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

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

the weekly this week

In today's paper, this is what I penned:
* A short piece on a night of shorts that feature puppets (Trnka's The Hand, Burton's Vincent, Starewicz's The Mascot, etc.).
* Reviews of the lamentable Shark Tale and Woman Thou Art Loosed. The latter has, sadly enough, been downgrading in my head ever since I dashed off the review; I feel like I was far too forgiving, even if Kimberly Elise did rather rock.
* Rep, where people can find me rather gushing over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I hate writing raves.

Sean Burns' vivisection of The Motorcycle Diaries is very funny, by the way.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

rod steiger with disorienting accents double feature

For the foaming Sergio Leone nut, the transition from 1969's Once Upon a Time in the West to 1984's Once Upon a Time in America (the post-mortum extended cut, that is) is a jarring one: how did he go from operatic (and mostly linear) bad-ass posturing to cyclical brood-meister? The fifteen year separation may explain it, but where's the missing link?

The answer is 1971's Duck, You Sucker!, though it wasn't exactly missing. It's been long available under one of its many alternate titles (Fistful of Dynamite; Once Upon a Time...the Revolution's another one), chopped down to just shy of two hours. About halfway through the 162 minutes, you get your answer.

Sucker (either Leone's best or worst title; the maestro stubbornly claimed it was a typical American catchphrase) starts off innocently enough, which is to say typical Leone: a bandito (Steiger) infiltrates a group of upper class prigs traversing the desert in a wagon and, once his gang (mostly family members) shows up, he proceeds to strip them of clothes, rape the lone woman, and send them packing. Steiger wants to rob the sizeable Mesa Verde bank and for this he enlists, by force, the aid of a motorcycling ex-IRA explosives expert (James Coburn), a loner who likes to keeps Steiger from shooting him by showing off the dynamite wrapped around his torso and the tall bottle of nitroglycerine stuffed in one of his pockets.

So far, so pulp. Alas, the first hour-and-change is one red herring. It's post-Mexican revolution, but things have hardly calmed down: banditos (read: terrorists) are everywhere, and so are the military, who look suspiciously like tank-driving, fey Nazi storm troopers. Inevitably, Steiger and Coburn -- who's prone to winsome flashbacks with ironic Ennio Morricone backdrops (the chorus chants his name) -- are swept up in it. Remember the Marx scrawl that opens the film?

Long the lost Leone -- or the one his followers never bothered watching, anyway -- Sucker! finds him finally giving into the outside world, something he had only dabbled with before. Fistful of Dollars is pure nihilism; For a Few Dollars More is more of the same, but with two nihilists and a baddie (Gian Maria Volonte, also of Dollars) made a touch more sympathetic. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has the Civil War raging on the sidelines while Once Upon a Time in the West finds a story amidst Manifest Destiny. By Once Upon a Time in America, he had retreated back to the solipsistic loner, but with a dollop of existentialim. But Sucker at least tries to meld the loner stance with a grander view. It doesn't fit, sadly -- even at an extended (but by no means complete) length, there are honking ellipses, confusing plot mechanics, and a general sense that Leone is clumsily invading mysterious territory.

But, as is often the case, a director's misfires are often more fascinating and revealing than their direct hits, and Sucker is never less than wildly interesting -- a work of sheer lunacy. Though he never outright cops to it, Leone seems to be trying to Hoover up the last couple centuries of revolutions, making a pitch to the flower generation and, inadvertently, to the current state of world affairs. Anachronicistic touches abound, while Steiger makes a sturdy claim to usurp Eli Wallach as Leone's most grandstanding Mexicano. Tanned and flailing, he's a whole lot less likeable than Wallach's Tuco, but it works, especially when sharing screen-space with Coburn's laid-back bad-ass.

Afterwards, I was ready for more -- more of Steiger, as it turned out. Earlier in the day, I had lucked into taping a TCM airing of the 1957 Sam Fuller western Run of the Arrow, which holds a rung somewhere on the Steiger-accent ladder. "Make me annoy neighbors with my cackling," I declared. Afterwards, I was more shaken to the bone than in convulsions. Adopting an accent that's allegedly Irish but more close to peanut-butter mouthed simpleton, Steiger's inaudible, almost unlistenable, as a proud Southerner who, after the Civil War ends, wants nothing to do with the new Union and hightails it out West, to join up with the injuns. That's right: it's Dances With Wolves, only with more grit and better shots. But Fuller, apart from being a dazzling filmmaker, is also a fairly astute thinker, and he creates a balancing act, always contradicting itself when you think you've got it figred out. His west, as also seen in the year's bugfuck Forty Guns, is an unpredictable place, always changing, with people learning new lessons and suffering rude awakenings. It's somewhat disappointing to see Fuller in a more somber mood, particularly after a typically gripping opening -- it's more fun to think about afterwards than to watch. And Steiger's a wash, his accent distracting and his performance a few notches away from being hollow. Ralph Meeker has his back, though.

Also, semi-briefly:
* Should've predicted the tone of Owning Mahowny (2003) from Love and Death on Long Island, the previous film from the very dry RIchard Kwientiowski. But the rewards are subtle: you're always sure the film -- the real-life tale of a gambling addict who skimmed money off his Canadian bank -- could be more uproarious, but later grateful that it always held back. (For one thing, anyone else would've fitted it with narration.) It's still a mite too compact -- would've liked to have seen more of Minnie Driver's character, for one thing -- but at least he got Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's so alienating as the centerpiece that you always want to know more about him, even if you quickly realize he'll never grant you such a service. John Hurt's a genius; whatta surprise.

* I have nothing original to say about Shaun of the Dead (2004). Nada. Nothing. Check here, here, here, and just about anywhere else. If you're tired of following links, here's the breakdown: unbelievably strong first two-thirds; slightly disappointing third; toss-off ending that wins you back. Lucy Davis: marry me. Keep eyes peeled for Martin Freeman cameo -- the two don't even make eye-contact. Eerie.

* His first foray into art-cinema, Robert Altman's Images (1972) is by no means 3 Women, but it does break even: often stupid movie take on schizophrenia; brilliant craftsmanship. Play it on big speakers if you happen upon it -- the sound design (score by John Williams, with a credit to Stomu Yamashta for "sounds") ranks among his best, with clinks, wheezes and plops that would make a fine addition to Repulsion.

* Solely for regular readers/friends, but not even for them: finally finished, after nearly two months, London Fields. Dazzling, of course, catching Martin Amis in his whirligig prime -- he never truly lives up his ambition but he always makes you feel like he's about to. Best-read (pun half-intended) as an illumination on the unreliable narrator; po-mo, for Amis, is about how people mis-read certain events, transforming it to fit their own view. Quotable ratio through the roof, though I'm sure it'd be better plowed through in three or four days than over several weeks, hen-pecked at in random intervals (riding SEPTA; waiting for screenings to begin; awaiting Melatonin to kick in during the wee hours of the night). At least I finished it...but I still prefer Money. Isn't finishing a long, difficult book the best feeling in the world? Maybe I should re-tackle Infinite Jest. Probably won't, though.

I'll refrain from talking about Cédric Kahn's Red Lights, which is quite brilliant, and just point you to the review next Wednesday. Wouldn't it be mildly amusing, seeing my problem with promises, if I wound up writing it up here anyway?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

russ, 1922-2004

Due, it's claimed, to a battle with peneumonia, Russ Meyer has died. I'm waiting for the auteuristical R.I.P.s to crop up, but luckily Roger Ebert, who wrote three of his nudie-pics (as well as the aborted Sex Pistols movie, Who Killed Bambi?), already churned out one.

Meyer is often neglected by some hardcore film geeks, basically for puritanical reasons. But he was essentially the Eisenstein of softcore pornography, with a satirical wit to match. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is very close to the apocalypse, and so subtle in its campiness that its laughs are often mistakenly interpreted as unintentional; Vixen is sly enough to make the buxom Erica Gavin (who so is an excellent actress) a foul-mouthed racist; Mudhoney builds to a mixed-feelings near-hanging; and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! needs no further words. Apart from being one of the most quotable of filmmakers ("You're a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime"), his editing was one of a kind -- a carefully-selected barrage of images that regularly topped the work of his more respectable counterparts. Can't wait for the networks to pop out in-memorium montages...

*In today's Weekly:
* An A-list on the local indie Conspiracized, over which I had mixed feelings.
* Two reviews, one of Wimbledon and an admittedly overly-anctious one of the Shawshank Redemption re-issue. (The last line sounded like a good idea at the time.)
* And Rep.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

who wants to see me make a public ass of myself?

Tonight, those in the Philadelphia area have the rare distinction of seeing me try to do a public reading, mangling over long sentences and cumbersome word clusters. Entitled Lit & Whimsy, this new reading series is an off-shoot of the Philly Weekly, with the idea being that it'll make public readings chic in this one-horse town.

The first night's theme is, appropriately, movies. Along with myself (I'll be relaying the disaster that was a four-year-old film set I was on), there's fellow film critic Dan Buskirk talking about grind house movie theaters, gossip columnist Jessica Pressler talking It's a Wonderful Life, Erik Bader's "How Rushmore Destroyed My Life," and others. Doree Shafrir, our A&E editor, will host and talk up Heathers.

Time: 7pm to 9pm.
Place: Tritone, 1508 South St.
Price: None. Booze not on the house.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

the noise of carpet

The Weekly! Today! Here's my junk:
* Today's the Annual Fall Guide and my feeble contribution to it is this round-up of recent and future DVDs. Of my choice, naturally, though since it was written a couple weeks ago, it's already gone out-of-date. I already know that the "director's cut" of THX 1138 isn't a complete wash (even if you should just watch the original), for instance, and Short Cuts is now definitely coming out in November.
* Rep. I'm thinking that the first sentence of the Witness for the Prosecution blurb is a bit hyperbolic, but at the time, it really did feel like the ultimate in auteristical restlessness. And yes, I really talk like that.

More bullet points -- A quick summary of recently-reviewed recent films, some of which are or just have screened for rich cineastes up at the TIFF (yes, I feel better):
* Wimbledon is essentially a sub-Richard Curtis rom-com, clearly written by a troupe of hacks. On the other hand, it least said hacks don't have Curtis' current brand of shamelessness. Paul Bettany ably tries the Hugh Grant schtick, Kirsten Dunst seems a bit lost and the vast supporting cast is effectively cute. (One thing, though: why can't anyone write Sam Neill a decent part? Someone far richer than I should send copies of Possession to casting agents the world wide.) Likeable and literally nothing else.
* I [Heart] Huckabees just barely holds together.
* Paper Clips is really no deeper than an NBC profile and is shameless to boot. Example A: When the train is taking its odyssey across the states, dates come up, including, pointlessly, Sept. 11, 2001. Hope you washed that hankie. (Anecdote: Similar to my Big Daddy movie-going experience, I spent the whole movie jotting down mean sentences while entirely surrounded by weeping audience members. When the credits came up, I immediately bolted, only to find that no one was getting up, so transfixed they were by the movie. Yes, I'm the bad guy.)
* Why is The Shawshank Redemption getting re-issued?

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

once again: bullet-points!

In today's Philly Weekly, interested parties can catch my following words:
* A tad too personalized reaction to the new IFC reality show, Film School,
* My bread and butter. Take that, Stanley Kramer! (Oh wait. He's dead.)

Not to make promises, but expect a post in the next couple days on the late Stan Brakhage, whose films -- at lost the mild percentage of which I caught on Criterion's nifty by Brakhage disc -- I spent the Labor Day Weekend devouring. You lucky people.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

jesus fucking christ: has no right-winger sat through all of Fahrenheit 9/11?

Last night on Letterman, John McCain -- that most rational and likeable of all GOP dudes -- explained that he felt a tinge of guilt over dubbing Michael Moore (present) "disingenuous" at the convention. However, it was not because he, like most of his colleagues, hasn't trawled through the whole thing. "I've seen excerpts," was his explanation*, a statement which has turned into the right's new mantra. How do you know it's bad, was Letterman's passive-aggressively courteous-but-probing query. "I haven't seen Catwoman," was the quip.

Meanwhile, on Bill Maher's not-completely-smug HBO show (a vast improvement over Politically Incorrect, but still...), a Republican Representative made the logic-free mistake of attacking Fahrenheit 9/11 in front of Michael Moore...then admitting he too hadn't seen the whole thing. "I've seen enough of it," he replied. (By the end, Moore, a fan of cutting people off halfway through sentences, had nearly made him implode with frustration.)

What in the fuck in my opinion. Since when is it acceptable to publicly decry something you haven't seen? Isn't it customary to begin your sentences with "I've heard that..." or "That looks like..."? And if it is (it is), then you do it casually, not punt it off as some assertive opinion. That's a smear.** The right has done a bang-up job of decrying Moore and, as usual, it's through the method of zealous repetition. Eventually, most of them admit to seeing only portions of it, but already the damage is done.

Speaking of which. the Kerry campaign seems to be in decline. However, I've noticed this might be due to Kerry not saying anything outlandish -- by and large, he keeps to the truth and backs up his knocks at Bush II. If they're not going to stoop to the Bush II level, then how about this: whore that aspect out. Tell people that you won't stoop to his level, won't mislead them through half-truths and assertions that never get backed-up. (One honking example: How long ago was it that Dubya said there were WMDs in Iraq?)

One more tangent: it was suggested to me that the SwiftBoat debacle was the right's revenge on Fahrenheit 9/11 (by, again, someone who hadn't had the basic fucking decency to see the movie -- "I've seen enough of it," was the predictable retort). Okay: unsupportable lies = the occasional neglect of the complete and total picture? Since when?

Oh yeah. Lucas didn't toally destroy THX 1138. The additions are very sporadic, though very stupid (yeah, the climactic car chase absolutely needed a kick-ass, The Fast and the Furious-style insert shot that doesn't remotely fit with the rest of the sequence). What's more, it works far better projected than it does on video: it's a lot easier to get lost in this vividly-presented world, a lot easier to forgive it its lanky script and over-reliance on Huxley and Orwell. (Definitely weird that, given the audience-friendliness of the rest of his films, this one likes to refrain from explaining most of its idiosyncratic touches.) See it on the big screen for the Antonioni-esque shot, almost all of which are done with telephoto lenses trained very tight on the action (or, as it were, non-action).

* Ironically, the author only caught half the interview, impatiently flipping between that and The Thing, which hadn't yet gotten to the good parts.

** McCain did, to his credit, cite an example: Moore's ludicrous portrait of pre-war Iraq as a pastoral land, filled with kids flying kites and folks running swap-meets and talent shows is, in fact, disingenuous. (So are a couple other things, but it mostly keeps to the facts.) He also added that Moore is a talented filmmaker, which, while nice, came off as pussyfooting in this context and something close to trying to glaze over those he alienated. There's a difference between being a "unifier" and clumsily trying to have it both ways, and McCain too often fell with a thud in the latter. Take Letterman's question about how Bush II's smears on Kerry are equivalent to what he (Bush II, that is) did to McCain back in 2000. McCain, of course, is firmly on W's side, but says he holds no ill will: "It was four years ago." Yeah, but if he pulled shit back then and is doing it again, shouldn't you logically take him to task for that? Or would that expose the man you support as the cowardly hypocrite that he is?

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

the weekly ritual (pun half-intended)

Let's resort to bullet points for my stuff in today's Philly Weekly:
* A rarity for me: an honest-to-god, entirely expository news article on the transition of the Film at the Prince program. One of the area's meatiest repertory venues will undergo some dramatic changes, with its excellent programmer, Gretjen Clausing, leaving, prompting the execs to develop a strategy about where to go next. (Or you could just, like, read the article.)
* A whopping three reviews on the terrible Danny Deckchair, the less-but-still-terrible Rosenstrasse, and the re-issue of the not-terrible-but-overrated La Dolce Vita.
* Rep. Another slow week (the cusp of seasons, you see), but there is yet still more words on Fellini, specifically Damian Pettigrew's felatio-esque doc Fellini: I'm a Born Liar. For those counting, that's roughly 800 words on il maestro.

For those who care, here's the slate: the entire run of the upcoming IFC show Film School, the "director's cut" of THX 1138, Godard's King Lear, Orson Welles' MacBeth, and the Stanley Kramer back-patting fest Inherit the Wind.

For those who care Part II: I'm stuck on page 320 of London Fields.