Friday, February 29, 2008

No Joke

The other night I had a dream that I was watching LOOSE CANNONS. Or maybe I dreamed that I was watching LOOSE CANNONS, but in that dream sort of way, it wasn’t really LOOSE CANNONS. Or maybe I dreamed that I was actually in LOOSE CANNONS. I’m not sure. But why was I dreaming about Bob Clark’s LOOSE CANNONS? I looked up the date of Clark’s tragic and untimely death to see if it was somehow the one-year anniversary, but that’s not for over a month from now. So I don’t have an answer. Can’t I dream that I’m in something directed by Howard Hawks or maybe a Jacques Demy film where I understand French? I mean, LOOSE CANNONS? Really?

I saw it in the theater. How many people can make that claim? I’m not sure there’s ever been a worse film given a wide release in theaters, at least not one that had such an impressive pedigree. Bob Clark directing, Richard Matheson was one of the writers, Gene Hackman and Dan Ackroyd in the lead roles and an impressive array of character actors lending support, there’s gotta be something there, right? Right?

I popped in the DVD last night to take a look at some of it. Yes, that’s right I own the DVD. Sometimes, I need to remember that this thing exists. I didn’t get very far but in its own way the film manages to be interesting due to how spectacularly uninteresting it is. A comedy which doesn’t contain a single real laugh, it runs only 90 minutes and change yet has just about the most sluggish pace imaginable, with scenes that feel like they’re going on and on, with no real point or shape. Even those that last under a minute manage to feel this way. Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times comments, “LOOSE CANNONS runs only 94 minutes but goes on for hours and hours and hours.” He was right.

Gene Hackman is Macarthur Stern, a Washington D.C. vice squad cop assigned to homicide where he is teamed with Dan Ackroyd’s Ellis Fielding, a forensics expert who is mentally unstable and continually lapses into other identities at inopportune moments, giving Ackroyd chances to do lots of pop-culture impressions like Dirty Harry, Captain Kirk, Popeye, the Cowardly Lion, etc. The pair is investigating a series of murders which leads them to porn king played by Dom DeLuise and get mixed up in a plot which somehow involves a porno film starring Hitler. These are the jokes, folks.

With no real consistent tone or laughs or excitement or even a single believable moment, LOOSE CANNONS maintains some kind of weird hypnotic effect, maybe because it’s a reminder of a time when R-Rated buddy action-comedies shot in full Panavision were more the norm. There’s also some extensive location shooting in Washington D.C. and Manhattan (the unexciting climax is at Grand Central Station) so this obviously wasn’t a cheap movie even though every fiber of its being somehow feels like it was one. I haven’t seen every film Bob Clark ever directed so I can’t say for sure that this is the worst, but it’s hard to watch this thing and believe that he was once responsible for a few very well-made movies.

The film was shot under the title THE VON METZ INCIDENT, which sounds like it should go with something actually compelling. Production began in the summer of 1988 (LICENSE TO DRIVE can be seen on a marquee in Times Square) just after Hackman had filmed his Oscar-nominated performance in MISSISSIPPI BURNING, but the final product didn’t turn up in theaters until February of 1990, when it was tossed into release by Tri-Star. Hackman, who gets to say dialogue like “Safe sex in the 80s is no joke” and “You should write a book—‘Me and My Lobotomy’”, certainly made a few movies for the paycheck in his career but why this one? Did he lose a bet? Did he really want to appear on screen with Dom DeLuise? What makes it so odd to watch is that it’s hard to imagine at what stage it could have been thought to have any potential whatsoever. It’s not a good idea, it’s not well-written or directed or anything at all. Ackroyd’s impressions are second-rate (it’s easy to imagine they tried to get Robin Williams) and Hackman, whose character is in a good mood way too much of the time, is off in his own world, probably well aware that he’s not going to lose his reputation over this thing.

Among the many familiar faces are Ronny Cox, Robert Prosky, Dick O’Neill, David Alan Grier, Tobin Bell, Nancy Travis with a bad Israeli accent, Nancy Parsons from PORKYS in a short scene at the end and a pre-LAW & ORDER S. Epatha Merkerson.

I freely admit that this is the kind of bad movie I’m drawn to. Not the so-bad-it’s-good stuff, but the type of film that while it comes from professionals is so mired in the realm between mediocrity and wrong-headedness that all I want to do is assemble a roomful of people to get them to sit down to view this thing and marvel at its very existence. Drinking will be allowed. I just don’t understand why I can’t dream I’m in an alternate version of some other movie, like a THUNDERBALL which focuses on Martine Beswick’s Paula Caplan. Or maybe I could get a co-starring role in a prequel to BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA which stars Barbara Bouchet’s character. Instead I get LOOSE CANNONS. This is my life.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

There's Your Balance

Lines of communication need to remain open. That’s the only way it can work in what I do every day but sometimes people forget that. So that’s why I’m sitting here right now thinking, when should I have my first drink? Did the day really have to go like this? Would Karen Crowder have allowed this sort of thing to happen?

Making the call that Tilda Swinton was going to win Best Supporting Actress for her role in MICHAEL CLAYTON had to do with the quality of her work in the role which has stuck with me all these months but also a sixth-sense feeling of the way the wind was blowing. For once, it’s also a genuine supporting performance, not an extended cameo and not a big star appearing as part of an ensemble. Maybe my own attempts to will the award to actually happen had something to do with it as well.

Swinton’s Karen Crowder is first seen in a bathroom stall, breathing heavily as she takes notice of the sweat stain showing through her underarm in her presumably expensive clothing. The amount of time we see Karen Crowder preparing herself, rehearsing herself always makes us think back to this beat, contrasting the hard-faced businesswoman who barks down George Clooney’s Michael Clayton in the scene where they first meet with the person rehearsing herself in the mirror as we spot that chunk of flesh under her bra. The character has allowed herself to become so morally compromised that she can no longer be thought of as in over her head. She’s an intelligent person who has allowed herself to become a hateful bag of nerves in this world of ours. And yet, in those private moments we’re given a peek behind the curtain to see the human being that is still trying to peek through.

It’s one of the successes of the film that she is playing essentially “the bitch” but the movie is too smart to ever see her in such a simplistic way. Part of it is definitely on the page in Tony Gilroy’s script and part of it is also in the way she carries herself every instant she’s onscreen. She addresses the issue of balance in life and work as if it were a purely intellectual concept, rehearsing her own spontaneity of the answer as she comes down on the work side of the equation concluding, “There’s your balance.” It’s a brilliant little moment in both script and performance. Her entire role, a good chunk of it played alone, is filled with moments like that and Swinton earns the private moment her character receives near the end. I wouldn’t have anything to say to Karen Crowder if I ever met her and I’m fairly certain she would treat me with total disdain. It doesn’t prevent me from finding her completely and continually fascinating.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Double Giallo

Friday night at the Egyptian you could see the giant tent being erected in front of the Kodak Theater for the Oscars several blocks down. The American Cinematheque was showing GONE WITH THE WIND in the main theater, a fairly ideal choice to be screened the weekend of the event and it looked like swarms of people were heading in there. Naturally, I was going into the much smaller Spielberg Theater to attend the maiden night of their new Cult Cinema Club for which two films, titles unknown going in, would be screened on DVD via digital projection. Both unavailable otherwise and, safe to say, relatively unknown in this country.

I could try to write out a synopsis of DEATH LAID AN EGG but it would be a lost cause. Directed by Giulio Questi, it defies true description and pretty much defies valid criticism. In some ways it resembles what Godard may have done with the Giallo form if he’d made the attempt in 1968. The plot, best as I can make out, involves a love triangle between a husband (Jean-Louis Trintigant), wife (Gina Lollobrigida) and the husband’s mistress (Ewa Aulin) at a recently automated chicken farm which the wife inherited. Double crosses, prostitutes and murder come into play but so does, more surprisingly, a plotline involving mutated chickens born without wings or feet. DEATH LAID AN EGG honestly feels like a mutated chicken itself through not only its fractured method of storytelling, but the nature of how some of the shocking plot developments are presented in the most casual way possible, leading one to think, “Um, something did just happen, didn’t it? Is the movie aware of it? Am I being hypnotized? What the hell just happened now?” Adding to its use of flash-frames and a music score so harshly discordant that atonal doesn’t begin to describe the nervous vibe it gives off. The fascinating nature of certain giallos from this point in time sometimes give the feeling of a film aimed at the art house (mainly an Antonioni influence) criss-crossing into a mad killer storyline and an extremely odd, sleazy one at that. DEATH LAID AN EGG feels like it’s willingly ripping itself apart while straddling that line and flinging itself off in both, and perhaps other, directions. Sometimes you’re forced to deal with how a film may not in fact be “good” but you have to admit that it has the pull of a mad, delirious dream that you’re not entirely certain if you actually want to remember. It has headless chickens, disturbing flash frames and a considerable amount of nudity. It’s that kind of movie.

After the insanity of the first film, almost anything would have been a retreat back towards normalcy and Maurizio Predeaux's DEATH CARRIES A CANE filled that bill, serving as a more traditional giallo, if traditional is in fact the right word. While photographing her visiting aunt and uncle a woman (Susan Scott) witnesses a girl being stabbed to death by a black-clad maniac. The only thing she can be sure about the killer is that he limps, using a cane. She then finds herself pursued herself, suspecting various people around here and…that’s about it for plot points that could be easily clarified. The film is not without potential and there are some interesting ideas there but even the best scenes feel like they could have been executed with a lot more skill by certain other directors (Maybe Argento thought so as well, since a few things did seem a touch familiar). There are a few effective moments throughout which is good, along with some oddly out-of-place comedy, which is not so good. There’s also a fair amount of nudity, which is to be expected. More mediocre than outright bad, the film manages to feel both overly familiar and more confusing than seems to be necessary.

Since I’ve never seen these films before, it’s tough to tell just how much my response to them is affected by the way I saw them. As it is, the overall strangeness of the two DEATHs, even considering what is expected from the giallo, makes me feel like I viewed them while either half-asleep or drunk and I promise you I was neither. Oddly, that’s how I often find myself viewing these things at home (god bless that two-buck Chuck). For now, I’m a little flummoxed. And yet, I’m absolutely glad I saw them. In that fantasy world where the Cinematheque shows a 35mm print of DEATH LAID AN EGG, I’ll definitely be showing up for that screening.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Make Art

I know that no one will believe this, but some point late last week I started thinking “Tilda Swinton to win” and mentioned it to a few people. I don’t think they listened. The way I see it, between that, the win for ONCE and Jon Stewart’s genuinely funny monologue, I was perfectly happy. And from the moment where we saw Gary Busey verbally assault Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet, followed by Busey basically groping Laura Linney and Jennifer Garner, I knew that it wouldn’t be an entirely boring night. And circulating among the unasked-for presence of Miley Cyrus, GREY’S ANATOMY cast members and crappy songs from ENCHANTED there were enjoyable moments of interest. But I couldn’t help but notice that the lame “What would JAWS be like without this music?” routine during the Best Score presentation came in a year when the Best Picture winner, a film containing masterfully done suspense sequences, features next to no music? What would NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN be like without a score? Well, it’d still be a brilliant film that won Best Picture, that’s what! My point is that nutso contradiction is nothing new when it comes to the Oscars. Why would it suddenly change?

Some thoughts:

Stewart’s monologue was genuinely funny, moreso than he was the last time he hosted and he stayed in good form throughout the evening. It seems that no matter what the Oscar host always falls away somewhat in the back half of the show and that was the case again here. But while there was maybe no huge do-you-believe-that moments or Ferrell/Black musical hilarity there were enough laughs throughout and Stewart seemed to bring just the right Johnny Carson relaxation-vibe to his presence. He’ll be seen on that stage again.

I enjoyed quite a bit of the show while watching it, now I’m reading these bad reviews and agreeing that, yeah, there were some issues. What was the deal with these presenters? Will they realize now that they didn’t help the ratings at all. They had Julie Christie there. Julie Christie! And never seemed to think to invite her on stage for any reason. If anything, some of the continuous montages served to remind us of the history of the event and that was appreciated by me…but it also would have been nice to get a few examples of that history in the flesh. I mean, there are a few people out there who are alive.

What was that cheesy video game montage thing they did to open the show?

Hey Regis, look! It’s Xavier Bardem!

At least we never, ever have to use the phrase “the Academy Award winning NORBIT.”

Which reminds me of the good news that we don’t ever have to say “the Academy Award-winning TRANSFORMERS” either. I wasn’t in an Oscar pool but if I had been, I would have figured on TRANSFORMERS taking the tech prizes it was up for. I’m glad I was wrong.

The clip used for Ruby Dee was, what, half of her screen time in the movie?

Seconds before Marion Cotillard was announced as the winner I was sitting there going, “It’s gonna be Marion Cotillard.” I swear! Boy, she is gorgeous. And seems like a beautiful person in every possible way. I have to see LA VIE EN ROSE now. And I know she doesn’t look like that in the movie. I don’t care.

The “Periscope and binoculars” montage was sold by using just the right cheesy-inspirational music behind it. See, you need logic to make these jokes work sometimes.

Did Jennifer Hudson wake up five minutes before going out on stage?

Is Cameron Diaz just a total ditz or am I being unkind? She can’t pronounced cinematography and makes a snarky comment about SUNRISE, one of the greatest movies ever made (probably written by someone else, but still). Not charming, not cute. Has she ever heard of SUNRISE? Does she care? I have to remind myself that I’ve liked her in a few movies.

Wesley Snipes was there with Spike Lee?

Yeah, Katherine Heigl, we get that you’re nervous. Why are you presenting again?

Whose picture was shown to represent “Roderick Jaynes” during the editing category? And what would the Coens have done if Jaynes had won?

No Charles Lane in the Montage of Death. No Charles Lane!

Snarky comment: I guess we’re never going to get rid of Diablo Cody now. Okay, sincere comment: I liked JUNO and don’t have a really bad thing to say about it but never thought it was THAT good. However, the genuine emotion that came from her in her moment was hard to ignore. And good for her for thanking the writers in her speech. I honestly got the impression from her that she seems genuinely honored and aware of her good fortune to be included in such a group. If I ever see her at the New Beverly I’ll congratulate her for winning the Oscar and also for getting a prominent Dario Argento reference into that script that won the Oscar.

And I’ll admit: I couldn’t bring myself to pay attention to four of the song nominees. I was either in the bathroom, making food or on the computer. At least two of the ENCHANTED songs were deliberate Disney parody-type things—cute in the movie, torture when watched out of context. The other two songs I just couldn’t take. The performance of “Falling Slowly” was nice, but encumbered by needless orchestration. This was the moment for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova and the camera swoops over to Bill Conti for no reason? Fortunately, this was amended not just by their win and Hansard’s acceptance speech, stressing “Make Art”, but doubly so by the touching words that Irglova was allowed to return to the stage to say. Immediately it became one of my favorite Oscar moments ever. From a sincere, touching film, came these similarly touching words from an artist not just happy to be there, but ecstatic at being given the gift to express herself the way she does. It’s moments like this, provided by someone who genuinely earned the right to be standing up there, which the producers of the ceremony need to remember.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Right Words

I’m feeling weirdly disconnected from the Oscars this year, so the thought of making predictions doesn’t really interest me. Yes, there are a few nominees that I hope win that may very well win and while the Best Picture winner may indeed be a film that I love, my expectations for the evening are still pretty low. I hope Jon Stewart does a great job, I hope something wildly unexpected happens. But I don’t have much of an investment in any of it. Maybe these days I’m interested in watching too many films that would never be mentioned at the awards. Maybe it has to do with ZODIAC not receiving a single nomination, which has to be a true embarrassment for the Academy. On the other hand, I spent some of the other night looking at the new DVD of MICHAEL CLAYTON, which reminded me of how much I love it and that got me a little excited for the awards ceremony again. Then I received an email from someone I know telling me he didn’t think much of it at all, but I’m not going to apologize for what I thought of it. That’s just the way things go.

On the subject of another film I recently revisited, last fall I was restrained, unsure in my praise of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Now I’ve finally been able to take another look at it to feel more assured of my feelings on the matter. And to admit the honest truth, you could hold my hand to the fire and maybe there might be an outside shot that I’ll admit to a few small issues with the film. Maybe. If I did admit such a thing, then they’d mostly be confined to sections of the first hour, where it’s possible the film feels like it’s wandering a little too much. But to argue this point with myself, that feeling might be necessary since we do need a little bit of time to drift into the film, to get a hold of its rhythm, to allow what it’s doing to begin to wash over us. It wouldn’t be quite correct to call the 160 minute film a marathon; more appropriately, it’s like a long, slow swim through a very deep body of water. And we do need to acclimate ourselves to that environment. And when I do, I find the film to be not just aware of the cinematic possibilities in its very stillness, it seems to speak to the very yearning we sometimes have in our lives to achieve a glory which may be forever beyond our reach and certainly beyond our ability to express.

I think of not just the use of Brad Pitt here and how his own persona informs the film, but also his own unpredictability in portraying the legendary outlaw who may be even more dangerous in ways he doesn’t understand then he himself realizes. It’s the best work of his career. There are many things I can say about Casey Affleck’s work here, but most of all I think of what the actor does in that long, slow silent moment at the dinner table after Robert Ford lists off a bunch of facts about Jesse James to the man himself. There’s a mixture of envy for Jesse, hatred of Jesse and hatred of his own self which wash over his eyes during this moment and it speaks volumes for anything we ever need to know about Robert Ford. I think of the continued glares of pathetic madness that come from Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford. The look on Mary-Louise Parker’s face the last time we see her. I think of the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and how it seems to tap into just the right kind of sorrowful uncertainty of what the characters can never say. I think of the beauty of Zooey Deschanel’s appearance near the end and how the effect it gives off feels like a hoped-for benediction which is never quite allowed to occur. I think of the final half hour and how hauntingly perfect it is. I think of how this film was allowed to die on the vine by Warner Bros. who treated this work of art, this work of cinematic beauty, with pure disdain and while its existence will be noted in two nominations at the ceremony (unlike ZODIAC) it won’t be what it deserves. But the movie does exist, it will exist and I know that there are others out there who feel the same as me. And I think of that day, years in the future, where there will be some sort of anniversary screening at the Motion Picture Academy and people will react with astonishment at this film that was allowed to get away. For me, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is the best film of 2007. That’s about all I have to say.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Italian Women Being Leered At

Opening night of Eli Roth’s festival of favorites at the New Beverly, titled “The Greats of Roth”, started late which was no surprise, but not as late as may have been expected, so that in itself was a pleasant surprise. Spotted in the crowd were John and Clu Gulager, who were seated in the front two rows ahead of me, Edgar Wright Wright wandering around somewhere and Roth himself, who showed up with his parents.

But more than the chance to attend the festival, I was there to see the first film on the double bill, Sergio Martino’s TORSO aka I CORPI PRESENTANO TRACCE DI VIOLENZA CARNALE which translates as THE BODIES BARE TRACES OF CARNAL VIOLENCE. More titles like that should be on marquees these days. A giallo directed by Sergio Martino, the version of TORSO that we got to see was an old grindhouse print currently owned by Quentin Tarantino. I’d seen the movie before on DVD, probably the longer version but remembered next to nothing about it. Fortunately I’m a little better schooled in the genre by now so the chance to revisit the movie was something I didn’t want to pass up.

A fairly simple plot of a mad killer in a mask who uses a red and black scarf to strangle beautiful co-eds, TORSO is very seventies, very Italian and has many of the expected elements of the giallo— the sleaze, the girls, the violence, the black gloves, the red herrings, the bottles of J&B—except that it’s storyline of students and professors automatically excludes the beautiful, vapid rich who usually populate these movies. Because of this total lack of jet-set vibe it helps to give TORSO the feel of a slasher movie as well. But a very skillfully done, if completely depraved, slasher movie. There’s very little in the way of story outside of the simple plotline, no detailed backgrounds of the characters, there aren’t any large sums of inheritances ever at stake. Instead it focuses on the extreme sleaze, whether in its several lesbian love scenes or certain murder scenes which take things surprisingly far in tone and nudity. Every male character, staring ominously at one of the girls at one time or another is presented as an obvious suspect. Even some of the male extras seem to do little more than leering and drooling at the girls. Of course, the girls are all something to look at anyway.

The most recognizable of those girls is probably Suzy Kendall of Argento’s BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE who is basically the lead and also the “final girl” of the piece—I recalled one of the others from THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS, but I don’t know how “recognizable” that makes her. But this overriding feeling of illicit gazing at these girls carries over into the very nature of the film itself, with the way the camera roves around somehow implicating us in the treatment of its female characters. And maybe, since I’m Italian, I just realized that I would be an automatic suspect in this film as well. Maybe this overriding feeling which holds throughout gives it the feeling of being the rare movie with slasher elements that actually feels honest about what it’s trying to do. Even if that is a reach, TORSO has to be one of the sleaziest giallos from the early seventies produced during that time. Naturally, that makes it irresistible. Suzy Kendall is pretty amazing in it as well.

The shape of the print was pretty ideal. Nothing much seemed to be missing and the scratches that were there gave off the right grindhouse vibe. Yes, there was plenty of laughter from the audience but once the stuff in the isolated villa begins to take shape you can’t deny how truly suspenseful it is. You could feel the electricity building in the New Beverly during this section and the single biggest jolt of the film, which is a work of beauty, received a wave of applause from the crowd.

The second feature on the bill was PIECES. Sorry, but I went home to get some sleep.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Maybe You'll Wake Up

The crowd at the Egyptian the other night for the American Cinematheque’s preview of DIARY OF THE DEAD had just the right vibe to it, filled with people who weren’t just excited to see George Romero’s new film—it was as if their presence was part of their own commitment to cinema and their love for it. Am I getting a little lofty here? Maybe. But this is George Romero I’m talking about. He’s earned all the respect he gets.

His latest zombie installment has already been dubbed “CLOVERFIELD with zombies” which is sort of, loosely, right but only in a surface way. CLOVERFIELD takes the found-footage approach to its subject with lots of viral stuff on the side to add greater mythos to what’s on screen. The zombie mythos is the Romero universe has been well-established by this point—and even if this is a reboot, there’s a familiarity to certain things—but more importantly is that the “film” that we’re viewing in DIARY OF THE DEAD has already been fully edited and scored. The film we see is the film that the characters have made, allowing what Romero is doing to explore what the characters are seeing, what we’re seeing, what is real and if certain things are only real if they get filmed. Even if this basic idea has been used at other times, such as in MAN BITES DOG, Romero approaches what this is in the year 2008 and how it affects the Youtube and Myspace generation. “"If it didn't happen on camera, it didn't happen, right?” asks one character when it’s clear someone isn’t going to put that camera down. Why are they there, if not to film this? And if they’re not filming this, is it really happening? How the line has been blurred between what is real and what is manipulated is made evident from the very first shot, even before any zombies make their appearance.

DIARY OF THE DEAD never quite reaches the heights of its ambitions and certainly isn’t Romero’s ultimate statement on the themes that he has been exploring all these years, but how could it be? After all, he made that movie thirty years ago and called it DAWN OF THE DEAD. The laconic dialogue which paid lip service to theme (“Why do they come here?” “Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”) is expanded here to allow for lengthy narration right off the bat. Essentially, it flat-out states the theme to us throughout the entire movie going over the same points a few times too many. It bugged me while viewing it, it bugs me now, though I do have to acknowledge that any college-age students actually putting together this “documentary” probably would be over-stating their theme in such a fashion. So is the film genuinely acknowledging how the characters have over-written their film? I’m not so sure about that. The actors, all unknowns, are problematic but I don’t have as much of an issue with them as others seem to. If anything they lack the real-world weight and likability that the older leads of DAWN had (one of the things that make it so rewatchable) and even if the J.J. Abrams-sanctioned leads of CLOVERFIELD are too good-looking, those actors still manage to make a definite impression, more than they ever do here.

One film that unexpectedly came to mind while thinking about DIARY afterwards was last fall’s LIONS FOR LAMBS, which I saw but did not write about. Both films are the work of left-leaning directors (Robert Redford with the other film) in the vicinity of seventy obviously trying to get a message across to the younger generation. Except in the case of LIONS the director seems to be earnestly crying out, “Would you please just listen to me about this, it’s important!” (which it is, but that’s another can of tuna) while in the case of DIARY Romero seems to be spitting out, “Take a look at this. What do you think about that? What the fuck are you going to do about that? Are you going to fucking wake up?” And maybe chewing on a cigar while he says that. DIARY OF THE DEAD has its problems, but I have to admit that I was constantly engaged by it. Different as it is in scale and intent from LAND OF THE DEAD, I don’t know if it’s significantly better or worse, but it’s hard not to notice the added energy that it seems to have. Numerous scenes with the zombies give up the kicks we’d want from them, even if there is more CGI than would be desired--there's also a few deserved swipes at recent films which have contained fast-moving zombies.

If anything, some of the film simply feels like we’ve gone there before. "It used to be us against us; now it's us against them ... except, they are us," is stated in the narration at one point. It’s a good line, but maybe a little too close to the less-wordy “We’re them…and they’re us,” stated by Patricia Tallman at the end of Tom Savini’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake in 1990, a line scripted by Romero himself. There’s little question that DIARY is a more successful film than that was, but it’s an indication that while the world around the film’s events has changed, enough has remained the same that to the point that there’s a lot here which has been said before. Still, Romero’s passion in what he wants to say is so vivid that it’s hard not to get a thrill out of it.

The sold-out screening--with Adrienne Barbeau among those in attendance--was immediately followed by a too-short, completely aimless and extremely enjoyable discussion with Romero and John Landis, who was as excitable as expected—leave it to Landis to reference MEDIUM COOL in this context. And, considering it was shot the year NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released, it was probably a more appropriate comparison than he realized. Very little was revealed during the talk that Romero hasn’t already discussed in some of the numerous interviews he’s given lately, but his enthusiasm for this film that he shot in only 20 (!) days was obvious. It’s hard not to think that this experience has left him more inspired to continue working than maybe he has been in decades. Here’s hoping that there’s more coming from him. DIARY OF THE DEAD is definitely flawed, but the feeling of individuality that he’s long been known for is evident in the new film and that could just be enough.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


When John Barry’s haunting theme starts up at the beginning of Richard Lester’s 1968 PETULIA, the message it seems to get across is very clear: No matter what happens from this point on, you will get hurt. On the surface, PETULIA could be looked at as a time capsule piece, a vision of San Francisco at the time of Haight-Ashbury made by people lucky enough to be there at the time. But in a greater sense PETULIA is about two very different people who stumble across each other at a point in their lives when they are feeling powerless about everything going on around them. The broad strokes of that idea have changed in the world. But the specifics, the pain of not being able to achieve those things that we can’t quite define to ourselves, remain the same. The tagline on the poster was “An uncommon movie” which seems very accurate. Other movies may attempt similar approaches, but few others achieve what this one does emotionally.

Laid out in an intentionally fractured narrative (fittingly, the poster art used on the DVD is made up of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle) PETULIA tells the story of Archie Bollen (George C. Scott) a newly-divorced physician in San Francisco who meets the married Petulia Danner (Julie Christie) one night at a “Shake for Highway Safety” benefit, where society types mingle with presumed accident victims in formal wear as Janis Joplin sings in the background. Latching onto him and insisting that they will have an affair, Petulia is obviously trying to force a meet-cute to happen and makes her way into his life. Archie has recently left his wife, for reasons that even he can’t quite put into words. Petulia has been married for six months to an empty shirt with a cruel streak (Richard Chamberlain) and does everything she can to convince Archie that she is the screwball kook that she says she is, from stealing a tuba for him to turning up with the tuba’s rightful owner insisting it be returned (“All this I LOVE LUCY jazz, it’s only cute for a while,” he tells her) As she makes her way further into his life, not even making it clear if she wants to have an affair with him or not, she begins to enter his thoughts more and more, just as it becomes clear that she is hiding the truth about her marriage. As this proceeds we are treated to various flashbacks, much of them centered around a specific event in that marriage, but on first viewing it’s tough to tell if indeed they are all flashbacks and how they might fit together. Around them is the city of San Francisco in 1968, a world being transformed by the new forms of automation along with hippies everywhere as the old guard stands by. Scott’s character is as baffled as anyone, but he is more troubled by what’s going on in his own head, by his desire to “feel something”.

It’s very much an impenetrable film, partly due to how contradictory it is. You could give somebody a one-line summary, have it include the phrase ‘kooky girl’ and it sounds like the comedy its title character obviously wants to be the heroine of, but it most definitely is not. It’s filled with details such as a bizarre drive-thru hotel and nuns riding in sports cars which indicate the movie could be taken as satire but it isn’t that either. These odd elements seem to be part of how Richard Lester was looking at the world around him while making the film, such as how news reports on Vietnam can be spotted on televisions at various point, yet no one ever mentions it. It’s as if he’s feeling not anger towards the way the world is changing, but a form of despair and it’s somehow related to how the characters seem unable to communicate with each other. That’s almost how I feel about the movie. It’s one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen but I can’t even really say why.

There’s not a character here which could be explained in just a few lines. Archie’s wife (Shirley Knight) is presented as a reasonable, attractive woman understandably confused and hurt by what her husband as done. Chamberlain was cast, he says, because he reminded Lester of “an empty Coke bottle—beautiful on the outside, empty on the inside.” There are slight indications of what could really be going on with the character—Latent homosexual? Pedophile?—but the movie never pins it down exactly. Archie himself is enough of an individual to take his kids to places that his ex-wife’s new man hasn’t thought of (after being told that a trip to Alcatraz will be their second in two weeks) but even he isn’t enough to pin down Petulia. Pinning down women like Petulia is one of the toughest things to accomplish on the planet. On occasion the scales in the tone Lester is going for tip a little too far past that despair into anger—one scene in particular involving medics carrying an injured character through an apartment complex on a stretcher seems like a dark version of similar ideas in THE KNACK and it almost seems too much. But for the most part the modulated tone of melancholy seeps its way through, nailing something about the futility of trying to connect with someone like few other films ever have.

Among the remarkable performances throughout, Christie is a delightfully infectious lifeforce that you could easily imagine falling for her even during her most maddening behavior. And yet, she seems so heartbreakingly sad that you desperately want her to be rescued, even though you’re there’s nothing that can be done for that to happen. Scott is remarkable, delivering possibly the best, most purely human work I’ve ever seen from him. This seems all the more remarkable considering he reportedly didn’t really understand what Lester was doing during production but it’s possibly he didn’t have to. He just needed to find the emotional truth of his character and he nails it. Chamberlain and Joseph Cotten as father and son play two of the most viciously normal bastards of all film history, with it becoming very clear how the abuse they doll out get passed down from one to the other. Chamberlain shows those horrifying hints behind his good-looking façade, while Cotton’s character very clearly left all decency behind long ago. To counterbalance that, it’s the women of the cast who are allowed some of the most emotionally shattering moments of the film, particularly the remarkable Shirley Knight as Scott’s ex-wife and, in a smaller role, Kathleen Widdoes as the wife of Archie’s best friend, who seems fully in denial about the divorce but in private admits her greatest secret to Archie. It’s a strikingly real performance by an actress I’m really not familiar with, even in tiny scenes where she does very little. The large cast features a number of familiar faces in early uncredited bits, most notably Austin Pendleton, Rene Auberjonois and Howard Hesseman. Janis Joplin can be seen performing in the opening sequence with Big Brother & The Holding Company. It’s such a fleeting moment that you almost wonder if you really spotted her. That seems strangely fitting in the environment of this movie.

I find myself returning to PETULIA repeatedly not just to sort out its kaleidoscopic narrative, but also to figure out why I respond to it the way I do. Part of it certainly has to do with its portrayal of a time and place that I never got to witness. But most of it must have to do with some of my own experiences, my own memories that to this day continue to flicker through my brain, even if I wish they would stop once and for all. The regrets of the past and the closing of certain chapters in life often remind me how hard it is to let go of certain things. That’s why, to me, the heartbreaking end of PETULIA feels like a door closing, a form of death, a breaking of a connection that feels impossible to recover from. I’d like to believe that moving on from those losses in this life is possible, because if we live long enough, then it’s possible to learn how to leave certain things in the past. The way PETULIA haunts me means that I don’t know if it’s possible but, in truth, thinking of the sight of Julie Christie’s face makes me believe almost anything.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

In Amity One Man Can Make a Difference

And one man did make a difference. He may have needed the help of Quint and Matt Hooper, but it was Martin Brody who was there at the start for dealing with the shark and he was the one who finished off the shark off. Because he was Roy Scheider, a mere mortal, we knew that he had to work at it for that to happen. And we liked him that much more because we believed it.

The several films that Roy Scheider became best known for have become truly iconic, even to the point that I do my own Chief Brody impression. No, I won’t do it here, but ask me after a few drinks sometime. His work as Martin Brody is one of the many elements which allowed JAWS to be as brilliant as it is. The movie needed a true, normal everyday everyman in the lead and he does an amazing job of it, from his futzing with the paint in the hardware store to the way he pours all that wine into his glass to the way Brody is the last of the three men to stop singing “Show Me The Way To Go Home” when the shark begins banging on the hull, a subtle reminder how he’s less experienced on the water than the other two.

Along with JAWS and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (“Hi there”) was his work in THE SEVEN UPS, sort of the movie he got while Hackman did FRENCH CONNECTION II. It’s not that great, but the car chase which Scheider’s character is at the wheel for is astounding. The seventies also saw MARATHON MAN, SORCERER, LAST EMBRACE and ALL THAT JAZZ. In the 80s there was BLUE THUNDER—my first R-rated movie in a theater—and later on a few not-uninteresting films for Frankenheimer, 52 PICK UP and THE FOURTH WAR. Outside of the junk he was in past 1990, there was his twisted work as Dr. Benway in Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH along with appearances in THE RAINMAKER and RKO 281.

More than anything, I always think of Roy Scheider and his resemblance to my own dad. It was a very slight resemblance, yes, and more than anything it may have to do with my own recollections that he always seemed to enjoy the actor in various films. I’m not even sure where that feeling comes from--maybe it’s some long-dormant memory of watching STILL OF THE NIGHT on cable. But I do remember him being surprised by Scheider’s role in ROMEO IS BLEEDING, asking “What’s he doing in that movie?” in a bemused sort of way. So I’ve long associated Roy Scheider with that feeling, thinking that he got to star in movies back in a time when “my dad” could still be the lead in them. In that sense it’s odd that JAWS 2—which isn’t that bad, but it’s not that great either—is one of those cases where the movie spends way too much time on boring kids that we will never care about when all we want to do is get more scenes with Chief Brody dealing with his problems. That’s one of the reasons the movie has aged so badly, but now I find myself regretting not going to see it at the New Beverly midnight show a week ago.

I don’t want to mourn Roy Scheider. I want to remember him as an actor who in playing the roles he did was so obviously as determined in his work as the characters he was portraying were. Watching him on the DVD documentaries on some of his films, he seems like the sort of person who would be a blast to sit down with for a meal so you could ask him about all the things he’s done and seen. I’ll never get the chance, but I’ll gladly take more viewings of his films that I love in the coming years. And I’ll be thinking about my dad while doing it.

“What am I gonna tell the kids?”
“Tell ‘em I’m going fishing.”

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Normal Gun for a Normal Person

Since he first emerged, Colin Farrell has taken part in a number of very ambitious films several of which, through no fault of his own, failed to live up to expectations either creatively or commercially. These disappointments were directed by people with names like Spielberg, Stone, Towne, Mann, Malick and most recently Woody Allen. I can’t blame him for taking any of these parts for the opportunity to work with these people but something obviously wasn’t clicking. With IN BRUGES, it’s safe to say that he has now lived up to his potential. With a trailer that tries to sell it as a Guy Ritchie wannabe, the film could be described as what a Guy Ritchie film would be like if the director chilled out on the flash and concentrated on things like story, characterization and depth. You know, the things in films that actually matter. But instead of comparing it to Ritchie, it’s probably best to address IN BRUGES on its own and appreciate the totally unexpected surprise it really is.

When a job goes unexpectedly wrong, Irish hitmen Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to Bruges (“Where’s that?” “It’s in Belgium.”) to lay low for a few weeks and wait for the word that it’s safe to return. Ray is immediately extremely bored in the place but this is soon revealed to be a mask for his enormous guilt over the unexpected consequences of the job they just pulled off. Ken, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to appreciate their surroundings, enjoying the opportunity to relax. As the two men begin to wander the city sightseeing, certain unexpected events occur.

Written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, whose first film this is, it’s one of the numerous pleasures of IN BRUGES that even the unexpected developments aren’t what we would expect from unexpected developments. It’s never a gimmick of ‘tourists vs. locals’ and characters throughout, even down to bit parts are usually different that you would expect them to be. All three of the leads are continually doing things that are surprising, adding different shadings to their characters. What winds up occurring is a story that becomes hilariously, darkly funny and also emotionally involving to a very surprising degree. There’s an enormously tricky balancing act of tone that the film is trying to pull off and it’s a constant pleasure to discover how much it succeeds. I’m not familiar with McDonagh’s work before now, but he’s delivered a film which is rich in dialogue, as would be expected from a playwright, yet never less than thrillingly cinematic. I look forward to seeing anything that he tries next.

The good news is that the trailer doesn’t give away much of what IN BRUGES really is. The bad news is that the studio seems genuinely determined to sell it as something that it’s not. Even the stills that are out there seem to mostly display Farrell and Gleeson with big, goofy grins on their faces as if the film was some giant lark. Sorry, that’s not what it is, not by a long shot and the laughs that do come are usually not when the characters are smiling. Farrell, as I’ve already indicated, gives the best performance of his career, one that is darkly funny and surprisingly soulful with torment in his eyes that remains even when his character isn’t acting depressed. Gleeson, no surprise, is fantastic as the more thoughtful of the pair. Fiennes, who doesn’t appear in the flesh until very deep into the narrative, gets huge laughs from his very first appearance but is never allowed to become less than completely menacing, even when his character is acting strangely likable. Among the smaller roles in the film, which on the whole is extremely well-cast, some of the standouts are Clémence Poésy as a local girl Farrell takes an interest in, Jordan Prentice as a dwarf acting in a film shooting nearby, and Thekla Reuten as the pregnant owner of the bed-and-breakfast the hitmen are staying in. And the city of Bruges is allowed to become a character as well and it’s a true example of why the location of where a film is shot, which really is a crucial part of its DNA, is sometimes as important as anything. It’s one of many elements that help make the film feel unique.

I’ve been light on some of the details, but that’s because nobody’s seen this yet and they deserve to be as surprised by some of what happens as I was. I went to see IN BRUGES mostly because of some of the people involved but I had very few expectations about what was in store for me. What I got was not just better than what I expected, it was more than what I expected. It’s a movie with a soul.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

One Snake, No Plane

Piers Haggard’s VENOM is mostly forgotten today, an odd duck of a movie that stylistically lies somewhere between the 70s and 80s and additionally between the styles of American and British filmmaking. In the audio commentary on the HOT FUZZ DVD Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino muse aloud about the end of genre movies that ‘just happened’ to take place in England and it’s a fairly safe bet that the release of VENOM was right about at the end. The poster art for the Paramount release – “The Mystery of ‘The Birds’…The Danger of ‘Psycho’…The evil of ‘The Omen’…The Terror of ‘Jaws’…Now, the ultimate in suspense,” is laid out in the most enigmatic way possible, as if to disguise what VENOM in fact really is. The bizarrely overqualified cast causes it to play as if it were a movie being made in a movie but as a thriller on it’s own it actually plays pretty well. In its own early 80s way, it seems like the sort of movie that you see with a close friend in a large, empty theater on a Sunday afternoon and you both wind up remembering that viewing forever. There’s an odd charm to the thing and I kind of wish more people would see it.

When the mother of ten year-old Phillip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb) travels from London to Rome for a few days, she leaves her son in the care of his grandfather, legendary game hunter Howard Anderson (Sterling Hayden). Unbeknownst to them, the family maid (Susan George) and chauffer (Oliver Reed, given the billing ‘And Oliver Reed as Dave’) are in cahoots with a mysterious third individual (Klaus Kinski) to kidnap Phillip and hold him for ransom. Unfortunately, their plans are immediately derailed when Phillip, who collects snakes and such for his own little menagerie, returns home with a new addition but unbeknownst to everyone he was accidentally given what turns out to be a Black Mamba, the deadliest snake of all. As the police converge on the house, a hostage standoff begins with the killer reptile at loose in the house and no one knows where it will turn up next.

The first point of interest is that VENOM offers the unique thrill of watching a film and genuinely believing in the possibility that the actors will suddenly break character and begin to fight. By all accounts Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski didn’t get along at all. Well, gee, is there anyone who is actually surprised to hear that? And if the two of them went at it, it’s easy to imagine Sterling Hayden acting as referee, at least until he started throwing a few punches as well. Whatever went on between these actors on the set is the movie that would be really fascinating to see, but even so all three of these actors are very good, lending the film more tension than you could ever imagine it would have otherwise. The sweaty Reed and icy Kinski seem like genuine outgrowths of the men’s own personalities, while Hayden, in full beard just like in THE LONG GOODBYE, provides an interestingly avuncular presence before the mechanics of the plot kick in enough that he seems to fade into the background. In the pressbook notes recreated on the Blue Underground DVD, Hayden is the only actor who seems to be interviewed. “I guess I’m happier now than I have ever been before,” he says. “I have my books, my booze, my boat, my wife Kitty—and believe it or not, they keep offering me great roles in movies like VENOM.” Several years later, there were reports that Hayden was actually showing up on set drunk during the shoot and fought with the director. Either way, VENOM was his last theatrical feature.

The second point of interest is how much VENOM resembles David Fincher’s PANIC ROOM. From its contained brownstone setting involving people held captive to a child hostage in need of an asthma inhaler, the similarities are impossible to ignore. PANIC ROOM is the better film, no doubt, but it would be an interesting question to pose to Fincher or screenwriter David Koepp if there’s ever a chance to ask it. One of the main problems with VENOM is that there is always a serious flaw in any movie where the entire basis of the plot depends on a simple mistake, in this case being the mix-up at the pet store between the two snakes. If the mistake in question is somehow thematically appropriate, that’s one thing. Here, it simply seems like half-assed plotting. In addition, the mamba in question isn’t quite as crucial to the plot as the ad campaign makes it seem. Ultimately it’s not a horror film about people being attacked by a killer snake as it is a hostage thriller in which a killer snake plays a key role. So it’s no surprise that gore is kept to the minimum but even with the relatively minor body count, the deaths are strongly emphasized as if to really drive home how much the ones dying (via snake bite or otherwise) are in AGONIZING and EXCRUTIATING pain. The cast adds greatly to this as well, each somehow making their characters, as thinly drawn as they are, believably human in their own likable and unlikable ways. In addition to the main three of Hayden, Kinski and Reed, there’s also Nicol Williamson as the police commander in charge of the situation who plays his role with such intense seriousness it’s as if no one told him that he was appearing in a movie featuring a killer snake called VENOM. Maybe the movie isn’t all that great, but there’s a weird pleasure in such a deadly serious genre picture--one with no annoying twentysomethings, no unwelcome attempts at humor and a cast of professionals doing their best in spite of what the material is. So help me, I like it. Bring out some pizza and beer, I want to see it again.

The score by Michael Kamen anticipates what he would compose for David Cronenberg’s THE DEAD ZONE a few years later. Sarah Miles from BLOW UP and HOPE AND GLORY is the extremely friendly toxicology expert who was expecting delivery of the snake and shows up to aid the police. John Forbes-Robertson (Dracula in THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES) is a cop who gets killed off early on. Susan George, ten years after STRAW DOGS and looking good, strips down to her bra and panties for no particular reason. Michael Gough plays a snake expert from the London Zoo, but he never really affects the plot in any way. In closing, I love movies.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Devoured by a Shark in a Phone Booth

There’s a girl in my building who I’ve known off and on for several years now. I’ll go through periods of not talking to her at all but then I’ll see her and have a long, intimate conversation that seems to go on for hours. Did I mention that she’s mind-bogglingly beautiful? And intelligent as well, which always helps the conversation. But my point is that she’s this gorgeous girl who lives in my building. I have absolutely no allusions about any potential relationship with her, but the truth is that I’ll see her around, that automatically perpetuates the dream of more happening with her and, well, you can figure out the rest from there.

I never would have heard of Philippe de Broca’s LE MAGNIFIQUE if it wasn’t for its appearance in the great documentary on the Z Channel, but now that’s something I’m glad about. It’s a breezy concoction which seems to end almost as soon as it begins and I mean that in the best way. It’s a movie that makes me wish I were currently dating someone so I could show it to her.

We begin on an admittedly absurd spy story involving Bob St.Clare (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his contact in Acalpulco, Tatiana (Jacqueline Bisset). Several minutes after things have gotten too absurd for words, we learn that this scenario is actually part of a James Bond-type novel being written by author Francois Merlin (Belmondo again) who has already written 42 of these books and this time is using as his inspiration the beautiful student named Christine (Bisset again) who also lives in his building. As he continues to write, he finds himself also getting to know Christine, which leads to the beginning of his own self-sabotage of his own character.

The secret agent plotline is delightfully ridiculous, yet I’d still watch a full movie just made up of this story. But at the same time the real world half of the film, while never very serious, hits close to home just enough that makes the film instantly relatable to anyone who wishes that they could be as cool as Jean-Paul Belmondo. The actor is quite amazing in both halves and the Bogart vibe he gives off, at least partly due to memories of BREATHLESS, means that this would be a delightful second half of a double bill with the more serious IN A LONELY PLACE, with Bogart as a Hollywood screenwriter dealing with his own female problems. Bisset is so off-the-charts sexy here that I honestly don’t think that the word ‘sexy’ is enough to adequately describe her. I don’t think they’ve come up with the word to describe her yet. Could I meet Jacqueline Bisset at some point, please? Please? I promise I’ll be polite.

LE MAGNIFIQUE is extremely light and intentionally very silly. The DVD packaging tries to trumpet a comparison to AUSTIN POWERS and I can see what they’re getting at, but it doesn’t really apply. The gentler tone of this specific parody seems more appropriate for a French film made in the early 70s—at least what I expect from a French film from the 70s, anyway. And yet however silly LE MAGNIFIQUE gets in both of its halves it still has enough depth to remind me how cool and heroic Belmondo can be, whether as the down-on-his-luck writer or as the ultra-suave superspy. In some ways, the writer half of his character has the advantage because it illustrates how he’s still able to attract the interest of the one and only Jacqueline Bisset. That’s more than I’ve ever been able to say about my relationship with the girl who lives in my building. At the very least, it can be films like LE MAGNIFIQUE which remind me that there’s no harm in occasionally thinking that I might have a shot with her.