Saturday, August 29, 2009

Famous Last Words: Resurrection- the Winner!

Like many genre cycles, Japanese horror (or "J-horror") has had more than its share of junk. But it's also produced its share of memorable chillers, and one of the highlights has surely been Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, the source of last week's quote. A clever fusion of a high-tech thriller and a ghost story, Pulse also contains a heavy dose of melancholy that makes it good for more than a few scares. But Kurosawa does have some first-class scares up his sleeve, especially in the surreal and wholly unexpected "walking woman" scene, which is impossible to describe to those who've never seen the film, and unforgettable to those who have. Congrats to those who got the quote.

And most hearty congratulations also go out to the winner of this first post-Screengrab round of Famous Last Words, regular participant and veteran winner Cameron Worden. There were a number of strong contenders for the win this round, but Worden bested them all. As promised, Cameron will receive a $25 gift card from The Criterion Store. Thanks to everyone for playing.

As usual, I'm going to be taking some time off from Famous Last Words, but I hope you all will stick around. And I hope to start a new round up in the future, perhaps sometime after the new year. See you around, folks.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Trailer Review-type Thing: Inception

As most of you probably remember, I used to run what were called Trailer Reviews over at Screengrab three days a week. It wasn't a great column, but it helped to pay the bills, even if it meant having to crank out 200 words about the likes of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. I don't plan on making it a regular thing, but if I see something I like I'll post it here.

Through some conveniently Hollywood-ish bit of happenstance, the directors of the two highest-grossing films (domestic, not adjusted for inflation) in history dropped trailers for their latest projects this past week. But while Avatar's new spot premiered with great fanfare, Warner dropped a teaser for Inception, the upcoming film by Christopher Nolan, with very little notice. So while the hype for Avatar has resulted in widespread disappointment among moviegoers, the element of surprise is working in Inception's favor. It doesn't hurt that it looks pretty damn cool, at least in the small snippets we see here. The only reservation I have is about the title itself- Inception doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, nor does it really register in the memory. Hell, I forgot it several times when referring to it in conversation the other day. Still, I'm a big fan of Nolan- especially when it comes to The Prestige- so I'm totally down with anything he wants to do.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Famous Last Words: Resurrection- Week 12

It’s become something of a cliché for a movie to show up at Sundance trumpeting its tiny budget. But while most movies along these lines play like Hollywood audition tapes, a few have showed genuine cinematic vision, none more so than Shane Carruth’s Primer, the source of last week’s quote. Primer was shot for a scant $7,000 (with most of the budget going to pay for 16mm film stock), but like Blair Witch before it, it uses the lo-fi aesthetic imposed by its budget to its advantage, with Carruth setting his film primarily in everyday settings like basements, garages, and storage spaces. More importantly, however, is the fact that Primer is filled to the brim with honest-to-goodness ideas, which are free provided one knows how to use them, and Carruth definitely does. Carruth, a former engineer and self-taught filmmaker, has yet to make another film, but even if he never does, Primer will assure his reputation in the minds of lovers of brainy sci-fi. Congrats to those who guessed it.

With one more week left in the round, I leave you with one final quote:

“Now, alone with my best friend in the world, I have found happiness.”

Name the film. Remember, submit your guesses to this e-Mail address no later than 11:59 PM Eastern on Wednesday. Good luck, and come back next week when I hope to announce a winner.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An open letter to Scott Tobias of the Onion A.V. Club

Dear Scott,

Hey bud. First off, just wanted to let you know that I think you’re doing an awesome job. In my experience, your movie reviews tend to be the most insightful on the site. In addition, I’ve been a fan of your weekly New Cult Canon column ever since it started up last year. As someone who knows what a grind it can be like to crank out content with any regularity, I admire that you still manage to keep the pieces fresh without being stingy with the critical insight.

I recently worked my way through Danny Peary’s first volume of Cult Movies- the book you cited as your inspiration for the series- and I couldn’t help but notice some differences between Peary’s M.O. and what you’ve been doing so far in the series. The biggest difference I could see is that, unlike Peary, you seem to enjoy nearly all of the movies you’ve selected. Now, don’t get me wrong- I’m not trying to say that you’re more of a pushover than Peary was by any means. Instead, I see this as a kind of difference in approaches. Whereas Peary’s goal was to write about movies that had already amassed passionate followings at that point, you also seem to be looking at movies you like that fit the definition of a “cult movie” even if the cult hasn’t quite happened yet.

Now, you’d think that by using this approach that it would be you who would have included more legitimate “classics” in your series, but in fact the opposite is true. Granted, some of the universally-acclaimed titles selected by Peary were inescapable, but I’m not sure that the likes of Citizen Kane or Singin’ in the Rain necessarily fit the mold in the same way as, say, Rocky Horror. By contrast, it looks like you’ve been avoiding across-the-board critical successes so far. Of course, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before you get to some of these, for example The New World or the oeuvre of Charlie Kaufman.

But at the same time, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’d like to see more pieces like your spotlight on The Boondock Saints. Not every title that has amassed a substantial following necessarily deserves the love it gets- I for one can’t fathom the cult that has grown up around Napoleon Dynamite except that it creates an almost impossibly nerdy character to whom even the average everyday dweeb can feel superior. And I would say that part of writing about pop-culture cult phenomena would be to acknowledge that there’s more to a movie finding a devoted audience than just quality.

That said, there’s still plenty of diversity among the titles you’ve chosen so far, which is one of the most interesting things about the series. After all, any subject that encompasses both Naked and Pootie Tang is fine with me. I also like that you’re not shying away from less-obvious foreign choices. After all, Audition and Battle Royale are natural inclusions for a column like this; Beau Travail and The Lovers on the Bridge, not so much. Personally, I might have gone with Trouble Every Day and POLA X, but it’s your column.

At the beginning of the series, you mentioned that you would be concentrating largely on movies that have been released since the mid-1980s, but would occasionally tackling older films as well. But aside from Soy Cuba (“the Cuba for vegans!”) and Manos: The Hands of Fate, I don’t think you’ve written about any recent re-issues. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on some semi-forgotten classics that have resurfaced in the past few years- I think Le Cercle Rouge would be an awesome fit for the column, along with Nicholas Ray’s long-unavailable-in-any-video-format Bigger Than Life. I also think it could be interesting to include movies that were critically maligned on their original releases but which have since been re-assessed by the critical community. I’d throw out some titles, except that the ones that keep springing to mind- One From the Heart, Heaven’s Gate, etc.- have already gotten the My Year of Flops treatment. Oh well.

In closing, I’d just like to re-iterate that I love what you’ve been doing, and that you should take these thoughts as nothing more than my own ideas on what this series is about. Sure, I’d like to see you take on some more “sexy” titles (let’s not forget that Peary wrote about Behind the Green Door and Emmanuelle, among others) but I also understand that the last two decades haven’t exactly been a great time for onscreen eroticism, although Betty Blue and Y Tu Mama Tambien might work for your purposes. But in the end, it’s your baby, and I totally respect the choices you’ve made so far, so I trust your judgment. In other words, keep up the good work.

Paul C.

P.S.: If I may suggest a title, I’ve got one word for you: Malice. Also, if you could broaden the format a little to spotlight the short films of Don Hertzfeldt, I’d be eternally grateful. Thank you.

Revised 8/20 to add: Scott was gracious enough to send me a response to this post, which I'm posting below in its entirety. Thanks, Scott!

Hi Paul--

This is a very helpful post and I appreciate you taking the time to write it up. A few notes in my defense:

1. Yes, I have generally liked the films I've covered, and I think I should mix it up a bit more with some I didn't. So far, I have written negatively about CLERKS and THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (and THE ROOM, as a film anyway), and have my share of reservations about some others (TEAM AMERICA most recently), but I need to mix things up with more takedowns. I've actually never seen NAPOLEON DYNAMITE based on the disapproval of many trusted friends, but it's certainly a movie I need to cover and who knows what I'll think of it. In any case, more balance is called for here.

2. THE NEW WORLD and a Charlie Kaufman joint (SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK most likely) are in the offing. It's just a matter of when at this point.

3. You're perceptive about the difference between my approach and Peary's approach w/r/t to movies that have a cult quality but not necessarily a big cult following (e.g. MORVERN CALLAR). Part of it is that I'm choosing from a smaller pool of films than Peary; mostly, though, I want to shine a light on some cool, under-the-radar films that deserve to be celebrated.

4. I'm thinking of doing a theme month of older cult movies that have been championed more recently through reissues and DVD. The ones you suggest are all good, and I'd probably be inclined to add stuff like ARMY OF SHADOWS, a Melville movie, maybe a WAGES OF FEAR/SORCERER double review, et al. So I'll definitely return to this concept.

In any case, thanks for your open letter. This project is open-ended—and therefore a marathon, not a sprint. But expect to see some of your ideas employed in the coming months.



Criterion Watch, November 2009

Let’s get this party started, shall we? Remember, click on the titles to link to the Criterion site.

This set, entitled The Golden Age of Television, is the big Criterion news for November, at least to these eyes. It’s a somewhat unconventional choice for the Criterion folks, but then, so was the Beastie Boys set, and this is a pretty darn inspired selection. To sum it, it’ll not only include kinescopes of eight live teleplays from the 1950s- including such classics as Marty, Requiem For a Heavyweight, and The Days of Wine and Roses- but also cast and crew interviews from the eighties-era PBS series that re-broadcast the plays. Add in commentary tracks by several of the directors (such as John Frankenheimer) and this should be a must-buy for lovers of pop culture ephemera such as myself.

I’m no fan of conventional sports dramas, but unconventional ones- in which athletes are treated with real complexity instead of ESPN-ready hero worship- are usually pretty intriguing. So I’m looking forward to finally catching up with Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer, about a skier whose all-consuming drive to win overwhelms everything else in his life.

Finally, a twofer of acclaimed recent foreign-language releases, given the Criterion treatment. Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale- for which no cover art has yet been posted- was one of my favorite films from last year, and it’s nice to see the great Desplechin included in the ranks of such Criterion-endorsed filmmakers as, uh, Kevin Smith and Michael Bay. And Bergman, Bresson, and Ozu, of course. I wasn’t especially keen on Gomorrah- I respected it but was hardly blown away- but I can see where it would be up Criterion’s alley, and will get even more attention with its release on Blu-Ray as well as standard-def DVD.

Moreover, these are both IFC Films releases, as is Che, which the newsletter hinted at a while back, so that makes me think that maybe Criterion has struck a deal with IFC to release some of their recent stuff on DVD for the benefit of those who would prefer not to set foot inside a Lackluster Video. That would of course be good news, since such acclaimed titles as 4 months 3 weeks and 2 days, The Secret of the Grain, A Girl Cut in Two, Flight of the Red Balloon, Private Fears in Public Places, Hunger, and (ohpleasepleaseplease) The Duchess of Langeais could really benefit from the Criterion treatment.

Finally, this month’s clue:

Had to think about this one a while, not least because it hints not at a specific title but at a person. Eventually, I realized that this was hinting at a special centenary celebration for Akira Kurosawa next year. But what exactly are they going to do? I’m guessing a few of their already-released titles will get some Blu-Ray love (I’m guessing The Seven Samurai at the very least), but don’t rule out some new Kurosawa DVDs as well. With so much of his filmography already represented in the Collection, my money is on his 1974 classic Dersu Uzala, made during his sojourn in the Soviet Union, which is one of the master’s best color films and one of the most moving works he ever made. But who knows? All I know for sure is that Criterion is bound to have some surprises up their sleeve.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Famous Last Words: Resurrection- Week 11

Nowadays, it seems like Broadway impresarios have embraced wholeheartedly the notion of turning hit movies into theatrical productions, having adapted everything from Beauty and the Beast and The Producers to High Fidelity and Hairspray for the stage. But before this had become such a common practice, the great Stephen Sondheim penned A Little Night Music, which was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, the source of last week’s quote. But Smiles is no Broadway trivia question, as any cinephile worth his salt can attest. Rather, it’s the master’s first full-on masterpiece, a film that helped to cement his reputation as a cinematic titan. More than half a century later, it’s still great- lighter in tone than most of Bergman’s work, but still plenty substantial, and boasting a cast that includes Bergman favorites Gunnar Björnstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, and Harriet Andersson, who delivers the film’s final line. Congrats to those who got it.

Here’s this week’s quote:

“And if you look, you will not find me.”

Name the film. Remember, submit your guesses to this e-Mail address no later than 11:59 PM Eastern on Wednesday. Good luck!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Because it seems that I just can't accomplish anything without it involving ticking items off a long list...

Ever since I moved at the end of June, I haven’t felt much of a desire to keep this blog updated, aside from the weekly Famous Last Words quote and a few other fluke posts. Honestly, I think most of this can be traced back to my days at Screengrab, when I had to grind out 7 to 10 posts a week so that the money kept coming in. Now that I’m no longer doing that kind of mercenary work, I find that my hunger to keep writing has waned quite a bit. And now that living with Angela and the Offspring has required me to become much more domesticated than ever before, I don’t necessarily have the energy to spend my precious free time trying to keep up my writing. As a result, the promised reviews of Criterion DVDs and Reviews By Request columns will have to go on the back burner.

However, there’s hope. In the past, I’ve found that I can rejuvenate my own writing mojo by immersing myself in the writings of others. Of course, being the type of person I am I can’t just make a promise to myself to read more, since my free time is at a premium and if I don’t set myself a tangible goal I’ll most likely spend all of that precious free time watching movies instead of spending some of it on books. But what to read?

Some months ago, I was looking at a list of Nobel Laureates in Literature, and I noticed how few of them I had actually read. As a humanities major and fairly well-rounded guy, I consider myself to be sort of knowledgeable when it comes to literature and such, but I’ve never heard of the majority of the Nobel winners, and I’ve read even fewer (19, to be precise). Here’s the full list of winners, with the ones I’ve read in boldface:

2008 – J.M.G. Le Clézio
2007 – Doris Lessing
2006 – Orhan Pamuk
2005 – Harold Pinter
2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
2003 – J.M. Coetzee
2002 – Imre Kertész
2001 – V.S. Naipaul
2000 – Gao Xingjian
1999 – Günter Grass
1998 – José Saramago
1997 – Dario Fo
1996 – Wisława Szymborska
1995 – Seamus Heaney
1994 – Kenzaburo Oe
1993 – Toni Morrison
1992 – Derek Walcott
1991 – Nadine Gordimer
1990 – Octavio Paz
1989 – Camilo José Cela
1988 – Naguib Mahfouz
1987 – Joseph Brodsky
1986 – Wole Soyinka
1985 – Claude Simon
1984 – Jaroslav Siefert
1983 – William Golding
1982 – Gabriel Garcia Márquez
1981 – Elias Canetti
1980 – Czesław Miłosz
1979 – Odysseas Elytis
1978 – Isaac Bashevis Singer
1977 – Vicente Aleixandre
1976 – Saul Bellow
1975 – Eugenio Montale
1974 – Eyvind Johnson
1974 – Harry Martinson
1973 – Patrick White
1972 – Heinrich Böll
1971 – Pablo Neruda
1970 – Alekdandr Solzhenitsyn
1969 – Samuel Beckett
1968 – Yasumari Kawabata
1967 – Miguel Ángel Asturias
1966 – Shmuel Yosef Agnon
1966 – Nelly Sachs
1965 – Mikhail Sholokhov
1964 – Jean-Paul Sartre
1963 – Giorgos Seferis
1962 – John Steinbeck
1961 – Ivo Andrić
1960 – Saint-John Perse
1959 – Salvatore Quasimodo
1958 – Boris Pasternak
1957 – Albert Camus
1956 – John Ramón Jiménez
1955 – Halldór Laxness
1954 – Ernest Hemingway
1953 – Winston Churchill
1952 – François Mauriac
1951 – Pär Lagerkvist
1950 – Bertrand Russell
1949 – William Faulkner
1948 – T.S. Eliot
1947 – André Gide
1946 – Hermann Hesse
1945 – Gabriela Mistral
1944 – Johannes V. Jensen
1940-1943 – Not awarded
1939 – Frans Eemil Sillanpää
1938 – Pearl S. Buck
1937 – Roger Martin du Gard
1936 – Eugene O’Neill
1935 – Not awarded
1934 – Luigi Pirandello
1933 – Ivan Bunin
1932 – John Galsworthy
1931 – Erik Alex Karlfeldt
1930 – Sinclair Lewis
1929 – Thomas Mann
1928 – Sigrid Undset
1927 – Henri Bergson
1926 – Grazia Deledda
1925 – George Bernard Shaw
1924 – Wladyslaw Reymont
1923 – William Butler Yeats
1922 – Jacinto Benavente
1921 – Anatole France
1920 – Knut Hamsun
1919 – Carl Spitteler
1918 – Not awarded
1917 – Karl Adolph Gjellerup
1917 – Henrik Pontoppidan
1916 – Verner von Heidenstam
1915 – Romain Rolland
1914 – Not awarded
1913 – Rabindranath Tagore
1912 – Gerhart Hauptmann
1911 – Maurice Maeterlinck
1910 – Paul Heyse
1909 – Selma Lagerlöf
1908 – Rudolf Christoph Eucken
1907 – Rudyard Kipling
1906 – Giosuè Carducci
1905 – Henryk Sienkiewicz
1904 – José Echegaray
1904 – Frédéric Mistral
1903 – Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
1902 – Theodor Mommsen
1901 – Sully Prudhomme

Now, I realize that there are a few all-time greats that I’ve somehow missed over the years- my excuse for never having read Pinter and Pirandello is that given the choice I’d rather see dramatic works performed rather than read them, but I don’t really have an excuse for missing out on Garcia Marquez and Lewis. However, when it comes to the majority of the winners, I’m hardly alone in thinking them fairly obscure (even the far-better-read-than-I Victor Morton believes this to be the case). So being the unreformed list junkie that I am, I settled upon the idea of reading a work by every Nobel Laureate in Literature, and write at least a little something about each one.

One thing that drew me to this idea was the same driving force that was behind my old Yesterday’s Hits columns- the idea of the Nobel as a snapshot of the time in which it was given. For example, in its early years, the impetus behind the literature Nobel wasn’t merely excellence in writing but pushing the literary art “in an ideal direction,” which allegedly swayed the voters away from recognizing the era’s more pessimistic writers. Likewise, recent years have seen an upswing in winners from Third World nations, along with non-white and female Laureates.

And all the while, the Swedish Academy has maintained (and even admitted to) a bias against American literature, to the point where such greats as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Tom Wolfe- to say nothing of genre masters like Raymond Chandler- have been snubbed. I suppose that what I’m really curious about is whether winners like Sully Prudhomme, Dario Fo, and Winston Churchill (yes, really) are legitimately great writers whose work hasn’t been widely embraced by the literary establishment at large. Because if you’re going to give out the world’s most prestigious literary honor and not recognize such canonically awesome figures as Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, Ibsen, and Wodehouse, I want to know why.

Of course, an undertaking like this comes with a few conditions:

1. I plan to read at least one work by each writer, if possible in the medium in which he is most celebrated. For example, if writer X is primarily known as a playwright, I’ll read one of his plays. In doing so, I think I’ll be able to find a work that represents him well enough to get a taste of his overall importance. At least, that’s my hope.

2. If the writer is best known for poetry, I’ll read a substantial number of poems, especially if they’re short. I’d say fifty pages’ worth at least.

3. If I’ve already read something by a writer, I will choose a work that I haven’t read.

4. Don’t be surprised if I choose works that were later adapted into movies, especially if they’re movies I really like. For example, my choice of a Sinclair Lewis book will almost certainly be Dodsworth, not least because I think Dodsworth is one of the greatest movies ever made and that every lover of film owes it to himself to watch it. But more to the point, I think that having seen the film, I’ll be able to get past the plot of the book so that I can better appreciate the style of writing and the way that Lewis unfolds the tale.

5. If some of these works just don’t do it for me, I’m giving myself the option of checking out after 100 pages. I figure that’s ample opportunity for an author to show me if he or she has “got it.” I don’t plan on doing this very often, but let’s face it- when you’re dealing with more than a hundred works of literature, odds are good that at least a handful of them will be fairly tedious or just, you know, not my thing.

Right now, the plan is to start with the most recent winner and progress in reverse chronological order. The reason for this is primarily logistical, since although the local library systems carry almost all of the recent winners, the selection of early winners is much sparser, so I’ll take the time I’ve got to make arrangements to get my hands on their works.

The project will commence officially within the next week, when I pick up the copy of le Clézio’s The Interrogation I put on reserve. I’m considering starting up a new blog just for the purpose of this project, and I’ll link to it should that come to pass. I can’t say how long this project will take- I imagine that at least one more laureate will be recognized before it’s all said and done- but I hope to keep it up as long as it takes. And maybe, just maybe, somewhere along the way I’ll discover some more great writers whose work I’ll pursue further in the future.

Any suggestions you might have for the project would be appreciated, of course. If you’ve read some of the authors I haven’t, which works would you recommend? And how would I go about finding the more obscure winners? As usual, the comments section is open for you to provide input, or even to wish me luck. And who knows? My wacky adventures in lit-blogging could very well result in a Nora Ephron movie about the magic of reading, possibly starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Alfred Nobel, Seth Rogen as me, and perhaps even a cameo by John Mahoney as William Faulkner. Stay tuned for more details...

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Famous Last Words: Resurrection- Week 10

When I was in college, I was on a long and boring bus ride with the Ohio State University Men’s Glee Club when one of the members suggested we watch a movie he’d brought along for the trip- Brian G. Hutton’s Where Eagles Dare, the source of last week’s quiz. Since we didn’t have anything better to do, he slid the tape into the VCR (which ought to date this story right there) and despite their general preference for the likes of Tommy Boy, it wasn’t long before the entire group was absorbed by this 1968 World War II thriller. And for good reason- Where Eagles Dare is deliberately paced, but it’s also damned exciting, with a strangely perfect pair of mismatched leading men in Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Hutton went on to direct Eastwood again in Kelly’s Heroes before his career began to wane, and reportedly he retired from filmmaking in the mid-1980s to work as a plumber. But no matter- Where Eagles Dare is a keeper. Congrats to those who guessed it.

This week, another change of pace. See if you can guess this one:

“For the sad and dejected, for the sleepless and lost souls, for the frightened and the lonely…”
“But the clowns will have a cup of coffee in the kitchen.”

Name the film. As always, submit your guesses to this e-Mail address. Remember, all submissions must be received no later than 11:59 PM Eastern on Wednesday. Good luck!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Not that Funny.

Judd Apatow has worked in comedy since he was a teenager, and his knowledge of the business comes through in the details of his latest film, Funny People. The movie is full of small touches that are completely convincing, and were no doubt inspired by the experiences of Apatow and his cast of comic ringers. For example, look at the scene in which Seth Rogen, playing a struggling stand-up who gets hired as a writer by superstar Adam Sandler, is pitching his new jokes to the boss- instead of laughing at the material, Sandler simply nods and says, “yeah, that’s funny,” thinking less about his personal thoughts on the joke than about how he can get a laugh out of it. Funny People is best in moments like these, and the movie is full of them- like the beatific smugness of a young comic who has landed the lead in a crap sitcom, or an up-and-comer who posts videos of himself frolicking with cute kittens to generate traffic for his blog.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole doesn’t live up to these details.

Click here for the full review.