April 23, 2006

The Trench

Second straight week of losing time means missing screenings and dropping deadlines. I did manage to squeeze out a few long-overdue DVD reviews, though, the first of which (for Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart) is live and the rest, once they get massive plastic surgery and transplants, soon to follow. One of them, a difficult-to-write review of King Vidor’s tearjerker The Champ probably won’t win me a lot of friends. I love King Vidor, though; his The Crowd is one of my all-timers.

Moderated a screening/discussion this week of Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, one of the best films of all time that has the misfortune in the United States of being in a egregiously under-valued medium. It’s anime, of course, the Japanese animation form that I won’t presume to be able to educate anyone about, but will say is home to one of the best pure, nasty action films of the last twenty years (Ninja Scroll); a few of the best children’s films (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away); and this, among the most heart-rending war films – yeah, I’ll say it – ever. The performances are astonishing, the direction assured, and the images indelible: it’s a picture that’s almost impossible to watch twice.

So you can imagine my disappointment when only seven people showed up for the screening (the Douglas County library draws an average of about fifty people to this series) – older folks, with a group of teens appearing early on but leaving before their seats were warm. In the United States, animation isn’t taken seriously as a medium for sober storytelling – I still think that Schindler’s List would’ve been better as a cartoon but, even as I finish typing that, someone’s writing me a flame mail calling me anti-Semitic. Believe me when I say that animation, by ironic dint of its state as completely produced media, is actually less distracting in most cases than non-animated pictures. Consider scenes of mass-urban-destruction in Grave of the Fireflies: were it live action, moments would be spent marveling at how such a special effect could be accomplished.

But in the US, animation is a dirty word.

Thank Disney for that though, ironically again, Disney is to be thanked for post-war Japan’s inroads into studio animation. Hopefully with the spate of recent, successful, adaptations of graphic novels – in particular, Rodriguez’s divisive (but inarguably animated) Sin City and Linklater’s upcoming A Scanner Darkly - the tide is turning finally on these shores towards mature pictures told, as some can only be told, with pencil and paper. Maybe it took the technological advancement of animation to make it momentous enough for sobriety.

Also did a discussion/screening of The Maltese Falcon with a wonderful crowd at Gilpin County: revisiting the Huston masterpiece as the first in five John Huston films that will include The Big Sleep (Bogie sans Huston), Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits (Huston sans Bogie), and Key Largo. What remains after this screening and analysis is my distaste for the casting of Mary Astor when Geraldine Fitzgerald proved unavailable – Astor is fine, I guess, for what she is, but Fitzgerald would’ve put the “femme” in femme fatale. A lot of the ambivalence of Sam’s final choice is lost to Astor’s too-literal, too-unsexy portrayal of the treacherous dame and a classic film gets its biggest black eye.

Still, it’s something like dizzy delight seeing Peter Lorre, Bogie, and Sydney Greenstreet squaring off here, armed with Huston’s storyboarded shots and Dashiell Hammett's ventriloquited dialogue – no wonder they work together again the very next year in Casablanca.

The week started with me at the Denver Public Library, talking a little Run Lola Run just a few weeks after presenting the film at Lone Tree. Good flick – starting to fray at the edges, though, under too much personal scrutiny. This coming week, just as packed, but I will catch shows of United 93, a civilian screening of the cool-looking Silent Hill, and probably Robin Williams’ just appalling-looking R.V.. I wanted to claw my eyes out during the preview. It does not bode well for the feature-length version.

Also this week, screening/discussion series Tuesday, 6:30pm at the DPL main branch of Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly; Thursday at 2:00pm at the DPL main branch (discussion only) of classic Westerns Stagecoach, Ox-Bow Incident, and Ride the High Country; and Saturday at 1:00pm at Gilpin County’s library of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Come out if you’re in the area, all shows are free.

Question of the week? Bad casting boners. Mary Astor in Maltese Falcon and Sofia Coppola, of course, in Godfather III (and for many of the same reasons) – casting that’s off enough to throw off the tone/intent of the films in which they’ve been shoehorned – which stand out in your mind?

Here’s this week’s capture and, in posting it, know that I know that we’re running over-limit without me keeping score very well. I’ll tally up this coming week and we’ll see what there is to see in regards to a winner this crazy round.

Hot off the Presses (4.25)

Bill provides the down & dirty on "Terry" Malick's The New World and Hayao Miyazaki's disappointing Howl's Moving Castle; Travis has nice things to say about The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; and I do the deed on the second season of Fox Network's fireman/caveman drama "Rescue Me".

Hot off the Presses (4.26)

The review of United 93 is up along with Bill's specs on Woody's Match Point.

Hot off the Presses (4.27)

Travis tackles the Mae West box set, and after a tally of this fourth screenshot contest, I find a tie - both winners, Bhuvan and David H, send me your addresses to walter@filmfreakcentral.net and I'll get your gifts out to you. Next week, we start fresh. Here's the final tally:

b. earnest – A Perfect World
bhuvan – One-Eyed Jacks & Minority Report
Ian – Element of Crime
Jefferson – War of the Worlds (1953)
hollow man – Ratcatcher
Stephen Reese – Jude
Adam N. – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
David H – Aguirre: The Wrath of God & Fahrenheit 451

April 17, 2006

Notes from the Trenches

Day late: feels like I’ve lost at least three in the last week or so. Lots of sleepless nights with the new baby which is, of course, a combination of joy and exhaustion – all’s well and thanks for all the well-wishes.

Did make it out last week to do a discussion/screening of Spider for the Lone Tree Library – the second-such discussion of this film in the last two weeks and as fruitful as ever. It’s a wonderful film, full of, I’m beginning to find, a real optimism about the human condition. I wonder if Cronenberg’s appeal to me isn’t tied up in some way to that eternal romantic roosting in the heart of his darker deconstructions. A colleague called him an alien, insectile perhaps, anthropologist and there’s certainly truth in that – I’ve thought of him more as in icy intellectual, for certain – but the more I see his films, the more I come to believe that they remain stickier in my mind than Kubrick’s (though, curiously, The Killing is something I think about a lot) mainly because for all their remove, they’re laced through with trace elements (and sometimes a good deal more than that) of genuine human warmth and curiosity.

Meanwhile – should have a working twofer of L’Enfant and The Devil and Daniel Johnston ready for Bill in time for Wednesday. Whether or not it’s a rewrite special given my headspace is another question altogether. Fear I’ve been churning out a lot of sow’s ears lately that Bill’s been spinning into silk purses, but I do hope to get the gears turning again after too long a layoff.

Being interviewed, too, for Matt Seitz’s blog by the intrepid Jeremiah Kipp in a series on film critics that includes Godfrey Cheshire and, later, Andrew Sarris and others – grand company and I’m embarrassed and gratified to be considered (by Mr. Kipp if no one else) in the same breath.

Will spend some afternoons this week at the dollar theaters and matinees catching up with all that I’ve missed and though the ship has sailed on reviews for their theatrical runs, will share some outline thoughts here in the blog prior to their full-length DVD treatments a couple of months down the road. First quarter of 2006’s been a rough one, critic-wise, and I’ll be glad to put the post-mortem on it. Can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to Superman Returns and the rest of the summer blockbusters.

I’m a sucker for the boffo – s’why I’m so tough on the failures, I suppose, 'cause it breaks my heart.

Did Ebert really actually love Akeelah and the Bee or am I having another one of those horrible acid flashbacks?

With the events of the last week behind me along with a lot of the pre-natal anxieties – the nagging question I want to pose is most alarming conceptions and/or births in screen history. Mine include the grown-man-vaginal-deliveries of Xtro and Gozu while the maggot-birth of The Fly remake (with Crony himself the surprised OB-Gyn (what, they don’t do ultrasounds?)) running a close second.

Here’s the capture:

Hot off the Presses (4.18)

It's good to be the King as Bill does the Mel Brooks collection's DVD premiere of High Anxiety. I chime in with a revview of Andrea Bianchi's sleazy and fascinating giallo Strip Nude for your Killer and Bill dresses down one young turk director with extreme prejudice in his DVD addendum to my somewhat divisive Wolf Creek/Hostel review.

24 hours down: here's another capture from the same film:

Hot off the Presses (4.19)

As promised: a twofer for Belgium's infants terrible, the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant (The Child) plus a new documentary on musician Daniel Johnston, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Also - tell me I'm wrong - Steven Seagal's Da Vinci Code:

April 13, 2006

Sneak Peek: The Film Freak Central 2006 Annual

In lieu of a Thursday update at the mother site, check out this sneak peek at the preliminary cover design for our 2006 Annual. (Click here for a larger, less-compressed image.) We're still in the very early stages of assembling it, but if all goes well it's going to be bigger and better and contain even more exclusive content than the 2005 Annual. As always, we welcome your suggestions on what you'd like to see included.

In the meantime, a few more online retailers (find them all hotlinked below) recently picked up the 2005 Annual, and if you were thinking of getting it but haven't yet, be advised that we'll probably pull it from circulation once the 2006 Annual goes on sale. A working preview of the book is now up at our Lulu storefront in .PDF format; it features my introduction as well as the "A" chapter of reviews.

April 10, 2006

Notes from the Trenches

Setting up a nursery tonight after months of procrastination: we’re checking into the hospital at 10:00am MST, having the c-section at 12:00pm, and being a household of four, officially, if all goes well not long after. Last few days have been a flurry of activity punctuated by long nights tossing and turning and thinking of my father who passed away about a month to the day before our first was born two-and-a-half years ago – why is “guilt” a major player again? In any case – too much on the back burner and am looking forward, perversely, to the time off after the birth to get my proverbial house in order and a few dozen titles off my backlog. The Landmark city manager out here is about a hair’s breadth away from sending out an APB on my AWOL ass. Might try to catch a morning screening of The Notorious Betty Page on Tuesday, depending on the hospital situation. It’d be nice to get back into the flow of it before the new baby makes life, and juggling responsibilities, suddenly a lot more interesting.

I did manage a screening of Akeelah and the Bee last week, a film that I won't review because of a conflict of interest that I have with the Starbucks corporation (and their employment of someone near and dear to me), and so all I can say is that unless things change, I won’t be able to put it on my bottom ten for this year. Think: more WWII Asian stereotypes from the fine distributors of Crash and the terms “looking like Rosie Greer” and “unfortunate echoes of What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and let’s leave it at that.

Did a fruitful Q&A of Spider with an extremely receptive audience at tiny Gilpin County Public Library and will do another with the same film at the comparably-sized Lone Tree Public Library this Friday. Spider has become one of my favorite speaking gigs – not just for its complexity and spare beauty, but because every time I show it, it becomes someone’s favorite movie. It’s also a lot less controversial than History of Violence: a picture that I’m finding it hard to show because of exhibitor squeamishness. Wenders says something about titles that are too programmatic and damned if he doesn’t make a fine point.

Later this month will find me speaking after a screening of Grave of the Fireflies while a local rotary club has asked me to keynote one of their monthly meetings next month. The Vail Symposium, under a new director, has called asking for ideas for a summer series and the Beaver Creek Film Festival is looking to expand with me along for the ride in some capacity. What’s that smartass Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times.

The DPL cinema club series is currently in the midst of screenings for Classic Westerns: Stagecoach, The Ox-Bow Incident, and Ride the High Country (discussion later this month, too) – and I’m continuing to get nice feedback for the Vail Fest’s panel – all in all, an overwhelming, exhausting, draining few days.

Apologies for the brevity and in-eloquence of this week’s post – got about an ounce of reserves left before it’s just fumes to the horizon.

Reading a remarkable collection of interviews done by the AFI and George Stevens, Jr., by the way - one that includes an invaluable chat with James Wong Howe: one of my favorite cinematographers of all time. There just aren't enough interviews with cinematographers. Currently reading the King Vidor and am mesmerized by his description of the tracking shot up the stairs in his The Crowd and how it paralleled, unconsciously, a bad memory of his from childhood.

It calls up the question of what your fave individual shot sequences are in film: whether or not they live in films of any relative value. My happiest Wong Howe moment is the grape-stomping scene during the bacchanal of Seconds' California fandango and the image it conjures of the conservative shutterbug, climbing in that vat with Rock Hudson and a few naked hippie chicks - I was saddened to learn that he and Frankenheimer had a falling out late in both of their careers. Odd one that comes to mind is Jackie Brown in the parking lot right after DeNiro kills Fonda: the sound editing in there is nigh orgasmic.

Here’s the screen capture, an easy one I think – see you on the flip, when my life is completely different again:

April 03, 2006

Notes from the Trenches

Working on this very piece tonight, I hear a racket from the backyard, open the door to find my dog a bloody mess. Got tangled up with something or another nasty back there and now, three hours later and five hundred dollars poorer, my pooch has something like forty sutures in her and enough morphine to kill a horse and I’m looking at not making the mortgage payment this morning. Hard not to feel sorry for myself today, turned 33, wife too pregnant to do much celebrating, and now I’m crawling into bed covered in dog blood and looking into taking out another loan in the morning so we’re not on the street come summer.

Yesterday, though, spent the morning at Vail for a critics’ panel discussing film criticism (among other things) and how it’s been changed in the digital age. For all that, I was the only Internet critic on a panel that included Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman and the Independent Weekly’s Godfrey Cheshire. Felt good to be there. Felt a little like a validation – particularly when I was referred to as possibly the best "non-analog" critic in the country.

I think I’ve made a friend of Cheshire, at least, who’s as affable and well-spoken in person as he is in print. Gleiberman seems a nice chap as well though I did disagree with him over a few things: his worst crime might be that his position as one of the most-read analog critics in the land insulates him from a lot of the indignities and outrages that I try to articulate once in a while here. When he and Cheshire talked about private screenings in lushly-appointed screening rooms in New York, I think back to the other day at a local mall’s multiplex amongst the abandoned popcorn bags and the stench of old nacho cheese, watching Basic Instinct 2 with my colleagues while overhearing one of them talk about how much he hated Citizen Kane because it was, among other things, “boring.”

Believe me when I say that this guy’s not a rebel: he’s just an ill-considered, low-brow boob that doesn’t have an argument beyond “I just think. . .” Hard to keep it level.

Gift bag from Vail included some very nice, expensive male toiletries, a lovely glass, an energy bar, and a magazine with Dennis Quaid on the cover.

Last week also saw me at the Denver Public Library discussing Nimrod Antal’s Kontroll – a film that I was enthralled by upon initial viewing over a year ago, but had cooled on to the extent that it didn’t even crack my top 30 to end last year. Revisiting the film with an audience, however, especially the impassioned comments of one woman I knew from the Argus Film Festival, has renewed my interest in this film as a fairly sophisticated Susan Faludi-influenced look at the destructive component of masculine competition. Coincidentally, as I waited for Raimi to get stitched back together again tonight, read an old Sports Illustrated article about a small town in Maine that had three of their high school football players kill themselves within a short period of time. Fact I learned from the piece that sticks is that while athletes are less likely to try, when they try, they’re more likely to either succeed, or gravely injure themselves in the attempt.

Also last week, presided over the second installment of the DPL’s Cinema Club where we talk about a group of movies that folks have had a month to view. This session included a talk and shot-by-major-shot dissection of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Incredible Shrinking Man, and Village of the Damned. The Cold War was the starting point, but the discussion soon went into a fruitful chat about our current situation in Iraq, about the intense sexual disorder and fear of noir and ‘50s sci-fi, and ultimately the cogent humanity of the WMD solution of Village of the Damned. Most surprising revelation to me was provided by a late arrival who, out of nowhere, suggested that it seemed to him that all the films were about secrets. Simple/complicated.

Anyone catch in Siegel’s Body Snatchers, by the way, the three prints decorating the pool room of the writer-friend? Pretty interesting stuff.

The spider mouth/vagina dentata imagery of The Incredible Shrinking Man, by the way, is a fascinating illustration of that film’s gender-displacement anxiety – among other things, of course. Especially when our tiny hero pinions said vagina with his mighty (pin) prick.

Audience this month twice that of last month. If that trend continues, in about a year, I should have a million people packed into that little conference room. I just hope that we get enough participation that the DPL doesn’t pull the plug for their summer session as they were threatening to do this week (pre-show) when it looked like no one would show.

Last thing: saw Slither late, but in time for a possible Wednesday pub-date on the review. It did awfully in its first week so you might not have much time, but go see it. It kicks ass.

Raises the question of favorite genre actor now that Nathan Fillion is climbing the list for me: gaining ground on the great Jeffrey Combs.

Here’s the capture:

(Hot off the presses - April 5) -

Bill completes (?) his trail-blazing work on "Dawson's Creek" with a review of its final season and finds time, too, to administer the DVD post-mortem on the moribund Fun with Dick & Jane remake. Travis, meanwhile, tackles a little giallo action with his humane treatment of How to Kill a Judge - and proves himself a workhorse with reviews of Chariots of Fire and Adam & Steve. I, on the other hand, only managed to squeeze out a review of Slither - a film I'm going to try to see again before it vanishes ignominiously from the theaters.

April 02, 2006

Subject for Debate: "Battle in Heaven"

Help me, if you will, with a problem that's been bothering me ever since Friday. That is, ever since the good folks at Exclaim sent me to the TIFF screening room to see Carlos Reygadas' latest freak-out, Battle in Heaven. It's frequently questionable; it's often spurious; it largely makes no analytical sense. And yet, somehow, I find myself loving it, in spite of my critical faculties and better judgement to the contrary.

From the first frames, it doesn't take long to see where Reygadas' head is at. He starts off with an ordinary-looking, middle-aged fat man being fellated by an impossibly good-looking young woman. I had been primed by the advance reviews that the fat man was working-class and the young woman was rich and privileged, but the director doesn't let you know until our man is seen following marching military police lovingly raising the Mexican flag. Then we discover that he's the driver for a general (the girl is the general's daughter) and that he's kidnapped a baby for the ransom- only to have the kid die on him. As he stands with his (even fatter) wife as she sells novelties and jellies in a train station, it's obvious that he's not going to get ahead.

So far, so good- a bit obvious (beyond that opener), but solidly in the Oppression is Bad camp. But as he drives that young woman around, it's discovered that this particular general's daughter has a double life as a prostitute. She even offers one of her smokin'-hot co-workers up for him, but he can't get it up for her: our man only has eyes for the General's daughter. Despite the fact that he's been driving her since she was tiny. And it's here that the sticking point comes: what does the girl's particular debasement mean? And how does it complicate the dichotomy of rich vs. poor?

It seems that Reygadas is seizing on the idea that to be rich is to be a young, beautiful girl who is completely unattainable. That is, he places himself (a male director) at the epicentre of oppression and the object of his desire as his master-tormentor. Which is not a good thing. Using one's own sexual frustration as the vehicle for materialist critique is under-the-table all the way: it says more for the frustration than for the critique. You can practically see him nudging the men in the audience and saying "ain't capital a bitch?" and then pointing at the girl. It's reductive, it's shallow, and it doesn't do his cause any favours.

And yet, I found myself enthralled by the film, much more than a Marxist Letters to Penthouse ever could. Every shot is interesting, every cut a provocation; there isn't a dull or predictable association in its visual/editorial arsenal. There's a long sequence shot through the driver's windshield with overlaid with the girl talking to a lover on her cell; her obliviousness and the subjectivity of the camera says it all for being an ignored entity on the fringes of the wealthy and powerful. And Reygadas' total frankness with bodies makes the sex scenes like none you've seen, with bodies explored (or more to the point, presented) with nonchalance and regret. The whole thing is weird with a beard, and with one of those infuriating Bruno Dumont endings that you'd view with contempt if it didn't make you feel thrillingly awful in ways you never thought possible.

So my question is: do the fringe benefits of a bravura plastic artist make up for his not-terribly-bright social reading? Or is the window dressing just distraction from the hole at the centre of his argument? I open the floor for opinions.