Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shohei Imamura (1926 - 2006)

Go see his movies.


See Army of Shadows. For reasons: check out Rosenbaum and Hoberman, and what I'm sure is a fine piece by Amy Taubin in Film Comment.

Best film released in the U.S. this year! Who cares if it's not half over yet! I don't!

Monday, May 29, 2006

B-Noir Triple Bill!: Armored Car Robbery (1950), Follow Me Quietly (1949), The Clay Pigeon (1949)

It was a Richard Fleischer weekend at Film Forum, offering up two minimalist police procedurals and a paranoid precursor of The Manchurian Candidate. Armored Car Robbery led off and was the most polished of the three. This lean heist film begins with a looming closeup of the obsessive-compulsive ringleader Dave Purvis (William Talman) at L.A.'s Wrigley Field. He's timing the cops approach after they're called in - and we're thrust immediately into preparations for the titular robbery. Squirmy hoods are recruited (one of them is the Sam Fuller axiom Gene Evans) for the job, which is outlined on a window shade. Neat! Purvis' character is the only one given detail - specifically his attention to detail, cutting out shirt labels, never writing things down, killing whoever could squeal. Talman brings it off with an icy disdain for the rest of humanity - the buxom blonde Yvonne Ledeaux (Adele Jergens) the notable exception, and whose moment of conscience dooms them both in the end. Aside from the opening flourish, Fleischer keeps shots clean and balanced, usually in medium shots with minimal camera movement, occasionally some panning to keep things in frame. The script is swift and rich: there's a wonderful scene of a grieving cops' widow matching the grieving partner's stoicism line for line. With minimal fuss, they reinforce each other's mask of strength while bonding over their sorrow. In a five minute scene no less. The writer is Gerald Drayson Adams, who also wrote the much looser and comedic noir, The Big Steal.

Follow Me Quietly boasts a story credit by Anthony Mann, which immediately caught my eye, but it's far less of a film than Armored Car Robbery, much of the blame lying with the flaccid performances. There a serial killer stalking some fair city, who calls himself "The Judge", strangling random citizens during rainfall. The case has dragged on for months, and the lead detective is getting tense. Unfortunately he's a bit of a doofus. William Lundigan plays this cop as a good natured oaf when the script demands more of a wounded loner type. The scenes where he is asked to feign overwork and depression don't come off - he's mildly put out rather than descending into madness. There is some nice sexual wordplay between him and the aggressive yellow-journalist Dorothy Patrick in an apartment scene though, the kind of light comedy Lundigan is obviously more gifted at. The script should have been seriously re-worked to fit his talents. The climactic chase scene, however, is highly memorable, starting with a pair of fabulous POV shots of the killer noticing the emptied out street in front of his house, followed by a close-up of his crumbling face. Fleischer wrings a remarkable amount of tension from this - evoking the criminal's thought process in three succinct shots.

The Clay Pigeon bucks the cops and robbers trend for a blacked out disgraced former prisoner of war freakout. Jim Fletcher wakes up from a coma and discovers he's charged with treason for ratting out his friend in a Japanese POW camp. He, naturally, would prefer not to believe this, so he breaks out, kidnaps his dead friend's wife, and tries to set things straight. Woozy flashbacks and conspiracies abound, as Fletch espies his Japanese torturer in a Chinese restaurant - setting off a series of violent chase scenes - the wife bites his hand in close-up and chairs get smashed over prone backs. A direct forebear of The Manchurian Candidate in its use of post-traumatic stress syndrome as a springboard for murderous conspiracies, it's smaller scale but just as paranoid. There's more fat on this one than on ACR, but the stylistic flamboyance makes up for it, as when the flashback of his friend's murder dissolves to a gun barrel, or the brilliantly placed reflection of a train bearing down on him.

Flesicher's the big discovery of the series for me so far - aside from Crime Wave, which is, you know, perfect.

Stand? Yes. Deliver? Mostly.

Comics are comics and movies are movies, and no matter how frequently or completely they have merged in the last couple of years, there is nothing like a movie like X-Men: The Last Stand to remind you of that fact. As Internet gossip, a large chunk of the advertising, and even the title has suggested, X3 comes with heavy body count, including several heavy hitters from the trilogy's main cast. I won't spoil any of that but here's an easy hint: take a look at any billboard for the film. Observe which characters appear in said billboards. Now, consider which ones do not. Booyah.

Comic books are soap operas in spandex. They are infinite stories. The only thing that ends a serialized super-hero comic is poor sales, and for the better part of three decades, The X-Men and their affiliated titles have been the crown jewel for Marvel Comics. Writers and artists may come and go, but in the comics industry, mutants are forever.

To keep people watching soap operas and reading comics, things have to be continually stirred up, but not so stirred up that they can't be unstirred and put back to normal so that the property can continue on forever. In soap operas, characters get married and divorced to keep things interesting. In comics, characters die. The seemingly concrete state of eternal not-livingness would seem a strange choice for a recurring plot point, but in comics, where characters are essentially living gods, mortality is not exactly hard and fast. Superman is only the most famous example; the number of comic book heroes and villains who've died and been reborn number in the hundreds.

The X-Man Jean Grey knows the illusion of change all too well. Originally known by the codename Marvel Girl, when she first received the name Phoenix, in October of 1976, it was to reflect the fact that Grey gave her life to save her teammates, only to be seemingly reborn with a massive boost in powers. Thirty years on, the Phoenix monicker seems more like a cruel joke: Grey's had more lives than a cat. Wikipedia tells me that Susan Lucci's Erica Kane, a mainstay of soap All My Children since 1970, has been married ten times. Jean Grey's probably died about that many times over nearly the exact same time frame. Unless something's change in the last couple months (I'm not really a regular X-Men reader), she's currently dead, but you'd be a fool if you believed that would last more than, oh, six to eight more months.

So how do we reconcile the major deaths in X-Men: The Last Stand? As a movie fan, who is constantly frustrated by movies in which characters (who can't fly or shoot energy beams out of their eyes) overcome impossible odds without so much as scratching their chin, it's refreshing to see an action film that isn't afraid to raise the stakes, to create a real sense of danger, to toss the audience for an emotional loop. As a comic book fan — fine, a comic book nerd — it's disappointing to see characters with thirty years of baggage (from another medium, mind you) wiped out in a brief scene in the first act of a Brett Ratner movie. And even if Grey's first cinematic rebirth features prominently in The Last Stand, the film's other deaths don't seem very reversibile: comic deaths tend to be of the nebulous we-never-found-the-body variety; the movie's scattering-your-atoms-into-dust-floating-in-the-wind type deaths are a bit more concrete.

In the comics, all the mutants get to pop up in the half-dozen (or more) X-Men books that are perpetually on the stands. Movies only get one two-hour crack at these things once every three years, if they're lucky. X-Men was groaning under the weight of too many characters; even though heavy hitters get the hook early on, Ratner barely has time to provide cursory development to new cast members Angel, Leech, Kitty Pride, or Beast. Under the direction of Bryan Singer, the X-Men films felt like blockbusters that were about characters first and action second. That's not the case with The Last Stand, which has some brilliant set pieces, a couple cute or touching moments (all that require an extensive knowledge of the previous movies, if not decades of comics to appreciate), and a whole lot of "Is there a scene missing?"s and "Is he really dead?"s and "Why didn't they just try the cure on her?"s.

It's almost like the movie doesn't have time for all its characters, so no bigs if it puts the kaibosh on some of them. Besides, with those expensive star salaries and special effects, these X-Men movies are getting cost prohibitive. But wait — X3 just made over $100 million in a single weekend. There's no way Fox is going to let the series out to pasture now. With that sort of drawing power, you might not see them so quick to kill off their cast cash cows in the future.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What's wrong with this DVD box?

This is the box for the just-released-on-DVD Bloodrayne. Looks fine, right?

Take another look at the bottom of the box. Notice the quote, which reads "An action packed thrill ride!" Note, however, that this quotation is not a quotation, and contains neither the appropriate punctuation or an attribution because, in fact, no one, anywhere, ever, on any planet in the solar system has referred to Bloodrayne as neither action packed, nor a thrill ride.

Classy move, inventing quotes for the DVD box of your movie that everyone hated (in fairness, it's kind of lovable in its complete cruditude). But wait -- there's more! On the back of the box there's another quote! That one reads "One hell of a ride!" That one's not just unattributed, it's redundant! You already told us it's a great ride on the front, will another non-quote quote saying the same thing on the back sway me to spend my DVD dollars? "Y'know...I've heard this Bloodrayne is quite the ride! I believe I shall purchase it post haste and then ride home in my ride so that I can ride the ride that is Bloodride!"

This is why I love Uwe Boll.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

B NOIR: Crime Wave (1954)

Too many of the films featured in Film Forum's current B Noir land outside the boundaries of the style. They're too mopey, too full of pretty boys like Farley Granger navel gazing their way through sappy love stories. Call me close-minded, but noir — particular B-grade noir — should be brief bursts of violence and mood and melodrama. They should be like Andre De Toth's masterful Crime Wave.

The story is pure pulp: ex-con Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is trying to live a new life on the straight and narrow with his wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) when a bunch of pals from the joint come calling, looking for a place to lay low for a while (including a very young Charles Bronson, credited as Charles Bunchinsky). Lacey has no interest in crime, but it's like someone once said: every time he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. As he tries to persuade the criminals to vamoose, he has to contend with the simultaneous hassles of one tough cop, played by Sterling Hayden in a deliciously hard boiled performance. His tie perpetually backwards, his hat pulled low, Hayden turns an underwritten role into something soulful. "My doctor won't let me smoke cigarettes," he tells Lacey. "So I chew toothpicks. Lots of 'em." He pops a 'pick in and grinds away.

It's the perfect foundation for true noir: like any serious noir hero, Lacey straddles the line between hero and villain, and even if his problems stem from a couple of old friends who refuse to leave him alone, the conflict is within his nature: to revert to a life of crime or stay on the side of the angels.

Though Hayden is the unquestioned star, Nelson as the cornered ex-con is a true surprise, he has the wounded look of a man trying to do right, and the physicality of a guy whose started and finished plenty of fights in his life. Nelson was an unknown to me, and after Crime Wave and a major role in the adaptation of Oklahoma!, he went on to a long but undistinguished television career. What gives? In Crime Wave, the dude's a movie star.

De Toth is someone I know little about, but I was floored by Crime Wave's formal intelligence. As a director, he prefers camera moves to cuts, a tactic that pays big dividends in shots like the one where Lacey and Ellen return home to make some dinner. The camera trucks back as the pair enter the apartment, and follows them all the way into the kitchen. As they embrace, the camera shifts to catch a view of the apartment door as the criminals enter, literally suggesting the way the outside world is invading the Lacey home. The use of L.A. locations, particularly in the key chase scene, is dynamic and real (listen to the way the sound echoes in that police station!), adding yet another dimension to the verisimiltude of the world De Toth creates.

Crime Wave is nothing less than a revelation. Sitting in that stinky Film Forum doesn't get much better than this.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Proposition

The Proposition is a Western through and through. No need for modifiers like anti or post-modern or whatever. It sits squarely in the tradition that William S. Hart started embodying in the teens with his "good bad man" (see: Hell's Hinges) - the emblematic photo of Hart has him sitting at a table with the bible on one end and a whiskey bottle on the other. Wilderness v. Civilization, etc. This is not new. Guy Pearce is this man in The Proposition, member of the Burns gang, one brother a violent psychopath, the other an idiot. The proposition is such: if he kills the psychopath, the idiot will be spared execution. This proposal is made by the embodiment of civilization, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who with his wife Martha (Emily Watson) have built a nice English home in the middle of the Australian desert, complete with garden. Stanley says repeatedly how he's going to civilize the town. But they shut themselves off from the wilderness, and so will inevitably be sullied by it. They live in hermetic bliss, importing furniture, Christmas trees, tea cups. The Western will not abide this. One must adapt to the terrain, sublimating violent impulses into building a community. Ignoring the violence outside only invites doom. This is what Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine succeeds in, and what Stanley's rudderless Captain fails to do. Because while Stanley has the ideals, he never seems to really buy into them - talking the talk but cutting loose whenever the going gets tough. He sweats a lot.

Guy Pearce's Charlie has found this middle path, albeit the hard way - after witnessing his brother Arthur's brutal rape and murder of a prominent family - he spirits his brother Mikey away to a no man's land -which is where Stanley lays his claim. Arthur is untamed wilderness - instinctive, violent - the aborigines say he turned into a dog. Charlie embodies a way out. His is not a project of community though, his figure harkens to Leone's Eastwood (he rarely talks) and Boetticher's Scott, those upright loners who solve their own business because they discovered society fucks them up too.

All three Western templates meet up at the end, and it ends in the only way it can, civilization survives, bloody and beaten, untamed wilderness is tamed, and the lone man walks off into the sunset. The archetypes fulfill their destiny, and it's a hugely satisfying ending.

It seems like the entire film is filmed during sunset - the palette of reds and yellows dominating throughout, and characters constantly pausing to admire it's fall - man's inhumanity to man not meaning shit to nature, of course.

Other things to enjoy: John Hurt's batshit cameo as bounty hunter "Jellon Lamb", slagging the Irish and dying the most graceful death in the film. Wonderful facial landscapes abound - my favorite being the sniggering mustachioed guard - whose anorexic-looking childish love of violence could fit in perfectly with the gallery of rogues at the end of Lang's M.

Nick Cave's mournful score was also choice - the wonderful sound edit from the wistful melody at the Stanley home to the dissonant guitar jangling of the Burns gang arriving at the climax was fabulously melodramatic.

I'm not down with the voice-over whispering poesy of Pearce's interior monologue though. The thoughts of such a silent man should be kept to himself.

Matt Singer: Zen Karaoke Master

Here's further proof that there is absolutely nothing you can tell me to do on camera that I won't do, and nothing that will embarrass me so much that I'll break character.

That's me and a random gentlemen at E3, the crizzy-craziest video game conference in the country, if not the world, playing a soon-to-be-released video game called Songstar. As you can see, I'm not very good at it.

More E3 coverage coming soon on IFC.com.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Dark Past (1948), My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), and On Dangerous Ground (1952)

I had some expectations for The Dark Past. It's director, Rudolph Maté, has enriched my life in various ways. Specifically, as the cinematographer for Dreyer's Michael, Vampyr, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. He also lensed Fritz Lang's dreamy fable Liliom. His resume after his emigration to Hollywood is a tad less prestigious. But I caught one of the films he directed, The Violent Men (1955) , at Film Forum's Western series last summer, and was impressed with its narrative economy and spatial intelligence. Glenn Ford sets up an ambush on short notice, and it is mapped out lucidly. Then it has Barbara Stanwyck emotionally devouring Edward G. Robinson with effortless brutality, and I sat soaking in pleasure.

Ah, but The Dark Past is only a cheap Freud-sploitation picture. A satisfyingly doughy Lee J. Cobb is a criminal psychologist who's dinner party is held up by a twitchy William Holden just busted out of prison. Cobb interprets Holden's recurring dream, and voila, he's violent no more! Viva psychoanalysis! Ok, it's dumb, but things it did have: a neat 1st person opening hypothesizing histories of folks on a bus (something I do on the subway each day), a neat solarized dream sequence, and um, Nina Foch had a nice figure.

My Name Is Julia Ross is 65 minutes long. That made me like it immediately. Then the bizarre supporting characters kept popping up and cracking me up. The cockney sticky-fingered maid at the apartment house was strangely endearing, while Ralph Hughes, the stab-happy son of a suffocating matriarch was reliably mad - fondling shivs at every opportunity. And guess who played Julia Ross? Nina Foch! Except now she's brunette instead of blonde - while still maintaining that figure. Anyway, she's hired as a secretary to Ralph's mum, but ends up getting drugged and set up as Ralph's murdered wife. She's to die to provide a corpse. It's all very Hitchcockian, I was reminded especially of a low-budget Notorious with the scheming aristocrats soiling a young beauty. I should mention it was directed by Joseph Lewis, of Gun Crazy fame.

A few days before this double-bill I was swaddled in the hues of On Dangerous Ground, a Nick Ray broadside that shifts from urban to moral decay through the angelic face of Ida Lupino. My hero Robert Ryan is a burnt out cop shipped out to the sticks after he gets too slap-happy with suspects. The noir tones of the city (encapsulated in a thrilling alley chase, including a brief euphoric bit of handheld camera) are shelved for the clean air of mountain landscapes, but Ryan finds the same old moral cowards, in the person of Ward Bond - too busy seeking revenge to deal with his grief over the loss of his daughter. Then I fall in love with Ida Lupino, as Ray seems to as well - in a series of rapturous close-ups as she outlines the details of her loneliness, and the psychosis of her brother. The delicacy in the scenes between her and Ryan are heartbreaking, he shedding layers of cynicism, she just baring her soul to the one guy who happened to be around. And who did not treat her blindness with pity, which she notes with bemused calm. Bring me a Robert Ryan retro ASAP.

How The Other Half Lives

My trips to Los Angeles for IFC are typically so busy I don't get time to take in much of the local flavor, and what I do see is often of the hipster-scenester variety. But last week, travelling solo to La-La Land, I found myself with several free nights on my hands.

Staying just around the corner from Hollywood Boulevard and the famous Chinese Theatre, I thought I would take the tourist route and see something there. Unfortunately, the theatre was hosting the premiere of Poseidon, so I had to take my business elsewhere.

A few blocks away, sits a less famous contemporary of the Chinese, Grauman's Egyptian Theatre. As it turns out — and I did not know this as I casually walked up to the theater — the Egyptian is now the repertory arm of the American Cinematheque. It's basically the West Coast version of Film Forum, except the screen is bigger, the seats newer (not to mention stacked, stadium-style), and the air significantly less smelly.

Discovering the Egyptian was a revelation. Though you can't walk a block in downtown Los Angeles without being smacked in the face by modern Hollywood, most of the city as I'd experienced it felt strangely disconnected from film history (and why not? It's all about what's opening this week). But the Egyptian truly celebrates what is old and great about the movies.

Completely by accident, I wandered up to the Egyptian minutes before the evening's attraction, a screening of an ultra-rare original 70mm print of 1983's science-fictioner starring Christopher Walken, Brainstorm. The film is largely forgotten, and it's easy to see why; the last hour of the film is a big boring mess, and the first hour is so visually bold as to border on the experimental. The audience for this movie is limited to neuroscientists and aspect ratio dorks.

Walken plays a scientist who creates a technology that works like virtual reality: someone wears a special helmet while performing an activity — riding a rollercoaster, eating a steak, having sex — and the helmet records the experience, and another person can put on a different helmet, and experience that activity as if they themselves had participated in it. To visualize the technology, director Douglas Trumbull uses the unusual device of shifting aspect ratios: regular scenes are presented in 1.85:1, but the moments where the characters use the V.R. helmet are presented in brain-melting 2.35:1 70mm. Since the machine replicates perception, all of the sequences inside the helmet are done in POV, and on the large screen, the result is sort of an IMAX experience before IMAX even existed. The device itself poses all sorts of fascinating philosophical questions, and for the first hour, Brainstorm is atypically interested in exploring those dimensions. The most powerful scene is one in which Walken and his ex-wife (played by Natalie Wood, in her final role) rekindle their relationship by using the helmet to let each other see themselves through their partner's eyes. They see each other as the other sees them, and the power of that recognition reignites their passion. It's a creative use of a creative concept, and a marvelously romantic sequence.

Sitting in the Egyptian, watching this trippy movie on what the host said was the only print of its kind (and what a beautiful print it was), on a monstrous screen just as Trumbull intended, I had one of those shivers run over my body when I realized just how lucky and grateful I was to get to see the film. The next night, I was lucky enough to have another at Los Angeles' ArcLight Cinemas.

The ArcLight is, in every way, a high-end moviegoing experience. You have to pay a couple extra dollars, but you get plenty of bang for your buck. Instead of having to show up early to fight for the best possible seat, each ticket at the ArcLight comes with an assigned seat, and when you arrive at your specific theater, an usher shows you to your seat. The ushers, by the way, introduce the film, then remain in the theater for the duration of the film; if there are any visual or audio problems they instruct you to alert them immediately and they will correct it. The film starts promptly at the showtime after a few trailers and NO commercials, which is marvelous. Plus, the seats are, according to Arclight's website, "3 inches wider than current megaplex standards, with 6 inches more legroom. Even the retractable armrests are “double-wide.” Tremendous.

I saw American Dreamz at the Arclight. The film itself was completely unremarkable (frankly the film itself was completely terrible, but whatever), but the atmosphere was dynamic and exciting. These days, every moviegoing experience is exactly the same. The Egyptian and the Arclight reminded me that going to the movies should be special and unique. We have it pretty good going to the movies in Manhattan, but the City of the Angels may have it even better.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Choose To Accept It: Mission: Impossible III

Even though I enjoy mocking Tom Cruise as much as the next guy, I've been eagerly anticipating Mission: Impossible III because it's directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, the creator of Felicity and Lost and — most importantly — Alias, which took many a cue from the original Impossible television show.

From the advertising materials alone, you could sense Abrams' Impossible would be a lot more like his brilliant spy series than either of the first two big-screen Missions. But Impossible goes a lot farther than that; it practically plays like a very special episode of Alias. It begins, as the very first episode of Alias did, in media res, with its hero (Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt here, Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow earlier) being tortured, then flashes back to explain how the situation developed. And Abrams has brought along many crucial members of the Alias creative team: writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, composer Michael Giacchino (supplementing Lalo Schifrin's memorable score with equally propulsive though less bombastic music), and production designer Scott Chambliss. Alias cast member Greg Grunberg even has a cameo. IMF itself has never looked more like SD-6 (or CIA or APO or whatever acronym Abrams & co. are using this season) — Laurence Fishburne is Brassel, a grizzled (and possibly evil) supervisor in the Sloane mold; Ving Rhames returning Luther Strickell is now playing the Dixon role; and Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg is Benji a tech expert with social awkwardness and hey! Alias had one of those too, only he was called Marshall.

The film's plot plays like many episodes of Abrams old show: MacGuffin technology that's been stolen, globe trotting, exotic gunplay, spies discussing their love lives on comm devices. Of course, Alias never had Tom Cruise, who is his own best special effect: the guy is the craziest celebrity not currently residing in the Neverland Ranch (or is it Bahrain now?), but in a vehicle like M:I:III, his personal life is completely forgotten. And he's either got fantastic doubles who look just like him, or Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey are brilliant cutters, or Cruise is the most physically believable action star since the days of Arnold and Sly. The credits list dozens of stunt men, but you'd be hard pressed to spot any of them on screen. The most unique moment is probably one of the simplest (certainly simpler than the one where the shockwave from a missle impact knocks Cruise sideways, or another scene where Cruise slides down the entire face of a sloped skyscraper). With timing running out to save his Kate Holmes-resembling wife, Cruise books it through an Asian market to try to find her. In a movie where no shot lasts more than three seconds, Abrams simply stays on Cruise, trucking like a madman, as he runs at top speed for what feels like an eternity. Come to think of it, Cruise does a lot of running in Impossible III — it's practically the movie's dominant motif — and always with a look that's 99% determination, 1% constipation. Even if Cruise isn't very cool, he's plenty convincing.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Set-Up (1949), The Captive City (1952), Thunder Road (1958)

Ah....I know that smell. It's those fetid odors, those lived in sweat pants that only the cozy box-like theater at Film Forum can offer us. And I'd have it no other way. So of course, it was my first day of B-Noir.

Today was Robert Wise day. I came in skeptical, because Wise was that scoundrel who edited down The Magnificent Ambersons into the malformed masterpiece it is today. Sure, someone else would've done it if he refused, but one must have principles.

Regardless, The Set-Up is a fabulous piece of work. Adapted from the narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, it unspools in an approximation of real time, the action taking place during a single night in the seedy part of Paradise City. There are three sets, an apartment interior, a city street, and the boxing auditorium. This restriction allows a remarkable buildup of tension. Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a used up pug filling out the undercard at a second-rate dive. His wife Julie (Audrey Totter), wants him to retire and stop getting the shit kicked out of him. She refuses to go to the night's fight. This plot strand is built upon the rest of the film, as Stoker repeatedly stares out from his locker room at the aud to his apartment window, the space compressed to service his psychology. He hopes the light flicks off, marking her departure and supposed arrival. Other visual cues are less effective and rely too much on symbolism, like the toy boxer at the arcade getting knocked out, a man lighting a match on Stoker's name on the card, and the repeated close-ups of ghoulish fans screaming for blood. Wise ain't the subtle type.

But these are minor quibbles. Robert Ryan is marvelous as usual, a bemused grin masking the anxiety of aging throughout. His wrinkles say it all. The footage of the boxing match is superb, and we get all four rounds in great detail. Sweat rainbows off their brows as the camera is set down by the apron, capturing each physical exertion, the same type of shot Astaire demanded of his directors to capture all of his dance moves.

He's asked to throw the fight before the last round begins. He thinks he can win. The pride of a wounded warrior versus making a few bucks and leaving this shithole of a town. He's Robert Ryan, so he lays out the punk. He wins in the ring. Then he loses in the alley. Then he wins again, bleeding in the street, cradled by Julie. Oh I wish her last wide-eyed melodramatic line was cut out, and we were left with two hopeful bodies spitting at fate and treasuring a moral victory over the transience of physical pain. Oh Wise, you almost had a masterpiece in you. But close is still pretty good.

The Captive City, on the other hand, was rote civic duty mush ladled with some sort of ladle. The mob is bad and families are good and there's no time for character or image because we're talking about how bad the mob is and how great self-righteousness is. Sigh.

Thunder Road was also poor, but in a more satisfying way. A vanity project for Robert Mitchum, he wrote the story, produced, starred, and wrote the the theme song. If only he hired a competent director. Here he's left with Arthur Ripley (who hadn't directed a feature for 9 years, according to IMDB). Shots don't match during shot-countershot sequences, the pace lags horribly, and the supporting performers are woodenly ineffective, aside from Mitchum's son James, who looks exactly like his father (playing his brother) and tries to imitate his dad's elongated drawl. But you know, it's Mitchum, and he wears his pants high and his pompadour higher, and he sweats quite a bit. That's enough for my $5 investment.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Awesome Badness: Quintet

Has there ever been a great director who has made as many bad movies as Robert Altman? With a filmography that includes MASH, Short Cuts, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and (my personal favorite) California Split, Altman has guaranteed himself in the pantheon of the greatest American directors of the second half of the twentieth century. With a filmography that also includes Popeye, Pret-a-Porter, The Gingerbread Man, and the mesmerizingly bad Quintet, he's ensured his spot in the pantheon will always come with an asterisk.

The film is set in a post-apocalyptic ice age. Paul Newman plays Essex, a guy trudging through this icy wasteland and encountering a community of people dressed like Eskimos on holiday at a Renaissance Fare. Apparently, nothing has survived whatever caused the ice age except humans and rottweiler dogs. For reasons left to the imagination, the rottweilers are everywhere, and wherever Newman goes, he finds them snacking on the corpses of the dead. When someone dies in the film, they suddenly appear, as if they can sense death or possibly just have gotten very good at learning what a dead body hitting ice sounds like.

The remnants of human civilzation spend their time playing a board game called Quintet. It makes no sense. In the DVD extras, Altman claims to have invented the game (I would have attributed its creation to Alan Smithee if I were him) and that he and the crew would play it on the set during down time. But in the film, the rules are not explained, and the game is impossible to understand. It involves five players seated around a pentagon, each with their own personalized brick a brack, which are the game pieces. There is a limbo, a killing circle, a sixth man, and Lord knows what else. The person who survives the game wins and, of course, in the movie, the characters who play the game are being killed. Ooooh... meta. Unfortunately nobody ever says "We're hunting the most dangerous game...MAN!" The movie would have been a lot cooler if they did.

I had only watched about six minutes of Quintet before I started repeating over and over, "What the hell is going on?" And for the next two hours I kept repeating it (the neighbors had to come over and see if I was ok) while I remained lost in a fog of pretentious post-apocalyptic pomp and circumstance. The whole thing is scored like a bad episode of The Defenders. The edges of the frame are left completely out of focus for the entire film, leaving only the iris in the center clear, meaning watching the movie for any significant length of time can give the viewer a hellacious headache. Plus, Altman devotes long sequences to elaborate chase scenes, except the participants, bundled up and puffier than the Michelin Man, have zero mobility. Plus they're running on ice! It's like a Benny Hill episode without the busty women. The movie makes as much sense as the U.S. tax code.

Movies this bad from directors this good can typically be attributed to one of three factors: a)rampant ego fueled by massive success, b)an ungodly amount of drugs, or c)rampant drug-fueled ego fueled by massive success and equally massive quantities of cocaine. No one could make a movie this bad, this pretentiously, and not be out of their minds on coke or their own popularity. A sign over a character's head at one point reads: "Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." What does that shit even mean!?!

I used to do this column on Movie Poop Shoot called "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly." Quintet would have been a perfect ugly movie. This movie has a face that not even a mother could love — she'd turn to the doctor and go "Are you sure it's mine? Can I trade it in for a newer model?"