Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tim and Eric Live!

My girlfriend and I don't do much nightlife-wise here in NYC, so going to see Tim and Eric at the Knitting Factory last Monday was a momentous occasion. In cases like this, there's always the lingering danger of the "I Came All the Way in From Jersey for This, So Of Course It's Good"-effect which can be observed after just about any crappy Broadway matinee: people trying to convince themselves that the show was good because they had already put so much effort (not to mention spent so much money) to see it. Well, I think the show was genuinely good, but if you want to see for yourself, they're doing a live webcast tomorrow night at 9:30.

The show was a mix of live skits and videos from their new Adult Swim series Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job! As good as the live stuff was, I laughed the most (to the point of tears) at a scene from the show featuring John C. Reilly as Dr. Steve Brule, my current favorite sketch comedy character. (You can check out some Dr. Steve Brule clips here).

Most of the Adult Swim series (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021) fit into what I call "stoner/slacker/nostalgia comedy" - slacker versions of Saturday morning cartoon characters engaged in wacky situations. Tim and Eric's work, on the other hand, owes more to sketch comedy like Mr. Show by way of film-school goofing around. Most of the bits on their show revolve in some way around cheesy, amateurish video effects: the visual style is right out of public access TV, locally produced TV commercials, employee training videos, and low-end business seminar presentations.

Here's their website and here's a page featuring lots of their shorts. I recommend "Humpers", which is a truly inspired (IMO) film-school film parody.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Comics Chat: Chewing Gum in Church

Chewing Gum in Church

I've liked everything I've read from Steve Weissman, so I had high expectations for this latest Yikes! book - which looks better than all his previous work. I wish it read a little better than it does, though. I liked it (mostly for its gorgeous cartooning), but this is the first of his collections that I wouldn't immediately and without qualification recommend to a casual comics fan.

Like Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes, Yikes! has an adult's sensibility, but it tells stories about kids. The kid characters are partly there to give voice to the cartoonist's adult concerns. The twist in Yikes! is that the characters are cute, cartoony, kid versions of Monster Movies monsters - Li'l Bloody (a vampire), Pullapart Boy (a Frankenstein's monster), Dead Boy (a zombie), "Sweet" Chubby Cheeks (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Kid Medusa, etc.

In previous volumes of the series, Weissman has put them in slightly off-kilter situations and used the monster movie twist for color, poetic effect, and an extra layer of (gentle) irony.

I've always though of Weissman along with Richard Sala, as they're the two Fantagraphics-published cartoonists who are working in traditional (i.e., pre-underground) comic book/comic strip genres. And what's compelling about their work is the same thing that's compelling about the best of traditional comics: their sure sense of storytelling, characterization, and pacing, draws you into their very personal style and vision of the world.

Chewing Gum operates a little differently, though. Weissman has set everything up as a series of 4-panel strips. In general, each page has one strip - as if this were a collection of dailies from a newspaper strip - although sometimes Weissman blows things up to one panel per page for four pages.

It's a strange reading experience for a number of reasons. All of the strips point towards a punchline, but the gags are hardly ever fully-realized (I guess on purpose). There's nothing laugh-out-loud funny and there's nothing with the kind of pointed, poignant irony of Peanuts at its more philosophical. It felt to me like a "take" on daily gag strips, rather than an attempt to actually do that kind of cartooning.

A story emerges, but it moves forward herky-jerkily. This is such a big change from his previous work - which at its best has the assured rhythms of something like a Carl Barks Duck story - that I can't help but think that Weissman is purposefully trying to do something unconventional. He doesn't seem to want his audience to engage the same way with this book that they did with his previous ones.

It's a little tricky being a fan of an artist who's changing things up like this. On the one hand, I wouldn't want Weissman to stagnate. It's good that he's trying something new here. Plus, who knows? Maybe when I read his next book, why he's doing what he's doing here will become more clear to me and everything will click into place.

(I've had this experience with Dan Clowes, before: I scratched my head after reading the first chapter of David Boring and thought that it represented a step backwards, but while reading the second chapter I realized my mistake and saw that he had just been laying the groundwork for what he was really up to.)

So, while I still want to see what Weissman does next with these characters, right now, Chewing Gum in Church reads like a bit of a failed experiment - a too-formal for the material exercise that never really gels into a fully-realized book.

(Interestingly enough, this reviewer had almost exactly the opposite response that I did.)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Time Out of Joint Top Ten List: 1992

My favorite movies from 1992:

  1. Reservoir Dogs
  2. Hard-Boiled
  3. The Last of the Mohicans
  4. The Player
  5. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
  6. White Men Can't Jump
  7. Batman Returns
  8. Red Rock West
  9. CrissCross
  10. Captain Ron

I also liked: Tresspass, Unforgiven, Unlawful Entry, Death Becomes Her, and Thunderheart.

My take: By 1992 I was getting to be a genuine film buff, so, I saw most of these movies for the first time in the theaters (although I've re-watched them since).

This list is mostly All-American, which is definitely my bad, but, at the time, I didn't spend too much time tracking down foreign films. (This is a good time to mention that these "Time Out of Joint" lists are works-in-progress.) Still, it gives a pretty good cross-section of what I like when it comes to contemporary movies: high style action/adventure pictures (Hard-Boiled, The Last of the Mohicans, and Batman Returns), well-crafted B-movies (Tresspass and Unlawful Entry), unconventional genre flicks (Reservoir Dogs, Red Rock West, and Unforgiven), screwball comedies (White Men Can't Jump, Captain Ron, and Death Becomes Her), and creepy, sexy, scary off-kilter thrillers (Fire Walk with Me).

I've gone back and forth with Reservoir Dogs almost from the moment I walked out of the theater. I had gone with my dad, and neither of us knew what to make of it. All we were sure of was that the torture scene had been very upsetting. (Personally, it's never been the cutting off of the ear that gets to me: it's imagining what the gasoline on the cut must feel like that makes me cringe). There are times when I think that this scene sums up all of the movie's problems, that it's all flashiness and nastiness, just trying to make the audience squirm. Other times, though, like right now, the movie's (black) sense of humor and ballsiness win me over.

I also have mixed feelings about The Player. I really like the movie - it's so well made and it's very, very sharp. But I think it's also kind of shallow, which isn't such a sin, except that, ever since it came out, the critics have made more out of it than is really there (IMO, of course). But that's my problem to get over, not the movie's, which has so many great little moments (Richard E. Grant talking about "reality", Lyle Lovett quoting Freaks, Alan Rudolph pitching a psychic political thriller "with heart", Burt Reynolds's theory on assholes) that, in my heart of hearts, I guess I don't care that when it comes to the bigger issues it strikes me as being superficial (compared to Sunset Boulevard, say).

I have a great deal of affection for Captain Ron, which is one of those movies like Dumb & Dumber where the non-comedian - in this case Kurt Russell - is as funny or funnier than the comedian - in this case Martin Short. There are quite a few movies where Kurt Russell gets to do his jokey, tongue-in-cheek take on traditional action heroes (Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Sky High), but not enough like this one, where he gets to give an all-out comic performance (Used Cars is the other big one).

Blog Chat: Personally...

Lots of introspection going on in the comments section of this post on Andy Horbal's blog.

I just wanted to comment briefly on something Chris Stangl wrote:

I know I was just arguing for the power of diary form film blogging, but how many blogs would be vastly improved if the writer would just put some intellectual distance between their heart and their keyboard? A: I have no idea, but I can think of a few. Those few are rare because they're writers with interesting ideas lost in a swamp of personal-life mush.

Now, I'm definitely in favor of clarity in writing (even if my own writing doesn't always meet the standard), so, yes, I think it's a bad thing if your best ideas are getting lost...

However (and this is me riffing on Chris's comment, rather than reading into it or arguing with it), if we're doing criticism, "personal-life mush" is going to play a part. To the extent that movies are aesthetic, emotional, and, even erotic experiences, we can't help that our responses are going to be personal. One of the strengths of blogs, IMHO, is that, as opposed to newspaper/magazine film criticism or academic film criticism, writers can deal with how this "personal-life mush" affects their response to and interpretation and appreciation of a given movie in an up-front and straightforward manner.

This 2Blowhards post from last year brings up some related issues.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Weekly Round-up

  • I made my first contribution to a Blog-a-Thon. Sam Peckinpah was one of my first "favorite" directors and I was glad to share my appreciation/admiration for one of his lesser known movies. Other things I learned: I like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia a lot less than most other Peckinpah buffs. I like Convoy a lot more than most other Peckinpah buffs. But to each his own... (I'll have to write about both movies one day.)

    More seriously, this Blog-a-Thon got me thinking about Peckinpah's self-destructive nature and how it fueled his art, while, at the same time, it got in the way of his moviemaking. Maybe it's because I'm also in the middle of reading a Bob Fosse biography, but I have a much greater respect than I used to for guys like Robert Altman, Luis Bunuel, and Jean-Luc Godard, who were able to maintain artistic integrity while making movies without destroying themselves. (And I'm also saddened that I've known so many would-be artists who got the self-destructiveness down, but didn't have any "results" to show for it.)

  • Blake Bell posted this quote from Seth talking about the difference between European and American cartoonists:
    I’m not as attracted to European cartooning as I am to North American cartooning. Where a lot of it is really beautiful and interesting, I find that a lot of the European cartoonists, and this could just be in the translations, but they seem to be missing some kind of passionate spark that I find in the best North American cartoonists. There’s some eccentric quality, generally, amongst North American cartoonists that when they tackle some piece of material, it seems to be invested so deeply in their psyche that, if they’re a good artist, it’s very riveting. I don’t find that as much in the European work. I find it a little more dispassionate. It’s well-crafted and interesting but…

    Recognizing that he's making sweeping generalizations, here, I kind of agree with his observation, but, for me, that's one of the best things about Eurocartoonists. They aren't all as "in your face" and they often seem a bit more (dare I say it?) sophisticated in their distance from the material. In my mind I'm comparing two favorites: American Peter Bagge's Buddy Bradley stories and Dupuy & Berberbian's Mr. Jean stories. Both are sharply observed takes on young, creative, slackerish types, but Bagge's work is just a wee bit aggressive (as befits stories appearing in a comic titled Hate), while D&B's is somewhat distanced. They seem to give the reader more room: it's a more relaxing, contemplative reading experience. What's weird is that I get the same relaxed feeling from Seth's own work.

  • This is complete speculation: My guess is that Paul Muni and Frederic March, who were big, Oscar-winning stars in their day, suffered from backlash from film buffs of the 50s onward, who might have thought these actors - who showed up in lots of prestige pictures - were overrated when compared to performers who worked in less reputable pictures. I wonder if, now, though, they aren't (relatively) underrated.

  • Through the Sam Peckinpah Blog-a-Thon I rediscovered the writing of Scott Von Doviak (and some other guys who used to post on a movie message board that I once participated on).

    I liked Scott's recent column, where he talks about art house sci-fi movies. At the end, he writes about one of my newest favorites, the time travel brain twister, Primer: "Check out the movie’s Wikipedia page for an obsessive breakdown of the jumbled timeframe and see how far you get before your brain seizes up. So yes, it’s complex and thought provoking, but does this make it a good movie?"

    A rhetorical question, maybe, but, as much fun as I have trying to untangle the paradox puzzles, what I really like about the movie is the subtle way it gets at how creative endeavors can end up poisoning friendships when the struggle to have to have the last say in what's best for the company, project, etc. ends up overshadowing any other concerns. In other words, its the human drama that matters to me, (which is really what I'm always looking for in sci-fi stories).

    Interesting to think about: I probably would not like Primer as much as I do if I had first seen it in a theater. But, DVR'd off of the Sundance Channel, I was able to pause and rewind so that I could clarify and consolidate my understanding as I went along. And the movie is short enough - just 77 minutes - that it makes it easy enough to watch enough times to get a grasp on what's really going on.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Movie Chat: Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth

It's certainly an impressive movie (although I'm getting less and less impressed with "impressive movies" since wowing an audience seems to be so easily done these days).

I had a few major problems with it, though: not just a negative "gut feeling"-type reaction, but more serious philosophical reservations about what Del Toro does (and fails to do) in the movie.

My big issue: the way the movie portrays the Fascist Captain. Del Toro isn't content to just make him a bad guy - he has to be a Truly Eeeevil Man, and, in virtually every shot that he appears in, Del Toro hits us over the head with his nastiness. And he doesn't do this with any sense of irony, let alone humor, like in The Stepfather, for example. No - the Captain is a Fascist, which seems to mean that he is subhuman, undeserving of even the most fleeting or shallow sympathetic characteristic.

This wouldn't be so bad - just a little bit lazy and cheaply melodramatic - except that Del Toro decides to add realistic, graphic violence to this humorless cartooning (most egregiously in a series of torture scenes).

I'm not a big fan of this kind of triple threat: (1) a completely Evil Bad Guy with no redeeming features, (2) a filmmaker who keeps reiterating this evilness through the least sophisticated means possible, and (3) realistic, graphic violence of the post-Saving Private Ryan variety.

Del Toro wants us to hate this character so much that we're supposed to cheer when he's finally killed and think that it's fitting that his killers refuse to honor his final request.

Some of my friends, who liked the movie a lot, defended Del Toro's handling of the Captain by arguing that the story is being told from the perspective of a little girl, who sees him as a kind of fairytale monster. I get this: Del Toro has made a movie that mixes fantasy and reality where the "real" scenes have a simplified - almost black and white - view of the world, while the fantasy scenes have more nuance and ambiguity.

I still have a big problem with this explanation: it only works if, deep down, you actually agree with the little girl's simplification - i.e. that the fascist Captain is, ultimately, sub humanly evil and the Communist partisans he is fighting are super humanly good. And, honestly, I think this is what Del Toro believes: his own view of the world seems to be as simplistic as that of his heroine's.

Let's politically recast the movie for a second, just to see how well the "from a little girl's point-of-view" reading holds up:

Imagine exactly the same movie, except set it in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The sub humanly evil Captain is a radical, Republican reconstructionist, and the super humanly good guerrillas are D.W. Griffith's romanticized Clansmen. If you would still be willing to give that movie a pass, then I guess I won't begrudge the "fairytale" defense of Del Toro's handling of the Captain.

But things are much more ambiguous. People who hold horrible political beliefs don't always act like monsters - they certainly don't act like monsters all of the time. Amon Goeth, the Nazi villain in Schindler's List, is certainly a monster, but Spielberg, unlike Del Toro, doesn't beat us over the head with how evil this character is. Spielberg's technique is much more nuanced, even if the two characters are both the definitive villains of their movies.

The Night of the Shooting Stars has an example of this kind of thing done just about perfectly: the father and son killers, who spend the movie stalking the refugees, are given one of the most wrenching and emotionally complicated death scenes in the history of movies. As evil as we perceive these characters to be, the Taviani Brothers do not let us celebrate, in any way, their deaths, but rather force us to see it as just another aspect of the obscenity of war.

It's this central failing that makes the rest of Pan's Labyrinth fall apart for me. As beautiful and magical as some of the fantasy sequences are, they don't redeem Del Toro's simplistic and brutal take on reality.

And it's because of this reaction that the movie's smaller flaws - flaws that I'd usually be willing to overlook - stick out at me. Like, why exactly do the guerrillas use a key on the lock, when that will give away the fact that they have a spy in the Captain's house? Or, why does the little girl eat the food in the banquet hall when she's been explicitly instructed (at least twice!) not to? And why does the Fawn tell her that since she ate the food she has completely failed in her quest, only to later tell her, no, wait, she still has another chance, even though she doesn't do anything in the interim to redeem herself?

This is nit-picking, but each of these problems is indicative of the essential arbitrariness of what Del Toro is up to: why do these things happen? Well, they have to happen, so he can get move his plot along and/or get his point across. (By the way, his point seems to be: Fascists are evil).

Reading back on this, I realize I've been a lot more combative here than I really like to be. After all, it's only a movie and I'm not going to lose any sleep over people liking it. (And if you're a fan of the movie, please feel free to post any kind of rebuttal/defense you'd like). But this is one of the few movies I saw this year that really pushed my buttons (in a bad way), and I'm surprised that the response to it has been so overwhelmingly positive.

Really though, my main point here isn't to make an argument against the film, but rather to dig into why it doesn't mesh with my sensibilities. I keep coming back to the feeling that the movie is just too obvious and deliberate - in terms of its relentless one note characterization of the Captain, its black and white reduction of the political situation, its steamrollering over inconsistencies in the service of the plot. I didn't feel like Del Toro made any room for the audience.

I like to think about this in terms of two kinds of surprises. We have surprises in movies themselves. I'm not just talking about "jump-out-from-behind-the-door-and-go-boo" surprises of something like The Grudge and I'm not talking about "where-the-hell-did-that-come-from" surprises like at the end of Don't Look Now. To go back to that scene from The Night of the Shooting Stars: it is surprising to me that I'd end up feeling that badly about the death of the two most despicable characters in the movie. (And it is surprising to me that the Taviani Brothers are able to pull this off!)

There's another kind of surprise, though, or rather feeling of surprise, one that isn't really "in" the movie, but the audience may be able to sense it anyway: it's the surprise of the people making the film. In other words, the sense that the process of making the film was surprising to them in some way or that they ended up in a different place from where they started. I get this sense most strongly from watching movies from Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard (early on at least), Howard Hawks, and Francois Truffaut: that the people making the movie are working through something in the same way that the audience is.

Maybe this is too metaphysical, but, for me, Pan's Labyrinth has neither of these kinds of surprises: its deliberateness seemed to suck the life out of it.

(Sean Collins seemed to like the movie a lot more than I did, but he goes into more detail about the plot holes than I did.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Osterman Weekend

Note: This post is my contribution to the Sam Peckinpah Blog-a-Thon hosted by [This Savage Art].
"What you just saw, in a way, was a live video game." - Tanner (Rutger Hauer), The Osterman Weekend

The auteur theory - the idea that some great directors, through will and skill, can infuse an otherwise mediocre film with their personal vision and give it hidden, inside meaning - has no better proof than the oeuvre of Sam Peckinpah and is nowhere more evident than in The Osterman Weekend.

It's based on a Robert Ludlum potboiler - Ian Masters and Alan Sharp are credited with the adaptation - but Peckinpah fuses the twisty-turny, cross-and-double cross story with his own paranoid feelings about loyalty and betrayal, and his ambivalence about technology and progress in such a way that the resulting movie is as much a reflection of his personal vision as any he ever made - even those movies which he had much more control over.

The story involves a TV show host/Edward R. Murrow-style investigative journalist (played by Rutger Hauer), who is coerced into spying on a group of his friends who, according to a CIA agent (John Hurt), are, themselves, Communist spies.

The movie isn't that well-regarded, and, on first viewing, its easy to see why: the plot is convoluted and certain key plot points are either under emphasized or absent, the acting is (to be charitable) inconsistent (the best performances coming from the solid supporting cast), and the design looks cheap - much more like a made-for-TV movie than a theatrical feature by a major American filmmaker.

The purpose of this post is to push the idea that the movie deserves to be reassessed: I think it's one of the most interesting spy movies of its era and, while not nearly as fully-realized, it's a true companion to Brian De Palma's Blow Out. They'd make a great double feature on the themes of paranoia, surveillance, and the limits of technology to get at "the truth".

I'd like to suggest some things to look for in the movie that show what I think Peckinpah is up to.

Video Images: True and False

Video is everywhere in this movie: the character use it to spy on each other, their houses have TV sets in every room, CIA agents sit at banks of monitors in order to control things from a distance.

Take the opening:

Lalo Schifrin's soft jazz score plays underneath a grainy video image of John Hurt in bed with a woman. The cheesiness of the music and the "videoness" of the picture combine to give us the sense we're watching some kind of cheap porno.

But this turns out to be the reverse of Brian De Palma's trick from Blow Out. There, we start out thinking we're watching an "actual" stalking, but it's "really" just an exploitation slasher movie. Here, our expectations - some soft-core sex - get turned upside down when killers come out of the woodwork and (fatally) drug the woman.

The two openings serve the same purpose: the are warning from the director about how easily we can be manipulated by images and they are letting us know that what we see won't always be the truth.

The movie has another great illustration of the deceptiveness of video:

Rutger Hauer's investigative journalist is all about uncovering "the truth", but Peckinpah gives us a look at how he puts together his show, Face-to-Face.

First off: the title itself is a lie. Hauer doesn't actually face off against his guests: they're talking to each other via video hook-up. And though Hauer is supposed to be eliciting candid responses from the politicians he grills, Peckinpah shows us the behind-the-scenes manipulation that goes on to make sure that Hauer remains in complete control. Peckinpah gives us a news program is as managed as the production of the rigged Twenty-One in Quiz Show.

The deceptiveness of video plays an important part in almost every major twist-and-turn in the movie.

Video Cameras: Public and Private

There's another (related) theme that Peckinpah introduces in the opening scene: the video world has helped to blur the line between public and private.

In this movie the characters not only peep on each other's most intimate moments, but these moments get broadcast on TV.

And CIA agent Hurt runs his operation like a mirror image of the TV production - sitting in front of video monitors, directing the action from behind the scenes - but this production plays out in Hauer's actual house, not a studio, and the "performers" are Hauer's family and friends.

In The Osterman Weekend, privacy is always being violated, and the "authority" figures in the movie are always willing to justify this invasion as necessary for the public good.

This leads to another kind of public/private divide that Peckinpah brings out, namely that the government thinks it needs to keep secrets from the public, for its own good.

Burt Lancaster plays the government heavy who's trying to manage a huge cover-up - his signature quote: "Being wrong isn't nearly as important as not admitting it."

Remote Control

It's through Lancaster's character that Peckinpah bring up a theme from earlier films: that the lowest kind of man is one who has his killings done by proxy. Lancaster sets things in motion, orders hits over the phone, but always tries to keep his image clean. This is railroad man Pat Harrigan from The Wild Bunch, the Mexican gangster who puts the bounty on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the business-suited CIA operatives in The Killer Elite.

Trust, Betrayal, and Loyalty

Hopefully, I've at least shown that you can uncover literary evidence in the movie. But that's really academic. What galvanizes the movie is Peckinpah's sure sense of filmmaking - the deliberateness of the editing and staging and his (nearly) unmatched mastery of action sequences - and his obsession with the ideas of trust, betrayal, and loyalty. Peckinpah projects his own (nearly paranoid) feelings of having been betrayed onto the characters in this movie.

The climax of the movie brings everything together: Hauer uses TV production tricks to turn the tables on Hurt and Lancaster, both. At this point, Hauer becomes something like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs: his world has been violated and now he's going to make everything right. But, in a sense, The Osterman Weekend operates on a more sophisticated moral plane than Straw Dogs, where the "making everything right" really meant "use violence to set everything right".

Here, because the bad guys will always be better at violence, Hauer can't just fight them - he has to expose them and their lies. It's Peckinpah's ironic, somewhat bitter twist, that in order to get at the truth, Hauer must use deception, himself.

The Osterman Weekend isn't a masterpiece. The lead performances are perfunctory and, while some movies made on the cheap look great, this isn't one of them. But it is made with thought and passion. Watching it now, or rather, championing it now, a "problem" that comes up is that it was so prophetic in terms of how it saw televideo culture's invasion of private life that a lot of its insights seem a bit passe now. Still, when it comes to movies about paranoia and surveillance, The Osterman Weekend stands behind only a few - The Conversation and Blow Out - and is as worthy of some critical love and attention as better-received movies like The Parallax View.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Time Out of Joint Top Ten List: 1996

My favorite movies from 1996:
  1. Fargo
  2. Palookaville
  3. Hamlet
  4. Flirting with Disaster
  5. Kingpin
  6. Fly Away Home
  7. Tree's Lounge
  8. Chungking Express
  9. Ransom
  10. Supercop 2

I also like: The Whole Wide World, The Frighteners, My Favorite Season, Trainspotting, Mission: Impossible, Multiplicity, MST3K: The Movie, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Star Trek: First Contact, Super Cop, and Crime Story.

My take: Quentin Tarantino doesn't really make an appearance (although I believe his company released Chungking Express here in the states), but I can see his presence all over this list, which is filled with "quirky" movies about sad-sack criminals and low-lifes and Hong Kong imports. Palookaville, is, IMHO, criminally underrated.

Time Out of Joint Top Ten List: 1981

My favorite movies from 1981:
  1. Blow Out
  2. Modern Romance
  3. Scanners
  4. My Dinner with Andre
  5. Atlantic City
  6. Pennies from Heaven
  7. The Evil Dead
  8. Excalibur
  9. The Aviator's Wife
  10. Cutter's Way

I also like: The Road Warrior, Gallipoli, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dogs of War, Time Bandits, Escape from New York, The Fox and the Hound, and Southern Comfort.

My take: A good year for Louis Malle and for B-movie fans.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Movie Chat: Links and Lists

I love it when David Bordwell uses his, um, encyclopedic knowledge of film history for good, like he does here (via Andy Horbal's February links page) when he puts the slap down on Variety's claim that Thomas Schlamme pioneered the "walk and talk" shot.

Bordwell has some interesting, and nicely-illustrated, stuff to say. For example, he notes that the walk-and-talk is particularly suited to movies/shows that take place in "institutional" spaces like hospitals or police stations.

He goes on to point out the lack of variety in the way contemporary filmmakers stage dialogue scenes. According to Bordwell, nowadays, directors tend to use either the walk-and-talk or the stand-and-deliver, but in old-time Hollywood movies, they would spice things up with more elaborate blocking, stage business, and camera movement.

Personally, I prefer that kind of staging - for one thing, I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for performers, giving them more space to work with. "Lost" techniques like these keep me going back to old movies.

Also, I had fun following and participating in this conversation about movie list-making on Andy Horbal's blog itself. Last weekend I travelled to Worcester, MA for an annual list party that my undergrad film professor throws for some of his dedicated film buff students. It was lots of fun, and it has inspired lots of thinking about movies, lists, and arts & culture stuff in general, some of which should make its way to blog form over the next few weeks.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Movie Chat: Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine

So, I can see why some cine-buffs are disappointed that this movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. And I can also see why someone who rented this movie because it received a nomination might be a little disappointed with it. It's a small movie and I don't really think it's all that original. It's essentially National Lampoon's Vacation with the Griswolds replaced by a family with indie movie quirks - a father who's an inspirational speaker who needs inspiration, a son who's taken a vow of silence, a grandad who's addicted to heroin, a gay uncle who just failed a suicide attempt, a slightly nerdy little girl with a beauty pageant obsession.

I didn't really buy any of the quirky family stuff - that is, I didn't buy their quirks individually (I thought the son's entire arc was entirely unconvincing, for instance) and, more importantly, I never really bought them as a genuine family unit (as opposed to Vacation, where the "wacky" family dynamic feels like the real thing).


The movie still kind of worked for me and there were moments that I thought were really quite nice. For instance: the look of satisfaction on Steve Carell's face after he's helped everyone push-start the family's VW bus perfectly captured the way that succeeding at a brainless, exhausting physical task can sometimes (momentarily) keep emotional and spiritual depression at bay. It's a tiny moment, but it's so true to life that it makes me want to forgive the parts of the movie that seem like they were dreamed up by screenwriters who have seen too many indie movies about dysfunctional families.

I also give the filmmakers a lot of points for not treating Greg Kinnear's character as harshly as I feared they might.

Anyway, I admired the movie's generosity enough that I was willing enough to let down my defenses and enjoy the uplifting ending on its own terms.

I'm less forgiving of the filmmaker's failure to give Toni Collette all that much to do: I liked her (along with everyone else in the cast), but her talent seems wasted here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Movie Chat: Idiocracy


The premise is a killer and though the follow through doesn't quite do it justice, I enjoyed the movie overall. I had a similar feeling when I first watched Office Space though: I like Mike Judge as a writer, but as a filmmaker he's just barely adequate. I mean, he's a step above Kevin Smith in terms of staging and pacing, but his gags and his, dare I say it, comic vision deserve a little better.

Idiocracy is not as uneven as Office Space, but it generally feels more forced and lacks Office Space's laid back charm.

Still, I think Idiocracy compares favorably to most contemporary comedies, which says more about the low quality of most contemporary comedies than it does about Idiocracy.

My favorite Hollywood comedy of the last few years was The 40-Year Old Virgin, which was well-written and had a great cast, but the best thing I can say about the filmmaking is that it's professional and doesn't look like a half-assed job.

But none of the movies I've seen have compared to some TV comedies from the last few years: Arrested Development, anything with or having to do with Ricky Gervais, or Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Maybe I'm being a little too vague, but what I'd like to see more of are movie comedies that build gags through their moviemaking and not only through their stars' clowning. Not that there's anything wrong with the clowning, but I want the more elaborate gags of a movie like Used Cars or comedies get part of their humor from a unique visual style like Dick.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Movie Chat: The Queen

The Queen

Very smart and expertly-made, but narrow and a tad superficial.

But my response probably has something to do with my inability to take Diana-worship seriously.

I mean, I get, on an intellectual level, why the British public reacted the way they did, but I still think the whole circus was ridiculous. If anything, the "Americanization" of British society and the "celebritization" of the Royals seems like a better subject for someone like Preston Sturges or Ricky Gervais than it does a screenwriter and director who don't really think it is something to be concerned about, but rather something to accept and "get over".

I kind of see things the way my friend Nick Braccia does, who told me while we were chatting about this issue: "I enjoy the royals: I appreciate their connection to history. I appreciate that I can look at someone and say, 'That is the great grandson of Queen Victoria.' It somehow makes history more real to me, and, thus, I can view and assess things in greater context, rather than just the 'now', as if the world were invented when I was born, which is how I think most 'Americanized' people (or Americans) behave."

More substantially than its fuzzy point-of-view towards Diana-worship, I think the screenplay dropped the ball when it came to dealing with how self-serving the British press's attack on the Queen really was.

My guess is that The Queen falls into a certain class of based-on-reality, dealing-with-real-issues type movies that will not really work for you if you don't already share the moviemaker's underlying assumptions about the material. Another one for me is Capote, where I (a) don't buy that In Cold Blood is all that great and, even if I did, (b) don't think it is that surprising that a famous writer could actually be a cold-blooded opportunist. Coming at this from the other side, I really like 24 Hour Party People, but I can see how if you don't like the bands and the music it deals with or think that the punk, new wave, rave are inconsequential, the movie might come off as much ado about nothing.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Movie Chat: Monster House

Monster House

I'm not the biggest fan of these CGI animated movies (which is a nice, non-confrontational way of saying that Shrek makes my eyes bleed), so I wasn't expecting to like this as much as I did. It's a fully-realized, note-perfect, nicely cast homage to Joe Dante's 1980s movies, like Gremlins and The 'burbs, set in a Suburban America somewhere between E.T.'s and A Nightmare on Elm Street's.

Still, though, by the last half of the movie, the CGI had gotten on my nerves.

Since they were making a movie that owed so much in terms of plot, characters, tone, and style to those Dante movies, I wonder why they didn't, you know, use some of the same techniques - live actors, models, puppets, with computer FX to tie everything together. While I was watching it, I couldn't help thinking that the choice to use CGI was an empty one - aesthetically, at least. I mean, I suppose that the CGI allowed them to show the monster and the "actors" in the screen at the same time without any line separating FX from "Real People", but, for me, it wasn't really worth it. There's lots of impressive moviemaking on display, but every few seconds something would happen that would drive home the point that I was watching little computer people in a little computer world. For instance, when the two kids play basketball, the bounce of the ball just seemed off somehow.

It also doesn't help that most of the scenes inside the monster house look like they could be taken out of a junior version of the Alone in the Dark video game.

It's not like this movie is aimed at little kids (it has a PG rating for scary situations, crude humor, and "brief language"), who have been trained by Pixar to respond only to shiny, flashy, loud computer graphics. If I were 12 years old, I would definitely appreciate being able to watch a flesh-and-blood Maggie Gyllenhaal in a tight, punk rock T-shirt.

Slightly more seriously, by going with computer animated actors, they lose the, um, liveliness that a living, breathing performer brings to a horror movie. With horror movies, more so than with any other kind of movie, I want to have a direct, emotional connection with the actors. That's why Jennifer Connelly is so great in a movie like Dark Water: she opens up to the camera and we can read and respond to all the subtle - and not so subtle - shifts in emotion on her face. She lets us tune into her character's vulnerability and gives us the illusion that there's actual human emotions at stake.

So my thinking here is that the decision to use CGI here is not so much a creative choice as a marketing one: it lets an otherwise conventional movie stand out from the crowd and it gives some filmmakers a chance to show off their latest toys. (Polar Express, anyone?)

Now, compare Monster House to A Scanner Darkly, where, even if it doesn't work for you, the choice to go with rotoscope animation was made for a substantive, creative reason - it's meant to get across the way that doing drugs can affect your perception of the real world.

Heck, compare Monster House to Over the Hedge, where the choice to go with animation makes sense because actual raccoons don't take direction that well.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Movie Chat: Oscar Facts, The Unwatched Masses, Lists, and Favorites

Edward Copeland goes to the source to try to clear up some Oscar "fact" confusion. I now hope that Little Miss Sunshine wins Best Picture, just so all those people who got their facts wrong, have their predictions come out wrong, too. (Link via The House Next Door).

I'm a big fans of lists - reading lists, year-end best lists , random lists - so I thought Andy Horbal's idea here was pretty neat. There's also an interesting discussion in the comments about the merits of the list Andy is drawing from. As always, I think the best approach to any list is to treat it as a way to start a discussion, not end one. Here's my own 10 best films I've never seen, according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

8 1/2 *
Tokyo Story
City Lights
La Dolce Vita
L'Avventura **
Andrei Rublev
Au Hasard, Balthazar
Wild Strawberries

*I've seen 8 1/2, but it was so long ago that I don't remember much of it and couldn't, in good conscience, talk about it with any authority.
**I've seen parts of L'Avventura on numerous occasions. I've just never sat down to watch it the whole way through.

Looking through the list a little more, my big blind spots are Bergman, Tarkovsky, Ozu, and Bresson. I'll be watching a bunch of Ozu and Bresson over the next few weeks (treating myself to some classics after spending the last few weeks catching up with 2006 releases for an upcoming "list" party), but I think I'm going to save Bergman and Tarkovsky for when I'm, um, older. The big, forehead-slapping, "Why haven't I watched this yet?"-movie is Ikiru - I've seen just about every other Kurosawa movie, so at this point, it's a little embarrassing that I've left this one so long. (Also, check out Andy's interesting business proposition.)

On a semi-related note: my girlfriend and I sat down to watch the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde last night and I mentioned that Frederic March was one of my favorite actors. She said that was meaningless because everyone is my favorite actor. She wasn't being especially fair, there are lots of actors whose work I'm cool to or outright don't like, but I do have quite a few favorites.

Most film buffs are like this though, aren't they? We have lots of little favorites - favorite westerns, favorite character actors, favorite silent film directors, favorite horror movie actresses, etc. I could pretty easily start to list off my 100 favorite actors (March would definitely be there), which might seem a little indiscriminate, but I've seen lots of performances from lots of different actors.

Maybe I should just start using more specific language - i.e., Frederic March is one of my favorite old school, Hollywood actors: look for the way he tones down his theatrical style to make it work for the camera - although that might be a little too pedantic.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Comics Chat: Sloth

In his review of this book, Dirk Deppey writes:
It's always astounded me that Gilbert Hernandez doesn't enjoy the same sort of respect and acclamation that, say, Chris Ware or Art Spiegelman take for granted. He's a more expressive cartoonist than Ware, a far better storyteller than Spiegelman, and both his productivity and command of the comics language equal that of either of them. Despite being one of the most creatively fecund cartoonists currently working the English language, Hernandez nonetheless hasn't reached the high-profile publishing success that many other, lesser cartoonists have achieved in the current graphic-novel boom...

Instead, Beto's publishers -- aside from Fantagraphics, of course -- have been companies like Vertigo and Dark Horse, publishing houses with one foot in standard genre-comics production and one uneasy foot in literary waters ("literary" being an something of a generous assessment where Vertigo's concerned), companies lacking the marketing reach and literary prestige necessary to put him over the top.

Well, Dirk probably knows this (and may even have written it elsewhere), but there are a couple factors at work here above and beyond Beto's publishers.

If you take almost any issue of Chris Ware's ACME Novelty Library and show it to a non-comics person who is reasonably into other kinds of arts and culture stuff, they will probably be wowed just by skimming through it. Looking at Ware's intricate, diagram-like pages, you can tell right away that something exciting, interesting, different is going on. Even if you end up not reading the story, it leaves an impression.

Beto's work in Sloth, Grip, and Love & Rockets, doesn't jump off the page and grab you in the same way. His visual style is much more traditional - Dan De Carlo and Steve Ditko by way of Robert Crumb - and while his narrative style is unique and challenging, you have to read (at least) a few pages for that to really sink in.

Anyway, I liked Sloth quite a bit. (Not as much as his Palomar stories and not as much as the, IMHO, criminally underrated Grip, but that's a pretty high bar for me - they make my all-time favorite list.) It shares a lot with Charles Burns's Black Hole, although its horror elements are much more in the background and its version of mundane suburbia is a lot less menacing.

Compared to Beto's other stuff, the character design is pretty tame - he doesn't get as, um, creative with his female characters' anatomies and I kind of missed that Crumb-like aspect of his drawing.

The story has some neat twists-and-turns that require a little Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive-style figuring out. I haven't got a 100% handle on what we're meant to think is actually happening on every page, but I'm intrigued by the mystery elements and Beto's handling of them is assured enough that I trust re-reading the book will make everything clear.

My one real, semi-major reservation is that Beto's use of the "teenagers living in soul-stifling suburbia" theme feels a little too generic, almost as if he's just paying lip service to it. It shows up so often in lit-fic comics (but not usually in Beto's) that I can't help but feel that his including it here is a way of pandering to the lit-fic comics audience.

Maybe I'm being unfair: I probably would have lapped this up when I was an alienated teenager (though I've never lived in suburbia). Still, though Beto doesn't serve up any cliches, I think in Sloth this theme isn't as well supported by specific, true-to-life details as it is in Black Hole or Ghost World.

Regardless, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who wanted to get a taste of what Beto can do. It's a lot less daunting than that huge Palomar book and it's a more straightforward story than Grip.

Blog Chat: Film Buffs

This dialogue between Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich from The House Next Door is pretty interesting. I'm going to nitpick and shoot spitballs at it from the sidelines here, but if you're at all interested in concepts like "the future of movies" and "the death of cinema" it'll be worth a read.

First, I thought it was funny that while they point out the cyclical nature of those "death of film" think pieces, they didn't acknowledge that their complaints about fuddy-duddies like Paul Schrader ignoring non-narrative cinema are just as cyclical. Ever since Birth of a Nation, Film As Art Guys have been decrying the dominance of "conventional narrative" and evangelizing non-narrative film.

I used to be pretty gung-ho about non-narrative movies. Well, gung-ho about the idea of them - I have to admit that there weren't many actual non-narrative movies that I enjoyed watching.

Nowadays, though, my main interest is in stories and storytelling, and, at least when it comes to movies, books, and comics, give me Steven Spielberg, Gore Vidal, and Peter Bagge. I still like to read and talk a little bit about the artsier, "exploration and expansion of the medium" stuff, but I'm no longer driven to keep up with it. (I'm no longer driven to keep up with much of anything, which is a very liberating feeling).

I'd guess that most people are going to be like me: we go to the movies to get a story.

But, as this dialogue at 2Blowhards suggests, non-narrative "movies" have a future at YouTube. I'd wager that while there will never be a big audience demand for feature length, large scale, non-narrative film experiences, there will be a growing demand for small scale, five-minutes-or-less, non-narrative video clips, made with a sense of fun, outside of (or at least peripheral to) any existing avant-garde film/video movements, by amateurs and hobbyists.

Second, my major gripe with the piece is the shrill tone they take when they're attacking retrograde ideas about film. Who do they think they are - the film critic thought police? Statements like this...
It's a little embarrassing at this point to still be debating the issue of whether or not a movie is less of a movie because it was shot with a camcorder; and whether television can be art; and whether series television is inherently less worthy of attention than, say, your typical mainstream Hollywood genre film. People who catch themselves talking in those terms should cringe and correct themselves, because it's 20th century thinking.

...make me cringe.

Who cares if you're out of it? This constant pressure to keep up, to adopt the latest and most fashionable attitudes toward cinema (or to anything else for that matter) is pretty unpleasant. It doesn't feel all that different from the pressure we get from Big Media to stay on the cutting edge of consumable crap. And there's something a little bullying about their "get on the bus or get run over" language. I don't think these guys are bullies, at all, but I do think they get carried away here. Do they realize how badly they come off to someone who has honest disagreements with them?

Third, Keith writes that:
I do my best not to be closed off to the potentialities of any motion picture: "Hollywood films", "Foreign films", "Avant-garde films", "Home videos"—at a very basic, gut level these distinctions are anathema to me.

But it is a very rare person who is going to like all of these kinds of things equally, because, well, they each offer very different kinds of experiences. No one would say that because you like books you should try to like cook books as much as travel guides as much as volumes of poetry. We're all going to have our preferences: kinds of movies we respond more to than others, kinds of movies we just aren't interested in. Consider that even within a specific "type" of movie - conventional narrative Hollywood stuff - most people are going to have strong preferences for certain genres, styles, subject matter, etc. It always seems a little forced to me when someone proclaims equal love for all of these things (but that might just be because I used to try to force myself into thinking/responding that way).

This has been a little bit of a hobby horse with me lately, but I think criticism of any kind benefits when the critic is honest and upfront about the specific kinds of experiences he or she actually responds to and is interested in.

Tangentially, one of the defining moments of my own career as a film buff came during the first few weeks of my cinema studies program. I was talking with a classmate and I noticed that he had no familiarity with most of the movies I was bringing up (mostly old Hollywood, but also French stuff from the 1930s). After I asked him "Have you seen that?" for the sixth or seventh time, he told me: "I don't like watching movies much. I just really like the idea of cinema." I didn't say anything more about it at the time, but what I have come to realize is that I really don't care about "movies in general". I do, very much, care about specific movies, and I'm very much interested in the people who make them and they methods they use. But "the idea of cinema"? Eh.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Blog Chat: Cinephiles?, Gateways, Plagiarism, More Children of Men

Andy Horbal asks this question over on his blog:
Do you
A) identify with
B) feel alienated by
the term cinephile? Or would you choose
C) none of the above?

I chose B): to me "cinephile" sounds too much like "audophile" which I (perhaps unfairly) associate with people who are really into their stereo system. I prefer "film buff", partly because it's a lot more casual sounding.

Blake Bell has a thoughtful post on the mainstream comics industry's delusions about coming up with gateway comics.

Eddie Campbell has a (perhaps) provocative post about plagiarism, Roy Lichtenstein, and IP. He quotes R.G. Collingwood:

Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it; not a sketch in Punch, but a full-sized picture for next year's Academy. I will not rely upon the hanging committee's sense of humour to the extent of guaranteeing that they would exhibit it; but if they did, we should get brighter Academy exhibitions. Or if he cannot improve on his friends' ideas, at least let him borrow them; it will do him good to try fitting them into works of his own, and it will be an advertisement for the creditor. An absurd suggestion? Well, I am only proposing that modern artists should treat each other as Greek dramatists or Renaissance painters or Elizabethan poets did. If any one thinks that the law of copyright has fostered better art than those barbarous times could produce, I will not try to convert them.

I bet you can find this kind of cross-pollination with the folks making videos for sharing on YouTube, too. Hmmm... Thinking about it, the line between the people producing original content for YouTube and the people just uploading found/captured videos looks pretty fuzzy.

And Sean Collins responds to my post on Children of Men. Once again, I find myself not only agreeing with Sean, but wishing that I had put it this way myself first:
...I still found the dystopia convincing and frightening, and I think that at least in part that comes from approaching those elements as horror... Children of Men fails as a dystopia that one could logically arrive at from its constituent elements, I think, but succeeds despite that because of the way those elements add up as a big frightening collage of Things That Are Horrifying. Domestic terrorism, ecological and economic breakdown, torture, prisoner abuse, large-scale human rights violations by a Western nation, internecine warfare between "freedom fighters," increased video surveillance, assassinations, plausibly deniable action by the government against journalists and dissidents, Abu Ghraib, Vladimir Putin, the drug war, limited nuclear exchanges, pandemics, Islamic fascism, urban warfare, intrusive media and advertising presence, euthanasia, and (I think this is the real emotional key to why the film works and I haven't seen anyone comment on it) the constant presence of animals in great danger, as undiluted an conveyor of helplessness as it gets--put it all together and it works in the same way that, for example, The Shining takes axes and ghosts and corpses and haunted houses and child abuse and rivers of blood and isolation and psychics and puts them all together and that works.

The more I think about Children of Men, the less my quarrels with its ideas seem to matter. Usually, it goes the other way around for me, as it did with The Queen, which I saw around the same time, where the nagging, nay saying voice in my head was relatively quiet while I was watching the movie, but grew louder the more I thought about it.

On the other hand, I still think there's something a little underhanded about the way Cuaron et al. do a complete 180 on the novel's take on immigration. And it's the fact that the novel makes more sense regarding this issue that keeps me a little bit suspicious of Cuaron's choices.

Movie Chat: American Graffiti and The Hollywood Knights

So, there are a couple of things I do, that, uncharitably, annoy me when other people do them.

It drives me crazy when someone is talking about a well-known book/movie/etc. and someone else just has to bring up a related but (relatively) more obscure book/movie/etc. and tries to pass it off as "better" than the better known work in some way - more authentic, more complex, more direct, more accomplished, etc. "Who has the more obscure taste?" is a game that gets played with unfortunate frequency within pop-crit circles. Like: you're trying to talk about Pet Sounds but I can't shut up about Surf's Up.

I bring this up because I am about to do just that and I want to let you know that I know how irritating this can be.

I first saw American Graffiti over 12 years ago. I enjoyed it, but I wasn't blown away by it and I remembered it as being limp: George Lucas's nostalgia was a little too sticky and his characters a little too nice.

But I never really gave the movie much more thought, until I (much later) saw The Hollywood Knights, which I fell in love with in that special way I reserve for thoroughly disreputable movies. I mean, for most movie buffs, Hollywood Knights would be, at best, a kind of guilty pleasure. For me, though, Hollywood Knights is a desert island movie.


Hollywood Knights is - pretty shamelessly - an American Graffiti rip-off. But (and here it is) from the first time I saw it, I couldn't help but feel that this movie was American Graffiti done right. The whole early 60s, SoCal teenage scene in Hollywood Knights seemed more lively and more specifically observed and drawn - more true-to-life - than the way Lucas mythologized it in American Graffiti.

But as time passed, I started wondering if my memory was trustworthy on this movie. I mean, although my admiration and appreciation of Hollywood Knights was genuine, I didn't know if I was making out American Graffiti to be worse then it really was in order to prop up an obscurity I clicked with at the expense of a popular near-classic.

Was my mind playing tricks on me?

Well - I decided to record American Graffiti on my DVR a few weeks ago because (1) my girlfriend had never seen it and I thought it was something she might like and (2) I had grown suspicious of my memory of the movie. Maybe I had just started telling people I thought it was "overrated" as part of the contrarian pose I often like to take to stir up argument, er, discussion.

The verdict:

If anything, I remembered a better movie than what I saw.

(I think) Hollywood Knights really is a livelier movie and one that has a stronger sense of time and place, without pandering (all that much) to its audience's nostalgia. Knights is raunchier and funnier, too.

I was unimpressed by the performances in American Graffiti. Paul Le Mat would later play the same role better in another Mutrux flick, Aloha, Bobby and Rose, and Dreyfuss, electric playing the unlikeable lead in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, is just cute and smug here.

But here's the Big Thing That Bugged Me:

Now, I know George Lucas is a car nut (the one and only conversation I ever had with him was about race cars), but he shoots the cars in this movie like they're parading down Main Street on the way to a classic car show. None of the driving - except (maybe) for the final showdown between Le Mat and Harrison Ford - seems real.

So, I'm tempted to draw a comparison to Lucas's later Star Wars efforts: he sets up all these pretty toys that he seems to care about a lot, but he struggles when he tries to do anything interesting with them. Or maybe: he doesn't even care if he does anything interesting with them - for him showing the cars/spaceships/aliens/etc. might just be enough.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Movie Chat: Double Features

This post at The House Next Door got me thinking about the worst double feature I ever attended.

I had always wanted to see Irvin Kershner's Loving, which, though available now on DVD, used to be really hard to find. I was pretty excited when I saw that the Film Forum was showing it as part of their American New Wave, Late 60s, early 70s series (this was back in 1996). It was the second movie of a double bill with another George Segal movie from 1970, Where's Poppa? I'm a big George Segal fan, so I was happy to see both of them, both for the first time.

Now, I liked Where's Poppa? a lot: it was funny and raunchy and had no sense of good tatse to get in the way of the fun. The crowd liked it, too. The problem was, they liked it so much and had such a good time at it, that, when Loving came on after a 10 minute break, they were still in the mood for laughs. They seemed tone deaf to Loving's minor key melancholy and, instead, they treated it as camp.

The problem is that the costumes and sets of Loving did look funny to a 1990s audience - mainly because they're so late-60s/early-70s. But the movie itself is serious and weighty. An audience that hadn't been revved up by Where's Poppa?, but instead had been treated to an even bigger downer of a movie like Born to Win, might have gotten onto its wavelength after a few titters at the actors' haridos.

Although maybe not. In my experience, Film Forum revivals tend to have the worst audiences in New York City. I mean, audiences for horror movies on 86th St. will be rowdier and louder, but that's what you'd expect for horror movies, which attract a lot of teens out looking for a good time. But you might think that someone going to the Film Forum to see Loving or Rio Bravo or Sunrise would be enough of a film buff to know how to behave at a theater. But these revivals end up attracting:

  • (a) Hipsters who think it is so funny that in, say, Rio Bravo, John Wayne talks so much like someone doing a John Wayne impression, that they laugh every time he opens his mouth.
  • (b) People who watch old movies for primarily campy pleasures, so they end up treating any old movie as if it were a camp experience.

Because (1) I've seen enough old movies that it isn't a novel, alien experience, (2) I generally take these movies fairly seriously (or, at least, I try to meet them on their own terms), and (3) my approach towards movie appreciation is almost always non-ironic, I get annoyed pretty quickly when the folks around me respond as if everything on the screen is there for their detatched, knowing, amusement.

Oh, my dream double bill would be two by Floyd Mutrux: Dusty and Sweets McGee (because I've never seen it) and Aloha, Bobby and Rose, because I never get tired of seeing it and I missed it the last time it was playing at the Film Forum.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Blog Chat: Woody, Translations, Super Heroes

Half Sigma posts part one of his take on Woody Allen's Manhattan, a movie he obviously likes, but, refreshingly, isn't reverential about. I really like the commonsense analysis and the way Half Sigma brings the kind of sociological insights that anchor most of his posts to bear on the movie. Favorite line: "Does any woman really want to go to bed with the entire faculty of MIT? Does the faculty of MIT know about this?"

I've always been a little suspicious of the "no translations ever" crowd, so I was happy to see Thursday's very nice post on how translation relates to other interpretive arts. What's interesting to me is that by looking translation in this context, the anti-translation bias seems like a part of the phenomenon of book worship.

I haven't read either of the two comics that Marc Singer blogs about in this post, but I've read enough super hero comics that I completely buy the general point he makes.

Movie Chat: Children of Men

Children of Men

Like Sean, I didn't know anything about the one-shot set pieces in Children of Men going into the movie. Unlike Sean, I did notice them during the movie - specifically, during the long sequence in the car - and they took my breath away. But, like Sean, I don't buy the argument that "the movie's technical proficiency is... evidence of its soullessness".

I did have problems with the movie: as speculative fiction, I think, compared to the source novel, it was incoherent. This makes sense in that P.D. James is a conservative Christian and Cuaron and his screenwriters are all leftists. The world that they extrapolate from the central idea (humans have lost the ability to have children) doesn't hold up to scrutiny all that well, but that's almost beside the point.

(Almost. I found the political/social commentary in the margins of Children of Men pretty annoying, but not nearly as annoying as the political/social commentary in the margins of Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien, which really soured that movie for me. In Children of Men, they don't seem out of place, but in Y Tu Mama Tambien the overt political statements seem inappropriately tacked-on, as if, every ten minutes during Manhattan, Woody Allen had shown a shot of a homeless man, or another image of urban blight, and we heard a John Gielgud voice-over about how cold the city can be to many of its inhabitants.)

Still, though, Children of Men was such an overwhelming emotional and aesthetic experience, that I can ignore its more questionable political ideas. This is why I'll never be able to be a rigorous, brainy, conservative film critic like Alan Dale: I'm too willing to ignore a movie's dopey ideas if it sweeps me away.

And speaking of getting swept away (and dopey ideas), Children of Men felt like Spielberg at his best, which for me includes War of the Worlds and Munich, two movies that share a kinship with this one. Like War of the Worlds, Children of Men builds its visions of the apocalypse with ripped-from-the-headlines images. Like Munich, the political context ends up being a lot less important to the way I experienced the movie than the protagonist's moral journey.

I've enjoyed Cuaron's work in the past and I've almost always been impressed by it, even if it some of it rubbed me the wrong way, but this movie makes me think that he's one of the few filmmakers - like Spielberg - who can accomplish exactly what they set out to do.

Monday, February 5, 2007

More on Preferences

So, following up on this post:

If you're driven to be a film critic, then you probably:

  • like movies
  • like talking about movies
  • like picking movies apart
  • like comparing movies
  • like coming up with arguments about movies
  • like classifying movies
  • like coming up with arguments about certain classifications of movies

Even if you also, say, like watching movies for relaxation (as I do), you're probably not going to be doing film criticism if that's the only (or even primary) reason you watch movies.

Looking at those likes, it makes sense that if you're a film critic, you will probably value movies that:

  • give you something to talk about (the movie is "about something") - Rashomon is about "the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy", The Rules of the Game is about the death of aristocratic European culture
  • offer a reward for being picked apart - it can be satisfying to puzzle through and work out a "solution" to Mulholland Drive or to uncover a single motivation for all the unconventional narrative choices in Before the Revolution
  • reference other movies - because you get to make use of prior knowledge, which usually feels good
  • play with conventions - recognizing patterns and recognizing when they are purposefully being broken is also satisfying

Which means you might be in danger of undervaluing (relatively, of course) movies that:

  • don't lend themselves to being the subject of an argumentative essay
  • have a straightforward meaning and purpose
  • deal with conventional material in a conventional style
  • aren't, at all, self-conscious

Of course, we've all seen cases where a critic-type finds that he likes one of these second type of movies and ends up creating a convoluted and (usually) unconvincing type one argument about it to rationalize why he liked it in the first place. (I've been guilty of this myself, on more than one occasion, although I can thankfully say, I don't do it all that much anymore).

To come at this from a slightly different direction. Let's say you asked a random guy to give you a list of the "5 Greatest Movies Ever" and he hands you a list that looks like this:

  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Serenity
  3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  5. The Matrix

It probably would make sense to say to yourself: "Hey, this guy is a sci-fi buff - and maybe even a Trekkie. I'll have to keep that in mind when he talks about the kinds of movies, books, etc. that he thinks are worthwhile."

So, if you take another random guy and get this list...

  1. Breathless
  2. Persona
  3. Rashomon
  4. Mulholland Drive
  5. The Searchers

...well, you wouldn't be out of line to think something along the same lines: "Hey, this guys seems to like movies that require lots of interpretation and 'figuring out'. I'll have to keep that in mind when he tells me about the kind of movies, books, etc. that he thinks are worthwhile."

Critics probably do themselves a disservice when they try to stand in for a general audience as a kind of movie-watching everyman. I'm sure it's the democratic/egalitarian aura surrounding movies - and pop culture in general - that leads them to do this, but it would be better just to come clean with their preferences.

1st Place for Something

Considering the amount of work I don't put into this, I'm pretty happy that if you Google for "underrated directors", The Forager Blog is the number one result.

Movie Chat: Talladega Nights

Talladega Nights

I considered not writing about this movie, but I realized that was because I'm not very good at writing about comedies (which is ironic, in a way, since I wrote my thesis on "comedy", but that's a little different). But this is just a blog, so why not practice?

I didn't like this as much as I liked Anchorman, which I thought had a unique vibe for a big dumb comedy. Anchorman seemed loose and quirky with the best gags coming out of left field.
Talladega was funny enough, but the only thing that really got me laughing (as opposed to chuckling or snickering) was the "Baby Jesus" routine. I liked the cast, for the most part, but I thought Sacha Baron Cohen's entire role was misconceived.

And I suppose it is unfair to criticize a big dumb comedy on the merits of how well it deals with its subject matter, but I think it misses out by centering on a feud between a redneck and a Frenchman rather than dealing with a conflict actually drawn from the NASCAR world - like rednecks vs. those mid-western and west coast pretty boys that advertisers and sponsors love so much (Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, for example). Maybe that would have been too much like Days of Thunder, though.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Movie Chat: Brick


I understand why people responded to this movie so positively: it looks great and it seems to achieve exactly what it is going for. Which impresses me to an extent (especially considering its relatively low budget), but, really, what it achieved just didn't interest me for more than 15 minutes. It felt like another "one note wonder", and, essentially, it's a one-joke movie: high school kids caught up in a Dashiell Hammett short story, tossing around lines of hardboiled dialogue right out of a 1930s proto-noir.

The style is neat and, like I said, for about 15 minutes that was enough. But the stylized dialogue doesn't have a purpose, or, at least, it doesn't have a purpose that I bought into.
I've seen some comments by the film's fans along the lines of "the style is meant to comment on how kids today are growing up too fast" (or "how kids today are forced to deal with adult concerns"). I guess I not only disagree with this thesis in general - if anything, kids today aren't growing up at all (although no one seems to be particularly grown up in America these days) - but the movie doesn't dramatize this idea, really, so it seems like a notion that the film's fans have tacked onto the movie as a kind of rationalization.

Of course, I'm not even really sure that's what the filmmakers are up to, but if they aren't, what's the heightened, hardboiled dialogue there for?

My guess is that it's the other way around: they wanted to do something in a Hammett-like style, but doing a standard noir would be, well, standard (and another Red Rock West would be soooo 1990s), but with high school kids it stands out - it's a hook, a gimmick. It isn't a bad gimmick, but, again, after 15 minutes I saw that they pulled it off and they didn't have any other tricks. A tightrope act that lasts ten minutes is great: one that lasts an hour-and-a-half might be an impressive display of endurance, but the thrill just isn't there at the end.

Really, though, I've been spoiled by Veronica Mars, which is about a teenager who is forced to grow up too fast. But because that show deals with specific cases (i.e., there's lots of characters on it who are in a perpetual state of adolescence) the show's point never seems half-baked.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, though, and I'm looking forward to seeing him in the adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Killshot.


Commenting on Spengler's recent piece on modern art, Peter Suderman writes:

Really, I think the difference for the modern/abstract art and music lover, or at least for me anyway, is that while most people experience art and music in a fairly surface, sensory manner, and therefore gravitate, quite reasonably, toward art that's comfortable and pleasant feeling, I tend to experience art from a far more argumentative, analytical perspective. Most people prefer stuff that calms the senses; I, and a minority of other cantankerous folks (many of whom tend to be critic-types) prefer material that riles the mind. This is often a source of frustration for critic types who feel that everyone should follow their experience, and although I don't propose a solution, it does seem to me that critics and others of similar disposition should generally refrain from castigating general audiences for not getting something. (Other critics, however, are fair game.) [emp. mine]

I think this points to something that most everyone acknowledges during casual conversations about the arts, but that doesn't often make its way into on-the-page (or screen) critical writing: your preferences, background, etc. are going to play a huge role in determining what kinds of movies, books, music, etc. engages you, what kinds bore you, and what kinds just put you off.

For example, it doesn't surprise me at all that Grant Morrison was named the #1 comics writer by comics bloggers: his comics are written as if their primary purpose is to be blogged about. That is, they require and reward a certain kind of allegorical interpretation and symbolic puzzle solving that is enhanced by the cross-blog-pollination of interpretations and solutions.

Another favorite example (which I've stolen from Michael Blowhard), the canonization of Ulysses by academics probably has something to do with how well that book rewards academic-style reading and criticism.

I suppose I'd, er, prefer it if more critics would be up front about their own preferences. I mean, I know it's best to read any kind of value judgment in a piece criticism as if the author had stuck an "In my opinion" in front of it, but revealing personal preferences gives your audience a better handle on the way you approach art and makes your value judgments a lot more useful.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Movie Chat: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia

The movie looks so good in terms of design and it hits just the right mood and tone for this kind of neo-noir that I wish I could have enjoyed it more a la Michael Blowhard and the guys at The House Next Door.

I'm a big supporter and admirer of Brian De Palma, but I don't think the script or the original James Ellroy novel are really to blame here. In the past De Palma has done more with less, but he doesn't put anything on the screen here that hooked me and reeled me in, so I was left admiring the movie's production values without ever being engaged by it.

Unlike Snake Eyes or Raising Cain (which are definitely "minor" De Palma), it doesn't have charismatic and engaging lead performances or any filmmaking-muscle-flexing set pieces that make movies buff like me drool.

Unlike Femme Fatale, it isn't a "through-composed", arty, neo-noir-ish exercise.

And unlike The Fury, The Untouchables, or Mission to Mars, De Palma isn't able to get into the pulpy material and give it conceptual coherence and emotional heft.

My diagnosis: De Palma falls short of making another one of those pulp opera experiences because he misdirects his actors. Josh Harnett, Aaron Eckhart, and Scarlett Johansson look like they fit in their roles, but their performances are all pretty fuzzy. Hilary Swank is pretty entertaining as the femme fatale, but the other leads just don't seem very game.

I think Mia Kirshner, who appears in only three scenes, gives the performance of the movie: her aspiring actress character is, herself, trying to show off the ability to move from artifice to "genuine" emotion and back again and Kirshner turns this into a perfect little po-mo portrait of the artist as a would-be starlet. It's on a smaller scale, but it reminded me of what Naomi Watts does in Mulholand Drive. Kirshner pops out of the movie: she creates a fully-realized character in the middle of a cast of fuzzy copies of characters from past noirs.

Kirshner is definitely helped by how her role was conceived: she's the only actor in the movie given the lines and the space to create a realistic, detailed character - everyone else is forced into trying to do a type.

I've liked Josh Harnett in other movies, but when he's supposed to be larger-than-life or kind of mythic (as he is here and in Sin City), I just don't buy him. He's too nice and too dull and he doesn't have the kind of showy, technical, actory skills that can juice up roles like these. He can be better than fine when he's playing average nice guys (in Hollywood Homicide, where he's funny and gives his character a natural, believable quirkiness), but he seems out of place when he's not playing a standard juvenile lead.

Harnett is another one of these "pretty boys" who have replaced actual leading men in Hollywood movies, so it may not be surprising that De Palma can't get him to work in this part which requires an actual leading man.

I wonder if part of the problem is that De Palma was aiming for something partway between the European-style genre doodling of Femme Fatale and the highly-charged genre opera of his big-budget Hollywood entertainments (The Untouchables and Mission to Mars, say). The movie isn't playful enough to work as the former and isn't emotionally engaging enough to work as the latter.