June 24, 2006

The Trench

Long, eventful week as a lot of threads came together. My coverage of the Denver Film Society’s Asian Film Festival, at least for me, closed the circle a little on the unpleasantness between myself and that organization that began with my criticism of their International Film Festival on these very pages (culminating in some sad back-and-forths between friends at the Society) – it’s not closure, exactly, but a feeling that at least for my part, I want to get on with a professional working relationship even if personal relationships can’t be salvaged.
The Asian Fest is awesome even if the films I saw weren’t all keepers. It stinks of honest intentions and that’s increasingly a rare and valuable commodity.

On a panel a few months ago at the Vail Film Festival, I was asked if it was difficult or, truly, even possible to separate myself from the people that I worked with in the industry – and of how those relationships shaped my opinions and criticisms. If you’re human with reasonable social skills, you make friends along any road you take and no less so this one. You try to maintain objectivity but sometimes you just have to take a pass. At FFC, the unofficial best practice has always been that I log a review before I go to interview someone for the first time, thus leaving the review untainted (for good or bad) by my personal impressions of the makers.

It works out fine most of the time – particularly since I stopped just taking interviews with anyone who came to town – but there were a couple of times (
Peter Hedges
, for instance, who I hit it off with well enough so that when he read my ambivalent-hostile review of Pieces of April, he fired off an angry and hurt missive to the studio requesting, among other things, that I not be allowed access when I was to discuss his film at a public screening) where me not being an asshole to someone resulted in some confusion, on their part, as to what my role actually is in this relationship. Film’s are personal things, and not just for their creators, so personal in fact, that they’re almost like psychic babies.

As to the confusion, though: join the club. The role of film critic in this society is muddy beyond muddy and not for the reasons of “what is quality” that we’ve already worked over like a tasty bit of gristle we just can’t bring ourselves to spit out. As Bill linked below, director Wayne Kramer’s (and his frantically sycophantic interviewer’s) agreement that critics should have no opinion nor personal bias but, rather, be publicists for the film, is a tiresome and troubling thing. (Even though his film, Running Scared is one that I like and will be reviewing in a few days.) More than the words of some pinhead who can’t take a hit, though, is the plain fact that the majority of people believe that critics should be objective reporters and, even more perverse, that good critics ever are. The fallacy of our news media, in fact, is this illusion of objectivity – far better to know where the writer stands than to have the reporter pretend not to have a stance at all.

It brings me to more news: a documentary series has been greenlit by the Denver Public Library for this August with me at the helm – the first time I’ve had so much say in a program offered by this branch. The lineup: Keep the River on Your Right, Rivers and Tides, Brother’s Keeper, Bright Leaves, and
and I’m excited as hell to dive into the mix. If you’re in Denver in a couple of months, it’s going to be a fun ride.

Also upcoming, a single night wherein I get to show my Laserdisc of Fearless at the Gilpin County Library.

Saw Superman Returns at a closed screening and cried through a lot of it. Saw Click at a regular matinee and, ditto, though not for the same reasons. Have a screener of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance that’s burning a hole in the back of my head; watched Underworld: Evolution and. . . really liked it; watched Aeon Flux and. . . really didn’t; and watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof three times back-to-back-to-back one late, late night because it’s actually just that good. In a roundabout way, it spurs the question of the F/X moments in film that you found to have the most positive impact in terms of atmosphere, story, even character development. For me, I still love the giant cardboard ball from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first kill in Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the tractor beam matte and dual suns in Star Wars, Vermithrax Pejorative in Dragonslayer, and the genius-level splatter in John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly.

Hosted a screening/discussion of Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, speaking of underseen/ill-revived: the story of a stuffy professor (Gary Cooper) who finds love in the arms of a tough-talking dame (Barbara Stanwyck). It’s an inversion of the Snow White myth (and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves can be seen on a theater marquee in one brief background), and an inversion of the Pygmalian myth, too. Shot by Greg Toland (the year he did Citizen Kane) and written by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett as their last assignment as just a writing team (Wilder sat on the set to observe Hawks’ style during the shoot as a kind of training camp), it’s a collision of legends in one of the great years (1941) in Hollywood history. Doesn’t make it a masterpiece, but it ain’t chopped liver, sister.

Here’s this week’s screen capture (I’ll tally the totals next time around):

Hot off the presses (62606)
Superman Returns
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
and Alex rides wild


rachel said...

Total shot in the dark: is it Only Angels Have Wings?

Scott said...

Best FX moment, for me, though it's a small one, is when Marty McFly in the first BACK TO THE FUTURE transports himself from the concrete grounds of the Twin Pines (Lone Pine?)Mall in 1985 and finds himself tearing through a field, knocking over a scarecrow.

Shot from Marty's P.O.V., through the windshield, as a kid it instantly opened up a world of awe and wonder, where time and space could shift in an instant.

(I also like the shot in the third one where the cardboard Indians turn into real Indians.)

No huge and elegant CGI was needed back then; just a little razamatazz, a little blue light, and off we go.

Scott said...

Oh, and for the screen capture: FREAKS?

Chad Evan said...


Alex Jackson said...

Jabba's death in Return of the Jedi. Wonderfully sloppy and wonderfully brutal. I just love that shot of his tongue flapping in the wind; like Empire that film was so casual about its special effects it just accepted that they were part of this environment.

Seattle Jeff said...

The kid in the wheelchair falling down the cliff in "Mac and Me"

That moment still brings a tear to my eyes.

raphael said...

the chest burster in Alien,and Tina´s rape in Nightmare on Elm street.I found them so inexpectedly brutal first time i saw them,i feared for what was coming next...Nightmare on elm street movies were as violent as you could get in mainstream horror until fairly recently wwhat with all the snuff pics like Hostel or Saw.

Walter_Chaw said...

That moment still brings a tear to my eyes.

HA, Jesus, yeah, me too.

Rachel & Scott:

Great guesses - the one a Hawks, the other a prominent film in another thread: you guys are getting too smart altogether. The ding-ding-ding goes to Mr. Evan, however, in bringing together the freaks element with the Hitchcock element.

It's Saboteur.

Seattle Jeff said...

Just watched "Bonnie and Clyde" for the first time...

Man, if you go to the IMDB page, you can check out Ebert's 1967 review...then you can log in to the insane 1967 New York Times review...the contrast is pretty amazing. You've got to give young Ebert a thumbs up on that one.

James Allen said...

Great Moments in FX History (cue fanfare)

The opening shot of the underside of an Imperial destroyer rumbling past the screen in Star Wars

The "headlights" going upward behind Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The destruction of Krypton in Superman

All three from around the same period of time when I was 9 or 10. Hardly surprising when I think about it. I don't think the best computer CGI in the world will get be as stoked as I was at those moments back then. Sucks being jaded, doesn't it?

James Allen said...

By the way, Walt, you mention you saw Click (you have a bad link to the review in your blog entry, by the way), yet Travis got the honor of reviewing it (or tearing it a new one.) Is this a sign that we'll be seeing more of Travis (and Alex and Bill) taking a bit of the load from you in the new release department? You're all great to read, so this is not a complaint of anything, just an observation.

By the way, any review forthcoming on A Prairie Home Companion? I saw it in New York last week, and I must say as an off and on fan of Altman, I'm definitely in the off department on this one. It's getting praised to the skies, but I was bored to tears.

rachel said...

Some of my favorite recent f/x:

The dirigible, A Very Long Engagement

The moonlit skeletons, Pirates of the Caribbean

That hole in the girl in the garden, Shaun of the Dead- mostly, I love it for it how it sets up the moment of
realization, and acts as such a fine punchline to all their prior doofishness. In any case, it's a swell way to end the first act.

The virus, Cabin Fever- Really, isn't this film basically just a showcase for its spectacle of half-eaten teenagers?

The bugs, King Kong- surely, the scariest bit from the picture?

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

The young Ebert obviously gets props on a lot of reviews. The issue however seem to be where he has misplaced his testicles since then. I have a feeling they will be found in future somewhere close to those of Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

Did you like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Walter? After reading your Oldboy review, I had hoped to see one materialize for Mr. Vengeance as well.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

has anyone here seen Chac: The Rain God ? I just fell upon this cult 70s movie by accident but it's my find of the year. I have a feeling you guys might really like it.

Jefferson said...

Never seen Chac, but I have a little Chac statue that sits on my TV at home. Got it at Chichen Itza. At least those Mayans were honest about what the gods demand of us.

Glad to read, Walter, that the new Supes doesn't disappoint. In the field of special effects memories -- I think it's the guy tearing his own face off in the mirror in Poltergeist. Either that, or the Yoda of Empire -- he was so much cooler when he was a puppet.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely cannot wait for Supes tomorrow. In the meantime, we all seen the Spider-Man 3 teaser trailer?

Sheila Lynne said...

I don't know if anyone else saw this, but when I read it, I just laughed and laughed: "And Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times simply dismisses it as "a glum, lackluster movie in which even the big effects sequences seem dutiful instead of exhilarating." - from IMDB Superman review

Bill G said...

In Ebert's review, he only seems concerned with plot points. For example, he says "Watching Superman straining to hold a giant airliner, I'm wondering: Why does he strain? Does he have his limits? Would that new Airbus be too much for him? What about if he could stand somewhere?" A guy who is concerned with something like this in a Superman movie probably can't be counted on to find any subtext.

Anonymous said...

Most of the negative reviews I've read of Superman Returns (including Ebert's) seem more or less disappointed that Superman doesn't punch enough things or that not enough people kneel before Zod. I suppose it's part of a perception, not unlike that of The Last Temptation of Christ, that we don't like to see our undefeatable icons given to fragility or frailty; I just hope that this attitude doesn't affect public perception too much.

With this in mind -- the concept that people don't like Superman when he's tampered with -- I sort of wonder why Superman II is so venerated. Watching it recently in preparation for Returns, I found it a kind of a middling love story that doesn't feature much beyond the villainous Kryptonians of the story dicking around humanity with their superpowers... which seem to be made up as they go along. (What's with that finger-pointing levitation thing?)

As for the Spidey 3 trailer, I really don't know. Hopefully they'll remember to find some kind of balance with all the new material they're shoving into it: Gwen Stacy, the origin of arch-nemesis Venom, another arch-nemesis in Harry Osborn's Green Goblin, and the Sandman? Never mind that the Sandman is kind of a dull character -- I'm sort of wondering if he's going to be in the film for another grab at a Special Effects Oscar.

Bill C said...

Ian: watched Superman II the other day myself, and I couldn't get over how awful it is. I mean, it's even more awful than it was the last time I saw it, which was before the current wave of comic book movies.

The problem falls squarely on the shoulders of Richard Lester. I think I said in my review that he's not a boy scout, but it goes beyond that--he has real contempt for the character and mythos. When Superman saves the boy who goes over Niagara Falls, Lester dubs in a bunch of schticky, atonal spectator dialogue like, "I'll bet he's Jewish." And there's no quality control to the special effects: fire is drawn onto the screen seemingly in as cartoonish a manner as possible. Because it's a live-action cartoon, get it?

I remember a couple of years ago an OFCS member unveiled his personal list of the 500 Best Movies Ever Made or something, and he had Superman II on there. He also had London After Midnight, even though it no longer exists and literally nobody has seen it since 1927, and still I think the Superman II was the more affected choice.

Scott Weinberg said...

Big props for the Orca love. Entertaining and insightful piece.

Jefferson said...

The Orca miscarriage sequence actually stands out for me as a compelling FX moment too, now that I recall it ..

Anonymous said...

Superman II is my favorite of the first four Superman movies; I think it has something that the other Superman movies don't (namely, real villains). I also think The Last Temptation of Clark is a pretty compelling storyline. I think it deals with the idea of being Superman better than the original. Granted, there are many things wrong with it: the constant, profoundly irritating spots of bad comedy, the loose grasp of superpowers, the "irreversible" loss of said powers, Superman picking on a guy who embarrassed him while powerless, etc. There is so much wrong there that I want to scream.

But most of these problems are also common to the first movie. I mean, Jesus, the original Superman features one of the all-time stupid deus ex machinas (http://www.smbc-comics.com/comics/20051122.gif). And Christ, how seriously can the first movie be taken when it has Gene Hackman as Luthor with sidekick Otis?

Anonymous said...

No doubt that Superman II has the kernel of some intriguing concepts. But, really, beyond the premise ("Freud meets High Noon," as Bill rather brilliantly put it) and Terence Stamp's iconic performance (probably the reason why the film is so revered) is there much going on? Kudos indeed to II that we actually get villains who are a physical threat to Supes, and the juxtaposition of the best day of Supes' life against humanity's worst is admirable, but they hammer in the idea too far. We spend an inordinate amount of time in Idaho for an underwhelming special effects brigade. (All right, you're blowing up the hick town, we get it.) Once we actually get to the Metropolis/Fortress of Solitude battle between Supes and the Kryptonians, it really only adds one superbeing to the mix, moving the same concept from a rural setting to an urban/futuristic setting. The special effects in the original are meant to be awe-inspiring; there's something oddly workmanlike about the stuff in II.

Along with that, I'd say that the ending of Superman is fairly self-conscious in its silly solution because it wants us to know the kind of stuff that we'll blindly accept because, hell, it's Superman. Same thing kind of goes for the characters of the film. Why does Luthor want to kill him? Why does Lois fall in love with him? It boils down to because he's Superman, naturally. It's an interesting combination of suspension of disbelief and the preservation of classic concepts. Of course, Superman Returns examines the character's inimitable nature with a heaping dose of sadness, posing him as a lonely, shadow-casting alpha male. There are aspects to Returns that actually make Superman II a far more interesting film than it actually is; I hope that this new '06 DVD set will, as rumored, feature a Donner-only version of II.

Anonymous said...

I was really, really disappointed in this movie because I am a HUGE fan of Singer's work.

But he blew it.

He allowed a ton of stupid little things to get into the script that it really detracted from the film, e.g., why on earth would you have Richard say "gee, wonder how tall Clark is or how much he weighs?" It is already a huge suspension of disbelief that only his glasses separate him from Superman. Don't call even more absurdity to our attention by having people actually TRY to make the connection and fail to do so.

He fell into the same trap that less talented directors do with the "let's let him die when we aren't watching so he can come back to kill us" deal. Austin Powers I makes fun of films that do that and I'm shocked Singer didn't figure out a way to avoid it. Never have a mano y mano between the hero and the bad guy and have the bad guy walk away assuming the hero is dead. Lex would have stabbed Superman in the eyes until his brains spilled out to make sure he was dead. Obviously you can't have that happen, so DON'T put them into a situation where you have no recourse but to have the villian leave the hero to die and not actually watch it happen.

How did he lift 200,000,000,000 tons of the crystal structure that far when the kryptonite was already exposed? Yeah, he went deep underneath to avoid it, but please....a teeny touch of it made him INSTANTLY vulnnerable to Lex beating the crap out of him (which was also silly...how does Lex knock a 225 lb guy off his feet and 20 feet backwards...but I digress). But with the land mass into space, he was able to "tough it out" to get rid of it?

Couldn't Singer have come up with a more interesting plot using the crystals to develop some kind of weapon or vehicle impenetrable by Superman? He used the same plot as Supe 1...expose him to kryptonite and create a "new land mass" to make money.

I will say that I very much liked the love triangle spin. THAT was original and smart. And although I would have kept us wondering about the origin of Jason, I'm okay with letting us know. It opens up a huuuuuge pandora's box...but I'll be interested to see where it leads.

Anyway, I had very high expectations for this film and maybe that's why I was let down. I just expect directors like Singer to be smarter than the average blockbuster (read: untalented) directors and this film fell short of being smart with so many inconsistencies, stupidities and unimaginative plotlines.

Here's to hoping he takes a step back next time and makes sure he doesn't expect us to swallow a billion tons of disbelief.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Superman Returns. Awwwesome ! Roger Ebert. Bat-shit crazy !

Max B. said...

My favorite FX moments are probably every FX moment in "Brazil," but I also think the frogs in "Magnolia" rank pretty high.

And, without having seen the movie yet, Walter's review of "Superman Returns" is one of the most astonishing pieces of film criticism I've ever read.

Anonymous said...

Superman Returns is showroom gorgeous with some welcome flashes of wit and subtle menace (courtesy of Spacey and Posey) but still burdened with the crushing self-importance which has afflicted virtually all of the recent comic book movies. Singer is more interested in staging iconic tableaus than a real Action Comix movie (there’s nothing faster than a speeding bullet here). This is not an inherently wrong choice; it’s just not very much fun. Singer’s film is really the film adaptation of the Lois Lane essay rather than an homage anything Siegel and Shuster (or Richard Donner) dreamed up. A skilled journeyman like Donner respected the source material without stalling out at the obvious Christian subtext—which is ultimately what makes Singer’s version so dreary, it’s a meditation on the idea of Superman rather than an unabashed portrayal of that do-gooder boy scout. The airline rescue in the baseball stadium hints at the true glory of Superman, a stirring bit of wishful thinking in a post-911 world—but it’s just a postcard image—an impressive symbol without any real context. The fun is missing. Aside from maintaining his tenure as a deity in tights, Superman also spent a lot of his time outwitting intelligent chimpanzees and devious imps in bowler hats. Contrary to what those funky ’78 vintage credits suggest, this is not a throwback—this baby has 2006 written all over it. Funny, there’s been a lot of press (via Kevin Smith) about satanic producer Jon Peters and his presumably loathsome idea of having Superman battle a giant spider in his preferred climax. Around the 125th minute, following Supes third Christ posture and more tortured glances from the youngest Pulitzer winner in history—I could have gone for some giant spider, and during Supes final, pre-credit triumphant lap around the earth—the thing most on my mind was. Smile, dammit. Chris Reeve would have smiled.

Max B. said...

I dunno - I think you're projecting what you wanted out of the movie onto it. I think that comic and graphic novel authors have been striving to be taken seriously for decades, and now that they have, to condencend to the films based on their work by wishing it were more fun, smiley, and slam-bangy while acknowledging that it works, just not on the level you want, is kind of patronizing. Like, "aw, you want to be serious, isn't that cute. Maybe you should stick to giant spiders." I think you really do hit on the iconic, meditative take on the subject, but I don't agree that that's somehow a bad thing.

I don't like to be the lapdog, but I think anything I could say myself about the movie couldn't do it nearly as much justice as simply saying "Walter, you were right."