthy of inclusion than other great modern-day works like THE NEW WORLD, DOGVILLE, or THE SON?

Schrader doesn’t take time to say. He takes roughly fifteen pages justifying the need for a canon but can’t be bothered to comment on the films themselves, much less his reasons for including them. As a result, the list feels less like an attempt at creating a definitive working canon than a gussied-up list of personal favorites- hell, PERFORMANCE is great, but canonical? Really?- under the guise of supposed objectivity. For all its faults, the SIGHT AND SOUND poll is a much more useful snapshot of the films that, in the opinion of those in the know, represent the greatest and most important works in cinematic history.

By comparison, Schrader’s list is woefully inadequate in this and most any other respect. If he wanted to stir up discussion, he’s succeeded, but if the purpose of a canon is to define films that are above debate, then he’s failed miserably.

For those readers who haven’t seen Schrader’s list, here it is. The boldfaced titles are films I’ve seen, and the italicized ones represent films that are in my personal greatest-films list. I wouldn’t presume to call mine a canon, by the way.

1. Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)
2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
3. City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)
4. Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959)
5. Metropolis (Lang, 1925)
6. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
7. Orpheus (Cocteau, 1949)

8. Masculine-Feminine (Godard, 1965)
9. Persona (Bergman, 1966)
10. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
11. Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)

12. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
13. The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
14. The Conformist (Bertolucci, 1970)
15. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
16. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
17. In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)
18. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)
19. Performance (Roeg/Cammell, 1970)
20. La Notte (Antonioni, 1961)

21. Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997)
22. The Leopard (Visconti, 1963)
23. The Dead (Huston, 1987)
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
25. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)
26. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
27. Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1961)
28. The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
29. All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979)
30. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, 1952)
31. High and Low (Kurosawa, 1963)
32. Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957)

33. That Obscure Object of Desire (Buñuel, 1977)
34. An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951)
35. The Battle of Algiers (Pontocorvo, 1965)
36. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
37. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, 1974)
38. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
39. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)
40. The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)

41. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 1948)
42. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1952)
43. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
44. The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)
45. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)
46. Talk to Her (Almodovar, 2002)
47. Shanghai Express (Sternberg, 1932)
48. Letter From An Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948)
49. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, 1969)
50. Salvatore Giuliano (Rosi, 1962)
51. Nostalghia (Tarkovsky, 1983)
52. Seven Men From Now (Boetticher, 1956)
53. Claire’s Knee (Rohmer, 1970)
54. Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)
55. Gun Crazy (Lewis, 1949)
56. Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
57. Children of Paradise (Carne, 1945)

58. The Naked Spur (Mann, 1953)
59. A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951)
60. The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1927)

In addition, here are a few links to the FILM COMMENT site that deal with reactions to Schrader’s piece, including results of a poll about great filmmakers who didn’t make the cut, plus Schrader’s reponse to the haters.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The 3 Tomatoes Joke, 2nd edition

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006, Christopher Guest)- aside from a few good bits of schtick (John Michael Higgins' incessant referencing of his "Mighty Choctaw" heritage is pretty great) and memorable performances from Harry Shearer and especially Catherine O'Hara, this is kind of a letdown. For one thing, it's clear that Guest doesn't know much about awards season- there's no mention of precursor awards (such as the Golden Globes) or the critics' awards, both of which might have clued the characters in to whether the Oscar buzz was legit or not. Instead, the Oscars as imagined by FYC take place largely in a vacuum, with no intermediary between the buzz and the nominations. In addition, there are just too many characters here to support a 85 minute film. The core characters- O'Hara's Marilyn Hack, Shearer's Victor Allen Miller, and their castmates- make an impression, but the rest of the company gets lost in the shuffle. Part of the problem is that, outside his favored mockumentary format, Guest really isn't all that good at establishing characters. The talking-heads scenes in GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, and A MIGHTY WIND provide a convenient method for the performers to sketch in their characters' backgrounds, with the added bonus of allowing the film to contrast the way the characters sell themselves to the camera with their behavior in more "candid" moments. But here much of that is lost, and I really felt the difference. Around the time that Ricky Gervais showed up as a smarmy studio exec (a performance that seems to have dropped in from a more scathing satire), I was past trying to care about the people onscreen. The major exception is O'Hara, who as in A MIGHTY WIND is the film's solid center, which makes her transformation to nipped-and-tucked has-been in the film's second half all the more striking. Also, Fred Willard's clueless boor schtick never gets old. Rating: **.

TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY (2006, Liam Lynch)- if anything, this movie was even more heartbreaking than FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, in large part because I love the D and was hoping for more from them than a hard-rockin' Cheech and Chong movie. The original D shorts really didn't rely on stoner comedy (Kage and Jables were more generically slacker-ish offstage), but my heart sank when the film announced its intentions right off the bat, with a combination pot/fart joke that spoofs the THX logo. There's still plenty of good D moments to savor- Jack's attempts to join Kyle's band are pretty funny- but after the all-sung opening sequence of the film proper, which finds young Jack rebelling against his Bible-loving dad ("rock is not the devil's work, it's magical and rad!"), played by a crew-cutted Meat Loaf, everything else is a tad anti-climactic. D lovers will savor the returns of Lee and Sasquatch (though where's Captain Ed? Ben Stiller is not an acceptable substitute), but the sad truth is that Liam Lynch is far too amateurish and sophomoric a filmmaker to do justice to the spirit of Tenacious D, a fact that becomes all too apparent around the time around the time he slips in a gratuitous and mostly laugh-free car chase. Maybe these guys just work better in 15-minute intervals... Rating: **.

THE FOUNTAIN (2006, Darren Aronofsky)- if ever there was a contemporary film that was seemingly destined for maudit status, it would be this hypnotically overblown sci-fi epic. Even in its present miniaturized form, Aronofsky's canvas is teeming with grand imagery and Big Ideas, and his ambition and his complete commitment to his material hepls to defuse a lot of the potentially silly stuff (like when Hugh Jackman does tai chi in silhouette in front of a starry background). While Rachel Weisz has little to do besides looking beatific- which admittedly she does quite well- Jackman is nothing short of revelatory here, giving a performance (or three?) that runs the gamut from stalwart to anguished to Zen-like, all with a naked emotionalism that makes me wonder how the comparatively more mannered Brad Pitt could have pulled it off. More than ever it seems to me that Aronofsky yearns to be the great filmic artist of the Xbox generation, combining cutting-edge technology and fantasy influences with a singular sensibility (although this time he forgoes the hip-hop montages in favor of Kubrickian camera dollies and buttery cinematography), and frankly, that's fine with me. THE FOUNTAIN has few antecedents in the cinematic canon- both versions of SOLARIS spring to mind- and in the end I was reminded less of earlier films than to rock'n'roll concept albums of the seventies, which similarly attempted to inject serious artistic and cultural elements into a traditionally disposable medium. To THE FOUNTAIN's credit, it's good enough to be compared to some of the more successful concept albums, providing a cinematic experience which, for better or worse, is unlike anything in theatres right now. Rating: ***.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down...

R.I.P. Robert Altman.

I've long considered Altman one of my favorites, although as prolific and uneven as he's been there have been a number of clunkers in the mix. But even the least of his works (READY TO WEAR, QUINTET) are pure Altman, and as such hold more interest than most of the movies out there. If the goal of any real artist re-create the world in his image, Altman was truly one of the greats, since there was never mistaking any of his films for the work of anyone else. Though there has been a rash of ensemble dramas on the Hollywood and indie scene in the past decade or so, none has quite measured up to the best of Altman (P.T. Anderson, the master's assistant on his final film, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, has probably come closest).

Out of America's currently-active filmmakers, who has made as many great or near-great works as Altman? Scorsese, perhaps. I'd argue for DePalma as well, but I'd almost surely be in the minority. And unlike Scorsese, Altman never resorted to a "one-for-me-one-for-them" career path. His films, for better or worse, were always his, which was all the more amazing considering the amount of leeway he'd give his actors. More than just the quality of his work or the freshness of his style, it was this maverick sensibility that made Altman a hero of mine.

One essential facet of this sensibility was Altman's insistence on making films for adults. Let's not forget how Altman deliberately inserted a handful of "fucks" into GOSFORD PARK just to keep kids from seeing it. POPEYE notwithstanding, the films of Robert Altman tend to evince a world-weariness that is at odds with the eternal adolescence of most Hollywood releases. It's for this reason that I took some time in warming to Altman's work as a budding filmgoer- I could respect what the guy was doing when I was younger, but it wasn't until I began to identify with, say, the lyrics of Annie Ross' "Prisoner of Life" in SHORT CUTS that I could begin to appreciate Altman's work as I was supposed to.

My favorite Altman? Hate to follow the party line, but NASHVILLE is still the work of his that's closest to my heart. Maybe it's because it was the first of his films to really bowl me over, or because it's the closest the past half-century has come to producing the Great American Film, but much as I love his body of work, NASHVILLE remains on top. But why should one have to choose just one? MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is also in my top 100, and SHORT CUTS and TANNER '88 are flat-out masterpieces as well.

Other Altman titles to grace my yearly lists include: MASH, THE LONG GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, 3 WOMEN, A WEDDING, SECRET HONOR, THE PLAYER, GOSFORD PARK, and THE COMPANY. And even in his second-tier work, there's still plenty to love- the great opening credits sequence in BREWSTER MCCLOUD featuring Margaret Hamilton, the sweet courtship between Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin in A PERFECT COUPLE, the cutting contest in KANSAS CITY, and the sweet sister act of Streep and Tomlin in PRAIRIE HOME, which was proof positive than even near the end, Altman was still in full control of his art.

Today, I'm reminded of an old Hollywood anecdote about another great director's passing. At their colleague and fellow emigré's funeral, Billy Wilder solemnly intoned, "no more Lubitsch." To which William Wyler responded, "worse than that- no more Lubitsch films." I never knew Robert Altman as a man, but I knew his work, and as a result I was about to see the world through his eyes, if only for a few hours at a time.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell)

I’ve long considered myself a fan of Bond, although when it comes to the more recent 007 movies my fandom is more theoretical than practical- I’ll see them all opening weekend, but none has really done much for me beyond the obvious entertainment value. Thank goodness for CASINO ROYALE, then- a belated straight-faced adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel that doesn’t come off as a series-salvaging reboot or, worse, a “prequel” (fuck you very much, George Lucas), but is a great Bond movie that actually manages to be an awesome movie as well. After a chilly black-and-white prologue that proves once and for all that Daniel Craig’s 007 means business in a way that Brosnan never quite did (and a clever opening credits sequence that only lacks a worthy song to match), the first hour of CASINO ROYALE is vintage Bond, setting up the film’s conflict and its villain with flair. In addition, this film brings the welcome return of Bond as a detective on an international scale, jetting from one exotic locale to another not just for variety but to chase down baddies (and clues to their names and whereabouts) for Queen and Country.

But while the film’s first hour supplies most of the pleasures of a good Bond movie- cool cars, pretty scenery, a babelicious woman 007 pumps for information and recreation, everything but Q’s gadgets- the film really gets good once Bond heads for the titular gambling establishment. It’s here we delve into the original Fleming storyline- here switched from baccarat to poker- along the way encountering the greatest Bond girl of all, Vesper Lynd. Amidst all the action and intrigue, it’s Bond’s relationship with Vesper that makes this movie special, in large part because she’s a real three-dimensional character. Which makes Eva Green so right for the role- she’s trousers-tighteningly hot, true, but she’s also a smart cookie, sizing up her male counterpart with her wide, ever-appraising eyes. And Green is matched every step of the way by Craig, as good an actor as has ever donned the tux (though not the fedora- an old-fashioned touch I still miss)- not only is he more of an ass-kicker than Brosnan or Moore, but he actively engages with his costars in a way that no Bond has since Connery. In other words, the pre-release anti-Craig contingent can go straight to hell, because this guy has done the role justice.

What keeps CASINO ROYALE from being one of the greats is the final half-hour. Both Fleming’s original novel and the best of the earlier Bond films had a terseness to them that the storytelling bloat of the film’s final reels sort of betrays. Personally, I thought that the film took about two steps too many to get the story from the awesome torture scene to the perfect final shot, and for a Bond movie, which thrives on momentum, there’s far too much stasis in these scenes. However, the fact of the matter is that even with these issues, CASINO ROYALE is better than any Bond movie since the 1960s because I actually gave a shit about the people onscreen. Unlike Moore’s Cold War-era cartoon, Dalton’s toothless agent, or Brosnan’s quip-heavy action figure, Craig plays Bond as a person, full of complexities and contradictions, one who changes throughout the course of the film, not always for the better, as a result of what he does and what is done to him. And like my favorite entry in the series, 1969’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (and unlike any Bond film since), this one actually gives 007 a woman who is every bit as equal, which makes the story’s final revelations both tragic and inevitable. By the time Craig intones the film’s final, iconic line of dialogue, I for one believed him. Bond… is… back!

Rating: ***.

P.S.: Upon reflection, I've discovered to my mild consternation that for all the love I have for classic 007 adventures I don't own a single Bond movie on DVD. Perhaps this has something to do with the format of MGM's box sets- whereas I'd have no problem picking up an all-Connery (or even better, all-Connery and Lazenby) set, the way it works now, if you want FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, you've gotta take FOR YOUR EYES ONLY with its creepy-ass Moore/Lynn-Holly Johnson love story. And if I'm paying $90 bucks for five movies, I don't want ballast, I want goodness. I understand the marketing impetus to package the films this way- many fans will gladly shell out just to own their favorites- but is a 007 Connery Classics Collection too much to hope for?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Borat! (2006, Larry Charles)

For once, the hype is warranted. This movie is really goddamn funny in my opinion. Is there any depth to it otherwise? I'm not sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the social relevance ascribed to BORAT by some of its most vehement supporters ("a scathing exposé of American hypocrisy!" et al) may be desperation from critics wishing to justify their glowing reviews of a movie that's this hilariously offensive. Given the way the film was made (turning Sacha Baron Cohen-as-Borat loose in real-life situation and seeing what transpires), the filmmakers doubtless cut out the people who didn't respond as they'd hoped and judiciously edited the subjects they kept for maximum effect. In a way, the film's guerrilla style owes as much to documentarians like Michael Moore, who place themselves center stage in their films and semi-ambush those they encounter, as it does to modern-day performance art comedy video like JACKASS and PUNK'D. But what places BORAT head and shoulders above any of these inspirations is Baron Cohen himself, who between this film and TALLADEGA NIGHTS has proven to be almost certainly the most prodigiously talented of the current crop of big-screen comics. He's the comedic equivalent of the Christian Bale character in THE PRESTIGE- an elusive figure who seemingly devotes all his energy and thought to making us laugh, and who will go to any lengths to do so. His commitment to the Borat character is astonishing, which helps the film immeasurably- if there were any sign of Baron Cohen breaking character, winking at the camera, etc., the whole thing would collapse. Even in strange sequences like a visit to a prayer revival or an already-legendary fight scene that manages to out-do Ken Russell, he's never less than 100% Borat onscreen. His chameleonlike skill and completely original comic style recall the late Peter Sellers, and if Baron Cohen ever manages to find his own Kubrick (an equally eccentric visionary who managed to recontextualize Sellers' genius), watch the hell out. Also, I watched BORAT with a packed house on opening weekend, which was the perfect way to experience it (I'm not sure I've ever heard so much laughter in a movie theatre). I'd love to see it this way again, and I believe I actually may have a chance to, since BORAT is shaping up to be a real phenomenon, and it no doubt won't be going anywhere for a while. Maybe I'll catch some of the jokes I missed the first time due to laughter... Rating: ***1/2.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Martin (1977, George A. Romero)- for Nathaniel R's Vampire Blog-a-thon

By way of introduction: Welcome all, Silly Hats Only regulars and newcomers alike. If you've never visited before, hope you enjoy the piece and the blog as a whole. If you like what you see, be sure to stop by my main site as well, which contains my top 100ish list of all time, yearly lists, a screening log, and the like.

A warning: if you haven't seen MARTIN (and you really ought to) there will be SPOILERS contained in this essay, as there should be for any essay that discusses a film in depth. So if you want to come to the film with fresh eyes, you can always come back later. I won't take it down or anything. And besides, with Halloween coming up, it's the perfect time to rent it. I haven't seen SAW III, THE GRUDGE 2, or TEXAS LAMESAW: THE PREQUEL, but I can pretty much guarantee MARTIN is better. Any reasonably good video store should carry it. If yours doesn't, find a new one.

Here's a link to the Film Experience blog, run by Nathaniel R, who coordinated this blog-a-thon. I'll be posting links to some of my favorite entries in the series as they become available.

Thanks for reading this far. Enjoy, and please find it in your heart to forgive the occasional grammatical error.

Most vampire movies dress themselves up in the trappings of the past. Think about the various incarnations of Dracula- exotic, cultivated, gliding around his decaying castle and dressed to the nines. For all the horror inherent in vampirism, there’s something comforting about setting the legends in the past. The past, after all, was a time of magic and superstition, and there’s no place in the present for that sort of nonsense, right?

George A. Romero’s MARTIN would beg to differ with you. Here for a change is a vampire movie that remains resolutely contemporary, starting with the film’s protagonist. Martin (John Amplas) isn’t a cape-wearing Dracula clone, but a shy, awkward “young” man who works as a delivery boy. Whereas Dracula could never be mistaken for anyone else, Martin appears completely ordinary; as well he must, in order to survive in the world. Most obviously, Martin lacks fangs. One might think fangs would be a prerequisite for vampirism, but that becomes more a less a question of semantics once he starts drinking human blood directly from the source.

As with all of Romero’s best work, MARTIN is set in Western Pennsylvania. Braddock, like many industrial communities during the seventies, has fall upon hard times. Many of the citizens of working age are unemployed or work low-paying jobs, and much of the population is elderly. And so Martin moves here, into the home of his relative, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who promises Martin not long after meeting him at the train station, “first, I will save your soul; then I will destroy you.”

One aspect of MARTIN that intrigued me was the ambiguity over Martin’s problem. Yes, he craves the blood of human beings. But is he really a vampire? It’s hard to say. As he exclaims a number of times, “it’s a sickness!” Because he doesn’t have fangs, when he attacks he must drug his victims and slice open their veins with a razor blade. Also, he is able to see his reflection in mirrors, and as he tells the host of an all-night radio show, he doesn’t respond to various traditional vampire deterrents- garlic, crosses, and the like. Sunlight affects him to a point, but only to the extent that he must wear sunglasses during the daytime. But if he isn’t a vampire, why does he act like one? Martin has no doubt heard talk all his life about “the family shame,” which Cuda talks about incessantly- perhaps being surrounded by this level of superstition in his own family has convinced him that he has been cursed as well.

And what do we make of the black and white scenes that Romero employs at various key moments in the film? In these scenes we see Martin, presumably in his former life in the old world, living the elegant life we usually associate with movie vampires. But the film never makes it clear whether these are his memories, or merely fantasies of his. In Romero’s best-known films, the LIVING DEAD tetralogy, whether the villains are zombies is never in doubt. But in MARTIN, vampirism isn’t a given but a matter of faith.

Romero made MARTIN a little more than a decade following Vatican II, which began a modernizing period for the Roman Catholic Church. Braddock, as seen in the film, is predominantly a Catholic community, and nearly all of the film’s significant characters are seen going to Mass. But there is a gulf between the faith of the older characters such as Cuda and the younger ones. When Cuda invites a newly-arrived priest to his home for dinner and begins to tell him about Martin’s affliction, the priest reacts with skepticism. He’s happy to perform the old-style Latin Mass to please the parishioners, but vampires and exorcisms are out of his domain. Cuda can’t believe his ears. In his eyes, doubt and cynicism make it easier for vampires to prey on people, and “if our priests cannot save us from demons, who can?”

Another area in which Martin is unlike his fellow onscreen vampires is his sexual anxiety. Most vampire movies contain an element of eroticism, with the vampire doubling as an expert seducer in order to capture his prey. But Martin admits on the radio show that, “I’ve been much too shy to ever do the sexy stuff with someone who’s awake.” Martin may claim to be 84 years old (“young for a nosferatu,” says Cuda) but sexually he’s still a confused kid. Even when a local housewife seems to be interested in him for sex, she ends up having to take matters into her own hands.

“In real life, you can’t get people to do what you want them to do,” bemoans Martin late in the film, and this is doubly true of his victims. While we see him in the black-and-white sequences being playfully invited into the bedroom of a nubile young lady, it’s hardly that simple for Martin in the film’s present-day world. In the film’s centerpiece sequence, Martin breaks into a middle-aged married woman’s home at night and unexpectedly finds her with a man who isn’t her husband. Thinking quickly, he drugs both the woman and her lover, and improvises a new plan of attack. In a delicious bit of irony, the woman’s indiscretion ends up saving her life, as Martin takes out his frustration on her lover instead, taking his blood while yelling, “You weren’t supposed to be there!”

MARTIN is a well-made film, but to his credit, Romero doesn’t give it the polish of a traditional vampire movie. Along with his avoidance of stereotypical set direction and costumes, the cinematography is grainier and more hardscrabble than one might expect from a movie of this sort. There’s a great deal of handheld camera work, and little of the extreme chiaroscuro that tends to distinguish this genre that’s often heavily influenced by German Expressionism. The one exception to this comes in a scene where Martin dons a cape and a set of plastic fangs to frighten Cuda. In this scene, Romero employs fog and some extreme camera angles to contrast with his less stylized work in the rest of the film. When Martin pops his fangs out of his mouth at scene’s end and tells Cuda, “it’s just a costume,” the film makes its central theme explicit. Normally, I would have resented such an on-the-nose statement, but Romero’s assured filmmaking and storytelling sell the moment perfectly, turning it into an effective and strangely comic scene.

While I’ve always enjoyed spending a few hours in the cinematic presences of Dracula, Count Orlok, and friends, to me there’s something that’s much more unsettling about MARTIN. Rather than comfortably placing its vampire in the past, Martin takes place more or less in the present day, in a setting like many in America. Martin must learn to live by the unwritten rules of modern life in order to survive, and strangely the rules are much the same for him as they are for everyone else- mind your own business, keep your head down, fit in with the crowd, et cetera. And Martin’s tortured relationship with Cuda hits home even now, when the rift between the devout and the skeptical is stronger than ever. Of course, it’s doubtful that most faith-based conflicts on the basis of faith would end with a stake being driven through the protagonist’s heart, but despite all its new wrinkles, MARTIN is still a vampire movie at heart. There are some genre tropes that you just can’t get around.

Special thanks to Nathaniel for allowing me to take part. You can check out his blog for links to all the other participants, but here are some of the more interesting ones:

Certifiably Creative
No More Marriages
Eddie on Film
Forward to Yesterday
Modern Fabulosity
When I Look Deep Into Your Eyes...
Pfangirl Through the Looking Glass
Way of Words
My New Plaid Pants
Nick's Flick Picks
Culture Snob
100 Films
Film of the Year
Critic After Dark
Auteur Lust

And I would be remiss if I didn't give shout-outs to Richard Gibson, Tuwa's Shanty, and Tim Lucas, all of whom have written their entries (at least in part) on MARTIN. I salute your taste in vampire movies, even if my subject feels somewhat less unique now than it did when I chose it.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Drive-by reviews

MARIE-ANTOINETTE (2006, Sofia Coppola)- much to the dismay of some of this site's readers, I wasn't a fan of LOST IN TRANSLATION, and not surprisingly I wasn't looking forward to this. But I had no problem getting into Sofia's groove this time, largely because instead of making another film that follows a shallow, cocooned young woman of privilege, this is actually a movie ABOUT a shallow, cocooned young woman of privilege, as well as the environment that has created her. Without necessarily apologizing for Marie-Antoinette, Sofia manages to empathize with her by convincingly painting a portrait of the world in which she lives, heavy on age-old traditions but light on education for budding monarchs. In the end, Marie-Antoinette bore little resemblance to an actual leader because she didn't have the aptitude, training or inclination to lead the people of France, but given the nature of royal traditions, it's something of a miracle when a monarch (male or female) turns out to be a capable leader at all. Coppola, a daughter of privilege herself, sees her protagonist as both a silly girl and a victim of historical circumstance, who ended up paying with her life not merely for her own misdeeds but those of an entire ruling-class tradition. While MARIE-ANTOINETTE isn't perfect (I for one would have ended it about five minutes earlier), I think it's a mistake to take the film to task for its lack of explicit historical context- that Marie doesn't hear the rumblings of the French Revolution until it's practically banging at her door is the point. And I was pleased that Coppola's much-ballyhooed use of non-period music wasn't as pervasive as I'd feared- while not all her song choices work (moratorium on "I Want Candy," s'il vous plaît), her underscoring of the coronation scene to The Cure's "Plainsong" pays off beautifully. Rating: **1/2.

THE PRESTIGE (2006, Christopher Nolan)- it's clearer now than ever that Nolan's pet theme isn't mental illness but obsession, all-consuming and sometimes even violent in nature. What distinguishes THE PRESTIGE from many other films on that subject is how it's seen merely through the prism of performance, as for all the harm the rival magicians vest upon each other's lives, they mostly fixate on outdoing each other in the arena of illusion. What makes the pair so absorbing is how, for all their similar interests, they're opposites personality-wise, with Hugh Jackman playing Angier as a world-class showman, while Christian Bale's Borden lacks the polish of his colleague but is far more imaginative. Naturally, I would like to tread lightly for those who've yet to see it- after all, half the fun of this is the element of surprise- but for all Nolan's own stylistic bravado, his offhandedness at unveiling the plot's twists and turns puts him much closer in spirit to Borden than to Angier. The film has its problems (never has Scarlett Johansson felt more incidental to a film), and I'm not sure how much is going on on a subtextual level, but it's a heck of a ride with strong work from Bale and Jackman and a great supporting turn from David Bowie, who's as good here as he's been in three decades. Rating: ***.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006, Clint Eastwood)- after the triumphs of MYSTIC RIVER and MILLION DOLLAR BABY, a letdown was probably overdue, but while FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is a perfectly serviceable male weepie, it never quite succeeds at a higher level. Part of the problem is that the storytelling is so scattershot that no storyline, character or relationship emerges to bear the weight of the plot. MYSTIC RIVER had a similar trio of main characters, but whereas that film was dominated by the strength of their personalities, FLAGS' heroes are the pawns of the plot rather than its movers. What makes the strongest impression here is the contrast between the grim realities of the battlefield and the kitsch that's used to sell it on the homefront (all that's missing from the famed Iwo Jima snapshot is a "Mission Accomplished" banner). But while this is a compelling theme for a film, the rest of the movie is too caught up in Greatest Generation nostalgia and an unwieldy-yet-undercooked framing device to be more than a modest success. Rating: **1/2.

SHORTBUS (2006, John Cameron Mitchell)- pretty much exactly the kind of movie I was expecting it to be and little else, which is sort of deadly when you're talking about an allegedly envelope-pushing work. To cite a somewhat dissimilar counter-example, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN worked because it took a "gay love story" outside the settings in which homosexuals are generally found onscreen, situating it instead within the traditionally "masculine" world of the West. In contrast, SHORTBUS is a film about sexually-adventurous characters, set largely in the hip, bohemian world of New York City. Setting a story of this nature among this crowd is immensely flattering to exactly the kind of audience member who would be inclined to see a movie like this, the kind of creatively-inclined, idealistic lefty who envisions New York as a mecca for sex and art. Which is not a bad view per se, but for the fact that Mitchell's vision of this mecca is fairly Disneyfied- for a film that presumably espouses a democratic view of sex, nearly all the cast members are good-looking, sexually-attractive, and in the cases of the males, well-endowed. Of course, there are a handful of token fatties, but I'd venture to guess that even in a place like Shortbus most of the bodies would be somewhere between these two extremes. Perhaps most detrimental to the film is the fact that Mitchell and his cast didn't see much need to give the characters personalities- with the exceptions of Severin and maybe Sofia, there's little going on with these people aside from balling and whining about balling. And what kind of half-assed boho world is it where a character calls herself Severin and nobody even brings up "Venus in Furs"? Rating: *1/2.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My long-in-development salute to actor-directors (the good ones, anyway)

Much has been written of late about this year’s incarnation of Oscar™ season, loaded with prestige-heavy films of import, designed to make people forget for a while that Hollywood makes most of its money off artless crap. Frankly, I’m bored by most Academy-bait. But when I was doing some research into what movies might give me a reprieve from all the self-importance (BORAT… niiiiiiiiice), I began to notice a trend. Namely, that a surprising number of movies this fall are directed by actors. A partial list: Clint Eastwood’s FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, Robert DeNiro’s THE GOOD SHEPHERD, Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO, Todd Field’s LITTLE CHILDREN, John Cameron Mitchell’s SHORTBUS, Christopher Guest’s FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, Bobcat Goldthwait’s SLEEPING DOGS LIE, Emilio Estevez’s BOBBY, Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY BALBOA, and Mr. Show star Bob Odenkirk’s LET’S GO TO PRISON.

The idea of actors who turn to directing is nothing new. But why does it happen? One obvious answer is so they can have more control over their films. For example, Charlie Chaplin was a dynamic performer, but it’s his sensibility as a filmmaker that created that unique Chaplin cocktail of slapstick and pathos. In addition, actors by and large are notoriously needy, and even in the most lauded careers there has been the urge to validated as something more than an actor- a true filmic artist, as it were.

But what kind of actor makes a good filmmaker? Frankly, it’s impossible to say. For every Charles Laughton (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) there’s a John Wayne (THE GREEN BERETS). One might have expected that Johnny Depp, given his idiosyncratic nature as an actor, might have proven a compelling filmmaker, but those unfortunate few who’ve seen THE BRAVE can attest otherwise. And who honestly saw Clint Eastwood coming? Judging even by his earliest performances, the simplicity of his directorial work should have been apparent, but his capable hand at making old-school male weepies is surprising even after a few dozen films behind the camera.

Below, I’ve listed (in no particular order) six films directed by currently-working actors who made the transition behind the camera with nary a hitch.

A MIGHTY WIND (Christopher Guest)

For some reason, comedic performers have proven to be among the most successful at making the switch to filmmaking. Chaplin, Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Albert Brooks, and numerous others have had at least some success in the director’s chair. But what is it about comedy that makes so many of its practitioners well-suited to directing? One possibility is that the setup-and-payoff nature of comedy lends itself well to telling a story in longer form. In addition, there’s a tendency in many actor-directors to more indulgent of their fellow actors, and while drama by and large demands more controlled performances, over-the-top acting is more at home in comedy.

In Guest’s best work as a director, he has trained his camera on rarefied subcultures, chock full of strange but mostly likable people. These characters, combined with the semi-improvised mockumentary format favored by Guest, might lend themselves to snarky irony in other hands, but Guest and his troupe of performers (including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and the invaluable Fred Willard) manage to be good-natured and still funny. In A MIGHTY WIND, his best film to date, Guest has a genuine affection for the film’s aging folkies, so that hidden within the laughs- two words: “wha’ happened?”- there are surprisingly touching moments as well.

(Stanley Tucci)

Has it really been five years since Tucci last directed a movie? Much like Guest, Tucci has a formidable company to call upon when he makes a film (Campbell Scott, Ian Holm, Hope Davis, et al). But while Guest specializes in variations on a favorite format, Tucci has proven skilled at door-slamming farce (THE IMPOSTERS), literate true-life drama (JOE GOULD’S SECRET) and especially domestic dramedy (BIG NIGHT). Likewise, all of Tucci’s films hearken back to the mid-20th century, a pre-rock’n’roll world of flannel suits and fedoras, trans-Atlantic cruises and oak-paneled family-owned eateries.

He does so most memorably in BIG NIGHT, a lovingly-rendered story of two Italian brothers operating a modest restaurant, who pull out all the stops on one night when they get wind that Louis Prima might drop in (that the film’s Guffman is Prima instead of, say, Frank Sinatra says it all about how thoroughly Tucci has absorbed this world). While Tucci always casts himself in a prominent role, he does so modestly, generously bestowing the plum roles on his costars and friends- one might accuse Tony Shalhoub of stealing BIG NIGHT away from Tucci but for the fact that Tucci gave him the role in the first place.

(Note: yes, I realize that Tucci co-directed this with Campbell Scott. But having seen both Tucci and Scott's subsequent films, I'm confident in saying that BIG NIGHT's style hews much closer to Tucci's sensibility than Scott's. Maybe I am an auteurist after all...)

BUFFALO ’66 (Vincent Gallo)

Vincent Gallo is a fascinating case- a guy who has always been too much of a prickly individualist to chase down stardom, while carving himself out a niche in the world of independent and art cinema. So it should have come as little surprise that BUFFALO ’66 was highly original. What is unexpected about the film is that, much like Gallo himself, the flashiness and misanthropy mask a wounded and almost childlike romanticism (this can also be found in Gallo’s semi-infamous but still awesome follow-up, THE BROWN BUNNY). In telling the story of prickly ex-con Billy Brown, Gallo employs a number of unique visual tropes (the way he begins flashbacks by having the image emerge from a character’s forehead is inspired), but for all the invention on display the style is dictated by the story, underlining the jagged mindset of its protagonist. After the critical community piled on THE BROWN BUNNY Gallo announced that he would never direct another film, but I for one wish he would reconsider.


Zatoichi was the hero of a long-running series of Japanese action comedies before Kitano got his hands him, and if it seems foolish for anyone to attempt a new take on such a firmly-established character, reflect that idiosyncratic choices have always been a hallmark of Kitano’s career. Instead of the exaggerated blind schtick of the old films, Takeshi’s version is calm and thoughtful, taking in the world around him through his remaining senses in order to have the edge on those who would challenge him. Rather than portraying the character’s perception of the world through his performance- Kitano is too minimalist an actor for such affectations- he manifests it through the direction of the film, in particular the film’s soundscape, which finds rhythmic and even musical patterns in the activities of those around Zatoichi. That the climax of the film is not an action scene but a rousing, stomping dance number may let down genre purists, but anyone who has followed Kitano’s career learned long ago to expect the unexpected.

THE APOSTLE (Robert Duvall)

Unlike many of the most accomplished actor-directors, who tend to give the real showboat roles to people other than themselves, Duvall places himself front and center here. THE APOSTLE is a star vehicle, yes, but to say the film exists to support Duvall’s electrifying performance overlooks the other formidable aspects the film has to offer. In most Hollywood movies about preachers, they’re slick con artists, using their skill and confidence to bilk the faithful out of their money, but Duvall’s Sonny is first and foremost a believer. He sermonizes not just as a way of talking about God but of talking to Him as well, as in a great scene when loudly prays while alone in his bedroom. Above all, THE APOSTLE is a respectful film, not only of those who preach religion but also those they teach, and the communities in which they live (I can’t think of another film that portrays a small-town Southern setting so realistically). THE APOSTLE’s leisurely pace isn’t suited to every film- Duvall’s subsequent directorial effort, ASSASSIONATION TANGO, suffered from sluggishness- but part of being a good director is finding a style that fits the story being told, and the style of THE APOSTLE fits the film like a glove.


One of the most familiar pieces of advice for first-time authors is, “write what you know.” In his debut effort, Roth took this advice to heart by telling the story of a seemingly ordinary family that begins to come apart when the son discovers his father and sister’s incestuous relationship. Roth has admitted in interviews to being abused as a child, but what is striking about THE WAR ZONE is that, rather than shooting the film in a rough-edged handheld style (the way his countryman Gary Oldman did with his debut effort NIL BY MOUTH), Roth’s filmmaking maintains a kind of distance that’s sort of elegant without soft-pedaling the harrowing nature of the material. The issues of incest and sexual abuse are hardly black-and-white in THE WAR ZONE- while son Tom insists on bringing the truth to light, there are too many other issues in play within the family for it to be that simple. Seven years after THE WAR ZONE, Roth has yet to direct another film, but even if he never again steps behind the camera, he can claim not only one of the greatest first films ever by an actor-turned-filmmaker, but one of the greatest directorial debuts as well.

One final thought- of all the actors out there, who would make a good filmmaker? Even with the above test cases and more besides, it’s still tough to say. Even now it’s hard to reconcile Edward Norton, the searing star of such daring fare as THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT, AMERICAN HISTORY X and FIGHT CLUB, with his directorial debut, the innocuous romantic comedy KEEPING THE FAITH. But after doing some thinking, two fascinating possibilities have emerged.

The first is Tilda Swinton- not necessarily a household name, but never mind. Throughout her career Swinton has proven as much of a maverick as anyone in her profession, starring in films by Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Tim Roth as well as doing unique character work in big-budget fare like CONSTANTINE and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. In short, she has always been one to follow her own muse wherever it leads, and if ever it leads her into the director’s chair, I would have high hopes for the result.

The second name the sprung to mind was Robert Downey Jr. Here’s an actor who is as talented as anyone of his generation, in large part because of his boundless inventiveness. In addition, he clearly has personal issues, which if he can manage to harness them in a creative context would make his work all the more interesting. And finally, look at the movies his dad made. Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie by the son of the director of PUTNEY SWOPE? If he has inherited any of his father’s warped sensibility- and Downey Jr.’s performances seem to indicate that he has- than an attempt at directing would be interesting, to say the least. I know I’d be there opening weekend.

So what do you think? What are your favorite films by presently-active actor/filmmakers? And what actors do you think might just have what it takes to make the transition?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Satantango (1994, Bela Tarr) [In praise of long-ass movies]

First things first. Click here and scroll down to #25. Aww yeeah.

It seems only fitting that the 100th entry on this blog should be devoted to one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. SATANTANGO is a landmark film, one that has deservedly acquired a rep in the years since it first premiered. However, a major part of the vibe I've always gotten from the SATANTANGO hype has to do with how long and austere it is, which after seeing the film seems a tad off the mark. Long it most certainly is- at 7 1/2 hours, there's no escaping that- but once you grow accustomed to Tarr's style, it's so compulsively watchable that one's patience is well-rewarded. Plus- and this shocked the hell out of me- parts of it are funny as hell. A barroom scene about halfway through is brilliant, with half a dozen or so drunks stumbling around to a seemingly endless accordian tune, and the film sustains the scene beyond any logical breaking point, not by introducing new surprise elements into the scene as most filmmakers would, but by having the actors subtly vary their characters' routines as though they're stuck in the same infinite loop as the music (e.g. the dude who keeps balancing the cheese roll on his forehead).

Other sections of this film are as emotionally affecting as this one is hilarious. The justifiably famous sequence involving a little girl and a cat feels almost like a Bresson film dropped into the middle of the story, and an hourlong section devoted to a drunken doctor who stumbles out to buy brandy is even better. Once again, the key to these sections' effectiveness lies in Tarr's exquisite attention to detail, as well as his filmmaking style. Gus Van Sant cribbed both Tarr's use of long Steadicam shots and his propensity for non-linear chronology in his recent trilogy, but he lacked Tarr's genius for immediacy, employing these stylistic tropes in the service of a more conventionally-building narrative. Tarr's cinema is about the here and now of the world within the film, and the fact that he splits SATANTANGO into discrete sections only underlines this.

In a certain movie-related discussion group a few months back, I witnessed a discussion which was prompted by the question, "why is it that nearly every really long film seems to get universal critical acclaim?" Frankly, I'm not sure it's as simple as that- in today's wintry film distribution climate, it's hard enough to get an arthouse film seen, so if it's a prohibitive length, it's gotta be damned good or nobody will bother to distribute it. But another answer to that question comes back to the kinds of filmmakers who would make such long films. It can be such arduous work to make a film, long or short, that if a filmmaker is is going to make the effort and fight the overwhelming urge to shoehorn his vision into an easily-packaged running time, it's almost certainly prone to be something noteworthy. And SATANTANGO fits the bill in spades. While certain sequences of the film might stand alone effectively, taken together I can't imagine it being any shorter than it is. It needs every minute it takes to unfold, and Tarr uses every minute wisely.

It's for this reason that I can't imagine having to see the film for the first time on video or DVD. I've said it before, but it bears repeating- it's the long, meditative films that are diminished most by home viewing, not merely because of the smaller size of the image but, more importantly, because of all the distractions of home. Home is such a familiar place that one grows accustomed to all the routine sights and sounds, to the point where anything that one sees or hears outside the movie itself can become a way of synchronizing one's internal clock to the outside world. Ideally, in a theatre, most of these distractions are gone- no cars driving by, no clock on the wall, no telephone ringing (I can't imagine what kind of person would bring a cell phone to SATANTANGO), and the film itself so dominates one's theatrical experience that the rhythm of the film takes over.

This was especially true for me yesterday, when seeing SATANTANGO for the first time. I know it's a cliché to say that a great long film doesn't feel as long as it really is, but in my case it's true. I woke up around 9 AM yesterday, ate breakfast around 10, then went to see the film, which began at noon. It was shown with two intermissions, during which time I ate two cookies (one each break) and drank a few sips of water. After it ended at 8:30, I wasn't hungry or thirsty at all- SATANTANGO had so completely thrown off my internal clock that I found it hard to believe that I had gone almost 11 hours without a real meal. And when my usual bedtime of 11:30 rolled around, I was wide awake. There are many amazing films out there, but how many can pull off a feat like that?

In short, see SATANTANGO, if you haven't already. If you have, see it again if you get the chance. I might end up buying the DVD, but I know it won't be the same, and watching the DVD would be more for the sake of sampling the film again than diving in headfirst as I would in the theatre. You can be sure that if it comes to town again, I'll be there, front and center, ready once more to get my world rocked.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)

It's hard to describe this movie without using that wonderful Boston phrase "wicked awesome," so I'll just get it out of the way now and move on. THE DEPARTED finds Scorsese in full-on entertainer mode, creating his most audience-pleasing film since GOODFELLAS, but as with GOODFELLAS there's more going on than a superlative genre offering. THE DEPARTED, like the original INFERNAL AFFAIRS, is at its core a study in opposites- with that ingenious premise (cop infiltrates the mob, gangster infiltrates the cops), how could it not be? But whereas the HK version concentrated on the central dichotomy, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan expand the story's scope and find good-and-evil counterparts throughout- Damon vs. DiCaprio, good father-figure Martin Sheen vs. bad-dad Jack Nicholson, aggressive second-bananas Mark Wahlberg vs. Ray Winstone, etc. Another recurring theme in the film is numbness (the song "Comfortably Numb," Jack throwing a fistful of coke at his girlfriend and directing her "don't move till you're numb"), in particular the kind of numbness that sets in when a person's moral compass is busted. As Nicholson says in the opening monologue, "they told us we could either be cops or criminals... but when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" The running time for THE DEPARTED is roughly 2 1/2 hours, but for its length there's almost no fat in the film, and the first 90 minutes or so establish the characters so firmly that once the cops-and-robbers conflict finally comes to a head (around the time a body drops from the top of a building), everything has been set up perfectly. DiCaprio has the showier role of the two leads, but Damon is equally good, and Scorsese was wise to cast him as the mob's man in the State Police- his golden-boy smile is an asset for the character, while his intent, loaded stare and broad body are surprisingly menacing. The supporting cast- Nicholson, Winstone, Sheen, Vera Farmiga- is the best I've encountered all year, with Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin alternating scene-stealing duties as the two most vocal lawmen on the force. THE DEPARTED isn't quite perfect- in a film that doesn't really insist on itself for the most part, the final scene is over-emphatic- but it's Hollywood filmmaking of the highest order, and as rewarding a time as I've had at the multiplex all year. Rating: ***1/2.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Grab bag

One distinct pleasure for a certain stripe of DVD collector (myself included) is a trip to the local used DVD seller. Sure, nowadays one can find just about any DVD of note at Best Buy or Borders, or failing that Amazon and eBay should carry it. But used DVD shopping isn't about looking for something in particular; it's about discoveries. It's about finding a $5 copy of THEY LIVE or THE 4TH MAN- both awesome movies, but neither at the top of my shopping list. It's like when grandma used to cart you along to thrift stores and flea markets, only not so much of that mothball smell. Back in Akron, there were several CD Exchange stores that stocked a fairly impressive array of DVDs as well as CDs and even LPs. I haven't found something comparable yet since moving back to Columbus, although if anybody has any recommendations I'm all ears.

The downside to buying used DVDs, of course, is that quality can be an issue. Most stores of this kind have some degree of quality control, but occasionally a scratched DVD will end up on the shelf. And in general, the better the perceived value, the sketchier the quality. As the old saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I was reminded of this after I came home from the annual Big Book Sale at the Columbus Main Library, where a stack of their old DVDs were also being sold for $2. A few of them caught my eye so I grabbed them, but the room was pretty packed and I didn't have the luxury of inspecting any of them before making my purchase. When I got home, I popped in my newly-bought copy of MALICE (a quintessential used-DVD-store movie if there ever was one), and about five minutes in, around the time Baldwin starts dressing down the doctor who questioned his judgment in the O.R, the picture starts jumping. Figures, I thought. I took the DVD out of the player and inspected it only to find a pretty intimidating-looking scratch. Then, to be on the safe side, I inspected one of my other purchases, Sam Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON, only to discover that the hole in the center was cracked.

It all comes down to one thing- there are far too goddamn many people out there who have no idea how to take care of DVDs. As fragile as videos are, as long as your VCR is in good working order and you don't leave a video in a hot car you're not likely to damage the tape without putting forth a little effort. But DVDs, like CDs and LPs before them, are at the mercy of their handlers. The playable surface is there for all the world to see. It only needs to be dropped once to land on the wrong side and damage the viewing experience. But there's a big difference between the damage of accidentally dropping a DVD on the floor and repeated, negigent mishandling of your DVDs. Negligence is a whole bunch of greasy fingerprints on the playable surface, or cracked center holes from incorrectly removing the disc from the case, or giant scratches from doing who knows what (ultimate Frisbee? Skeet shooting?).

I worked one summer in a video store when I was in college, and I was shocked by how little people care for the movies they rent. I suppose they figure that since it's not their property they don't have to take care of it. I can only imagine how much worse it is for public libraries, who don't charge patrons to borrow movies. I do know that, having seen how crappy some people treat DVDs, I would never want to work at a video store now. And the sad thing is that it's not hard to keep DVDs in reasonably good condition. There are exactly four things to remember to keep your DVDs nice: remove carefully from the case, hold the DVD using only the edge and the center hole, place the DVD gently in the center of the DVD tray before closing your DVD player, and store the DVD inside the case when you're not playing it. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

It's clear to see why DVD sales have exceeded all expectations. To begin with, they're cheap to buy right off the bat, as compared to VHS tapes, which were almost always priced-to-rent for several month before the prices were lowered for the buyers' market. In addition, if DVDs are cared for, there's no degradation of quality after multiple viewings as there is with VHS. And DVD appeals in particular to people with enough money to afford fancy televisions and home theatre systems, since DVDs allow for multiple sound formats and greater picture clarity than videos ever gave. It's too bad, then, that too many of the people who have embraced the DVD revolution fail to think about keeping their purchases in good, playable condition. They need to realize that neglecting their DVDs that they're turning a disc that can in theory stay playable for years and years into a worthless drink coaster. In addition, people who do care about DVDs- not just new ones, but used ones- lose out on the deal too, since if the quality of secondhand DVDs decline so will the market for them, and a fugitive pleasure of the DVD enthusiast will become a thing of the past.


- I recently overhauled my yearly list page. I guess the impetus first came when I decided it was high time to post a list of my favorite films of the silent (pre-1930) era, which I've neglected to do for far too long. While I was compiling this list, I decided to just go ahead and make lists for every subsequent decade as well. And when it came time to post the lists on my site, the idea struck me to divide my lists up by decade, with the decade best-of list at the top of its page and the list for each year of the decade listed underneath. The result is that the lists should be more browsable for visitors to my site, since rather than scrollingscrollingscrolling down to a particular year one can find it within its respective decade. Anyway, enjoy!

- I also finally went and acknowledged that PLAY TIME is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of my favorites as well. In other News of the Obvious, the Beatles are awesome, picking your nose on a date is a bad idea, and babies are really adorable provided they aren't yours.

The Science of Sleep (2006, Michel Gondry)

As I suspected, Michel Gondry has a fascinating eye, but without a strong second presence keeping him on the straight and narrow, his work is little more than eye candy. Whereas ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND had a visionary Charlie Kaufman screenplay, SCIENCE is Gondry through and through. In some respects the films are quite similar- both stories focus on introverted guys and their lurchingly awkward relationships, and Gael Garcia Bernal's Stephane even sports a similar wool cap to Jim Carrey's Joel. But whereas Joel was complicated- he's judgmental, for one, and also sort of constipated emotionally- Stephane is pretty two-dimensional, a creative guy who has trouble distinguishing dreams and reality. On top of that, Charlotte Gainsbourg barely registers as Stephanie, failing to distinguish a role that is little more than that indie staple, the quirky best-pal/girlfriend. As a result, their relationship loses a lot of its inherent interest- there's no moment between the two that rings as true as, say, the scene in ETERNAL SUNSHINE where Clementine busts Joel's chops for referring to her as a "wino." Surprisingly, though Gondry's visual whimsy dominates the proceedings, it actually doesn't get old- he keeps the images fairly fresh, and the fact that many of the effects are practical rather than digital helps them go down easier. I also dug the bitchin' Nehru jacket that Garcia Bernal sports throughout almost the entire film, although what that has to do with anything is anyone's guess. Maybe one day Gondry will create something on his own that's as good as his work with others (not just ETERNAL SUNSHINE but also his videos and DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY), although for this to happen he'll have to try harder to give us a reason to care about what happens. Rating: **.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Eureka (2000, Shinji Aoyama)

When people usually talk about movies that need to be seen on the big screen, they generally mean big spectacles, like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, in which the larger-than-life styles of the films comes through most fully when projected, well, larger than life. But just as demanding of big-screen treatment are languid, low-key, dialogue-light pieces of great duration, which can feel interminable at home (too many distractions, for one) but command the full attention the theatrical audience can devote to them. JEANNE DIELMAN is one of these films- one of my absolutely faves, but one which, even if it were to get a DVD release, I'd be reluctant to buy; so are LA BELLE NOISEUSE, HUMANITÉ, and now EUREKA. What distinguishes these films from titles like THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, which would seem to fit under the same category, isn't just the sparseness of the dialogue, but how incidental the dialogue is to the film itself (the two teenagers are silent for almost the entire film). Indeed, EUREKA could almost have worked without dialogue altogether, with the exception of a talkative cousin who drops in on the central trio about an hour into the film. Another thing thats struck me was the alien quality of the cinematography- black and white 'Scope is a particular fetish of mine, but while most films shot this way thrill me with their lushness, Aoyama gives his images a sepia tint that makes them especially anemic and joyless. Which, under the circumstances, is just as it should be- if there was ever a story that resisted lushness, it would be this account of three survivors of a bus hijacking who form a surrogate family. I daresay that shooting the film in color might give the film a maudlin feel, and Aoyama and his cast- particularly the great Koji Yakusho- avoid falling into this trap. I've been wanting to see this film ever since it was released in 2001 only to become a victim of the shuttering of the Shooting Gallery film series, and having done so I'm happy to report that it lives up to expectations and could very well be a masterpiece. And yet I can't shake the sinking feeling that I would have enjoyed and appreciated it so much more had I see it on the big screen. Maybe someday... Rating: ***1/2.

Jackass: Number Two (2006, Jeff Tremaine)

Make no mistake about it- if you hated the previous incarnations of JACKASS, you're pretty much guaranteed to hate this one too. Indeed, one of the charms of NUMBER TWO is the way it gleefully gives the finger to its detractors by ramping up all of the most devisive elements of the first movie- this one has more dangerous stunts, more bodily fluids, more male nudity, and more homosexual undercurrents. Half the fun for fans is the discovery of what the stunts are, so I won't spoil the surprise, confining myself to general observations. This late in the game, the gang clearly appears to be working harder to stay ahead of the audience, and it comes through in the occasional reluctance of cast members to join in- witness the scene in which Johnny Knoxville has to psych the guys up to participate in a certain dangerous act. And while Knoxville has become the breakout movie star of the bunch (for example: the scene in which covers his face while others might cover their genitals) he's as game as ever, often being the first to jump into the fray while also serving as ringleader for the inter-group pranks. Predictably, the film is most uneven when it abandons the stunts for less dangerous types of performance art (e.g. the Spike Jonze stuff) or straight gross-out moments. Also, has Bam Margera always been this much of a preening, camera-hogging egotist? Because while I couldn't wait to see him finally get his comeuppance, I was actually hoping for something more cathartic, like the double-cross at the film's climax. Awesome idea du jour: am I the only one who would be pumped for a Jackass-inflected Laurel and Hardy update starring Preston Lacy and Wee-Man? Rating: ***. P.S.: See this with the biggest audience you can.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Last Kiss (2006, Tony Goldwyn)

Full disclosure: I saw THE BLACK DAHLIA on Friday night. It was so awesome. Not perfect, but awesome nonetheless. That said, the whole thing kind of knocked the wind out of me. I'm beginning to think that DePalma's work is best appreciated on DVD. Not because it doesn't work on the big screen- on the contrary, there's so much going on in his films that seeing them projected on the big screen makes them more than a little overwhelming, especially on the first viewing. I plan to see THE BLACK DAHLIA again in the near future, at which time I intend to write something about it besides a hummina hummina yow. Luckily (for me and perhaps for you too) I was able to catch a second movie afterwards. You know, to wind down.

And now, the review...

Thank goodness for movies like THE LAST KISS, which bring important problems of the world to our attention. I mean hey, forget penny-ante issues like the war in Iraq or global warming- what this world needs is more movies about how affluent, good-looking white dudes are insecure about getting old. But seriously, give me a fucking break with this. Grow up, OK? I know that all the magazines say that this generation is stuck in a state of arrested development (not to be confused with the greatly-missed TV show of the same name), but there are many more compelling ideas for a feature film that aren't being explored- say, Adam's Beckett adaptation. And if you do find it necessary to trot out this idea once more, surely there are more eloquent expressions of it than Paul Haggis' hammer-subtle screenplay, with next to nothing in the way of real characterization and a distracting number of thesis-heavy monologues (sound familiar?). To be honest, I didn't hate this or anything- it's too bland for that- but by the time the third montage came along, I had simply stopped giving a shit. Chalk it up to movie premises I'm just tired of, like modern-minded youth taking on strict traditions, or a group of people in a quaint little town bonding together for unlikely and quirky reasons. Rating: *1/2.

Summer '06: the movie season that was

There has been some talk in recent years of the death of the summer movie season. The glut of movie franchises and blockbusters has forced the studios to space the big releases strategically throughout the year, rather than simply when the target audience is on summer vacation. Yet if summer ’06 has proven anything, it’s that pricey, overhyped no-brainers are still most at home during the year’s hottest months. Unfortunately, there seemed to be little else in theatres this past summer, when even ambitious projects and established filmmakers seemed to be off their game.

It’s been pretty well-established that very few truly great films are bestowed upon audiences by Hollywood during the summer. But there have at least been a handful of titles during the past three summers that have been cut or two above the rest, movies in which the filmmakers have been on top of their games. 2005 saw THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and LAND OF THE DEAD, 2004 brought the release of SPIDER-MAN 2, COLLATERAL, and the underrated MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remake, and 2003 gave us FINDING NEMO and the sinfully overlooked OPEN RANGE. By comparison, 2006 lacked a Hollywood (or even a high-profile off-Hollywood) release that put forth the extra effort and saw that effort pay off in the end.

Even my favorite Hollywood release of summer ’06, MONSTER HOUSE, is little more than a well-done entertainment. Gil Kenan’s computer-generated adventure has the feel of a Spielberg-produced young adult adventure from the mid-80s (think THE GOONIES), with the difference being the stylized but nonetheless impressive animation on display. Working with the same motion-capture techniques Bob Zemeckis (who exec-produces here) used on POLAR EXPRESS, Kenan combines cartoony character design and lifelike movement, but my favorite technological touch was, for lack of a better expression, the movement of the camera. Perhaps this was a by-product of the motion-capture stuff, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animated film come this close to mimicking the camera work of live-action movies. And nerdy stuff aside, I had a lot of fun watching MONSTER HOUSE. It’s not perfect- the scenes with a bumbling African-American police officer should have been left on the cutting-room floor- but it’s a hell of a good time all the same.

If only I had this much fun during CARS. Time was when Pixar Animation Studios could do no wrong, integrating (in ways that the makers of MONSTER HOUSE no doubt emulated) world-class entertainment with advances in animation technology. And with Pixar honcho John Lasseter himself at the helm, CARS should have continued the trend. Instead, after an exciting auto race at the start, the film gets into a rut that’s all-too-familiar. The story is right out of the forgettable Michael J. Fox starrer DOC HOLLYWOOD, with a cocky big-city protagonist finding himself waylaid in a small town and falling in love with a local girl, and the animation, while beautiful, isn’t as exciting or novel has in previous Pixar classics (after taking on stylized humans in THE INCREDIBLES, talking cars can’t help but feel like a step backwards). Of course, not even Pixar can keep a winning streak going indefinitely, and it appears that next summer’s offering, RATATOUILLE, should put them back on the right path.

Alas, Lasseter wasn’t alone this summer among world-class directors whose latest films weren’t up to their usual high standards. Richard Linklater’s animated Dick adaptation A SCANNER DARKLY was certainly mind-bending, but as with his 2005 remake of BAD NEWS BEARS, SCANNER finds Linklater somewhat ill-at-ease with molding a known text to his own sensibility. The film’s best moments are the least narrative-bound, largely involving the druggy misadventures of a band of misfits led by Keanu Reeves and a nattering Robert Downey Jr., but Linklater is less sure-footed when Dick’s narrative machinations and singular brand of paranoia take center stage, although he rallies at the end with an elegiac denouement taken verbatim from the original novel.

Similarly, Robert Altman’s film of Garrison Keillor’s public-radio mainstay A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is a perfectly serviceable entertainment taken by itself, but when set alongside Altman’s body of work it comes up short. There’s more than a little fascination to seeing Altman take on an institution such as this, with his camera prowling backstage during a live performance of the program and observing the routines. However, Keillor’s screenplay turns the show as the last one ever, turning the film into a rumination on death that’s too on-the-nose by half (contrast the film’s cipher of an angel, played by Virginia Madsen, with BREWSTER MCCLOUD’s angel, played by Sally Kellerman, who has an actual character to play). Still, there are some choice moments here, with Altman as generous to performers as ever- dig the Streep/Tomlin sister routine, the cowboy bits with Harrelson and Reilly, and a climactic number from Lindsay Lohan that demonstrates that she can be an engaging actor when she decides to put forth the effort.

But at least Linklater and Altman fared better this summer than two former heavyweights, Oliver Stone and Woody Allen. Indeed, WORLD TRADE CENTER felt so little like a Stone film that I barely even mentioned his name in my original review. Stone’s ALEXANDER, for all its faults, was an ambitious project; WTC, on the other hand, is pandering claptrap which largely ignores the tragedy and death of 9/11 in order to manufacture an uplifting ending. Just as unfortunate was Allen’s SCOOP. Despite his uneven output of late, I’ve been reluctant to give up on Allen (I’ve defended ANYTHING ELSE to my friends on multiple occasions). However, given the stale humor and indifferent style of SCOOP, I’m inclined to agree with the naysayers for once. Allen has never been the most relevant of filmmakers, but SCOOP feels more like a justifiably-forgotten comedy from the forties than one of Allen’s usual throwbacks. I suppose this makes SCOOP kind of fascinating to think about, but doesn’t exactly make for a fun night at the movies.

Besides, it seems that the arthouse-lite audiences that once championed Allen’s work have mostly moved on (MATCH POINT is the exception that proves the rule). Which is not to say that the fresher alternatives provided them this past summer have been much of an improvement. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, a cannily-programmed midsummer anti-blockbuster release, boasted some strong performances (Streep naturally, but also Stanley Tucci), but as a film it did nothing for me. I was somewhat less than taken with DEVIL’s tactic of glorifying its protagonist’s aspirations of journalistic integrity while indulging the target audience’s desire for fashion-porn. I suppose my reaction to the film also had something to do with my distaste for catty humor, in which this film traffics heavily.

Another audience favorite from this past summer was the Sundance hit LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, which represents yet another nail in the coffin for the crowd-pleasing indie comedy. Despite an impressive cast (Kinnear, Carell, Colette, Arkin), directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris never transcend the quirkiness of the proceedings, with characters defined almost entirely by their oddball symptoms in lieu of compelling character traits. From beginning to end, the film panders to the base instincts of the audience by going after one easy target after another- self-help gurus, pompous intellectuals, child beauty pageants, and so on. Worst of all, it’s just not very funny. Once Alan Arkin and his always-sharp timing exited the scene, there was precious little left to engage me.

Yet if there was one word-of-mouth hit that defined this summer for better or worse, it was Davis Guggenheim’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. In the middle of the hottest summer in recent memory, a documentary about global warming was impeccably-timed, to say the least. And if nothing else, the film works as a piece of environmental advocacy for audiences, confronting them with a problem that effects the entire globe and encouraging them to make changes. However, TRUTH lacks the filmic flair of, say, THE CORPORATION (another recent bit of cinematic advocacy), remaining at its core a videotaped account of one of Al Gore’s slide presentations. Gore himself became a media darling on the heels of TRUTH- appearing on SNL and on the Entertainment Weekly cover- which says as much with the audience’s malaise at our current leadership as it does with any of Gore’s words or actions in the film itself.

But if Al Gore was able to bestow the cinematic equivalent of green vegetables on appreciative audiences- in select cities- this summer was otherwise chock full of bloated, empty-calorie entertainments. As expected, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST was the big winner at the box office, the rare film that, in the abstract sense, appealed to all potential audiences. However, while the first PIRATES had the virtue of being a big-budget adventure with a subversive turn by Johnny Depp at its center, its sequel has almost none of that novelty, the sense of danger that came with the feeling that the film was somehow getting away with something. By now, Captain Jack Sparrow has been accepted by Hollywood’s mainstream (Oscar nomination, franchise, and all), and while DEAD MAN’S CHEST contains some startling design elements, in particular Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones, that hardly compensates for the same-old-same-old feeling the film gives off.

Speaking of same-old, Superman flew back onto screens this year as well, but strangely enough some sort of transformation has occurred. I don’t mean Brandon Routh jumping into Christopher Reeve’s cape and tights- I mean the big blue Boy Scout reinvented as a mopey emo type with superpowers. Much like PIRATES, the spectacle present in Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS is impressive, but what’s lacking is the sense of fun displayed by its predecessors. Routh’s Clark Kent has none of the doofy charm of Reeve’s, and is presented here as little more than Superman in a suit and glasses. In addition, Singer shot the film largely using HD cameras, which dulls the seemingly requisite strong color palette of Superman’s world. The end result is surprisingly joyless, a sequel/re-invention that is more dutiful than exciting.

Other big-ticket items suffered from a lack of entertainment value. THE DA VINCI CODE was never a great piece of literature, but it has a kind of kitschy fun to it, spiced with religious trappings, that was somehow blunted by Ron Howard’s workmanlike direction and the studio’s attempts to appease the rabble-rousers. X-MEN: THE LAST STAND brought back most of our favorites from the previous installments (notable exception: Nightcrawler) and more besides, then devoting precious little time to their character arcs before hurtling them all into the battle royale promised in the title. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III was more entertaining than most of this summer’s blockbusters largely because it trimmed most of the fat from part II, assuming the clean, limber style of director J.J. Abrams’ hit series ALIAS.

My biggest disappointment of the summer was almost certainly Michael Mann’s updating of MIAMI VICE. As with much of Mann’s work, the details are effective here- a drug kingpin’s cordial farewell and Gong Li’s disheveled hair after disembarking a speedboat, to cite two examples. Likewise, the film is gorgeous to look at, since Mann is virtually alone among Hollywood filmmakers in his expressive use of digital video. However, MIAMI VICE displays surprisingly little interest in its story or characters. Crockett and Tubbs hardly seem to be characters in the conventional sense, with Mann using them alternately as pawns of the plot and totems of cool. As a result, the film’s ostensible story rarely holds much interest, since it’s clear that Mann isn’t all that interested in giving them the chance to solve any crimes for themselves (consider the abduction/rescue sequence, in which the guys supposedly figure out exactly which trailer park Tubbs’ girlfriend is being held in what feels like two minutes). Perhaps I’ll revisit MIAMI VICE sometime in the future, with my expectations having been dispelled, but as it stands I couldn’t help but be let down.

A strange by-product of my development as a moviegoer has been a shift in my attitude towards Hollywood entertainments. When I was younger, I was of the attitude that bigger and more lavish spectacle was best, and then as I became more serious about my love for film I dismissed Hollywood almost entirely. In recent years, my feelings have shifted again, since I’ve grown to appreciate the virtues of dirty, scruffy B-movies. It’s one thing to champion extol the virtues of B-movie masters of yore (Hellman, Fuller, et al), but there’s fun to be had in recent smaller-scale entertainments as well. My favorite example from this past summer has to be THE DESCENT, a nerve-wracking horror flick about a group of adventurous young women who get lost in a cave system. While the gorehounds will no doubt geek out on the film’s later scenes, in which the women are beset by strange creatures who live in the caves, I was actually partial to the first hour, which were dominated by a creeping dread, a combination of the claustrophobia of the caves (you won’t get me down into one of those) and the creeping dread of the women who have obviously strayed off the path and have to find their way back.

Still, as grimy as THE DESCENT was, it’s downright respectable compared to some of the summer’s B-movie offerings. With a fond tip of the hat to SNAKES ON A PLANE- exactly the movie that its dum-dum title deserved, and I mean that in the best sense- no new movie I saw in the past three months or so was as disreputably entertaining as CRANK (released on 9/1, so it counts as summer, right?). CRANK is as nasty and propulsive as its title and plot summary (a poisoned criminal has to keep moving or he’ll die) might suggest, and accordingly the film seemingly invites love-it-or-hate-it reactions. As for me, I dug it, not least as a tonic after the summer’s gargantuan spectacles. Sure, it’s probably racist and sexist, and almost certainly homophobic, but it’s got chutzpah, which is key for movies of this type, and I couldn’t help but groove on that throughout the relatively short running time. Let’s just say this- either you enjoy movies in which a baddie feeds raw meat to his dogs while getting pleasured orally, or you don’t. I enjoyed a number of classic B-movies as part of the Wexner Center's B-Movie Hootenanny series this summer, and half a century from now I suspect movies like CRANK will be gracing similar series.

Having moved back to Columbus in the middle of the summer, I missed some of the higher-profile comedies, such as NACHO LIBRE and CLICK. But I feel safe in saying that neither film could have been as enjoyable as my two favorite comedies of the summer, BEERFEST and TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY. BEERFEST finds the Broken Lizard boys in top form after the uneven CLUB DREAD, cleverly combining the beer-chuggin’ fratboy vibe implied by the title with a surprisingly spot-on parody of sports movies. While 2004’s DODGEBALL attempted to cover the same ground, its ironic Frat Pack-style humor didn’t mesh very well with the material, but Broken Lizard traffics in laughs of a more good-natured variety- they’re all pretty nice guys at heart, which makes the film go down that much easier (this is the ideal Studio 35 movie, since you can take a draft beer or three with you into the movie). And three cheers for Cloris Leachman as Great Gam Gam. How many Oscar winners would not only take the role of an elderly German prostitute in a low-cult comedy, but could essay the resulting gags without ever sacrificing her dignity?

If anything, TALLADEGA NIGHTS has even more laughs than BEERFEST. While it has more of a narrative structure than Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s previous vehicle ANCHORMAN, it doesn’t let down as an uproarious comedy. Ferrell and sidekick John C. Reilly are a lot of fun together as lifelong pals turned NASCAR racers, but the film really finds its groove once Sacha Baron Cohen, played gay French Formula One racer Jean Girard, enters the scene. Whereas without Girard the film would simply be a genial good-ol’-boy comedy, with Girard the film gains immeasurably both in laughs and subtext. Whereas Ricky Bobby and his gang represent pure machismo-driven momentum (“I wanna go fast!” is Ricky Bobby’s credo), Girard’s presence causes Ricky Bobby to question this, and guides him to question his previously-unexamined laugh. Whereas many comedies strain for meaning and lose comedy as a result (for example, CLERKS II, which stops dead in its tracks for a teary-eyed dramatic scene), TALLADEGA NIGHTS pulls it off without skipping a beat.

Finally, no recap of summer 2006 would be complete without at least mentioning M. Night Shyamalan’s more-than-a-little-unhinged LADY IN THE WATER. As storytelling, it’s a mess; as directorial indulgence, it’s borderline reprehensible. And I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Whereas Shyamalan’s previous films have stretched credibility with their reliance on coincidences and unlikely plot developments, LADY gleefully embraces these storytelling devices. Once it becomes clear that Shyamalan is no longer concerned with making his story convincing, it becomes that much easier to groove on his still-intact directorial chops. Somehow, in the midst of all the sound and fury, Paul Giamatti gives one of his best performances, and he’s backed by an able and game cast. I still think that Shyamalan might be better off in the long run if he started working from others’ scripts, but LADY IN THE WATER is, if nothing else, a fascinating singularity, and more intriguing than almost anything else Hollywood had to offer this summer.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I pity the fool who don't practice his scales!

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, Roy Rowland)- I imagine that I would've loved this as a kid, given the Seussian touches of the whole thing- hallucinatory sets, funky wordplay, etc. I also think my parents would've regretted allowing me to watch it back then, since their tolerance for Dr. Seuss was fairly low (they didn't much like Pee Wee's Playhouse either, which I adored), and that they would have put their foot down around the 17th time I referred to my dress-up clothes as my "do-me-do duds." But susprisingly enough I'd never seen it before, though now it hardly matters, since I can appreciate the film differently than people who were exposed to it at a young and impressionable age. The film as structured as a dream of little Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig, surprisingly un-cloying for a 50s kid actor), fantasizing that his autocratic Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid) wants to enslave 500 boys to play a giant piano (hence the title). Strangely enough, the "it was all a dream" structure is more effective here since the film announces this from the beginning, not only saving us the grief of the almost-always-lame reveal scene at the end, but more importantly allowing us to bask in the imagery of it rather than interpreting the story on a literal level (not that we possibly could in this case, but never mind). Plus there are plenty of awesome moments that Seuss and Rowland could never have pulled off in a more literal-minded story- not just the musical interlude in the dungeon or the promenade-turned-barbershop-quartet, but the bizarre MusicFix plot device that pops up near the climax. Rating: ***1/2.