November 07, 2011


Watching Super 8 this morning, I grew nostalgic for those pre-film school days when I made movies with my weird friends the way other kids got a band together and jammed. But what it made me nostalgic for was mainly the idea of writing with an ambition--if not a skill--that wildly exceeded my resources and expertise. Really, Super 8 augmented a bittersweet feeling that came over me recently when I stumbled upon a relic that was the product of ingenuity and a fire in my belly that's only embers at this point.

I actually shot a few things on super8 as a kid, mostly glorified home movies, but it wasn't until my parents bought me my first video camera, in 1990, that the directing bug became incurable. That was the year of the Miller's Crossing/Goodfellas/The Godfather Part III hat-trick, and I wrote my own gangster movie--The Gentlemen--that dutifully ripped them all off. A brief summary of the production: the 19-page script we started with ballooned to about 60 pages by the time we were done; and we shot virtually every weekend and school holiday for two years straight.

Due to the genre we were working in, the creative demands weren't that extravagant. We realized early on that we could get away with painted-on facial hair--moustaches seemed essential in aging us up--because of the generally shitty picture quality. We wanted rain in one scene, just hitting the window, so my friend sent his sister outside on a November night to spray his bedroom window with a hose. It flooded his basement. Looked great, though. There was an easy solution to the many scenes that called for us to smoke: buy cigarettes and smoke them. At one point, we needed a City Hall stand-in. My friend's/the star's mother was an alderwoman, so the mayor gave us the keys to his office for the weekend. (Come Monday, he was not happy to find an ashtray full of cigarette butts and a script page littered with profanity--but hey, we had everything we needed by then.) And we somehow talked a gorgeous teenaged model into playing the female lead, who might as well have been called Helen of Troy.

But as time wore on, I started getting self-conscious about the guns. As we had cap guns and an effeminate little starter pistol filled with police-issue blanks (my two closest friends working on the production were sons of cops), the choice was a cool-looking gun with no muzzle flash or vice-versa. Enter Dave F., a guy I nicknamed Pockets because he had everything you could ever need somewhere on his person. A savant with power tools, Dave would assume the role of my fairy godmother on this and subsequent projects.

So I says to Pockets, I says, "These guns suck." He borrows a dummy gun we had on hand and proceeds to drill a hole through the hollow handle, thread a wire up through the barrel, and secure a charge fashioned from cherry bombs to the tip of it. He rigs the other end of the wire so that it can connect with the batteries we use for the camera; all someone has to do off screen is touch the contacts together while someone on screen pretends to pull the trigger, and voilà!: muzzle flash. It wasn't exactly practical (you couldn't really get more than one take out of it), but still.

I found one of the many guns he set up for this the other day. And before tossing it, I took pictures.

This gag inspired me to ask for the moon, by the way, and probably our most impressive achievement was a shot of a helicopter coming to pick up our main character. Dave built a model helicopter and motorized the propellers; in order to have it move without obstructing the blades, we suspended it upside-down on a makeshift zipline and turned the camera upside-down to match. For added realism, we shot it against a grey sky--I blew out the exposure (erasing the fishing line) and zoomed in from far away to flatten out the image.

Unfortunately, that scene was cut out of The Gentlemen and this helicopter footage now only exists on a Hi8 tape I can't access, or I'd put that fucker up on YouTube right now.

Anyone here have similar misadventures in Sweding to share?

October 30, 2011

Halloween Horror: Abominable, Adorable, Indelible

Nobody ever dresses up as Dr. Anton Phibes for Halloween, and I need an explanation of why that is. Underexposure? An allergy to camp? The death of the UHF groovy-movie marathon channels? Whatever, the man needs more respect. He demands it. Or he will set a plague of boils upon thee.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) is a great helping of late-period Vincent Price on a ham platter. It's also the rotten little B-horror treasure that foretold at least two mass mainstream successes. And it's a Halloween movie to its marrow, with masks, hooded robes, dark kitsch, deathly allure, and (tasteful '70s) gore. The Doctor of the title -- wealthy polymath, gifted musician, fiendish plotter of deathtraps and riddles -- is a dead man, burned to a crisp in a Swiss car accident as he rushed to the side of his dying wife. Alas, she too would die, despite a nine-person medical team's best efforts. As far as the not-so-dead Dr. Phibes is concerned, their best wasn't good enough; in fact, it was tantamount to murder.

From just this side of the grave, courtesy of the great Sam Arkoff's American International genre factory, Phibes reaches out to destroy those surgeons, syncing his murders with the Ten Biblical Plagues of Egypt. On screen, his victims are consumed by locusts, frozen into mansicles, bitten to death by bats, choked to death by mechanical frog masks, exsanguinated by hot ladies, and impaled with a brass unicorn.
No, I don't think that last bit was in the Bible either.

If you can't be arsed to hunt it down and watch it -- and I'm indebted to scholar and genre-film fan Dan Hassler-Forest for my DVD copy -- find an excellent scene-by-scene recap at The Bad Movie Report and a solid appreciation at Mark Bourne's Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal. But if you've any appreciation at all of David Fincher's Seven or the Saw films, you're missing out on their progenitor. By his efforts, Phibes marks himself as the granddaddy of John Doe (the Seven Deadly Sins vs. the Hebrew plagues) and Jigsaw (psychologically significant deathtraps). Take that legacy for what it's worth ($327 million and $848 million respectively), but acknowledge that mainstream film culture has scraped the strata of schlock and polished the gems there to a new shine.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a camp carnival that must be seen to be believed. The antihero is a Phantom of the Opera given new life in a kind of mod Agatha Christie dreamscape, pursued by bumbling Scotland Yard detectives named Trout and Crow (Peter Jeffrey and Derek Godfrey) to absolutely no effect. Humor and horror, intertwined and balanced by
former "Avengers" director Robert Fuest, expertly acted by a seasoned star who never once opens his mouth to speak, surprise-guest-starring the great Joseph Cotten as the Final Girl, and speaking elegantly to matters of loss, death, madness, and the survival of love.

And please don't let that sequel fool you. Dr. Phibes never rose again. The last scene of this movie, with love and death fulfilled, is the last of the magnificent musician-mastermind. AIP is history; Vincent Price is gone. We may see his like again, but we'll nevermore meet Dr. Phibes himself.

October 24, 2011

Yeah, nice slogan, Harvey.

For those who haven't heard, I went and wrote a scene-by-scene analysis of a little film called The Dark Knight. Would you be interested in an in-depth thematic discussion backed up by thorough research and third-party quotations? In that case, The Faces of Gotham: Myth and Morality in The Dark Knight is available exclusively as an ebook, and can be purchased at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for an all-too-affordable $7.49.

And don't forget--if you don't own a physical e-reader, both Amazon and B&N have free programs for download on the computer/phone/iMachine of your choice.

So give it a read! And hey, if you liked it, spread the word, and write a review on the book's storefront page, whydoncha.

September 09, 2011

TIFF 2011

TIFF 2011 coverage here.

July 24, 2011

Charging Star

I wasn't quite sure what bothered me about Captain America. It took me forty-five minutes to really warm up to the thing, and even as I left the theater with a handful of moments that screamed do not forget about this film in December!, something else stuck around to nag at the back of my mind. At first I thought it was because the film lacked moral dimension, but no--it's a Saturday morning serial straight outta 1944. It's supposed to be operatic, goddamn it, and it certainly accomplished that. But my inability to comprehend that first act soon forced me to question the parts that I did enjoy--even as I recognized it as a faithful mock-up of Allied propaganda, I couldn't help but think, "Didn't Inglourious Basterds already dissect this kind of wartime fiction?" Walter's review helped immensely in understanding and appreciating the film, but a second screening was inevitable, and I soon knew that my reluctance could be traced back to a single moment. Halfway through the movie, the Red Skull denounces Hitler as his cronies belt out an emphatic "Hail HYDRA," throwing out their arms in a ridiculous parody of the Nazi salute. The first time through, I giggled derisively, because seriously, what is this Mickey Mouse shit?

My friend Bob Chipman made the excellent point that Joe Johnston and
Captain America didn't need to expound upon the mytho-religious implications of the Cosmic Cube because Thor had already done that job for them. (To which I responded that I would now only accept Thor as a direct prequel to Cap.) His astute observation eventually made me realize that the universe was my problem. Continuity was my problem. Now, I still firmly believe that Iron Man 2 erased any and all need to throw The Avengers at us, but this time the fictional timeline interferes with our own. Before I recognized Captain America for what it was, I wasn't sure how to feel about Marvel sidestepping the Nazis in favor of its own villainous organization. But why? People have been doing this for years. This company's been doing this for years--Adolf Hitler met his end in Marvel Comics when the Human Torch burned his ass to death in the bunker... only to be resurrected as the "Hate-Monger" some twenty years later. That's fiction for you, man, and I've argued over and over and over again that superheroes are capable of handling the headiest of topics. But Captain America appeared to be somewhat gun-shy when it came to the icons of Nazism. As Walter mentioned, the Red Skull states that he "no longer reflect[s] Hitler's ideal of Aryan perfection," and you'll see plenty of armbands and red flags and what have you, but swastikas are mostly obscured--HYDRA's tentacled skull is the fetishistically omnipresent symbol in this universe. Cap spends the majority of the war on a campaign against HYDRA, and I couldn't help but think, "So the actual war is still on, right? We're still fighting the Axis?" You can call it an attempt to keep the movie viable on the international market, but in the wrong hands, it could have been twisted into an extreme example of what bothered Jefferson about Dead Snow: at first glance, Captain America seems too squeamish to truly approach ideology or iconography.

Thankfully, Johnston knows what he's doing. What makes Captain America such a great movie is how it understands the components of propaganda, and, moreover, the power they carry. I got that the first time through, but the second time forced me to really contemplate it: the ultimate soldier becomes a film star/comic book hero/inspirational symbol before he feels compelled to join the action--to live up to his name, his image and his potential--with an "A" helmet stolen from a USO showgirl. The symbol gathers up a few more trinkets from popular entertainment and becomes tangible. Watch how Cap's role changes between newsreels and wonder how many layers of fiction and documentary we'll have to traverse before we finally make it to 2011, to the present-day schmoes sitting in a movie theater. You want a moral dimension? Johnston doesn't ignore the influence that Goebbels and Riefenstahl had over the Third Reich--he simply refuses to give the Nazis any more power by indulging them in their cult of icons. I'm reminded of Oliver Hirschbiegel's bemused reaction to those Downfall parodies on YouTube: "The point of this film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality. I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like." If an icon is to defeat another icon, it must be accomplished metatextually. Despite all indications that the man is basically a walking flag/bullseye, Captain America can sneak around a HYDRA base with impunity; meanwhile, the swastika has difficulty showing its face in the war that it instigated. But even with all that in mind, the dangers inherent to this identity are never ignored. (Consider how the image can swallow the individual whole--how often Steve Rogers is addressed as "the Captain," even when it's not a particularly relevant point.) Call it a moment of patriotic self-awareness born from seventy years of retrospection. Great stuff, man. Can't wait to see it again.

June 23, 2011

Those Tapes I Made For You

Do me a favor and watch this episode of "Street Fighter". Be forewarned, however, that this is a Saturday morning cartoon based on a video game franchise, so you know what you're in for.

Nonsensical pap, produced on the cheap and aimed squarely at American children--the sequel series to the original Street Fighter movie that no one particularly cared to see. However, search online and you're more likely to find thirty isolated seconds that have since become subject to an internet meme:

And search for "Bison yes" and this little baby will be your first destination:

I don't really think of this reduction as hostile in any sense of the word. Sure, you can't get around the reduction itself, but the blaring, "dramatic" horn section, the bizarro camera movement, and the fact that one recording of "YES!!" was so obviously doubled--this is an ancient Saturday morning distilled to perfection. I think it's a little wonderful, actually, that I can consider this six-second clip as part of a mutual language. There are several points I want to tackle from here, and they all involve ideas removed from their original context. (Appropriate, I suppose, that the now-largely-forgotten episode of "Street Fighter" is entitled "The Medium is the Message.") I've talked about that before, but this video has the odd distinction of simultaneously forging assumptions about the source material and creating something new from those ashes. Maybe I can believe that the rest of the series falls in step with that four seconds. But that's kind of silly, isn't it? I can assume all I want and I won't know until I actually sit down and watch the damned thing. But after that, what am I left with beyond the desire to keep "Yes!! Yes!!" outside of its original narrative boundaries?

One thing to consider is that this is a "widescreen, HD reupload" of the "Yes!! Yes!!" clip. This is a short clip posted by a fan, but it's fair indication that the whole world's going widescreen, baby. Cartoon Network's website has an annoying habit when it comes to posting full episodes of their pre-widescreen cartoons: for shows like "Dexter's Laboratory," they stretch the borders of the image to fit a 16:9 frame, which gives it an awful fish-eye effect. Ironically, Genndy Tartakovsky and his crew already operated by a cinematic sensibility, and stretching the picture becomes a serious problem when the series indulges in one of its many pans and zooms. "Street Fighter" is too flat to entertain such concerns, especially from this infinitesimal scope--and, what's more, the widescreen clip keeps its silliness intact. (Note that the edges of the image have been chopped, rather than stretched.) But it's still not in its original format, and it's still stripped completely bare. Isn't it like "MST3K" in that regard--I'm geared to laugh simply because there are familiar shadows at the bottom of the screen? If we're not looking at the source seriously, should we really concern ourselves with such particulars? Why aren't we looking at it seriously, anyway? Why am I laughing at all?

Now, when I talk about the official mangling of television, I don't want to paint Cartoon Network as some villainous entity. (Indeed, they're not averse to exploring the very nature of their business: J. G. Quintel's "Regular Show" is a keen exploration of how popular culture tends to fracture our worldview.) I just find the reasoning a little difficult to decipher. Individual clips are shown on the website in the correct "standard" format. The Looney Tunes are also shown in their original aspect ratio, though not always in their original form: a few weeks ago I caught Show Biz Bugs on television, and the infamous finale--Daffy guzzles nitro and gasoline, lights a match and performs the trick that he can "only do once"--had been inelegantly chopped out. But I suffered from the same limited perspective growing up--before the advent of YouTube, when was the last time anyone had seen the minstrel show that ended Fresh Hare?

So, obviously, it's not a new problem. But it's easier to argue for the complete visions of Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, to forgive the unsavory material, because we admire these men as geniuses and we want a more complete understanding of the era. How do we apply that same attitude to a genuine piece of shit? The only reason anyone watches Bedtime for Bonzo anymore is because Ronald Reagan is in it--and the convenient presidential punchline is why it remains in popular thought. And, hey, if that's the way it goes, that's the way it goes. But here's what I want to know--did they ever bother to colorize the movie? We're naturally repelled by the concept of colorization but if they did, I doubt that anyone cared, because the movie is just so goddamn bland. Do it to Casablanca and it's inexcusable. Do it to Bedtime for Bonzo and you'll change the channel faster than you'll complain. Is that right? We lost a couple of Hitchcocks to the flaws of nitrate stock, and we lost a lot of television history to the networks' habit of taping over obsolete broadcasts, but between the masterpieces we must have jettisoned a lot of tone-deaf crap. How far down the totem pole do we have to go before we stop caring? When does culture become a game of breaking-and-entering?

Of course, "value" is a relative term. Everything is preserved now, which I consider more of a blessing than a curse. We may be dealing with a more cacophonous playing field, but beyond the obvious historical value that any sort of record can provide, lame/mediocre properties can inspire great works just like any other. Without Dr. No, there'd be no From Russia with Love. But whenever something, anything, catches my intellectual fancy, I want to know the context. And if that's the case, what do I retain from that journey? On his Twitter page, Matt Prigge just posted a quote from Richard Leacock: "Film is terrible at giving a lot of information, but it's great at giving a feel for a place." I get that feeling, but I'm still picking it apart. Maybe I want to understand it to its logical conclusion.

Sometimes I catch myself watching Tarantino's pictures in piecemeal fashion--not because I don't want to watch the entire thing, but they contain a multitude of different tones and the chapter divisions give them a natural bookmark to revisit. Tarantino is himself a pop plunderer of the highest order, but should I really indulge that desire so often? I mean, that's YouTube for you. (David Lynch would throw a fit, I know.) I guess what I'm asking here is whether a complete picture is always better than a fractured one--whether this concept of a media democracy will sometimes produce long-term benefits, now that everything will be preserved in some form or another. Is it really possible to pick and choose what we take from certain media? Are there any legitimate instances in which more context is unnecessary or distracting?

But now I'm getting into the very nature of mass communication, and hell, you don't need me to tell you that media is changing--I'm just curious as to how it's all going to play out. For me, the best movie news this week is Valve's long-anticipated release of Meet the Medic:

Which is great, y'know, because it touches on the inherent ridiculousness of the character's role on the team--and how we integrate atrocity into popular entertainment. (Not to mention that those final
ÜberCharged moments are made of pure, giddy excitement.) Oh, and by the way, did I mention that "Team Fortress 2" recently introduced an M. Bison hat that makes reference to the meme in question? Culture changes, culture spreads. Welcome to the party.

May 06, 2011

Hanna and Her Brothers

Hanna was raised in the woods by her beloved Papa, a hunter and woodcutter (both trades undertaken for the simple matter of survival). Her nemesis is also her Grandma, in a sense, with an oral hygiene compulsion so fierce she scrubs her teeth till they bleed. (She's sharpening them, see?) When the green-slippered foe confronts Hanna, she steps forth from the maw of a wolf. (Nor is this the last transformation she'll undergo before the end.)

Joe Wright's Hanna is an espionage quest which, like all such riffs post-Bourne, is really a search for identity. Hanna — no ordinary girl, but a Chosen One just as surely as Harry Potter is — has been shaped one way, but her emerging individuality demands she sculpt herself anew. It's at just such points that our forebears turned to the folktales of their culture, like those collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, to illustrate the perils of straying from the path or trusting in the wrong authority figure. The root wisdom of these tales, we are told, have resonance for the ages, and we do well to heed them.

The film's own distributor tried hard to make such a point, publishing an interview with highly-paid fairytale inverter Gregory Maguire. But just as Hanna sets out to refashion those myths to its own ends, I'm not convinced there's anything more to be done with Grimm-era fairytales but invert them. We don't read them to our kids nowadays, but we all know their gist — at least their bastardized versions, filtered once by the Grimms, once by Disney. So they remain a kind of irrelevant background hum of easy reference and surface psychology.

Yet how often they're employed when filmmakers turn their lenses on young female heroines! Catherine Hardwicke's recent Red Riding Hood, Matthew Bright's 1996 Freeway — have we no other overlay to apply when making a film about a young woman's transition to sexual maturity or worldly wisdom? Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves remains the best contemporary application of childhood myths to the passage into womanhood, and it won that mantle by developing its own allusive, symbolic vocabulary.

Most commonly, the palimpsest of a childhood myth is held up in order to be overwritten. The movies believe they're striking a feminist blow in this way. Riding Hood will not be eaten (read: raped). The princess will escape the tower, with minimal assistance at most. And when it comes time to kill the wolf, she don't need no stinking huntsman to do it for her. There's no instruction taken from these stories anymore, just an opportunity for postmodern mockery.

Comic books saw the opportunity long ago. After Alan Moore deconstructed the superhero, Neil Gaiman did similar for the fairytale — gently, because he respects the power of story, but his groundbreaking Sandman opened the door for future creators to get it wholly wrong. After Sandman and Bill Willingham's Fables, it's very hard to look a classical myth straight in the eye without smirking. Much easier for our young people to learn life lessons from the troubled, downtrodden Marvel heroes, who teach us that no matter how nobly endowed we might be, we're easily pricked by debt (Spider-Man), addiction (Iron Man), anger (The Hulk) and all the other ills of the modern day. But where the fairytale-derived femme flick has to do with transcending boundaries, the comic book movie has a lot of interest in reinforcing them.

Thor, by way of Marvel, is both a superhero comic and a folktale — a rough gloss on Norse myth that remains "classical" in the sense that pride is at the root of Thor's fall to Midgard. Once there, of course, he becomes its defender, all the while trying to live up to the standards of his distant, powerful father Odin. He can regain his status only by defending the status quo, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In comics, superheroes are bound by their archetype to be defenders of the norm, not transformers. This goes for female superheroes too (unless they're named Promethea, and there's Alan Moore again). They spring forth fully formed and go punch stuff alongside the boys. This is why Wonder Woman may never get a movie treatment, and why her latest TV show may founder before it even airs: There's nothing at stake when you start out perfect.

To this end, if my choice of Germanic heroes come down to Thor or Hanna, give me the ice-blond girl-assassin. Hanna is made to be one thing and becomes something else; she's slotted into a design — actually two designs: that of her foes and that of her father — and then outgrows it. Thor was born to break shit with his hammer, and that's what he does, for pretty much one purpose, no matter where you put him. Hanna is a superheroine, but not in the limiting comic-book sense. She's something older than superhero tales, older even than Stan Lee.

But why must it be either/or? Surely there are other lenses through which to view film heroes, and particularly film heroines. Not every male hero needs to be a tortured Bruce Wayne, nor every female a sheltered princess awakened by a kiss. Close the book of fairytales. Put the comics back on the store rack. Think of what makes boys and girls into men and women now, today, and then tell me that story. I'm sitting comfortably, here in the dark, waiting to see it.

April 29, 2011

Apropos of Nothing: "Doc Hollywood"

So, the other night Doc Hollywood was on TV. Now, every time Doc Hollywood is on TV, I try to time it so that I happen to channel-surf past it just as Julie Warner is making her Ursula Andress-style topless exit from a sylvan lake. But this time, I decided to keep watching, and...

I actually saw Doc Hollywood a number of times during my Michael Caton-Jones phase. Back then, the Scottish director had followed up the amiable Doc Hollywood with the lovely This Boy's Life and the marvellous Rob Roy, and he made enough interesting decisions--like putting nudity in Doc Hollywood (the film that would essentially inspire Pixar's Cars), or dropping the score for the climactic swordfight in Rob Roy--that he didn't seem to be so completely at the mercy of his scripts, as later films like The Jackal and Basic Instinct 2 revealed him to be.

But Doc Hollywood, in retrospect, already made this abundantly clear. Scripted by the decidedly low-wattage trio of Daniel Pyne (Pacific Heights) and partners Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (Wild Wild West), the picture coasts on the charm of its actors, including Michael J. Fox (although knowing that he went into production having just been diagnosed with Parkinson's casts a shroud of melancholy over his performance), whose character's braggadocio would be unpalatable without Fox's knack for turning Alex P. Keatons into total softies.

The movie is not without merit as cinema, don't get me wrong. I'm particularly fond of a scene Caton-Jones himself came up with, if I'm remembering the publicity lore correctly, in which Fox and Warner--sounds like a corporate merger, doesn't it?--dance to Patsy Cline's "Crazy": as these would-be lovers lose themselves in each other, everyone around them momentarily vanishes into thin air. Little dashes of magic realism like that would go a long way towards keeping many of today's romcoms out of the ghetto. Still, even as far as these things go, the love story in Doc Hollywood is perfunctory, and there's nothing particularly original or seductive about the town of Grady, which cleanses Fox's soul like a Norman Rockwell enema. It's basically a less oppressive precursor to "Gilmore girls"' Stars Hollow.

What really ruins the movie for me today, however, is the fucking pig. More specifically, it's a sequence where Fox inherits a pig for fixing a patient's toe. (Hey! It's That Guy! Raye Birk plays the patient, making Grady feel at once more cozy and more artificial.) Fox, desperate to get out of Grady, then barters the pig to the mechanic fixing his Porsche, only to learn that Warner's four-year-old daughter is crazy about pigs and would love it if Fox brought his porcine pal around sometime. Fox, desperate to get in Warner's pants, then tries to buy back the pig, but discovers the mechanic has turned around and sold it to the butcher. Fox frantically races to save the pig's life--and does, by putting his surgeon's hands to use cutting meat all night for the butcher. Phew!

The trouble is, the next day, Fox shows up at Warner's, pig in tow, and Warner's daughter, sitting placidly on the stoop, doesn't react! She doesn't acknowledge the pig--doesn't pet it, doesn't smile, doesn't freak out the way kids sometimes do when confronted with the reality of an animal they've only envisioned. Nor is her apathy itself the punchline, insofar as we can tell. All that sweat-inducing set-up, no payoff.

Anyway, I think it's this lack of ruthlessness that ultimately became Caton-Jones's undoing. Does the shot establish that Fox accomplished his mission? Well, yes. That'll do, pig.

You can blink now.

April 11, 2011


Just a little screencap game while I clear out the cobwebs. A couple of movies have been on my mind lately, and I thought I'd present them from a different angle: by giving a look-see to the incidental shots between significant moments, the midpoint of a pan, the split-second right before a cut that sends us right back into the action. (For the sake of argument, let's just say that I want to celebrate every single one of those twenty-four frames per second.) Bet you wish you had that FaceBack app now, huh? There are a few telltale hints, so you eagle-eyes should be able to identify them. No prizes, I'm afraid, but would anyone care to take a crack?

March 16, 2011


COSMONAUT (Cosmonauta) (2009)
starring Claudio Pandolfi, Sergio Rubini, Mariana Raschilla, Pietro Del Giudice
screenplay by Susanna Nicchiarelli, Teresa Ciabatti
directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli

Susanna Nicchiarelli's Cosmonaut (Cosmonauta) opens with little Luciana fleeing Holy Communion, shedding the accoutrements of the ceremony on her sprint back home. She seems a little young to be throwing off the shackles of religious conformity, younger even than her alleged onscreen age of nine, but the punchline's priceless in its precociousness: "Because I'm a communist!" she barks when her mother asks why she left church. There's actually a bit more to her rebellion than that. With their dad gone (having died a "true communist"), she looks to her geeky older brother Arturo for guidance, and because it's 1957 and the Soviets are about to launch Sputnik, he favours the godless world of communism as well. From a North American perspective, the movie is interesting in that respect, as very rarely do our history books stop to consider the excitement that Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin must have engendered in Europe on their way to depicting America's mad rush to win the space race. Even propaganda footage showcasing the likes of Laika the Russian dog--which forms the basis of transitional montages similar to but less operatically intense than the ones that constitute a good portion of Marco Bellocchio's Vincere--was mostly new to me. In fact, when the moon-landing cropped up in the finale, I breathed a sigh of disappointment, though it's worth noting that it may not be such a cliché in Italy.

Arturo is diagnosed with epilepsy. Cosmonaut flashes forward to 1963, the year Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman--moreover, the first civilian--in space: Luciana's now a surly, chain-smoking fifteen-year-old (she doesn't appear to inhale, which may have been actress Mariana Raschilla's own squeamishness but suits a character who's all affectations just the same), a heavily-medicated Arturo is a social liability to her, and their mother has remarried, mainly for stability's sake. Following in her late father's footsteps, Luciana joins the Italian Federation of Young Communists, implicitly out of childhood nostalgia. While Arturo mysteriously hoards match-heads, headstrong Luciana establishes herself as a promising addition to the party, but her efforts are clearly designed to attract the attention of her handsome branch leader, who, somewhat hypocritically, has his eye on the seemingly better-heeled Fiorella. Luciana's actions then become strictly jealous and petty; proving the wisdom of a voting age, her raging hormones trump her allegiance to any political cause.

The movie has its charms, including an enticing, Almodóvarian palette and an intriguing juxtaposition of Cold War iconography and old-world architecture. Raschilla's humourless, almost joyless performance is decidedly disengaging, though, and I lost patience with Cosmonaut as it became an increasingly pro forma coming-of-age flick. Nearly every beat in the film's second half, down to Luciana's cruel rejection of Arturo's advice and Arturo subsequently running away from home without the identification he needs in the event of a seizure, finds its origins in genre convention rather than in organic storytelling. (Although Nicchiarelli elicits sympathy for Arturo by showing others marginalizing him, she ultimately marginalizes him as well (a Catch-22?), making his theatrically self-destructive gesture feel arbitrary.) And what to make of the picture's historical irony? Luciana and Arturo cling to doomed concepts (socialism, rocket ships), allegorizing the youthful ignorance of us all, yet the smartest, most humane characters are arguably a pair of middle-aged Communists, one of whom is played by Nicchiarelli herself. I haven't seen Nicchiarelli's companion piece, Sputnik 5, an animated short about the veritable Noah's Ark that was the titular satellite, but without all that narrative baggage perhaps it has a chance to fulfill Cosmonaut's aesthetic promise.

Cosmonaut begins a one-week engagement at The Royal in Toronto on March 18. Visit the filmswelike website for more details.

March 11, 2011

The SUPER 8 trailer is here!

So let's watching the just-released trailer for The Smurfs!

I watched "The Smurfs" religiously until they phased out Gargamel by introducing Johann and Peewee, and the show gave way to all sorts of inscrutable Belgian horseshit.

UPDATE: I don't actually want to see this movie, just to clarify.

February 16, 2011


I'm Lucy operating the conveyor belt when it comes to keeping up with my review queue; here's a taste of my numerous false starts over the past few months, if for no other reason than to shame myself into finishing the two or three pieces I'm currently juggling.

I was 10 when "Small Wonder" debuted, and I seem to recall it as being the first TV series I approached with anything resembling cynicism. For starters, actually landing on it while channel-surfing was a bit of a crapshoot. The vagaries of syndication not meaning much to me then, I interpreted this as corporate embarrassment in the program which transferred over to me, even with my undiscriminating latchkey palette. For another thing, "Small Wonder" marked the first time I noticed special effects as such: done by Disney, according to creator Howard Leeds, they generated more laughs for their transparency than for any sight gag they were aiming to execute--which, along with the dependably lame jokes, gave the show a certain ironic lustre. I seem to recall most often encountering "Small Wonder" at the tail end of Saturday-morning cartoons, and it was only my extraordinarily passive viewing habits--combined with a frankly bottomless appetite for sitcoms--that kept me from changing the channel. A few more things I remember about my childhood experience with the show: that I loved the theme song, or at least that it took up permanent residence in my brain almost immediately; and that Tiffany Brissette, in the title role, was one of the few child actresses I didn't have a crush on, for reasons that ultimately had less to do with her looks than with the uncanniness of her performance. More on this later.

Oddly enough, the worst scene in The Sorcerer's Apprentice is the one that apes the titular segment from Fantasia/2000. It's a non sequitur, for starters, its shoehorned-in feeling aggravated by a weird edit that plays like a skip in the record. For another thing, there is nothing charming about an enchanted mop in live-action. On this we might blame the Swiffer commercials, in which anthropomorphized custodial implements are sent to the gulag because the lady of the house has decided to "give cleaning a whole new meaning." (The sequence relies on the same sort of crude puppetry and self-demystifying close-ups--all your mind sees is a grip standing just outside of camera range.) And Jay Baruchel is no Mickey Mouse, so it's a long time before we even realize that this is supposed to be that.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not a direct translation of the original Korean title of this first instalment in Park Chanwook's "Vengeance Trilogy" (and the only one he didn't have a hand in writing--although it was clearly a huge influence on his own writing style), but it describes the film much better than the generic Vengeance is Mine would have. Revenge here is not biblically cathartic but rather the sort of dysfunction we aim to minimize with a cute title, because in fact we never want to experience it. Late in the picture, two good but misguided men stand in a river; one tells the other that he's sorry but he has to kill him, and we don't necessarily agree, but we're, yes, sympathetic to the impulse.

from an abortive attempt at expanding my BACK TO THE FUTURE review
I guess I never really realized, seeing as how I saw it before I would've seen anything that influenced it, Back to the Future's playful conversation with the cinema. It's not a pastiche, but it references a gamut ranging from James Whale's Frankenstein ("It works!!!" is this movie's version of the similarly lightning-soaked "It's alive!!!") to, with Doc Brown's climactic dangle from Hill Valley's clock tower, Harold Lloyd/Safety Last!. As the background use of 1954's Cattle Queen of Montana to signify Ronald Reagan's silver-screen past is a little bit anachronistic, one could argue that they may as well have picked the more familiar Bedtime for Bonzo from 1951, but the esoteric choice suggests more respect for the audience's intellect--not to mention Reagan. And the DeLorean's introduction struck me as especially funny this time: a truck opens up to lower a ramp like E.T.'s spaceship, and, as Alan Silvestri's score bespeaks wonder and the camera rises with reverence, billowing clouds of CO2 mist part to reveal a futuristic automobile retrofitted for time travel. Then Doc Brown stumbles out of the car...having a mild coughing fit from all the smoke. Talk about taking the piss out of Spielbergian awe--something which audiences would've especially appreciated in July of '85, if you take into account that the re-release of E.T. earlier in the summer was met with picket signs that read, "E.T. Go Home!" (At least it was in my hometown, where E.T. had barely ended its official run before this revival.)

Read anything good offsite lately, even only tangentially film-related? I really enjoyed this VANITY FAIR article on the wartime experiences of J.D. Salinger.

January 25, 2011

Annual Professional Commentary on the Oscar Nominations

Best Motion Picture of the Year
127 Hours (2010): Christian Colson, Danny Boyle, John Smithson = oy
Black Swan (2010): Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver, Scott Franklin = yay, pretty much
The Fighter (2010): David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Mark Wahlberg = barf
Inception (2010): Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas = obligatory
The Kids Are All Right (2010): Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray = sorry, no
The King's Speech (2010): Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin = Miramax nostalgia
The Social Network (2010): Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, Ceán Chaffin = and the winner is
Toy Story 3 (2010): Darla K. Anderson = yay, pretty much
True Grit (2010): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin = yay
Winter's Bone (2010): Anne Rosellini, Alix Madigan = barf

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Javier Bardem for Biutiful (2010) = Julia paid 'em
Jeff Bridges for True Grit (2010) = yay
Jesse Eisenberg for The Social Network (2010) = sure
Colin Firth for The King's Speech (2010) = whatevs
James Franco for 127 Hours (2010) = at Gosling's expense

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Annette Bening for The Kids Are All Right (2010) = best thing about it
Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole (2010) = barf
Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone (2010) = yawn
Natalie Portman for Black Swan (2010) = yay
Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine (2010) = yay

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale for The Fighter (2010) = the full retard
John Hawkes for Winter's Bone (2010) = best thing about it
Jeremy Renner for The Town (2010) = interesting
Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right (2010) = shrug
Geoffrey Rush for The King's Speech (2010) = shrug

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams for The Fighter (2010) = her perennial nomination; also: yum
Helena Bonham Carter for The King's Speech (2010) = shrug
Melissa Leo for The Fighter (2010) = oh please
Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit (2010) = emoticons to express yay because she's 14
Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom (2010) = yay

Best Achievement in Directing
Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan (2010) = won't win
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen for True Grit (2010) = awesome
David Fincher for The Social Network (2010) = deserved this fifteen years ago
Tom Hooper for The King's Speech (2010) = whatevs
David O. Russell for The Fighter (2010) = aw hail no

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Another Year (2010): Mike Leigh = throw the dog a bone
The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington = no no way n'uh uh no way fuggetit
Inception (2010): Christopher Nolan = oh please
The Kids Are All Right (2010): Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg = see Inception
The King's Speech (2010): David Seidler = he wrote Tucker

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
127 Hours (2010): Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy = Slumdog ass-covering
The Social Network (2010): Aaron Sorkin = rent that tux
Toy Story 3 (2010): Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich = ok
True Grit (2010): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen = yay
Winter's Bone (2010): Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini = barf

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
How to Train Your Dragon (2010): Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders = ok
The Illusionist (2010): Sylvain Chomet = love-children everywhere are checking their attics
Toy Story 3 (2010): Lee Unkrich = believe it or not

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Biutiful (2010): Alejandro González Iñárritu(Mexico) = or Julia would've killed everyone
Dogtooth (2009): Giorgos Lanthimos(Greece) = yay
In a Better World (2010): Susanne Bier(Denmark) = didn't see, but Bier should be in movie jail
Incendies (2010): Denis Villeneuve(Canada) = go Leafs
Outside the Law (2010): Rachid Bouchareb(Algeria) = news to me

Best Achievement in Cinematography
Black Swan (2010): Matthew Libatique = yay
Inception (2010): Wally Pfister = best thing about it
The King's Speech (2010): Danny Cohen = rock me, Danny Cohen
The Social Network (2010): Jeff Cronenweth = runs in the family
True Grit (2010): Roger Deakins = Susan Lucci

Best Achievement in Editing
127 Hours (2010): Jon Harris = hope he thanks Cuisinart
Black Swan (2010): Andrew Weisblum = yay
The Fighter (2010): Pamela Martin = whatchutalkinabout?
The King's Speech (2010): Tariq Anwar = shrug
The Social Network (2010): Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall = whatevs

Best Achievement in Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland (2010): Robert Stromberg, Karen O'Hara = barf
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010): Stuart Craig, Stephenie McMillan = yay
Inception (2010): Guy Hendrix Dyas, Larry Dias, Douglas A. Mowat = A for effort
The King's Speech (2010): Eve Stewart, Judy Farr = shock of shocks
True Grit (2010): Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh = yay

Best Achievement in Costume Design
Alice in Wonderland (2010): Colleen Atwood = first mostly-CG costume nom?
I Am Love (2009): Antonella Cannarozzi = shrug
The King's Speech (2010): Jenny Beavan = "
The Tempest (2010/II): Sandy Powell = didn't see, but it's Julie Taymor
True Grit (2010): Mary Zophres = yay

Best Achievement in Makeup
Barney's Version (2010): Adrien Morot = Giamatti hasn't looked so human since Planet of the Apes
The Way Back (2010): Edouard F. Henriques, Greg Funk, Yolanda Toussieng = ironic
The Wolfman (2010): Rick Baker, Dave Elsey = yay

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
127 Hours (2010): A.R. Rahman = yawn
How to Train Your Dragon (2010): John Powell = ok
Inception (2010): Hans Zimmer = ok
The King's Speech (2010): Alexandre Desplat = I like Desplat
The Social Network (2010): Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross = rooting for it

Gonna stop there because we start getting into categories with too many blind spots for me personally. No surprises or even big huge disappointments this year, except maybe the lack of love for Marwencol.

January 02, 2011

Top Ten Talkback

Here's your chance. What'd we miss? What'd we get right? What were we smokin'? And what was the deal with all that cunnilingus? (Full lists with intro here.)

Ian's list:
10. Iron Man 2
9. Somewhere
8. Marwencol
7. Mother
6. The Other Guys
5. Valhalla Rising
4. I'm Still Here
3. Greenberg
2. Black Swan
1. True Grit

Bill's list:
10. The American
9. Black Swan
8. Blue Valentine
7. Exit Through the Gift Shop
6. Somewhere
5. Dogtooth
4. Greenberg
3. Marwencol
2. Life During Wartime
1. True Grit

Walter's list:
10. The American
9. Marwencol
8. Dogtooth
7. Greenberg
6. Mother
5. Animal Kingdom
4. Black Swan
3. Somewhere
2. True Grit
1. Valhalla Rising

I'll start: I'm completely unwilling to acknowledge that Iron Man 2 is anything but a turbid, often-unwatchable mess that may lend itself by its very vapidity to some read or another, but doesn't present much beyond just the fact of itself. So be it - I don't know that I've been immune to that instinct in the past (like Blue Crush, for instance) - he without sin, and all that. I lament not having seen Todd Solondz's latest as I really, and for truly, love Todd Solondz's stuff (well, except for Storytelling) - and wish I'd seen Soderbergh's latest on Spalding Gray because, as Bill has eloquently put it about things in the past, I feel like I've dreamed it already.

I want to echo Bill's Twittered pride about not any of the three of us sticking Social Network in the top ten though, yeah, I think we all liked it. It's just, you know, so blandly intelligent and well-crafted... sort of like The Ghost Writer though I fear that I don't see any connection to it and Chinatown. The Ghost Writer doesn't end with resignation... ah well. I do wonder about the venom, though, of my colleagues against Scott Pilgrim which, though it didn't touch my heart in any discernible way, I was sort of impressed by in a technical way. It was my Tron 2, I guess, and I was sort of excited by Wright's joking dedication to making a sequel to Krull in the Twitter-verse. Maybe I'm just a sap.

And what is it with all the cunnilingus?

I think it's interesting that I was the only of these three male critics to rank Somewhere above Greenberg... though when it came time to do the top flick, well, it couldn't be more masculine.

I noticed, too, that there were a lot of people jumping off things in movies this year; that Resnais' Wild Grass is actually sort of a twee piece of shit; and that even though I still don't think that Shutter Island is great, I'm coming around to the idea that it's not as elderly as first suspected. Here's the thing, it's been a long time since a year in pictures has boasted as many beautiful-looking films, independent of their ultimate value. Stuff like Ondine, for instance, by the always-reliable Neil Jordan, which is mostly cross-eyed badger spit and missed opportunities, but in moments flabbergastingly lovely. Like Inception, which sucks, but is a wonder to look at - even the documentaries - even the foreign flicks... I'm excited to catch up with what I missed this year; I'm thinking 2010 was a deep well.