Monday, December 25, 2006

Rocky Balboa (2006)

If you’ve read my reviews, or know me in person, you know I’m the kind of person who’s unnecessarily negative about sentimental entertainment. I’d be a cynic, if I wasn’t the kind of person who claims to be one. What I really am is a thwarted idealist who makes fun of movies that most people enjoy.

So when I watched Rocky Balboa the other day, many mockable elements presented themselves to me. And I found myself unable to grasp at any of them. This movie is so innocent, so like its title character, that I refuse to find fault. I was never an adolescent boy, so I missed that essential “Rocky” period, but after this movie I went right back and watched the original. And loved it too.

The (hopefully) final installment in the series finds Rocky alone, his wife dead and his son somewhat estranged. He runs his restaurant, takes care of the people he can, and yearns for some of the fire of his youth. His physicality, despite pushing 60, is not yet spent. Into this mid-life testosterone fog comes the ESPN computer simulation which claims that Rocky Balboa, at his height, would have trounced current heavyweight champ Mason Dixon. You can guess the rest, but it never gets super cheesy, even though you can pick out the lines that should be.

It’s hard to describe why these movies, at least the first and last of the series, work for me where so many Hollywood offerings fall flat. There’s just as much talk of the heart here, just as much underdog pathos, but Rocky makes it believable. It’s clear that Stallone, who wrote and (less successfully) directed this movie, loves these characters and that love comes through so honestly that it makes me love them, too. There are no bad guys in Rocky’s world, and no losers. The important thing about Rocky is that though it’s about the triumph of the underdog, the underdog doesn’t actually have to win. He just has to keep fighting. I’m not saying I’m ready to go be a boxer or my life has been changed in any other way, but I’m more than willing to buy into this guy for a few hours at a time. Very little about uncomplicated feel-goodiness makes me happy, but Rocky Balboa restores my faith in something nice also being fun. Like That Thing You Do, the Rocky movies have a sort of good-natured innocence, despite the sometimes unsavory motives involved, at which I cannot laugh. Read more!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Candy (2006)

Once I saw a movie that taught me that substance abuse was bad, because even when one person starts out pretty social about his addictions, his partner is likely to get drawn in over her head to a point where she can't stop and some latent crazy manifests itself. Then I saw it again, but with prettier people and heroin instead of alcohol. I guess we haven't learned our lesson, have we?

The thing about Days of Wine and Roses is that it was a melodramatic piece about a couple suffering from alcoholism but one of them was Jack Lemmon. So the whole movie you could marvel at him playing a drama. Watching Candy is pretty much the same experience, but grosser, and you can't be amazed that Heath Ledger is greasily attractive or in an inappropriate and doomed relationship. Its sole purpose seems to be to chronicle the senseless descent of a cute couple into squalor, dead babies and bad skin. With good actors like Geoffery Rush along for the ride.

It's quite likely that all these people read the script and said, “Hey, I can send a good message about drugs and do that playing-a-druggie thing,” which is understandably attractive. There is certainly a chance, here, to explore why certain people fall into certain traps, but other than a belated rant from our heroine about how she's been “clenching her fists” for no apparent reason since she was six years old, we have no idea why these people know each other or why they do drugs. So unless the message is simply DON'T DO DRUGS EVER OR YOU WILL END UP LIKE THEM, they've failed to convey anything deeper. And don't we already know drugs are bad?

The film is not without its nice moments. Candy herself is lovely, Heath is intelligible again (I didn't understand a word he said in Brokeback Mountain), and there are some really great cinematic moments. The beginning is probably the best, with some fantastic footage of one of those spinny rides where the floor drops out and you're squished against the wall. It's very pretty, but it's also a METAPHOR, so try to figure that one out.

Overall, it's somewhat prettily done and no one grossly missteps. But it's also pointless in the sense that nothing is revealed and the audience seems meant to derive cathartic enjoyment from the couple's trials. I can see no other rationale for it, much like pretty much everything on daytime television. But this has cuter people. Read more!

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Science of Sleep (2006)

Michel Gondry has finally made a movie that integrates music video with feature film. I don't mean that negatively; only that up until now, Gondry has wedged the absurdist, dream-like sensibilities he explored on MTV into films that had absurdist plots and were written by Charlie Kaufman to include strange, dream-like alternate realities. With Science of Sleep, the dream merges with reality without the clumsy explanation of some metaphysical breakdown required. I'm not entirely certain, by the end, what we're supposed to take away from the film, but it's a lovely exploration of a certain kind of love affair that exists too much, perhaps, in dreams.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, a Mexican in France at the behest of his French mother but struggling with both his purpose there and the language. As a result, he frequently resorts to English, and it's lucky for us that the other characters all speak it, too. Garcia Bernal's English is great, and the play between the three languages is one of the pleasures of the light script (written by Gondry as well). Soon after arriving at his mother's empty flat, Stephanie moves in next door. Stephanie's friend Zoe helpfully points out that not only do they have the same name, but S&S are totally alike! For some reason, Stephane doesn't correct the girls' misapprehension that he's friends with the piano movers and does not reveal that he is, in fact, the son of the feared landlady. Thus begins a strange tale of a young man-boy who doesn't seem able to articulate what he wants or even figure out whether he's got it. Stephane never seems to know whether he is dreaming or not, and has wild fantasies that sometimes merge into reality without his knowledge. My slight discomfort with the film comes from not knowing whether we are supposed to find Stephane charmingly whimsical or think he should get some help. I think both are true, but I wondered sometimes what the film's position was.

Because Stephane definitely has a problem. His fantasies are amusing and creative and lead to fantastical inventions in his life and relationships. But the conflict between him and the object of his affection seems to be that he doesn't realize which actions are real and which aren't. He does things he later thinks were dreams. In one instance he stands the girl up because he... thinks she stood him up? For no reason? I don't even know.

Then again, this is a character I have met in real life. Stephane isn't unrealistic in his contradictions. But he is kind of a jerk sometimes. Garcia Bernal does fantastically with him, demonstrating yet again his versatility despite being very pretty. The other actors navigate the ups and downs of the script and language with charm and energy. Gondry fills Stephane's thoughts and dreams with fantastical figures made of cardboard, yarn and stop-motion techniques, some of which may look familiar from, say, a Foo Fighters video. And despite a suspicious poster in the theater which advised, “Close your eyes, Open your heart,” it's not a sappy romantic comedy where two crazy people find acceptance in each other's tenuous hold on reality, contrary to all considerations about how they might actually get on in the real world. The issue of Stephane's behavior is left open. In a fantastic world of imagination, there's a true story here about shy, creative people and how they relate to the world. It raises questions rather than conforms to romantic cliches; and in defying expectations somewhat raises my own in terms of how, and what kind of, difficult relationships are dealt with in the movies. Read more!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Superman Returns (2006)

I entered Superman Returns in the manner of an archivist, fairly certain of what I was going to see but determined, anyway, to catalog its relevance to our culture. To my surprise, I was surprised. I had no idea how much of a dick Superman is. I mean, Dean Cain just seemed like a lovable dork. Tom Welling's too hot, and can't make up his mind about Lex, but he suffers prettily so I overlook that. And Christopher Reeve is dead and was, in life, a nice guy, so I can't say anything bad about him (that's already been done by South Park, and much better than I could). So what's up, Singer? Why is your Superman such an ass? Why is Lex Luthor the only interesting person in this movie? Well, I know that, it's because of Kevin Spacey. But seriously, guys, the credit sequence set me up for a nice exercise in nostalgia (I wore out tapes of I and II, and bow continuously to this day to General Zod) but all I got was Superman the jerkface and lots of really phallic crystals.

Which actually would have been kind of cool if Superman had been gay. Wouldn't it be great if Lex stole Superman's phallic crystals and he's forced to choose between Lex and Lois' new boyfriend, Cyclops? By the way, Singer, that was a good one putting ace dickmaster Marsden in there, thereby setting the usurping boyfriend up for audience hatred, then making him an okay guy. You totally got me, there.

So. Basically, Superman's been away for five years to visit the nonexistent Krypton, which seems pretty arbitrary given the fact that he and Lois seemed to be getting pretty hot and heavy around the time he left. Which he did abruptly, and without telling her. Again, for no explicable reason. That whole “it would hurt too much” is just cowardly. Are we supposed to believe Superman's a coward? Or only when his sex life is on the line?

Once back, he spends most of his time eavesdropping on Lois and Cyclops' conversations with his super hearing, making eyes at Lois' kid, and x-ray-visioning their house to spy on them yet again. He shows up in the kid's room, uninvited and unannounced. He presents bewildered confusion to the notion that Lois might, in the past five years, have taken up with someone else after her boyfriend mysteriously disappears with no indication that he's coming back, let alone whether he even likes her that much. I'm sorry, but eavesdropping with your secret powers (he's dressed as Clark, and Lois ain't any smarter here than she ever is) is not cool. I don't care how much you hate Cyclops.

Not that Brandon Roush emotes much of anything, here. He's pretty, sure, and he looks as nice as one can in a skin-tight bright blue suit with underwear outside it, but so what? As superman, Roush looks like he's been constructed from the same weird rubber stuff his suit is made from. He's just kind of there. The best Supermen make the most of Clark; Clark's the heart of a good Superman, the guy who has to actually live the anonymous life he's chosen for himself. Clark does nothing in this movie but break Lois' stuff and look confusedly at her boyfriend.

Lois doesn't do much better herself. Call me old-fashioned, but no matter how much trouble Margot Kidder got in, she was feisty and brash. Kate Bosworth contributes fainting and even less curiosity about that whole Clark/Superman thing than usual. She's a reporter, for god's sake. Although, in this universe, her skill seems to be in saying mean things about Superman. Hey, maybe I quality for a Pulitzer!

There is a plot other than Superman being a dick. It's a sort a of re-imagining of the first Reeve film, with a few of the same lines and a similarity of plot that is more entertaining than it sounds. The parallels are amusing to those who catch them, but unimportant if you miss them. It's a sort of a cross between a sequel and a remake, and it's interesting to tease the threads out.

But at the end of the day, although Superman regains control of his phallic crystals, nothing about his dickliness is resolved. He's just as much of an asshole at the end as when he left Lois the first time. This Man of Steel might be for Truth and Justice, but he's sure not for ethics. This movie's ready-made for a sequel, and I can't wait. I hope it involves Lois investigating Superman's multiple alimony checks, which he pays with money laundered through the Kryptonian mafia in Metropolis.

And if you don't believe me, check out, who figured this out a long time ago. The evidence speaks for itself. Read more!

Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison was billed as a teen exploitation flick but plays like a bad thriller—the kind that’s actually kind of fun. It's one of those movies that makes you wonder whether its comic effect is intentional, given how seriously everyone involved seems to be taking it. The story of a troubled young man (played by Anthony “Troubled Young Man” Perkins) who gets involved with a color-guard high school blond (played by Tuesday Weld, whose name sounds like a to-do list at a shipyard—Monday: Rivets. Tuesday: Weld) includes badly planned espionage, heavy handed dialog, tragic-yet-unexplained psychotic pasts, and inappropriate romance. At its opening, we and Tony are warned that fantasies can be dangerous in the real world; he's going out on his own now, away from this “facility,” and he'd better stop with all that imagination stuff.

Well, he doesn't. He also breaks his probation (from his not-jail) for no other apparent reason than to work at a chemical plant instead of the lumber yard, where the dumping of bright red waste into a river fixates him like so much blood. He also fixates on the high school color guard, and Tuesday in particular, to whom he spontaneously presents himself as a CIA agent. The bored little girl believes him, and the two embark on the most inept juvenile crime spree ever. Tony's a great CIA agent until Tuesday's belief in him leads to the discovery that she's even more insane than he is. He makes up stories; she brings them to life, leaving Tony completely paralyzed.

Psychologically, the movie makes no sense. We never really figure out what's wrong with this guy, or even really why we're supposed to believe there is something wrong with him. And the instant metamorphosis from blond cheerleader to raging psychobitch likewise goes unexplained. In fact, the main characters' every action seems inexplicable.

All the same, there is a certain entertainment value. The director's lack of subtlety can be somewhat humorous, and Perkins is always good as the seemingly unwilling and confused baddie. But unlike Psycho, his confusion here is due to sheer ineptitude rather than Norman's split personality. Couldn't we at least have had some men pretending to be doctors explain everything he did in an anti-climactic denouement? Perkins had the unfortunately ability to project adorable psychotic confusion, which got him typecast in crap like this. Unlike the muddy waters of the film's psychological state, however, the lesson is clear: imaginative, intelligent, inept young men are always screwed over by pretty young girls with ambition. Remember, boys: “The world has no place for fantasies.” Read more!

Wild in the Streets (1968) and GAS-S-S-S (1970)

In the late 1960’s, small-time studio American International Pictures became notorious for their exploitation pictures; movies that appealed to the new “youth culture.” Two such, Wild in the Streets and GAS-S-S-S, are included on an MGM “Midnite Movies” DVD release, and despite similar subject matter the juxtaposition displays very different attitudes towards the films’ audience.

Wild in the Streets, the more famous of the two, was made in 1968 and adapted from a short story in which 15-year-olds win the right to vote, vote “old age” out of power, and end up electing a 25-year-old rock star president. 30 means mandatory retirement; 35 internment at LSD concentration camps. The movie is billed as a satire aimed at youngsters; a sort of fantasy in which the newly mobilized young get power. The poster boasts Jim Morrison’s exhortation that “we want the world and we want it now,” and the reputation the film has is as a youth cry to arms.

Watching it, though, reveals a hateful attitudes towards youth that runs contrary to any rebellious image I previously had of the film. The “kids” are ineffectual, write really bad music, and are unable to govern themselves. Youth-in-power doesn’t result in an American utopia but a fascist nightmare. Adults may be opportunistic and ridiculous, but the new wave just seems stupid and unfocused. Their platform has one plank: since the marketing whizzes say the under 25 crowd makes up 52% of the population, we’re the majority. Once held, this majority does nothing but smoke pot, put LSD in the water, and deploy their might to keep adults corralled in acid-flooded camps that have nothing of the groovy communal about them. President Max Frost doesn’t seem to learn anything either, or benefit from his ascendancy; and the end of the film predicts a bitter reprisal.

In sum, this film is a mockery, a sadistic fantasy, of the youth movement’s desires for political voice.

The antidote to this bad-acid trip is on the other side of this disc: the delightful, pop-culture rich, Roger Corman-directed GAS-S-S-S (1970). In a similar scenario, all adults over 25 are simultaneously wiped out by a freak accident, leaving the youngsters to fend for themselves. The premise occurs right at the beginning, without the wading through nonsensical exposition Wild requires. A band of long-hairs travels across the newly-depleted American landscape, encountering exactly what you’d expect if half the population had been wiped out—small bands of power-hungry survivors, just trying to get by. Of course each group represents a different manifestation of power, be it communal, fascist, or just plain thievin’. But at no point does the movie contend that it’s the youth themselves causing the mayhem. This is the system they inherited, and with no law and order and society would break down.

The script is rife with gags of varying degrees of cleverness and crammed full of cultural references. On top of that, it’s just absurdly fun. A shoot out in a junkyard (shades of The Chase?) involves hurling the names of Western stars at each other. Our hero finally deploys “John Wayne,” but regrets it later. “Maybe I coulda winged him with a ‘Clint Eastwood,’” he muses. Edgar Allen Poe shows up on a motorcycle to dispense doom-filled wisdom, proto-goth Leonore riding bitch. One very pregnant character has a bizarre-yet-contagious fixation on “the golden oldies” that supersedes all other thought of survival. (“I can’t bring a child into this world,” she eventually decides, and so remains pregnant.) Fascist loot-and-pillage gangs are run like football teams, complete with cheerleaders, uniforms, and marching band.

While its satire is less barbed (the ending, especially, is rather hopeful and hippie-friendly), GAS-S-S-S is actually a much more rational response to the youth-power sentiments of the time, not to mention a much more appropriate candidate for cultdom. For one thing, it’s a better movie (with far better music, provided by Country Joe and the Fish, than the rock-star-oriented Wild gives us). For another, it doesn’t crudely insult the very demographic it’s marketed for. Wild in the Streets doesn’t live up to its title. GAS-S-S-S, luckily, outstrips its own. Read more!

Borat (2006)

While press, and box office, for Borat has been very good so far, there are critics (and people who don't get paid for their opinions) out there who call the movie offensive, anti-semitic, and (un)humorous at the expense of people who are tricked into exposing themselves as bigots by an ostensible idiot reporting for Kazahkstan.

I have to say that those people really don't get it.

Borat, if you don't know already, is the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen; previously introduced on his HBO series Da Ali G Show. A bigoted, sexist, racist bumpkin, Borat interviews real people in America about issues such as homosexuality, slavery, manners, women drivers, and especially Jews. Baron Cohen has perfected his act to such an degree that by the time his target figures out something's up, it's too late; the release has been signed, the damning comments made. So it's understandable that people who've been caught on tape, and aired across the country, as espousing anti-Muslim, anti-gay views feel betrayed.

But this film's primary target isn't the people Borat ambushes, or even America as a whole. The feminists Borat offends don't come off as idiots. The black kids he meets on the street do their best to help a hapless white guy who wants to figure out their culture. The southern dinner party guests deal kindly with the ignorant sot until he hands his hostess a bag of feces and invites a prostitute over as his date. Even his overweight cohort, though displayed rolling around naked for about ten minutes, comes off mostly as a really good sport.

No, what Borat does is make his audience extremely uncomfortable by confronting us with some unpleasant truths about what we're willing to put up with. These people aren't so much set up and shot down as damned for not doing anything at all. When Borat goes into a store and asks what kind of gun is best for shooting Jews, shouldn't the owner call him on that? When Borat expresses disbelief in the concept of women having their choice whether to engage in sexual activity or not, shouldn't that elicit more than an uncomfortable chuckle?

To my mind, what Baron Cohen does is not in itself racist, sexist, or even anti-American. It's less about what he says and more about the reaction he gets (or doesn't) from the regular people he encounters. For me, this reaction is most clearly encapsulated in two reactions: one from the dinner party guests who, with Borat out of the room, tell each other he's just a little uneducated and shouldn't be long in assimilating; and when the owner of a rodeo tells him he should shave off his mustache to look less “like them.” One could argue that the betrayal felt by these people is a lesson in giving the “other” the benefit of the doubt, but I would argue that it's still an illustration of treating people who don't sound or act like us as something alien.

In the end, though, what's really impressive about this film is its relentlessly upsetting comedy. It bludgeons you with Borat's adventures, made all the more mind-boggling by the mental somersaults you're forced to do to decide what's a “real” encounter and what must be a set-up. To his credit, Baron Cohen seems to have improv'd most of the film, and his ability to stay in character is tremendous. I don't know what he'll do now that he's been irrevocably exposed, but Borat the movie is a hilarious, offensive, and weirdly informative look at the American hunger for media. Read more!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Jesus Camp (2006) and Soldiers in the Army of God (2000)

At Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, there is a summer bible camp called "Kids on Fire". Children's pastor Becky Fischer leads evangelically-minded children towards a better understanding of God's plan for them, and their duty to Him. This film, shot on a very small budget, follows some of these kids from home to camp to an anti-abortion protest in Washington. And it's extremely disturbing.

I'm always very careful when viewing (and reviewing) documentaries that reinforce my own beliefs. I try to remain suspicious of films where, for example, I go in thinking so-and-so's a nut and then the film portrays them as, well, a nut. So I was skeptical of some of the editing here, until I realized something: Becky Fischer has seen this footage. There is footage of her watching this very documentary--children speaking in tongues and admitting their sins and crying about aborted fetuses--with a huge grin on her face. She knows this is going to bother me, and she's happy about it.

In other words, it's possible to over-apologize for bias.

So I feel justified in saying that the treatment of children in this film sickens me. Over and over we are confronted with images of eight, nine, ten year old children being told not to think for themselves, to be obedient to God's (or, at a pinch, your pastor's) will, and to repent of their many sins. They are led in militaristic dances intended to arouse passion. They parrot rhetoric against "dead churches," the kind where you just sit and pray and don't raise your voice to God. They literally worship a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. They are shown eraser-sized replicas of babies, told that these represent the friends they never had because they were aborted, and submit to having red tape slapped over their mouths as a symbol of protest.

Eight. Nine. Ten years old. Ten year olds do not need to repent of their sins. Eight year old girls do not need to know about abortion. What's amazing about this film is the obvious intelligence and agency of these children and the use to which it's being put. Levi and Heather, especially, are fantastic kids. And they are being shaped, with very little subtlety, into the next generation of preachers and politicians. And while I believe that some of this indoctrination is done "for their own good" in their families' eyes, the film also betrays a sense of mercenary zeal to get these kids on the right side of what the adults think is a war. In the end, though, the movie answered very few of my questions and left me merely outraged and confused. What is behind it? What do they want? What is their reasoning, and how can Fischer place W on the dais and then protest that she is not pushing politics on her kids?

A good companion to this movie is Soldiers in the Army of God, an HBO documentary from 2000 (available on DVD) which follows several known religiously-motivated anti-abortionists in their activities and includes interviews with a convicted murderer of abortion providers. While I certainly came away with a perception of lots of crazy going on in the world, the people themselves were given ample time to explain their views, their actions, and their politics. I understand a lot more about their justification for their actions, and I feel that the radical anti-abortionists portrayed were treated fairly. For me, it was a window onto something I do not understand; much as I hoped Jesus Camp would be. I am by no means equating politically active religious folks with murders—but there are parallels in the films, and they are useful when viewed in conjunction. If you do see the DVD, I recommend reading the original Esquire article and watching the follow-up interview with O'Toole in the bonus features, as they shed even more light on the subject.

The question of religion in this country (the U.S.) is becoming increasingly fraught with complications. While it is doubtful that anything will make the two sides see eye to eye (one mother in Jesus Camp sees the world as "people who love Jesus and people who don't"), it is good to have unbiased filmmakers attempting to inform the public of the conflict's background. Read more!

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Black Dahlia (2006)

My relationship with Brian De Palma, though his films anyway, is a complicated one. So when every critic paid for the job can’t accept that the man who gave us Scarface can’t do better than Black Dahlia, I’m asking why the man who gave us Greetings, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie can’t do better than The Untouchables.

For my money, he finally has; and with Black Dahlia. Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel, Dahlia puts De Palma through his voyeuristic, campy paces in a way people who wanted another L.A. Confidential (and honestly, who doesn’t?) weren’t expecting. I know I wasn’t. I expected to hate it. Josh Hartnett, who with Aaron Eckhart makes this movie the Battle of the Beady Eyes, as star? Hilary Swank as femme fatale?

The critics’ opinion is that this film is disjointed; that it doesn’t know what it is; that it’s incoherent, laughable, campy, and a big disappointment. Haven’t watched a lot of De Palma over the past year or so, I have to wonder what they’re expecting. I never liked the director until I realized that he’s laughing the whole way. Body Double? Repulsive unless you read it as a dark comedy.

Maybe I should back up and talk about the film a little. Okay. Hartnett is Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, who teams up with Sergeant Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) to share Blanchard’s girl Kay (Scarlett Johansson with ridiculous hair) and the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body. There are lots of plots and subplots relating to this tenuous threesome, Blanchard and Bleichert’s somewhat political rise through the ranks, and Blanchard’s rising-yet-hidden obsession with the Black Dahlia murder. Eventually Bucky takes over, his cool reserve boiling over when he gets embroiled in a bizarre family drama involving the Linscotts. It’s the dinner scene where Hilary Swank as the Linscott daughter brings Bucky home and all domestic hell breaks loose that I realized I couldn’t not like this film. This scene is worth the price of admission. It’s hilarious. And I was amused enough to just go with everything else we’re supposed to believe, without trying too hard.

Because yes, it’s convoluted. And you have to take a lot of tangled threads on trust. Do I really think they’ve solved the Dahlia murder? No. It’s ridiculous and the film really falls apart in trying to explain it. I still don’t really understand what they were going for here; but it looks great. De Palma tends to surround himself with people he can trust, and his crew here has many familiar names who do him proud. Not to mention an underused Bill Finley, star of many early De Palma films who appears here as something of an homage to Phantom of the Paradise. There are some other problems as well, such as a plot point that hinges on two people looking alike who really don’t.

A great deal of one’s opinion is based on what’s expected. I think there’s an idea of De Palma at work here that for me was never true; I like this movie because I like De Palma’s roots and I desperately want him to go back to doing comedy. I’m not looking for a retread of the 80’s, when I disliked most of his films. De Palma’s darkness makes you uncertain about his humor; he’s a lot easier to watch if you pick up on the funny. After all, a guy who casts himself as the off-screen director of Betty Short’s screen test, questioning her ability to portray sadness, has to be pretty funny.

The Black Dahlia isn’t a comedy by any means, but I think anyone who goes in expecting something dreadfully serious and “straight” is going to be disappointed. For myself, I had fun. It’s up to the viewer whether that’s good enough or not. Read more!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

I don’t watch a lot of the kind of movie typically deemed “horror,” mostly because slasher stuff doesn’t gross me out enough to scare me. What’s hidden, however, could very well exist without my knowing it, and is that much scarier. I think that’s why Rosemary’s Baby holds up so well nearly 30 years later; it’s about anxiety and marriage and urban life and childbirth, not about freaks with chainsaws.

The strength of this film is that it asks you to believe one thing—that a cabal of Satanists could impregnate a woman with the son of the Devil—and leaves everything else really really normal. The problem for me with Exorcist-style films (right now I’m recalling with horror of a different kind the recent The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is that they pose what looks like a similar situation but requires constant suspension of disbelief. Here, we have one single act, and some suspicious behavior, and Rosemary’s fear and anxiety are our own.

Of course, it’s to Roman Polanski’s credit that he is a good director to begin with and can carry such a concept in a film with naturalistic dialogue, pedestrian settings and some unusual transitions from scene to scene. It recalls that old debate over genre-films—can “horror” or “scifi” be also “good,” or does a good film by definition transcend genre (leaving those nether-regions to be populated by the B-pictures)?

The actors, also, do a fantastic job. Mia Farrow has to propel everything pretty much on her own, and she succeeds in portraying an intelligent (though tiny) woman who, for whatever reason, is underutilized in the life she’s living. Rosemary needs something to do. The film is just as much about her struggle with unfulfillment and boredom as her painful pregnancy. And isn’t her pregnancy as much about the plight of the married woman who discovers just what her “job” entails as about the devilchild?

If it sounds like I’m making this film out to be just a meditation on the horrors of childbirth from a masculine point of view, I don’t think it’s that simple. But the significance of a conspiracy of older, powerful people holding sway over the lives of the younger and markedly more feminine can’t be denied. Which is why I think the film could have done away with the coda in which she meets the baby—not because I don’t like seeing her reaction, but because the commentary by the cabal is unnecessarily direct. “He has his father’s eyes,” is funny, sure, but there’s no need for a rousing cry of “Hail Satan!” It’s the ambiguity that cements this film in something like real life—hasn’t everyone felt insecure about what they’re bringing into this world?—and an ending more in keeping with that would have satisfied me better.

Up until the end of the film, Rosemary’s Baby plays on the very real horrors of the repressed urban housewife and anyone else who’s been in a remotely similar situation. It creates real dread with no manipulative fuss and some very creative dream sequences. A lot of horror doesn’t age well, because it’s tied to either immediate concerns that fade or are scientifically discounted (atomic power) or to the special effects that are constantly getting better (gore-fest films). It’s doubtful that Rosemary’s Baby will cause unintentional snickers from an audience thirty years from now. Read more!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004)

So. Pretend you’re sitting down at home to watch the must-see British documentary of the year. It’s so controversial, you’re even willing to sit through the commercials. Now pretend you live, not in the United, but the Confederate States of America. And that the documentary is about the history of your great nation.

Oh, you should probably also assume you’re white.

Because this fake-doc is an exercise in alternate universe building. The South was able to convince France and England to come into the Civil War on their side. The Confederacy won. Lincoln went into hiding, Davis became prez, the North was re-introduced to slavery, and Canada became the cultural hotspot of the western world. Leaving lots of really bad actors to play in this doc’s recreation of history, it must be said.

This fascinating idea is presented complete with commercials whose offensiveness rises with each break. Think Aunt Jemima times a million. In between a fake history of subjugation, false science, non-suffrage for women, and the inevitability of the Kennedy assassination in any timeline, we are introduced to a vision of what it would be like to live in this world. Advertising extrapolated from actual products and campaigns now deemed too politically incorrect to even mention. (If you saw Ghost World, you have a clue as to the kind of thing I’m talking about.) And that’s not even including the rampant blackface employed.

This is a tricky film, because there’s a fine line between laughing uncomfortably and turning something off. For my part, I was laughing, and then I was staring open-mouthed, and then I was frantically trying to work out how I felt about their version of history and if it jibed with what I’d extrapolate from their initial premise. Not all of it rings accurate for me, and the film would have been much better served by acting that made me believe the clips of “historical films” and commercials were actually real. But its treatment of racial issues is bold in the extreme, even if, in the end, all you’ve really learned is how offensive this country can be. Some may argue that the film is too offensive itself and be made uncomfortable by the (satirically intended) humorous take on slavery; but it’s also a confrontation with our dark history, and a valiant piece of work. Read more!

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

In 1975, someone decided to anticipate The Road Warrior with Don Johnson (nine years pre-Miami Vice) as a really horny Mel Gibson (which, honestly, I guess he is) and a telepathic sheepdog named Blood standing in for Max’s “Dog.”

Yes. It’s a movie about Don Johnson and a talking dog wandering around the desert looking for sex. And popcorn. Based on a story by Harlan Ellison. And everything you can anticipate about this, good and bad, is probably true. With a premise like this, I almost don’t need to write a review.

This is bad filmmaking at its finest; the kind that really needs to be seen to be believed, and yet is also highly entertaining. The plot meanders, the acting lags, many of the concepts and plot points are unseen, unexplained, or inexplicable (there is a society of people living underground in “Topeka” who march around with a band and wear face paint all day) but there is so much unexpected weirdness that it makes up for everything else. And it’s got just about the best ending you can hope for.

In the end, what’s wrong with this film isn’t so much its budget, or Don Johnson, or talking dogs. I can’t even say that the filmmakers wussed out. They don’t pull their punches, it’s true; but they don’t aim at enough for me to consider this film truly brilliant. This wasteland could have been filled with absurdist satire, rather than sprinkled on top of a rather bland post-nuke landscape; a line like “We could have used her three more times!” needs to be followed up with something more than half an hour of “I’m hungry/horny.” At the same time, though…

There’s a talking dog. And Don Johnson. Read more!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Last Picture Show (1971)

A few days ago I reviewed Bogdanovich’s Targets, my effusiveness knowing no bounds. You might very well ask why I neglected The Last Picture Show in that review, as it’s clearly the Masterpiece, the work by which all subsequent offerings from Mr. B have suffered.

The answer is: because everyone already knows this.

I loved The Last Picture Show. I loved Sam, and the subtle ways in which the characters revealed themselves over the course of the film, and the cinematography, the lighting, the script, the acting can’t be faulted. Which doesn’t make for a very fun review, does it? The Last Picture Show is so good at what it does, so thorough at what it says, that there doesn’t seem to be anything left to say. I could point out that Texas is really boring, or that the sex isn’t very good but they ain’t got nothin’ else to do, or that Jacy’s going to end up just like her mama, but it’s already been said.

But for those of you who haven’t seen it: Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry, with the help of Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Ben Johnson created a searingly dusty portrait of small-town life in the 1950’s. The kind of place where everyone knows what’s going on but no one talks about it, and where escape is illusory because it’s only possible in adultery, the movies, or the military. It’s a perfectly recreated little world, and displays the talents of all involved to their best advantage. It’s also a monument to failure, in that many of the people involved—and the director most of all—never achieved this kind of grace again. Read more!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Death Race 2000 (1975)

I am appalled. There is a movie out there which depicts, in gory B-movie detail, five contestants’ trans-continental race in which the object is to hit as many pedestrians as possible, babies and codgers being worth the most. Women are naked and the value of human life is ruthlessly dismissed.

And I’d never seen it before.

I think the brilliance of this movie is contained in the tongue-in-cheek attitude of it being played almost totally straight. No one’s winking, except maybe Sylvester Stallone, who does a show-stealing turn as an uncouth Chicago gangster stereotype that is so committed you have to love it. Even though I still don’t believe that David Carradine could take him.

The raunchy humor is decidedly dark, as when one driver’s attempts at a three point turn bring her unknowingly ever-closer to a hidden land mine; or when Nero the Hero’s navigator, while directing him towards a picnic, instructs him “if they scatter, go for the baby and the mother”; or when the nurses and doctors of a rest-home facility wheel their contended charges out into the street for “euthanasia day.” This violent attitude is embraced so playfully by the film that it goes beyond gratuity to hilarious. There are so many great quotes I could go on forever, and it’s all wrapped neatly in a low-budget but never shoddy package which includes some very attractive women whose assets are not wasted. And some of the humor is actually kind of witty.

If you have any sense of humor at all, you’ve probably seen it already. But in case you’ve been living in a cave like I have, you have to see this movie.
Unless stuff like this:

offends you. Read more!

The Untouchables (1987)

When Brian De Palma makes a movie, you’ll frequently see it advertised as “from the director of Scarface and The Untouchables.” This is because lots of people think these are his best/most popular movies. And yes, they’re slick, and pretty, and lots of money was spent. But The Untouchables is just about the coldest gangster movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of a movie I cared less about the characters in. The bloody, operatic death of a respected or liked character is moving. The bloody, operatic death of a fictional person I don’t care about is, well, just bloody.

You’d think this would be a fairly common complaint, given the team-up of De Palma with scriptwriter David Mamet. I mean, combine the two and you’re pretty much asking for humanoid robot aliens. Don’t get me wrong, I love De Palma—but I like him more when I’m not being asked to like people. Or when, as in his early work, I actually liked his people anyway.

Although the people here should be likable enough. Kevin Costner is still Kevin Costner, but he looks the part. Sean Connery is an Irish cop, but with the worst Irish accent ever. Not that it’s his fault. Asking Connery to replace his lispy brogue with anything is like asking Costner to emote; he’ll do it, but you certainly don’t want to watch. And it’s a very small problem in relation to the character as a whole. For instance, Ness asks him why, if he knows all about bringing down Capone, he’s still a beat cop? And we never find out. Also, he’s a racist. The lousy mick can’t tell the difference between a dago and a wop. Speaking of which, Andy Garcia does a great job as the only Italian in Chicago who’s not a gangster. And you’ll get a glimpse of an early Patricia Clarkson role as Ness’ wife.

But the things these actors are asked to do would stymie anyone. Connery and Costner have a meet-cute when Costner is caught littering. Conversations start with lines like, “Yes, I heard about it.” Connery has to say stuff like “It smells worse than a whorehouse at low tide” and “Here’s your warrant!” PUNCH. Costner, after two hours of bloody carnage, mutters “so much violence.” De Palma juxtaposes little girls praying with Capone bashing skulls in, as if to remind us of the horrible dichotomy of the world we live in. Then he shoots action scenes like horror movies, that don’t even get my adrenaline going enough to be aroused by the violence. Then there’s the famous Battleship Potemkin rip-off, with the baby carriage and all that. To my mind, appropriating a scene from another film in order to make something new of it is one thing. De Palma’s done this before, and brilliantly. But copying something without commentary or addition is just copying, unless you’re in Hollywood, and then it’s homage. Or proof you went to film school.

In the end, this movie’s pretty, with some good soundtrack moments by Ennio Morricone, but it’s not pretty enough for me not to care that I don’t care about anyone in it. I could make a really bad joke playing on appropriateness of the film’s title considering how I feel about it, but what’s t he point? Read more!

Targets (1968)

Where did Peter Bogdanovich go? These days, he comes across as a pretentious movie-geek guy who talks about other peoples’ movies and left his talented wife for Cybill Shepherd. But you know what? He used to make really good movies. Like Targets

You thought I was going to say The Last Picture Show, didn’t you?

Targets was made for Roger Corman with the stipulation that footage from an old Boris Karloff movie had to be used and Boris Karloff had to be in it for the two contracted days he owed Corman. The movie is in fact about an unmotivated shooting spree. Patching these two things together could have been a disaster. What happened instead was a weirdly affecting look at horror in the movies and in life.

Half the story involves “Byron Orlok,” an old-time horror movie star, making a break for retirement while Peter Bogdanovich tries to get him to read a script and falls asleep drunk in his bed. Yes, Bogdanovich cast himself as a director attempting to persuade Boris Karloff to make a film about “the real horror.” I wonder what the script was called? His cinematic enthusiasm is not yet jaded however, and despite the fact he appeared to only require one take from himself, his presence is amusing.

The other plotline follows Bobby Thompson as he procures lots of guns, sits in the dark a lot, and plays with us by aiming at various people with loaded weapons. This is the heart of the movie; the slow descent of a man who is about to snap for no discernable reason. The suspense ratchets up because you know this guy’s going to do something horrible, and yet no one around him can see it. This is admirably accomplished without the use of non-diegetic music. We are left with the sounds that surround him every day; the television, the radio, the news. The lighting, likewise, is very natural. In a dark room, it is dark. Ambient light has a logical source. Cigarettes glow but faces are obscured except when a passing headlight signals the wife’s return. And what will a man with a rifle who smokes in a dark room do when she gets home?

The two parties meet up at a drive in, where we are inundated with Bogdanovich’s adoration for the cinema as well as treated to a climactic finish which explicitly places movies as both cause and solution for violence. All of it is filmed with such care and intelligence that it seems preposterous that movies should have to cost so much these days when intelligent thrills can be dished out on a low budget.

Because the movie does not try to explain Bobby’s behavior, merely recreate the trajectory of this personality in such a way that you can nearly understand it, the movie feels much more insightful than one would expect from something classified as a “B picture.” In the end, Bobby kills because he’s an excellent marksman, and people are the only targets who make the news. This, as Karloff and Bogdanovich discuss, is the real horror. Read more!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2006)

There are very few movies that I would unequivocally deter anyone from seeing. Rarely do I consider “crap” to be utterly useless. However, in the case of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, I would advise staying as far away as possible if any of the following apply:
1. You love Leonard Cohen and/or his music
2. You don’t like butchered cover versions of his tunes
3. You hate Leonard Cohen and therefore have no reason to see this movie.

If this sounds harsh, let me lay out my argument concisely, since I have no desire to waste any more of my life talking about this than I have to. The film consists primarily of a tribute concert filmed a few years ago in Sydney. In the course of this concert, Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, and a bunch of people I’ve never heard of sequentially performed unrehearsed versions of Cohen songs while clearly reading the lyrics off a music stand. Some of them do a decent job (Rufus, particularly, but then he’s also sung these songs on his own albums, and some strange person named Antony has a wonderful voice) but others, like Jarvis, seem severely hampered by a backing band that has not had a chance to acclimate to the individual singers. Most disappointing, perhaps, is Nick Cave, as he is a clear acolyte of Cohen and ought to be able to pull off a decent cover.

The second most prevalent sort of material here is quotes from Wainwright, Cave, and, of all people, Bono. We learn from them that Cohen’s a good songwriter and an influential one. Bono tells us that Cohen’s songs are capable of touching us at multiple stages of life! Rufus is high or something, and Cave is just boring.

The smallest amount of time is devoted to Cohen himself. Given that this was the reason I watched the film in the first place, the fact that the clips used in the trailer were nearly the sum total of what is used in the film itself was disappointing. I had intended to sit through the cover songs for the sake of the man’s own words, but they are pitifully few and very little insight or recollection is provided.

Leonard Cohen is the best songwriter that I know of, one of the only talents I know who simultaneously awakens both my creative spirit and my eternal envy. A film about him, or a tribute concert, are not misguided projects. But a collection of embarrassing performances, poorly-shot interview footage, and a coda involving Cohen lip-synching with U2 is an insult to the man. If you want to know about Cohen, read a book. If you want to hear some decent covers, listen to about half of I’m Your Fan. Most importantly, just dust off your copy of The Songs of Leonard Cohen, because it’s not going to get any better. Read more!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Thus far, at least eight feature films have been made from stories by Philip K. Dick. Most of them retain very little of what has garnered Dick his devoted readership, and some, like Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), have been more or less disowned by many fans. In many ways, A Scanner Darkly, based on a 1977 novel by the same name, was the most likely to satisfy readers. Directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life), who has a demonstrated respect for Dick’s writing, and featuring a perfect performance by Robert Downy Jr as Barris, this could be just what PKD fans were waiting for.

It isn’t.

The novel, about an undercover narcotics agent who becomes a victim of the very “Substance D” he’s trying to trace, is a mind-fuck of impressive magnitude. Bob Arctor is Fred, and Fred is Bob Arctor, but it becomes clear as the book progresses and Bob gets further and further into his role that Fred, who is charged with surveillance of Bob’s house, isn’t aware that he’s watching himself. Peopled with eccentric druggies and their spot-on nonsense dialogue, it’s a memorable read.

It’s a memorable movie, too, and it’s obvious that Linklater’s both read the book and liked it. The rotoscoped animation style, using a process by which real performances are drawn over frame by frame, lends a drug-reality to the world of the film, in that objects seem to come unmoored from their backgrounds and hallucination blends seamlessly with the objective. The “scramble suit” Fred wears to hide his identity and described as a “vague blur” is rendered as a constantly-shifting amalgamation of men, women and children and would have been impossible without animation. The film retains some memorable conversations from the book, such as Bob and his friends attempting to determine what happened to the extra gears on Barris’ 18-speed bike, since they can only count 9. As a portrayal of the drug experience, it does a lot right.

But there’s something missing. The very real loss of perception one experiences from reading the book, and really getting inside Dick/Bob’s head, is not achieved. The plot must be streamlined to make it coherent, and along the way the disorientation so vital to the book’s success gets cut away. At the same time, I truly wonder if anyone who hasn’t read the book will actually get what the movie’s about. So the question becomes, who is this movie for?

The very successful job Robert Downy Jr does is indicative of how this movie could have gone. With this blocky type of animation, acting must either be really subtle and voice-oriented or over the top. Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are really good at being blank, but that’s not the same as subtle. Everything’s lost when you can’t discern anything from their monotonous delivery or their comic-book faces. Reeves is at his best hanging with his drug-buddies; as Fred, we get no sense of another personality fighting with Bob for supremacy. Perhaps with different casting, Linklater could have done more with the great start he had.

The film’s not a total write off—there are excellent elements, and it’s a great achievement. I wouldn’t warn anyone off seeing it. But if you’re a Dick fan, be prepared to realize the years it took to get this film out weren’t quite worth the wait. If you’re not, see the film for what it is, and please, please pick up one of his books on the way home. Read more!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Peeping Tom (1960)

In 1960 audiences were revolted by a film of such shockingly voyeuristic violence that it created a media outrage. And later on that year, Psycho came out.

Although it’s fallen by the wayside in the fickle memory of the collective cinema, Peeping Tom is so much more modern and disturbing in its implications, and its implication of the audience, than Hitchcock’s contemporary film that it comes across as severely screwed up even now. Imagine being made to identify with Norman Bates for the entire film, knowing straight off he’s the murderer. Now imagine him holding the camera. And that there’s a psychological reason for his behavior that’s not a tacked-on psychiatrist-ex-machina.

I don’t want to completely identify Peeping Tom with Psycho, although I just have—I merely want to illustrate how much more effective the former is at evoking similar themes in a way which is still relevant. The color of the prints has aged poorly, and the psychology is extreme, but the major theme of a man whose demonic need to produce and record the effects of fear by killing women is central to much discussion that still goes on around the issue of watching in the cinema.

The plot is subtly constructed by a screenwriter who was a major figure in WWII code-breaking, and the care taken to reveal new, startling information is shown in the film’s lack of sensational “pow!” moments. Nothing ever jumps out at you. The killer is known from the start. Yet each new piece of information adds to our understanding, and indeed our sympathy, for the protagonist; even as we fervently hope Mark’s young, innocent tenant Helen (Anna Massey) will make it through alive.

Though concerned with a pathological peeping tom and the horrific murders his disorder drives him to, the film is really about the director as filmmaker and us, the audience, as accomplices. Michael Powell, the director, plays Mark’s father in old home footage, with young Mark played by Powell’s son. The layers of watching and being watched compound, as Mark watches Helen watching movies his father made of Mark as a child. Helen’s mother’s blindness adds another complication, as well as an innate distrust of someone who needs to see so deeply and often that he cannot leave the house without his camera. In the end, the negativity of critics may have been due as much to the equating of watching with pathology as to outraged morals. For whatever reason, it’s very unfortunate that this film has been largely ignored since then except by a few “movie brat” directors like Scorsese and De Palma.

Then again, De Palma might not have had a career if people had had access to this gem. Read more!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Plague Dogs (1982)

Here’s another entry into the Why Hasn’t Everyone Seen This category. From the director (and novelist) of Watership Down, one of my favorite movies and for me one of the greatest achievements in animation, The Plague Dogs is shamefully forgotten.

It’s depressingly easy to figure out why, once you start watching. This is the most disturbing animated film I’ve ever seen. I’m sure there’s Japanese porn that nothing can touch for weirdness, but what is the market for the brutal torture of talking dogs? The film opens with red titles on a black background, with eerie noises and discordant music gradually taking over the rather saccharine early-80’s song presumably commissioned for the film. The sense of unease is simply achieved, and explodes into downright sickness when the credits end and we are thrust into the middle of an “endurance test” involving a Labrador mix in the process of drowning. To which he has subjected repeatedly in the service of scientific curiosity.

This is not a movie for kids. People say that about Watership Down, but I saw it when I was a kid and I’m okay—it’s disturbing but it works out and kids learn something about death along the way. It’s okay. But there is nothing that makes the opening of this film get better. It only gets worse. The dog, and a fox terrier voiced by John Hurt (Hazel the rabbit in the other film) escape, meet a wily fox named the Todd, and spend the entire 85 minutes of the film trying to survive and getting all too realistically emaciated in the attempt.

The problem with this film is that it’s way too good at what it does to be marketable. The narrative follows the dogs, but the voiceovers from news reports, the lab’s scientists trying to keep the incident hush-hush, the military who’s eventually called in, and local farmers let us in on the aspect of the situation the dogs are incapable of understanding—that this is not about them, and never has been. It’s about the sheep they’ve killed, the fear of the townspeople, the experiments that have been kept secret from the public and risk discovery if these dogs are allowed to live.

The other way in which the film succeeds too terribly well is in the design and animation of the animals. Watership Down is a gorgeous movie, and between the two I have never seen animals so non-invasively anthropomorphized. These are rabbits, or dogs, who happen to talk. In all other ways, they move and act like dogs. There’s a love here for the physicality of these animals, a realism so alien to our Disneyfied notions of the animal world that it makes their struggle all the more poignant—I watched this movie with my Labrador mutt and it was all too easy to see him in Rowf.

On a filmmaking level, this movie shows improvement over the previous in its integration of the characters and backgrounds (sometimes jarringly “layered” looking in Watership…) and its innovating camera movement and angles. My only complaint is that the scene transitions always involved an abrupt fade to black which make me expect commercials.

I’m appalled that I’ve never heard of this movie before. It’s a crime that it’s not acclaimed as a masterpiece. But do not see this movie if you cannot take images of animal cruelty. It’s graphic, and the combination of the “distance” lent by animation (which allows our brains to supply as much detail as we like) and the realism of the character designs is horrifically effective. It reduced my partner and I to a sobbing heap on the couch. And we didn’t even cry when Bambi’s mom died. Read more!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Conversation (1974)

Blow Up is one of my favorite movies—one of those movies that gains prominence in one's mind as somehow more than a movie. It did the same for blossoming young filmmakers in the 1960's, and De Palma's Blow Out is frequently cited as a tribute to Antonioni's film done with sound rather than photography. But Coppola's The Conversation came first, and is both a better film than De Palma's and more true to the spirit of Blow Up.

Made before he'd launched on a career out of playing himself, Gene Hackman plays a soundman who is hired by various parties to confidentially record their conversations. He's the best in the business but his life is a mess—he is intensely paranoid but has nothing to hide and no curiosity about his work. As it turns out, he can't afford any. Just as Antonioni's protagonist sees something he can't confirm in an image he's recorded, Hackman gets trapped by the ambiguity of the spoken word.

Technically, the movie is a marvel of sound engineering. Walter Murch (who did the incredible sound for THX: 1138) is in top form here, and the cinematography is full of empty spaces reflecting the main character's position: my favorite shot is one of his empty loft office, with him shunted off to one side under an industrial-sized lamp.

But the real marvel of the film is the way that Coppola reuses the initial conversation while still finding variety in the camerawork, reaction shots, and angles used. Every iteration brings more information for the viewer, and what could have been a very boring exercise in sound becomes a visual puzzle as well. The melding of the senses is seamless, and Hackman's descent is as well. To the point where many viewers are bored by the film; there are no chase scenes, no dangling out windows, no actual resolution. Because this story isn't about resolution: it's about interpretation and involvement, and Coppola has the sense to step away and let us experience that for ourselves. Read more!

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

If you've seen this movie, you probably either live with me or hate it. Wet Hot American Summer came out to no fanfare at all and aside from a few positive blurbs in movie mags disappeared even more quietly. But I have never, and I mean never, laughed so hard in my life. And I mean probably 20 viewings and counting.

The thing is, this movie is incredibly stupid in an insanely smart way. All logic has been abandoned; aside from the set-up of a summer camp run by Janeane Garofalo and assorted members of The State (and The Baxter's Michael Showalter, who co-wrote, with notable turns by David Hyde Pierce and Paul Rudd), there is no reason in anything than happens. Indeed, much of the fun comes from the noticing the intentional lack of continuity, as long scenes transpire in mere minutes according to the time stamps and knitted scarves appear and disappear at random. At one point Pierce hands a huge prop off-screen to no one—and every discarded object makes a glass-breaking sound.

This may not sound like much, but there's verbal idiocy too!

"Oh yeah, there's some kids caught in the obstacle course. I meant to tell you about that yesterday."

"Listen, Henry... " "Please, call me Henry. " "Okay, Henry it is."

"Now we need to make 8 gallons of bug juice by snack hour, do you know where the powder packets are?"
"Yeah. "
"In the pantry, above the sink, right next to my bottle of dick cream. Uh, wait, forget that last part. "
"Did you say dick cream?"
"No! I said next to my... stick... team, you know stick team! Stickball! Go away leave me alone!"

Okay, I could go on for days, and you still wouldn't get the point. There's a talking can of corn. There's a vegan goth girl. There's a training montage. A gay wedding. My point is that there's a fine line between stupidity being, well, stupid, and stupidity being intentional and brilliant. Think "Monty Python" or "Kids in the Hall," but if the last group had made a good movie.

I don't think this film lasted in the theater for more than two minutes, but any DVD that has an optional "extra farts" soundtrack has its own charm. Plus, unless you're a humorless loser, you'll appreciate being in your own living room so that you can dissolve into hysterics in comfort. Oh, and don't neglect the deleted scenes, most of which deserve to be in the movie. Read more!

The Odd Couple (1968)

As time passes and societal mores change, comedy is often one of the casualties. The shock of gross-out humor wears off. In the case of satire, what once seemed prescient can come off as either ridiculously off-base or just true. In other cases, such as The Odd Couple, the film can become funny for completely different reasons.

At the time, while the un-filmed Hollywood was well versed in gay culture, it wasn’t something a comedy would have tackled. I have no evidence to back this up, but my sense is that Neil Simon wasn’t intending to tackle homosexuality in any way with this film—the humor is centered on the utter ridiculousness of two men taking on marital roles in each others’ lives (and the ultimate unnaturalness and inevitable failure of such an attempt). Like Some Like It Hot, which in my opinion treats the subject of gender with less inherent misogyny, they couldn’t have gotten away with jokes about “the marriage being off” if gay marriage had been a remote possibility. But rather than dating the movie—or perhaps along with dating it—this sexless gay marriage is funny in a totally different way than seemed to have been intended.

Because you see, at this point, I find it impossible to watch this movie as anything but an unconsummated affair between two opposites, too locked into their hetero-normative worldview to see what’s really going on. I don’t want to paint a lurid picture of Felix and Oscar in a romantic clinch. But it’s hard to read their physicality, the quarrels that (until the last one) end in abrupt shifts back to companionability, as anything other than a primary relationship. At the time this was funny because it was so silly to see men taking on these roles—the sexual implications were unseen by dint of being impossible. Now the ending, with Felix gone and the line about marriages coming and going but the game going on, feels tacked on and apologetic. Felix and Oscar didn’t work out, not because they’re incompatible roommates, but because they were raised in such a way as to make the true nature of their relationship hidden from them. The tension between them, the protestations that Oscar makes about wanting to get out and have fun—specifically with Felix, not alone—read like sexual frustration. Can you read the following lines, spoken before and during their bowling alley outing, any other way?

“Getting a clear picture on Channel 2 is not my idea of whoopee… Bowling is wonderful exercise, felix, but that's not the kind of relaxation I had in mind. I mean, the night was made for other things.”

“Like what?”

“Like unless I get to touch something soft in the next two weeks, I'm in big trouble.”

“Oh, you mean women?”

“If you want to give it a name, all right, women.”

“That's funny. I haven't thought of women in weeks.”

If you want to give it a name? Look, I know the humor here is in the fact we’re supposed to realize they’re talking like a married couple, which is silly because they’re men. But it’s equally silly, these days, to read this film as anything but a tale of would-be lovers whose wires get crossed somewhere, at the mercy of the imposed sexual roles of the day, who are shoe-horned back into the safe, poker-playing masculine space imposed by the filmmakers. And all this is really to say that despite Simon’s typical treatment of women as necessary irritants, the movie is still classic, still funny, and still relevant. Just, you know, gay. Read more!

Dune (1984)

Disasters are often beautiful. Even when we should pull away, even when we feel guilty for enjoying it on some visceral level, we love watching bridges fall, the Hindenburg crash, the CG Titanic sink while Jack and Rose carry on inconsequentially in front of it. Such is the case with Dune; a film with just about the largest divide between visual and narrative skill I’ve ever seen. Artistically, the design and execution are breathtaking. Unfortunately, so is the writing.

Dune suffers from the all-too-common syndrome of Cult Literary Adaptation, causing massive confusion when the filmmakers attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of keeping the fans happy with certain set-pieces while constructed a condensed but cohesive narrative. At the same time, it has too much exposition. These contradictory impulses result in a film in which certain concepts are imparted multiple times during an interminable first half, while the last half jumps along without any apparent pattern or comprehensible plot. Through it all, the characters’ are drawn by someone who apparently has no social intelligence whatsoever and thinks the audience must have every emotion and motive spoken in voiceover. Why even have actors if their acting will be explained to us? I can see that she’s scared and that you wonder why—you don’t need to tell me, “I wonder what she’s afraid of.”

There is very rarely an excuse for extraneous inner monologue in film. It’s a clumsy device that must make itself essential in some way. In one scene, a character’s speculative inner musing is repeated to us twice by external means. Imagine you’re watching someone about to drink some water. “I wonder if my enemies have poisoned this water,” you hear him think to himself. “They probably have.” He drinks the water.

“Ha ha ha!” the villain cackles as he enters. “You drank the poisoned water I left for you!”

Immediately a voice comes over a loudspeaker. “Do not drink the water,” it intones. “It has been poisoned.”

I’m not exaggerating. Those weren’t the exact words, but it’s that bad.

My objections don’t stop there, however. Underneath the bad writing, there’s an offensive patriarchal consciousness that I don’t think I’m overstating. The women in the film are accessories; even the Reverend Mother we are told is very powerful constantly reiterates that there are places no woman can go, pain no woman can bear, and of course Kyle MacLauchlan is the Boy Wonder who can. Kyle, moreover, was born only because his mother the acolyte and concubine defied her duty to bear only daughters in order to bear a son for the Duke, who won’t even marry her. So far we have a Cult of Women in the service of an Emperor and a Duke, and the production of a son as the highest form of regard a woman can pay her lover. Good. So let’s take them all to a desert planet with huge phallic worms so that this amazing son can walk into a group of natives, tame the giant penis to his will, and act just like every other old white guy in the movie. There doesn’t appear to be any difference between the warring factions, no moral distinction between them. I don’t even know what they’re fighting for, other than for power over this drug-like spice. While we’re at it, let’s throw in a scene of the repulsive Baron Harkonnen ogling an almost-nude Sting, who functions in this film as basically a gorgeous codpiece. This movie is a celebration of the masculine body without regard to any political, moral, or social workings of the characters involved. We side with the pretty ones. With big worms.

What makes this disaster even more tragic is the obvious care that was taken in designing and casting this mess. Some of the actors are amazing, including Brad Dourif, Kenneth McMillan, and an uncredited David Lynch. The transport the Atreides men take to the spice mine might as well be an Elektra-ferry bringing us hot Daddy-figures Patrick Stewart, Jürgen Prochnow, and Max von Sydow. Sting is beautiful, Kyle is pretty, and the women are too (and awesomely scary, in the case of Siân Phillips as the Rev. Mother). And the design of the ships, the palaces, the planet are fantastic. Unfortunately, it makes the pain of watching it all the more acute, because if it was any less beautiful you could walk away. Read more!

Art School Confidential (2006)

Good movies are all alike; every bad movie is bad in its own way. While that doesn’t actually make any sense, what I’m trying to say is that while in my opinion, declaring a movie to be of “good” quality means it’s good to watch, a “bad” movie may be equally entertaining.

You can quibble with my definitions, but such is the case with Art School Confidential, the second collaboration between Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame. A muddled mess of genres, motives, and message, the movie follows the rollercoaster career of a first-year Swarthmore drawing and painting student as he navigates a hot drawing model, an unreceptive art world, and John Malkovich. Pretty much everyone’s college experience, right? Along the way, the audience is treated to entertaining stereotypes of art school students and some spot-on in-class discussions about art and theory which are painfully accurate. At the same time, the stereotypes are just the tip of the iceberg of cliché hiding beneath the quirky veneer of the indie-comic names attached to the project. The presence of a certain actor, whose only roles that I’ve ever seen have been psycho-killer or undercover cop or both, does not relieve the situation.

When Ghost World was turned into a movie, the result was different from the comic in the best possible way—it used the comic as a jumping-off point to create something filmic, and the alterations made to the material were all prompted by the new form in which it was being cast. With Art School…, I get the feeling that the comic it was based on was too short to offer Clowes any kind of structure to work around. Although Ghost World the movie was much more streamlined than the book, the movie made sense, as if the medium change forced Clowes to really work at reforming the material. This one feels unconnected, the last act clever but arbitrary. I welcome genre ambiguity, dark comedy, and defied expectations in film. But I also like them to make sense to me in some small way. And this felt wrong.

Nevertheless, I still recommend it. It’s smart, fun, and entertaining. I just didn’t feel like I was watching a movie in the sense of a fully-formed filmic concept—more of a sketch of one with enough great images and arresting shapes to let me forgive the lack of shading. Read more!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Having seen Good Night and Good Luck in the theater, and very much enjoyed it despite its flaws, I realized George Clooney was actually a director. This was confirmed when I rented his first film and was treated to a movie which actually used the medium to its advantage. I can be pretty snooty, but anyone who directs by some method other than placing the camera in front of a scene and rolling can be my friend any way. It’s sad, but true: I’m a sucker for actual direction.

George Clooney has been infringing on my perception of him as a not-that-pretty pretty boy for about a year now, both on and off screen, and the sheer style of this film has sold me for good. While obviously credit must go to cinematographer (Newton Thomas Sigel) and editor (Stephen Mirrione), it’s impressive that this was the film he made. The flashbacks are presented in muted, postcard-faded images; time passes in the course of one shot by means of main character (and dangerous mind) Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) passing through the scene three times, supposedly in the same take but chronologically quite distant; use of old tv footage is appropriately used as is interview material with the real people involved. All this is in keeping with the frenetic, loopy Charlie Kaufman written story, based on the supposedly true book by the main character. It doesn’t feel jarring or out of place, just colorful.

Which isn’t to say it’s all true. Apart from the game show host/hitman plot we’re supposed to swallow, the film fudges some of its facts. But then again, it’s not a documentary, and it doesn’t really read like one in spite of the “real” segments. If we had any doubts, the arrival of Julia Roberts dispelled them all. What it does read like is a quirky good time by a group of people who knew what they were doing, even if they didn’t do it perfectly. Mr. Clooney has my permission to make more movies. Read more!

Match Point (2005)

Woody Allen's latest movies have not encouraged me to rush out to each new one. But the combination of having revisited some older classics and the decidedly atypical trailer for Match Point were enough to get me to the theater; whatever he's subjected me to lately, Allen deserves my patronage when he tries something new.

Not that there's anything really new about this movie. It tells the tried-and-true tale of adultery, class difference and desperate action. And why not? It's a good story. Even when he's funny, Allen is always dark, so this grim but never heavy film isn't really a deviation for him. Unlike Allen, however, he is nowhere to be found in the characters; there is no Woody-clone to gum up the works with a futile attempt to mimic his trademark nervous patter.

Instead we have an attractive young cast, headed by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johannson, both of whom seem to be popping up everywhere. The rest of the cast is lovely as well, though my egalitarian American soul was a little miffed that my sympathies lay with the moneyed Hewetts rather than the Irish and American upstarts. I thought Meyers acquitted himself well, even as he made himself creepy and pouty (in a way that makes me think he's been rifling through Jude Law's playbook), though Johannson struck me as seeking to remember her lines before uttering each one. She struck me false, and I couldn't buy into her reading of the character. Interestingly enough, fellow viewers had the exact same complaint--but about Meyers. This discrepancy in spectator opinion is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the film's effectiveness.

This film may not garner the kind of following Allen's dark comedies encouraged in earlier days. But it's a welcome addition to his oeuvre, decadent and fun and dismal, and the central theme of luck vs. skill is followed through to the end, though perhaps without teaching us much of anything. This is entertainment in the loveliest sense--ambiguous, enjoyable, and without pandering to Hollywood's obsession with closure. Read more!

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

“What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?”
… “Revenge.”

I’m sure you can hear Bill Murray as the second member of this exchange, even if you haven’t seen the movie. In fact, Murray is the film’s chief asset. He’s at his best when allowed to do something—which is why Broken Flowers disappointed me while I loved Lost in Translation--and here he is given free rein in a world of Wes Anderson’s making.

Anderson has a reputation for dark comedy and sometimes difficult movies. Unfortunately for me, they’re not always difficult in the way I’d want them to be. His films seem shallow despite being populated with people who seem like they ought to have layers—and don’t. It took several years and a repeat viewing for me to like Rushmore, perhaps because I’d altered my expectations. Bright conceits and witty exchanges do not indicate a plot arc which displays similar qualities.

Knowing this, I was able to enter The Life Aquatic with expectations of a splash through a few hours, and I was not disappointed. Except for Bud Cort. I have nothing against Bud Cort. On the contrary, Harold and Maude is one of my favorite movies and he’s adorable in it. Which makes him one of the saddest people to look at today. My brain still refuses to believe it’s him.

Some of the touches Anderson adds are inexplicable to me, such as the brightly colored, obviously fake wildlife the team encounters. But he makes up for it in scenes like the single-take tour of the ship, spanning multiple floors and introducing the ship and her inhabitants as characters. The movie’s funny, but not uproarious, and it’s smart, but rather self-consciously. But that’s okay. By the way, the screenplay was co-written by Noah Baumbach, writer/director of The Squid and the Whale, which is a topic for another review. Read more!

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004)

It may be unfair of me to review Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. Not only did I fall under the spell of Mr. Jeremy Brett in PBS’s previous Holmesian offerings, but I’ve actually read the stories they’re based on.

I’m going to anyway.

You see, the fact that my having read some Sherlock Holmes makes my review biased is a disturbing one. This Holmes, ostensibly set in 1902 Edwardian England, is actually shot forward into modern America. Specifically, Silence of the Lambs-era. In a bid to spark viewer interest in what they must consider a dying property (despite having bothered to do it at all), the production has assumed a PBS viewership made up of paperback-literate couch potatoes who think they’re sophisticated. At least, that’s the explanation I’ve come up with.

Rupert Everett is this outing’s Holmes, whom we first encounter in an opium den. “Oh,” I thought. “They’re ripping off ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip,’” which is one of my favorites and involves Holmes going undercover in an opium den and Watson getting all pissy about it. But no! Holmes is actually an effete, dissolute vampire, subsisting on drugs and coffee and given Everett’s rather pouty reception of the soon-to-be-wed Watson, perhaps missing some other essential protein to his diet he hasn’t gotten daily dose of since Dr. W moved out of Baker Street.

Everett’s not bad. I’m not suffering from Brett withdrawal—he’s dead, and if there’s to be a new Holmes it obviously won’t be him, and I’m not exclusive in my Holmes watching. But he’s a bit too much Rupert, and the plot of this scurvy little tale doesn’t help any. It’s a case of sexual dysfunction, of fetishistic murders of delicate pre-Raphaelite debutantes, of that new “science” called psychology. The solution of this case seems based mostly upon the dubious information Holmes gleans from an abnormal psych textbook Watson’s fiancé, a completely un-Canonical American psychoanalyst with the inexplicable prefix of Mrs.. Holmes, were he to see this, would be appalled on nearly every count.

These touches of the modern third-rate sexual thriller are somewhat understandable, if not excusable. It does beg the question, however, of why making this a Holmes case at all? Is name recognition enough? Because this script was not written for the Holmes fan, or even dabbler. It is so full of copped dialogue from actual stories (or clichéd misquotes) that anyone with a passing familiarity with them would be mightily confused as to why Holmes is suddenly quoting this or that tale, completely out of context. One would expect that these touches of Doyle would be nods to the readers, but if that was the case, why adulterate the source so violently? The whole thing closes with Holmes finding common ground with the obsessed murderer, on the grounds that “it’s an addiction.” Bravo, Holmes, finding your enlightened stoner side so easily. He probably had to in order to avoid dying of boredom, as there certainly isn’t anything here worthy of Holmes’ abilities. Which, come to think of it, we must rely on prior knowledge of the character to accept. Watson fares rather better in the investigative vein here, which was nice to see despite Ian Hart’s suspicious moustache.

I’m not a purist. I accept—nay, encourage—intelligent wranglings of canon. I write fanfic, after all. But to squander an intriguing character on such material is a waste and an insult. Not only to Holmes or Doyle or whoever, but to me, the viewer. As Holmes would say, this is all just “ineffable twaddle,” and he would be dismayed at having his named linked to it. Read more!

Casualties of War (1989)

When I read The Devil’s Candy, about the making of Bonfire of the Vanities, I was struck with a strange sympathy for Brian De Palma. Coming off the failure of his last film, he was dejected, determined, and confused. Casualties of War, he’d said, was one of his most personal films, and he was personally offended it hadn’t found an audience.

I felt for the guy. I mean, it couldn’t be that bad—I’d just watched Bonfire. But watching Casualities of War is about the only method I can think of of making Bonfire look good.

The plot is based on real events and has potential. Michael J Fox, fairly new at this whole Vietnam thing, is assigned to a small group of soldiers headed by Sean Penn. To liven up their scouting mission, Penn suggests they pick up a local girl to bring along. He delivers this plan in a completely non-joking way that nevertheless leaves Fox in shock when he actually nabs a girl from her bed in the middle of the night and makes her accompany them, gagged and barefoot, through miles of jungle.

Now Fox has a dilemma—does he remain loyal to his fellow men? Or does he speak up about what happened?

De Palma tries very hard to make this quite fraught with moral tension. And fails. From the beginning we are treated to a view of the jungle that might as well be my backyard. Filmed on location though it was, the nighttime scenes look lit by stadium lights. De Palma appears to think he’s still directing urban thrillers. Everything’s too smooth, too clean. There is not a hint of the jungle out here; not a whiff of napalm in the morning. He does manage to crib from Browning’s Freaks, however, which is kind of impressive if you like that sort of thing.

But the worst thing about this film is that it doesn’t build up to the abduction, rape, and fallout at all. Suddenly we are intended to feel great tension surrounding this situation, when we have not been led to know these men. What, exactly, is Fox’s problem? He does not know these men, does not owe them his loyalty in the way soldiers with some sort of established bond do. There would appear to be no two ways about it. And the massive hurt and betrayal and angst we are supposed to feel when the girl is taken is so artificially induced as to make a true story seem contrived. That’s how badly this is handled; I was forced to doubt the reality of something that actually happened. Penn’s character is not drawn with any degree of complexity—certainly nothing to help us figure out why he has any caché with anyone when for all we can see he’s just a random asshole. I sense that the audience is supposed to be awed by the realization that “war makes men into animals,” but not only has that been done, it’s been done in Apocalypse Now, which I would much rather have been watching. At least that makes me feel the jungle, the death, the privation and primitivism that alters men’s minds. This movie did not need to be made unless someone had something brilliant and new to say. And no one involved seemed to.

The scenery, most of which I suspect was shot by second-unit director Eric Schwab, is gorgeous, but it does not adequately throw the dirty deeds of the Americans into relief. It’s not enough to let me look past the fact that Michael J Fox is apparently the lone voice of reason in the U.S. Army. Shabbily handled and unsuccessfully manipulative, Casualties of War left me craving Bonfire of the Vanities. Which really takes some doing. Read more!

Deliverance (1972)

My dad used to tell me the story of Deliverance on camping or canoeing trips when I was a kid. It was a stock favorite, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the latter heavily influenced by the 1978 version). He’d always change the characters’ names to things like “Al Waysright” and “Nera Corner.”

Apart from his unassailable wit, you’re probably wondering what kind of dad fills his kids’ bedtimes stories with fodder such as this? Well, truth be told, he cut some stuff out. In his story, there were these guys in the woods with green teeth and backwards baseball caps who were somehow vaguely threatening. Even when I finally saw the movie, with his supervision, they fast-forwarded some of it. I think you know what I’m talking about.

So having been inspired by hearing “Dueling Banjos” to rent this film again, I have finally seen all of it. And my feelings are decidedly mixed. And didn’t anyone else realize that there was a guitar in that banjo thing? Not, as the name implies, two banjos?

Actually, this is the best scene in the film, for me. I don’t know where they found these people, but they’re awesome, and the dichotomy between them and the urbanites is well laid out, though not yet sinister. So I can deal with it.

But as the film progresses, its social message becomes extremely murky. What is the lesson? That we should save wild places like these because they’re beautiful? But untamable and therefore don’t try? Or is it that these rural landscapes hold as many terrors as the city? Or is it that city-folk don’t belong here, unless they’re willing to be picked off in a demonstration of manly survival skills? The macho guy gets hurt. The pudgy one gets sodomized. The musician can’t cope at all. And the Midnight Cowboy dude finds hidden machoness within himself.

The movie sets up these venturesome personalities fairly well without much exposition. We can fill in the details, and we probably know each of these guys. But what are we to make of the rural inhabitants? Even the ones who don’t randomly scour the countryside for ugly dudes to molest look inbred and retarded, not to mention really dirty. Even if they can play the banjo. I have a feeling the dinner scene towards the end is meant to redeem the rural folk somewhat, but honestly I couldn’t tell who these people were supposed to represent—though I thought the scene contained some of the best acting in the movie. But the fact remains that I can’t figure out whether to be offended. I don’t know what Dickey or Boorman’s intentions are, and Dickey himself in interviews gives conflicting viewpoints that to me reflect a lack of intent.

This doesn’t take away from the film’s effectiveness; it really is a grueling ordeal to sit through, without too much Hollywoodization of tension of feat of skill from the players. The fact that the actors did their own stunts, paddled their canoes, shot their own bows and all that is respectable and adds immeasurably to the film’s quality and value. But from the opening shots of wilderness being overtaken by civilization, I feel like I’m supposed to be watching something more layered than a survival thriller, and I don’t think I am.

But if you can overlook rampant generalization of an entire region’s people and culture, it’s a harrowing ride. Read more!

Rashomon (1950)

This is one of those films that suffers for its ingenuity, at least as far as later viewers are concerned. That is not to say that the film is any less important/well done/interesting than it was fifty years ago. What it is to say is that at this point, I’ve seen so many reviewers call other things "the Rashomon of _________" that it’s like raising a kid on The Lion King and then letting him find out about this guy named Shakespeare when he gets to high school.

Rashomon is reportedly when we learned that what we saw on screen, with our eyes, could not be trusted. I actually had to think about this really hard before I realized that that is a pretty harsh lesson. I’m a thoroughly post-modern kid; it seems to me I’ve known forever that I can’t trust anything I see, especially if the media’s involved. I never got disillusioned about that, because I was never illusioned. The way politicians’ fallibility doesn’t ever surprise me; I was born way post-Nixon. But think about this: you’ve been watching movies your whole life, movies which do not ask you to interpret what you see on screen. It’s a play. It’s a story played out in compressed time but pretty straightforward. Then you’re asked to watch the same story four times with four different outcomes, and Clue won’t be out for another several decades so you don’t even have that preparation.

That’s pretty disconcerting.

So, much in the way Citizen Kane looks to me now like an amalgamation of stuff other people have done, Rashomon is one of those classics I felt guilty about not having seen but wasn’t astonished by for the reasons I was supposed to be. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I learned a lot of other things. For instance, Toshiro Mifune is one badass mother. This guy is crazy. And utterly brilliant everywhere I see him; he’s like an animal, a force of nature, one of those prints from Japanese theater come to larger-than-life. I often wonder, watching him, if he would be as entertaining in English. Would it all seem over the top if I could actually understand?

Does it matter?

Visually, the film has a lot to offer as well, as Kurosawa and cinematographer Miyagawa create not only a fantastic rainstorm framing device but a richly shadowed forest (watch the patterns of leaves on Mifune as he rests by a tree), a tracking shot that curves around a woodcutter as he ventures into the woods, a direct shot of the sun, and the beautifully poetic costume-choreography of the medium. I also very much liked the fact that though the film was structured as an interrogation, one never hears the questions—only receives the answers from the participants as they stare out at you from the screen. Despite the familiarity of the narrative, they, and the movie, still have a lot to tell us. Read more!

The Apple (1980)

Popular culture trains us in hyperbole. Everything is the (insert adjective) thing we’ve ever seen! Well I’m here to tell you that I have overcome that particular fault, at least when the blank is filled by the word “worst.” For The Apple is the worst movie ever made. Exclamation point.

I know many people make claims of this kind. But folks, Batman and Robin, Ishtar (actually, I rather liked the first half), and Plan 9 have nothing on this one. This is not a case of a movie “so bad it’s good,” which is a cliché with a lot of truth to it, just not here. This is a movie so bad I almost couldn’t sit still through all 90 minutes of it.

Here’s the gist: it’s 1994, the far future, where people wear costumes I think were recycled for Quantum Leap and listen to disco. A folk-duo from Canada with strangely mutating accents threatens Bim’s supremacy on the charts. Yes, the global music market is dominated by a band/corporation named Bim. This “Bim” is run by a Mr. Boogalow, a demonically ridiculous figure whose absurdity is thrown into sharp realism by the absolutely blinding weirdness of the people he surrounds himself with. He signs the young singers to keep them under his thumb—or tries to. Bibi, the female half, is seduced quicker than a curious rabbit but young Alphie starts hallucinating about an apple someone wants him to take a bite of.

Not only are we subjected to this subtle bit of sledgehammer symbolism, but we get a whole production number involving hellish figures writhing around unattractively with, yes, a huge apple and our heroes in some Adam and Eve costumes. Because this is, you guessed it, a musical. The music all the way through is based around one chord per song and lots of repetition of meaningless phrases. It’s as if someone set out to make a sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show without all the advantages shown off so ineffectively in Shock Treatment. And a less coherent narrative, if that’s possible.

I’m not even going to bother to tell you what happens next, aside from this: boy mopes around a lot while girl becomes superstar for no real good reason. Girl despairs of seeing him again, although she hasn’t actually attempted to do so. Bim turns out to be in league with the government somehow, but I’m not sure why. Hippies come to the rescue despite their apparent lack of a food source or any kind of spirit of resistance. Then the leader of the hippie guy becomes god, or something, and leads the hippies, including our folk duo, into the sky.

This movie brings to mind a lot of movies that are commonly cited as being not too good but actually are. Josie and the Pussycats is actually a slick, entertaining, and hypocritically honest portrayal of a very similar story. Phantom of the Paradise is a passionate, entertaining, and serio-comic treatment of similar themes. Shock Treatment is actually pretty bad, but had Richard O’Brien’s songs and Jessica Harper’s dancing to prop it up. This has nothing. Do not see this movie. Do not buy it like I did just because it was $2. For $2 you can buy a screwdriver to keep on hand in case someone makes you watch this movie and you need to gouge out your own eyes. Read more!

Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story (2005)

This is my review of the film Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story. As reviewer, it is my job to tell just enough about this film to influence your decision to see it, without ruining your enjoyment of the movie should you, the reader, decide to do so, either in affirmation or rejection of my aforementioned recommendation. This is a difficult task, as might be imagined. For instance, if I tell you how much I enjoyed the scene with the giant prop womb, you will be waiting the entire film for this prop to show up. What if this is the turning point of the whole thing? What if it’s only effective in its shock value? What if the womb is never actually used in the film?

But if, instead, I tell you only that it’s a grand movie and you should see it, how will you know that’s in fact the case? After all, I’ve probably told you to go watch Wet Hot American Summer as well. Or Picnic at Hanging Rock. For that matter, what use is a critic? Am I a lobbyist of sorts, begging for you to recognize the films I deem worthy of your dollar (or 10)? I’m certainly a snob. Who else would deign themselves arbiters of others’ entertainment? I could have any number of agendas here. In the end, what does it matter to me whether you actually like the film I’ve recommended, once I’ve exercised enough power over you to get you to the theater?

It’s a dilemma, for sure, and calls into question this entire practice. Tristram could be a boring costume drama. It could be a domestic farce. It could be a complex meta-movie about the nature of filmmaking, authorship, audience reaction, and narrative in which Steve Coogan plays Tristram, Tristram’s father Walter, and himself. Sometimes simultaneously. The point is, nothing I say here alters any of that. I didn’t make the movie. I’ve nothing invested in it at all, aside from yesterday afternoon and $6 (matinee). Well, and a curiosity about Gillian Anderson. But is she even in the movie? I still don’t know. And I can’t talk about who made it, because I’m confused about that, as well. I certainly don’t know who the star is. Without this knowledge, it would be foolish to write a review.

I refuse. Read more!