September 10, 2005

In Es-Crowe

Because Cameron Crowe considers it a work-in-progress, critics at last night's TIFF screening of the interminable Elizabethtown were asked, in not so many words, to handle the film with kid gloves. (Apparently the folks at Venice saw a completely different cut.) So to avoid a flap, I won't be posting a capsule review at the mother site, but let me just say that the version I saw--which looked polished but by no means finished--makes one long for the subtlety and finesse of Garden State. (And really, how much more warning do you need?) Its epiphanies are so processed and its characters are so inorganically whimsical that the movie verges on self-parody (and it's possible that a performance of "Free Bird" by the Stillwater-esque Ruckus pushes it over the edge, albeit consciously)--the suicidal hero (Orlando Bloom, channelling Crowe surrogate Tom Cruise (Elizabethtown's producer)), for instance, plans to do the deed by rigging up his exercycle with a butcher knife to simulate a stabbing motion! While it may say more about my proclivities than about Kirsten Dunst that she still turned my knees to jelly even though I found her Claire insufferable, there is distilled in one aspect of Dunst's characterization virtually everything that is wrong with the piece as it currently stands: she does this thing where she pretends to take a picture, and the first time, it's fetchingly spontaneous; but by the third, you can smell the screenwriting. (I'm reminded of something Alex recently wrote concerning the cigarette-lighting motif in Now, Voyager.) And the presence of Susan Sarandon actually increases one's respect for the similarly-themed Moonlight Mile, which at least knew when to get the hell out of Dodge (hint: before Sarandon had a chance to embarrass herself with an impromptu stand-up routine/tap-dance number). Know that I really want to go to, er, town on this flick, but some form of chivalry is holding me back.


jer fairall said...

Oh, maan! I'd really been looking forward to this one. Crowe tends to hit way more than he misses, for me, and I guess the fact that I am pretty much alone in not only loving Vanilla Sky, but in actually preferring it to Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous means that I might end up liking this one in defiance of critical opinion as well, but viewing the trailer again with your criticisms in mind I can already count several of the ways in which this movie might very easily bug me. Ah well. I'll still see it, I guess.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Fuck ! I was hoping this one wouild be good, even though everything in me while watching that trailer said, looks like shit. the fact that i'm oblivious to orlando bloom and i absolutely fucking hate kirsten dunst with every ounce on my body, didn't make things look more appealing. But presence of paul schneider somewhat balanced it out, or atleast it would balance it out if the film was actuially good. I'm a big cameron crowe fan, love 'em all to different degrees. almost famous is one of my favorite coming of age films. i really was hoping this would be good... i'll see it anyways. and yes... i was one of those that thought vanilla sky was one of the best of the year. "sweet ain't so sweet without the bitter".

p.s. i also liked garden state for it's visual quirkiness and absurdities. it all went to the toilet at the end when he started talking, and it is a pretty uneven peice but i liked it more then i hated it.

Anonymous said...

Crowe always struck me as an honest filmmaker, so maybe his request was an acknowledgment of the film's problems. I'd say for the most part he knows what he's doing (as I recall, he fired Ashton Kutcher from the film and told him to "go take acting lessons" - though that may be just the filmmaking equivalent of knowing that two plus two equaled four), but he always seemed the kind of filmmaker perpetually taken by the movies; maybe he's just so overwhelmed by film festivals that he can't resist showing a work in progress. The film's problems somewhat sound like they run deeper than what an simple edit-job can fix, but maybe they'll cut the number of "picture-taking" actions down to two.

At any rate we'll see the ultimate result when it's in theaters; now we can't say we didn't receive ample warning.

-- Ian

Bill C said...

Not to be defeatist, but Elizabethtown's problems definitely run deeper than the usual pacing concerns. Crowe's really spinning his wheels here (like all of his movies, this one boils down to: make hero Superman; make hero mortal; make hero Superman again--but the hyper-prefab preciousness throws the formula into starker relief than ever before), and it's so slack that it feels like he shot the first draft.

Walter_Chaw said...

I always wonder, especially outside of a festival setting, if the “be kind to our mistakes” tactic isn’t just that, a tactic. The screening I saw of Lord of War a couple of weeks ago was clearly a work print with incomplete special effects work, but no disclaimer – yet there have been other prints that I’ve seen in a far greater state of completion that studio reps have bent over backwards to protect. “The sound’s not complete! Please don’t review!” – but the problem a lot of times is that this “incomplete” print is the only print that they ever screen. On the other side of that is what happened with Kate and Leopold where they made a couple of pretty critical cuts the day before its release thus rendering all reviews of it essentially moot. It strikes me that you should never screen a film that’s allegedly incomplete (like Gallo did at Cannes with Brown Bunny) for a show to which the press is invited – and that the only reason you do so is for the nominal exposure that you get from making the cut at a prestigious fest. Speaking personally, doing so is wasting my fucking time.

There could be another reason for an early screen, too, in that sometimes talent will be available for media interviews before a certain date only – but it strikes me that if you care all that much about your work, you don’t screen something that you wouldn’t put your name on. Do or do not, there is no try.

In any case, I don’t think I’ve really liked anything Crowe’s done since Say Anything - and I was sixteen when I saw that one last. He’s the king of underdog uplift in a way that I find to be reductive and facile if not outright simple-minded. The “Tiny Dancer” singalong in Almost Famous was the breaking point and, frankly, I just never got Jerry M. Enough support here for Vanilla Sky though that I’m tempted to revisit it – if only for Tilda Swinton’s cameo – whatever the film’s individual merits, it was released during a period of time where films like it were speaking the spirit of the age. Anyone here seen Abre Los Ojos?

Bill C said...

Yeah, I'm no Crowe fan--probably shoulda qualified, even though my apathy for his work is on record at FFC. On the other hand, I'm accustomed to his aesthetic, and if the movie had simply been modestly entertaining like Almost Famous, I'd've considered it a success.

I didn't really care for Abre Los Ojos, but I saw it after Vanilla Sky and hoped it would be like reading a brilliant novel after seeing its lacklustre adaptation. It's actually the same damn movie but without the loaded iconography of Tom Cruise, which is one of the few things--I think--that makes Vanilla Sky an interesting failure. Also can't help but reevaluate Amenabar's work through the prism of The Sea Inside, which, y'know: barf.

Can't wait for Lord of War.

Jonathan said...

Oh, hell.

Like Seabiscuit two years ago, Elizabethtown is going to be nothing short of inescapable for me, in that substantial portions of it were filmed locally (A bit of trivia: Cameron Crowe? Is lazy. He didn't bother to shoot the film in Elizabethtown, opting instead for Versailles, which is a scant 10 minutes from the nearest commercial airport, rather than the hour's drive to the more picturesque E-town), which is still a rare occurrence in these parts such that it gets people good and riled up.

Which means two things-- one, it's going to take up nearly permanent residence on one of the two screens at the one local art-house theater (now that Morgan Freeman Never Shuts the Hell Up, Part Deux has ended its 9-week run), who, God bless them, had the good sense to cut Crash loose after just two weeks but who are still faced with the dilemma of trying to break even on supposedly highbrow fare in a slightly-pink city in a through-and-through red state. Two, it means that, if I know what's good for me, I'm going to have to keep my mouth shut about Elizabethtown, at least on the reasonable assumption that it falls into the 7 out of 8 times when I end up agreeing with you, Walter.

Even better? Big chunks of Dreamer filmed here, too. Care to guess as to what will be on the second screen at that art-house theater?

I had some hope that Elizabethtown might be one of Crowe's better offerings, but I knew Dreamer was in trouble from the get-go, even before I found out that Dakota Fanning was attached to it. I went to the open casting-call for extras-- partially for the people-watching, partially for the famewhoring-- and ended up getting a callback for a schedule that would've required that I quit my job. What was memorable about the whole thing was that the casting agent who spoke to us listed her prior credits as follows (and, yes, I wrote this down because it was hilarious), "I worked on Ray, The Chamber, The Patriot, Tom and Huck, The Insider, and Richie Rich."

That was my first first-hand experience of realizing that people within the film industry apparently just don't get it. Because The Insider? Clearly, is comparable to Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Macualay Culkin vehicles.

All of which is to say that I will likely be living vicariously through your reviews of both films.

Jonathan, from 30 seconds ago said...

... Love the blog, but an option to edit comments might be helpful for those of us who can't read by-lines before posting comments... I'm just sayin'...

Bill C said...

Will look into it, Jonathan; in the meantime, that's fascinating about Crowe not actually shooting in E-town considering the movie's determination to mythologize it. Sample exchange:

Bloom: "I don't live in Elizabethtown."

Dunst: "Everyone lives in Elizabethtown."

Oy vey.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I know ! We need edit button. I'm shit at times when it comes to grammar. I'm very distracted kinda guy, so sometimes I switch from one tense to the other within the sentence or more so repeat same word in the same sentence. It bloody sucks to read it later, thinking that everybody would think I'm a retard.

p.s. Taking you guys back to what we were talking about racism. Just turned on the TV to find an Eddie Griffith HBO stand-up special. There is some docu-comedy stuff included with the standup where Mr. Bigalow's pimp walks down the street poking fun at people. A Sikh man walking down the street for his morning walk, I presume, gets noticed by Eddie who then goes on to point at him yelling "OSAMA ! OSAMA !" at top of his voice. And this shit is supposed to be acceptable and funny by the mainstream. Just goes to show the ignorance and stupidity of people. But if we are to here what Mr. Haggis has to say, we are all just as racist, stupid and ignorant as the fuckface who got his balls bit off by a fake dog (or was it a cat. I didn't see the great Bigalow sequel).

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

After watching TIFF press confrences I have come to the conclusin that Henri Behar needs to be shot in the face.

To the cynical cocksuckers of hollywood,

Just because he is gay doesn't mean he is any smarter.

And not that you asked, no I'm not going to attend TIFF this year because I prefered to buy half an ounce of weed instead. Why you ask ? Because I'm a stupid asshole and I deny myself watching any at the festival until I watch atleast 50. I'm putting a dollar in my piggy bank as we speak.

Nate said...

I thought I liked Abre Les Ojos, but a second viewing revealed it as being significantly less insightful than I originally thought. I actually think Crowe's version is pretty good, but then I like him in general. I also like Garden State, but I've come to believe that anything with Peter Sarsgaard can't possibly be bad.

Anonymous said...

Walter -- certainly agree with you on the "waste of time" item no matter what the rationale, but in Crowe's case I'd say it's symptomatic of what kind of an artist he is: kind of a little kid who wants to show you what he's fingerpainting before it's done. I myself am something of a fan of Crowe's work -- that which I've seen, anyway, Almost Famous and Say Anything... -- he's a humble, hopeless romantic. More than a little childish in that sense, yes, but frankly, I find that sense of naivete endearing. Haven't seen Vanilla Sky or Jerry Maguire, but just knowing that "you had me at 'hello'" comes from the latter... well, I'll check them out. (On a more conversational note, check out his demeanor in the book Conversations with Wilder, where he relegates himself to the unknowing pupil role against Billy Wilder's teacher -- compare to the interviewer/critic-interviewee/filmmaker of Hitchcock/Truffaut.)

Still, that piece of dialogue that Bill threw out gave me pause; I wonder where the breaking point of tolerance to the naivete is. Don't tell me there's also a scene that explains the child within us all.

-- Ian

Adam N. said...

Elizabethtown's pungent badness -- at least in this "workprint," which I never realized was a synonym for "$20 bucks a pop festival gala" -- should, barring a miracle re-edit, mark it as a cultural-punchline-in-waiting. One magazine editor rarely prone to hypberole called it "the worst movie she's ever seen" -- and I know for a fact she's also seen both Miss Congeniality movies, so... yeesh.
Elizabethtown is only the third or fourth worst film of the forty-seven I've seen at TIFF so far (Sorry, Haters is still in the pole position) but Crowe's bizarre, post-Almost Famous slide into rudderless, conspicuously expensive self-indulgence is still really startling. Can't wait to see the publicity department try to salvage this one.
In other, happier news: Takeshi Kitano's new film is his best in a long time (and an example of auterial self-indulgence as rendered with eloquent purpose -- it's the best Fellini movie since the mid-70s.) Ditto Tim Burton, who done knocked Corpse Bride out the park. Accentuate the positive, I say.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I find Walter has this peev against films that are harmless. I guess different people have different buttons that can be pushed, but I certainly don't understand this one. It's not only Cameron Crowe but a few other films. You know those reviews Walter, the ones in which you say "There is lack of any sort of tension..." I really don't understand the need for tension.

Please elucidate.

Some films are just simple stories, and in case of Cameron, his characters are just hopeless romantics trying to find love. There is a lot of shit in hollywood, in Cameron I just find a rest from cynicism. Simple pleasures.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Well then again, Elizabeth probably sucks donkey balls.

Walter_Chaw said...

I dunno how to answer that, hmsm, maybe a couple of specific examples that I can try to defend?

I think that Crowe's stuff is actually pretty cynical. A projection? Maybe. It feels calculated to me whenever there's quirk for quirk's sake, or lines that feel pat or over-written - his stuff plays like a smug TV dramedy to me and that, of course, is the height of airless contrivance, no? I'm not sold on the romance but, admittedly, was once upon a time. I still like the schizophrenia of Fast Times at Ridgmont High and my memories of Say Anything are fond ones. That being said, I still don't get the whole John Mahoney goes to prison subplot of the latter - nor the weird sexual disasters of the former. Both symptomatic, it seems to me, of not trusting the strength of his characters to carry a story free of seismic happenstance.

This seems at odds with the charge that I dislike films that don't have tension - no matter what I stutter.

I think that what I try to articulate in regards to those films "lacking tension" is a feeling that some movies - most movies in 2005, in fact, good or bad - just sort of fart around for a couple of hours and then end. That there are no insights, no epiphanies, not even any resolutions that aren't a part of some rigid formula. Films that are boring, is what I'm groping for - and this from a guy who gave Best of Youth, a four hour Italian soap opera, four stars.

It's not length, natch, a 30-minute film can feel like an eternity but I could watch the uncut version of Once Upon A Time in America three times in one day without thinking of taking a coffee break: riveted.

I wonder if I'm starting to answer questions now that you haven't asked.

In any case, if you can find a rest from cynicism anywhere, goes without saying that you oughtta take it. Crowe doesn't do that for me - sorta the opposite, hate to say - but Kitano does, of course (can't wait to see his new one - man's bona fide) - and I'm catching Corpse Bride this week. Like Gilliam's Tideland, I'm counting on it to be the personal project that redeems the commercial one.

I feel like I should say, too, that me calling a film "harmless" is maybe the most appalling condemnation I can ladle on something. I'd rather be infuriated than apathetic. Colleague said once that some films only deserve judgment and that, while true, strikes me as terribly sad. Repeating myself (and another dollar in that jar), you're wasting my fucking time if I don't remember your film as I'm watching it.

Walter_Chaw said...

BTW - fan of Crowe's Conversations with Wilder - did a whole lecture series on Billy Wilder once and used the hell out of it as a source material. Interesting dynamic, for sure, between the crusty old Hollywood type and the sycophantic new - interesting, too, that Wilder declined an invitation to be in Jerry Maguire which led to the book. Turns out it was an invaluable moment for Wilder scholarship - even if his adulation of Wilder prevents him from asking enough critical questions.

Always been curious about Abre Los Ojos - in my queue. Scary long.

Adam N said...

hey walter,

Kitano's bona fide alright. it's funny: casio abe's recent book "beat takeshi vs. takeshi kitano" parsed the difference between his long-established tv persona (his "televisual" body, in the author's parlance)and the characters he plays in his films, concluding that the latter roles function as correctives of a kind. Anyway, Abe's head is gonna explode when he sees Takeshis', which literalizes this split and then wrings it for all its worth: laughs, tears, and more squibs than Bad Boys II. Without spoiling the fun, I'll just say that it's the last twenty minutes of Zatoichi distended to feature length, and I loved it.

Hmmm... I've hijacked a perfectly good Crowe-bashing session to introduce Kitano and the Dardennes to the discussion. Sorry.

I'll post something about Cache tomorrow after I see it...

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Fuckin' A kitano is bonafide. My favorite has to be "Dolls", I think it's brilliantly romantic. I also love Hani Bi, that movie is like, stealing a quote from Walter about Collateral, a poem made out of a sledgehammer. Loved Kids return. Zatoichi I'm not as big a fan of. Thinking about his films, I can see a contancy in ouevre, this sense of pace. I love the Japan in his films.

Talkin' about it, Walter, is it worth looking into his early Yakuza films ?

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

p.s. On Cameron, I guess he pushes your buttons but not mine. But we do agree on most other buttons, so I guess it doesn't matter.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I just finished watching "orvern calla"... it's funny 'coz I bought Morvern Callar. Aparently my DVD image has been 20% sliced off from all sides. The picture quality is horrible. I bought it after watching at cable which was just fine. FUCK ! Now I have to drive all the way back to Futureshop. Some fucking asshole executive should be shot in the face in front of his children for this shit.

Walter_Chaw said...

Hana Bi, man, best film anywhere in the world in the 1990s.

Check out Violent Cop for sure - and Taboo if you can find it. Violent Cop is his directorial debut - took it over when the original director bowed out after a week or so. You'd think that it wouldn't be fully Kitano after that, but sho' nuff. Scenes by the Sea, not so much and Boiling Point is wildly uneven: for auteurists only along with Getting Any? and Kids Return. You can see him in there, but until Sonatine and Hana Bi. . . well, you know.

Just got that new Kitano book, Adam, interested in digging in. Like Argento, I find that there hasn't been a definitive piece on the guy. Film scholarship is hurtin' all over, man.

In between chippin' at my DVD queue obligations, spent some time the last few days watching old Hollywood musicals (Singin' in the Rain and Daddy Long Legs and Brigadoon and An American in Paris) on TCM. Have come to the conclusion that not only should Zatoichi be reviewed as a musical, but that most Hollywood musicals from the '50s have long dead stretches that just suck ass.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see Vanilla Sky (or Abre los Ojos) but I almost feel like I should. The film was pretty notoriously reviewed at the time of its release, so I decided to let it pass on by, but it seems to have gathered an air of mystique since then. I think my interest in the film was first aroused (well, second if you don't count the passing interest that came with that surreal shot of a deserted Times Square that was used in the marketing campaign) when reading an interview with Julia Stiles in which she called the film "a conflict of interest." Regardless of who your source of information is, you have to admit that's a pretty cryptic soundbyte. I've since heard from all corners of the globe that Vanilla Sky is "underrated" and read an essay about it by Chuck Klosterman in his fascinating book Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs in which he paints a pretty picture of Crowe's 'flawed masterpiece' (granted I don't necessarily know what to make of this because I find myself disagreeing with Klosterman frequently and because his opinions on what the film is "trying to say" seem to be half-inspired by his own abstract musings). The several posts here that praise the movie have only piqued my curiosity. I don't have strong feelings one way or another towards Cameron Crowe, although of the movies I've seen -- Jerry Maguire and Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- I tend to find them more fitfully entertaining than anything else. They evoke a certain mood that is undeniable, but I think that's because they're insincere, sometimes cloyingly so. I'm not sure whether that's what you call technique or whether he simply prefers a little romance in his day-to-day; since I've somehow gotten the impression that he's probably a nice guy, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and go with the latter (does that qualify as auteurism?). I almost wonder if that means the character of Penny Lane isn't semi-autobiographical as well.

P.S. Interesting that this movie Elizabethtown invites a lot of comparisons to Garden State (speaking of movies that are conflicts of interest...). I feel like that story was told through a Cameron Crowe-ish prism: very evocative, young twentysomething avatar/protagonist, killer soundtrack, and deliberately quirky-cutesy scenarios and characters (maybe there's something about that surrealism that people are attracted to but I can't really put my finger on it). Also, as with Almost Famous, I get pissed off when people try to compare it to their lives (I'll refer to Klosterman's book again where he says that a lot of times people's social identities are informed by pop culture). I'm not sure what that means, exactly, except that his new film has a lot of superficial similarities to a film that had a lot of superficial similarities to his films. Now who's being cutesy?

P.P.S. Peter Sarsgaard does indeed rock.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Walter, I'll sure check out the Kitano films. i actually go to "bay street video" which you must have seen if you are in toronto. it is right in front of varsity theatre in the manulife center where they show a lot of TIFF films. They have a whole section by Kitano.

I love Peter Sarsgard. His performance in "shattered Glass" was amazing. He was banal, but he was right. A unique character.

The only thing I have to add about Cameron is that I always get a feeling that he is coming from a true place. I buy it, some people don't.

Walter_Chaw said...

Klosterman: I like him a little but he feels a lot like where I was/what I was thinking of when I was 31 (being 32 now). I feel, in other words, like I just missed the boat on agreeing with him about almost anything. I more admire that he got something like Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs published than anything else. He has his moments, though (like his rant on born-agains and the "Left Behind" series) - but I wanted a whole hella lot more than he had to offer about Star Wars and "The Sims".

Where it's at, though, is Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist. One of the best books on critical thought (and criticism as autobiography/therapy) that I feel like I've ever read. Shattering and erudite. If you haven't read it, I'm envious - I'd like to read it again for the first time.

Extremely thin volume, but a must-read. Especially for a fan of Klosterman.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

A sidenote: I just saw "I can't sleep" my second Claire Denis film and I was blown away. A formal thanks to Walter for making me aware of her ouevre in his "All the real girls" review. I think i like Friday Night better, but frankly I just loved them both. Just my kind film. I can't wait to get another.

tmhoover said...

If you, HMSM, dig the Claire Denis experience repeat after me: "Beau travail". Say it. Beau...effing..travail. Beautiful sound, isn't it? What "8 1/2" was to Fellini, BT is to Denis- the decisive moment where solid filmmaker becomes pantheon genius. Though don't get me wrong, I hate Fellini.

This moment of pet-director worship has been brought to you by the fact that I was shut out of the "Cache" press screening today due to overwhelming demand. Cantet's "Vers le sud" compensated mightily, but still, I must vent.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I went to the store today to find out that "friday night" and "i can't sleep" are the only 2 claire denis films they have. no "beau travail" which incidentally i was looking for, no "trouble everyday", no nothing. i was pissed. how can they not have a 2001 movie's dvd ?? i'll have to look somewhere else. thanks for the suggestion though, travis.

Bummer about you missing the Haneke film, i haven't seen anything by him. got any suggestions about where i should start ?

i don't hate fellini. i don't love him either. i think he reached his peak with la dolce vita (people would disagree and say it's 8 1/2. to them: we agree to disagree). everything before and after, not terribly interesting. some filmmakers are inspirational to me not as much for their content, but their spirit. herzog (for his gung-hop attitude) and fellini (for his supreme self-indulgence) are 2 such directors. herzog is way more interesting then fellini, but then again, that's a matter of choice.

Walter_Chaw said...

BTW - before it's not anymore, let me pimp Art Spiegelman's amazing 9/11 memoir - in comic-strip form:

In the Shadow of No Towers

Affordable and astonishing from the author of Maus and Maus II.

Adam N said...


I held a seat for you, but they forced someone else to sit in it. I'm very sorry.
Guess what I thought of Cache? Go, on... guess?

tmhoover said...

Hmmm... that the climactic car chase was better than the one in Ordet?