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

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

i got confused i killed a horse i can't help the way i feel

Over the last several days, my life has been teeming with incident. I moved into my nicer, more spacious digs, taking up a new life with close friends and a cat with whom I’ve already dwelled before. I’ve watched three movies for work, one of them being a 4 1/2 hour-long avant-garde rendering of the already-goddamed-avant-garde final Wagner, Parsifal. I’ve spent hours renewing my love affair with digital cable, set up a stereo-friendly room, and trawled through A.O. Scott’s so-serious-it-must-be-a-joke dissertation on the racial relations in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Then there’s my constant playing of the Smiths, as quoted above, to make me feel simultaneously more lonely and empowered by same.

But truthfully, none of this has mattered. I’ve been wrapped up in the DNC, and most that comes with it.

This new addiction can be broken down into five major sections:

When I’m not doing anything, I flip-flop around various DNC coverages. The three major networks, CNN, MSNBC’s Hardball, Headline News, The Daily Show: there’s little escaping the rally of lefties trying to drum up some enthusiasm. I’d like to use that in a pejorative manner, but alas, it’s come to this: we (lefties) need enthusiasm. Caught the tail-end of Hillary’s speech, which was little more than a reminder of her pet obsession (the health care issue, natch) and a gotterdamerung-esque intro to her husband, “the last great Democratic president” (well, um, erm, obviously).

About Clinton: I’ve missed him terribly. It’s strange to be reminded of a president who’s not only eloquent, can not only spend most of his speech visibly avoiding the teleprompter or notes, but is just such a mavhiavellian orator - and that’s a sincere compliment. Presidents, by definition, must speak in vague platitudes, pumping people up more than descending into uber-specifics. But Clinton had, and has, it down pat. At one point, he lapsed into a joke about the cretinous upper-class tax-cut. Once he had milked it for the highest amount of yuks, he took a hair-pin turn, pounding his fists on the podium as he fumed over the blatant neglect -- the outright eff-you -- that this move inherently was. That’s the genius of Clinton The Orator: he charms you so he can get you riled up.

I’m also glad to see the Dems finally playing a take-no-prisoners approach. The Republicans have voiced their hurt by the outright, clear attacks on their administration (Ted Kennedy: “It used to be ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Now, it’s ‘We have nothing to fear but four more years of George Bush.’”), which just goes to show that they’re doing something right: this is the latest craven move for an administration that has begged for pathos, taking cruel potshots at the NAACP when Dubya childishly dissed them for hurting his feelings. Has Michael Moore, that loudmouth asshole, the left’s rough equivalent of a Safire or Coulter, finally woken them up from their namby-pamby politeness?

Teresa Heinz Kerry, by the way, is a marvel. As David Brent would say, she charmed me. It seemed, at first, that she was going to go the easy route and dubiously compare the administration to apartheid. But it was simply a way of getting the absurdly low voter turn-out up. (At least here in Philly, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. When the Roots drew a gargantuan crowd for their record release party, the only way to get in was to register to vote.) She let her son tout her countless accomplishments -- a millionaire philanthropist; a caring mother and wife; a strong woman who doesn’t view “opinionated” as the dirty word it often is -- but rather let those come out organically in her speech. If some people (unfairly, mysoginistically) viewed Hillary as too ambitious and cold, Heinz Kerry will come off as the warm, maternal equivalent.

Missed: Gore, Kennedy, Reagan, Jr., Dean, et al. Make sure to catch Willaim Saletan's ongoing DNC blog over at Slate.

Spending three hours on my feet for John Kerry. Arriving a mere fifteen minutes later than his advertised 6pm starting time, the Illinois kid made the Art Museum steps his last stop before Boston, and kept the Rocky-allusions to a bare minimum. The turn-out was at first low, no doubt due to the disgusting downpour, a condition which dissipated almost by magic as Kerry was en route. U2 appears to be his music of choice, as the rally organizer inundated us with a solid block of the stuff, presumably playing the first disc of their greatest hits album until his arrival. At that point the dreadfully wan “Beautiful Day” came on. Is that his campaign song? Or is the CS actually “Simply the Best,” a song forever tarnished by its use during the single most cringe-inducing moment on The Office. Like his slogan, this needs some work. Can I suggest something odder? Maybe Clinton can recommend another Fleetwood Mac song -- “The Chain,” perhaps (“And if you don’t love me now/You won’t ever love me again!”)? Maybe “Tusk” (“Tell me that you love me!,” barked out in psycho ex fashion)? Or, geez, how about some Led Zep -- “Whole Lotta Love,” let’s say, or “The Immigrant Song” to destroy our current xenophobia (alright, so it’s about vikings) and, simply, because it kicks copious amounts of ass. This is all aesthetic, of course.

Kerry’s got some work to do with speechifying. He’s still a little awkward with the crowd, probably realizing he’ll get half the country’s vote simply by not being Dubya. (Perhaps this is why he gets cheered despite his pro-life stance.) When he mistakenly slips that he’s speaking at the library, not the art museum, he spends a good two minutes trying to rectify it -- a ploy I often nervously resort to but never thought I’d see in someone applying for a job that mostly requires amazing verbal skill.

That said, he hit on many of the right topics -- uniting the nation over the Bush Admin.’s dastardly dividing; doing away with the narrow values; constant comparisons between The War on Terror and ‘Nam; axing that upper-class tax-cut; health care for all!; working with other countries no longer meaning weakness; and something tantalizingly referred to as “Energy Independence.” As nice as all this is to hear, I couldn’t help flashing to that neverending reference point for all things Americana and beyond, The Simpsons. Specifically, that episode where Homer, newly elected to head the garbage program, paternally tells Lisa, “Daddy’s made a lot of crazy promises!” Can we pragmatically raise taxes through the roof to give health care to everyone? Exactly how are you going to make the fighting of terrorists -- and non-, like the Iraqi population, which he neglected to mention -- more careful? And what in the name of fuck is “Energy Independence”? Are we going to nix the buying of oil? And if so, does that, like, mean we’re all going the electric car route? Explain.

Then I reminded myself that this was the DNC -- this ain’t about specifics, not yet. Wait for the debates -- he’s already leaps and bounds over his vacuous-yet-evil antagonist.

Michael Moore is a wonderful dope. As I read and re-read David Edelstein’s take beforehand, it was all but impossible that I wouldn’t have a wildly torn reaction to Moore’s “op-ed piece.” And that I did have -- only I’m far less forgiving of his blatant shoddy journalism. But then, this is what we (lefties) need right now, not because it says anything new, but because it will get us active, or at least a little more so than before. But it’s so biased as to be tunnel-visioned, and it takes cheap pot-shots at Dubya rather than go whole hog into vivisecting him. But historically speaking, it’ll go down as the definitive portrait of the way liberals felt during the era, practically the contemporary equivalent of Emile de Antonio’s 1969 summation-of-’Nam, In the Year of the Pig. But it’s propaganda, pure and simple. But it’s propaganda against things that make me fume with anger. But...but...And so forth.

Looking at it as a movie-movie (an apparently controversial stance -- “He’s looking at it as though it were a film,” said someone of a negative review), it’s not even much of anything. Riefenstahl and Eisenstein are giggling arrogantly in their graves. Structurally a mess, Moore can’t keep on one topic for too long, always leapfrogging to something maybe not even tangentially related to what he was previously discussing. And while he was wise to keep physical appearances and silly but useless stunts to a minimum, he can’t keep himself off the soundtrack. When I heard he had gotten his mits on the My Pet Goat footage, I dreamily imagined Moore playing it in its gruesomely exhausting entirety; it would be a sequence worthy of Warhol or Godard, forcing us to sit there for 15 straight minutes, combing Dubya’s face for some clue as to what was on his mind. Understandably, Moore cuts it down to excerpts; near-tragically, his voice tells us what he thinks Dubya’s thinking -- or, rather, makes glib jokes about same.

All that said -- and you can find more, both in a break-down of its simplified points by Ryan Wu and in slobbering rant form by Christopher Hitchens -- there are strong points that almost, but not quite, make the film break even. Moore is a very clever man. Rather than tell us what to think, he often phrases his ideas in question form. Like Bowling for Colombine, it’s less a missive than a searching film, trying to make sense of an impenetrable mess that may not be untangled for decades to come, if not ever. I so wish he hadn’t fallen back on the oil theory when there’s our nation’s aggressive, pompous history of bombing and deseating leaders to provide a more finite explanation. But proof of his laudable hesitancy comes with his portrait of the soldiers. At first, it looks like he’s decrying them all as Bloodhound Gang-listening sadists. But then he widens the focus, allowing us to see those who want nothing to do with it and are, in many cases, there because they were duped or simply needed money. Hitchens views such dual-side segments as incoherency; I’m willing (for now) to interpret this as refusing to provide an answer when the nagging questions keep piling up.

Incidentally, let’s not think I loathe Moore. His new incarnation as the Bully For the Left rather bugs me -- too often he comes off as one of those bastards who decry logical thought, which is exactly what we need. But back in the halcyon days (roughly before The Big One) when he whiddled away at corporations with minute attacks, he was a refreshing prankster, always pointing out the inconsistencies of logic that cripple this nation at the smallest levels. No doubt that he’s doing something for the good; but by promoting simplistic takes and solutions, he’s ultimately doing the left a grand disservice. Is it that the left is too grand in its ideals and beliefs that you can’t summarize it? When did the left become only about deseating the current administration?

Ann Coulter is literally the devil. File this under “Know your enemy”: a friend likes to loot through the Drudge Report for his vile far-right-wing knowledge. I use Ann Coulter. When Clinton spoke of the uber-right’s penchant for diving the nation, there’s little doubt that she was among those to whom he was referring. Less an essayist than a spastic ranter, she’s the stereotype of the hypocritical faux-political analyst, here to coddle rather than impart knowledge upon those who agree with her death-to-those-who-disagree-with-me worldview.

What’s more, she loves cheap shots. Feel free to plunge into her archives, but here’s a couple select quotables, each of them pettily generalizing liberals beyond anything resembling reality and belying her position as an intolerant multi-phobe, from her most recent post (on the DNC):

- "Here at the Spawn of Satan convention in Boston, conservatives are deploying a series of covert signals to identify one another, much like gay men do."

- "Democrats are constantly suing and slandering police as violent, fascist racists -- with the exception of Boston's police, who'll be lauded as national heroes right up until the Democrats pack up and leave town on Friday, whereupon they'll revert to their natural state of being fascist, racist pigs."

- "As for the pretty girls, I can only guess that it's because liberal boys never try to make a move on you without the UN Security Council's approval. [...] My pretty-girl allies stick out like a sore thumb amongst the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons they call 'women' at the Democratic National Convention."

- "They're calling [the cages in which low-level speakers congregate before heading to the podium] the "protestor's area," although I suppose a better name would be the 'truth-free zone.'"

- "For 20 years, the Democrats wouldn't let Jimmy Carter within 100 miles of a Convention podium. The fact that Carter is now their most respectable speaker tells you where that party is today. Maybe they just want to remind Americans who got us into this Middle East mess in the first place. We've got millions of fanatical Muslims trying to slaughter Americans while shouting Allah Akbar!  Yeah, let's turn the nation over to these guys.”

- “[the “bring the troops home” sings] [i]s my new position on all government workers, except the 5% who aren't useless, which is to say cops, prosecutors, firemen and U.S. servicemen.  I love bureaucrats at the National Endowment of the Arts funding crucifixes submerged in urine so much -- I think they should go home.  I love public school teachers punishing any mention of God and banning Christmas songs so much -- I think they should go home."

Actually, that’s most of the article -- or at least half of it. In any case, you get the idea: attractive women never vote democrat; people who oppose the religion-and-state connection are worthy of contempt; dems hate all police officers. Coulter often talks about liberals as haters of truth and arrogant dickheads who think the American people are idiots. Actually, as many of the speakers at the DNC have pointed out, it’s not division they want; like Clinton, they’re making attempts to reach out to Republicans, to find a way to live together as a melting pot of countless ethnicities and political beliefs. If Coulter is to be trusted as indicative of her political party, it’s posts like these that spread hate and make sure we know that the “American people” she refers to are limited to those who believe and trust every piece of vague, trash-talking invective she pens. Hate-filled, ignorant, prone to bend the truth, or at least whiddle it down until it fits her motives, hers is the true elitist voice in the country, blissful in its eternal egocentrism. At least Michael Moore is clever enough to keep his pot-shots aimed at wholly-deserving highers-up.

With serious respect to Victor Morton, who's able to whip up clear-eyed, eloquent arguments in favor of the right: why do you dub this pandering blob of myopia a "diva"? Also: update your site!

Naturally, The Manchurian Candidate was ripe for an update. A couple quick words on this, as I just noticed I’m nearing 2600 words on this post. (Are you still here?) Probably the slyest move on Demme’s part -- and surely to piss off more than a couple who interpret Meryl Streep’s impersonation as an attack on Hillary -- is to refrain from outright saying which political party Streep and Schreiber belong to. Though obviously hardly comparable to the brilliantly loopy original, MC2.0 is as good a remake as you can get -- which is to say, it’s just about as unnervingly paranoid and right-on. In Demme’s view, the mainstream Right and Left aren’t too dissimilar and that, in this day and age, the Commie threat has effectively turned into an invisible multi-national/-purposed corporation. Perhaps with a nod to Baudrilliard (specifically his The Gulf War Did Not Take Place), it posits that Gulf War Syndrome was just a cover-up for the tests that have been rumored to have been performed on soldiers, both past and present. Meanwhile, Denzel doesn’t even try to be Sinatra, let alone Denzel. He’s shaken and nervy, but hardly a ball of tics -- his insanity is organic to the performance. I’m still not sure of some things: whether there’s more sly attacks in there that I missed on first-viewing; and especially whether the removal of the Joe McCarthy type from the original was a good move. But someone did their homework -- and refused to make any obvious points. It couldn’t be just about the current administration. The movie goes so much deeper than that.

On a more shallow movie geek level, this is your typical Demme dream. While never ruining the tone or seriousness of the film, he’s set up many opportunities for us to giggle hysterically as you play the Spot the Demme Bud Game. Look! There’s Ted Levine! And Charles Napier! And that cross-eyed dude who fell for Jodie Foster! And Tracey Walters! Phew! He didn’t forget about Roger Corman! Even Robyn Hitchcock, the star of his last decent movie, swings by to do little but look menacing.

* Me! Me! Me! In today's issue of the Weekly, patrons can view penned-by-yours-truly write-ups of a velocepede-centric film fest (fourth down), reviews of Maria Full of Grace and Riding Giants, and, as ever, my bread and butter.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

yes, i am still breathing

Reason for the lack of updates of late: I've been gearing to move. Until I'm snug in my new digs (i.e., in a matter of hours), I'm steering clear of updates round these parts. In the meantime, though, here's the belatedly put-on links to my Weekly business: the requisite Rep column and three blurbs, two-thirds of them hate-filled, on pics in the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. (For easy reference, they're Callas Forever, The Lost Generation, and Inescapable. Not that you should only read the capsules that I penned.) Plenty spiffy site renovation, no?

In the next two days or so, expect tardy musings on things like The Manchurian Candidate 2.0, the geniusly demented British sketch comedy-cum-soap opera show The League of Gentlemen, some goopy fawning over the remastered Here Come the Warm Jets, and a quite torn reaction to Michael Moore's visceral, sloppy, pandering, journalistically dubious, genially searching, unfunny, perfectly timed chunk o' propaganda, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Thursday, July 15, 2004


* Late-breaking whack news: Scott Tobias, ace film pontificator for the Onion, has just awarded Jonathan Demme's dubious remake of The Manchurian Candidate an A-. I trust Scott implicitly -- we both foam over the same movies, it seems -- and Demme -- who like John Boorman and Spike Lee doesn't make small mistakes -- is one of the few who could possibly give the loopy original a decent upgrading. Did he find all the right topical things to put in the film? Is it just as or more exquisitely paranoid than the original? Will he over-use the people-looking-in-the-camera trick? Apart from the latter (see the trailer), no clue, and Tobias only posts comments on the Cinemasters newsgroup and in his reviews. Still, it's already leaped up as one of my top three most anticipated movies of the season. Phew. (He also said I, Robot isn't crap. In case you cared.)

* Finally! Slate's David Greenberg has become the first (I think) to compare Michael Moore to his even-more-ribald '70s equivalent Emile de Antonio, whose Oscar-nomainted 1968 doc In the Year of the Pig is still the war-comp film to beat. Greenberg focuses on one I haven't seen -- 1971's Millhouse: A White Comedy (about Nixon, wouldn't you know) -- and points out the differences between the two lefty rabble-rousers: de Antonio never integrated himself in his films, mostly relied on clips, and only sporadically indulged in jokey edits. He also leaned more to the left than Moore and, as such, was less kowtowing than Moore, ensuring that he'd become an obscurity cherished by geeks like me and not the liberal fanbase at large. Moore probably won't suffer the same fate: he's loud, simplistic, patronizing and gimmicky; in short, he appeals to the "common democrat," and may just cause some actual change. As always I'm torn: the left has never really had a howling asshole, but I'm also a fan of actual journalism, not a bastardization of same. Speaking of which: I really oughtta go patronize that F 9/11 thingie.

* The Village Voice has an interview with Joshua Marston, director of the Colombian drug mule movie Maria Full of Grace. See?! I told ya he supplies the film's sole didacticism!

* Whatever you think about Disney -- evil (but waning) conglomerate; heartless pimp to Pixar; money-hungry debaser of children's entertainment -- they're getting some cred back by issuing a slew of shorts collections, each of them packed into a shiny tin case. A perusal of the Goofy collection was an eye-opener (especially when seeing the ones in which the world consists of Goofies, satirizing sports and nicotine addiction). But for history's sake, the one to nab is Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond. The shorts on the to-be-constructed Epcot Center are mostly trival, and the short entitled Our Friend the Atom is mostly negligible. But the first disc is killer, boasting three hour-long docs on space travel that just so happened to change the world: they're mostly responsible for garnering public interest in the then-nascent space program. (Whether this is a good thing -- it's one of the most money-wasting programs the government ever spearheaded -- is up for debate.) While each one's worth looking at for Ward Kimball's witty, minimalist animation, the Mars and Beyond episode is something close to a masterpiece, moving from history to takes on each of the planets to an imagination of the fanciful creatures that could live on Mars, all while operating on full cylinders. Besides, is there anything more fun than seeing archaic takes on science?

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

a couple pointers

* Debra Dickenson wrote a pretty interesting take on the Cosby meltdown, specifically how it should come as no shock to us. As good as the piece is, I can't help feeling that Dickenson only went half-way. Cosby's knocks on minstrelsy are, of course, mostly right on (and Spike Lee has his back -- at least to a point), but it seems like he's knocking everyone who hasn't tried to subtly subvert the white man's world from within. Certainly black culture has grown leaps and bounds over the years -- hip-hop seems to have become the national music genre -- and it's all the more respectable because it's not forgotten its roots. Indeed, it grows out from it. Right now, a fusion has taken hold of the country, of which, as someone who laid the groundwork for mainstream acceptance of black culture, he should be immensely proud.

* Quasi-speaking of which, the new Roots album, The Tipping Point, landed yesterday, and the Philly outfit celebrated by playing two different half-hour sets in the city: one on South Street and another during the official release party at the miserably grotesque Northern Liberties club Emerald City. Haven't heard the album yet, but after attending each performance, I have to say they're one of the best live acts right now, if not the big cheese. (And longtime fans say they've been slowly eroding over the years. So ponder that.) Restlessly energetic, perpetually tight, graced with ?uestlove's awesomely flat-sounded drumming, they're better than any jam band, more infectuous than any rock band. And reportedly I should forgive them their shockingly crap single.

* Shameless plugs! A piece on an oddball screening of René Clair's short Entr'acte and my usual thang are only two of the pieces written by yours truly in the today's Weekly. The other seven things are blurbs of films in the 10th annual Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (or PIGLFF -- say it, it's fun), where Indiewood Queer Cinema serves as a distraction for some foreign takes and, the usual best bets, documentaries. Of these, In Good Conscience, shot by Albert Maysles and produced by HBO titan Tom Fontana, is clearly the find of the fest, while the fiction films are invariably mediocre to flat-out tedious (200 American, namely).

About the later, I can't help thinking that these films -- i.e., this new breed of ultra-low budget romances where little happens, either dramatically or conversationally -- are the true nadir of cinema. Why? Here's five indie filmmaker misconceptions, each of the sweeping generalization variety (i.e., there are exceptions -- many of them, in fact):

(1) Their characters' sexual preference automatically makes the resulting film interesting. The age-old acid test goes like this: imagine the characters are straight. Does the work still hold up? Maybe in the early days of queer indie cinema (Go Fish, et al.), this could be forgiven: they were still creating a niche in a society more homophobic than it is now. Ten years later, it's simply lazy. Besides, Fassbinder not only made interesting films with gay characters, but often worked themes about homosexuals in society into the film.

(2) Likewise, independent cinema is automatically better than Hollywood because it's more real. This is just lazy. And bullshit -- indies indulge just as often in ludicrous situations and conveniences as their mega-budgeted counterparts. They just do it on a smaller scale, and sometimes even more incompetently.

(3) We don't need competent photography, expressive acting, original dramatic thrusts or dialogue that isn't tediously mundane. People will like it because they're seeing themselves on screen. Actually, I hope no one believes in that, as it's the most condescending and shallow thing you can say about a culture. But when a film has little going for it than gay characters, it's tough not to think some filmmakers do as little as possible, cynically figuring they'll gain automatic acceptance from their brethren.

(4) People don't talk the way they do in Mamet, Tarantino or even Kevin Smith movies. Our films capture real human interaction. Which, sorry, is almost always of the tedious variety. Ever eavesdrop on a conversation? Or even better, listen to your own conversations. We're boring. Take one of the countless longwinded, low-watt exchanges from Inescapable, seen yesterday:

Character A: Mmm...This is good chicken. Did you make it?
Character B: No, Susie did.
Character A: It's very good.
Character C: Thank you. I like making chicken.
Character A: And it shows. It's very good.
Character C: I do my best.
Character B: Her best is quite excellent, as you can see.
Character A: Yeah. Good chicken.
Character C: It's all about the spices.
Character A: The spices really add to the flavor.
Character C: Sure do.

That's a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture: no one's trying very hard. Duplicating reality, just as it is with reality TV, smacks of laziness. As ridiculous as they can get, Mamet and Tarantino (and to an extent Smith) work at a higher level of creativity. Also, they're rarely boring. (Okay, Smith is, as he needs a fucking script editor.)

(5) DV has made it so much easier for anyone to become a filmmaker. Can't believe I'm saying this, but there's a strong aphorism to be found in, of all things, the wretched League of Our Own. When Geena Davis complains about baseball being "hard," Tom Hanks sagely shoots her this: "Of course it's hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it." His point is that the game's inherent toughness is what elevates it above the rest of society. But my point is: not everyone has talent. Film, like any other study, is something you have to work hard at. And 35mm is almost on par with a medical degree. You have to learn how to light, how different angles cut together, how certain fusions of angles and lighting can really sell a shot, even create something that was not there in the script. The result, when it works (and even when it works by sheer accident), is a thing of beauty, on par with the best in painting, literature and music. DV, however, has built-in limitations: depth of field is crap, actors look pasty, and when someone tries to shoot it as though it's a typical film, it's invariably looks amateur, not unlike a home movie. The best and smartest filmmakers working with DV don't try to cover these problems up; they accept them, use the limitations as their strong point. Ever sit in the front row of Attack of the Clones? Ewan's makeup is noticeable, the movement is off-putting and the whole thing looks like it was shot by some random dude who just happens to have a multi-million CGI outfit at his beck and call.

Cynically lazy, borderline incompetent, sporting negligible and incident-free plots, with dead spaces that could be called Warholian if only they featured mugging "Superstars," a great deal of Indiewood is without a doubt fathoms below the most hopelessly convoluted serial killer movie of the month. It is with existential dread that I sit through them whenever I have to. This is not to say that all of Indiewood or DIY is like this; I'm going chiefly on the films 200 American and Inescapable, as well as a couple others I've had to endure over the years. (And docs, by and large, are the exception to the rule.) I leave you with this thought, given to me by a friend: "The one thing an artist has to understand is that someone has to sit through this piece of shit."

(Then again, this is a very long rant, written from the top of my head. Calling the kettle black, no?)

Addendum, many hours later...
Feel like I should point out a couple things about this, easily my most angry tirade yet posted. First off, the get-a-thesaurus count breaks down like this:
variations on the word:
lazy = 4
cynical = 2
limitation = 2
incompetent = 2
Also, just in case people were in doubt over this entry's rant-like qualities, I went and made sure people knew I was railing against a genre of film almost no one sees - twice. What's more, I disobeyed one of my cardinal rules, given to me (second-hand) by an estimable rock critic: don't squash a fly with a sledgehammer (or something like that). I'm assuming I meant it all as constructive criticism. On the other hand, these people just ain't even trying. So, at least in this case, to hell with the fly-sledgehammer aphorism. This is the closest I'll ever come to proclaiming "Don't quit your day job," and I'm leaving it up, un-edited.

But in reality, I'm a wimp. Sorry if I offended any lo-fi-ers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

King Arthur

I'll spare you the long (and fully resolved) story, but this was a review I accidentally wrote for the Weekly, hardly realizing that my brilliant colleague Sean Burns was already all over it. After deciding it might as well be read by someone, I've since padded it out a bit, because this is my site and my site knows no word count (that is, apart from the wish to not narcotically bore visitors to tears and anger with endless yammering). The grade for the following was a "C", by the by:

“When the legend becomes fact,” goes the oft-quoted line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” Suffice to say, that’s not the most ethical advice, though Ford knew it, and there was a whole school of filmmakers - Robert Altman and Richard Lester among them - who built their careers out of defying it. In loose-necked films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Robin and Marian, legend is something to be knocked down: great deeds often stem from great accidents, the baddies are sometimes only slightly more evil than the heroes, and (especially in Lester) everyone’s a clutz, prone to slipping on surfaces and falling, in the msot photogenic way, on their asses.

All that said, what kind of beast is the supposedly realistic King Arthur? It’s surely not fact, given that the debate over who the painfully noble leader was based upon is forever under debate. But judging from the sheer ordinariness of its characters and the oodles of mud and muck on the screen, it’s hardly fanciful legend either. Instead, it plucks from random theories and hurls him into the real world, where Excalibur’s just a particularly well-crafted heirloom and Merlin’s simply some crazy dude living in a forest.

Alas, the makers of Arthur should have listened to Ford. (Or just abandoned it all together. Does no exec remember the box office returns on the similarly myth-debunking First Knight?) Striving to come up with its own legend to print, Gladiator scenarist David Franzoni craps out, devising the most tediously quotidian plot since The Phantom Menace explored the exciting ins-and-outs of interstellar trade embargoes.

Proving again that the bland movie star role is an ill-fitting one, Croupier rogue Clive Owen sleepily underplays Arthur, who when we catch up with him is in the service of the waning Roman Empire. While the English countryside is laid waste by the vicious Anglo-Saxons (led by a never more visibly hung-over Stellan Skarsgaard), Owen is enlisted to drag his band of knights - here, no more than a collection of interchangeable paunchy guys with instantly recognizable names - across the country, rescuing the wealthy from a certain lurid death.

But it’s not so much the instant forgettableness of the story that grates. While Troy was roundly chided for its lifeless historical pageantry, Arthur exponentially out-stiffs it. The director, Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, retains his position as the least irksome of Jerry Bruckheimer’s go-to lackeys. But while he appreciatively refrains from kowtowing to the macho subsection of the audience, he never fills the gaps either. There’s a genuine surreal tinge to seeing the oddball mix of Roman-Greco-meets-Englishness to the middle section, but this is still a film that all but kills its requisite comic relief (Ray Winstone, for some reason) in the second half and has Keira Knightley’s Guinevere distractingly re-imagined as the Dark Age’s equivalent of a kickass riot grrl, complete with dreamy tattoos and a penchant for rockin’ the bow.

As Arthur plods from one low-wattage squirmish to the next with nary a galvanizing character or incident in sight, it becomes quickly apparent that, take away the famous names, and you have generic historical junk, distinguishable only by high production value and the keen decision to set it in a rarely-presented era in England’s past. In other words, King Arthur is the boring-est non-stupid epic since The Alamo.


All Music, the IMDb for tune-nerds, unveiled their fancy-schmancy new look and design today, following much hyping and countdown-making. Naturally, it'll take me awhile to get used to the multi-page format -- it was always so nice to have the whole shebang be thrown at you with one click -- and there's always the nagging problem for dial-uppers like myself. Festooned with gobs of images and clever design tricks, the site takes eons to load, none too subtly hinting that I should switch to DSL but fast. Is the IMDb next on the make-over list? It's been five years since the last one...

criticism as form-filling

Let's try something different, just for kicks.

Film : The Lost Generation
Director : Jack Walsh
Year Released : 2004
Land(s) of origin : USA
Grade : B-
Seen at/because of : Home/Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Fest.
Merits : Evocative portrait of a largely undocumented part of an era, foisted upon us by a perpetual outsider; manages to be both historical and distinctly personal, always feeling like it's entirely the product of one person; uses period music (plus Sigur Ros) scantly.
Demerits : Walsh's narration (or at least the writing: someone else reads it) too literal for an otherwise hypnotic personal essay; falls apart once Walsh focuses on "letters" written to dead dad; the random images -- many of them traveling shots or herky-jerky zips across fields and such -- too often feel lazily tacked-on; unwisely turns meta- at one point, destroying the mood; ends with a glib homily.
Extra-cinematic factor : The filmmaker and I both went to the same university (albeit 25 years apart).
If this movie were an XTC song it would be : “Outside World”.

Film : Callas Forever
Director : Franco Zeffirelli
Year Released : 2004
Land(s) of origin : Italy/France/Spain/UK/Romania
Grade : D+
Seen at/because of : Home/Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Fest.
Merits : Jeremy Irons doesn't entirely ham it up as Callas' bitchy-yet-honorable manager, reading some of his more dire lines with a pleasant matter-of-factness; tunes are nice.
Demerits : Shrill, crass, starfucking "memorial" to Callas, remembered by Zeffirelli as a your stereotypical egomaniacal-but-oh-so-loveable diva; frequently interjects self-conscious techniques, hoping that the mere mention of how awful something is will have viewers forgiving the film when it goes and does it anyway; Zeffirelli still a purveyor of handsome incompetence after four decades in the biz; forcing Joan Plowright to bark such faux-Hedda Harper-isms as "This is 1977 - Satan's redundant!"
Extra-cinematic factor : “Complete Control,” which for some reason opens the film, is one of my all-time favorite Clash songs.
If this movie were a Busch Gardens (VA) attraction it would be : Whatever piece of shit replaced the Questor.

Film : The Leopard
Director : Luchino Visconti
Year Released : 1963
Land(s) of origin : Italy
Grade : A-
Seen at/because of : Home/Entertainment value; geeky completionist reasons.
Merits : Consistent fascinating elusiveness; eye-popping decor obviously intended to devour characters rather than simply look eye-popping; middle-of-the-road politics, i.e., humanity first; creating a convincing argument for doling out sympathy to rich, overly-priveleged aristocrats; Burt Lancaster a terrific actor even though atrociously dubbed into Italian, and clearly not by him (see also: Donald Sutherland, Casanova; Terence Stamp, Toby Dammit); last hour nothing but one endlessly fascinating scene that solidifies the themes and does a far better job of creating a sense of alienation in a public setting than the whole of Death in Venice, thus rendering that even more bunk than before.
Demerits : Uh...atrocious Burt Lancaster dubbing?
Extra-cinematic factor : Inspired, in a typically whacked-out way, a terrific Monty Python sketch.
If this movie were an insect it would be : A caterpillar.

Film : Before Sunset
Director : Richard Linklater
Year Released : 2004
Land(s) of origin : US/France
Grade : A-
Seen at/because of : Ritz at the Bourse/Last one a fave; never thought it needed wrapping-up.
Merits : Comes up with the best possible sequel idea for a movie that aggressively didn't require a sequel; yammering less highfalutin' than before and even more subtextual (in that they're clearly talking around what they really want to say, which they haven't figured out in any coherent way, et al.); takes place in real time this time, meaning every moment is drowning in permanence; Jesse even more predatory this time around; gorgeous, startling ending (wait nine more years?).
Demerits : Ethan Hawke takes more stock in his novel-writing abilities than anyone else; opening scene kind of obnoxious...though it literally never does nothing wrong once Julie Delpy gets an establishing shot.
Extra-cinematic factor : Sigh. Woe is me.
If this movie were a brand of rolling tobacco it would be : Gauloises.

Film : The Exterminating Angel
Director : Luis Buñuel
Year Released : 1962
Land(s) of origin : Mexico
Grade : A
Seen at/because of : Home/Philly Weekly
Merits : Everything that's stereotypically Buñuelian (i.e., rage + satire + bourgeoisie and/or religiouso + deadpan surrealism + hallucination sequence or two); sense that this is his bemused reaction to the Antonionis and Fellinis prevalent during the era; genuine despair as these cretins wither and grow mad; penchant for roaming sheep and bears.
Demerits : Shrug. It's practically diamond-cut.
Extra-cinematic factor : When I first saw it three or four years ago, wasn't the Buñuel dork I am now.
If this movie were a genus of fish it would be : Isurus.

Film : The Raspberry Reich
Director : Bruce LaBruce
Year Released : 2004
Land(s) of origin : Canada
Grade : C
Seen at/because of : Home/Philly Weekly.
Merits : Tireless energy; a sense that BLB actually kinda believes in this antisocial activism; overuses bumper sticker phrases to such an extent that their constant presence becomes a half-decent joke; mocks revolutionaries who boast bad affected German accents.
Demerits : Never fucking ends; wait! does he believe in this?...no, he can't...does he?...could he?
Extra-cinematic factor : Temporarily distracted me from conservative-v.-liberal tag team wrestling match.
If this movie were a bogus New Age study it would be : Numerology.

Film : Maria Full of Grace
Director : Joshua Marston
Year Released : 2004
Land(s) of origin : US/Colombia
Grade : B
Seen at/because of : Ritz Five/Philly Weekly.
Merits : Agreeably humanistic look at the entry level section of the heroin trade; expressive lead Catalina Sandino Moreno no mere cypher/audience surrogate; avoids didacticism as often as it can, not even ending with statistics or a hotline number; handheld photography not too handheld.
Demerits : Still too small in scope; baddies are this close to sporting handlebar mustaches and capes; must watch as characters make the occasional incredibly, really, mind-bogglingly, asininely, inhumanly questionable decisions.
Extra-cinematic factor : Moreno and Marston present at screening, the latter spouting the exact didacticism the film labors so hard to avoid making; audience member had the cajones (or, more likely, outright stupidity) to tell the filmmaker he thinks the "perfect solution" is for countries to kill all drug couriers.
If this movie were a suffix it would be : -ism.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

please please please read what i wrote

Or don't. In this week's issue of the Philly Weekly, the morbidly curious can take a gander at the following penned-by-me articles: a review-cum-love-letter-to-Will-Ferrell ostensibly about Anchorman and a very long, very action-packed Rep column. Alas, I'd love to direct you to a little jokey piece I wrote about an ultra-rare showing of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, but it just ain't on the web (along with a slew of other Listing Boxes). Your loss, not mine.

Pointless and utterly useless correction: Did I previously make a comment about my "nascent atheism"? Check that. It's actually just agnosticism with a leaning towards atheism (i.e., a celestial puppetmaster could exist, I suppose, but it still makes no sense to me). Just in case you folks thought I was sure of something.

Monday, July 05, 2004

guy named otto octavius ends up with eight limbs. what are the odds of that?

* Spider-Man 2 is, as the mostly general consensus will have it, an improvement in just about every single category over the quite damn good first. (And what's the "almost" refer to? Shrug. I'm sure there's something.) What's more, it's the closest we'll get in this age to another classic Raimi film. While the CGI's only a little less distractingly fake-looking this time around (the script keeps having Spidey go mask-less, so we know he's not always turning into a computer program when he dons the suit), there's a craftiness to the action scenes the first one didn't have. The to-be-classic hospital scene -- while mildy hyperbolized by this guy -- is giddily B-movie-ish, replete with corny on-their-lonesome shots of claws in motion and '80s era shock zooms. (In fact, see how many Darkman references you can spot. There's also a blatant blue-screened plumet shot, some destroyed genius who labors in an abandoned warehouse, and an image of wreckage falling from a tall building onto the pedestrians below.) Chabon et al. were wise to borrow liberally from Superman II. But while it does a finer job of dealing with the pangs of having a dual nature, it can't beat that one's romantic fatalism. (Though it comes close; how great is it that it's not just unrequited love this go around?) Moreso than his official bid for respectablity, this is the true, idealistic maturation of Raimi, showing he can sketch recongizeable human characters and dish out some well-needed schlockiness, often at the same time. Let's just hope that they don't follow through on the Superman films and hurl Richard Pryor into the fray come outing three.

* Written by Dennis Potter, 1982's Brimstone and Treacle is, of course, worth a trawl-through. But once again, it's evident that Potter needs umpteen hours to work with. His speciality is for making a case for ADD not being a bad thing for drama: his work weaves, dips and goes sideways, never ashamed to examine -- or at least bring up -- an aspect of his story and characters. He and director Richard Loncraine (in his Rembrandt-y lighting days) bring a palpable sense of dread to this whatzit story of a wastrel (Sting) infiltrating the home of a wounded stiff upper lip couple (Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright), but Potter, ever disappointing with climaxes, springs for the least interesting route in the close. Sigh.

* Might as well join a clique: I don't especially like Jules Dassin's heist pic Topkapi. The big finish is breathtaking enough, even if it's hardly comparable in quality to the break-in in Rififi (though some claim it's a parody of same). But only Peter Ustinov saves the build-up, while Melina Mercouri is a classic case of a director being more enamored by an actress/loved one than anyone else. ("[She's] as inviting as Medusa," is how David Thomson accurately put it.) Surely having semi-recently seen Night and the City didn't help.

* Anchorman, like Dodgeball, is junk, only half-charmingly so. A new sub-phylum? Will Ferrell seems to be on a better trajectory than almost any SNL dope; no one should be comapring it to the ouvre of the Schneider and the Spade vehicles of the world. It also made this much evident: not only will he be a near-foolproof Ignatius J. Reilly, but I can't wait to see what Woody Allen and David Mamet are going to do with him. Me=a Ferrell fan?

* Q. Why the fuck is today a bank holiday? A. Motherfuckers need a day off.

* A quick shout-out to The Skeptic's Dictionary, a rationality-prone site that ate up an otherwise dull Saturday evening. Much thanks to it for enabling my nascent atheism to take on a (slightly) more concrete form.

And, no, I haven't yet ventured out to Before Sunset...or Fahrenheit 9/11, for that matter. I'll get on the trolley soon.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

news from the parking lot behind leftfield

Apparently, Frank Gorshin and Haji -- one of the fatales who's not Tura Satana in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! -- were married today, on this July 4th. Just FYI, that.

Marlon B.

I was all set to add to the pile of Brando-memoriums when I suddenly realized something: I think the last Brando movie I saw was his last, The Score. He simply hadn't dominated my thoughts in awhile. In high school, I was your classic Brando-geek: after being bulldozered by his starmaking id-explosion (albeit Stanley's not Brando's id) in A Streetcar Named Desire, you couldn't thwart me from nabbing up On the Waterfront, Julius Caesar, Last Tango in Paris, even his occasional neutered work (or was it subtly subversive?) in pap like Guys and Dolls and particularly Sayonara. The Godfather (and its distant cousin, The Freshman) was studiously re-watched and I defended against profound disinterest the "sly" million-dollar paycheck that was his top-billed appearance in Superman. When I first watched Apocalypse Now, I spent the first two hours anxiously awaiting Martin Shen et al. to get to Kurtz's compound, then delusionally thought I had witnessed screen acting at its finest.

What happened? No clue. My best guess is I was side-tracked, and my thesp-interests made a distinct detour into loving Cary Grant, especially when he was directed by Howard Hawks. (Hawks famously attacked Streetcar when it came out, declaring that all the work he had done to minimize and de-ego-ize acting was now out the window. Surely the blame falls entirely on Brando's shoulders.) But I'm ashamed to say that my filmic travels haven't made me directly acquainted with his less-publicized work in John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn!, and the twin Arthur Penn pics The Chase and The Missouri Breaks. (The same goes for giants like The Men and The Wild One, as well as unanimously derided atrocities like A Countess From Hong Kong, Candy, and The Island of Dr. Moreau -- though a snippet of the latter was either enough or simply a tease.)

Of all the theories being tossed around on him, the closest, it seems, is the one that makes him look the most arrogant. Put simply, the man started out as a genius -- film's first bona fide Method dude, the lines originating from a twisted place in his mind before emerging in a jazzy syntax -- and then tired of being dubbed a genius. So he fucked with people -- the press, his fans. The stories behind what would become his directorial debut, One Eyed Jacks, are lurid on their own; did he really go mano-a-mano with Kubrick? But the movie out-trumps them. As Deve Kehr perfectly put it, "the most memorable scenes have a fierce masochistic intensity, as if Brando were taking the opportunity to punish himself for some unknown crime." Was it his own inflated ego? The one that knew he could pester and manipulate journalists, that perhaps felt limited by being roundly dubbed "brilliant"? It's such a limiting term, and Brando would spend the remainder of his carrer doing all he could to tarnish his thought-to-be indestructable reputation.

But that's specious reasoning. Allow me time to catch the countless open spaces on the Marlon ouevre and maybe I'll have something original to say. Sometimes a death becomes a wake-up call.

In the meantime, feel obliged to check out meatier obits, including ones from David Edelstein, Charles Taylor, Salon's collection of takes from acquaintances, and some nice words from MuseMalade.