December 28, 2007
First, the plug: the FFC 2007 Annual is on sale now. Please buy one. I held my first one today in the basement of Denver's Mayan Theater because, in Colorado, Landmark is carrying the book at all its locations. Call your local Landmark and ask why they're not doing the same. We get this thing viral and suddenly we're in business for another ten years. It's also the first time, by the way, that I read the complete Neil LaBute preface and. . . holy shit.
Okay - business at hand: just turned in my Top Ten for the year - let's hear your Bottom Ten.
Ground rules: let's not kick the hapless; let's go after the genuinely vile. People ask me what my favorite movie is all the time and that's easy - people ask me what my most-hated is at all time and I say that it changes every year. Flip? Yeah. But I sort of mean it. I'll show you mine if you show me yours.
Happy New Year.
December 25, 2007
"There's no Godfather-like pathos to mine in this Francis Ford Coppola dramedy," or so claims the Netflix description of Peggy Sue Got Married. At first, it sounds like sniveling, "where did he go wrong" sarcasm in relation to Coppola's astonishing body of work through the '70s--but you finally watch the movie and you can't help but think, Well, why isn't there any? Somehow the story of a woman transported twenty-five years into the past, back to the halcyon days of high school, feels like it should carry a lot more weight than it does here. But I'm beginning to suspect that time travel films only have the capacity to be great (the first two Back to the Future films, Time After Time, even Frequency and Groundhog Day, in a sense) when your travellers are complete aliens at the mercy of an uncrossable generation gap. Bring them back to a familiar era and it's just a nostalgia trip, the curious fulfillment of regrets and what-if scenarios carried out in the same manner as a play date with action figures representing the people in your life. Oh, if only you had been nicer to that kid, if only you had asked that dreamy boy out on a date--well, to whom could it possibly matter outside of your dumb ass? Peggy Sue Got Married is told from such a one-sided perspective that it's almost suffocating.
It's only natural that we should land on Coppola's nephew Nicolas Cage as a lonely beacon of interest--as Charlie Bodell (Peggy Sue's 1960 beau-turned-1985 estranged husband), he is as close to an alien as his identity will allow as a resident of this era. Critical examinations can't seem to decide whether Cage based his squeaky, naïve accent on Gumby's pal Pokey or Donald Duck, both of which he has claimed at various times--it's a brilliant compromise between the two, if you ask me, one that finds a literalized voice to teenage angst: the desire to fit in with your dull-as-dishwater surroundings, constantly haunted by the threat that your emotions will bubble over uncontrollably. Working from that "outcast" line of thought, by the way, you can find an early indication of Cage's strange link to vampirism, three years before Vampire's Kiss. Take a look at our two introductions to Charlie in a physical form: a foreboding, almost supernatural presence in 1985, a mysterious figure watching passively from the shadows; and "later," this is referenced to comic effect in 1960, adopting a Hollywoodized Romanian accent as he approaches the time-displaced Peggy Sue during a blood drive.
It's this kind of tease that makes me wish the film looked beyond the obnoxious, self-centered titular character; I particularly ached to see more scenes that featured Cage and Jim Carrey as old buddies in the same doo-wop group. More than just a desire to see a couple of irrepressable screen presences act the part of Martin and Lewis, however, they share a real kinship in this film. Their personalities and interactions here seem to better explore the wounds that a figurative and literal return to high school would hypothetically open, something that the film itself casually sidesteps in letting Kathleen Turner do whatever the fuck it is that she does here. (Seriously, I'm mystified.) There's a precious scene during the 1985 school reunion when Carrey's Walter Getz flies into humorous faux-outrage when the school nerd (Barry Miller) is singled out as a success; in 1960, he offers an exaggerated gag at the suggestion that the nerd is writing a book, which might expose gentle ribbing as genuine hatred spread out across several decades. Doubtful that anyone but Carrey could possess the bombastic energy necessary to pull that off, and Cage seems like the other side of the same coin, exuding a sense of projective defeat in his past and future. It's as if the older Charlie has been secretly transported back to the past along with Peggy Sue, as if he knows that his plans for life and love will result in rejection twenty-five years later. It's this general emotion that leads to another near-vampiric moment--Charlie/Cage's weird, orgasmic gasp just before locking lips with Peggy Sue upon the suggestion of dancing as a mating ritual.
The only time that Charlie/Cage seems at ease is when he's singing in that doo-wop group, The Definitions. Witnessing Cage's complete comfort in this scenario gives a slight indication as to why, from his adulation of Elvis and Brando to his onscreen indulgence in leather-jacketed motorcycle rebellion, the actor seems so keen to emulate the artistic and cultural trends of the 1950s: he subscribes to a similar sense of incompleteness, a visceral stream-of-consciousness that often results in breathy, guttural noises and half-thought expressions. (Compare Cage's performance here to that of Kevin J. O'Connor, who quakes with false intensity and subsequently becomes a pale parody of Beat poetry.) The excitement and cheer to this effect inverts after some music bigwig informs Charlie that he just won't make it in the industry: "Elvis is dead--that's Ajax," he tells Peggy Sue when she mistakes one of his dogs for another. Cage drops the first half of this phrase with such leaden finality that the heartbreak of a dead dream is all that we can hear; even we, in the ironic dead-Elvis age, cannot hear it any other way.
The key scene for Cage/Charlie comes earlier, however--not when things are at their bleakest but when they are at their most uncertain. Cage understands that Charlie is at his absolute lowest when he allows his mind to tear itself apart with doubt. After a brief, creepy moment wherein Charlie silently contemplates smothering Peggy Sue in her sleep, she admits that she and Mike (O'Connor) had "gone for a ride." He grabs her in a brief rage; the DVD subtitles claim that Charlie's response is "Then it's true! Damn it!", but it comes out like a vague mashup of enraged syllables, an almost cathartic burst of emotion upon a partial explanation. In suggesting Cage as her romantic opposite in Moonstruck, Cher supposedly likened his performance in Peggy Sue Got Married to watching a two-hour car crash--and this is the scene that best exemplifies those sentiments, as Charlie ever-so-slowly falls apart while recounting the only kind of analogy that he can muster: "When The Monotones did 'Book of Love', chapter four--'you break up, won't you give it one more chance'--I'm thinking, 'Did we break up?'" On the last two words, Charlie/Cage's voice completely submits to the Donald Duckness and seems to hit a pocket of helium. He clasps his neck, clears his throat and continues. Accidental or not, the moment's integration into the film represents Coppola's ultimate defense of his nephew's performance, and his understanding that Cage's treatment was the right one for the role: only barely keeping it together as a messy collection of desires and preconceived notions, liable to burst at any moment.
Trading the shadow cast by Kathleen Turner's overbearing presence for the shadow cast by the Coen Brothers' burgeoning auteurism in Raising Arizona, Cage also injects a dose of sad humility into H. I. "Hi" McDunnough, a corner store-robbing recidivist sporting a head of hair that shuffles through various stages of messiness between scenes and shots alike. The problem with the film itself is that the Coens understand the basic forces at play in a screwball comedy, but don't spend enough time exploring their characters to give any credence to the wacky scenarios into which they are thrown. On three separate occasions, William Forsythe and John Goodman spend a good minute or so screaming at the top of their lungs, and it's a hollow release. There's a little sorrow to be felt when it is realized that Cage will be playing the straight man--you keep thinking that he could probably teach everyone a thing or two about screaming with the correct level of crazed intensity. But the fact that this outrageous man is poised as the voice of reason contained in a world of insanity results in a strange passion that Raising Arizona has difficulty locating on its own.
Indeed, the hindsight benefited by Cage's career seems to point to casting against type, ideologically as well as practically: bounty hunter/Leonean spectre of death Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb, an obvious progenitor of No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh) is introduced into the mix via one of Hi's precognitive dreams, described by him as "the lone biker of the apocalypse; a man with the powers of hell at his command." Knowing all that we know about Cage now, the implications are impossible to ignore--Smalls is like Johnny Blaze, n'est-ce pas? I particularly like the disgusted quiver in Cage's voice, trying so hard to convince us that he didn't think that this motorcycle rebel was the awesomest thing ever. That might seem like a stretch, but it's not like it could have been accidentally prescient, either; by posing lifelong comic book fan Cage (Nicholas Coppola's stage name was chosen in honor of Luke Cage, Power Man) as the horrified/awed narrator for this obviously Ghost Rider-like entity, Raising Arizona reflects on our own reaction to the cinematic culture of cool, admiring this demonic man with a satisfied grin as he casually blows bunnies and lizards to kingdom come.
As its silly baby-kidnapping plotline progresses, Raising Arizona becomes something of a Feed the Kitty scenario, with the whole world envisioned as a domino-effect deathtrap and Cage/Hi playing the role of both oblivious victim and exasperated savior. (The film directly acknowledges its forebears early on, during the scene in which Hi attempts to kidnap an Arizona quint while leaving the others undisturbed, sweat pouring down his face.) Having successfully survived his three strikes as a petty criminal, Hi has acquired a certain level of invincibility, given the supernatural ability to outrun both the ever-compounding forces of law and death in the film's slapstick centerpiece--a sequence that succeeds thanks to Cage's dedicated concentration, a certain feeling of hidden exasperation that very rarely betrays the fact that Hi is playing it all by ear.
This newfound aura hasn't come without a price, however, as realized by one of Cage's subtlest moves as Hi: his right eye involuntarily twitches whenever he is placed in immediate danger from another human being--such as his knock-down, drag-out brawls with Gale (Goodman) and Smalls in the third act of the film--as if he's already prepared for the black eye he's about to receive. Certainly Hi tries to fight back, but his battle cries come in the form of scratchy, high-pitched howls and confused babbling, leaving his eye as the only honest indicator of how he feels about his predicament. It's an intentionally half-hearted performance that interprets the character's misanthropic tendencies as embarrassed loneliness: note that, even when he is knocked to the floor while tied to a chair, Hi only lets loose with his deepest, loudest shout after he has been assured that his assailants will not be returning--watch Cage turn a bright shade of red the instant that Gale closes the door for the final time. It all brings into question an earlier scene in which Hi winks with his right eye while trying to convince his wife Ed (Holly Hunter) to let him play with old friends, then immediately submits when she refuses. Throughout the film, Hi/Cage acts the part of a sensitive, capable hero when alone, but becomes a beaten dog whenever anyone else enters the picture. He's so humbled by his checkered past and how he has unintentionally caused harm to others that he can't even recognize how special he is.
How, then, do you take the moment when Hi kills Smalls, pulling the pin from a grenade on his vest seconds after learning that they share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo? "I'm sorry," Hi just barely whispers with the pin dangling from his fingers, his eye having finally closed from the beating he's received. Whether Hi is Smalls' son, whether he is a simple representation of his criminal past, or whether he recognizes that they're both on the same mad, murderous quest--he seems to know that he's killing a part of himself. (Which, in itself, offers another level to Hi's fear of Smalls.) The brief, shit-eating grin that Cage wears as he scrambles to his feet, however, almost renders the following emotional redemption redundant: it's a flash of comprehension that someone else will be taking the lumps from now on, a transferrence of Hi's unwanted identities as a perpetual criminal and cosmic whipping boy into an appropriate avatar that is subsequently destroyed. Although Hi seems to have his doubts until the very final moments before the end credits, the fear and loathing leaves Cage after this altercation, at last presenting himself to the world, emotionally naked--not a gesture that represents Hi throwing in the towel, but recognition that he can take on all comers.
December 19, 2007
At long last, I have finally uploaded my 2005 short film Hieronymous Bosch's Heck on Youtube! The impetus I needed to go through with it? Andrew Blackwood's Slap, a short film premiering on Dennis Cozzalio's blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Rule, that I absolutely hated. I said as much in the comment section.
Posting this is, arrogantly, my reaction to it. I think that what I did is better, though God only knows there's room for improvement. But you could also consider this as me putting my own neck on the chopping block.
Something else I've been meaning to share. I saw Enchanted the night after last and knowing that it's a minor hit, while truly great films that played at this same mall multiplex like The Assassination of Jesse James, The Darjeeling Limited, and No Country For Old Men seem to have been slow to gain an audience. What exactly is the appeal of this? I hit the internet movie database with my complaints on the film and some questions for the fans (doing moderately OK in supressing my condescending snootiness) and was actually rather surprised at the results.
Finally, I'm working to get a review out of the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol before Christmas. VCI's "Ultimate Collector's Edition" is, to give you the short version, one of the strangest DVD packages I've ever seen. Won't get into specifics as of now, but it got me wondering. Which DVDs have you seen that are actually successful as works of art, complementing the films that they house to the point where those who viewed only the theatrical release aren't getting the whole picture.
Two examples from me to let you know what I'm talking about: Capturing the Friedmans which has an exhausting but not exhaustive second disc of material that attempts to address many of the complaints made against the film. The DVD itself suggests the inadequacy of the documentary form, a dominanting theme in the film. It seems that every statement needs to be qualified and then the qualification must be qualified, and there is no end to it. The more you go searching for the "truth" behind the matter the further it pulls away.
Then there is the 2001 Special Edition of Platoon which features two audio commentaries, one by Oliver Stone and the other by military supervisor Captain Dale Dye. These audio commentaries are also included in the 20th Anniversary 2-Disc Collector's Set, along with a second disc of material; but I'm including the 2001 version because the commentaries make up a greater proportion of supplementary material (it's them, the terrific 52-minute documentary "Tour of the Inferno", a photo gallery, TV spots, and a trailer) and more honestly, because it's the version I own.
What intrigued me about the commentaries is that Stone is a "stoner" and Dye is a "juicer" (beer not 'roids). This emphasizes the dualistic quality in the film, how it's not an anti-war film or a pro-war film but both. It's easy to mistake Tom Berenger's Sgt. Barnes (juicer to Elias' (Willem Dafoe) stoner) as the villain of the piece, but he in fact informs the values of the film equally. When Chris (Charlie Sheen) kills him at the end of the film, it's not hypocrisy but Oedipal fulfillment. In killing Barnes, he shows that he has become Barnes. Stone suggests in his commentary that this doesn't represent a moral failure on Chris' part but a moral victory. This would not have sunk in as much if there were a third commentary, if we only had Stone's track, or if he shared one with Dye or somebody else.
Peter Greenaway provocatively states that film is dead and the future is in multimedia. These two DVDs suggest to me that he might be right.
December 16, 2007
Final tally, by the way: 216 films reviewed, 30 of which we're formally critiquing for the first time.
Click the image below to check it out. Thank you in advance for your patronage.
December 14, 2007
December 10, 2007
December 05, 2007
It may seem like a matter of putting the hopelessly-crazy cart before the socially-integrable horse to start off a Nicolas Cage retrospective with Vampire's Kiss, but it may be the film that best represents my intentions in starting this little project: the exploration of Nic's routinely over-the-top acting beyond giggling face value. In a wonderful feature-length commentary for the film with director Robert Bierman, Cage mentions that "over-the-top is one of those things that doesn't work with me, 'cause I don't believe in such a thing. I feel that it's just stylistic choices--and this was obviously a choice to use grand gesture and go bigger." A reasonable enough explanation, because a deeper look validates his performance here as something more than just madness for madness' sake--it may be hilarious when the actor flails his arms and screams the alphabet, but realize that this occurs upon the slight suggestion that his character has committed a misdeed and you'll find that pinning everything down becomes a lot more difficult.
After all, Vampire's Kiss isn't about a man descending into insanity so much as it is about a neurotic corporate asshole's transformative search for redemption--it avoids the pitfalls of Michael Clayton, however, by better realizing that such people are trapped by what they know, and by how they have operated their entire lives in clawing their way to the top; their idea of redemption only means being absolved of wrongdoing. The film doesn't have an ounce of sympathy for its lead character, Peter Loew (Cage), by any account a complete fraud in everything that he does: his dragging, "Continental" accent is a put-on to make himself seem more worldly (Cage mentions that he got the idea from his father, who adopted the same accent as a professor of comparative literature); he has little desire to admit fault during sessions with his therapist, Dr. Glaser (Elizabeth Ashley); and his day job as a literary agent seems to have little consequence beyond harassing his secretaries. It eventually wears down on him when he recognizes some never-fully-explained sexual inadequacy in the form of a wayward bat. After what is surely his most flagrantly prickish act (without a second thought, he skips out on love-interest-of-the-moment Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) when he excuses himself to go to the bathroom), he receives a sharp rebuke on his answering machine--to which he drawls a depressed response from his ersatz psychiatrist's couch. ("Yeahhhh, well fuck youuuu tooooo, sister.") Loew finally recognizes that he is a bad person and sets out to do something about it: make sure that he can come up with a good excuse. In that case, you could call the preceding scene--his vampiric encounter with Rachel (Jennifer Beals)--a retroactive fantasy, a one-night-stand purposely misinterpreted to set a plan into motion.
At first, Loew's regular bouts with hallucination feel like a forged doctor's note, a conscious attempt to exploit his innate eccentricity--and there's a distinct feeling that he already gets away with a lot of things based on that alone--entering a false plea of insanity to pardon everything that he's ever done. (Note that, after a hollow apology to Jackie, Loew's first post-bite vision of Rachel prevents him from attending a follow-up date.) The problem is, of course, that the plan works too well. In order to convince others that his natural douchebaggery is worthy of forgiveness, he believes that he must convince himself that he is a monster controlled by supernatural urges--eventually ending with his death in a state of grace mandated by "it wasn't his fault." Cage's primary treatment of the material as slow transformation (rather than as simple loss of mental capacity) can be traced to an early scene: after chanting his secretary Alva's (Maria Conchita Alonso) name from a mumble to a shout, Loew finally storms out of his office--and in one athletic move, he leaps on top of a desk and points an accusatory finger at her: "There you are!" When Alva instinctively runs out to the hallway, notice how Loew initially gives "chase"--mixing the confident stride of a go-go eighties power-player with the unstoppable gait of Michael Myers.
But the most prominent among Cage's touted influences in playing Loew (alongside Mick Jagger and the Brando of Reflections in a Golden Eye) is another great screen bogeyman, Max Schreck. Only one scene shows Loew watching Nosferatu, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had become a nightly ritual for him, picking up villainous traits here and there in order to better convince others that he is a menace to society that must be vanquished. In that, there's another example of how you can follow Cage's inexorable build-up--after cruelly berating Alva with great big bug-eyes and a weird, rectangular grin, he calls after her with a touch of sadness in his voice: "Don't you wanna use your gun, Alva?" Loew soon realizes (after the "formal" viewing of Nosferatu) that he must adapt some rudimentary sense of charm before he can convince anyone that this run-of-the-mill eccentric dickhead has transformed into a vampire. Thusly come some of the oddest scenes in a film full of much louder oddities: shortly after eating a cockroach, Cage/Loew does his best to embody Schreck in his entirety, visiting Alva's home when she fakes sick. He attempts to curry her favor with apologies and "soup!" while arching his shoulders and tucking his arms into his body in such a way that he comes to resemble a crooked, German Expressionist stick. At last, after this bout of charm is replaced with more invective, Alva is convinced to fill her gun with blanks provided by her brother Emilio (Bob Lujan).
Alas, Loew's imagined self-pity reaches its apex when he discovers that the blanks fail to do him in, crying out loud, literal sobs of "boo hoo" as Alva lies unconscious next to him. It seems that, in his latest attempt to turn Alva into his personal Van Helsing, Loew has raped her--but it is of no concern to him. Such a self-conscious act of prefab emotion draws attention to the several layers of "actor" that embody this character (Cage as Loew as "Continental" Loew as "Vampire" Loew) and the "Method" attempt to bypass anything that could possibly stand in the way of the performance. It's an idea enforced by Loew's subsequent spree through the streets of New York ("I'm a vampi-yah! I'm a vampi-yah!") which perfectly captures Cage's palpable joy at being able to shake loose any misgivings and go bigger, to use those grand gestures--and, handily, it also reflects Loew's masked elation at achieving a vital step towards freedom from responsibility.
But Loew finds that he is in need of external validation, because his "former" self is gnawing away at his newly-discovered vampirism--with only a few dollar bills in his wallet (never mind the credit card), Loew plays the cheapskate, eschewing professionally-crafted fangs in favor of dime-store plastic. The scenes that follow may be inherently ridiculous--acknowledged by the dramatic music sting when Loew sticks the fangs in his mouth--but watch how Cage plays the next few scenes, with his forays into exaggeration borne of complete earnest: Loew's call to his therapist through his new choppers (his desperate pleas to reschedule an appointment are actually heartrending in a knee-jerk pathetic kind of way); the capture and devouring of a pigeon; and finally the murder-by-neckbite of a young woman at a discotheque--which plays out like a self-contained, minute-long version of Dracula and represents Cage/Loew's most valiant attempt to encompass his identity in the hallucination. But it's all for naught--even his visions of Rachel have begun to mock him for his inability to completely succumb to the night.
And so he continues into the dawn, begging for someone to kill him with a makeshift stake. Wandering down the street, wailing at the top of his lungs, he soon walks face-first into the corner of a building (silent horror becomes silent slapstick), an interruption which he naturally interprets as his appointment with his therapist. The scene alternates between the reality and the imaginary; the latter features a newly-invigorated Loew, announcing that he has decided to abandon his therapy sessions and that he will search for love on his own. What I really adore about Cage here is that, cutting back and forth as they do, the two versions of Loew flow together so nicely--the upstanding, self-sufficient hero and the slobbering, blood-drenched maniac are both such outrageous fantasies on either side of an acting spectrum that they circle around and meet each other.
But Alva's brother, dramatically set up in the last few minutes of the film as some ever-approaching avenger/demon slayer, storms into his apartment as a whimpering Loew brings the "stake" to his chest; Emilio obliges and forces it in. At this point, Cage performs his final act of reining it in: after a brief, painful scream, he slowly brings his arms to his side, his final thoughts being of Rachel, begging that he dream of her. In other words, the asshole wins because we've taken him up on his fantasy. He had it comin', but we've all got it comin', kid--Loew has beaten the rap by dying on his own terms, successfully pleading "not guilty" to the crimes committed during his life by reason of supernatural monstrosity, and his mind has finally thrown up the white flag and forgiven him. Cage mentions that he didn't want Loew to go out quietly, and perhaps he doesn't--but Loew's death rattle is not exaggerated in any way, which emphasizes his mortality and drives the point home that this is an inappropriate end for such a horrible person. The dual expectation for more histrionics and some form of cosmic retribution leads to one inevitable, "unfair" conclusion: he should be going out in a much louder fashion.
November 29, 2007
I just saw Southland Tales, shortly before the box office plans to perform its mercy killing. Long story short, it just strikes me as all so much non-directional bile. The problem isn't that it doesn't make sense, it's that everything's so freakin' clear in its complete and utter contempt for the movies, for the avant-garde, for art in general, for philosophy, for itself, for its audience, and for anything else that comes within fifty feet of it. After a lot of self-conscious blather vaguely related to philosophy, sex, media, politics, literature and poetry, its one ultimate truth seems to be that "no one rocks the cock like Krysta Now [a porn star/media darling played by Sarah Michelle Gellar]," apparently the coda for humanity at the apocalypse. Because those words come from a smarmy, omniscient voice at the tail end of a cocktail party, it might be seen as some hyper-absurdist satire if it weren't for another piece of omniscient narration (from none other than Mr. Dick-in-a-Box himself) that quotes from the final lines of The Hollow Men; "whimper" and "bang" switch places in such a way that seems to imply that even the bangs themselves are ultimately whimpers. "No one rocks the cock" becomes an entirely earnest statement--none of it matters, metaphors are useless, and everything is so fucking stupid, so why bother trying to figure anything out?
Southland Tales' greatest crime in this regard may be how its plot and cast contrivances (an awful, nonsensical script that serves as the figurative and literal stand-in for the film; hiring washed-up actors to play washed-up actors-turned-political activists) act as ironic-cum-nihilistic reflections on the accepted conventions of "art" and "indie" films (non sequitur and dreamlike scenarios; the tendency to cast unknowns and b-listers). In doing so, it ignores any other directions that these "genres" have taken, and boils "good" and "bad" to immutable, objective concepts--in this case, it only recognizes and defines "bad." Immerse yourself too deeply into those immutable, objective concepts and you won't be able to see anything beyond those strict parameters. Encompassing yourself in irony comes at a price, after all, and you can't help but think about how this mentality has already creeped into societal acceptance. How would a kid raised on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" respond to a film of dubious intentions like Red Dawn? Counting myself as a member of that misbegotten generation--and not having been old enough to care when the Soviet Union collapsed--well, I'm still not entirely sure. But after I saw Southland Tales, I started wondering if my own relationship to cinema was capable of that brand of reductive hostility, and I found a concept to discuss in my long and storied history with Nicolas Cage.
You may have guessed by my throwaway mention in the "Shark: Season One" review that I have a particular affinity for Cage's batshit-nuts performances--but ask any of my friends and they'll tell you that "Screamin' Mad" Nicolas Cage is a recurring topic of discussion and fairly reliable running gag. Dude screams, dude grimaces, dude is hilarious. I'm not sure where all of that started, precisely--might've been after The Wicker Man, when that out-of-context "comedy of the year" clipshow started circulating on YouTube; maybe it was when I saw his manic, arrested-development performance in Ghost Rider; or maybe it didn't really gain momentum until I found his Japanese pachinko commercials. I've long considered these examples as hilarious for essentially the same reasons and never thought twice about it--but, of course, Wicker Man was intended as a thriller and the commercials were meant to be silly and a little unhinged. Contemplating that clipshow, I'm forced to wonder if these (mis)interpretations have had an adverse effect on my ability to properly discern Cage as anything but some knowing/unknowing avatar of wackiness. The guy won an Oscar some twelve years ago, but it's a lot easier to just pigeonhole him as a pleasant nutjob and leave it at that. I watched Face/Off again recently, and man, Cage is just wonderful in it. But is my admiration just post-ironic hangover?
Another example: just about everyone I know died laughing when they saw Nic play Fu Manchu for Werewolf Women of the SS--despite the fact that we all knew that it was coming. Why did we think it was so funny? Because it was just another example of Cage's madness? Because he had found the perfect outlet for appeasing a projected image to the masses? For all intents and purposes, Cage is the halfway point of Grindhouse, smack dab between the tiring post-modern sarcasm (Planet Terror) and the genuine post-modern self-analysis (Death Proof)--and by the same token comes the uneasy task of categorizing and understanding Cage's craziest performances.
Trying to figure this man out, then, has challenged my critical faculties, and I need to step up to the plate. So over the next few weeks, I'll be watching some of Nic's films--Raising Arizona, Vampire's Kiss, It Could Happen to You, Leaving Las Vegas, Face/Off, Adaptation., Ghost Rider, and more--and discussing them here on the blog through the prism of his performances and his career as a whole. Stay tuned.
November 12, 2007
So – fighting a flu that’s had me tits up for about six full days now. Get your flu shot. My productivity took one right in the pants.
Got in trouble a little with the local publicists this week over our posting of an I’m Not There review before its limited (?) release on the 21st. A quick check revealed that the embargo I was breaking had already been broken by Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Ebert’s website, Time, The New York Observer, Movie City News, the Brussats, Rich Cline and so on – making me wonder, specifically, what the fucking point of it all is and what was being threatened exactly. I half expect to receive a screener of it in the next day or two, making me wonder even more fervently who’s penalizing whom and for what.
No hiding the fact that 2007 is shaping up in my mind as a watershed year in pictures. Still a few more, There Will Be Blood high amongst them, before it’s all in the can – but I’m chuffed, man, it’s been great.
RIP Norman Mailer.
Did anyone see Lions for Lambs or Bee Movie or, better yet, Martian Child?
Watched Being John Malkovich again for the first time since seeing it multiple times in the theater and, man, it’s fucking amazing. I’d forgotten more than I’d remembered. Kaufman is like this amazing alien intelligence. Good festivals could be made of his stuff; Ashley Judd’s, and Wes Anderson’s too. It’s given me an idea of a new book of critical essays. Think I’ll run it by Bill.
Anyone have a lead on the theatrical cut of Blood Simple on
Been watching a lot of Disney classics lately what with a four-year-old needing “good night shows” and all and have come to the conclusion that most of them are psychotic when they’re not just garden-variety homicidal – they are almost to a one not useful in any significant way in dealing with conflict, preaching the idea that the best way to deflate The Shadow is to stick it with a knife. Tie in the racism and general misogyny and marvel no longer that
Reading Proust nowadays – along with Lee Server’s biography of Ava Gardner. Weird how it jibes.
Looking forward in a sick-to-my stomach way to I Am Legend - missed, to my dismay, a screening of The Mist. One of the last long-form stories I’ve liked from Stephen King. The ending, I remember, is especially bleak. King at his best for me captured a sort of winsome melancholy – like that story “The Reach” that’s all about remembrances of things past – and of course “The Last Rung on the Ladder” and “The Woman in the Room”.
Here’s a lunchtime quiz: best Stephen King stories not yet translated to film.
October 22, 2007
October 12, 2007
“Write what you know,” you know?
I’m not terribly interested in the concept of a “guilty pleasure.” Just because you got high and laughed your ass off during Norbit, it’s unlikely that you’d really say it’s good. I’m far more interested in a “shameful ethical stance.” I genuinely think Pumpkin is excellent, but I’ve struggled to articulate exactly why that is, so I’m left with awkward pronouncements like, “No, I really do think it’s good.”
But sometimes, we don’t even bother with the stance. No one wants to look like a dumbass, especially since everyone’s born with the psychic ability to sense the impending judging eyes of dumbass accusation. So we hide our unpopular beliefs.
Well, I’d like to call them out. About a week ago, I found myself defending Fantastic 4: Rise of the Awkward Cultural Artifact, and mocking Nicolas Cage. I feel dirty about it. If we can’t honestly discuss art, how can we discuss that which is truly important in life, like socialized medicine, or the role revenge plays in morality, or Jenna Fischer?
So if you secretly think Billy Joel is the greatest recording artist of his generation, tell us. (Remember, I don’t want to know if you occasionally enjoy singing Piano Man karaoke. You really have to believe he’s good.)
If you think, as I do, that After Hours is the only truly great film Marty’s ever made, tell us.
Still not sure exactly what I'm looking for?
Hi, my name is John and I think Ben Affleck is the most underrated actor of his generation. He was just unlucky to run into a couple of directors who were incapable of protecting him.
Your turn. I refuse to believe that everyone is cooler than I pretend to be.
September 25, 2007
And here's a direct link to a thought-provoking rumination by the great Bryant Frazer on the half-life of Miramax's fraudulent marketing tactics circa the mid-1990s. It made me remember a drunken conversation I once had with Atom Egoyan (I was drunk, he was patient) that marked the first--though certainly not the last--time I heard "Faust" and "Weinstein" mentioned in the same sentence.
September 09, 2007
Anyway, I liked it and thought it mostly deserving of its Cannes honours, but towards the end of the film, I found myself growing increasingly restless: instead of dreading Ian's fate, I became impatient with any scene I knew wouldn't end with the money shot. Rather than give the Brothers Weinstein ammunition to butcher another film, though, I'm more apt to blame the anti-piracy measures that have been put into effect for this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Throughout the film, some skinny, anime-looking dork attired in a security uniform that was sliding off his shoulders paced the aisle next to me, stopping occasionally to put a pair of infrared specs to his eyes and pivot his head back and forth, Terminator-style. Call me a prima donna, but when a movie is quiet and intense, as Control most certainly is, there's just something distracting about a guy incessantly goose-stepping in your periphery. The straw that broke the camel's back for me was when he leaned against the screen, spilling some of the projected image onto his smug expression. I kept hoping someone with a little influence would speak up (Dave Poland was seated in my vicinity) until finally I tried staring down the twerp myself. Alas, he wielded those night-vision goggles like a talisman, using them to shield himself from direct eye contact. Eventually I hotfooted it to the other side of the theatre--the Nazi stationed there was much less obtrusive, seemingly conscientious of Control's fragile tone.
Now, I'm not gonna get all self-righteous about being monitored during these press & industry screenings, even though I think they're very obviously going after the wrong people. Everybody knows that the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's factory comes with some caveats. But at least properly train this Gestapo to blend into the furniture and conceal their contempt for the whole charade, because it's the films--not the spectators--that ultimately pay the price.
My TIFF So Far:
Just Buried *1/2
Emotional Arithmetic **
King of the Hill ***1/2
Love Songs *
A Promise to the Dead **1/2
Lust, Caution ***
Mother of Tears: The Third Mother ***1/2
August 31, 2007
Somebody talk to me about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in socio-political context because I think I just saw its millennial doppelganger in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Fresh from a nice chat about Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return at Beaver Creek’s beautiful
Owen Wilson tries to kill himself? That’s some bad juju there. Now Steve Coogan and Courtney Love are in the fray – the latter accusing the former of getting
(Another odd non-synchronicity, some guy working at the University of Colorado’s student center slit a student’s throat out of nowhere and then started stabbing himself in his chest until police tasered him. It’s the goddamnest thing.)
Saw Rob Zombie’s Halloween tonight. Um. . . it’s more interesting in the context of an emerging auteur’s work? Let’s go with that.
Got a last second gig to host a screening of The Third Man on Saturday, projected from a 16mm source, at
Finished the first seasons of “
In other news, Elias Merhige has a new film out. A short film that you can watch for free here:
http://www.dinofcelestialbirds.com/. Just found out that his Begotten is out of print. Shame, that.
August 23, 2007
- A super-sized update at FFC contributor Alex Jackson's homebase, including the site's first guest reviews.
- The trailer for Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, a movie I can't believe actually exists.
- A guy who is restoring Star Wars on his home computer.
August 15, 2007
I dunno. Ebb and flows.
Busy time coming up. A new film series starting in the
Working on a couple of big projects – a few interesting assignments, a few that are just frustrating as fuck – and looking around at a few of my friends and peers who are going back to school, going out for drinks, going off on a lark. Checking that watch and wondering if it’s too soon for a mid-life crisis. How old was I ever going to get, anyway?
Amid a few screening duties (including Walter Hill’s still-delightful The Warriors – anyone here for an all-out revival of Hill’s works? Post-Sunshine, I was really hankering for a director’s cut of his Supernova) got a chance to watch Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, released in that annus mirabilis, 1968. Things really fucking flew apart that year in the
But, oh yeah, Spider Baby is hilarious. An opening murder-by-shears is appropriately nauseating (though not overly gory by any stretch) and Lon Chaney’s sad performance as a caretaker of a family of inbred misfits recalls of all things, certain feelings elicited by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Inspired? Not quite. But definitely worth a look.
Saw The Invasion tonight and it’s just fucking bloody awful. Dumb as dirt and proselytizing, too – with every line of dialogue written by Kang and Kodos.
Saw Superbad last week and it’s not bad – mostly because I like Michael Cera.
Anyone here bite the pride bullet and go to Stardust?
Anyone here read the pieces on Antonioni and Bergman by Scorsese and Allen?
Here’s my lunchtime poll: best pod movie?
July 31, 2007
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be doing Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American – the film that I’m starting to think is better than Noyce’s other film from that year, Rabbit-Proof Fence. At the time of the latter’s release, I remember calling it “critic-proof fence” to the consternation of the picture’s publicist. What a jackass I am.
A couple of Bergman events planned for the mothersite – and a eulogy proper planned for airing in this blog, penned by one of our fine writers – but for now, RIP, by the way. I’ve mentioned it before around here but we got the name of our daughter from his The Seventh Seal: thus are we bound to art. I’m reminded, too, of a great Coleridge quote:
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversly fram'd,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all ?
I never thought Bergman necessarily deserved any of his reputations: great artiste; insufferable bore; airless intellectual – but there are certainly a handful of films of his that I think about not infrequently. I consider it to be a great honor to have spoken about Persona a few months ago. I’m looking forward to writing it up in the near future.
Just finished a particularly long project that’s taken a lot out of me but, simultaneously, given me a tremendous amount of insight into an American icon I had heretofore taken for granted – and am engaged in another mega-project that I hope will segue into a few personal projects. A couple of interviews simmering: too soon to talk lest we jinx them – I’m feeling a new energy around these parts and hope that it doesn’t flag before a few more tent-posts are planted into the ground.
Saw a giant standee for the new Robert Zemeckis Beowulf that made me fairly hard, I have to admit. Especially its script by Neil Gaiman. . . okay, especially the Frazetta-like profile of Angelina Jolie. I guess there’s a new teaser for The Dark Knight floating around and am happy to report that a second viewing of Harry Potter 5 is as good as the first. I suspect the same won’t be true of any subsequent screenings of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
Currently reading J. Hoberman’s exceptional The Dream Life. Currently listening to Gram Rabbit’s “Music to Start a Cult To”. Francis Coppola admits that he wanted to do Godfather IV with an ailing Mario Puzo in the same week that I discovered that the new director’s cut of The Outsiders is possibly his last true masterpiece – and weep at the revelation that Ray Harryhausen has praised colorization using the “we wanted to shoot it in color in the first place”. Fuck all over that. Have given up on “John from Cincinnati” apparently just at the moment that it started to get good – thank goodness for On Demand – and is it just me or has “Big Love” turned “Carnivale”?
Weird few weeks, guys – seismic upheavals on the personal front though nothing fatal, I think – but it’s all left me feeling exhausted, a little delirious in that head rush when drinking sort of way, and present in a way that I haven’t been in months. Let’s hope it lasts.
July 12, 2007
- R.I.P. Edward Yang.
- Did anyone catch one of TCM's multiple screenings of Richard Schickel's "Spielberg on Spielberg" this week? Perhaps predictably, it's spectacularly evasive, skipping over Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, Always, Hook, The Lost World, and Catch Me If You Can (the latter two hardly more embarrassing than, say, Amistad) while breezing through Spielberg's filmography in a mostly chronological fashion. Any self-flagellation is limited to the topic of 1941--the irony there being that it's not exactly eating humble pie to recount the time you exploited the power bestowed on you by a string of successes...then luckily happened to be ensconced in Tunisia shooting the redemptive Raiders of the Lost Ark when the shit hit the fan. It was inevitable that either Schickel or Laurent Bouzereau--the two biggest sycophants in the cottage industry of supplemental documentaries--would direct this thing, since Spielberg is not one to sanction scrutiny of his methodology. (Accountability so scares him that he wields the existence of Stanley Kubrick's fabled treatment for A.I. like a talisman here to ward off blame for the perceived failure of the eventual film, particularly its final act.) What surprised me most about the piece is that, unlike TCM's similarly clips-laden hagiographies for John Ford and Marlon Brando, it left me with little urge to revisit the Spielberg canon; it's not even good auteur porn.
- Edward Yang? Still dead.
- Do yourself a favour and pick up the latest issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG. It's a real return to form for the magazine, which had been noticeably sidetracked in recent months while editor Tim Lucas put the finishing touches on his mammoth tome "Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark".
- Anyway, consider this an open forum. I presume you'll want to discuss Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Walter's attendant review, but anything from the recent death of director Richard Franklin (whose Psycho II is drastically underestimated) to that stupid J.J. Abrams trailer is of course fair game. We know better than to violate the Prime Directive.
June 27, 2007
When Lauren Bacall says “Hey. . . I think I’m sitting on somebody’s cigarette” during Have Not’s drive-by shootout sequence – the combination of elements (the film on my television, the image on my computer, the joy of writing on good film and anticipating new ones) speaks long and loud about the absolute, un-distilled joy of going to the movies. God bless Faulkner. He didn’t do it alone and, really, didn’t do shit in
Finished up a seminar series at the Denver Public Library last night with the beloved
Anyone read Christopher Doyle’s diary of the Happy Together shoot? Brilliant, stuff.
Didn’t get a screening of Die Hard 4: Die Harderer, but will catch it as a civilian. Wouldn’t miss it for the world, the first flick counts as one of my favorites from my halcyon teen years: John McTiernan really hit a couple of those bastards out of the park, didn’t he? And the third flick is underestimated.
Ratatouille is awesome.
Nancy Drew is still haunting me.
Negotiating a post-modernism series in a different library system – some proposed titles include The Stunt Man, Adaptation., and Tristram Shandy. Later in the summer will find me talking Pan’s Labyrinth in Beaver Creek and Hero in
A few weeks late, but an official shout out to Ousmane Sembene – the voice of an entire fucking continent, a novelist by devotion who turned to film because it could reach a broader audience. I reviewed Moolaade for our last Annual, and it’s a masterpiece, but so are the other films in his too-brief filmography. Next up after the Bogie/Bacalls for me are a pair of lesser Bette Davis flicks, Forbidden Planet (which I may be talking as part of a Shakespeare-on-film quartet down south); and a couple of things by Henry Rollins including an interview I conducted with the man a couple of weeks ago. That list of things to do before I die keeps getting shorter.
Musing, if time permits, a brief retrospective of the films of Jacques Becker and, I’d love to do it, a similar one on Kenji Mizoguchi starting with Sansho the Bailiff. Of course there’s roughly thirty pounds of DVDs staring at me with their hollow, Cyclops eyes, needing some serious attention before I go off on any skylarks.
Currently listening to Francis Cabrel – especially a song called “Bonne Nouvelle”. Extra points for figuring out how and why I tracked down this dude. He’s a legend in
This thing with the Germans and Tom Cruise - this not letting Cruise film in the country because he's a member of a cult - is everyone just being polite in not mentioning the irony of Germany of all countries offering a blanket, discriminatory condemnation of a religion with which they don't agree? I especially like the son of the proposed Cruise character coming out and predicting that the film they're sabotaging will inevitably be "kitsch."
Any early thoughts on the new David Milch series?
Late, again, but "The Sopranos" series finale? I loved it.
June 14, 2007
10. 10th Anniversary (Present)
9. Press release from New Line (November, 1998)
I've said many times before, only half-jokingly, that I started FILM FREAK CENTRAL to get free LaserDiscs. Well, that never panned out--and the format was on its last legs by 1997, anyway. Cut to the fall of 1998: out of left field, I receive a press release from New Line Home Video; nothing ventured, nothing gained, I e-mail the address at the bottom asking them to send me review copies of both DVD titles they were promoting therein. The following day, a FedEx truck rolled into my driveway, accompanied--in my head, at least--by the Hallelujah chorus hymn. It was FFC's first fix, the first time the industry acknowledged our existence in any way, shape, or form...and I've probably been chasing that high ever since.
8. Sued...Sorta (2001-2003)
They say you haven't made it until somebody wants to sue you. In the interest of self-preservation, I'm truncating the details, but back when FFC was starting to gain some traction on the Internet, a certain web personality I had, contrary to his belief, not heard of before sent me a j'accuse! e-mail vis-à-vis my alleged trademark-infringing use of the term "film freak." I ignored him at first, but he was persistent, and so I sent him a list of about 30 sites with some variation of "film freak" in their brand (if I was ever going to change the site's name, that would be the reason). Well, I guess that pissed him off, because his rent-a-lawyer then couriered me a small forest's worth of paperwork, none of it amounting to anything but evidence that they had toner and they were gonna use it! Suffice it to say, I continued to do nothing, though I took advantage of a free hour of legal counsel from an entertainment attorney, whose advice boiled down to "do nothing." Eventually I got worn down by his passive-aggressive threats of litigation and e-mailed him ("Dear [name withheld], I'm not taking the bait. Bill, xo"), at which point I was notified by an Intellectual Property arbitrator that I had something like a weekend to counter his multi-point entitlement claim. This time I did something, but not much; and the committee unanimously decided in our favour. Justice! I still receive the occasional message from his cronies asking why I can't be a "gentleman" and, y'know, undo a decade of hard work by changing FFC's name to appease an ego obviously bruised by every disappointed visitor who goes to his site thinking they're going to ours. Should the day come, I'm partial to Cinema Jolie-Pitt.
7. Fight with Ebert (August, 2004)
The most e-mail I ever got in one day (not counting the odd spam flood) attended Roger Ebert's review of The Brown Bunny, wherein he rebutted my Ebert-baiting capsule on the same film. Perhaps more of a private milestone than one for the site, it nevertheless sticks out in my mind as a moment of validation from the establishment--when my own friends and family began to look at FILM FREAK CENTRAL as a legitimate pastime; Ebert did nothing less than make it easier for me to run this operation unabated, at least temporarily. You might be interested to know that I've crossed paths with him many times since (we even powwowed but a few weeks later at a screening of Saw), and if there were any hard feelings, I couldn't tell. I missed him greatly at last year's TIFF and wish him nothing but the best as he recovers from his gruelling medical ordeal.
6. "Attack of the Drones" (May, 2002)
If you ask me, Walter's written far better reviews than the one he wrote for Attack of the Clones, but I doubt he'll ever write another review with the half-life it's had. From being the root cause of our first bandwidth fine to begetting our first special edition of "Reader Mail" to, most notoriously, landing us on Lucasfilm's shitlist so that we were explicitly denied screeners of the Star Wars trilogy when it finally hit DVD, it holds a special place in FFC lore. It even, in a roundabout way, led to us interviewing Mark Hamill! For all that, what I like best about it is that it set us apart, at a critical juncture, from the fanboy contingent.
5. The Publication of Our Annuals (2005, 2006)
Now's as good a time as any to formally announce that we will not be publishing a 2007 Annual--the first two simply didn't sell enough copies to make it worth our while. But we're not ruling out the possibility of another book of some sort; it's a genuine, selfish thrill for us to see all those bits and bytes quantified like that. And how many film sites can lay claim to two thick volumes of their work? With forewords and blurbs by some of their favourite directors, to boot? The whole experience was intensely gratifying, and it surely revitalized our writing, that intimate awareness of a destination beyond the ether.
4. Birth of a Blog (August 23, 2005)
Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight: this blog was Walter Chaw's idea. A lot of the stuff he was itching to write was difficult to contextualize within the traditional parameters of FFC. I was game but leery, seeing as how each of us has a backlog that could stop a river and this would just provide one more distraction. But I'm proud of the community that has sprouted up here and I feel, as I wrote in the introduction to "The Film Freak Central 2006 Annual", that it makes great scaffolding for the mothersite. Truthfully, I can't get over how civil the conversation around these parts is on average--the cynic in me is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
3. E-Mail from Walter Murch (January 16, 2000)
I was DVD-shopping in Toronto when I spotted a childhood favourite, Return to Oz, sitting on the shelf. "Don't buy it," my friend advised, "it doesn't hold up." But for some reason, even if it wasn't as good as I'd remembered, I knew I would regret not buying it more. A few months after I wrote up the disc, I received an e-mail from Return to Oz helmer Walter Murch. He was quite complimentary towards my review, though I suspect he had an ulterior motive to correct a misnomer I perpetrated regarding the film's soundmix. Be that as it may, it took me a day or two to process that the freakin' editor of Apocalypse Now had casually struck first contact with me; I replied, paraphrasing Mario Puzo, that if I'd known he was going to read the review I would've written it better (I'm sure he groaned), then begged him for an interview. I credit the resulting Q&A with forcing me to get serious, truly serious, about FILM FREAK CENTRAL, if only to honour Mr. Murch's generosity and good faith.
2. The Hiring of Walter Chaw (April, 2001)
The name Walter has been good to me. You know how they say that some talk shows are host-driven and some are guest-driven? My utopian fantasy for this site was one that was review-driven rather than critic-driven, and when I first started recruiting writers, I wanted to create a cinephiliac supergroup of budding talent. But there's no denying that one voice has risen above the chorus. I can honestly say that while I created this site, with all due credit to esteemed colleagues Travis Mackenzie Hoover, Alex Jackson, and Ian Pugh, Walter made it. Dude's a rock star. For what it's worth, when he came aboard, a lot of folks informed me that he sounded the death knell for the site--and I usually responded that it's better to hate someone for the right reasons (Letterman?) than to love them for the wrong ones (Leno?). Unfortunately for Walter, he rarely equivocates in a world that petulantly equates anything but utmost equivocation with "meanness." Politesse has somehow become a greater virtue than honesty, conjuring the image of Rome fiddling while Nero burns. It's an honour to provide Walter sanctuary in these cowardly times, to be affiliated in any way with his genius, and to call him a friend. If anything gives me hope for not only the future of not only film criticism, but the battle against anti-intellectualism as well, it's that I detect Walter's influence in a lot of up-and-coming young critics. I'm sure that drives him batshit, though.
1. The Purchase of the Domain Name FilmFreakCentral.Net (November 19, 1998)
Christ, why didn't I pick .COM?!
June 07, 2007
10. Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis)
Claire Denis' apocalyptic take on both the banality and reward of companionate love addresses the bestial roots of passion before taking on the terms of endearment we use to leash it. Vincent Gallo is extraordinary as the vacuum at the picture's dark core--and I don't know of a better illustration of what it means to love and fuck and grow old together in the tempest of the temporary. I saw this in a private screening at Boulder's International Film Series; later that week, the only public screening of the film in Colorado saw a few hysterics, including a young woman who locked herself in the bathroom and refused to be coaxed out for hours afterward. For me, the picture is the possibility of cinema as anthropology and as high art--a reminder, at a relatively late date, that there are still things that can get under the skin if the medium is wielded like a scalpel by a surgeon. Odd that a few knock-offs appeared not long after it. Not so odd is the cult that has gathered around it.
9. The Killer (1989, John Woo)
John Woo's ballet of bloodlust. The dubbed version with Brother Chow screaming "Dumbo!" as bloody tears stream down his cheeks was met with howls of drunken approval at my first screening of it in CU Boulder's Muenzinger Auditorium. I taught my pals that night how to say "shoot him again" in Mandarin (not knowing at that moment that Woo shot his pictures in Cantonese), and for probably the first time in my life felt a distinct pride in being Chinese in Colorado. Folks only familiar with Woo from his American output are missing the indescribable romantic machismo distilled by the director in his Hong Kong flicks--it doesn't translate. Yellow Power, man, and the wasting of Chow in this summer's Pirates of the Caribbean threequel is disappointing for sure. But that he's there at all is a result of this and other collaborations with Woo. I was ecstatic to hear that Chow is back in the fold with Woo's Chinese epic The Battle of Red Cliff.
8. Dragonslayer (1981, Matthew Robbins)
I hid under the seat for most of my first two viewings of Matthew Robbins' Dragonslayer--a picture I demanded to see because, unless I'm mistaken, I believed it to be some sort of sequel to Pete's Dragon. (A belief that, among other things, confirms that eight-year-olds are almost without exception stupid in the larger sense.) Little did I know that this "Disney" picture featured a flash of full-frontal nudity, a beautiful princess consumed by a litter of baby dragons, and the death of one--make that two--kindly father figures. A special-effects dry run for the groundbreaking stop-motion work of Return of the Jedi, its beastie Vermithrax Pejorative is pathetic in its majestic, pagan glory. It's helpless in the face of the encroaching Christianity, says one read, but for me at that moment, not-yet-weaned from a steady diet of Disney heroes slaying their shadows in a series of deeply-destructive problem-solving scenarios, it was a shot in the pants of that old-time atheism. I was terrified of the dragon, but I don't recall ever wishing it dead. The marvel of Dragonslayer and secret movie-brat Robbins' direction and script is that it proposes a happy ending that's not at all happy. The more I learn about myself through the movies, the better it gets.
7. Marnie (1964, Alfred Hitchcock)
I didn't really understand Hitchcock until I saw The Birds and then, soon after it, Marnie. You get a sense of the formalist (the auto-formalist, maybe) from stuff like North by Northwest and Notorious, but you don't get a full sense of Hitch's sly, unrepentant wickedness until you view his work through the prism of his Tippi Hedren pictures. I'd go so far as to say that Marnie is the Rosetta Stone for all of his pictures: you turn to North by Northwest for a sense of how Hitchcock's clockwork is wound; but you look at Marnie for a little sulphur whiff of the infernal electricity that makes the clockwork turn over. Tippi in this one is raped, and the whole sea reflects her change outside a porthole while Sean Connery--the dim, dashing rake cast perfectly at last--saves an empty glass cage in his room for her, his next and greatest trophy. Just as The Birds is Hitch's domestication fantasy for wild Tippi, all of a feminized nature arrayed against her wild individuation, Marnie is menstrual fear, sexual paranoia, and the price of carnality against the life of the mind. Though it's as much about artifice and illusion as any of the Master's treatises on the theme, it was my long-in-coming epiphany that the gateway to the secrets of the flesh is through the eyes of the artist.
6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata)
Isao Takahata's devastating war idyll Grave of the Fireflies was the singular event in my turning the corner on a fairly unquestioned bigotry against the Japanese. Raised in a household where a good portion of my mother's side of the family was fed to the Nipponese grinder in Nanking, I was, through glances and smirks and possibly even direct comments, bred to hate the Japanese. Watching this film for the first time my senior year in college, I came to terms at last with a lot of things I just took as plain truth and found myself confronted with the ugliness of my assumptions. The picture is so good on its own that it doesn't need much further endorsement from me: it's not just the best animated film ever made, it's one of the best films ever made in any medium. But for me, the switch that turned over in my heart has rippled into the way I look at everything in my adult life; things are never black-and-white, and the tactics of dehumanization make all manner of atrocity possible. Take the punditry of the modern day and consider something wonderfully acidic Melvin Van Peebles said to me in regards to bigotry in mainstream culture: how it's always possible to isolate our next enemy by identifying the "nigger" in our pictures.
5. Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)
A houseguest asked once, while searching my library for a film to watch, if Jean-Luc Godard's neo-noir Alphaville was a good choice. My wife warned: "It's not conventionally entertaining." Fair enough. Indeed, more than fair--a quick look at most of my collection shows that the DVDs I keep are likewise not conventionally entertaining and, in the case of this selection, almost aggressive in their desire to not be conventionally liked. I saw Alphaville for the first time in college and it opened a door for me. It inspired, of all things, research, not into whether such and such a character was really real or this event happened or what have you, but into precepts of critical theory that I'd been using as reference points in the study of British Romanticist and Modernist poetry. The picture connected the dots, so to speak, allowing a dim student to finally understand that all the strategies that have been used for centuries to decode the sublimity of great works could be applied to bear fruit from film. A great picture by one of the great film theorists (talking about Alphaville or Week End or Breathless in terms of signs and signifiers is easy enough: they're textbooks already)--and if the case could be made that movies carry within them the same seeds as music or letters or brush strokes, then movies must also carry within them the possibility to understand the meaning of an individual's life. Of the critical life.
4. Revenge of the Nerds (1984, Jeff Kanew)
The first time I saw female full-frontal nudity once I was capable of assimilating what it was; my VHS tape became one of the most prized onanistic totems of my adolescence. Revenge of the Nerds has gathered around it a wealth of scholarship since its release because, more so than the oeuvres of Sylvia Krystal or Deborah Foreman, there's something genuinely sticky about the thing. The way that it equalizes gay people, and blacks, and women; the way that Darth Vader is turned into a literal rapist for a generation of boys like me secretly titillated by the fetishistic promise of his cyborg, insect carapace; the way that, the way that... Look, it's a hell of a film, and it holds up now as not a masturbation aid, but a scalpel for the dissection of the way that film is voyeurism incarnate: justification for voyeurism; idealization of voyeurism; and perfection of voyeurism. Too, it's a nutshell of why pornography's genres are such useful tabs for our real peccadilloes. A peek at what we hide between our mattresses reveals the taboos tattooed on our bestial pelts: miscegenation, pedophilia, sodomy, humiliation, promiscuity, water sports--you find these things in Revenge of the Nerds, encapsulated in the moment where a weak, physically ineffectual young man takes on the mantel of the Dark Lord of the Sith to rape a grateful Betty.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
A lot of movies made me feel scared; Apocalypse Now was the first movie to make me feel awful. Was it Coppola himself who said it's not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam? Call this film the gateway drug for all the films of the 1970s in the United States, our very own Aguirre: The Wrath of God about the limits (should we call it "limitlessness"?) of man's ambitions in art and life. It's the siren's call to a period in our cinema (say, 1967-1981) that should be considered, with seriousness, the best of any in any place at any time. Before it, I had equated the decade with bad fashion and Blaxploitation, with Clint Eastwood in monkey movies, with the Burt Reynolds of Smokey and the Bandit and not of Deliverance; and a uniform grain to the film stock just couldn't hold a candle to the slick comfort of the 1980s blockbusters that were my celluloid teat. I looked at the period with ignorance and disdain--and then I saw this movie, which feels depraved in a way that few films, especially ones that try to be depraved, do. More than that, the picture sparked in a younger me an interest in T.S. Eliot that eventually led to more general avenues of study while strengthening the bond that film has with an idea of the Sublime in art. If you don't get chills listening to Brando recite lines from "The Hollow Man", you might have a nerve missing.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
I stood in line for two hours to see this film and was rewarded with one of the most miserable moviegoing experiences of my life. What the fuck is this? Luke, behanded; Han in carbonite; Lando not in carbonite; Vader is Luke's mf'ing dad; the Republic in tatters; and then it's over?! Since the wait for relief was interminable, my buddies and I declared The Empire Strikes Back the worst movie ever, resolutely replaying the action of the picture with our now-priceless action figures, be-handing Darth instead and throwing Boba Fett into dry ice punch bowls, thus proving the maxim that you should never give the public what it thinks it wants. If only Lucas had remembered that before forging ahead--and backwards in his special editions. (Though to be fair, he started destroying his legacy with Return of the Jedi.) What The Empire Strikes Back did was make me a blockbuster junkie. With Star Wars the first movie I ever saw in a theatre, the anticipation I felt for "the next one" was my first taste of delirious anticipation. (Those long summers of youth, you know, they go too fast, but time is elastic in a way that it doesn't seem to be anymore.) When I think about The Dark Knight, I get that same tingle--I get it for the new Coen Brothers flick, too, especially because it's an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. In every way, this first sequel is The First Sequel: the reason I love movies--and, hindsight and age being what they are, it remains the only artistically viable film in the Star Wars saga.
1. The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
I've constructed a sort of personal mythology around this picture--I'm asked about it often in my public-speaking ("What's your favourite movie?") and I think it surprises people that I actually have a favourite movie. The preface is always that The Conversation might not be the best film, but it's the single most important film in my decision to try out this movie-critic thing professionally. A product of Walter Murch taking over final cut after Paramount backed a dump-truck full of money up to Coppola's door to make The Godfather Part II, it's not finished in the most perfect way imaginable. Still, it cemented in me this lingering belief in authorship in film, and it was the first time, truly, that I began to feel I had ideas about movies that were exciting enough to share. Harry Caul (the name actually an accident--the picture also suggests divinity between the sprockets) is Gene Hackman's quintessential creation: the listener, he is the purity of the actor's craft. The course of the film is a test of fidelity philosophical and technological, while a remarkable cameo by Teri Garr is full of the weight of loneliness that a lot of '70s cinema only hints at. The story is simplicity itself (a dame, a murder, a hero in a trenchcoat), but the execution is as circular and damning as David Shire's piano score. It's the breakthrough in therapy and, six years later, I'm still clicking.
Also: Near Dark, Miracle Mile, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Gandhi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Last Year at Marienbad, Grand Illusion, Peeping Tom, The Life of Colonel Blimp, Hana-Bi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Once Upon a Time in the West, Die Hard, Predator, Killer of Sheep, The Thin Blue Line, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Rescuers