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

Thursday, March 31, 2005

tardy plug that is shameless

Just this. More later when I'm no longer exhausted, days behind schedule, and prone to whine about how I'm exhausted and days behind schedule.

Friday, March 25, 2005

two lousy movies for the price of one

A couple pointers:

* Churning 'em out a year-and-a-half apart nowadays rather than the usual 12 months, Woody Allen is at such a low ebb with Melinda and Melinda that a mere drive-by blurb can't do justice. Drab, flat, and, more than anything else, positively depressing, I think I'll tackle it -- and, more to the point, Woody -- via a Sontagian point-by-point offensive. Is this what it felt like during his Bergman period? (A: No, because that only lasted two or three years and there was always hope of recovery. I don't smell a Crime and Misdemeanors around the corner.)

* My paper's siamese twin, the City Paper, has a fairly interesting article on the 31st Annual Convention of American Atheists, which will be rolling into Philly over the Easter weekend. Their claims of being a "minority" are a little overstated, but not without their pointers. Perhaps I've just been lucky, but by and large I've encountered little bigotry, excepting the occasional lengthy debate when people find out I think a superior being is entirely man-made. (Which, yes, isn't even really bigotry, so what's my point?) I won't be attending; instead I'll be comforting my parents by attending an Easter brunch. Speaking of which, Sunday's my birthday. Just FYI, that.

* The Office, American-style, predictably stinks to high heaven, and I'd be shocked if the flaccid, choppy, rhythmless proceedings last more than its allotted six episodes. If nothing else, it really makes you appreciate (or rather, even moreso) the original: one of the BBC version's secret strong points is its sense of living death, the long stretches of tedium interspersed with random nuttiness that it nails so effortlessly. Perhaps the show just doesn't plain work in 20 minute stretches; those missing ten minutes turn out to be necessary. Steve Carrell is game, not even trying to ape Ricky Gervais' schtick, and is solely responsible for any and all guffaws that the show invariably pulls off. But the rest of the cast is a waste, with much hatred extending to the stand-ins for Tim and Dawn: John Krasinki's your sub-standard slacker with zero comic timing and Jenna Fischer has wildly reinterpreted her character as a meek bubblehead -- how come she's getting so perkily excited about marrying her dopey boyfriend? My Dawn never did that. More or less, it plays like a high school rendition of same, mucking up some of the original's stronger bits, such as Gareth's freak-out when David's about to announce the possible redundancies. (The names, by the way, have been changed.) And of all the first episode's moments, why nix the throwing-out-the-stapler bit but keep the batshit stapler-in-jello one, a tougher bit to pull off (which this cast predictably can't). Good job picking Scranton as the setting. See Dana Stevens for a nicer, but not much more so, take.

* Speaking of Slate, David Edelstein loves Oldboy. I'll have to wait till the PFF to see Park Chan-wook's purportedly brutal revenge saga, but I got more pumped after taking in Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance last weekend. Very South Korean -- i.e., unfocused but amiably so -- it slowly, logically builds to 45 straight minutes of vengeance, where each main character (ACK! SPOILER ALERT!) both a) takes part in a grisly murder(s) and b) is grisily murdered themselves. Still, it's not quite nihilistic: there's a humanism to it, giving each character some moment of sympathy (ha!). Even the kidney-scamming mamma gets a couple moments.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Marx and Coca-Cola

The stuff I wrote for today's edition of the Weekly includes a review (second one down) of the Masculine-Feminine re-issue, a film dear to my collegiate heart that ages in rather interesting ways. And, as always, there's Rep.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Initial Thoughts on the Fest

I said this last year and I say it every year: the Philadelphia Film Festival is all I got. Usually strapped for cash, far too busy, and still stuck with that irrational fear of travelling alone, I must sit and wait for April every year, biding my time poring over Film Comment round-ups, studying and memorizing titles in other people's journals and then hoping that the right films will be chosen. And that few of them will coincide with one another.

Because it's getting better and better, PFF 14 has a good deal of these. And yet, whether it be because of scheduling problems or something deeper within the organization, it's not enough. Page after page of the new brochure boasts strangers, with the occasional landmine littered here and there (but not everywhere). Shouldn't grumble, I suppose. (There are a ton of goodies.) But how come Tropical Malady is nowhere to be found and yet there's something called Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World?

Or, for that matter, how come Artistic Achievement Award Winner Malcolm McDowell (!!) is being honored with A Clockwork Orange rather than something not everyone can recite from memory? (O Lucky Man!? Brittania Hospital? Maybe Royal Flash?) The answer appears to revolve around finances. Every year, the PFF both grows and becomes more pandering. Two years ago there was an avant-garde group. But the films played low and tested even lower. And yet aren't those exactly the kind of films a film festival should be highlighting, even if only a few attend and even fewer appreciate it? Chances are de Oliveira won't be asked back again after the putrid scores for last year's A Talking Picture (the ending of which caused audiences to cackle uproariously, then complain loudly). On the flip side, the absolutely vacuous, tediously dull Norweigan comedy ranked up near the rafters, so this year's undoubtedly features more of the same. So much for garnering international prestige.

At least a quick glance suggests the curators haven't been studying Chris Gore's insidious tome. This year's opening film looks more promising than last year's dopey Sly-card-shark pic Shade (though the same can't be said of the title: Ferpect Crime, by Spanish nutball Alex de la Iglesias). And the closer, the Philadelphia Orchestra doc Music From the Inside Out, ties in with the city without seeming desperate, as does the presence of West Philly's Scribe Video Center, lugging out their excellent "Precious Places" project. Also, need I salivate any more about the redux of The Big Red One finally making it here?

So, to end on a positive note, here's what's going on:

Choice snags 5X2; The World; Clean; Kings and Queen; Mysterious Skin; Bear Club; The Holy Girl; Woman is the Future of Man; McDull, prince de la bun; Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinématheque; The 10th District Court, Moments of Truth; Oldboy; Izo (plus One Missed Call, too -- Miike always plays better in pairs)
Less excitable ones Me and You and Everyone We Know; Land of Plenty; Palindromes; A tout de suite; Cool!; The Promise; House of D; The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
Haven't heard, but sound nifty Genesis; The Return of Cagliostro; The Car; R-Point; Marebito; Rittenhouse Square
Solid retro I Know Where I'm Going!; The Big Red One; Putney Swope; Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur's 1920 The Last of the Mohicans

Thursday, March 17, 2005

My bread, but not my butter

Weekly stuff, posted belatedly: just this. Inevitable correction: the 1971 Ateyyat El Abnoudy doc is actually called Horse of Mud, not the printed House of Mud. Only one letter off.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Where 2004 never sleeps...

A couple more stragglers, with still more on the way:

Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg)
The difference between this largely faithful Buzz Bissinger adaptation and Remember the Titans is the difference between journalism and soft-eyed platitudes. Not everything that should be touched upon is, but definite traces of it pop up in spurts: instead of delving into the crippling socioeconomic climate of Odessa, TX, Berg -- far, far, far away from Very Bad Things -- lets the dilapidated houses and lack of upward mobility say it all. (The best scene: dirty guy gives Lucas Black your standard let-me-take-a-picture routine, before playing a bizarre prank on him. Then we see he’s wearing a championship ring.) That’s why I’m not so sure there is, as hinted in the A.V. Club, a director’s cut out there somewhere: it’s all about quick glimpses, minute dots that add to the big picture. Glad, too, to see a football movie where the m.o. is clearly about doing your best, even if that doesn’t result in winning (a soft spot for we Philly-delphians given the last Super Bowl). Even more glad about the inclusion of a scene whose entire purpose is to show the racial difference between our team and the other -- exactly the kind of scene that’s the first to go in the paring-down process but adds immeasurably to the film’s scope. Grade: B

I, Robot (Alex Proyas)
Requires you to completely disavow any knowledge of the Isaac Asimov source (and Asimov, too) to enjoy even a little, though the movie itself doesn’t help. The brains-to-brawn quotient is roughly 15-85, with the heavy questions -- where does the body end and the consciousness begin?, et al. -- dropped like chocolate sprinkles on a curdled sundae. Throw in the latest arbitrarily labyrinthine mystery -- where’s the era’s Chandlers and Hammetts? Is Hiassen any good? -- but, on the other hand, at least it’s not entirely devoid: there’s just the right amount of attention paid to the irony of a black character being accused of prejudice for it to not be an accident -- or for that matter a distraction from the video-games-you-can’t-play vibe. Will Smith’s not bad either, making the most of the Akiva Goldsman-written one-liners and pulling off a more smooth than ever transition between Action Man and Quip Man. (He also underplays his big monologue to somewhere approaching, but not quite getting to, the hilt.) Didn’t realize Edelstein thought this, too, till I read his review post-watch, but I was convinced Le Twist was that Bridget Moynhahan was a robot. Lo and behold, she’s just a block of wood with perky breasts. Had I seen The Recruit I might have known that. Lesson: don’t watch The Recruit beforehand and you’ll be genuinely surprised by an even more asinine twist. Grade: C

p.s. (Dylan Kidd)
Kidd apparently took those harsh words about the rocket-in-pocket shakiness of Roger Dodger to heart, ‘cause sakes alive! He’s got himself a tripod this go around. This technical switcheroo -- jarring to say the least from an auteuristical standpoint -- does nothing to his love for hearing smart people talk smart. (Or in Topher Grace’s case, and at least for the first half, hearing smart people talk dumb -- “That was fuckin’ awesome!” now being one of the great post-coital lines.) But it has, apparently, done something to his choice of scripts. Dodger wasn’t much of anything when you cut into it, but its simple trajectory was the perfect clothesline with which to hang an endlessly loquacious cast. Here, he tackles a particularly ambivalent member of the chicklit catalogue -- is Grace’s doppleganger for Linney’s dead high school boyfriend a case of the metaphysical? new age twaddle? just a coincidence? or all of the above which by the way is pure cheating? -- and fumbles big time...but not before delivering a heck of a first half-hour, promising a perceptive little character study and delivering a instant entry in the best sex scenes of all time. (It just happens, he fumbles for the condom, Kidd lets it play out in real time, etc.) Linney’s typically Linney and Topher’s pretty damn Topher. Grade: C+

Cellular (David R. Ellis)
Just plain nifty, really: one awkward expository scene and it’s off, never looking back for stuff like, for starters, the presence of a telephone in an attic. Not much else to say but this: William H. Macy wearing a face mask. Grade: B

Good Bye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang)
Lots of theories going around on what exactly Tsai’s doing signaling the death toll for cinema -- not to mention making a classic autumnal film at 46 -- and the closest I can come up with is the result’s a fairly cranky reaction to the DVD age, where people use theater-going experiences to test out future Best Buy purchases, if they go at all. (Not that any of this is acknowledged in the film, but it’s the kind of hyperbolic postulating that Tsai’s bare bones movies tend to encourage.) A bit of an average, my grade, basically because I was torn between the tut-tutty message and the hypnotic fashion with which said message was delivered, and figured it comes out a little lopsided. As ever, Tsai’s shots are both redundant and isolated mini-masterpieces: the shot/scene of our gawky quasi-protagonist dealing with first a stranger’s feet on the back of his seat and finally a woman loudly munching on food doesn’t add up to much more than the annoying-ness of inconsiderate fellow moviegoers, but Tsai’s timing is on par with Tati. I’m not the kind of guy who berates Playtime for it’s one-note technology-is-evil tirade, so I’ll extend the same to another of my favorite filmmakers. The final ten minutes, particularly, put it above the old mixed grade: whatever its signaling, it’s the end of something personal, fading ever so gradually into the fog. Grade: B

Ray (Taylor Hackford)
Utterly useless as a biography; close to priceless as a parade of euphoniousness. Lesson: Biopic-makers, chose good musicians to lazily iconicize. Okay, I can’t resist: Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx, not quite going beyond mimicry) meets a stranger on the street tooting a horn, the two hit it off, Ray asks him his name and he casually replies, “My name’s Quincy Jones.” A theater of people go “hmm...!” Grade: C+

In Good Company (Paul Weitz)
Humanistic to a fault. Weitz lets nascent corporate tiger Topher Grace off the hook within five minutes, causing him to pussyfoot when it should, could be digging to the heart of capitalism. It’s like being set up with a bravura slam dunk and taking the boring two pointer instead -- and missing. Still pretty amiable, for what’s left, but I seem to remember that at least American Pie let the guys be cretinous idiots and About a Boy allowed for many prickish moments from Hugh Grant. This is a stepdown, even with a soulful Dennis Quaid and a couple more quotables from Mr. Grace. By the way: Clark Gregg, at least the actor, is the man. (See also: State and Main, the sadistically uplifting final two episodes of Sports Night.) Grade: B-

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Custom Car Commandos [sic]

Weekly plugs: this and this.

The latter comes with a joke about Teresa Wright. Imagine my embarassment -- and sadness -- when I jumped on the IMDb last night, only to find she died Sunday. I was always a fan of hers, especially her younger performances: she holds her own amongst the heavy-hitters in two of William Wyler's more spiked efforts, The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives. Hitchcock, though, was the one to put her to the best use, pitting her against/with Joseph Cotton's hiding psychopath in Shadow of a Doubt. Her resume looks, at a quick glance, a bit checkered after that, excepting "Avec la participation exceptionnelle"-style appearances in Somewhere in Time and (Coppola's) The Rainmaker. (Plus Guiding Light for a season.) But she was one of the best go-to young adults in movies -- curious, ready to be deflowered, and always alive.

Weird discovery of the week: in the collector's book for the I ♥ Huckabees DVD, there's a layout of Tommy Corn's Blogspot blog. Wouldn't you know? It actually exists. Predictably, whoever was keeping it up -- David O. Russell, surely -- bailed after the movie came out, but it's nice to know it's out there.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Purple Prose

(So I had this idea. As I never ever ever post these days, I'm going to jot down a couple -- or, as evidenced here, a tad more than that -- words on each old or new film I see. Taking a cue from Theo the Great, I'll spend a mere 15 minutes on each, forcing myself to organize my thoughts with a faux-deadline looming. Speaking of which, I may swing by to re-edit these fuckers should they wind up super-messy, which is bound to happen, and might very well have happened with entry one. And away we go...)

Billion Dollar Brain (1967, Ken Russell, UK)
Someone described this third (and last, theatrically anyway) of the Michael Caine Harry Palmer movies to me as a spy pic with absolutely no center, which is mostly right -- though in this case it’s more like everything’s at the center, each strand simultaneously superfluous and a keystone. Kept off the home video circuit due to issues with its too-brief use of “Hard Day’s Night” (though its dire reputation probably doesn’t help), it’s the definition of episodic, endlessly jumping from one thing to another: starts off with Palmer, having previously extricated himself from the M6, delivering a package of dubious eggs to Helsinki (!!) and slowly ascends (or devolves) into a faintly unrelated bit about Ed Begley’s hopping mad Texan oil baron trying to smite the Commies of the world. The latter especially seems like it could’ve been snipped in pre-production without damaging the plot much -- but then you’d miss Begley’s has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed grandstanding, as well as one of the most operatic mass death sequences ever strung together in a montage. Starts off faintly straightforward, if hopelessly convoluted, but Russell slowly grows more and more confident. At first he’s simply coming up with flashy establishing shots (favorite: screen filled with red, turns out to be ECU of a car’s backlight) or introducing Malden nude in a sauna while beating himself with olive branches. But then ever so slowly it grows weirder and weirder, eventually imploding into a fairly-together dry run for one of Russell’s fever dreams. Caine doesn’t so much act as stand around looking blankly puzzled (a deadpan “Okay...” seems to be his only thought), but Malden’s never been more loose and game, Oskar Hamolka squeezes in a couple batty moments, and Françoise Dorelac pulls off the soft-focus scorching stuff with aplomb. Maybe it’s just that I prefer Russell when he’s not trying to think, too. Best backhanded eulogy, maybe of ever: “He was a very stupid man. A patriot, of course. Very brave. During a war, such men earn medals, win victories. We are proud of them. But at such a time as now, a little bit stupid.” Grade: B

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

I'm proud of you, in a way

Two things in the Weekly:
* An "On the Radar" piece on the bizarro BBC America import Look Around You, which I previously wrote about on this very site.
* Rep, with words on Cleopatra and a host of late-'60s movies, only two of which were available in screener form. Is Skidoo actually indefensible and I'm deluded? Tell me. I can take it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Toxic Tank Tops

All I wished for -- or, excepting some quotables from Chris Rock, expected to receive -- was a screenplay win for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So, in one way, this year's Oscars were a runaway success. In another way, it was the same act of attrition for the die-hard cineaste, even with, courtesy the emcee, the pomp having been taken down a notch or two. Blowing by at a "mere" three hours and ten minutes, the ceremony felt less like the result of tight editing than an anxious need to plow through the required parts -- a lot of frantic business with no clear end in sight. Here are the highlights, as well as some random thoughts:

* The deluge beings with the obligatory fuzzy rundown of the last century-plus of cinema, the calm façade of which is severely disrupted by the finale: Chaplin from Modern Times first playing rock-hackysack with Shrek, then the two walking off into the distance together -- the implicit statement being that the big green ogre is our modern day equivalent of the wacky-but-sweet Little Tramp. Whether Will Smith from Shark Tale is today's Buster Keaton will have to wait for the inevitable Shark Tale sequel.

* Chris Rock monologue kicks, excepting a protracted bit about waiting for Tom Cruise whenever any role is up. I have no clue what he's talking about. Soon after, the sound of thousands of television sets being shut off or switched to VH1 Classics can be heard when Rock segues into a semi-tangential riff on Dubya working at the Gap. Best part: Rock talks of gun-battles at the Source Awards. The astute directors immediately cut to a simmering P. Diddy.

* Apparently the orchestra has decided on a sci-fi score theme for the evening, as evidenced by Morgan Freeman's acceptance speech being followed by the credits music from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

* Robin Williams emerges to give away the Best Animated Feature trophy wearing a piece of paper over his mouth. Sadly, this is only an in-joke as to the 11th-hour excision of his song parodying the whole SpongeBob-is-a-homo debacle, and as soon as the paper is torn off, Joan Rivers jokes and David Brent-level impressions spew out.

* The first of the technical awards occurs, introducing us to The New Policy, where recipients with unfamiliar names pose on stage like contestants at the Miss America Pageant, American Idol or wherever else people stand around like cattle and must applaud inertly when they lose. Amount of airtime saved by not having them walk: five seconds. Bodes well.

* Carson memorium. (He hosted the Oscars back in '81. Lucky there.) A treat, naturally, upset only by questions as to whether the sole available talking head was really Whoopi, followed by "And why her?"

* Roundabout here is where the night's strangest trend first occurred: large-sounding things falling from what sound like great heights backstage. At different intervals, Rock throws a sincere but priceless confused look and Jeremy Irons runs with it, proving, as per Rock's introduction, that he is a "comic genius." Gill Cate's castle of solitude is crumbling.

* Standing in an empty balcony seat (time saved by not having her strut to the podium: 3 seconds), Scarlett Johannson relays her fun-filled day at the techie awards. No facetiousness there. It looks like halcyon-days-Club-54 compared to tonight's festivities.

* Which is more jarring: the inclusion of many of Sidney Lumet's dogs (good work splicing Gloria in towards the front) among his greats during his Honorary Award montage? Or the high-angle shot of his daughter's (wife's?) heaving bosum?

* The New Policy hits a nadir when the camera prowls down rows of strategically placed nominees for the Best Live Action Short, scanning over faces we'll soon forget, names we'll never remember. (Clips from said labors of love are gone altogether. Time saved: nil.) One feigns sleep, a snarky move that proves prescient when he loses to...some human being.

* Adam Sandler carefully explains the difference between an adapted screenplay and one which is original, employing such helpful signifiers as "one is adapted."

* Roger Mayer, film historian and remasterer extraordinaire, temporarily saves the evening with something useful.

* The memorium montage. Marlon Brando "wins" (but "loses" to Carson), while ommissions prove glaring and obvious. (Just one: Maurice Pialat, you fuckwits.) To sate some, Russ Meyer makes the cut, though the mentions of his films include Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Fanny Hill, not more immediately recognized titles as Russ Meyer's Up!, Mondo Topless and Supervixens!

* With a straight face and without stuttering, P. Diddy describes The Polar Express as "hip and creative." This is an intro to that one's chunk o' treacle, "Believe," sung by Josh Groban and, in her third appearance, apparent go-to chanteuse Beyoncé.

* Prince butchers every Latin name on the roster of Best Songs. And yet he's still the man.

* Delivering the night's most welcome speech -- while, in an unprecedented turn of events, winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the year's best original screenplay (and movie, grumble grumble) -- Charlie Kaufman humbly thanks his family then, when someone tells him to valliantly defy the orchestra and Mr. Cates, utters "No, I want to get off stage."

* Can't decide. On one hand, Spicoli's "compromised sense of humor" can clearly be translated into "no sense of humor" or "denotes a humorless bastard." On the other, at least someone had the good graces to stop the lame string of auto-jokes about Jude Law's ubiquity in the nation's multiplexes since September. And for that, I half-thank you.

* Sad Annette loses, but Hilary deserves it (or, rather, Kate deserves it). Hilary's a weird case, by the way: Here's an actress with absolutely no range, whose two trophy-gobbling performances have hedged on an awkward naturalism that calls to mind Maria Falconetti or a Warhol groupie. Was less impressed with her Boys Don't Cry perf, though that was due to the part and because she was being vigourously used as a mop by Chloe Sevigny. Here, her part was strong and she nailed it. But as evidenced by anything else she's done, that's all she's got. Prove me wrong, but I'd be shocked if you do.

* Jamie Foxx delivers a moving, but not hackneyed, speech -- the best of the evening apart from the guy who sang his song then said, simply, "Gracias." Still, I remember Booty Call, dude. Heck, I remember Breakin' All the Rules.

* Sad Marty lost, but Clint deserves it (or, rather, Mike Leigh deserves it). And thus yet another bloated, Oscar-friendly epic by Scorseez launches into pre-production.

* Dustin Hoffman, perhaps intentionally, mumbles through every Best Picture title. Which is awesome.

* I think I need another look at M$B. Still, I can't help but feel this is so much a flavor of the month deal: appearing out of nowhere, sporting a triumphant underdog story (or as much of one as you can get with Clint behind the lens), and alternately having and giving the illusion of having a well-learned take on the world. However, from a purely superficial stand-point -- from a traditional Oscar stand-point -- Clint sure radiated the stuff throughout. Like J. Hoberman pointed out in The Dream Life (referring to Dirty Harry, actually, but same thing), he's something to each of us, our Clint.

I am atoned. Somewhere Béla Tarr has long grown restless.