Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Quadrophenia (1979)

There is one thing wrong with Quadrophenia. One aspect which keeps it from remaining vital and resonant. And no, it’s not the Vespas. I’m talking about The Who.

I know, I know. They’re THE WHO. Obviously, if Pete Townshend wants to write songs about the now-incomprehensible clash between the Mods and the Rockers, who’s to deny him? I mean, who cares about the Mods and the Rockers when a fight can be touched off with a singing match between “Be-bop ba-lula” and “You Really Got Me”? What, exactly, is the ideological divide here? Can’t all you white working class pop-listening guys get along?

What saves this movie is not The Who singing songs neither of these groups would be listening to, especially since it takes place in 1964, but the filmmaking itself. The film is gorgeous. Drab English skies lower over wet cobblestone streets and cameras spin through p.o.v. pirouettes in alleyways. It lights on protagonist Jimmy’s rebel-without-a-cause face through coffee shop windows and in multiple motorbike mirrors. We may not understand what all the fuss is about, and it may seem obvious that these guys are sublimating their class conflict into pointless antagonism of others in the same boat, but filmgoers have a history of appreciating a young man’s search for meaning in a meaningless world. Even when that lack of meaning seems entirely self-imposed.

Although Jimmy seems to bring a lot of his problems on himself (or at least, we are denied knowledge of some root cause for them), Phil Daniels does an excellent job of making him almost sympathetic. His goofy cuteness goes a long way towards this. Sting has a memorable role with one line as mod idol Ace, and has commented that everyone pretty much played themselves. Combined with the camerawork, this makes for a nice, realistic movie that may not take us many places but definitely paints a picture of a certain class and time. Other than a speech Jimmy’s dad gives in an attempt to justify the title, the only false bit in this piece is Roger Daltry commenting on the action as it happens, as if we’re too stupid to see what’s going on in front of us. How much more effective would that last scene be if we weren’t being told that Jimmy’s tired of the fashion, and of acting tough, and all that? It’s like ending Thelma and Louise with someone shouting “We’re tired of running, yeah, in death we’ll be free, yeah, without any men, together you and me!!”

Hold on. I think I’m on to something here… Read more!

The Wicker Man (1973)

I don't know how I managed to avoid this movie for so long.

Wicker Man is a treat, a hybrid of genres and tones with some nice snappy writing, bizarre song/dance sequences, naked people, and fire. If that doesn't sell you, don't see this film, because there's not much else there. This film is regarded by many as a cult masterpiece, and the backlash from those whose expectations were artificially aroused is that it's not that good, that meaningful, that scary, whatever. Whatever, I say. You put a die-hard middle-aged virgin Christian police officer on an island of singing naked pagans, and you pretty much know how it's going to end. That's not the point. The point is that the innkeeper's buxom blonde daughter, Willow, dances around her room in a naked, wall-slapping festival of seduction. The point is that this policeman is so far out of his element that he basically confronts everyone instead of actually investigating anything, slinging his lay-pastor sermons and dead rabbits (sorry, hares) at the townsfolk as if this will inspire honesty about the lost girl he's been sent there to investigate. That it's pretty obvious what the mystery is doesn't matter. The point is Christopher Lee delivering a young boy and a sermon on nature and sex to winsome Willow as we watch two snails mating or fighting or whatever snails get off doing.

This is an artfully done first film, to my knowledge not followed up in any deserving way. Distribution, as well, was a mess, as the film fell victim to the genre-rigid marketing schema of the big studios. Musical? Horror? Mystery? Kind of. Of course, its flop and the various stories of missing prints and footage burned (or, alternately, used as highway filler) have only fueled its longevity, but it doesn't deserve either ignorance nor elevation to a kind of religion. It does deserve to be seen by anyone who likes movies that are not easily defined, that are nicely filmed, and that will surprise you not in terms of plot but in how all this plays out on screen. Looking back at it, at least with my own worldview which I must admit is very unlike our hero's, Summerisle seems like a great place to take a vacation, and I will definitely be revisiting it in the near future. Read more!

The Loved One (1965)

You know, it's come to my attention that I frequently write about some pretty bad movies. So today I'm going to talk about a pretty good movie no one's seen. In fact, I had to approve a $250 deposit on my credit card to even rent it. It's a 1965 film directed by Tony Richardson, based on a story by Evelyn Waugh, and it's called The Loved One.

The story concerns a young Englishman in Hollywood who attempts to stay on in America by mooching off his uncle. Uncle John Gielgud (was he ever young??) is quickly out of the picture, and our young hero moves on through various adventures involving the funeral parlor and burial ground his uncle will be residing in.

What impressed me about this movie is the fact that the satire was still humorous to me, unlike many comedies of a more overt nature which age poorly. That isn't to say this film is at all subtle: there is an amazingly unsympathetic portrayal of a hugely overweight gluttonous woman who has memorized all the food-related television commercials and works herself up into an orgasmic frenzy over the fact that there's a new spot with an enormous crab. It's crass, obvious, and brilliant, but its shock value is effected more by our own political correctness than by mere effort to shock. The film also deals callously with morbid subjects such as the disposal of the deceased, dead dogs, and Paul Williams at 25 playing 13. Like De Palma's tampon-tossing shower scene in Carrie, some things are as funny as ever because no matter what the old timers say our society hasn't come to accept every perversion yet.

There is some waning of interest as the film progresses. It's pretty long and the plot gets pretty unfocused. There is some characterization that seems muddled; I'm not sure the protagonist is someone we're supposed to like or not, because we aren't made aware until at least halfway through the film that there's anything unlikable about him, by which time it's a little late to turn our backs and still enjoy his trials. Many of the scenes are brilliant on their own merits, however, and make up for the lack of focus. I'm upset that this movie is not available on either DVD or VHS, as it should be in much wider circulation. Anyone who enjoys halfway morbid, absurdist comedy should track it down. Read more!

A Star is Born (1976)

Today I’m here to tell you about one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure why I bothered, either with the writing or the viewing, but having had the good fortune of meeting Paul Williams and finding him a likeable and pleasant person, I have been delving into his back catalogue. The body of work attached to his name is, alas, quite variable, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between his best work and his best known. Unfortunately, this review is not about Phantom of the Paradise or the Muppet Movie or even The Loved One (though that’s coming, too). No, we’re here today to talk about the Barbra Streisand classic, A Star is Born.

A remake of a remake of a story that we’ve all heard about ten million times by now, my rehash of the plot might be laying it on a bit thick. Instead, I will focus on a list of things that are totally stupid about this film.

1. Barbra Streisand’s hair. Her nails have been discussed elsewhere, in great detail, and I won’t go into that except to mention that I’ve always had a pet peeve about long fingernails and their presence causes the bearer to be instantly unattractive to me (and watching her play guitar was excruciating). But the hair is fixable, and was not. I kept waiting for the “star makeover” scene where they’d tell her to grow out that perm or something. Best shot is when she’s backlit with this hair-lo.
2. Barbra Streisand as a naïve wanna-be. Ebert has discussed this in his own review, and it’s true. Her attitude through the film, ostensibly supposed to be plucky underdog, doesn’t work next to the BARBRA image she projects. Maybe not her fault, but it’s probably not the audience’s, either.

3. The apparent 1-for-1 relationship between a scummy rock star like John Norman Howard and brassy adult-contemp songstress Esther (Esther? Don’t even get me started on that). So she goes on instead of him and the audience eats it up? Who are these people? And why are their disappointed expectations so easily navigated?

4. The improbable construction montage in the desert. According to this little gem, which includes Barbra cavorting in Superman underwear, she and Kris built their little adobe hideaway all by themselves in about 10 minutes.

5. The exploration of the creative process as displayed in the film. Apparently a drunk Kris Kristofferson can sit down with his guitar and not only come up with some nice chords to strum but a melody and words ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Maybe this is unfair. Maybe this is how he actually wrote “Bobby McGee.” I haven’t asked him.

6. Paul Williams isn’t anywhere to be seen. I miss him.

7. Any scene where Barbra sings anything remotely resembling a rock song. “Evergreen” is where it’s at, babe. For what it is, it's okay, and plays to her strengths. Maybe she and Paul should have written her other songs, too.

8. Oh yeah, Kris Kristofferson’s beard. I know that was the style, and it seems to be returning, but ick.

9. The fact I can’t even bring myself to write a decent review of this movie but am reduced to making a stupid list. Read more!

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Watching a midnight showing of Galaxy Quest last night, I was struck by the strange line a lot of would-be satire walks in contemporary comedy. Here you have a film that wants it both ways: we are to laugh at the convention-going-no-life-basement-dwelling losers and the has-been actors who cater to them, and at the same time we the movie-watching-no-life losers are supposed to rejoice in the fact that these people are finally right. It wants to both satirize and glorify fan culture. We, as the audience, are both the subject and the neutral observer of the fantasy-fulfillment.

What this speaks to in our culture is a mainstreaming of irony. Post-modernism made irony ubiquitous. Nobody actually means what they say anymore, and everyone knows it. Entertainment is so self-conscious and so unashamed that clever little what-if's like The Truman Show are now reality. The omnipotent behemoth known as Media knows that it can churn out cheap audience-mocking drivel that people will eat up whether or not they realize they're the target. Irony has made that immaterial to the point where irony doesn't really exist anymore.

But I have no illusions that I'm not caught in the same trap. After all, I just can't ascribe such connivance to this lovely little film, the experience of which I find funny, cute, and heartwarming without descending too far into treacle. And that's even with Tim Allen! However far above the fray I'd like to hold myself, I'm not immune. The cruel ironic twist is that knowledge of irony does not actually insulate you from it. Non-conformists aren't unaffected by the proles; they're reacting against pop culture. So when I say that I don't really think that I'm being unfairly manipulated by this movie, or that I actually find it an unexpectedly intelligent and affectionate treatment of fan culture and the silly tropes of that world envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, and anyway just darn FUN, I can't really know that I'm not being manipulated. Maybe it's all part of that Media plot. Maybe I'm part of that audience, who wants to see itself as above the level of those low-lifes on screen until the movies gets to the revenge of the nerds section, in which case they can relate and share in the triumph.

The beauty of our irony-saturated, post-modern lifestyle, though, is that I can see all this and just. Not. Care.

If you have any affection for science fiction or good-natured comedy, see this movie. Watch for Missi Pyle from Josie and the Pussycats and especially for the incredible alien commander Mathasar, whose performance is impeccable. Watch Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shalhoub brought together in an improbably workable way. And just have fun, because all this over-analysis is bull. Read more!

Transformers: the Movie (1986)

My boyfriend made me watch this movie. While enjoying Transformers in its Saturday morning incarnation back in the day, any bloom had long since faded with the onset of more sophisticated passions like Batman: the Animated Series. "This movie is interesting from a historical perspective," he said, and I paraphrase. So I watched it.

It wasn’t the unmitigated disaster I’d prepared myself for. True, the plot is stupid and hardly worth paying attention to. The last half has the Autobot team broken into different groups with predictably different levels of interest to the view, so you have to slog through a bunch of inexplicable action scenes to get what you really want. Which is a planet-eating robot.

Yes, the voice of Orson Welles, personified in large part by a giant ball and gaping, sharp-toothed maw, is Unicron, and by far the most interesting piece of this mostly-disposable puzzle. Like the Death Star only less efficient but more scary, Unicron’s universe-weary world-swallowing arouses a kind of pity for a being who can only survive through the absolute destruction of life. Was he always this way? Does he resent what he’s become? Is this the price of some youthful hubris? And where did he get the power to turn Megatron into Leonard Nimoy?

It’s fitting that Welles’ penultimate performance was as a pitiable behemoth, a power-drunk yet directionless machine. Once you eat planets and command the minds of all around you, where is there to go but down? Combined with his aborted performance in a Paul Masson wine commercial, this film offers a portrait of a great man just before the end, with a memorable final scene which should stand in testament to the man for eternity.

No more need be said about a film in which the only differences between the Autobots and the Decepticons seem to be their screechy voices, evil name, and inability to ever get along long enough to kill anyone. Long live Unicron. Read more!

Ice Princess (2005)

"This doesn’t look like a movie," physics geek Casey Carlyle states as she’s tricked into attending a party halfway through Ice Princess. Silly Casey: only in movies like this do high school parties with so many hot 20-somethings and with so little parental consequence ever happen. But in a movie about teenage ice skating champions where an eighteen year old beginner can place second at a competition aired on ESPN with Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi as announcers but which shows virtually no training at all, anything must be possible.

I saw this movie out of a twisted sense of loyalty to Buffy alum Michelle Trachtenberg, who’s billed third despite being the title character. Channeling everything she learned from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s playbook of cute/uncertain gulps and wide eyed enthusiasm, Trachtenberg is really really cute. But the movie is awful. The script is and embarrassing mixture of teen clichés and sketchy pop physics. Even from a skating perspective, you don’t see anything that good, and the outdated feminism exhibited by Joan Cusack as Casey’s mother is almost as ridiculous as the movie cliché of having the beautiful genius be the outcast. Yes, smart pretty people are always losers! If Clark Kent really looked like Tom Welling from Smallville, I think things would have gone much differently for Superman.

As stupid as Cusack sounds spouting objections to her daughter having anything to do with "those little outfits" and complaining that she wants Casey to go to Harvard so she can have all the things Cusack couldn’t give her (despite their huge house complete with skating pond and Casey’s amazingly articulate computer and video camera), Casey’s decisions also provoke a big "hunh?" Why ruin your Harvard interview, acceptance to which you could always reject in the 9 months it’s going to take for the fall semester to start, to start competitive skating your senior year in high school? It’s nice that her native talent can get her so far, but can you really go from begging the evil bitch who’s sabotaged you in favor of her daughter to coach you to sectional competition without so much as a training montage? Or is actual hard work just not the point? Casey’s best friend points out that she "glides" through physics while she "grinds." Casey, then, is one of those spectacular people who hasn’t worked hard in her life. The one bright spot in this murky business is the characterization of bitchy blond daughter Gen, who turns out to be the only guileless non-hypocritical woman in the piece. Speaking of which, where are all the men?

So in the end, what he have is a world populated by two-dimensional representations of women with hardly any masculine influence who still can’t function except as a reaction against the perils of being a woman in a man’s world. Casey’s choices, while apparently limitless, are bound by the convenience of the scriptwriters and the pat endings supposedly required by young audiences. That said, I don’t think this is going to warp the minds of any young viewers, many of whom at the screening I saw seemed to enjoy themselves. As a girl-power fairy tale, it’s incomprehensible. But if you want to see Michelle Trachtenberg in a tight outfit playing Sarah Michelle, then go for it. "Big things happen to those who dream big" reads the tag line. If this movie is any lesson, I guess I just haven't thought hard enough about becoming a famous novelist and movie critic. Read more!

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

The Star Wars franchise has attained a cultural currency far beyond its actual value as cinema. Applied to discussions of the traditional hero-myth, to political theory and race relations, and as the basis for a New-Age-for-people-who-think-they’re-thinking religion, the unstable foundation George Lucas laid long ago remains standing only by the power of his self-serving devotion to it. The only Force in George Lucas’ world, one might say, is George Lucas.

With that said, I can now inform you that after viewing the third and mercifully final installment of the prequel trilogy, I have discerned the true nature of Lucas’ vision. I now know what he is trying to tell us. And it is a shocking revelation: the entire di-trilogy has been building up to one irrefutable conclusion. The agenda? The promulgation of a phallo-centric celibacy.

Consider the evidence. First, the Jedi Council. Here we have a circle of men, devoted to their own faded conception of democracy, who not only harness the forces of life itself in the galaxy but wield fetishized representations of the phallus as weapons. This is to the detriment of their own survival, as one by one they are hunted down and killed by so-called “barbaric” implements called “guns.” The light saber, while visually effective, is obviously an outdated symbol of an order that refused to adapt to the superior technology of diversification.

The Jedi enforce adherence to this cult by obtaining their trainees at a young age, before passions such as anger or lust, or even the most basic personal attachments, can develop. Jedi Masters train their “Padawans” one on one, maintaining a close intimacy through years of Jedi instruction which last until the young recruit’s attainment of adulthood. Although women may become Jedi, none are shown in high position in the films. I am not arguing the particulars of Jedi organization, but rather the portrayal of such by Lucas in his films. Masters teach their charges all they know of the Light side of the Force (usually shorthanded to as “all I know,” which suggests a possibly crass yet telling comparison to sexual prowess), which involved not only harnessing this power of the universe for Good, which definition is usually predicated on the “feelings” of the Jedi in question, but in denying passions such as anger, fear, and yes, desire. All such passions are sublimated back into the dangerously isolated relationship of the Master and his Padawan (frequently referred to by Masters such as Obi-Wan as “my Padawan”; a strangely possessive turn of phrase for such an ostensibly ascetic order).

In the trajectory of Anakin Skywalker’s character arc we witness the perils of passion as his love and lust for Queen Amidala lead him to form attachments not permitted by the Council. These attachments and the attendant jealousy, fear of loss, and carnality lead Anakin to follow the path of the Sith, who ascribe to the more self-serving “Dark Side” of the Force. The desire to save his wife, to avenge his mother, to right the wrongs done to him cause Anakin’s fall. While the Sith still maintain the phallic weaponry and masculine-oriented worldview of the Jedi, the light sabers exhibited by them glow a bloody, passionate red and the hilts are frequently curved in a manner suggestive of potentially increased sexual pleasure.

Using the Force in service of these passions which, I argue, are considered by Mr. Lucas to be “base,” leads to a loss of appendages which needs little metaphorical interpretation. No fewer than 8 hands are lost to light saber damage in the course of the six films. This is suggests not only the obvious parallel to castration anxiety but a cruder rejection of the act of self-pleasure. Furthermore, Anakin in his transformation to Dark Vader experiences a loss of both arms and both legs. The fate of his genitals is indeterminate, based on the evidence on the screen.

In the broader view, there is an overall elongated and rounded cast to much of the architecture of Mr. Lucas’ world, a penchant for monolithic structures and smooth erectness. Worship the phallus, Lucas seems to say, but do not give in to its carnal power. It is too sacred, too powerful, and too elegant to be put to merely pleasurable ends. Only the evil may deal in absolutes, to paraphrase Episode III, but there is no middle ground to be had here. Our choices are celibacy or dismemberment, unless we want to align ourselves with such primitives as those who use guns and are therefore incapable of any kind of spiritual transcendence at all. Read more!