Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy Holidays

And apologies for not posting more stuff, or more interesting stuff. One of my New Year's resolutions will be to try and get more stuff up on this damn thing more regularly - I mean, I am unemployed for the foreseeable future, so I should be able to, right?

In honor of the season, here's a tidbit of delightful sleaziness:

And here's a talking cat:

I hope everyone out there, whoever you are, is having a fun and productive holiday season.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rant of the Day

Why is it that, no matter where I go or how much I pay, I can't get a good haircut? They always leave it too long in one part of my head or (and this makes less sense) cut it too short on another part of my head. Doesn't it make sense, from a business perspective, to leave it all a little long, so I have to come back sooner? Jesus, now I wander around looking like a special needs kid for a week until it grows out enough.

Life is tough.

(I've had worse, though. Like the time, four years ago, when I asked for the cut to be 'long on top, short on the sides' and the Armenian Supercuts worker started to just shave off the side of my head to give me the most extreme bowl-cut ever.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Twenty-five Best Non-New Movies I Saw This Year

I still have a lot of watching to do before I can come up with a Best of 2008 list, but I'm reasonably comfortable in putting together this list of the best old movies that I saw for the first time this year. I'm especially proud to say thank you to the people at the New Beverly, the Silent Theater, the American Cinematheque, and the UCLA Archives, where I saw a lot of these.

First, in chronological order, the runners-up, numbers 11-20:

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)
Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)
The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961)
Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki, 1963)
The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967)
Don't Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)
Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1973) (watch this from 7:00 to 7:20 please)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
The Human Tornado (Cliff Roquemore, 1976)

And the top ten, also in chronological order:

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933) On one level, Lang's film is a critique of the nascent Nazi party taking control of Germany around him, but on another, more fundamental level, it's simply an insane adventure film, with some of the great director's most amazing images and sequences. My favorite image is this mind-boggling bit of nightmare fodder here.

The Earrings of Madame De... (Max Ophuls, 1953) An amazing, lush dissection of the social power networks of love and lust.

Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954) Sansho is the bad guy in this movie, a corrupt local Japanese magistrate who causes an immense amount of heartbreak and tragedy for an aristocratic family caught up in the tragedy of war. A total heartbreaker.

Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962) Pasolini's best film that doesn't involve coprophagy, this features Anna Magnani at her most volcanic and powerful.

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967) This is probably the supreme masterpiece on this list, an expansive vision of the place of man in modern consumerist society - and incredibly funny at the same time.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967) A totally joyous, purely entertaining meta-musical filmed in glorious color with songs by Michel Legrand.

Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) The best, most uncompromising Pakula movie I've seen, another modernist vision of society corrupted by money and techology, with an amazing performance from Jane Fonda.

Land of Silence and Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1972) This documentary about the lives of people who are both deaf and blind is all about the final scene, in which a profoundly isolated man, in the background of a shot, bumps into a tree and proceeds to spend a few minutes communing with the universe.

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) Yeah, this is an Italian exploitation movie, but don't rush to judgment based on that. It's also a brutal critique of colonialism and one of the most purely misanthropic movies ever made. This one goes all the way.

Rosetta (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 1999) It's easy to make a movie that critiques capitalism and modern life, not quite so easy to do so in a film centered on a mostly unlikeable female protagonist. The ending is absolutely astounding, a Polanski-esque black joke transformed into something transcendental.

And finally, the five most memorable bad movies I saw this year:

The Children (Max Kalmanowicz, 1980) A nuclear vapor leak causes all the children in a local town to become bloodthirsty zombies, only stoppable when the adults chop off their hands. An excerpt is here.

Mystics in Bali (H. Tjuy Djalil, 1981) In Indonesia, a young woman is researching tribal customs and she becomes the newest victim of the local witch, which means that at night, her head and internal organs lift off of her body to fly around and attack the local populace. See the best parts here.

Raw Force (Edward Murphy, 1982) Three guys from the Burbank Karate Club go on a cruise to east Asia and wind up battling a group of wicked monks and reanimated kung-fu zombies. Also featuring prostitutes, cannibalism, and jade smuggling.

The Carrier (Nathan J. White, 1988) I can't say enough about this movie, which feels like a completely personal, heartfelt expression of an utterly lunatic vision. A young man manages to infect his small town with a curious disease: anytime he touches an object, it becomes infected, and anytime someone else touches it, they start screaming and melting. Small animals can be used to detect the infection, resulting in an insane climactic scene in which two paranoid sects fight a battle for the local cats ("Cats or Death!" one tribal leader bellows) Seriously, look at this trailer and tell me it's not amazing.

Project: Metalbeast (Alessandro DeGaetano, 1995) Pretty bad, but this one involves a werewolf, frozen for decades by Barry Bostwick, which becomes the subject of a government experiment in 'metal skin' for defense purposes, which then results in (surprise) a werewolf with bullet-proof skin. What more do you need?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stephen King's 2008 Top Ten List

As a big fan of Stephen King, it's always interesting for me to see what he thinks of the world of movies, he's a guy with very regular, everyman tastes that he expresses with great clarity and intelligence, even when I disagree with him, or when it looks like he just flat-out hasn't seen very many movies. Here's his list for this year, if you want all the specifics, but here's the simple top ten too:

1. The Dark Knight
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Wall-E
4. Tropic Thunder
5. Funny Games
6. The Bank Job
7. Lakeview Terrace
8. The Ruins
9. Redbelt
10. Death Race

I haven't seen half of these - the only one that I know that I hate is the American Funny Games remake (nobody's perfect).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bush's Shoe Attack

Hopefully this is the final punchline to the long, sad, debilitating joke that has been the Presidency of George W. Bush. I mean, it's kind of an appropriately ridiculous and humiliating way to end his term (although to the guy's credit, he has great reflexes and ducking ability). God, it'll be nice to have him finally gone.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Phase IV (1974)

I saw this over the weekend at the New Beverly in a beautiful 35mm print. It's funny how you just flat-out can't appreciate certain things until a later phase in life. Back about ten or fifteen years ago, when I rented Saul Bass's Phase IV, I thought of it as a mildly entertaining man-against-nature sci-fi movie. Watching it this time, my thoughts were something along the lines of, "Holy shit, how do you wrangle an ant and a praying mantis to cooperate in the staging of a f&*@ing tiny action sequence?"

In the post-atomic era, there have been a lot of movies in which humans fight nature-run-amok, but this is one of the few where the creatures (here, super-intelligent ants) are treated more sympathetically than the various human protagonists. There's a scene in this movie where a scientist presses a button and, outside in the desert, a thousand ants are covered in a yellow, waxy, smothering pesticide. Later the scientists use a sonic vibration weapon that causes, from the ants' perspective, the rupture of the San Andreas fault, with tiny rockslides crushing their miniscule bodies. It's all like a teensy version of Saving Private Ryan, complete with the wonderfully ridiculous (but nonetheless, perfectly staged with actual ants) scene in which the itsy-bitsy ant corpses are lined up in a tiny underground morgue.

Obviously, this movie wouldn't have been made without the influence of Stanley Kubrick and 2001, but it still represents a unique vision all the same. Phase IV is the only film directed by Saul Bass, who was mostly famous for having designed the title sequences of Vertigo and Psycho for Hitchcock and The Age of Innocence and Casino for Scorsese, but he was also one of the world's most successful graphic designers, coming up with the logos for United Airlines and AT&T, so it's not really surprising that his one film would have striking, innovative visuals. The above-ground drama is somewhat less compelling, with easy-going young scientist Michael Murphy contending with brusque, all-business scientist Nigel Davenport (he might as well just wear a sign reading "Cold Logic" around his neck) with a local teenage girl hanging around for no good reason - except that her presence allows Bass to indulge in a curious bit of micro-erotica, as the movie's Hero Ant, having escaped from a lab, wanders through her clothing and up and down over the contours of her sleeping body in one sequence.

The movie ends with one of those annoying '70s post-2001 'huh?' endings (pretty much the same ending as Star Trek: The Motion Picture) but this is a film about the cinematic journey, not the oblique destination.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Beverly Garland, 1926-2008

This is the time of the year when any number of talented, hard-working actors vie for awards in classy, glossy studio movies, so it seems appropriate to also remember the career of a talented, hard-working woman who worked in Hollywood for decades but is today best-known for My Three Sons and a handful of early Roger Corman movies - a realm in which good acting is even harder to recognize, when it appears.

I first encountered Beverly Garland in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode/Roger Corman movie It Conquered the World, in which her husband, played by Lee Van Cleef, is helping an evil carrot from Venus try to take over the world. Passionate yet rational, Garland's character proceeds to take matters into her own hands, and marches down to its cave in Bronson Canyon armed with a rifle to eliminate the monster. What follows, while cheesy and ridiculous, is nonetheless a perfectly fine piece of film acting, bold yet committed and firmly aware of the genre and tone around her. You can see bits of her performance in this trailer, at about the 1:15 and 1:40 marks.

I mean, it's easy to look down at this kind of material, but committed acting is what audiences respond to, and if you find yourself suspending your disbelief in this movie, or The Alligator People or Not of This Earth, it's because of the hard work of Beverly Garland.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Forrest J. Ackerman, 1916-2008

I've been living in Los Angeles for seven and a half years now, and one of my big regrets is that I didn't make it to the Ackermansion while there was still time. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman, who coined the term 'sci-fi' and set thousands of young minds alight with his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, transformed his house over the years into a teeming museum of Hollywood memorabilia and props, and would give jokey, pun-laden tours of his collection for tourists and fans. Until, that is, a few years ago, when he started selling it all off in advance of the inevitable, which has now arrived.

So I never got to meet Forrest J. Ackerman, but he had as much influence on the world of science fiction and fantasy literature and filmmaking as anyone in the last century - he was friends with Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen, he inspired Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, and he was basically the spiritual godfather of the modern movie geek.

And now he's gone from us. He'll be missed.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia (2008)

Based on my mixed feelings on the other Baz Luhrmann movies, and pretty weak advance reviews, my expectations were pretty low for this one, but it was reasonably satisfying in a kind of big, dopey, eager-to-please kind of way, the cinematic equivalent of a friendly dog. It's a love story between Nicole Kidman's Lady Sarah and Hugh Jackman's 'The Drover' and the two of them pour on the charisma and starpower. Plus, it's an attempt at national mythmaking, chronicling the rugged Outback wilderness of Australia, the Japanese raids on Darwin, and the discriminatory racial policies aimed at 'civilizing' the Aborigines that persisted for decades. Luhrmann directs the war scenes in an offhand, disinterested manner, because he's less interested in literal pyrotechnics as he is in his vistas and actors, which is kind of a nice Cukor-esque change from most modern movies in this budget. Also, excellent work from cinematographer Mandy Walker and composer David Hirschfelder.

While the basic Hollywood sweep of the movie is entertaining enough, at the same time there's something about this movie that has a very second-hand, been-there-seen-it quality to it. Luhrmann's goal was to basically make a new version of the kind of big romantic epics of the past, pulling from Red River and Giant and a little Gone With the Wind, plus some (yechhhh) Pearl Harbor too but without any real 21st century update to the material. The one area where the movie tries to apply a modern standard to the period details - criticizing the country's treatment of the Aborigines - is a nice try but something of a botch, because Luhrmann still makes them into magical/innocent/fairy creatures of wonder and difference and not ordinary human beings. Points for effort at least.

Plus, any movie in which a bad guy gets eaten by crocodiles is thumbs up in my book.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Canadian Meteor

Here's a pretty nifty video of a meteor striking somewhere around Edmonton, from a police car dashboard camera. I love the look of it, the kind of spontaneous majesty that no Hollywood effects artist could create.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Another Alphabet List

Mostly due to boredom, I decided to put together this list of my least favorite, most hated movies for each letter of the alphabet. And believe me, there's a reason why the likes of Pearl Harbor and Saw IV aren't on this list - the selectees are just that awful. ALso, please note that my choice for Y is, in fact, a perfectly OK Italian giallo thriller which is significantly better than the rest of the movies listed. Consider yourself lucky that most of them are obscure exploitation movies.

Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
The Brick Dollhouse (1967)
Crazy Fat Ethel II (1987)
Doomsday Machine (1972)
Emperor of Kung Fu (1980)
The Fog (2005)
Girl Gang (1954)
The Head Mistress (1968)
Invasion USA (1952)
Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962)
Killers from Space (1954)

Laserblast (1978)
Monster A-Go Go (1965)
Nightmare in Wax (1969)
The Omega Code (1999)
Psyched by the 4-D Witch (1972)
Queen of Outer Space (1958)
Red Zone Cuba (1966)
Severe Visibility (2007)

Teenage Zombies (1959)
The Undead (1957)
A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973)
Wam Bam Thank You Spaceman (1975)
XXX (2002)

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
Zombie Nightmare (1986)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Alphabet Meme

Craig Kennedy of Living in Cinema was nice enough to invite me to participate in a communal blog game where each participant is supposed to pick their favorite movie for each letter of the alphabet. But of course, that would be too easy (and a little boring - gentlemen, we can't all pick Vertigo for 'V') so my list is 26 of my favorite B horror movies (sorry Jaws, no A-level productions here). Enjoy!

A is for Audition, of a Japanese girl most meek;
B is for Basket Case, a boxed-up lonely freak.

C is for Cat People - when horny, she turns feline;
D is for Dawn of the Dead, the mindless consumer decline.

E is for Eaten Alive, with Robert Englund as Buck;
F is for Final Destination, death by bad luck.

G is for Grindhouse, which too few went to see;
H is for Halloween, starring the mask of Kirk, James T.

I is for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a perfect paranoia pic;
J is for Jacob's Ladder, with a pre-Shyamalan trick.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space make mimes look sweet and gentle;
In The Little Shop of Horrors, it's the plant that makes Seymour go mental.

M is for Mad Love, with the brilliant Peter Lorre;
N is for Night of the Living Dead, the great, nightmarish, and gory.

O is for Onibaba, where samurai fall down a pit;
P is for Pulse, the American remake was shit.

Q: The Winged Serpent features a hungry Aztec god;
Re-Animator, meanwhile, explores the inner human bod.

S is for Street Trash, where bums are killed by booze;
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre family gets their meat through a tourist ruse.

U is for The Unknown, where Lon Chaney severs his arms;
V is for The Vampire Lovers, with Hammer's feminine charms.

W is for The Wizard of Gore, whose delayed slaughters entertain;
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes finally drives himself insane.

Les Yeux Sans Visage is the best I could find for a 'Y';
Lucio Fulci's Zombie drives wood through a woman's eye.

The Zombie makes a useful pet;
And he finishes up this alphabet.

(With apologies to Ogden Nash and the human race)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Awesome Photo

My good friend Joe White, who served as the director of photography of Repo! The Genetic Opera (now in release - it's worth taking a look at) just joined Facebook, and he chose this as his Facebook photo. He is not any of these three people.

More content coming soon!

Monday, November 10, 2008

November Update

Apologies once again for going so long without posting - apparently there are about thirty people out there who check this thing at least once a week for updates, and I'm letting you down. Also, do I know more than thirty people?

First of all, let's just consider the most magical event from this last week: Seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we now have a President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama. If you had told me back in those cold, paranoid, anthrax-laden days back in September and October of 2001 that this would happen, I wouldn't have believed it. I still don't think it's quite sunk in.

In more ironic news we have this figure:

California Proposition 2 (humane treatment for farm animals): Yes 63.2%, No 36.8%
California Proposition 8 (bans same-sex marriage): Yes 52.3%, No 47.7%

So there're about a million of my fellow Californians who were more moved to aid lovable pigs and chickens than they were to leave committed gay and lesbian couples alone. Pretty sad, but that's a problem with direct democracy: it rewards sentimentality and fear-mongering in equal amounts.

I also intend to get back into the movie-reviewing game, but here's a sampling of what I thought about the movies I've seen in the last month or so:

New movies:
Appaloosa: 8/10
Religulous: 6/10
Quarantine: 5/10
Body of Lies: 4/10
Ghost Town: 7/10
W.: 5/10
Let the Right One In: 8/10
Repo! The Genetic Opera: 5/10
Zack and Miri Make a Porno: 5/10
The Lost Skeleton Returns Again: 7/10

Old movies:
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: 8/10
Raw Force (1982): 7/10
Homicidal: 6/10
Strait-Jacket: 6/10
Midnight Cowboy: 8/10
The Stepfather: 7/10
Cat-Women of the Moon: 3/10

Saturday, October 18, 2008

McCain on Letterman

When did it happen that comedians started doing the jobs of journalists? I know that metaphorically, it's always been the role of the jester to tell the truth in a way that the court appointees couldn't manage, but when did it happen that our custodians of truth relegated themselves so far to the back that the Stewarts, Colberts, and Lettermans have become the key truth-tellers of the current race?

I've always been a big fan of David Letterman, and events like this just make me like him and his brand of non-bullshit even more.

I also notice that McCain's anger and resentment are still expressed, passive-aggressively, in this exchange. The man is clearly unqualified to be President, more than Dole or Bush 41 or even Reagan.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The last debate

I don't believe in complacency, and a lot can happen in three weeks, but this race is basically over, and McCain's attitude - clearly angry and seething - is a big part of why his numbers have gone down. I mean, he does realize there are cameras on him even when he's not talking, right?

In other news, hopefully I'll have some more stuff posted here soon - I've recently seen Eagle Eye (5/10) Religulous (6/10), Body of Lies (4/10) and Quarantine (5/10) plus I still intend to post some thoughts on Pasolini's Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

In a year that's seen some pretty major losses of Hollywood talent, here's another one. Paul Newman was the kind of guy that Hollywood was all about - tough yet sensitive, glamorous yet down-to-earth, one of the most successful stars of his generation yet still possessed of a remarkable integrity and taste for projects that rarely pandered to the lowest denominator. In other words, he was a one-of-a-kind, one of the all-time greats.

I regret to say that I haven't seen a lot of his classics (Hud, Harper, you're getting bumped higher on the to-see list). And while I love his performances ranging from the cocky, youthful brilliance of The Hustler to the wise charm of The Sting to the crotchety comedy of The Hudsucker Proxy, one performance that I want to single out for recognition is what Newman did in The Towering Inferno. It's a big, junky movie, one meant for a mass-market popcorn-chewing audience with very little pretense of quality (even if it did manage a Best Picture nomination). And I would say that it's almost more of a challenge to give a really good performance in a movie like this, with a just-adequate script and nobody really looking for 'quality'. But Newman gives a solid, professional performance, the kind that actually makes you believe in the absurd premise of being trapped in a skyscraper with no sprinkler system. Of course, I'm sure this movie paid a lot better than Nobody's Fool, but still: it's a sign of his consistency and his movie-star charm to shine even in junk. He'll be missed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Canterbury Tales (1972) & The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Two more Pasolini movies before I try and make a stab at the feces-encrusted elephant in the room, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Anybody who ever snuck a look at what Cinemax used to show late at night (do they still?) will be familiar with the style of Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales, which, alongside his The Decameron and Arabian Nights were pioneers of the softcore European skin-flick, tales of ribaldry with assorted glimpses of nudity justified by 'literary' content. Take some clueless husbands, mix one part randy wife with one part clever suitor and toss in a dash of Euro-humping. Of course, becoming a business rival to the Emmanuelle series was hardly what a gay Marxist like Pasolini had in mind when he was making these three films - after successfully annoying and frustrating audiences with difficult films like Teorema, his new goal was to make popular, sex-positive films reflecting the progressive mood of the times. And in addition, Pasolini works in some serious undercurrents to his sex romps. His version of Chaucer's Friar's Tale includes a lengthy addition in which a rich man and a poor man are both spied on in the act of sodomy and then threatened with legal exposure - the rich man bribes his way free, the poor man gets put on trial and burned alive before a crowd who munch on concession snacks. The end of the film, Chaucer's Summoner's Tale, concludes with a not-in-Chaucer episode set in Hell in which Pasolini stages a Bosch-esque panoply of demons and tortures, including the devil himself bending over and literally pooping out friars.

In spite of wonderful moments such as these, the film itself is a mixed bag, as most episodic movies are, and suffers from a rambling lack of structure. I definitely did not need to see Ninetto Davoli (one of Pasolini's favorites) doing a bizarrely anachronistic Charlie Chaplin impersonation in one episode. Also, Tom Baker is in this, and I never needed to see the naked body of '70s Dr. Who, ever.

I liked Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew more, as a pared-down, neo-realist story of the life of Jesus, and as an obvious inspiration for multiple Scorsese movies, plus of course a certain Mel Gibson film from a few years ago. But where Gibson emphasized the bloody death of Christ, Pasolini emphasizes his teachings, his sermons and revolutionary attitudes that made him the enemy of the Jewish and Roman power structures of the time, in true 20th-century Marxist manner. This isn't to say that Pasolini's version of Jesus is an unbearable hippie ideologue, but rather that he's a fierce opponent of the status quo, including the wealthy and the powerful. Jesus's trial, scourging, and crucifixion are depicted from afar, as if captured by a contemporary documentary camera.

In spite of its strengths, Pasolini's movie suffers from the same problem that I have with just about all Christ movies: Jesus never really is allowed to be an actual character in his own story, but rather just goes through the cinematic stations of the cross: Virgin Birth, check; meet John the Baptist, check; Sermon on the Mount, check; trial and crucifixion, check; resurrection, and we're out. Even though Pasolini was an atheist, he still doesn't really change the fundamental bearings of the supernatural/mythical narrative. I appreciate the gritty, down-to-earth, '60s rebelliousness that Pasolini brings to a genre which had been afflicted by Hollywood glossiness and shallow pieities for more than a decade. I wanted to like this more - I was hoping it would be the ultimate Jesus movie - but Pasolini still doesn't reinvent the Bible-movie wheel, as much as he just alters its tone and inflections, and Jesus wouldn't be an actual narrative character until Scorsese finally made his movie version (which has its own flaws) more than twenty years later.

The Canterbury Tales: 6/10
The Gospel According to St. Matthew: 7/10

Monday, September 08, 2008

Mamma Roma (1962) & Teorema (1968)

I've been watching some Pasolini movies for the last couple of weeks to gear up for watching the new Criterion DVD of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

First, Mamma Roma, which is a sort of updated Neorealist parable about a middle-aged prostitute's attempt to break way from her sordid lifestyle, for the sake of her teenage son - do I need to say that it doesn't have a happy ending? What's most interesting to me about this film is the performance by the brassy, sassy Anna Magnani as Mamma Roma, the kind of virtuoso almost-over-the-top performance that only an experienced, trained actor can give. This is ironic since in most of his films, Pasolini preferred to use non-professional actors, or at least non-stars, and in his own words, Magnani took her performance beyond what he had in mind for it. And yet, probably because of the friction between Pasolini's detached direction and Magnani's empathic, expressive performance, this is the most emotionally affective Pasolini movie that I've seen.

Second, Teorema, which consists of a sort of detached analysis of a bourgeois Italian family who fall under the sway of a mysterious stranger (Terence Stamp) who has sex with everybody and seems to enthrall them before leaving abruptly, letting them flail about in his life-changing wake. This one falls into the category of 'more interesting than good'. It's a highly intellectualized, distanced film, the kind where you're not really supposed to identify with the 'characters' (who are all sociopolitical types anyway) and rather to ponder what it all means, perhaps in a bistro over tiny cups of coffee.

I didn't dislike it, and it has sporadic scenes that are as good as anything else I've seen by Pasolini - the sequences in which the family housekeeper retreats to a village and seems to become a saintly figure, capable of healing boils and levitating are especially good - but that's in large part because of the performance by Laura Betti, who we actively are drawn to and empathize with, not necessarily because of the atheistic/Marxist ideas Pasolini is playing with.

But anyway, that's one good sequence of scenes within a movie that is otherwise something of a slog.

Next up: The Canterbury Tales and Salo itself, wish me luck!

Mamma Roma: 8/10
Teorema: 5/10


First, sorry to whatever faithful 'readers' there are out there for the lack of posting for the last couple of months, a month of unemployment coupled with a two-week trip to Denver screwed with my schedule and sucked my will to blog. So I'll be trying to keep up a more even pace for the next couple of months - or a least, until my next bout of unemployment, currently scheduled for late October.

Next, Sarah Palin. It's obvious that she's blatantly unqualified to be a heartbeat from the Presidency - she doesn't know anything about foreign or military policy, she doesn't know that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae aren't (or rather, weren't) taxpayer-funded agencies, and she wants to relaunch a Gingrich-style culture war, which is how the Republicans won the 2004 election. But more importantly than any of those things is the fact that we still barely know anything about her or what she would do in office, because John McCain picked her at the last minute, apparently having become convinced that picking Joe Lieberman would split the GOP in half. The big conclusion to draw about Palin is that her choice tells us that John McCain thinks the American people are stupid and that he's happy to make important decisions quickly and without full information. I used to think that a President McCain would at least be more competent and pragmatic than Bush, but now I'm not so sure.

So that, on top of the expected post-Republican Convention bounce that McCain-Palin have gotten, has made me very depressed about the possibility that they could actually win this thing. Never mind that the current administration has so heavily damaged this country through faulty, secretive decision-making, now it looks like a solid half of the country is ready to let them do it again.

I mean, what the fuck?

In other news, at least one hurricane didn't ravage New Orleans, although the season is still early...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Obama's VP Pick

It'll be announced pretty soon, and basically what I'm hoping is: please not Joe Biden. The guy would make a great Secretary of State, but as a running mate he'll be boring. Obama needs to pick somebody who isn't your standard boring old white guy.

Meanwhile, I'll be perfectly happy if McCain picks the laughable Mitt Romney, so here's hoping.

In other news, soon I hope to have up reviews of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (liked it) and Transsiberian (mediocre).

Updated 8/24: Well there it is. I have to say, even though Biden didn't impress me much in the primary and I have problems with some of his positions on certain issues, at least he knows that his job now is to trash McCain, and he seems like he knows how to do that. It looks like he'll be more effective in this position than John Edwards or Joe (gag) Lieberman ever were.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back in Town

Apologies once again, but I'm back in Los Angeles after having been in Denver for the last two weeks, helping my friend Dan Bleskan with his feature-length musical about broccoli. So here are just a few quickies:

Ugetsu: A really great film, 8/10.

Sansho the Bailiff: An even greater film, I think, it had more of an emotional impact on me, perhaps because of a slightly more nuanced and complex set of character relationships, but I'd need to see both films again to confirm or deny. 9/10.

The Dark Knight: I'll write a longer write-up on this one when I see it a second time sometime this month. I liked it quite a bit but my instinct is to go against the grain and point out the flaws, which include a certain tunnel-vision and airlessness in Christopher Nolan's directorial scheme which make the movie feel more like a lecture than a comic-book movie a little too much of the time. 8/10

Hell of the Living Dead: Similar schlock from the same director of Rats: Night of Terror, but more of a Dawn of the Dead ripoff this time. 3/10

Spies: A pseudo-sequel to Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler, another rambling concoction of assassinations, seductions, nefarious underworld syndicates, and chase scenes in rickety cars. Pretty good but a little redundant next to Lang's Mabuse films. 7/10.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: This one has more intensity and complexity on top of Lang's entertaining set pieces, featuring a couple of terrific, creepy scenes involving a major character going insane; Lang's instant mastery of sound cinema, apparent in the early suspenseful scenes; and his political insight about dangerous revolutionaries seeking to undermine societies through chaos. Excellent stuff, way ahead of its time while perfectly of its time. 8/10.

Step Brothers: Really funny (especially the sleepwalking sequence) but midway through it abandons really trying to take itself seriously to seek out the silliest gags and most ridiculous resolution. Still, pretty funny. 7/10

The Midnight Meat Train: I enjoy Clive Barker's particular brand of obsessive madness, and this one has enough parts that work (Vinnie Jones, Kitamura's clean yet bloody direction) to make up for the parts that don't work (the boring lead actor, a somewhat sluggish pace). I paid $1.75 for this one. 5/10

Pineapple Express: See that review up there for Step Brothers? Ibid. But funny and well-made enough for an 8/10.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rats: Night of Terror (1984)

I've been trying to figure out something intelligent and erudite to say about Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff, which I saw lately, but I honestly don't know what I could add beyond "they're very good", and I need to get to Wall-E, Hancock, and The Dark Knight at some point, but for right now I'll just deal with something easier and more fun, the latest piece of Eurotrash that I watched over the weekend.

My biggest guilty pleasures are bad horror movies, as long as they're not boring, and in the '70s and '80s the Italians were foremost in schlock cinema that managed to be at least halfway entertaining even while remaining total crap - my favorites include Demons, Nightmare City, Cannibal Holocaust, and just about anything by Argento or Lucio Fulci.

On the DVD for this movie there's an interview with director Bruno Mattei where he agrees that yes, most of his movies are pretty bad and if he could he'd like to reshoot them. (He's since passed away, so those remakes will have to wait for Paul W.S. Anderson's schedule to clear up). That said, even though it's a bad movie, Rats: Night of Terror kept me engaged enough through a single viewing. It starts with your standard post-apocalyptic bikers (obviously fuel economy is important to the motorists of the future) who wander into a town that's clearly some kind of Cinecitta backlot. Where this gang came from and what they do most of the time isn't clear, because there aren't enough of them to harass even a small colony of oil-drillers, like in The Road Warrior.

As it happens the town houses an abandoned science lab with a greenhouse, some corpses, and a lot of rats. Rats themselves aren't a very cinematic monster, like sharks or giant spiders, and the only way they really 'attack' the bikers is by scooping themselves into a box and convincing an off-camera PA to throw them at the actors, which happens over and over again as the movie continues. It's like that scene from Star Trek where piles of Tribbles landed on Kirk, and basically just as funny. The rats aren't even particularly scary - it's pretty easy at any given moment for the characters to run past them, or brush them away, but in the universe of this movie, it's par for the course to have eight or ten rats jump on you and then for the leader of your clan to decide the best way to help is to give you a blast from his flame-thrower. I mean, these people are so uncivilized, they have sex in front of each other, revealed after a curious, unexplained sound cue.The movie rubs its cast out one-by-one (deaths by flame-thrower, grenade, suicide, falling drunk down an open manhole, and being eaten by rats) until the only ones left are the ones with the futuristic names 'Video' and 'Chocolate' (yes, the movie's lone black character). They seem to be rescued by mysterious strangers in hazmat suits, and Video and Chocolate effusively thank them for being their new best friends, just in time for the lead hazmat guy to remove his mask to uncover a human-sized rat face underneath. Now this isn't a surprise in any way - in fact, the big surprise would have been if it was something else - but damn if there still isn't something creepy and uncanny about the intelligent eyes of a human staring out with malice from underneath a furry, pointed face. It's because of sporadic moments like this that the full 96 minutes of Rats: Night of Terror was worthwhile to me.

Let me reiterate, this is not 'good' cinema but it did entertain me,and I'll take a piece of engaging schlock like this over a piece of safe, studio-released horror product like this year's Prom Night or last year's The Hitcher - movies made to appeal to the PG-13 set with high production values and no ideas - any day of the week.


Monday, July 21, 2008

McCain, Viagra, and Birth Control

This is old news by now, but I still think it's a pretty remarkable bit of video, especially because it shows John McCain squirming (check out what he does at 0:52, it's hilarious and tragic) in a way that none of the other major political figures out there would do - Obama and Hillary Clinton have been preternaturally composed in the last few months, tears aside, while Mitt Romney and Bush typically maintain a stubborn lunkheadedness in the face of conflicting ideas in their minds. Really, what this does is make me feel sorry for John McCain - I think he's a genuinely good guy who just happens to be on the wrong side of most of the issues out there, but he's also not a traditional politician, which is both how he got his 'maverick' reputation and his popularity and why he's probably going to fizzle out in the next few months.

Anything else?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World (2008)

I love and admire Werner Herzog - he can kind of do anything. Given the opportunity to make a film about Antarctica, he set off without any particular person or place to document and had three weeks to come back with enough footage to make into a finished film, and sure enough, he did it. The secret is, he knows what kinds of questions to ask, what kind of oddities to explore, and most importantly, how to be open to what's around him.

For example, when interviewing a rather taciturn penguin expert (and obviously irritated at having to shoot footage of penguins in the first place) Herzog asks if penguins can be gay; a few minutes later, he asks if they can be insane or deranged after having to live within penguin society. We then see, amid the packs of penguins dutifully walking to their feeding ground, one lone penguin seemingly driven by perversity to start walking into the center of the continent, towards mountains miles and miles away, far from any food or water. The penguin is heading, implacably, towards its own death and the scientists inform Herzog that if they were to pick up the penguin and try to redirect it, it would just turn around again on its original heading. The juxtaposition of images - cuddly, awkward creature and immense continent of doom - is amazing, and something you only can find when you know what to look for as a filmmaker, and are interested in peeling off the usual layer of eco-sentimentality from the science documentary genre.

This isn't to say that it's a revisionist documentary, as we still get lots of staggeringly beautiful landscapes of Antarctica's icebergs, volcanoes, and (best of all) underwater realms, resembling an alien planet. Herzog combines his interest in these kind of huge, oceanic vistas with his interest in eccentric human behavior, and he finds plenty of that as well, as McMurdo Station is apparently one of the key collection points for inspired dreamers and weirdoes in the world. Ironically even Herzog finds his fill of globe-trotting eccentrics and their stories, as one woman, telling her life story, gets the dry voiceover commentary, "Her story goes on forever."

Ultimately Herzog's project isn't about the crazy people in a research station or the pretty landscapes, but about the two together, the figure in the landscape, from a distanced perspective - he asks the question if humankind will be able to survive itself and its own insistence on heading towards destruction, not with melodrama or hope, but just as a question of fact, yes or no, and whatever conclusions we draw - and what emotions we feel - are ours alone.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Raw Meat (1972)

Since I'm currently unemployed, in theory you can look forward to more reviews of stuff that I've accumulated on DVD as I plow through titles I already own. So in that spirit, I rewatched the 1972 British horror movie Raw Meat, also known as Death Line. The 'Death Line' referred to is whatever subway line runs through the Russell Square underground station in London, where an upperclass twit, after a long day of perusing strip clubs and porn shops, is attacked by an unseen brute in the movie's opening sequence.

It turns out that the 'monster' of the movie is the last remnant of an underground mini-society of Brits trapped underground after a cave-in eighty years earlier while digging the subway lines; as such he's a vitamin-deficient cannibal whose only grasp of English is the phrase "Mind the Doors!" in one of the movie's best bits of truly bitter black comedy.

This underground dweller is a classic example of one of the most interesting themes in horror, the 'return of the repressed', those elements of the past, supressed through time or societal ignorance, that come back to plague the innocent and the not-so-innocent alike. This is a horror movie with a conscience, one that is ultimately as much tragedy as anything else as we're made to sympathize with the plight of this most piteous brute, consigned to a living hell. The scope of his hellish existence is conveyed to us in one masterful long, uncut tracking shot that pans through the clammy underground rooms he and his fellow subterraneans have lived in for decades, killing the occasional surface-dweller when food ran short. It's a masterful stroke in an otherwise small-scale movie.

The movie's other masterful stroke was in hiring Donald Pleasence as the police inspector looking into all the mysterious deaths around this one subway stop, and in obviously letting Pleasence cut loose with a juicy performance that's one of his best. He's a surly, working-class detective with a quick retort handy at any moment, a healthy contempt for the powers that be, and little respect for the two hippie-ish youngsters who get enmeshed in the case. These two, a pair of longhairs stuck in the movie as its juvenile leads, drag the movie back down into conventionality. Aside from them, however, the movie is a well-made, nasty little piece of work worth the time if you're a fan of the genre. Better than C.H.U.D., in other words.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The New Yorker Cover

I hope to have at least something movie-related up here before too long again, but first I wanted to point out this tidbit.

I'll make the modest proposal that this controversial New Yorker cover is obviously a piece of satire, in the grand tradition of satire that works through subtle exagerration, in this case, taking every element of innuendo and rumor-mongering build up in the media over the last few months and mashing them together into a single cluster-f*&@ of an image. So on that level it's kind of brilliant, because it shows how stupid the 'terrorist fist jab' and everything else is.

At the same time, the mistake the New Yorker made was over-subtlety (the problem with 54.3% of all satire) in that most people, including the traditional 'humorless liberals', didn't get it. If the art had been a little less droll and whimsical, perhaps the intention would have been easier to make out, but that's the way the NYer rolls.

What's most interesting to me, though, is that this helps to illustrate that, sadly enough, a huge amount of the population of White America, even after all these years, still doesn't really believe, deep down, that non-White people are really Americans. It's not really an overt thing, but the buildup of each of these things - the 'flag pin' debate, the continued perception that Obama is a secret Muslim, etc. are the symptoms of the psychological resistance that people still have to the idea that a black guy whose middle name is Hussein is a leading contender to become President of the United States, and why the GOP is keeping these very subtle memes alive, to exacerbate the idea that he's not one of us. Which is why I salute the New Yorker for getting it all out into the open, in a way that hopefully will stimulate a little more national debate.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Get Smart (2008) & You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008)

First, apologies (to anyone out there who cares) about the lack of posts lately, the holidays and my impending unemployment ($&#*^ing freelance job) have kept me out of it. So here's a couple of easy ones.

Get Smart is pretty much a waste of time, with lame direction from Peter Segal (the guy who gave us Tommy Boy), a lazy screenplay, and cruddy digital cinematography. The only things it has going for it (and not coincidentally, the main reason I saw it) are the performances from its leading actors. And even though Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, and Alan Arkin aren't given much to work with, they earn their massive paychecks, squeezing every possible chuckle and emotional moment from their desiccated material. Carell is especially good as the nerdy, quasi-idiot savant Maxwell Smart. But this is probably giving too much credit to an unnecessary TV adaptation that isn't very good anyway.

On the other hand, I enjoyed You Don't Mess With the Zohan a lot more than I expected to, more than any other Sandler comedy since Little Nicky (yes, really). One thing I especially liked about it was its good-natured open-heartedness on an insanely touchy subject - this is a movie that suggests that a Palestinian master terrorist (John Turturro) might not be such a bad guy, and can even join forces as the hero's sidekick in foiling a nefarious conspiracy plot from an alliance of American capitalists and rednecks. Think about that - a mainstream Hollywood movie with a budget of something like $90 million dollars predicated on showing that businessmen and hicks are bigger bad guys than Palestinian terrorists. It's a more extreme position than the one taken by Spielberg in Munich, which was pretty widely attacked as "defeatist" and "morally relativist" - which is to illustrate the amazing and subversive power of comedy, to slip under the radar and present ideas without people realizing.

I don't want to say that Zohan is as rich or complex as Munich because after all, it's still an Adam Sandler movie, and its ideological ideas are simplistic and based on stereotypes. Fortunately the movie doesn't really need to be rich or complex as long as it delivers as a comedy, which it does - it's often a breathtakingly silly movie, with scenes of cats being used as hacky sacks, Lainie Kazan in a sex scene, and hummus everywhere. The Israeli superspy Zohan Dvir is Sandler's best comedic creation since Canteen Boy, a Sabra goof with supreme confidence and a ridiculous accent, yet not a trace of condesension (I can't honestly say the same for Rob Schneider's brownface Arab cab driver). Sandler's movies have been open-minded and inclusive for a long time, to gays (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), imprisoned convicts (The Longest Yard), and weirdoes in general, and I'm glad to see him broadening his approach to include the Arab-Israeli conflict as well.

The movie's signature scene: a group of New York Jews and Arabs confront each other about politics until the conversation devolves into which First Lady they all find more sexually attractive - and if Rob Schneider hadn't already made The Hot Chick I'd suggest that Sandler just needs to cross women off his list of groups next.

Get Smart: 4/10
You Don't Mess With the Zohan: 7/10

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) & The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

A double feature at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, and yet another reminder of how, even though there's traffic and pollution in Los Angeles, that it's worth it to live here, because where else (besides New York or Paris) can you get a chance to see two amazing musicals from Jacques Demy on the big screen, the way they were meant to be experienced?

I haven't seen Demy's other films, but what these two have in common is that they're musicals set in commonplace, everyday settings; Cherbourg is about a pair of young (very young) lovers in the late '50s separated by France's war in Algeria and economic insecurity, while Rochefort is about a pair of sisters in a smallish town in western France yearning for love and more out of life. Demy shot his films on location, in apartments and shops instead of the traditional Hollywood practice of filming on lushly designed soundstages, and it gives the films a typically French New Wave feeling of existing in the real world instead of in the Hollywood dream factory - to a point.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is a reinvention of the frothy Hollywood musical, taking place in a world that's still recognizable down-to-earth, yet nonetheless a fantasy construct nonetheless with a plot that's straight out of a Shakespearean comedy, or an Astaire/Rogers movie: twin sisters played by Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are searching for their true loves, not knowing that their fantasy men are lurking just around the corner in the town, or arriving on the same day they're planning to leave, and so on. It's the kind of movie where one character will exit a scene and their unknowing romantic-partner-to-be will enter, seconds later, from the other side of the frame, not knowing what they narrowly missed. The music, by Michel Legrand, is jazzy and hummable, the widescreen, pastel-colored visuals are bright and attractive, people will drop into dance for no reason at any moment, and the whole movie is pretty irresistable, like a fine fizzy champagne.

After seeing a concoction like Rochefort, Demy's earlier film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg feels a little dingy and narrow, but that feeling disappears once Catherine Deneuve (incredibly young and beautiful) and Nino Castelnuovo sing their first duet, a puppy-love ditty that succeeds because of the movie's charm and conviction. Where Rochefort is a more typical people-break-into-song-and-dance musical, Cherbourg is a mini-opera, no dancing, all singing. And what really elevates Cherbourg, for me, is that it's not just a fizzy musical designed to give the audience a fun time (although it is that) but it also takes its characters seriously as real people with real, relatable problems instead of turning everybody into an archetype, and there's real depth and tragedy in this story of the teenage blonde who gets pregnant when her boyfriend gets shipped off to war.

The reviews I've seen of both films say that the primary theme linking Demy's films was that of fate, or destiny, which comes through pretty clear in Rochefort, where every character has a clearly delineated romantic partner that they end up with by the end of the film, in spite of all the ups and downs along the way. Cherbourg, on the other hand, has a more sensible perspective: even though the young loves proclaim their undying love to each other in the film's first act (as everyone does in a musical), the long separation and changes in their lives make them very different people by the end of the movie. When they meet again after years apart, there's a wistful quality in their interaction, but also an awkwardness, and the sense that, whatever used to be, is no longer; the two of them each look satisfied with their new family and lifestyle, and predestination seems not to be a factor.

What links the two films, though, is how totally pleasureable and invigorating they each are. I haven't been a fan of most of the new wave of Hollywood musicals in the last few years - they've mostly struck me as clumsy (Dreamgirls) or trying too hard (Moulin Rouge) or just kind of flat (Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray) so it's nice to see a pair of absolute must-see musicals in the middle of the Summer.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: 9/10
The Young Girls of Rochefort: 8/10

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wisdom from David Lynch

I love this man. First, on the subject of the iPhone:

The amazing thing is, in the comments section there are people who think he's wrong - 'today's consumer wants choices' blah blah blah. They're all idiots.

Next, a tidbit on product placement:

What I like here is the "What? I said it all" look at the end.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hulk (2003) & The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I wanted to see the new one, so I revisited the Ang Lee one.

To me, these two movies are best analogized by food. The Incredible Hulk is proud to be nothing other than a Carl's Jr. Six Dollar Burger, it's totally a piece of product, of prepackaged responses, a collection of action sequences justified by a gummy connecting tissue of drama. Meanwhile Ang Lee's film from five years ago intends to be a juicy steak dinner with a little something for everybody, an expensive effects driven movie with a core of human drama. The problem is, Lee's film ended up being crispy on the outside and cold in the middle, overcooked and underdeveloped. For all of Ang Lee's ambition, it's the junky Louis Leterrier movie that more fully succeeds; and when it comes to a comic book movie about a man who turns into a giant green monster when he gets angry and smashes stuff, maybe the more simplistic Leterrier concept was the right approach all along?

Ang Lee's Hulk, his project in-between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, is the kind of movie that separates the cineastes from the boys. It's Lee's The Terminal, or his Kundun, or his Mission to Mars; a movie that fails with a mainstream audience but is of interest to the dedicated auteurists in the audience, to pick apart the themes and how they fit in alongside The Ice Storm or Lust, Caution. It's a thematically and visually interesting movie with strong performances from a good cast that nonetheless is kind of a drag to watch, thanks to a subpar screenplay. There are too many flashbacks, too much leaden family-based backstory for Eric Bana's Bruce Krenzler, who winds up with virtually nothing to do but react and mope between effects sequences. I see and respect that Ang Lee had a vision of the Hulk that was different from the traditional one, a Bruce Banner consumed by repressed Oedipal rage and inherited sins, but the film simply does a poor job of dramatizing and visualizing these ideas - I mean, maybe it would have been a good idea to actually show Bana get angry at some point in the movie, instead of merely having Jennifer Connelly tell us "I'm attracted to men with emotional problems" early on, right? Ambition is great but it's not enough to make for a good movie.

So after the clumsy exposition of Hulk, it's incredibly refreshing to watch the opening sequence of The Incredible Hulk, which consists of a simple, clean montage of the new, rebooted origin story, heavy with references to the television series of thirty years ago starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. The opening five minutes of this movie are as clean and efficient a piece of moviemaking as you're likely to see all year. From that point on, the movie devolves into something pretty simplistic, a trio of decent action sequences connected by Edward Norton and Liv Tyler demonstrating virtually no chemistry and Tim Roth waiting to turn into a less well-designed CGI monster. The final action scene did give me a visceral thrill: after some 220 minutes of Hulk movies, finally, Hulk Smash! But cars getting thrown through apartment buildings and rubbery CGI will only get you so far under the guise of a director with as limited of an imagination as Louis Leterrier - fortunately he's smart enough to keep it short and simple, with the occasional joke ("You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry") so it goes down smoothly enough and doesn't trigger the gag reflex - at least after one viewing, which is probably all I'll ever give it. But you know you're probably not a good director when the star of another movie wanders in at the last minute and gives a more interesting performance than anything else that you've been laboring on for months and months.

Hulk: 5/10
The Incredible Hulk: 6/10

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

In a year in which celebrities have been dropping dead left and right, this is one that really hits home for me. George Carlin wasn't just a comic, he was a pioneer, a leader second only to Lenny Bruce in a singular realm: that of the supreme cut-through-the-bullshit artist. Carlin was 71 when he died, but he always seemed much younger than he really was to me because he retained an air of still being with it, of riding the tides of society, of not getting bogged down by his own encroaching age. And he was just about to get a Kennedy Center honor.

And did I mention, he was hilarious? As in, really terrifically funny about pretty much every possible subject under the sun, and a few where the sun don't shine. He was a brave soul, a guy who saw the human race for more or less what it is, and a terrific entertainer.

He'll be missed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Happening (2008)

(Revision Thursday 12:30 a.m.)
I love that M. Night Shyalaman, who likes to think of himself as a genius and the cinematic heir to Steven Spielberg, is in reality now making the world's most expensive student films. All the hallmarks are in The Happening: the overuse of close-ups, the bizarre gaps where characters should have dialogue but don't and have to fill in the dead air with odd facial expressions, the miscast actors who flail around not quite sure of what they should be doing, the jokes that fall flat and the scares that are hilarious. It's quite a bad movie, and only composer James Newton Howard makes it out with his dignity.

The thing about M. Night Shyamalan is that he isn't just content to be a storyteller. With the exception of the movie that put him on the map, The Sixth Sense, all of his films want to be mass-entertainment-with-a-message, and he does have consistent themes and ideas in his films. I would like to think that making personal, visually interesting films with thoughtful ideas that can also appeal to a mass audience is pretty much the height of success in film - I give Shyamalan a lot of credit for sticking to his personal vision when he could just make a slick, impersonal thriller every few years and rake in the dough.

The problem is, Shyamalan's ideas are pretentious and his themes are shallow, and he takes them wayyyy too seriously. Unbreakable, which I mostly like, is totally crackpot. Signs was released at just the perfect time to exploit the nation's post-9/11 paranoia and helplessness, pandering to those feelings while pushing an infuriating 'everything happens for a reason' message of blind faith. The Village suggests that modern civilization itself is corrupt and should be abandoned in favor of medievalism; and Lady in the Water promoted infantile egotism in the guise of whimsy.

In a lot of ways, The Happening wants to be as obnoxious as those others (SPOILERS): plants, infuriated by modern life and pollution, conspire to release toxins that drive humans to stop in their tracks and stab themselves, shoot themselves, jump off buildings, and take naps under riding mowers. It's an interesting concept that could have been a fun updating of Day of the Triffids, weighed down by Shyamalan's earnestness and humorlessness. It's a ridiculous premise, and a better director would have acknowledged the ridiculousness instead of making the whole movie a solemn cautionary tale, and the whole thing ends up riding off the rails.

But for all that, I can't find myself hating The Happening nearly as much as Signs or The Village or Lady in the Water. It's too stupid to be hated, and many scenes cross over into so-bad-it's-good territory. My personal favorite (SPOILERS again) is a short bit in a cafe where a woman is watching an online video on her iPhone of a man killing himself by walking into a lions' cage in a zoo and calmly sticking out his hands for the lions to tear off and eat. Ignoring the blatant product placement, the idea that somebody somewhere had the time to go home and upload this video, and the terrible special effects, we're still left with the bizarre idea that nervous lions would just start chewing away instead of pouncing or going for the throat. I mean, has M. Night ever seen a nature program? And this is a before we meet the hot-dog loving plant expert or get to the farmhouse owned by the crazy lady. I could go on, but you get the point: sometimes, there's no point in being angry at a movie, you just go for the ride. I just wish Shyamalan wasn't working so hard to give crazy auteurs a bad name.

(Revision) I want to add that there are scenes and moments in this movie that are totally effective and creepy. The whole opening sequence, starting in Central Park with unseen horrors just out of sight and the cavalcade of jumping construction workers, is terrific, unnerving and bizarre. Later scenes such as what happens to the cop's gun after he shoots himself are brilliantly conceived and executed as well. The problem is that Shyamalan doesn't connect these moments into a more discordant, disturbing larger framework, and the movie as a whole is only sporadically unnerving, and never truly 'scary' to me.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Spartacus (1960)

So after watching Ben-Hur again I had a hankering for another epic or two.

Godard once said the best way to criticize a film was to make another film, which is pretty much what happened with Spartacus. Kirk Douglas coveted the starring role in Ben-Hur that won Charlton Heston an Oscar, so he bought the rights to Howard Fast's novel and produced it at Universal for himself to star in. After a few days of shooting he fired director Anthony Mann and hired Stanley Kubrick, on the basis of their prior collaboration on Paths of Glory. Kubrick later virtually disowned the film since he was a director-for-hire, but it was an essential step in his path towards artistic freedom and autonomy. Certain scenes, like the training sequence in the gladiator school, or the climactic battle scene, are reminiscent of later Kubrick imagery in Full Metal Jacket or Barry Lyndon.

Compared to Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, the direction in Spartacus is substantially more modern, with a greater emphasis on fluid camerawork, long takes, and location shooting. There's also a refreshing dash of violence, with a shot in a battle scene of Douglas chopping a guy's arm off with a single slice of his mighty sword. The script, by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, is better too - more complex and literate, with more interesting dialogue. And it's hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov.

Where the movie doesn't hold up as well, ironically, is in Spartacus's personal relationships. The scenes between Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons as his love interest are as turgid and forced as any other Biblical epic. And can someone tell me why Tony Curtis is in this movie? For someone who was a big star at the time, he's given virtually nothing to do except participate in Olivier's "Snails and Oysters" speech and battle Spartacus to death at the end of the movie. What should be a heartbreaking scene between two comrades pitted against each other is robbed of its power - give this scene to the character played by John Ireland, who fought alongside Spartacus from the very beginning, and you'd have something - but for Spartacus to battle the singer of songs? And while Kubrick does bring a dash of fresh air to his direction, you can also tell that he's bored in big chunks of the movie. I can just see him rolling his eyes in any scene involving Universal contract hunk John Gavin as the least charismatic Julius Caesar in cinema history.

All of the major epics of this period focus on the same basic conflict - the individual vs. the power of the state, be it the Roman Empire or Egypt of the Pharoahs. Spartacus takes this conflict and provides a protagonist who doesn't just give in to the whims of fate or a deity, but takes revolutionary action into his own hands; and yet, even then his fate isn't truly under his own control, as Spartacus and his army remain pawns in the rivalries of the Roman power elite. As a result the film has a specifically mid-20th-century leftist feel to it, but one that still resonates today.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Ben-Hur (1959)

When Charlton Heston passed away, I really wanted to watch this movie on the big screen, having only seen it on TV, and thankfully, the American Cinematheque obliged this last Friday.

On the big screen, Ben-Hur is certainly an impressive film, with those thousands of extras, lavish costumes, spectacular set pieces, and cameos from the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus himself. In addition, Charlton Heston gives a performance that's truly worthy of his Best Actor Academy Award, fierce yet sensitive at the same time. Stephen Boyd, as Messala, and Jack Hawkins, as the Roman patrician who befriends Ben-Hur, both give terrific performances as well.

All that said, one of the most famous reviews of this movie (from Dwight MacDonald) compared it to 'watching a freight train go by' which has more than a little truth. It lumbers along carefully, methodically, unsurprisingly. Even though Boyd and Hawkins deliver strong work, the film's other Academy Award for acting went to Hugh Griffith as the comic-relief Arab character, who today feels dated and silly. Haya Harareet, as Ben -Hur's love interest, is pretty but her scenes with Heston are stiff and by-the-numbers.

The real spark in the movie is that between Ben-Hur and Messala, especially in the movie's early scenes when the two men greet each other warmly, like long-lost friends. Gore Vidal, who worked on the film as an uncredited script doctor, tells a story of suggesting a homoerotic subtext to director William Wyler; that the two characters had been lovers years before and that their scenes should be played accordingly, with a certain passion turning to jealousy and envy, to more strongly motivate the film's narrative of betrayal. According to Vidal, Wyler suggested this to Stephen Boyd but not to Heston. Heston denied Vidal's influence on the finished film and knowledge of any such subtext, but when you're watching it there's definitely an energy between the two actors that goes beyond the mere reacquaintance of two men who used to be friends.

Above it all, this is a film about a wronged Jew being tempted by revenge who just happens to be hanging around at the time of Jesus's crucifixion, who winds up converting to the infant religion of Christianity after witnessing the passion on the cross. It doesn't hurt that the whole deal is accompanied by a miracle in which Ben-Hur's mother and sister are cured of their leprosy - indeed, Ben-Hur ends up getting pretty much everything he wants by the end of the film, his family reunited, wealth, fame, and a beautiful wife. If everybody received a deal like that, the work of the early Christian missionaries would be a lot easier.

All in all, it's something of a mixed bag for me, a stiff, slightly dated, thoroughly self-important film that nonetheless succeeds as a piece of monumental Hollywood entertainment, more worthwhile for its thrill-ride aspects (the naval battle, the chariot race, the valley of the lepers - things that we now consider Spielbergian) than for any special wisdom or enlightenment.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Golf Gear

This is pretty much the funniest thing I've seen all week, from the McCain website as of Thursday afternoon, featuring the top four items on his policy agenda:. He's a living Letterman parody.

(Thanks to Josh Marshall of Talkingpointsmemo.com.)

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Strangers (2008)

Horror is cyclical, and clearly now we're moving out of the gory Texas Chainsaw Massacre '03/Saw/Hostel phase and into a bunch of movies in which a young couple gets terrorized somewhere remote, like a motel (Vacancy), or a country house (Ils/Them), or a bullshit art realm (Funny Games), or another country house (this movie). They're basically slasher movies with less slashing and more suspense, and smaller casts = cheaper budgets. This time it's Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, home from a wedding reception and uncertain about their future together, menaced by three anonymous, masked baddies with unknown motivations.

I would describe The Strangers as an entertaining, well-crafted movie that I never need to see again. First-time director Bryan Bertino does a reasonably good job of establishing mood (it's a cliche, but I love the disjointed country music playing during an early scare scene), building suspense, and delivering shocks. The problem is that his screenplay doesn't offer anything of substance - the movie isn't about anything except scares and the idea that being terrorized will help a couple with their relationship problems.

I mean, come on, young filmmakers, give us a little subtext, or a theme, or something to show that you have a little personality to put into your chosen art. In its pared-down way, this movie is vaguely reminiscent of the original Halloween, in which the reasons for Michael Myers' killing spree were disturbingly absent, turning him into an inscrutable killing machine. But John Carpenter was smart enough to know that that very absence, articulated as a theme through dialogue and the performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence, could itself be the subject of dread. In this movie, the fact that the killers are the same faceless, emotionless killing machines feels like a lack of imagination, or a reliance on an outdated formula. And it leads to this movie's unsatisfying ending, where Bertino seems to paint himself into a corner and give up. The movie works well enough as a ride, or an exercise, and Bertino seems to have the chops as far as camerawork and sound design go, he's just going to need to be a little more imaginative storywise for his next movie.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Random tidbit

It probably goes without saying, but Beethoven's Fifth Symphony really is one of the greatest things anybody has ever created. Few pieces of art deserve the term 'perfect' but this is one of them.

Anybody else?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Fall (2008)

In a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles, a little girl with a broken arm (Catinca Untaru) meets a stuntman (Lee Pace) confined to bed with a broken back after a movie stunt gone wrong. The stuntman starts to spin fantastic yarns to the little girl in order to trick her into friendship, while musing over his own future. That's the jumping-off point for Tarsem Singh's The Fall, the first feature from the commercial and music video director since 2000's The Cell, who largely funded this film himself when he couldn't find other buyers.

The drama that follows is like a more weighty version of The Princess Bride or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - the stuntman is ostensibly telling a story to entertain the little girl, but really he's just trying to win her over (SPOILERS!) in order to get her to bring him pills so he can off himself. Meanwhile, we see the stories he's telling visualized in Singh's own extravagant manner, as if we're inside the little girl's head. Good setup, right? Well, sort of.

The thing is, even though the movie has lavishly designed costumes and extravagant locations and spectacular vistas, my favorite thing in the whole movie was the semi-improvised performance from young Ms. Untaru. She's the movie's only real sign of life - for a movie that was a self-financed labor of love, the whole enterprise is curiously passionless and manufactured.

This is my way of saying that I don't find Singh's vision to be visionary as much as it is just sort of expensive and indulgent, an arbitrary mishmash of storybook whimsy and oppressively impressive designer exotica. For me, the thing about being a 'visionary' director is that a cinematic vision should be about more than picking spectacular landscapes and architecture, or costumes, and sticking them in front of the camera within a conventional story. It should be about showing us things we haven't seen before, feel things we haven't felt before, and for me this movie was a dressed-up retread. I'll give Singh credit for the aspects of the movie that do work, like the performances from Untaru and Pace and certain aspects of the reality/fantasy balance - he pulls off certain aspects and scenes that any old hack wouldn't be able to, even though the overall package is ultimately a failure.

PS: This movie, along with John Boorman's Zardoz and Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, has forever marked Beethoven's 7th Symphony, 2nd movement as the theme song for artistic pretentiousness. Thanks guys!