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!