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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Oh the days, they do fly...

At least once a year, an army of changes manages to take place right around the same week. This is this year's week. Seeing how I actually managed to forget that I ran this site for a couple days, I'll give you the brush for now, leaving you with (that's right) shameless plugs. In today's Weekly, I've got reviews of Après Vous and The Cave (third and fourth down) and quite the skimpy Rep. It's the damn changing of the seasons, wouldn't you know?

Also, this is quite the howler.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


* All hail George Fasel, the author of the film blog "A Girl and a Gun," who passed away over the weekend after a battle with cancer. Fasel was one of the most eloquent and gentlemanly of the film bloggers, producing thoughtful pieces on all manner of items -- he was as adept at the classics as the new guard -- right till the very end. Check out Filmbrain's memorium, as well as the one by his daughter.

* Sorry for the segue, but I can't fully commit to a take on the Six Feet Under climax, no doubt because I hadn't caught the current season at all. But as far as HBO show finales go, at least it didn't cravenly negate all that came before (Sex and the City) or just plod through the finish line (Oz). That said, I didn't like how they handled Rico -- ambition = bad -- and I can't decide if the episode's single polarizing sequence, wherein we skip into the future to see each major character dying (yielding much in the way of fuzzy futuristic locales), was a brilliantly loopy gamble or a misconception on a titanic scale. It did, however, give me an excuse to revisit one of my favorite shows, which wound up saving my brain during its genius third season. Sorry if this is all too much waffling.

* Capsule preview!: Dallas 362 is solid, solid stuff and hardly deserved being dropped into a single theater in Gotham sans advertising. I like Shawn Hatosy?

* Just this for this round of the Weekly. I seriously blanked on the Harold & Kumar blurb. Sorry.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Cross-cultural alliterative names + two others

Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa) [B-]
[SPOILERS await you] Haruki Murakami's prose is so specifically deadpan, so effortlessly delicate in its withholding of emotion, that if you would push it one way or the other, it would immediately feel like ordinary melancholia. If you really want the see-saw to fall hard on one side, the best way to do this is to drown his hypnotically flat prose in gentle piano, lingering long takes, and hushed, unaffected voice-ever -- which is excctly what Jun Ichikawa has done with his noble but failed attempt to translate Murakami to the big screen. A film adaptation of his works -- even a three-page tale, in the case of Takitani -- would seem almost a crime, as he currently has no cinematic equivalent and, frankly, doesn't need one. (Though I hear a stage production of The Elephant Vanishes was pretty good.) Wong Kar-Wai might be his closest cousin, but he has little of Murakami's plays with narrative (people hijacking the tale to tell their own, sometimes for 40 pages) and prefers to wrap his protagonists' descents into protracted, bottomless melancholia in pure mood, where Murakami goes for a stark, freakishly pitiless bent that's purely in the realm of prose. So, Takitani's a failure as a Murakami translation, but marginally affecting as its own beast. After the realization that Ichikawa wasn't going to match his source, I wound up digging the wall-to-wall exposition, wherein the characters never themselves speak, or the way the film is structured as a single 75-minute flowing minor key symphony, seamlessly moving from the aforementioned plaintive piano to T. Monkish jazz then back again. And it behooves me to say that once Takitani gets into the segment where the middle-aged introvert and his much-younger, materalistic wife obsess over the humdrum -- shopping sprees producing an entire room of clothes -- it almost does feel like one of the author's tales come to physical life. The final stretch is incredibly sad -- with a coda that, like some of his works, could exist in one of the character's heads -- but it's more because Murakami wrote it that way, not because the film itself has effecitvely built up to that point. Basically, it would be best seen if you avoid reading any Murakami prior -- but why would you want to do that?

Saraband (Ingmar Bergman) [B]
It's so fun to be back here! I've not much to say about this semi-sequel to Scenes From a Marriage, except that it's even less of a follow-up than 2046 is to In the Mood For Love. Ullmann and Josephson's ages don't match up and, furthermore, they don't hash it out. (Their scenes together, particularly the final one, suggest a private compromise between older exes -- no secrets, past pains now sort of a joke, the relationship literally warts and all.) Calling it an autobiographical reunion would be dead-wrong, seeing how Ullman has done little in the last decade but serve Bergman's needs. In any case, that never comes up as their reunion isn't even the focus. Instead, it's a modest regurgitation of Bergman's pet themes and take-no-prisoner details -- a blunt reminder that no one crosses lines quite like Bergman. The father-daughter relationship is so incestuous it's hardly ambiguous, and the film-long parade of two-person scenes vascillate between warm optimism for human relationships to the opposite. Had he tossed this off in the '70s, it would've been a mere blip -- solid, worth savoring, but nothing to get too excited about. Right now, it's...well, it's the same thing, ultimately. Switch to DV largely seamless.

Ali G Indahouse (2002, Mark Mylod) [B-]
This movie is monstrously stupid. But I liked the part where Ali G combatted a charge by his stern opponent in a televised debate by alleging that he once sucked off a horse. To which said opponent went into a dry explanation about how this had in fact happened but it was a terrible accident and then politely withdrew from the race in embarrassment. Also, this goes father than even Dude, Where's My Car? in the pervasive-gay-jokes-as-subtext dept., in that Martin Freeman and another of Ali G's friends wind up actually fucking eachother and when asked, they say, yeah, it's not that bad and can you give us a couple more minutes? At no time does it capture the frequent brilliance of his shows -- "Song 2"'s brother-in-law, essentially -- but it sells out with a relative lack of pain. Quit your whining, Mr. Show guys, basically.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Intelligent Falling

Shameless plugs and random links this week! As readers of this site no doubt know (and have long grown weary of), one of my biggest pet peeves (you could hardly call it that) is the Intelligent Design movement that's inexplicably but forcibly sweeping the nation with its violent misinterpretation of the word "theory." So it's to at least some surprise that the most devastating piece I've read on it comes from The Onion. Drink it down with the most recent Slate ID take-down.

(I also heartily endorse this.)

Anyway, down to business. Today's Weekly stuff: two reviews, one a noble attempt (or a noble attempt to make same) to not go all foaming mad over Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen (first one), the other a pan of David Mackenzie's dull Asylum (last one). Also, Rep.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

More (Not So) Short Shorts

The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza) [B]
All together now: the punchline ain’t funny; the middle section’s a sort of rite-of-passage; the whole thing’s not unlike jazz; vulgarity = funny. Not much there that isn’t repeated ad nauseum, and the film’s more funny as a giant block than it is in bits and pieces; it’s more about the power of hearing “fucking and sucking” over a thousand times in a short span than the little details. (A shocking development considering it’s all about the teller, not the song.) But there is a warming sense of community here -- an insider’s world where Carrot Top can be sadly self-deprecating, and living jokes Gilbert Gottfried and Bob Saget get talked about in ecstatic tones. Even the endless repetition is part of the film’s themes: the anxious cutting may break up most of the comics’ flow (George Carlin, one of the few who gets through it without the slicing and dicing, fares best.), but it shows how certain jokes become part of the collective baggage, passed down, sometimes, with a startling lack of degradation. As for the politics, or lack thereof: well, being apolitical is political, too. It’s pretty good, and I chuckled lots, but all things considered, I think Penn Jillettte should’ve pushed aside Provenza and taken over the reins.

Last Days (Gus Van Sant) [B+]
Van Sant’s new wave continues apace, and I keep wanting to write the whole thing off as a simple template: combine bald appropriations of Bela Tarr, self-conscious avant garde tropes, and vaguely distasteful jokiness, particular in the way it introduces glib insights only to reveal themselves as attacks on those who believe in them. (Most notably: the sequence in Elephant where it goes down a checklist of blame game causes.) Also, omigod, didn’t this dude make Finding Forrester?! Thing is, he keeps chosing good topics, or at least ones he can get the most out of. In a way, it’s wrong to call his last three films minimalist. While he definitely strips things down, the devil is in the details: his tangents, his ommissions, the flights of fancy. Last Days could’ve easily turned into a simple hang-out session with a dead man walking, and frankly, that would’ve been fine. In fact, when it is just that, it’s very affecting, particularly because of Michael Pitt’s unaffected performance. But while Van Sant doesn’t try to overstate the similarities between Pitt and Cobain, there’s some infrequent attempts to chip away at the mystique. In one oft-cited scene, Van Sant parks us in front of a TV, where we unblinkingly catch the second half of the video for Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee." You could read this as just long take/real time business, but as the mind wanders, it becomes more than just a spate of Nothing. On the most basic level, it offers us a look at the musical detritus he was competing with during his stint. And, of course, the overly-passionate paens to reawakened love and on-a-dime forgiveness presents the opposite of what Nirvana stood for. (Surely Van sant means to imply it’s the song that made him pass out prior to this.) But even then, wasn’t this worst-case-scenario bleakness, while refreshing amonst a landscape of phony triumphalism, to some degree about as phony? And can we really subscribe to the notion that Cobain’s death somehow validated his band’s worldview? As with Elephant, you could call Van Sant’s diss of reading into these events as anti-intellectualism -- his movies nowadays are In Praise of Ambivalence. But in both Columbine and Cobain’s death, he’s chosen very private occurances that have been swarmed with lazy readings and taken the events back to the messy, maddening ambiguity that they deserve.

Major Dundee (1965, Sam Peckinpah) [B]
Was thinking this would turn into a ragtag, sloppy masterpiece for its first two hours. Then it ended, without, incidentally, an ending. Less a dry run for the likes of Pat Garrett and Alfredo Garcia than (for the most part) one of those films itself, Dundee tries to usher in the age of pomo-westerns by force, offering up the dirtyness, moral gray areas increasingly weary tone and suffocating nihilism he would soon trade in regularly. Except for slo-mo bloodshed, everything’s in place, held back only by studio interference. Even Heston fits right in. Peckinpah does everything he can to turn the square-jawed one's standard image inside out; even his usual impassioned monologue sings the praises of hard boozing and partying -- all things anti-Heston, basically. “That is the secret of my success: I drink,” he says, then adds, “But not enough.” Heston’s cynical, lazy Dundee isn’t a hero, likeable or in any way admirable -- his realization is that he’s a mediocrity, a tough guy shown up by actual tough guy Richard Harris. As noted elsewhere, the movie keeps heading for the apocalypse, then settles for a quick cap-off, though even that has its merits, the arduous journey leading only to a big fat anticlimax -- Heston, in effect, obsessing over next to nothing. Not quite the lost masterpiece that was hoped for, but, then again, the masterpiece is not even lost -- it was never completed.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Sam Peckinpah) [A]
That shot of Kris Kristoferson sipping whiskey and staring out as the wind blows dust around hours before his assassination is fawesome.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Philadelphians: Go to the movies

Smog is in town. Julianna Hatfield will be swinging by to remind us she's still hammering away at the dream. Both Mr. Wallen and the The Gossipers have still more suggestions. Ignore these. This is the biggest cinematic weekend in Philly memory (or at least since the PIGLFF), a thumb-in-the-nose to the very notion that August is the dulldrums, the year's most superfluous month. The multiplex has little to offer, but the Ritzes unleash not only Grizzly Man, but Last Days and The Aristocrats, too. And if you're like me, you have yet to drink in Broken Flowers (or ye gods, Me and You and Everyone We Know), so you might as well pencil those in as well. If that weren't enough to devour your weekend hours and wallet, I-House has scheduled a meaty Peckinpah retrospective, offering a share of staples alongside the redux of Major Dundee and the neglected Cross of Iron. Need I even mention the weekend will bring little but muggy heat, and that eschewing air conditioning is flat-out fucking dumb? If you miss all of these, or even most, I will look down on you forever. Redeem yourself.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Again with the brevity

I wrote this (last one) and this. See ya later!

Monday, August 08, 2005

(Not so) Short shorts

Eros (Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh & Michelangelo Antonioni) [C+]
Almost needless to say, whoever thought these three would flow into another is either a perverse genius or a dolt. Wong Kar-Wai seems to be the conservative favorite, largely because autopilot Wong is hardly the dregs of cinema. Working with a Zalman King-level story, it feels secondhand, with Gong Li undermotivated, Chang Chen trying in vain to be Tony Leung’s lanky cousin, and even Chris Doyle turning in some muted colors. What frisson it has is due to Wong’s usual concerns, and his way with repressed bodies in contact. Soderbergh seems to be mocking the theme with Equilibrium, tossing off an arbitrarily pretzeled ditty meant solely to let Alan Arkin and Robert Downey Jr. do their respective things. (Passably amusing as it is, it bodes not well for his planned six-film, medium-redefining blitzkrieg.) Antonioni’s The Dangerous Thread of Things, lastly, is an embarrassment, possibly the worst film from a major director since Jack, and, the cherry on top, shot in English, which helps no one, let alone the terrible actors wrestling with terrible, transparently translated dialogue. Maybe he was joking.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton) [C+]
Conveniently enough, the ‘71 version didn’t cook till the kids wound up at the factory, while Burton’s cooks until that very point. Who’s game for a jarring paste-up job? Ace kiddie introductions, an inviting storybook feel, a warmth that doesn’t descend into grotesque sentimentality, no songs (for a time) -- basically, it feels like Burton (and, to an extent, Elfman) is back, until it doesn’t. The factory scenes are a dirge and Depp’s Wonka is never appropriately demented*. Michael Sicinski’s analysis of the source as an imperalist fantasia turns out to be eerily dead-on for this Dahl acolyte, though the film’s also interesting as the latest installment in the Spielberg-izing of this one-time punk. Sign #1: Though not as nagging a subtext as it was in Big Fish, it's all family-first, with this semi-recent father belaboring the point till there's no fun left. Sign #2: Just as you’re prepared to go home, Burton abruptly lights off from the source, inventing an unnecessary third act where a couple lines of dialogue would have served fine. It ain't a coincidence. And the less said about the dimestore Freudianism -- a move borrowed, irrationally, from Ron Howard’s Grinch -- the better. Bonus points for Missi Pyle, Deep Roy and Christopher Lee, whom I’d watch doing anything -- like, say, going through the insides of a Halloween bag while dressed as a dentist. Good job getting a Veruca Salt almost on par with the first, too.

The Island (Michael Bay) [C-]
Frankly, I’m getting a little sick of the old “Michael Bay is the arsenic of cinema” refrain, and the rub is I can’t wholly disagree. Will he be reappraised as an auteur thirty years hence? Are Cahiers du Cinema in fact crazy for him now? Comparisons to Brakhage, however half-jokingly, were lodged a couple years ago**, and that...sort of sounds right: if The Island reiterates nothing, it’s that he treats ideas and logic to the same cuisinart method he treats his fashion-ad images. Here, he plays mix-master to dystopian B-movie classics, cutting THX-1138 with Logan’s Run with Parts: The Clonus Horror to make the sole right-wing wouldbe-blockbuster of the season. (Though its stem cell propaganda -- essentially Dubya’s paranoid worst-case scenario, complete with the chief baddie sneering, “I can cure leukemia!” -- sits uneasily with a moment where the president is called an idiot. Talk about a flip-flop.) To call out all the lapses in rationality would be an insult to you, the reader. But, as loath as I am to admit, there are stray moments of invention/effectiveness, notably the nurse serenely stroking the pregnant clone’s leg before offing her and the sudden appearance of McGregor’s real-world, Scottish doppleganger, where the fine actor finally gets a chance to stop slumming. That’s more than you can say for Oliver Stone.

Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin) [B-]
Obviously, this should’ve been something else. The idea of a Cassavetes-style improv romp -- 90 minutes of Vaughn and Wilson ad-libbing at weddings -- sounds pretty good to me, and the opening twenty minutes manage to boil this hypothetical masterpiece into a plenty delirious extended montage. But for no discernible reason, it’s a two hour movie instead, with the final half hour a slog on the order of Cleopatra, only not as pretty looking. Till then, it’s alarming how watchable it is, especially given the blandness of the material. The set-up is a bald Meet the Parents regurgitation, only with no real anchor, but the actors -- Vaughn and Isla Fisher, particularly -- never feel reigned in, treating the ho-hum situations with true idiosyncratic gusto. If ever an outtake movie needed to be made, it’s for this one.

Promises of capsules to come (seriously): Saraband [B]; The Devil's Rejects [B+]; Memories of Murder [B+]

* That said, I was lucky enough to overhear more in-touch folks than I recounting a interview where Depp claimed he was going for a Carol Channing impersonation. Note the hair, the teeth.
** Mysterious Link Dept.: A link to an article -- lodged on some Slate/Salon-ish type zine, saying basically that Bay and Brakhage aren't too far apart (but deep down not really believing it) -- does exist. I just don't remember where. Unless I made it up.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Sorry for the brevity

The Weekly, by me: this (last one), this.