Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Still looking...

Albert Brooks' new film, Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, contains one of the single least funny, most painful "comedic" scenes I have ever seen. Brooks is in India, researching what makes Muslims laugh for the United States government. He holds his own stand-up show and tells bad jokes and no one laughs. He asks if the people in the audience speak English. They do. He continues to bomb. They don't laugh. The scene is at least ten minutes long and at least nine minutes longer than it has to be to make its point.

But, then, I'm not fully convinced Brooks knows what his point is. Who, for example, is he making fun of in Looking For Comedy? Is he making fun of the Indians for not having a sense of humor? Yeah, kind of. Is he making fun of himself for having the hackiest material this side of a Gallagher showcase? Yeah, to a degree. Is he making fun of the U.S. government for sending Albert Brooks to the Middle East but sending him to India instead of Iraq or Iran? Hell, anything's possible.

Though the vast majority of critics would disagree with me, this is par for the course when it comes to Albert Brooks, perhaps the most lavishly overpraised comedy director of all time. I have nothing against Brooks, but time and time again, I fail to see what the fuss is about.

My friend and fellow film fanatic Mike Anderson, a Brooks fan, wrote an interesting piece on his blog, Tativille, about the film. He does his best to praise Looking For Comedy but ultimately he concedes that it pales compared to the new Woody Allen film, Match Point.

The comparison got me thinking that nearly all the criticisms leveled against Woody Allen all apply to Albert Brooks, yet Brooks get an inexplicable pass while Allen gets crapped on over and over. This is not to say the criticism are not relevant to Allen's work — increasingly, Allen seems to read his bad press and make the movies most likely to antagonize his critics — but merely to observe a certain critical double-standard when evaluating the two.

We hear "Woody Allen always plays Woody Allen," and he does. But so does Albert Brooks, with a great deal less variation. Where Woody has played Woody as a South American dictator, a Russian peasant, a history-observing chameleon, and a fast-talking Broadway agent, Albert has played film director Albert Brooks (Real Life), a film editor (Modern Romance), an executive (Lost in America), an executive (Defending Your Life), a writer (Mother), a screenwriter (The Muse), and film director Albert Brooks (Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World).

We hear "Woody Allen portrays women as one-dimensional man-crazed shrews. It's a fair point (at times), but, once again, we find it just as appropriate to Brooks. In Lost in America, Brooks' plans of dropping out of society and living a transitory life are spoiled by his seemingly lovely wife (Julie Hagerty), who loses her mind in Vegas and blows their entire life savings in one night at the roulette wheel, which allows Brooks' character to taunt, mock, and berate the Hagerty character, whose flaws are never excused or explained. Mrs. Yeager (Frances Lee McCain) in Real Life, with her ungodly menstrual cramps, mood swings, eagerness to cheat on her husband (with Brooks, naturally), is equally unsavory. Brooks' Indian female assistant in Looking For Comedy doesn't understand the concept of sarcasm. It's not that she just doesn't laugh, she is incapable of comprehending it until Brooks explains it to her. Is Albert Brooks really trying to tell us that people in India have never heard of sarcasm?!?

Why does Albert Brooks get such a steep curve on the grading scale of movie reviews? Consider this quote from a review of his film Mother, written by critic James Berardinelli:

"In the forumula-laden playground of modern comedies, Mother comes as a breath of fresh air. Unlike most of 1996's so called "laugh fests", this one relies on smart humor rather than slapstick, puns, and dumb jokes with quick payoffs. Brooks doesn't use the Airplane! approach to comedy. His films aren't loaded with hit-and-miss gags. The director/writer strives for quality over quantity, and when he wants the audience to laugh they generally do so."

Listen to the subtle generosity of that statement. "Quality over quantity" means this is a comedy without many jokes. "When he wants them to laugh they generally do so" means lots of his jokes are, contrary to his earlier sentence, hit or miss. These are nice ways of saying the movie is a comedy that isn't funny, and, illogically, it seems that when a comedy isn't funny it means it must somehow be more important or better than one that does (Hence the sideways dig at Airplane!, a movie several dozen times more funny than Brooks' Real Life, with just as much to say about moviemaking, formulaic screenplays, and general Hollywood stupidity).

Give Brooks credit: he's a very good actor for other directors, particularly in James L. Brooks' Broadcast News. But he makes better movie ideas than movies. The ideas behind Real Life are brilliant and ahead of their time. The idea behind Looking For Comedy is arguably the funniest of any movie of the last twelve months. But the films themselves are frequently chores: shallow, repetitive, and, yes, full of ideas whose potential is never attained (like those great helmet cameras in Real Life that seem destined for a great fall-out-of-your-seat physical gag that never materializes). His movies are better described briefly by someone who has seen them than actually watched. For such a vaunted artist, he is, ironically, best appreciated by his loglines. I'm afraid I have to side with India: Albert Brooks just isn't that funny.

Monday, January 30, 2006


One of the most severe cases of separated-at-birth in movie history just popped up on the Termite Art radar. Consider exhibit A, from Steven Soderbergh's Bubble:

And exhibit B, from Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall:

Just one of the thousands of similarities between the two films, as observed by our own Pete L'Official. Good eye Pete!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I want a Golden Ticket...

On the hush-hush, I snuck out to see Dave Chappelle tape an episode of "Inside the Actors' Studio" at Pace University a few weeks back (The episode airs Sunday, Feb 12. Get your TiVo game straight). Me+300 other cats for whom three hours of evening's a load of pish-tosh compared with a live glimpse of post-(supposed)meltdown Dave. Will fool be all bugged out? Smoked out? Weirded out [by Lipton (almost certainly)] ? Turned out, it was just 'out'. Our 3hrs were spent waiting for Dave to show up. From Ohio. JLip came out twice to soothe -- he might say assuage -- the crowd, both stemming and stoking our ire by playing Season One on DVD on the bigscreen and telling us that Dave's private jet was stopping to refuel somewhere in Pennsylvania. I thought it all a great Dada joke, or hoped it was, but probably only to keep from hating his, and Dave's, ass for making us wait.

Supposed to start at 7pm. Homey walks out on stage at 10.30. Word.

But well worth the wait. Of course funny happened, and frequently, but what about the Sherman Helmsley, the Peeskie-Weeskie, the cocaine in crystalline form? None to speak of. And what of the demographic-sized crater in ComCent's programming? D.C. alluded to shadiness on the part of industry heads/haters -- whether business, personal or both [I'm unsure] but surely a bit of both -- and pretty much everything he said here, and better here. The word "PRESSURE!" was uttered often, usually followed quickly with, "AFRICA!"

Wasn't over 'til 1.30am. And student questions followed after a brief set change. We got bananas with the time-commitments. Weirder still was Doug Liman (who directed a young Chappelle in 1994's schlocky Getting In) walking in at around 11/11.30, straightaway for the front row. Appeared perpetually stunned, but it seemed like he was as keen to hear Dave speak as the rest of us were.

But we're off topic, if on we ever were. Mentioned: Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Could we be any more excited? Have you seen the bill? dead prez, Mos Def, Kweli, Common, Erykah, The Roots? Could something like this have even happened back in, say, '99 without Brooklyn imploding with self-love? Without my head gladly exploding from Rawkus overdose? Whatever, the Fugees reunite on stage, and John Legend and Kanye show up just for giggles and maybe music-making. But it's Dave Chappelle, son!

Okay... "We're gonna sell this thing right now. We're playing these white people for our freedom!" SOLD.

Friday, January 27, 2006

'Super' is a tad generous

Bryan Singer's upcoming Superman Returns supposedly owes a great deal to 1978 and 1980's Superman and Superman II: it's being placed as a direct sequel (ignoring Superman III and the one I always liked as a kid, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace) and will reportedly feature a cameo by Marlon Brando, reappearing from beyond the grave as Jor-El, Superman's biological father.

I'm not a huge fan of Superman as a character, and I wasn't particularly wild about Richard Donner's Superman as a kid, so it's been quite a while since I've seen it. I thought I'd check it out to see why, exactly, Singer is so intent on building a connection to it instead of pretending it doesn't exist and trying to replace it as the definitive cinematic statement on the character (which is essentially what Christopher Nolan did to great success with last year's Batman Begins, a vastly superior take on the Dark Knight than Tim Burton's decent-but-overrated fifteen year old version). Granted the original Superman was a huge hit. Granted, it's remembered fondly. Granted, it had a smart marketing campaign ("You will believe a man can fly"). But how can anyone see this movie for anything more than what it is: a bloated, awkwardly structured string of decent moments and good performers without much of a narrative drive?

As a kid, I never noticed how blatantly Superman rips off Star Wars, particularly in the first fifteen minutes, with its endless title sequence (Glenn Ford never had such a grand onscreen credit) and Death Star trench-esque Krypton. Even the ghostly presence of Brando's regally accented Jor-El (who pulls a Gwenyth Paltrow-on-Anthony-Hopkins and calls his home "Kryp-tin" instead of "Kryp-ton") imparting wisdom from beyond the grave carries echoes of "Use the force Luke!"

The opening hour of this 150 minute marathon is mostly a big pile of bullcrap. Young Clark (played by Jeff East beneath a really bad wig) has to "go away" for reasons neither he nor we understand, and he goes to the North Pole with a green crystal (not kryptonite, apparently, since it doesn't hurt him when he handles it) and he throws it away and it magically creates the Fortress of Solitude. Then he goes inside and Brando's holographic image appears and then he gives him a planetarium slideshow about his home and says something about "By the time this projection concludes you will have aged 12 earth years" and, sure enough, suddenly its Christopher Reeve and he's in his Superman costume.

There is no way you could make that sequence less logical, less dramatic, and more reliant on expository dialogue than it already is. One wonders why they felt compelled to use the Fortress of Solitude in the first place, since it only appears in a single other scene and plays no major role in the character or the story. How the hell does Clark Kent explain where he's been for twelve years? How does he explain it to Ma Kent, who is presumably still alive and desperately concerned about the whereabouts of her son? When Clark first gets his job at the Daily Planet he tells Perry White to send half his weekly check to his mother in Smallville. Shouldn't he at least call her on the phone to let her know he's alive first? She hasn't heard from him in a dozen years, now he's gonna start sending her checks?

What Donner's Superman, and what Singer's simply won't be able to recreate no matter how faithful it is to the earlier films' spirit, is Christopher Reeve, who embodies both Clark Kent and Superman with preternatural skill. In the scenes where Reeve blurs the barriers between the characters, flying off as Superman and reappearing at Lois' door as Clark, he is so convincingly distinct as both that he makes you believe that the people around him wouldn't notice that his sole disguise is a pair of glasses. With voice, gesture, and posture, he crafts as good a dual performance as there is in movies. Astonishingly, he was just 24 when they began shooting the movie. Yet he brings a weight and a maturity (not to mention a subtle masculinity, even in tights) far beyond his years. The new Superman, Brandon Routh, looks about a decade younger than Reeve in the role, but according to IMDb, he's actually a bit older than Reeve was when he made the first Superman.

Though thankfully not as campy as some super-hero adaptations, Superman is also not very lively. Its stabs at comedy simply aren't funny; and, even worse, they turn the film's only villain, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) into a completely hollow threat. He spends the movie in an underground lair getting the business from a sexpot girlfriend and his odious, doofy sidekick, Otis (Ned Beatty). No super-villain should ever associate with anyone named Otis. It is beneath them.

I don't even want to talk about Superman flying around the Earth and travelling back in time to save Lois' life. I am just going pretend it doesn't exist. It is dead to me.

By connecting itself so intimately to this movie, Superman Returns is already in trouble. The only thing the movie has going for it is the one thing it couldn't possibly recreate. My fingers are crossed, by my spit-curl's not holding its breath.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Termite Art in The Village Voice: Vol. LI, No. 4

Jaime Mastromonica on Nanny McPhee

It's Mary Poppins, if there were seven children instead of two and all were evil geniuses.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Lessons Learned: Los Angeles, Pt. II

One day in December, I found myself in L.A. This startling discovery allowed me to find other things, forgotten until this moment. Here they are, remembered and bulleted:
  • Avenue of the Stars intersects with a street called Constellation...
  • ...not to mention also crossing Galaxy Way and, finally, Empyrean Way.
  • A Mercedes Maybach is an appropriate car to park outside of the Bentley showroom.
  • Crystal chandeliers on Rodeo Dr. are shielded from harsh winter snows by glass boxes.
  • Skinny white girls walking on Rodeo Dr. wear 'G is for Gangsta' T-shirts.
Unfortunately, I had left the Irony Anklet© ("It Knows It When It Sees It!"™) that I usually wear at home, along with my sunglasses which, as my host made clear, should have been the only things I packed for the trip.

Fred Durst had nothing good to say about my work. I did not meet him. Though I learned that D.A. Pennebaker likes the Voice. Or at least, he did.

"You've Got A Powerful Serve"

I didn't laugh unexpectedly during -- nor enjoy -- M.P. as much as I did, say, A History of Violence, but smiles were cracked once Scarlett Johansson had me thinkin' 'bout No-Direction-Home-Dylan most-way through: "I don't belieeeeve you." Nevertheless (or, because):

Top 7 Lines From Match Point That Would Be Much Less Funny If Spoken Without an English Accent:

1. & 2. " You got a wok?" (2x)
3. "I was never going to be Rusedski [We should all hope not] or Agassi..."
4. "To hell with her! The Motorcycle Diaries! Let's go!"
5. "Darling, you've had one too many G&Ts..."
6. "You're perfectly capable of getting a girl pregnant."
7. "Amazing energy! Love it! Envy it!"

2 More Lines That Would Be Much Less Funny If Spoken Without Whatever Peculiar Freakishness Allows Scarlett Johansson To Speak As If A Smoke Machine Was Attached To Her Trachea:

8. & 9. "I want an Aston-Martin!" (2x)

1 Line, Screamed Repeatedly, That Is Funny, For Oh So Many Reasons, Regardless Of Tonal Inflection:

10. "You're a liar!" (10x)

Friday, January 20, 2006


People get overlooked. All the time. Like tonight the open-hearted jokester at the open mic night at my local bar got overshadowed by some pretentious dudes with beards and hats. They weren't close to being as honest about their insecurities and obsessions, but chose to cloak themselves in dense metaphors and ethereal melodies. They were hollow.

All just to say that taste is a rare commodity, and it's possible for brilliant directors to fall through the critical cracks. Like Sacha Guitry, for example. Guitry, a successful French theatre director, went on to make brilliant comedies, and I'm sure is well known in his native land. Few of my cinema literate friends seem to be aware of him however.

His style is unique, relentlessly self-reflexive, starting with the opening credits, which disregards printed titles for a Guitry voice-over and images of his crew, whom he roundly satirizes. In the film I saw tonight at MOMA, La Poison, he calls up an actress on the phone and tells her she won't get a credit because he cut out her speaking scene. All before the film begins. Orson Welles readily admitted he stole this technique from Guitry for his Citizen Kane trailer as well as his later essay style films F For Fake and Filming Othello.

La Poison
tells the story of a small town, and of the hatred of a husband and wife. Both plan ways to kill each other, and only Michel Simon succeeds. The formal techniques are stunning, here it's the repeated usage of the radio. A popular radio drama plays as the couple sits silently at their meal, the wife pounding a bottle of wine as per usual. The neighbors hear the dramatic argument from the show and think it from the couple. Their relationship is encapsulated in the diegetic sound and in their expressions. Later, a defense attorney is interviewed on the radio, giving his views on the difference between murderers and assassins, and his clear conscience at achieving 100 straight acquittals. All this before brilliant intercutting between the the events of the town and the husband's repeated entrances to his wife's drinking. Tragedy is comedy sometimes. Here it's hilarious.

So there's the parallel between the radio and and the couple, and later, during the husband's murder trial, there's a parallel between the children and the murder (all the parents are at court watching) as they reenact the knifing as they play husband and wife. It's a critical look at both media exploitation of murder trials and a brilliant display of crosscutting, as the husband defends his actions to the children doing their own murder demonstration.

The humor is so dark it's astounding. Early in the film a group of townspeople go to the priest to explain how their village needs an attraction, a reason for people to visit. So they propose he take a mentally-challenged girl and pretend to perform a miracle on her, because she'd believe anything he'd tell her. And it's funny.

The biggest coup is the court scene, where Michel Simon defends his actions to the court, his main defense being the fact she was attempting to kill him first, and also that she was ugly. He passes around a photo of her to prove just that.

And yet the film remains jovial, loves its characters, and is joyfully immoral. It's really a miracle.

And his Story of a Cheat is even better!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Van Nest Polglase is Smiling

If this picture does not have you aching to see the major motion picture entitled Idlewild, I do not wish to associate myself with you or your brethren.

The musical impresarios known as Outkast have made a musical. And from the looks of it, have a grasp of its history. The group's handle on the absurd, their good-naturedness, and the overflowing creative juices that drip all over the damn place make them an ideal fit for the genre. As does their love of fancy dress. Oh, and their music which is some of the finest our young millennium has produced. The releases of Aquemini through Speakerboxxx/The Love Below have been revelatory, sticky, bouncy, and serious. The film has new music.

The trailer for the film is available here, not quite a thrill ride but Macy Gray's in it as a boozy showgirl and that should be enough. It didn't even contain a scene from the above photo, whose coming is making me woozy. Well, that's probably the lack of sleep, but it's more fun and romantic to believe in art. Take me away Andre, take me away.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

It's All About Sole: Herzog and the art of the funny making

In The Village Voice's Take Seven poll, I declared that Grizzly Man proved Werner Herzog would make the coolest host ever for America's Funniest Home Videos. The sublime short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, included on the Criterion Collection DVD of Burden of Dreams, affirms my belief that Herzog is one of our most underrated comedic talents.

In most of his films (or at least, most of his films that I've seen), Herzog walks a very fine line between philosophical insight and grand pretentiousness. Talented filmmaker that he is, Herzog never seems to fall into the abyss of self-important silliness. But the raw materials of his cinema — grand pronouncements on God and nature, impossible quests, people scaring the shit out of horses on rafts — are the stuff parodies are made of.

This was almost certainly what Herzog and collaborator Zak Penn were thinking when they made Incident at Loch Ness, a mockumentary with Herzog playing himself on one his dangerous film shoots. Penn's screenplay goes way over the top, throwing in all sorts of elaborately contrived shenanigans that don't jive with the pseudodoc format. Herzog, playing it totally deadpan, has the right idea. But, surrounded by silliness, he has very little to work with.

If Penn had studied Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, he would have gotten a much better sense of why Herzog can be so funny. In it, Herzog is settling a score with filmmaker Errol Morris, who he encouraged to make his pet project by vowing to eat his shoe at a screening of the film should it ever be completed. So director Les Blank follows Herzog as he prepares to eat his shoe, the very same one he wore when he made the bet, at a screening of Gates of Heaven at the University of California.

In a scant twenty minutes, Herzog — keeping a straight face while saying the most ridiculous statements — delivers an impossible number of hilarious lines. Some highlights (and remember you have to say them like a philosophical German lunatic in order to get the full funny):

On his lifestyle now that he's a famous filmmaker:

"A grownup man like me should not spend a week without having cooked a big meal. And that bothered me a lot, so I should go more into cooking."

Explaining to the Gates of Heaven audience why they shouldn't be concerned for his health:

"You can have this same experience every single day. You just drop in at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I've survived so many Kentucky Fried Chicken, so it won't do harm to me."

When he's accused of self-destructive tendencies:

""It's not self-destructive to jump into a cactus."

On why he ate the boots he wore when he made the bet instead of tennis shoes:

"I don't like cowards!"

And this, I assure you, is the tip of the iceberg. Rent or purchase the DVD to hear more, like when Herzog says we must declare war — "real war" — on Bonanza and when he describes the permanent damage to his "knee sinew" caused by an altercation with a group of little people. If Arrested Development ever gets picked up for a fourth season, I propose Herzog as the addition to the writing staff that will really put them over the top.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Termite Art in The Village Voice: Vol. LI, No. 3

R. Emmet Sweeney on 24 Hours on Craigslist

"Personalities motor the film, whether it's the sardonic Vietnam vet searching for a 270 lb. woman or the Ethel Merman impersonator seeking a bass player for his classic rock band."

Matt Singer on Glory Road

"...the team's accomplishments are here diluted into fodder for another of the producer's feel-good man-weepies."

Singer on Last Holiday

"How in the hell did the new Queen Latifah movie, a tired-looking remake of an Alec Guinness chestnut, become the story of a working-class African American woman— from New Orleans!—taking revenge on Washington insiders who cater to special-interest groups while ignoring the poor?"

Pete L'Official on Tristan & Isolde

"I dub thee tolerable."

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Golden Globlogs

The Golden Globes are to the Oscars as Penthouse is to Playboy, as the Mets are to the Yankees: less important, less popular, and a lot less classy. But the Globes also serve alcohol to the attendees, which means by the end of the night you stand a very good chance of watching a big-time movie star go off script and slosh their words like a wino (as Harrison Ford and Elizabeth Taylor have both done at recent globes past). Here are random amusements from the Hollywood Foreign Press' annual salute to their ability to get the most powerful people in the industry to grovel at their feet:

8:13 P.M.: I generally could care less about what the stars' wear to these events, but a brief word of concern for Rachel Weisz, who just won the Best Supporting Actress award for The Constant Gardener. Her dress, which no doubt cost enough to feed a family of four for half a year, appeared as if someone had shoved a napkin in her cleavage, and was so heavy in the back that she walked off stage carrying it behind her. When wearing your dress makes you look like you're picking a wedgie, maybe it's not quite as classy as intended.

8:20 P.M.: Brandon Routh, the new Superman, gives the Best Supporting Actress (T.V.) award and comes off as bland and charismaless. This might seem like cause for concern, but since Superman is the most bland and charismaless superhero of all time, I'm more confident than ever that Bryan Singer made the right choice.

8:53 P.M.: After a little under an hour, no less than three acceptance speeches — Geena Davis (Commander in Chief), Hugh Laurie (House), and Steve Carell (The Office) — have actually made me laugh. That's got to be some kind of record. Good to see people coming prepared with material.

9:06 P.M.: Ooh boy, they just announced Harrison Ford is coming up! Will he be totally smashed or just sober-yet-sluggish? Stay tuned...

9:27 P.M.: I'm disappointed to report that Harrison Ford seems quite alert, even peppy by his standards. Still, the booze might be getting to George Clooney who faked making out with co-screenwriter Grant Heslov on camera (right before Brokeback Mountain won for Best Screenplay no less).

9:36 P.M.: With respect to Desperate Housewives, there's no way Curb Your Enthusiasm is not the best of those shows. And wouldn't it be great to hear what Larry David has to say about accepting awards at a lavish award show? He'd probably have all sorts of hilarious and insightful observations.

9:56 P.M.: Gwenyth Paltrow seems fairly convinced it's pronounced "An-toe-nee" not "An-tho-nee" flying in the face of established pronunciation and contradicting every person I have ever heard mention Anthony Hopkins. But hey she worked with him on a movie, maybe she knows something we don't.

10:07 P.M.: Okay it's becoming evident that Clooney is the clear frontrunner for the Elizabeth Taylor "I'll Tell You When I've Had Enough!" Award For Public Inebriation. Just as they went to commercial after Hopkins' award, they showed a shot of Clooney trying to hold an empty shot glass on his face with his squinting eye. Why oh why did he get his award first instead of now?!?

10:18 P.M.: Why was Joaquin Phoenix so surprised he won the Best Actor award? Apparently nobody told him he's the front runner and has been the front runner since September. Somebody get that guy a subscription to Entertainment Weekly.

10:23 P.M.: That's the second time they've played a commercial for Target with the song "The Shape of Things to Come." That's a song from the classic Barry Shear film Wild in the Streets, where the world's biggest pop star becomes President of the United States and puts the entire adult population over the age of 35 into internment camps and laces the country's water supply with LSD. So remember, shop at Target and one day, with your help, we'll get those fogies into the camps, get those squares out of Washington, and dig on all the groovyness of LSD water!

10:50 P.M.: I must say that Philip Seymour Hoffman winning for Capote is a bit of a surprise after Brokeback won the awards for director and screenplay. If only Heath Ledger had played a real-life gay cowboy he would have been in a much better position for awards season.

10:58 P.M.: Thank goodness it's over, I'm exhausted. Now I know why they drink at this thing, it's the only way to make it through it. Pass the scotch.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Inquisition! What a show!

Brokeback Mountain's Ennis Del Mar and Casanova's Giacomo Casanova have just two things in common. Both find themselves outcasts in their respective cinematic worlds because of sexual appetites that society does not approve of. And both are played by Heath Ledger.

Ledger's performance in Casanova is so good it makes his superior performance in Brokeback Mountain seem even greater in retrospect. Here is one actor appearing in two movies simultaneously. in completely different roles in films of totally different styles and tones, and he's a perfect two for two. Where Ennis is reticent, Casanova is gregarious. Where Ennis is awkward, Casanova is suave. Ennis hides his sexuality, Casanova flaunts it like a peacock.

Still, the most remarkable thing about Ledger in Casanova is not how distinct he is from Ennis, but rather the way that the actor, at the moment that he is so completely thrust into the most unlikely of Hollywood spotlights, manages to subsume himself completely in the role. With accent, posture and gesture (rather than makeup or prosthetics), Ledger disappears into Casanova. Though he is becoming a movie star, he remains a deeply skilled actor.

Most of Casanova's charm comes from its buoyant cast: Sienna Miller as a luminous proto-feminist (though perhaps not as luminous as this Bedingfield vixen I'm hearing so much about); Oliver Platt as a jolly lard merchant who looks like he's been dipping into the company till; and particularly Jeremy Irons as a fiendish inquisitor hot on Casanova's tawdry trail. Irons, clad in purple and sporting a hideous wig that gets three or four laughs all by itself, can barely conceal his glee playing a character so irredeemably evil and purple.

I suppose we could read some social commentary in a film in which Irons' emissary from the Catholic church runs around Venice, trying to interfere with the citizens' boning preferences. And if we wanted to read this, I suppose lines like "You are charged as a fornicator. The penalty: is death!!!" could help our argument.

But Casanova, fluffy and sweet as a marshmallow, supported by Ledger at his most charismatic, should be left to stand as a tasty treat without being weighed down by heavy handed criticism. Save that for Brokeback Mountain.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


I'm inspired by a girl. The one on TV. Watching the Natasha Bedingfield video for "Unwritten" was far more enriching than the two films I had watched earlier in the day, Red Eye and Match Point, both worthy efforts but far less invigorating than young Miss Bedingfield's ode to life yet to be lived.

I've often gone to Borders to preview her album before heading to my dead-end part time job to lift my spirits, "These Words" providing an especially jubilant lift, the words being "I love you, I love you, I love you", sung with absolute sincerity and joy. The transcendence of pop music sure can be transcendent sometimes.

For the films, I preferred Red Eye for the details. The disgusted look from a stewardess as Cillian makes an arch comment, the complicity of a young girl sealed with a glance, the discomfort of McAdams as she decides to flirt with Cillian, and the seamless narrative that pays off every set up: the wallet, the pen, the book, the boat, the girl. Each introduced organically as a natural part of a character's life, highlighted unobtrusively, and then utilized satisfyingly in the story. It's craft, and I like it. It was also surprisingly brutal and Rachel was looking lovely.

Match Point also attracted me by its narrative, very clean and well-executed but without the attention to detail of the plane movie. It's also far less acute as far as human behavior goes, each character fulfilling their role in the plot without adding any eccentric detail or warmth. But it sustained itself nicely story-wise, proceeded logically, was crisply shot, and had a nice shirt-ripping scene. A solid work that I will forget completely in the next few minutes, while Natasha's optimism and rhythm will carry me for weeks. She also had great make-up in the video.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Inventing new film terminology

Often the best way to describe a film is to compare it another that already exists. Screenwriters do it all the time, selling their projects as previously inconceivable blends of beloved movies. (Example I guarantee has been used in a Hollywood boardroom in the last six months: "It's Crash meets Gone With the Wind! It can't miss!")

Film critics, particularly those who subscribe to the auteur theory, tend to write about new films in comparison with the work of directors they admire. Criticism is possibly the only place in English language writing where proper nouns are permitted to become adjectives. Things are Hitchcockian. They are Hawksian. They are Spielbergian.

But working on a piece today at the Voice, Sweeney and I were struck with a dilemma. In an review to be published next week, one of our colleagues describes the cinematic world of Eugène Green as the intermingling of the personal styles of Bresson and Ozu. It's a fine observation, but one that would be better served by a new addition to the criticism lexicon. Indeed, if something resembles both Bresson and Ozu, is it not Bressozusian?

The possibilities to this sort of thinking are limitless. Here are some more directorial terms you are encouraged to use (along with an example usage):

-Hitchcockenbergian: (Alfred Hitchcock & David Cronenberg) Any film that features icy blondes and carefully-crafted sequences of suspense involving body horror and/or men with confused double identities.

"If Rachel McAdams' hair was a little lighter, Red Eye would be totally Hitchcockenbergian."

-Peckinwoodian: (Sam Peckinpah & Clint Eastwood) A Western set close to the turn of the twentieth century that features extensive gore, aging anti-heroes, and buxom but forceful women.

"Brokeback Mountain certainly features scenes that deconstruct the notion of the Old West, but it's hardly a Peckinwoodian exercise."

We needn't restrict ourselves to just directors:

-Stalloneggerian: (Sylvester Stallone & Arnold Schwarzenegger) A robust, intensely burly action film involving a man allergic to sleeved shirts who saves the world from Commie robots from the future.

"I had such high hopes for Walking Tall. But ultimately it wasn't nearly Stalloneggerian enough."

I invite my fellow Termite Artisans to continue inventing their own dual-director descriptions.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Termite Art in The Village Voice: Vol. LI, No. 2

R. Emmet Sweeney on Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye:

"...he lives day to day, still searching for "the decisive moment" to capture in his frame and his sketches, until the past sneaks up like a burp, which he demonstrates with gaseous gusto."

Matt Singer on Hoodwinked:

"This cartoon version of "Little Red Riding Hood" tells and retells its story from a variety of perspectives, all of them boring."

Sweeney on I'm Taraneh, 15:

Mouchette and Rosetta, meet Taraneh, Iran's representative in the perennial Miss Teen "Victim of Cruel Fate" pageant.

Singer on his experiences as an intern:

"A bad internship is a slippery slope of degradation and exploitation."

Out-of-context press notes quote of the week

"This role for me is like a wonderful steak."

Gerard Depardieu regarding his part as Chef Didier in the surprisingly robust comedy Last Holiday.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

With today's release of the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection, I took a look at The Ballad of Cable Hogue, the one film I hadn't seen in the set. I was mighty disappointed, especially since I consider Ride the High Country to be a masterpiece and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to be a damn sight near it. But drunks are nothing if not unreliable.

Jason Robards plays the title character, a dissolute lout and man's man who discovers water in an isolated plot of desert and builds an oupost, selling water to stagecoaches rolling through. He falls in love with a whore (Stella Stevens) and befriends a horny priest (David Warner), hanging out in his estate while waiting for a couple old nemeses (Peckinpah axioms L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin) to show up so he can exact revenge.

There's no narrative thrust, strung together with poorly executed comic vignettes all marred by a reliance on Benny Hill style fast motion. The outlaw persona here seems mannered and posed, while in the other films it comes out of a staunch moral stance. The Peckinpah hero has become a caricature, his vices exaggerated out of all proportion - almost like SNL's Bill Braske. This caricature, while undoubtedly intentional, for this is a comic film, just isn't nearly funny enough, nor does the film fully embrace the slapstick comedy it so sorely needs to be in order for it to succeed. It maintains a faint lyrical tone, hovering in between a romantic view of the natural man of the West and ridiculing him.

Peckinpah's misogynism, easily overlooked in the all male worlds of his previous films, here becomes unendurable, Stella Stevens literally reduced to a (very nice) pair of tits. When Hogue first meets her, Peckinpah cuts in shots of those robust mammaries incessantly, until it seems like Howard Hughes had taken over to do The Outlaw all over again.

He did manage to squeeze in some thoughts on the disapperance of the west, with the late appearance of the motor-car contributing to the most unassuming death ever put on screen, truly surprising in its offhandedness.

He would make a string of brilliant films after this, including the underseen Junior Bonner, a relaxed rodeo comedy that displayed he could show restraint when he needed to.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Lessons learned: Los Angeles

Out of the blue on Wednesday, my bosses at IFC gave me a ring and two days later, I was sitting in Los Angeles, getting ready to host a mini documentary on the shooting of a new music video by Joaquin Phoenix. In the 40 or so hours I was there, I learned a great deal:

1)Fred Durst likes my work. He told me so.

2)When reading or watching interviews, I need to start paying more attention to the questions than the answers.

3)By law, every item on a Los Angeles restaurant menu must include guacamole.

4)The most dangerous job in the United States is being a timber cutter where, over four years, a worker stands a 1-in-200 of being killed.*

5)Gene Simmons is an avid reader.

*From the book Freakonomics, which I read on the plane. Also, you stand a greater chance of dying as a crack dealer than you do as an death row inmate in Texas.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Recommended Listening: Cinecast

If you're looking for a good podcasts about movies, I can't recommend one any better than Cinecast. Hosted by two passionate, but not overly obsessive movie fans named Adam and Sam, Cinecast boasts all the strengths of the podcast form. Over at the competition at Ebert & Roeper, the podcast is simply the audio track of their syndicated TV show, whose content is dictated by the constrictive form of commercial television. Ebert and Roeper cram five or more reviews into twenty minutes. On an average Cinecast, Adam and Sam can spend twenty minutes on a single film.

There are more experienced or knowledgable critics I suppose, but Adam and Sam have the conversational chemistry of good friends, whether you agree or disagree with either or both of them, it's simply a joy to listen to two individuals discuss a film as long as their intellectual curiosity demands. The twice-weekly show also includes spotlights on overlooked films, top five lists, and lots of listener interaction (another fun feature the big boys can't or don't include).

Best of all, it's free. In the immortal words of Ben Stiller, Do it. Do it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Breaking News

There are a few directors whom I know I would adore if I could just get off my negligent ass and seek out their films. People like Don Siegel (Film Forum in March!), Frank Tashlin, and Johnnie To. Well, I managed to see To's Breaking News this afternoon, and it's sincerely phenomenal. I've only previously seen PTU and Running on Karma, the previous' structural rigor superior to the latter's gonzo theatrics. Both were formidable works, and since I'm desperate for well-crafted action films, I'm rather inclined to over-praise them. It's honestly difficult to view an action sequence these days that creates a coherent space, and that builds character through physical motion. I'm stuck with worthy efforts like Assault on Precinct 13 and little else. But oh what a bracing breath of soot filled air Breaking News is.

Beginning with a gunfight that utilizes one majestic take (or two, I need to go back and check), the camera outlines each side and then links them with a newspaper floating down from one group to another, foreshadowing their battle to come, and also the media saturation it will spawn. Then the camera pulls back for a moment of tension, bodies held taut as a cop notices a bag in a car. To holds the silence until violence is the only possible response, and bullets and bodies fly as the camera resolutely holds its stance, stately moving from cops to robbers, not taking sides. It's pure cinema, emotion built up through motion in a space coherently delimited by the frame. It made me tingle.

Then a cut, and the plot runs off in a tale of publicity, the police operation run hand in hand with the media to refurbish their image, as the robbers get surrounded in an apartment complex holed up with a single father and his kids. The heroes are cold and single-minded, the robbers jokey and charismatic, our sympathies laying resoundingly with the villains, as the cops spin each development to feed the publicity machine, truth or no.

The cop on the inside, Cheung, is defined entirely by his indomitable body: running, shooting, riding, falling, bleeding, killing. All his dialogue is related to the job at hand, his character obsessed with apprehending the robbers almost to the point of psychosis, but he pulls back before he infringes on his morality - a warrior who transcends the media maelstrom into which he's been dropped. His superior is a cold manipulator, directing the publicity from a van, concerned with winning but more with the image of winning, she somehow remains an ambivalent character, perhaps because she has a great smile.

The greatest scenes are in the apartment, with the makeshift family of thieves, a cowardly father, and his exceedingly precocious children, the young son uploading images to networks to contradict the police's take on a gun battle. (Mis)Communication is key: walkie-talkies are wiretapped, a cell ring gives a position away, both sides negotiate over webcam - and all are manipulated in the TV footage. Truth is only found in the chase.

The father constantly kowtows, while the pre-teen son berates him for his cowardice, refusing to help until it's absolutely necessary. It's both funny and affecting - this pride of a younger generation disgusted with adult compromises. These scenes reminded me of Rebel Without a Cause a bit, another film with a makeshift community, those short-lived paradises that cannot survive in the societies they tried to escape.

It ends with honor among thieves and dissimulating smiles among the law, but I'm certainly happy the good guys won. They kept people safe for all their lies.

The Invaders

As a concept it couldn't fail. Agnes Moorehead playing a luddite farmer, a recluse living outside technological progress, finding herself beset by a group of tiny aliens. Not a word of dialogue is spoken, all is anguished stares, desperate shrieks, and makeshift violence. It's a brilliant half-hour, which I caught tonight as part of The Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci-Fi channel. Brought to my attention by my father, who recalled it as one of his favorites as a child, I've wanted to see this for quite a while, and it did not disappoint.

Moorehead is a terror, face contorting in unseemly ways as her tiny tormentors stab and prod her until her hair flies loose in a wild gray mane. We follow her thought process as she proceeds from weapon to weapon, a simple wooden instrument on to an ax, her face showing increasing signs of Ambersonian hysteria, the deaths of the aliens more and more vicious. The lack of dialogue forces one to focus on these details, and it creates an atmosphere rich with possibility, as our eye scans the frame for a possible weapon, an escape route, or the entry point of those goddamn troublemakers.

The aliens themselves are simple contraptions, they look like toy robots on strings, once in a while flashing a light which burns our hero, raising sores on her aged flesh. Her hysteria, when alone, is horrifying, but when the aliens show up wobbling along, it turns into slapstick, with her stabbing and smashing and chopping her hapless foes to bits . The fact that it toes that line and succeeds at both is pretty remarkable.

There is a pointless twist ending, but the main metaphor is strong, an iron-willed woman doing her best to keep the march of time away from her door.

The year in watching a lot of movies

For this first time in my life, I decided to keep a list of every film I saw over the course of the year. Then some hoodlums broke into my house and stole my computer, taking the only copy of my list with them. Some would have taken that as a sign. Perhaps man was not meant to know and ponder such matters. Perhaps I was tampering in God's domain.

But I said nay, and started the list again. Conveniently, the crooks stole my computer at the end of June which allows me a tally for half the year which I can then double to approximate the entire year. In the second half of '05, I watched 90 films on DVD or VHS, and 82 theatrical releases. The figures are sort of slippery: DVD/VHS includes films released this year, but later released on VHS or DVD (so, for instance, when I caught this year's The Devil's Rejects last week, that went in the DVD tally, not the theatrical tally).

That's 172 total films for the half year. Though it's an estimate, doubling that figure gives you 344 — practically a movie a day.

Just imagine the sorts of productive things I could do with my life if that energy could be focused on things that weren't related to cinema.