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

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Vote or Die

Usual drill: only two things written be me in today's Weekly. Go four Sean Burns reviews down and you'll find me blathering on about The Machinist, where you can decide what's more disconcerting: Christian Bale's 63 lb. weight drop of Jennifer Jason Leigh not hamming up the place. Also: Rep.

I'm going to try to keep this thing going, but, at least for the next month, that will be rough. See, I'm now gainfully employed. Today, I started full-time work as a temp, which means free time will be devoted to writing up stuff for work, which is not only my passion, but will undoubtedly be my sanity since I'm little more than a filing lackey (who doesn't get smoke breaks -- not that I know of, anyway). In between these, as well as countless papercuts, I'm also toying around with the sadistic idea of taking part in a novel-writing competition. The gimmick is that everyone must write 50,000 words (roughly 175 pages) during the entire month of November. The winner: anyone who meets the word quota! Whimsical, no doubt, but I've been meaning to write this novella that's been richocheting around my head and, since I live by deadlines, it seems the best course of action. I'll try and write as often as possible.

For now, I leave you with this: the same exact joke has been put forth by both The Onion (ninth one down) and the returning episode of South Park. Also, probably some dudes with bongs or some shit.

Friday, October 22, 2004

This is what we must deal with

At last! The list of Foreign Language Films submitted for AMPAS has been posted. Disappointing, as ever, for the usual reasons. Which, as we all know, are:

1) Countries may only submit one film, so...

2) They invariably submit the most wan heart-tugger from their nation's output.

3) Also, documentaries get lumped in with the bunch.

I've been informed that the number of films is down this year, from 2003's 55 to this one's 49. Additionally, Hong Kong (separate from China) has mysteriously submitted nothing.

Say something nice? Denmark submitted The Five Obstructions, while China imparted the same honor upon Zhang Yimou's The House of Flying Daggers, reported to be Hero divided roughly in half. I'm half-gunning for Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows (based entirely on a fuzzy memory of liking his After Life). Then again, try and make a list of the most impressive FL films you've seen this year. Then make a doomed attempt to find them on the list. Every frickin' year...

On the same thread, I'm finally putting up a link to Ken Rudolph, member of the FL committee nigh the last two decades-plus. Now you can feel guilty when you bash them...

Can we stop talking about my dead mother's breasts?

It's not enough to loathe -- or cackle at, or even half-heartingly love -- David Brent, the ever-combustible centerpiece of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office. It's that we each have a part -- or sometimes more than that -- of this monstrous, reverse-Basil Fawlty concoction inside us. Of course, seeing how far we can admit to such is one of the secret joys of watching the show, which ran a scant two seasons before someone had the brilliant (no, really) idea to pull the plug while things were going good. We don't care to see how we take too much stock in the petty things we do, nor that our idea of entertaining others can often times run opposite of what those we entertain have in mind. He's us at our most pathetic.

But even if that's not the case (but c'mon: admit it), by the twelfth and final episode, which aired stateside almost a year ago, we wound up caring about him, perhaps more than anyone on television. In the first season, there was nothing that could burst David's grand delusional bubble; he got off scott-free when his deplorable decision to take a promotion -- meaning most of his branch would be, in that frighteningly passive-agressive parlance, "made redundant" -- was reneged after he tested positive for high blood pressure.

But the second (and debatably better) season found him whiddled away from within and without, needlessly competing with the actually "cool and laid-back" managerial authority of Neil (Patrick Baladi), his onetime equivalent and now his boss. The new staff members greeted him not with the blank stares he often misinterpreted as adoration from his regulars, but with impatience and occasional outright hostility. By the breathless final scene, he was reduced to a pleading, weeping mess, having been made redundant himself. Suddenly he wasn't so loathsome: here was a fully-formed man, not simply a deployer of yuks (or, rather, non-yuks that are yuks in themselves). We hoped, as it was left tantalizingly unanswered, that whether or not he got his job back, he'd be turning a corner in this too-real fictitious universe.

So much for ambiguity. (And those who've yet to watch the show: spoilers are strewn about like landmines.) The Office Special is the next best thing to another season -- a 90-minute reunion (of sorts) in which three years have passed and David, who did get canned, has improved upon absolutely nothing. The fairly brilliant hook is that The Office has, in this fictitious world, aired as a reality show, making David a 15-minute star -- predictably enough, the single worst thing that could have happened to him. Of course, this being three years after the fact, those minutes have been long used up, though they did manage to re-fuel his rampaging egomania. Whether David made it only past ten minutes is never revealed -- though surely his self-released single (a dire cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and its accompanying video) must have put a damper on things but quick. You never know when David's telling the story.

The biggest -- and at least on paper, the most acerbic -- alteration is the one to the outside. For the show's run, we rarely saw the outside world, and when we did it was overcast, grim or in a bar almost as claustrophobic as the antiseptic set. Furthermore, we only saw David in David's world: he needs an audience, and they need not recipricate that desire for him to achieve fulfillment. For the first half or so, much of the Special -- which, yes, also catches up with Martin Freeman's Tim, Mackenzie Crook's Gareth (now the boss, who sees "faults" in David's system and prefers one with more "discipline"), and Lucy Davis' Dawn (she went to Florida after all!) -- plays like David Visits The Real World. See! David pester an innocent bystander at a fruit merchants for his (David's) autograph. See! David take part in nth-rate celebrity functions at bars! See! David go on a series of predictably disastrous blind dates!

This would all be well and good -- a kind of bonus feature, a treat for the fans. But the situations, much (okay, not quite, but almost) like David's deranged belief that he's a recognizable upon first sight, seem overly-milked, too familiar. The blind dates, while characteristically unnerving, pale in comparison to, say, his interview sessions from Season 1, Episode 5.* And the same goes for his bar appearances: nothing in them makes you want to bury your head into the couch, screaming in agony, as when David blasted "Simply the Best" out of a boom box, while lip-synching, during Season 2, Episode 4's motivational speech.

Then again, you could always read this as all part of the fabric: David, like the first half of the Special, is floundering. In fact, so is everybody. (Excepting Gareth, who's far too comfortable in his new digs, and, as it turns out, far easier to ignore than David. That might not have been the case had he whipped out more Spencers-style novelties, though there's a subtly eerie, telling moment when he's given one as part of a Secret Santa deal -- I told you this was an Xmas Special, right? -- and grows incensed. Has he grown past smutty jokes? Or is he trying to convince his underlings of same? Discuss.) Tim seems roughly the same, only without the daily dose of relief that is Dawn. (His new cubicle buddy, a middle-aged, pregnant bubblemouth, squeezes in some excellent material, by the way.) Dawn, meanwhile, has vocally given up drawing and has drawn a three-month free house in Florida out to three years, her neglectful fiancé Lee still ignoring her. In the grand tradition of reunion shows, Dawn and Lee are given a fairly leftfield chance to come back to Slough (for a Christmas party?!), which means that the two -- he claiming she's "out of his system"; she refusing to talk about it, so as not to hurt his feelings -- might...well, you know.

But then, somewhere during the second half, everything comes into place, turning into one of the most glorious sections of TV in years: a perpetual wish-fulfillment fantasy for the in-limbo characters and, by extension, those invested in them. For The Office's true genius isn't in the non-jokes and realistic sense of living death. It's that as the show trekked on, there was actual care devoted to these characters, who seem fully formed after only a couple episodes. Some of it's a bit too pat, and I so wish that we could've gotten to the bottom of that haughty, suspiciously snobby concoction of working class evilness that is Lee. (What did Dawn see in him? Really? There's gotta be something.) But if the Special never even tries to mimic the show's delectable blend of hilarity and horror, it's one of the most gracious things ever imparted by creators on long-time fans. What's more, you leave feeling David, while not cured, might have finally found a reason to get out of his rut. Screw ambiguity: do you really just up and leave those you love and care for? Stop by in another three years, will you?

* The author has an almost Trekkie-like obsession and knowledge of The Office. In fact, most Trekkies would wince at the number of times he's watched each episode, all under the pretense of "studying them." For what, it is not clear.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Heart Still Relatively Smashed

Quelle shoque: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry, A, as ever) still holds up, even after ten-or-so months and five viewings. Newest revlation (courtesy my astute, fuzzy-haired friend Jon): Elijah Wood's pointed, off-hand line about Carrey's post-Winslet apartment looking "uninspired." Of course, a sizeable percentage of Carrey's former digs are in his backpack, that insecure pud. "I'm glad we both know it" and "I'm building a birdhouse" still howlers. Of course.

Comparatively speaking, there's not much life in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1961, Robert Bresson, B+). But then, it's a Bresson, isn't it? The "life," so-called, is hidden underneath the surface, hinted at through the ususal progression of self-consciously monotonous action (or non-), its emotions oblique and rewarding when discovered. Bringing the compare-and-contrasts between he and Carl Th. Dreyer a little too close to the surface, Bresson takes a stab at the exact same period covered in The Passion of Joan of Arc, and whaddaya know? Both are "religious" experiences, but in the most different of ways. There's roughly ten set-ups in the movie, the film building on the repetition of trial scene (largely shot-reverse-shot) and downtime, rinse, wash, repeat, et al. But if the film's redundant on a plastic level, Bresson allows things to build -- e.g., the running subplot about people spying through the tiniest of cracks into her cell. Though frequently brilliant, Trial can't help feeling like an exercise (Bresson got his mitts on the actual courtroom transcripts), or, even worse, a brilliant self-parody, imparting St. Joan with The Bresson Treatment™. It's as though he was getting a little too comfortable with his deceptively-cold-view-of-the-world style. He rebounded pretty quickly, though. All it took was five years and a donkey. Doesn't it always?

By the way, The Office Special premieres tonight; BBC America, 9pmEST.

Oh, and way to go, Soxs.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Shameless plugs? We got 'em

In today's Philadelphia Weekly, here's what I wrote:
* A smallish article on Ousmane Sembene's latest, Mooladé, which I haven't yet seen. (Careful: nor did I let on that I did.)
* A review of The Grudge...which should also contain a review of Vera Drake but, for some reason, doesn't. Until it pops up on there, only Philly residents can take in my mostly happy reaction to Mike Leigh's back-alley pic.
* Repertory Film and Video. Apart from dueling Dracula pics, there's also words on a festival that includes Red Desert, Some Came Running, Pierrot le fou, Juliet of the Spirits, and films by experimental pioneer Harry Smith, plus disses on Nightbreed and Pumpkinhead. Also, that C+ on Bob Roberts is way too generous in retrospect.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Wouldn't You Miss Me At All?

Today, I have come to a resolution: I will no longer be coy about my sporadic obscure references. That line comes from "Dark Globe," found on the first solo album of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's much more spunky, gone-vegetable originator. (Amazingly, it took a good eight, maybe nine years for his mates to reply, in the form of "Wish You Were Here.") Why use this particular snippet? Because I've apparently gone prodigal on this blog.

Strike the first comment: I have two resolutions: I'm also going to update more, once again. Inspired by Dana Stevens' Surfergirl quasi-blog on Slate (and David Edelstein's carbon copy of same), I feel the muse descending again. Or at least I have a feeling about what to do with this site, to fool you folks into reading it more often.

A weak reason? Sure. Proceeding ahead all the same.

Currently, cinema is not my chief focus. Like seemingly everyone else, politics has co-opted my fragile little mind. Though it's now five days old, the Jon Stewart implosion on Crossfire has been at the forefront. At first, it was a fairly visceral reaction: as with the debates, part of my obsession has been the joy of seeing someone say things that no one else has been able to voice publicly. (I.e., finally, W. has to answer harsh questions he has spent the last couple years deflecting with glib jokes. And the way he would get peeved and inarticulate when faced with a particularly grisly accusation -- 'frinstance, getting into a brief showdown with Charlie Gibson? Sheer bliss.)

But something has been bugging me. It was suggested by a friend that Stewart has not simply being too modest about The Daily Show, but outright denegrating its importance in the quagmire that is current politics. To a point, I agree -- Stewart been too cosily leaning on the "fake news show" title, one which isn't even accurate. (It's not The Onion.) It's their to-the-heart satire that keeps its fans, and I include myself, skipping the 11pm news. On the other hand, what kind of topsy-turvy world do we live in when a comedy show is more trustworthy than the news or political debate shows? I'm thinking -- I'm hoping -- that is what Stewart's true m.o. is.

Meanwhile, Team America: World Police (2004, Trey Parker, B) elicits an arguably more all-over-the-place reaction than even Fahrenheit 9/11 did over the summer. Like Edelstein, I "laughed all the way through." The opening, with its hilarious vivisection of the must-destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it mentality, is literally a mini-masterpiece, while the finale features no shortage of hyperbolically grisly puppet deaths. To a degree, it's as much the barometer of contemporary American mores that their South Park movie was five years ago. But I must side with most of the lefts: is this the best you could do? Knocking down ass-hanging-out targets with a fly swatter, they devote a whopping two (2) scenes to Michael Moore, who is lampooned as fat and a suicide bomber, which isn't even incisive. And while the deaths themselves are hilarious on their lonesome, simply lining up a cadre of liberal actors and killing them off is a disgrace to their causes, and I mean that they give so much more material than that. On South Park -- a show it took me five or six years to fully appreciate -- they tackle a topic per episode and boil it down to its essence, attacking everyone with equal-opportunity glee. But with America, it appears they felt a bit daunted by their subject. Walking away from it, I couldn't help feeling they deployed only 30% of their powers. Granted, even when they're operate on 30%, they're mostly invaluable. But at least we still have The Daily Show.

Now for some house cleaning.

I'll leave the ruminations on the surprisingly solid J-Horror remake The Grudge (2004, Takashi Shimizu, B) till tomorrow's issue, when my hastily-assembled review runs. But Top Secret! (1984, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker, B) mostly lives up to its culty reputation, stuck, as it is, as the least talked-about ZAZ production. Of course, it's also the weirdest, melding send-ups of WWII romances and Elvis pics (plus, briefly and memorably, The Blue Lagoon) into some chaotic whole. It takes awhile to really get going, but if the gags aren't as rapid-fire, they're more on-target, with a second half that barely pauses for breath. I'll cherish it forever for the leftfield backwards-sequence, the Peter Cushing sight gag, the underwater bar fight, and the chimney shot, among others.

Also: whaddaya know? Three Kings (1999, David O. Russell, A-) improves with age! (Or else I'm simply more politically-savvy than I was as a junior film student.) Though it still degenerates into hand-wringing as it goes on, it's consistently clever throughout, even managing to a better job of channeling the anarchic, misanthropic netherworld of Richard Lester than Lester accolyte Steven Soderbergh ever could. (The first 40 minutes, when things are still relatively innocent, might be the most astonishing work of the whole '90s. No joke.) If Russell worked more, he'd be the true king of the young turks: less pigeonholed than Wes Anderson, more in-control than P.T. Anderson, more nuanced than David Fincher, more consistent than Wong Kar-Wai. Hell, even with his scant résumé, he might already be on top.

Finally, a quick word on Primer (2004, Shane Carruth, A-). Namely: start now. You'll need to catch it three more times in theaters before taking that class at college that shows it once per session. It's not only that it's largely indecipherable upon first viewing; it's that Carruth's ideas are head-spinning enough when you can catch them that it's no mere stunt. Unlike, say, 21 Grams -- piece together the torrid soap opera! -- there's true smarts here, and some ideas that appear inspired, not lifted, from the likes of Heinlein. Doesn't Carruth look like a more plain Hugh Jackman but talk like Campbell Scott? Weird. Distracting.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Ramones, W., Soul Plane, and everything in between

Usual Wednesday activity: In today's Weekly, here's what I wrote:
* A quick piece on a lecture entitled "The State of Black Film."
* Three (3) reviews, covering End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, Red Lights, and the dire anti-Dubya doc Hijacking Conspiracy: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire (whereforth the last definitive article?).
* The usual thing.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Harvey Pekar ♥s Hilary Duff

In today's Philadelphia Weekly, one can read the following written-be-me pieces:
* A small piece on Harvey Pekar, coming to town for the annual lit-themed 215 Festival, at which he'll talk after an American Splendor screening.
* An annihilation of the new Hilary Duff vehicle Raise Your Voice, which doubles as an annihilation of Duff herself.
* Words on Midnight, The Invisible Man, Howard Hawks', er, Christopher Nyby's The Thing and a feeble joke aimed at Philadelphia Inquirer critic Steven Rea -- all that, and less, in Rep.

Meanwhile, the debates. Which Slate pundit to chose: Fred Kaplan, who claims Edwards had a gazillion chances to denounce Cheney but whiffed on all but four (or so) of them? Or William Saletan, who posits that should you pay closer attention, Edwards tore off Cheney's limbs and beat him with them? Or how about Salon's Tim Grieve, who all but makes fun of those of us pondering over such a drab, dull, and meaningless squabble?

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

i got the job because i was so mean, while somehow appearing so kind*

Thanks to one of my rommates, which is in turn thanks to his boss for calling fellow employees when they're teeming with the cold, I spent the last couple days in a delirious, weak, and moaning state. Luckily, not only is my hobby also my job, but my job (half of it, anyway) can be performed while in such a state. Here's how I passed the time:

a) Caught just in time for its 16-years later follow-up series to debut (tonight, in fact; Sundance, 9pm EST), Tanner '88 (1988, natch) is about six hours of Robert Altman. That's right: 360+ solid minutes of even-handed misanthropy, easily-distracted pans, cacaphonous sound designs, and a dense microcosm brought infectiously to life. When you're someone who loves to drench himself in such a director's work, more is always better, right? Almost. Though sporadically smug and self-congratulatory, the HBO miniseries (written, save for the usual improv work, by Garry Trudeau) earns much by being shot during the democratic candidate campaign of its titular year, breaking down the countless processes on the fly. Strangely, it's not at its best during its most hectic (i.e., the penultimate convention episode) but when Altman's simply dropping us into the milieu, coasting on the typically relaxed banter of Michael Murphy, an Amy Carter-ish Cynthia Nixon and a take-no-prisoners Pamela Reed, as well as Matt Malloy, Kevin O'Connor, Daniel Jenkins, Ilana Levine and Jim Fyfe. Most Altmanish moment (maybe): Murphy and Nixon walk out of frame during a father-daughter stroll and Altman holds on one of the security guards, waiting for him to (perhaps!) break out of his mold. How come no one else knows Harry Anderson can be so absolutely fucking frantic?

b) The creepy-eyed kiddies chiller Village of the Damned (1960; B+) is, in case no one told you, fairly damned creepy. Cribbing from Val Lewton, it relies on suggestion and subtlety rather than cheap scare tactics (no "boo!"s as I recall), and feels plenty jam-paced at a lean 77-minutes. Even the extensive opening, the genesis sequence, could stand alone as a mind-bending short film, while the ending is clever enough to avoid being anti-climactic. Can't say the same for Children of the Damned (1963; C+), except that it manages to mostly waste a fairly unusual excuse for a sequel: now the children are mutli-ethnic and have found a way to congregate in London. The photography's better and Alan Ladel manages to squeeze in some fun (he's almost better than George Sanders), but the climax is anticlimactic this time around and the whole thing smacks of disappointing slenderness. At least they stopped while they were behind.

c) Still a film away from figuring out what he was great at (i.e., a delectable mix of high camp and profound sincerity), James Whale offers only the former in The Old Dark House (1932; B), which literally plays like Grand Hotel as populated by assorted lunatics. Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger, and Lilian Bond all congregate in a decrepit maison, and the results are as nutty, and messy, as you'd imagine. Apart from some high-contrast lighting and an opening torrent of rain, Whale can't really be bothered to do much than observe the actors; it would take till the next year's The Invisible Man for him to care about assembling sequences with shape. Even without a shape, it's hard to look away.

d) The worst and the par-for-course of Michelangelo Antonioni are up for grabs in La Notte (1961; C+), his follow-up to L'Avventura, which seems to be the effect of him reading his own reviews. Skipping the hooky plot and diving straight into the alienated brooding, the maestro focuses on the crumbling marraige of Marcello Mastronianni and Jeanne Moreau, who, in typical Antonioni fashion, wander around Rome in seemingly real-time sequences, with pit-stops that only make them feel more lonely/apart. It's ironic that, given that he's the kind of filmmaker for whom dialogue is redundant (the images, of course, speak for themselves), the best scenes feature a dying friend and Monica Vitti; the wandering-about scenes pale in comparison to L'avventura (and, really, most of his other films), with the finale being the true nadir. Best read, if at all, as his reaction to La Dolce Vita: Mastroianni in the same get-up, a writer instead of a gossip journalist, hanging out with the same intellectual-devouring people (an old aristocrat brags that Hemingway claimed he'd shoot him if he ever saw him again), only now he just wants to get away from them. It's the same character, isn't it?

e) More Antonioni! I think I need to see Red Desert (1964; B) on the big-screen before I offer my official prognosis. Accompanied by harsh wind noises and sci-fi bleeps and wheezes, Car accident victim Monica Vitti wanders (again) an alien-looking industrial wasteland, the director having fully exhausted the alienating confines of big cities. Otherwise, it's largely the same as the rest: she's searching for love, possesses a negligent husband, meets a playboy (Richard Harris, filling in for Alain Delon) who will either brush her off or she him, lots of platitude-ish yammering, et al. What makes it unique is the aforementioned setting, as well as this being Antonioni's first dabble in color: apart from chosing colors for mood, his trick, it appears, is to place a blot of screaming primary color amidst a frame teeming with grey drabness. (Best is when he abandons everything altogether, taking us into a utopian fantasy about a girl living by herself on a beach.) As for Vitti's plight, maybe being consumed by the film (which screens in Philly next Wednesday night) will make me get care.

f) According to those who know, the Vice Presidential Debate doesn't really matter; it's rare that it has any impact whatsoever in the race. Lemme guess: this year's a touch different. Catch the slick John Edwards battle mumbling, paranoid cronie (or not?) Dick Cheney at 9pm EST. Then again, you already knew that. What you might not have realized (skip if you care not about point a)) is that this directly conflicts with the first episode of Tanner on Tanner. VCR it. Or just catch it (if you're on an easterner) on Sundance West at midnight. (Pointless question: does the West Coast get East channels? Probably not, but I never wondered to ask till now.)

* The more astute of you should recognize that as one of the countless throwaway lines in "Back In Judy's Jungle," the second track on Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), which has recently undergone the fancy DSD remastering. Go buy it right now.

Vera Drake (2004, Mike Leigh) - B+

Amy Taubin is (mostly) right: pick up the current Film Comment to see the diva's ornate dissection of Leigh's latest. More later (i.e., I'm reviewing it for next Wednesday's issue), but the director's largely back on his A-game, although there's a sneaking (but easily brushed aside) suspicion that he's merely imparting his own particlar brand of genius onto a standard liberal tract. More unnervingly, it feels like Leigh adapting an abandoned von Trier script. Office geeks alert: Rowan plays a small but significant role. Jesus Christ, is that geeky.