Friday, December 30, 2005

Top 10: 1975

As my 2005 list is still a few weeks away, the next few weeks will deal with the best movies from thirty, twenty, and ten years ago. First, 1975:

1. Nashville (Altman)
2. Jaws (Spielberg)
3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Forman)
4. The Passenger (Antonioni)
5. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet)
6. The Day of the Locust (Schlesinger)
7. Tommy (Russell)
8. Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa)
9. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman)
10. Love and Death (Allen)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Easy, my brother!

Jeff Daniels is painful to watch in The Squid and the Whale. Not because of any issues with his acting - it's his best performance since The Purple Rose of Cairo. His character, Bernard, is a struggling writer and English professor recently separated from his wife Joan (Laura Linney). What aches is that Bernard personifies every irritating trait of your average collegiate: he's pretentious, dismissive, elitist, self-important, and pompous. For Bernard, education is just a weapon for his passive-aggressive narcissism. He makes for a great movie character, yet I could not imagine spending more than five minutes in a room with Bernard before eating my own hands.

The Squid and the Whale is based in some part on writer/director Noah Baumbach's own parents, and while I can hardly say which parts are fact or fiction, it does resonate with the sort of truthfulness that can only be found by personal experience. It is about Bernard and Joan's separation, and the disparate effects it has on their children, teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger brother Frank (Owen Klein). The kids are shuffled back and forth between their parents' homes, and each pledges allegiance to a different parent, Walt to his father and Frank to his mother. Walt parrots his father's already unoriginal opinions (losing interest in reading A Tale of Two Cities after Bernard declares it to be "minor Dickens") and blames his mother for the breakup of the marriage. Frank devolves into a profane, drunken, onanistic "Philistine" (his father's preferred term for non-intellectuals), suffering a gradual breakdown accompanied by Tangerine Dream's sublime Risky Business score. Eventually, Joan begins dating Frank's tennis coach (William Baldwin, in a perfect bit of casting), and Bernard shacks up with a student (Anna Paquin) who writes banal erotica about her "cunt." And all along, their gray, matted cat stares silently, sleepy-eyed, quietly judging them.

At the emotional core of the film is Walt's brief, sad relationship with Sophie (Halley Feiffer), a classmate who loves Walt for exactly who he is. But the son of the professor is too dumb to see what is right in front of him - at one point he comments, "You have too many freckles." Fool. Sophie isn't as articulate as Walt, yet she's clearly more perceptive about people and relationships, and in the contrast between hers and Walt's families, we see how erudition can be a refuge for the emotionally damaged. Similarly, Bernard is unable to comprehend what Joan could see in Ivan the "Philistine;" Bernard and Walt are two alike souls at different stages of their uncomprehending slog.

I realize that none of this suggests what a hilarious movie The Squid and the Whale is. Lawrence Turman, the producer of The Graduate, recommended it to the Images audience in November. And like The Graduate, this film contains dozens of moments that are hilarious because of their lacerating honesty. And while Baumbach offers no easy resolutions for his characters, he does offer all of them (even Bernard) a good share of insight and understanding. When Bernard repeats a gesture from Breathless to his wife in a last-ditch stab at romance, she misses the reference. He's trying to say "I love you," but as he couldn't just say it, it's lost in translation. And when Walt gets in trouble for pawning off a Pink Floyd song as his own, defending himself by saying "It felt like I could have written it," we wonder why this poor misguided boy didn't just write his own song.

But in real life, of course, Baumbach eventually did. More than his earlier films, The Squid and the Whale is a kindred spirit of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, for which Baumbach co-wrote the screenplay. The two films share a fine-tuned sense of outrage at the sins of fathers. But unlike The Life Aquatic, which dooms the son, this film holds out hope that eventually, the son might run away from the father. The titular sculpture (actual title: Clash of the Titans - how cool is that?) scared Walt when he was a boy and would visit the New York Museum of Natural History with Joan; by the end, he can look at it with eyes wide open. It's a damn near perfect metaphor for marriage and parenthood; the fight may last forever, but in the end both titans are just struggling to stay afloat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Trim Bin #8

- I won't be posting my year-end top 10 until the end of January - there are still a few potentially great movies (Brokeback Mountain, The New World, Match Point) that have yet to open in my neck of the woods. Overall, it seems that 2005 was a year that started unusually weakly (there were less than ten that opened before September that I'd give four stars), but things got a lot better in the last three months of the year. A quick preview: I saw Munich with Jess last night, and I'm pretty confident that it's the best movie of the year (with A History of Violence close behind). It's in limited release now; when it opens near you, check it out. Even if you dislike Munich, you won't be able to stop thinking about it.

- Apocalypto. What. The. Fuck.

- Jess and I had a long conversation last night about the purpose of film criticism - of arts criticism in general. I'm not of the popular camp that sees film criticism as a formulaic, objective process - it makes my teeth cringe whenever a writer or film student gives his/her opinions as though they were gospel. However, I like the discipline of articulating my positive and negative responses to a film. When I write about, say, King Kong, I'm really writing about myself in some sense - the review is a catalog of my personal responses, and while I try to write in a way that makes a case of the movie's strengths and weaknesses, in the end it is about nothing as much as my own fetishes, fears, dreams and obsessions. The critics I admire and compulsively read get this, and have elevated film writing to the level of legitimate literature as opposed to summaries and a star system. But at the same time, I'm not really a critic - I'm a filmmaker, and my hope is to share and receive input on my process of discovery. I'd also love it if, eventually, this space was a busy forum for others on similar journeys. Because I firmly that our art experiences - movies we see, the books we read, the songs we hear - are the closest we can ever come to a shared frame of reference, a common reality, and a road that we all travel. This is all a longwinded way of saying that while this blog is a soapbox for my likes and dislikes, whether your favorite movie is La Dolce Vita, Serpico, or Fievel Goes West, it's all good, because in the end we pray at the same temple.

- Finally, rest in peace, Vincent Schiavelli. I hope your last holiday season was merry, and I hope that in your last days, you thought to yourself at least once, "Hey, I'm a Red Lectroid!" You will be missed.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Top 10: Christmas as Ironic Backdrop

1. Bad Santa
2. Gremlins
3. Eyes Wide Shut
4. Die Hard
5. Brazil
6. Lethal Weapon
7. Batman Returns
8. The Godfather
9. Catch Me If You Can
10. American Psycho

Good tidings.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cooper. I might have known.

King Kong is not at all the movie I expected it to be. Early reports about the three-hour length should have tipped me off that this was not going to be an ordinary holiday tentpole film. Indeed, Peter Jackson's remake has more in common with Titanic or The Godfather than Jurassic Park - it's a personal, overstuffed, audacious, and downright maniacal ape epic. Everything positive and negative you've heard about Kong is true, and I can't urge you strongly enough to check it out. You have to see this.

The film opens with a breathtaking recreation of New York in the early 1930's, and it's a version of the city that is at once authentic and dreamlike. At the center of the film are three characters - Carl Denham (Jack Black), a driven, slightly mad filmmaker; Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), a writer taken against his will to Denham's latest shoot; and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a struggling actress plucked off the street by Denham to be his leading lady. The heart of the film lies somewhere between Denham, an arist and showman driven, John Landis-style, to ignore the dangers that lie ahead, and Ann, who (in a performance that echoes Watts' Betty from Mulholland Drive) is a head-in-the-clouds romantic with a belief that all love stories must end tragically. These three, along with a literal boatload of supporting characters, embark on a journey a mysterious, uncharted destination known as Skull Island.

It is when they arrive at the island, as first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) quotes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that it becomes clear Jackson has more on his mind than cheap scares in DTS. Kong succeeds for the same reason that The Lord of the Rings did - Jackson never condescends to the trappings of genre, instead finding the inherent thematic depth and resonance in the source material. In other hands, this approach could have been wildly pretentious and dull, but Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (both of whom also worked on LOTR) have written this story with sure hands, creating a film that is at once thought-provoking, exhilarating, meditative, and, as the film reaches the Empire State Building, ultimately heartbreaking.

I'm happy to report that, in this case, the best moments of King Kong have not been spoiled in the trailer, so I'll do the same here. Skull Island, like Oz or Dagobah, is a fully realized cinematic landscape full of unexpected turns and surprises. There are delicate moments between Kong and Ann, and also downright creepy and violent moments involving the various creatures on the island. Yet through the spectacle, Jackson never loses touch of the human element - a quiet moment of communication between Ann and Kong (another perfectly realized CG performance, by the way) is as compelling as a ten-minute ape/dino brawl that ends in a moment reminiscent of Irreversible. The performances are great - Jack Black, already one of the coolest guys around establishes himself as a great actor as well with his Orson Welles-inspired performance (a role that unavoidably raises questions about Jackson's self-image). And Naomi Watts does her best work since, well, Mulholland Drive; she's sweet and sad, and her scenes with Kong (kudos also to Andy Serkis) add up to one of the best onscreen love stories in a long time.

Some critics, and many internet pundits, have complained about the film's length and perceived self-indulgence. It is noticabely long, and it's definitely self-indulgent. But while self-indulgence can be killer when it stems from an inflated sense of self-importance, I really can't find any reason to complain when it is the result of a filmmaker's passion for the material. Jackson has been given unlimited resources here to revisit the film that made him want to be a director, and he has made a glorious cinematic dream, a film about the mad act of moviemaking, the fleeting nature of love, and the awesome spectacle of apes fighting dinosaurs. He's finally succeeded at making his Terrence Malick film (as he stated on the Fellowship of the Ring DVD), and he's also created a crowd-pleaser that ranks with the best of Cameron, Spielberg, or Lucas. Sure, there are a few rough CG moments, but I find it ultimately foolish to nitpick such an extaordinary work - it just feels like missing the forest for the trees. I'll just go ahead and say it - this Kong is better than the original. Go see it, because it's simply the most enjoyable movie around right now. Bring Kleenex.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Play the game (12/21/05)

It's time to steal from my more prolific contemporaries. Every Wednesday I'll post a different image from a film. Whoever guesses it first wins the prize!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Trim Bin #7

- By Wednesday this semester will be a distant memory, and I look forward to writing some reviews I've been putting off in favor of studying or some such foolishness. Look for reviews of The Squid and the Whale, King Kong, and maybe Proof or Syriana (any preference?) soon. Also, Serenity is at the top of my Netflix queue. I promise to be fair.

- Remember the days before DVD, when video was primarily a rental business with lower stakes, and a hit movie would run for months and months? I miss those days - I remember seeing Hook in April 1992 and Who Framed Roger Rabbit at a drive-in a full year after it opened. Back then, there was generally more of a correlation between high grosses and quality - word of mouth mattered. Nowadays, the opening weekend has been elevated to such importance that it's not necessarily the best movie that wins, just the best-marketed.

King Kong
, which made a mere $50 million this weekend, has already been termed a disappointment or a flat-out bomb. I think it was Robert Altman who said that one of the worst things to ever happen to cinema was the dawn of "Top 10" highest-grossing lists on shows like Entertainment Tonight; this is a perfect example of the problem. Peter Jackson made a downright brilliant movie, his best since Heavenly Creatures, but apparently its worth is only quantifiable in popcorn sales. And this is to say nothing for the dozens of worthy movies released every year that weren't as hyped as Kong, that never had a chance. Film is undeniably a business, but unless one has stock in Universal, I don't see why the grosses should overshadow the film itself.

- Love House aired on NBCTC Friday night. Watching our work broadcast with shoddy color balance and lots of noise, I was reminded of how, when I was eight, my career plan was to use Derry, New Hampshire's own WNDS (with meteorologist Al Kaprelian!) as a springboard to filmmaking. I even wrote a letter to Al proposing some ideas for shows - game shows, mysteries, sci-fi, etc. Foamy bastard never wrote me back - you'd think he could at least humor a kid. Anyway, Al, I beat you at your own game.

You can reach Mr. Kaprelian at, if you're so inclined.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Top 10: Sex Scenes

Every Friday, when I ask Jess what my Top 10 subject should be, she responds, "sex scenes." I've been avoiding it, as I am a shy cat, but as I'm at a loss for ideas today, why not. Beats a "Christmas movies" list.

1. Don't Look Now (1973) - Director Nicolas Roeg cuts between a husband and wife making love and getting ready to go out for the evening. The couple has recently lost a daughter; the juxtaposition of their downright creative sex and the small, loving gestures they exchange afterwords heighten the melancholy romance that sets this apart from other horror movies. It's often been speculated that then-couple Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are actually having sex in this scene; that there's even a question is a testament to the scene's believability.
2. Last Tango in Paris (1972) - The butter scene is the most-referenced (often by hack stand-ups), but my favorite scene is the early one when Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) first meet in a vacant apartment. The scene, which exists somewhere between lovemaking and rape, is reminiscent of the Francis Bacon paintings seen during the opening credits - it's stark and brutally honest. Neither actor is naked, but both seem completely exposed.
3. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) - I wanted to cheer the first time I saw the climax (how unfortunate that no equally fitting word exists) of Alfonso Cuaron's film, which blows wide open the gender politics that have been simmering under the surface throughout.
4. Wild at Heart (1990) - Easily the sexiest movie on this list. It's hard to pick just one sex scene - the sex is really more of a subplot here - but David Lynch employs rock music and a remarkable use of color that leaves us as much in love with Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) as they are with one another.
5. American Psycho (2000) - Conversely, the funniest sex scene on this list. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)'s videotaped menage a trois with two call girls to Phil Collins' "Sussudio" not only works as a critique of the character's emptiness, it's also just wonderfully ridiculous.
6. A Clockwork Orange (1971) - The fast-motion three-way between Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and two underaged girls, scored to the "William Tell Overture," probably shouldn't be as funny as it is. Kubrick is easily my favorite perv (well, second favorite).
7. American Beauty (1999) - "Fuck me, your majesty!"
8. Videodrome (1983) - James Woods. Deborah Harry. Piercings. Hallucinations. Not the sexiest entry on this list, but possibly the most memorable.
9. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) - David Bowie's penis.
10. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) - I'd like to know exactly why our lord and savior getting busy is so offensive. Seriously.

Feel free to get awkward on the comments board.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Great party, isn't it?

Note: The following is an abridged version of an essay I wrote for my "Kubrick & Kurosawa" class. I've ditched MLA citation format in this abridgement for reasons of length and because nobody outside of a classroom should be subjected to a lot of paranthetical page numbers. It also presumes familiarity with the film, so I don't recommend reading it if you haven't seen The Shining (which you really should).

Forever and Ever and Ever: Enchantment, the Uncanny, and Kubrick's The Shining

Early in his The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim addresses the question of a child's ability to separate fairy tales from reality. "The child," Bettelheim explains, "intuitively comprehends that while these stories are unreal, they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fairy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence." Stanley Kubrick famously referred to The Uses of Enchantment, as well as Freud's essay "The Uncanny," while writing the screenplay to The Shining with Diane Johnson. These texts helped particularly in determining the nature of the Overlook Hotel's spectral guests; according to Johnson, "The psychological states of the characters can create real ghosts who have physical powers. If Henry VIII sees Anne Boleyn walking around the bloody tower, she's a real ghost, but she's also caused by his hatred."

Johnson's analogy demonstrates the key to Kubrick's film, which actually deviates from Enchantment. While Bettelhem finds fairy tales to be harmless, Kubrick's film is about the horror of actually finding oneself in the midst of such a tale. The Shining is about our inability to confront our irrational horrors, and what might happen to us if those fears were real.

Freud defines the uncanny as "that class of terrifying which leads back to something long-known to us, once very familiar." The release of The Shining in 1980 followed a decade-long resurgence of popular interest in horror; echoes of "The Uncanny" can be found in The Exorcist (re-emergence of religious horror), Carrie (horror triggered by the awakening of puberty), and Alien (horror that literally emerges from within), among many others. Stephen King's novel shares this Freudian set of concerns; a New York Times piece notes that "In The Shining, as in the best books and movies about the supernatural; we're forced back, and not gently, against that wall within ourselves, a wall constructed from lost innocence and intergenerational torment, from barely suppressed and highly atavistic fears, from doubts concerning our own sanity." Kubrick suggested similar motivations for adapting the novel, remarking that "One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly."

Where Kubrick departs from King is in the nature of these unconscious fears. This is especially clear in the difference between the book's and film's versions of the relationship between struggling writer Jack Torrance and his son Danny. At the center of The Shining is what Bettelheim describes as a fairy tale version of the oedipal conflict: "So the father who blocks the boy's oedipal desires is not seen as an evil figure within the home, or split into two figures, one good and one bad, as the mother often is. Instead, the oedipal boy projects his frustrations and anxieties onto a giant, monster, or dragon." Similarly, King's book depicts Jack as a sympathetic character who is forcibly compelled to harm his family by the malevolent hotel. But in Kubrick's film, the hotel is merely a catalyst - the Jack we meet at the beginning is already capable of becoming the monster we see at the end. Jack has a nightmare about murdering his family and exclaims, "Oh my God, I must be losing my mind!" Yet Kubrick includes details - inconsistencies between Jack and Wendy's stories about Danny's arm injury, for instance - that raise doubts about Jack's stability before arriving at the Overlook. Consider the "All work and no play" sequence, and the unanswered question it poses - how long has Jack been typing just that? Overnight? A week? All winter?

These details have led to the frequent criticism of the film, and more specifically Jack Nicholson's performance, as "over the top." Pauline Kael wrote in her review that "There's nothing he can do with the role except express the gleaming-eyed undercurrents of incipient madness while waiting to go whole-hog crazy." What Kael completely missed is how this change in character motivation makes the film more complex, and scarier, than the book. Simply put, the book is about evil spirits who compel a man to kill his family, while the film is about a man who wants to kill his family and doesn't know it yet.

There are three scenes I'd like to discuss in this context. The first is the dialogue between Danny and Dick Halloran, the Overlook's chef, about their shared psychic abilities. Halloran fills the dual parent role that Bettelheim describes as "a means of preserving an internal all-good [parent] when the real [parent] is not all-good." When Danny asks Halloran if he is scared of the Overlook, he shrugs it off, saying, "There's nothing here." Yet when Danny presses him about Room 237, Halloran lies: "There ain't nothing in Room 237. But you ain't got no business going in there anyway. So stay out, you understand? Stay out!" Halloran is trying to placate the boy, yet the anxiety in his voice tells us there is indeed something to be afraid of. Bettelheim writes of this adult tendency to be dismissive of childish fears: "Since it creates discomfort in a parent to recognize these emotions in his child, the parent tends to overlook them, or he belittles these spoken fears out of his own anxiety, believing this will cover the child's fears." Halloran later dies because of his denial of what is literally around the corner.

Danny is later confronted by the ghosts of two girls who were brutally murdered by their father, a previous caretaker of the Overlook, ten years earlier. The sisters are a version of what Freud calls "the double," an invention of one's ego: "The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the 'double' being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect. The 'double' has become a vision of terror, just as after the fall of religion the gods took on dramatic shapes." There are numerous instances of doubles in The Shining - Danny's friend Tony, Charles Grady (caretaker) and Delbert Grady (servant), Jack 1980 and Jack 1921 - that transcend their psychological origins and manifest themselves in a tangible way. The sisters invite Danny to "come play with us - forever and ever and ever." A childhood convention has been turned into something dangerous here; we see this later when Jack references The Three Little Pigs and Wendy's discovery of a dog-costumed man performing fellatio on a tuxedoed party guest. In this case, when the sisters leave, Tony attempts to reassure Danny, saying "Remember what Mr. Halloran said. It's just like pictures in a book, Danny. It isn't real." However, the look on Danny's face tells us that either Tony is lying or the reality of the ghosts is beside the point. Later, Danny will regress into the persona of his "double," and his reemergence signifies the confrontation of the uncanny and the putting away of childish things.

This scene has its own double in the later conversation between Jack and his son. Jack tells his son that he loves him, that he wants him to have a good time at the hotel. Then he echoes the Grady sisters: "I wish we could stay here forever and ever and ever." Jack has embraced the Overlook as though it were always a part of him (as the final scene suggests it has been). The oedipal conflict comes to the forefront here; what distinguishes this scene is that strips the film of the separation from literal fears that is essential to fairy tales. The source of our dread is made manifestly clear; it's not cackling corpses, phantom blowjobs, or bloody elevators. It's dad.

It is perhaps this directness that caused The Shining to be met with a mixed reception upon its release. It went into wide release the same day that Friday the 13th opened, placing it squarely on the divide between the existental dread of the seventies and the more physical horrors of the eighties (a 1981 Fangoria poll named The Shining the worst recent horror film at the same time that Friday the 13th was named the best). The film's departures from the more optimistic elements of the book led King to conclude, "You know what? I think he wants to hurt people with this movie. I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people." This criticism fits The Shining just fine; it is a calculating, methodical dissection of our worst fears made literal, and King later conceded that "even when a director such as Stanley Kubrick makes such a maddening, perverse, and disappointing film as The Shining, it somehow retains a brilliance that is inarguable; it is simply there."

Of course, Kubrick probably would have resisted this process of interpretation entirely. Commenting on his film, Kubrick said that "I read an essay by the great master H.P. Lovecraft where he said that you should never attempt to explain what happens, as long as what happens stimulates people's imagination, their sense of the uncanny, their sense of anxiety and fear." So I'll close with Lovecraft:

And then there came to me the crowning horror of all - the unbelievable, unthinkable, almost unmentionable thing. [...] Shall I say that the voice was deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; disembodied? What shall I say? It was the end of my experience, and is the end of my story.

Just like pictures in a book.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Trim Bin #6

- Richard Pryor's died this week. The only really honest thing to say is, this sucks. It sucks that he's gone, it sucks that MS kept him inactive for the last decade, and it sucks because only a handful of comedians today come even close to being as good as Richard Pryor was. Let's hope he's been reunited with Wonder Wheel.

- The insane trailer for Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette confirms her high placement on my "best new directors" list - she's one of the most distinctive voices working in film today. Marie Antoinette could be brilliant, or it could be laughable. Either way, I've watched the trailer a dozen times.

- In the vein of the faux-Shining trailer comes this version of Big as a...well, just watch it.

- Walter Chaw wrote an excellent review of Memoirs of a Geisha that addresses the cultural landmine the filmmakers stepped into by casting three Chinese actresses in the lead roles. Entertainment Weekly ran a very disappointing puff piece on Geisha that completely sidestepped the issue, which is at the very least worthy of discussion. To be fair, I haven't seen Geisha - it could be good, I guess. I'll let you know when I see it on TBS in six years.

- Salad, eggs.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Top 10: Bah Humbug!

I got a memo today about how, when writing about film, I'm obligated to at least occasionally act the part of the grumpy, pretentious killjoy. So for this week's list, I've put together what I consider to be the ten worst films on the list of 100 highest-grossing movies of all time (found here). This isn't solely for the sake of being contrarian and elitist; it's always a lot of fun when a seriously great movie is also a big popular success. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Next to these films are their respective grosses in millions - consider how many tickets these sold. Way to go, America.

1. Armageddon ($201)
2. Bruce Almighty ($242)
3. My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241)
4. Pearl Harbor ($198)
5. What Women Want ($182)
6. Pretty Woman ($178)
7. Mrs. Doubtfire ($219)
8. Jurassic Park III ($181)
9. 'Crocodile' Dundee ($174)
10. Mission: Impossible II ($215)

Please feel free to be an insufferable snob on the comments board.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Gremlins opens with a shot of inventor and family patriarch Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) walking through the streets of Chinatown. When Max and I saw the film in South Hadley, he noted the obligatory sailor crossing the street. But then there was a second sailor, and then a third, at which point I decided that director Joe Dante knew exactly what he was doing. This isn't the Chinatown of New York, Boston, or L.A. - it's the Chinatown of the movies, with all of the loaded historical and cultural baggage that American cinema carries. As Rand discovers the mogwai in Mr. Wing (Key Luke)'s shop, it becomes clear that China here is a signifier of "the other" - the promise of mystery and magic. It's an offensive connotation, no doubt, but such associations are largely the subject of Gremlins, that rare summer blockbuster that is also about something.

In his introduction to the Sandman collection The Doll's House, Clive Barker distinguishes between two kinds of fantasy: in the first, an alien frame of reference intrudes on our own and must be exercised or resolved, while the second depicts shades of reality throughout the whole world. Barker suggests that the latter is more difficult to write, which is perhaps true; however, Gremlins makes a good case for the possibilities of the former. As "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love is heard on the soundtrack, we abruptly cut from Chinatown to Kingston Falls, a fictional middle-American town which serves as the "near" to Chinatown's "far."

The first credit is "Steven Spielberg Presents," which speaks of volumes more than Spielberg's brand-name value. Paul Thomas Anderson said in an interview that it was Spielberg who legitimized the suburbs; indeed, both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. succeeded in a kind of revolutionary populism. These films clearly tapped into something, as throughout the 80's, a slew of films, both with and without Spielberg's involvement, chose suburbia as the backdrop for fantastic stories. Yet Joe Dante, unlike Spielberg acolytes Chris Columbus (screenwriter of Gremlins) and Robert Zemeckis, has a distinct vision that strays in anarchic ways from the generally optimistic work of his producer. Dante eventually subverts the entire values system of Kingston Falls and, by extension, us, the audience, who wanted to see a movie called Gremlins in the first place.

Most reviews of Gremlins upon its release cited its E.T.-meets-Alien structure, which probably led to its massive popular appeal. It's a clever idea, of course, but Dante also finds a great deal of resonance with this family/horror fusion. The scenes that introduce us to Gizmo, who is basically a walking, talking guinea pig, are designed to make audiences coo. Later, when Gizmo begins to multiply, our response is turned on its head - the little mogwai's beaming face contorts into a screaming, ugly mess as his body ejaculates slimy, squishy creatures in a way that taps directly into our collective fear of childbirth. And even before the other Mogwai transform into the titular creatures, they're more obnoxious and off-putting than Gizmo; puking, screaming, gluttonous creatures. The loveable aspects of the mogwai have been perverted through reproduction; perhaps the film is commenting on the commodification of dreams - merchandising, marketing, mass-production - that is an inseparable part of American cinema culture ("Mommy, I want one!").

The scene after the gremlins have hatched, when Mrs. Peltzer (Frances Lee McCain) must defend herself against the monsters in her own home, makes the statement behind the blending of genres clear. Every innocent thing in the house becomes a threat (Christmas tree) or a weapon (microwave, blender). Dante is stripping away the illusion of safety in the suburbs; previously, the biggest fear in Kingston Falls was the threat of financial trouble, possibly eviction, at the hands of the gleefully cruel Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday). But the gremlins' swift (and hilarious) offing of Mrs. Deagle, it's clear that, to Dante, there are much bigger things to worry about than bills. Obeying the rules of the mogwai, for instance.

Gremlins also has another layer of subtext in the form of Murray Futterman (the legendary Dick Miller), Billy Peltzer's xenophobic neighbor. Mr. Futterman responds to the discovery that his Kentucky Harvester is full of foreign parts by getting drunk; he is generally distrustful of foreign technology, citing experiences with gremlins in WWII. Yet later, when the gremlins attack Mr. Futterman and his wife, he is surprised and horrified. Mr. Futterman never saw a gremlin; Mr. Futterman is full of shit. He deserves what he gets.

There are also a number of pop cultural references throughout the film that serve a purpose other than easy laughs. During the serene opening scenes of the film, we see It's a Wonderful Life on TV; later, when things have gone wrong, it's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Our dreams and our nightmares, two sides of the same coin. Once the film has become totally anarchic, we catch a glimpse of Cocteau's Orpheus and know that we are beyond logic. Chuck Jones makes a cameo, cuing us into the film's Looney Tunes sensibility. A brief scene where Rand calls from an inventor's trade show displays George Pal's time machine and Robby the Robot; we are in a world where these are not scenes from the movies, but rather, a world where Robby actually exists. The nuanced dissection of layers and layers of filmic reality is one of Joe Dante's greatest strengths; he manages the incredible feat of making post-modern movies that aren't totally smug and unbearable.

I've noticed that what most people really remember about Gremlins is the cuteness of Gizmo; seeing it again, I was really taken aback at what a rich cinematic experience it is. I haven't even gotten into Kate's (Phoebe Cates) brilliantly bleak Christmas story (which, again, was turned on its head in the sequel), or the perfection of Judge Reinhold as all-around dick Gerald. Gremlins is a film that satisfies our sense of wonder and our dread in equal measure. It's the perfect Christmas movie.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Trim Bin #5

- Right now, a copy of Love House, the documentary that Jess, Max, Garrison, and I worked on this and last year, is in the hands of Jonathan Caouette, the director of Tarnation. Max also gave him the first two issues of Samurai Dreams. This, along with Jess' 22nd birthday, was cause for a great, celebratory weekend - it's a funny, anxious, promising feeling to be out there, in the vast creative stratosphere, in some small way.

- Alex Jackson just posted a fascinating review of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I'm not sure I agree with the central Kubrick vs. Altman thesis - to borrow Jackson's analogy, I think Altman is a believer, he just attends a different church. But it's a thought-provoking piece.

- I'm really looking forward to Brokeback Mountain. It's a movie that should have been made twenty years ago, and if it's as moving as the early reviews suggest, then it could do a great deal of good. For better or worse, a lot of America votes and engages in political discourse with their hearts rather than their minds; if a mediocre movie like Dances With Wolves can get more people to think about the plight of the Native Americans than Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, imagine what a well-made, mainstream gay love story could do. Either way, it renders Rent irrelevant.

- Scrambled Eggs All Over My Face...

Friday, December 02, 2005

Top 10: New Directors

This list is comprised of directors who have made four or less features. I've chosen these directors because they've already pointed us towards exciting new possibilitiess for cinema, whether through innovative techniques, distinctive and truthful visions, or exciting displays of unique imagination. Each name links to the filmmaker's IMDb entry; Netflix away if you want to see the future of film.

1. Paul Thomas Anderson
2. Sofia Coppola
3. Wes Anderson
4. Sam Mendes
5. Spike Jonze
6. Todd Haynes
7. Miranda July
8. Jonathan Caouette (who, I swear, was on my rough draft of this list yesterday)
9. Richard Kelly
10. Edgar Wright

HONORABLE MENTION: Terrence Malick. With four pictures under his belt, this scrappy youngster might just make something of himself.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Are you ready for Freddy?

Christmastime always makes me think about Freddy Krueger. And while the first film is obviously the best, the third perhaps the most fun, and the second fascinating from the perspective of queer theory, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is unfairly overlooked.

The reason is simple. What distinguishes A Nightmare on Elm Street from the Friday the 13th series is its pronounced sense of style. The dream structure of the former allows more room for directorial flourishes than the straightforward assaults of the latter. So each entry in the series carries a distinctive filmmaking voice. And The Dream Master, released when I was in preschool, is Freddy for kids. Renny Harlin, the director, was subsequently responsible for Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island, Deep Blue Sea, Driven and Mindhunters. Each of those films shares a fidgety, immature, pre-adolescent sensibility; The Dream Master is easily Harlin's best film because the silliness works with the material.

Consider the obligatory "resurrection of Freddy." These scenes, in which Freddy is revived by some not-yet-mentioned bit of wizardry, are neccessary to keep the sequel train rolling. But where other entries struggled to come up with scenes that were plausible within the context of the Elm Street universe, Freddy is resurrected here by flaming dog urine. It's as if the screenwriters were protesting against the very suggestion that a Freddy picture should be believable. Filmed straightforwardly, this could have ended the series, but Harlin films it with just the right amount of sophomoric humor - not too sleazy, not too insulting. This endearingly naive enthusiam reappears throughout the film. There are references to Friday the 13th and Jaws that a preschooler might find hilarious. Karate and pizza both factor heavily into the mise en scene. For an 80's slasher film, The Dream Master is remarkably sexless; sex is only invoked in childish terms, as a put-down or an obscure concept, such as when Alice (Lisa Wilcox) fantasises about Rick (Andras Jones) a hunk, which causes him to blush. And to top it off, the soundtrack features an original Fat Boys tune - the Fat Boys weren't for hip-hop fans, they were for kids. Remember their song on the PBS math show Square One about a million being greater than a billion? I know I do.

I realize this could be taken as condescending, and I don't mean it that way. I've wondered lately whether a thematically rich film is of any less value if its merits are unintentional. On the one had, a consciously "honest" movie speaks for the artistry of those involved. On the other hand, something that unconsciously arrives at the same conclusion, the same truth, carries with it a feeling of purity - truth discovered rather than designed. And The Dream Master, like The Shining or Suspiria, does tap into an elemental fairy tale sense of dread. And this is why it is interesting from a child's perspective. Bruno Bettelheim wrote extensively on the need for children to be exposed to darkness, so long as the story eventually delivers its characters and therefore encourages children to be optimistic - to know that there is a way out of the witch's gingerbread house. The Dream Master has just the right level of artifice to support a "fairy tale" reading; here Freddy has more in common with a Brothers Grimm monster than the grimy child killer Wes Craven created, and so he works more as a mythic obstacle to be overcome by growth and experience rather than a projection of our real-life fears.

This is not to say that the film is a masterpiece - much of the acting is wooden (save for the excellent Ken Sagoes, reprising his Kincaid from Dream Warriors). The characters often make decisions that are laughably stupid even in a fairy-tale context (Joey falls for the exact same trick that he did in Dream Warriors). And the final deus ex machina, involving a shard of stained glass, is much more contrived than anything in Adaptation. But still, The Dream Master is interesting both as a well-made horror sequel and a cultural artifact. It exists in its own silly little universe. I wouldn't be surprised if Richard Kelley is a fan - this shares with Donnie Darko a distinctly late-80's otherworldly atmosphere. As my friend Garrison once observed during a scene in which a high school teacher delivers exposition about the Dream Master mythos: "What the hell kind of class is this, Dream Master 101?"

Garrison's comment speaks to all that is wrong and right about A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. And as for why Christmas makes me think of Freddy, remember that the year this film was released, I was entering preschool. That October, my mom scandalized other parents at Playmates Preschool by allowing me to go trick-or-treating dressed as the son of a hundred maniacs. I hadn't yet seen any Nightmare movies, but I was well aware of Freddy through his frequent appearances on TV (even Nickelodeon!), and there simply was no cooler, creepier monster. Like Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy tapped straight into my post-toddler anxieties. And there, on the other end of the spectrum, was Santa, who was all that is right in the world. Yet Christmastime is also a time of ghosts and spirits, and Freddy's red-and-green sweater only complicates things further. That's far as I'll go into a personal semiotic analysis for now, but Freddy will always be the left hand to Santa's right.

Also note that Will Smith wrote songs about both Christmas and Elm Street when he was still the Fresh Prince. The Willenium and I have a lot in common.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Trim Bin #4

- David Bowie will play Nikola Tesla in a film directed by Christopher Nolan. The film will also feature Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians. Life is good.

- This trailer made the audience I saw it with laugh. I can't say they were wrong.

- If you see this, you are not fit to serve in my beloved Corps.

- The Cinemark in South Hadley, which has fast become one of my favorite cinemas, is showing Gremlins on Friday at midnight. Anyone who'd like to come is welcome. Doug, you can be sure I'll be thinking of you.

- The Top 10 Directors lists have been great. I was thinking today: what filmmaker blew his/her chances to make your top 10 more spectacularly than any other? I was thinking of Francis Coppola - every film he made in the 70's is an inarguable classic, then he gradually slid from interesting to uneven to bad to inactive. Who let you down?

- Another question, for personal reference: what is the most you would pay for a 35mm trailer of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2?

Friday, November 25, 2005

Top 10: Directors

I've been agonizing over this one since starting Cinevistaramascope, employing a variety of formulas that always returned unsatisfactory results. I finally had to go with my gut, and this list is made up of the directors whose films I've gone back to over and over, rewatching, discussing, and thinking about. Each has a consistent vision, and while almost every one has a few failures, none of the filmmakers below has ever directed a film that feels like it was made by a committee. This list is limited to directors who have made at least five films; a list of the best new directors may follow in the future. Rather than arguing the case for any director, I've provided links to definitive images from their work that explain better than I could why they belong on this list.

1. Stanley Kubrick
2. Martin Scorsese
3. Werner Herzog
4. David Lynch
5. Steven Spielberg
6. Ingmar Bergman
7. John Carpenter
8. Akira Kurosawa
9. Alfred Hitchcock
10. Quentin Tarantino

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

From Death to Birth

When we first see Blake (Michael Pitt), he is attempting to swim in the stream behind his stone mansion. This simple act, like many others we will see in Last Days - pouring cereal, making macaroni and cheese, tying a boot lace - seems almost impossibly difficult. For Blake, a famous musician hiding from his band after a stint at rehab, every waking breath must be counted as a triumph. He's reminiscent of Didi and Gogo, resolving to go while always staying still.

Blake is, of course, Gus Van Sant's semi-fictional interpretation of Kurt Colbain, and Last Days is - as the title suggests - the account of the uneventful days leading up to the suicide of an artist. Anyone who has seen Gerry or Elephant, the previous chapters in Van Sant's thematic trilogy on violence, can already guess that these days will be recorded with an adherence to minimalist narrative and characterization. We follow Blake as he wanders around the mansion, eating, fiddling with instruments, and hiding from his housemates (including Asia Argento and a monkeyish Lucas Haas). Visitors come and go, including a Yellow Pages ad salesman (Thaddeus A. Thomas, playing himself) and a private eye (Ricky Jay) hired to find Blake. A representative from the record label (Kim Gordon) has a conversation with Blake that is loaded with questions but contains no answers. Blake's story has a melancholy inevitability; this film could have been torture, but Gus Van Sant's assured direction has created a small masterpiece of loneliness and emotional dislocation. His images exist somewhere between the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Beck videos, placing his film at an intersection between 1994 and forever.

Midway through the film, there is a scene where Blake, strung out in a dark red dress, passes out while Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee" video plays in the background. Van Sant cuts to a close-up of the television and lingers there for the remainder of the video. The effect is at first disorienting, then laughable, but ultimately very striking - Boyz II Men becomes the soundtrack to our hero's descent into the abyss, just as we are so often uncontrollably bombarded by crap culture in our most human moments. This lack of control is key, I think, to Van Sant's understanding of Colbain. Any work of art that becomes popular is unavoidably commodified, and Kurt/Blake's muse has been unavoidably stolen by this process. Nirvana, like Boyz II Men, reduced to a neverending hit parade - the soundtrack of our lives - and as time passes, the differences between the two become less important. The catalog becomes larger than the artist.

Van Sant juxtaposes this with the housemates' repeated play of Velvet Underground's "Venus In Furs." They recite the lyrics along with the record, and the effect is not unlike a Catholic prayer. Inspiration has given way to ritual. Meaning fades with each repetition. We forget where we came from. Blake performs a song about "a long lonely journey from death to birth," and Van Sant's film is concerned with the same. What happened? What comes next?

I find myself unable to be more specific about Last Days. My aim is not to be evasive, but rather to avoid stealing the experience of the film away from you. Any attempt to claim that I "get it" would make me a total asshole - what does it mean to "get it"? What a sad, reductive phrase. Van Sant's film is poetry, and ever since Plato banned the poets from his polis, all art, particulary art with this kind of purity, has been at odds with formalist interpretation. I will say this: Van Sant and Pitt have taken a subject that could have been the fodder for tv-movie trash and made a subtle, profound rumination on art, creation, and implosion. It deserves mention alongside films like Sid and Nancy, Velvet Goldmine, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a great rock and roll movie. And at its end, Van Sant gives us a moment of sublime grace. These moments are always rare in art, and in a culture on bended knee (or trapped in the closet), they're especially hard to come by. Treasure this one.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Trim Bin #3 (overdue)

- Saw the new Superman Returns teaser before Harry Potter on Friday night. I apologize for any doubts I've expressed in conversation about the film; judging by the trailer, he completely understands the multiple archetypal meanings behind the Kal-El mythos. It made me teary-eyed. I applauded it and a gaggle of thirteen-year-olds laughed at me. Philistines.

- I found out later that Bryan Singer is shooting Superman with the new Panavision Genesis HD camera system. I looked it up here and fell head over heels for it. It's evident from the teaser that the system can create a look that isn't quite film, but instead has its own unique splendor. While I still feel that celluloid should always co-exist with any digital technologies, this is the first digital camera that, for me, opens up new worlds of possibility.

- The latest issue of The Beacon, MCLA's newspaper, features an edtorial by Jen Thomas decrying audiences' desensitized responses to violence in cinema (inspired by Saw II). It's riddled with the sort of generalizations and fallacies that often characterize film writing. "Instead of intelligent content or character development," Thomas writes, "viewers now rely on bang-for-your-buck instant gratification." Is this even typically true? Certainly it would be a convenient way to explain the success of movies like Boogeyman, but what about March of the Penguins or Million Dollar Baby or any other number of recent hits that fly in the face of this oft-echoed sentiment about what audiences want?

The article then goes on to comment upon a class' horrified reaction to documentary footage of animal abuse, wondering why we respond with more horror to cruelty to animals than to human violence. As Max pointed out, the documentary was real. Surely the class would have had a similarly sobering reaction if shown, say, Night and Fog. Thomas cites Jarhead as an example of the audience's disconnect; the audience I saw Jarhead with was certainly involved - perhaps not on a visceral level, but was that the intent? Opinion pieces like this suggest that the primary purpose of filmmaking is to incite sensations that replicate our responses to real-life experiences.

"It's impossible to see any movies now that don't have some sort of unneccessary violence" - that isn't even remotely true. How does The Beacon let stuff like that through? Ah yes, because its editors and writers are largely unprincipled and amateurish. I overheard a conversation in a class recently between the editor-and-chief and a few writers recently about SGA's frequent complaints that The Beacon takes positions on campus issues that don't reflect SGA's policies. One person commented, "But you don't write bad things about SGA, right? So there's no problem." I said that negative comments about SGA shouldn't be a problem - that it would in fact be their duty to keep their financial supporter in check. The editor cited "courtesy, you know..."

I don't want to be guilty of the same things I'm criticizing here, so I'm not going to call The Beacon's staff, made up mostly of perfectly decent people, a pack of gestapo pigs whose grandparents probably started Vietnam. But there it is.

But enough of this business...

- Speaking of MCLA, my "Intro to Mass Media" professor was explaining the nature of independent cinema the other day. Among the examples of independent movie houses he gave: Cannon, Polygram, Spike Lee (the person, I guess), and MTM (Mary Tyler Moore Productions). He left out Carolco, RKO, and Wilbur J. Cobb.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Piss off, Harry.

NOTE: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a good movie, and the audience I saw it with went crazy for it. However, the following write-up will not be a rave by any stretch. If you loved or are still anticipating seeing Goblet, than read no further - wonder is too rare an experience to let one cranky film dork ruin.

Let's start with the good news: the last two reels of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are near perfect. When the Tri-Wizard Tournament enters the maze, the film is infused with a subtle, shivery dread that is sure to startle many a youngster (something I'm always in favor of). I don't want to spoil too much, but when the film reaches the cemetary and a ritual straight out of Hammer, and we are finally introduced to Ralph Fiennes' deliciously sick and twisted Voldemort, the labored theatrics of the previous two hours and change were all worth it.

But about those two hours...

The first twenty minutes of Goblet, which take place at the Quidditch World Cup, are chaotic and ugly. Quidditch can be, as the first three films have shown, a visually dazzling, kinetic experience. Here, we get the XFL version of Quidditch - roaringly loud, on a massive scale, but here's the thing: nothing happens. Nothing much happens for most of Goblet, which in its near-slavish devotion to its source material manages to reproduce the notes without hearing the music.

I don't mean to sound too crabby - there's a lot to like here. The adult cast is uniformly excellent, if too often shoved to the sidelines. Brendan Gleeson is a great Mad-Eye Moody; as readers of the book know, Gleeson has to play many different layers of subtext, and he does so masterfully. Maggie Smith has some nice moments, and Alan Rickman has a silent bit that is easily the greatest thing in the film. And I, for one, am a fan of Michael Gambon's Dumbledore, especially because he isn't afraid to make choices that weren't indicated in the book. He's playing Dumbledore, not just impersonating the old hippie.

The biggest problem is director Mike Newell, who doesn't seem to have any distinct perspective on the material other than possibly his paycheck. The film is technically superb, of course, but Newell constantly makes editing choices that cut away from what we want to see to some cumbersome bit of plot business. He adds a lot of small details, like the lingering close-up of the Beauxbaxton girls' bottoms, that just made me cringe. And while the visual effects are the best money can buy, he doesn't seem to have taken the time, as Alfonso Cuaron did with Azkaban, to integrate them believably into the film - for instance, look at the scenes involving the dragon. Is it ever believable that, big and loud as it is, it may actually be a threat to Harry?

Speaking of Cuaron, gone is all of the depth of character and emotional subtext that made Azkaban such a rich experience. Cuaron achieved authentic performances from his young cast, filled with adolescent uncertainty. Radcliffe, formerly the weak link, is good here, but many of the other kids (particuarly Emma Watson) are affected with a young actorly self-consciousness. I know I was the same way at sixteen, so hopefully it will pass. The Weasley twins are bloody brilliant, though.

Still, though, the final scenes in Goblet are really astonishing, and I suspect that if Newell did indeed have any real motivation for making the film, it can be found in these scenes. He doesn't shortchange us on the horror - these scenes, as they did in the books, jumpstart the series into a whole new world of fear and adventure. Even with all the problems I had with Goblet, I can't wait for Order of the Phoenix, which is also my favorite of the books (Harry is not a dick). Anyway, I'm very much in the minority in this one, which might say more about me than the film, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. This movie's gonna make a bajillion dollars, and you'll probably love it. Just don't make catcalls during the bath scene like the audience last night - for God's sake, he's a child.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Top 10: One-Sheets

This week's Top 10 was inspired by a discussion at Film Freak Central. Too often nowadays, marketing departments resort to "big heads" to sell a movie. The ten posters below all evoke the specific tones and themes of the films they represent. They are iconic, elegant, and can stand on their own as striking works of art.

1. Alien
2. Jaws
3. Batman
4. Altered States
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
6. Miller's Crossing
7. American Beauty
8. Ghostbusters
9. Return of the Jedi
10. Full Metal Jacket

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Life Without Fire

We are poised high in the air, soaring over desert landscapes stained with oil, circling giant columns of fire. Our vision is filled with black smoke and searing light; our ears are flooded with Wagner. This can only be Herzog's world. With Lessons of Darkness, a film that Herzog assembled in 1991 from postwar footage of oil fires in Kuwait, there are no moments of punditry, no easy answers. Herzog's film is concerned with more than the Gulf War; it plunges us right into the abyss.

The film's soundtrack is composed of pieces by Wagner, Mahler, Verdi, and others. Herzog supplies sparse narration, but this is a film driven by images, like Godfrey Reggio's Quatsi trilogy. Unlike Reggio, Herzog is not primarily concerned with preaching to the choir; when he appeared at Images earlier this year, he took strong exception to his frequently being labeled a "naturalist." From the beginning, Herzog denies us specific relation to Desert Storm or Middle Eastern conflicts in general - his narration informs us that we are on a planet somewhere in our solar system. As the camera swoops over cityscapes, the narration states that nobody below is yet aware of the destruction to come. In fact, this footage was shot long after the end of the war; however, it would be a mistake to assume that Herzog is up to run-of-the-mill bullshittery. Lessons of Darkness takes a specific conflict and, rather than being limited to a comment on that conflict, is elevated to the level of poetic allegory. There are no answers here, but this is not to suggest that Herzog is being utterly nihilistic; rather, he has opted to observe and reflect, raising questions instead of placating us with reassuring "War is hell" soundbites. It is a film about the end of all things, about the ways in which we willingly plunge into the void.

There is also a paradox here. Horrific as these images of destruction can be, they are also exhilarating and beautiful. Herzog seems to realize this; he begins the film with a quote (falsely attributed, he cheerfully has admitted, to Pascal) stating that the end of the world, like the beginning, is infused with "glorious splendor." This is reflected towards the end, when two firefighters ignite previously extinguished wells just so they can put them out again - Herzog questions this "madness," suggesting that for the men, perhaps life without fire is unbearable. But he also gives us two scenes that force us to reconsider our innate attraction to spectacle. One woman has struggled to speak since soldiers killed her two sons; another woman's young son has not spoken since a soldier stomped on his head. The nationalities of the soldiers are never specified, nor are they particularly relevant; destruction is a human problem, not an American or Iraqi one. It is unclear whether these scenes are literally documentary or fiction, and as a result, we are forced to draw our own conclusion about their truth (Herzog has his own ideas about truth, famously illustrated in his Minnesota Declaration).

It is also worth noting that for some, Herzog's use of long (in running time, not focal length) shots and repetitive imagery grows wearysome or boring. Lessons of Darkness will do nothing to change that opinion - it's a challenging film, one that requires patience and attention, but can be very rewarding, both intellectually and emotionally. It's worth noting how many run-of-the-mill films use the kind of epic exteriors Herzog is preoccupied with as a sort of garnish. Think of how many films begin with the camera swooping over a coastline or flying over mountain ranges for no other reason than to feign weight and style. We are accustomed to experiencing the world around us as a backdrop for our mundane little soap operas, mostly ignoring the greater story that is playing out all around us. Films like Lessons of Darkness force us to adjust our vision; we may not like what we see, but it would be a sin to turn away.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Trim Bin #2

- Last weekend, I went to a WFF screening of The Graduate with producer Lawrence Turman in attendance (I tried writing a review this week, but found little to say that hadn't been said before). At the post-film Q&A, the first question came from a woman in her fifties or sixties who asked "So why aren't movies this good anymore?" Everyone applauded. Turman acknowledged that there are still good films being made, but said that there are less because the increased importance of foreign grosses has led to movies that are less dialogue and character-driven. He bemoaned the fact that films are heavy on effects and fantasy elements and light on the sort of emotional content that "you and I" care about. Turman's other producing credits include Caveman, Booty Call, and both Short Circuit movies.

- The teaser for Darren Aronofsky's new film The Fountain is up. I liked Requiem For a Dream alright, but Pi really blew me away. This looks to be more visionary sci-fi on a larger budget (and with 100% more Jackman).

- I'm kind of childishly enjoying the negative response to Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Many people I respect adored director Jim Sheridan's last movie, In America. More than one commented on its "warmth." I thought it was insincere and dishonest. It annoyed me that Sheridan couldn't decide whether the film was a period piece or not, and tried to chalk it up to "magical realism" or some such nonsense. The scene where the little girl sang "Desperado" over a montage of her sad father driving a cab was pure torture. Get Rich, a blatant form of corporate synergy in place of filmmaking, should cause people to reexamine In America - the warmth was calculated like a thermostat.

- Jonathan Caouette is coming to Mass MoCA on December 1 with his film Tarnation. I highly recommend checking it out - Caouette's large-scale home movie is remarkable both for his sophisticated use of the simplest filmmaking tools (iMovie!) and his unflinching portrayl of his life and family. And in February - the return of Herzog!

- Okay; to be fair, Turman also produced The Thing.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Top 10: Guilty Pleasures

Pauline Kael defines guilty pleasures as "the works [one] wouldn't try to defend on aesthetic grounds but [has] enjoyed intermittently."

1. The Monster Squad (Dekker) - Basically a horror version of The Goonies, this is an incredibly entertaining movie despite lame, smutty humor, terrible performances, and a completely out-of-place reference to the Holocaust.
2. Heavyweights (Brill) - Hypocritical, obnoxious film set at a fat camp, but undeniably funny. Jeffrey Tambor's delivery of the line "I did not send you to go-cart camp" has been a huge influence on my own work.
3. Lifeforce (Hooper) - Naked space vampires attack London. Nothing to defend here, but reread that plot summary.
4. The Last American Virgin (Davidson) - Mostly forgettable Porky's clone with an almost unintentionally bleak, unsettling ending.
5. Evilspeak (Weston) - Clint Howard summons Satan with an Apple II. Can this be wrong if it feels so right?
6. The Last Starfighter (Castle) - A young man is given the opportunity to defend the universe from hostile aliens based on his superior gaming skills. Hamhanded filmmaking, but perfect wish fulfillment.
7. Rocky IV (Stallone) - Balboa single-handedly ends Cold War. Braindead yet undeniably awesome.
8. The Gauntlet (Eastwood) - Clint escapes a hail of gunfire in a souped-up bus. That's most of the plot. Worth seeing to hear Eastwood deliver the line "Because I get the job done."
9. The Wizard (Holland) - An autistic boy, his brother, and a waif who will someday rock on Kirsten Dunst's IPod run away to a video game contest at Universal Studios. Really just an extended commercial, but the reveal of Super Mario 3 is one hell of a money shot.
10. Jason X (Issac) - Jason in space. Enough said.

Feel free to make your own confessions.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Radio's lying.

I've always avoided seeing 1941. Countless times, I've held it in my hand at the video store for a few moments before returning it to the shelf. I was afraid that it'd be the disaster it's generally known as, and that I'd have to reevaluate my opinion of the Spielberg oeuvre. I feared the indignity of having to sell my Jaws poster and stuffed E.T. doll on eBay. Most of all, I was afraid that I'd have to choose a new uncool mainstream auteur to defend on a regular basis. I've spent most of my life defining myself by my tastes, and it's a bit late to change course in such a drastic fashion; besides, Sydney Pollack doesn't return my calls. So last night, I finally decided to bite the bullet and watch Spielberg's much-maligned WWII comedy. Is it terrible? No. Good? Well...

The plot of 1941 revolves around post-Pearl Harbor fears that the Japanese would stage a large-scale attack on California (this element of the film is based in fact). As the film begins, a Japanese sub heads towards its planned target - Hollywood. At first, the film follows Wally (Bobby di Cicco), a young Zoot Suiter who tries to win the affections of Betty (Dianne Kay) at a jitterbug contest. However, any pretense of a coherent narrative thread is quickly abandoned in favor of over two hours of huge-scale slapstick and sophomoric sex jokes. The film's budget ballooned to $35 million (an enormous sum at the time) and required almost a year to shoot; Spielberg's budgets and schedueles have subsequently become tighter, and after seeing 1941, it's clear why.

1941 isn't a total failure. John Belushi is great as Wild Bill Kelso, a crazed pilot that is reminiscent of but subtly different from Bluto Blutarsky. Belushi was brilliant at playing stupid - the scene where he guzzles Coca-Cola over the Grand Canyon is a gem, and when Col. Maddox (Warren Oates) asks to hear his plane's guns, we catch a sociopathic twinkle in his eye. Spielberg works in fun parodies of Duel and Jaws; they could have been awkward, but they're effectively self-deprecating and irreverent. Robert Stack, as real-life General Joseph Stillwell, has a great, straight-faced scene while watching Dumbo. The aerial effects are very impressive, easily the equal of the dogfights in Star Wars in terms of believability. And, if nothing else, 1941 is worth seeing for the cast; I've frequently seen Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune torturing Slim Pickens in my dreams, but never in a motion picture.

The biggest problem with 1941 is a sense of overkill. Spielberg appears to have gone for the densely packed, MAD magazine style of humor, and later films like Airplane and The Blues Brothers (both released the year after 1941) would succeed at this. But 1941 is such a loud, frenzied amusement park ride that we're not offered an opportunity to stop and enjoy the sights. Much of the famous cast isn't given the opportunity to make any real impression (according to the credits, Mickey Rourke was in this, but damned if I know where). The bawdy material is just embarrassing. While flying an airplane, Tim Matheson informs Nancy Allen that they'll reach their target "just as soon as I make it through these... (stares at her breasts) ...hills." Ho, ho. The chaos works contrary to the comedy; the end credits feature the leads' reactions to various explosions, and I found it odd that a slapstick farce would end with screams rather than guffaws.

I'd like to say that this is simply a demonstration of Steven Spielberg's worst instincts as a director, but 1941 doesn't feel like a film directed by Spielberg (or by anyone, for that matter). Moments like the "knock, knock" joke in Catch Me If You Can and the coathanger gag in Raiders of the Lost Ark (originally filmed and then deleted from 1941) demonstrate that he is capable of directing comedy, but the masterful timing that is one of his best strengths is completely absent here. A late scene where Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty) destroys most of his home with an anti-aircraft gun should have been a highlight, but everything is too telegraphed, too obvious, and too loud. Most of Spielberg's films leave me elated; this one left me with a bit of a headache.

In one scene near the end, a ferris wheel is blasted loose from its foundation and rolls frantically down a pier, its occupants in a state of panic. It's a great comic setpiece, worthy of mention alongside Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove and the flying car in The Blues Brothers, and it almost makes the film worthwile. If the rest of the movie hadn't been so labored, then it could have been filled with wonderfully anarchic moments like this. Instead, it's hit-and-miss. It isn't Spielberg's worst movie - that honor belongs to the "Kick the Can" segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie - but it is his most baffling.

I think I'll hang onto E.T. for now, though.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Trim Bin #1

The Trim Bin will be to Cinevistaramascope what Parade Magazine is to the newspaper: a weekly Sunday supplemental composed of scattered observations. Hopefully it won't be quite as disposable.

- The trailer for Munich is out, and it's intriguing. The visuals recall Catch Me If You Can, and the opening mixture of archival and new footage has a hardness that is appearing more and more prominently in the Spielberg canon. I know it's hip to bash Spielberg nowadays, but I will always contend that no director more frequently makes the right emotional choices. This is the trickiest subject matter he's ever taken on; if he pulls it off, Munich could be an important film. You can check out the trailer here.

- On the other side of the spectrum, I don't think I really need to convince you that King Kong is worth seeing. I was psyched before, of course, but after seeing the new trailer...holy monkey-loving Jesus. Anything I could say is beside the point. Check it out here, though if you plan on seeing Jarhead, then I recommend waiting and letting it wash over you on the big screen.

- Caught a bit of the wretched 4-hour version of Dune, the one David Lynch removed his name from, on Sci-Fi last night. Lynch's film is admittedly flawed, but the long version is just laughable, even worse than the "Love Conquers All" cut of Brazil. It made me think of when I was nine and would sit with reverence through both cuts multiple times when Sci-Fi would have its Dune weekends (my lost weekends). This was back when I still went to church with my mother; if I'm going to be honest with myself, I always really, really tried to believe in the Bible, but stuff like Dune and Lord of the Rings spoke much more directly to my soul. This isn't a slam of Christianity; it's more an observation about what a complete lost cause I am.

- Speaking of lost causes, after another DVD viewing of Revenge of the Sith, yes, I will always be a Star Wars fan, no matter how socially unacceptable, dated, irrelevant, or just plain embarrassing it eventually becomes to be labelled as such. At least I'm not a Browncoat.

- Check out Ebert's "Great Movies" review of Dark City here (unless you haven't seen it, as it contains some spoilers). Here's an excerpt:

I believe more than ever that "Dark City" is one of the great modern films. It preceded "The Matrix" by a year (both films used a few of the same sets in Australia), and on a smaller budget, with special effects that owe as much to imagination as to technology, did what "The Matrix" wanted to do, earlier and with more feeling.

His recent reviews had shaken my faith in him a bit (***1/2 for Stay?!), but this is great film writing that reminds why I always check his review of a new release first - he's one of us.

- Jess and I saw Jarhead with a sold-out audience. It was a great audience experience - a diverse crowd of about 300 laughed together, was silent together, and was moved together. There were no snarky teenagers or old ladies turning to their husbands and asking "WHADDID HE SAY?" in sotto voce. It really grabbed everyone, and at the end there was the unmistakable sense of a valuable shared experience. This is the sort of thing that will turn the box office slump around. The last movie I saw that got that kind of response was War of the Worlds; before that, The Passion of the Christ (although that audience was a bit different, of course). Both films were big hits that endured beyond the opening weekend hype; Jarhead looks to be another. The slump isn't about piracy or DVD; it's about creating films that are worthy of discussion and attention, that need to be seen with an audience. These are the films that remind us why we go to the movies in the first place.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Don't worry, be happy

Jarhead begins with a basic training scene that transparently apes the virtuosic opening of Full Metal Jacket. At first, I cringed at what I thought was a hip "wink-wink" moment; by the end of the movie, the scene had come into focus. This was a war fought by kids who knew of bigger wars from bigger movies. Jarhead isn't quite as great as Kubrick's film, but it belongs in the same ballpark. Sam Mendes' film comes damn close to being a definitive portrait of a war that was over as soon as it began, only to be followed by an inferior sequel.

Jarhead has met with some criticism for not being overtly political. With the exception of Three Kings and the French Plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux, I can't think of any great war films that are. An adaptation of Anthony Swafford's first-person recollections of the Gulf War, the film instead focuses on the nature of men who go to war. I say "men" not to be dismissive of women in the military; Jarhead is largely about male insecurity; the desire to give one's life meaning through allegiance to a so-called "greater cause," the male fantasy of protecting one's fellow man, and the constant, maddening doubt the protagonists feel about the fidelity of their girlfriends and wives back home. At one point, Fergus (Brian Geraghty) glances as a picture of Swafford (Jake Gyllenhaal)'s girfriend, scantily clad in his USMC t-shirt, and asks, "Doesn't she have any of her own clothes?" I couldn't help but think of my sister and my future brother-in-law, and the roles that were assigned them both when he signed up.

The first half of the film follows Swafford and the rest of his elite sniper squad, led by the gung-ho Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx), as they sit around in the desert, waiting for something to happen. Here, the film is all about boredom, sexual frustration, and the urge for release in the form of a kill. Early on, we see a theatre filled with Marines watching the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence in Apocalypse Now, aroused at the sight of helicopter fire and completely unmoved by the shots of fleeing mothers and children. Whether the Corps created this bloodlust or simply freed what was already there, its clear that for these guys, combat has become an orgasm, a moment of clarity. The moment never happens, and while I can't feel too bad for Swafford because he never got to shoot anyone in the head, the larger notion of chasing something - anything - to believe in is moving. Swafford repeatedly tries to have the space for religion on his dogtags changed to "no preference," and the unspoken assumption is that the Corps will give him something the church hasn't. While we see that it has for Sykes and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), Swafford's spotter, for our protagonist it is ultimately more emptiness. It's war as masturbation.

Mendes films those vacant moments with unforgettable images. A gas-masked football game staged for the benefit of a newscrew turns into a man-on-man pigpile. Actually, there's a lot of homoeroticism in this movie - I'm glad that Mendes turned the common subtext of war movies into plain text. The soldiers alternately seem ready to screw or beat the snot out of each other, sometimes both. A brilliant scene midway between Swafford and Fergus allows the tension, sexual and otherwise, to come to the fore, and it's perfectly disturbing. And the actors are uniformly great. Gyllenhaal, who I had dismissed a bit as a droopy-eyed cipher, displays layers of anger, ferocity and sensitivity that threw me completely off-guard (though I wish he hadn't thrown in a Donnie Darko reference). Jamie Foxx has a sincerity as an actor that works brilliantly in this role - he did great work in Ray, to be sure, but this and Collateral are more worthy of his presence. It was nice to see Dennis Haysbert in a smaller role - his Major Lincoln is perversely funny. And Peter Sarsgaard deserves all the credit in the world; he's quietly becoming a master at understated portrayls of men who reveal more through small gestures than through big, showy scenes, and Troy is no exception. The climactic "Let him have the shot!" scene could have been muddled in less capable hands; in Sarsgaard's, it is devastating.

Mendes' instincts here are just spot-on - the soundtrack, which uses Bobby McFerrin and C&C Music Factory, and the references to Metroid (gamers - is the ninth-level thing accurate?) and Rambo squarely place us in 1991, in the midst of a non-war. The burning oil wells and charred bodies of the second half are handled perfectly; instead of bashing us over the head with easy "War is hell" nonsense, Mendes allows them to be quitely haunting. He even comes up with one image of a horse that touches the ecstatc truth that Herzog is after. DP Roger Deakins and editor Walter Murch (who also worked on Apocalypse Now) both do pitch-perfect work. Thomas Newman's score is both exhilarating and ominous, echoing the wet dreams and nightmares of our heroes.

This is a remarkable film - a meditative, philosophical examination of war, and while it mostly avoids direct comparisons to the current war, it certainly gives a good deal of insight into why decent guys like my sister's boyfriend signed up for such an insane war. It's problematic at times - it doesn't give us any answers and leaves us with far more questions. But then, so did Full Metal Jacket.