May 29, 2006

The Trench

Finally managed a screening of Silent Hill these last fourteen days and have to say that I come away from it well and duly impressed. I was a fan of director Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf - mainly for its sensuality, in hindsight, and its unabashed appreciation of genre in its period action/martial arts machinations. Could be that I liked it more than I should have, but I’ve got the disc filed away next to the Gallic-neo-giallo, Deep in the Woods, nonetheless as modern examples of that peculiarly French predilection for renovating foreign mannerisms with nouvelle French trappings.

The picture moves – lots of pictures don’t.

I love the way I look at noir after Alphaville; at Hitchcock after Argento; at Ford after Leone.

So I was maybe built-in to give Silent Hill a chance – particularly since I also liked screenwriter Roger Avary’s hyphenate The Rules of Attraction from a couple of years back – but as the picture unspools along its own matriarchal logic: pulses of black, waves, undulations, expansions. . . It’s erotic in its treatment – and I credit Gans with that – and when Alice Krige, as the representative of, perhaps, a patriarchal belief system, is given a rather nasty barbed-wire send-off I recalled, in a perverse way, the means through which the Oracles of Delphi received their divinity.

It’s a smart movie and I disagree that it falls apart on itself because I don’t believe that it takes itself all that seriously. That’s the kind of assessment, though, that’s fraught with subjectivity and I think it might be safer to offer that essaying a video game fright with this level of existential pretension can only be handled with a sense of humor. I point to a trio of baddies, victims we presume of a mining disaster (contemporary! poignant!) in a dead West Virginian mining town, who carry around a canary in a cage with them.

Questions of purgatory/hell and so on are pointless to me in this conversation as I think the film lives or dies on the strength of its images sprung from/steeped in a particular feminine surrealism. There’s a lot of anxiety in this picture (castration and otherwise) – enough so that I wondered for the umpteenth time what people were thinking allowing their three-year-olds to see it at the dollar’s on a sultry, Colorado summer afternoon. At least the question of where all these twisted little kids in films like this come from has a possible solution.

Probably do a proper review one day if/when FFC gets a screener – but preliminaries on it are high positive. It’s better than the mega-blockbusters of the last three weeks, at least, which says little and a lot.

Missed my talk for The Misfits last weekend: a combination of exhaustion and a carburetor over-heating on the drive up I-70 – still emailed my notes and screen-shots to the librarian up there so that the talk could go on without me. Big regrets about that as The Misfits is just awesome. The first scene we get with Montgomery Clift’s rodeo cowboy character has him on a payphone to his mother assuring that his face has completely healed and that she would recognize him now. Devastating stuff and proof, I think, that Marilyn Monroe could have been a contender.

Also presided over a discussion of Aguirre: The Wrath of God which has to be one of the most enjoyable films to talk about with a group of people. The film is molten poetry and its ability to devastate and astonish remains unsullied by time and reputation. My two-hour lecture (with clips) of three early Jack Nicholson pictures went well, too. A busy week – capped by a public screening of X3 wherein all the fanatics sat on their hands and looked at each other throughout. People will go – just as people went to Da Vinci Code - regardless of what anyone says, making my profession in the public conversation exactly moot. You do it for legacy, man, all the rest of it is ash.

The question tickling my ivories: what collaborator, in front or behind of the camera, overshadowed say, like Avary in the Tarantino/Avary collaboration – might have had more to say about the success of certain celebrated projects than initially thought? My first salvo is any good film that Robert Towne wrote. Second is Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie - but that could just be my libido talking.

Here’s the capture:

May 27, 2006

Let's Heckle "X-Men: The Last Stand"

Man, did X-Men: The Last Stand rape the franchise. I have a feeling that not too many people make a habit of sitting through the closing titles, but if anyone here did, what did you think of the post-credits punchline? It really, really infuriated me. Much like the final shot of the film (which was legitimately poignant--until), it basically invalidated whatever conceptual integrity X3 had.

Referring to Kitty Pryde as a "bitch," even in the context of Juggernaut's Internet-spawned catchphrase, was unforgivable but entirely expected. I still remember the uncomfortable segment on the Rush Hour 2 DVD where Chris Tucker refuses to call Zhang Ziyi a bitch. Tucker basically felt that being casually misogynist in a movie as populist as that was socially irresponsible. It gave me new respect for him...which vaporized once he caved in to Brett Fathead's incessant whining and prodding.

Anyway, as a stopgap before the next edition of "The Trench" (I'm sick of seeing Clyde Beatty every time I come here), feel free to bash or defend X-Men: The Last Stand as you see fit. In case you missed Walter's review, you can read that here. Meanwhile, see what our own Travis Hoover had to say about it over at Exclaim.

Update (05/28)
Norm Wilner, my old editor at Marquee, contributes to this conversation over at his brand-spanking new blog. Check it out--he draws a really succinct analogy to the Star Wars trilogy.

May 18, 2006

Beatty: Fear Eats the Soul

Lately, I've had an inexplicable craving to watch circus movies. As if catering to the culinary whims of an expectant mother, the DVD gods deposited 1954's Ring of Fear on FFC's doorstep yesterday afternoon. I've long been curious about this film, if only because it's excerpted repeatedly during the lion tamer segments of Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. One of Paramount's recent Batjac acquisitions, the picture looks and sounds better in its home video debut than those clips led one to expect, although Warnercolor sucks in any medium.

Ring of Fear's narrative is obviously a pretext for shooting the Big Top in Cinemascope (initially, it was going to be in 3-D), which co-scenarists Paul Fix, Philip MacDonald, and James Edward Grant (who also directed) evidently interpreted as permission to experiment. The result is a groundbreakingly post-modern but ultimately ridiculous (and ridiculously insensitive) thriller that de-DeMille-ifies The Greatest Show on Earth. Sean McClory (above left) stars as Dublin O'Malley, a WWII vet who returns to his post as Director of the Clyde Beatty Circus after making a violent escape from the loony bin. Animal trainer Beatty plays himself, as does pulp novelist Mickey Spillane, who's ostensibly there to research a piece on carny life but of course assumes the role of detective once Dublin's homicidal urges start getting the best of him. Taking its quasi-documentary approach into account, Ring of Fear inspires an alarming amount of schadenfreude; Dublin, the most unambiguous psychotic this side of Jason Voorhees (he really might as well be in monster makeup), is pitted against such cowards--who'd rather attribute the recent string of unlikely deaths to a jinx than implicate Dublin--that you finally root for their comeuppance. Oddly, however, the nihilistic treatment of Dublin himself is far more disconcerting: while he's no doubt meant to stand for the natural disaster that always threatens to level the circus in these movies (his victims, the standard collateral damage), Dublin is, unfortunately, given so much backstory that Ring of Fear just fosters unnecessary paranoia towards veterans and the mentally ill. Then there's Gonzalez-Gonzales, the Latino Mantan Moreland, who unlike Spillane isn't allowed a scrap of dignity in caricaturing himself. (This Pedro Gonzales has no concept of time--"...Every day, I give you $1, and in one million days I will have $1 million!"--and gets his ass kicked by a kangaroo in boxing gloves.) The fact that he emerges from Dublin's reign of terror unscathed seems only to say that ignorance is bliss.

What are your favourite entries in the genre?

Update (05/20)
Potsie tries to stop Richie from finding out a secret about Fonzie that could spell the end of Arnold's on tonight's episode of The Da Vinci Code.

Update (05/24)
Un Film de Brett Ratner: X-Men: The Last Stand.

May 16, 2006

The Trench

Went to an early screening of Pixar’s Cars this morning and, aside from the really hit-or-miss A Bug’s Life, gotta say that this is the first of the company’s flicks that I just flat didn’t like. Bloated, possibly racist. . . there’s a lot to say about it, but I’ll save it for the review proper. Sufficed for now to indicate that the trailer seems accurate: it just ain’t no good. I did have the pleasure of sitting in front of some yahoo with press credentials who laughed heartily every couple of minutes whether or not there was a joke: the studio’s gotta get better at planting their ringers. Wonder if the summer of NASCAR (with Will Ferrell’s racing flick coming up in a couple of months) will leave me further out of the proverbial loop.

What’s disturbing to me is that lately I’ve had the opportunity to be more in contact with the “average” audience member and the suspicion
that I’ve been harboring that I’m way out of whack in terms
of the popular taste has been brought home to me in a real personal kind of way. Seems like I should wear it like a badge of honor, right, but it really just makes me feel sort of melancholy and lonesome.

Presided over a great discussion of the Slovenian film Spare Parts, released in limited fashion a couple of years ago and dealing with the ever-topical issue of illegal immigration and the smuggling of people. It reminded me in look and focus of
Taxi Driver: keying in on a pair of drivers whose small lives lived in the middle of the night and on the fringes of society played poignant against the backdrop of a tiny ex-Yugoslavian town which has as its main distinguishing points a nuclear reactor and a motorcross track. The participants at the Lone Tree Library and I watched the film together for the first time that night and the freshness of that approach was a welcome relief from the hyper-prepared stuff that I do with classic cinema or films with a pedigree’d director at the helm. The fresman director, Damjan Kozole, with a documentary background in tow, demonstrates a tremendous amount of chops – scenes where our anti-heroes hide out in the forest as cops look for them in the middle of the night are lit and shadowed like an aquarium. The visual theme is “oppression” and the picture feels close and claustrophobic. Excellent stuff – non-didactic, too.

Discussion for The Big Sleep went less well as most of my comments about Hawks’ film had to do with the two versions (the 1945 pre-release and the 1946 theatrical), the much-documented salvation of Lauren Bacall’s career after her disastrous turn in Confidential Agent. The dialogue is bracing for the most part, but the racing scene written by Epstein to me seems dated and embarrassed: in stark contrast to the quicksilver of Chandler’s (and Faulkner’s and Leigh Brackett’s) dialogue. The convolution of the plot never bothered me – less so when you see the more-explicated original in all its deadening glory – but what gets me is its essential nihilism and, then, the not-quite-convincing appearance of an angel in the middle of all that Gehenna.

I was accused of not liking happy endings more than once the last couple of weeks (what with my excoriation of
the last twenty minutes or so of The Fisher King, especially) – begging the question of what your favorite non-ironic happy endings are in the movies (thus knee-capping
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Soderbergh’s Solaris, and even Wilder’s Some Like it Hot and Curtiz’s Casablanca to an extent)? My difficulty coming up with titles might prove their point – begging the larger question of what a happy ending is, anyway – I mean, is the ending of Poseidon a happy one? High Noon? Dogville?

It's more than possible that the only happy endings that I like are better described as bittersweet.

Will finesse a few more DVD reviews coming up this week – but I may not get a Da Vinci Code review to Bill until middle of next week, unfortunately. The grind is just getting grindier as projects here and at FFC HQ pile up: here’s hoping for some relief (and inspiration) in the coming months.

Here’s the capture:

May 09, 2006

I'm Told We Don't Look a Day Over 8

Almost forgot that FFC just celebrated its ninth birthday. Historically, 9 isn't much of a milestone--at least our eighth anniversary lent itself to a nifty visual (the giant 8 that starts the countdown on film leader, if you'll recall). That being said, this occasion marks the end of an eventful, if not tumultuous, year that included one death, one birth, the addition of Alex Jackson, the launching of this blog, and the publication of our first book. I don't think I could've predicted any of that from this vantage point last May.

Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same: today the PR person for a studio that shall remain nameless informed me of cutbacks in the number of screeners they're setting aside for press--a change in policy that will apparently only affect online critics. (I replied with a link to this article, recently published in THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER.) But while I'm frustrated that the stigma against non-analog media has proven itself so intractable, at least they're not letting us grow complacent, y'know?

Nothing to commemorate Revolution No. 9 except Alex's excellent piece on Love Me Tender, Travis' mercy-killing of Rumor has it..., and my own review of Terry Zwigoff's disappointing Art School Confidential. But who knows what the future has in store?

Hot Off the Presses (5/10)
Walter mans the torpedoes against Poseidon. And speaking of bombshells, did anyone else want to climb the nearest water tower and start a-snipin' after watching last night's season finale of "Gilmore girls"?

May 08, 2006

The Trench

Talking Fisher King proves to be as exhausting a task as expected – it’s hard to tell folks that at the end of all discussion, the film is really just what it is: an equivocal picture from a legendarily-maverick director produced as his first after obtaining a Hollywood agent, for a Hollywood studio, and most likely because he had a prior relationship with Robin Williams: the producers’ desired choice of co-lead. Jeff Bridges’ typically understated (and underestimated) performance aside, the picture is a case of no-decisions-made in which every storyline is given the full treatment, resulting in an overlong (bloated, let’s say) film with four or five endings, the last of which (with Williams and Bridges naked in Central Park as the skyline turns electric) finally crossing the line irrevocably from nearly-mawkish to unforgivably so.

If one chooses to tackle the film as a retelling of the Parsifal “holy fool” Grail story, one will find that it’s as straight forward as could be – and if one should go the Freudian route, it is only, again, what it is. The Red Knight as a symbol is awkward and obvious – the visuals are hamstrung and rote – and whatever it is of Gilliam that enchants on occasion, is plowed under a load of flat medium-shots in this one.

Gilliam, I think, spends too much time bemoaning his status as an underdog, un-trusted barnacle on the underside of the industry and not enough time embracing that moniker. It’s possible that he has too many bills to pay to be entirely comfortable with the “toxic” label (and I’m sympthetic with that, boy howdy), but selling out so completely here and again in
The Brothers Grimm speaks to me of a moral weakness.

The Buddhists like to warn of the two deadly inclinations: the need for praise and the fear of criticism – and Gilliam, it seems like, is too often willing to give it all up for the keys to the executive washroom. I adore
Brazil, Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, et. al – and have come in my old age to appreciate the lawlessness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (recognizing that my initial revulsion of it is exactly the appropriate response to its venomous anarchy) – but if you have to do Brothers Grimm to get another shot at a Harry Potter flick, I do wonder about the quality of your soul.

In any case,
The Fisher King is way too long at about 140 minutes – especially if you’re presenting it in a film discussion series – but I will say that the Central Station waltz sequence remains enchanted.

Hoping to sneak in a screening/discussion of
Fearless at the Gilpin County Library for a one-shot evening show in the next month or so. Am getting the widescreen laserdisc and intend to pack my machine up the mountain for the purposes of showing the film in its original aspect ratio.

We’ve mentioned it briefly here, I think, but for
Fearless not to have a decent DVD release is one of the great tragedies of our favorite video medium. Personal peeve is Steve DeJarnatt’s Miracle Mile being released only in pan-and-scan. Here’s a question for the real geeks out there – best Laserdisc releases not replicated as of this date in the DVD age? (Especially now that Lucas is releasing the OT on DVD later this year.)

A discussion at Gilpin of Key Largo turned out to be incredibly pleasurable and fulsome, on the other hand, with a close look at Huston’s mise-en-scene centering the chat along with themes of high noir conventions (castration images key – with the Huston gag of having a palm tree penetrate a french window after Rocco proves himself to be firing blanks, the highlight) – and use of light and shadow (watch how Rocco's falls across McCloud's during moments of doubt). All agree that Steiner’s score is overwrought – but Richard Brooks, on board as a writer here, tells the best story from the set about ace shooter Karl Freund giving the aspiring director pointers by loaning him a few 16mm reels of stag films he’d shot in the ‘20s. The advice contained therein? Recalls Brooks: “Freund said: ‘Get to the fucking point’”.

Several programming meetings this week, too, with libraries around the state discussing the next several – most excited about a proposed horror film series through which I hope to program Franju’s
Eyes Without a Face, Laughton's Night of the Hunter, and Polanski’s Repulsion.

A documentary series, too, where I’d like to do the amazing corn doc
Hybrid and Russ McElwee’s Bright Leaves.

Anyone, speaking of which, seen the musical stage version of Grey Gardens?

Lunchtime poll of the week involves which is the best, most socially-significant Hollywood blockbuster? I’m gonna’ offer up
Predator just off the top o’the nut.

Here’s the screen capture:

May 01, 2006

The Trench

Here’s the problem with Akeelah and the Bee tanking its opening weekend: Roger Ebert. Having given it the four-star benediction and the kind of patronizing double-speak that also indicated his defense of Crash last year (“This is a tragedy in some predominantly black schools: Excellence is punished by the other students, possibly as an expression of their own low self-esteem” – an astonishing thing for an extremely wealthy, extremely isolated white man to opine based on the machinations of a sub-par, slope-browed uplift formula flicker), there will be the inclination now for Ebert to rally and attempt to rally others, around the non-issue of this film’s failure to capture hearts and minds. He says this to tantalize the waffling:

"What is ingenious about the plot construction of writer-director Doug Atchison is that he creates this moment so that we understand what's happening, but there's no way to say for sure. "

And as is so often the case with Mr. Ebert in the last five years or so, he’s either willfully misleading his readers (because he’s become evangelical about neo-/sub-Stanley Kramer films like this) or he just wasn’t paying attention. There’s no uncertainty whatsoever about the moment that he describes. The venerated director Atchison goes so far as to insert a flashback to a scene to explicitly clarify the choice that Akeelah is making – then he shows reaction shots of her arch-nemesis; then of her mentor, registering surprise-into-understanding. If this is the yardstick for subtlety in Ebert’s purview, then I guess I’m starting to understand his affection for broadly-telegraphed, insulting, cut-rate garbage.

The end-note of the review is almost as predictable: “. . . they will want to live better.” Ebert on a crusade, same as post-
Crash, for folks to see films that are good for them. I don’t know that I want this person to be the judge of my moral standing. The more you hear him speak at events like Boulder’s Conference on World Affairs about the primacy of tits, the less you will.

After watching Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly again for the first time in years with a captive audience at the Denver Public Library, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mickey Rourke is probably an underestimated performer, and that Schroeder is no question a shitty director. Barfly isn’t dreadful, but it is a shrine to Charles Bukowski written by Bukowski (featuring a cameo by Bukowski) and playing a lot like what my friend called “a best-of collection of Bukowski quips”. It’s a glorification of the drunk’s lifestyle, a fairy tale, and an egomaniac’s fantasia that grows increasingly wearying as it un-spools. Oft-lauded for its realistic dark, I found it instead to be a projection of a dangerous, puerile ode written by some dude to himself. Would’ve much rather shown other Rourke pics like the only Alan Parker film worth a shit, Angel Heart or, perhaps, Kasdan’s Body Heat or definitely Walter Hill’s awesome Johnny Handsome: find therein the blood ancestor of his
Sin City Marv performance.

Still haven’t had a chance to see Silent Hill. Still want to.

Also presented John Huston’s masterpiece,
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for a small but appreciative audience at the Gilpin County Public Library. It’s a film that only gains in relevance as time goes by, this doomed search for gold on foreign soil, beset upon by demons external and internal. It’s telling to me this time through that the emptied bags of the picture’s MacGuffin are found “In the ruins, outside the city” – and I caught myself with a tear on my cheek watching Walter Huston do the jig that Eugene O’Neill taught him while they were doing “Desire Under the Elms.” John would say late in his life that the one perfect moment he captured in his long and storied career was this twenty-second dance.

Bogie, too, was never better – his decline into madness is the prototype for his own Queeg, but still full of the pathos of lost minds and better natures. Looking back to see him not being nominated for this picture is as painful as looking back to see him beating Brando for the Oscar in The African Queen (Brando in Streetcar of course – and Clift, too, in A Place in the Sun).

The discussion of three classic westerns at the DPL went well: not much to report there save the burning desire to do a Sergio Leone series that would include the three Clints,
Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. (If you haven't read Bill's write-ups of Leone flicks, do yourself a favor. Seriously. Seminal stuff.)

May get a chance to do Hana-Bi in a couple of weeks – something I’m geeked about, to be sure.

This week, a screening of Mission Impossible: III as well as discussion/screenings of The Fisher King (compromised by a bad ending, methinks) and the puzzling, uneven to say the least, Key Largo.

Question I’d like to toss out for discussion is a programming question. If you were putting together a series for discussion/screening, taking into consideration run-time (110min and under), with the intention of presenting over the course of five films a good overview of a major theme running under 1970s American cinema – which five films would you choose? Without checking run-times, I’m definitely going for Parallax View, The Conversation, and Night Moves for starters.

I'd also love to hear about your favorite underestimated performers.

Here’s the first capture of our fifth contest:

Back at the mutha-site: Bill supplies the DVD specs to my review of the abominable
The Family Stone, Travis writes a funny review of childhood fave Blue Thunder, and I express my ignorance in a review of King Vidor's The Champ.