Sunday, April 27, 2008

99 River Street (1953)

Today in the NY Times David Mamet says that "There is little more beautiful than a fighter’s face. Audrey Hepburn was the face of beauty, but if wisdom is knowledge perfected by suffering, the fighter’s is the face of wisdom." A bit romanticized, sure, and written to promote his (rather good) fight film Redbelt, but his phrase seems particularly apt after seeing John Payne's battered face in Phil Karlson's mournful 99 River Street (1953). Made a year after Karlson and Payne teamed up for Kansas City Confidential (where ex-con Payne is set up to take the fall for an armored car robbery), River Street is another story of failure and provisional redemption. In this version Payne is a washed up pug, his eye permanently damaged after a brutal beating that he re-watches ritualistically on TV, hoping for a catharsis that never comes. Repeatedly shown in oblique angle close-ups, his right eye twitches like a maggot in a slab of beef. His wife, played with icy disdain by Peggie Castle, is a cinched-up former showgirl who yearns for the high life and sees an out in the machinations of a slick conman (Brad Dexter).

The cuckolded Payne drives a cab and hangs out with another failure, an out-of-work actress played by Evelyn Keynes, whose whole life revolves around performance. Her overactive eyebrows eventually sucker Payne in to be an unwitting co-star in an elaborate audition of a murder scene. It's an incredible sequence that pivots on a long take, close-up monologue of Keynes re-enacting a murder which Karlson initially presents as factual. Then the curtain is raised, the hoax revealed, and Payne's subterranean rage bursts. Keynes, staring at the camera, was acting out a murder for the audience, which is then revealed to be an act. She spends the rest of the film trying to make amends for this betrayal. It's a far more sensitive handling of an audience's implication in screen violence than anything in Haneke's Funny Games.

As a tale of failure it is also a tale of redemption, so amid some gorgeously drawn matte shots Payne gains some shreds of wisdom in his life - he's not the self-abnegating sensei that Mamet celebrates, but a man in the process of mastering his rage. In the final showdown, when Payne is facing up to one of the men who has screwed up his life (although his wasted life is never less than attributed to Payne's own frailties), a voice-over intrudes for the first time in the film, as Payne, shot in the arm and fading, repeats the mantra, "I have to get him". It's a jarring device - and a rather beautiful one, giving us a peek into the interior world of a man made up of exteriors, whose whole life is built upon physicality. So he gains his modest slice of success - a filling station - but one wonders what he'll do if he catches his final fight on TV again.


There's an excellent piece by Jia Zhangke up at GOOD magazine. It's a very informative look into the development of his career as related to the state of Chinese politics.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cannes Film Festival 2008

The lineup for the 2008 Cannes Film Festival has been revealed, and so begins my yearly ritual of yearning - tracking the distribution status of my beloved unseen. Some are absolutes, like Clint Eastwood's The Changeling, set for a November 7 release. Others are locks for New York Film Festival slots, like the Dardenne Bros.' The Silence of Lorna (shockingly described as a "young woman drama"), and others are hopefuls, like Jia Zhangke's 24 City and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Daydreams.

Then there's those films that slip through the cracks. Who's going to take a chance on Kiyoshi Kurosawa? His Tokyo Sonata is in the Un Certain Regard section, but he hasn't had a film of his distributed in the US since his dizzying 2003 double-shot of Doppleganger and Bright Future. His last film, the excellent haunted insane asylum serial killer genre workout Retribution (2006), was picked up by Lionsgate but is still sitting on the shelf. Sonata, written by the Australian Max Mannix and translated into Japanese for Kurosawa, sounds like a family chamber drama with the same hook as Laurent Cantet's Time Out, a salaryman loses his job but refuses to tell his family (you can find a link to the Screen International story on the film here). Kurosawa did a number of rewrites, and created a new supporting character to be played by his long time collaborator Koji Yakusho (Doppleganger, Charisma, Cure). And did I mention Max Mannix? A must see!

The Soderbergh Che two-parter snuck in at the last minute, amidst reports that he wasn't going to have the first part finished in time. My interest is tepid in any case - I think he did his best work on the Ocean's 11 franchise, where his self-consciousness raises itself to the thematic level instead of being muted in his "important" projects.

Women to get excited about: Lucrecia Martel's Holy Girl follow-up La Mujer sin cabeza and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy follow-up Wendy and Lucy.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

This was purely a curiosity DVR and I was fully prepared to delete and go back to watching Baseball Tonight if it didn't yield immediate results. It passed that test at least; I watched the whole movie without even hitting the "LIVE" button to check for an update on the Angels game (A lot of my fantasy season rests on the unhealthy ankles of K-Rod).

But back to the flesh eaters, this 1985 classic comes from John Russo, the co-writer of the original Night of the Living Dead. He and Romero had a disagreement over how sequels to the original should go, so the two basically parted creative ways and from then on Russo's work had the Living Dead monicker and Romero went with just plain Dead. Return is also the directorial debut of Dan O'Bannon the co-screenwriter of, among other things Alien, Dark Star, and later Total Recall. RotLD is one of only two film O'Bannon's directed. Too bad; the guy's got a fine visual eye, particularly for sight gags, and working as his own screenwriter, he does a nice job blending a bunch of incongruous tones, from really silly to intensely scary to surprisingly touching. How many movies will make you laugh AND scare you AND get you a bit misty-eyed? Not too many that I know of. The list's basically just Gymkata and Return of the Living Dead. (Hey I find Kurt Thomas' crotch scary. Maybe that's just me...)

The whole rejuvenation of the zombie genre with movies like 28 Days Later and the remake of Romero's Day of the Dead (as well as the massive comic success Marvel Zombies), where the creatures are fast and merciless and crazy, owe a great deal to RotLD, where the zombies speak and can't even be dispatched by the standard (yet totally arbitrary) rule that says all zombies can be killed by a gunshot or blow to the head. It's spooky, but also kind of hilarious, to watch the zombies use a radio to call for police backup, and then to have car after car roll up one at a time and just rush in and devour the drivers. No suspense, no slow build with tense percussive music, just gruesome, brutal death.

One question: What's O'Bannon up to these days? He hasn't written a produced screenplay since 1997 (Bleeders), or directed a film since 1992 (The Resurrected). Is he just living off the residuals from the endless march of Alien sequels? Someone dust this guy off and put him to work. The horror genre desperately needs his talents and his brains.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Deep Thoughts from Tom O'Neil

From Tom O'Neil's Gold Derby Awards blog at the L.A. Times:

Was 'Sunrise' really Oscar's first best picture?

"I've seen "Wings" a few times and liked it OK. But now that I've viewed "Sunrise," I must concede: "Wings" soars by comparison. "Sunrise" is paper-thin, hilariously schmaltzy. All three primary characters are cartoonish clichés and their performances 3-inch slices of honeyed ham.

Mind you, I'm the kinda guy who'd normally side with the weepie. On my top 10 list of fave pix of all time are "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Titanic." But I just can't shed a real tear when the farmer in "Sunrise" decides that he just — by golly! — can't off his sweet, dimpled wifey-pooh, after all. Nor could I cheer the scenes of the couple back together, all giddy smiles and kisses, posing for photos like newlyweds, dancing a happy peasant dance, joyous once he decided not to wring her scrawny little neck and hurl her over the side of the row boat.

What corn pone! Smothered in Cheez Whiz! "Wings" ain't Shakespeare or Scorsese, mind you, but it's better than that!"

I have no words for this other than the usual, "how can this guy get paid to write about movies while everybody else is getting fired" line, but we're bored with that by now, right?

EDIT: I should note that Tom O'Neil covers the awards beat for his paper, so he's more of an entertainment journalist than a film critic, which makes my comparison to fired critics off base. But it's still a pretty embarrassing review regardless.

Anyway, here's some sublime corn pone:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Superhero Movie (2008)

There's a symphonic quality to a good fart joke, which builds dramatic force from its own kind of movements, and where the silences are as important as the peaks. Superhero Movie contains a prime example of this much maligned comedy obsession. It's eponymous star whispers sweet nothings to his lusted after lady as his aunt sagely passes wind on the couch, the force of which slowly builds into gamy gusts. Director Criag Mazin (and undoubtedly producer David Zucker, as well) wring a variety of jokes out of this most basic of premises -each zinging off the other until no flatulent pun is left unturned. It's called craft. There's the lad, hoping his love is weepy at his sweet words, claiming it's just her eyes burning, or the climactic wall busting that turns into another prime slice of ham for villainous Christopher McDonald to gnaw into. It's a lesson in low-brow, which in recent years has fallen into the hacky hands of the Epic Movie brood. Thankfully David Zucker is still around to hold the torch for intelligent stupidity high, and Craig Mazin, writer of the Zucker produced Scary Movies (3 &4, at least), seems to have studied dutifully at the hallowed ground of Police Squad.

So the film exceeded expectations, to put it mildly. Matt and I took the film in to honor one of our heroes, the great Leslie Nielson. But we were surprised to find a worthy spoof that hit way more than it missed. Mr. Nielson was this time complemented by a rogues gallery of creepy character actors who gleefully acted the fool. There's the aforementioned McDonald, who plays the supervillain Hourglass with oily arrogance, his face plastered with a plastic grin as he spouts glorious absurdities like (our favorite), when asked if anything's wrong, says no, "It's healthy cough blood." Then there's Jeffrey Tambor as the dense doctor, Marion Ross as the gassy aunt, Robert Hays (Ted Striker himself!) as the hero's unlucky pops, a pompous, Hooters-loving Keith David, Tracy Morgan as a virile Professor Xavier, and the hard-working but generally unknown Kurt Fuller as an asshole loan officer. I'm leaving out a long list of other scene chewers, but you get the idea. Lots of misshapen actors doing their bit for the common pratfall, including a final joke that nods to the ending of the greatest movie of all time, The Naked Gun.

*in other news, I purchased the MLB Extra Innings cable package. I now receive 80 baseball games a week. This is very unhealthy. Today I watched my personal hero, 22-year-old Cincinnati Red fireballer Johnny Cueto get batted around a bit for 5 runs, and nodded sagely as my patience in Chad Billingsley paid off with a solid 5 inning, 8 strikeout performance. Both hurlers are on my struggling fantasy baseball team, which dominates more hours of my life than I'd like to mention.

*Adam McKay (director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights) is calling on all of humanity to vote on IMDB and give Another Stakeout a 10/10. This should be self-explanatory.

*and My Blueberry Nights is not that bad. Although it's not particularly good, either.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Poster Posting: The Spirit

On a lengthy walk through Chelsea and Tribeca to get to the second part of a strong double feature (Son of Rambow=good, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg=even better) a strange triple poster array plastered to the side of a construction site caught my eye. I didn't have my camera on me at the time, but here's a digital file:

If it looks like something straight out of Sin City that's because it's designed to look that way; it's an ad for longtime cartoonist (and nascent film director) Frank Miller's cinematic adapatation of Will Eisner's The Spirit. I'm quite sure the rather obvious similarities — the black, white & red color palette, the inky blacks flecked with incandescent white to create the illusion of space and the street poetry turned taglines ("My city screams...she is my lover...and I am her Spirit") were all done intentionally to try to drive Sin City fans (and, hey, I'm one of them) to the theater.

A little background on The Spirit for people who aren't familiar with it. Rather than being an actual comic book sold on a spinner rack, it was a 16-page pamphlet that was distributed inside Sunday newspapers across the country from 1940 through 1952. It was effectively about a cop named Denny Colt who gets splashed by a mysterious chemical during a raid on a criminal's hideout, passes out, and is mistakenly declared dead. When he comes to in his own coffin, he doesn't even bother freaking out about the fact that he just got buried alive; instead, he decides to let the world believe he's kicked the bucket in order to fight crime outside the confines of the law as The Spirit. Eventually, though, The Spirit started to become a supporting character in his own magazine, and Eisner used his world to tell stories well outside the confines of the super-hero genre.

Eisner created the strip and wrote and drew it (with uncredited assistance from his studio) until he left to serve in World War II. When Eisner returned to the strip in 1946, he grew more experimental and The Spirit flourished under his stewardship. Today the series is remembered largely for this period: when Eisner helped push the boundaries of what people thought comics were. He had a great eye for panel layout and a knack for creative design (famously, The Spirit's logo never appeared in the strip the same way twice, and it was always cleverly integrated into the first page of artwork, a technique that both saved space and helped establish mood). (For a very affordable taste of the series, I strongly recommend DC Comics' The Best of the Spirit trade paperback)

Miller is an on-the-record fan of Eisner; the two even collaborated on a very readable booklength conversation about their careers. And as Eisner showed time and time again in the series, The Spirit is a malleable property that can accommodate almost any kind of narrative. But this poster makes me a little uneasy.

The Spirit is not going to be easy to adapt to movies because it's basically pure comics. Eisner had very strong ideas about what comics were and what they could do, and he basically used The Spirit as his own mad scientist's laboratory in which he proved it. Because it's style and technique are so rooted in comics, the only thing you could translate to movies to get a truly faithful adaptation would be to make something just as inventive but very movie-specific — a Spirit movie that could never flow back into comics. What we don't need is a Sin City rehash. This poster suggest that might be what we're going to get. I hope not!

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Termite (Sequential) Art: Secret Invasion #1

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too. Also, this post contains SPOILERS where noted.

Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Pencils by Leinil Yu
Inks by Mark Morales
Colors by Laura Martin
Letters by Chris Eliopoulos

Every year or so, it seems, the big comic book companies (that'd be DC, the guys with Superman and Batman and Marvel — our subject for this post — who have Spider-Man and the X-Men) throw one of these big hoo-hahs that changes the entire landscape of comics for a year until the next one of these ring dings comes along to right everything and then changes it once again. The latest is Secret Invasion from one of my longtime favorites, Brian Michael Bendis, in collaboration with the fine artist Leinil Yu.

The story, which Bendis has apparently been sowing the seeds for since at least 2005, centers around an alien race known as the Skrulls, who were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby all the way back in Fantastic Four #2. As Marvel concepts go, they're as old as they come; predating even the Fantastic Four's signature costumes (when they clashed with the Richards clan for the first time, the book was still more science-fiction than super-hero, and the characters still dressed in street clothes to fight evil). These green-skinned extra-terrestrials with lumpy chins have the ability to change their shape to perfectly resemble anyone or anything, from the President of the United States, to a desk lamp in the offices of Bear Stearns, making them ideally suited for stories about paranoia, which is exactly how Bendis is using them. In the past, their abilities were limited in certain ways: they could mimic someone's appearance, but not their powers, for instance. But a few months ago in one of Bendis' regular monthly series, The New Avengers, our heroes found that when the ninja assassin Electra was murdered, she transformed into back into a Skrull. Somehow this new breed of Skrull had evaded Wolverine's heightened sense and Doctor Strange's spells. Eventually, more Skrulls are revealed and the Avengers fear that a full scale invasion has begun. Worst of all, everyone and anyone they know could be a Skrull. So, who do you trust?

The idea of an enemy hiding among us, and the dangerous effects of the fear of such an enemy, is obviously one that has a lot of cultural weight nowadays (The title of the series, Secret Invasion, seems an obvious nod to the famous invasion of a certain race of interstellar body snatchers). And from the very start, Leinil Yu's art reinforces the idea of masks and hidden identities: Iron Man's full-page introduction on page 3 is a series of images that show his armor's faceplate lifting up to reveal his human face underneath. It's a beautiful and subtle encapsulation of a lot of Secret Invasion's motifs, one I hope is repeated with each issue.

The sense that you can't trust anyone on the page, even beloved, decades-old characters, is heightened by the fact that Bendis' comics, like most nowadays, do not employ thought balloons. Once a standard device used to allow readers inside a character's head, thought balloons have almost completely vanished from American comics. Now when a character wants to bring us inside the protagonist's head, he's much more likely to use some much less invasive captions. Thought balloons may strike some as a simplistic device, but there's also something quite intimate about them. And if you're hearing a character's thoughts, it's difficult for them to shield duplicitous intentions. But the hidden villains of Secret Invasion don't have to worry about such things anymore.

(NOTE: Interestingly, after eschewing thought bubbles for most of his career, Bendis revived them for his recent book Mighty Avengers, one of the series that directly led into the events of Secret Invasion. It should be fun in the coming months to go back and reread the book with this very idea in mind, to consider which characters' heads we get inside, what we think they're sharing with us and what remains hidden.)

This issue contains several more Skrull outings and after reading the issue twice I have an interesting and potentially wackadoo theory as to how to identify a few more (and thus here come the SPOILERS). Of the characters who are revealed in Secret Invasion #1 to be Skrulls, all appear at least once in the foreground of a panel, completely in shadow. These images are, without exception, completely unmotivated by the lighting in the scene. I'm talking specifically about the shot of Dum Dum Dugan on page 6, panel 2, the one of Jarvis on page 6, panel 4, the one of Sue Storm on page 31, panel 1, and the one of Hank Pym on page 39, panel 4. Here's an example of what I mean:

The character in question is the one on the left. Notice that he's completely in shadow in the top panel, yet in the next panel he's perfectly visible, even though the camera has done little more than pull back slightly to reveal a guy sitting at a computer console. There's no diegetic reason for Dugan to be completely dark there, but it could be a rather literal case of foreshadowing.

Every character who is revealed to be a Skrull gets one of these odd little moments. But, then again, several characters who aren't turned also get them as well: Wolverine on page 10, panel 1, and again on page 16 panel 5, Johnny Storm on page 31, panel 2, and the Sentry on page 34, panel 3. Does that mean these characters are Skrulls? Could this be an elaborate red herring? Either way I think small little choices like this aid in the effectiveness of the book: the invasion, after all, is based around the fear the characters now have for one another. They look for clues in the smallest of places. And basically, these odd little shadow figures had me doing the exact same thing.

We'll have to see how this shakes out in future issues. I, for one, will be reading.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Bank Job (2008)

Modesty!  The Bank Job has it in spades.  Content to spin its convoluted yarn with good-natured efficacy, it doesn't bog itself down with backstory or THEMES, but rather transmits its begrimed characters' hopes and dreams through a glance that lasts a beat too long or a touch that presses a millimeter too deep.  So the meat of the film is in the faces, specifically Jason Statham's and Saffron Burrows',  who otherwise scamper about with the speed appropriate to a big time heist.  But then they cast a glance, a glance first charged with sex and then with suspicion with a splash of death.  These glances take up maybe 5 minutes of the film's 1 hour and 50 minute run time.  

There's plenty of decent heisting set-pieces, filmed with workmanlike efficiency by Roger Donaldson, but nothing too flashy.  It's a film that feels like a job of work, as John Ford was fond of saying, but a job that employs great craftsmen who almost cover up the seams of the creaky material (but not entirely).  It has its dull moments in the cliched aftermath of the robbery, but then Saffron's lashes and Statham's bullet-shaped skull engage in a minuet of longing and retreat, which make me overrate this diverting piece of work - so here I am, overrating it.  It's a treat.  

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