Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Love Don't Pay The Rent. Or Anti-Retroviral Bills.

Rent
2005, USA
Chris Columbus
35mm

This film is disgusting. Not because it’s badly made or because it’s a musical, although normally either of those things would be enough to put me off my lunch. What’s disgusting about this film is the way it cavalierly treats the moral decline of Western culture, by focusing on a group of degenerates without even a whiff of condemnation. Essentially glorifying a lifestyle that is corrupting American culture, Rent becomes part of the political agenda of a group of people bent on subverting family values and seducing the youth to adopt hedonism and moral turpitude as a badge of honor. As evidenced by the 2004 election results, America is proudly determined to light a beacon of righteousness with which to lead the world, but yet still subversive elements are given free reign in the liberal media to push their deviant agenda, and films like this are proof positive of pop culture’s sickening disregard of the traditional values upon which this country was based. To put it simply Rent is a singing, dancing advertisement for the children of this nation to become degenerate, promiscuous, and disease-spreading scum, by glorifying and validating horrible, horrible loft people. Also a bunch of characters in the movie are gay and dying of cancer or something. I don’t know, I was too busy getting mad at all the filthy loft people to pay attention. I hate loft people. I hate them and their vegan co-ops, their Werner Herzog VHS collections, and their super-8 cameras. I hate their loft parties raising money to support independent art collectives, their dreadlocks, and their pigheaded insistence that vinyl is somehow preferable to CD. I hate that they don’t pay their phone bills, so students have to leave deposits when they get new lines, and I hate how they have fleas and somehow this is funny and not scary. Fleas carry the plague, people. The god damned plague. You can’t run the world on bio-mass energy and hemp clothes if your lymph nodes are so swollen they burst and you die of pulmonary failure.

This is what liberal politics gets you.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. Rent. Aside from the loft people, it’s alright, I guess. The trick in a musical is to justify the song and dance numbers in some way, which is becoming harder and harder now that the wave of independent American 70s directors sucked all the life out of filmmaking. Chicago did it by portraying the songs as dream sequences, which is a simplistic but effective device, but Rent does it by using the music as a metaphoric narrative device. The songs are not meant to be taken literally, but rather as representative of real events. When two lovers argue through an elaborate duet, it’s not meant to be taken as two characters suddenly and inexplicably singing to each other, but rather as a heated argument portrayed through the metaphor of song. It’s interesting and impressionistic, in a way, but in another way, it’s very gay.

Coppola grows stronger the more wonder he destroys through harsh realism. Fear him.

However, there is a problem with the music in this film, and that’s that it sort of sucks. One could interpret that as a deliberate choice, given the subject matter of the film, but I think it’s more accurate to chalk it up to bad song-writing. And this isn’t because I hate music. I do, but I can appreciate and understand how it can be effective. And sadly, aside from that ear worm of a theme song, most of the numbers in Rent are weak. This is unfortunate, because they do not stop singing. I know this, because I kept trying to go to sleep, and every ten minutes someone would start either braying or bellowing some over-produced expository lyrics over a watered-down electric guitar lick, like Zakk Wylde on estrogen pills. The cast is solid, comprised mainly of the original Broadway cast of the play, with Rosario Dawson as a highlight as a junkie stripper, the illusion of heroin chic further solidified by the fact that her face looks like a paper bag pulled over a skull. I haven’t seen too many musicals, and certainly not many that I find morally objectionable, so I suppose that makes Rent distinctive, even if the songs do not.

Gay Sex Education.

Bad Education
2004, Spain
Pedro Almodovar
DVD

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good gay Spanish thriller. In fact, it’s been exactly three years, which coincidentally is the last time Pedro Almodovar made a movie. A firm believer in the auteur theory, director Almodovar seems as convinced of his status as a true auteur as he is undecided whether he wants to be Hitchcock or Greg Araki’s man-punk. His films blend flamboyantly homosexual themes with murder and intrigue with varying degrees of success, and nowhere is this more plain than in Bad Education. Unfortunately, as well as showcasing Almodovar’s gender- and genre-busting techniques, the film also evidences the full spectrum of his crap-to-gold pendulum swing. If Almodovar were Clint Eastwood, Bad Education would start out with the film-noir beauty of Million Dollar Baby, gently segue into the minimalist aesthetic and hushed grandeur of Unforgiven, then rapidly degenerate into a cross between Space Cowboys and that movie where he partners up with an ourang-outang, Of course, if he were Eastwood, he would have shot himself in the brain with a Colt .45 the first time his genitals stirred uncomfortable while walking by a poster for a WWE Summer Slam Pay Per View. Instead, Almodovar embraces themes that must be quite taboo in his native and devoutly Catholic Spain, like cross-dressing, prostitution, and the color red.

Awakening the beast within.

In the end, however, the good outweighs the bad in the film. Bad Education’s story takes some annoying twists and turns on its way to a disappointing conclusion, but there’s enough of interest happening to ignore the fact that the movie feels like Steven Cojocaru tracing over a Dashiel Hammet story. Gael Garcia Bernal plays a young transvestite prostitute who tracks down a former lover who has now become a successful filmmaker. The two begin having an affair, despite their mutual misgivings that the relationship will end in disaster and an irritating film-within-a-film conceit. On both counts, they’re right. Bernal is effective and believable in his role, despite looking like a slightly more muscular Jared Leto with a bottle-tan, and he masters the Spanish accent convincingly, effectively transforming his Mexican drawl into the sibilant speech defect required to be convincing in Spain. Though it seems unimportant, the two dialects are actually quite different. The Spanish always sound like they’re trying to order from the Taco Bell menu while missing two front teeth, whereas Mexican sounds like the choruses to early Cypress Hill tracks. Bernal gives his all, probably by loosing his incisors, and he gets the job done, carrying the film through its flaws and Hitchcockian clichés. And though the film-within-a-film thing is unforgivable, it’s at least made bearable by his strong performance, though he would have made a much better prostitute if he’d knocked out all his teeth instead of just the first two.


Discussion Question: Worst/Best film within a film?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Six Degrees of Defecation.

Overnight
2003, USA
Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith
DVD

Have you ever seen a film about something you had no interest in, but still found the movie fascinating? What’s that like? Because I’m trying to expand my horizons by watching documentaries not about porn stars or prison gangs, and all I get is crap like Overnight, which is like growing up reading comic books and then trying to get through The Bible. Incompetently made, Overnight is an awful documentary(1) about an awful man (2) making an awful movie (3). But in its interconnected awfulness, it’s strangely gripping, like a film review that compares a movie to a car wreck that you can’t turn away from. The film chronicles the rise and fall of Troy Duffy, a meathead bouncer who changed every third word in the Pulp Fiction script and cut a deal with Miramax to make Boondock Saints, a film that will be studied in civilizations to come as proof that everyone in America has lead poisoning.

Flourinated water has been blamed for The World According to Jim.

I cannot describe to you how much I hate Boondock Saints, and perhaps that’s for the best, because the film is astoundingly popular and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings (4). It’s not that only stupid people like this movie. It’s that all stupid people like this movie. Functioning as a litmus test of idiocy, the film can be used as an important information gathering tool, but only in conjunction with other clues. For example, if you’re not sure whether or not the guy working at wicket 9 in the University Registrar’s Office is stoned or retarded, take a good look first before making your decision. If he’s got a hemp necklace and you can faintly hear Beck(5) coming out of his iPod, you may be dealing with a hippie. But if there’s a visible arm-band or Superman tattoo, and he has carefully shaped facial hair like Massari, try throwing out a Boondock Saints quote or two. If he grunts to attention like one of Pavlov’s dogs and automatically sticks his hand out for a high-five, you’re probably dealing with a moron.

I believe the beard says it all.

Overnight was shot by two members of Duffy’s large entourage, who were subsequently alienated by him and clearly have quite a hate on for the man. This is entirely understandable, because Duffy is clearly an ass. The film is edited with this in mind, of course, but the two directors seem entirely too talentless to have manipulated the footage that much, so it’s clear that despite their prejudice, Duffy is still a horrible, horrible man with an inflated sense of his own talent. Watching this film is like everyone’s worst fears about Hollywood come true. All film fans enjoy bashing the latest multi-million dollar action flop churned out by a clueless studio, but deep in their heart of hearts, they all still believe that there is some talent buried somewhere in Hollywood’s shriveled, cocaine-strained heart. Not everyone, the argument goes, makes film entirely based around demonstrating the size of their penis (6). Like Santa Clause and Jesus, that pipe-dream will comes to an end with time, and Overnight will speed that process along. Duffy’s meteoric rise to fame and subsequent collapse into maniacal megalomania is painful, yet satisfying. And if you’re interested in watching a movie that’s less like a car wreck and more like passing a kidney stone, then you’ll be in luck here. If not, be content in watching neither Boondock Saints or Overnight. Unless you like the former, in which case you need to check your arm for Superman tattoos.



(1) See: Fahrenheit 9-11; Bowling For Columbine; Moore, Michael.
(2) See: Hitler, Adolf; Pot, Pol; Duffy, Troy
(3) See: Bay, Michael, films of.
(4) Yes, I do.
(5) Also acceptable: Phish; Dead, Grateful; Marley, Bob. Sublime may be taken as evidence for either scenario.
(6) See: Bay, Michael, films of.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Cash For Oscars.

Walk The Line
2005, USA
James Mangold
35mm

There’s no such thing as ‘just a horror movie’. Horror films can be incisive examinations of the societal fears that hover just below the surface of group consciousness, ready to be unearthed through allegorical films of the fantastic. There is also no such thing as ‘just a comedy’, because sharp satire can illuminate important issues and arguments that are perhaps ignored in civilized and staid debate. There is such a thing as ‘just an action movie’, because most of those are made to keep the brain-dead Kill Bill fans alive and passive long enough to be organ harvested, and there is certainly no category other than ‘just’ a bio-pic. Bio-pics are overlong, saccharine, and so reliant on familiar cues and scenes that there’s generally no point to even watching them, unless you feel the need to use ‘rags to riches’ in a sentence immediately thereafter. I don’t need to see Johnny Cash buying his first guitar, or writing a song in an airplane hanger or someplace suitably lonely, or an inanimate object triggering a flashback scene. And I certainly don’t need to a revelatory look pass over a bored record executive’s face as he hears the birth of a brand new sound. It’s trite, it’s been done, and it’s not necessary.

Actually, I woudn't feed his organs to my dog. And I don't even have a dog.

The problem usually is that screenwriters try to force a person’s life into a three-act structure, when life doesn’t really work like that. Granted, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to life, but I’m generally not interested in seeing a woman’s distended vagina popping out a slime-caked baby head, followed by a lot of nothing ending in a slow death from complications arising from diabetes. Yet, the filmmakers inevitably try to force a character arc and narrative structure onto lives that never had those constraints. Most people don’t live their lives in a gradual parabolic curve that can be plotted out with color-coded scene cards and a bulletin board. For example, I was born an asshole, am living my life as an asshole, and will die an asshole with stomach cancer, which doesn’t make for a very interesting story. The same, it seems can be said for Johnny Cash. Essentially, the message I got from this film was that Johnny Cash was a big prick addicted to speed for most of his prime. That’s not to say that his story isn’t an interesting one; it is. But they force a life story into a two-hour film without a point, other than that Cash made some good music. It’s two hours of exposition, followed by a quick anti-drug message and a lot of bad singing.

It all goes downhill after the first act.

That said, the film isn’t horrific. Occasionally, Joaquin Phoenix disappears into his role long enough that one forgets he’s a hair-lipped simpleton riding the coat-tails of his dead brother, though the role he inhabits isn’t really Johnny Cash, it’s Johnathan Rhys-Meyers in that bad Elvis TV movie. He doesn’t really look or act like Cash, mainly because Cash looked like James Dean made out of beef in his younger days, and a heap of clay in his older years. That’s OK, though, because he does sounds like Cash, in that he can’t sing in the same atonal, unnecessarily deep way that Cash did. Reese Witherspoon, however, is surprisingly good as June Carter, playing up the peppy sock-hop beauty queen act so hard it’s occasionally unclear which of the two characters is intended to be juiced up on meth-amphetamines, and which one is just retarded. Her Dolly Parton meets Danzig roar is spot on, too. The essential problem with the film, however, lies in their relationship. So much time is spent telling us the facts of Cash’s life, and dwelling on his pill-popping, that the romance between the two leads is left unmotivated. I can understand why Cash lusted for Carter, because everyone wants to do the class president in the pooper just so you have something to scrawl on the locker room wall, but I’m left confused as to why she would want to live her life with a mumbling dimwit. The film tries so hard to force his drug addiction and romance into a Hollywood movie format, but life doesn’t work that way. Walk The Line fails because it tells us the facts of Johnny Cash’s life, but it doesn’t tell us a story, or at least not one that I can believe.

Favorite Bio-pic? Mine's Frida, but the original, not the Julie Taymor version.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Postcards From The Edge. Addressed To the Canada Council of the Arts.

Teen Knight
1998, Canada
Phil Comeau
TV

Dear Canadian Film Industry,

I know things have been tough lately, what with Cronenberg moving to L.A. and Adam Beach taking some time off, but there’s no reason to give up. Oh, you haven’t given up? Sorry. That’s kind of embarrassing, like asking a fat woman when the baby’s due. It’s just that I’ve been watching some of your films lately, and they’ve been a little iffy, if you’ll pardon the profanity. Here’s a tip: If you have less money to shoot a film than you would need to buy a used car, don’t try to make an elaborate medieval sword and sorcery epic. Because you won’t be able to afford the word ‘elaborate’. You’ll just have to pick up the adjective ‘shoddy’ at the thrift store, and make do with a cast of complete unknowns and Monkey Ears from Ready or Not?. Plus, you’ll have to shoot in Romania, a country whose idea of production value is limited to changing the sheets twice while shooting cheap high-8 porn. Also, computer animated dragons? Not your strong suit. Just a thought,

Your friend,

Ash Karreau

Lost In Stereotypes.


Jesus. Can Michelle Rodriguez ever not be a cop?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Activism Through Malignant Growths.

Good Night, and Good Luck
2005, USA
George Clooney
35mm

People sure did smoke a lot in the 1950s. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps they thought it made them look sophisticated and worldly. Today, a cigarette identifies you either as the guitarist for a brit-pop band or a half-lit high school girl trying to look old enough to get into a nightclub, but back then, it had a certain air of mystery. Or maybe they were just stupid. Either way, they did the world a service, because smoking looks great on black and white film, plus it gave everybody lung cancer, thinning out the herd of old people likely to argue with the bus driver and make me late for work. The haze of smoke hanging over the heads of the cast of Good Night, and Good Luck causes everything to look like either a Bogart movie or bad Cheech and Chong bit, but it's a successful device to transport the viewer back to a time long ago, when men were men with hats and women were horrifically undereducated and interested mainly in gossiping over the rotary phone while knitting. Times sure have changed. Men now no longer wear hats unless they’re trying to hide a bald spot, and most phones are touchtone.

Unlikely film noir hero.

What has changed the most since the 50s, posits the film, is the power of television. Good Night, and Good Luck is the story of the epic battle between newsman Edward R. Murrow and Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, a battle waged over the nation’s airwaves at the height of the Red Scare. Nowadays, the best we can hope for when we flick through television news is a breaking report as to who passed gas in the vicinity of the Nathalie Holloway disappearance, but back then, reporters had the balls to take on important and groundbreaking stories, filing reports that really mattered, that challenged what people though and believed. That sort of thing doesn’t really happen anymore, unless you’re challenged by panel discussions regarding whether Oprah will ever go on The Late Show With David Letterman. Of course, there are alternative news sources, like the internet, but they’re generally about one bong hit away from accusing George Bush of being a clockwork robot powered by KGB recordings of Hitler’s brainwaves. We live in a time where the right wing accuses the media of liberal bias, and the left is accusing it of a conservative slant, which is odd because CNN can’t go 10 minutes without updating us with details of Paris Hilton’s pet dog. Since the dog is a filthy border hopping Chihuahua, I doubt it’s conservative, and it’s way too rich to be a liberal. I think the most frightening thing about the film is not that TV news has lost its power, but rather that back then, ‘communist’ was a dirty word, whereas now ‘liberal’ is. Where I’m from, liberal is a compliment, not what you call Michael Moore when you want to say ‘fat lying fuck’ but can’t get past the FCC.

Proof that liberalism increases in direct proportion to cheeseburgers.

And that’s what makes Good Night, and Good Luck, starring Robert Downey Jr. and George Clooney, so timely. The film recreates Murrow’s televised clashes with McCarthy, here portrayed entirely by newsreel footage, presenting them as a conflict of the left versus the right in a time where television was just finding its legs. The film is somewhat devoid of context, no doubt leaving dumber viewers in the dust, but it still has an important message about conservative hysteria in the 1950s. Since then, the right wing has gradually migrated from advocated fiscal responsibility and minimal government to trying to limit free speech to words of less than two syllables and burning all books not written thousands of years ago by wine-soaked transients mixing hippie-love commune values with Stormtrooper morality. Conservatives are more powerful than ever, and instead of standing up for sanity and giving voice to opposition, the media would best be described as sucking the right-wing’s cock, if that metaphor weren’t likely to get me jailed in Alabama for moral turpitude. Good Night, and Good Luck is an important film to see, which is why it’s a shame that no one’s going to. And the reason for that is clear. The right wing is evil, but the left wing is stupid. Honestly, if the best mass media marketing you can come up with in the past two years to advance your cause is a two hour lecture on journalistic integrity starring stock footage and a drug addict, it’s time to throw in the towel. And if a script written like a history textbook with the beginning and end pages torn out to make rolling papers isn’t enough to alienate your target audience, try filming it in black and white so it’s more like a 16mm educational short about personal hygiene. But hey, at least the smoke looks cool.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Freedom New Wave.

Cleo from 5 to 7
1961, France
Agnes Varda
DVD

Ah, the French New Wave. It comes up time and time again on this website, as it does with any critic’s hack reviews. Generally, critics use a New Wave comparison in the rare instances where the film they’re reviewing doesn’t follow the exact plot structure of Rambo 3, and they’re too lazy to pinpoint the exact cause. So they just wave their hands dismissively, mutter something about European sensibilities, and light another cigarette. A definition of the style of the New Wave is hard to come by. Some say it’s a cinema that rejected the conventions and styles of traditional film forms, embraced the authorial theory of film criticism, and utilized new innovations in camera technology to make movies free from traditional studio constraints. Others say that they were just trying to make American films but didn’t want to get out of bed before noon, so everything looks like a lazy and pale imitation of a Hollywood picture. I firmly believe that this difference of opinion doesn’t come down to which critic you ask, but rather what film you watch.

A subtler touch, yes, but no less moving.

Cleo From 5 to 7 falls into the latter category of French New Wave. Directed by Agnes Varda, the film follows the titular character between the titular afternoon hours, as she waits to get test results from the doctor. Cleo starts the film off a rich, spoiled brat, and ends up finding both love and a certain joie de vivre. Replace the protagonist with Jimmy Stewart, and this could have been a Frank Capra movie, if he’d cut his teeth making crappy tour diaries of his friends’ band instead of filming war documentaries. The choppy and rough editing style is fresh, to be sure, but I’m not sure if it services the saccharine plot nor the real-time aesthetic. Nevertheless, it is distinctive, and if that’s your sole criterion for watching films, then you should be pleased. If not, just wait for Rambo 4.

OTHER MAJOR DIRECTORS OF THE FRENCH NEW WAVE:

Jean-Luc Godard: A true innovator, Godard broke the mold with his film Breathless, which told a classic Hollywood gangster story with all the boring bits cut out.. Thanks for bringing Attention Deficit Disorder into the mainstream, Jean-Luc. Darren Aronofsky really appreciates it.

Sadly, though Godard is treatable, there is no cure.

Francois Truffaut: Truffaut made a series of sweet but sad films about growing up in Paris, like The 400 Blows or Love on the Run. He’s sort of like the sad clown of the French New Wave, only without a sense of irony, so watching his films is like reading high school poetry about ex-boyfriends.

I take my coffee black with one package of Truffaut.

Claude Chabrol: All of the French New Wave guys really liked Hitchcock, but none so much as Chabrol, who pattered his career after the great suspense master, in that he made one movie a hundred times. That movie was about adultery and murder, and starred Stephane Audran. Apparently some variety of mind-flayer, Chabrol sucked all the irony out of Truffaut and injected it into his own films, making his movies seem like the cool kids who sat in the back row of film class and snickered at all the sappy parts in Summertime.

Eric Rohmer: I don’t think I’ve actually seen any Eric Rohmer films, so you’ll have to fill in your own irreverent commentary. It’s easy. First, start by describing his entire oevre with a massive generalization based upon a vague remembrance of a film you might have seen a few years ago on PBS. Then, insert a derogatory remark based upon a cultural stereotype of the French. Add an obscure reference or brief but incisive comment that indicates your ignorance and flippant attitude are affectations rather than a function of low IQ, and essentially invalidates your previous remarks. Cook, uncovered, for 24 hours, or until the site traffic meter falls to a respectable level.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

In Honor of Thumbsucker...

PLEASE DO NOT DO THE FOLLOWING IF YOU ARE MAKING AN INDEPENDENT FILM.



1. Cast a punk rock iconoclast in a lead role. They’re punk rockers because they can’t do anything else, including act or speak clearly. Plus, your insurance goes way up because they’re likely to go on a PCP binge and destroy a corner store looking for orange juice and white bread to make a hat.



2. Title it something long and retarded, like it’s a Propagandhi song or a run-on sentence in a bad term paper. If I get bored reading the title, I’m probably going to get bored watching your movie.



3. Spend more time working on the soundtrack than working on the script. Yeah, I get it, you hate the mainstream, music and film industries included. I read Said the Gramophone and Pitchfork Media too, and just because I know the name of the Sonic Youth B-Side you’re slapping over the poorly-written love scene doesn’t mean I’m going to like your movie. Plus, that jack-ass band no one’s ever heard of that did the song playing over the end credits? They just sold it to an Ipod commercial.



4. When people say ‘snappy’ dialogue, they do not mean awkward, overlong, and riddled with more pop-culture references than a dinner date with Kevin Smith. There’s a difference between the written word and the spoken one. If it looks good on paper, chances are it’s going to sound stupid in a film. I’m looking at you, Tarantino and related clones.



5. Put someone known as an indie-darling in a cameo. Chances are they’re an indie darling because they need drug money, so they’ll do anything for SAG scale and some free food. They probably won’t bother reading the script, and insist that their performance is better when improvised, at which point they will stumble through a half-remembered set of lines from a Noxema commercial and pass out on the boom mike operator.

Bad Country Grammar.


I don't normally listen to country music, because I am not an idiot. Generally, I find that country is reserved for racist speedfreaks from Red States, which rules me out because I certainly don't live in the US. In fact, I don't normally listen to music at all, preferring instead to fill my leisure time with the noises made by blast-beats and corpse-painted misanthropes shreiking incomprehensible profanities like pregnant women getting forced abortions. But I made it out of my bat-cave long enough this evening to catch the Bloodshot Bill show, which featured opening acts Lefty McRighty and the Boxcar Cadavers and a band that might be called the Vertical Struts. Mainly, I attended because the Lefty's drummer used to be the bassist for a band called Crankenstein, a wonder of noise-based musicianship from my hometown that maintained the level of violent arrogance best suited for the bad guys in WWE match-ups. Crankenstein went the way of the dodo, had the dodo been arrested for drug possession and weapons offences then fled to Los Angeles, but Lefty McRighty gained a great drummer from the debacle, and this show was truly rocking. The songs were all about having sex and drinking, two things I don't do, one by choice and the other because I look like a dead teenager, but they were fun, aggresive, and confederate as hell, despite the fact that most of the band looks like they grew up on a farm in the Ottawa Valley. Good show, and download some music here.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Suck My Thumb. But Look At Me When You Do It. And Watch Your Teeth.

Thumbsucker
2005, USA
Mike Mills
35mm

Goddammit, I’m sick of this. This movie cost me ten dollars, and all I saw was a bunch of neurotic quirks brought to boring life like late-period Woody Allen. When, exactly, did ‘quirky’ become the new black in Hollywood? And if it is, then what’s the new ‘shut the fuck up, I don’t need to see another movie about a new-age dentist, or a hitman who recites Bible verses, or a crime lord obsessed with dildos’? I recognize that it’s tough to get a script made in L.A., especially if the studio execs think that it’s been seen before. But the answer to that particular problem is not writing something that’s fresh and new only because it couldn’t possibly exist. It seems every neophyte writer read the same damn article in June’s Scriptwriting Basics about tailoring roles to catch a star’s attention, but if the attention of the star you crave can only be caught via shiny colours or characters with quaint but strange hobbies like beekeeping or model trains, then maybe they’re not the kind of person you’re going to want in your movie. They’re probably going to take up a lot of your time trying to get you to sit down and discuss Biblical parallels in Boondock Saints. Write a movie comprised entirely of roles like that, and you’ll end up with a film full of weird people I don’t care about.

Dude. It's in Latin. Just like Jesus.

Which is exactly what Thumbsucker is. Based upon the equally irritating novel by Walter Kirn, the film is about a 17 year old high school student who still sucks his thumb. This problem is dealt with aggressively by his sports store manager father, passively by his nurse mother, who is obsessed with a cheesy TV cop show star, and strangely by his orthodontist, who councils the young boy to find his spirit animal through hypnosis. Annoyed yet? Keanu Reeves plays the orthodontist, either deliberately poking fun at his surfer longhair image or too stoned to play against type, and newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci plays the thumbsucking loser. And loser he is. He goes from loser slacker to loser ritalin-nerd to loser pothead through the course of the movie, which isn’t so much a character arc as it is a degenerative slide into mental illness and drug dependency. And make no mistake, I consider marijuana abuse both of the above. Anyone who allows themselves to fall under the spell of the drug responsible for the entire Ween catalogue and the 60s output of Jack Nicholson is clearly unbalanced, and requires serious treatment and probably a bath. I suppose, if I were forced to analyze it, that Thumbsucker is about the use of metaphoric crutches as coping mechanisms. But, I don’t care enough about anyone in the movie to apply my left brain long enough to overcome my right brain screaming about how I could have learned the same lesson by watching the Native American hobos on my street corner throw up anti-freeze and saved myself the ten dollars.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Ladyboys in Leather.

The Loveless
1982, USA
Kathryn Bigelow, Monty Montgomery
VHS

Women, my court-ordered sensitivity training has taught me, can do anything that men can. It’s just that most of the time, they can’t do it as well, especially when it comes to either hand-jobs and action movies. In the case of the former, they just can’t beat years of practice, and in the latter, its because they’re generally entirely too intelligent, though it’s a shame that intelligence is wasted on remembering how many tablespoons go into a cup. The fact that women would even attempt these androcentric tasks is insulting. You don’t see guys going out on a Saturday night to bake holiday–themed cookies, debate yesterday’s episode of The View over tiramisu instead of discussing the latest Toni Morrison novel on Oprah’s Book List, or try and figure out how a clitoris works. Some things are best left to men, and others to women, especially the sub-genre of biker films, which is why it’s odd that such a masculine genre would be attempted by a woman, even one who is essentially James Cameron with breasts.

Now, just picture her with a beard and a God complex.

Biker films are a strange grouping of action movie clichés, blatant homoeroticism and one-liners torn from Archie comics sexed up with the occasional ‘Daddy-O’. They are perhaps best exemplified by Kenneth Anger’s extraordinarily gay Scorpio Rising, which distilled the essential homosexual undertone evident in films like The Wild One into a 20 minute experimental short that inspired critical praise and guilty erections the world over. However, that film underlines the point that biker films exist in a fantasy world far removed from reality. I live in a biker intensive city, and I have a few quibbles about the unreality of the genre, drawn from personal experience.

1. Bikers are not attractive twenty-somethings clad in leather jackets hinting at a well-muscled bare chest. They’re generally about fifty and look like they've spent the majority of that half-century eating stake and growing a beard. Think ex-professional wrestlers crossed with a twinkie.

2. Bikers do not have cool nick-names like ‘Jack-knife’ or ‘Ratchet’. They have lame handles like “Tit-Chou” or “Mom” because they’re all French-Canadian, and their concept of cool is informed by hockey players and farcically unfunny film comedies that make The Pink Panther look like a Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Much Ado About Nothing.

3. Bikers do not actually ride motorcycles, as this would tend to get them arrested rather quickly, because the police have also seen Easy Rider. Instead, they drive black SUVs when they’re parked outside of my apartment waiting to kill one of the crack-dealers who lives in the building on the corner. For the record, black SUVs are much scarier.

Incidentally, this is what pimps drive nowadays.

The Loveless dreamily follows the formula of a traditional biker film, where a gang of muscled and attractive youths roll into town and kick up a fuss without swearing or really doing much of anything other than shrug their shoulders a lot and refuse to respect their elders. The film does provide a couple of twists, however. The first is that the bikers don’t actually cause much trouble. Instead, the townsfolk react to the bikers’ presence by degenerating into debauchery and violence. The second twist is that the bikers are led by Willem Dafoe, in a monumentally ineffective bit of casting. No matter how old Dafoe is, he always looks like someone crumpled up a fifty year old man and kept him in a jeans pocket for a week before putting him through the wash, so him leading a youth gang is ludicrous. Secondly, he’s entirely too good an actor for a part like this, making everyone else seem silly in comparison. At least in The Wild One, Brando had Lee Marvin to play against, so he didn’t stick out quite so much, but here, Dafoe feels out of place, like a hooker in church, or a straight biker.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Is That The Pitter Patter of Snappy Dialogue? Or A Kevin Smith Wet Dream?

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
2005, USA
Shane Black
35mm

Conflicting emotions can evoke powerful reactions. Just think of the first relationship you ever had that turned into a sour love/hate hybrid. Or, think of how you ended it with the claw end of a hammer, and the subsequent lust/disgust of the make-up corpse sex. That exact mix of emotion is what defines Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The film is simultaneously horribly annoying and raucously entertaining, like watching a UFC tournament at a sports bar. Interestingly enough, the first feeling spawns the second, in a manner not unlike the feeling of guilt that follows masturbating to the cover of The Golden Girls Season 1 DVD box set; it felt great at the time, but now you’re ashamed and you can never, ever tell anyone about it. Thankfully for all you readers, I lost all vestiges of self-respect the moment I got my first pentagram tattoo, so I will freely admit to the guilty pleasures that are Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Blanche Deveraux’s pruney but still attractive visage.

Don't knock it till you've tried it. Her dentures come out, and then she's all gums, baby.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is almost instantly annoying. If the film were a person, it would be a guy who went to a lot of Star Trek conventions in high school, but made it big in the early 90s internet boom, so now he’s really rich and revels in his own geekiness and won’t shut up about anything ever. But then, after listening to him prattle on for an hour about the shift in televised science fiction from the utopian to the dystopian, you realize that you’ve seen all the same Space 1999 episodes, and he’s got a lot of problems with the much lauded 1980s DC comics event Crisis on Infinite Earths too. So, you get engaged in the conversation, maybe start to participate a bit, and by the end you’re laughing at all the same Gerry Anderson references. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang won me over in the same way. It has a playful love of 40s pulp detective novels, as do I, though I tend not to stuff my obsession down people’s throats quite as obviously as this film does. The plot is needlessly complex, the dialogue painfully snappy, and the characterizations overblown and exaggerated. The fact that this can be readily explained by the film’s crutch-like reliance on Raymond Chandler plots feels more like a cheap cop-out than a deliberate choice. The story is needlessly convoluted, but flies by so fast you almost miss how stupid it is because a one-liner just zipped past your head like a stray bullet at a Get Rich or Die Trying screening. In the film, a small time thief hides from the cops in a casting audition, gets mistaken for an actor, then is flown to LA, where he gets mistaken for a private eye and gets wrapped up in a murder case. Apparently, somebody in Hollywood mistook this five clause bad joke set up for a screenplay. You can’t make a film about sloppily written novels and then claim that it doesn’t make sense because it’s supposed to, any more than I can burn down a Korean grocery store and write it off as a comment about institutionalized racism. Trust me.

What? It's a wry post-modern comment on America's divisive racial history! So's the graffiti I put on the synagogue! Please don't call the police!

But, nevertheless, the film succeeds on a certain level, namely because of the charisma of the leads. Val Kilmer, Robert Downey Jr, and a cheap facsimile of Ellen Pompeo are all quite engaging, even while stumbling over the kind of dialogue that makes first year AFI screenwriting fellows cream in their pants but makes everyone else either wince or change the channel to the next Pulp Fiction rip-off on IFC. Director/writer Shane Black doesn’t help matters by including irritatingly referential narration and film effects that would be termed structural experimentation if they weren’t being done by the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon. In his hands, they come off like a really slow, deliberate wink to the audience followed by a lengthy speech about how you don’t need to go to film school so long as you have Scorsese DVDs with audio commentary. Or Golden Girls season 1. That’ll do, too.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A History of Bad, Bad Movies.

Grand Hotel
1932, USA
Edmund Goulding
DVD

Grand Hotel is many things, but most important among them is that it’s an historic film. Please note that this is different from an important film. An important film says something that needs saying, changes minds, or sparks revolutions both cultural, artistic, or, in the unfortunate case of Jud Süß, the old-fashioned, blood-in-the-streets, mud-races-in-the-gas chambers type deal. Please also note that this is different from a good film. Historic films tend to either pave the way for better films by blazing a trail and going up in smoke in the process, or go down in history for either shocking racism or killing a couple of Asian child actors. The historic importance of Grand Hotel is two fold. Firstly, it was one of the first films to cause critics to invoke the phrase ‘star-studded cast’, an overused term that usually heralds the arrival of a film in which horrifically over-paid actors count lines and mug for camera time, desperately trying to upstage each other while plastering on a Joker-like smile for press junkets in which they froth about their co-stars. Secondly, as the fifth Oscar winner for Best Picture, Grand Hotel marked the last time that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was right about anything. Prior to 1932, the Oscar had been finding its legs, occasionally stumbling onto a good choice, such as All Quiet on the Western Front. But after Grand Hotel, said legs took a wrong step while running to catch a matinee of 42nd Street, broke an ankle, and ended up voting for Fox’s abysmal Cavalcade the next year because they couldn’t leave the hospital to see anything else. The legs quickly grew infected and gangrenous, and the Academy had to be put down, leaving the voting for the next 70 years up to an old punch card computer program that recognized only length and decibel level of lead performances in its criteria for film awards.*

A false idol, fed by filthy lucre and saccharine.

Grand Hotel plays out as a series of vignettes, showing a remarkable maturity for a film made during the medium’s infancy. Focusing around the lives of the rich and idle in the titular hotel, the film stars Greta Garbo, Joan Collins, and both John and Lionel from the famous Barrymore acting dynasty, a family that was like the Baldwins but less pudgy with cocaine fat. But though its intertwining stories would presage films like Short Cuts and Pulp Fiction, the film still feels dated. This is mostly because the movie structures its romantic subplots around the ‘whirlwind romance’ phenomena that characterized film well into the sixties, when logic took over. Everybody in old movies always falls in love instantly, and generally a marriage proposal is made before the formal introductions are complete. It took me three seasons to decided I didn’t like Star Trek: Enterprise, and these people make life altering decisions in the time it takes to boil an egg. Ah, well. Fortune favours the bold, I suppose, which explains why I live in poverty. Aside from that complaint, the film is entirely watchable, if only to see Greta Garbo’s barely contained contempt for her co-stars. She might fall in love in ten seconds flat, but she sure seems like she could hold a grudge for eternity, and that’s certainly worth seeing.

A rare actress possessed of two, fully functioning 'stink eyes'.

*Best Picture winners up to Grand Hotel

1927/28 Wings: A silent film about a poor man and a rich man who fall in love with the same woman and join the army. Back in the days before My Lai, joining the army was considered a viable way to impress a woman, even if she wasn’t a Kansas trailer park dimwit whose only education consisted of being home-schooled to the point where she could fill out a beauty pageant application.

1928/1929 Broadway Melody: So, the first thing Hollywood does when they discover how to synch sound and film is to load up on crappy musicals about chorus girls. There’s like, eight movies called Broadway Melody, and they all stink. That’s kind of like inventing the phonograph only to spend the better part of a century recording yourself belching the alphabet.

1929/1930 All Quiet On The Western Front: Possibly the best war film ever made, this early classic is remarkably violent, and remarkably critical of a war still fresh in the minds of the public. Of course, the plot lacks anyone codenamed ‘Ice’ or ‘Animal Mother’, and at no point does poison gas create zombies of any kind, so I can’t in good conscience recommend this film to modern audiences.


1930/1931 Cimarron. An astoundingly boring western, even in the days when westerns consisted of a guy in a white hat fighting a guy in a black hat over a girl tied in front of a speeding train. The one upside is that it contains one of those coloured houseboys who says “gosh, massa” and stares at the camera with saucer eyes a lot. It’s nice to look back at the days when Hollywood’s stereotypes of black people didn’t involve Tech 9s and what looks like gold hubcaps mounted on necklaces made from silver bike chains.

Friday, November 11, 2005

War is Dinner Theatre.

Jarhead
2005, USA
Sam Mendes
35mm

Like all genres, war films have grown, matured, and in certain cases mutated as cinema history progressed. Originally, movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and La Grande Illusion portrayed war as a pageant of foolish pride, false honor, and needless sacrifice. Hollywood’s interest in the genre brought about a slew of war movies post-WWII, glutting the market with a whole bunch of stupid titles like The Devil’s Brigade and The Wild Geese. And because Hollywood doesn’t like to read, they got rid of all the modifying adjectives in the list above, relegating war films to glorified ads for paintball tournaments. Then Vietnam happened, and audiences quickly discovered that the army was not full of noble soldiers, or brave men willing to die for their country without questions, or rough, gritty warriors whose sense of duty was second only to their sense of honor. Instead, it was a bunch of illiterate rednecks and high school football stars that didn’t get college sports scholarships. War films lost what most critics would call their innocence, but I would call their thick-skulled idiocy. The stupid people moved over to sci-fi, where James Cameron and the host of agents and managers that do all his thinking for him carved out a new niche of fantasy-war films with Alien, where you could stuff all the bravura and machismo you wanted into your murderous heroes, because now they were killing aliens instead of real people or Vietnamese. For a decade or two, the war genre threatened to become interesting, but then the US bullied its way into another useless conflict, and war films were on shaky ground again. The heroics were back but without the dark undertone that allows intelligent people to watch them on anything but an ironic level. Those films that bucked the trend, like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, did so only by showing us that war was not about drama, or honor, but rather was an incredibly pretty place to sit down and write poetry for three hours.

How much wood would a wood chuck chuck if a MOTHER OF CHRIST MY FUCKING ARM!!!

Jarhead is aware of this progression in a simultaneously intelligent and incredibly annoying way. The film isn’t really about war at all, but not in the way you think. You think, because you’ve read eight hundred other reviews of Jarhead, that I mean it’s not a war film because nobody dies and there’s no action. That’s still, however, a war film, albeit a boring one. But what Jarhead actually is, is a film about war films. It’s about how war is theatre, how it’s nothing more than an elaborate display of sound and fury, bluster, pomp and circumstance that culminates in a massive disappointment, like a burlesque show when the lead dancer doesn’t pop golf-balls out of her vagina as an encore. The fact that the movie is about war movies is made abundantly clear in the numerous scenes of soldiers watching, referencing, and mimicking other war films, as well as the cinematographer’s repeated visual insistence that he’s seen Three Kings. It’s also reflected in the characters’ inflated and specific expectations of what war is actually like. Their experience, however, is nothing like the movies. It’s long, boring and frustrating. Unfortunately, so is Jarhead. It’s one of those films that you know you’d enjoy if you could just stay awake through the second act. So, you over compensate and over-intellectualize because you’re having flashbacks of trying to bullshit your way through a class discussion of Solaris in film school when you can barely read the tag line without falling asleep.



I swear to God, it's like a Russian sleeping pill, only it won't give you cancer.

The performances in Jarhead waffle, however, between effectively conveying the high-tension frustration of the coitus interruptus of the war experience, and coming us a both whiny and homicidal. Lead Jake Gyllenhaal succeeds, playing Anthony Swofford with all the intensity of a guy whose girlfriend just came home halfway through him jacking off to a downloaded rip of Where The Boys Aren’t 14. She didn’t catch him, but she’s not in the mood to finish him off, and she’s going to spend the rest of the night on the computer burning Sex and the City DVDs. Peter Saarsgard, on the other had, is unexpectedly weak in his role. Until now, I’d never been disappointed in his performances, as he conveys either a quiet menace or a barely buried libidinous sexuality in all his roles. This performance, however, has a little of both, which is a little disconcerting. And since both leads don’t wear their shirts very often, I kept expecting Saarsgard to snap and bugger Gyllenhall with a Marine issue combat knife. Instead, that didn’t happen, and all we get is long, contemplative scenes of washed out desert shot like the DP picked the wrong film stock, and plenty of Full Metal Jacket inspired quotes. And if that’s not frustrating, I don’t know what is.

So, let's have it. Best war films?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Pseudonyms Are For Pussies. And Oliver Stone.

Since no one was very forthcoming with my question regarding films that should be directed by Alan Smithee, I’ve come up with my own list. Rest assured, this is my attempt to vary this site and spice things up a bit, and has nothing to do with the fact that I crushed one of my fingers yesterday and it sort of hurts to type. So, here’s my list of films that the director should be ashamed of, but bizarrely go out into the world with names attached, like a kid with a cleft palate handing out strip club fliers.


1) xXx: State of the Union. I saw this movie for forty five cents, and I still felt ripped off. Not so much for the money, but for the 120 minutes I spent watching Ice Cube convey emotion by varying the intensity of his scowl. I don’t expect much from action films, other than at least one sexy-but-deadly female assassin, but I don’t see why they don’t have to follow the same laws of physics I do. If Ice Cube can fall faster than burning train wreckage by grimacing really hard, then I get to warp the space-time continuum and get my two hours back.


2) You Got Served. I understand the plot of this movie less than I do its title. People think dancing is cool? Who? Why? Who exactly thinks that getting a bunch of guys together and popping on a CD of some bejeweled black man crooning like a castrati with bad grammar is cool, all the while shaking their hips like the sailor from the Village People? I need names, people. Because they need to die before they breed more boy bands.


3) The Entire Oliver Stone Collection. Seriously? He takes credit for his films? Then why do they all look like Easy Rider’s home movies? Every Oliver Stone picture is like a car crash on an acid trip. The guy’s like a walking billboard advertising art therapy for mental patients. Regardless of how vapid his movies are, they still take at least three hours to end. And should he have a point to make with his film, like the relationship of violence and the media, or the corruption of power, strap yourself in for three solid days of After Effects trying to mimic synesthesia.


4) C.S.I Miami. It's like going to science class, except the only thing your teacher knows is how to match Humvee tire treads and how fast maggots breed. Plus you got stoned between periods, and so did your teacher, so all you really to is try to makes stuff in a test tube glow under a black light. I can’t believe people put their names on episodes of this stupid, stupid show. That means that these people, like Judge Dredd’s Danny Cannon, are willing to admit that they directed David Caruso to deliver his lines like he’s learned them phonetically and has no comprehension of proper inflection. It’s quite possible they get paid a bonus for every time Caruso takes his sunglasses off and then puts them back on, but I don’t believe it’s worth it.


5) The News. Whoever directs American TV news should be ashamed of themselves, but not half as ashamed as whoever writes it. And I don’t for a second believe that the news isn’t scripted weeks ahead of time by unemployed sitcom writers. Otherwise I’d have to believe that the entire country has gone insane, because no one airs a story about stranded dolphins in the middle of a massive natural disaster unless they’re joking, and have a bad sense of humor to boot. And that whole Kansas allowing Intelligent Design in schools thing? Not buying it either. I keep waiting for the punchline where they punish truants by having them carve the Ten Commandments into a chalkboard, or start advancing the ‘magic pixie’ law of thermodynamics.

Alright, the floor is open, and while my finger heals, hit me with your picks for worst movie of all time.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Cream of the Crap.

In the spirit of my latest review, here are my top five favorite Alan Smithee films.



1. Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (really Kevin Yagher). There’s nothing scarier than an old bald man jumping out of a puzzle-cube like a withered jack-in-the-box. Oh wait, yes there is. Everything. It’s sort of a sad inevitability that every 80s horror series ends up in space at one time or another. The better ones make it into the double digits before they jump the stratosphere, but in this case, as in Leprechaun, it only took three sequels.



2. The Birds II: Land’s End (Rick Rosenthal). Sequels to Hitchcock films always work out well. Just ask Anthony Perkins! Or try to, because he went insane from poverty, typecasting, and AIDS! This one has Tippie Hedren from the original film, though bizarrely enough, she doesn’t play the same character.



3. Bloodsucking Pharaohs In Pittsburgh (Dean Tschetter). The title makes this film worth watching. Then the opening credits end, and gangrene sets in quickly.



4. Wadd: The Life and Times of John Holmes (Wesley Emerson). If I'm not mistaken, I’m pretty sure I saw this documentary as an extra feature on a DVD compilation of Johnny Wadd scenes. Imagine that. The film is played alongside looped clips of a guy in a sailor moustaches slapping around a track-marked woman and then jerking off over her unshaved genitals, and the director’s still ashamed of his work.



5. Catchfire (Dennis Hopper). Dennis Hopper didn’t actually disown this film, he just forgot that he made it. Understandable, since the guy still looks like he’s one rail of crystal short of bursting into flames.

Feel free to let me know what your top five are, or better yet, the top five films that should be Alan Smithee movies.