Monday, June 30, 2008

YouTubeArt: Listen all y'all...


Saturday, June 28, 2008

NYAFF: Sparrow (2008)

For Johnnie To, who consistently directs two (or more) films a year, Sparrow is an anomaly. Taking over three years to make, it has the feel of a sketchbook, filled with ideas too offbeat for his larger productions, they've been tossed around his head until they've been polished to a high sheen. This is a personal project in every way. He filmed it in the spare days between the Elections, Exiled, and Mad Detective, gathering Simon Yam and Kelly Lin to shoot scattered sequences. It's a remarkable run he's on now, but for me, Sparrow is the richest. It reveals To's priorities - which are luxuriantly visual.

The plot is minimal, but every tracking shot tells its own story. Simon Yam is the eldest of a group of pickpocketing brothers, each of whom is drawn into the enigmatic web of Kelly Lin, a sulking femme fatale yearning to break free from her aging sugar daddy, who happens to be a thief himself. Kelly spins this web in a series of breathtaking duets. With Simon, it begins with the eponymous sparrow, who flutters into his apartment to the accompaniment of a chirping, grand Legrand-like score. Later, he tours Hong Kong on his bike, taking snaps of the passersby with his film camera, and To, a film over DV guy, further identifies himself with Yam by irising his lens to ape Yam's. Narrative is ignored to take some B&W portraits of his city, and Sparrow is in many ways his ode to Hong Kong, whose vertiginous verticals baffle and charm Yam's clan throughout. But then Kelly runs into his frame, trying to escape, so Yam captures her in his camera. A few clicks and she's gone.

She entrances Yam's three brothers in turn: through inhaling endless bottles of wine, seducing a balloon in an elevator, and, above all, smoking. Yam lights a cig in her car, Lin impishly snags it from his lips. An achingly slow slo-mo follows, a blur of lipstick smears and glowingly glamorous close-ups. I swooned out of my seat, so the details are hazy. Let's just say it's pure cinema - emotion delivered by motion. Which is what the whole film is, truly. It hearkens back to Hawks with its male group of professionals and games of "are you good enough". It recalls Demy in its tinkly jazz score, the arrangement of bodies in the frame, and the umbrellas. Except these umbrellas are black, are used as weapons, and are the subject of a finale as transcendent as Demy's parapluies of Cherbourg.

UPDATE: The geniuses over at Tativille have chimed in on Sparrow as well, calling it "a film of unsurpassed tactility". Seconded!

NOTE: Look out for my interview with Johnnie To at IFC News sometime next week. Also: see Ken Jacobs' RAZZLE DAZZLE: The Lost World. It's at Anthology Archives this week, and will blow your goddamn mind.


Friday, June 27, 2008

The Love Guru (2008)

The Love Guru is the worst movie I've seen in quite a while (since January 28th of this year, to be exact, when I saw the loathsome Meet the Spartans). I take no pleasure in typing these words; ten years ago I looked at Mike Myers as the worthy successor to comedic heroes like Mel Brooks and the ZAZ team. Now I wonder if Dr. Evil finally perfected that cloning process and replaced Mr. Myers with a doppleganger hellbent on ruining his career and his reputation. I'd rather believe that than believe one of my former favorites has lost his way so utterly.

I recently stumbled over an old Orson Welles quote that applies here: "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." From the outside, this looks like one of those classic examples of an artist who gets too successful and too powerful for their own good, begins to drink their own egomaniacal Kool-Aid and completely loses their ability to self-edit (let alone objectively consider the editing suggestions of others). Call it "On Deadly Ground Syndrome." Myers hasn't written anything since the third Austin Powers back in 2002, so he clearly wasn't working on a deadline and the way he combines two disparate subjects — spiritual self-help gurus and the Toronto Maple Leafs — is downright bizarre. Why fuse a character who is all about dispensing sex advice while making terrible puns with the world of professional hockey? Only because Mike Myers love these two things very dearly. And I can easily see myself getting behind a movie that had either one of those things. But both together? I love steak for dinner and cookies for desert, but don't ask me to stack them in a sandwich and eat them both at once, please.

From a technical standpoint, I give Myers credit for his new character, Maurice Pitka, a celebrity-craving guru who's greatest desire in life is to appear as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He's got a memorable look and a convincing accent. He's also got a (theoretical) comedic hook — a guy who knows nothing about love or sex dispensing doofy advice to people who are too stupid to realize they're getting shammed — but Myers wants to have his cake and eat it too. He uses Pitka to gently poke fun at L.A.'s celebrity-backed religions (and religions of celebrity) but he ultimately affirms him a legitimate philosopher. Myers even gets Deepak Chopra to pop up after the ludicrous happy ending (hint: it involves elephants having sex on a hockey rink) and validate Pitka as a fine guru indeed. Bullshit — the guy's a huckster with his nose buried in a book of tasteless jokes. Myers should have gone the extra yard and cast himself as one of the B-listers who populate Guru's L.A. ashram along with Val Kilmer and Jessica Simpson.

Kudos to Stephen Colbert, who brings something new to the now-obligatory "wacky" play-by-play broadcaster, a trope that's in serious danger of becoming as clichéd as the cliché it's supposed to send up (see Fred Willard in Best in Show, Jason Bateman in Dodgeball, Will Arnett in Semi-Pro et al.). And Justin Timberlake does a nice job too, as Jacques "Le Coq" Grande, who looks like something out of the 80s cokehead period of Boogie Nights, talks in a French Canadian accent, and loves Celine Dion. He has a really funny sound gag that involves an enormous penis thudding to the floor. But other than that, there's nothing else to single out for praise. Jessica Alba remains a painfully attractive woman but on the scale of Mike Myers Female Co-Stars she rates below Beyonce, and not even worth comparing to the comedic heights of multitalented hotties like Elizabeth Hurley or Tia Carrere. Casting Verne Troyer as the head coach of the Maple Leaps does nothing except give one of Myers' friend some work and, astonishingly, his "Coach Cherkov" is only the second worst character name in the piece (I'd rank Sir Ben Kingsley's "Guru Tugginmypudha" as numero uno). In Austin Powers, the hokey pun names (like, say, Alotta Fagina) were funny because they were a jab of the hokey pun names in actual James Bond movies (like, say, Holly Goodhead). Here Myers seems to miss that crucial distinction and just piles them on. It's a move that reeks of desperation.

It's not even a situation where you can laugh at The Love Guru instead of with it (although the scene with the humping elephants, coupled with the comments I heard Myers make on the radio where he called the hockey scenes in the film "very authentic," comes pretty close). There was a sadness to the first Austin Powers, before the series devolved into wall-to-wall jokes, in that scene where the always manic Austin sits down and realizes all the things he's lost in his decades of cryo-slumber. There could be something sad about Guru Pitka too, but Myers doesn't really reflect on it at any point. He just tosses off another bad joke, flashes that exaggeratedly toothy grin, and preps his next little person insult for Verne Troyer (we get it; he's short). After 95 uninspired minutes, that gets pretty sad too.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

In their rush to praise The Incredible Hulk, the nominal sequel to - and technical reboot of - Ang Lee's widely disliked 2003 film about Marvel Comics' Jade Giant, critics and audiences seem to have overlooked one important detail: the movie is a piece of junk. Oh sure, Lee's version of the Hulk was a piece of junk too. But just because that movie was bad doesn't make the new one automatically better. It's just bad in different ways. Just because chlamydia isn't as bad as herpes doesn't make it "good," y'know? I'd rather have neither.

If you wanted a Hulk that toned down Lee's fascination with Freudian father-son interplay (and completely excised Nick Nolte's longform reenactment of his notoriously wackadoo mugshot), Louis Leterrier, whose testosterone-driven Transporter movies carry an undeniable dopey charm, would seem a good choice for director. And he certain obliges by smashing all of Lee's cinematic Hulkian mythos, although he too deviates from the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby origin in several key ways which we'll discuss later. And he definitely amps up the action, even adding a big chase sequence involving Hulk alter ego Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) running for his life in the back alleys of Rio. But, for my taste, he dumbs the material down too far; if Lee's Hulk was a movie too brainy to be appreciated by anyone but Bruce Banner, Leterrier's Incredible Hulk is pitched right at people with Hulk-like brains: responding only to bright lights, loud noises, and the sizzle of pyrotechnics.

I'm with everyone who wanted a Hulk that delivered more of the goods in the whiz-bang action department but would it have killed Leterrier to make something out of the notion that Edward Norton's transformative episodes are classic addictive behavior beyond the cute use of an onscreen graphic that reads "Days Without Incident"? Or to flesh out the relationship between Norton's Banner and Liv Tyler's Betty Ross in a scene that doesn't involve someone looking longingly at the other's photo? Or to give us any sort of counterpoint to the idiotic military decisions made by General Thunderbolt Ross? I know we're supposed to think the guy is some sort of tactical badass, but he makes one boneheaded blunders after another. Where are this guy's superiors? The answer is: he's played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was only willing to put in one por gratis cameo this summer and he already did it in Iron Man. Much has been made of — and many have try to dismiss — Norton's disappointment with the final cut of The Incredible Hulk, and the fact that the studio ultimately cut 45 minutes out of an early version of the film that he preferred. If I was Norton, I'd be disappointed too; I suspect a lot of the stuff I wanted to see was left on the cutting room floor.

After two of these clunkers, I'm beginning to wonder if the whole Hulk-on-screen model is flawed. You cast these appealing actors as Banner — Norton, and his predecessor Eric Bana — and then you lose them for large swatches of the movie, including the big emotional climaxes, because he's completely replaced by a computer generated effect. And unlike, say, Spider-Man or Iron Man, where the loss of the actor's physical presence is compensated for by constant comments on the soundtrack which reinforce the idea that, yes, these guys we were watching without the masks are still the guys wearing them, the Hulk doesn't talk at all. In the comics, the Hulk tends to speak a lot. In both Hulk movies, he never speaks until the end. The rest of the movie he's just a whirling dervish of destruction whose motivations are kept away from the audience. We can sympathize with Spider-Man; we can delight at Tony Stark's freedom inside the Iron Man suit. And of course, both of the human beings inside can be hurt. All we can do when the Hulk goes on another one of his interchangeable rampages is savor the carnage as pure destructive spectacle. He's unstoppable and invincible (the madder he gets, the stronger he gets) so there's certainly no suspense in any of his fights. And though Lee's Hulk got a lot of flack for the computer effects, I think the ones in Leterrier's are more cartoonish, less believable in the interplay between the computer world and the real world, and certainly less involving.

Now, about that origin. In the classic comic book version, Bruce Banner is irradiated with gamma waves after saving a teenage who accidentally wandered into a bomb test field. Though Ang Lee's interpretation added some totally unrelated backstory mishegas involving Banner's crazy-ass pops , the basic structure holds: scientist saves another in an experiment gone awry and gets fried in his stead. Leterrier's reimagination of the Hulk's creation — heavily inspired, both visually and thematically, by this — removes the element of heroism and accident. Instead, Banner willingly experiments on himself. To my mind, this makes Banner a less tragic figure; instead of someone who was trying to do right and was punished for it, he was someone who was trying to do stupid and was duly rewarded for his goof. Instead of "Poor Bruce!" it's a little bit "Serves him right!"

Leterrier also throws in a few lines between Banner an Betty, or Ross and his underlings, about how Banner thought he was working to help aid victims of radiation, but the military wanted his research's military applications. This element, not really drawn from any Hulk comics I know, aligns Banner's character — who takes extreme steps to prevent anyone from coming into contact with his tainted blood — with the Tony Stark of the movie version of Iron Man, the remorseful weapons maker. That sort of makes The Incredible Hulk interesting in a meta way, by suggesting a larger thematic tapestry being interwoven between this first batch of Marvel Studios movies, but it doesn't really add anything to this text itself.

I'm a bit surprised people have reacted to this movie as favorably as they have. It is not that the movie is too low-brow; it's that it goes for low-brow and doesn't deliver the goods. Low-brow still needs excitement, emotion, and character; thrills, laughs, and real stakes in the action sequences. The Incredible Hulk has none of that. It's just a very fancy digital puppet show.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

TerMet Art: The Willie Randolph Affair

There's been an incredible amount of invective directed towards the manner in which the New York Mets management fired their former head coach Willie Randolph. Even Jon Stewart is getting into the act. Now, I've been a Mets fan since I was a tot (a revolutionary act against my Yankee loving father), and I think the mock outrage being shown regarding the ousting is verging on the ridiculous. Jon Stewart says that Willie Randolph was fired at 3AM, which is what I've heard all over the place. This is false. The New York media received the press release at 3AM. Willie and Omar Minaya, the GM who fired him, were both in Anaheim for a three game series with the Angels. Omar wanted to fire Willie face-to-face, so he waited until after the first game of the series, and fired him around 12AM pacific time. The press release went out at that time, so the New York media received the press release at 3AM Eastern time. Most of the outrage, I think, is that the press felt left out of the process, and that it was too late for them to run a witty back page headline the next morning.

The other question raised is why they made Willie fly all the way to Anaheim before firing him. This is a more valid complaint, but a minor one. First class flights to California are not very taxing, and I have a feeling that Omar was trying to buy more time for Willie, but the pressure from the Wilpons became too much, and the leaks from the front office declaring his firing was imminent, made him act at the time he did.

The biggest problem of this whole affair was not the manner in which Willie was fired, or that he was fired at all, but that there were so many leaks from the front office. It seemed like every deliberation by management was on the back page the next day, subjecting Willie to endless speculation, and turning his employment status into a sideshow that overshadowed the team. If this was an orchestrated effort by the Wilpons (perhaps in concert with Assistant GM Tony Bernazard) to force Omar (always Willie's biggest supporter) into making a move, it's rather despicable, but ultimately will have little effect on wins and losses.

I don't believe that MLB head coaches have much impact on the performance of their team. The most important decisions in baseball are made by the players (what to throw, when to swing), which, I would claim is different from the NFL, when almost every strategic choice is plotted out by the coaching staff. I fully expected the Mets to rebound under Willie, and now I expect them to do the same under interim coach Jerry Manuel. They just have too much talent not to compete, and I think they'll be in the Wild Card hunt at year's end. The only difference will be that Manuel will get credit for inspiring the team rather than Willie. If I was in charge I would have left Willie in, just for continuity's sake, but I ultimately do not think it will make much difference. In any case, Jerry Manuel is way more quotable. Take this quote regarding Jose Reyes, who threw a tantrum after being pulled from a game with a minor injury:

"I told him next time he does that I'm going to get my blade out and cut him. I'm a gangster. You go gangster on me, I'm going to have to get you. You do that again, I'm going to cut you right on the field," quipped Manuel."

Jose's line the next day: 3 for 5 with a triple, two singles, three runs scored, and a stolen base. I smell coach of the year.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Classic Trailer Theater: King of Kong 2


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Moving Image Source

A brief heads up to everyone in Termiteland: former Village Voice film editor, friend and former boss of Emmet and I, and honorary Termite Dennis Lim has launched his new venture and it's worth heading over to check it out. It's Moving Image Source, and the press release I received on it describes the site as a home for "original articles by leading critics, authors, and scholars; a calendar that highlights major retrospectives, festivals, and gallery exhibitions at venues around the world; and a regularly updated guide to online research resources."

But all you really need to know is Mr. Lim's in control and, with that being the case, there will be things worth reading over there (The initial onslaught includes pieces by Termite favs Jonathan Rosenbaum and Michael Atkinson. It's been added to our links on the left rail; I'll be clicking over regularly and advise you to do the same.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

YouTubeArt: Mae West: Rappin' Granny

From Myra Breckinridge, of course. The reason I had to watch this movie (again!!) will be made apparently very soon, at


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Classic Trailer Theater: Three Days of the Condor

Through some bizarre cosmic fluke, Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor played on Turner Classic the day after the actor and director died last week at the age of 73. It was screened during a retrospective of Faye Dunaway films; TCM didn't even have time to replace Robert Osborne's introduction about Dunaway with one honoring Pollack's life.

I'd seen Condor once before and loved it; this second viewing tempered my enthusiasm slightly, opened my eyes to the film's couple of significant flaws (mostly involving the aforementioned Ms. Dunaway, though it's not really her fault), but reinforced my belief that the movie is very solid, one of the best paranoid thrillers of its era. I also didn't realize before that the film was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., one of the guiding creative forces of the 1960's Batman television series, nor that Semple Jr. also wrote The Parallax View, Warren Beatty's spin through the jaundiced world 1970s intelligence. Looking over Semple Jr.'s career on IMDb, it's clear his filmmography is really quite diverse (Fathom and Papillon? Pretty Poison and Flash Gordon?) and actually far more interesting than I would have expected. I'm not sure that any scholarship exists on him, but perhaps there should.

But back to Condor. Those flaws I mentioned mostly pertain the movie's slightly logey middle, particularly the an all-too-convenient and borderline sexist love subplot with Faye Dunaway in one of those I-know-you-kidnapped-me-then-tied-me-up-then-beat-me-around-but-I-kind-of-get-off-on-that relationships that only really blossoms in the movies. I find it hard to believe a woman who already has a boyfriend would fall for a dude who treats her this poorly, even if that dude happens to have Robert Redford's totally spectacular mutton chops. Either I'm giving women too much credit, or the movie's giving them too little.

Regardless, the spy stuff still works and on second viewing I particularly enjoyed the amoral hitman played by Max von Sydow who murders everyone in Redford's office but misses his actual target (i.e. Redford, or "Condor" himself) and then has to try to rectify the problem to save his paycheck. I also like the idea that Condor, not a field agent, survives partly because he's not one and, as von Sydow notes, that makes him unpredictable and partly because his job as a reader for the C.I.A. has given him access to all sorts of cool tricks of the trade which he deploys with great success. It's very cool, from a geek viewer's perspective, to see a character who triumphs in the espionage world not because he's a good shot or he looks great in a tux but because he's more well-read than the guy chasing him. Then again, that only takes him so far, and I like the way the movie makes clear that Condor probably should be dead and there is also the implication that his victory may be very short lived. Also, the fact that everyone calls him Condor is pretty outstanding as well. I want a badass C.I.A. codename. How's Gazelle sound to everyone? Stegron? Callalily?

There's a fight scene, laudable for its commitment to believable sloppiness over crispness and choreography, as well as a few absolutely cracking climactic dialogue scenes; one between von Sydow and Redford about the former's lifestyle ("It's quite restful. It's almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There's only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.") and another between Redford and C.I.A. director Cliff Robertson about the latter's crimes ("What is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth!"). Nothing that Pollack does is overwhelming; the camerawork is not exceptional, neither is the editing. But nothing he does (save that Dunaway part) is underwhelming either. He's committed to solid craftsmanship and to getting the cinematic fundamentals down to perfection. I think in Three Days of the Condor he pulled it off quite nicely.


Monday, June 02, 2008


*Termite Art's own Matt Singer graces the pages of Glenn Kenny's blog Some Came Running. Get a peek behind the scenes of Matt's Cannes shenanigans!

*I did an interview with Canadian poet/prof Randall Maggs for The Poetry Foundation. His book, Night Work, is the best collection of hockey poetry I've ever read, a loosely biographical portrait of Terry Sawchuk (not this guy, but this guy). Published to coincide with the NHL Finals, which the Red Wings are about to scamper away with rather quickly.

*One of my Rotterdam compatriots, Nandini Nair, wrote a piece about our experience in The Hindu ("India's National Newspaper"). There's a veiled reference to me inside, spend hours trying to find it!