Friday, June 29, 2007

STARDUST Isn't Golden

Like a lot of people my age (OK, like a lot of guys my age), I grew up with fantasy films. With the arrival of STAR WARS, fantasy films changed drastically (no, really, hear me out on this!), going from the likes of Ray Harryhausen's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and SINBAD adventures to the STAR WARS and MATRIX films. The advances in special effects made fantasy films more attractive to audiences and it certainly didn't hurt that the folks behind those films also knew how to tell a story and make an excellent picture. Many of those late 70s/early 80s films remain classics because of that and pretty much all of them hold up (and come across as even better) today. But in the years since we've had an overload of fantasy films and they keep getting less and less impressive. I was never a big LORD OF THE RINGS fan (liked the second film, though) and the likes of HARRY POTTER and most of the comic book adaptations simply leave me cold. I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's nothing wrong with a cliche as long as it's done right, but the fantasy film formula has really run its course over the last decade or so. A lonely, seemingly insignificant boy/manchild/Hobbit who is actually "The Chosen One" or some such crap, a person whose destiny is meant to do great things and to save a civilization/defeat an evil ruler/kill a monster/take their rightful place at the throne, ect. is now a big old cliche. You could argue that this type of story has been around for centuries, from the Greek Myths to The Bible to THE WIZARD OF OZ, and that every fantasy story is simply following their model, which is fine, but please, for goodness sake, do something new with it. I'm sick of happy endings where the evil ruler has been defeated, peace is restored throughout the land and true love is found, not merely because this isn't always the case (you do know Bush is still President, right?), but because it's always a happy ending. Call me crazy, but a little tragedy in my fantasy these days might be a bit like chocolate in my peanut butter; two great tastes that taste great together.

I bring all this up because I saw Matthew Vaughn's STARDUST the other night at Half-Assed-A-Thon and didn't really care much for it. For a while there I was hating it, but at a certain point the film makes a slight detour from the norm and, for me at least, the film picks up a bit. (I won't go into specifics, but it pertains to Robert DeNiro's character and it's a love-it-or-hate-it move that I thought worked.) STARDUST is one of those movies that (to me) cherry picks from a bunch of other movies and tries to call it something new, but isn't. I could feel a real TIME BANDITS and Gilliam influence throughout (and I give the film credit for trying to be funny and irreverent, which I suppose comes from Neil Gaiman's original graphic novel), but a master fantasist like Gilliam wouldn't have made a movie so damn overblown. I found there to be some clever moments and bits (they got some good mileage out of a goat turned into a human), though never once was I enchanted or moved, even though this is supposed to be a love story. This is not a film of surprises or any real originality, just another overdone fantasy epic. The sets aren't just big, they HUGE; the costumes aren't just detailed, they're extravagant; the FX not merely special, they're extra-special. Why show an inn being created from the outside when you can show every inch of it grow organically from within? Remember on BEWITCHED when Samantha would simply twitch her nose and something would appear in a jump cut? Didn't that get the job done just as well as a big CGI shot? Throughout my viewing of STARDUST I had a mantra going through my head again and again: Just because you can do amazing things with CGI, doesn't mean you should.

But what was really the worst aspect of the film was how all this bigness seemed to be to be in complete contrast to what a real fantasy film should be. In looking back on all of the great movie fantasies (and I'm taking LORD OF THE RINGS out of this equation because I don't think it belongs), one element that most of these films had about them was a sense of modesty. The fantasy elements, though usually the things in the film that stood out, were also scaled back, mostly delivered in small doses. Not every scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ has some incredible, fantastic, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing happening, so it focuses more on the story. E.T.'s bigger set pieces appear only at the beginning, middle and end of the film and in-between is all characters. They say that it's better to leave things to the imagination because your mind can come up with even more fantastic things than any movie can, but because of the advances in CGI, fantasy films have all tried to do the imagining for you. Need a CGI charcater? We can do that. Need to build virtual sets on Mars? We can do that, too. The limitations in FX work that moviemakers of old used to have let them put better emphasis on the story and characters and when it came time for those big "money" scenes, they got creative. Harryhausen's FX scenes in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS are so memorable partly because he knew he had only so much time and money to do them, so they had to be done right. With PAN'S LABYRINTH, Del Toro was working on a limited budget, so he made everything count; if he had more money he probably could have done more FX work and it probably would not have been as good a film. There was a film that truly understood the depths of fantasy, how important it was to use restraint so as not to overwhelm the story. But 20 years from now, we'll still be talking about PAN'S LABYRINTH and not STARDUST. It's all in the approach you take and not in trying out some new digital toy on big name movie stars. You're movie can be filled with fallen stars, sky pirates, wicked witches, enchanted kingdoms and non-stop spectacle, but if that's all it is then it really isn't much. Bigger doesn't mean better and STARDUST is just too damn big for its own good.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I'll Miss You Like A Lonely Hooker

Before I go into Sunday's Half-Assed-A-Thon, my final show at the original Alamo Drafthouse location, a small rundown of other things I did during my 3 days in Austin, just to give you an idea of why I love this place:

- Attended a party to help celebrate the birthdays of pals Thomas Humpreys and Zack Carlson and the Austin arrival of another pal, Justin Ishmael. I walk in the door to Thomas' place and there's another friend, Jasmine Baker, who I haven't seen in over a year. The party had a TROLL 2 theme, with most everything (from food to balloons) the color green. Best part of it was having been at the party for about 20 minutes and finally seeing Thomas, wishing him a happy birthday, and the look on his face when he saw me there. Turns out no one told him I was coming. That was great.

- Got inaugurated into "The Gastronauts" food club, sampling the finest buffets that Austin has to offer. We went to Cannoli Joe's with the group of about 34 people in all, and I've got to say that for an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet it really wasn't that bad. A group of "Red Hat Society" ladies were there, too, but they weren't part of our group.

- Stepped into Half Priced Books on South Lamar and bumped into Weird Wednesdays programmer Lars Neilsen, who also didn't know I was coming. It's fun to fly into town and surprise people who don't know I'm coming.

- Saw SHREK THE THIRD when I had some time to kill. It was just OK, although there were a few inspired bits and the animation was excellent.

- Saw Canadian comedy duo Canned Hamm live at Room 710, where they performed such hits as "Father & Son", "Seafood Taco" and "Who Needs A Hug?". Neither of them knew I was coming, either. It was great to watch them win over the crowd completely, because they really had no idea what to expect. The show started with screams of "You suck!" and ended with full-on applause and much hugging. I also got my driver's license scanned so I could get a free pack of smokes for a friend of mine. I'm too good to her.

- Ate at Smitty's (the pork chops were first rate that day) and shopped for legal fireworks, in that order. Suffered a meat coma and crashed for 2 hours. Then I hit the Drafthouse...

Sunday night's show was Half-Assed-A-Thon, an attempt to do a half-day version of Butt-Numb-A-Thon, Harry Knowles' standard 24-hour birthday movie marathon every December. That event usually hosts more premieres than retrospectives, but this time out the schedule was more oldies heavy, primarily to go with the half-assed nature of the event (which was put together in an admittedly haphazard fashion). Sitting with my pals from the Drafthouse, no one was taking the event like it was one last blast (probably because everyone else had other shows to deal with before the big finale tonight) so there wasn't any nostalgia involved and that was just fine by me. I was there to have fun and hopefully see some good flicks and I got a good evening's night of fun, despite a somewhat mixed bag o' flicks. They were:

WONDER BAR - Harry Knowles' wanted to screen his 16mm print of this one again (it showed at BNAT 2000) because he felt that it was the one film out of all the BNAT titles that had the most adverse reaction from the audience. For those unfamiliar with it, it's an Al Jolson vehicle from the early 30s (made before the production code came into being) that is pretty damn un-PC, which makes cracks at Asians, gays (the famed "boys will be boys" bit comes from here), condones suicide, adultery, and lets one character get away with murder. Mixed in are plenty of songs, dances, romance, comedy, and two Busby Berkeley numbers, one of which is probably what Harry was talking about, because it's "Going To Heaven On A Mule", probably Al's most infamous black face number, which depicts heaven for poor black folks. All of the racial cliches are here (pork chops grow off trees, dancers emerge out of water melons, fried chicken is readily available) and there's no doubt the number is an incredible head-smacker. It's about as racist a number as you're apt to see (and kudos to whoever programmed the trailer for DRUM before this one), although I did get one genuine laugh out of the sight of Jolson getting reunited with his dog, who flies over to him in a hilarious shot (the dog obviously being on wires). If it wasn't for this number, WONDER BAR would probably sit in obscurity, but if you're going to be remembered for something, being one of the most racists things ever in the history of Hollywood movies isn't really a good thing. I don't regret seeing it, but I'll never for the life of me really understand it, either.

STARDUST - The sole premiere screening was for the new Matthew Vaughn fantasy epic, which opens in August, and we got a video introduction from Vaughn (sitting in front of a TRANSFORMERS poster, probably to throw people off). He thanked AICN for its support and then apologized to everyone for leaving X-MEN 3 and letting Brett Ratner take over, but I think he apologized for the wrong picture. I'll get into it more later on this week, but STARDUST has a lot of problems. A lot of them.

TOPKAPI - Having never seen this 1964 heist flick, I figured it would be a good fit for the night and thought that if it were anything like director Jules Dassen's other heist film, the classic RIFIFFI, we'd be in for a good time. However, TOPKAPI tries way too hard to be a light and charming picture and until the actual heist comes in, it's kind of a slog to sit through. Co-star Peter Ustinov really is the bright spot here, giving his role (and the film) the right amount of levity needed to lift the film up. Interesting to note that he turned down the role of Inspector Clouseau in THE PINK PANTHER to do this film; while he won an Oscar for his efforts here, in return we got one of the greatest comedy characters in cinema history, so I guess it all balances out. But outside of Ustinov, it's the climatic heist that saves this picture, as it really is the model of how to do this kind of thing (no surprise that De Palma lifted much of it for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) and the HAAT audience was very much into it. It's one of those pictures I can say I was glad to have seen once, but if it never passes my way again it won't be any kind of a tragedy.

IMPULSE - Also known as WANT A RIDE, LITTLE GIRL?, this was, without question, worth the trip all on its own. It is, in some ways, William Shatner's finest hour, or William Shatner's worst hour or probably both, but it's a marvel none the less. Made in 1974, before the STAR TREK revival revived his career (and before the infamous "Rocket Man" performance), Shatner was slumming in a lot of drive-in movies and TV work and IMPULSE may have been the nadir for Shatner, but it was a boon for the rest of us, since he's never been so entertaining. Directed by Florida auteur William Grefe, Shatner stars as a con man with a psychopathic streak (all due to a traumatic event from his childhood), not so much a love 'em and leave 'em type but more of a love 'em and kill 'em type and I'm gonna pretty much leave it at that so as not to ruin the film's many delightful surprises. By "delightful surprises" what I really mean is "Shatner's acting", which is astonishing and wonderful all at the same time. Many others would pass this off as bad acting, but it's something so odd and yet so strangely compelling that I think you simply have to experience it for yourself. Is it good acting in the standard sense? Well, no, but as William Shatner performances go, it's easily one of his most memorable and yet oddly experimental and it made me very happy.

Turns out there was one more film to go, SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON, a 16mm print that Harry borrowed from Quentin Tarantino, but as it turns out a) I've already seen the film under its original title, THE WATER MARGIN, on DVD, and b) Not only was the film cut and dubbed, but the print wasn't even in scope, taking away much of its appeal. With this, I decided to cut out with friends, so for all of the boo-hooing I've been doing about this being the last time I was going to see a movie at the Drafthouse, I actually walked out on the final show. What a fucking asshole am I. But hey, I wrapped it up with a classic (IMPULSE) and for my last night I had one more great time in the place that helps define my love of movies. I'll be back there in September for Fantastic Fest and will see the new Ritz Sixth St. location for the first time and am sure it will measure up to the high standards of the original. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Goodbye, Alamo Drafthouse Downtown

This weekend will see me taking one of my semi-annual trips to Austin to see friends and to say goodbye to one that's not so old, but certainly will be missed, the original Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The first time I ever went to Austin was to attend an event at the Drafthouse, and every time I've gone back, be it for work or pleasure, that location is always the focus of my trips. I go to Austin for the great movie events that you can only get there, like SXSW, QT Fest and Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and they're always at the Drafthouse. God forbid I should go to Austin to just see my friends, take in the local culture (apparently there's a fairly large music scene in Austin) and hang out, but then again, my friends are at these events, too, so I guess it all balances out. As I've mentioned before, it's thanks to this place that I've made so many friends in Austin, seen some incredible movies, had some truly memorable experiences and fell in love with the great city of Austin. The Alamo Drafthouse downtown location has become more than just a movie theater, it's become like a second home, and even though a new one will rise from the ashes over on Sixth Street, it's going to be tough to say goodbye.

My first visit to the Drafthouse (and to Austin) was in August of 2001 on the bequest of my friend Anthony Timpson, who just a month earlier recommended coming down for QT Fest V, which he knew I would enjoy. I tossed in a business trip to Dallas to a certain video industry behemoth the day before and did the 3-hour drive not really knowing what I would be in for. I'd heard of the Drafthouse thanks to its numerous mentions on Ain't It Cool News and stared in complete jealousy at their amazing programming, but I didn't know just what this place would really be like. The setup was indeed a little odd (lots of spaces in between the rows and what are these tables doing in front of the chairs?) and it didn't really look like an average movie theater. But once you understand the way things work - and especially once you order your food - ho-ly shit, I was in heaven. It was the first night of QT Fest that year with a Lee Van Cleef triple feature (an IB Tech print of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, a flat 16mm print of DEATH RIDES A HORSE and a scope 16mm print of DAY OF ANGER) and I remember it vividly, except for that 30 minute stretch where I dozed off during DEATH RIDES A HORSE (hey, I'd been up a long time), though I did eventually see the entire thing (and enjoyed it very much). The next evening brought the all-night Sci-Fi/Horror marathon and by the early morning (I got out of there at around 9am) I was a committed fan. I didn't get back there until SXSW 2004, but I've been back twice a year since then and my stays keep getting longer and a lot more fun. Some of the best movies I've ever seen I've seen there, and I always associate the place with being the place to go to in order to see a hidden gem or something just totally fucking cool. New York City has lots of places to go see movies, but it's got nothing like the Drafthouse, and to be honest, I hope it never does. I like that it's something I can only get in Austin; wouldn't be special otherwise.

And I can't write about this place without mentioning the staff, all of whom have become close friends and all of whom have stories to tell. Like Lars Nielsen, show runner of Weird Wednesdays (free screenings of mondo movies every Wednesday night at midnight); Kier-La Janisse, a dear friend who I actually knew before her Drafthouse days and the master of Music Mondays; Zack Carlson, a newer member to the crew and the man behind Terror Thursdays; Henri, who I don't really talk to much, but I think he's a robot; and Tim and Karrie League, the folks who started it all and who kindly put me up when I hit town. What they do isn't easy. Booking and shipping film prints (all on top of their impressive print collection), getting and dealing with guests, finding new films to screen, the Rolling Roadshow, Fantastic Fest, and Tim's crazed Gulf War I flashbacks, makes it all really, really hard work. On top of that, the place is a bar and a restaurant, and the food is all damn good, so you've got service people and cooks and bartenders and it's all just crazy. But it's the one movie theater in America where I feel I don't give enough of my money to, because it gives so much more back. You don't just get a movie, you get an experience. To those for whom movies are their religion, the Drafthouse is The Vatican.

Yes, I know that there will be a new Drafthouse location over by the old Ritz Theater on Sixth Street (on top of the South Lamar and Village locations) and I'm sure it's going to shine, but the original will always be just that, the original, the place that broke the mold. Yes, it had its problems (you could always hear that fucking nightclub next door and I'm not crazy about the popcorn), but did I ever say it was perfect? I can be a sentimental bastard sometimes (to the point of annoyance), but as much as I'm looking forward to it, I'm not looking forward to it at all, because when it's all over, I will never set foot in the original Alamo Drafthouse, my favorite movie theater, ever again. Goodbyes can be a real bitch.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Don't Forget It Just Because It's Chinatown

The New York Asian Film Festival begins later this week, marking the start of festival season for me, with Fantasia in Montreal soon to follow a few weeks later and Fantastic Fest in Austin in September (I’ve heard tell of a festival of sorts in Toronto around the same time, too). The NYAFF, lorded over by those wonderful guys from Subway Cinema, is always a welcome sight, as it’s an opportunity to sample the hits of the last year from all over Asia on the big screen (despite the fact that bootleg DVDs are being sold all over the city) and to be up to date on all the films that your geek friends will be talking about, like everyone has already seen the latest film by Kim Jee-Woon. The lineup is solid, as usual, with a few potential blockbusters (THE BANQUET, a martial arts version of HAMLET starring Zhang ZiYi; I’M A CYBORG BUT THAT’S OK, the latest from OLDBOY director Park Chan Wook), fun flicks (DYNAMITE WARRIOR, the newest Thai martial arts insane-o-fest; the Japanese musical MEMORIES OF MATSUKO) and weird flicks (the Pakistani gore epic HELL’S GROUND, from the geniuses behind the brilliant Mondo Macabro DVD label) that (one hopes) are all sure to please. In addition to the regular lineup of films that’s running at the very nice IFC Center in the beautifully still grungy part of the West Village, a series devoted solely to new Japanese cinema will be running in conjunction with Japan Society which will include Shusuke Kaneko’s DEATH NOTE films (the two highest grossing Japanese films of 2006) and GAMERA THE BRAVE, the latest in the long-running series (this one not related to Kaneko’s excellent GAMERA trilogy of the 1990s). Oddly enough, the one NYAFF screening I think I’m looking forward to the most is one that I’ve already seen countless number of times, John Woo’s HARD-BOILED, which is being sequalized in video game format as JOHN WOO PRESENTS STRANGLEHOLD. It’s been a while since I’ve seen HARD-BOILED, but it’s easily one of my favorite action films of all time and to see it on a big screen again (which I have many, many times) will be a bit of a thrill.

More so than that, the HARD-BOILED screening, and the NYAFF in general, is a lovely opportunity to revisit those days when you didn’t need a fucking film festival to see some Asian cinema in New York. Certainly, Asian cinema has seen quite a leap in popularity and availability in the last decade or so, but for a long time you could get all your Asian film jollies pretty much any night of the week by simply visiting one of NYC’s many beautiful Chinatown movie theaters. The Sun Sing, The Music Palace and The Rosemary (once the home of Hong Kong Category III flicks, now a Buddhist Temple!) were the ones I frequented, though there were others that came before them and with the Music Palace now having finally been torn down last year (after having been closed since 2000), Chinatown cinema exist no more in NYC and in most major cities in North America, although I understand that a Chinatown theater is still up and running in San Francisco. A lot of other folks will pooh-pooh the Hong Kong film explosion of the late 80s-early 90s as the beginning of the geek film era, but these films were (and are) extremely important in expanding a lot of cinematic boundaries for people, myself included. They helped to erase the stigma of subtitles and the idea that American culture was the only culture with anything interesting to say. On top of that, they gave us a shitload of great movies from some pretty god damn great directors, and if you don’t believe me, then why does Johnnie To gets regular competition spots in festivals like Cannes and Venice and ask Wong Kar-Wai where he’d be if it wasn’t for the Tarantino-types who first discovered his work at theaters like these. To me, some of the most exciting moviegoing experiences of my life were in those theaters, where I got to see a bunch of movies I loved that no one else was talking about. I remember one summer’s night in 1993 going with a friend to see CRIME STORY, the then-new Jackie Chan film that was playing the Sun-Sing (just under the Manhattan Bridge, now a series of shops and offices) and staying for the second feature (yes, they played double features) to discover Jet Li and Corey Yuen’s FONG SAI YUK, which is still my favorite martial arts movie of all time (a really wonderful picture). I saw DRUNKEN MASTER II, FISTS OF LEGEND, HARD-BOILED, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA sequels and countless other Hong Kong films of the 90s well before there was any hype, when all you had to go on was a poster and your instincts. The theaters may not have been in the best shape (cats would often patrol the floors for mice and rats), but the movies were great and the audiences were quiet with a capital Q, so who the hell cared about crappy projection?

The Hong Kong cinema took a serious hit in the mid-90s, thanks to a loss of talent (John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat) to the west, the coming of the 1997 handover to mainland China, and piracy, so soon moviegoers chose to stay home and watch the latest films on VCD, then DVD. The hits would start to show up at the Chinese CD stores before you could see them in theaters (even after the Sun-Sing closed) and suddenly these films would start to be shown uptown at places like the Cinema Village and Film Forum. When the Music Palace closed in 2000, I hadn’t gone to see a movie there in over two years (which, for the record, was Jet Li’s HITMAN during its opening week). But I’ve never stopped going to Chinatown, thanks to all the shops that would sell all the latest Hong Kong hits (and other Asian films) on DVD, stores like Lai Ying (best prices and they don’t sell bootlegs; ask for Paul), but when I walk past the empty space (soon to be a high-priced hotel) where the Music Palace once stood (right next Lai Ying), I’m always a little sad. Subway Cinema started as a response to this, and has been dutifully keeping the torch lit ever since. Last July 4th weekend, my friends and I spent a delightful afternoon watching some of the Hong Kong classics on the big screen at Anthology Film Archives; all the prints were left over from the Music Palace and were all in surprisingly good condition. We pigged out on bad food while sitting in bad seats (thank god the NYAFF is at the IFC Center this year!) and delighted in some wonderful films that are still a hell of a lot of fun and the Chinatown memories were kept very much alive that day. I’m still a fan of Hong Kong cinema, and because of it I discovered the rest of Asian cinema and with it, my love, understanding and appreciation of cinema deepened and the crack that is movies became a lifelong addiction. I’ll be attending many shows at the NYAFF and Fantasia and will certainly be telling all you about some of them, but if it were up to me, I’d be watching them in the same second-rate Chinatown movie houses that helped make me love these films so much. God, do I miss them sometimes.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Well, In 1941 The Happy Father Had A Son...

I've actually met a few people in my time who said they didn't like Harry Nilsson's music. In those cases, the excuse is that they don't like the kind of old timey music Nilsson used as his inspiration, that sort of Tin Pan Alley feel that made his stuff stand out. I can always understand if a genre doesn't appeal to you, but you can still respect certain artists that work within that genre. I generally can't stand hip-hop, but I like some of the things that I've heard from DMX; his stuff sometimes has the feel of a rock song and his voice is generally quite strong. I used to hate country music, but I've discovered that a lot of the old country classics of Lorette Lynn and George Jones have grown on me. No matter what your dislikes are, there's always a little room to find something you like. I'm sure that those who don't like Nilsson (or claim to) will certainly find one or two of his songs to appreciate. And with that, the floodgates might open to a full-blown musical love affair, which is what I hope happens to those unfortunate non-Nilsson fans I've met because they sure could use it.

My point is, who doesn't like Harry Nilsson? Saying you don't like Nilsson is like saying you don't like The Beatles. It simply doesn't make any fucking sense. Musical geniuses like him don't come around very often and they don't often stay musical geniuses, so you've got to savor them while they're around. Nilsson isn't around anymore, unfortunately, but his music remains timeless as only the best songs do. He stayed away from the musical trends of his day and did his own thing; although he was one of the most prominent musicians of the late 60s, his music doesn't sound like what you would define 60s music to be. There's no psychadelia or Dylanesqe folk influence, it was truly its own thing. OK, I suppose you can hear a bit of the Brill Building/Spector style (and perhaps a touch of Motown) in Nilsson, but it's not all that apparent. And even when he covered something, which he did often they became Nilsson songs by the time they were over. Not many people knew that "Everybody's Talkin'" and "Without You" were covers, while Nilsson Sings Newman is one of my all-time favorite albums, even though I find the original Randy Newman versions not as impressive. Nilsson covered a lot of stuff, highlighting another one of his strengths, his generosity to other artists. The guy knew a great song when he heard one and when he covered it, he did so in part so he could share that song with the rest of us.

Still, if Nilsson was nothing more than a cover band we probably wouldn't be talking about him. The guy could literally write anything; a kid's song like "The Puppy Song", a jaded romance like "Together", an all-out rocker like "Jump Into The Fire", when the guy was on you could forget about all the others. His music had a playfulness about it, a joy of living to songs like "Girlfriend" (also known as "Best Friend" from THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER TV show) and a wonderful sarcastic wit in "You're Breaking My Heart" and "Spaceman". But what really set him apart was the melancholy material, songs like "1941", "Daddy's Song" (one of the most upbeat sad songs I can think of) and "One" that made no one really wrote or recorded a song about heartbreak who felt it like Nilsson did. On top of that, he was always trying new things, such as "A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night", an album of standards (long before such a thing became in vogue), the animated kid's special "The Point" and his delightful score for "Ziggy's Gift". There's also his much-derided score to Altman's POPEYE, which is actually full of one great song after another, from "I Yam What I Yam" to "He Needs Me", which Paul Thomas Anderson was nice enough to bring back into the spotlight in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. And let's not forget his work on Preminger's SKIDOO, where he sings the film's credits. Yeah, this guy was an original.

On top of all that, there are all these stories of how he was a warm and loving human being, the many friends he had and how he continued to work the night shift in a bank even as his career was starting to take off. Yes, his drinking was severe and it ultimately did him in, but wouldn't you give a small fortune to travel back in time to the night he and John Lennon got kicked out of the Troubadour? (Nilsson story I once heard: Nilsson died the day before the big L.A. earthquake of 1994, and an aftershock hit during his funeral. Once it was done, George Harrison is said to have uttered, "I guess John and Harry just got reunited in heaven".) Harry Nilsson would have been 66 tomorrow and even though he left us too soon, he left us with a lot. In truth, he left us with a little bit extra, as his final album, which he finished laying the vocal tracks down for the night before he died, remains unreleased. Someday we'll all hear it and maybe, one hopes, it will match the high standards to which most of us judge Nilsson's music. It's a really nice thought and I hope that it comes true some day. Until then, I've got plenty of Nilsson to listen to to keep me company.

Monday, June 11, 2007

"How Do You Explain School To Higher Intelligence?" - 25 Years Of E.T.

Last night, at around 10:30pm EST, I did something that I don't do very often: I sat in front of the TV and cried my eyes out. No, I wasn't watching THE SOPRANOS, but rather, it was my bi-decade viewing of E.T. - THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL. Very, very few movies have the power to make me cry, but E.T. gets me every single time, which I why I only watch it once every five years. I watched it last night because the film celebrates its 25th anniversary today, which is strangely going unnoticed. I suppose the big brough-ha-ha for the film's 20th anniversary back in '02 might be the reason why, but there are no celebratory screenings, no new DVD, not even a posting on Ain't It Cool News to help mark the occasion. I may very well be a lone voice in the wilderness (doubt it, but work with me here), but I thought that there would be something out there to say, "Thanks, E.T.", but I guess not. I have no problem picking up this baton and running with it, so off we go.

E.T. is easily one of my very favorite movies, always has been, always will be. It came along at the right time in my life, a friend of a movie when I sure as hell needed one and remains so. I think I've seen it around 13 times, about 9 times theatrically and four times on video (this was my first DVD viewing, and yes, I opted for the 1982 cut). Of course, the film was been written about so endlessly throughout the years that there really isn't much I can bring to the table other than personal recollections that, I suspect, I am not alone in. I was a fat, unpopular little brat 25 years ago, obsessed with movies and with very few friends in the world, living in a home where I felt distant from the rest of my family, so I related to Elliott's need for E.T. like you wouldn't believe. The belief that somewhere out there exist the perfect friend or companion for all of us is a wish, a hope or a dream that we all share and E.T. captures that perfectly. I can honestly say that it's the best film about friendship that I've ever seen and that it really has lost none of its power to move me in all these years. Perhaps it's because I do keep a certain distance from it, as opposed to many of my other favorite films, that I'm still able to be impressed, but this one simply gets me every time. It also takes me back to 1982, to being a kid and living in that world and that time and because of it E.T. always gives me great joy. I feel like I can't really give an honest opinion about E.T. because I'm so predisposed to liking it, so I'll just say that it's a film that I really can't imagine life without. Like a dear lifelong friend, E.T. will always be with me, and no, I don't mind sounding like a total wuss by saying that. It spoke to me. It still does.

But what I'm finding interesting, today, on June 11, 2007, is how the film's once massive audience has shrunk. Like I said before, I'm not seeing any kind of tribute out there, and you'd figure that somebody out there would come up with something, right? I just looked the film up on the IMDB and found it currently has no ranking on their Top 250 rankings (then again, if BLOOD DIAMOND is in the Top 250, you know something's wrong there). No Top 250 ranking for E.T.? For one of the most popular films ever made? How weird is that? I suspect it has less to do with E.T. becoming unpopular than it does with a lack of exposure, if such a thing where possible. Spielberg has long been very controlling of the film's distribution and the video releases have been a lot more scattershot than most films. E.T. has often spent long periods of time out of print, although the current DVD (of the 2002 cut, unfortunately) has been in circulation for about 2 years. It doesn't air on TV much (it's never been broadcast on HBO) and theatrical screenings (really the best place to see it) are rare. I'm actually fine with all this, simply because E.T. was all over the place in '82, so much so that people were sick of seeing him, so perhaps it's better to just let the film settle for a while and bring it back out again for the 30th anniversary or something. Maybe it's better to let the film become a word-of-mouth picture amongst the young and see how it goes.

And maybe that's what will happen. My 8 year-old nephew recently became intrigued by one of my old E.T. action figures at my folk's place and asked my Mom who it was. She started to tell him a bit about the story of E.T. and he became hooked; she dug out my old VHS tape and showed it to him and another fan was born. I gave him a spare copy of the 2002 2-disc set (the one with both cuts of the film and, yes, I had two copies of it) as a first communion gift and he was extremely pleased. A friend of his asked what it was and Thomas (my nephew) started to tell him a bit about the story and that he should see the film. As you can guess, this did my heart proud. Will E.T. mean as much to them as it did to me? I can't say. But it's a film to love and a film that, strange as it sounds, loves back, and I know it will bring them a lot of joy. It's the only film I know of that not only "speaks to the kid in all of us", but that actually defines that otherwise trite cliche. Every five years, I treat myself to a vision of my childhood for at least two hours. Those days weren't always fun or pleasant, but the feelings of joy and elation you have as a child are impossible to re-create as an adult, but when I watch E.T., I get that feeling back. No other film can do that for me.

Happy Birthday, E.T.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - John Huston's PHOBIA

Some movies are forgotten for a very good reason. Case in point: John Huston's PHOBIA.

It's never fun to watch a great director lose sight of their talents, but there's also that car wreck aspect to watching the worst films of great directors, that whole "What went wrong?" element that gravitates you towards them. I've been a John Huston fan ever since I was a little kid, dating back to a Sunday afternoon viewing of THE AFRICAN QUEEN that somehow kept me hooked, and then on to VICTORY and ANNIE (fuck you, I still like them both) and then eventually onto the true classics. Huston, it must be acknowledged, made a few clunkers, even by his own admission. After all, this is the man who suggested that directors "make one for them [the studios] and one for yourself", and when you consider that PHOBIA came right after WISE BLOOD, which he shot independently, I suppose it starts to make sense. I don't know how that explains why his follow-up films were VICTORY or ANNIE, but then again, I'm not John Huston (oh, how I wish I were sometimes), but I suspect he saw the film as a commercial project that he could do quickly and then move on to something closer to his heart. Even though it didn't work out that way (the film didn't get much of a release), I suppose that when he was finally sitting on the set of UNDER THE VOLCANO he might have had himself a drink and looked back the experience of making this film and felt it was all worth it. That's probably not anywhere remotely near the truth, but what the hell, it's a nice thought, isn't it?

I'd long wanted to see PHOBIA for both the Huston connection and because I felt it had a good hook for a thriller, being about a psychiatrist (Paul Michael Glaser) experimenting on a somewhat radical treatment for dealing with phobias who finds his patients getting murdered one by one through their phobias. Sure, it's a little cliché, but it could work with the right director and isn't Huston usually the right director for most anything? Well, it becomes pretty obvious early on that Huston isn't interested in experimenting or having any fun with the thriller format, because PHOBIA is, surprisingly, flatly directed. Aside from a good extended car chase and one or two scenes of the treatment used to help the patients confront their phobias, nothing about this is out of the routine manner these pictures can sometimes fall into. On top of this, the script (which includes contributions from Gary Sherman, Ronald Schusett, and Hammer Films regular Jimmy Sangster, with some uncredited assist from Gladys Hill, Huston's co-writer on THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING) is likewise uninspired, a pretty much by-the-number affair that could have easily passed as a made-for-TV movie back in the day. It follows the whole murder mystery procedural with no inspiration or passion for its premise. After all, I'd expect the director of FREUD to make a film set in the psychiatric community (even a mainstream thriller) a bit more psychologically involved. But in the end it's just another lifeless whodunit, and while I can remember who did the dunning, I can't for the life of me remember why, and I only saw this thing for the first time about 3 months ago or so. That should tell you something.

PHOBIA gives off this vibe of a troubled production (as only a troubled production can), my suspicions especially aroused by seeing TRUCK TURNER/THE ACCUSED director Jonathan Kaplan's name listed as Associate Producer in the credits. This is the kind of toss-off credit that goes to directors who are either tossed off films or take them over and I don't really know which is which on this one. I'm not going to speculate either way, but this certainly would explain a few things if either one is true. The sole bright spot of PHOBIA is a funny and sometimes clever performance by John Colicos as the chief detective on the case; Colicos was an old hand at this sort of thing and obviously relished working for a director like Huston and gave it his best. The best scene in the film is his, when interrogates a suspect in the murders and you get that, yeah, he's the smartest guy in the room. You wish that everyone else stepped up, but outside of him there isn't that much to go with, with Glaser a pretty unconvincing psychiatrist and also a fairly stiff lead (but for the record, I really, really enjoyed BAND OF THE HAND). So after finally seeing PHOBIA on a nearly 20 year-old VHS tape, I can understand why this film occupies such a low place on the Huston film totem pole. But it takes a completist like me to actually seek this thing out, watch it and write it up for you good people. If you find a hidden gem or a misunderstood masterpiece, then it's worth your time, but with a flick like PHOBIA, I kind of have the feeling like John Huston, God rest his soul, owes me a beer. And I don't even drink.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH, the fantastic Great White Shark documentary I wrote about a few months back will be getting the full-blown special edition DVD treatment come July 31, thanks to MGM. It's going to be a new widescreen transfer (2.35:1) with the following extra features:

Commentary by Diver Valerie May Taylor, Diving Coordinator Rodney Fox, Underwater Photographer Ron Taylor, Associate Producer and Underwater Photographer Stanton Waterman

“Diving into Blue Water, White Death” featurette

“Rodney Fox Great White Shark Expeditions” featurette

Stanton Waterman profile

Pre-order it here, kiddies! You won't regret it.

Monday, June 4, 2007

MR. BROOKS and In Defense of Costner

So like I promised (threatened?) I made a beeline (b-line?) for MR. BROOKS over the weekend, despite some pretty harsh reviews. I paid the full price, which I had no problem with since I had plans to sneak into PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN afterwards (and do so very easily, I might add), so I figured a 2-for-1 discount made paying full price an OK deal. And I've got to say, MR. BROOKS is a moderately entertaining little movie, fun for the most part since it doesn't take itself very seriously. It reminded me of a really crappy book I read not long ago called DEATH - AS IN MATADOR (don't look for it, as it's been out of print for decades) about the world's greatest hit man and how he's able to hide his identity from his friends and the authorities. It's a terrible book and I seriously doubt it provided any possible inspiration for the film, but whereas MATADOR wanted to be smart and clever but ended up being convoluted and hackneyed, MR. BROOKS has some clever aspects to it that make it fun, before it eventually becomes convoluted. I won't begrudge anyone who wants to laugh the film off and call it "so good it's bad", because it does get very silly in its final third and there are even a few moments that are just so silly you have to laugh, but there is also a lightheartedness to it that convinces me that the filmmakers were well in on the joke. Any film that opens with a serial killer attending an AA meeting to help him with his "addiction" has at least some tongue-in-cheek attitude behind it and MR. BROOKS has to be at least commended for that. Besides, how else would that explain the casting of Demi Moore as an obsessed cop who also happens to be an heiress? I certainly hope that's the explanation, because if it's not then forget what I just said.

Of course MR. BROOKS' biggest trump card is Kevin Costner in the title role. It's obvious that he's trying to stretch with this film, but if you look at it a little more closely, he's not so much stretching as he is switching sides, doing what he's always done but now playing for the other team. He's still doing the devoted family man bit, but now he's doing it on behalf of evil, and still playing it straight as opposed to playing it as a psycho. Frankly, this was the only way he could have done it without being laughed off the screen; unlike his performance in A PERFECT WORLD (which was excellent), he isn't playing it stupid or hot-headed but simply as a man who is trying to figure everything out the same way most Costner's characters do. This is actually a smart way of going about it since we're used to seeing Costner play these kind of characters, but not like this; it gives us a strange empathy for the character. I'm the first to admit that Costner has a somewhat limited range, but like the skilled actor he is, he knows how to work well within that range, which he does expertly here. On top of that, Costner is paired with William Hurt, playing the character's "conscience" and they have a great rapport together and are a lot of fun to watch. Hurt actually gets all the film's best lines and is obviously having a lot of fun playing off Costner and probably enjoying that he's playing someones id, because how often does that kind of role come along? It's with Hurt that Costner gets to wig out a little and Hurt's presence helps us buy that this character is indeed more than a little crazy and it's inspired casting for a terrific screen duo.

But still, it's Costner's picture and I'm happy to say that he does solid work once again. I say "once again" because if you look at his filmography, it's actually loaded with some excellent performances, from SILVERADO to BULL DURHAM to JFK to A PERFECT WORLD and one of my own personal favorites, OPEN RANGE. Yes, the guy wasn't that great a Robin Hood and he's done a couple of pictures where he's just coasting on his regular guy persona, but I've seen Costner take more risks on material and filmmakers throughout his career than most of the major stars these days. He doesn't always play the same character, like some have criticized him for, and he's not always making these feel-good, hooray-for-America type pictures. The guy can embrace the dark side (think DANCE WITH WOLVES is a happy movie?) and has played more than his fare share of characters in conflict (NO WAY OUT, WYATT EARP). Occasionally he'll stretch and strike out (that accent did him no favors in THIRTEEN DAYS, but it's still a good movie), but at the very least he's taking chances. And the guy is adept at comedy (TIN CUP, BULL DURHAM), action (THE UNTOUCHABLES, ROBIN HOOD), romance (MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE), politics (JFK, THIRTEEN DAYS), what have you and he does it all well. And through and through he has a presence that makes him very easy and likable but also larger than life, like a real movie star. There are very few actors out there who have that natural movie star vibe that Costner has and when one comes along, I say cherish it.

So where do all the haters come from, I wonder? What the hell is wrong with Kevin Costner? I'm a bit stumped in this department, because I've already stated my case, but I can't see what's worth disliking. I suppose it's because he comes across as too much of a goody two-shoes, too vanilla, too much of a regular Joe whose problems are too much the problems of a regular white guy to truly have heft. I can almost see the point of that, but I'm still not buying it. Just look at OPEN RANGE, still one of the very best films of the decade in my opinion, and you'll see a truly great Costner performance. His character is a decent man who is desperately trying to escape a past that included killing people and he finds himself in a situation where he's going to have to pick up arms again. As the film comes to its inevitable (and utterly brilliant) final shootout, Costner lets his character cross the line back to that killer and it's probably the best work of his career. You understand that there's a tragedy to it; even though you're supposed to be on his side you also know that he may have gone too far to return. Costner has long been compared to Gary Cooper (another actor who was seen as not being "actorly" enough) and it's with OPEN RANGE that Costner really deserves that comparison, as this film is to Costner as MAN OF THE WEST is to Cooper, proof of a great actor at the height of his strengths. You can feel all of the inner conflict in these men and it's equally exciting and scary to see and believe them become men of violence again. Would Gary Cooper have made a movie like MR. BROOKS? I doubt it, but if he had, he certainly would have been very good in it. You have to give Costner all the credit in the world: He really knows what he's doing and knows that you've got to move beyond your comfort zone. This guy isn't interesting in just having a career, he's interested in creating a legend. I'm sure he'll succeed.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The New Comedy God's Shining Moment: THE CABLE GUY Revisited

With KNOCKED UP finally opening today (I feel like I saw this thing six months ago - oh wait, I did), America seems ready to crown Judd Apatow as its new comedy king. The reviews are raves for the most part and the word of mouth will be pretty big, as will, no doubt, the box office. People are going to laugh a lot and tell their friends and the movie will start to get quoted and Seth Rogen will go on to be the next in-demand comedy star. Not that this is entirely undeserved, because KNOCKED UP has a lot of laughs to it and is a very upbeat movie that, despite its well-earned R-rating, leaves audiences smiling. I've even seen some critics already calling the film an instant classic, high praise indeed, and one that few films earn from the critics themselves these days. It's looking like nothing but glory days for KNOCKED UP from here on in, from great reviews to big office and DVD sales and (dare I say it) a possible Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. This would all be a lot more pleasing to me if it wasn't for the fact that KNOCKED UP, despite its quality and entertainment value, really doesn't deserve all the praised that's been heaped upon it.

Like I said before, KNOCKED UP is a good movie, funny and entertaining, filled with solid performances and some choice laughs throughout. It also has the benefit of solid pacing, since it runs over 2 hours (and was about 2 1/2 when I first saw it) and it never drags. But there's one overriding issue with the film that makes it difficult for me to jump on the bandwagon, and it's that the film is way too safe. I don't feel like there's anything in KNOCKED UP that hasn't been said on TV or other movies that makes it anything unique, except for the R-rated shenanigans that permeate throughout. This element is a big positive in the film's corner, because if they took a more family-friendly approach this thing would be dead in the water faster than a Hillary Duff movie. But the film is also too touchy-feely and preachy, filled with scenes of characters trying to figure out their lives and giving each other advice and it's nothing new. There's a line where Paul Rudd says that "Marriage is like an unfunny, tense version of Everybody Loves Raymond. But it doesn't last 22 minutes; it lasts forever." and the film is kind of like that, too, although it is funnier than Everybody Loves Raymond, I'll give it that. There simply is no edge to KNOCKED UP, nothing to it that makes it really makes it the classic that so many people think it is. I certainly enjoyed myself and recommend the movie for those who are looking for laughs, but I can't go beyond that, because honestly I don't think those classic ingredients are there.

That said, as an early proponent of Apatow's work (I was home watching The Ben Stiller Show every Sunday night back in '92), I was thinking about what I used to like so much about him and I found myself turning to a film of his that has that edge I felt was missing from KNOCKED UP. It's one that I don't revisit all that often, but I remember it very well and have long defended it to its many deriders (who persist to this day). THE CABLE GUY was an unfortunate victim of over hype and audience expectations, all thanks to its star, Jim Carrey. This was back when star Jim Carrey was still new to audiences and on a major roll of hits, on top of the fact that he was paid a then-record $20 million to star in the film. Apatow was brought in to rework an existing script by Lou Holtz, Jr. and it's said that he provided a page-one rewrite; it certainly feels like it, even though he gets no credit (he's credited as one of the film's producers). THE CABLE GUY has much of those Apatow settings and characters, but it provides a pretty dark and sinister edge to them that leaves an indelible mark in the viewer. OK, maybe an "indelible mark" is overreaching, but this puppy stings and if you don't identify with Carrey's character (a lonely TV-obsessed cable guy so desperate for friendship that he ends up taking over customer Matthew Broderick's life) then you've lived a life that's a little too sheltered. One of the great things about the movie is that for all it's outrageous moments, Carrey's character is a guy who has spent so much time away from reality that he can't deal with it, doesn't understand it and strains to create his own version of it, unaware of how insane he appears to others. In a sense, he's not unlike the stoner characters of Apatow's more recent pictures who may be a bit more socially aware but still don't subscribe to reality. Looking back on THE CABLE GUY today, you can see all of the elements for the Apatow formula were well in place, but there was a rage behind them, an effort to say to the audience, "Grow the fuck up a little, won't ya?" that, needless to say, didn't go over too well. But in retrospect, the film looks better and better as the years go by.

In looking at KNOCKED UP, it's obvious that the last decade has made some sweeping changes in Apatow's life (marriage, two kids, two much-loved-but-canceled TV shows, ect.) and his characters are willing to accept, for all its difficulties, all that life allows, while THE CABLE GUY gives us a guy who wouldn't know how to begin with real life. That's certainly a progression, but with KNOCKED UP it's all a little too pat (I'm sure others will disagree), while THE CABLE GUY's somewhat unresolved ending leaves us with more by giving us less. Is this guy OK? Is he going to snap again? While the guy is a creep, he's also strangely sympathetic, another plus. To use a stupid old tagline, there's a little bit of him in all of us, a representation of that inner yearning that many of us face when we're lonely and feel unloved and get desperate for someone to care. To me, it's a much more profound work than one that basically says, "Having kids is hard, but it's worth it".

So if you see KNOCKED UP, enjoy it, because you'll probably have a good time. But watch THE CABLE GUY again and see how much you identify with Jim Carrey. It won't make you feel as warm and happy as KNOCKED UP does, but in the end it will make you feel a hell of a lot more grounded and maybe, just maybe, a little bit better about yourself.