December 28, 2007

Snark Tank

So here goes:

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

Shadows in the Spotlight: Peggy Sue Got Married and Raising Arizona

"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

Hieronymous Bosch's Heck

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

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

Film Freak Central's Storefront

We'll make this official at the site later today, but THE FILM FREAK CENTRAL 2007 ANNUAL is now available for purchase. We've set up a special Lulu storefront for all our books; this is currently the only way to get the newest one, but it will be available for retail sale soon enough.

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

Quiki Contest

Wanna win this(?):
All you have to do is be the first person to correctly identify the source of the screencap below. North American readers only, please.

December 10, 2007

2007 Annual: Final Specs

Streeting next week, The Film Freak Central 2007 Annual includes a provocative foreword by filmmaker/playwright Neil LaBute in addition to previously-unpublished reviews of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Omen, Monkey Warfare, Rocky Balboa, The Queen, Flags of Our Fathers, Night at the Museum, Idiocracy, Silent Hill, 13 Tzameti, and (no shit) many more.

Instead of that Optimus Prime voice-changer helmet, why not hit up Santa for a copy of The Film Freak Central 2007 Annual? List price is $20.00; check back at the mothersite for further details.

December 05, 2007

Nosferatu, Arschloch der Nacht: Vampire's Kiss

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.

It seems to be a last-ditch effort to let Loew have his cake and eat it too: "Dr. Glaser" rationalizes away any guilt from the rape and the murder (presented here, of course, as an after-thought fear of consequence) as "a little id release" and even pairs him with "Sharon," a theoretically perfect soulmate who, we gather, comes to dog him about his "identity" as a vampire, until--"God damn it, what did I just say?!"--he launches into a hate-filled diatribe directed at thin air. After so many moments that could be interpreted as mere silliness (or moments of terror purposely masked by Cage's own hysterical melancholy), Loew's explosion finally introduces a sense of fright to the proceedings. Cage has suddenly become a terrifying on-off switch. His film-long build-up is no longer some cycle of weirdness, but has finally culminated in choppy mood swings that exude pure danger--the very final stage of this on-the-street insanity. Even previous outbursts were not quite as violent and abrupt; the actor's ferocity in battling himself translates as the final attempt from whatever sanity Loew has left (or whatever sanity he ever had in the first place) to deny him his self-contained forgiveness and peace of mind.

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.