Friday, November 30, 2007

At The End Of The Day

CASINO opened Thanksgiving weekend in 1995. People yawned. I’m sorry, were we insane? Were we just too dazed from having seen GOLDENEYE? I admit that the first time I saw it the movie wore me out. Maybe that’s why, to this day, I never like going to see three-hour movies after a long day at work. But the second time, it worked better for me. By the third time, I was thinking, “This is amazing…This is AMAZING.” Before the whole DVD thing happened, my many viewings were on a letterboxed tape, but I wasn’t just watching it multiple times. I found myself absorbing it in pieces, as if I were taking what I needed from the film a little at a time. The structure of it allows you to enter the narrative for a section or two and then you can walk away until the next time you need a hit off it. There are movies where you just want to dive in the deep end and swim around for a while. CASINO is one of my favorite films for doing that.

GOODFELLAS was and is a masterpiece, there’s no arguing that. One long ago interview with Scorsese pointed out that CASINO was like EL DORADO to the RIO BRAVO that is GOODFELLAS. It’s an amusing thought, and gets one to hope that the director will get around to his RIO LOBO one of these days, but it doesn’t hold too much water. EL DORADO was, for Howard Hawks, a case in storytelling of saying, “Instead of this way, we’ll go that way.” CASINO seems to be a way of deepening the themes that were already explored, with richer characters. Whether the real people portrayed in the earlier film had less substance is ultimately irrelevant. But the fact remains that none of them seem to ever have the insight of Joe Pesci’s Nicky being able to sit down when he realizes how bad things are getting and saying, “I fucked up good this time.” Or the pragmatic sense that De Niro’s Ace and Sharon Stone’s Ginger seem to have to call off their fighting for a moment and quietly try to discuss what’s happening. “What if he won’t stop?” he asks. I can back him off,” she answers. None of these bits of insight and humanity seem to do them any good in the end (to allude to a phrase that Sam “Ace” Rothstein seems to like), but for a few seconds there is this glimpse of surprising, recognizable humanity in each of them.

And he has Frank Vincent, out of nowhere deep in the film, confronted with a question, get a voiceover for himself just before he answers it. It hasn’t happened before and it won’t happen again. Who’s to say a minor character in a voiceover-laden film can’t get one little bit to himself? Where is that written? Scorsese gets you asking those questions, continually wanting you to find those answers for yourself.

It’s also hard not to think about the 70s film revolution Scorsese was involved in, a period that he was ultimately one of the few real survivors of. “It turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fucking valuable again,” says Joe Pesci’s Nicky, and he could be talking about any director who was a powerful as Scorsese during that decade. He could be talking about Scorsese. Like Ace, the director survived in ways that don’t even make much sense in movie logic. In the end, his reliance on what he perceived as a sure thing may have led to his downfall but not to his demise. And, in the case of Scorsese, his reemergence after that period.

And I think about Sharon Stone in this film. Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t care. But she takes her aura as one of the last real movie stars and turns in a performance that is so powerful, it makes every crappy movie she ever made irrelevant to me. I think about that elegant shot of her near the beginning when she is first seen. It’s over narration and we never see the shot recur again, but the journey she takes from there, where we see her in the most impossibly beautiful way, to where she ends up, is one that is truthful, fucked-up and ultimately a triumph for her. She’s not so good in the role that she received an Oscar nomination…she’s so good that it’s almost surprising that she got that nomination. This is a film almost entirely populated by men strong, like De Niro & Pesci, and weak, most notable in the ineffectualness of characters played excellently by people you’d expect to be live-wires, like Don Rickles, Kevin Pollack and James Woods. But Sharon Stone as Ginger, the one prominent woman in this group proves herself to be the real wild card, not just in her hustler ways, but in how her sexiness, her ferocity and ultimately her desperation screws up everyone. Ace Rothstein tries to do everything possible to help her, to reason with her but nothing he or anything anyone says can ever get through. De Niro doesn’t have the showy role this time, but all we need to understand everything about him and what Sharon Stone does to him is the look on his face when their eyes lock for the first time and Scorsese freezes on her. That’s all he needs to do.

At the end of the day, CASINO is Scorsese taking his knowledge of film grammar and attempting to expand it to new heights. I can watch it all day and never get bored. In truth, I feel unqualified to write a full appreciation of CASINO, but maybe someday. For now, I will continue to be thrilled by every single shot in the thing.

And that’s that.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Every Penny Of It

When Eva Green as Vesper Lynd first comes into frame well into CASINO ROYALE, she has me right away. I’m a big fan of the movie anyway, but she puts all my feelings about it over the top. Like what happens with several Bond films, you’re waiting for the whole thing to fall apart, but it never does and even after several viewings it still holds together for me. The film pulls off so many things I look for in a Bond film. The tone, the action, the coolness, an actor in Daniel Craig who becomes James Bond in every possible way and a performance by a female lead who is able to live up to playing such a key role in the Bond mythos as Vesper Lynd. She’s smart, elegant and beautiful. She’s stylish, confident and yet it doesn’t take too long for Bond to poke a few holes in that façade. There’s a shyness in there which almost seems so genuine that I have to believe it’s a genuine element of Green’s personality coming through. She puts up a good front and you believe that every eye in the room is on her when she enters. And when Daniel Craig walks in to find her shivering, fully clothed, in the shower, it’s impossible for me not to fall for her and want to take care of her. When I first heard that Eva Green was playing the part it was hard not to think “Of course!” and wonder why I hadn’t thought of it before. And still, she brought to the role more than I would have imagined, just as the film was more than I expected.

If Green doesn’t come to Hollywood, as she has said she has no plans to, I honestly couldn’t blame her considering it’s hard to imagine what sort of studio films she could appear in. It’s hard to imagine her starring in a romantic comedy. And yet, I wish there were six films starring Eva Green in the coming year. A thriller starring her, a good thriller, a real movie, where she is able to play an adult woman in her twenties like she is, as opposed to a “girl”, could be very promising.

If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine myself standing next to Eva Green, seeming as cool as Daniel Craig does. But I can’t close my eyes that hard—even when imagining it I’d still wind up blabbering nonsense instead of getting out an actual sentence to her. That’s just the kind of girl she is. That’s just the kind of guy I am. I’m trying to live with it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Strangely Attractive

Over the weekend Nikki Finke’s site has been hosting a number of videos featuring high-profile actors in regards to the current WGA strike (for the record, Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur fully supports the WGA in this matter). One of these spots features long-married couple Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss playing a game of charades. Prentiss mysteriously has one arm in a cast and—hang on a second! Paula Prentiss!!?? Really? When was the last time anyone saw her anywhere? How is she? Why does she have an arm in a cast? And why aren’t there ten other Paula Prentiss movies in my DVD collection?

I’ve seen THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT and WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT, there are a few titles I haven’t checked out, there’s her infamous nude scene in 1970’s CATCH 22 but even by the time of that film her popularity seems to have peaked and after that there’s just her supporting roles in THE STEPFORD WIVES and THE PARALLAX VIEW to keep us interested. Why she didn’t become a bigger star in the sixties is beyond me. Maybe it was the collapse of the studio system, maybe she was more interested in marriage to Richard Benjamin, maybe it was a combination of circumstances. What we do have to see her at her best is Howard Hawks’ late career 1964 comedy MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT?, maybe the best starring role she ever had to play. Too bad the film, one of several Hawks disappointments in the sixties, isn’t better.

Rock Hudson plays Roger Willoughby, author of a best-selling book on fishing who is cajoled into taking part in a fishing tournament at the risk that everyone will learn the secret that he has never been fishing in his life. Prentiss plays Abigail Page, the public-relations rep who has to help him keep his secret. It’s most enjoyable these days to those Hawks fans who are already used to his rythyms and preoccupations. That would include me, Quentin Tarantino and maybe a few others. I find myself sitting through it every now and then, but even I have to admit it’s a long two hours, compounded by the fact that it’s a rather dull premise with an uninteresting setting. Maybe there’s a movie in existence that could get me interested in fishing, but this isn’t it. Rock Hudson is playing a role which was conceived for Cary Grant but Grant, who did want to work with his old friend Hawks again, must have realized that this wasn’t prime material and passed on it in favor of CHARADE. So Hawks was left with Rock Hudson, who to put it kindly wasn’t as adept at slapstick as Grant was. And too much of it simply moves too slow anyway, with lots of Mancini music designed to tell us how ‘funny’ everything is. Fortunately there’s a good amount of classic-sounding Mancini cocktail music in the evening scenes. And it goes with the territory—even before they’ve gotten up to the lake where the bulk of the film takes place, there’s already been a number of martinis guzzled, the drinking continues when the fishing begins and Rock Hudson even has a cigarette dangling from his mouth when he’s in a canoe. All this drinking and smoking makes me look forward to the second season of MAD MEN.

But the best part of the whole film is easily Prentiss, tailored out like a classic Hawks chick and with enough enthusiasm for five movies. When I think of the Hawks Chick and everything that means, she’s definitely on the list of actresses that come to mind. Much is made about how Rock Hudson refers to her as 'strangely attractive'. She is that, but she's much more as well. The range of octaves that her voice is able to cover, the razor-sharp wit she exudes and her obvious beauty make her pretty easy to fall for and it’s delightful to see that all of those features are still there in this WGA video, even as she approaches seventy. I’ll watch MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT? again one of these days and I may again be disappointed by it, but I’ll always enjoy her work in the film and imagine a world where Paula Prentiss was a huge movie star.

And I have to say that she and Richard Benjamin look like a very happy couple. Dinner parties at the Benjamin household must be a total blast. I just hope her arm heals soon.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sifting Through The Mist

In the very first shot of THE MIST we get a look at several striking pieces of artwork as we are introduced to Thomas Jane’s character. We shortly find out he designs movie posters and in fact the pieces of art we see were all drawn by Drew Struzan who, if you looked him, you would learn that he has designed at least a few of your favorite movie posters. We get a little bit of dialogue about this, including a welcome slam at lame photoshopped posters consisting of “two heads” but it’s impossible to notice that in that very first shot one of the posters is very obviously the legendary artwork for John Carpenter’s THE THING. It’s a bold move on writer/director Frank Darabont’s part, reminding us of an inarguable horror masterpiece right of the bat, but one I at first thought was a mistake—after all, how could what we were about to see live up to that memory. Now, thinking back on it, my feeling is that Frank Darabont wasn’t saying he was going to deliver us the next great horror masterpiece as much as giving us a reminder about these great films we used to know and he simply wants to aspire to giving us that feeling once again.

Back in the day Darabont had a hand in the scripts of a few films that I would hold up as examples of eighties horror that I like: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and the 1988 remake of THE BLOB. Both were directed by Chuck Russell and both pulled off that appropriate feel of what they were supposed to be and is something that Darabont is obviously attempting to return to here (we’ll avoid any mention of THE FLY II). I’m as big a fan of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION as most of the world is, but not so much his other films. THE MAJESTIC, for one, really is terrible. I would call THE MIST a return to the genre for Darabont, but that kind of undersells it. Instead, it feels like a full embrace of a type of film he’s always loved and maybe misses dearly. In the course of these two-plus hours, he makes up for lost time.

For those who haven’t read the Stephen King novella (I did, but it was so long ago that I remember next to nothing about it), THE MIST is primarily set in a Maine supermarket, just after a torrential storm. As citizens of a small town scramble to buy food and supplies, a strange mist suddenly appears and they quickly learn that it’s not going to let any of them leave there alive. Just about the only thing I do remember about the novella was the mundane effectiveness of the setting and Darabont nails that element which has stayed with me.

Simply put, I think the film of THE MIST works pretty damn well. It’s not perfect—an early sequence heavy in CGI contains some shots which look a little unfinished. I also wish Darabont the director had forced himself to get this thing down to under two hours, as some other early scenes just feel a little too slack. There’s probably a naturalistic flavor the film is going for and at times that succeeds, but at other times it gets in the way of the tension we need to be feeling. Fortunately, the pace soon picks up as it needs to and even the expected CGI effects become effective and even pretty damn scary. The film also has the advantage of a very strong cast in addition to Jane, including Andre Braugher, Laurie Holden, Marcia Gay Harden along with Darabont veterans William Sadler and Jeffrey DeMunn, each of which are played very much as real people, not simply as stock types. But it’s Toby Jones (Capote in the Capote film no one saw) , the supermarket employee who turns out to be more dependant than anyone expects, who steals the movie and manages to get the audience on his side almost more than anyone else. There’s a lot going on in this supermarket during the film and Darabont doesn’t slack off over certain details. The extensive effects don’t overwhelm the actors and the people remain believable, even if some of them out of necessity go as over the top as some might in such a situation.

The mood I was in this Thanksgiving, it wasn’t a day where I wanted a schmaltzy feel good movie. Good thing I chose THE MIST—like the best of King, it’s a dark tale where the humans are as bad as the monsters and the fact that they are recognizably human as this happens makes it all the more terrifying. The film is scary, gory and mean, just as it should be. And the ending, about as dark and unexpected as is possible, was so much the thing I needed on such a day, it made me want to leave the theater doing a jig. It's not from the book, but King apparently approves and it fits in with some of his other work so well it's hard to believe it didn't originate with him. And like all endings of this type, it totally alters the movie and makes it something other than what it had been up to this point. People will hate this film, just as they hated Carpenter’s THE THING back in the day. And while it doesn’t rank alongside that landmark, as time goes on I think people will realize how much Darabont has succeeded in capturing some of the feel of terror that film had. At the very least, it’s earned the right to be mentioned in the same sentence.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Early in the day on Thanksgiving I was listening to Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW. At one point a track began, very lounge, very sixties, very Hugo Montenegro, with wordless male vocals moving things along. After a few seconds I thought, “What are they playing, the theme to LADY IN CEMENT?” Then I thought, “How could I possibly pick out the theme to LADY IN CEMENT so quickly? And why would they be playing that? It can’t be LADY IN CEMENT. It’s not even a good movie.” Then, a moment later, the DJ came on, telling us we were listening to Hugo Montenegro’s theme to LADY IN CEMENT. Oy.

So on the occasion of that reminder of the person that I am and all of the things swimming around up in my brain, I have reached my One-Hundredth post. When I first started this blog, I wasn’t sure if it would last a month. Instead, I have found it to be an enjoyable and fulfilling way to express my continuing love for film. My thanks to anyone and everyone who is reading this and has sent supportive comments my way.

Now, for no other reason except to help celebrate the occasion, here's a photo of Mrs. Peel herself, Diana Rigg. Cheers.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Kind of a Gorilla

This may only be for people who lived in New York during a certain period.

There’s a period in my childhood that was marked by WOR Channel 9 in New York showing the same triple bill every Thanksgiving: KING KONG, SONG OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. To this day, when I think of Thanksgiving I think of KONG. These days I may not be able to view the same old commercials for Crazy Eddie and Toy World like I did then but the DVDs help to at least partly recreate this feeling.

Why these movies became programmed during Thanksgiving is something probably lost to history, but maybe the KONG connection to New York had something to do with it. Now, I love KING KONG but for reasons I cannot fully explain I have stronger memories or watching SON OF KONG in its entirety more than any other part of that afternoon of programming--the timing of when we ate must have had something to do with it. SON OF is pretty obviously assembled in haste and isn’t much of a movie but I still like the ‘Continuing Adventures of Denham and Englehorn’ feel of the first half and the second half has enough moments that have stuck with me since childhood so I can sit here right now and enjoy it pretty easily. And while female lead Helen Mack may be no Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham is absolutely right when he says, “She’s got something…she’s got personality.” Every time I see the movie I wind up looking forward to her first appearance.

A page at the DVD Drive In web site details the chronology of WOR offering this selection and it’s genuinely surprising to learn that the lineup I remember didn’t exist for as many years as I would have thought. But I suppose that everything about childhood seems to last longer than it really did. The 1933 KING KONG was already a film of the distant past when I first saw it and it’s much more in the past now. But the association I have with it, one that its creators never had in mind, remains strong. I hope someone else out there makes that KONG-Thanksgiving connection and as long as that happens I have to think that there is something right out there in the world. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lucky To Be Alive

I still think that there’s a Saturday Night Live sketch somewhere in that pool table scene between Tom Cruise and Sydney Pollack in EYES WIDE SHUT. The way Pollack lays out all that exposition, the way Tom Cruise seems to respond to every statement by repeating it—heck, he does that the whole movie, even to the point of repeating what his own daughter says to him. I don’t quite know what the sketch would be but there’s just something so damn hypnotic about the scene and it was the first thing I wanted to see when I popped the new DVD into my player. Of course, it can easily be said that there’s something hypnotic about the whole movie.

The thing is, we have to look at EYES WIDE SHUT as a film which will remain unfinished. Stanley Kubrick planned for many things in his career but he didn’t plan for his own death in March of 1999. You’ll never convince me that, four months before its release, the man who continued editing 2001 and THE SHINING several days after they opened in theaters wasn’t going to continue tinkering with his film, if not make substantial changes. But if this is the EYES WIDE SHUT we will always know, I’ll take it. I’ve seen the movie numerous times over the years, but unfortunately only once in a theater. My opinion of it doesn’t change, but my perceptions of certain things always seem to, like how the use of the color blue seems stronger each time. This new disc is the unrated version, with all the debauchery that we’re meant to see and yes, it is an improvement. I’ll never believe that Kubrick wouldn’t have had opinions about that change and it’s fortunate that we in the states are finally getting to see what is as close to the real EYES WIDE SHUT as we’ll ever know for the first time.

Set in present day New York, it’s a world I am able to be more familiar with than any other Kubrick film. The Central Park West address the Hartfords live on seems to place it in Woody Allen territory and it’s an interesting alternate version of the film to imagine. The apartment has just as many books on the shelves as people do in Woody’s films but the feel of the place is more opulent. Dr. Bill seems a little too well-off for what I imagine his position is, but I suppose if he has people like Victor Ziegler in his life he’s doing pretty well.

I love party scenes in films and as far as I’m concerned the one at the beginning of EYES WIDE SHUT is one of the great party scenes. It drifts along, it takes detours, there’s flirting, people are met, people drop away, the characters get drunker as it goes along. It’s a shame that we don’t get a few more seconds of Gayle and Nuala (“N-U-A-L-A”) as they try to take him “where the rainbow ends” and it’s impossible not to read volumes into that look they give each other when he is led away.

As Dr. Bill is engaged in his own flirting, Alice is quickly getting buzzed as she continues her dance with Sandor Szavost (“I’m Hungarian.”). Admittedly, I’ve never been the biggest Nicole Kidman fan. I guess I lost interest around the time she lost the frizzy hair but by a certain point she just began to seem plastic and artificial to me. At least in TO DIE FOR this made sense but there’s always been something very distancing about her to me. So it was my surprise that it was on this viewing of EYES WIDE SHUT where I found myself drawn to her more than ever before. From the moment she picks up that glass of champagne on the way to the bathroom and downs it in a few seconds, all the way to the point when Tom Cruise gets called out of their late-night pot session, she owns the movie. With this sudden revelation, I found myself wishing we would stay there with Alice instead of following Dr. Bill out to cavort with Marie Richardson’s grieving daughter and Vinessa Shaw’s nicest-prostitute-in-the-world. It wasn’t until we move below street level into the Sonata Café that I found myself drawn back into the film (though it always bugs me that Dr. Bill enters just as Nick Nightingale’s set is wrapping up).

Dr. Bill has to depart from Alice out of necessity for a long stretch of screentime and when he finally returns to her it’s to a long monologue just as she is woken up in the early morning hours and it’s always my least favorite scene in the film. I know it shouldn’t be. I know it’s thematically important. But from now until doomsday, I think that whenever I watch the film I’m just going to zone right out during that scene. After following Dr. Bill through his night, listening what Alice was dreaming about at the exact same time just isn’t something I can bring myself to be interested in. From that point on, the character of Alice has lost me.

It’s hard to avoid mentioning how good Todd Field is as Nick Nightingale and what a vivid, unspoken characterization he brings to what are really just a handful of scenes, a few of which he’s really just an extra. Random Todd Field bookends—way back in 1999 he appeared in a movie called GROSS ANATOMY as a med student who gets kicked out of school, prefiguring the character he plays here. And just after the release of EYES WIDE SHUT he appeared in Jan De Bont’s lousy remake of THE HAUNTING as someone else who we think will stick around in the film longer than they do. De Bont was placing Kubrick references in each of his films at this point and it was hard not to think of Todd Field as a sort of walking Kubrick reference when he turned up in the film. That’s just about the only thing I remember about THE HAUNTING.

Noticing the obvious backlot use throughout—do we see the same block over and over? The same two blocks?—is unavoidable. Saying it gives the film a dreamlike quality offers a good reason for this—some may say excuse, but not me—but this doesn’t fly as much with the daytime scenes when it’s hard not to feel like some more realism is needed. And yet, when we’re back out at night later on with that street seeming just too deserted even for late night New York, everything about the frisson of that dreamlike feel seems to take hold, from the anonymous cab driver who shouts “Off duty!” to that New York Post headline provocatively reading “LUCKY TO BE ALIVE” a touch I remember noticing on my first viewing and something that jumps out at me each time I see it. I can’t believe that such an element was unintended.

And yet, why does the headline inside the Post which actually pertains to the plot read in a strange use of language “Ex-beauty queen in hotel drugs overdose”. Why does such a sloppily written heading get several big close-ups? Why do I always find myself looking forward to the smiling waitress who says, “I’ll bring it over to you,” when Dr. Bill orders a cappuccino. Is there really such a place in Greenwich Village or did Kubrick go there at some point in the 50s? And why is this film set during Christmastime, anyway? Did Shane Black do a pass on the script?

And once again, whenever we get to that scene with the pool table I find myself noticing the exhaustion noticeable in Tom Cruise, wondering how much of that is the character and how much is really him. I watch Sydney Pollack telling him everything—or is he?—and revealing things that should make him villainous and yet in his way of tossing out phrases like “he’s back with his family, you know, banging Mrs. Nick,” I find myself liking him more than any other character Pollack has ever played. And I wonder what it would be like to play pool at that table. And as he tells Dr. Bill, who may or may not be lucky to be alive at that point, “Someone died, it happens all the time. But life goes on, it always does. Until it doesn’t. But you know that, don’t you,” it’s hard not to look at it as being the correct ending for both the movie and the career of Kubrick in general. Just leaving us hanging on a tightrope after that line would be audacious to say the least. But then, we wouldn’t have the great last line that Nicole Kidman has. It’s just one of the many conundrums of EYES WIDE SHUT.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

For More Than Just Your Money

A moment of silence, please, for Michael Blodgett, who died last week at the age of 67. Blodgett appeared in such films as Roger Corman’s THE TRIP and Blake Edwards’s THE CAREY TREATMENT. He was also a novelist as well as a screenwriter, with credits that included THE HERO AND THE TERROR and TURNER & HOOCH. But it was his role in Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS as gigolo Lance Rocke, “Greek God and part-time actor” which earned him his place in cinema history. A hateful character, yes, but like everyone in the movie I think of him with fondness. And he got Kelly McNamara into bed with relatively little effort. Maybe he didn’t deserve what he got in the end but, hey, he accepted that invitation to Z-Man’s house. And, as the narration tells us, “Those who only take must be prepared to pay the highest price of all.” Blodgett was by all accounts involved with co-star Cynthia Myers at the time and, though they don’t interact much at all in the film, the couple can be seen full-on making out in the legendary “photo shoot” trailer which can be found on the DVD.

I crossed paths very briefly with Blodgett about a decade ago when he was married to Meredith Baxter, but we never actually met (one of several extremely uninteresting stories I have of encounters with BVD personnel). Even in that tiny encounter it was hard not to look at him and think that this was what Lance Rocke would look like many years down the line. Even when I met his daughter Heather at a party back in 2001 I kept on thinking, “It’s Lance Rocke’s daughter…”

Naming my favorite line for the “blue-eyed soul brother” in the screenplay written by Roger Ebert would be a pretty tough competition, but “Since the last time I saw you, you won the Heavyweight Championship. Congratulations!” definitely ranks way up there. A guy I knew used to say that the reason you keep on going out to parties in L.A. is the hope that one day you’ll wind up at Z-Man’s. Blodgett’s performance as Lance Rocke is one of the things that makes BVD so unforgettable and one of the reasons we want to find our way to one of those parties at Z-Man’s. Done deal, Lance. Please raise a glass of “sauce” tonight in memory of Michael Blodgett.

“And how’s she getting home?”

“It’s her car.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

Until the Mess Gets Here

Several times over the past week I’ve run into other people who have seen NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and we just found ourselves nodding over some unspoken agreement about the film. We obviously felt the same way about it and maybe weren’t saying much because we still wanted to let it percolate in our heads a little.

It’s clear that people are going to have opinions about things that occur late in the film—none of which I’m going to talk about here. During a key scene in the final section, with my mind still reeling over the directions it was going in, it started to sink in to me what the film was about. The thing is, it was such a personal connection that I was drawing—no way I’m talking about that either—that of course the movie isn’t really about those things and days after seeing it the connection doesn’t really hold up. An icily dark thriller with patches of black comedy shot mostly in the deserts of New Mexico, NO COUNTRY stars Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson and Kelly Macdonald—each role expertly played. And of course there’s Tommy Lee Jones, basically the protagonist though some people will have differing opinions about that, in a role seemingly designed to feed off audience expectation of what we expect his Sheriff character to do in the course of the film. There’s no reason for me to discuss the plot in detail right now, though it would be all too easy to talk about the best things on display here. Just go see it, marvel in how good it is and we’ll discuss the details later.

After the broadly comic double bill of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS—neither is their best work, but that’s for another time—I strongly suspected that the two would retreat for a little while before they reemerged with something surprising and that’s exactly what they have done. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN dispenses with their expected stock company (with the exception of the great Stephen Root) and while the mastery of the suspense sequences can be traced all the way back to BLOOD SIMPLE there’s a feel to it unlike anything they have presented in recent years.

In his excellent piece at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz briefly mentions Kubrick in relation to the Coens and it was my own personal thoughts about the film that made me think of an oft-quoted opinion attributed to the late director: “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” I’m undecided how much the Coens subscribe to this theory and since this film originates from another source maybe it’s a moot point. The question of whether previous Coen characters such as Barton Fink, Tom Reagan or H.I. McDunnough encounter indifference further complicates matters—it’s possible that they do, but maybe not in a Kubrickian way. It’s this presumed indifference in the world that is what gave me a sinking feeling during the final scenes in NO COUNTRY, thinking that maybe some things in life do just happen, no matter what importance we try to assign to them. The emotions that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN brought up in me have next to nothing to do with the film, but I have to believe that that’s ok. If a film causes you to sit there during the end credits and ponder stuff in your life that you weren’t expecting to think about when you walked into the theater, there has to be an element of success in that.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN isn’t just the best film from the Coen Brothers in years, it’s their first film since BARTON FINK that left me both dazzled and floored. I can't get it out of my mind, but the greatest reasons for that will have to remain my own.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Monsters Now

In his directorial debut I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND Robert Zemeckis presents the Beatles in their appearance on Ed Sullivan even though no Beatles were actually in the film. This is accomplished by very clever staging, blocking and the actual footage of the legendary program. Not only does this anticipate roles that famous people will play in films he would make such as BACK TO THE FUTURE and FORREST GUMP, but it looks forward to how he would use the alchemy of film to convince us of the impossible. I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND also has a bit where the late Wendie Jo Sperber, desperate to get out of a moving car, simply opens the door and crashes onto the sidewalk. The go-for-broke feel of that moment is one of the things that I love in his early films and it’s hard not to miss it when looking at the direction he’s gone in.

I’ll always have a fondness for the early films that Robert Zemeckis created with his partner Bob Gale all those years ago. I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, USED CARS, the BACK TO THE FUTURE films and Spielberg’s 1941, which they co-wrote, all seem to exist together as a piece and they go together as well as the films of Preston Sturges did. If only there were two or three more Zemeckis-Gale collaborations. But instead, Robert Zemeckis went down a road which favored technology over people. I would say that this is puzzling since this is the man whose first film presented a budding romance between the amazing team of Eddie Deezen and Wendie Jo Sperber. After giving the world such a miracle, how could anyone possibly have an interest in computer generated characters?

I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND is about a group of teenagers who try to go see the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and is a terrifically funny movie. Several years ago Zemeckis and Gale contributed a very good commentary for the DVD. Zemeckis sounds distracted at first, almost as if his mind is still on a sound mixing session for THE POLAR EXPRESS, but he becomes more engaged as the track goes on, laughing heartily as he remembers this film he directed long ago. But that film was a long time ago and on his commentary for USED CARS, the director frankly states that he loves the film but could never make it now, saying that it needs a “young man’s energy”. It’s a surprisingly frank admission that a director, or any kind of artist, naturally changes through the years. It’s not necessarily about growth as much as it is that you’d expect a person and their interests to change over the years. For better of for worse Zemeckis has clearly become more interested in providing us with images which no one has been able to present before. Maybe it’s that new kind of electric train set he can play with more than anything else. It’s just the way I am that this sort of thing is never going to interest me as much as watching actual people so to me a degree of soul has been lost from his films, but the skill that he brings to it is undeniable.

After BACK TO THE FUTURE, the director’s interest seemed to gradually change from an interest in the people in front of the camera to the visions in front of the camera. The somewhat invisible effects shots throughout CAST AWAY are an interesting melding of the two, but now he seems to have left those people behind in favor of how he can manipulate the images of those people—BEOWULF lead Ray Winstone looking decidedly different in the film from how he appears in real life, for example. But there’s a genuine awareness of the craft which Zemeckis brings to it that separates his film from a piece of junk like 300. The random style of cutting that is seen in most action sequences these days is totally absent here. Instead we get his awareness of how to block these scenes, how to stage them so that one shot moves into another. It’s like a combination of what the director has always known about the language of film and the direction he insists that film is going.

What I’m trying to say is that if this new version of BEOWULF has to exist then it’s a very fortunate thing that it’s being brought to us by someone who clearly understands film grammar as well as he does. It’s a form of technology that I guess I’ll never be that interested in, but watching it in the new Digital 3D format I have to acknowledge that this is something I’ve never seen before. The leap from how it appeared in THE POLAR EXPRESS to now is palpable and even if this makes it clear how transitory the state of this technology currently is, that doesn’t diminish the technical accomplishment on display here. Is that display of technology enough? Maybe for the two hours the film runs it is.

I never read the epic poem of which Alvy Singer said to Annie Hall, "Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf," so I’m unqualified to comment on any liberties the adaptation by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary takes. It’s a very good script, though it doesn’t hold together the whole way for me. Some of the plotting that could be expected from a Robert Zemeckis film doesn’t really feel like it’s there but in place are some of those breaking-the-laws-of-physics-type setups that he’s been toying with for the past several years. At one point a character thrusts a giant sword right at our POV (nice in 3D) then the “camera” swings around and moves into a medium shot so we see how the blade is mere inches from someone’s eye, a shot that would be impossible if shot “normally” but extremely well-executed. So the question would be, is this film really about telling a story or is it about astounding us with the visuals we are witnessing? Maybe that’s what’s keeping the story from really taking hold for me.

I’m not going to go on about every single impressive aspect about the film, though I could mention the uniqueness of Winstone’s lead performance, how Brendan Gleeson still manages a genuine human presence within this, the perfection of Angelina Jolie’s casting, how truly astounding the Digital 3D is. One element which stands out more than anything is Crispin Glover as Grendel. Obviously it’s not just Glover, but also many effects artists creating the character. But once he speaks and I realized who it was, Glover’s personality does genuinely come through. And the character of Grendel, not burdened with having to resemble human beings like other characters in the film, is a truly amazing accomplishment and performance by all involved. More than anything, he looks photo-realistic to my eyes. Seriously, Gollum is a Hanna-Barbera cartoon in comparison. Despite any lack of interest I may have in this technology, when I’m confronted by something like this I have to acknowledge that the possibilities of what we could see in front of our eyes in the future and actually believe could be limitless.

If I sound conflicted about this, maybe that’s because I’m wrestling with the thoughts of what I want to see, what I miss in a director I always liked and the awareness that there are new ways of doing things that I have to acknowledge. Go see BEOWULF in the best Digital 3D theater possible. Then check out the DVD of one of his early films and wonder what the happy medium between the two could possibly be. If it even exists.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Live For The Question

It could be said that the best year for films in the 90s was 1994 and the best month for films during that year was October. Among the films released included PULP FICTION, ED WOOD, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION…and the sadly little-seen Michael Tolkin satire THE NEW AGE. I was lucky enough to see it during its brief run and all these years later it remains one of my favorite films about Los Angeles, as well as one of the scariest. The characters in the film aren’t really people I know but the sense of living in this town and fearing that you’re just inches away from it all slipping away from you is certainly something I can understand. There are plenty of people moving to Los Angeles who should be given a DVD of THE NEW AGE when they arrive in town. Unfortunately, it’s not available on DVD and I’m guessing those people have long since gotten rid of their VCRs.

Married couple Peter and Katherine Witner (Peter Weller and Judy Davis, teaming up again after NAKED LUNCH) are high-maintenance Los Angeles residents whose high-paying jobs both slip away from them on the same day. Uncertain what to do next, they decide to throw a party. This results in several unforeseen collisions of different parts of their lives and their marriage becomes shaky as a result. Even as they contemplate separating, they decide on their next step with the help of their spiritual advisors: choosing to go into business for themselves, they settle on a high-end clothing boutique named Hipocracy. In spite of a lavish opening and a tiny spurt of business at the start, the store almost immediately begins to fail as their lives spiral fully out of control.

One thing that writer-director Michael Tolkin does is to never take a stance on the focus on the spirituality the characters are exploring. Are they fools to do so, are the “new age” methods they employ shams? I was surprised how some of the language used by their advisors resembles stuff that has gone out more into the mainstream in the guise of things like feng shui and The Secret. My personal experience with such things is that I can see the value in it as long as you don’t let them overwhelm you. As the immortal Egg Shen in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA says, “We take what we like, and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.” The problem with Peter and Katherine isn’t that they listen to these beliefs too much but as human beings they really are empty shells, with no inner lives to figure out how to correctly implement what enters their heads. They’re smart, but not particularly bright. They’re witty but not particularly clever. They love each other, but cheat on each other. They want to split up, but can’t bear to be apart. They spit out pithy dialogue like “Let’s cut to the chase” with self-loathing but don’t know what actual words they should say instead. If either person ever took up a hobby as dull as stamp collecting, it would automatically become the most interesting thing about them. They don’t know what they want and they don’t even know how to describe what they’re thinking and feeling. Things which are genuine are alien concepts to them. And yet, they remain fascinating to watch in their downfall…if, indeed, it is a downfall.

“No one ever taught you to be a man,” Peter Witner is told early on. It’s true and after meeting his father (played, in a very funny piece of casting, by Adam West) we can see why. Both men use the same pick-up line, “How are your morals?” to different women, which is very telling. The Los Angeles that THE NEW AGE is set in seems very genuine in the sense that much of it seems phony. While watching TV at one point, Peter muses how laser discs (remember, it’s 1994) look better than cassettes, but albums sound better than CDs, concluding, “Digital is weird.” It’s all one big mélange of unreality to him, even down to his seduction technique on his wife that includes describing the fictional place they are making love, even if it’s the exact place they currently are. His soul seems empty just as what he sells is empty. Even when he takes something he has learned which may be of value, it's in the service of a goal which is ultimately empty. At various points, character call out to him, saying “Peter!” As someone who shares this name, it always gets my attention and makes me jump a little. I can’t think of another film with a character named Peter where this is the case. Which just unnerves me…did anyone ever teach me to be a man?

Peter Weller, who has appeared in several favorites of mine, never had a better part than he has here and he truly delivers. Judy Davis, brilliant, was possibly never more vampirically sexy than she is in this film. There are also very good supporting performances throughout from familiar faces such as my one-time crush Paula Marshall as the William Morris agent that Weller is having an affair with and, surprisingly, a pre-RAYMOND Patricia Heaton as one of Davis’s friends who has a few of the most memorable scenes to play—one, involving the price of a belt, is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how money and friendship should never be mixed. Another, where Heaton’s character delivers a brutal social blow to Davis, is possibly the nastiest moment in a film filled with them. There are also lesser-known faces throughout and I find myself continually fascinated by many of them. Embarrassing confession: character actor Patrick Bauchau plays one of the Witner’s spiritual advisors and some key moments are centered around him. He’s appeared in many other things but I have to admit that several years ago when I happened to flip past a TV show and noticed that he was appearing on it, I felt a small tinge of disappointment that he wasn’t really the person he portrays here. Not my best moment, but a good indication of how this film has stayed with me through the years. And the eleventh-hour appearance by Samuel L. Jackson truly drives the movie home and makes it clear why he was becoming a superstar in PULP FICTION at the very same time.

Michael Tolkin’s name has appeared on the screenwriting credits of several films since this film was released but except for an episode of MASTER OF SCIENCE FICTION earlier this year, he hasn’t directed anything else. It’s our loss. The issues of reality, unreality and just how we’re supposed to exist in our time feel like they could use a comment from him, now that the world he presents here has graduated past dot-com, iPhones and blackberries. The themes of THE NEW AGE remain relevant and are like a mystery that I’m still trying to unravel. Just as I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing in this town. I don’t always know the answer but as THE NEW AGE reminds me, I should always live for the question.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Breaking My Concentration

After watching the new DVD of THE SHINING, I have a few questions and/or observations. This is a film that I have a greater appreciation for now than when I was younger, partly because I read everything by Stephen King back then. I think my take on the film was somewhat colored by both the changes made to the material and by King’s own well-documented lukewarm response. But all these years later the fact is that I’ve spent a great deal of time pacing in front of a typewriter (or, more recently, computer) so there are certain elements I feel I can relate to a little better. I may feel a little more like Barton Fink than Jack Torrance, but it still applies. Anyway, these are just a few thoughts.

It’s often erroneously stated that the opening shot of the film is a helicopter shot of Jack Torrance’s Volkswagen Beetle driving up through the mountains. Of course, the first shot of the is actually of a tiny little nub of an island located on a large body of water in Glacier National Park. Why is this shot here? Is it some sort of play on “No man is an island” while telling us in advance that Jack Torrance is, in fact, an island? Is it just there to creep me out?

For that matter, all of that helicopter footage haunts me. I even like getting to see more of it like what appears at the end of the theatrical cut of BLADE RUNNER. I wish we could see even more of what was shot.

That reverse angle of Jack Nicholson listening to Barry Nelson tell the story of Charles Grady, the previous caretaker who killed his family. Has there ever been a better reaction shot of a character simply listening in the history of cinema?

Jack Torrance says of wife Wendy, “She’s a confirmed ghost and horror film addict.” I just have to ask, really? Is there anything in the character of Wendy Torrance that seems remotely like she would have any interest in scary movies?

This leads to thoughts on Shelley Duvall’s performance: I remember not being very crazy about her in the film when I saw it years ago which, again, my have had to do with how I pictured the character in the book. Viewing it now, she seems to be the most fully realized character in the piece. She’s not the most relatable person here, but she seems perfectly believable as a woman so totally devoted to her husband and son, even if certain bad things have happened in the past. Remembering that brilliant SHINING trailer parody that was all the rage some time back, I kept thinking on this viewing that the fake trailer is how Wendy sees her life with Jack and Danny, or at least how she hopes it is. She has no idea she’s going to stumble into a horror movie—as far as she knows, everything is peachy keen. I did occasionally wonder about certain things, though. She ambles innocently into the room when her husband the writer is no doubt deep in thought and asks, “Hi hon. How’s it goin’?...Get a lot written today?”, no doubt thinking that what he’s trying to do must be the most breezily enjoyable thing in the world. The whole time they’ve been married they never talked about how she shouldn’t be disturbing him when he’s working? I’m not saying Jack should go after her with an axe or anything, but I can relate. Duvall comes off as so genuinely petrified through the entire second half of the film that it’s hard not to associate that with whatever she must have been going through with Kubrick during production. So it’s surprising to see her bickering right back in the making-of featured on the disc. Even if he was really pounding down on her with his direction, her response makes it clear that there’s not an ounce of Wendy Torrance in her at all.

When we see the aerial shots of the actual hotel used for exteriors, where is the hedge maze supposed to be?

Speaking of the hedge maze, the diagrams of it that we see look far simpler than it does in the famous overhead shot. I would ask how that overhead shot was done but even after hearing explanations, I still don’t fully understand so maybe it’s best if it remains a mystery for me.

If anything ever really did happen in room 237 then what, if anything, does Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) know about it? Does he know anything about it?

Thoughts of the supernatural: arguments can be made that ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN contain no supernatural material in them. It’s one of the interesting things about both movies that every single thing which happens in them is somehow possible, even if not probable. THE EXORCIST doesn’t fall into this category—right from the get-go we get clocks stopping, drawers opening, and that’s before anything really happens. With THE SHINING, does Kubrick invent a third option? It seems to accept the gift of the “shine” that Scatman Crothers and Danny Lloyd share, since we know there is an actual connection between the two. But how much of what Jack Torrance sees is truly supernatural? What about what Wendy sees? The implication is that the spirit of Delbert Grady unlocks the door of the storage room that Jack is locked in. But we never actually see this happening. So does it?

On the DVD of DEATH PROOF, Tarantino talks about the long scene where Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) gives his theory about what just happened, referring to it as the “Simon Oakland scene”. Trying to get the running time down, he thought about cutting it, but then realized the scene was needed. THE SHINING had its own Simon Oakland scene, but it was cut after the first few days in theaters, never to be seen again. Watching it this time, I had the strongest feeling that something more was needed at the end, maybe a full completion of some of the characters, maybe just a chance to catch my breath before I returned to the world. I felt like, whether the analogy is totally correct, that THE SHINING needed its Simon Oakland scene. Why did Kubrick cut it? Why did I come away from the film this time feeling like it was needed?

Maybe everything in THE SHINING doesn’t work, but right now it seems more fascinating to me than it ever did when I was younger. And more terrifying, too.