Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pleasantville - Memorial Day Weekend 2007

I can't speak for you guys, but I have to say that I had a very pleasant holiday weekend.

My definition of "pleasant" and your definition may not be one in the same thing, but I say that having a good time with friends and enjoying great movies is a pleasant thing to me. And doing so in great locations with terrific weather, now that's pleasant. I'm not saying the weekend was awesome, because it wasn't like I got paid to do all this or anything, but I'll take pleasant over boring and predictable any day of the week.

I started out the weekend with a 3:30 screening of DAY OF THE LOCUST at Lincoln Center, part of a mini John Schlesinger retrospective being held on Friday and Saturday. I caught some of this film on TV over 20 years ago and remembered that it ended with a huge fire, but other than that it was all pretty much new to me and I'm happy to say that the film is still a powerful piece of work. There seems to be something about British directors turning their lens on Los Angeles that works in its own unique way and with LOCUST it seems like Schlesinger is able to bring us that "true Hollywood story" part that probably no American director could have properly picked up on. An American director would simply show us that there's beauty and ugliness, but Schlesinger shows us the beauty in the ugliness, that these characters, for all of their faults, are driven (no matter how falsely) by their dreams, which give them soul, and it's a heartbreaking picture in the end. Great cast, too, lead by a never-better Karen Black and William Atherton (who was supposed to be at the screening, but bowed out), along with an excellent Billy Barty and Jackie Earle Haley.

Afterwards, I called a friend about some temporary plans to meet for drinks downtown, which turned out to be a lot bigger than anticipated. I was told that my friend Scooter was holding things up due to a trip to the Apple Store uptown; as it turns out, I was only a 15-minute walk to the store, so I agreed to meet him there and we would zip down on the subway. Walking across Central Park South on a beautiful early summer's day, it was a joy to see so many people just out enjoying themselves and the start of the summer season. Memorial Day is supposed to be one of those weekends where most New Yorkers skip town and the tourist take over (it's also Fleet Week), but it seemed like it was a real mixture of the two and it helped put a smile on my face, meaning that summer really, truly was here. We got downtown and the group had grown to about eight people in all, with two more, my friends Marc and Jen, celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary, meeting us at the bar downtown. This, of course, led to a dinner at a downtown Japanese restaurant and I ended up getting home a heck of a lot later than planned, but not minding at all.

The plan for Saturday was to zip down to Philly's International House for a double feature screening of Jodorowsky's EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, both on the new 35mm prints that began making the rounds last fall. I was going to meet Marc and Jen there, too, Marc being a Philly native and Jen having designed the poster for the event and both being longtime Jodorowsky fans. This was my first time seeing either (I stayed away from the numerous bootlegs and import DVDs because of the lackluster transfers) and was pleased to see that the new prints were just jaw-droppingly good. I enjoyed both films quite a bit, HOLY MOUNTAIN more than EL TOPO, but I couldn't tell you what they're really about because it's all a matter of your own personal interpretation. But I've got to say that the overall design of THE HOLY MOUNTAIN is so stunning that I feel like I've got to see it again just to soak it all in properly. One funny moment during the screening was when a thunderstorm erupted outside during EL TOPO, but I actually thought it was just Jodorowsky fucking with the soundtrack! Imagine my surprise to discover it really did rain, proving that the film was already doing a stellar job playing its tricks on me. And another plus was an unexpected phone call from a friend of mine in L.A. just as EL TOPO was letting out; I hadn't heard from this person in several weeks, so it was great just to catch up a bit before the start of HOLY MOUNTAIN. We also spoke for a bit after that film, though I had to cut the call short in order to drive Marc and Jen home. But it's always good to hear from friends when you least expect to (and this person knows she's always welcome to call), all of which added to the night's (and weekend's) pleasantries.

Sunday seemingly started on a down note, with both my cable and Internet out because of work that my cable company was doing in the neighborhood the previous afternoon. The cable company informed me that they might not get someone there until Thursday, then said they could do it later that afternoon between 3 and 6pm. Knowing this could screw up my evening's plans to see BARRY LYNDON at Lincoln Center with Scooter and his girlfriend, I still said yes and decided that I could get my errands done before being stuck waiting at home. Just as I was about to go out running I got a call from the cable guy, who, as it turns out, was outside my place. As the cable guy worked his magic, my landlady (who lives right next to me) and our next door neighbor had it out in a big fight right in the middle of the street. The whole thing started the other day due to the matter of dog dropping in the neighborhood and escalated with some very nasty name calling, but because the weekend was so damn pleasant, their differences were settled just in time for my cable to get fixed and me to go on my run, do my laundry, and then hit Other Music in downtown NYC before getting to Lincoln Center. And that's exactly what happened.

Having ordered my ticket online the day before (I'm no ijut), I arrived at Lincoln Center to find Scooter waiting in the standby line since the show was completely sold out (they managed to squeeze in at the last minute). This should tell you how often BARRY LYNDON screens in NYC, especially in a new-ish print (it's from 2001) taken from the interpositive and hosted by co-star/Kubrick associate Leon Vitali. LYNDON is not my favorite Kubrick film, but I'd only seen it once before and you're going to watch it again to re-evaluate it, this is the way to do it. And BARRY LYNDON does grow on you, especially as it progresses, and as a piece of filmmaking it is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful throughout. But this time out I couldn't help but pay attention to the excellent performance of Ryan O'Neal in the title role. O'Neal is a pretty underrated actor who gave some smart and funny performances throughout his career, but this was something else all together, a complete character from beginning to end and if Kubrick was the composer and conductor, O'Neal was the instrument for whom the piece was written. SPOILER The scene where he breaks down as he tries to tell his dying son a story is probably the most overwhelmingly emotional scene in the entire Kubrick filmography and it's really O'Neal's moment to shine. END SPOILER Vitali gave a good talk where he re-iterated that Kubrick was a much more improvisational filmmaker than his reputation suggests and I'm glad I got to see it again in such a prime viewing environment.

In a "from the sublime to the ridiculous" kind of manner, Monday could only be spent watching some of the new Godzilla/Toho DVDs coming out in the next few weeks on Marc's home theater. We checked out GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, which didn't age quite that well but is a more than passable time-killer (after, it has Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah in it), and FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, starring the one and only Nick Adams, which is actually a more interesting picture. Produced as an attempt to make more horror-themed product, FRANKENSTEIN is a bit more gruesome than usual and slightly more adult (if you can call it that), but it's a fun and bizarre little picture that easily held my attention. And I've got to say that the FX work is consistently good on this one, with some beautifully detailed model work that makes it look like they had a bit more money to spend (after all, they could afford Nick Adams). FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD is a weird picture, but weird in the best way and is certainly worth a look for you kaiju fans out there.

The afternoon was wrapped by a nice rooftop BBQ and then zipping on home with no traffic to answer the e-mails that piled up in my absence (OK, maybe not piled up, but what was there was worth answering) and then I konked the hell out and reluctantly headed back to work the following morning. The whole weekend was kind of like that Ice Cube song "It Was a Good Day", except for the part about getting my jimmy whacked, which is probably why the weekend was merely pleasant and not amazing or anything. But there's always next weekend.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - Sergio Solima's VIOLENT CITY

When Charles Bronson passed away in 2003 (while I was attending a screening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at Lincoln Center, I might add) the notices were surprisingly respectful. Bronson was one of the world's biggest movie stars at one time and made a lot of great movies, but with his Cannon Films output in the 80s he seemingly pissed a lot of his critical goodwill away, so it was good to see many of the critics who bashed his later efforts say so many nice things about him. Bronson was one of the more intriguing movie stars to ever come along, mistakenly perceived as being limited in his skills as an actor, when in truth, he was an actor who always knew that less was more. He didn't have to use a lot of emotion to play a scene, because he was able to convey his character with just a glance or a simple movement. Bronson was easily one of the most physical of movie stars, a guy whose mere presence sometimes said more than pages of dialog. He could do dialog, too, and do it very well (just look at his work in Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER), but it wasn't always necessary. Few actors can just stand in front of a screen and tell you most everything you need to know, and Bronson was one of the best. This is especially apparent in Sergio Solima's vastly underappreciated 1970 film VIOLENT CITY, one of Bronson's very best and a terrific thriller in its own right.

VIOLENT CITY is an interesting (and happily very successful) mixture of action and film noir, a somewhat typical Bronson revenge story mixed in with a doomed love story and a few other great noir elements that I won't go into here. Solima was always one of the smarter Italian action directors (THE BIG GUNDOWN; RUN, MAN, RUN) who made films that were efficient and relied on story more than some of his contemporaries did. CITY may be the best screenplay Solima had to work with (Lina Wertmueller was one of the writers!) and easily the best cast, because in addition to Bronson he also had Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland. Now, I know that Jill Ireland's presence doesn't usually inspire a lot of confidence in viewers, but trust me, Solima makes great use of her here. To start, she's never looked better, smoking hot in almost every scene and often incredibly sexy, despite some vintage early 70s outfits. Her character has several layers to her, more than just the standard love interest for Bronson, but importantly, it's the love story that helps make this movie. You're fully convinced that Bronson's character, a professional hitman, is in love with Ireland (as he obviously was in real life) and would go through all he does in this film for her. Bronson is surprisingly strong in the love scenes, which pays off like a big ol' motherfucker in the climax. That's another thing: VIOLENT CITY has a humdinger of an ending.

This being a Bronson film, there's a lot of action, of course, and the action here is absolutely classic stuff, first rate in every regard. The opening car chase has got to go down as the greatest unsung car chase in movie history, so good that it sets the bar almost too high for the rest of the film to follow. But the rest does not disappoint, with a superbly structured Bronson "hit" on a race track among the other highlights. Solima knew action very well and along with his 1973 Oliver Reed film REVOLVER, shows that as far as the Italians went, he was one of the best. The director shows up in an on-camera interview on the Anchor Bay Starz DVD, which is unquestionably the best way to see the film. In addition to being the complete cut of the film (it was hacked down to 93 minutes and retitled THE FAMILY for the U.S.), it's also a gorgeous transfer (courtesy of William Lustig's Blue Underground) that shows the film off as the slick, professional production that it was. While the DVD has been on the market for about 5 years now, I'm still surprised that VIOLENT CITY's reputation hasn't grown more (especially after Bronson's passing), but check it out and I think you'll agree that it's one worth seeing. We all know that Charles Bronson was a total badass, and when you see VIOLENT CITY his badass stock go up considerably in every viewer's mind. The movie itself is pretty badass, too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I'm Making An Example Of You, Bruce Willis. Please Don't Kick My Ass.

Over at Ain't It Cool News, Bruce Willis is taking the time out to answer e-mails from the AICN readers, pretty much in an effort to promote LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. One of the questions was about what were some of Bruce's favorite movies, and here's the list he came up with:

Dr. Strangelove
Raging Bull
The first 2 Godfathers
Taxi Driver
Bridge on the River Kwai
the Great Escape
On the Waterfront
Resevoir Dogs
I really dug 300
the first Alien
Last Picture Show....

Now, in a lot of ways, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that list. It's a real good, rock solid list. In fact, I'd say that if you gave that list over to someone to use as a guide for filling their Netflix queue, they'd be in for one great movie after another (with the exception of 300; sorry, Bruce). More importantly, what does this list say about Bruce Willis? Well, my first impression is that Bruce likes "guy movies", because with the exception of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, there isn't a single film on this list you couldn't show on Spike TV. It's also a little obvious that he's a fan of Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Steve McQueen and that's all very cool, because they all made great movies. He seems to like action, certainly doesn't have a problem with violence in movies and digs widescreen spectacles. Hey, I do, too! Maybe Bruce Willis and I could hang out some time and watch movies. After all, we're both from New Jersey.

So what's your favorite movie? What's in your all-time top ten? In truth, I'm not asking and I don't really want to know. The Internet is filled with favorite movie lists of all types from people from all over. Amazon seems to have the market cornered on such a thing, along with the IMDB, MySpace and, well, Blogger. I kinda avoid these things because it's a little too easy to look at these things and then jump to conclusions about these people. Someone only likes foreign films from the 50s and 60s? Then they must be some kind of snob. They only like violent horror movies? That person must be really immature and potentially dangerous. Only care for fantasy epics and sci-fi movies? Same thing, and on and on and on. We could do this all night long and come up with a 10 million different conclusions. Some of them may be right, some of them may be wrong, but we're not really going to know each other that much better when all is said and done. It's easy thing to think you know someone based on their favorite movies, but we never really know anyone, even those closest to us, now do we? If we did, we'd all get along a hell of a lot better and would be a lot less shocked when Uncle Frank gets arrested with that transvestite prostitute (sorry to break it to you, but Uncle Frank is a real perv).

In going over Mr. Willis' list, there was one comment I feel I should make, and if you want to make it seem like I'm criticizing Bruce himself, then go ahead. It's a very safe list. You don't see Bruce sticking his neck out for Bela Tarr, Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky, you know? Maybe Bruce doesn't know who these guys are or maybe he's not that big a fan, nothing wrong with that. Bruce's list even has a bit of crossover with the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, but there isn't anything in this list (other than 300) that hasn't already been declared a classic. Even RESERVOIR DOGS, due to its tremendous influence, is considered a contemporary classic. Willis' list may not be your list of favorite films, but these titles probably show up on most of the top ten list you find online. In fact, it's a lot of the same titles that show up on these lists, and that's what bugs me. There's no right way or wrong way to have a top ten list, because it's all about the movies that speak to you, and to be honest, a lot of those all-time "classic" films are not the ones that speak to me. Yeah, CITIZEN KANE is a great film, but I don't have it in my top ten. I love Hitchcock and I love VERTIGO, but I prefer THE BIRDS. I've never really understood the appeal of John Ford, but I can't deny the power of THE SEARCHERS or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. However, there are numerous westerns (the works of Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks and even Sergio Corbucci) that mean more to me. Whenever I see some top ten list with all the usual suspects (SEVEN SAMURAI, 8 1/2, 2001, ect.), I can't help but be bored by it. Either people are only looking at the films that the status quo deem "great" or they're just not looking in the right places.

I usually try to avoid telling people what my favorite films are because the list is always subject to change. I've seen more films of so many types in the last ten years then I did before in my lifetime that my perception of film has changed drastically. Certainly, many of the films I grew up loving have remained absolute faves (YELLOW SUBMARINE has stayed with me my entire life and I'll probably die with a place for it in my heart) and new favorites pop up all the time. I always have this ray of hope for all the new movies to come because I know one or more of them will capture my imagination and perhaps bowl me over in such a way that I will need to rewrite the list. Last year I saw Katsuhito Ishii's FUNKY FOREST - THE FIRST CONTACT and I just fell in love with it. It was new and fresh and different and unique and I wanted to know where it had been all my life. Because of it, I had to move the list around a little. And just imagine what will happen when I catch up to all those movies on those top ten lists that I have yet to see? Things always change and nothing stays the same.

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. They also say that variety is the spice of life. But when it comes to great films, I think people are only picking from the variety pack and not really venturing out on their own. Stray out of your comfort zone and you never know what you'll find. It's not so much knowing where to look, it's a matter of keep on looking.

Monday, May 21, 2007

BOSS SWAP: The Best Hour of Television I've Ever Seen

It's funny how the memory plays tricks on us sometimes. There are plenty of films that I know I've seen (even liked), but I don't really remember them all that well. Some of them I saw a long time ago and some I saw recently and I couldn't tell you what was in them. But the stuff we all want to remember we do so because it says something to us. I have childhood memories that will never be repeated that are still crystal clear in my mind and perhaps always will be, while there are things that happened to me last week that I have to be reminded of. Why is this? I have no idea. Am I getting older, getting harder to maintain my memory? Hell if I know. But when something is truly memorable, especially when something is incredibly entertaining, it stays with you for a long, long time. I'll let you armchair psychologist figure out the hows and why of all this while I engage all your readers with the tale of the finest hour of television I've ever had the pleasure to witness, a little UK TV show that will probably never air here in the States called BOSS SWAP. I only saw it once, but I'll never forget it.

A little back story here: In June 2004, I flew out to London on a business trip that was ultimately quite pointless but it got me to London for a week, so who really cares? I'd never been before and had always wanted to go and while I didn't get around very much or visit the countryside, I was damn happy to be there. This being my first overseas trip, I got a fairly nasty case of jet lag my first day there and ended up not sleeping for nearly two days straight. As a result of this I konked out big time my first night there and my body spent a lot of time playing catch-up for the next few days afterwards. My second night there found it impossible for me to get much sleep, so I turned on the telly (that's British for "TV") to see what I could see. I remember the cute and amusing Kate Beckinsale/Stuart Townsend flick SHOOTING FISH being on and as I continued to flip channels I happened upon a British reality show with a premise that hooked me like a big, fat marlin: Two bosses switch jobs for two weeks to see if one can run the other's business better than the other. Having worked in one capacity or another since I was a kid (with certain periods of time off through no fault of my own), workplace politics and mannerisms fascinate me and BOSS SWAP provided me with two primo characters who no screenwriter, no matter how talented, could have come up with. There was Mike, manager of the Carshock auto dealership in Newcastle, about 2 hours outside of London, an easygoing and likable bloke who has settled in pretty well and is seemingly happy with what he does. On the other end is Bruce, a London real estate dealer who is the walking epitome of a 21st Century yuppie, or for you Brits out there, a cockney wideboy. Bruce is all about selling and making that deal and the commission that goes with it and he's not nearly as likable as Mike, but there's no question that he's driven and committed in what he does. I knew as they set these two up that this episode of BOSS SWAP was going to be interesting and as it progressed I was thrilled by what I was seeing. This wasn't one of those Fox-ish reality show nightmares, but it showed a side of life that I feel is rarely shown on TV anywhere, that being the two different sides of the working man in the 21st Century.

It's worth noting that Mike is older than Bruce by about a good 10 years or so and by having a few years on him is at equal parts advantage and disadvantage. Mike comes from a generation where having a job like this meant that you were providing something for your family, your kid's education and your eventual retirement, while for Bruce (a newlywed whose wife works with him) it's all about what he can do for Bruce; getting the nice place, the great car, the cool clothes, etc. Mike also takes a more laid-back approach, choosing to spend his first week observing the staff and making evaluations through interviews before he makes any changes, while Bruce is almost all about making the profits as fast as possible. Bruce actually has a lot of good ideas (for example, he has the cars arranged in a more eye-catching manner), but he also is aggressive to the point of annoyance and it's no wonder the staff doesn't take to him. He constantly criticizes them for showing up hung-over (this is England, you know) and his efforts at team building and motivational speaking fall flat because he's not saying any of it from the heart. It's all about the numbers for him and the people don't seem to matter as much. Meanwhile, Mike's approach likewise falls on deaf ears as Bruce's employees are looking for guidance and for ways to move in for the kill and they're not getting it. And when Mike makes his assessment of the company, he makes a very unpopular decision - he fires Bruce's wife, seeing her position as redundant. With this, the situation boils over and Mike and Bruce meet up and decide to cut the experiment short. It should go without saying that all the employees are pleased.

As a TV show, BOSS SWAP didn't exactly break any new ground and wasn't all that different than most other reality shows. There were also those classic reality show train wreck moments (most of them involving Bruce, although when Mike fires his wife it's pretty hilarious) that made it very entertaining, and the episode had a perfect 3-act structure to it. But what made it so extraordinary, at least in my mind, was how it showcased these two different sides of the working class in our society, which is not something you see much of any of over here. Here you have two guys who, in truth, are not too far removed from each other, but there is still a distinct lack of understanding in how the other operates. More importantly, these guys don't understand the people that they're supposed to manage, either. Bruce is too pushy, and even though he may be somewhat justified, the staff is only going to resent him for it. Meanwhile, Mike is a little too nice to a staff that has been trained that to be kind is to be weak and he could learn to be a little tougher and maybe see some better results. It reminds me of a real jerk I used to work aside (not with; it's complicated) who would show the Alec Baldwin scene in GLENGARY GLEN ROSS as a motivator to his staff. It showed that the guy just didn't get it and that's what sums up this episode of BOSS SWAP: These guys don't get what the other ones does. Not that their approaches are wrong, but that if they mix the two together they might just get it right, a kind of "You-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter-you-got-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate-wow-this-is-great!" mix. I've worked for Bruces and have hated them and I've worked for Mikes and liked them a lot more but would sometimes wish I could get a little bit more of a real boss. The best bosses are equal parts Mike and Bruce, those who want to succeed but also care about the people they work with. Jobs mean a lot to people and if you're lucky enough to be in the position to be the boss you've got to do so with respect to all involved. Yes, it's a bitch, but if you can hack it at that then you can earn their respect and that's something worth coming to work for everyday.

PS - Here's the link to a post-BOSS SWAP chat with Mike and Bruce and some interesting updates on Bruce and Mike and their business practices.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

In Praise Of Bruce

At a recent press screening of SPIDER-MAN 3, a friend of mine overheard the one and the only Rex Reed say to one of his cronies, "When will the Sam Raimi fans realize what a fucking awful actor Bruce Campbell is?" Now, as far as I'm concerned that's a real "consider the source" kinda quote, especially when you consider how Bruce Campbell's cameo is easily one of that film's highlights. It's especially funny if you know Bruce and his work, but even if you don't, it's still a great scene; the audience I saw the film with certainly thought so. But Reed's boneheaded observation does remind me that Bruce Campbell has been, and probably always will be, something of an acquired taste. After all, he'd be a heck of a lot more popular if he wasn't, wouldn't he?

The thing about Bruce is, while he can do straight drama, and do it well, he's also incredibly wonderful at being goofy. But not Steve Martin kinda goofy, but genuinely goofy in a way that most actors who don't have his movie star good looks are supposed to be. How many actors do you know of who are willing to hit himselves over the head with dinner plates because of a possessed hand or play a 70 year-old Elvis Presley fighting a soul-sucking mummy through an old folk's home? You don't see George Clooney doing that, do you? And he's snarky. I mean, no one does snarky like Bruce Campbell does ("Well hello, Mr. Fancy Pants!") Bruce also takes risks, but he doesn't take the kind of risks Al Pacino does, like submerging himself deep inside his character. No, the kind of risk that Bruce takes is a different one, but one just as courageous: He isn't afraid to look like an idiot. A lot of the characters he plays may be heroes, but they're heroes who are just as prone to screw-up as anyone else is. This a huge part of his charm and one of the reasons he's so beloved. Honestly, why aren't there more actors out there like him?

I've been a Bruce Campbell fan for about 20 years now, starting with a Saturday matinee screening of EVIL DEAD 2 in March of '87 that I will never forget. While I have recounted the experience in a previous post, I still look upon that performance as an absolute marvel, one of the greatest comedic performances in movie history. ARMY OF DARKNESS, the follow-up to EVIL DEAD 2, had an equally hysterically funny Bruce performance (and some of the most quoteable dialog in movie history), but that previous film is the one that made Bruce "Bruce" and may still be his defining moment. But not long after ARMY Bruce had the good fortune to land the TV series THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. and to those Rex Reed-types who don't think that Bruce can act, I tell you check out a few episodes of this show and you'll see that the guy had true star potential. Bruce could probably could have coasted on the popularity of the EVIL DEAD films for the rest of his career, but the fans of those films followed him over to BRISCO COUNTY and that's a big part of what's endeared him to so many of them. He branched out and proved to his audience (and a new audience, as well) that their love for Bruce was well-founded and would not be wasted. It was a quality show that Bruce was great in, and even though it never got beyond a cult following, you can look at those episodes now and still have a lot of fun with it.

Since then, Bruce has bounced around from one project to the next (ELLEN, JACK OF ALL TRADES, lots of TV shows and bit parts in big movies), but every so often he got a nice, juicy part that could show him off to good advantage. One of these was Josh Becker's little-seen heist movie RUNNING TIME, a well-made, tight little thriller that not only contains one of Bruce's best performances, but is also a gimmick movie that works, the gimmick in question being that the film is shot in a series of long, continuous take, not unlike Hitchcock's ROPE. Bruce is the film's lead and proves his stuff not just through an intense performance but also because he's in every damn scene (and every damn shot) of the entire film. Then there was BUBBA HO-TEP, probably still Bruce's finest overall performance, and one that earned him a lot more critical respect than he's ever received. I wasn't a big fan of the movie itself (too slowly paced), but with Bruce on screen (especially when teamed with Ossie Davis) at almost every moment it got by based on the strength of the performances alone. The fact that it brought more Bruce Campbell fans to the table is the icing on the cake.

One of the most interesting things about Bruce is the interaction he has with his fans, which is pretty constant and widespread. I doubt you'll find an actor who works so hard to reach out to his audience personally with many personal appearences, interviews and signings. I had the pleasure to do some PR work on a Bruce Campbell project a few years ago and the best thing about it was taking a meeting with Bruce and a later conference call with the man himself. (I was especially pleased to do this job because it scored me major points with a beautiful, intelligent girl who I liked very much who was actually really impressed by this. Unfortunately, I wasn't in a rock band and covered in tatoos, so that was the end of that story.) No one sells Bruce Campbell better than Bruce himself and when he commits to something (especially a home-grown project like this one), he throws himself into it 100%. While he made sure that he still found time for family and other business, his commitment never waivered and he would listen to every idea and suggestion you came to him with. He never complained and did everything that had to be done (which would often include signing for hours on end) because it was part of the job but also because it was in his character to do so. Here is a guy who has not only made a good living for himself as an actor, but he's also made a name for himself doing so and these tours and personals appearences were one of the reasons why. Pretty much all of Bruce's fans have his autograph or their pictures taken with him and they all love him for that. You really don't find a lot of actors out there who have the kind of fan loyalty that he does and it's because Bruce has earned it. The fact that he isn't a bigger star is a bit disconcerting, but those of us who know him and love him treasure him, and what's cool is that he knows that and appreciates it. He's a very classy guy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Summer Movie Love Sensation

As you all know, the summer movie season is upon us. Growing up, this was always my favorite time of year because, as a child of the 80s, the films being made and released were all targeted towards me. It seemed like every summer, new favorites would emerge to capture my imagination, and I'm pleased to say that in many of those cases, a few classics were born. Of course, our tastes change as we grow older and the summer movie season doesn't quite mean the same to me anymore. There are still plenty of good films coming out in this time period, but the season simply doesn't mean the same to me anymore. What it means more now is heading up to the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal and hopefully taking in some of the NYC retrospective screenings, which usually get a bit more creative (AMMI is doing a 70s retrospective in July and Lincoln Center always whips up something good for August). But that doesn't mean I'll be taking a vacation from the multiplex, because I have come to terms with the sad, pitiful fact that I am as much a lemming as anyone else is. If I think something looks kinda cool, or if I've seen the previous films in a series enough to see the new one (even though I don't have a good feeling about it), I will go. But I'm smart enough now (translation: Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice...) to know that while I may take an interest in seeing something, it doesn't mean I'll always pay to see it. I may pay for it in wasted time, but not with a dent in my wallet.

HERE, TAKE MY MONEY! I'M NOT USING IT (in order of release)

OCEAN'S 13 - When I can't sleep at night and I know I'm not getting to sleep anytime soon, I usually end up popping in Soderbergh's OCEAN'S 11 and watch it all the way through. Not because I think it's going to put me to sleep, but because it's a fun film and it works pretty well at 3am. OCEAN'S 12 was a bit of a disappointment, but I admired the gall it had with the Julia Roberts subplot. Everyone seems to be working hard to make sure this one lives up to the first film, and I have confidence that they will. The additions of Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin only add to the good vibes.

RATATOUILLE - CARS proved that even Pixar isn't infallible (a nice, sweet, fun picture, but nothing really special), but with Brad Bird back at the helm and an unusual plot line, I sense this one will work. And I love how Patton Oswald is the lead voice. Fingers crossed.

SICKO - No matter what you think of him, I think that Michael Moore has enough skill as a filmmaker to make a good film. Is it an honest or accurate film? I'm never sure, but I'm always entertained by what I see. I'll always remember a paying audience applauding at the end of a Sunday matinee of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, which is something I rarely experience. That said, I'm looking forward to his expose on America's health care system as a movie; as a documentary there may well be some holes in it, but I figure it will be worth my time.

RESCUE DAWN - In part because of the positive word of mouth on the film after its various festival showings, I'm also looking forward to seeing this because it's Werner Herzog and Herzog is on a roll these days. It also intrigues me because it's based on one of Herzog's documentaries. LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY, so he's coming from a place where he really knows a thing or two about the material.

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE - I'm not one of those people who thinks that THE SIMPSONS has jumped the shark. While it's no longer the force of brilliance it once was, a good episode of the show can still deliver more honest laughs than many lesser shows in their prime. The film, I think, has potential because it gives the show's creative team an opportunity to branch out from the 22-minute storyline and do something on a grand scale. I think they've been working towards this for a long time and have got the feeling they won't disappoint.

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM - I liked the previous two BOURNE installments, with the second film being better than the first, and I'm pleased to see Paul Greengrass back in the director's seat. The only thing that troubles me is the loss of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who penned the initial drafts and then went on to make his directorial debut, the George Clooney starrer MICHAEL CLAYTON (which opens in September). I think Gilroy is probably more responsible for the success of the series than most realize and despite some top talent in his place (Tom Stoppard and Paul Attenasio included), something may be off. We'll see.


PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END - The second film, which I neither loved nor disliked, didn't exactly kill the series for me, but it felt like the inspiration was gone. I can't help but feel that the same will hold true here, but I genuinely enjoy Johnny Depp in these films and, the biggest factor of all, Chow Yun-Fat is in it. Granted, he was also in BULLETPROOF MONK and I never saw that, but I love the fact that he's on giant billboards all over the U.S, right now.

MR. BROOKS - I will go into this more at a later date, but I am unapologetically a Kevin Costner fan. I don't necessarily see everything he's in, but if it seems like it could work, I'm sort of inclined to see it. He's playing a serial killer in this one, and I'm thinking, "OK, let him stretch. Let's see where this takes us and you never know". The fact that it's from the director of KUFFS does send off warning bells, but if I hear it's good, I'll check it out. Viva Costner!

HOSTEL: PART II - I wasn't a huge fan of CABIN FEVER, but I have to say that Eli Roth impressed me somewhat with HOSTEL. The set-up worked and I liked the performances, but the torture part of it felt kind of routine, if such an expression can actually exist. What surprised me, and what I really didn't see coming, was how much he was investing in the film's final payoff, which, if more than a little silly, worked extremely well. So now I'm hoping he'll be able to do the same with this one. If he can, I'll be even more impressed.

1408 - While his performance in the Sundance fave GRACE IS GONE is supposed to be an Oscar contender, it's a little strange to see John Cusack starring in a Stephen King adaptation. I'm told it's a good story and apparently the film has turned out well, but Cusack always seemed to me to be one who avoided outright genre films for more "respectable" material. Here's hoping his presence here denotes that there's some quality material about.

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD - I love the first two DIE HARD films and the first half of the third film works before the rest just falls apart. But I've never been jonesing for another one of these and I'm not sure that this thing is going to work once again. However, a friend of mine is working on it and keeps on saying positive things; he really thinks this is going to be a good picture. Honestly, if it wasn't for that, I'm not sure I'd even go.

JOSHUA - I'm adding this killer kid flick to the list due simply to the positive word of mouth at Sundance. Sounds good, but it could go either way, really.

HAIRSPRAY - Well, I saw the show and thought it was a lot of fun, and the songs were great. But with Adam Shankman directing, I'm not too sure. I know he started out as a choreographer, but that only means the dance numbers could be decent. And John Travolta as Edna Turnblad I'm also not so sure about. Chances are good that this will work, so I'm trying looking at the positive end of this one.

RUSH HOUR 3 - RUSH HOUR 2 really knocked me for a loop. Not only is it Ratner's best movie, but it's probably Jackie Chan's best U.S. movie. It's really entertaining, so I'm hoping that this one will also work. Besides, I've simply got to see what Polanski is doing in here.

STARDUST - Word of mouth on this fantasy film is already starting to get positive, and with LAYER CAKE's Matthew Vaughn directing I'm thinking we could see something more than the same old sugarcoated fantasy. We'll see.

THE INVASION - There's a bit of "Let's see if it's a train wreck or not" in choosing this, but I'm also intrigued simply because all the other versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS worked pretty well. Maybe the material is fuck-up proof?

SUPERBAD - I've already discussed my feelings on Judd Apatow in my KNOCKED UP review, and even though he's only the producer, I fear that this one may feel like he's tampered with it. But the trailer intrigues me while amusing me at the same time. What the plot of this movie? Is there a plot to this movie? Should I care? I don't know, but I suspect there will be some laughs.

BALLS OF FURY - Likewise.


FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE BLAH, BLAH, BLAH - This could only be an improvement over the first film, which was terrible. And that first trailer made it seem like this is a bit more professional. And yet, that first film put a real bad taste in my mouth. I'm interested, but I've got better things to do with my money, though maybe not my time.

TRANSFORMERS - I'm a proud member of the Michael Bay haters club. I was so angered by ARMAGEDDON that I swore I would never sit through another of his films again and I've kept to that promise. And since I was never into the Transformers show I figured that this one was an easy pass. But that trailer did its job and did it quite well. Sometimes all you want to do is watch stuff blow up, and I'm thinking this might be the right one to do it with this summer.

HALLOWEEN - I grew up loving the original HALLOWEEN, but it's been a long time since I was able to muster any kind of enthusiasm for these films. Even H20 kept me cold. I really enjoyed THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, so I think it's possible that Rob Zombie could do a good job here, but I seriously have my doubts. HALLOWEEN was great, but it's been remade several times already; I think they should just leave it alone. And why the fuck is a movie called HALLOWEEN opening on Labor Day weekend?

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - Jack Starrett's THE DION BROTHERS (aka THE GRAVY TRAIN)

As some of you can tell, my postings typically tend to focus on what's happening on the cinema scene in the NY/NJ part of the world (with the occasional trip to Austin or Philly) since that's where I happen to hang my hat. But allow me to spread a little love to you left coasters in order to alert you to a pretty cool screening that will be taking place out there next weekend and gives me an opportunity to do another Forgotten Movies segment. The American Cinematheque's Santa Monica offshoot, The Aero Theater, is participating in the month long series of great and unheralded films of the 1970s that is also happening at the main Cinematheque theater in Hollywood. For all of NYC's many locations for revival and retrospective screenings (we're pretty lucky in that regard), none of those theaters match the quality and the coolness of the Cinematheque (or the Alamo Drafthouse, for that matter), which has killer programming (courtesy of Chris D) of plenty of rare screenings and (thanks to the L.A. location) access to many great guests. Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater is probably the closest we come to anything like that (a three week Lee Marvin retrospective begins today with a screening of POINT BLANK with John Boorman in attendance, so it's not all that bad), but while I appreciate things like retrospectives of little-known Spanish or Italian filmmakers, stuff like the Cinematheque's annual Noir festivals are, let's be honest, a lot more fun. And speaking of fun (a more ham-handed segue I doubt I've ever written) you Angelinos/Hollywoodites/Santa Monicans should take the time out of your busy schedules of script meetings, liposuction, Starbucks lattes and sitting in traffic on the 405 to check out next Saturday's one-time screening of Jack Starrett's THE DION BROTHERS (originally released as THE GRAVY TRAIN) for a forgotten film that's starting to make a name for itself again.

I had never heard of it until about 5 years ago when I was planning to show a bunch of movies in my old apartment in the Bronx (with a nice, big white wall, perfect for projecting movies onto) with a film print collector of mine. He had a 16mm print of it and thought it would be perfect programming (it was a 70s crime fest where we also showed Di Leo's MANHUNT, Starrett's earlier RUN, ANGEL, RUN and THE BURGLARS). Taking his word for it, I later discovered that the film also showed at the 2nd QT Fest in Austin, where it was a big hit with the audience, so that sealed the deal. The film certainly lived up to my friend's promise and everyone enjoyed it, but I have to admit that as time went on I forgot about much of it. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I was able to look upon the film with nearly fresh eyes when I saw it again at the April 2006 Best of QT Fest. I'm guessing the film's legend had grown in the time between its first screening there and its last, because it seemed to be the film that many in the audience were looking forward to the most and they were more than happy with what they saw. It helped in no small part from an incredibly enthusiastic introduction from Tarantino (more so than usual) which supplied the proper amount of over hype and it seems like the audience for this film simply wasn't born when it was first released. This Aero screening is one of the first non-QT, non-my old apartment screenings that I've heard of (could be wrong) and if anything, I hope its double feature pairing with Starrett's RACE WITH THE DEVIL helps to grow the fan base not just for this film but also for its much too underrated director (and hopefully secure a much-needed DVD release, as well).

Jack Starrett was an interesting filmmaker in a lot of ways. Starting as an actor (he played Gabby Hayes in BLAZING SADDLES), he was mainly stuck with action films, which he was exceptionally talented at, I think because as an actor/director, he was able to focus more on character and performance than most pictures of these type usually do. He started out making movies with William Smith (RUN, ANGEL, RUN, THE LOSERS, HOLLYWOOD MAN) but in the mid-70s he was on a roll and moved up from low-budget indies to major studio titles like SLAUGHTER, CLEOPATRA JONES, and RACE WITH THE DEVIL. THE DION BROTHERS was one of those pictures, made for Columbia in '74, the story of two brothers from Appalachia who quit their jobs and decide to turn to a life of crime in order to finance their dream of opening a seafood restaurant. Unfortunately, it was a box office disappointment, although Columbia tried again with a second release under the new title (which I've got to admit is a better title) that likewise didn't work. Like with a lot of good movies that fail to connect with audiences, it's hard to say why THE DION BROTHERS wasn't a bigger hit, but I suspect that the film's rather rambling style, in truth one of its greatest strengths, is what might have done it in. I suppose it helps to know that it was co-written by Terrence Malick, who was also the original director (I don't know if Starrett replaced him before or during shooting), and knowing Malick's work it's understandable as to how the film turned out like so. Even though he supposedly has disowned the film (he took a pseudonym), the film still has traces of him in it, because it doesn't seem to want to adhere to a standard structure; The Dion Brothers don't go through some big character arc and they remain simple guys, headstrong and likeable, throughout, all this in spite of their turning to a life of crime.

I mentioned Starrett's ability with actors before and it's The Dion Brothers themselves, Stacy Keach and the great Frederick Forrest, who really make the picture. Of course, they're supposed to, but these two guys are absolutely delightful and make for a great team. The Dions are not especially bright and they seem to get by more on luck than any kind of particular skill, but Keach and Forrest don't turn them into fools. One of the film's joys is watching Keach shoot his mouth off about anything that comes to mind, proving him to be a man who sure thinks a lot for someone who doesn't know much, and Forrest's unflagging devotion to his brother provides a perfect backup. They're a great team, and what's more disappointing than the fact that they never worked together again is the fact that they won't be together again at the Aero on the 19th as originally scheduled (Keach is the no-show, I guess because he's working), although Forrest will be there along with co-star Barry Primus and Mark Rydell, who is not in the film the best that I can recall, but I'm sure he'll make for a good guest. I have the feeling there will be lots of great stories about the making of the film and about its director, so if you're in the area and can make it, I highly recommend you do, because you'll have a good time and leave with a big smile on your face.

Lastly, I can't discuss both THE DION BROTHERS or Jack Starrett without mentioning the action scenes, which are first rate in every way. Starrett knew how to shoot action (THE LOSERS has some fantastic motorcycle stunts) and both films being screened have memorable stunt sequences that will make your mouths drop by their audacity. THE DION BROTHERS' climax, set (and seemingly shot!) in an abandoned building as it's undergoing demolition, automatically bounces the film's rating up by half a star, while the chaces in RACE WITH THE DEVIL leave no doubt in my mind that they proved to be the inspiration for DEATH PROOF's brilliant climatic chase. OK, enough already - go see these movies next Saturday!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Kickin' It With Jamie Kennedy

Some of you may remember a couple of weeks ago when I posted something called the "2007 Terrible Spring Movie Preview". It was a silly little riff on movie previews and a nice little chance for me to zing some of the ones that looked really, really bad. One of the titles listed was KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL, and in fact, it was that title that helped to inspire the piece. I'd seen the trailer for it in front of a film back in early March and thought to myself, "That looks terrible. Looks like a lot of terrible movies coming out this spring" and from that, inspiration was born. I wrote the piece up lickity-split, posted it, and got a nice little pat on the back when my friend Kim at MSN Movies Filter posted a link to it, for which I was incredibly grateful. All in all, I thought, a job well done.

Others thought differently.

Just a few days after the piece went up I received a comment on the piece from someone named "Jay" that was, to put it mildly, unkind. I was a bit surprised by how rude it was (Sample line: "Once we find those Headquarters 10 fucks who are writing this shit, we're gonna make 'em eat our shit, then shit out our shit, then eat their shit which is made up of our shit that we made 'em eat."), but knowing this is the internet I didn't give it much thought. But later that day I received an e-mail from someone claiming to be KICKIN IT OLD SKOOL star Jamie Kennedy saying that "ur exactly the shit thats clogging up the internet" and that he was going to interview me in his new movie about "internet geeks who hate everything before it comes out". I traded a few e-mails with this person thinking it was either some Jamie Kennedy fan or someone just going around claiming to be Jaime Kennedy and trying to raise my ire. The correspondence ended pretty quickly and I didn't think much about it afterwards. I did ask a few people I know in the press if they've ever had any contact with Kennedy and if the e-mail address provided was legit, but I hit nothing but brick walls. A few weeks later I'm talking to a friend of mine who writes for one of the online movie news sites and asked him if he knew anything about this. Turns out, not only was it really Jamie Kennedy, but the movie was playing the Tribeca Film Festival and my friend is interviewed in it! It was one of those "you could have knocked me over with a feather" kinda moments.

The film is called HECKLER, and I made a point of seeing it at its final Tribeca showing last Friday night. It was the only Tribeca screening I caught this year and the only film I felt both compelled and obliged to see. I really didn't have to, since it's not like I've attacked Jamie Kennedy on a personal basis or even mentioned any of his other films. I pre-judged his film, which certainly offended him and I thought I should, in a sense, hear him out. I also decided that I would actually see KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL that same weekend in order to give it a fair shake, so it was going to be a Jamie Kennedy weekend for me. HECKLER has an interesting and legitimate topic as its subject: criticism in all its forms, from hecklers in comedy clubs and sporting events to critics of all sorts, but mainly film critics, especially those found online. Obviously, everyone has an opinion about everything, but for some reason film criticism and the internet seem to go hand in hand and according to HECKLER it's gotten out of hand. Kennedy is a very decisive performer, a love him or hate him type of comedian, although that's not based on his material per se (which is fairly routine) or his approach, but rather personality: A lot of people find him annoying. I can't say that I feel one way or another about Kennedy, since I haven't really given his career much thought. I suppose I can say that I like him as an actor, especially in the SCREAM films and THREE KINGS, but I haven't seen any of his stand-up or his starring role in MALIBU'S MOST WANTED. It seems that the worm turned for him with that film, an offshoot of his show, THE JAMIE KENNEDY EXPERIMENT, which was a kind of a CANDID CAMERA type show where he would don disguises and play practical jokes on regular folk. I caught one episode of that show and thought it was amusing in its way (I'm just not a big fan of "hidden camera" shows, unless it's TO CATCH A PREDATOR) and thought that Kennedy did a pretty good job of staying in character throughout his bits. But I guess that the one-two punch of MALIBU'S MOST WANTED and his 2005 film SON OF THE MASK rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, because he got a lot of nasty notices for them and throughout HECKLER he gets to confront most of his harshest critics, a very brave or stupid thing to do, depending on your viewpoint.

Creative types of all types are interviewed throughout HECKLER, from fellow comedians (Joe Rogan, Patton Oswald, Carrot Top) to musicians (Rob Zombie, Jewel) to sports stars (Mike Ditka, John Salley) and filmmakers (Eli Roth, Joel Schumacher) and the conscientious is clear: They all hate critics. BOY, do they hate critics. This film has given them an ample opportunity to vent and they're more than happy to take it. For anyone who reviews movies for a living or just writes about them on a harmless little blog, HECKLER will indeed be a big pill to swallow. No matter what you write, someone involved in its making will read it and take issue with it. I remember David Cronenberg once saying that he never paid any attention to film critics because when they didn't like something of his it was for the wrong reasons and when they did like something it was also for the wrong reasons, and if most creative folk were able to take that approach there might not be a movie here. But they don't, and the feelings they express about criticism are about the same: That those who criticize can't do this themselves; that they do so to feel big by just putting people down; that they're frustrated artist themselves who couldn't hack it, ect. And the thing is, they're absolutely right. Each point, no matter how viciously it's delivered (and it's pretty vicious at times) is still 100% valid. Creative types aren't just doing their job, they're doing something that they love doing and for someone who can't or won't do that to come along and say that what they're doing isn't good enough or any good at all is indeed a pretty shitty thing. So what if those people are right and so what if all that goes with the territory? No one likes to be criticized, especially by someone who either doesn't get what you're trying to do or simply isn't your audience. If you spend years of your life on something that some bozo dismisses with a few paragraphs of nasty language, wouldn't you be pissed, too?

HECKLER tries to even the sides by interviewing several critics, including my friend, along with the likes of Leonard Maltin (who, in turn, criticizes websites like CHUD) and it only briefly touches upon certain critics who are actually good at their jobs (Paulene Kael is never mentioned and they take an easy pot-shot at Roger Ebert by making fun of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, a film that's pretty much regarded as a classic these days) and positive, constructive criticism. It's certainly on the side of the artist and makes its point over and over again, but I couldn't help but feel that a bit more balance was needed. Kennedy is shown interviewing internet critics who've trashed his movies and he's briefly seen talking to Richard Roeper about SON OF THE MASK, but we never get to hear their arguements beyond the review quotes that Kennedy reads back to them. I'm sure Roeper must have explained why he disliked the film in a pretty reasonable manner, so where is that footage? And I never felt like it properly took the side of the audience. If you're in a paying audience and you're really not liking something, are you not allowed to dislike it and speak your mind?

One of HECKLER's main points is that we're getting in an age when everyone's a critic and you seemingly can't do anything without someone telling you how you suck. The scenes where you actually see comedians get heckled are among the most intersting because they show how the difference between pros (the immortal Bill Hicks tears into one heckler with his customary brilliance and even Kennedy equips himself well against a few) and those who are not (Michael Richards). But when audience members start walking up to comics to throw drinks at them or punch them in the face, something is very wrong. And when you hear some of the supposed criticism leveled at Kennedy and his films that are really more personal attacks, it's depressing because it makes legitimate, well-written criticism look bad. It's no wonder Kennedy was inspired to make this film.

So where does this leave me? I've been writing about movies off and on for many years now (occasionally getting paid for it) and I've usually tried to keep things on the level and try to not go too far. Doesn't mean I haven't flown off the handle at things I've actively disliked, but I've always tried to make it about the work and have rarely gotten personal. If I'm writing about anything, be it film or music or politics or food or whatever, I have to be honest. I'm not going to soft pedal something if I really feel like it's awful, but if I've learned anything from HECKLER, it's that it's always important to take the high road. I can't help it if someone disagrees with me, but I'm not going to be a jerk about it. I may not always be right, I may not always be wrong, but I'm going to be honest and respectful in every way. I can only hope that that those responsible for anything I've criticized can respect that in return.

With that in mind, I have decided to take the high road regarding KICKIN' IT OLD SKOOL. Simply put, no comment.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Sneakin' Into The Movies

Like most of you, I went to see SPIDER-MAN 3 over the weekend, and like most of you I was disappointed in what I saw. In a nutshell, too many characters and too much plot slowed the damn thing down, but Bruce Campbell was great. The audience I saw it with actually applauded when it was done, however, so I guess some people were pleased. After all, it made all that money...

But the way I see it, I'm not really in a position to complain because, to be honest, I snuck into see SPIDER-MAN 3. I went to see another movie before it, which I also sorta snuck in to see, as I paid to see a different movie because I didn't want to actually give my money to the movie I actually saw. I'll get into that other movie later in the week, but I had no problem doing all this not because I felt justified in doing so, but because it was a fairly easy thing to do. The way this theater is set up, there is an above-ground passage that you can take, provided that it isn't patrolled by theater staff, which it almost never is, making sneaking a fairly easy thing to do, providing you have the time and the inclination. You've got to plan it out, but the big crowds over the weekend made it a pretty easy thing to do and considering I saw two films that I wouldn't really recommend I'd say the guilt factor is pretty low. However, my Spider-Man 3 experience was marred by the guy two seats down who would occasionally narrate the movie for his girlfriend ("He's playing the piano!") and by a crying baby in the row behind me, so I guess I got a little karma there.

Thing about all this is, I used to usher at a movie theater and I hated people who snuck into movies and took a certain pleasure in busting them. Granted, it was part of the job and maybe, just maybe, there was a bit of a power trip behind it, but at the same time the types of people who I'd catch sneaking in were, for the most part, jerks, so it felt OK to me. But when I was doing this movies were no more than $6 each (cheaper for matinees), so it's not like you were breaking the bank to go see one. With ticket prices now closer to $10 in most cities (more in places like NYC and L.A.) I get this feeling that the money isn't going to be missed. Now, compared to ticket prices for concerts and Broadway shows, the movies still represent a much cheaper (and sometimes more satisfying) form of entertainment. But there's something about that price that upsets me; I can't quite put my finger on it, but no matter what, $10 is simply too much money to pay to see a movie.

Movies, as we all know, are everywhere, and they're the universal art form of our day. In all parts of the world they know about Hollywood movies and, as VHS-KAHLOUCHA demonstrates, everyone around the world wants to make movies. There's no question that movies are beloved no matter where you go. But throughout most of the world (Asia, specifically) piracy has become a major concern, as it should be. It's easier (and cheaper) to get a lousy pirated DVD or VCD than it can be to get a ticket to most movies out there, especially since most big Hollywood movies don't open overseas for several months (although that window is shrinking). And then there's the matter of illegal downloading. What's weird to me about all this is that when people are asked why they download music and movies online, the answer is that they feel like those industries make so much money, anyway, that the consumer can just take what they want. I don't really understand this logic, but I know that it's had terrible consequences, and I don't just mean that Edgar Bronfman, Jr. was only getting a $5 million dollar bonus this year as opposed to $10 million. People are out of work; retailers have gone out of business and packaged music as we know it could probably be a thing of the past in about 10 years or so. Other industries, such as the health care system, credit card companies or, even worse, the oil industry, have been screwing over consumers in a much more severe manner over the years, but consumers don't seem to be as motivated by this as they do stealing entertainment because I guess you can't download gasoline. The difference between sneaking into SPIDER-MAN 3 and downloading it? Probably not much, except to say that if given the opportunity I would rather take a chance and sneak in simply because I like to see movies in theaters. But most people feel differently and they'll download away.

Now, I happen to work for a big music company and as I'm sure you all know, the problem there is much, much worse. The issue of downloading has single-handedly altered the music industry for good and as a result a lot of people are suffering. Layoffs are becoming the norm, with many music companies scaling back substantially or folding outright and no one has the answer. An interesting solution was presented last week by none other than Peter Gabriel, and while it's a good theory, who's really to say if it's going to work or not (although it's worth a shot). The same could very well hold true for film industry, but it seems that every time they start to feel the pinch, the chains raise ticket prices and everyone is temporarily happy again. Keep on doing that and no one's going to want to go out and see a movie when they can just see it at home 4 months later.

Thing is, I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that most of my life I've probably seen more movies for free than those I've paid to see. I spent many years working in movie theaters and even before that, my brother worked in one and would wave me in. I could be wrong, but I think the only time I ever paid to see E.T. theatrically was during the 2002 re-release. I've only been paying to see films on a regular basis for about 10 years now, but allow me to say that I've paid to see a lot of movies in that time. But yes, I do get into advance screenings and go to film festivals where I sometimes get comped, so I'm not always forking over the dough. But I love going to the movies. I see more films in theaters than I do at home, bar none. For all the DVDs I have (many of which I have also not paid for - what can I say, I'm well connected!), sitting at home watching a movie doesn't compare, unless I'm in good company (not intended as a Topher Grace reference, I assure you). Audiences can sometimes make or break the movie. I've been to countless screenings over the years where the enthusiasm of the audience and that's why I still go. However, we're getting to a point where movies will simply cost to much to see, much less make, and the choice may soon not be that easy. The movies better fucking start getting better than SPIDER-MAN 3 or else we're all screwed.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Film or Die - VHS - KAHLOUCHA

No matter how long you live (although I plan on living forever), you will never get to see all of the films that you truly want to see. Many of us will die without seeing at least three or four classic films that we think we'll always have time to catch up with. Even if you were a vampire who happens to be a film critic (I am copyrighting that idea with the Writers Guild right away, so don't even think of stealing it), you would never have the time. There's so much stuff out there that is decent, good, very good, even great that demands to be seen but never could that makes the movies one of the ultimate Bitch Goddess there is. What's especially worse is if your taste in films runs especially eclectic, going well beyond the fringe, and once you open that Pandora's Box that is world cinema you realize that you've got at least sample a bit of everything. You start with Europe, move your way over to Asia, into India, then the Middle East, South America, on and on and on and you won't stop 'til you drop. And the poison tip of the iceberg is when you discover a relatively unknown, unheralded, and unseen universe of cinema that exists in places you never thought of that you need to view at least once just to say you did. God forbid you were to actually like what you see and want more, because it could be the beginning of the end for you and your motion picture addiction. Such a poison tip is the new documentary VHS - KAHLOUCHA.

When I hit Philly a few weeks ago for the Philadelphia Film Festival, I met up with a friend who just left a screening of the film and was raving about it. Screened as part of Phillyfest's "Cinema of the Muslim World", it had a description that made it sound like it could be something amusing, but according to my friend it was something truly exceptional and he was determined to get a copy. (It was also screened at Sundance this year.) Well, all he had to do was get ask a friend who works for the festival, so it wasn't long in the waiting, and over the weekend we sampled the film and I'm pleased to say he was right. VHS - KAHLOUCHA is the story of Monchef Kaloucha, a simple house painter from Tunisia who also happens to be a local filmmaking legend. Working off of a simple Panasonic VHS camera and using whatever props and locations he can scrounge up, Kahloucha makes little mini-epics inspired by the films he knows and loves, with titles like I HAD NO MONEY AND NOW I'M LOADED and MISERY TO STOP THE BOOZE. VHS - KAHLOUCHA shows him in the process of shooting his latest film, TARZAN OF THE ARABS, which will be shot, edited and premiered (in a local cafe) in the space of a week, and we see this seemingly simple but determined and impassioned little man do everything he can to get his vision on the screen. When he needs blood, he doesn't just buy catsup or stage blood, he literally cuts himself so that the blood looks right; if he has to torch a house, he'll use his sister's place (with his mother's approval). There are injuries and accidents and enraged husbands to deal with, but the film must be made at all costs and just watching this guy go through all of this with a supreme amount of fortitude is equal parts jaw-dropping and inspiring.

Much of the appeal of VHS - KAHLOUCHA, and of Kahloucha himself, lies in one word: Tunisia. Not that I'm a big fan or supporter of it (I've never been there), but because this film shows us how important these films are to a very small part of the world. We're shown a group of Tunisian immigrants living in Italy who look forward to getting the latest Kahloucha flick because it reminds them of home, seeing people they know in the films on locations they recognize. They understand the themes and morals of the story because they themselves stem from that environment. This is certainly true of all international cinema, but VHS - KAHLOUCHA does a very good job of illustrating all this. These films are not necessarily made for you, but you may like them nonetheless. So what if the films are nothing more than knock-offs of Hollywood movies? These films are their Hollywood knock-offs and no one elses. The rise in digital and video cinema has given plenty of people the opportunity to make their dream movie and what do they do? Simply re-make their favorite movies and call it a "homage". You have no idea how many 874th-rate vampire/zombie/gangsta/stoner movies are out there that will never see the light of day (although they all have MySpace pages) and I would watch one of Kahloucha's films over theirs in a heartbeat. Why? Because I can tell that there is a passion behind it that those other films will never have. We see the rest of Kahloucha's life is not that ideal, but he makes these films because of the joy and happiness it brings him. He speaks of emulating his cinematic heroes like Clint Eastwood, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Lee Van Cleef (whose films make him cry, he says) and it's endearing because this is his only means of self-expression. It means everything to him.

In an odd way, VHS - KAHLOUCHA reminds me of why I always seek out those strange and offbeat films from all over as opposed to watching those "classic" films that, while they may indeed be great and classic, don't always appeal to me. I want to see something unique, something truly different that I don't see everyday, even if it really is nothing more than the foreign version of something I've already seen, like a Bollywood vampire movie or an Indonesian action epic. In an odd way, it's all about re-discovering that joy of film from way back when that you can't get from just watching your favorites over again. Just watching VHS - KAHLOUCHA is a reminder of this and even if Kahloucha's films don't really live up to the idea of them that this film gives you, the only way you're going to know for sure is to sit down and watch one.