Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Hurdy Gurdy Man - David Fincher's ZODIAC

It’s a great thing when a film, book or album meets lofty expectations brought about by either its subject matter or the talent involved, because it shows that some people still know how to do their jobs. Such is the case with David Fincher’s ZODIAC, not just the first truly impressive film of 2007 (as many others have stated) but also a major affirmation by those who have always believed in Fincher’s talent (in my case going all the way back to ALIEN³) despite numerous naysayers who insisted that he was more about style than substance. Fincher leaves many of his signature CGI-assisted crazy camera moves and POV shots behind (although a few effective ones do show up here and there) and focuses on an amazingly intricate and compelling multi-character true story that stretches over nearly 15 years. The result is probably his best film to date.

My knowledge of the real Zodiac killer was virtually nil when I set foot in the theater (although I was familiar with it when a copycat killer surfaced in NYC in the early 90s), but I knew that Fincher is a stickler for the facts and low and behold, the title card comes up at the beginning that the film is based on true events and that every effort have been made to maintain its accuracy. While the film is based on Robert Greysmith’s books on the Zodiac and is therefore subject to much conjecture as to the killer’s true identity (who was never caught), the feeling is real and attention to detail is first rate. Though the murder scenes in the film’s first half (where some of the victims survived) are incredibly harrowing to watch, ZODIAC is by no means exploitive (unlike the recent Ulli Lommel opus) and Fincher’s restraint and matter-of-factness with these sequences is much of what makes them so startling. They also help to ratchet up the suspense in later scenes (yes, I actually used the old “ratchet up the suspense” critic’s cliché, so what of it?) because we know what this killer is capable of and we don’t want to witness that again. Rather unexpectedly, ZODIAC is a serial killer movie with respect for human life and while sometimes terrifying, it’s not a horror film by any means but more in the tradition of the great police procedurals as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and investigative thrillers as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. It’s about smart people driven by ambition, obsession and the need to do the right thing no matter what and it’s fascinating throughout. Though the film is long (160 minutes), I never once felt the length, nor did I find the lack of a traditional conclusion to the narrative to be a burden. If anything, it adds to the film’s mystique, because even though the film comes up with its own logical solution, the lack of any real proof or evidence is just as troubling to the viewer as it is to its characters.

Equally impressive is the cast that Fincher has collected, not only the film’s three leads, but in nearly every supporting role as well. Such faves as Candy Clarke, John Getz, John Terry, Clea Duvall, Ione Skye and Charles Fleischer (in an incredibly impressive performance) show up and give real performances that flesh out their characters, as opposed to just some kind of Rob Zombie fanboy stunt casting. But to be true, everyone gets their own moment (Robert Downey, Jr. gets several) and another great thing about the film is that there are plenty of memorable character scenes spread throughout, my favorite probably being a first date between Jake Gyllenhaal and Chloe Sevingy, who has never been this charming before. If there’s one overriding flaw that got me throughout the film, it’s that for a story that spreads out over 15 years, Gyllenhaal’s character does not age at all. Certainly the character evolves, but everyone else gets a little older, a little grayer, a little fatter, except for Gyllenhaal. Maybe I just didn’t notice any of the gray hairs or anything, but it stuck out. I’m also quite mixed on Fincher’s use of HD photography on the film. It often looks clean, bright beautiful and it does give the film a distinctive look, but the HD seams sometimes show (strobing and ghosting when characters move too quickly) and I think that Fincher could have achieved an even better, richer look by shooting on film instead (and I must say that I am not the world’s biggest proponent of HD photography, just so you understand where I’m coming from). But those are, in the end, minor quibbles. So much of ZODIAC is so well done (one last shout out goes to the film’s amazing soundtrack, especially the use of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) that it may end up becoming an instant classic and justifiably so. Sometimes you can just feel it once it’s all said and done and ZODIAC has that feeling. Fincher has impressed and knocked your socks off before, but never like this. He’s reached another level as a filmmaker and storyteller and there's no going back. I love watching talent improve like this.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Inside the Mind of an Academy Member

I had hoped to do a different kind of Academy Awards preview this weekend by asking a longtime friend/film editor/Academy member give the blog a little write-up on who he was voting for. Unfortunately, e-mail issues prevented me from getting this to you until now. My friend seems to have reverted back to his old APA-writing days and has given me a rundown not only of the Awards but every film he saw in 2006, which is fine, actually, because he always makes his point very well and is a wonderful writer. So here it is, every word of it, with the names removed in order to protect the innocent (and not get anyone in trouble). Enjoy!

So… here’s the secret about the Motion Picture Academy (officially, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Let me warn you, it’s a big one, so keep it to yourselves.

The secret is this – we don’t know any more than you do.

I’m in the Academy, and have been ever since a famous film composer and a well-known music editor signed my application form and sponsored my entrance into the Music Branch. The benefits of membership are mostly bragging rights, though every Saturday and Sunday they have screenings of just-released films at their fantastic screening facilities (for some reason, we almost never see a film before it comes out) and I get to sit among my peers and watch. I like it there because of those peers – it’s the only location, outside of Miami Beach bingo parlors, that makes me feel young.

After the movie is over, we all walk out to our cars and talk about the film we’ve just seen. And it feels just like anyone else talking. The same movie that engenders praise from one person will be derided by others, often in completely incoherent manner (“Uh… I don’t know. It seemed boring to me.”). We think we know more than The Average Person (we call them “civilians”) but there is never any consensus on anything. When I finished watching DREAMGIRLS, I heard people who said “I HATE movies like that” as well as those who felt uplifted and wanted to see it again. I fell closer to the first category (more on that later) but many of the viewers were no more articulate about what they liked and didn’t like than the crowd leaving the film at your local 20-plex.

We see ‘em and we like ‘em,or we don’t. It’s that simple.

That being said, HQ10 has asked me to talk about the Oscar races this year and, in doing that, talk about the films. I’m going to do more film talking than Oscar handicapping and, as is my wont, I’m going to discuss my reactions to the films in categories. These are my own personal categories, and there are four of them in:

1) Great and I’d Love To See Them Again,
2) Good – Flawed but Worth The Spent,
3) Fair – Please Make Sure I Don’t See These On Cable or Anywhere Ever Again, and
4) Poor – Excruciating, Puzzling and Downright Maddening All Wrapped Up In One.

This makes more sense to me than ratings or abstract criticism, and certainly more sense than predicting who’s going to win what at the awards this year. You can compare my notes to the actual winners, if you’d like but, frankly, I can’t think of why you’d want to engage in that futile exercise. I’m going to be miles off. I always am. I must like it that way.

Great and I’d Love to See Them Again
Oddly (and rarely) enough, most of the films that I considered great this year, ended up on the Oscar ballot, though not always in the categories that I felt they deserved. A criminal number of them were shoved into the Foreign Film category, guaranteeing that most of them will not win. However, for once, I feel One With The People (or, at least, the Academy People)

BABEL – As an editor, I can tell you that juggling this many stories in one film is fraught with peril. This film juggled most of those dangers very well, and though the Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett plotline tended to be the weakest of the threads, it never brought the entire film down. As an aside, if you’d like to see a more masterful juggling act, I’d take at Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last film – 21 GRAMS. This one didn’t quite measure up to that high bar. For once, though, the Academy got it right – the two nominations for Best Supporting Actress were the right two women to get the nod. They really made you FEEL their stories and never for one minute did I feel they were “performing.” And, if it weren’t for the indominitable Thelma Schoonmaker, I’d go for Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise’s editing work on this one in a heartbeat.

BORAT – It was completely predictable that this film, one of the funniest, most astute films of the year, would be given an award – just not one that would require the Academy to acknowledge that there were actual performances in the film. Editing a documentary is much harder than putting together a scripted film, since you’re writing as you’re shooting and editing. This one looks like a happy combination of the two.

CHILDREN OF MEN – I don’t know why I was surprised how great this film was. Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most varied and interesting filmmakers working today. Still, the story about a future world in which women can no longer conceive, seemed rather slight when I first heard about it, so I kept on forgetting to see it. When I finally did, I was entranced by Clive Owen’s portrayal of a man who has lost more than he can comprehend. This character then took us on a tour of a world gone mad. It was inevitable that this film would be nominated for its cinematography. Its moody color palette and several complex, lengthy shots, obviously impressed the cinematographers (every craft nominates only within its own category only – it really IS true that a nomination means a lot to those nominated). What is wonderfully surprising is how the film’s editing and screenplay rose to the top as well.

THE DEPARTED – I know, I know. Scorsese has never won an Oscar and this is his year. That’s what I heard two years ago, when he was nominated for THE AVIATOR. The difference this time, is that THE DEPARTED is a good film – riveting, full of nuanced performances, great writing and top-of-the-line craft work. I’d have no regrets voting for this film and its overall creator. It’s Scorsese at the top of his game again.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – You know, there’s virtually nothing that I can add to the discussion about this wonderfully funny little film. You’ve heard it all – low(er) budget, Sundance darling, two directors and a great cast. Fox Searchlight did an incredible job pushing the film in front of Academy members and I’m glad they did – it’s a film that deserves every accolade it can get. It’s just not fantastic enough to score my vote for best picture. Alan Arkin was tremendous in his role as the irascible grandfather in this completely dysfunctional family driving to a beauty pageant for those ugly duckling daughter (though so was Jackie Earle Haley and the rest of that strong category’s nominees), the screenplay was well crafted and avoided all of the clichés that it could have fallen into. That having been said, I’m not taking Abigail Breslin’s nomination seriously (if you want to see a fantastic performance by a kid, look at Ivana Baquero in PAN’S LABYRINTH). I’ll see this one again, I’m sure. I’m just more in love with other films.

PAN’S LABYRINTH – Perhaps my favorite film of 2006, this is a masterful combination of fairy tale and political story, a strong and focused stylistic tour de force. Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative film is about a young girl forced to choose between a torturous life in early Franco Spain, and a world of fauns and pixies and dangerous monsters. It’s infuriating to me that it was shoved into the Best Foreign Language Film, but Academy members aren’t that different from Regular People – a lot of them don’t like to read when they’re at the movies. Still, its nominations for Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup, Music and Screenplay are all well-deserved.

THE QUEEN -- Poor Stephen Frears. He has spent most of his life making really interesting, powerful films, with actors who give performances that make that seem like real people. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, THE GRIFTERS, HIGH FIDELITY, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, and PRICK UP YOUR EARS are all superior works. And what does he get? To watch Helen Mirren pick up an Oscar, while nobody can figure out how to spell his first name (is it “ph” or “v”?). And then to be nominated, finally, for Best Director in a year when everyone (including myself) is saying that Scorsese is finally in the money. True, Best Picture wouldn’t be too shabby, but it is Frears work that is consistently in evidence in this fascinating film about a country on the borderline between two eras – traditional monarchial love, and modern democratic pragmatism. The nominated screenplay perfectly steps between these poles, and the cast is rich and powerful.

VOLVER – This is the second of my favorite 2006 films to be shoved into the Best Foreign Film category. Penelope Cruz, under Pedro Almodovar’s direction, is absolutely stunning in the depth of her understanding of this character – a married woman who is forced into a series of roles and decisions that are intensely troubling to her and from which she must break out. The film is filled with humor, intense emotion, and a series of incredible female actresses. This film deserved a Best Screenplay nomination, in addition to Cruz’s. Directing would have been great too.

WATER – I am thrilled that this film got nominated at all. It’s an incredibly powerful tale of a young teenage girl in 1938 India whose elderly arranged-marriage husband dies. She is then thrown into a home for widows, shunned by the community, and forced to live a life from which she can only dream of escape. A powerful set of performances, as well as a story which is compelling, drive this film.

STRANGER THAN FICTION (not nominated) – Will Farrell, Will Farrell. What are we going to do with him? He often shows flashes of actorly depth, but not enough to break him out of his comedy roles. And then a film like STRANGER THAN FICTION comes along and, while his performance in it is not a huge stretch from what we’ve seen before, it’s in the service of a very different type of story. And it works. The story, dubbed Charlie Kaufman-like by the moronic media, deals with a boring IRS auditor who, though seemingly flesh and blood, turns out to be the creation of a struggling book writer. And, as she writes the story, bringing him closer to his untimely death, he becomes aware of this and tries to undo the inevitable. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the loony writer is incredibly fun to watch. Oddly, this is not the case with Queen Latifah’s puzzling role as a woman assigned to help Thompson over her writer’s block (that is what’s called a Stupid Writer Device). Dustin Hoffman has a lot of fun with his role as the wacky academic who helps Farrell discover his problem.

Good – Flawed but Worth The Time Spent
BLOOD DIAMOND – Why oh why, do films about black countries and black problems have to have white protagonists to “help” tell the story? (see THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND for a more egregious example of this). At least Leonardo DeCaprio does a great job of pulling you through the film, an exploration of the practice of using slave labor (enforced through violence) to harvest diamonds for sale on the world. Ed Zwick, the director, is always way too earnest for my taste market (see GLORY, THE LAST SAMURAI, LEGENDS OF THE FALL), and this film suffers from that trait in spades, accounting for a large portion of the film’s bloated 143 minute running time. But it’s often a powerful story, told with energy and involvement.

HALF NELSON -- Like several other films this year, this is a movie whose performances are better than the film. Ryan Gosling, as a heroin addicted teacher of poor black children, excels in this role and has, justifiably, gotten an Oscar nomination. There’re also some really realistic and involving views of his life outside of school. At times, the film threatens to break out into a totally involving, fascinating, view of a ruined life and more. And when it does, it’s wonderful. It just doesn’t happen often enough. The filmmakers tend to go for the easy image or plot point too often.

HAPPY FEET – It’s a complete coincidence that this film sits alphabetically on top of Al Gore’s environmental documentary. This animated film starts off as a fun romp with those cute penguins who seem to be taking over the entertainment industry (Coke was there first, as any filmgoer who arrives at a theatre’s advertised film start time will tell you). They’re fun to watch, well animated, and when one of them is born without the ability to sing (apparently all penguins are born with the ability to skip Julliard and go straight to Carnegie Hall, if they could ever get off the Antarctic continent), it turns into a societal problem even though that damned penguin can tap dance up a storm. You can fill in most of the rest of this predictable plot – he is treated as an outsider and shunned, until he finds out the Solution to their disappearing ice and is welcomed back in all of his ever-lovin’ Savion Glover-recorded, tap dancin’ glory. The part of the film that took me completely by surprise (and not in a good way) was how the last twenty minutes turned into a blatant political advertisement for Greenpeace (can’t all we species just get along??). If we could just stop melting all of our icebergs, the film tells us, and you can help cute penguins get along. Got it. Now I’ll go and turn off my air conditioning.

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH – A less subtle, but more horrifying and successful, ecological polemic can be found in Al Gore’s Power Point presentation (actually, Apple’s Keynote, but let’s not sweat the details here) about the horrors and dangers of global warming. Like all documentaries pleading for social action, the film takes the position that It’s Not Too Late to do something about it, even though it glosses over what that something would be and how it change our lifestyles. However, if the film is weakest on the realities of what we’ll have to do to combat this warming, it is absolutely fantastically relentless about what a problem this is. It’s also the most fascinating time I’ve had watching power point slides ever. Every corporate presenter should have a scissors lift for emphasis.

NOTES ON A SCANDAL -- Here’s another contender for the Better Acting Than Filmmaking prize. Nearly every single person in this film is incredibly interesting and well detailed. But Judi Dench’s portrayal of a school-marmish tattle tale who becomes jealous of Cate Blanchett’s dalliance with an underage student (Dench isn’t jealous because of the boy; she’s really in love with Blanchett’s character) becomes more plain evil than complex, and she is stuck with playing scenes in which she says one thing and the camera lets us know that she means another. It’s the horror movie version of a British history novel.

(not nominated) – Jude Law can act, he really can, and this film is really good about stepping back and letting him do his stuff. The story, about a successful young British architect whose new offices are burgled several times, takes us into areas that become quite entrancing. Law initially blames the black cleaning staff, but then finds out that it is a local boy, son of a beautiful (of course…) Serbian immigrant, played by the well-known Yugoslavian actress Juliette Binoche. As he gets involved more and more with the woman, he begins to unravel much of the carefully constructed life that he has. Though the film takes too long to tell a simple story, the performances are quite captivating and make this well worth the time.

CASINO ROYALE (not nominated) – It’s a Bond movie without all of the falling out of airplanes and cool toys/gadgets that we’ve come to expect from 007. Still, it’s got character and is a good popcorn movie. Even though they don’t serve popcorn at the Academy. If you want popcorn, you’ve got to pay your $10 admission like everyone else at the 24-plex.

HOLLYWOODLAND (not nominated) – What made this worth viewing was not the story, per se, of how actor George Reeve went from being a wannbe actor in Hollywood, to being a successful television Superman, to being dead. No, it was the sense of time and place that it evokes. Hollywood in the 50s was a different place than it is now, or was in the 30s. The movie wonderfully portrays this sense of a culture in transition.

WORLD TRADE CENTER (not nominated) -- Happily surprising, this Oliver Stone film is way more than a simple story of several men trapped in the rubble underneath the trade center towers on 9/11. No, it’s a story about promises made, and the love of family, and the bonds between two policemen who got caught in circumstances beyond their making. I’ve worked for Stone and can tell you that he’s a permanently passionate filmmaker, who won’t anything go that he wants to show. So, I’m sure that this is his film, and well worth it it was.

Fair – Please Make Sure I Don’t See These On Cable
CARS – Pixar has to be one of the best storytelling companies in the animation business, if not in all of filmmaking. They rarely let the cutesiness of their characters overpower the story, and that is why they consistently deliver involving and successful films. This is one of their rare misses, though it still feels fun in several places. It’s an incredibly banal story – Owen Wilson voices a racecar who is way too impressed with himself. When he is stuck on an island, oops I mean small town, surrounded by normal people (oops, I mean cars), he learns the value of slowing down and enjoying The Real People (oops, I mean cars). It’s so predictable that it’s shocking, coming from Pixar and John Lasseter.

DREAMGIRLS – I know I’m supposed to like this. It has a good performances by Eddie Murphy and usually Jamie Foxx (who was waaaay better in person) and some stirring music. But I didn’t feel that the original Broadway show was that interesting either. And this is a faithful adaptation of the show, right down to the overly broad, over-the-top singing which always looks stupider on screen than from Row BB in the balcony of a Broadway theatre. “Opening up” a show, doesn’t just mean taking the songs and choreography off the stage and putting them on the street (or, if you’re really terrible, on a slab of butcher block or a café table, as in RENT). No, it means re-thinking everything – look at Bob Fosse’s CABARET or ALL THAT JAZZ. When Jennifer Hudson breaks into her show-stopping solo “Listen” (I think that’s the one – I was nodding out by then), it looks like exactly what it is – a faithful rendering of a stage performance, with cool camera moves and lighting. But no guts inside of it.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS – I haven’t seen LETTERS yet, so I can’t compare these two Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima films, but I can tell you that this one sent me under the chair. Flat, uninvolving, it makes sense the only nominations it could get were for sound editing and sound mixing (it DID have a lot of big explosions and cool rifle ricochets).

THE GOOD SHEPHERD – I don’t mind long films (the original 1900 is still one of my favorite films of all time), but when forty minutes of this film had passed and I was still watching plotted set-up, I got very very worried. The story of intrigue in the founding of the CIA/FBI/Evil Governmental Organization, and how it drives family man Mark Damon away from his completely underwritten wife and family (was most of Angelina Jolie’s role left on the cutting room floor, or did she forget about the script, deciding to take the opportunity to be directed by Robert DeNiro – who has now done two overwrought movies as a director), this is a film which, at once, tells too little and too much. It is too long because of details that, ultimately, make no difference to our comprehension of the story or the people in it.

THE ILLUSIONIST – So, here’s my problem with this film. I enjoyed watching it. I liked the basic premise revolving around a magician in love with a woman so far above his social strata that he needs his magic to secure a life with her, and I even liked watching Ed Norton in it (Paul Giametti left me cold). But, ten minutes after walking out of the film, it had completely evaporated into the ether for me. Not a thing memorable. That’s not good for a film, is it?

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND – Forrest Whitaker will probably win the acting award for this one, primarily because it’s the only role that’s close to a sick or psychotic person among the nominees this year. That having been said, he’s not even really the star of the film. Nope, this is another film in which a white character (and not a very interesting one at that) is used to tell the story of a black man and a black problem – the oppressive regime of Idi Amin. Whitaker, joking aside, does a great job of portraying this man on the edge. I haven’t seen Will Smith or Peter O’Toole’s films yet, so I didn’t vote in this category this year, but it doesn’t feel like a strong category to me.

LITTLE CHILDREN – I am not a Todd Field fan. That is, I am not a fan of Field as a director (I liked him as an actor in EYES WIDE SHOT). He makes movies in which every single scene is important and fraught with power and meaning. As a result, no scene has importance, power and meaning, for me. As an editor, I’m all about shaping a film, and his films seem to be on one frequency.

COPYING BEETHOVEN (not nominated) – Ed Harris is really good as a dying Beethoven who is forced to accept a female copyist as he is finishing his famous Ninth Symphony. Naturally, he learns to like and appreciate her, even though he is a complete curmudgeon. The scene where he conducts the symphony is tremendously done, but it doesn’t make up for the flatness of the rest of the script and direction.

THE DA VINCI CODE (not nominated) – The best way to see this film is to be told, again and again before you see it, that the film is horrible. Then, you can turn around and say, “Hey. It wasn’t THAT bad.” So… it wasn’t that bad!!” Now, I realize that this falls under the “damning with faint praise” category. And that is, precisely, what I am doing. It’s a flat, normally non-involving portrayal of a pretty interesting book, done without much energy or variation.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (not nominated) – It’s hard to believe that this franchise is still creaking along, but it is (at this point) the James Bond film of its day. As opposed to the new Bond film, this is an old-fashioned Bond, in which gadgets play a bigger role than people, and the people are all one of two types – for us or against us, and you never are sure which side anyone is on. The series has taken a nosedive since its first, delicious, episode (De Palma apologists, hold up that DVD box whenever I get down on him – which I am about to do in the next section), but there are still enough set-piece chase scenes to raise your interest here. I don’t even care that, with our awareness of what CGI can do in films, that we realize that most of the time, not of the actors are ever doing anything that we see them doing. It’s still fun. Just not as good as we want it to be for that film budget.

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (not nominated)

Poor – Excruciating, Puzzling and Maddening All Wrapped Up In One
THE BLACK DAHLIA – Wow. A bad Brian de Palma film. Can you shock me even more. I have to go back to the early 1980s to find a film of his that I really like (and that would be DRESSED TO KILL), though I did think the first MISSION IMPOSSIBLE was incredibly well put together and probably the best of the seven or eight of them that we’ve seen (or feel like we’ve seen). I struggled for any type of human connection between the characters on screen, or with me. There was none. My favorite James Ellroy book needed some energy, heat, passion, or anything that showed a pulse.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA – If I liked fashion I might have liked this film more. If I liked Anne Hathaway more, I might have liked this film more. If I didn’t mind, single-minded one-note performances that were supposed to funny by Meryl Streep, I might have liked this film more. But I don’t pine for any of those things, and didn’t spend much time enjoying this film. That’s my prejudice, I know. There are plenty of people who thought that Streep was “positively delicious” playing the most mean, evil, self-centered boss you could ever have. I just kept on thinking that I GOT the point back in the first reel of the film, and didn’t need to keep seeing it every damned time she walked into the frame.

THE GOOD GERMAN – Several years ago, Gus van Sant did a remake of PSYCHO, in which he reshoot every single camera shot and edited a version of his film which was similar to Hitchock’s original in most ways except that it was horrible. That film provoked the question “Why?” in most people. I feel the same way about this useless exercise in ripping off Michael Curtiz and other filmmakers of the 40s. It’s an exercise doomed to failure – Soderbergh, who made this one, didn’t shy away from using complex CGI effects shots, nor did he decide to release the film in monaural sound, did he? Yet he claimed that he wanted to make a movie in the old studio way, except for permitting sex. It doesn’t work. It feels like a student film (and I teach film at USC’s film school, so trust me, I know about this) whose director had a strong initial conception and never let go, even when it wasn’t working.

MARIE ANTOINETTE – Oh My God! I couldn’t get through more than twenty minutes of this mess. As interesting and involving as Bill Murray’s and Kirsten Dunst’s performances were in LOST IN TRANSLATION, that is how Uninteresting and vapid all of the characters were in this film. Sofia Coppola’s first two features spent time with complex people, and allowed us to see the complexity. This one seemed like form over function, style over people. Not my kind of film, no matter how much cool music is in it.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (not nominated) – I’ve liked all of Terry Swigoff’s films – both documentary and narrative – since his first – CRUMB. This time, he got banal on us. The trials and tribulations of some artists at an art school don’t make for films as interesting as anyone who is in art school. I thought everyone got over that after a few months.

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS (not nominated) - No comment. I watched it (well, partially), but no comment. No, I’m serious, I REALLY HAVE NO COMMENT. There is nothing that I can say about this film that won’t seem horribly insensitive and catty. So, it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and Move On.

Fuck Scorsese, Congratulations to George Miller!

I don’t really have too much to say about last night’s Oscars except to say that it was not much of a show as entertainment, but as a representation of the 2006 movie year, it was pretty good. Not that all of the best films of the year won, but those that did didn’t really shame the Academy too much. Things could have gone a lot worse. (For another view of the evening’s events, enjoy Kim Morgan’s take over at MSN.)

To me, the biggest non-story of the night was Martin Scorsese’s win for Best Director. A non-story I call it because we all knew it was coming and in all of our minds he’s already been a winner for so many years that this almost something of an afterthought. I’m glad he won and all, but there really was no suspense behind it.

But the big story of the night was really George Miller’s win for HAPPY FEAT as Best Animated Feature. Not so much because I was a big fan of the film (which I did enjoy), but because Miller, in my mind, is one of the very few filmmakers out there with an absolutely perfect track record. The MAD MAX films, LORENZO’S OIL, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK and even the underrated (although our numbers grow more and more every year) BABE: PIG IN THE CITY are all outstanding films and Miller is a filmmaker of real imagination and a great storyteller. They say that Scorsese’s win last night was really a win for RAGING BULL, TAXI DRIVER and GOODFELLAS, and if that’s the case, then THE ROAD WARRIOR finally picked up its long-overdue statuette last night, too.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

My Mommy Always Said There Were No Monsters - No Real Ones - But There Are, Aren't There?

In case you didn’t hear, they caught a giant squid off of the coast of New Zealand not long ago (for some reason they’re not disclosing the date) and as they largest giant squid ever captured (not alive, sadly) it’s pretty big news. This thing weighed close to half a ton (about 990 pounds) and was just massive, although not quite massive enough to avoid capture, obviously. Click on the link and prepare to be amazed.

What’s really amazing about this event is that it’s not the only major undersea discovery made in the last few months. Another, even rarer species of giant squid was not only caught in the seas of Japan but it was caught on camera, the first time that’s ever happened. And then there was the case of the likewise rare breed of Frilled shark (how did they get a lame name like that?) that was caught on camera, captured and then died in captivity. I’m not a big marine life buff (although I love seafood) but my fascination with this stuff ties into my longtime love of monster movies (you knew it would get to that, didn’t you?). I’ve long said that one should never underestimate the appeal of giant monsters because there is always going to be some kind of basis in scientific fact about them. Unlike space aliens or zombies, giant monsters not only really did once walk the Earth, they still do, albeit they swim in our oceans although for some reason they seem to favor the Pacific over the Atlantic. God damn, they’re cool, though if I ever came across one in real life there’s no doubt in my head that I’d be incredibly freaked out. Wouldn’t you?

Anyway, you can't make this stuff up, which is what I love about it. So how much do you want to bet that a bunch of giant squid movies show up in the new release section of Blockbuster in the next few months?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This is not going to be one of those pieces that tries to suggest how to improve the movie going experience. It’s basically a bitch piece, but I’m sure you can get some ideas out of it.

I went to see BREACH the other night (which I liked quite a bit) and found myself at the theater a little earlier than usual. I usually try to time my theater trips just right so that I can get a decent seat and, even more importantly, avoid what’s passing for the pre-show entertainment at most theaters these days, but the other night my timing was a bit off. It turned out to be a pretty crowded night at the movies, so I took my seat with some time to spare and was forced once again to enjoy the commercials. Now, the one thing I want to make very clear is that I get the “why” of the commercials. Movie theater chains are struggling like most every other industry these days. The studios demand higher percentages, overall expenses are up, the minimum wage has just been increased, projectors cost a lot to install and keep (especially the digital ones), so on and so forth. Putting ads for soft drinks, computers and TV shows help make paying the bills a heck of a lot easier. Granted, it’s not enough for them that a large popcorn is $6 ($6!), now you’ve got to put ads on the screen before the movie. And I know this is nothing new. About 20 years ago I remember first seeing ads on the screen via a slide projector, mainly for upcoming movies and local businesses. I recall once at the old HQ10 we once ran 30 second Sprite ads for a week before some shows as part of a test run and the results were overall negative. And let’s not forget Movietunes, the one-step-above-muzak service that gave us ads for more horrible songs than we could ever count and the insufferable voice of Kris Erik Stevens. Eventually audiences’ resistances to such things died down and for the last 5 years or so the ads have become much more of a part of the movie going experience, like it or not. I suppose I should say that these “pre-shows” are thankfully over and done with at the time the show is supposed to start and don’t mean fewer trailers, but that doesn’t make them any easier to endure.

So here’s my beef: The average price of a movie ticket is now about $10. Popcorn is $4 to $6 (free refills only on larges) and sodas and candies are just below that price range. Most of your bigger chains are now offering other concessions, like mini pizzas and cheese fries, and that’s fine if you want them. Personally speaking, I’m good with just a pack of Twizzlers (but not if it’s going to cost me more than $3) and bottled soda, but one that I’m bringing with me from outside, where it still cost me a more than reasonable $1.25. I know this sounds like I’m being cheap, but let’s face, it cost a lot to go to the movies these days and in a lot of ways just “seeing the movie” isn’t enough. I’m used to enjoying my movies with a snack and sody and I like it that way. But what I don’t want is to be insulted while I sit and wait for my movie to start (which is sometimes an insult in itself, but what are you gonna do?). There isn’t always someone to talk to before the movie to help get your mind off things so far too many times you’re just stuck there watching this crap. Honestly, I don’t care about NBC’s latest shows, the new Honda Civic, or some soft drink; I just wanted to be entertained. One of the reasons I go to the movies to see things I don’t see everyday, so why would I want to look at the same old ads and commercials?

There is a solution, of course, but it’s not one that’s going to make the theaters happy. As we all know (or at least should know), the world’s greatest movie theater is the Alamo Drafthouse down in Austin, TX. Pretty much everything they do they do right, from the projection to their attitude and outright love of movies (which I don’t ever feel from any other theater chain), not to mention the fact that they serve full meals and beer during the show. One thing they do that I absolutely love are the pre-show on-screen entertainments. These are primarily put together by the Alamo’s resident genius Lars Neilsen (along with other members of the staff – don’t feel slighted guys!) and they’re incredible. Wacky shorts (Jim Henson’s TIMEPIECE is an oft-shown favorite), classic trailers, weird videos, and other crazy, off-the-wall stuff that Lars can find usually makes its way onto the Alamo screen and the audiences love it. They love it because it ads to the fun of the movie going experience and gives you a reason to get to the theater before your show starts. Extra added bonus entertainment before the movie why, doesn’t that sound like fun? The big theater chains don’t have to go as all out as Lars does, but how about some cartoons (ones not affiliated with new TV shows), short documentaries, original shorts (Two words: Yacht Rock), or maybe some local-based stuff and some public service spots. Doesn’t that sound a lot more interesting? Doesn’t mean you can’t have sponsors (“This new Bill Plympton cartoon brought to you by Chap Stick!”), but make the pre-show something that people can only get at the movies (like Bugs Bunny cartoons and Vitaphone shorts used to be) and they’ll be happy to come. Hell, you can even advertise your pre-show as its own feature and then, after a couple of months, put them out on DVD for fans to enjoy. Crazy? Sure, all good ideas are in some way or another, but I think it can work. At the end of the day it’s all about putting asses on seats and no matter what they’re coming to see the movie going experience has to deliver. It’s time the chains do something unique in order to justify their existence.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Happy President's Day Weekend!

When I was younger (but a wee lad), I used to look forward to President’s Day weekend for two reasons. The first being that it meant to start of the winter break in the NJ school system, giving us impressionable youth a week off from school and an opportunity to laze around for a week or so, because lord knows it was too damn cold out to do anything fun (unless it snowed, which you didn’t want to happen during your vacation, lest you lose the opportunity to have a school-canceled snow day). For some reason my family would take advantage of this and spend a week down the Jersey shore at Long Beach Island, which was always fun but never meant I’d get a tan or anything. This only lasted until I hit junior high (we always rented the same house, which was then sold) but it made the week special. Yeah, I was normal once.

But the second reason was the more important one for me, the fact that by this weekend the Hollywood movie machine was finally getting its act together and was starting to release some decent product, instead of dealing with the previous year’s Oscar contenders and cast-offs. This is not to say that most of these President’s Day releases were classics or anything, but it meant that the movie year had finally begun for real and that I could start looking forward to seeing fun stuff again. I think in part because I had this holiday these releases took on an extra added sheen (for some reason I remember being really excited to see the Kevin Bacon epic QUICKSILVER on opening night), but it's always good when a bunch of good movies start opening after a qualitative drought. A few classics have actually been released on this weekend (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, GROUNDHOG DAY, LOCAL HERO, THE KING OF COMEDY) while several popular favorites (THE BREAKFAST CLUB, WITNESS, BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, WAYNE’S WORLD, and Joseph Ruben’s TRUE BELIEVER, a personal fave) all made their debuts around this time. Yes, there actually was a time when the studios decided to release decent movies in February, showing some restraint by not jamming the end of the year with too many Oscar contenders. Now the decent Feb. flicks are all from other countries (THE LIVES OF OTHERS, HEAD ON) but there used to be a time when the likes of VIDEODROME (actually a Super Bowl weekend dump, but it’s now considered a classic) and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS would stand out like daisies in a garbage dump of crap. Hell, even the grindhouse product seemed to be more fun during the winter months. Seriously, where did the February film fun go?

This weekend’s release of GHOST RIDER proves that Hollywood still hasn’t forgotten the power of the President’s Day weekend and I’m sure it’s going to do very well, although I have my doubts about its quality. Billy Ray’s BREACH, on the other hand, I’m told is quite good and seems to follow the erratic tradition of putting out a quality dramatic flick after everyone’s caught up with the Oscar nominees. This is a solid weekend for retrospectives and special screenings all over, with the Film Comment Selects series at NYC’s Lincoln Center (I’m seeing PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and Kurosawa’s RETRIBUTION Saturday night), the American Cinematheque’s Gangster series in L.A., a rare screening of HICKEY & BOGGS (with Robert Culp in attendance!) at the Aero in Santa Monica on Sunday, the MOULIN ROUGE sing-a-long at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse the same day, and a whole lot of other cool stuff everywhere else. The weather sucks outside; if you’re not buried under 8 feet of snow in Oswego County, go see a movie this weekend and thank me later (unless you're seeing GHOST RIDER and in that case you're on your own).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Just Fucking Awesome - Johnnie To's EXILED

One of the absolute must-see films of last year’s AFM for me was Johnnie To’s EXILED, which opened in Hong Kong only a few weeks earlier after premiering in competition in Venice, supposedly just weeks after shooting wrapped (or so the story goes). That kind of thing usually does not bode well, but with such excellent films as PTU, RUNNING ON KARMA, BREAKING NEWS and the ELECTION films in recent years To is obviously in a rhythm right now and it’s important not to stop him. EXILED, as it turns out, is another terrific To work, one that will delight not only his fans (i.e. me) but anyone who has ever loved Hong Kong cinema. Something of a companion film to To’s 1999 film THE MISSION (starring the same cast as different characters), EXILED is, in a way, a sort of clever “greatest hits” of Hong Kong cinema, filled with all the elements that made those films so wonderful, from the distinctly Chinese characterizations (criminals who are also men of honor) to the plot, which plays like a contemporary Western. These kinds of things can either fail miserably, making the director look like a poser fanboy, or succeed beautifully and I wouldn’t be writing about this one if it didn’t. EXILED is one of those films that mixes the style and themes of other classic filmmakers (primarily Peckinpah in this case) but then becomes its own thing and what a beautiful thing it is. Watching EXILED is like seeing an old friend who you haven’t seen in a long time after you’ve both been through a lot and while you’ve both changed some, you haven’t lost that love and respect for one another. EXILED is a return to the great feeling you used to have from watching Hong Kong films, but it’s also got that happy feeling you get from watching top-notch directors in their element.

This may not be as heavy as the ELECTION pictures or PTU, but there’s certainly no question that To’s heart is very much in this, and it shows. EXILED is not one of To’s quickie commercial jobs (like the snoozer YESTERDAY ONCE MORE or LOVE ON A DIET), but one that’s more from the heart, a tribute to a genre of films and style of storytelling that many of the great directors have embraced throughout the years, from Kurosawa to (John) Sturges to Hawkes, Carpenter, Leone, Woo and others, the guys on a mission movie. Take a small group of violent professionals and give them a reason to fight outnumbered against a small army and watch them be brilliant. This kind of movie, when it works, is an ass-kicker of a genre and EXILED is probably the best example of this genre since… jeez, I can’t remember. It also has some truly bravura action sequences (the apartment shootout is a classic) and is so beautifully shot that theatrical screenings are a must. Our pals at Magnolia have picked this up for the U.S., but the Hong Kong DVD is already out, so it will probably be all over the bootleg market ASAP, which is too bad, because I have no doubt that seeing this in a theater with a big crowd would no doubt be a lot of fun. It’s screening tonight at the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, but it’s just the one screening, oddly enough, although it’s set to open theatrically in June (we’ll see). No matter which way you do, see EXILED and thank me later.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

When the Power of Rock Met the Power of Yacht

OK, I hate being late to a fad (makes you feel so worthless) but I’m only just now getting around to YACHT ROCK, the Channel 101 series that’s been something of a small internet sensation for the last two years or so. The premise takes the stories behind some of the smooth rock hits of the mid-70s from such bands as The Doobie Brothers, Loggins & Messina and Steely Dan and turns them into a series of shorts depicting the “real” truth behind these hits. While there is some truth to all this (many of these performers did play on each other’s albums and co-wrote songs together) the series is far from the truth, although infinitely more interesting than the truth could ever possibly be.

Part of the reason I never turned in until recently is because I’ve never been particularly impressed with the Channel 101 “programs” I’ve watched; they all seemed too self-satisfied, amusing only to their creators, but YACHT ROCK feels like the perfect fit of idea and execution. While certainly giving the music a well-deserved ribbing, there’s an earnestness to it too, an admission that this music doesn’t quite suck as much as rock critics would like you to believe. After all, haven’t we all taken a moment out to enjoy “Sailing” or “Summer Breeze” in an elevator or doctor’s office and have it given you that nice, warm funny feeling? Yes, you have.

What follows is the first episode of YACHT ROCK (“What a Fool Believes”). Subsequent episodes are likewise very funny, although your first is always the funniest. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I Just Got Out My Little BLACK BOOK...

One of the more disappointing things about this year’s Oscar nominations was that Paul Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK failed to score a nomination as Best Foreign Film (it was Holland’s official submission), despite having made the short list of 9 titles from the Academy (Almodovar’s VOLVER was likewise passed over, making the whole thing one big head-scratcher). It would have been a particular delight to see the film nominated, not just because it was fully deserving of the honor but because Verhoeven deserves it, too. I’m the first to admit that the man is not always on (I never was the biggest BASIC INSTINCT fan) but when he is (like he was with STARSHIP TROOPERS) he’s wonderful and BLACK BOOK finds Verhoeven very much back on track. This is his first Dutch film since 1984’s THE FOURTH MAN and a wonderful bounce back from HOLLOW MAN a few years ago. This is Verhoeven’s version of a WWII thriller and some have called it SHOWGIRLS LIST for its mixture of Verhoeven-style sexual frankness and a Jewish resistance drama and on one hand, that’s one way of looking at it, although to compare it with SHOWGIRLS does it a major disservice. It’s a serious film, but it does include moments of Verhoeven playfulness (and lots of nudity) that I love so damn much. It’s not SALON KITTY, either, and there’s sex and action and violence, so there’s no reason this can’t be a hit, maybe even breaking out of the arthouse scene and taking off with the mainstream a bit. The film is anchored by an excellent lead performance by Carice Van Houten (who could very easily become the next big international sex symbol) and a smart script (co-written by Verhoeven) that doesn’t trivialize the resistance movement and the plight of the Dutch Jews or speechify or bore the audience. What’s particularly pleasing about BLACK BOOK is that you can tell Verhoeven has a passion for the material (he should, since he’s been developing it for over 20 years) so he’s doing everything right for it. The way the shots are composed, the music he uses, the editing, all of it feels like Verhoeven getting his creative juices flowing again and it’s invigorating to watch. He’s having fun and getting something off his chest and as a fan and audience member, that’s what I want from him. BLACK BOOK is something that I find to be rare in movies these days, an all-around excellent picture. Smart, sexy, suspenseful, well acted, beautifully made, this is what movies should be. Verhoeven proves with this one that he’s one of the best filmmakers around these days providing you just get the hell out of his way and let him do what he does, and does very well.

Monday, February 12, 2007

If There Is A Movie God, He/She Will Make This Movie Happen

From today's Screen Daily:

"Gremlins and The Burbs director Joe Dante is in Berlin’s Co-Production Market with his next film, The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes.

The $7m project is being produced by Dante with Los Angeles-based Elizabeth Stanley and UK-based Mia Bays. A chunk of the budget has already been raised through a Japanese pre-sale.

The film is a fictional feature based on the true story of producer/director Roger Corman dropping acid in 1967 to research The Trip, a film he was making with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda. Tim Lucas and Charlie Largent wrote the script, which was then worked on by Michael Almereyda and Jim Robison.

John Sayles, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese – who all worked with Corman – have agreed to appear in the film. Corman himself will make a cameo. No other cast members are attached yet.

Dante, who worked with Corman for five years, hopes that European financiers might come on board because Corman has a strong reputation abroad. “Roger was seen as more of an auteur in Europe, in the US he was seen as a entrepreneur,” Dante explained.

“We’ve had lots of UK interest,” Bays added. The team is talking to sales companies now to start sales during Cannes.

Dante said the counterculture movement and anti-Vietnam sentiment in the US in 1967 had direct parallels to contemporary attitudes. “This film seems oddly contemporary,” he said."

OK, who's playing Corman? Hell, who's playing Nicholson?

Friday, February 9, 2007

"The Night Was Spent and So Was Fane."

So goes the opening line of my all-time favorite trashy novel, Richard Sale’s The Oscar, published all the way back in 1963. My taste in books, like my taste in films, is a little all over the place, mainly classic pulp and crime novels (Donald Westlake, James Elroy) mixed in with quirky character pieces (Tom Robbins, Richard Russo) and biographies, but I’m not above the standard potboiler as long as its fun, and The Oscar is the very definition of fun in my, um, book. Long out of print, I happened upon a paperback copy in Austin’s Half Priced Books (the one on South Lamar, not to be confused with the one on North Lamar or the one at Anderson Mill and just to be clear, definitely not the one at Palmer Lane) in March of 2005 and had heard of it (mainly due to the much-derided 1966 film version) and figured this one was worth my $2.98. Boy was it ever. I held off on the book until Oscar season in early 2006 and couldn’t believe what I was reading. With all of the ridiculousness that the Oscars themselves have become, it’s almost refreshing to read that things have almost always been this way. No, scratch that, it’s actually depressing to read that. Depressing, but in this case, also a lot of fun.

Inspired by some of the Oscar nomination scandals of the early 60s (the shameless pandering of behalf of such unworthy films as John Wayne’s THE ALAMO and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, for instance), Sale’s tale focuses on Frankie Fane, an up-and-coming young actor who, in the book’s opening pages, has just seduced the young mistress of his biggest rival, Vincent Bundee, a respected actor, family man, pillar of the Hollywood community and Fane’s co-star in the crime drama THE LAST ANGEL. Just as Fane is waking up at the girl’s apartment (paid for by Bundee), he discovers his rival trying to make his way in for an early morning quickie. Unable to get out before Bundee gets in, Fane feigns ignorance to a raging Bundee as the mistress tries to calm both of them down, all the while without a stitch of clothes on. Just as things are about to come to blows, the clock radio alarm goes off, the radio comes on, and both actors learn for the first time that their performances in THE LAST ANGEL have landed both of them Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. Tempers cool down and both actors end up congratulating each other, with Fane insisting that not only does he not stand a chance against Bundee, but that Vince has his vote. The two men patch up their differences (for now) and head off on their separate ways, but not before Vince kicks his mistress out of the apartment.

This is the opening chapter, folks. And it just gets better from there.

The Oscar is mainly about Frankie Fane’s devious and underhanded campaign for the most coveted award in all the world. Fane resorts to everything except murder to win it, from arranging to blackmail gay nominee Brett Chichester (actually one of the book’s most sympathetic characters) to setting up the ultra-American flag-waving nominee Jeff Prescott (I wonder who he’s supposed to be a stand-in for?) with an assault charge. He gets alcoholic method actor nominee Roger Alcorn to shoot his mouth off about his distain for the awards in front of the press and arranges for the ultimate reverse blackmail against Bundee (and his wife!) all in the name of the personal glory for Frank Fane. He also gets married, becomes involved with the police on more than one occasion, loses pretty much all of his friends and proves himself to not only be a raging egomaniac but a dangerous sociopath as well. And he’s absolutely fascinating while doing it. As a book, The Oscar has its problems, but its leading character isn’t one of them. While unquestionably over the top, Fane is a magnificent bastard throughout, a wonderful antihero to make Hollywood seem like it’s Sodom and Gomorrah all over again, which, as we all know, it most certainly is not.

Make no mistake, The Oscar is meant to entertain, nothing more. Sale, who doubled as a novelist and as a filmmaker (he also wrote Frank Sinatra’s SUDDENLY) no doubt intended the book to be nothing more than a fun read for all of his Hollywood friends with no offense intended and no real message passed on, except possibly that it’s not a good idea to be a dick while nominated for an Academy Award. Certainly he gets a few jabs against the awards and the industry here and there, but for the most part it’s all in fun. Day of the Locust or I Should Have Stayed Home this book is not. But as a potboiler, The Oscar is first class crap all the way and while part of the fun lies in Sale’s now-dated writing style (Fane’s hipster speak alone could make this the next The Kid Stays In The Picture) some wit does escape. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that the film version (co-written by Harlan Ellison!) apparently turned out to be a melodramatic dud because they apparently played it straight (and I understand they made some pretty significant changes, too) and didn’t see the humor in it. I suspect in the right hands a pretty hysterical and fun movie could be made out of this, but boy oh boy, the time for this kind of picture is long past, isn’t it? But then again, if gladiator movies can make a comeback, why not big screen soap operas?

Used copies of The Oscar can be pretty easy (and cheap) to find in paperback throughout Amazon, so do yourself a favor this award season and read the book that makes Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar obsession look tame in comparison. And from that statement, you know Frankie Fane has to be one mean son of a bitch! He is, and The Oscar deserves one for being such a god damn fun read.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

SXSW 2007 Lineup Looks Great! Too Bad I Won't Be There...

As I mentioned yesterday, SXSW has announced their 2007 film lineup and much to my delight and surprise it contains several features that some good friends of mine worked on. They include:

SISTERS - Doug Buck's remake of the DePalma classic, said to be very good by those who caught its world premiere at Sitges last fall. If you know Buck's work at all, you'll know to expect something with real edge and not some uninspired remake crap. Hooray Doug!

THE DEVIL DARED ME TO - My pal Anthony Timpson's production company's first feature is having its world premiere at SXSW. Said to be a stuntman comedy, let's hope this one is more HOOPER than STUNT ROCK. I expect big things from Ant and company and am sure it will not disappoint.

HE WAS A QUIET MAN - I don't know too much about this one except that it stars Christian Slater, William H. Macy and K.C. Ramsey. Who is K.C. Ramsey? Only my old HQ10 co-hort from waaaaay back, now making big moves in the cinema scene. Good luck, Kev, and I hope this one's better than the last one (that's K.C. in the upper left corner).

It looks like a great line-up and SXSW is always a blast, easily one of the best film festivals around. I wish I were going.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Who's Your Daddy? Judd Apatow's KNOCKED UP

Now that the trailer, posters and SXSW screening have been announced I think it’s high time to discuss Judd Apatow’s KNOCKED UP, which I saw in rough cut stage (but a very polished rough cut, I must add) at Butt-Numb-A-Thon last December. Plotline couldn’t be less complicated: Loveable loser Seth Rogen has one night stand with beautiful E! hostess Katherine Heigl, she gets pregnant, decides to have the baby and they both deal with the impending issue of parenthood. Add to this her sister (Leslie Mann, Mrs Apatow) and brother-in-law (Apatow regular Paul Rudd) and his loser friends and you have the mix for, well, a Judd Apatow movie. A funny but flawed Judd Apatow movie.

It’s odd to say this because it’s only his second film as a director, but if you say “the new film from Judd Apatow” you understand that there’s already a formula in place, that of the overgrown boy-child forced into dealing with a grown-up issue. I suppose it’s true to say that many great comedies have been about this issue, or at least have been about overgrown boy-men (from the Marx Brothers to ANIMAL HOUSE), but it’s too much of a hindrance here. I couldn’t get it out of my mind that this is pretty much just Apatow and gang doing their thing and not really breaking any new ground. The guys are all overgrown babies; they bust up on each other constantly, get drunk and stoned and try to start a website devoted to celebrity skin. The “change” that the character undergoes is perfectly in line with how these things work and the film doesn’t offer any surprises. I suppose the fact that there have been several similar films about this issue of late (which there seems to be every so often) doesn’t help, but it’s always been the backbone of Apatow’s work: CELTIC PRIDE, THE CABLE GUY (an underrated film), the otherwise genius ANCHORMAN, TALLADEGA NIGHTS and THE FORTY YEAR-OLD VIRGIN all walk this same territory. Hell, HEAVYWEIGHTS (a fun movie) had more maturity to it. There’s also one problem that I could never really get around and that is just what exactly Heigl’s character sees in Rogan. Certainly he’s a fun, funny guy, but I felt like the attraction was nothing more than a plot device. Apatow himself can point to the fact that he’s married to Leslie Mann, but that still doesn’t excuse this issue. Without it there’s no movie.

Taking all this into account, I also have to be completely honest and admit that I laughed quite a bit while watching this movie. The film is loaded with talented folks and the jokes and one-liners usually hit their mark, but I also feel the need to mention that the rest of the audience I saw the film with was enjoying the film even more than I did. I will give the film credit for its casting, which is pretty solid down to many of the smaller parts. All four leads are quite good and have an excellent chemistry and play off each other very well. I was especially surprised by how good Heigl is in the film, but I’m basing that more on her work in UNDER SEIGE 2: DARK TERRITORY, which may be the last thing I saw her in, than on GREY’S ANATOMY, which I’ve never seen. She’s the real surprise here, as she is unexpectedly quite good and very adept at comedy and along with the other leads they really make this work. I also want to give the film props for an extended sex scene between Rogan and the noticeably pregnant Heigl (no, she doesn’t get naked, you pervs) which is something I can honestly say I’ve never seen in a mainstream American movie before. If there’s any one thing I can point to as fresh, even brave, it’s this one scene (perhaps the most memorable in the film) because you never see this kind of thing outside of pregnancy porn and it’s actually refreshing because there’s a point to it. If the film had more moments like it I’d be a bit more on the KNOCKED UP bandwagon, but such is not the case. And to be completely fair, I saw a rough cut, and considering it ran over 2 hours (although – another compliment – it didn’t feel like it) I’m sure that there will be some trims and it may play better when it opens nationally in June. But as it stands KNOCKED UP is a collection of good jokes surrounded by a standard type of movie that I feel like I’ve already seen. As Apatow is yet another TV writer who segues into screenwriting, this is more of an extended adult sitcom than it is a movie. Apatow is a talented joke writer, but like many a talented joke writer once they start to think they’re Billy Wilder (or James L. Brooks, the enemy of all good writing) then all is lost. Apatow’s not there yet, but give him time and he could be.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Morricone and Burton: Imperfect Together

A few years ago I had the good fortune to see the one and only Jerry Goldsmith live in concert at Carnegie Hall and one of the highlights of the show was Goldsmith telling a story about how he struck up a friendship with Sean Connery, so much so that Connery claimed that the long hair and ponytail he wore in John McTiernan’s MEDICINE MAN was inspired by Goldsmith. I was reminded of this for some reason earlier today when myself and a group of friends gathered together to watch some films scored by Ennio Morricone in honor of his recent concert at Radio City Music Hall (which I could not attend but I’m told was a great show). The focus was not on any of the classics that Morricone has scored (which are being screened throughout NYC in the next few weeks) but on some of the classic clunkers that also bear his name, all of which gain a small modicum of class by his participation. We watched Michael Anderson’s stunningly stupid ORCA (which is a great-looking film, regardless) and then two Morricone-scored films that happened to have starred the one and only Richard Burton, John Boorman’s EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC and Edward Dmytrk’s BLUEBEARD. Both films are fascinating to watch for different reasons and I don’t want to slam either one of them too hard because even though both films fail, at least they try to do something, although what that thing is isn’t quite clear even to this day. I doubt Burton and Morricone became pals because of them, although it would be nice if something good came out of these flicks (other than the Morricone scores - the one for EXORCIST II is excellent).

Much has been written about how Burton’s career began to falter in the late 60s and early 70s where he made one terrible film after another, but you’ve got to give Burton some credit because many of those pictures (STAIRCASE, THE KLANSMAN, BOOM and these two) weren't just flops, they were some of the biggest bombs of their time. I’m not really going to get into EXORCIST II right now (maybe another time) but BLUEBEARD really struck me as something to discuss, mainly because it doesn’t get covered much except in the bad movie guides and websites. That’s not too hard to understand, but BLUEBEARD deserves a least a little credit because it’s a satire, so at least its makers were trying to be this silly, although it’s a failed satire, so maybe a sharpening of the knives isn’t a bad idea. Failed satires often fascinate me because either the filmmakers have something to say but they don't know how to say it or don't say it very well and then it becomes like a car wreck caused by stupidity. With BLUEBEARD, the second the credit “Alexander Salkind presents” pops up the warning bells go off (this was just before THE THREE MUSKETEERS) and once Burton (in a sometimes amusing performance) turns to the camera to reveal that his beard is indeed blue (and the title pops up on screen) you feel like this one is already a lost cause. The first hour is incredibly disjointed, lumbering to tell the story and padding it with too much filler (such as a distastful extended hunting sequence where several real animal deaths are shown), giving only hints of the comedy the makers supposedly intended this to be. It’s only in the second hour, when the stories of Bluebeard’s previous seven wives are told in flashback does the film starts to gain some ground and you’re asking yourself, “Why couldn’t they have done this sooner?” The ladies are indeed lovely (Lola, er, Joey Heatherton... yowza!) and the sequences with Racquel Welch, Marilù Tolo and Verna Lissi are indeed quite amusing. There are some clever moments of black and tasteless humor (making Bluebeard a Nazi would be more of an inspired touch if they had done anything with it) but there's no real wit here and learning that this was apparently a troubled production explains a lot. One of the few who emerge unscathed is Morricone, whose light, airy score shows that seemingly he alone understood how this should have been played. It's tough to take your eyes off of BLUEBEARD but you know that something is very wrong with it. Bad movie fans who have yet to sample its charms will certainly find much to love here, but regular movie fans shouldn't be too quick to hate. Ambition, even failed ambition, should always account for something.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Do you wanna gossip or do you wanna shoot somebody? David Mamet's SPARTAN

For some reason, David Mamet’s 2004 thriller SPARTAN has become a favorite of mine of late, prompting an occasional DVD screening every couple of months or so. I can’t quite explain why, except for the fact that I think it’s a really fine film, but for some reason I’ve felt the need to watch SPARTAN again every so often, like I did the other night (it became a split viewing, since I became tired and started to doze off, but started up again in the morning). It’s not like there’s something in the film that speaks to me or some great scene or moment that hooks me in, I just like the whole thing. I’m a fan of Mamet’s films since the first one (HOUSE OF GAMES) and I wouldn’t even say that SPARTAN is his best (that’s probably still HOMICIDE), but it’s such a good film overall that holds up on repeated viewings that I’m really quite taken with that. That, and HOMICIDE still isn’t on DVD.

One of SPARTAN’s great strengths is Val Kilmer’s lead performance. Kilmer appears in every scene and it can be easy to forget how good an actor he is (especially after seeing him wasted in Tony Scott’s DÉJÀ VU), but he’s given a perfect opportunity to remind you with this film and he doesn’t waste it. He’s a Special Forces op who is regarded as one of the best in his field, 100% committed to his job and doesn’t questions orders even when he knows it might be a good idea. He enters every situation knowing he may have to shoot his way out of it and that he’s always going to improvise his way through even the most prepared circumstances. He may go off at any moment (and sometimes does) and you completely buy Kilmer as this character, one part solider, one part detective, one part ruthless killer. And then, at a turning point in the film, he learns that he’s going to have to go against orders for the first time and think for himself and the unease that you see him feels very real, knowing what needs to be done but not knowing what to feel about it. What’s also very interesting about this film is that Mamet seems to have a real admiration for these Special Ops types (obviously so, since he’s based his TV series THE UNIT on them) and the job they do. Mamet shows all of the actions through their eyes, not giving us some outsider character to identify with, and the logic behind them feels integral to these characters and situations. It also makes the classic “Mamet speak” feel organic for once (although I’ve never had a problem with it), since it makes perfect sense that everyone in this film would speak in a type of shorthand that would cause most normal folks to go crazy, but since these aren’t normal folks, it’s pretty much a non-issue. If you’ve got a problem with it, that’s your problem.

Another reason I like SPARTAN so much is that within this world of mysterious people of mysterious actions is a solid action film with lots of twists and turns. It seems something of a given that not everything will be as it seems, but SPARTAN takes a very unusual route to get there and because of this it keeps you guessing. And when it comes to action (which it does with surprising frequency) it’s quick and it’s violent and usually startling, like good movie violence should be; thanks to Barbara Tulliver’s editing, there’s a great rhythm to this film. SPARTAN is also Mamet’s best-looking film to date. Working with Juan Ruiz Anchía for the first time since THINGS CHANGE, Mamet shoots in scope (Super 35) for the first time and it’s loaded with one great, evocative shot after another with excellent use of Boston locations. Mark Isham contributes a fine score and I didn’t even get into the supporting cast (William H. Macy does a very nice turn here), but suffice to say, this really is a film worth seeing. You won’t find much in the way of contemporarily political allegory here, but SPARTAN is still one of the best thrillers of the decade and deserves finding an audience. Now if Mamet will get to making another movie, we’ll be all set.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Bloody Well Took Them Long Enough - Donald Cammell at Lincoln Center

In addition to NYC's Morricone madness, this weekend will also see the Film Society of Lincoln Center's launching of a long-overdue retrospective of Donald Cammell, one of the great unsung directors of the last 40 years. Best known as co-director (with Nicholas Roeg) of PERFORMANCE, Cammell had one of those unfortunately tumultuous relationships with Hollywood, which led to a reduced output and a few projects that proved unsatisfying experiences. The last of those experiences, 1996's WILD SIDE, ended up being too much for Cammell after it was recut by its financeers and Cammell sadly took his life soon afterwards. A few years later, however, the film was restored to Cammell's original vision by Frank Mazolla (Campbell's longtime editor) and released theatrically and on DVD in the U.K., where it helped to salvage the reputations of both the director and the film itself. North American theatrical screenings of this cut have been way too scarce, but it opens the series tomorrow night and will be screened at random times throughout the week. I was lucky enough to attend this cut's North American premiere at the Fantasia film festival in 2000 and the packed house at the Imperial roared its approval, much to Mazzola's pride and relief. WILD SIDE definitely lives up to its title, as it's a crazy and unrestrained little movie. It's a Cammell film through and through and this cut also showcases some of the best acting of its three leads, Anne Heche, Steven Bauer and a completely off-the-hook Christopher Walken in a performance that needs to be seen to be believed. The plot (corperate banker by day/hooker by night Heche falls for Joan Chen while getting mixed up with mobster Walken) may not sound like much, but it's nothing more than a springboard for Cammell's recurring theme of split personalities. One scene in particular, where Walken suggest the only way his chauffeur Bauer can re-earn his trust is by letting Walken rape him, is one never be forgotten. If this Morricone thing wasn't going on this weekend I'd be here in a heartbeat, but it's running next weekend, too, so guess where I'll be then? This fest also presents an extremely rare screening of Cammell's 1987 thriller WHITE OF THE EYE, which recently screened at last year's Fantasia, and is likewise highly recommended. Make a point of seeing at least one of these films.