Saturday, October 17, 2009

Desert Island Movies, Part Two


Anders began her filmmaking career as a Production Assistant on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, and has since helmed such deeply personal, ambling, iconoclastic films as Border Radio (mandatory viewing for LA punk aficionados), Gas Food Lodging (mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the roots of independent cinema), Mi Vida Loca (mandatory viewing, period) & Grace of My Heart (ditto). She is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s coveted “genius grant”, has won & been nominated for numerous Independent Spirit Awards, founded & programs films for the Don’t Knock the Rock Film & Music Festival, is Professor of Film & Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara & has directed several episodes of HBO’s Sex and the City & Showtime’s The L Word.

As befits her Kentucky upbringing, Anders is also a brilliant, accessible conversationalist & vivid storyteller…


1. A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

I have seen this movie at least several hundred times and I expect to see it freshly each time for the rest of my life. It thrills me to no end, and if I don’t scream outloud each time I see it, I am screaming inside over each glorious close-up of Paul McCartney and the collective positive pop culture energy that was Beatlemania. It is a supremely perfect movie, it never rings false, true to itself in every single frame and it never once drags or feels the least implausible-- even though-- it is. It gives a little taste of what a drag fame would be, and yet it quickly veers away from getting too droll and miserable about it. I will no doubt watch this film within days of the moment I leave this mortal coil.

2. Alice In The Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)

A beautiful postcard of the early 70s...and you will never be able to hear this Ozu inspired Can score anywhere else except by watching Wenders glorious movie.

3. Harold And Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)

To view it as just a geriatric cougar and young Bud Cort is to miss the true gift of this movie -- which is a lesson in connections between people, yes, but also connections to the earth, music, humor, life. It is the most affirming film ever made. And if you were on a desert island, you would need this! I certainly would.

4. A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946)

This film lives inside my cells, it informed my ideas about romantic love from age 5 when I first saw it. Bette Davis in this movie as twins Kate and Pat is both of the women I found wrestling inside of myself when I was younger. And now that they are both at peace somewhere within me, I love the film more each time I see it.

5. Two Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

If I ever got lonely on a desert island, and needed company -- let it be Dennis Wilson and James Taylor in this movie: they wouldn’t talk much, would understand isolation, and would be very easy on my eyes!

Rough and Ragged Sixth:

6. The Man From Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955)

I think if I were surrounded by water, I would really miss the rocky treacherous New Mexico landscape of Anthony Mann’s westerns. This movie would be my perfect fix.


Whip-smart Max Dropout, named, I presume, after his great grandfather Phineas Dropout, has, for years, been the first line of defense against squares & frat boys at Austin’s beloved garage rock headquarters, Beerland. His finely-honed bullshit detector is somewhat mitigated by the glint of joviality in his eyes & once you’ve shown yourself to be someone who can be trusted after six to ten tall boys & three or four shots of Jim Beam, you’ll always be family as far as he’s concerned…

This is a strange list, because I actually have films on here that do not appear in my top ten of all-time. If I were stuck on a desert island, I think I’d have to select films that have survived repeated viewings without much wear on their entertainment value. Several of these films continue to reward me by giving up new details I hadn’t noticed from previous viewings. Here are my top five in no particular order:

A Face In The Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)

More of a murky gray than pitch black, my impressions of these characters has changed drastically as I’ve gotten older. With age, our perception of integrity, morality, and sexuality definitely matures, and this is one of those films that will continually yield fresh insight into human nature with each subsequent viewing. This film is steeped in punk rock ethos despite predating the movement. A very dark comedy featuring some of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on screen, while the photography manages to feel somewhat contemporary. There are a lot of odd shot selections that seem to spite the fact that it’s a black and white film.

Death Wish 3 (Michael Winner, 1985)

Bronson always manages to play a protagonist who’s a convincing badass despite yielding numerous unintentionally hilarious moments. This, of course, is the granddaddy of them all. Michael Winner manages to multiply the comic book factor evolves over the course the first sequel, and overdose the thing with a violence so over the top that it verges on stooge-ish at times. This film is ALWAYS a blast of fun to the face.

Lady In White
(Frank LaLoggia, 1988)

A Rockwellian supernatural thriller, this is a beautiful and eerie film with a level of atmosphere than very few films ever manage to evoke. Despite a few unfortunate spots in the score, this is nearly flawless. Great cast, great script, unabashedly nostalgic, and stands up to repeat viewings.

The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao (George Pal, 1964)

Tony Randall turns in an amazing performance, as he manages to play seven roles throughout this story of a traveling carnival that enters a town on the verge of gentrification. Essentially, this is a tale about the death of the American spirit of independence, and it perhaps even moreso relevant today than it was during its initial release. Quite possibly the best film George Pal ever made; it is at the very least his most intellectual.

The Fearless Vampire Killers
(Roman Polanski, 1967)

Sardonic hate mail to his critics who had labeled him a horror director, Polanski still manages to pay homage to the British horror genre with this delightful comedy. Roman himself demonstrates his worth as a physical comedian with a knockout performance as Alfred. As morbid as it may sound, Sharon Tate’s scenes in this film would wind up as the inevitable jerkoff material on the island


Smith’s highly personal, cerebral, politically astute approach to video games has turned him into a bit of a guru in both the gaming & computer media community at large & he’s won numerous awards for his work on such acclaimed, immersive role-playing games as Wing Commander, Deus Ex, Ultima & System Shock. Smith has also lectured extensively around the world on emergent media & the role of computer & video games in modern culture…

Question: Why are we so obsessed with deserted islands? Answer:
Because no one wants to be alone.

If I could take 5 movies with me (and none of them could be porn), I'd
choose the following:

1) Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)

I love this movie because it evokes some of the same
multilinear feelings that I experience when playing a well-crafted
video game. In a game, you often stop and save your progress at a
specific point in the timeline. Then you can race forward, trying
various tactics and exploring new areas. And if you die or if the
exploration cost you too much in terms of resources, you can back up
to the point in timeline where you saved then proceed again. Often,
after backing up, you move forward optimally. (A side effect of the
unique way players experience their own narrative in games.) As a
result, when you get to the end of the game, you've got this long
linear experience, right? Your memories of what happened from
beginning to end. Except that what's missing are all the moments when
you advanced, then died and backed up to the point at which you saved
your progress. Those are like moments that happened, but didn't
happen. At the end of the game, your memories cannot be untangled; you
remembered the things that happened in the actual playthrough timeline
and things that happened in the discarded, aborted side timelines. Run
Lola Run left me feeling the same way. And I have an intense and
inexplicable love for German women like Franka Potente.

2) Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

I love the nihilistic ethos of this film. And I
love the music. Brando here is one of the great villains. I like the
original version btw. The Redux version is too long and contains some
side threads that I found largely irrelevant.

3) The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

There's something about small, dying towns
that I love. If I ever survive an apocalypse, I will probably choose
to live in a small town rather than an urban center. Growing up, my
great grandparents had a farm in Moulton, Texas, and it was already
dying back then in the 1970s, so I've got an innate longing for the
spirit of such places. So much happens in this movie, and the scenes
and dialogue imply a lot more…years and generations of lives lived
with partial success and the accompanying regrets.

4) Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

It's probably a cliché for someone of my generation
and tastes to choose this movie, but it's so undeniably great, such an
obvious labor of love and vision, that I've got to include it. Roy
Batty has some of the best lines ever delivered. There's some lesson
in here about a director or screenwriting elevating an actor. Half the
movie's appeal is the vision style and graphic design, but really all
the elements serve the whole in a way that's rarely accomplished. As a
16 year old boy, I wanted a Pris replicant of my very own. I'm
actually torn on which version I'd take; I know what I'm supposed to
say, but I feel there are strengths to both the original and the
director's cut. From the director's cut, the darker, more ambiguous
ending is a complete win for me. From the original, the monologue adds
a lot of depth to Deckard's character. Sure, we all loved the
director's cut *after* gaining familiarity with the original, but I
have to ask: Would the more stripped down version have been as
powerful without the context provided by the original, heavier-handed
version? I hate it that Ridley Scott feels like he's answered the
question definitively about whether Deckard was a replicant,
because—first—the director's intentions are far less important to me
than the audience interpretation, and—second—because the ambiguity and
doubt that the character felt about the possibility of false memories,
of not being *real* were more powerful than a definitive answer either

5) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

I'll admit that I don't normally like movies made
before the 1970s. People like Scorsese, Cimino and Coppola brought so
much grittiness and depth to film that it's hard for me to go
backward. Casablanca is one of the exceptions. I love fiction that
focuses on a specific point in time, when a mixture of events and
pressures up the ante for all the standard elements of human life. The
love story still chokes me up.

I love Kubrick, and The Shining might have made the list except that
if I had to watch it over and over on an island, the nights would be
unpleasantly unnerving and I'd probably end up hanging myself from a
coconut tree with a rope woven from my hair. And—for the mood,
cinematography and sex—I might have included Eyes Wide Shut if, you
know, anyone actually got properly laid in the movie.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Desert Island Movies, Part One

Musician/Voodoo Crankshaft
for Boss Hog/Honeymoon Killers/The Chrome Cranks/Knoxville Girls/Jerry Teel & The Big City Stompers/Chicken Snake...
Jerry Teel has splattered more dixie-fried guitar & bass hoodoo across more outsider underground recordings than almost anyone. He stands in a rarefied league with James Luther Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Tav Falco, Jon Spencer, The Cramps, Ross Johnson, Kid Congo Powers, The Gun Club & Don Howland. If it's raw, unreconstructed & primal as fuck, Jerry Teel has probably had a hand in it. Dig. 
Musician/Voodoo Crankshaft
for Boss Hog/Honeymoon Killers/The Chrome Cranks/Knoxville Girls/Jerry Teel & The Big City Stompers...

Jerry Teel has splattered more dixie-fried guitar & bass hoodoo across more outsider underground recordings than almost anyone. He stands in a rarefied league with James Luther Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Tav Falco, Jon Spencer, The Cramps, Ross Johnson, Kid Congo Powers, The Gun Club & Don Howland. If it's raw, unreconstructed & primal as fuck, Jerry Teel has probably had a hand in it. Dig. 

If I had known that this was more than a 3-hour tour, I would have smuggled a couple more DVDs in my lifejacket, but if I only have 5...
1. The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)
With Tennessee Williams as the writer & John Huston as the director, of course this is brilliant as well as beautiful. This film asks all the basic questions of existence and is an excellent choice for a desert island -- very tropical with palm trees and all. It's like lying in a hammock, reading a good book & drinking a rum coco. 
2. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
As a kid growing up in a small town in the South, this is one that made me want to move to New York. It's also one that could make me happy to be warm on a desert island. Loneliness is the theme - easy to relate...

3. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

Another film that starts in a small town in the South and stays there. Loneliness is the main theme. Hank Williams is on the radio, just like when I was growin' up - very reflective. I met Clu Gulager once. It was a thrill.

4. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

This one also made me want to move to NYC, live in the Dakota & worship Satan. I saw Ruth Gordon on the street once, 5th Avenue & 59th Street. Another thrill of my life.

5. Performance (Nicholas Roeg/Donald Cammell, 1970)

Sex, drugs, gangsters & rock'n'roll in 60s London, with Mick Jagger & Anita Pallenberg. Great soundtrack. Enough to make me want to send up the smoke signals for a record player & a copy of Exile on Main Street.

Guitarist, Vocalist & Songwriter
Brimstone Howl 

Brimstone Howl are the ragged, manger-raised progeny of The Gun Club, The Oblivians & bluesmen on murderous benders from time immemorial. Every bone-rattling Nebraska country road, coon dog yelp & boozy midnight hunch towards home is engraved into their sound like black ice on a serpent's tongue. After a deluge of great press, the Howl are currently touring Europe, where NME called them "Beatles-headed psych-nerds with a taste for razor sharp snake-rock," (pretty hard to know where to place the hyphens in that sentence...) & MAGNET magazine called their new CD, Guts of Steel (Alive Records), an "unholy hot-wiring of The Sonics, The Damned & The Blues Explosion." Oh, and Ziegler's also one helluva writer...

1. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

Not much of an explanation needed here. Mostly subtle hints at the worst kind of danger and then unassailable waves of black horror. And I do mean the worst kind of danger, so it’s good that it would be handled somewhat delicately, (delicately enough), before the green vomit and congress of the crucifix occurs. The flash of the face on stove, the display of total Catholic stoicism in the face of the enemy of mankind… But maybe it wouldn’t be that fun to watch alone over and over again on a desert island. The next would, I think.

2. RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Paul Verhoeven's hilarious vision of a future where Detroit (a halo of wealth surrounding a flush hole of poverty) topples on the verge of economic breakdown, necessitating a new set of police SOP's. He even goes so far as to say that the mayor, ridiculously, might be implicated in all of the brutish miscarriages of public trust. The only thing separating this movie from reality is robots, faces melting from toxic waste burns, and stop-action sequences of robot police malfunctioning. Probably, if not already, prophetic in a sad-but-not-remarkable way. But that’s not why I’d take it to the island. I like the dialogue.

3. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)

Written by Roger Ebert and directed by Russ Meyer. It's a cautionary tale, they say, but mostly a funny diatribe against false-prophet party favorers like Z-man. And it also has a lot of great songs written for the band, which are maybe the most sincere elements of the film. Really, the music is beautiful and doesn’t laugh at itself at all, unless with tears streaming down its face at the same time. This film maybe shouldn't occupy any list of top 5 movies on a desert island, and would be mostly worthless after 2 or 3 viewings.

4. Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006)

For sure, this movie would have received much higher acclaim had it not been for the director’s unfortunate tiff with police. I think this movie is paced perfectly, with a near perfect balance of action. And nothing, not the subtitles or the heavy-handed foreshadowing and symbolism, can really take away from the total effect. Spear-chucking, head rolling, face eating, rape, murder, celebratory human sacrifice. It’s bizarre enough that I think you can forgive the obvious lesson to be learned from the small armada of conquistadors’ boats pulling to shore in the final scenes.

5. The Boys from Brazil (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1978)

Another comedy here. This is a list about movies and presumably their directors, but it'd be hard not to trace some of the great discomfort I felt watching this movie to the same felt at watching Rosemary's Baby, partially to the credit of the author of both novels, Ira Levin. (It comes from the word first). In this one about Hitler cloning, the young American Hitler clone is about as ready for the shoes that his cloner has prepared for him as Dolores Haze is to fulfill Humbert Humbert's vision of love. Basically, manipulative American brats who just aren't ready for any adult’s plan for transcendental love or biblical evil, in spite of their predilection at a young age for sex and violence, depending on which we’re talking about. Of course that’s not all it’s about. The British Hitler has his faults as well.
Austin Improv Comedian - The Smoking Arm/Ratliff & Jackson
Keyboard Player - The Diamond Smugglers 
Freelance Writer - Esquire, SPIN, Blender

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

A screwball comedy, yes, but also a political satire, a melodrama, a thriller, a farce, and a how-to instructional film for aspiring journalists. Possibly the fastest dialogue ever recorded in a Hollywood movie, but if the sound goes out you can follow what's going on by paying attention to the cigarettes. The awesome Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are backed by an equally awesome supporting cast, including a comic named Billy Gilbert who almost steals the whole movie during his three minutes onscreen.

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)

Yeah, yeah, yeah: the toast scene in the diner. I love that scene too, but now I wish it had wound up on the cutting-room floor instead of reducing the entirety of Five Easy Pieces to a clip shoehorned between "You can't handle the truth!" and "Here's Johnny!" in Jack Nicholson montages. What you can't tell from that snippet is that in this movie he was actually acting, instead of whatever it is he does these days. Screenwriter Carole Eastman's smart, dark meditation on self-imposed alienation refuses to tell you how to feel about the complex characters -- though for some reason she does give them all hilarious names. (For starters: Rayette Dipesto, Catherine Van Oost, Partita Dupea, Palm Apodaca, Samia Glavia.)

Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne, 1996)

IMHO, a perfect political satire, anchored by a perfect performance. (Ohmigod, I am so in love with Laura Dern I could plotz, mostly because of this movie.) Both sides of the abortion debate are lovingly, rigorously reduced to smoking junk piece by piece, but thanks to a brilliant cast almost nobody comes off as an easy caricature. Like all great satire, CR gradually escalates a real-world scenario to a completely illogical place, but the heightening always makes perfect sense in context. Also, some interesting parallels to Terry Gilliam's Brazil, but I don't want to spoil it for you. (Confidential to LD: Ben Harper? REALLY? You're killing me, just killing me.)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

In addition to an Oscar-nominated script by Scott Frank and a righteous David Holmes soundtrack, I make the following claims for OoS:

1. Best film version of an Elmore Leonard novel. (Okay, maybe a tie with Jackie Brown.)
2. Best hybrid of chick movie (extremely hot couple star-crossed by their respective careers of U.S. Marshal and fugitive bank robber) and guy movie (bank robbery; jailbreak; jewel heist; violent attacks with pistol, shiv, collapsible police baton, fireman's hatchet, flower planter, and large reference book).
3. Best supporting cast: Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, Catherine Keener, and Luis Guzman, plus a few uncredited cameos I won't ruin for you. And J-Lo brings it, for reals.
4. Best stoner in American film history: Steve Zahn. I would say this standing on Sean Penn's coffee table in a Hawaiian shirt.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I know this is supposed to be a list of movies, but I feel like this is a good place to say something that needs to be said: if you love the movie The Princess Bride, you REALLY NEED TO READ THE BOOK. I'm not knocking the movie, I'm just saying, the book completely blows it out of the water. You get back story for the Turk and Inigo and the Prince, plus it's a book within a book where William Goldman makes himself a character, except that you think he's not . . . it's fantastic. I used to read this book aloud to my girlfriends and then I found out that Bill Hicks used to do the same thing to his girlfriends and if Bill Hicks and me combined are not enough reason to make you want to read this book then I don't know what.

Also, just read more books in general. Thank you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

New DVD Releases for October 13, 2009

American Violet (Tim Disney, 2008)

Want to see a downbeat docu-drama on racist police practices in a small Texas town directed by the grand-nephew of Walt Disney? Here ya go.

For all the film's good intentions, American Violet just doesn't have enough grit to give it the texture of real life so essential to a big screen version of true events. The story itself is engaging enough. In the year 2000, Melody, Texas police were running violent sweeps on black neighborhoods based solely on the flimsy finking of less-than-savory informants. After the round-ups, unctuous Harmon County DA Calvin Beckett (a cartoonishly villainous Michael O'Keefe) would tell lazy public defenders the evidence against their clients was beyond refutation & offer probation or other light sentences in exchange for a guilty plea to drug charges. The overworked public defenders would then recommend the plea bargain to their clients, even though pleading guilty to these charges would render them unable to procure public housing, welfare assistance & decent jobs. Facing the threat of outrageous prison terms & having no idea that the evidence against them was so shaky, many of the accused understandably agreed to these "deals." In fact, 90 percent of those arrested took plea bargains instead of airing their cases in front of a jury of their peers. Though these practices are obviously horrific & unfair, it may be straining a bit to somehow link these events, as the film does repeatedly, to the 2000 presidential election madness in Florida. One admires the attempt to universalize this story somehow, to set the characters into some historical (moral?) context, but, in reality, the endless & often heart-breaking vote tallying that winter is neither here nor there & merely serves to blur American Violet's already tenuous focus.

Thinking she's being arrested for $782 in parking tickets, waitress & single mother Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie, in her first role) is hauled out of work by the police & is shocked to learn she's being held for selling drugs in a school zone, an accusation no one in her community believes for one moment. With the wheels of injustice in motion & bail set at $70,000, Dee is pressured by her mother Alma (a sleepwalking Alfre Woodard) to accept the wicked DA's offer. She doesn't & winds up spending several months in prison while her mother & her church congregation raise the bail money. In that time we're given a brief glimpse of what her children's lives would be like if she were to go to prison for any stretch. While Alma is a generally decent woman, she has little to no problem passing off Dee's kids to their alcoholic father & his abusive, probably insane, girlfriend & she does so regularly, despite warnings from Dee.

The ACLU, who've been monitoring the dubious crime & punishment statistics in Melody, find in Dee a reliable plaintiff & a lawsuit is filed against Beckett & his crooked machine. Thanks to some fine casting American Violet catches some wind here. The ACLU's lead lawyer, David Cohen, is played by Tim Blake Nelson (The Good Girl, O Brother Where Art Thou?) who may be Jew-ing it up a bit flagrantly here for an Oklahoma boy, but hey, if O'Keefe can do everything but cackle as he ties Dee to the railroad tracks, the side of righteousness should have a caricature as well & it does bring a little humor to the dour proceedings. The real trooper here, though, is Will Patton (Wendy & Lucy, The Punisher). As the local solicitor who reluctantly gets pulled into the fray because Cohen fears, correctly, that he may not play real well to Texans, Patton is an ambivalent hoot. He nails his Texas accent & mannerisms & does it with relaxed humor & grace, something this movie desperately needs more of. As a negative counter-weight, there's Charles S. Dutton as the minister of Dee's church. Dutton intones every line as if reading from a term paper & not a very sprightly term paper at that.

Despite the efforts of Patton & Nelson, American Violet's final half an hour simply cannot be resuscitated. In the nick of time the filmmakers must have realized that the only black people in the film were nobly poor, mentally ill, or criminals, so a black lawyer is shoe-horned into the story rather urgently AND he's allowed to be the one to trick Beckett into revealing his racist agenda. This seems unfair to Nelson & Patton & one feels it may be about three legal flourishes shy of the God's honest truth. 

Then there's the little matter of the film's title. Though it's mentioned once, in passing, that Dee raises & shows violets, whatever metaphor the director & screenwriter were hoping to conjure with this information has been lost either to last-minute editing or complete carelessness. This well-intentioned mess was originally called American Inquisition however, so the powers that be may at least have erred on the side of subtlety. 

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008)

It's a world where place names are used for their musicality, as a way to evoke everything but the thorny truth about cities, countries & continents. A cynical wag might say, though, that they're really all the same -- that India is not all jodhpurs & incense, Eastern Europe not all midnight trains through the Carpathian mountains & suitcase exchanges by wee-hour gaslight. It's a world where people are named after -- or purloin the names of -- either dead authors or the characters those authors created. A cynical wag might say, though, that characters named Melville, Bloom & Penelope nudge whimsy into preciousness, even if these names do often turn out to be colorful sobriquets. It's a world where whole scenes appear as misty Brassai photographs & then a camel galumphs into the frame, where words like "grotty" & phrases like "I'll be in Montenegro, drinking" are commonplace, where Kipling, Bowie, Dostoyevsky, David Mamet, Anime, Samuel Beckett, Cat Stevens, hip-hop & James Joyce share a precarious, but equal, footing. A cynical wag might say there's no such perch & that anyone who attempts to scale even the most gradual narrative arc with such a load of literary & pop cultural baggage in tow, is a fool.

Well, The Brothers Bloom is a fool's movie. It's a fool's movie and -- to some extent -- we're fools to watch it. A movie about the titular, globe-trotting sibling con men (exquisitely mannered Adrien Brody & Mark Ruffalo), it is, itself, an elaborate con. Elaborate, but not particularly believable. The characters con because they are artists & the victims are conned because they do not believe in art. Brody, the sensitive Bloom, is disenchanted with the life of a confidence man & wants an "unwritten life." For 35 years, his brother Stephen has been concocting hyper-literary, inherently romantic scripts for the both of them, scripts in which the two play all manner of charming vagabonds from all manner of charming, mysterious locales & set into motion all manner of unlikely, clockwork scenarios in order to bilk unsuspecting dullards of their money. With Brody (who's called Bloom) on the verge of ditching this lucrative game, Ruffalo (who's called Stephen) comes up with one last score -- draining the coffers of wealthy New Jersey oil heiress Penelope Stamp (a real star-turn from Rachel Weisz).

But in the kind of contretemps that keep fairy tales in print, Penelope turns out not to be nearly as gullible as she seems. She is nice, of course & she is VERY lonely but, in the end, her strength is that she really doesn't give a tinker's damn what happens to her money, as long as it's not boring. Ms. Stamp spends her limitless spare time "collecting hobbies," seeing what other people do to occupy themselves & learning how to do it. She breakdances, knows Karate, unicycles, builds cameras out of watermelons & plays the banjo & harp. Bloom purposefully crashes into her bright yellow Ferrari on his Schwinn, knowing he can cement a connection to her while lying injured in a hospital bed. But nothing goes right from the get-go. Penelope keeps reversing the roles in the script & doing it so naturally & guilelessly that Bloom, Stephen & their Asian explosives expert Bang Bang have trouble keeping to the narrative. The con itself is a convoluted bouquet of gilded lilies featuring an ancient prayer book, a Belgian smuggler named Max Melville (Robbie Coltrane), an elusive Argentinian, more than a few explosions courtesy of the silent Asian & a certified check for a million dollars. It's the usual cinematic shell game, in which even one unplanned contingency would topple the whole tower of bullshit, but it's not at wearisome in The Brothers Bloom because this con game exists on an entirely metaphoric plane. Whether you find this a relief or not will depend entirely on how you feel about metaphor replacing coherent plot construction.

Like director Rian Johnson's promising directorial debut Brick, The Brothers Bloom is a movie trying desperately to talk itself out of being everything it longs to be. Brick wanted to be a legitimate noir & its best moments defy the po-mo artifice in which they're mired, but that film meandered & parried like a punch-drunk fighter to avoid the meat & potatoes of its genre. This new work would like to be an adventure story, a story for real boys & tomboys who dream of packing a trunk, hopping a tramp steamer & trapping rogue tigers in Bengal, but even Johnson knows such dreamers are few & far between these days (in fact, he's borrowing the boyhood dreams of an entirely different generation) & so he intellectualizes himself out of such visceral ambitions & becomes terribly bookish to make up for it. But at least in Brick, Johnson was every inch his own man, warts & all, whereas The Brothers Bloom could easily have been the work of either Wes or P. T. Anderson. The opening narration by Ricky Jay (abandoned completely after the first 10 minutes) is copped from Magnolia. An ecstatic scene in which Brody, after stealing an apple, is chased through a park to the strains of a Cat Stevens song is pure Rushmore. The rampant exoticism, montages set to 60s music, compositions that suggest tableaux, use of theatrical prosceniums, background comic marginalia & the very presence of Brody all evoke Wes Anderson.

While these flaws are glaring & serious, pointing them out is, itself, terribly bookish & Brothers Bloom does captivate if, like myself, you become pleasantly dizzy when someone at the next table in a bar mentions one of your favorite novels, distractedly hums one of your favorite songs, or begins sketching a Victor Horta staircase on a cocktail napkin. At one point Brody tells an admirer, "He (Stephen) writes his cons the way dead Russians wrote novels, with thematic arcs, embedded symbolism & shit." If you have more than a passing interest in dead Russian novelists, thematic arcs, embedded symbolism & um, shit, there's a good chance this movie will work some magic on you. Mid-point in Brothers Bloom, director/scenarist Johnson does have a few choice words for would-be critics, though they're delivered from Penelope to Bloom: "I think you're constipated in your fucking soul. I think you might have a big load of grumpy, petrified poop up your soul's ass." Like I said, embedded symbolism. And shit. 

It's Alive (Josef Rusnak, 2008)

It's always a pleasant surprise when the remake of a cult classic doesn't make you want to hole up in a dark room watching old creaky VHS tapes for the rest of your natural days & it doesn't happen very goddamn often. The last time I recall warming, even a little, to the "re-imagining" of a revered touchstone was Douglas Buck's daunting stab at Brian De Palma's Sisters in 2006. Buck didn't hyperventilate stylistically to compensate for not having De Palma's unique gifts & he didn't try to make Sisters "relevant" to a new generation of ghouls by littering the set with severed state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs & the soundtrack with Type O Negative or Marilyn Manson. It was a very mature retooling, with just enough formal aplomb to point fondly to the original without mindlessly aping it & enough new wrinkles to keep De Palma acolytes from being bored.

The same goes for Josef Rusnak's It's Alive, a confidently-mounted pass at Larry Cohen's 1974 trash classic about a mother who strives valiently to protect her monster baby from the vile people who think monster babies don't have the same rights as any other child. Apparently "No child left behind" meant nothing in the mid-70s. The original, starring Guy Stockwell, Michael Ansara & Hawaii 5-0 regular Sharon Farrell was an over-the-top cautionary tale of bad parenting, bad chemicals & bad genes. Like most benchmark horror films, It's Alive confronted the salient concerns of its time -- pollution, rogue youth, reproductive rights, flipper babies, etc. The original script title was even Baby Killer, a bleakly witty reference to the name allegedly shouted at returning Vietnam vets in the days following the My Lai Massacre. 

As with the films of his fellow exploitation maestro Jack Hill, it was often hard to tell when director/writer Cohen (Hell Up in Harlem, God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent) was being intentionally funny & when he simply fell victim to no-budget shoddiness. Because of this uneasy mixture of comedy, wild gore & pointed satire, however, Cohen is now considered a pioneer of sorts & the off-kilter tonal shifts he all but perfected in his best movies are now commonplace in fringe cinema.

Strangely, most of the taboos Cohen feverishly trounced upon in the original It's Alive would still shock a good share of the population today. While gore is old hat now for most movie-goers, there's still something pretty unsettling about gruesomely perverting the entire mother/child relationship.  Thankfully, though, the escalation of gore is not what gives this remake its considerable impact. Not that blood & limbs don't fly once feeding time rolls around for our monster baby. They do & Rusnak handles the violence rather, um, elegantly. There's an icy even-handedness to the carnage & the vibrant, nearly hot pink, color of the blood has an industrial quality, as if the gore scenes were shot through a vellum filter. This approach to violence is in direct opposition to the ragged, kitchen blender mayhem of the original. 

The performances are considerably cooled off as well & having actors with some mid-range at their disposal instead of slumming soap opera actors who veer wildly between histrionics & catatonia, makes Rusnak more able to expertly smudge the lines between satire & serious horror.  Bijou Phillips (Choke, What We Do Is Secret), as the child's slowly unraveling mother, never overdoes it. We understand her motives instinctually, the same way she somehow comprehends the needs of her indiscriminately carnivorous infant. Raphael Coleman (Nanny McPhee), as the kid's deeply suspicious young wheel chair-bound uncle, steals some memorable scenes as well. Most of the other actors have a B-movie sturdiness that will encourage you to rewind scenes when they mutter something particularly outrageous in their off-hand monotones. 

One would think that making Cohen's original premise more cerebral might ruin the effect, but, on the contrary, it makes the viewer even more disoriented, less sure whether to laugh or wince in horror. The story still retains its absurdity of course: One minute there are grown, strapping men & women standing or sitting in close proximity to a gurgling infant, then the music becomes ominous, there's some animalistic shrieking & after some quick, confusing edits the entire room or car interior is painted in blood & giblets.  The logistics of this don't need to be explained. That would take all the fun out of it.

Appropriately, it's becoming a great month for horror on DVD, what with the release of The Children, The Killing Room, Trick 'r Treat & Shortcut. Here's another tightly-wound, fierce little gem to add to the list.  

The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009)

Note to screenwriters: Simply bandying about the names of Don DeLillo & Richard Russo doesn't mean you're writing a smart movie. Case in point, Anne Fletcher's (Step Up, 27 Dresses) seemingly infinite new movie The Proposal. As a variation on the successful Devil Wears Prada theme, the film begins winningly enough, with Executive Assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds, once again MVP) anticipating the every need of tyrannical publishing shark Margaret Tate (a distressingly pale Sandra Bullock). Bullock's completely out of her element as a corporate bitch goddess, though. She can't seem to wait to get all squishy in the arms of her charming subordinate & treat us to more of her patented girl-next-door vulnerability. Her characterization feels flimsy & under-nourished because of it. 

The movie begins with Bullock's Tate on top of the world. She's just talked a bestselling, but reclusive, writer into appearing on Oprah Winfrey & immediately fires the lackey (a far-too-brief cameo by The Daily Show's Asif Manvy) who wasn't able to get the job done. Assistant Reynolds is the very essence of grace under pressure, cow-towing without groveling, managing sarcasm just subtle enough to slip under Tate's busy radar & already at-home with work strategies to keep him sane until he can be promoted to editor & publish some pet book of his that's "the real thing, a novel like the ones we used to publish," whatever the hell that means. Judging from the state of publishing, I'm guessing he means it's good & doesn't have too many spelling errors.

Tate's good fortunes & air of complete impregnability are shaken quickly though, when Tate is informed that a recent trip out of the U.S. to steal the aforementioned DeLillo from Viking was a violation of her Visa & she'll be deported in a fortnight. You see, Margaret is from Toronto, a city that -- as every American school kid knows -- has no publishing industry whatsoever. In fact, it's a wasteland of provincialism & illiteracy. It's no wonder Tate is forced to blurt out that she's in love with Paxton & intends to marry him. At first Paxton is apoplectic & no one handles a surprise bout with apoplexy like Ryan Reynolds. Despite it bearing no semblance of the world we actually live in, it's a great scene & bodes well for the rest of the film. I mean, if these two performers (well, just Reynolds actually) can skim over this dicey bit of plotting & get a laugh, what's to prevent a weary viewer from relaxing into an easy chair, shutting down the cerebral cortex altogether & letting Hollywood do the driving? Unfortunately the answer is, the rest of the movie.

Reynolds' Paxton seizes this opportunity to blackmail Tate, agreeing to marry her as long as he's promoted to editor & allowed to publish the book with all the good spelling in it. Even after he's threatened with a prison sentence & large fine by an understandably dubious INS official, played by the always reliable Denis O'Hare (Baby Mama, Michael Clayton), Paxton goes along with his mentor's hare-brained scheme & whisks the feral Tate off to his home in Alaska to meet his parents & wish his grandmother a happy 90th birthday. Once in Sitka, it's clear that Paxton isn't your ordinary farm boy who made it good in the big city. As Tate puts it, "You didn't tell me you were some sort of Alaskan Kennedy." Everything in his hometown bears the family name & the couple's engagement is greeted by the sort of brown-nosing huzzahs one expects from medieval serfs.

Father Craig T. Nelson is as skeptical of the whole affair as the INS official & all he wants is for his son to move back to Sitka & assume his position as king. Mother Mary Steenburgen doesn't want to drive the boy away & forfeit seeing her grandchildren now & again. Grandmother Betty White is completely unhinged. She hands the couple a blanket she calls "The Baby Maker" & goes off into the woods to dance around in full Inuit medicine man regalia.

After an eternity of nonsense, which includes the Paxton dog being plucked from the lawn by an eagle, a lap dance from Ramone (The Office's Oscar Nunez, burning off some good will), the town's very busy gay Mexican (he strips, caters parties & serves as Justice of the Peace at weddings) & Margaret rapping & shaking her badonkadonk to "Get Low" by Little John & the East Side Boyz around a campfire with Betty White, she & Paxton finally collide with one another naked & all that cranky reserve begins to melt away. Imagine that.

Director Fletcher, who's been the head choreographer on everything from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story to Catwoman & Scooby Doo 2: Electric Boogaloo, has absolutely no sense of timing & she prolongs this story way beyond its means. There has never been a movie this digressive that didn't originate in Sweden. By the time Margaret admits to Andrew that she watches The Psychic Network religiously, took disco dancing lessons, reads Wuthering Heights every Christmas & tattooed swallows onto her back after her parents died, we're really in no shape to care anymore. Her transformation is, at once, too quick & too long in coming. It just doesn't jibe with the manic rhythms of the movie, but it does seem to indicate The Proposal might be coming to a merciful climax. But then Grammy has what appears to be a heart attack & four or five more unresolvable plot points get to be swept around Sitka for awhile & then unceremoniously swept into a snowbank so we can FINALLY have our happy ending. Even this, however, is tainted by having to sit through an excruciating five minutes watching Betty White try her hand at "serious acting." When she mumbles to the heavens that "the spirits" can take her, we no longer care whether Andrew marries Margaret, Ramone or gets carried off in the talons of an eagle, as long as those credits roll. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

DVDs of 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Dir. Sacha Gervasi, 2008)

By now most viewers of rock cinema know that this documentary is a real-life Spinal Tap, documenting the middling rise & long, sad career coma of Canadian metal doofs, Anvil. Just when Anvil's about to call bullshit on this Sisyphean, 30-year project, they receive just enough hope or encouragement to delude themselves for another few years. By film's end, when Anvil play before a giddy packed auditorium (at 11:30 in the morning) at some Japanese metalfest, it's hard to know whether to hug those screaming metal kids or slap each & every one of them upside the head.

In the early 80s two nice Jewish boys from Ontario, Robb Reiner (Yes, I know, the director of Spinal Tap with an extra 'b') & Steve 'Lips' Kudlow met when Lips heard thunderous drums & a record by Cactus blasting from Reiner's bedroom window. They fall in love -- there's simply nothing else to call their relationship -- and start a band. In 1984, three albums (Hard'n'Heavy, Metal on Metal, Forged in Fire) later, Anvil was headlining the gigantic Super Rock Festival in Japan, with Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, etc. Reiner was pioneering the now-ubiquitous double-bass drum technique & Lips took the stage in a bondage harness, playing his Flying V with a large dildo, to the delight of pre-pubescent boys on several continents. Eight albums later -- including more masterstrokes of alliteration like Pound for Pound, Strength of Steel, Worth the Weight, Plenty of Power, etc. -- Lips & Reiner are back in Ontario, barely making ends meet at a variety of menial jobs & playing shows at local beer holes where toothless Canucks drink beer through their noses & bang their heads to their hairy heroes.

While Anvil! The Story of Anvil is front-loaded with testimony from the likes of Slash, Lars & Lemmy (if you need to know their last names, you should just stop reading now), all praising the originality of the band & shaking their heads over the unfairness of the fickle music industry ("Everybody ripped 'em off & then just left 'em for dead," Says Slash), it would take a hessian more discerning than I to tell the difference between the thudding, idea-free riffery of Anvil & the failures-in-waiting that litter the open-stage nights of desperate bars throughout the middle west. Portrayed as Missing Links between something I strain to care about & something I don't care about at all, Anvil may well be armor gods, but I couldn't get Chuck Klosterman on the phone to ask. Lyrics like "Little peaches play/rubbing their beavs" & songs like "Thumb Hang" (Lips' learned discourse on the Spanish Inquisition will make you wish you'd dropped out of school when you were 17 too) & "Toe Jam" (I'm not even sure it's an intentional pun), don't do much to keep the Spinal Tap comparisons at bay. That said, Lips' centered optimism & gratitude concerning the contingencies of rock is truly inspiring for a guy who's had his dreams urinated on as many times as he has.

The entire mid-section of the documentary is devoted to an overseas tour booked by a fangirl Euro-Gorgon named Tiziana. The ambitions & lucrative promises of this outing would cause any reasonable people to make a few inquiries of their own, but Anvil whole-heartedly believes 1500 Euros per gig in 30 cities is just what they deserve. They put all their trust in the obviously naive & incompetent Tiziana and -- city by city -- the tour becomes a study in bad faith, bad directions & bad vibes. Having made little to no upward progress on the tour (though Anvil's bass player does marry Tiziana for her efforts),  the boys return to the snowy north and, of course, decide it's time to put out their 13th album, prosaically titled This is 13

For most bands a tour this apocalyptic would lead to a complete overhaul of expectations & a reassessment of priorities. And maybe, after a two-decade run of tepid luck, a band might be forgiven for not wanting to tempt the Hammer of the Gods by recording a THIRTEENTH record. But that's not Anvil's style. For them, disaster is another word for, well, something that isn't disaster. Mustering monies for the new opus really pumps up the pathos in the film & provides perhaps its best scenes, those in which Lips is forced to do sunglasses tele-sales ("the kind Keanu Reaves wears") and -- to his credit really -- can't sell a single pair. In the meantime, Reiner -- an Edward Hopper fan -- shows off his painting of a turd floating in a toilet bowl. You can't make this shit up & the scenes out-Spinal Tap Spinal Tap.

Director Gervasi doesn't miss an opportunity to visually or thematically reference the mockumentary classic. Hell, there's even a scene at Stonehenge thrown in, mostly for giggles. In fact, the entire directorial style is pretty manipulative here, but if it weren't, the film would just be sad, instead of that kind of sad that forms a lump in your throat which, quite surprisingly, emerges as a cheer. Gervasi creates a dramatic beginning, middle & end to a story which, in reality, shrugs along rather passively. Wouldn't most people rather see Grandpa's measure of the fish that got away, his arms outstretched as far as they will go, than see the actual fish he caught or know whether it even existed at all?

Assassination of a High School President (Dir. Brett Simon, 2008)

Like Rian Johnson's Brick from 2005, Assassination of a High School President gives the teen melodrama a hard-boiled makeover, the halls of its down-at-heel Catholic school, St. Donovan's, standing in for the decaying, corrupt urban purgatory of Film Noir. But where Brick also attempted to echo the nihilism & grimness of the genre, Assassination is played mostly for laughs. In fact, it's really more of a baroque Fletch than some Clearasil-slathered Out of the Past.

Reece Thompson (the stuttering debater from 2007's criminally under-valued Rocket Science) plays Bobby Funke (Pronounced "Funk," but universally voiced as "Funky"), a would-be high school Carl Bernstein whose most salient claim to fame is having been " tied to the snowman penis" as a sophomore. Funke is assigned to find out who has recently purloined all of the school's completed SAT tests & while investigating he runs afoul of teen drug dealers, point shavers, the dim -- but relatively noble -- high school president, a doe-eyed femme fatale (The O.C.'s Mischa Barton), a Gulf War-addled Principal (a very funny Bruce Willis) & more regal Italian surnames than in the Borgia & Medici courts combined. Director Brett Simon shovels on the quirks & with such a large ensemble, this gets exhausting after awhile. Mid-film, when we finally meet a character who behaves, talks & looks like someone we may have actually known in high school (a black student from a seemingly all-black high school), it's such a welcome relief from all the eye patches, unlikely renaissance frescoes & verbal pyrotechnics, we're tempted to change schools.

To compensate for the overwrought, over-heated script & some bizarre, arbritrary visual elements, Simon gives us atmosphere you can poke with a protractor, performers having such a blast it's difficult not to share in it, left-field cameos (Michael Rappaport shows up for no other reason than to deliver a salami/penis joke) & a deeply cool soundtrack (Soft Boys, Stellastarr, some great opera arias) that serves to jazz up the sluggish narrative drive. Instead of lashing out harshly at all the excess, it's best just to surrender & bask in the loopy gracelessness of Bruce Willis calling a convocation so the whole school can sing a song he just wrote about America ("You can all march if you want to!") & lines such as, "A single pussy hair can pull a battleship through the desert."

Bride Wars (Gary Winick, 2009)

In One Sentence: Beware a woman whose entire identity is dependent on the pageantry of her wedding day...

If you can get past the voice-over introduction to Liv & Emma (filmic signposts to misogynist oblivion) without wanting to roam the halls of 20th Century Fox with an M-16, you deserve to be engulfed in this morass of dependency disguised as friendship, upward mobility disguised as love, lip service disguised as avowal, greed disguised as entitlement, credit limits disguised as good taste & ugly envy disguised as door-slamming farce.

Anne Hathaway (knock-down brilliant in Rachel Getting Married) & Kate Hudson (On parole) play two life-long friends who (can you fucking believe it?) fall in love & become engaged at the same time. Both have dreamed since childhood of getting married at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel -- the biggest dream the screenwriters could come up with for them -- and it turns out they're competing for the same date. Needless to say, they become the sort of harpies that you'd run screaming from in real life but somehow pay $12 to ogle in the cineplex. This repellent Tom & Jerry cartoon doesn't even have one reliably funny character actor to inspire audience good will. Candice Bergen, as the Plaza's wedding consultant, should get the kinds of laughs & cheers Hector Elizondo gets in Pretty Woman, but instead she comes off as disposably smug.

I'm sure the filmmakers thought that Liv & Emma's comeuppance would make up for the grotesque shallowness & off-hand cruelty they exhibit remorselessly for the first hour of Bride Wars but, hey, they invented this Hieronymous Bosch-like fantasy spectacle of human devaluation, why should we be forced to coo at its warm, fuzzy & entirely onanistic conclusion? It's like applauding after a 14-year-old boy jacks off to a perfume ad in Cosmo, there's just no percentage in it.

This is pretty much as bad as it gets.

The Children (Dir. Tom Shankland, 2008)

Any true horror fan knows a real live creepy cherub is way scarier than some computer-generated spook & also that nothing in cinema is creepier than a European toddler, the British bad seed being damn-near a delicacy. You can have your Japanese zashiki-warashi. You can have your evil Patty McCormacks, Macaulay Culkins & Isabelle Fuhrmans. Pound for pound, the English & Continental tykes are the ne plus ultra of sinister nestlings. The alien telepaths from Village & Children of the Damned, those Diane Arbus twins from The Shining, the fed-up kids of Almanzora in Narciso Serrador's Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), Harvey Stevens as the devil's own in Richard Donner's The Omen, the little hedonists pitted against Deborah Kerr's impregnable corsets in Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) & the lethal, pint-sized projections of Samantha Eggars' unconscious mind in Cronenberg's The Brood (Canadian, but what's the difference, really?) -- these children seem pulled directly from isolated private school detention rooms in the north of England, their rosy cheeks, forced manners & flyaway hair belying the evil brewing inside them. It's probably America's fear of exquisite manners that makes these children chilling to us. We assume any child who quietly reads a book in a straight-back chair & refers to its parents as "Mother" & "Father," must have something to hide. If anyone's going to manipulate our children into becoming homicidal drones, it's going to be us, goddammit.

Tom Shankland's The Children is a remarkable addition to this horror sub-genre, an excruciatingly tense, beautifully-scaled & psychologically potent tale of innocence run -- quite unexpectedly -- amok. The film's set-up is as English as it gets, a Harold Pinter play gone violently berserk. Two sisters, Elaine & Chloe, are united for Christmas at Chloe & her husband's isolated Tudor mansion. Well, it's not a mansion exactly, but the house serves to starkly underline the economic divide betwen the two siblings. While it's obvious the sisters are close, cracks are beginning to show in their relationship. Elaine (Eva Birthistle) has obviously made some rotten decisions in her life & has been uprooted enough to be terminally nervous, in high contrast to Chloe's (The L Word's Rachel Shelley) controlled, measured life. The two communicate with the weird mix of eye-rolling, passive aggression & eternal patience that is the special province of sisters and, while it's obvious they have a blood rapport, they are prone to whispering not-so-nice things under their breath. Most of these not-so-nice things involve Elaine's new boyfriend, Jonah, who comes to the relationship with two children of his own & Chloe's husband, Robbie, who all too obviously hounds after Elaine's teenage goth daughter Casey. All kinds of ambitious notions about child rearing are bandied about as if the tots are prize calves or giant radishes destined for the state fair. They're to be taught Chinese, home-schooled, weaned from this, that or the other...after all, at this age, they're open to anything.

But what the children are most "open" to is an ugly little parasite we see brewing only in a quick intercut of anonymous germs squiggling in viral bliss on a microscope slide. The moment Jonah's kids arrive at the manor, the young boy begins to wretch violently & behave in a disoriented manner. As the children sip from each other's cups of juice & cough in each other's faces, we can almost feel this germ, or parasite, or whatever, spreading. Shankland is a top-notch director & the film is so visually astute & subtle that it's hard to peg the exact moment you start feeling the mounting dread & exactly which visual cues are instigating the suspense. There's a scene mid-way through the film where one child begins to cry & the bawling becomes contagious. We've all experienced this before, but soon the pitch of this tantrum rises into a cacophany of sound & editing that makes us question the validity of what we consider "normal" in children. There are so many moments in The Children that echo this, moments where these kids are apparently doing something very kid-like, but something is heightened, rendered sinister & it's to Shankland's credit that we, like the parents, can't get a handle on it until it's too late. And when it's too late, it's far too late. Jonah's older daughter begins to see the changes first, though we only know this by the distressed look on her face as she sees the others make almost militaristic formations on the snowy plain in front of the manor house. As a witty accent to the idea of the children becoming somehow "militarized," they are bivouacked in a bright yellow tent in the snow & this becomes their de facto war room as the action intensifies. 

The film is full of witty touches, but it's the kind of wit horror films used to have in the late 60s/early 70s, when social criticism & sly satire was an integral -- but subtextual --  part of the whole ritual. These days, Tarantino-esque quips & cartoon pratfalls on slicks of blood pass for humor & drain the films of any real resonance. Shankland returns the mirroring element to horror, reminding us that what's scary is not how far-removed the monster or ghost or psychopath is from our daily life, but how very ordinary the supernatural intrusion can seem, right up until the moment it tears a bloody chunk out of your cranium. Of course, once the children are fully in the grip of this mysterious virus, it's blood on snow for a significant portion of the film & cinematographer Nanu Segal gives the whole bloodbath a chapped, raw palette, with splashes of yellow & pink keeping the killing fields from looking like one big raspberry snowcone.

Seemingly possessing some sort of hive mind telepathy, the sick kids go through the unsuspecting, liberal adults with shocking dexterity. But it's the violent effectiveness you'd expect from children reduced to animal instinct, facing off against parents who simply will not believe their little pride & joys are out to viciously murder them. When the adults finally decide to fight back (and there's not much of a response force left by then),  your eyes will be glued open for the duration of the movie. There's still nothing more shocking than watching adults forced to brutally retaliate against rogue children, whether they're possessed by alien forces or simply bad eggs. Just before death, there's a moment when they return to being little angels & there's nothing more terrifying than that. Very Highly Recommended.

Fired Up (D: Will Gluck, 2009) 
Well, there's nothing remotely nourishing about this air-headed little high school sex romp, but it doesn't hurt much & there are just enough laughs to keep me from slathering the display box with lamb's blood. In a plot that cops moves from so many other youth comedies that it could almost be mistaken for a quirky original, high school playboys played by Nicholas D'Agosto (Rocket Science, TV's Heroes) & Eric Christian Olsen (Beerfest, Sunshine Cleaning) ditch football camp for the obvious pleasures of bedding as many pom-pom girls & shapely acrobats as they possibly can at a competitive retreat for cheerleaders. Their plan is to go through them the way lions go through lame gazelle & then skidaddle to a friend's summer house before the final competition. But, of course, they soon learn to respects these hotties & their spunky craft. Elements of Road Trip, Bring It On, American Pie (a section of which actually appears in Fired Up) & a dozen other teen flicks cross-pollinate with lazy ease throughout Fired Up & the good-natured dunder-headedness will develop some viewer good will after awhile if you're the kind of viewer that doesn't mind dialing back critical thought for 90 minutes. The best moments here result from a series of odd cameos by the likes of master thespian Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia, Dogville), as a foul-mouthed, doddering football coach; the great John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development, Kath & Kim, A Mighty Wind) as the predictably homo hetero cheerleading guru; and -- the best reason not to use Fired Up as a one of the wheels on a Tinker Toy Truck -- relative newcomer David Walton. As Dr. Rick, the college boyfriend of D'Agosto's cheerleader love interest Carly, Walton ups the ante for all preppie teen movie slimebags to come & easily delivers the movies most earned moments of mirth. On the downside, Fired Up represents a new low for the "Unrated" versions of DVDs. For a movie so driven by adolescent lechery, the film is almost irresponsibly tame: Philip Baker Hall says "shit" about 20 times, we're treated to three seconds of some pretty unremarkable bare breasts & ten seconds of REALLY unremarkable Asian boy buttocks.

He's Just Not That Into You (D: Ken Kwapis, 2009)

Considering the sharp, often edgy TV shows Ken Kwapis has directed & produced over the years (the U.S. version of The Office, Grounded for Life, The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks & Geeks...), it's surprising what an underdeveloped, overcrowded mish-mash this movie is. Trying for the kind of large-ensemble interplay that worked so well in films like Love, Actually, Kwapis managed to assemble a pleasing cast, but there's just not enough character delineation to go around, leaving the majority of these sketched-out "types" stranded with a few cringe-worthy platitudes & fashionable clothing. It's a cast of hundreds with enough ideas for three & possibly a dog.

He's Not That Into You concerns the interconnected lives of a group of upscale Baltimorians, all struggling with varying degrees of lovesickness. The theme here -- though it's loosely developed at best -- is that, while there are social rules to the mating dance, almost everyone longs to be the exception to those rules. While that's probably true, watching ten characters deal with it results in a severe self-involvement overload & creates a world where people are either infantile & impossibly needy or cynically bound to a set of icy rules & glib witticisms.

Flighty Bradley Cooper (The Hangover, Wedding Crashers) is married to obsessive Jennifer Connelly, but he's obsessed with flighty Scarlett Johansson. Ben Affleck & Jennifer Aniston co-habitate happily but he doesn't believe in marriage & she begins to think that's a signal that he's not committed to her. Kevin Connolly (Eric on HBO's Entourage) digs Scarlett Johansson but he can't get her into bed to save his life & he's quite obviously her fall-back romance. Bar manager/ladies man Justin Long (Drag Me to Hell, Zack & Miri Make a Porno) becomes the cynical guru for unlucky-in-love (but eternally optimistic) Ginnifer Goodwin (HBO's Big Love), who soon develops feelings for him. While these are the main players shouldering through this heavy traffic, some brave casting director figured there was still room for Drew Barrymore, Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Busy Philipps, comedian Natasha Leggero, Bill Brochtrup & a host of other familiar faces, most of them television regulars. Jennifer Connelly's neurotic Janine is about the only fleshed-out character & in this antiseptic environment where everyone seems to be learning the same lesson at once, she seems like a freak, and this flesh & blood complexity makes her the only character whose romantic life isn't tied up with a shiny red foil ribbon by film's end.

While this is a passable confection, it's made for those who want the toppings ladled on with a snow shovel. 


The International (D: Tom Tykwer, 2009)

German director Tykwer (
Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) has concocted the kind of slick, globe-trotting espionage thriller we haven't really seen much since the heydays of John Frankenheimer, Fred Zinnemann & Billy Friedkin. Harking back to epic thrillers like Sorceror, Day of the Jackal & The French Connection, The International is gorgeously mounted & has several eye-popping set pieces that combine action & angst in perfect measure.

The story, though it seems twisty at first, is really fairly simple. A big international banking concern called IBBC has taken to arms dealing in order to control the debt accrued from armed conflicts around the world. Though this pretty much sounds like something banks actually do, IBBC resorts to multiple assassinations in order to achieve their goals, making what would otherwise be simply unsavory into a worldwide criminal conspiracy being investigated by Interpol agent Clive Owen, a rumpled insomniac with a blotchy past & his U.S. counterpart Naomi Watts, who's all but wasted in this role.

The mark of a fine thriller in this mode is having the dialogue & verbal exposition be as ominous & thrilling as the gunplay & car wrecks. Like Frankenheimer's fascinating
Ronin from 1998, The International achieves this perfectly (unlike, say, the Bourne films). Discussions of debt accumulation & the sullied history of international banking rivet the attention only slightly less than the insane Guggenheim Museum shoot-out that serves as the film's bloody & masterful centerpiece. Ricocheting from Paris to Milan to Istanbul to NYC, The International revels in location shooting, finding just the right sinisterly impassive corporate buildings, just the right winding cobblestone streets, just the right terracotta rooftops & Turkish minarets. The faces too, from bedraggled police officers to Armin Mueller Stahl & Ulrich Thomsen (The Celebration) as the devils of IBBC, rendered dead-eyed by greed & avarice, seem molded perfectly into the sprawling surface of this film. Special mention should be given to Irish actor Bryan F. O'Byrne (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Million Dollar Baby), whose nameless professional assassin is so enigmatically & subtly crafted here that you almost don't notice how much soul he's bringing to his scenes. He's sinister without raising an eyebrow or cracking a sneer.

If there's a problem with
The International it's perhaps that all this sleek vision occasionally defeats the film's internal tension, which doesn't quite ratchet-up as it should. That, and that the presence of Watts (who deserves better) seems a mystery, even to the filmmakers. Beyond that, this is a high-caliber suspense classic-to-be. 

My Life in Ruins (Donald Petrie, 2009)

A soft-skulled mash-up of My Big Fat Greek Wedding & the 1989 hot flasher, Shirley Valentine, My Life in Ruins seems concocted entirely from the wish-fulfillment fantasies of dowagers, spinsters & sundry other disappointed dim bulbs. Dim because, as fantasy, this story could really use an animated talking grandfather clock & a shining castle on a hill made entirely of large humming vibrators.

Instead we get Nia Vardalos (Whose Fat Greek Wedding just goes on & on) as the expatriate college professor Georgia, the worst tour guide in in all of Athens. Georgia is brow-beaten by her boss, taken advantage of by a fellow tour guide (the unscrupulous Nico) & mostly ignored by her daily gaggle of tourists, who wish she'd talk more about shopping & sex than art history. Although you want to be on Georgia's side against all the gross, shrieking stereotypes she confronts every day, she actually is pretty dull & would it really kill her to sexy up her spiel? Well, when she finally does, it's bawdiness the way you'd expect it from a 7-year-old girl, not a woman who's ostensibly been around the plinth a few times. In other words, it's embarrassing.

To get this particularly life-changing day cracking, the estrus ex machina provides Georgia with a busload of character actors in various stages of decline. There's TV regular Brian Palermo as a pancake & pancake accessory-obsessed IHOP manager, the fat kid from a dozen crappy direct-to-DVD comedies (Jareb Dauplaise) as the fat kid in this crappy direct-to-DVD comedy, a couple of real comedians, Rachel Dratch & Harland Williams, slumming for a buck & Richard Dreyfuss as the...well, we do have a talking grandfather clock, after all. 

Though we're meant to think the pancake guy may actually be the object of Georgia's pent-up affections, he's a particularly clumsy red herring. In fact, there's really no reason in the world director Petrie (Mystic Pizza, Grumpy Old Men, Miss Congeniality) couldn't have saved himself some dough & actually cast a herring in the role. To anyone who's ever seen even trailers of movies, it's pretty damn obvious the real love interest here is the bus driver, Poupi Kakas (you heard me), a werewolf philosopher who slowly shaves down to lovability as the movie progresses. Poupi eventually gets into Georgia's polyester pant suit by telling her that her butt is too small.

Along the road to Delphi, Dreyfuss tells the story of his dead wife until his crotchety sensitivity drips from the screen & into our laps like Palermo's prized maple syrup. He teaches Georgia to lie to the tourists, which is understandable considering their inability to tell the cradle of civilization from a Wal-Mart, but it doesn't really make you want to stand up & cheer. He also pretends he's the oracle at one point & apparently heals another old man's stiff legs. Remember when you thought no one could annoy you the way Robin Williams annoys you? Think again. There are numerous intimations throughout My Life in Ruins that Dreyfuss' Irv will die in the end, leaving his pearls of geriatric dementia ringing in the ears of his new disciples, but this movie doesn't even have the tits to stand by that maudlin convention. It's actually become an annoying trend in recent romantic comedies to threaten an old person's demise & then fail to deliver (see The Proposal).

Without a death scene, Ruins is so toothless & inconsequential, a tour of your own closets will seem dazzling in comparison.



Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Dir. Paul Schrader, 1985)

An appropriately florid attempt to capture onto film the essence of one of the 20th Century's most confounding artists, Yukio Mishima, who was, by turns, a great novelist in the tradition of Thomas Mann, a popular celebrity, a filmmaker, a libertine, a strident militarist, a self-styled samourai & a national joke. Such a wildly contradictory life, with so many confusing tangents, allow director Schrader (Cat People, American Gigolo, Hardcore, Auto Focus) a multitude of voices, both visually & narratively.

In 1972, before Schrader penned the script to Taxi Driver while living in the backseat of his car, he wrote a book called Trascendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, a seminal text suggesting that the films of the given directors, despite differences in locale & cultural landscape, aim to express, in a similar fashion, that which lies beyond human experience or comprehension. A famous quote from the book says that films "cannot inform one of the Transcendent, they can only be expressive of the Transcendent." While this expressive impotence could easily explain why so many film students find the films of Ozu, Bresson & Dreyer deathly dull, it could easily be used to describe the pitfalls in telling a life as enigmatic as Mishima's. Swap out the word Transcendent for Mishima in the quote & you'll see what Schrader was up against. Mishima is, perhaps, his most Transcendental film, and not just because he gets a chance to imitate the styles of his favorite directors, especially Ozu, whose influence is deeply felt in the stark black & white sequences of the author's childhood.

Between the writer's odd, secluded childhood & his black-comic ritual suicide in the offices of the Eastern Command in Tokyo (which bookend the various chapters of the film), we are treated to some of the most gorgeous, technicolor artifice since Douglas Sirk, scenes whose textures are so vivid as to demand a tactile response & performances (most importantly that of the brilliant Ken Ogata, as the older Mishima) that engage while only deepending the mysteries of Mishima's crowded life. Mishima is most certainly Paul Schrader's crown jewel as a director (Blue Collar running a close second), and it's a landmark of biographical cinema, a way of intimating instead of telling that will one day, hopefully, allow for a film treatment of the life of Celine. Most highly recommended.


The Night Stalker (Dir. Max Kleven, 1987)

Great Z-Movie hard-ass Charles Napier (Ed. Note: Too much crap for a parenthetical overview) stars as sweaty, alcoholic detective J. J. Striker (is that an, um, Dickensian name?) who, while protecting a whole gaggle (murder?) of prostitutes with hearts of cotton candy, becomes a big sweaty alcoholic juggernaut to track down a whore-killer who, for some reason, is impervious to bullets. It may have something to do with the very weird, phased-out, Alvin Chipmunk voodoo chants that fill his (and, by extension, our...) head when he's about to kill, kill, kill. Watching Napier drink in this film actually made me want to stop drinking altogether. Thankfully the flick was only 93 minutes long. Dodged a bullet on that one.

Classe Tous Risques (Dir. Claude Sautet, 1960)

Director Claude Sautet was primarily known for a series of launguidly paced, pellucidly lensed melodramas & equally drowsy comedies (usually starring the great Romy Schneider) virtually unseen by American audiences wedged as they were between the monumental works of Jean Renoir & Jean-Pierre Melville & the revolutionary cinema of the nouvelle vague. His clean, somewhat melancholy style, while always cerebral & artistic, didn't call much attention to itself in the clamorous rarefied air of post-war French film culture. Classe Tous Risques (The Big Risk) is the closest the director came to making a genre film and, for the most part, it breaks all the rules of the gangster noir. Most aberrent is the cool black & white cinematography of Ghislain Cloquet, whose aversion to closed, artificial spaces quite suavely undercuts the genre's predilection for shadowy, claustrophobic spaces.

French B-Movie staple Lino Ventura stars as Abel Davos, a gangster on the lam in Italy with his wife & two sons. In order to return to France, Davos & crony Raymond pull a gutsy, almost playful broad-daylight payroll heist & high-tail it home by boat. Upon reaching shore in the wee hours, Raymond & Davos' wife are killed by the police & the gangster must throw himself on the mercy of old comrades who owe him a great deal but find this debt tedious, to say the least. The scene-stealing actor who plays Raymond, Stan Krol, is a mystery. According to IMDB he only appeared in three films but he has all the presence & hulking charm of the young Lee Marvin. As far as I can tell, through some admittedly cursory internet research, little to nothing is known about Krol, but it's easy -- if you're unfamiliar with the film's more famous actors -- to assume at the film's outset that Krol is going to be the leading man.

Though Davos' underworld contacts have become banal bureaucrats (a common theme in late period crime films, coming to a glorious head in John Boorman's Point Blank, Don Siegel's The Killers & Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia!), they do manage to connect him with one of Raymond's old friends, Eric Stark (Jean Paul Belmondo, who made Godard's Breathless the same year). The film keeps coming to life around its peripheral characters. It's not that Lino Ventura lacks charisma. In fact, he balances the melancholy of a recent widower with a master criminal's ruthless cunning effortlessly. Still, Classe Tous Risques is always haunted by the death of Raymond & takes delirious flight when Belmondo is onscreen. The uncomplicated friendship between Stark & Davos serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the shadier environs of the Parisian mob. Raymond & Stark are represented by open fields, open windows, open waters, but his relationship with the other kingpins is all cramped rooms & low ceilings.

Sautet's film is a strange one. It keeps becoming different types of movies as it progresses (love story, light comedy, provincial soap opera), but it never grows tiresome or lags in tension & this odd meandering quality actually imbues the inexorable crime film ending with devastating gravity. An oddball classic & highly recommended. 

Inglorious Bastards (Dir. Enzo Castellari, 1978)

Critics have been frothing at the mouth about the re-release of this Italian war film on DVD, but it's a little underwhelming when it comes right down to it. Produced in 1978, a little late to cash-in on its obvious influences, The Dirty Dozen (1967) & Kelly's Heroes (1970), Inglorious Bastards is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who's remaking it as we speak, starring Brad Pitt, Simon Pegg & Eli Roth. While the movie's colorful, sometimes rousing & benefits from a decent budget, if you've seen a few irreverent war films of the late 60s & early 70s, there's nothing here that wasn't done much, much better in, say, The Dirty Dozen & Kelly's Heroes (you can throw in Where Eagles Dare & The Great Escape, if you need more evidence). 
Most of Inglorious Bastards' gags are nimble as lead, the characterizations are mostly impoverished borrowings from other films (especially Nick, the anachronistic hippie thief obviously modeled on Donald Sutherland's Sgt. Oddball in Kelly's Heroes) & the action set-pieces in the first 45 minutes are about as kinetic as action sequences from 1970s TV shows. These shortfalls are somewhat mitigated by likable performances from Fred Williamson (MASH, Black Caesar) & Bo Svenson (Walking Tall, Part 2 & Kill Bill, Vol. 2), a bucolic lake filled with naked, machine-gun toting bathing beauties, a weird B-Movie performance by Peter Hooten (coming off, for all the world, like a flaming homosexual, but voicing lines you'd expect from Telly Savalas), some cool slow-motion Peckinpah-style shootouts & a batshit crazy train crash in the final quarter & Bo Svenson disarming a V2 rocket with a pencil. 

As for the plot itself -- bound for prison, unorthodox renegade soldiers escape from custody & somehow wind up winning WWII for the allies -- the intrigue pretty much boils down to one line, uttered by Svenson: "Nick, Tony, Berle...Dress up like Germans & let's get out of here!" So the trick to viewing Inglorious Bastards? Stick with it, or liberally implement your Fast Forward device. 


The Perfume of Yvonne (D: Patrice Leconte, 1994)

Leconte's (Monsieur Hire, Girl on the Bridge) The Perfume of Yvonne is a tingling erotic homage to the best work of Tinto Brass, Jesus Franco & Radley Metzger, a sumptuous period piece that dabbles in politics, literature & art, but revels deliriously in desire. It's intellectual pornography (ala Georges Bataille or Alberto Moravia) of the first order...
Filmed in a mixture of the pellucid, sun-drenched style of 60s Italian & French cinerotica & the dark - almost noir - style of Italian gialli, Leconte's film delights in fetishistic surfaces, in starched white shirts, in blowing flags, drapes & sun dresses, in the rumpled tailored suits & scarves of European expatriates & the mottled brown leather of well-traveled suitcases. It's so vivid you can almost smell the blend of opium & sea brine. A lush orchestral score cries out for Edda Dell'Orso's wordless vocals, but shimmers gorgeously without it as well.

The story is relatively simple, though spiced with exotic mysteries that are - wisely I think - never quite resolved. Victor, a young Russian count adrift in Europe in 1958, living off of the intermittent sale of rarities from his family's renowned butterfly collection (shades of Nabokov), crosses paths with a cryptically beautiful actress named Yvonne & her elderly, flamboyantly gay, traveling companion, Dr. Meinthe. Jean-pierre Marielle, a veteran of 60s & early 70s sexploitation/giallo, shines here as the world-weary doctor who drinks his port wine with a straw, sports a Karl May fez & shouts to all within earshot that he's "The Queen of Belgium." Meinthe is equal parts George Sanders, Peter Lorre & William Burroughs, the sort of man who finds conscience distasteful, but is consumed by it nonetheless. Victor & Yvonne are soon in the grip of sexual obsession & while more heady themes of exile, film history & the onset of the Algerian conflict may fleck their bubble of mutual need, sex is the star here & it's most likely the copious nudity & enraptured love-making you'll remember about the film. Well, that & the not-so-good doctor.

This is pornography for people who like to read Marguerite Duras or Andre Gide aloud to one another before & after they screw.

The Killing Kind (Dir. Curtis Harrington, 1973)

Curtis Harrington is one of the great unsung Hollywood directors, notable for bringing underground & experimental inclinations (he worked with both Kenneth Anger & Maya Deren) to off-beat, low-budget drive-in fare such as Night Tide (a cult classic from 1961 starring Dennis Hopper), Games (a lost classic from 1967), How Awful About Allen (1970), What’s the Matter with Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (both from 1971) & this sick tale of psycho-sexual perversion, starring Ann Sothern (TV’s My Mother the Car, Joseph Mankiewicz’s Letter to Three Wives, 1949), John Savage (1978’s The Deer Hunter, 1979’s Hair), Luana Anders (Night Tide, The Trip, Easy Rider), Ruth Roman (The Baby, Go Ask Alice) & an impossibly young Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley). Savage plays a very troubled young man with a deeply unhealthy mother complex who returns home after serving time for his negligible part in a gang rape. Between poolside glasses of chocolate milk delivered fawningly by his mother, Savage seeks revenge on his lawyer & the girl who framed him. Prison has also left our mama’s boy with some unhealthy sexual proclivities which he proceeds to inflict on the young women of Los Angeles, including his mother’s boarder, Cindy Williams, who actually finds the obviously deranged young man kinda cute. As with all Harrington films, there’s Hollywood gothic to spare in The Killing Kind, a tough, grim humor embedded in every twisted scene. Highly recommended.

The Velvet Vampire (Dir. Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

As bluesman Johnny Shines (in a great, atmospheric, uncredited cameo) plays some deep hoodoo in the shadows at a gallery opening in Los Angeles, a young couple meet & befriend a mysterious woman named Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall, excellent here) who invites them to spend a weekend at her house in the middle of the desert. Once there, both are plagued – well, perhaps “plagued” is the wrong word – with nightmares & feverishly erotic dreams involving their hostess. There are great touches of Manson-family paranoia folded chaotically into the otherwise fairly straightforward vampire tale & the desert locales add some eerie new ingredients to familiar grue. Director Rothman was one of the few women helming films in the Corman New World stable & she acquits herself beautifully here, in the previous year’s Student Nurses & in 1977’s directorial “pairing” with Curtis Harrington, Ruby. Recommended.

Play Dirty (Andre De Toth, 1968)

A late-period masterpiece from 50s genre director Andre De Toth, Play Dirty is an overlooked classic. De Toth, who helmed some of the great B-Westerns of the 50s & 60s, as well as a fine horror film (House of Wax) & a couple of inventive film noirs, re-emerged firing on every cylinder in 1968 for this ultimately downbeat, absurdist British war film. There are moments that prefigure Peckinpah (brutal violence & a scene where villagers watch a scorpion battle a bonfire), some reverential nods to John Ford (The Searchers & She Wore a Yellow Ribbon are referenced lovingly) & an utterly sophisticated manner of indulging Vietnam-era malaise while still making a riveting WWII action film. In fact, Play Dirty renders the anachronistic subcultural smirk of Kelly's Heroes (which I also love) seem patently juvenile & makes the anti-hero antics of The Dirty Dozen
seem polite & naively patriotic. More miraculous, De Toth captures the ennui without the tone of the film ever becoming self-righteously grim.

Set during WWII in North Africa, Play Dirty manages to include characters straight out of Paul Bowles' Tangiers stories -- two kief-addicted flaming homosexuals, cynical poppy-runner expatriates & a raft of other intelligent but lost souls who -- because they know the desert & have few qualms about the distinction between murder & warfare -- get caught up in the British campaign against the Nazis to avoid long prison sentences. Although Michael Caine is the ostensible star of the movie, it's Nigel Davenport (A Man For All Seasons, Look Back in Anger, Peeping Tom) who runs the military operation -- an epic, mordantly exotic trek across the desert to blow up a Nazi fuel hub. Michael Caine plays their Captain superior but we're almost an hour into this remarkable film before we see him as anything but an unwary prig, a chess--playing martinet not unlike Henry Fonda in John Ford's Fort Apache. Mostly unobtrusive, but often wildly expressionistic photography -- think the zoom-happy renegade verite chic of Altman films melded with the colorful artifice of early Nicholas Ray or Robert Aldrich -- from another revivified old-timer, Edward Scaife, turns the jeep ride across North Africa from surreal to infernal to hallucinatory without so much as one ragged seam. The scene where the outfit (only Caine is an actual British soldier) finally confronts the sandstorm-swept Potemkin's Village they've been sent out to destroy is equal parts Wizard of Oz & Samuel Beckett, a truly inspired set-piece unrivaled by any war movie this side of Douglas Sirk's Erich Maria Remarque adaptation A Time to Live & A Time to Die. There's even an ubiquitous late 60s rape scene that begins as unpleasantly as any 42nd Street Grindhouse roughie & then about-faces brilliantly into light humor.

This is highly recommended. One wonders why Quentin Tarantino would want to have a go at a piece of really sketchy cheese like Inglorious Bastards when this brutal, funny & often amoral war movie remains vastly unseen.

Crime Wave/Decoy (Dir. Andre De Toth, 1954/Jack Bernard, 1946)

Part of Warner Home Video’s Film Noir Double Feature series, this volume is the best of the bunch. It’s hard to believe Andre De Toth’s Crime Wave isn’t mentioned in the same breath as John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, Joseph Lewis’ The Big Combo or Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. What it lacks in intricacy & scope, it more than makes up for with a brutal linearity, startling Los Angeles location photography, and no-nonsense hardboiled performances from Sterling Hayden, Charles Bronson (then Charles Bunchinski), Dub Taylor, Jay Novello (amazing here as the bent, but dapper, Dr. Otto Hessler), Timothy Carey (performing, as usual, according to his own strange muse), and Gene Nelson, who’s better known for hoofing through frothy musicals than for this sort of hard-bitten anti-hero. Nelson plays an ex-con gone straight who’s caught between intractable cop Hayden & a band of escaped prison acquaintances engaged in the titular crime wave. Still, the best thing about this DVD is the commentary track by feral crime writer & L.A. historian James Ellroy. If there’s the shot of an alley in Crime Wave, he takes you down it & tells you which dumpster a real-life gangster moll’s corpse was found behind in 1950. Amazing. 

On the same disc is Decoy, a lesser gem that suffers from too much plot & too little money to make it tick & some pretty creaky performances by a cast of relative unknowns. On the plus side, there are some spooky German Expressionist touches throughout that make it worthwhile viewing. 

Crime Wave: Highly Recommended/Decoy: Recommended.

House of Games (David Mamet, 1987)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet’s first film consolidates most of the motifs & most of the cast, for that matter, that he would continue to use in his next 10 or so pictures. Then-wife Lindsay Crouse stars as a renowned psychologist who approaches gambler Joe Mantegna in order to get one of her patients released from a gambling debt. But, as in all great Mamet plays/movies (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Spanish Prisoner, Things Change, Spartan), nothing is as it seems & the psychologist/author is lured into a world of elaborate artifice concocted by a genius con men (including the late, great J. T. Walsh & Mamet regular, magician Ricky Jay) who use her intellectual fascination against her. It’s an inventive, truly original directorial debut, filmed in a smudgy ashcan style (splendidly revived by this Criterion re-issue), and given strict momentum by the dangerous crossfire of all that rhythmic, elliptical Mamet dialogue. Recommended. 

Star Knight (Dir. Fernando Colomo, 1985)

I’m not sure this shoddy Italian production really needed to find its way from whatever vault junk like this hides in, but if you’re looking for a strange, light-hearted (though never intentionally funny), rapturously ill-conceived, no-budget cross between John Boorman’s Excalibur, Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky & Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this might wet your whistle. Benevolent court alchemist Klaus Kinski attempts to conjure a supernatural being to help him turn lead to gold & somehow conjures a spaceship instead. The vassals and serfs think the spaceship is a dragon because it sucks goats into the sky, flies through the night sky lit up like a disco ball & makes the swamp water roil. In order to win the heart of the princess, an incompetent knight played by – ready? – Harvey Keitel, sets out to kill the dragon/spaceship. 

Unfortunately, the princess has already fallen in love with the lone alien inside, a sad, anemic cross between David Bowie in Man Who Fell to Earth and Vanilla Ice, who speaks in ringtones & collects the spirits of pets from other worlds. 

For me, it was worth it to hear Keitel utter lines such as (and I’ve transcribed these verbatim) “Sire, surely thou cans’t not doubt my forceful courage – a hundred trials have I fought forsooth & triumphed over each one,” “Happy beats my heart when thou do I see,” & “Come out, ye dastardly poltroon! Art thou a man or a field mouse?”

THE ARRANGEMENT (Dir. Elia Kazan, 1969)

Half-John Cheever/Half-Jackie Susann, The Arrangement jumps off the starting blocks as one of the great screeds against the Organization Man, the button-down miracle-worker who haunts post-war Madison Avenue & Cape Cod, torn between Hemingway & Doyle, Dane, Bernbach. Kirk Douglas plays a second-generation Greek American who sells out his literary dreams to hawk cigarettes for a big advertising agency. He treats his matronly wife (a terribly wasted Deborah Kerr) like excess baggage, falls for his troubled young mistress (an altogether confusing Faye Dunaway) and goes completely haywire trying to live the American Dream. Unfortunately, by mid-film, The Arrangement loses all its sexy pop-art zip & degenerates into broad comedy, maudlin ethnicity, hysteria-pitched performances, and the kind of jarring, smash-mouth camera technique that make you long for the days when a jump-cut was a technical embarrassment. Frank Perry’s terse & bracing The Swimmer says as much in half the time. 

Bunny Lake is Missing (Dir. Otto Preminger, 1965)

A very creepy cross between Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and the Jodie Foster vehicle, Flightplan, Otto Preminger pulls out all the stops in this tale of a mother (Carol Lynley) and her troubled brother (Keir Dullea) searching London for Lynley’s missing daughter (the titular Bunny), who may or not have existed at all. We get great bit parts from Noel Coward (spouting De Sade like he knew the man), Laurence Olivier, Anne Massey & rock group, The Zombies. We get all manner of jokey clues as to the twisted psychology at play – a cuckoo clock chiming at opportune moments, a very eerie doll factory, a rocking horse. We get subtle hints of incest, plot revelations that will leave your mouth agape, and sinister atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Denys Coop & composer Paul Glass, who contributes a strikingly minimalist jazz score. This is this week’s Lost Classic from the ‘60s #1.

Cameraman’s Revenge & Other Fantastic Tales: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912)/The Insects’ Christmas (1913)/Frogland (1922)/Voice of the Nightingale (1923)/The Mascot (1933)/Winter Carousel (1958) (Dir. Ladislaw Starewicz)

These sepia-delic films by the Russian pioneer of stop-motion animation still have the powerful ability to shrink you down to insect size and set your imagination loose in a glittering, nostalgic diorama. Like the work of Brothers Quay, Rankin-Bass & Art Clokey, there’s something about these films that enter the subconscious mind without being intercepted by reason, wit, or ego. Although it certainly seems oxymoronic, these shorts have a primal delicacy, and these anthropomorphized frogs, insects, bears, rabbits, Christmas ornaments, toys and demonic vegetables exist not as if in a dream, but as the dream itself. Rent these, take a couple of Vicodin, and see where the night takes you…


Desperate Teenage Love Dolls (Dave Markey, 1984)

Coming on like a good-natured Nick Zedd, Dave Markey & the boys from Redd Kross dive headfirst into this primal punk rock take on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & defy you not to join the party. Despite zero production values and completely unhinged performances by unapologetic non-actors, Desperate Teenage Love Dolls gets by on rock’n’roll spirit alone. An underground classic that won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

Lilith (Dir. Robert Rossen, 1964)

Lost Classic of the 1960s, No. 2. An unstable Korean War vet (Warren Beatty) returns to his hometown and procures a position at the local mental hospital where he meets and falls for the sexually omnivorous Lilith (Jean Seberg, luminescent and perfectly acting the fine line between naivete & feral carnality). It’s perfectly scripted, filmed immaculately in watery black & white, contains unforgettable performances by Beatty, Seberg, Peter Fonda, Gene Hackman (his eye-opening film debut), Kim Hunter, and Jessica Walter (the mother on Arrested Development), and makes you about as sexually uncomfortable as an American film could make you in 1964.

BAND OF ANGELS (Dir. Raoul Walsh, 1957)

If you long to see Gone With The Wind seedily groped by the grindhouse pleasures of Mandingo, here’s your chance. The sweaty subtleties of deep south literature almost invariably made it to the screen with one silk bra strap down the left shoulder and a leering old man (Burl Ives or Orson Welles -- your pick…) sipping juleps on the big veranda. In other words, unrecognizable as literature; wildly marketable as cypress sleaze.

Based on a sod-busting Robert Penn Warren novel (see Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, 1949), this film boasts a voodoo-sexy performance by the late, great Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily Munster, for the uninitiated), and a star-making turn from Sidney Poitier that nearly preserves the novel’s hot-headed social consciousness.

CAPRICE (Dir. Frank Tashlin, 1967)

Hmm. I always feel like Frank Tashlin -- who gave us Porky Pig, Jayne Mansfield, Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall – directed films the way some people flounce scarves over bedside lamps and forget about the naked girl waiting anxiously under the covers. Like Roger Vadim, maybe. Caprice is particularly excruciating, because Doris Day is past her prime and Richard Harris would, quite obviously, rather be drinking with Peter O’Toole. Tashlin barely notices. To him, she’s Jayne Mansfield, or a meatier Suzanne Pleshette with wattles. He’s Cary Grant. Could we be happier?

And she’ll look fine in this mired-in-its-own-production-design thriller. When she gasps into a leather glove, it’s like she’s gasping into a floating French cuff. She may as well be Sandy Duncan. There was never a script, never an idea…just characters forced to walk through beautiful designs in outrageously-technicolored hats and gowns. If that’s where you hang your pill-box monkey usher hat, this is the re-issue for you.

LOOKER (Michael Crichton, 1981)

This marks the tail-end of Hollywood studios marketing paranoid, satirical thrillers (Winter Kills, Capricorn One, Stepford Wives, Three Days of the Condor, etc.) as irony-free action fare, and they didn’t expect these hijinx from a cash-machine like Crichton. While Looker is nowhere near as subtle as the aforementioned films, it still walks that giddy borderline between dark social satire and the science fiction menace Crichton had all-but perfected in Coma, Terminal Man, Westworld, and Andromeda Strain.

Looker is a confusing mess in any form. No amount of commentary or additional footage will turn this into the David Cronenberg film it so desperately longs to be. After performing suspect plastic surgery on two supermodels, surgeon Albert Finney is accused of murdering the both of them, and must take it on the lam with friend and model, Susan Dey (post-Partridge/pre-L.A. Law). Most of the once-troubling ideas in this film now seem quaint – the corporate homogenization of beauty, the plasticity of computer images, etc. Looker still has those ‘70s jitters, though -- oddball pacing, a truly disquieting car chase, and more than its share of puzzling, ragged edges that separate it entirely from the clean, precise speculative cinema to come. 

After Dark, My Sweet (Dir. James Foley, 1990)

The Jim Thompson novel on which this is based has one conceit I wasn’t sure if a movie version could pull off. A rogue’s gallery of observant characters who encounters “Kid” Collins, a punch-drunk ex-fighter, in the first part of the book notice immediately that he’s off-kilter, and often ask him outright how long he’d been in a mental hospital. Still, Collins has to be charming & handsome enough to be the hard-boiled protagonist. Jason Patric (Narc, Rush) pull it off, though, by turning his head to the side just so when he doesn’t understand the gist of the schemes going on around him, as if waiting (Anticipating? Longing?) for the 2 X 4 of bad luck to swing around once more & catch him in the jaw. And here his eyes reveal a capacity for masochism that, while utterly pathological, give him a distinct one-up on the dapper, eloquent kidnapper, Bruce Dern, and his lovely moll, Rachel Ward. Though they think they have Collins stringing along like a dancing bear, they have no idea what he’s capable of once he gets his thick head around said gist. This ranks – along with Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (also 1990), Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill-Off (1989) & Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup De Torchon (1981) – among the best of the Jim Thompson adaptations. It seethes with his brutally perverse narrative momentum, flexing dialogue & decidedly un-telegraphed violence. Recommended as hell.

Heavy Petting (Dir. Obie Benz, 1989)

Heavy Petting is a first class cultish, hipster peep show, featuring all manner of entertaining clips from ‘50s classroom sex & hygiene films, blue movie ephemera, and quaint, coy bits from old television shows, all strung together by revealing interviews with oh-so-hip beatniks (Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs), performance artists (Laurie Anderson), underground rock icons (David Byrne, Ann Magnuson) & fringe celebrities (Zoe Lund, Spalding Gray, Sandra Bernhard, Josh Mostel). This Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” talk with varying degrees of chronic glibness about their first sexual experiences and all of them are first-rate storytellers of the Downtown NYC art scene variety, peppering their anecdotes with just enough superiority to make sure you know the difference between their sex and, um, your sex. Most entertaining: Allen Ginsberg talking in flowery exclamation points about his love affair with Bill Burroughs, while Burroughs leans on his cane, rolls his eyes & hrrumphs like Mark Twain’s reanimated mummy.

Obsession (Dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)

A dull, tame, soft-filtered shrugging off of Vertigo & Rebecca by the undisputed master of adding ragged exploitation film sleaze & gore to Hitchcock’s perverse mathematical film-puzzles. If you’re looking for another lurid Body Double, Sisters, Blow Out, or Dressed to Kill, forget it. Despite the eyebrow-raising, but laughable, “surprise” ending, this is not only Hitchcock lite, but De Palma lite, and offers zero titillation & none of the cool De Palma set pieces that normally salvage even his most egregious projects. For God’s sake, he doesn’t even let the reliably hammy John Lithgow cut loose for our amusement. So dull even incest can’t save it.

Radio On (Dir. Christopher Petit, 1980)

This snail’s pace British road movie co-produced by Wim Wenders & lensed by Wenders regular Martin Schafer, has visual style to spare, but you may not want to watch it without a pot of coffee on hand. A London DJ drives to Bristol to investigate his brother’s suicide, finds more ennui along the road (despite a jarringly friendly interlude with fellow Eddie Cochran fan, Sting, at a gas station) & eventually treks back home. The black & white cinematography outright shimmers, as if the world were made of chrome & the beautiful soundtrack, from Kraftwerk, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, David Bowie, Lene Lovich, and others, floats in and out like radio transmissions from another world. It really is a gorgeous film, but it’s also slooooow going.

Silent Partner (Dir. Daryl Duke, 1978)

Elliot Gould plays a grossly underestimated shopping mall bank teller who finds a “practice” hold-up note on a bank receipt & begins playing a very dangerous cat-and-mouse game with sicko bank robber Christopher Plummer. Gould is perfect as the crafty schlub who begins to appear more attractive to everyone around him (fellow bank clerks Susannah York, John Candy, and bombshell Gail Dahms, as well as Plummer’s lady friend Celine Lomez) as the game progresses. Just when you start fearing the whole affair will surrender to antic playfulness, Plummer will beat a girl to death in a sauna or decapitate another using a shattered fish tank. The movie’s kind of a mess and we begin to wonder a little too soon whether career criminal Plummer is really any kind of match for Gould at all, but scene-for-scene it’s wildly entertaining and, best of all, unique in its shrewd approach to crafting characters & ability to shift tones on a dime without losing crucial momentum.

Steelyard Blues (Dir. Alan Myerson, 1973)

Despite a great cast of late-‘60s/early-‘70s stalwarts – Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle, Howard Hesseman, Jane Fonda, and John Savage – it doesn’t take long for this shaggy dog tale to succumb to terminal whimsy. Oddballs, led by ex-con Sutherland, try to rebuild a scuttled twin-engine flying boat to escape responsibility, gainful employment, and THE MAN, here personified by Sutherland’s police captain brother, Howard Hesseman. The movie tries for a melancholy sort of madcap, but never once puts enough on the line for us to care about any of the people involved, and the vile sunshiny pop from Paul Butterfield, Maria Muldaur & Nick Gravenites? The less said about that, the better. It’s probably a bad sign in one of the movie’s first scenes when Sutherland has to revive his Hawkeye whistle from Altman’s M*A*S*H to get a laugh.

Billy Budd (Dir. Peter Ustinov, 1962)

Splendid adaptation of Herman Melville’s tale of a merchant seaman (Terence Stamp) impressed into service on a British naval vessel & accidentally killing a sadistic master-at-arms (Robert Ryan). The court martial proceedings are beautifully rendered & highly combustible, raising all of Melville’s philosophical concerns about good & evil without sacrificing narrative tension.

Cinderella Liberty (Dir. Mark Rydell, 1973)

Navy man James Caan, docked in Seattle for the night, wins hooker Marsha Mason in a pool game, and proceeds to fall in love with her, despite small drawbacks like her 10-year old mulatto son and, um, her job. Great, grainy atmosphere and a bang-up supporting cast (Eli Wallach, Sally Kirkland, Burt Young, Dabney Coleman…) make up for the usual strained performance from Mason, who always looks like she’s on the verge of spraining something. 

Cisco Pike (Dir. Bill L. Norton, 1972)

Just released from prison on drug charges, has-been rock singer Kris Kristofferson’s plans to go straight are seriously impeded by crooked narcotics officer, Gene Hackman, who blackmails him into selling $10,000 worth of stolen pot. Hackman’s slimy & sly as a swamp in June, Kristofferson plays lost honor with his usual clenched jaw and hundred-yard squint, Karen Black has the requisite world-weary sensuality, and Harry Dean Stanton, Joy Bang, and Doug Sahm give that fine 70s downbeat some crucial hangdog atmosphere. Recommended.

John & Mary (Dir. Peter Yates, 1969)

A one-night stand between a furniture designer (Dustin Hoffman) and an art gallery assistant (Mia Farrow) leads to much well-intentioned introspection (always so good on film) over the nature of love and attraction. Peter Yates gets fine, subtle performances from the two leads and the upscale NYC locations have the same reliably distancing effect they have in Mike Nichols’ Closer. It’s talky and slow-going at times, but gritty and real enough that you want to stay with it.

The Manitou (Dir. William Girdler, 1978)

Susan Strasberg (Psych-Out) has the fetus of a 400-year old Native American demon growing on her back. Doctors are flummoxed and so is her ex-boyfriend, phony psychic Tony Curtis. Only new-fangled medicine man, Michael Ansara (Day of the Animals, Dear Dead Delilah), can help. Completely enjoyable trash from the always enjoyably trashy Girdler (Grizzly, Asylum of Satan, Abby).