a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Playing Catch-Up

I realized I’d been neglecting this thing as of late; what’s more, I’m on the cusp of hiding away from the world for three to four weeks, taking in gobs upon gobs upon oodles of movies for the upcoming Philadelphia Film Festival. (Actually, I fib. I’ve already caught four of the movies I’m to review for it. I’ll get to writing up those in due time.) Alas and alack, I’ve been a movie-watching bohemoth, and much of what I’ve seen has made me want to put pen to paper, even if for a couple spastic notations. Wouldn’t it be kinda nifty if, after all this, I swore off movies for awhile and, like, got a second job. Insatiable, I apparently am.

So here we go. Done quickly (i.e., brevity is the soul of et al.):

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, William A. Wellman) Consult Theo. Not much else to add: completely solid and addictive, as well as a better Thesis Movie than, say, Rashomon, though not as dark as Fury (though it is more nuanced). But oh dear that finale. Any theories on why Henry Fonda’s eyes are blocked by Harry Morgan’s hat when he reads the letter? Grade: A-

Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller) Is this the tightest movie of ever? Runs 80 minutes, feels like 45, and it’s about as whittled down to plot as Spartan. The crucial difference? Fuller also squeezes in -- and I do mean squeezes in -- nuance, characterization, themes, and his own oddball obsessions, deepening the Thelma Ritter and Richard Widmark characters in fascinating ways and so quickly and subtly that we barely know what happened to them. Basically a Fuller Greatest Hits compilation, but one that doesn’t just feel comprehensive -- it works brilliantly on its own. Think of it as the cinemaworld’s equivalent of Buzzcock’s Singles Going Steady, though even Pete Shelley can’t match Widmark’s biting cadences. Grade: A

The Ladykillers (2004, Joel and Ethan Coen) Remember that Mr. Show sketch where the lazy slob with bleeding ears (and IDS) sits down for a doughnut with the World’s Biggest Snob and Luddite? This is that sketch stretched out to feature length, featuring more characters, and all built around the plot from the Ealing original. No two characters ever completely jibe with the other, making for some spirited repartee: best moment by far would be Tom Hanks’ characteristically over-eloquent paean to murdering Irma P. Hall followed by the smallest of beats and then J.K. Simmons’ “Yeah, sure, easiest thing in the world...” A better H-Wood trifle than Intolerable Cruelty if only because it’s the least ambitious Coen Bros. pic to date; auteurists are sure to moan (and have), but if it’s any consolation, there’s only two people on the planet who could come up with names like “Gawain MacSam” and “Fernand Gudge” (to say nothing of “Mountain Girl” - to say even less about it being an actual name). Point made that this is the first Coens to feature jokes that probably wouldn’t appeal to them (“Did Lothar blow the shofar?”, for e.g.) is valid; don’t care. Grade: B

The Ipcress File (1965, Sidney J. Furie) Not so much the “anti-Bond” as much as the working class one; hero, the first one to be bespeckled, is a Cockney, shops at supermarkets, and has been forced into it to pay for past crimes, answering to two snooty highers-up who could have popped up from an Evelyn Waugh novel. Otherwise, a pretty standard, mostly effective little spy movie, complete with ludicrous plot turns (and plot) and a good squirmish or two. Made me pumped for Funeral in Berlin...though I’m still more excited for Ken Russell’s work on Billion Dollar Brain. If only it had ever made it to video... Grade: B

Black Sunday (1977, John Frankenheimer) Understandable that it was such a bomb; Robert Evans puts too much faith in the blockbuster-attending audience to sit through an hour-and-three-quarters of low-wattage intrigue and chatter, even if the thing really is saving all its energy for the protracted grand finale. Still, pretty interesting: hero is an Israeli nationalist (Robert Shaw -- get used to his accent) trying to help yanks stop Palestinian terrorists (hey, Vanessa Redgrave), with the final shot of him dangling from the chopper, as if he were only being used as a lifeline and won’t be appreciated. (Feel guilty!) Plus, the grand finale really does deliver, and all because of the constant cross-cutting between the goodies and baddies: both are vicious (Shaw arguably the most) but Bruce Dern’s cracked Vet is the one with the Big Speech, so that when the action comes, we’re both rooting for Shaw to thwart them and wondering just how Dern and Marthe Keller will be able to pull off their kamikaze mission (to kill the entire population of the Super Bowl, if you didn’t know). Silly stuff, but, as an Event Movie, it kicks the arse of the Bruckheimers. Grade: B

Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971, Roger Vadim) Surely I’m overrating this a bit as it doesn’t exactly click, but that makes it all the more warped. Credits, clad in CUs of derrieres, the best: “A Roger Vadim film” followed by names like Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy MacDowell, Keenan Wynn, even James Doohan. What’s James Doohan doing here? After “Music by Lalo Schifrin,” we get our answer: “written by Gene Roddenberry”. (!!) Every last one of them, it turns out, is operating on their weirdest level, whether it’s Roddenberry’s tale of a horny high schooler seeking advice from the guidance counselor/football coach who sleeps with the entire female student body, or if it’s Rock Hudson’s unforgettable incarnation of the latter (who’s also a serial killer, natch). Just as Dickinson’s perf as a substitute teacher -- who knocks her breasts into our hero and winds up more than happy to sleep with him -- is her goofiest work, so is this Hudson’s; should’ve known that all those years of playing straight-laced, stiff hunks with a low barritone was only a couple inches from the New Age-y, bemused work he does here. In any case, for the first (and only?) time, he’s a genius. Sorta odd that Roddy MacDowell was playing a high schooler only 6 years before in the similar Lord Love a Duck and is now the principal. Grade: B+

Demonlover (2003, Olivier Assayas) Okay, I lied. Can’t really put my thoughts on this bugfuck down in any coherent fashion just yet. Let’s just say it had my head spinning more than my last rendez-vous with Videodrome and leave the elaboration for later. Probably. Grade: A-

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Shameless Plugs, Issue of 3/24

In this issue of the Philly Weekly, you can find me doing this much: blabbering about Alec Guiness' funny side; making light of Omar Shariff in his non-Hidalgo movie (scroll down a bit), and doing my weekly older film cavalcade. As always, this is merely FYI.

A typically scattershot explanation of why I so loved Demonlover -- plus some junk on the Roger Vadim-Gene Roddenberry joint, Pretty Maids All in a Row -- forthcoming. Promise.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Le corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

Where do you think Blue Velvet and all those suburbia-as-mask-for-a-rotten-cesspool movies hail from? For argument's sake, let's say it's this, one of the many morbidly witty pics from Henri-Georges Clouzot (Wages of Fear; Diabolique). Set, rather ingeniously, in one of those quaint French towns popularized by Marcel Paignol movies, Le corbeau translates into "The Raven," the nom-de-plume of a serial poison-pen letter-writer who's been sending them to each and every denizen of the town. With everyone's secrets -- sins, sexual dalliances, one possible homicide -- exposed, the town quickly goes crazy, and the hunt is on. Could easily be called cruel and misanthropic, but Clouzot, as ever, is not easy to pin down. He views the characters as having dual-natures -- good-natured eccentricity, he sees, goes hand-in-hand with back-stabbing or jealous rages. And so, Pierre Fresnay's beacon of truth can turn villainous more than once while the crippled would-be femme fatale can also become the film's most sympathetic creature. A noticeable hit in its day, it was also viewed as a nasty critique on France; Clouzot didn't work for four years, though at least he had the decency to release an even better movie -- the less-scathing but blindingly humanistic masterpiece, Quai des orfevres. To further punt the theory that they are the most gratuitously benevolent company on the planet, every Clouzot I've mentioned has been Criterionized.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Raise the Red Dead at Dawn, Lenin!

Since Fifth-Generationer Zhang Yimou's allegedly about to emerge from his coma of wan, twee, or simply beneath him titles, I thought I'd try and play catch up. Because, really, having only seen one from the Classic Zhang Catelogue is pathetic. Arguably his most renowned, Raise the Red Lantern (1992) more than fit the bill, echoing a most likely fictitious time when Chinese imports occupied that international niche where period piece + stately camera set-ups + anal-retentively placed themes + Gong Li = majesty. At the same time, it proves why Zhang is and will probably continue to be the master of this era. Another critique of Chinese feudalism, Lantern finds Gong as a 1920s student who, when no longer able to be supported by her aunt, decides to up and become the latest mistress to a powerful man in the North. In fact, she is mistress number four: set in a complex of four houses, each mistress keeps one as residence, and each night said powerful man decides which mistress he will visit, sleeping with her then rewarding them with a reportedly ace foot massage, a room full of the titular objects and the right to select the next day's menu. Understandably, this leads to gobs of passive-aggressive bickering and back-stabbing among the four. If we're judging from pure subject choice, Lantern would already be a keeper. But there's also Zhang's style -- little else but spatially-resplendent wide shots (somewhere Wes Anderson was taking notation); interplay between primary colors (red and blue particularly); and the purposefully glacial pacing. Zhang hurls us right into their snail-paced world, calling up comparisons to Marguerite Duras' decadence fests (India Song, mostly) but still very much it's own. Bring on Ju Dou, To Live, The Story of Qui Ju, and Shanghai Triad...

Also critiquing its native country, and to a more surprising degree, the wacky Berlin romp Good Bye Lenin! (2004, Wolfgang Becker) has this to say: post-Berlin Wall Berlin kinda sucks. All those Coca-Cola advertisements and everyone converting from antennas to satellite dishes. Drab apartments being infiltrated by IKEA visits. Party members becoming drunkards or TV addicts. Back before all this, East Germans at least had a national voice, a purpose in life, even if it wasn't very recommendable. Not very surprising when you get down to it, actually. Other than that morsel of information, I can't think of much reason why Becker's film -- a reasonably affable trifle in which a dedicated son tricks his mother, recently awake after an eight-month coma, doesn't get shocked by that missing Wall and rapid-fire uprise of Westernization -- needs to be remembered. MD'A brought up a comparison to Underground, Emir Kustirica's nut-job re-telling of a half-century of Yugoslavian history, and it's a testament to Becker's lack of imagination that I didn't even think of that one while Lenin! was rolling. Then again, that Becker was able to keep a film laying out a ruse limited entirely to one person's bedroom for as long as he was -- say, an hour, rather than the far shorter length I had predicted -- is something, at least.

Keeping it small-time, shockingly, is what makes the re-vamped Dawn of the Dead (2004, Zach Snyder) so brutally, swiftly effective. Doing the only thing you can do with remakes, Snyder uses the Romero as a kicking-off point, adding more characters, taking away most of the zombies-in-the-mall stuff but keeping this credo: death comes to both the wicked and the saintly. The to-be-classic opening sets the scene: small, tranquil moments upset by grand carnage that comes at 45-degree angles -- not quite as sudden as moments in 28 Days Later (it has nothing like the scene where one "soldier" instantly hacks away at one who's just found out he's been infected), but it makes up for that by putting what was in the third act in the first, then letting it filter nicely into the script. Likewise, the satire of the original (consumerism) has been shifted to -- wouldn't you know? -- 9/11: a scene where the survivors pore over several TV news reports echoes the WTC while a character mutters something to the effect of America always having things covered. Thing is, it doesn't, and the survivors must light out on their own to foreign (and unresearched) lands (using the rich bastard, no less). Characters barely filled-in without being totally distracting (even the Requisite Unconvincing Love Angle gets all of two scenes), though there's little about them being dehumanized, Lord of the Flies-style. With an exception or two, they almost instantly become professionals (and in the course of only a few hours), barely mentioning their departed loved ones before toting rifles and (literally) taking tips from Tom Savini. Otherwise, mostly solid all around, fulfilling the gore levels (head-shots don't disappoint) while doing the same for long stretches of minutae. Best gag: the way chess is introduced into the pic.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

This Is Rad

Go here and use, say, this: Fbeel nobhg guvf. Vg'f orra n fybj, hariragshy qnl. Jbhyqa'g vg or ernyyl pbby bs zr gb cbfg n cbfg ragveryl va ebg13, gubhtu? Znlor V'yy qb vg fbzrqnl. Whfg gel zr -- V zvtug. Nyfb, Cevapr'f "Qvegl Zvaq" ehyrf.

More Crap About Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)

Obviously a bit of a stretch, but anyone remember the following exchange from Todd Hayne’s risible slice of glam phantasmagoria, Velvet Goldmine?

Ill-Researched David Bowie Equivalent: I wish I had come up with it first.
Spastically-Assembled Angela Bowie Stand-In: You will.

That’s my near-exact thought on David Edelstein's review of Eternal Sunshine, and, alas, I have no grossly encouraging paramour by my side. (Yet.) Of all the blisteringly ecsatic reviews of the Gondry-Kaufman fest, this is the one that I think gets closest to the heart and soul of the film, as well to as my own reaction to it. (Except that I don’t think it’s the best movie I’ve seen in a decade. In two years, maybe even four. But not ten.) Possessing a delirious weave, witty while still festooned with passion -- I wish I wrote it. I won’t. But allow me to add a couple more things that, at least in my book, Edelstein didn’t mention -- items that have been popping up in my brain since I last saw it a week ago.

Point by point (and, by the by, SPOILERS AHOY!):

- That this is the first time in seemingly forever that a relationship -- as a natural beast, a feeling of casual comraderie that’s still blistering with equally casual passion -- has been rendered convincingly on-screen. Carrey and Winslet, as depressed shy guy and half-frightened extrovert, respectively, may seem like an odd-couple couple. But rather than try to hammer this home, Kaufman -- and Carrey and Winslet, plus Gondry -- let it lay. The Lovely Moments like them star-gazing on ice, adding lines to a drive-in movie or discussing her self-professed ugliness while in bed may be the stand-outs. But what really sells this is the way he reacts with his memory of her: the way they have a natural, almost solipsistic rapport while figuring out ways to dodge the erasing-lasers together. More so than anything else, I adore the scene where he’s become his four-year-old self and she’s playing along with it. (“I’ve never seen you so happy,” she proclaims as they wade happily in the sink.) Carrey and Winslet are gods together.

- Didn’t catch this the first time and thanks to the person who pointed it out: The line “I don’t know any jokes about Clementine” is arguably the key line in the movie -- an incidental detail that retroactively becomes the biggest moment of heartbreak. (Yes, even moreso than their initial-realization-of-love-cum-break-up near the end. Lotsa heartbreaking moments in this fucker.)

- Well, well. How come Kaufman's not completely mocking his pathetic protagonist? As much as I like the Bergman-esque depths of darkness he trawled through in Being John Malkovich, emotional transparency is preferrable.

- Speaking of which, what is up with this swill about Kaufman "finally opening up his heart?" Saddled with a finale to rival Twilight Zone episodes in their nightmarishness, Malkovich is a damned emotional movie, and not afraid to view the instigator of unrequited-love as a hellish beast. Maxine is not in love with Craig, but Craig is so dementedly obsessed with her that he pulls a gun on his unwanted wife, steals what she wants -- Malkovich -- from everyone in the world, and will let a mass of geriatrics die. Stretched to absurd limits? Yes. Still affecting? Damn.

- More on the supporting cast. Dunst and Wilkinson effectively play out their rough version of the Winslet-Carrey story on the outside, while ponder this: while Elijah Wood is stealing Carrey’s moves for Winslet, has Mark Ruffalo done almost the same thing with Wilkinson and Dunst? Surely, he’s been wooing her with his own personality, though is it she who likes the Clash? (“They are, like, the only band that matters,” he pronounces, perhaps realizing that that was also one of their official slogans. Does he know anything about them? What’s he doing listening to the White Stripes earlier?) Ruffalo can’t be the paragon of knowledge that Wilkinson is, but does part of him want to? More significantly, a rebuttal to Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek and her quibble that these jokey people took her out of the movie: yes, they are there to take the pressure off. Because I think this would be one of the most choking, relentlessly and sadistically saddening movies of all time were it not for them. Comic relief, they are, though -- as aforementioned -- also bouncing and reinforcing the themes in their own way. This movie needs them.

- Love -- love, love, love -- the way Lacuna, Inc. is treated. Neither the lavish corporation of The Game’s CRS nor the out-of-the-way fortress of mystery from Seconds, it’s instead a fledgling business, located in some part of a building and trying to get on their feet. So I’m guessing this isn’t a futuristic movie. It could be happening today. (And it is, for the most part, since it takes place in 2003.)

- With the exception of the sizeable blip that was The Life of David Gale’s Bitsy, Winslet has never slipped. This is, however, her most raucous turn since Heavenly Creatures and, pending eight more months of cinema, she is required an Oscar for her services.

- So does Mark Ruffalo. ‘Cause he’s owed one for You Can Count On Me. You people sicken me.

- After combing and subsequently drooling over Michel Gondry’s The Director’s Series DVD of music videos, this is a fact: Gondry is the greatest music video director there ever was. While Spike Jonze is mostly about concept (and no slight on him), Gondry’s concepts are as hooky but more abstract. He also has other obsessions: effects, both lo-fi and hi-; memory, some of it borrowed wholesale from Chris Marker; youth; people hi-jacking the world around them, seeing things as an expression of their thoughts. Eternal Sunshine seems tailor-fit for him, and sparks of it can be seen elsewhere. The most clear-cut example is in the White Stripes’ video for “Dead Leaves and Dirty Ground,” Jack White goes back home to find images of a party-gone-bad and his break-up with Meg projected on the walls. ESOTSM connections aside, though, his videos for Bjork are his mightiest, proving that he can not only give artists some spiffing eye candy for their music, but can also express their music in images. “Isobel” throws her into a world that would be later commanded by Guy Maddin, while “Joga” features camera moves that and digitization that feel like they sprung directly out of the song. “Bachelorette” boggles my mind. What does it mean? A hysterically cyclical story, it has a philosphy -- or at least an invented theory -- that’s almost impossible to grasp. Is it that Bjork-as-Bjork has found something that invites her into a world that both creates and destroys itself? Is it her taking a life lesson -- the video starts in Maddin-y B&W, moves to fake sets and then winds up in splendorously realistic color. So there’s that, and the matter that it’s visually rapturous. “[M]ore mad scientist than poet,” proclaims Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper. Yes. But he’s just enough of a poet.

- The reaction to what it’s actually saying re: busted-up long-term relationships has been largely ignored or simplified beyond any excusable belief. The strongest thing is that it presents no easier answer. It’s not just about “who would want to get rid of those lovely moments?” It’s that you wouldn’t really want to get rid of the painful ones as well. In the beginning, Carrey is as fractured and gratuitously shy a man as he was before -- but, post-break-up, he does what few of us could build up the nerve to do: buy a trinket for his ex and confront her at work to hand it to her, to plead for forgiveness. In other words, without the painful, character-building stuff, he’s back to having no nerve. The bittersweet, fucking awesomely restrained final exchange, too, could be read this way: who’s to say that the two of them might not have re-grouped, trying to do it again knowing the others’ limits and, thus, making for a stronger relationship? Break-ups, I’ve found out, can work wonders on a relationship. (Yeah, yeah, so it’s not that easy.)

- This movie just clicks. Like most movies that click, every twenty minutes or so I would back away from it, wondering at what point would it start collapsing. It doesn’t and a second helping proved this. Not to patron a cliche, but it’s got everything: cleverness, thoughtfulness, high emotion, an understanding of the messiness of truth that’s not messily punted-forth, fine acting, jokes that are actually hysterical, effects that astound without making you go “wow, cool effect!”, moments that rival the most raw ever captured on celluloid, a penchant for absurdity that’s not alienating but still sates those of us who love the absurd, etc., etc., etc. Best of all, it improves in the mind. I’m foaming, really. (You couldn't tell?)

- I can finally say this phrase: This movie is a masterpiece.

Overall, I’m glad that people at large haven’t reacted as they usually do to Kaufman’s scripts: that his ostentatious cleverness is a liability. “Certainly we can’t take something so absurd and geniusly structured seriously, can we? It’s ironic detachment!,” they all moan. In my fantasies, now that his former-detractors have seen that he deliver one of the most emotionally direct movies in memory, they’ll go back and see his past work in a new light. (Even Adaptation., though drenched in Brechtian devices, has it.*) It’s there, folks. Now go do penance.

* The one thing most of its haters completely and dubiously missed is that, for all its 8 1/2-ishness, Adaptation. served as a better adaptation of The Orchid Thief that anyone could do. There were observations and insights into the book that couldn’t be pulled-off in a straight-up movie. Not to mention its timing: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind arrived mere weeks after the movie, proving that, yes, Kaufman can adapt and well -- and that, perhaps, Kaufman was exaggerating, maybe even lying (note: Donald) about his real thoughts. Exercise or not, it’s actually more appropriately described as a treatise on the art of adapting -- what to apply alienating devices to, what constitutes an adaptation, etc. It’s also his least satsifying film that’s not Human Nature.

A Short List of Drool-Worthy Pics in the Upcoming Philadelphia Film Festival

A financially strapped cinegeek who rarely travels but reads far too much about people's visits to Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, et al., the local fest is all I have. As such, I cling to it delusionally -- as I run each year from theater to theater, taking in whatever I can, I like to think I'm briefly traversing a foreign city, gobbling up little else but hot dogs along the way and seeing things sometimes primarily due to scheduling reasons. In reality, my apartment's within walking/SEPTA distance, the pics are hardly as mighty as they are elsewhere, and, yo, are the pre-film fest advertisements as crap here as they are everywhere else? (Still shuddering after all these years at the one with the just-birthed baby screaming "Cut! Cut!" in a grown man's voice.)

So what is up with this in my opinion. Along with the usual seemingly random fare that might turn out well, this year's fest sports the latest Maddin, Greenaway, McElwee, Breillat, Berlinger & Sinofsky, the Von Trier that's not Dogville (which critics-screens in a week and a half), the Demme that's not The Manchurian Candidate 2.0, even a Herzog I didn't know existed. Are we finally moving past our rabid civic pride hang-up? Sorta -- the fest still opens with Shade, a Stallone poker-playing movie (hints of Over the Top maybe?), which boasts a couple miniscule Philly connections. Will that at least best last year's opener, Confidence? Seems like it'd have to.

Here, then, is my list of hopeful screenings, pending scheduling and unforseen obstructions (note: sometimes the director will be represented by a slew of "?"s; the official manual is not yet out and I'll fill in the names later pending a trip to the IMDb):

Titles I'm Mouth-Foamingly Ecstatic About, If For Various Reasons:
The Argonomist (Jonathan Demme)
Bright Leeves (Ross McElwee)
The Five Obstructions (Lars Von Trier & Jorgen Leth)
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Bruce Sinofsky & Joe Berlinger)
The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin)
Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock)
A Talking Picture (Manoel de Oliverira)
The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story (Peter Greenaway)
Wheel of Time (Werner Herzog)

Second Tier, Meaning I'm Just Pretty Darned Interested:
Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat)
Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura)
Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles)
Breakfast With Hunter (Wayne Ewing)
Bright Young Things (???)
Cold Light (???)
The Corporation (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott)
Distant (???)
Everyday People (Jim McKay)
Film as Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (???)
The First Letter (???)
Grimm (???)
King of the Ants (Stuart Gordon)
The Kite (???)
Last Life in the Universe (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang)
Laws of Attraction (???)
The Mayor of Sunset Strip (George Hickenlooper)
Nine Souls (???)
Proteus (???)
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (???)
Saved! (Brian Dannelly)
Slasher (John Landis)
The Story of the Weeping Camel (???)
Who Killed Bambi? (???)
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig)
Young Adam (???)

Reissues of Movies I've Already Seen:
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970, Russ Meyer)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)

Just FYI, natch.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Peter Watkins' Retirement

Needless to say, this is very distressing. Not sure if this is due to his age (69, to be precise) and if, while on his way out, he's just lobbing a hand grenade to his regular arch-nemeses ("Certainly Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris shouldn't be reviewing films," he once opined). Anyway, I don't get it. Is it because his six-hour meta-epic La Commune (Paris 1871) only impressed just about everyone who saw it? Was he also expecting two thumbs up from Ebert & Roeper? The numero uno spot on the box office charts? A complete re-imagining of what constitutes a blockbuster, a la what Mel did and is continuing to do? If anything, his cynical viewpoint -- once thought to be paranoid -- has largely turned out to be true; the media has more of a stranglehold on the masses than ever before. It almost wouldn't be out of place for the events of his 1967 Privilege -- wherein the world's most famous pop star is actually controlled by the government -- to take place now. (Wonder what he thinks about Nipplegate running ripshod over FCC regulations?) More so than anyone, he's proved his grasp of media tyrrany and his lack of fear in punting seemingly outlandish theories, not just about media control but about the way society breaks down as well. Though lately he was only making movies every six years -- if that -- his ballsy input will be missed. On a brighter note, almost no one has seen his films -- Culloden, The War Game, Punishment Park, Edvard Much, et al. Now that he's gone out in a ball of fire, now's the time to catch up. Watkins is no more; long live Watkins.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Shameless Plugs, Issue of 3/17

For maybe the first time ever, I'm not entirely ashamed of my cavalcade of older films in this week's Philly Weekly, the only thing I have in this week's issue. Of course, having confidence in something means it, in actuality, bites. Or am I simply trying to lower the bar I have just raised impossibly high, paranoiacally making sure you're not let down by something I penned? Well? Next week, stay tuned for both an article on Alec Guiness movies and, unless it's pushed back yet again, my evisceration of the shamelessly ashamed-of-itself 400 Blows knock-off, Monsieur Ibrahim.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Favorite Lines in Spartan (2004, David Mamet)

Some of which sort of only work in context and I'm sure I missed several goodies and maybe even misquoted the ones I scribbled down. Anyway, arguably even more so than any other Mamet, this is definitely a movie to go over with a yellow highlighter.

- “How long have you been up?”
“That’s insignificant.”

- “Do you want to talk about it? If you want to talk about it, I’ll give you one minute.”

- “You’re going to leave your life or you’re going to leave the information that you know.”

- “Indicate you heard me.”

- “If it ain’t me or her, kill it.”

- “I heard the TV so I came in.”

- “I say you’re a stone cold whore-master.”

- “Yeah, I got something in my eye.”

- "Now you're going through the looking glass. Is it fun? Is it more fun than miniature golf?”

- “I want to speak to the Chinaman. Tell him it’s the only man he ever heard call on Jesus.”

- “You don’t fake DNA. You issue a press release.”

- “There is no ‘they,’ You are ‘they.’”

- “Are you Mr. Brown’s cousin?”
“No, Mr. Jackson couldn’t come.”

- “Get me to the tall corn.”

- “Do you want to gossip or do you want to shoot somebody?”

- “One riot, one ranger -- did you ever hear that?”

- “Did you ever hear that?”
“No, we must have gone to different schools.”

So you had to be there for many of these. More on next viewing, which should be in the next several dozen hours.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

A Second Helping of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)

Never did write this up the first time I caught it -- probably because I saw The Passion of the Christ immediately afterwards and was temporarily distracted -- but that works out. Now it's morphed into the first Official Masterpiece™ I've seen in -- gosh! -- two years and, rather than wonder incoherently why it didn't fully hit me the first time around, I can drool pathetically over it to my heart's content. Unless heart-satisfyingly pathetic drooling doesn't interest you. Who let you in here anyway?

Alas, said fluid-dispensing won't be happening, at least not today. Reasons: a) I probably need to shift through my thoughts a little more, as it's such a visceral experience on both an intellectual and emotional level; and b) some people have told me they vehemently don't like spoilers. While I could always throw on a big sign (i.e., SPOILER ALERT, BUD!), I figure a) is still getting in the way. I'll come back to it later.

Which means this: this blog will briefly become a blog. Just for a second. So, in the spirit of those quasi-soundtracks released to eat up a couple extra bucks for movies without much sell-able tunes, here are Some Thoughts Inspired by the Motion Picture Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Three-and-a-half years ago, I had this (admittedly too ambitious) idea for my senior thesis film in school. Heavily, if not libelously, inspired by Richard Lester movies, it would have a character still moping about his relationship-implosion a year or two after the fact (as, great shock, I had also been moping about my relationship-implosion two years after the fact). Lucky for him, he discovers that his place of work, hoping to increase professionalism, has devised an operation that gives people confidence. (Aside: I was 21.) Now stripped of insecurities and painful memories, he would either forget his ex -- who he's just run into, natch -- or, with his newly-found smooth moves, get her back; never did figure that one out. In fact, I couldn't figure out anywhere to take it, much less in the context of a $2K-financed 20-minute 16mm film. After much distractions and sidetracks into helping out on other people's projects, all that came out of it was a minute-long trailer, shot to get me out of school with a passing grade. Which worked.

Much to my surprise -- or, really, not, since the idea was inspired by the high-concept clevery of his scripts -- it was announced that Charlie Kaufman had come up with the following idea: hoping to get over his just busted-open relationship, a scruffy moper finds a corporation that can erase unwanted memories, like, say, the entire presence of his ex in his life. (She too has had the operation which spurs him on.)

Coincidence? Sure. You don't think I'm comparing myself to Charlie Kaufman, do you?

Predictably, Kaufman pulled off what I could not, and not just in the plotting department. (Oh, had I this guy's imagination. He's really a bastard when you get down to it.) Obviously there's a pointed statement about our society's increasing penchant for quick-fix solutions here. But rather than dwell on that bitching, the film's focus is minute, personal -- he has, in fact, gotten right to the heart of busted-up relationships. And, in a feat that should silence his nay-sayers, not entirely belittled his sadsack self-pitying protagonist.

It's also gotten me into the unforunate and disgusting position where I'm now flashing back to past relationships, both actual and once-potential. Bear with me here. Back gods knows when, I had made a constituted decision to ignore them and move on. The therapeutic impact of Sunshine is that I realize I should actually skip the former. Without pulling them back into my self-contained mess (I'm assuming, I think rightly, that they'd like that), I should move on with the knowledge that I've felt those emotional highs and nadirs -- I've known what it's like when Jim Carrey feels a shared solipsistic moment when laying on a river of ice with Kate Winslet, and I've been there during one of the many petty, all-too-knowing squabbles those two have early on in the movie. (The movie goes backwards, incidentally.) It's not only that I should be glad that I've been there at all. It's that, rather than run when things look to be getting quite atrocious (or for that matter, quite wonderful), I should seek them out and learn to grow from them. What I'm trying to say here: don't be a cynic about relationships. Be a grumpy optimist. Or is it "knowing optimism"?

Okay. Let's not let that happen again, shall we?

Myra Breckinridge (1970, Michael Sarne)

So saith J. Hoberman: "[I]t seems amazing that Myra has never been recuperated by film theorists." A Nobel Prize to the person who does. Re-issued on DVD yesterday, the widely-acknowledged Worst Film of All Time almost lives up to its rep, at least insofar as the winner of that trophy would have to be consistently incoherent, insane, and unsettlingly wrong. Were it not for the countless dead patches, it would be -- the Big Moments (Welch raping a cowboy with a dildo; Rex Reed's 9 1/2 Weeks-pre-dating food dream; any moment first-billed septagenarian Mae West walks in) are scattered among lots of stretches where it has nothing going for it past deafeningly-pitched camp. There's a germ of a clever idea buried in there somewhere (in pieces, no less) and trying to stich them together into something sensical passes for fun: Myra (nee Myron) hates what Old Hollywood has become but loves Old Hollywood. Is she trying to recreate its original stasis with a new, sexually-free mold? No clue from Sarne, whose free-form script -- surely designed that way as a poison letter to narrative form -- jumbles everything, pre-occupied with gharish moments over anything kindly approaching clarity. Some nice shots here and there -- the public castration opening is Modesty Blaise-era Losey crossed with Vadim -- though it's mostly (if not only) fascinating for its seams: the star-batttling between Raquel Welch and West; the putting of big stars who moan about crudity in a film that's crude; the stranding of small-time bohemian Sarne in a big budget film that also boasts the 27-years-late return of West. Then again, maybe this one needs to be studied a little more. All I know: as far as Hollywood's attempt at counter-culture-baiting goes, it's no Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Shameless Plug, Week of 10 March 2004

Very little this week in the rag I write for, with the notable exception of my usual bouillabaisse of oldies. Sad but useless anecdote: I missed the screening for slated-to-be-released Crimson Gold and, through a series of events too madcap and extraneous to recount here, had the reviewing duties given to the esteemable Dan Buskirk. Now I see the movie has been pushed back. I'm okay with it: Buskirk's review, which I've read, is characteristically ace. Moving on.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Shamless Plugs for 3 March

Yes, it's two days late. In this week's Philly Weekly, visitors can not only see my usual capsule-a-thon, but also my reviews of Battle of Algiers and Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion and an A-list on J. Hoberman's screening of Wild in the Streets. Sorry if this is link overload.

And not to be brag (i.e., to do just that), but because of tight scheduling and looming deadline, I was forced to watch the entire six-film mini-fest that is the "Selections From the Human Rights Film Festival" in one day. Are you impressed? I'm impressed.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Kanto Wanderer (1963, Seijun Suzuki)

Katsuta may be a member of the yakuza, but that doesn’t mean he ain’t ethical. Shit kicks into motion when Katsuta’s gang family’s gambling parlor is taken over, leading him to enact revenge while Tetsu, effortlessly the most simpletonish of the gang, forces a wily sailor-suited schoolgirl Katsuta briefly befriended into some kind of bonded prostitution pact. On his travels, Katsuta runs into an old flame, now a card trickster, and we see a brief flashback wherein it’s stated that, yes, they did have an attraction. Alas, she’s not only the sister of one of his bosses, Diamond Fuyu, but also currently married to Okaru-Hachi, who’s...someone important.

So, yes, plot isn’t Kanto Wanderer’s strongest suit, which is to say it’s negligible and there’s far too much of it. (A fuck off amount of it, in fact.) Those who recognize the director, however, shouldn’t fear. The Japanese film factory’s rough equivalent to France’s Godard and America’s Altman, Suzuki spent 11 years making something to the tune of 40 pictures, every last one of them of the B- variety and boasting standard-issue scripts. Bored by the material but in love with the possibilities of the medium, he went farther into the nether regions than both Godard or Altman (arguably), shooting them in a way that, at times, is so abstract as to garner comparisons to Cocteau and maybe, if you stretch things a bit, Brakhage. Finally, he went too far with the double dose of Tokyo Drifter and, most egregiously, Branded to Kill*. Upon seeing the latter, had-enough-crap Nikkatsu Studios fired him; he tired to sue and was blacklisted for ten years. The happy ending? He toiled in television for years and made a comeback-of-sorts with the for-festival-and-cinephiles-only Pistol Opera, which let loose all the visual pyrotechnics and notions inside Suzuki’s head, for better and, occasionally, for worse.

As for Wanderer it’s more for completionists, though that’s not to say it’s unwatchable. In fact, when it’s decipherable at all, there’s a melancholy stateliness to it that feels ripped from Ozu -- compositions become symmetrical and he cuts on rectangular angles, even if he doesn’t go as far as have the actors stare at or near the lens. By the end, I felt oddly moved and wondered why I had been. (Surely not the best response but an interesting one). But it’s the more purple passages that stick out. The opening smash cut into a three-way conversation between school girls is dynamite, specifically because of how Suzuki gives each close-up their own different diagetic noise: the one standing in front of a train gets train noise and the other’s don’t, etc.. As with Drifter, Suzuki keeps his energy in check for the final reel, in which Katsuta’s blade unexplainably turns an entire room red and the lighting and scene changes become increasingly boffo. Word has it that most of his resume is made up of films that do this: that there’s no way he could operate with all cylinders firing for an entire film without being fired. Of course, he was saving that for Branded to Kill.

How seen and more: Wanderer was recently ushered out on DVD along with Underworld Beauty and Tatooed Life in what appears to be a random sweep through Suzuki’s miles-long resume. As with the Looney Tunes DVD Plan, it’s a few at a time, it looks like -- fine, that, since unlike with a lot of directors, his films are best watched over a long period of time rather than in marathon form.

* Both are on Criterion DVD. Rent them.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Post-Oscar Miscellany

Whether it was my final slip into indifference with the AMPAS or just because I'm always happy for anything nice that happens to laid-back, professionally-spirited New Zealanders, I have few quibbles with last night's battering ram. (Even Tim Robbins, who you could always spot acting in Mystic, even went fine with me; maybe the sudden attention will wake him up from the stupor he's been in for the last decade.) Clocking in at just under 3 3/4 hours and conspicuously missing of too too many Chuck Workman montages, the night moved by at a fast clip -- all the better to predict how little time would go by before LOTR: ROTK would receive another trophy. Amongst my LOTR: Extended Edition DVD-owning Oscar company, these dudes were no less than deities, and their more or less total lack of drug habits and flaming egos meant that the ceremony was less embarrassing. And also as boring as watching flies fuck.

Seeing how I was fatally distracted during the first hour and change, here's some of my faves:

- The "In Memorium" montage (natch -- is this not the only real reason to watch the Oscars?). Fitted with an unfortunately-sized connundrum as to which titan would wind up with the final spot -- Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck or Bob Hope? -- the Oscars did the clever thing, giving them one winsome montage each. (And the "winner": Donald O'Connor!) Stan Brakhage got the notice he should've gotten last year (he died on 9 March, 2003 and the Oscars were on 23 March; to look at it optimistically, maybe the deadline was earlier). Meanwhile, Leni Riefenstahl was intriguingly paired up with Elia Kazan -- connection?

- Liv Tyler can't read and talk at the same time.

- Billy Crystal personally issued an apology to Bill Murray for losing to Sean Penn. Why? Murray looked impatient because he's Bill Murray, Man Who Throws Away Scripts and Ad-Libs.

- Not entirely sure why they're giving Blake Edwards an Honorary Goldie (hello, Switch, Skin Deep, One Last Gravedigging Expedition Into the Pink Panther Treasure Chest) but nifty entrance and uncharacterstically gonzo intro from Jim Carrey (who's, incidentally, hereby forgiven for every transgression, past and maybe future, thanks to his next movie).

- The song performances, if not the songs, are the strongest in...ever? From the pop-ups from T. Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello to some dude playing a bike during the Triplets of Belville song (which so kicked much more ass in the movie), the evening was distinctly lacking in power ballads and cringe-inducing gimmickry. One thing, though: if they were smarter, Mitch and Mickey would've taken The Kiss up another notch. Why not act as though they were doing it a second time (the one in the movie being the first) and have, say, Mickey shoot him a petrified look, indicating "Um, we're not doing this again, are we? Aaaargggghhhhh!!!!" Just a suggestion.

- Adrien Brody trotted out the same lame joke -- twice. Would've worked had he looked like he came up with the idea personally.

- Fran Walsh: If you and Peter Jackson ever (god forbid) bust apart, contact me at emprigge@yahoo.com.

- Hey, remember how we all thought Sofia Coppola sucked in that movie? Well, she's now really talented! How about that? And did you know she was Francis Ford Coppola's daughter? He sells wine! But Sofia, she's really come into her own -- first woman nominated for Best Director and everything! And she's Francis' daughter! And she's so good now! And she's a Coppola! And her movie was cool!, etc.

- Wong-Kar Wai gets name-dropped at the Oscars. Alongside Antonioni and Godard to boot. Thanks, Sofia!

- Errol Morris apparently played that uppity mohel on that Seinfeld episode. Unlike his likeminded Doc-winning predecessor, he didn't merely try to proddle and provoke with his Message -- after all, he had already done that with his now-extinguished Oscar obscurity.

- There's some things you gotta be presumptuous about, Spicoli.

Currently accepting thank-yous for not mentioning the frocks.