December 31, 2005
We’ve lost a member of the family: Bill’s father passed away yesterday. It was sudden: a cancer undiagnosed for three years took mortal hold a week ago, and now before we had a chance to readjust to it all, he’s gone.
Bill’s the heart and soul of FFC – without him, the gears don’t turn. Our hearts are broken. And while movies can be a wonderful way to escape reality, sometimes reality catches us. It can be a sonuvabitch that way.
So we’re taking a week with the new updates – but tomorrow night, I’ll be here with a new Trenches – talking about the best performances of the year (take a look at Reeler’s fairly brilliant Top Ten Top-Tens – which had me until they offered up their suggestions of what should be on the year-enders instead. Stick to the snarky ombudsmanship, boys), and a little of what 2006 might have to offer the beleaguered Silver Screen.
December 26, 2005
Zero Hour, in any case, is sometime in the evening of the 31st. Call it anal retentalism if I'm a little late.
A few lists that I’ve read (one, in particular, that Bill pointed me to at a particularly ridiculous film site), are comprised entirely of films that have only gotten play on the festival circuit or, as I like to say, on the side of a camel, projected by the grace of match-light and crank. (The comment on one? “I like your choices, despite the pair of American narratives” – referring to Miranda July’s Me, You, and Everyone We Know and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale.) It’s the kind of airless stunt that defines “elitism” to me, not as a celebration of and indulgence in good taste, but as a means by which to squeeze all the joy out of going to the movies by making it a pursuit based in large part on classism and intellectual bigotry. You have Ebert on the one side, saying that a piece of shit is at least a great piece of shit, and then you have a certain faction on the other side that says anything made by an American with a story is a piece of shit. It’s the kind of person that fights too long and hard about Stan Brackhage never acknowledging that at the end of the day, avant-garde is, 99% of the time, more interesting as a theory than ever in practice. Talk to me about ninety-minutes of mushroom-prints deposited directly on film and I’m game – show it to me and my eyes roll up into the back of my head as my stomach tries to jump up and throttle my brain in self-defense.
I don’t know if these guys are kidding. But you have to wonder.
The White Diamond is exceptional – the kind of thing that you’d call a return to form for Herzog meaning that it’s good in a way that’s so predictable that it doesn’t feel bracing. That is, if you think that genius can ever be off the cuff. I’m comfortable saying that it’s nigh indispensable viewing, but even so, I felt like the wires were showing too often in this tale of a man obsessed about building a lightweight airship to explore the rainforest canopy in search of herbal remedies and undiscovered species of both flora and fauna. Seems a colleague of his had died ten years previous in a similar experimental flight (something he retells in a haunting passage), lending the quest that air of Herzogian mania – and along the way, our favorite Bavarian madman finds a couple of supporting characters (especially a dude named Marc Antony Yahp who could be the most relaxed man on the planet) that delight with their eccentricity. When the lights go out, though, it’s Herzog eternally as the craziest guy in the film which makes his work at odds with Errol Morris in that one crucial element. Herzog is the inmate, Morris the asylum. I’m glad I saw it – I still like Grizzly Man better.
Spider Forest is an a-linear genre exercise that sort of reminds of Jacob’s Ladder and Memento, but points more to a South Korean tendency to flavor all of their films with a core humanity and genius-level of intuition about what it’s like to be in and out of love. Graphic violence, graphic sex, gorgeous cinematography, and a central conceit so simple that it would seem trite if I told it to you – it all boils down, like Jeong Jun-Hwan’s Save the Green Planet! did except with a lot of children in a montage on a street, to one scene between two children in the titular forest. Spider Forest is a David Lynch picture with the “Freud” turned down a few notches (despite the image of spider’s webs and the unconscious) – an exploration of the captured image, of television tabloid journalism, and of how to make a film out-of-time and space with heart and its share of lawless moments. It also has one of the year’s best single moments in a conversation between two kids, lost in the winter at night, and only one of their breaths is misting. Only this film industry at this time could make a sickle to the nose, business end first, the centerpiece of a heartbreaking tableau morte.
But anyway – eggnog all around, and out with it folks – best of 2005s, and the bottom, too. Overlooked films, underrated ones, too. Also curious to hear your favorite performances. Me - I'll keep mostly mum until next Saturday (or thereabouts, he says cryptically as though anyone gives a shit) but will enjoy reading guesses as to FFC's compilations. Just to keep score, there are 32 films in contention for mine. (Hint: one of them is not The Family Stone.)
I’ve already written the introduction so no fear of contamination when I ask you also to articulate what you see as the trends: macro and micro, in film this year. Also, comments solicited on the usefulness of lists including only films you’ve never heard of before and will never get to see versus films everyone’s heard of and would have to be blind in a dirt hole in Nepal to not see in some form or another in the next year.
With The Captain and Chad-E the first two winners of the FFC caption contest – we embark on version 3.0 this week with this little beauty. Good luck.
December 19, 2005
When he says that Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit is “one of the most delightful films ever made” – something in my gut wonders first if he’s high, but next why, if it’s worthy of that kind of hyperbole, isn’t it in the Top Ten alongside a few pictures that, presumably, were not/could not also be ten of the most delightful films ever made. Or could they? It’s not that there’s a difference of opinion so much as there’s a lack of consistency and an ideological schism wherein the best “overlooked” picture of the year is suddenly not so overlooked if Ebert would only bump a stillbirth like Me, You, and Everyone We Know or Yes off his list. How is it that Miranda July’s film qualifies for the big leagues, anyway, while Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane is ghettoized somewhere south of the tropic of who gives a shit.
I want to start with number seven, though, Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives that I’ve seen a couple of times but haven’t written on (the only one of Ebert’s ten that I’ve seen and am not on the record for) – a series of nine vaguely interlacing short films about nine different women that counts two as genuinely excellent, one as genuinely awful, and the rest filling in the gray areas in between. A good cast including Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Robin Wright-Penn, a couple of the ladies from “Deadwood” (and Ian McShane in a wheelchair), Dakota Fanning, and on and on go through their individual motions of regret and fury. Issues revolve around infertility, long lost loves, abuse, women separated from their kids, and women separated from their husbands – the best of which the same segment that Ebert identifies: a cautious, heartbroken orbit around open wounds between Wright-Penn and Jason Isaacs, that ends with one kissing the other’s belly.
In a just world, it would win the two supporting actor Oscars – if it were a film by itself, it would be one of my top films of the year. The other great segment is the first one, involving a middle-aged woman in prison, dealing with a visit from her young daughter. But, alas, there’s a lot of dross in here.
I’ve had it with Fanning, though – I mean, she’s preternaturally creepy and all, but that doesn’t mean that she should be shoehorned into anything just because she’s available. There are limits to the best of actresses and if I have to hear that forced giggle (make up your mind, either she’s a middle-aged woman trapped in the body of an eight-year-old, or she’s an eight-year-old – you can’t have her doing her alien shuck and then ask her to act all silly – the only thing that Fanning can’t do is act her age) again, I’m going to get up quietly, and leave the theater. Enough’s enough. If I had to rate it, I’d go for 2.5/4 – it’s like the Rebecca Miller flick that never was which means that it’s just good enough to make you wonder why it’s not better.
But more on that ideological schism: I question, seriously, if these picks reflect the ten films that Ebert thought were the best of the year or the ten that he thought were the best for him, politically, popularly, to choose. More troubling, maybe his top ten are films that he believes you need – which would be fine except that he so underestimates “us” that it’s insulting. The write-up on Crash, in particular, mentions Asians and homosexuals in the film’s pantheon of fabulized minorities, but unless he’s talking about a different film than the one I saw, the only Asians in it were horrible pastiches denied redemption. (Rent, another film whining about equality and acceptance, has as its only Asian a glimpse of an Asian businessman in a strip club.) You can make an argument about 2005 being the year that gays got a lot of positive exposure – but unless you’re talking about the mess around Memoirs of a Geisha, the slants got the shaft again. In any case, Crash was a lot of things, but it wasn’t a battleground for these two groups and so, in the writing, I do begin to question the progress of the essay.
The suggestion, though, that Syriana is “apolitical” is close to the mark though nothing to be proud of; but then I have to confess to being flummoxed by his suggestion that “Syriana argues that in the short run, every society must struggle for oil, and in the long run, it will be gone.” I don’t agree. Well, I agree, but I don’t agree that Syriana is about this at all – from what I could tell, Syriana uses some ideas as a backdrop to the central issue of family that becomes the beginning and the end of the discussion. I don’t know if it’s liberal or conservative to say that you should spend more time with the kids, but that’s all that Syriana seems to be saying. (Also, Matt Damon "sells" his first son for $75m not $100m - it's the second son that gets the century mark.)
When you read Ebert’s review he tells you that he doesn’t understand how everything fits and then proceeds to make suppositions about what he thinks the film might be “saying” about the amorality of the oil business. There’s a quote in the sidebar, it’s a speech from the film about the role of corruption in world affairs and it ends with the line “Corruption. . . is how we win” which a lot of people have equated with Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” – one such person mentioned it in Ebert’s Answer Man column and so Ebert transcribes the speech in its entirety on his site. Have to say that the phrase is as good for describing this administration as the other was for the Reagan, but see, that’s me being a liberal sort of guy writing a liberal cheap shot about a middling review for a film that is, yep, apolitical. It is, and here’s me making a supposition, another film that Ebert thinks will make people better for having seen it.
Just like Crash, which is essentially apolitical, too.
Just like Brokeback Mountain. First thing (after “gay cowboy”) that people say about this film is that it’s beautiful. Well no fucking shit. Give me a camera and a day in the American West and I’ll come home with a goddamn postcard collection. It’s just not very good and only the fifteenth, twentieth film I’ve seen sort of like it (though it’s surely the prettiest). The only reason it’s a breakthrough is because the zeitgeist is ready to wonder how it is that Bush Jr. won another election (besides the fact that he was running unopposed). Pick up Prick Up Your Ears or My Beautiful Laundrette - or, as Bill suggested to me the other day, the Rimbaud flick Total Eclipse starring Leo DiCaprio and David Thewlis, buggering one another in the altogether instead of discretely, and in beautifully-worn denim.
Here’s another liberal take: the Democrats would stop getting mudholes stomped in them if they quit massaging the “apolitical” pump. I don’t think the democratic leadership are “flip-floppers”, I think they’re a bunch of fucking pussies.
Then there’s Yes which posits the theorem that the projection of film imitates the function of the eye while presenting everything in rhymed iambic pentameter. It gives people so inclined a lot of room to thrill to it, but at its essence it’s a class piece about the “invisibility” and wisdom of the working class (and the gentle mysticism of the Lebanese), Millions, a British fable about a dim child and the Catholic pantheon of saints, ends in Africa somehow with our heroic child relieving drought and famine – and then there’s Munich - a film I haven’t seen but now worry about. Even more worried than I was already, even. So five (maybe six) of the Top Ten are obvious middlebrow equivocations to hot-button topics that they pretend to address and the sixth is directed by Steven Spielberg.
Crash is a race melodrama using racial stereotypes that, regardless, reserves its harshest punishment for African-Americans;
Syriana is a modern intellectual potboiler about the oil trade that never mentions Iraq or the current administration (the head of which got his start in a couple of failed oil businesses that, mysteriously, turned tidy profits);
Brokeback Mountain is a gay cowboy movie that treats homosexuality like a chaste situation comedy;
Yes is pompous orientalism of a more discrete kind than Memoirs of a Geisha;
and Millions, besides being inspid and over-directed, is ultimately horrifyingly paternalistic;
And all of them, presumably, are films that Ebert believes you’d be a better person for watching. Thank you, Roger. Of what’s left, I’ll show my hand and say that Ebert and I are going to agree on at least one of these films (Munich’s the wild card) – and that I really liked Junebug, too, especially Amy Adams who’s good enough in it to deserve a look during awards season.
I do wish that he’d clarified which scenes he thought to be so risky that the “tightrope might break” – but maybe taking that tactic would have alienated the very audience he presumes and so condescends to. Populist, middlebrow, and after a while, I’m the one who’s an idiot for being disappointed year after year.
We talk a lot about Ebert around here, but the question I want to pose is what compulsion governs us when we recommend a film to someone else? Is it the desire to improve them as people? Something else, altogether? For me, it’s the desire to examine an experience and to learn through conversation and debate about that examination, more about myself and how I perceive myself in the world through the prism of art. Recommendation or not, in fact, just the act of writing on a film (if the film is really thought-provoking) provokes in me a kind of introspection that feels like a good therapy session. It is, in other words, essentially selfish. So is that better or worse than Ebert’s proudly-worn evangelical altruism?
Watched the original Producers on its new DVD last night and it’s just all kinds of sucks. I remember liking this a lot when I was twelve – but I’m just old enough to hate it now and not old enough to like it again. It’s stupid, reductive garbage, and this from a guy who not just loves Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety, but respects them, too. That the update is that much worse says volumes about how miracles are still happening every day.
Also watched the first season of “Project Runway” in one compulsive sitting: it’s the first reality show since the first season of “The Apprentice” that I actually enjoyed without a lot of guilt and, when all’s said and done, I think it’s better. It’s a show about product, and sweat, and inspiration instead of twelve monkeys in a glass cage with one banana. I believed it was about a functioning meritocracy – maybe I was duped – I’m going to assume that I wasn’t.
I thought of a lot of ways to handle a three-way tie with one to go in the event that one of the three doesn’t get the “tiebreaker” – but I’m thinking what we’re going to do is call it “first to three” – good luck, freaks, and let me just say that I’m not just a little bit impressed and intimidated that after that first screen capture, I haven’t had to give out one solitary clue.
Hot off the Presses
Bill tackles the DVD write-up on the mercurial Fox's screener of Transporter 2 and I tackle, with no little squeamishness, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Back from a screening of Munich and I like the words but not the music. Somewhere along the line, I felt like I stopped learning anything and in a film this didactic, that's poison. The idea that it's a bad thing to trample our ideals in the defense of them is, obviously, especially given the week or two we've just had in national politics, a topical one - and as far as it goes, it's better at saying what it has to say than Syriana - but it finally succumbs to its doubling tropes and matching shots. I mean, the weight of them is friggin' huge - you'd have to be Atlas not to be crushed beneath their aggregate compulsion. It's a movie that I sort of respect, I guess, but I wanted to be enthralled, captivated, outraged - I wonder if it's the film's fault that these little revelations start to feel mundane.
Not even an oblique little reference to The Conversation won me over.
Hot off the Presses (12.20.05)
Two new releases, two new disasterpieces: Jim Carrey's desperate and useless update of Fun with Dick and Jane and Adam Shankman's Cheaper by the Dozen 2 - both of which with a shot at a certain end of year list, but getting a lot of heat from my realization that with one star, I may have tragically, tragically over-rated The Family Stone.
Hot off the Presses (12.22.05)
Plus, Travis' love for The Jazz Singer is on the rocks. I do appreciate his quotation of J. Hoberman's brilliant Vulgar Modernism (which we haven't reviewed, but is well worth a blind buy). Hoberman, by the way, also didn't like Munich - here's his review.
Hot off the Presses (12.24.05)
The tweaked and twisted, pulled and taffied drive-in double-feature of Wolf Creek and Hostel - two films that I'm beginning to suspect are heralding a new subgenre of the slasher flick. More than just the traditional "raped by nature (or the naturals)" movie, these films (along with Open Water) seem to have something else on their minds. We'll be watching with interest to see if this develops into something to chew over - just the Saw series by itself might perpetuate the trend. In a real way, these are the children of The Blair Witch Project.
And, of course, I'll be curious to see what QT and Robert Rodriguez come up with next year with their own double-feature of atrocity.
Travis, meanwhile, tackles The Nutty Professor: the one Jerry Lewis picture that I've seen more than a few times, and the one that's always given me the ever lovin' heebie-jeebies. Even before I knew who Dean Martin was.
Hot off the Presses (12.24.05 late)
Another reason to stay home this Christmas: The Producers. See, if they were going to just film the stage production but pretend it was a movie, you should sit about a quarter of a mile away and use opera glasses. It's a nightmare.
December 13, 2005
In preparing templates for upcoming reviews, I came across this, which has to be the ugliest one-sheet for a romantic comedy since Runaway Bride's. Completing the desexualization of America's Sweetheart (can Mannequin 3 be far behind for the now navel-less Jennifer Aniston?), it conveys nothing so much as contractual obligations of the 'Kevin Costner's head must be ⅜ bigger than Mark Ruffalo's' variety. And it commits the cardinal sin of reusing the film's title in the tagline. The colours, the composition--looking at it genuinely makes me nauseous.
Hot Off the Presses (12/14)
A double-dose of the Chaw with his takes on Syriana and the barely-released (for good reason) The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
This entry marked The Film Freak Central Blog's 50th post.
Hot Off the Presses (12/16)
Travis Conquers the Martian, Part 6: The Errand Boy. Walter does the hat-trick from Hell: The Family Stone, Loggerheads, and The Dying Gaul.
December 12, 2005
Thanks to Alex for mentioning Ebert’s “thumbs down” for Memoirs of a Geisha on his show. Didn’t stop it from doing gangbusters in limited release this weekend, however – and the article in this week’s Entertainment Weekly interviewing all three of the main actresses, successfully glosses over any hint of a controversy with one, dismissive, sentence. Chronicles of Narnia also did excellent business (close to 70 million, I think). Anyone see it? Save your money for King Kong.
Let’s start with the top ten moments of the year which occur irrespective of whether or not the films that they belong in make the Top Films cut – also without me having seen everything of course and with me having the habit of forgetting shit. Brain like a sieve, swear to god. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for some time now – thinking, in particular, of a scene of Samantha Morton dancing in Code 46 that has stood out in my head as something I wish I’d had a place to go on about independent from the review. Wish there was room for Stephen Chow dipping the little mute candy girl in front of a Top Hat poster in Kung Fu Hustle.
10. The Steamer crash and T-Rex and Bronto and Snake Pit and Kong capture and Empire State sequences from King Kong
9. A walk through a picnic ground by Dina Korzun in Forty Shades of Blue
8. The train on fire from War of the Worlds
7. The montage detailing the hero’s life of humiliation in Save the Green Planet!
6. When Choi Min-Suk eats a live octopus in Oldboy
5. Wes Studi touching a piece of topiary in The New World
4. Amy Adams masturbating and about 9 months pregnant in Junebug
3. When our heroes finally make love in 3-Iron
2. Steve Coogan putting a hot chestnut in his pants in Tristram Shandy
1. When Damian Lewis takes Abigail Breslin to the bus station in Keane
While we’re at it, let’s do the bottom ten, too:
10. When Obi-Wan Kenobi turns his back on his “best friend” Anakin as Anakin lies, dismembered, burning, and very much alive in Episode III. So much for the grace and forgiveness of the light side – the weak sisters earned everything they got – and Lucas finishes shitting all over his legacy.
9. When Terence Howard’s lovable pimp soul-kisses one of his bitches in Hustle & Flow
8. When the kid lives and when the cop sees the wife in the car in Crash
7. When Heath Ledger closes a closet door containing the fetish object of his secret love in Brokeback Mountain
6. When Bambis attack. Ring Two.
5. When Susan Sarandon launches into her soft shoe, post-boner joke, at her husband’s wake in Elizabethtown
4. Mimi’s resurrection from Rent
3. When Anton Yelchin pulls Tea Leoni’s plug in House of D in the easiest, most suspect and consequence-less euthanasia since Million Dollar Baby’s
2. The can’t rape the willing scene from Derailed.
1. When gramps and granny and, honey and sonny boy show up on the steps of that goddamned Boston brownstone. War of the Worlds.
Not much time to read this week, but been listening to a lot of John Lennon to commemorate the old boy’s passing. Lots of Leonard Cohen, too – especially the song “A Thousand Kisses Deep”.
Here’s capture six of seven – we got a tie here between Jack S. (2), Chad E. (2), and Tim R. (1). Not too late, but it’s getting there.
On the muthasite, check out Bill’s DVD addendum of Joss Whedon’s Serenity while Travis assaults the soon-to-be-remade Fun with Dick and Jane and, in case you missed it, finds something to like in Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man.
Hot off the Presses (12.12.05)
December 04, 2005
Film Freak Central is a comfort – but with this last little blowup between myself and the Denver Film Society over their 28th film festival has inspired me to begin to look into projects locally that might actually change the things that I bitch about around here all the time. Your friends only listen to you whine for a while, after all, before they start handing you quarters and therapists’ business cards. I realized that part of what was bugging me so much this year was that I was waiting around for the Film Society or something like it to give me a call and they never did. But why should they?
So in that spirit, took several meetings this week, called in a couple of favors, made a lot of phone calls, and I’ve lined up several different lecture/teaching gigs with various non-profit organizations around the state in the next month and for the remainder of 2006. That means I’m spending a lot of time tonight putting together programs to appeal to wildly divergent audiences. It’s the most fun I’ve had in months. I can’t change the world, but I can shut up about it long enough to introduce some organized film appreciation where there wasn’t any before. What the hell, right?
Between the stuff I’ll be doing and the stuff that the Denver Art Museum does with their film series (programmed by pal Tom Delapa) and Howie Movshovitz’s monthly Tattered Cover film series – the dream is that in Denver, there’ll finally be an option at least one night every week of the year.
Stay tuned to FFC in the New Year, too: team strong like bull.
What kills me about Syriana is that Clooney almost eats himself to death packing on the pounds so that he looks like a slovenly, middle-aged schlep, and his body looks just. Like. Mine. So on the one hand I can finally say that my body looks like Clooney’s, but on the other hand, I’m putting the Eskimo Pie back into the freezer.
The film itself is overstuffed, too – I’m reminded of a very nice Anne Sexton poem called “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” that I’ll reference here instead of the review so the vocal segment of FFC’s casual readership that hates it when I reference poems won’t have their heads boil and pop like zits. This is the last stanza:
The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take off shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
It’s hip, it’s got a beat, and you can’t dance to it because it’s onanistic liberalism. Lots of targets, all presented pretty well in a shorthand, flip sort of way (and lots of speechifying, too) but at the bottom of it is this message that says “give up” and “be nice to your family because it’s the only thing that you can control.” The penultimate scene in Traffic is the Michael Douglas family going to an AA meeting, right? Most of the criticism of this film has been along the lines of it doesn’t have a heart – bologna – there’s a dead kid, a broken marriage, a reconciliation, an absentee father and an emotionally-vacant son, and on and on, woven in and out of all the broadsides at macroeconomics and the very fundamental non-secrets of how the world works when no one thinks that you’re watching. It’s got plenty of heart, it just doesn’t have any surprises.
Wrote the Memoirs of a Geisha piece finally – it’s long. Disturbed a little by Ang Lee’s recent comments on it – disturbed about his comments on Brokeback Mountain, too, come to think of it. His thoughts on Geisha are essentially “who cares, the girls are good” – and while I’m not saying that he’s wrong, I’m sort of wishing that a Chinese-American as visible as Mr. Lee would offer at least the illusion of having spent more time coming to his opinion. I’m also not pleased with his takedown of Stephen Chow.
In a case of the world shrinking, this very blog has gotten mentioned in places like Variety’s website and IFC’s, too, for weighing in on this Geisha business.
Working on a piece on Edward Scissorhands to coincide with its fifteenth anniversary, and it’s kicking my ass. Still, I should be done before the Chinese make their moon landing. There’s something going on in that flick with the casting of Anthony Michael Hall as the bully: it’s an interesting, heartfelt piece of work.
Watched Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior: a film about faith and blood set in feudal India, the best scene in it one where a man has a vision in the desert and, when he comes out of it, we see that there is snow packed in his footprints. It’s not bad. There were moments, in fact, that I felt like it was on to something truly holy in its extended silences and bottomless, heartbroken implications. Miramax bought the rights to this film four years ago and it’s just now finding a very limited release in the United States. Also finally caught up with Ong Bak: Thai Warrior which is, oddly enough, the second film this year I’ve seen about Muy Thai Boxing. Some of the stunts and the fights are pretty amazing. Not so amazing is a Thai motorcycle-taxi chase and the thin plot, dialogue, and performances.
Was sort of cruising Box Office Mojo’s ytd charts and noticed that Chicken Little has done terribly overseas. Why would that be, do you suppose? I just can’t get my head around this shit. Guess I’d be a helluva lot richer if I could.
Read Bill’s DVD write-up for Cinderella Man and my not-very-good-but-there-you-have-it review of Dario Argento’s classic The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Jack S. has two, Chad E. and Tim R. have one apiece, making this screenshot important. And #5/7 (2.5):
Hot off the Presses (12.5.05)
Read Travis' outstanding take on Powell/Pressburger's Tales of Hoffman and rejoice as FFC finally enters the Criterion age.
Watched the highly-anticipated Outback slasher flick Wolf Creek today and, fellas, it stinks. It's got the vibe of High Tension, but without all the nasty subtext that I felt redeemed Aja's flick to some degree. It didn't make it "okay", but it made it worth a conversation - but shockingly, Wolf Creek doesn't even have any kind of sexual undercurrents. There might - just might - be something in here along the lines of the transgressions of city mice in the land of the country mice (Deliverance, Hunter's Blood, Southern Comfort, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn and so on) - but even that's so undeveloped that it lands as more of an accidental afterthought than anything else. Best comparison is to Open Water - only without the gratuitous full-frontal nudity.
Hot off the Presses (12.6.05)
Here's my review of Memoirs of a Geisha and a new DVD addendum for the packed Lion's Gate 2-disc uncut edition of The Devil's Rejects.
November 30, 2005
2005 is the first year in the five that I’ve been seeing everything (well, about 400 a year) that I will say is a drag across the board. There are good films, and bad ones, but the good ones aren’t as good and the bad ones aren’t as bad – the missing ingredient this year is passion.
The secret word is “apathy.”
I had a lot of high hopes for the fall – but I’ve seen most of ‘em now with the notable exceptions of Munich and King Kong, and I’m not too hot under the collar about any of the ones that I’ve seen, either. It’s a year where everything has tended toward the middling ground – everything’s safe. If you touched a tongue to 2005, it would taste like plain oatmeal.
I mention all this because I think that Spielberg’s Munich - not even done yet – is going to sweep the major categories – mainly because it’s going to run unopposed and because Spielberg is an idiot savant when it comes to movies. Its chief competition will either be King Kong or Crash depending on how well people suffer Kong’s three-hour running time. Thank god March of the Penguins has its own category. My rooting interest is in Kong because, basically, I’m a big fat dork – but each time Spielberg makes a movie, I confess that I get a tingle of hope because, basically, I’m also a big fat idiot.
Best Pictures nominees: Crash, Munich, Match Point, Brokeback Mountain, King Kong - possible dark horse going to History of Violence.
It’s one of the best movies about love, too.
The film was made two years after the murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich when Arab/German tensions were at their height in the Berlin of the picture. Until I see Spielberg’s film, it is in my mind the definitive picture about that awful moment in time – and, it goes without saying, that watching it now as an American in the middle of chapter 2 of Bush 2, the echoes are deep and our fresher scars are still sensitive to the touch.
Hot off the Presses (12.1.05)
Travis continues with his tour through the highlights of Jerry Lewis' filmography with my personal fave (not for quality reasons, perhaps, but nostalgic ones for sure), the abrasive, and ain't they all, Cinderfella and offers his thoughts on cult giallo Seven Deaths in a Cat's Eye.
Bill, meanwhile, writes a DVD addendum to the loathsome - but now fascinating for its setting (New Orleans), Skeleton Key.
Hot off the Presses (12.3.05)
November 28, 2005
Ah, the holidays. Two things happen during the holidays: the first is that they give us a week’s break or so from screenings and the other is that they start to mail us screeners so that when the screenings start up again, you won’t have to go to as many. Bliss.
A week with the family watching movies I’d missed (or can now safely miss) and eating turkey and enjoying the hometown Denver Broncos pull out a squeaker from the resurgent Dallas Cowboys. My Fantasy numbers are pathetic, but my team is 9-2, so in the testosterone calculus, I’m up.
Finally took in the Enron documentary which is too long and goes off on the skylark now and again, but is outrageous in the way you feel frustrated about because you sort of know that it won’t make any difference to anyone one way or another. When the dust settles, what’s done is done, and I’d be surprised if anyone learns anything from the whole mess – but as far as craft goes, it’s good. Watched John Dahl’s The Great Raid - a film I had to miss for scheduling conflicts a few months ago and, consequently, was denied an interview with Dahl which is just as well, I guess, as I only really wanted to talk to him about The Last Seduction. It’s one of Miramax’s last hurrahs and about as good as you'd expect given its brethren.
Sifted through a lot of mail – more polite, carefully-worded support for the Harry Potter 4 review and a lot of real anger about the Rent review. Almost all of it told me that creator Jon Larson didn’t die of AIDS and requested that I do my homework – which is fair, except that I had done some homework (Larson went to the ER twice, once for food poisoning to have his stomach pumped, the second time only to be diagnosed with the flu – he had an x-ray taken but it was read by a doctor of the wrong discipline – and so a weakness in his aorta went undiagnosed), and was trying to make a (bad) joke that Larson had died of a “romantic wasting disease” like “disenchantment.” More to the point, that Larson's death became a rallying point for supporters of the play: hardly a positive comment about it goes by without mention of its irony (Paul Clinton's review is especially revolting) - and that although he died of a misdiagnosis and congenital defect, his followers have exploited it in ways subtle and, sadly, less subtle. It’s a theme I was pursuing, see – and my having to explain it suggests that I pursued it poorly – that Rent is hysterical proselytizing: grandiloquent and self-important pop melodrama that, I thought, hurt its message more than helped it. Its triteness (and awfulness) aside, just by ghettoizing it in an imaginary cartoon Alphabet City that doesn’t look anything like this anymore, you run the risk of the “wrong” people getting it into their heads that AIDS was an isolated phenomenon.
More: that it’s isolatable.The review is an attack of the film and of the source material and of Chris Columbus who, I was told, was given the latitude to make an “R” rated film (something he desired) and still could only manage a “PG-13”. Were I to write a review for Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, it’d be pretty much the same review, I think – but, like the piece on Rent isn’t about AIDS or homosexuality, the review of Life is Beautiful wouldn’t be about the Holocaust or Jews.
Still, the question was posed to me eloquently of whether or not there were any issues near and dear to me that would cause me to forgive the presentation of them. It’s something I thought about a long time and it brings us all the way back around to last Trenches’ brief thread about the casting of Chinese actresses in the roles of Japanese Geisha, “pleasuring” Japanese war profiteers and “heroes” of the occupation of Manchuria. For as few films about AIDS as there are in the mainstream in the last ten years (let’s see, um, Philadelphia was actually twelve years ago, Angels in America on cable, and. . . um. . . Rent?) there have been no significant films about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the massacre, rape, general atrocities (including beheading contests) and war crimes they committed there against the Chinese people. (James Ivory’s The White Countess is set at that time and place, but is about Ralph Fiennes as a blind club-owner and Natasha Richardson as his Russian Countess girlfriend.) Estimates of civilian death toll under Japanese occupation range from a hard 9,000,000 to a soft 18,000,000 – and yet the Japanese have to this day denied any wrongdoing and refused to apologize. The period isn’t taught in their history books (as the Holocaust is taught in Germany) – but let’s veer off that soapbox (get Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking and its accompanying photographic history for the rest of the story.)
So back to the question: what would I think of a musical full of bad songs and treacly sentiments about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria based on an outrageously popular stage musical? Um. More ambivalent, probably, but I wonder if I’d be even more critical of it because, for fuck’s sake, after all this time, this is the popular representation of that atrocity? I would think that most people would feel about stuff like Rent not relief and gratitude that it’s getting the message out on AIDS (mainly because it’s really not), but frustration that not only is there not more about this in the popular culture, but that when it does come, this is the parcel that it comes packaged in.
“Different, but same” as the late Pat “Mr. Miyagi” Morita once said, find the publication of my four-movie odyssey through The Karate Kid epic in which in the first film, and in the series’ most powerful ten minutes, a drunken Miyagi tells Daniel-san about how he fought with valor in WWII on behalf of his adopted country and of how his wife and child died back home in an internment camp while he did it. That’s a level of bone-crushing humanity right there in the most popular of popular films about a shameful artifact of our wartime years that makes me look around like an idiot: the Chinese guy at the country-western bar and it’s nobody’s fault but my own.
So I understand the support, at least in theory, of Rent by the gay crowd – what I wish, though, was that there was more outrage that whenever we hear about AIDS, we hear about it in ways that are pandering and trite. It might be a hoot in a retro sort of way, campy/kitschy, whatever – but aren’t there enough “Queer Eye for the Straight Guys” and “Playing it Straights” and “Will & Graces” already? Until you make this struggle a recognizably human one, all it is, is a notably gay one (sometimes IV druggie one, too, but that makes my point). And there’s nothing easier to continue to ignore and dismiss than a weird fandango indulged in and suffered by an already marginalized minority. To me, Rent does more damage to the cause of AIDS awareness in the United States than not – you can hear the recognition and empathy Dopplering off into the distance every time some idiot in the musical says that the stripper/smack addict is just what the recovering-smack addict/Jon Bon Jovi rocker needs. That is, if anyone other than fans of the musical are going at all.
I should say, apropos of probably something, that I flat love Hedwig and the Angry Inch - more now than when I first reviewed it. The music is great and the staging is fantastic both in the theater and on screen: John Mitchell has genuine talent, but humanity is the ancient Chinese secret ingredient here.
Now reading David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System and loving the ever-loving chocolate factory out of the new acoustic Cyndi Lauper.
Here’s this week’s screen capture (2.4): a three-way heat between Jack S., Chad E., and Tim R. – shaping up to be another photo finish (HA! – God, I’m clever). Have at it.
Catch Bill’s DVD write-up of Sky High - a movie I stepped on but have to reassess now in light of Bill’s affection for the piece. I watched this film moments after Linklater’s Bad News Bears so was in a foul mood – made fouler by circumstances surrounding the screening (filled/daytime) and so on. A subjective business, this one, and I wonder if this’ll join the list of reviews I regret as time goes on. You do this job to be on the record, and sometimes that record comes back around to kick you in the ass.
Hot off the Presses (November 28, 2005) -
Just back from a screening of Adamson's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and have to say that it's better than I thought it was going to be. It's childish, like the text, but it's not terribly squeamish when it gets down to the battle sequences. The performances are pretty good - the screenplay isn't oppressively cute nor oppressively proselytizing - and the CGI is workmanlike and only moderately distracting. The Christian aspects of the piece are crystal clear and front and center but, like the books, only really sickening when certain fundamentalist factions of Christians exploit it - it's possible, I think, to watch it without being too bothered by the crusadish elements of it just like, for instance, the Lord of the Rings films. I like Lewis' Mere Christianity a great deal, in fact, mainly because it appeals to common sense rather than slavering jihadism. Chesterton is better, but Lewis ain't bad. If something sinks the film, it's the score. Good god, so to speak.
Still and all, it's true to itself and for whatever that's worth, there you have it.
Give the Film Freak Central Annual a little love - click through the main banner at the mutha-site or go to any of the major online retailers (best yet, order it through your local brick & mortar. It is, finally, widely available for order through every major bookseller. . . and just in time for Christmas. If we sell enough of these guys, we can keep doing this for another year (disincentive for many, incentive for a sad, proud few) and by "this" I mean run this site and piss off giant demographics and random studios with depressing regularity. Rather than begging for a handout - I'm begging, on behalf of the other freaks in the asylum, that you stuff your stockings this year with three-hundred-plus pages of blood, sweat, and tears. You'd do it for Ebert (says the Jewish mother in me). Oy vey.
Hot off the Presses (November 29, 2005)
Moderated an extremely well-attended screening and discussion of Bob Fosse's Cabaret tonight at the Denver Public Library - leading me to read one of Fosse's biographies as well as watch the film three times today to pull scenes for shot-by-shot analysis. Have come to the conclusion that the film is better than I'd remembered it and I remembered it to be pretty great - something about the artificiality of Minnelli's persona fits Sally Bowles to a "T" - and when you draw a line between her and the ventriloquist's dummy in the piece as Fosse seems to do: well, it's pretty cool. Alex has a typically-interesting contrary opinion over at his site, but I think that the things that he disliked about the piece (the distancing of the musical sequences, for one, though I don't think that they're distanced so much as self-reflexive) are things that mark the film as very much a picture of the seventies and, perhaps, the kind of "secular" piece that he dislikes. I don't want to speak for him, though, go read the review.
Discussion went smashingly, I thought - lots of great observations leading into a discussion of the best part of Rob Marshall's Chicago: the marionette sequence on the city steps that is the most Cabaret. I love, love, love Joel Grey, by the way - in this film and as the Asian manque in Remo Williams.
Also took in a screening of the excellent DVD of Xtro - one of the nastiest pieces of work in the annals of the British "Video Nasty" tradition - one of the weirdest, too. It's something like a puberty thing - very much so, actually, with a full-frontal Miriam D'Abo and some real cruelty towards children and old ladies to boot. Mmmm, now that's some good trash.
CNN has an interesting clip about the growing storm surrounding Memoirs of a Geisha which culminates, after quotes from Japanese and Chinese people expressing various degrees of outrage, with a white film critic saying that the political ramifications are overblown and the movie's better than he thought it was going to be. What confuses me, though, is the this reporting of a love scene between Watanabe and Zhang. . . not in the film I saw.
Back on the muthasite: read my twofer of Jacques Tourneur's War-Gods of the Deep and the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation At the Earth's Core. They're craptacular! Also, Bill's DVD addendum to our new force-fed annual tradition: the bi-Polar Express.
November 21, 2005
I had to ask a week previous for a screener for the last entry, informing them at that time that I hadn’t been getting any emails: including an invitation to a dinner for the jurists that took place earlier in the week, including a complete guest list, including any responses to my two queries about screeners for Chinese films and something called Fateless that I'd intended to cover. . . on and on.
I’m not arrogant enough to believe that the DFS are being vindictive because of two earlier blog pieces about the failings of this year’s festival – so maybe it is as I was told, something wrong with the email system (probably mine) and nothing personal. I’m willing to forget that the only publicist who talked to me this year during the fest was from out of town and had worked with me in the past and had somehow not forgotten my cell phone number after a year of not using it (nor my work email, nor my home phone) to get in touch with me about coverage of her clients and so on. And I'm willing to believe that sometimes computers are weird and I might get all the festival daily PR pieces with no problem, but none of the internal memos that would have meant greater participation.
I'm going to go with the idea that since I made the mistake of declaring that we’re not going to do much coverage this year of a subpar fest that I’ve fallen right off the call-back/follow-up list during the one time of the year that they would have anything to call me about. It's only fair, in all honesty, that if I've given up on them that they give up on me as well.
But anyway, the closing night, and this is a problem for me: Al Maysles is there to present the documentary award named after him and was introduced as, along with his brother David, the inventor of cinema verite. An assertion wrong and potentially insulting to a legendary documentary filmmaker, wouldn't you suppose? I think the term is “direct cinema” and, y’know, it ain’t the same thing because among other things, one refers to fiction, and the other to non-fiction. We can talk about the slipperiness of that distinction, but we should make the distinction. Particularly with Mr. Maysles who makes the distinction so sharply.
It’s not important to everyone, of course – to most it will appear to be picking nits – but it should be important in this setting, and in this company.
Okay, maybe we should put the egos on hold and start to talk about how to turn the ship around instead. Jesus, look at what I say when no one’s asking – can you imagine if someone asked?
Brokeback Mountain is a disappointment, by the way. Middlebrow and squeamish – not in its sex scenes which are puzzlingly brutal – but in the way it puts an exclamation point behind every gay moment. If you’re going to make a film about aliens, just make a science fiction piece – romances should be about people. At least it’s better, a little, than Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha which, besides describing one character as a war hero for being injured in the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (the sort of thing that irks me if no one else except two billion other Chinamen), has Chinese woman Zhang Ziyi and Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh cast as Japanese Geishas. It’s the equivalent, not to put too fine a point on it, of a fine Jewish actress happily playing a heroic Nazi prostitute – bless Maggie Cheung for turning down the opportunity to sell out her culture. (And for what? Memoirs of a Freakin-Geisha? There’s not even the question of subversion here.) At least they give Zhang a pair of blue contact lenses, right? Racial tensions aside, it’s silly in an unfortunate po-mo way in that it could’ve been called “The Katie Holmes Story” for its tale of a little girl who idolizes a grown man and, after her breasts are no longer sore from growing, seduces and marries him! Hurray!
Biggest non-surprise: there’s a voiceover narration. Biggest surprise: it’s not Morgan Freeman doing it.
Four speaking engagements: the first, The Sixth Sense as part of a ghost series, shepherding in autumn to the Rockies. Gilpin County, I should mention, where I do a lot of these shows, is at an altitude of about 8,900 feet, meaning that I get really light-headed and confused sometimes. Even more so when I’m up there, even. A close scrutiny of the film, at times scene-by-scene, reveals an incredibly arrogant picture as well as an amateurishly-directed one. Lots of push-ins and over-scoring take on the burden of the emotionality of the piece, leaving the twist as all that’s left to consider. Saving it on not-too-close looks at the mechanics of the picture are the performances of Willis, Osment, and especially Toni Collette. It can only be read in any case through the prism of a film about the sacred-ness and the need to protect the cult of childhood – but even that is betrayed by the bully humiliation at its conclusion: a devouring need by Shyamalan to appease as broad an audience as absolutely possible. My estimation of the picture has dropped precipitously after this engagement – but my fascination with its popularity at the epicenter of our most recent fin de siecles is stoked hotter.
Next, The Others - a beautifully-directed picture that uses negative space and the template of The Innocents to lovely effect. It’s scarier than I remembered, as well, and Kidman – doing the film so soon after her divorce and a highly-publicized miscarriage – turns in the first of a series of courageous performances. Then, A Tale of Two Sisters: the culmination of all the films of the series (The Innocents, The Haunting, The Sixth Sense, and The Others) in its use of an isolated house used as a metaphor for a woman’s psycho-sexual traumas and repressions; the oppression of children; striking use of color; cold spots; inciting events; on and on. And all of it skewed ever so subtly south of true by its distinctly Asian sensibility. Of course it doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most tactile; flat out gorgeous pictures of the last several years.
Did a show, too, for the Denver branch, of Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain.
Before it, I realized that I had loaned out my copy and so went to the local video store in search of a copy. They had it, but only on a battered VHS copy – so I went to Blockbuster. . . to Blockbusters: all four of them that are within about a three-mile radius of where I am – not a one of them had it. One of them stocked it, but it was “lost” and it was an old issue of it in any case (though it would have done). None of the people in any of the Blockbusters seemed to have any idea what I was talking about when I asked for it. You know, I didn’t know that that store only had categories for “Drama, Comedy, Action, Horror, Family, New Release,” sometimes “Foreign” and then the inexplicable “Special Interest” which includes exercise videos and Errol Morris. There’s a lot of talk lately about Blockbuster having to declare bankruptcy any day now – for all the harm that they’ve done catering to what people “want” (editing movies, putting indie video stores out of business, etc), they well and truly deserve everything that happens to them and their brand.
But the show itself: afterwards, a young woman with her young daughter contributed to the discussion by saying that her mother used to sing her Freed & Brown’s songbook, a lot of it used in this picture (folks who diss Moulin Rouge! for mining top 40 – as if there aren’t other things to diss the film for – look no farther than Singin’ in the Rain for the template) – and that she wanted to experience (and share with her own daughter), and to understand what it was like to hear the tunes in a public setting with a group of others. (“And did you?” “Oh, yes.”) Of the 60 or so in the audience (a surprisingly small number, but it did compete with the very popular festival – more tickets sold this year than ever crows the DFS! Meaning, of course, that it’s good!) only one hadn’t seen the film before. I don’t think that it’s a perfect film, but I do feel like every time Kelly performs in the puddles and on the lampposts of MGM’s ‘50s backlot, that it’s the first time. Ground zero of a landmark in our popular culture. Oh what a glorious feeling.
Saw a screening of Rent, packed with the public and theater geeks who knew every single word (and sang along! joy!), which did not prevent eight lucky walkouts. Because I’m guessing this was largely a theater-crowd, it was relatively well-behaved (save the sing-alongs, of course), but I should say that the kid taking tickets at the door to the Denver Pavilions was the rudest little punk I’ve ever had the misfortune of asking a question.
- Hi, I’m here for the screening of. . .
- Harry Potter? Get in line over there.
- No, Rent.
- Where’s your ticket?
- I’m a member of the press.
- Stand over there. And you have to stand behind those people.
- Can I talk to your manager?
- You don’t need to talk to the manager.
- Can I talk to the publicist?
- She’s not here.
- But the show’s starting, when will she be back?
- Don’t know, don’t care.
- What theater is it showing in?
- Don’t know, don’t care.
At which point I walked past him, asked his manager (who was about fifteen in a bad suit and didn’t give a shit, either), and then went and watched the film. The creme? The little punk didn’t care that I’d walked over to his manager. There are a lot of reasons that people don’t go to the movies anymore. Here’s another one. Customer service is non-fucking-existent at these places: they pay minimum wage to these little assholes and then they pay minimum wage plus a dollar to their managers – all of whom spend detention after school together and could give a fuck about customer retention and satisfaction. I’ve heard stories about this kid before: that he’s still gainfully employed at this establishment tells me that there’s a bad case of institutional rot going on here and why in heaven’s name would anyone looking to have a nice evening out even think about going to the movies here?
And speaking of getting bent over a turnstile, Rent made most of my orifices bleed. Why is it that people with AIDS are canonized? I’m not assuming that they’re not saints, see, but why must I be assured that they are? Between this and Brokeback Mountain, I’m still waiting to see a high-profile film that doesn’t treat gayness as some kind of “neat” thing, something quaint and adorable, some sort of wondrous theme park ride instead of just a matter of banal fact. I’ve known a few gay gents and not a one of them struck me as particularly dazzled by the fact of homosexuality. I've been Chinese now for 32 years and not once has a mystical gong gone off when I've come into a room. I’m waiting, in other words, to see a gay movie that isn’t just about being gay – can’t gay men and women on film have relationships that are every bit as boring and dysfunctional as breeders? Or must they all end in disease and outrageously non-PC murder subsequent to hilarious sequences where they’re walked in on by their friends and family? Catch a scene in Brokeback Mountain where you’re encouraged to have a chuckle at the expense of a totally innocent character (who’s later vilified again at the weirdest time for no reason at all). At least they’re not helper elves in these pictures – or quirky best friends. Oh, wait. Rent. Never mind.
Still reading FitzGerald's astounding Way Out There in the Blue - here's this week's screen capture (2.3) - I believe the tally so far is Jack S. - 1 and Chad E. - 1:
Incidentally, Bill's long-awaited (by me and anyone else in the know) take on the first season of "Leave it to Beaver" is in the can and on the site. Just as he opened my eyes to John Hughes in the years that I've been familiar with his writing, he's opened my eyes to "Leave it to Beaver" - and there may be no more important work done on either than right here in our own, as they say, backyard. The review is well worth the wait.
And how much is left that you can say that about?
Hot off the Presses - November 23, 2005
And then there was Rent. Kudos, by the way, to Caption Boy who has really outdone himself with the hilarious, and point-on "AIDS of Aquarius" line. That's really fucking brilliant - you can (and oughtta, probably) just skip the review body as these six syllables do all the slaying that needs to be done.
Hot off the Presses - November 24, 2005
We wrap up the 28th DIFF with a capsule of something Ebert calls "another Sundance gem" which, if it sounds backhanded, might only sound that way to a genuine asshole like me: Love, Ludlow. I had intended on wrapping with a review of Lars Von Trier's Manderlay or the Holocaust drama Fateless, but scheduling being what it was, missed both screenings. Our doing this picture is a testament to creative and persistent PR as not only did the team behind it send me a screener, but the publicist sent a personal note as follow-up and the screenwriter sent a handwritten, and personal again, postcard! Critics are sort of used to being reviled and ignored - when you get this kind of attention, it doesn't always get results, but it's always appreciated. I was glad that a combination of factors this year opened a slot for the picture. It's not great, but it's not awful, either, and I'm not sorry to have seen it.
Over in the other column, Hans Petter Moland's Malick-produced The Beautiful Country comes to DVD and, in a rare (for a reason: I suck at them) happening, I write up the DVD specs on the new, infernal, Cheaper by the Dozen: Baker's Dozen Edition.
Hot off the Presses - November 26, 2005