Sunday, April 29, 2007

Hockey Talk with Guy Maddin

"The Buffalo Sabres play like a wasp's nest hit with a stick"
-Guy Maddin

I was lucky enough to get an interview with Guy Maddin regarding his (fabulous) new film Brand Upon the Brain! (to be published next Monday at IFC News), and after the boring questions were asked, we started talking hockey. He claims he has a love-hate relationship with the NHL ever since the Jets abandoned Winnipeg in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes. But he's been immersed in the sport since he was a kid. His father coached the Canadian national hockey team, and Guy was the stick boy, helping limber players take off their jerseys and "squeezing oranges into their mouths." He said it was all very Greek and decadent. I'll take him at his word.

But his true passion was the WHA (World Hockey Association), an upstart competitor to the NHL that existed from 1972 to 1979. The Jets began there before being absorbed into the NHL. Maddin told me that the league was the first to place hockey teams in the warmer American climes, including the Houston Aeros, the Los Angeles Sharks, the San Diego Mariners, the Miami Screaming Eagles, and the Phoenix Roadrunners. Maddin waxed philosphic on the epic 20 minute fights that would break out, how the WHA introduced eastern European and Russian players, whose elegant, crisp passing style which would eventually change the rough and tumble North American style forever. Talk circled around stories about in-team cuckolding and the curious blackballing of Ted Nolan after his firing in Buffalo.

After the Sabres' heart-breaking 2-1 loss in double OT this afternoon to the Rangers, I consoled myself with Maddin's enthusiasm for Buffalo's style of play, and his insistence that his role as stick boy was akin to a catamite.

In other Buffalo news - the Bills had a solid day at the draft this weekend, taking tough Cal RB Marshawn Lynch in the first round, and Penn State LB Paul Posluszny in the second. Lynch is an all around back with the ability to be a bruiser between the tackles, has the hands to line up in the slot as a receiver, and has enough speed to break off TD runs. McGahee was more one-dimensional. Plus there's this:

I know less about Posluszny, other than the Bills considered him in the first round, and traded up in the second to get him. They had him rated very highly. He wore former Bills LB Shane Conlan's number at Penn State, which he chose in respect to him. Fun!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

YouTubeArt: Saul Bass' Bunny Lake is Missing

My favorite opening credits of all time. And yours?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Kiss of Death (1995)

A few months ago, Alison Willmore and I discussed the multi-faceted career of actor Nicolas Cage on our weekly IFC News podcast. We noted how we admired about half his work and hated the other half. Amongst the "other half" was Barbet Schroeder's 1995 remake of the famous film noir Kiss of Death. It'd been quite a while since I'd seen the film, but I did mention that Cage gave one of his worst performances. As I recalled, he even had one scene where he delivered his dialogue while bench pressing weights.

Turns out I'd only half remembered. Not only is it one of Cage's worst performances, it's also one of his funniest and craziest. And my memory of that scene where he lifts the weights was also slightly off. He's not pressing weights: he's pressing a half naked stripper.

In other words, this movie is a lot more bitchin' than I recalled.

Somehow, in a movie that stars Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Stanley Tucci, Ving Rhames, Michael Rappaport and Philip Baker Hall, only David Caruso receives above-the-title billing. That's because this movie was made in that brief moment when the fiery haired Caruso was the hottest thing in Hollywood. He'd just left NYPD Blue after one season to pursue a movie career. He promptly made this and another terrible movie called Jade which made a combined $25 million at the box office. That's not counting chickens before they hatch: that's counting chickens before the eggs have been laid.

Caruso's fine; better than I expected given the level of insanity he brings to each episode of C.S.I.: Miami where he uses his sunglasses to punctuate sentences (taking them off is a comma, putting them back in is an exclamation point). It's really Cage who really brings the crazy as "Little" Junior Brown, the son of a mob boss and all around lunatic. Bench pressing the half-naked stripper isn't even the craziest crap Cage does in the film; arguably the scene where he learns his father is dead is even wackier (I scoured YouTube for a clip but no luck). In it, Cage jumps up and down, cracks his neck, screams ("MY FATHER'S DEAD!"), jumps up and down, cries, cracks his neck, punches a guy, cries some more, cracks his neck, jumps up and down, breaks a bottle over the poor guy's head, cries, screams, cries, and jumps again. AND HE DOES ALL THIS IN THE SPAN OF TWENTY SECONDS. Nicholas Cage: professional psychopath. And did I mention he's also an asthmatic who constantly hits his inhalers? And he hates the taste of metal in his mouth, so he discusses at length his love of plastic utensils? I'd say you couldn't make this stuff up, but for some reason, someone did.

Cage has Barry Bonds style muscles and the receeding hairline to match and it occurs to me that this might be the last time Cage showed his real hairline in a movie. The same might also be said for co-star Samuel L. Jackson who plays a balding cop who's on Junior's trail and who runs afoul of Caruso's Jimmy Kilmartin. An incident early in the movie that sends Jimmy to jail (prompting a burning need for revenge that sets up the rest of the strangely sluggish plot) also gets Jackson's character shot in the face; for the rest of the movie, his left eye tears constantly and uncontrollably, making Sam's cop maybe the most emo badass police officer in movie history. I kinda wish this character was the one that fought the snakes in Snakes on a Plane so he could have been dabbing his eye while screaming "I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MUTHAF#*@( SNAKES!"

The movie's not very good, but it's weirdly watchable, partly because Cage is so incredibly bad and partly because the rest of the cast (except maybe Caruso) is so talented and yet so decidedly uncompelling. I mean if you look at that cast list alone you'd think there's no way this movie could be bad (Price's presence — the dude wrote Clockers — doesn't hurt either). And yet... oh and yet. There's a saying in sports for when an underdog upsets a heavily favored team. They say "That's why they play the game."

In this case shittyness is the underdog, and quality is the favored team. That's why they made the movie.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Election (2005) and Triad Election (2006)

To prove I still exist, here's a link to my review of the two fabulous new Johnnie To films that are opening up today at Film Forum. Don't listen to Matt on this subject - he clearly knows not of what he speaks.

In other news, check out Dave Kehr on another puzzling remake, and peruse the list of films that will be playing at Cannes this year. New Bela Tarr!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Classic Trailer Theater: L.A. Confidential

To me, this is a classic example of selling down, and selling up a movie all at once. There are two distinct threads: the first two minutes and then the last thirty seconds. In the first two minutes, they sell down: this is a hard-edged no-nonsense cop movie about three badasses cleaning up the streets. It's got the classic tough guy voiceover hitting home lines that the characters already say in the trailer (Echoing the word "justice," as if saying it enough will convince people to see it).

Then, it switches on a dime, and goes swanky. The music becomes all swoony, and the violins start playing, exactly when the words "from the epic crime Saga by James Ellroy" (emphasis theirs) appears onscreen. And then it's "Academy Award Winner Kevin Spacey" and the way the guy says "L.A. Confidential" as if this isn't just good, this is: IMPORTANT.

Also, dig this classic bit of trailerese, akin to "In a world..." : "They thought they had it all figured out. But what started as a murder...became a mystery... that could cost them....everything."


Friday, April 20, 2007

Spider-Man: The Musical?!?

For anyone who heard this week's announcement that Marvel is planning a musical version of Spider-Man and wondered, "How bad could it be?"

This is how bad:



Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hot Fuzz (2007)

I've already seen Hot Fuzz a little more than once, and I'm itching to see it again. It's sense of fun, of action, of camaraderie is utterly infectuous. It's one of those instant classics: you see it once and you know you'll see it again and again and one day you'll own it and you'll probably be watching it and quoting it the rest of your life.

I'm not officially reviewing Hot Fuzz for IFC this week because we went to Austin, Texas and covered this junket and event that they did called the "Hot Fuzztival." They're pretty much puff pieces but they were a lot of fun to shoot and they came out really well (you can see them here, here, and here). But they kinda throw journalistic integrity out the window.

Thank goodness Termite Art doesn't have any, and I can tell you that this British comedy, that both mocks and celebrates all the worst buddy cop movie cliches, is easily the best comedy of the year so far (sorry Blades of Glory, it's true). Even more successfully than the creators' previous film, Shaun of the Dead, it manages to point out all the stupidest, laziest, hackiest screenwriter tricks of the trade, and then pulls them off itself for huge laughs.

I think the trick comes from the fact that even though these guys are taking a piss, they're not doing it in a mean-spirited way. In a lot of genre parodies (pretty much everything not done by Brooks or the Zuckers, and a few of the ones they've made too), you get the feeling the filmmakers don't like the movies they're satirizing. They're making fun and laughing at, not with. In contrast, director/co-writer Edgar Wright, star/co-writer Simon Pegg, and star Nick Frost are clearly fans of the movies they're referencing, and they just as often homage these movies as send them up (take, for example, the subtle but clear echo of the original Lethal Weapon in the final dramatic fist fight). They know flicks like Bad Boys and Point Break are pretty stupid. But they also know they are pretty entertaining, too. In my junket interviews with Pegg and Frost, they called the film Wright's love letter to Clint Eastwood and the finished product bears it out. They think the idea of these supercops is pretty ridiculous. But they want to believe in it too.

Pegg plays Sgt. Nicholas Angel, the best cop on the London police force. Unfortunately for him, he's so good, that the rest of the lazy-do-nothing cops want him out so his immaculate record stops making them bad in comparison. So he's shipped off to a sleepy town in the country where the official line is nothing happens. But, as Peggs put it to me in our interview, it's actually "the beating heart of corruption in the British Isles, and ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE." And hot fuzzy damn does it ever.

Hot Fuzz starts out a lot like Shaun of the Dead, very subtle, very dry observational comedy about British life. But both movies build to breaking points: in Shaun it's when the zombie menace threatening the survivors stops being cute and starts being genuinely dangerous (and the characters we've grown to love start to die). Shaun is a well-made movie, and a very well-researched one too (check out the DVD trivia track to learn just how deep the obscure references to other zombie movies go) but that disjuncture between comedy and horror is a bit jarring for me, and a bit too dark as well. Hot Fuzz on the other hand, builds to the moment when Angel finally gets to "bust this thing wide open" and does so by arming himself like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commandoand taking to the streets in an astoundingly ridiculous (not to mention astoundingly entertaining) shootout. Instead of going over the top into death and darkness, Hot Fuzz goes over the top into fun and silliness. And when it did, I couldn't have been happier.

This is the movie you must see this weekend. If you don't, you deserve to be shipped off to a sleepy town in the country.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Classic Trailer Theater: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I need to start writing more about trailers. Watching more and more of them on YouTube really gets me thinking about it for the first time in a long time. Like who invented the teaser trailer. Trailers are nearly as old as the movies, but what about what we traditionally call a teaser? That's a very early coming attraction for the movie that typically features much less of the plot and characters than a more standard trailer.

Here's a perfect example of a teaser, from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:

Clearly, nothing from that film is ready to show to the public yet. But it's never too early to start selling a movie and so this one does. And it has enough there to get you excited: the big names, that classic score, and a tease of the exotic locales this Indy will head to (through clever recycling of footage from the first film). It's just to let you know it's coming, and really, if you're a Raiders fan (and really, who isn't?) this is going to whet your appetite.

I'm going to try to research and find out if what might be the first true teaser. Wikipedia cites Superman: The Movie, which is just a couple years before Temple of Doom so I'm in the right ballpark.

Also, as a bonus feature, here is Raiders in a few minutes, as a video game. This could have easily prompted its own post about how Raiders has prompted more fan remakes (not fan films of the same universe, but straight-up remakes) than maybe any other movie ever. A couple of kids in suburbia made their own incredible Raiders remake over the course of like five summers and wasted way too much of their lives and time and money on to remarkable effect. Anyway, I digress...


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection is proof that sometimes all you need to do is be good at one thing. It's sort of the Rey Ordóñez of movies.

Rey Ordóñez was a Cuban defector who played for the New York Mets in the mid-90s through early-00s. When he first joined the Mets in '96 he was hailed as the second coming of Ozzie Smith (even the Wizard of Oz said so). And he was, by all accounts, an absolutely remarkable defensive shortstop. He won three consecutive Gold Gloves and set a record for shortstops for the most consecutive games played without an error. But he was totally one dimensional. He couldn't hit for power or average and in particularly un-Ozzie like fashion, couldn't steal a base if his life depended on it (His best season for swipes was 1997 when he stole a whopping 11 bases and batted an even-more-whopping .216).

Rey couldn't hit, but he could field like a mother and Mets fans will always remember him as "great" for that. And, to me, that's why The French Connection is considered a great movie even though it's not very good. It has an all-timer of a car chase scene. Forget Ozzie Smith: this is the Honus Wagner of chase scenes. Everything else about the movie is average to poor, and the stuff that probably seemed really fresh in 1971 looks awfully dated today. Everything except that chase scene. But the chase is so utterly perfect, it obliterates everything else around it. We remember Rey's glove and Hackman behind the wheel of that brown car narrowly avoiding that baby carriage. And we always will.

I'm sure in 1971, The French Connection looked really edgy. In 1971, cops still meant Dragnet, which had finally gone off the air just the year before. So the cops in TFC, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) with their bad attitudes, bad table manners, and bad language must have looked and sounded like they were from another planet. Today, I see that we exchanged one set of cliches for another. Instead of the duty-bound, well-appointed "Just the facts, ma'am" type we got the slovenly, rule breaking maverick.

I suppose since TFC was based on a real case (chronicled in a non-fiction novel by Robin Moore) it had an additional air of authenticity. Who knows; maybe it was all true straight from the cops' mouth sto Moore's ears to director William Friedkin's camera lens. But to these eyes it all looks just as constructed as Joe Friday. For once, I'd like to see "realistic" cops, which Doyle and Russo allegedly are, do some paperwork. Real cops do paperwork but "realistic" cops don't; "realistic" cops stand in the middle of the road with their badge, stop passing cars, kick the driver out and steal it while hollering "I need your vehicle for OFFICIAL POLICE BUSINESS!"

No, TFC is stylized, and rather consciously so. Huge stretches go by without a single line of important dialogue and really, very little actually happens, narratively speaking, and when it does, it's often difficult to fully understand. The somewhat open-ended ending was almost certainly revolutionary at the time but it's also hugely anti-climactic and handled in a way to stifle most of the drama. And after the great car chase, the audience doesn't have much left to give anyway: it's like the big showstopper at the end of Act I of a Broadway musical — nothing else for the rest of the show can match it.

Regardless, The French Connection has become an almost shorthand for cool, edgy, smart cop movies. But that's ok. I loved Rey Ordóñez when I was a teenager too.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)

Two things make Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, a documentary about one of the most notorious religious cults in history as well as their tragic end in one of the largest mass suicides in history, one of the scariest films I have ever seen. The first is rather obvious: the film ends with a recreation of Jonestown's last day, complete with testimony of the few survivors (something like 5 people out of the more than 900 at Jonestown on that fateful afternoon), and audio and video materials taken at the camp on November 18, 1978, when the group's leader, Reverend Jim Jones, ordered his congregation to poison themselves with a mixture of cyanide, Valium, and Kool-Aid. The second is more surprising and thus more disturbing: contrary to what we commonly believe about fringe religious groups and cults, the people who went to Peoples Temple were rational and sane and not brainwashed (at least not initially) and Jones, for his laundry list of flaws was a charismatic leader and, in some ways, a forward thinker.

Understand, I'm not trying to defend Jones or anything he did: he'd lost touch with reality and the things that brought him such a large and influential congregation well before he brought them to Guyana to build the remote settlement he named after himself. But years earlier Jones was a radical preacher who promoted racial tolerance and self-actualization. One of his former congregants recounts a famous sermon where Jones held up the Bible and declared it powerless. To prove it he heaved it into the audience and let the crowd fall silent and listen to its heavy thud as it hit the ground. He waited for some sign of God's wrath and when none came he announced the Bible a simple book, that the power of God came from people doing things for themselves.

If Jones believed these notions at some point, he lost touch with them as his own power grew. We can imagine his thought process: "If people have all this power to control their own lives, imagine what I could do if I turn that power in my direction." Soon Jones went from filling the role of father for those in his church that had none, to demanding that his whole church address him as "The Father."

Even before his final, heinous act he had already become a deeply disturbed man. He might have been an alcoholic; he almost certainly sodomized his congregants while declaring his assaults as things he provided for their benefit (He also declared everyone around him a homosexual and he, the one forcing himself on his male followers mind you, the sole heterosexual on the entire planet). He eventually came to prefer, then expect, then demand, that congregants turn over their possessions, salaries, even their homes to the church, where they often worked 20 hour shifts and frequently went days without sleep. This is all before, fearing the reprisals that were certain to come in the wake of the publication of a magazine article featuring the damning accounts of former Peoples Temple members, Jones packed up his church and split for Guyana.

I was superficially familiar with Jonestown and, of course, I was intimately familiar with the "drink the kool-aid" line that has since entered the vernacular. After learning the extent of the horror that took place at Jonestown, I doubt I'll use it so callously again. The suicide was the culmination of a series of days in which the Jonestown settlement was visited by Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to visit and examine the Peoples Temple group at the behest of concerned constituents whose relatives and loved ones were in Guyana and seemingly trapped there. Ryan's first day at Jonestown (which, according to accounts I've read online, was scrupulously rehearsed and image-controlled by Jones) was a complete success, documenting in spellbinding footage during a wild party/reception in Ryan's honor and a truly deranged moment where Ryan admits his skepticism about the place has been chipped away by the members' rabid enthusiasm. When he remarks that the people he's spoken to look at Jonestown as their life's greatest accomplishment a spontaneous roar of appreciation goes up from the crowd.

The euphoria didn't last. By the next day more and more disgruntled congregants were trying to convince Ryan to help them escape. Jones was secretly pressuring people to stay while publicly announcing that anyone was free to come and go as they pleased. Suddenly someone pulled a knife and attacked Ryan. Then as the Congressman tried to leave in his chartered plane, it was besieged by armed gunman. When they returned and announced Ryan was dead, Jones decided it was time to "die with dignity."

Director Stanley Nelson's documentary is especially chilling for its immediacy; there is no narration and very little testimony that doesn't come directly from participants in the events. The people who knew and, indeed, in some cases loved Jones get to express and explain themselves, and they do so eloquently. And hearing what Jones did to these people from an expert or historian is a great deal different from hearing it from someone was there and survived it. There is an urgency to this documentary like few others.

Jonestown is about such a compelling subject that Nelson could have done a cursory job and gotten away with a very watchable film. But Nelson's formal strategy turns it into something a good deal better than that. Horrified and sad, we watch as hundreds of people decided they did not want or deserve to live and a few others decided that, contrary to what they had been programmed to believe, they did.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Classic Trailer Theater: Rambo III

I'm instigating a new, distinct strain of YouTubeArt devoted to movie trailers, which I love and which seem to be in delightfully plentiful supply on You Tube. Together let's first begin to study, and perhaps soon analyze, the fine art of crafting the perfect coming attraction. First up, RAMBO III:

-Notes: Observe the use of the old First Blood title in the voiceover.

-At this point, Stallone is just that: STALLONE, no first name, credit bigger than the movie's title. Obviously no one is going to see Rambo, they're going to see STALLONE as Rambo. Even the voiceover just calls him "Stallone." His first name shall not be uttered once. But what if someone confuses him with his brother Frank?

-Best line "God would have mercy. He won't!"

-Just for curiosity's sake, I counted the explosions in this under-two minute trailer: 16!

A brief video game related addendum:


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Blades of Glory (2007)

It's a rare and beautiful thing when commercial and artistic principles join in a manly embrace. But this is what has happened with Will Ferrell, funniest man alive. Because his films consistently gross gobs of money, he's allowed to do whatever he wants, and I feel all the richer for it. Let us not forget that comedy is an art form, and broad slapstick comedy is perhaps the toughest art form of all. It matters little that these films will never be awarded, never make a top ten list (except mine), or garner rapturous reviews. It doesn't matter because while the Stanley Kramers, the Ron Howards, and the Paul Haggises will fade into obscurity (onto TNT movie nights and lobotomized AFI lists), Will Ferrell's comedies will screen in perpetuity, alongside fellow lowbrow geniuses the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, and Leslie Nielson.

It's all in the face (and the hair). Like Nielson, Ferrell's comedy results equally from his dumbfounded reaction shots along with his absurdist one-liners. His slack-jawed stuttering, queasy lip-pinching and enraged vein popping fill in the gaps between jokes, extending them and enriching them, so even the occasional dud is filled with an unexpected guffaw.

Blades of Glory is no exception. I don't want to betray any of the gags, but the film embraces its idiotic premise with gleeful excess, loading itself with non-sequitors, expertly timed sight (and sound) gags, and some sublime wig-work. I'm still not sold on Jon Heder as a comic actor, his slow drawl seeming more lazy than deadpan to me, but he's capable enough here as the befuddled straight man. The rest of the cast is superb, especially Craig T. Nelson, who seems locked in to the straight-faced nonsense aesthetic from the get-go, his bitter figure-skating coach a toned down version of Rip Torn's Patches O'Houlihan from Dodgeball. Amy Poehler and Will Arnett also offer up delightful turns (and outfits) as the preening brother-sister pairs skating champs. Everything's done with ease and coviviality - it seems like Ferrell could crank out a few of these a year without breaking a sweat. Let's hope he does.

Next up for him is Semi-Pro, where he plays an owner-player-coach of a American Basketball Association team. It also stars Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin of Outkast. That's all I need to hear to make me all quivery inside.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

I saw Grindhouse last Sunday night and I've been waiting to write about it all week while I worked on other stuff. Now that I've got the time, it's not as fresh in my mind, and I've found several people who've eloquently expressed most of my own thoughts about the film(s) for me. I'd recommend Dennis Lim's review for the LA Times as well as the fine double review from my chums on the Filmspotting podcast. A few additional thoughts:

-I know that grindhouse theaters were infamous for oddball doublebills (Superman and Superfly anyone?) but Rodriguez and Tarantino's movies (Planet Terror and Death Proof, respectively) are far less simpatico than I ever would have expected. Rodriguez went the fluff route: his gonzo zombie flesh parade is all homage: pretty much Night and Day of the Dead with a crapload of They Live (and a dash of Escape from New York on the score). It's light, or as light as a movie about a band of survivors versus brainsucking hordes with festering boils can be, but that's about it. You watch, you grimace, you smile, it's over, you forget about it. Tarantino's film, by contrast, is a bit more. Its got an unusual structure. It's talky, even by the verbose Tarantino's standards. It takes a classic horror trope, the psychosexually deranged killer, and turns it on its head. Rodriguez celebrates exploitation cinema; Tarantino investigates it a little bit.

Together, they have an odd impact on an audience. Rodriguez' effects are ooey and gooey and heavily bolstered by CGI; Tarantino's film goes light on the blood but heavy on visceral, concussive impact. And just as they're getting into the balls-out ultraviolence of Rodriguez' picture, the movie ends and suddenly we're thrust into the backseat of a car cruising around a very mundane Austin, Texas afternoon where a bunch of chicks are sitting around chatting about their weekend plans. It's a jarring transition between two very incongruous styles.

-Both films' biggest problem: acting by their female leads. In Rodriguez's case, he cast Rose McGowan for her bombshell physique, but he's done no favors by her airheaded acting. And Tarantino picked Rent's Tracie Thoms to play the de facto Samuel L. Jackson tough-talking badass role but she can't convincingly pull off all the dialogue and, physically, she's a bit too doughy looking to play a hard-as-nails stuntwoman, especially standing next to Zoe Bell, who is a real life hard-as-nails stuntwoman.

-A lot of people have singled out Edgar Wright's very funny trailer as the best of the four included in Grindhouse to beef up the double-feature aspect of the show, but I think they're underselling Eli Roth's disturbing and disturbingly authentic ode to holiday slashers, Thanksgiving. It's believably crude, sexist, and intensely offensive (see the shot of a cheerleader bouncing on a trampoline that nearly got Grindhouse saddled with an NC-17). Though all the films and trailers are loaded with artificial scratches, missing frames, and cigarette burns, only Roth's trailer really looks like some lost relic of a bygone era; it's something about the sallow, faded grime of the cinematography, with the yellowed greens and slightly-off skintones that does it.

-Both movies are too long. I know that initially they'd talked about doing two hour long films, and then they beefed each up to a full feature-length, perhaps to give the appearance of better bang for the audience's buck. But 90 minutes was the upper threshold for real exploitation pictures: most don't even bust the 80 minute barrier. There's plenty of indulgent fat (granted, most of both movies is indulgent fat) that could be trimmed out of either.

-Given my incredibly high expectations, it's a wonder I enjoyed either picture, but really I liked them both, and genuinely loved Tarantino's. My one concern: in end-of-the-year consideration can I list just Death Proof or would I have to put the whole Grindhouse experience?

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

SXSW: Behind the Badge 2007

Wowie zowie! Here's the whole damn half hour special we did at this year's mega-awesome South by Southwest Film Festival. Watch it then watch it again on TV. It's only 22 minutes and I know you have the time.

Monday, April 09, 2007

YouTubeArt: Mean (Sesame) Streets

"Hey! Look at me! I'm a cabbage! I'm a good source of riboflavin!" is so the new "You talkin' to me?"

Friday, April 06, 2007

YouTubeArt: Fritz Lang + Randy Newman

This is kind of awesome. Also awesome: IFC's SXSW: Behind the Badge, premiering later this afternoon at 6:15 on IFC, and airing again the next few weeks (click the link for more airdates).

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Two Jakes (1990)

It is one of the most famous last lines in all of the movies. Jack Nicholson's private eye J.J. "Jake" Gittes watches helplessly as his lover and client is murdered by her father and is pulled away from the crime scene by his partners. "Forget it, Jake," one warns. "It's Chinatown." Sixteen years later, we find Gittes again and we learn how ironic those words were. Try as he might, pretend as he might, Gittes can't forget what happened in Chinatown. The way it burrows its way into his latest case, it seems like Chinatown doesn't want him to forget either.

As the altogether wonderful and frightfully underappreciated sequel The Two Jakes begins, our hero is older, fatter, balder, richer and seemingly happier. But of course, in the sun-stained noir world that writer Robert Towne invented in 1974's Chinatown and continued in 1990's The Two Jakes, looks are always deceiving. Gittes is currently working a seemingly inconsequential case, about a land developer named Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) who suspects his wife is unfaithful. In situations like these, Gittes typically catches the adulterous spouse in the act, presents his client with the evidence, and then helps stage a confrontation that can be used as evidence in divorce proceedings. Only this time there's a hitch: Berman somehow sneaks a gun into the hotel room with him and murders his wife's lover right in front of Gittes. Then another curveball: the lover is actually Berman's partner on a massive housing development. Was this a crime of passion or premeditated murder?

We sense we know where Towne's story, directed with surprisingly ability by Nicholson himself, is going but the audience is thrown for a loop once more when Gittes, reviewing the audio recording he'd made of the murder suddenly hears a name from his past, Katherine Mulray, his dead lover's daughter, who Gittes promised to protect years earlier but lost touch with. Until this moment, Nicholson has played Gittes much like an older, wiser version of the man we saw in Chinatown: good at his job, a bit of a wiseacre. But that name hits him like a kick in the groin.

From there on, the movie becomes two divergent but carefully connected threads: Gittes' investigation into the Berman shooting (and his own attempts to keep himself from being arrested as an accessory to murder) and a more personal look into his own past. Many supporting characters and even a few extras reprise their roles from Chinatown. The Two Jakes is a totally unnecessarily sequel until you actually watch it, at which point it becomes the answer to a question you only half-heard asked.

I can understand why the film was a flop with audiences and critics in 1990. Apparently, it was an infamously troubled production: Towne was originally slated to direct but quit the project over creative differences with Nicholson and producer Robert Evans, who was apparently dead-set on playing the Keitel role himself. The movie was something like seven years in development and production and to film critics who are already skeptical about a sequel to one of the most beloved Hollywood movies ever made that's like tossing chum into shark-infested waters.

It's almost twenty years later and all that stuff has faded into the past; what remains is a surprisingly powerful movie. Initially, I was a bit turned off by Jack's appearance: wearing basically the same sorts of suits, hats, and glasses he had as a man sixteen years earlier he looks sort of like a middle-aged dude who hasn't realized it's sort of pathetic to keep dressing like he did when he was in his twenties. He's the old man in the club, as Chris Rock put it once. It struck a sort of Blues Brothers 2000 chord, which is never a good thing. Then it occured to me that Gittes' clothes are an outward manifestation of his state of mind: he hasn't moved on from that terrible night in Chinatown, and so he keeps living in the past, keeps dressing like his younger self.

Apparently, The Two Jakes was actually the second film of a proposed Gittes trilogy: the strife between writer, star, and producer kept the third installment, tentatively titled Cloverleaf, from getting produced. But the gap between The Two Jakes and Chinatown is only a year shorter than the gap between The Two Jakes and today: in other words its not too late to give the character a proper send-off and if Jack doesn't want to slip into the role one more time, Towne should turn the screenplay into a novel. It's not as famous as "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown," but the last line of The Two Jakes is a memorable one as well. "It never goes away," Gittes says, and after The Two Jakes I was glad to see that it doesn't.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Track of the Cat (1954)

I've been wanting to see William Wellman's Track of the Cat since I read Jonathan Rosenbaum describe it as an American Ordet in his "Global Discoveries on DVD" column for CinemaScope. While it doesn't attain the spiritual heights of Dreyer's masterpiece, it is a fascinating work that deserves a wider audience.

The film was a result of Wellman's desire to design a film in B&W but shoot it in color, lending it a drained, sepulchral character. Color appears rarely - most notably in Robert Mitchum's red jacket, a techincolor rich renunciation of its background. Mitchum is Curt, the arrogant prick of a middle son of the Bridges family, who live a Spartan lifestyle on a remote farm. Arthur (William Hopper), is the oldest and upright counterweight to Curt. The rest of the family is no help - with a drunk father (Philip Tonge), meek brother (Tab Hunter), spinster sister (Teresa Wright), and bible-thumping mother (Beulah Bondi). A black panther sets the plot in motion, but it's all motored by deep-seeded sexual paranoia that seeps into every conversation - and out of every leer from Mitchum, who gives a powerhouse performance. The images often astound - a POV shot from inside a grave, elaborate choreography of the family during the father's drunken speech, and imposing northwestern landscapes add up to a bizarre, almost expressionist gothic family drama that has no equivalent in Hollywood that I can think of.