September 29, 2005
At the end of my weekly beat reports from here until I decide not to do it anymore or am shot in mid-flight, find a screen capture from a mystery movie. The comment section will be the place where you log your guesses - I'll cut it off after the first correct answer - and I'll keep a tally of correct answers over the course of, let's say, seven weeks at a pop? If you're the cinephile who has the most correct answers after seven weeks, I'm going to send you some piece of swag from the ever-moldering pile of swag sitting here, creating friction in my marriage and providing a home for what I believe are sightless moles. There are T-shirts, novels, screen adaptations, a pumpkin carving kit from the new Wallace & Gromit flick (I'd send the pumpkin, too, but what am I, made of money? - besides, my daughter's using it as a chair), little tin cars, something truly weird from the War of the Worlds campaign - but no baseball caps because on the rare occasion they send me a baseball cap, I wear it. I'm just that poor and heterosexual.
Let's see, there's something in a sealed silver baggie that I don't remember what it is, something that I think I broke but might send someone anyway as an ironic prize with which they might impress someone with as stunted a sense of humor as me, and a few posters. Some of it probably eBay-valuable - my best advice is that if you win some random gewgaw, I'd bronze it for that day you compete at your regionals for that ridiculous IFC movie trivia show. As further proof of the symbolic nature of the prizes, I will include a signed certificate stating that you've won "FFC Blog Contest #1", dated and ready for framing. Just like a diploma from the University of Freak.
By the way - please don't request something in particular because my life, while not complicated, is far too complicated for me already. It's going to be all I can do to drag it to the post office and, in the event one of our loyal foreign readers wins, fill out that little green customs slip and try to explain why I'm mailing a xXx coaster to Australia. Consider that I'm not of my right mind and am cooking this up because I'm blocked on a review this evening and, should you run a wet finger along my arm, might hum like fine crystal.
Okay - so as an addendum to this week's Trenches, a tough one (they won't all be) so have at it:
(I will, of course, periodically, give out hints.)
September 28, 2005
Did a speaking engagement tonight at the Denver Public Library after finding out that they might be losing funding to continue doing films in their basement what with the new budget and all meaning the fifth (or so) straight period of budget slashing at a major metropolis’ cultural center. I wonder what people are thinking about when they vote down taxes for public works – you eviscerate government, right, and government sure enough gets eviscerated. Doesn’t take a genius, but it does preclude retards. More’s the tragedy as the librarians that I’ve met at the DPL are, to a one, bright, funny, and most important, devoted to their jobs as archivists and curators – just putting together a series of road trip films that includes The Gold Rush, Sullivan’s Travels, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and North by Northwest takes imagination and follow-through. Their reward? Their lives getting fucked with on a regular basis – benefits cut, retirement cut, hours cut, and programs like this cut. Public outreach is superfluous – the reason that the outer extremities are the first to contract gangrene, I suppose – but the outer extremities are the ones that keep us connected to the ground and reaching for the stars. Not to quote Kasey Kasem but, there you have it.
Anyway, talked before and after Treasure of the Sierra Madre tonight: to paraphrase Chris, one of the dying breed at the DPL, Bogie, you was never uglier. It’s a brilliant film, a brilliant transfer, a fine evening and one of the last for a while (after next week’s North by Northwest) here in downtown. We like to brag that Denver is turning a corner from cow-town to Metropol, but shit like this is just really shaming. It’s not like different leadership and leadership philosophies can’t resuscitate this institution – but it will do so at the expense of all the folks that this current leadership is using as grist for their great social experiment. I realize that the bootstraps, govern thyself philosophy means that with my $100.00 rebate check, I can purchase three books and get a head-start on my own little library at home but it, somehow, just isn’t quite the same thing. Rumor is that there’s not even any money for our library to buy new books.
Caught a screening on Monday of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s endlessly disappointing Mirrormask - if you’re a fan (and I am) of these guys, there are hints here and there of their brilliance – but mostly, it’s just the most puerile, obvious elements of their stuff distilled into a CGI fireworks display that is, actually, just ugly. A lightshow of a different kind, watched Into the Blue this morning after learning that a screening of the Keira Knightly Pride & Prejudice set for Wednesday afternoon had been pushed back. Looking forward to that one, even though it’s longer than most movies ought to be. Mirrormask and Into the Blue both industry, press-only screenings though the former had been filled with a cinematography class from a local arts school. Kids were well-behaved though and, judging from the murmur afterwards, uniformly impressed – at least by the software. Chances are good that they would have been just as impressed by Into the Blue’s “software” as I declare I’ve just spent (another) 110 minutes with my face pressed up against Jessica Alba’s ass. Into the Blue, by the way, is sort of a remake of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - take that as you will.
You can kind of see why they made Mirrormask for all its adolescent earnestness, but it’s hard to put a finger on why something like Into the Blue exists. It raises the daunting question of whether art has to serve a purpose – for my money, art – good art – should at least strive towards touching the face of god. The sublime as the ideal, that tingle you get when you get something that you know you can’t explain and, if you’re surrounded by the right folks, know that you won’t need to. The first time I heard Ian McShane utter “cocksucker” – I got it. The first time I saw Johnny Depp step into the town of Machine in Dead Man, I got it – hell, the first time Michael J. Fox’s DeLorean gets struck by lightning, I got it. Not to say that Into the Blue doesn’t instantly go into my memory banks as one of the most galling pictures to wiggle down the pike, just to say that I wish at those moments that I was actually in a public screening with my seat turned towards the audience.
It’s better, after all, to keep people like that in front of you.
On a side note, finished a 4000 word-plus piece on the first season of “Lost” tonight – don’t know where it fits on the publication schedule, but at least I’m done with it barring major (and likely) rewrites. One of those episode-by-episode things you might recall if you’re a total bleeding masochist from such gems as my “Xena” and “Dark Angel” pieces (speaking of Ms. Alba). What irks me the most about Alba, I think, isn’t that she’s a bimbo, but that she has these pretensions. She refuses to strip (though, watching Into the Blue after Sin City - what’s the difference anymore?) and proclaims to the heavens that she’s cast in her insipid roles because of her non-boob-and-flat-tummy-related talents. Latest thing is her wanting to start a line of non-violent video games so that filmmakers can see what kind of action movies she’d like to make in the future – films with, I guess, more of the extreme jet skiing and less of the ugly violence of Into the Blue. Talking? Meet “out of both sides of your cute little bow of a robotic little mouth.” I hope they had professional advice before deciding to put Alba and Paul Walker in the same room together – what’s that stuff about anti-matter colliding with anti-matter that I slept through in college?
Pictured here, of course, is the lovely Evangeline Lilly from "Lost" demonstrating one of her two expressions. This one, which I call "expression 1" is meant to convey fatigue, concern, curiosity, chagrin, shame, resolve, uncertainty, ardor, confusion, mild irritation, major irritation, mild fear, physical discomfort, quiet bemusement, condescension, concentration, meaningful flirtation and, if held for three seconds or more, to indicate the onset of a flashback to her uninteresting backstory. That, plus a hardbody and the same Alba-like resolve not to get naked on network television but to dress in wet t-shirts and teeny-bikinis, equals fanboy pin-up infamy. Now, let's talk about why the rest of "Lost" - with maybe three exceptions - just flat stinks or, more sensibly, just wait until the review goes live and we'll use that as a springboard. Did I say "4,000-plus?" I meant "4,100-plus".
September 25, 2005
The audience was the best that I’ve had the good fortune to experience since the last time I saw a “civilian” show (A Sound of Thunder a couple of weeks ago) – giving credence to my idea that some people turn into jackholes when they’re given something for free – this audience all the more remarkable for its comparative size (about 200 people at 2:00pm in the afternoon). Not even a text-mailer, making me wonder if this film doesn’t skew “older” in respect to Foster’s audience and the subject matter. The ending though is going to be a problem for the flick’s longevity: I can’t see it lasting longer than four or five weeks of steadily-diminishing returns.
In the pre-frontals: fascinated by Walter Salles’ Dark Water from this last summer, a film that I saw late and thus probably won’t review until/if we get a DVD to cover. Because I’m essentially an idiot – I mean “optimist” – I’m thinking that the fall season this year will be good enough to knock it off: but as of right this moment, Salles’ film is a dark horse for the end of year Top Ten list. I think it fits in here somewhere in discussions of this new cinema of the maternal that Quentin Tarantino started, maybe defined, with his Kill Bill pictures.
Do you suppose that it has something to do somehow (and how does it?) with our experiencing an attack on a civilian population? After all, the Japanese have been making films like this for almost six decades.
September 23, 2005
On a side note, the DVD I have most coveted in the history of the format is finally coming out on November 22nd. Can you guess what it is?
September 21, 2005
Conducted a discussion after a screening of Sullivan’s Travels at the Denver Public Library last night – a good show, a good chat – with over fifty people which is, actually, not a bad turnout considering we were up against the inexplicably revered The 39 Steps across town as part of my friend Tom’s Denver Art Museum series at the Starz Filmcenter. An unabashed fan of Hitchcock – I think he reached his pinnacle in Britain with The Lady Vanishes (fond, too, of Young and Innocent and The Lodger), and feel like The 39 Steps is something of a piddle. Big fan of Hitch’s first U.S. film, Rebecca - Fontaine, Sanders, Olivier, and, of course Judith Anderson’s iconic turn as Mrs. Danvers – use of subjective point-of-view for an eternally-unseen heroine a precursor in a lot of ways to Preminger’s Laura and a nigh-pioneering work of queer cinema. Hitch made a few of them – just not The 39 Steps.
A fairly light week for screenings and so: a chance to dive into the DVD queue. Coolest new title? The new Book of the Dead edition for The Evil Dead II. Knocked off several others in the last few days, too, but because I wrote something like 10,000 words in about 20 increasingly-weary hours, I’m guessing Bill’s got some fairly grisly, fucked-up prose to edit. Watching the X-Files: Black Oil set now – been watching it on and off for about a month-and-a-half. Shit’s awful – and it’s got lots of special features.
I didn’t get the studio schedule for Monday until today and so missed a screening for that disco/rolloer-skating flick Roll Bounce (thank god) – I’ll catch it in the second run. Also missed the only screening of Flightplan because of my obligation at the library. I’ll see the Jodie Foster on Friday afternoon and intend to catch Everything is Illuminated tonight. With a Sunday Feature interview to write-up tonight, though, I’m not sure I’ll get a review for the Elijah Wood flick logged before deadline. Which brings us to: what’s happened to the Sunday Feature? Was a while there, we were going great guns with oven-fresh interviews if not every week, then at least every other.
Here’s the scoop.
Bill and I decided that we were tired of doing interviews.
90% of the people that you talk to in this business (99% of actors), don’t really have anything to say and some (say 10%?) are obnoxious when they say it. There’s the director who demanded a hair stylist and complained to her studio when I gave her a bad review even though I was nice to her during the interview (she accused me of telling her that I liked her film so I just turned over a copy of the tape – controversy ended) – and the guy who did the same because we shared a couple of tears over recently-lost parents (didn’t make me like the movie any better). It’s hard on me though, the people who can’t separate what it is that I do with what they do – there’s a good, solid reason that we have a standing policy of logging the review of the film before interviewing the subject.
On the other side of it, there are the interviews that I’ve conducted that I later find that I can’t use. I had a long heart-to-heart with Lili Taylor a couple of years ago, only to find that I couldn’t bear to listen to it again afterwards: too personal – just a conversation between two strangers that, for about an hour, talked to one another about things that wouldn’t be interesting to anyone else. Truth is that it’s probably just me being a coward, but there you have it. And a chat with author/historian/filmmaker Paul Cronin that turned out to be a two-hour bitch session about the state of modern film, film historians, and the death of the cinematheque tradition. A Londoner, he was appalled that our central library is closed one day a week (something our mayor recently addressed by shortening all the hours and cutting staff – if we eviscerate government by not paying taxes, you see, we lose all of our public works) – and even more appalled when I told him that for a while there, the DPL was recognized as one of the best central libraries in the country. It is, at the moment, a siege where the focus of every right-wing, racist wacko (Colorado’s own Senator Tom Tancredo is about a half-step away from wearing a hood and hanging the help off the Cyprus trees in his front yard – do a Google search on him, you’ll love it) wants to squat and make a point about how the government wastes money: all this while we’re blowing a few billion a week in the most unpopular war since 'nam.
Hey, where’d this soapbox come from? See? Two hours of that.
A good story as sidelight: when I interviewed John Boorman, I had a terrible cold and while transcribing, realized I’d been mouth-breathing, semi-heavily, into the receiver so that Boorman most likely thought I was jerking off while I was talking to him. Suddenly the question about who the good guys were in Deliverance probably made a lot of sense.
The worst thing about interviews, though, is this presumption that because we’re primarily Internet-based, that we’ll take anything and, on the other hand, that we need to constantly justify ourselves to anyone who might consent to sit with us. If you write for a major daily, Quentin Tarantino will spend fifteen minutes giving you the party line no matter what how you write and what you have to say – if you write for Film Freak Central, a publication that reaches roughly seven-times as many readers on any given Friday (and all of them tuning in to read some fairly specific material) than almost every major daily in the country, you need to convince Paul freakin’ Reiser’s people why it is you’re worthy to sit in the same room with him. So, thanks, and no thanks all the same. I skipped two screenings of Reiser’s film on Monday and declined an invitation to talk with him on Tuesday once the credentials were checked and we were graciously given the greenlight. I look back on the people we’ve devoted pages and pages of space to and wonder how it is that it doesn’t buy us a little grace with 9/10ths of the major studios and boutiques.
The answer’s a pretty simple one so far as I can see it: Sony Pictures Classics and their local representative respect the work that we do and, despite the write-ups I did on Dan Harris and the Maria Full of Grace people, continue to desire the publicity that an actual dialogue can provide for their pictures instead of a dedicated pimping of the party line. I can’t prove it, but I’m deeply suspicious that the write-up I did for the junket trip I took for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind put us on some shitlists but deep. It makes me wish I could go back and actually name specific names. The result is a lot of fighting and scratching for a lot of missed connections and lamented opportunities. Bernardo Bertolucci – one of the great champions of the Cahiers du Cinema and guerilla criticism, declining in his decline to do any non-major-daily press is one thing – but never getting a call-back for the vast majority of our requests feels different. Even a “no, thank you” is preferable to a flat, cold snub: that chill, cosmic “no thanks, but how about Paul Reiser? um. . . Peter Riegert?
Then there’s the story of Gregg Araki who had someone at his tiny distribution company, unbeknownst to us, audit the questions I might ask him ahead of time. Sorry, Gregg. Cronenberg and Morgan Freeman and John Sayles, Errol Morris and Steve James and Paul Schrader didn’t ask for question approval – I don’t think we’re addled enough yet to bestow upon you that dubious honor.
So the short of it after the long of it is that Bill and I decided to take a break from the Sunday Feature in the hopes that one or both of us would feel like rejoining the fight. Frankly, I still don’t remember the prize yet well enough to care.
Everything is Illuminated = The Wizard of Oz + The Holocaust - this is the poppy field
Went to the screening of Everything is Illuminated tonight at one of Denver's older Landmark theaters - small seats, narrow theater, small screen, reek of butter and popcorn. Gotta love it. No cell phones went off, only one person checked their messages, but - and this is a big but - a young woman sitting behind me and to the right would not shut up. You know the type - giggly, garrulous. She would repeat the last thing that people said in the film and laugh, she would coo whenever she saw a dog, she gasped in dismay when the main character discretely and in character, kills a grasshopper, she commented upon a character's suspected zodiac sign ("Oh, that is so Sagitarius!") - and when asked to be quiet, she huffed and declared "But I'm not bothering anybody!". Then she started again. I spent the last half hour of the film standing, leaning against the back wall of the theater, having left my seat to cool in the spit-flecked parabola of my own self-appointed Greek chorus.
Oh, and the movie's not all that great.
September 19, 2005
So we go into Deseret Industries (an LDS owned chain of thrift stores for those of you living elsewhere on the planet, this is where Napoleon Dynamite found his tape) looking at furniture when I find a novelization of Close Encounters of the Third Kind authored by the director/screenwriter Steven Spielberg! Hardcover first edition. Two dollars. Then in the games section there is the E.T. board game! One dollar.
I like Spielberg a bit more than my peers I think. I don't think that he's gone rotten, his work is just particularly uneven. Sometimes great and sometimes just blah. War of the Worlds is still going to make my end of the year top ten. But I have to say, he used to be really cool. I thumbed through the novelization and while I can't say that it looks like particularly great literature it's sort of surprising how much of Spielberg's aesthetic seeps through. There is something delicate and loving, something empathetic about his description of Barry's (the little boy) room. This was a valuable find.
The E.T. board game was missing most of the pieces. It was supposed to have a plastic E.T. and a spaceship and a deck of cards. There were no directions, but from the looks of it, it seems to be a rip-off of Parchesi. For a film that treated it's audience with so much respect (my wife, seeing it for the first time, expressed gratitude that it never sugarcoated anything for it's target audience) this board game seems to be in line with E.T. merchandise such as the infamous Atari cartridge that seek to cynically rip-off their fans.
Above is what it is suppose to look like. Whoever owned it last also added a box of crayons to the set. Deseret Industries, the reputable business that they are, sold this to me "as is" without specifying what, if anything, was missing. I'm sort of reminded of how thrift store owner Edith Massey sold bags of bottle caps for fifty cents as "grab bags".
I stole that photo from E-bay where the starting bid is also one dollar, but shipping and handling is eight though. Despite being suckered twice over, one dollar seems to be a small price to pay for the indignity.
September 18, 2005
O Brother Where Art Thou?, of course, the title of the film that Sullivan’s Travels’ director hero John “Sully” Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wishes to make instead of all the populist comedies he’s become famous for, features swamp-bound chain gangs, spirituals, watching “picture shows” – but also the deadpan portrait from The Ladykillers, the hysterical Hollywood boardrooms and frustrated artiste of Barton Fink, the rapturous forest tracking shots of Miller’s Crossing, and the broad smalltown slapstick patois of Raising Arizona. It even has moments of courtroom hijinks (Intolerable Cruelty) buried in there, while over the course of Sully’s four “travels,” what comes clear is the kind of post-modern ironic structure of Kaufman’s adaptation..
It’s a complicated work – more’s happening in any ten minutes of Sullivan’s Travels than most any other film from the American thirties and forties (save Hitchcock’s and Capra’s) – one that encompasses so many different genres that the original ad push for the film pretty much focused on Veronica Lake’s trademark bangs. From its first moments on top of a rushing train straight into the kind of chamber/help comedy that RKO minted in its thirties production and then fast into a road trip, a comedy, a racial rue, a pinioned skewer of social classes, a shot at the media and legal systems, and finally a much-debated epilogue that I choose to read as ironic instead of compromised. It goes from full-on comedy to full-on drama and it does both with such casual ease that it feels organic.
McCrea justifies my affection for him from Foreign Correspondent and Lake is a vision of tomboy sex mystique that puts Lauren Bacall to shame. Guess she was a few weeks pregnant during filming – remarkable for the amount of physicality her role requires. Sullivan’s Travels is a post-modern film made sixty-plus years ago – smart, courageous, and a giant middle finger offered to the hand that feeds. One of the great Hollywood satires, and as such one of the great American satires, it’s my favorite of Sturges’ films in all its messy, schizophrenic, glory. The only thing that makes sense about the film all the way through is its sense of outrage – its absolute incandescent indignation over the status quo in art and culture. Sturges spoke his mind about all manner of injustice, and he did it with a puckish glint in his eye. A great filmmaker – and in the history of American flickers, one of the greatest; primed now more than ever for a popular rediscovery.
September 15, 2005
Biggest disappointment of the week is Lord of War - a film that I was really, really looking forward to; while the worst film of the week (not having seen Venom, remember) is Just Like Heaven. I interviewed Mark "Daniel's brother" Waters once upon a time and even asked him about his insensitivity towards Asians – wish now that I’d pressed him when this film marks the third consecutive time that he’s taken a potshot at the poor ol’ slants. Best film of the week? Corpse Bride. It’s marvelous. Speaking of Andrew Niccol, the special version of The Truman Show isn’t really worth it – but the film itself is worth a revisit. I’d argue that it’s more topical now than it was seven years ago: check out the travel agency scene.
Of the ongoing journal of the inevitable rudeness at the public screenings: Corpse Bride, Just Like Heaven - only a cell phone answerer in the former, a woman who answered it not once, but twice, and repeatedly checked messages throughout the film. Her section got agitated, but no one said anything. Wouldn't have made a difference. A local critic sitting next to me used his flashlight a couple of times but as that’s the recommended way that one Christian yahoo is advising folks to see March of the Penguins (with a downloadable checklist, pen, and flashlight so as to mark off what God says to them and how during the film), I guess it’s something we should just hold our ankles for as Chronicles of Narnia slouches its way towards Bethlehem, carrying in its noisome wake busloads of folks who rented The Omega Code on VHS. Before the Corpse Bride screening, however, was my first look at the long-version of the trailer for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
It looks astonishing and, along with Peter Jackson’s King Kong, becomes the two films my viscera most wants to see this fall. Child of the Blockbuster - I'm helpless. The only real irritation during the Just Like Heaven screening were the weepers and the applauders, giving this appalling shipwreck the gold seal of middlebrow approval that means that Reese Witherspoon continues getting stuff that’s beneath her and Mark Ruffalo continues getting shoehorned into generic hunk roles when, let’s face it, he’s got just the right testosterone-injected skeeze to be something special.
Only one speaking engagement, a screening of the restored version of the 1942 re-mix of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) – a film that was cut by twenty minutes by Chaplin, narrated and scored (by Chaplin) to, in part, retain its copyright, and then restored to 72min for a late-70s re-release.
The 1925 original is better, goes without saying, not the least because of the original ending which saw the little Tramp kissing Georgia as a photog complains that they’ve “ruined the picture.” Self-awareness in the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties never got so melancholy, seriously, as it did in this flick’s “Auld Lang Syne” setpiece and its coded epilogue. The new version ends on the happy couple climbing some stairs – a happy ending that the piece doesn’t deserve to be saddled with into eternity. Alas, I don’t make these decisions for this series (at the Denver Public Library) and the audience had a great time regardless - brings up the question of director's cut pics, though, now and always.
The real tragedy is that this series is programmed directly opposite my friend Tom Delapa’s Alfred Hitchcock series for the Denver Art Museum. The screening of The Lady Vanishes, a turn-away crowd – but because my show was over early, I made it in time for the last ten minutes of the film (a ravishing 35mm print) and for all of the post-film discussion.
It’s a rare thing for a town like Denver to have that kind of choice on the same night: The Gold Rush or The Lady Vanishes, both with “professional” moderation and guided discussions (Tom’s a pro, I’m still paying for my own health insurance). It’s not much, especially in comparison to the cinemateque wonderlands of New York and Los Angeles, but it’s a start, goddamnit.
Next week, Sullivan’s Travels vs. The 39 Steps. Hate to say it, but even if I wasn’t doing the yakking, I’d choose Sturges over Hitch on this one. (Just finished re-reading Manny Farber’s piece on Sturges by way of research, by the by, and, holy crap. Sometimes Farber is just cross-eyed badger spit, but the man had a mystique about his writing that’s close to ecstatic.) Have to say that I feel a little rejuvenated after Corpse Bride - a film that for whatever else you might think of it, is alive in a way that most films aren’t anymore. It breathes, man, like it’s made of nerve-endings and synapses, and it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Wassup Rockers (d. Larry Clark)
Somehow the most humanistic film of Clark's career is also his most nihilistic. Nice to see him acknowledge the "other," but they're still skater punks. *** (out of four)
Romance & Cigarettes (d. John Turturro)
A fugue. In the words of David Lynch, "Fugues make me crazy!" Actually eager to rant about this one. *1/2 (out of four)
All the Invisible Children (ds. Various)
As with any omnibus film, hit-or-miss. I think I liked Kátia Lund's segment best, but John Woo does his best work since heading West. Your mileage will vary. **1/2 (out of four)
September 12, 2005
Only Atom Egoyan could think of Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon as ideal choices for a Martin-and-Lewis comedy team- the latter seems like an angry drunk, and the former like a private-school headmaster moonlighting for kicks. And only he would direct Alison Lohman to play a manipulative journalist as a guilt-ridden convent school girl- as if anyone determined to wheedle out facts for money would be such a passive wuss. But there they are, with the duo trying to cover up the sex-murder (by whom?) that destroyed their partnership and the latter ineptly sleuthing for the person who pulled the job.
The milieu, as it turns out, is wholly inappropriate to the man who gave us feel-bad epics like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. The we-had-evil-fun-and-then-it-all-fell-apart genre at least acknowledges the pleasures that will be paid for in the final act. But Egoyan can't even do that: you cringe when anybody smiles or shows naked flesh, because you know the hammer of shame is going to crash down on your head not long afterward. But Egoyan half-thinks that he's playing by the rules, meaning that he pours on the period outfits and ladles on the 50's/70's soundtracks. The trappings of fun are there, but they're administered by a man who makes Woody Allen look like Ted Nugent.
Atom tries to have it both ways: a sexy movie that hates sex and some non-subersive genre subversion. He can't just have an Alice in Wonderland pageant at a children's hospital: it's got to be one where Alice breathily sings the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit", so you know there's, like, subtext. Never mind that any parent would be horrified by the incursion of that druggie classic (and that any child would be given nightmares by the enormous Cheshire Cat head); never mind that the scene plays like something written by people on the planet Mars. Atom's got a point to make, and little things like sense don't enter into it.
And at last, there will be no more denying Atom's deep-seated fear and resentment of women. Self-decieved fool that he is, he thinks he's progressive for eviscerating the lie of the comedy team and through the conduits of Lohman and the corpse of Rachel Blanchard; but the women turn out to be thoughtless parasites who poison the men with guilt and responsibility. He turns the gun on himself because he thinks a woman is telling him to: thus he carries out what really isn't asked of him while hating the person who's egging him on. As a series of evasions of this final fact, the film is breathtaking in its contortions and shattering in its nihilism.
The ironic thing is it's the most entertaining movie Egoyan's ever made: you'll laugh, you'll gasp, your eyes will pop at every ill-advised moment. There's always something crazy going on in this astounding folly, which will leave you stunned at the magnitude of its insularity and self-deception.
Third-tier Ferrara, as evidenced by his choice of star (Matthew Modine). ** (out of four)
Heading South (Vers le sud) (d. Laurent Cantet)
Cantet works in dread the way some work in oils. A much-needed antidote to the twee likes of Ladies in Lavender. *** (out of four)
Takeshis' (d. Takeshi Kitano)
A kind of career summary for Beat by way of Buñuel; heard outside the screening: "Was that a comedy?" Short answer: yes. ***1/2 (out of four)
September 10, 2005
September 08, 2005
But the most surprising thing when I first started doing this critic thing professionally (besides every other thing about this critic thing), was the amount of public speaking that you were expected to do in the course of your job: introducing films, conducting on-stage Q&A sessions with visiting talent, teaching the occasional course, lecturing the occasional captive audience. In the course of the last five years, I’ve spoken to groups of “at risk” high school kids about foreign films, gone to speak at a career day, and done something like two hundred post-film discussions – I’ve been on panels of film critics (sometimes with hostile filmmakers in the audience and on stage), facilitated post-screening discussions with Vincent Gallo, Cory McAbee, David Cronenberg, Bob Rafelson and others, moderated panels, been publicly slandered by a minor Canadian producer, served as a judge on a couple of festival juries – and, in the last couple of years, even been asked to program my own series. It’s fun if you like that sort of thing, I guess.
Anymore, it’s the only real pleasure that I take from the job.
The interaction with people immediately following one of these screenings is amazingly gratifying. You make a lot of assumptions about audience when you’ve experienced, first hand, dispiriting cinema only to have it gross into the nine-digits. The new wrinkle this summer was having to suffer some of your peers writing op pieces about how critics are “out of touch” when they slam some happy horseshit like Meet the Fockers only to have it go on to be the top-earning comedy of all time. When I chimed in with a two-star review of Million Dollar Baby, in fact, the vast majority of the hate mail had something to do with how did I dare to deviate from the (at one point) 99% of the rest of the critics (call it 100%, I was the 1%), and diss the best American movie ever made? Something about the rule of consensus – about mob think, yes?
Yet lost in that is the fact that right after the screening, I got into an argument with one of my colleagues – I said that it didn’t matter what else was released this year, Million Dollar Baby was going to win the Best Picture Oscar because, and I quote myself, “Oscar eats this shit with a spoon”. I went on the record in my Oscar predictions, for what it’s worth. I don’t know how that makes me out of touch, exactly; if you asked me after the aggressively mediocre (and timid, and conventional) The Wedding Crashers if it was going to do boffo business, I would’ve told you without reservation that it would. Gangbusters, in fact. It’s not so much that I’m out of touch as it is that I have a pretty good – and pretty cynical – idea about the kind of stuff that’s going to pack ‘em in.
If I get drawn into playing that game too much, I’d never leave the house. Maybe that’s what they mean by being “out of touch.”
It’s a tradition, one stretching all the way back to Gone with the Wind, that films that are mediocre in just the right way for just the right time, will rake in the bucks and draw in the awards. A truism as staunch as the one that states that the truly exceptional films from any era are doomed to be discovered in subsequent eras – fodder for wise-asses like me to later point back to their anemic grosses, arms crossed, nodding in insufferable self-satisfaction for the delight of the few people who never would have argued the point in the first place. Zero sum outrage: a policy of solipsism that infects a lot of criticism and, more troubling, the majority of American “prestige” cinema. I say this, he says cryptically, after screening Proof this week (starring Apple's mom and Donnie Darko). Too often, though, I’m just preaching to the choir – enough so that when I was asked recently what it was I hoped that my writing would accomplish, I said “nothing, I just want to be on the record, for right or for wrong, when the buzz fades.”
Last man standing, holding his junk in one hand and a tattered flag in the other: Dante would have a field day.
Anyway – you make a lot of assumptions about audience when you don’t meet the portion of the audience that very seldom goes to movies anymore. These are the folks, for the most part, who show up for moderated discussions at public libraries – in part to escape mainstream audiences, and in part to participate in a guided conversation about what they still perceive as a work of art designed to inspire instead of a piece of commerce designed to rob. The questions are almost always not what you expect – and the level of perception is almost always startling. (Like the near-universal suspicion of the happiness of Dark City’s ending, the offense taken from Klaatu’s dire ultimatum in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the almost universal disapproval that I told the story about ostrich feathers flying off Ginger Rogers’ dress during the “Cheek to Cheek” number in Top Hat.) Hard to call the culture war at an impasse, it’s the enthusiasm that greets these gigs that makes me think that a similar program attached to new release films (something that I did for a period of four months last year for the now-defunct Madstone Theaters – who folded up still owing me over 1,500 bucks – ah, the joys of freelance) might actually begin a trend of people talking about movies again in a way that might change, at least, the way that we approach films and, ultimately, the way that films are made.
As dreams go, it’s more likely to happen than the one I have involving Mary Louise Parker and Alison Elliot.
Appropriate to nothing, went shopping in my semi-affluent Denver suburb tonight when I hear a woman tell her child to "stay away from japs like that" referring to my clearly chink self. Fight the fight and there are still so many idiots in the world. And all we got to show for it is a simpering piece of moralizing crap like Paul Haggis' Crash.
September 07, 2005
September 04, 2005
(Consequently, the breath of fresh air some feel with 2046 and Broken Flowers is, to a large part, breathed from slow lungs.)
See, but, that implies that the people making films and shows nowadays have assimilated a lot of other films and television, when I suspect that the truth is a lot of these people are just aware of film and television without any sort of consideration of what’s been seen – that any sort of analysis of what’s been seen is steadily devalued at the same rate as all other forms of intellectual discourse in the United States. It’s the danger of feckless consumption.
Watching Alone in the Dark and A Sound of Thunder exactly approximates the experience of reading a book by someone who doesn’t actually know any English (like Robert James Waller, for instance, or that jackhole who wrote The Celestine Prophecy). They’re movies made by people who don’t seem to have ever taken a moment to consider what it was that worked about one thing and didn’t work about another – the product of people who think that leaving your brain at the door is a good idea and possible in any case; people who make no bones about admitting that thinking is hard for them and, most tellingly, mutually exclusive from any ability to have pleasure. Cultural artifacts like this happen because in this time and this place (and for some time now), being critical is bad manners.
With the former costing around $20m and the latter upwards of $80m (two years ago), Alone in the Dark and A Sound of Thunder have squandered $100m between them before PR and distribution costs. And that’s not just one person, that’s a whole bunch of people getting together and agreeing that, for their money, they’ve assembled the right cast, the right crew, the right screenplay – that they’ve found a winning combination to not only make their hundred mil back, but maybe a tidy profit to boot albeit most likely in overseas and home video sales. (I’d like to believe that somewhere along the way someone thought that they might be making a good movie, but, seriously, if you wanted a good movie, you wouldn’t be associating yourself with names like Uwe Boll, Christian Slater, Tara Reid (!), Peter Hyams, and Ed Burns.) All of these people have seen movies that have succeeded and believed that in seeing them, they have understood them.
With only about a dozen or so viable, intelligent film critics left gainfully employed in the United States: paladins for the medium in all the glorious pretense of that claim, I do wonder if the parasitical arrangement between critics and the movies they review isn’t closer to a symbiosis.
But then I read Roger Ebert’s review of A Sound of Thunder and, as is his tendency now and again, he’s made a few really puzzling errors in his review. It doesn’t matter that much here, but I suspect that it did matter a lot in his Rules of Attraction review in which he asserts something happens which most certainly does not - and then changes the offending paragraph in the online edition (the one for posterity, but not the one that matters) after what I fantasize to be a lot of angry letters. I don't care if you hate it Roger, but at least do a better job pretending to have seen it.
Ebert talks about “saber-toothed eagles” appearing in future-Chicago which, although no stupider than what actually does appear, don’t appear. He mentions the scene where “a giant brontosaurus” attacks, but it’s not a brontosaurus and, neither of us being a paleontologist, we’re told by this idiot film that it’s not a brontosaurus and is actually an allosaurus. I don’t know what an allosaurus is, but I do know that a brontosaurus is what Fred Flintstone rode to the gravel pits, and that thing doesn’t look a thing like this thing. Is he making a joke? Maybe he is, and it must be an elaborate one because later he misquotes a line about “brontosaurus blood.” Does it matter? Naw – not in terms of the two-star “aw shucks” review he gives this thing – but what does matter is that he wasn’t paying very close attention to this film to which he’s now offering a patronizing pat on a head. And not paying attention may be only what the film deserves, but is also part of the reason why films made by cinematic illiterates happen.
I think if you don’t like movies very much, you smirk about films like Alone in the Dark and A Sound of Thunder. You feel superior to them in a way as unwise and puzzling as feeling superior to approaching hurricanes and rising floodwaters.
But I was well and truly curious about why anyone would go to a film like this and, in going, why did they stay? So I went to a “civilian” screening of A Sound of Thunder on a Friday afternoon. With me on this ill-advised sojourn: five other lonesome souls, one of which, a middle-aged lady in a cardigan (in the middle of summer) left twenty-three minutes into the film which, I’m guessing, is early enough to still get your money back. I heard no comment, no snortles, no cell phone, no crinkle during the entire film – it was the most polite audience I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a film with in about five years – and afterwards, stealing a page from Joe Queenan, I offered them a refund of their ticket price ($7.00 matinee. Bargain!) if they didn’t like the film in exchange for them telling me why they didn’t leave after the five minute mark when any question of its extraordinary ineptitude could any longer be rationalized away.
The only couple was comprised of thirtyish Jake and his girlfriend Cayleen. They went because Jake had read the Ray Bradbury story when he was a kid and had sort of been looking forward to this movie – they both thought it was “okay” and politely declined my offer to refund their cash. Jake said that he just went to movies to relax and have fun and implied that he resented it when they made him think. “Critics, man, every single movie out there you can find some who likes it.” Why not pick one you agree with and stick with him? “I hate critics, their job is to hate everything.”
Me, too, Jake – especially the ones that liked Fantastic Four. Cayleen said that this wasn’t her cup of tea, that usually she liked other kinds of movies (“like what?” “I dunno, something with John Cusack in it?”), but that she didn’t mind going to the occasional “guy flick” with Jake. I told Jake that he was a lucky man. “I know it, brother!”
Peter had read the story, too, and now in his early fifties, he liked to go to shows earlier in the day before the “kids” got out of school. Peter thought the movie was “pretty bad” but that he never left a movie before it was over. I asked him if he thought it was funny and he said “no, it wasn’t a comedy.” I like Peter a lot. Peter took the seven dollars.
Fifty-four year old Bob had, yep, read the story as a kid and was curious about the film. He asked me why it wasn’t reviewed locally and I told him that it had been screened late on a Wednesday night and that the deadlines for major dailies is generally Wednesday afternoon. “Why would they do that?” Well, Bob, they do that so that you can’t say that they didn’t screen it for the press but you still can’t write a review of it. Bob thought A Sound of Thunder was the worst film he’d seen all year (and he goes once a week) but didn’t leave because he’d bought popcorn and a soda and so was already into it for over twenty bucks. “Besides, it was nice to be in air conditioning.”
Couldn’t argue with him there. Bob took the seven bucks, too.
September 02, 2005
I kind of miss the days when Green Day were singing about masturbation instead of doing it, but for that mandatory protest record in every band's discography, "American Idiot" is, you don't need me telling you, pretty remarkable. But the 7-minute video for the album's fourth single, "Wake Me Up When September Ends" (which recently made ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY's "Must List")? Gimme a fucking break.
As "Wake Me Up When September Ends" is a song not about 9/11, but about the death of singer Billy Joe Armstrong's father, director Samuel "Smells Like Teen Spirit" Bayer deserves a certain amount of credit for daring to dismiss artist intentionality. But seizing on the topical associations of the title strikes me as no less knee-jerk or jejune than asking Alanis "Who oughta know?". The piece, super-pretentiously shot in 'scope, opens exactly like In the Bedroom, with It Boy Jamie Bell and It Girl Evan Rachel Wood (a star, sure, but one with insufferable taste in material) nuzzling in the middle of an open field. They buy French fries (freedom fries?) and consume them in slow-motion, make out in a dingy rec room, play video games, and make out some more. She force-feeds him birthday cake in slow-motion and he spits some back in slow-motion, at which point she bitchslaps him for joining the military. Histrionics ensue. Cut to Green Day performing a few bars in an incongruously glam mise-en-scène.
Then the video becomes a remake of Stripes: shepherded off a bus and into a barbershop, Bell, like Bill Murray before him, inexplicably circumvents the brush-cut rule. Cue the faux-Saving Private Ryan montages, whose sophomorically-staged explosions send shockwaves through Green Day's studio, causing sparks to fly from the lighting grid above. (Dude, it's like, war totally has global repercussions.) Bell, in over his head, cowers behind a wall as Wood sits on some bleachers back home, her future evidently as uncertain as her boyfriend's. So ends the most embarrassing video with sound effects since "Hello."
Risible technique aside, Bayer's heart's in the right place, but something tells me he's preaching to the converted: despite its largely rural and thus implicitly "red state" setting, the video doesn't really seek communion outside its innate demographic, the contemporary American slacker (as opposed to Everybody's All-American), assuring him that if a tarty girlfriend and an XBox aren't sufficient, he's already lost the battle, anyway. It's an ugly, reductive piece that follows the narcissistic trend of casting international conflict as the pretext for a romantic crisis; perhaps, so we can still respect the nominally iconoclastic Green Day (when September ends), we should just chalk it up to satire.
September 01, 2005
Watching movies has become a Sartrean ordeal, why do it anymore if all most of the movies seem to do this year is suck soul? The year of the shrug.
During the exorcism movie at least, the call-answerer had the presence of mind to run up and duck down into that space between the first row and the screen to have his talk. Because, obviously, with acoustics in these meticulously-engineered amphitheaters being what they are, the front of the house is the last place your repeated “I’m watching a movie, yeah, yeah, speak up, it’s loud in here” jive will be broadcast in crystal clarity to the other five hundred people in the house. Good thinking there, champ. The film, by the way, sucks – it’s Life of David Gale with literal demons in place of Kevin Spacey’s, but I digress.
Award to worst person in the world this week goes to the heavy-ish woman in red top and skirt at The Cave screening who, after stepping on everyone’s toes in a defiant, brassy way, asked a soft-spoken woman if seats next to her were taken. They were (by her children away for some popcorn) she said, but red-top, with her hearing problem exacerbating her humanity problem, says “Speak fucking English.” After subsequently getting the cold shoulder from everyone in the section, she says to her whipped boyfriend in a voice, plenty-loud, “I have plenty of money to pay for my own movies, I don’t need to see a free movie, let’s go get something to eat.” And off she goes - light up a room and then leave them wanting more. The scary thing about calling her “common” is that she is. I console myself by imagining that she’s from Philadelphia. I don’t mention this out of outrage, I mention this to describe the average experience of an evening screening and to reiterate that it’s this kind of experience that the studios are hoping to sponsor by scheduling them at night and opening them to the public.
Then, a first for me, during the Dreamer industry-only screening, a security guard hired by the studio to remind critics to turn off their cellphones, sits in the back row to watch, receives a phone call, and has a nice long chat while the ink-stained wretches are losing their minds. I don’t know of any critics who would do that, and I don’t know of any critics who would ever want to record a movie off a screen to sell to Thailand, either, making me think that in targeting us through them as they do with nightvision scopes and metal-detecting wands, the studios may very well be overlooking the most likely group of folks trafficking in flicks that’ve fallen off the back of the proverbial truck.
Scurrilous, you say? Elementary, I say.
It’s a matter of respect for the product and the audience and if you ain’t got it, you’ve got no reservations selling a handicam’d version of a Nick Cannon film through your shareware site. Only other time I recall wanting to say something to the rent-a-cops this week is when someone with a clipboard, sitting in the audience, started taking notes with a little flashlight-pen (a colleague, more powerful than I, offered “Turn off the fucking light, jesus fucking Christ, that’s so fucking inconsiderate”) and then again when a pair of them held a top-secret conversation in normal voices behind that little rising half-wall that separates the walkway from the seats. Crystal clear, gents, as is the question of quis custodiat custodium?
A note to aspiring film critics, by the by, show up on the first day of the job with one of those light-up pens (or, better yet, your laptop – I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried) – the kind that a local film fest actually sold in the lobby as “critic’s pens” – and you’re definitely going to be ostracized and, possibly, physically assaulted. Do it and stigmatize yourself. If you disrespect films enough to shine a light in the middle of one, you should find a different profession. Actually, if you disrespect films that much, you’re just what most editors are looking for nowadays. You should, in fact, put it on your résumé. I stand corrected.
Brighter note: made the two-hour drive up to the Beaver Creek Ski Resort for the third of four films in their Summer Film series, a battered but serviceable 35mm print of Dark City. Conversation afterwards, brief but lively. Next week is Spirited Away – this Saturday, lectures in front of Rilla’s Village of the Damned and the pinnacle of the Astaire/Rogers partnership, Top Hat. More and more, the only reason to keep going to the new releases is just to keep a toehold in trends to better serve the discussion during teaching and other speaking gigs. God knows there’s precious joy to be found in this year’s tepid mudville: outrage at low-tide, out with the passion somewhere out to sea.
A non-seq note to future programmers: if you’re planning on doing a discussion post-screening, don’t program any Alexander Payne films. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t have any undercarriage. Try to talk about them and you start regurgitating plot, comparing favorite scenes, and gushing about performance: they are what they are and that’s all you need know. Keats’ Grecian Urn, say, if you’re a fan.
So, on the horizon so long as these meds hold out, reviews of Anchor Bay’s new releases of Dario Argento’s Trauma and The Card Player, of the Director’s Cut DVD of John Waters’ Cry Baby, and, possibly, if the backlog recedes sufficiently, brief Blog-only thoughts about Kim Ki-Duk’s Bad Guy and Samaritan Girl.