Sunday, February 21, 2010

Briefly: Vanishing Point (1971)

I'm not a big fan of the moment early in the film where Barry Newman's Kowalski drives past himself in a different car and disappears into thin air ("Holy crap! He just vanished! THAT MUST BE THE VANISHING POINT!") and in 2010 it's hard to consider Cleavon Little's telepathic disc jockey as anything other than a magical negro character. But otherwise, Vanishing Point is damn near perfect, an ideal blend of badass car chases and existential angst. Driving from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger under a self-imposed and completely impossible deadline, a bleary-eyed, reckless man known only as Kowalski pesters police, meets a girl who rides a motorcycle totally naked (ouch), receives advice through his radio from DJ Super Soul (Little), and flashes back to painful memories from a lifetime of disappointment. Like the film, which begins mere moments before the chronological end of the story and spends the rest of its runtime in flashback, Kowalski lives in the past. Time has only enhanced the film's elegiac tone. The film itself was already about mourning the end of the mythic American West and the death of idealism. Now it also seems to mark the passing of an era when car chase movies were allowed to be poetic as well as visceral and featured real cars doing real maneuvers instead of relying solely on computer-generated imagery. As exciting as Vanishing Point is, to watch the movie today is to become Kowalski, to look into the past, and grow sad about what you find there.


Monday, February 15, 2010

YouTube Art: Scarface: The TV Edit

Oh man, do I loves me some bad dubbing. You know what I'm talking about; when a basic cable channel shows an R rated movie on their station but has to edit all of the profanity out to make the film TV-appropriate. For a fine example, see this excellent YouTube clip, which compares original snippets from Brian De Palma's Scarface with the hilarious, borderline avant-garde TV versions of the same scenes:

Funny, right? If you don't like it, lame brain, you can go eat a pineapple. Also, apparently I've never posted this on Termite Art, an oversight that demands immediate correction:


Friday, February 12, 2010

In Defense of The Color of Money (1986)

The Color of Money features two kinds of trick shots: the ones on the pool table and the ones in the camera. "Fast" Eddie Felson puts on a clinic on shot selection on camera and Scorsese's puts on another off. It is not Martin Scorsese's best film, but it might be his best photographed. This is a movie that is never, not for a single second, dull. It's best known as the "inferior" sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler and as the film that finally won star Paul Newman his Oscar on the basis of his career rather than his performance. It's better than its reputation on both counts.

Obviously, the film looks great (kudos to cinematographer Michael Balhaus). But the question then becomes to what purpose? At what point does all that style transform into substance? From my perspective, The Color of Money's dynamic visual aesthetic speaks to the film's story and themes in at least three crucial ways (and I'm sure there are more -- these are just the ones that jumped out at me writing at 3:00 AM, still high on the buzz from the movie). Here they are, in no particular order:

1)As Visual Complement To Fast Eddie's Lessons About Hustling

If you've never seen The Color of Money, it is set twenty-five years after the events of The Hustler, at a point when its hero, "Fast" Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), has quit pool. Now he makes his living as a liquor salesman which fulfills his monetary needs but not his thrill-seeking ones. One day, he meets a young and immensely talented nine-ball player named Vince (Tom Cruise) and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and decides to take them under his wing. Eddie figures they don't need lessons in pool playing but they could stand to learn a few tricks in pool hustling. He teaches them that a good hustler has to look like one thing and be another. He has to be able to see through other players' hustles, to look past the image people present on the surface to the truth that is underneath. And here is where the visual technique comes into play.

On the one hand, by making a movie that is seemingly all surfaces, by assaulting us with all these wild and unorthodox camera angles, Scorsese is essentially giving the audience the opportunity to put Eddie's lessons into use themselves. Can we look past the flash to find the themes that are really important? Can we be cool-headed and analytical in the midst of frenzy and excitement? Scorsese is testing the audience the same way Eddie is testing Vince.

2)As Reinforcement For The Idea That Time Has Passed Fast Eddie By

But just as Eddie is testing Vince, the world of nine-ball pool is testing Eddie. Broken by the events of The Hustler, Eddie has withdrawn from the world of pool. If we believe what he tells Vince, he hasn't touched a cue in decades. As his relationship with Vince draws him back into the game, Eddie begins to feel all those familiar feelings again. It's just like old times.

But times have changed. As part of their training, Eddie tries to take Vince and Carmen to some of the old haunts on the pool hall circuit. At the first joint, Eddie runs up the front stairs, giddy with excitement. But when they turn the corner, they discover the pool tables are gone; the place is now a furniture warehouse. The disconnect between Eddie's past and present is reinforced by Ballhaus' cutting-edge camera work and Thelma Schoonmaker's kinetic editing. They remind us this ain't your father's Hustler, and if Eddie's going to survive, he needs to realize that.

(Speaking of changing times, I'm convinced that The Color of Money doesn't get nearly as much credit as it deserves as an emblematic movie of the 1980s. People rave about Wall Street and overlook The Color of Money, which says many of the same things. The whole film is about Fast Eddie's misguided beliefs that greed is good and should be the single driving factor in pool playing and in life.)

3)As Means of Conveying The Speed And Excitement of Nine-Ball to the Audience

If you and I went to a pool hall and played a couple of games over some beers, the stakes would be low and the mood would be relaxed. For Vince and Fast Eddie, these nine-ball matches are like wars. Huge sums of money, not to mention pride, are on the line. Static angles and typical, television coverage style shot selection wouldn't convey just how intense these games are for the participants. Shots that put us right onto the felt, that let us see the splash of chalk off the cue and blows the balls up to gargantuan size, builds these games into almost mythic battles.

Also, before I go, a brief word on the whole Newman/Oscar thing. My whole life I've heard how Newman didn't deserve that Best Actor award, at least not for this role. Hooey.

His performance ranges from big moments like those to quiet ones he carries silently on sheer charisma. Did he deserve to win more for The Color of Money than Cool Hand Luke or The Sting or The Verdict? No. But he deserved the accolades for this performance, too. Take a look at who he beat and tell me who you'd pick over him.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

No matter how dated its subjects look, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years never gets old. Glam metal isn't particularly relevant to popular culture in 2010, but its throng of money-hungry, talent-starved wannabes certainly is. Watching Penelope Spheeris' superb documentary shows us how much and how little the music industry has changed. Though her subjects assume an anti-authority posture, all they really want is to be rich and famous rock stars. If American Idol had been on television in 1988, they would have been the first ones in line.

The film isn't just interviews with unknowns — Spheeris also includes enlightening talks with Ozzy Osborne, Lemmy, Steven Tyler and other rock luminaries — but I find those conversations the most fascinating. Some are from forgotten bands like Odin or Seduce. Others are groupies or fans who desperately want to be in rock bands themselves but haven't quite gotten there yet. Their answers to Spheeris' questions are so similar sometimes it's like they're reading from cue cards. No, they don't think of what they'll be doing in ten years if they don't make, because they will make it. In twenty years, they'll all probably be dead. They're not in it for the money, they're in it for the music. And the women. Metal's image is all about non-conformity. The Metal Years shows how all these non-conformists are all starting to look and sound exactly alike.

Selling rock and roll is as much selling the lifestyle as the music. So even as these rockers quickly grow bitter and jaded, they have to keep up the appearance that everything is going awesome and they wouldn't have it any other way. They claim to be having a great time, but desperation hangs in the air like stage fog. Some of these folks are hungry in more than just the figurative sense. A few even admit to being so broke that they date women for meals (you or I might call this transaction prostitution).

Spheeris is a fabulous interviewer. Her questions are blunt and direct; in one a particularly mesmerizing sequence she talks to W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes while he's drunk out of his mind, wading in a swimming pool. His mother a few feet away, he brags about groupie orgies. A few minutes later, with Spheeris pressing him, he acknowledges he's a full-fledged alcoholic, and as he pours bottles of vodka down his throat he confesses that he doesn't like himself very much and wouldn't mind if he was less of a rock star. Holmes hadn't learned the lessons that so many of the hard rock stars who came before him had: that the drugs of "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" basically kill whatever joy you might derive from the other two. The juxtaposition of the rockers from various points on the timeline of pop music stardom creates this image of the music industry as a monster that needs to be fed: it chews up guys like Odin, then grinds on them until they look like Holmes. If they're lucky they get spit out and can clean up, and get on with things. If not, they get devoured.

If you've ever watched American Idol, that model should sound familiar. That show feasts on the dreams of young musicians who are exactly like the ones in The Metal Years in every way except for the size of their hairdos. As I'm writing this, my wife is watching the show in the other room as a whole raft of new young kids get swept up in the journey toward superstardom. Of course, along the way most of them will be tossed to the wayside and forgotten. If my kid ever came to me and told me they wanted to be on American Idol, I would sit them down in front of The Metal Years and make them watch. "It ain't all confetti, fireworks, and million dollar contracts, kiddo. Now go clean your room before you end up like this guy..."

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Legion (2010)

NOTE: This review contains minor SPOILERS. Reader discretion is advised.

God has had enough. Despite thousands of years of civilization, man is still committing atrocities against his fellow man: wars, environmental abuse, murder, and MTV reality shows about people who use the term Guido as a compliment. So God, in his infinite wisdom, calls for the full-fledged annihilation of the human race. A few survivors are eating lunch at the Paradise Falls Diner in East Nowheresville, USA when the apocalypse begins, and God sends his armies there to kill the woman pregnant with a baby who might be Jesus John Connor the future savior of humanity. Our only hope is the one angel and his bevy of high caliber ammunition who has chosen to reject God's orders and protect us. Thankfully, nobody in heaven reminded God that he was God and that if he wanted to he could have prevented the baby from ever being conceived. But whatever. God's a B-movie fan and he wanted to do things this way. Who are we to judge him?

Legion, which follows the group of oddballs and sad sacks through their last stand, is in the great tradition of siege films. We outlined this subgenre on a recent episode of the IFC podcast; basically you have a bunch of people — and, yes, typically they are a bunch of oddballs and sad sacks — who are trapped in an isolated location under attack from a huge number of assailants. They're cut off, nearly helpless, and in deep, deep doo-doo. Think movies like Night of the Living Dead or Assault on Precinct 13. Great siege films force us to place ourselves in the shoes of the outnumbered protagonists. They work best when they make us feel the characters' helplessness and desperation, and consider our own choices if we were stuck in their situation. While the idea of a machine gun toting angel defending the last vestiges of humanity from an angry God's army sounds like a damn solid idea for a B movie, it's not a great premise for a siege film. Its central construction is totally at odds with why we like these movies, watching ordinary people sweat their way out of extraordinary predicaments. But Paul Bettany's Michael never sweats. He never feels anything. So we don't feel anything either.

All the best moments are in the trailer, including the one truly creepy setpiece where an old lady enters the diner, bears her fang-y teeth, and climbs like a spider onto the diner's ceiling. But any nervy energy building inside the Paradise Falls dissipates once Michael arrives. He just stands around, calmly dispensing advice and assault weapons, and his presence is so soothing that people become completely unconcerned with the Lord's hordes bearing down on them and start monologuing about their pre-apocalypse lives. Even though Michael insists they're not safe, that things are very bad, he never acts like he's particularly concerned. I know he's an angel, I know he's probably spent an eternity disconnected from human beings and watching them from a distance, so displaying emotion is something that's new to him. But he's the caring angel. That's his whole character. Shouldn't he show that at least once during the movie?

None of this would matter if the movie had lived up to the promise of its superb trailer. Credit first-time writer/director Scott Stewart with dreaming up a great action movie premise, and fault him for a weak execution. Why so much talking in a movie about gun-totin' angels? And why so few gun-totin' angels, for that matter? We've got Michael, and we've also got his nemesis Gabriel (Kevin Durand), who's still kicking ass for the Lord, and that's it. The army of darkness massing outside the Paradise Falls? Not angels; they're just a bunch of regular people who are "possessed" by angels. Angels like Gabriel have the ability to fly and to deflect bullets or slice people with their razor-sharp wings. The "possessed" people standing outside the diner have the ability to lumber around slowly and fall down and die when they get shot. Why send these stooges when you could send angels? The Lord's supposed to work in mysterious ways, not idiotic ones.

Then again, maybe that's the point of the movie. It doesn't end with God resolving his grudge with humanity, he just gets bored and gives up. Having sat through Legion I can't say I blame him too much. I was bored too. Let's just hope God's too busy helping athletes win the Super Bowl to watch this movie. If he does, it might be all the proof he needs that we're not worthy of our existence.

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