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

Monday, August 30, 2004

punks gone to the multiplex

First off, the NC-17 awarded to John Waters' new comedy, A Dirty Shame is ludicrous. A couple shots of penises aside, the rating seems to have been earned exclusively by its "adult content," at least insofar as the characters in this film talk about sex and literally nothing but. On the flip side, the buzz floating around is mostly correct: this is as close to a classic Waters film we're gonna get from anyone these days, feeling for all the world like Shivers as made by, erm, well, John Waters**. Sure, it's a mite depressing that Waters has been making the same damn movie for thirty years, with varying budgets and success (at least he fares better on the returning-to-your-roots front than Woody Allen*). At the same time, it's been at least a decade-plus since Waters has fired on all cylinders.

A late-comer to everything mainstream these days, I finally caught up with Michael Mann's Collateral, and am pleased to say it might be the tightest thing he's ever churned out. Like Mamet (and all of his protagonists), Mann fancies himself a pro. Only thing (and this goes for Mamet, too): he's a terribly eccentric pro, as fascinated by characters as he is by their melancholy and/or existentialist moods. After two mood-fests in a row, Collateral finds Mann stripping his work down, getting the running time to under two hours and working through the same increasingly contrived scripts in which luminaries like Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann*** used to trade stock. As the ice cold hitman, Tom Cruise is effectively hollow -- with his Miami Vice suit and Harry Lime-ish philosophy, he could pass for Patrick Bateman after some a couple days of introspection and an employment switcheroo. What's more, Cruise, after a slew of navel-gazing films, has figured it out and gone elder statesman: this is the kind of mentor role to which he used to play opposite, with the maturing Jamie Foxx apparently stepping into his old shoes. As for the film itself, it boasts a strong (okay, promising) first half before growing ever silly and anticlimactic. But there's plenty of subtext to make forgiving its many lapses more or less effortless. Underneath, there's still Mann's usual woes-of-the-well-dressed-macho-man brooding, but there's also a far more interesting trail about conflicting philosophies: not for no reason did my mind sidetrack off the picture for a bit, flashing back to heated coversations I've endured with people of different takes on politics, religion, art, et al. Kudos to the great Dion Beebe for the ethereal cinematography (Beebe shares credit with Paul Cameron). DV can look aesthetically pleasing!

Quick advance buzz on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Yep -- it's Guy Maddin gone very, very, very mainstream. A visual stunner with a geekily retro vibe, it's also keen enough to boast a simple, slight, and not terribly po-mo script, with acting to match. Only problem: next to zero subtext. I'm either slightly underrating it or slightly overrating it; can't wait for the reactions, which are bound to be polarized. Me? Ever the contrarian, I'm just slightly off-center.

Lastly, the attempted plot description on the IMDb for David O. Russell's belated I Heart Huckabees goes like this:

Albert Markovski ([Jason] Schwartzman), head of the Open Spaces Coalition, has been experiencing an alarming series of coincidences the meaning of which escapes him. With the help of two Existential Detectives, Bernard and Vivian Jaffe ([Dustin] Hoffman and [Lily] Tomlin), Albert examines his life, his relationships, and his conflict with Brad Stand ([Jude] Law), an executive climbing the corporate ladder at Huckabees, a popular chain of retail superstores. When Brad also hires the detectives, they dig deep into his seemingly perfect life and his relationship with his spokesmodel girlfriend, the voice of Huckabees, Dawn Campbell ([Naomi] Watts). Albert pairs up with rebel firefighter Tommy Corn ([Mark] Wahlberg) to take matters into their own hands under the guidance of the Jaffes' nemesis, the French radical Caterine Vauban ([Isabelle] Huppert).

The. Fuck. Who did Russell blow to get $20K on what looks like a mainstream version of Schizopolis? (That is, unless, as I suspect, it gradually morphs into a heart-warming parody of New Age-isms. Please let this not be the case.) Catch the quotable-festooned trailer here. Do it.

* Shoppers alert: one can purchase a box set of Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Anything Else for the desperate price of around $25.

** As per usual, the author assumes that everyone else shares his own experiences and knowledge. Shivers, made in 1975, is David Cronenberg's proper feature film debut, in which the denizens of an ultra-modern apartment complex are infected, one by one, by a tiny slug creature that renders its victims hypersexual zombies. Which means: love-in.

*** The author already made a joke about their surnames in one of the comments boxes. It is a considered theory that he correctly realized that's one too many.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

shameless plugs

I'm in a bit of a rush today, so maybe tomorrow I'll dash off a few words on Some Came Running and The Mystery of Picasso, and maybe even some words on the to-be-seen She Hate Me. Of course, I shouldn't be promising anything: that Ultimate Film Fanatic post doesn't appear to have been written-up.

Anyway. In the Philly Weekly today, folks can find me blabbering about a Monster Movie Con(vention) and doling out a relatively tiny Repertory column. Back to my breaking of promises: no reviews of Danny Deckchair and Stander this time around. Due to the whimsies of distributors, the former has been pushed back a week and the latter has been given the maybe-not-even-open-at-all treatment. Manhattaners: did it bomb in New York?

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

bored. bored bored bored bored.

I'm sitting here, impatiently awaiting an interviewee to call me back (maybe -- the receptionist seemed needlessly confused). To kill some time (and to bulk up my blog's girth), I figured: why not, like, update? While I still haven't seen anything new, I've been a sporadic video watching fool. What better to way to while away the year's most useless month than to live in the past, especially when you have little but moths in your wallet?

Firstly, there's The Naked Spur (1953), arguably the best-known of Anthony Mann's westerns, including the five done with James Stewart at the forefront. If the others -- Winchester '73, The Man From Laramie, et al. -- are remotely similar, then those catching the Mann series in Manhattan are having a ball. The idea is baldly theatrical: throw five characters together and watch them feud, get the upper-hand, and generally manipulate eachother. Stewart's ostensibly the lead, playing a farmer-turned-bounty hunter who's quite incapable of catching alleged-murderer Robert Ryan in for a hefty reward. But the film's mostly an ensemble piece, with Stewart and Ryan vying for screentime with Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell, and a jean-sporting Janet Leigh. Ryan's techinically the worst of the bunch, planting seeds of doubt and conspiracy among the rest. But Stewart's not far behind him -- he takes the desperation of his It's a Wonderful Life turn to a bald, primal level. Despite keeping things entirely outdoors (excepting an interlude inside a cave), Mann's work is subtly claustrophobic -- a chamber piece with constantly shifting loyalties.

More likeable-but-non- characters are on display in Showgirls (1995), which I have to say I like. Not even in a campy way: I like this movie - genuinely, sincerely, not tragically, but without much hesitation, either. Nine years removed from its origins, it's a lot easier to see Paul Verhoeven's intentions: the gimmick appears to be to take a tried-and-true melodrama -- a little All About Eve here, a little A Star is Born there -- and marry it to a retro view of Vegas. Apparently pre-family friendly, the place is an unapologetic cesspool of strip bars, glamorous nudie dance shows, and slimy execs, all done up in gharish neon and tacky miniature faux-landmarks. The nudity is, of course, non-stop, and quickly deadening: ten minutes, unapparelled bosums are as regular a fixture as, I dunno, floors and walls. You could dedicate a year's worth of essays to the craven, kneejerk way critics and audiences responded more to the prurient aspects of the film than to the actual content. But, as noted in Charles Taylor's characteristically half-smart, half-kinda-arrogant rant, it's also one of the few (maybe only) melodramas where the bad girls are never forced to repent the delirious wickedness of their ways. It's true: you can enjoy it for its campiness or seriously. Or almost -- there's no way not to crack up when a self-described "prick" utters "I'm erect. Why aren't you erect?"

I'd like nothing more than for Danny Deckchair (2004) to just go away. The warning signs are multitude: a wacky Australian comedy; a wacky (and quirky!) true tall tale about a guy who successfully flew after tying balloons to his lawn/deck chair; oft-brilliant Welshman Rhys Ifans forced to sound Australian; did I mention the wacky Australian comedy thing? But it can't even fulfill those noxious promises. Instead, it's an aggressively warmhearted, slight semi-yarn, not even broad enough to be annoying. As you watch it, you feel it shooting directly through your brain and out your ass. At least I remember Love Serenade...

On the other side of the continuum, The Boy With Green Hair (1948) slowly sneaks up on you. A fable of sorts, this early Joseph Losey effort tells another tall tale: a war orphan (Dean Stockwell, in his child-thesp years) wakes one morning to find his hair has turned a punkish color. Is it a metaphor? Sure -- but apparently for many things. Often times, it's branded an anti-war film, most likely due to a couple soapbox rants. But what about its takes on society, racism, fatherhood, even elementary school hang-ups? It's possible to read whatever you like into it (and a friend posited that, since Stockwell tells the story after his head's been shaved, he might be a cancer victim who's invented a fabrication). Then again, you could always groove on its uneasy fusion of gritty realities and fable-like insanity.

Lastly, Deathdream (1972) is a find: one of those horror movies, like Martin, where the shocks and thrills are all at the service of a potent social satire. Vietnam is the focus of this Bob Clark production, with the Monkey's Paw schematic being twisted around so it's now about a deceased soldier who's parents wish him back to life. It works, naturally, but he's still dead -- or undead: zombie-like, smugly non-responsive, and, oh yes, a murderer. The movie itself practically works by rote, but Clark's a sly one: he subtly throws in an Oedpial complex, seen entirely from the mother's point-of-view. In the end [SPOILER, natch], there's a very unnerving moment when poor deluded mom denounces her husband and daughter so that she can hang on to her literally decaying boy.

Also The always-reliable Ryan Wu has a thoughtful reaction to the SwiftBoatLiar (as it's now apparently called) deluge, as well as a kitten kaboodle of links to other takes. Once again, it's safe to say Bush II is the most transparent liar to ever take up office, even if his fibbing has taken on a tacit quality.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

everybody knows more than i

The truth: I'm poor. So very, very poor. So very, very poor, in fact, that I'm criminally behind on my movies. Though this is of interest only to those with whom I go to movies, here's a rather daunting selection of what's on my to-see list (in even more pointless preferential order, no less):

01. The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass)
Reasons behind going: Liked Number One alright; sequels this summer appear to be one-upping their predecessors; any action movie that gives people migraines sounds bitchin' to me; Joan Allen as the baddie.
Hesitations: None, really. Almost ashamed to say this is number one.

02. Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano)
Reasons for going: Kitano unleashing his deadpan, nigh-Tatiesque style onto the Zatoichi legend; like bloody samurai films; missed The Twilight Samurai.
Hesitations: Like his style, don't always respond to his films. Expecting a mixed reaction.

03. Collateral (Michael Mann)
Reasons for going: Fairly strong word of mouth, even though most everyone says it becomes increasingly silly; looking forward to strong use of DV; Foxx and Mann work well together.
Hesitations: Mann's woes-of-the-well-dressed-macho-man leanings tend to grate on my nerves.

04. We Don't Live Here Anymore (John Curran)
Reasons for going: Again, fairly strong word of mouth; Mark Ruffalo's the man, and Peter Krause ain't far behind him; actually, Laura Dern's better than the other two; Curran's last one has a rep.
Hesitations: Isn't this just Your Friends and Neighbors?

05. She Hate Me (Spike Lee)
Reasons for going: Strictly morbid.
Hesitations: Universal derision, with anger directed towards: a mysoginist taking aim on lip-stick lesbians; an Enron satire that suddenly becomes a humorless sex comedy; bloated length; the notion that no one wants to impregnate Monica Belluci.

06. Garden State (Zach Braff)
Reasons for going: Back to the strong-word-of-mouth reason; Peter Sarsgaard is quickly becoming one of my favorite character actors; judging from the trailer, Braff has an eye...
Hesitations: ...which is borrowed wholesale from Wes Anderson; also, doesn't it look so...cute?

07. Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom)
Reasons for going: Samantha Morton; comparisons to the lo-fi future shock of Alphaville; Winterbottom, who churns films out at a near-Fassbinder-esque clip, occasionally hits big-time.
Hesitations: He usually doesn't; wan word-of-mouth might wind up in a video rental in six months.

08. The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott & Mark Achbar)
Reasons for going: Apparently visually interesting; hey, I don't like corporations, either!
Hesitations: After a wall-to-wall day last week of watching lefty docs, I need a long, long, long break.

09. Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess)
Reasons for going: Scott Renshaw says it's funny.
Hesitations: Many disagree; see: Garden State.

10. Open Water (Chris Kentis)
Reasons for going: Kinda hoping for another Blair Witch; preys on a fear of mine.
Hesitations: According to almost everyone, it's so not another Blair Witch.

11. The Village (That Philly Dude)
Reasons for going: Sheer curiosity.
Hesitations: If the mainstream public doesn't like it, and I don't like M. Night, then...

Truly, this is the farthest I've ever been behind on movies. If you know me, give me a call and force me to go to any of these.

* My work in this week's Weekly include: a piece on the area's Lost Film Fest and more stuff on same in the usual thang, which also includes stuff on Millhouse: A White Comedy and Shakes the Clown. Next week, expect words on lesbian vampire movies, Stander, and the to-be-seen-tonight Danny Deckchair.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

rapid-fire egomania

Today's Weekly: an A-list on Christo and Jeanne-Claude films; a review of the long-awaited hippie-era concert movie pastiche Festival Express; Repertory. "Enjoy"!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

a vacation on my couch

Okay, back. How’re you? You look great - thinner. How’s it feel to be thinner? Of course that compliment wasn’t backhanded. Calm down -- let’s have a seat. I'll roll you a cigarette.

I’m all about typing up a rant-y vivisection of the long-awaited IFC game show Ultimate Film Fanatic. Just not yet. As for now...well, some folks take longwinded treks elsewhere during the summer. Me? I stop updating my blog. I have watched gobs, though, most of which I’ll tell you about now.

* Shakes the Clown (1992) and Wet Hot American Summer (2001): similar only because I watched them back-to-back? Both are cult items shanked by nervous distributors and disapproving critics; both aren’t, strictly speaking, terribly funny, either. Summer -- basically a The State movie, given Michael Showalter’s writing credit and the presence of numerous cast members -- at least has a higher line-for-line quotient, even if they’re often simple subversions of stock lines. (“Why don’t you dump her?,” asks nice guy Showalter to asshole boyfriend Paul Rudd. “No, dude, she’s hot,” he casually replies.) Rudd’s the genius of the lot, with one scene that’s sincerely troubling in it’s back-and-forth of extremes (“I love you...Fuck off, dyke...Of course we’re soulmates...”), but the whole thing is simultaneously spotty and all-around genial. The butt-fucking scene is plenty shocking, but I much preferred the leftfield heavy-drugs montage. As for Bobcat Goldthwait’s baby, as they say, it’s not funny, but it’s...interesting. A dry run for both Bad Santa and Freddy Got Fingered, it’s drunken-clown gags mostly fall flat, but there’s an almost fascinatingly sincere portrait of miserablism, too. Bobcat never indulges in his patented raised voice, suggesting that since his heyday he’s fallen into pathetic depression. Does the clown -- which the film reveals he’s good at -- represent his ‘80s schtick, this rather seedy film representing his true feelings (like Andy Kaufman resenting his turn on Taxi?). Almost fascinating...but then, the second half’s a pretty wan murder tale, even if it does have future Mr. Show bit player (and longtime Bobcat pal) Tom Kenny stealing the show as prick clown Binky. It’s cool enough to inspire a R.E.M. song (the terrific “Binky the Doormat”), but also not very cool at all.

* Far more than a noble (and almost entirely successful) attempt to make a Grizzled Old Man Movie by a man who’s still not a grizzled old man, Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) -- previously unseen by me for reasons too impenetrably illogical to delve into -- feels at times like prep work for the similarly character-driven Last Temptation of Christ. Tom Cruise plays second banana to Paul Newman’s now-withered Eddie Felson, but Newman’s not only trying to teach Cruise to avoid mimicking his younger self. It’s the rare mentor film where the lessons are cynical: here’s how to con, how to make throwing a game into as much of an art-form as winning, how to keep other poolsharks from fearing you. The whole film is structured as a series of calm then release, looking plain and controlled then letting loose into the usual visceral Scorsese hijinks (as with Raging Bull, each session varies in approach, each a masterpiece of editing and photography). The story’s nigh-archaic, though Scorsese and scribe Richard Price throw in enough monkey-wrenches, always subverting clichés so that even the preordained climax winds up in a different place than you’d predicted. Inevitable Scorsese thought: that slow-mo ECU of chalk shattering off the cue is the best shot ever.

* Worth looking into: does Brian G. Hutton’s Where Eagles Dare (1968) have cinema’s highest body count? Somewhere between a post-Bonnie and Clyde nihilist’s delight and an endlessly transcendent experience for die-hard Third Reich-loathers, this Alistair MacLean-penned actioneer (cf. two movies with the word “Navarone” in the title) finds Richard Burton and a newly-returned Clint Eastwood mowing down rows and rows and rows of Nazis, either in or surrounding a dank and cavernous mountaintop Bavarian castle. Written off by the brilliant Dave Kehr as a “routine war adventure,” it’s actually the opposite; in fact, it’s so absurdly stripped-down that anything that could get in the way of pure plot - psychology, character arcs, thematics, nuance, et al. - is roundly eschewed. Hutton’s a clean director - his film is handsomely grandiose without ever feeling bloated, not to mention spatial relations are just fine - and MacLean, writing directly for the screen, is keen enough to not have his characters perpetually explaining the pre-Mamet-y twists and turns (i.e., expect annoying “Why’s he doing that?”-type mid-movie queries). Wouldn’t you know that Burton would turn out to be the most badass of the Shakespearean trained thesps? Even Clint looks vaguely intimidated.

* Didn’t catch the first five minutes of Dan Aykroyds infamously dire pet project, Nothing But Trouble (1992), so I can’t put it on the list. (Nor did an impromptu re-viewing of the similarly amorphous Bringing Up Baby soon afterwards help matters.) But from what I did see, probable claims of Aykroyd’s that it’ll one day become a cult item would be delusional, if not outright insane. Indulging in his “dark side,” Aykroyd proves himself a relatively safe thinker, or at least one that never follows through on his meatier hooks: the roller-coaster-of-death is too short to warrant any eeriness, and the greasy fat guys who pop up out of nowhere are introduced then given so little to do that you’re bound to forget about them a couple days later. Flat, never more than “sorta weird,” and besot with four endings too many (each of descending quality, to boot), it at least has something to it: are Aykroyd et al. punishing Demi Moore (trying to chop her up; having her held over molten lava; seducing on an on-autopilot Chevy Chase) for some unknown crime? Jesus.

* If all you know about the environmental artist Christo is that he likes to wrap famous landmarks in fabric (or that Mr. Show claimed that he had Imminent Death Syndrome), then you probably think him a whimsical piece of Eurotrash. One of the many services performed on the Albert Maysles (and friends) films in the box set 5 Films About Christo + Jeanne-Claude is showing him to be anything but: often seen with a hardhat, he’s actually all business -- eloquent, down-to-earth, and never open to discuss his art in highfalutin’ descriptions. (“Beautiful” is his favorite, and only, adjective.) Like the Andy Goldsworthy doc Rivers and Tides, the films also act as logical ways to document C. and J.C.’s installation pieces, finite works that remain up for three weeks tops. But then, just as important as the completed works themselves is the preproduction period: it takes years, sometimes decades, for them to put them up, and the films -- with the typical Maysles direct cinema style -- are more content to show them dealing with government higher-ups, locals, construction workers, etc. for pieces that can seem money-wasting at first but appear transcendent once in full-swing. Of course, if only all of their antagonists knew Christo had IDS...

Of course, I’m into other stuff. It looks like ten attempts to plow through London Fields is the charm, I suddenly like the outdoors again, and I’m finally -- finally -- developing a taste for whiskey. See? You couldn’t care.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

a quick one while he's away

Or not away -- just too lazy to update right now. In the meantime, fresh from the pages of the rag for whom I write, here's this.