Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

dir. Paul Haggis

Hollywood is an unmysterious place.*

Spencer Owen, BERKELEY
with special guest: John Doe, LOS ANGELES
June 12, 2007 - 35mm - unnamed L.A. movie theater

The Introduction to the Introduction by Spencer Owen

I've never seen The Sopranos more than four times. One of those times, it even happened to be a rerun of another one of those times. This summer, I plan to start the series fresh. But it has been hell -- "hell," I say -- trying to avoid finding out details about the ending. At this point, thanks to Google News, Reuters, MOG, Defamer, and the Daily Show, I know the form of the ending, and I know that it's ambiguous, and I even know the song that plays, but I don't know the content. That's okay with me. I'm proud that I've managed to evade the meat of the issue. The furious people, I guess, are getting the press, and then my friends love it. (A reaction like the one being reported by the media makes me think that the show wasn't, at least at large, appreciated for what probably made it so great. But I digress.)

The point is, no amount of spoiler alerts can prevent a worldwide discussion from at least partially making itself known to a person so connected to certain media outlets like myself. Luckily, the new Paul Haggis film, In the Valley of Elah, is not currently being discussed worldwide, so my urgent SPOILER ALERT for the following post should be absolutely heeded by anyone wishing to see the film untainted when it arrives at theaters later this year. I haven't seen Elah yet; needless to say, neither has almost anyone. However, if you hated Crash like I did, and you couldn't care less, perhaps you'd care to engage vicariously in this minor bit of critical revelry concerning the introduction and conclusion -- that is, the framing device -- of In the Valley of Elah. In the following discussion between myself and guest John Doe, the outrage manifested towards writer-director Paul Haggis and the society that spawned him easily rivals the globe-spanning fury from jilted Sopranos fans. Except, and I'm taking my friends' word on this one, we're right and they're wrong. I'll let John take it from here.

The Introduction by John Doe

Hello friends,

John Doe of Los Angeles here. I went to see Paul Haggis' new film In the Valley of Elah the other night. In my opinion, it was generally a bad movie, done in by Mr. Haggis' overwrought approach to nearly every single sequence, scene, and moment. I would rather not review the entire thing, as it was definitely a rough cut and I'm sure played much longer than it will once released. Also, one can always hope that certain post-production adjustments might improve a project like this. As bad as it is, it's not some piece of assembly line nonsense. Mr. Haggis is certainly trying to make a great film about something he cares about, and that's never something to completely dismiss. Still, he's a preachy, simple-minded filmmaker so much of that time that his ambition seems to almost backfire on him; he aims to engage complex issues, and seems so certain about his ability to do so in an intelligent way, that he chooses to leave absolutely no room for interpretation, or even for an audience member to get a thought in edgewise. This has the unfortunate effect of simplifying the "issues" in his films to the point that there seems to be nothing left for an audience to do. Nothing, of course, but to clap.

Anyway, after coming home, I began a conversation with my friend Spencer Owen, and what follows is a transcript of my description of (and our subsequent discussion about) Elah's framing device, which is one element that I'm certain will remain in tact once the finished product arrives at a theater near you. This device was so indicative of Mr. Haggis' unfortunate tendencies, and our conversation so indicative of our problems with him as a filmmaker, that we both agreed it was worth posting here at the Six-Reel Shuffle. What follows is a relatively detailed description of the film's final scene (as I remember it), right up to the "fade out." There are also some other plot spoilers contained here. And think of this not as a review, with measured critical thoughts, but as an in-the-moment reflection on something that really left a bad taste in my mouth. Consider this our passing that taste on to you.

The Brief Discussion

JOHN: Early in the movie, as Tommy Lee Jones is first setting off to find his son, he's driving his truck out of his hometown and sees that a janitor guy, who's Hispanic or something (but speaks fairly good English... I say "fairly good" because he's still a pretty dopey "Hispanic" character), is hanging the American flag at the high school upside down. So Tommy Lee stops and has him take it down, turn it the right way, and then raise it again. And he says, "You know what it means when you hang the flag upside down?" "No." "It means our country's in distress, send help, we're at a loss," or something to that effect.
SPENCER: Uh huh.
JOHN: So then... the movie happens, and, you know, Tommy Lee discovers how traumatic Iraq was for his son, and how it completely ruined his brain, basically. So then at the end he gets a package from his now-dead son (sent while he was still alive), and part of the package's contents is a pretty tattered American flag... I can't say I really know why his son sent him a tattered American flag, but whatever... Cut to: the next morning, Jones is again at the high school with the janitor guy, and he seems to be raising the flag his son sent him. So he's putting it on the thing, and he raises it (we don't see it yet), and then he pulls out a roll of duct tape and duct tapes the rope to the pole so nobody will mess with it (stupid). And then the janitor says, "So I shouldn't take it down at night?" and Tommy Lee's like, "No, you leave it just like that."
SPENCER: Wait, wait. Wait.
JOHN: Hold on, I want to finish this. ... and janitor's like, "Oh. That's easier." And then the janitor says, "It looks pretty old!" and Tommy Lee says, "It's been well used."
SPENCER: God, this is torture...
JOHN: Then Tommy Lee drives off. Pan up, and the tattered flag is hung upside down. Applause. Fade out.
JOHN: (laughs)
SPENCER: I swore you were gonna say, "There's a shot at the end of Tommy Lee putting the flag on upside down" and I would've been like, "Oh, okay... that's not so bad." But JESUS!
JOHN: That's what I'm talking about! That's the fuckin' Haggis way!
SPENCER: You know what else is the fuckin' Haggis way?
JOHN: What?
SPENCER: A stupid Hispanic guy putting it on upside down.
JOHN: (laughs) Yes. It is. Very much so. It would never happen. None of that would ever happen.
JOHN: By the way, the line "Oh. That's a lot easier," or whatever, gets a pretty big laugh. Asshole.
SPENCER: Wow... holy Christ... I get madder at this by the second. I seriously was ready to not care, and have it be ordinarily lame, but no... I think that Haggis and Spielberg must have had a long talk.
JOHN: Spielberg would never stoop to this, I don't think... his sensibilities wouldn't allow a full scene like that.
SPENCER: I just think Spielberg was like, "Tell you what, I'm interested in making less boneheaded political movies. But there's still a place for truly boneheaded ones. Here's all the tricks." And then Haggis ran with it longer and deeper than Spielberg ever could.
JOHN: He'd go for the flag shot, perhaps (though I'm talking in spirit, because Spielberg would never make a movie about this). But it really just comes down to Haggis sucking as a writer. That's it. He sucks as a writer, and is even worse as a director of his own writing.
SPENCER: Funny thing is, though, he's also great. Totally great. Really worth watching out for his next projects. Really captures the zeitgeist.
JOHN: Right, he's really putting some dents in the American dilemmas of the day.
SPENCER: I think this is a key problem, a curse that Haggis shares with many amateur (or even professional) screenwriters you're faced with on a day to day basis. These films rely -- whether intentionally or not, and usually because of the faults of the writer to be unable to see the big picture -- on the viewer's inattentiveness. For that ending to work, the viewer has to not notice all the things that are wrong with it.
JOHN: Well, yeah, that's true. But it's also true that, based on almost every script I've read, I really can't even tell you what subtlety looks like on the page. It's so, so, so rarely there.
SPENCER: Okay, but more crucially, the viewer has to not really care about the continuity and not really be interested in putting two and two together right away. Like, when that opening scene happens, it happens... and then when a flag appears any other time in the film, the viewer has to NOT remember that first scene in order for that excruciating final sequence to work. Either that, or the viewer has to be like "Oh, I see what he's doing... this is fun to watch play out!" ... which has to be rare.
JOHN: Yeah, that's very rare. It's just something that's never quite happened with popular movies... it's never been okay, really, in a popular sense, to make a movie that doesn't do all the thinking for you. audiences prefer to applaud a statement rather than a question. And the way it's done in this movie is, like, TEXTBOOK framing.
JOHN: A reasonable person would say, "Oh, this is going to come back later, isn't it? Sheesh." But no way. Nobody does. It reeks of planning, is what I hate.
SPENCER: And furthermore, the audience has to be inattentive enough not to notice the idiotic, baseless stereotype of that janitor character.
JOHN: Yes. The stereotype that a janitor of Hispanic descent, who speaks fluent English, and clearly isn't illegal, doesn't know the right way to hang a flag... mindblowing.
JOHN: Why not make it a fuckin' little kids job? A kid who just didn't care that he'd done it wrong, not someone too stupid to know better.
SPENCER: Why not ... not make it anyone's job, and just have him notice that it's upside down, and change it back, and not have to have the conversation...
JOHN: Yeah, totally.
SPENCER: ...because if you live in this fucking country, and even if you don't, you understand the basic symbolism of the American flag... for god's sake.
JOHN: Of any flag!
SPENCER: Let's take this a step further. Why not have that first scene not exist. And then if you have to end your movie with the shot of Tommy valiantly and defiantly putting up the flag... it would be unexpected and, perhaps, more powerful. What about THAT!
JOHN: Well, but see, Haggis is all about planting seeds. He needs that stupid dialogue so we know what it means EXACTLY when Jones does it in the end.
SPENCER: Yeah, because we wouldn't know otherwise.
JOHN: Right. We'd just be totally in the dark. Clueless and confused.
SPENCER: All we'd have is this totally unforeshadowed moment. Jeez... never heard of it.

* The above photograph, we've been told, was actually taken in Mr. Haggis' living room. The giant Oscar behind him was a preemptive gift from the Academy, which expects him to lead a lustrous, progressive, award-studded career. The back of the human-sized award, which sits on a rotating pedestal, is lined with shelves, with places for at least ten more of the little gold fellows.

Friday, May 11, 2007


dir. John Carney

Czechin' out an Irishman.

May 11, 2007 - 35mm

Without a doubt the “nicest” movie to come out this year, John Carney’s sweet little romance, Once, plays nice from start to finish. The movie opens with a street musician (our hero!) frustratingly playing to an audience of one, some drunk guy. This drunken fellow, in turn, snatches our hero’s guitar case and the pocket change that comes with it. The hero makes chase and catches the thief, who amicably hands over the case. The street music saint, then, feeling badly for the sorry sod, hands him some pocket change. What a gentleman. Sigh.

One of last year’s “nicest” movies, The Pursuit of Happyness, found Will Smith’s heroic lead constantly chasing after thieves and dreams. That movie is nice. It has the word “Happy” in the title, but the hero in that movie is not as nice as Once’s hero. He redefines nice. The Pursuit of Happyness is not a bad movie, neither is Once. These movies are gooey, gooey gumdrops, well acted, well shot, cute and teetering on the ledge of obscene narrative contrivance, every once and a while getting a toe or foot wet.

Our nameless hero, played by real life musician Glen Hansard, writes and performs most of the songs in Once, and there are a lot of them. Almost each and every one is bad, and I’m certain we’ll see at least one, if not two nominated for an Academy Award come year’s end. In a pursuit of sappyness, Hansard’s singing falls in the category of other bad bands like Coldplay, Keane and The Dave Matthews Band. Whatever strength or weakness the lyrics may have become irrelevant as the singer starts groaning and hollering gibberish with a pained look of exasperation that translates:

“Oh man, I’m so sad and frustrated, grrrrr... I could snap at any second… but my voice is getting high, because I’m nice… I’m so nice… baby, I’m sad… I’m not growling like this because I’m a mean guy… I’m a good guy… but I’m dark… and angry… but I love you… what a mystery I am… so tortured… what love have I lost… nice.”

Even though the music is bad, it does not affect the believability of the characters' satisfaction with the tunes. It’s easy to believe these characters love these songs. They’re so nice.

Once looks a lot better than it sounds. It’s a homemade movie, seemingly shot guerilla-style, with handheld long-takes that settle into the oft-exchanged gazes of the potential lovers, hero and heroine. Marketa Irglova plays the nameless heroine, and her songs are better, a lot better, than Mr. Hansard’s. It’s a pity we get so few of those. They make an exceptionally handsome couple, their chemistry oozing off the screen. There is flirting nearly the entire movie, the pair relishing every moment their deep gaze is matched by some brief physical connection, be it a piggyback ride or touch on the shoulder. The flirty excess plays similarly to the atmospheric brilliance of Before Sunset. Where Sunset shines is the deconstruction of the two no-longer-young leads, exposing them as often hypocritical, mean and petty, and yet the chemistry and romance is extraordinarily palatable. Once opts strongly against any character flaw whatsoever with the leads or peripheral characters, though I find one. They’re too nice.

The niceness leads to a surprisingly satisfying ending that is decidedly not simple or stupid. For all of the niceties in the movie, remember, “nice” is not always bad, that’s why it’s called “nice.” Nice meaning admirably small, taut, short, sweet, silly, a little daft and sometimes boring.

And now, for a boring song from the movie:

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Murder by Decree

dir. Bob Clark

Observing a sad loss.

May 4th, 2007 - DVD

Bob Clark’s recent death has brought a lot of well-deserved attention to a few of his excellent and neglected works, particularly his cool and gritty early horror breakthroughs (Deathdream, Dead of Night, The Night Andy Came Home, The Veteran, Whispers, etc.). For some reason, though, surprisingly few of these “and he was good, too!” obituary articles even mention Murder by Decree, which to me is arguably his greatest accomplishment. A model of effective, efficient, and quietly resonant storytelling, this is one of my own favorite mystery films, a slightly twisted Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper hybrid that combines intelligence, wit, chills and—most unexpectedly—a little heartbreak. It’s a movie with the rare ability to unspool a plot that feels at once meticulous and haphazard (in all the best ways), and by the finish it has even earned the right to reduce Sherlock to tears—twice!

The film opens with an incredibly good scene. Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) are at the opera, and everyone is awaiting the Prince’s arrival. When he shows up, he’s received with a mix of polite applause (from the wealthy patrons seated on the floor) and jeers (from the upper galley cheap seats). This goes on for a few moments, until Watson—appalled by the lack of respect—bellows out “God save his royal highness!” from his seat in one of the side balconies. This instigates thunderous applause from most of the audience. Holmes turns to Watson, proud and surprised, and says, “good show old fellow.” This should be the fuckin’ primer on how to open a movie. We get so much out of this seemingly tangential introduction; the turmoil in England that serves as the background for the entire Ripper mythology, Holmes and Watson’s place situated between the poor and the wealthy, and—most charmingly—a representation of the sincere and deep friendship between the two partners.

This “relationship” element is one of the film’s strongest attributes; here, probably more than in any other Holmes film, we get a realistic understanding of the Holmes/Watson dynamic. Holmes was content to observe and critique the cultural melee at the opera, while Watson felt emotionally moved to do something about it. Watson needs Holmes' intelligence to right criminal wrongs, and Holmes needs Watson as his kind of emotional-everyman compass. Furthermore, not a film willing to relax into easy character patterns, some of the best sequences in Murder by Decree occur when the two characters adopt the skills of their counterparts; Watson takes on some of the detective work himself, for example, or (especially) the scenes in which Holmes becomes deeply invested in the humanity of the case.

Clark is good at getting great performances from the excellent cast (which includes Donald Sutherland in his haunted, long-stare mode) but he's even more of an asset when it comes to visualizing this particular world and story. The sets, despite often feeling like sets, are beautiful and misty, and there is a sincerely disturbing sequence where Holmes visits an insane asylum. Clark even sparsely applies some of his signature shots in unexpected and effective ways. He all-but pioneered the modern usage of “killer’s POV” in Black Christmas (and would later rip it off as “peeper’s POV” in Porky’s), and his occasional use of it here—just a year after the technique blew the horror world’s mind in Halloween—is inspired and startling even today. The first kill in the film is as sleazy and disturbing as anything in Black Christmas, and it sets the whole movie on edge. In other Holmes films, we assume people have been murdered, sure, but by brutally depicting the deaths Clark raises the stakes for the great detective. Holmes tries to remain
impassive, but eventually the severity of the crimes sneaks in under his skin, and when he finds out who’s responsible… well… he gives John Gielgud a fat piece of his mind, let me tell you! It’s a great scene, as are nearly all the scenes in this subtle and expert film.

Murder by Decree puts modern mysteries to shame. The investigative thriller genre has been hit hard in recent years, to the point that it’s nearly dead as a dependable entertainment. TV bullshit like C.S.I. and Law and Order have turned the “mystery” into a kind of crank toy, where “get this to the lab” is the new “elementary, my dear Watson” (which, it’s important to note, is a line that goes unspoken in all of this film-- such is the filmmakers' reverence for the characters). Maybe the reason Holmes has remained so enduring as a character is because he’s completely removed from stupid technology, like UV lights and DNA testing. How fuckin' boring is that? In 1978, when Bob Clark was at the top of his game, he knew that in order to make a truly modern investigative thriller he couldn’t easily rely on his own era. Instead, he took his style and intelligence back to the roots of the genre, and delivered one of the best mysteries I know of.

Bob Clark, you'll be very fondly missed and remembered. And not just like this.

Spider-Man 3: The IMAX Experience

dir. Sam Raimi

James Franco and Neve Campbell in Robert Altman's The Company.
Kyle MacLachlan in Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3.

May 4, 2007 - 70mm/AMC Lincoln Square

My favorite scene in Robert Altman’s The Company is when a shirt-less (hot!) James Franco prepares an egg breakfast for Neve Campbell. This occurs in the morning, after what we can only assume was a night of passionate chef/ballerina-style lovemaking. The egg preparing is surprisingly very intimate, more so than a sex scene would have been, but more than intimate it is hilarious. He smiles that goofy million-dollar smile and all is right with the world. And, on top of the smiling, he’s a good cook! He’s making eggs! What a catch! Way to go, ballerina Neve!

My favorite scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is when a fully clothed (hot!) James Franco prepares an egg brunch/dinner/snack for Kirsten Dunst. This occurs in the middle of the day, after and during dancing rather poorly to “The Twist”. The Spider-Man movies are full of musical montages, but this is hardly a montage. Mr. Raimi opts to treat this small, intimate scene with the frenetic “so much is happening and time is passing!” styling of a “‘love is in the air’ montage” by bringing archaic music, wild and crazy dancing and, most importantly, Mr. Franco’s priceless smile. A great chunk of this movie, when Mr. Smile loses his marbles, is very amusing. It all culminates in a scene with Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man/Peter Parker) and Mr. Franco (New Goblin/Harry Osborn) in a coffee shop.

The coffee shop scene is a serious one, but it ends comically with the young Osborn essentially commenting on the “damn good slice of pie” to his waitress. Mr. Franco’s insistence on the quality of the slice of pie echoes the work of Kyle MacLachlan in David Lynch’s television show, Twin Peaks. This unhappy coffee shop meet between Parker and Osborn, in conjunction with some alien goo, leads to another series of over-the-top slapstick silliness. This time, Mr. Maguire plays the part of the wild and crazy guy, which leads us back to Kyle MacLachlan. As the alien goo and his newly acquired “single” status take hold, Peter Parker becomes a charming sleaze-ball. This sleaziness physically manifests itself in an altered hairstyle. The “sleazy-spidey” hairstyle happens to be another echo in the Kyle Maclachlan canon, reflecting his hair in Paul Verhoeven’s movie, Showgirls. In Showgirls, Mr. Maclachlan’s “sleaze” is represented through staring at girls, a lot of cocaine use and weird, body-flopping pool sex. In Spider-Man 3, Mr. Maguire’s “sleaze” is represented through staring at girls, a lot of cookie-eating and weird, body-flopping jazz club dancing.

Peter Parker dances at a jazz club with some new girl, Gwen Stacy (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), to get back at his recently fired ex and ex-Showgirl (Broadway, not Vegas), Mary Jane Watson (played by Kirsten Dunst). Ms. Dunst does quite a bit of singing in Spider-Man 3, and all of it is very poor. Can any of the women in the Spider-Man universe do anything right or be the least bit independent or strong? Unlike the dancing in the movie, the singing is not funny. Not funny at all.

Almost none of Spider-Man 3 makes any sense, not in the classical sense of the word and not in the fantasy universe created in first two (successful) installments in the series. There is a sand-monster who can grow to exponential heights, a cross between the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters and Nick Nolte’s “water-father” monster from the end of Hulk. There is an old advice-giving manservant at the Osborn mansion that bequeaths pivotal knowledge to Harry at just the right narrative moment. There is an inexplicable vibrating desk. All of these oddball non-sequiturs, compounded with an overly complicated, yet very simple and stupid, story make for something that, if anything, is good for a few laughs. I have no intentions of elevating the first two Spider-Man movies to the levels of the to-be-mentioned series, but Spider-Man 3 fits snuggly in the Batman Forever or Return of the Jedi category of moviemaking. It has the totally bonkers nonsense feel of Batman Forever, combined with the performative (none of the actors care) feel of Return of the Jedi.

Spider-Man 3 is a bad movie.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

Hair + Can = Movie Magic

April 30, 2007 - 35mm/AMC Lincoln Square

Josh Brolin plays Llewlyn Moss. One day, on a rather unsuccessful hunt in the pristine wild of West Texas, Llewlyn happens upon the aftermath of a botched heroin deal. Bloodied, rotting bodies of both men and dogs have been shot full of holes. It’s a mess, but it is beautiful. The site is brimming with a history of the not too distant past. The loud gunfight lives on only in this painting, a still sculpture of bloodshed. Llewlyn methodically observes the carnage as though wandering through a museum or diorama. Every bit of motion on the hush landscape is startling. Following a trail of blood, which may as well have been gingerbread, he finds the body of a man who almost got away, and with him, a satchel full of cash. How much cash? Who cares. A lot. The concern is not how much cash is in the satchel, but whom the money now belongs to. Finders keepers. Llewlyn Moss takes the money. There’s no turning back, and the wonderful thing about No Country for Old Men is, Llewlyn Moss doesn’t turn back. He takes things as the come. It’s not fate. It’s more complicated than fate. It’s survival.

For every hero (Llewlyn Moss), there’s an equally capable villain (Anton Chigurh). Chigurh is a movie baddie for the history books. Javier Bardem embodies his charms, looks and creative murderous zeal with expert precision. He wields a can of super-compressed air (the sort used on the kill-floor of the slaughterhouse) and turns it on humanity. It is a quiet way to take a life, and the nonchalance with which Chigurh executes his victims is matched by how death and violence is portrayed in the movie. There is a startling, magnificent degree of matter-of-factness to the entire thing. There is little to no screaming in No Country for Old Men and practically no music in aid of tension or action. The violence is allowed to exist. Death is enough. Death, as a matter-of-fact, is serious. It speaks for itself, though it would be a mistake to call this “hands-off” moviemaking, as the deliberately paced action sequences are gasp-worthy because of the stillness and silence contained within the expertly designed landscape, both physical and emotional.

The carnage and straight-laced in-the-moment chaos of the Llewlyn/Chigurh young man’s hunt is juxtaposed with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s tempered reflections on life’s past. No Country for Old Men takes place in 1980, but more importantly it is set in the present tense. The present is a difficult place for Ed Tom to be. Played by Tommy Lee Jones, Ed Tom is an old man, and suffice it to say, this is no country for him. Whilst providing the greatest amount of comic relief in his dealings with the young deputy (chameleon Garret Dillahunt), Ed Tom also carries the brunt of the burden all of life and death on his sad shoulders. His hefty words bookend this tale nearly devoid of foreshadowing, catharsis and climax.

No Country for Old Men is a marvelous movie, steadily surprising and thrilling both emotionally and intellectually, with performances, wit, set pieces and visuals that are a glory to behold. Every location is lived in. Every hotel room needs a dusting. Every home seemingly decorated by its occupants. The astounding and ravishing Scottish actress, Kelly Macdonald, plays Llewlyn’s wife and not for a moment can you consider her not a West Texas native. Writer/Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have successfully captured the spirit of the present, forever moment (as provided by Cormac McCarthy) in both personality and texture, fashioning an eternal motion picture classic.

Moviemakers and storytellers have been deconstructing the mythos of the “Old West” for generations. There is timelessness and urgency in this exploration, worthy not only of the brain, but also of the soul and to the very essence of being natural people of this country and of this earth.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Killer of Sheep

dir. Charles Burnett

Jeff Larson, Baton Rouge
April 2, 2007 - 35mm/IFC Center Megamall

Samuel Johnson, the greatest critic who ever lived, once wrote, “the critic is the only man whose triumph is without another’s pain, and whose greatness does not rise upon another’s ruin.” These are damning words, but the inverse is, also, ultimately true. A critic – even one self-anointed like I am – faced with a work of art so completely successful and jaw-dropping in its execution is the loneliest of men. Unable to codify, categorize, and explain what or how the project does what it does, he always must resort to speaking in terms of mere beauty. And this is why the critic will always fail. From Plato to Bloom we have long sought to intellectualize beauty, but beauty is beauty because of its ephemeral and indefinable nature, understanding it is possible, but fully describing it is an impossible task. All we can hope for in cases where beauty smacks us across the face because of our vanity is to write words that present a mere fraction of what our experience was.

One of the frustratingly beautiful examples of this is, of course, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The film focuses on a modern day shepherd, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), and, increasingly, the sadness and desperation in his eyes. He is surrounded by his family: a wife (Kaycee Moore), who is incredibly dispirited by their increasing distance, a daughter, who sings Earth, Wind & Fire songs to her dolls and wears a sad-eyed puppy dog mask, and two sons, one who in the twilight of his adolescence is both a child – he has a thing for too much sugar in his cheerios – and becoming a man – he is desperate for money, and in Watts County, California will have that desire for quite some time. And, there’s the rub: Watts County, with its TV thieves and would be murderers, is inescapable. A quick trip to a local racetrack ends with a flat tire with no spare affordable or within reach, and a potentially funny scene centers around a group of people sitting in a car, but when one of them reaches through the nonexistent windshield for a can of beer it becomes clear the car is merely a shell. The effect is devastating, and the corollary for Stan is equally so. Halfway through the movie, when Stan, shirtless, and his wife are slow dancing in silhouette, his movements are robotic while hers are fluid and loving, and slowly become urgent, determined, and desperate. These two no longer have any escape open to them even in the privacy of their own home. A crushing blow to be sure, for the scene is one of the most strikingly arresting in the whole movie, and the outcome is the most powerful depiction of overwhelming despair I have ever seen.

But the movie is not merely concerned with gloom; there is a fair amount of glitter here as well. Interspersed between Stan’s scenes are short vignettes centering on the adventures of the neighborhood children. The immediate connection between these stories and Stan is through his daughter and younger son. At first glance these scenes seem disjointed from the rest of the movie, as if they are a particularly affecting form of navel-gazing. Mostly, in these scenes, the neighborhood children throw rocks at each other or foolishly risk life and limb, but often because this playing is so cinematically beautiful, the immediate effect is a reverence towards the moment itself. Three scenes in particular stand out from the rest. In one, the children jump between rooftops, and we see them from below, as they, like Icarus, hang in midair before landing on the next roof. In another, as seen from a train, they run alongside the tracks, and, like a bunch of would-be soldiers, toss rocks towards the camera. And, even in a quiet moment, when the kids are merely sitting on the train-tracks, the framing is so exquisite and the kids are so exuberant that when they all can’t help but look at the camera, I felt a connection, a warming inside, because, yes, this is what summer is.

To most of the critics, these images are irreconcilable with Stan’s scenes; they often cite a jumbled disjointed nature to Killer of Sheep – along with some words about Stan’s culpability, the kid’s overwhelming innocence, and the underlying social message. All of these themes are, of course, there, but even in the children’s scenes a melancholy undercurrent connects with Stan’s preoccupations. Most often the children’s games are violent in the sort of ways that children’s games are: they often involve rocks, displays of superiority, or slightly dangerous actions. Their outcome is, of course, skinned knees, hurt pride, and a healthy bout of tears. Truly, most summer games end up this way, and in Killer of Sheep the kid’s emotions are conquerable – after the tears dry and your face is salty, it’s time for an ice cream and more adventures. When we are kids these feelings disappear, but as we age the feelings behind them become vastly insurmountable and dire. We learn from our culture – books, movies, human contact – that these feelings are important, and that it’s necessary, for better or for worse, to address them. And that’s the central conceit of Killer of Sheep: Stan has reached a place where he lives in his emotions, and because of Watts county, he is powerless to address them, so he becomes a stranger, the man underground. And, to some extent the same can be said of any lifetime. There will always be histories that we can’t address, can’t correct, because to do so would destroy our sense of ourselves.

The movie begins with Stan lecturing his son on what it takes to be a man – “You are not a child anymore, you soon will be a goddamn man” – Stan tells him he must protect his sister, must stand up for himself, must ignore his emotions, and must, most of all, be strong. He son listens with a mixture of confusion and disbelief. When Stan insists that he “Start learning what life is about now, son”, it’s pretty clear that he already knows: rocks hurt, and sometimes you can’t fix, or ignore, them.

The best movies are those that present their themes concisely, but you can sense an ambiguity, a certain uncertainty, behind their insistence. The closer you look, their themes collapse one by one until you are left with a hazy picture of what it was you once saw, but of one thing you are convinced, this experience, this catharsis, has placed within you a new sense of yourself and the world around you. You slowly realize the experience you're having is not one centered around a social or political argument; it is not exploring time or space; it is not a collection of disparate, perfect moments; it is not merely about race, or class, or gender: something far more complex and unnamable is happening. You are
not holding your breath out of fear, but because you are experiencing something so wonderfully beautiful. Killer of Sheep is why we go to the movies: in short, you'll never look at things the same way again.

Bonus Song!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Final Destination Trilogy

dir. James Wong

Just like Kenny Rogers and the SATs, Death hates cheats.

Joey Devine, ALAMEDA
April 15, 2007 - DVD

The Seed.

Final Destination is a really subtle movie. In a genre as overblown and dumbed-down as the teen horror genre, Final Destination really just lets the audience figure it all out. In fact, this movie is so ambiguous you can’t even tell what it’s about until the tightly wound knot that is Final Destination unfurls itself in the final act. Take the first 8 to 10 minutes:

We are shown a copy of Death of a Salesman.

Dad says, “Live it up, Kid! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” (Cue Ear Shattering Ominous Score)

A student reads a book about French tourism that mentions Lady Di. (Wait…isn’t she…No…She Didn’t? She’s dead right?)

Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver plays in the airport bathroom. (Actual line of Dialogue: “John Denver? Wait a second; didn’t he die in a plane crash?")

A baggage cart reads the number 666.

Oh wait. I totally lied in that first paragraph. Sorry. This movie is about as subtle as the new Dane Cook CD. (Translation for Dane Cook fans: THIS MOVIE IS THE OPPOSITE OF SUBTLE. Wait, why are you reading this? Shouldn’t you be bro-ing it up somewhere?) So, it’s not subtle, but that’s okay because it has great dialogue, right? No, actually the dialogue is really wooden and terrible; as is the acting by some person named Ali Larter and the kid who played Casper the Friendly Ghost. (I would normally give some kind of example here, but I lost my notes, and watching all three Final Destinations in one sitting has irreparably damaged my brain.) No, FD1, as I like to call it, is all about the wacky deaths and irreverent “black humor” (I put that in quotes because it is neither dark nor is it humorous). A lady gets stabbed and exploded (AT THE SAME TIME!). A kid hangs himself taking a shower. All with generally mediocre to almost-fun results. Little did we know that this little movie would lead to something so much greater.

A quick plot rundown:

Funny song plays ("Leaving on a Jet Plane"). Kids get on plane. One kid has a dream that the plane is going to explode. Kid freaks out. Various under developed characters and love interest get off plane with kid. Plane explodes. Various half characters die in over the top ridiculousness. Kid and love interest get scared. Kids think they beat death some how. Kids die in end. (Credits Roll)


Read that series of events one more time, because that is the basic formula from which genius spawns.

A quick FD1 fun fact:

On the DVD there are 3 different commentary options. Including one with just the composer of the score. (Spencer, I think you need to get on this one.)

Final Destination 2
dir. David R. Ellis

"Holy Shit! It’s Bob Weinstein!"

The Misstep.

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Alfred Hitchcock once said that the key to making a great sequel was showing the audience exactly what they saw the first time, only bigger and include only one major character from the first movie (Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I said all the kids died? Yeah, that was a lie. Ali Larter is still alive.) That’s why Psycho 2 was so great, because he followed his own instructions.


Psycho 2 is neither great nor was it directed by Alfred Hitchcock. And I made up that stuff about sequels.

The premonition part of Final Destination 2 is totally great. Highway to Hell plays. A bus full of football players screams “Pile up! Pile up! Pile up!” It is really over the top and in general, shockingly fun. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the rest of FD2. Well, actually it is really over the top, but where FD1 took itself almost too seriously, FD2 is just too goofy (okay, so that’s a lie. FD1 really wasn’t THAT serious, but please, just bear with me here). FD1 is all Bob Hoskins. FD2 is all Roger Rabbit. FD2 is a movie where a guy escapes a fire and then dies because he slips on some spaghetti he threw out the window. And another 19-year-old kid has a plate glass window fall on him, because he can’t resist the urge to chase a group of pigeons away. Even under Final Destination rules isn’t that just a little too crazy?

I hated this movie. Luckily, 65 minutes into the movie, it ended. Not because the movie was over, mind you, but because I rent movies from the local Blockbuster Video, and it came with a deep scratch across the DVD. Thank you, Weinstein Company, for contractually obligating all Blockbuster Videos to destroy all non-Weinstein movies. I could kiss your feet Bob and Harvey. I really could. So yeah, I don’t know how this movie ends. And I also don’t really care. Good Riddance.

Final Destination 3
dir. James Wong

Every fourth scene in this movie looks like this.

The Pinnacle.

I’ve got to level with you guys. I’m facing a real dilemma here. I love Final Destination 3. But I HAVE NO IDEA WHY. It’s not a good movie, I don’t think. But I also don’t love it because it’s terrible. But it’s a movie I love so much I’ve watched it 4 times this month. It is always on HBO. Final Destination 3 stars the girl from Brick that I have a crush on (Wait…Hold on…Actually I’m being told it stars the girl from Sky High who I don’t have a crush on. Sorry, I always get those two movies mixed up, you know, because they’re so similar), and someone named Texas Battle. (Or at least it says so in the credits, but I refuse to believe that there is someone out there actually calling him or herself Texas Battle). FD3 mixes the over the top ridiculousness of FD1 and the mega super A-bomb ridiculousness of FD2 into a cocktail of face burning acid that will thrill and delight!

FD3 has the greatest premonition scene in all of movie history, and that includes the movie Premonition. Let me just say it involves a bunch of kids and a roller coaster. IT IS AWESOME! People get cut in half, the roller coaster defies the laws of physics and hangs for an eternity at the top of its loop. It is amazing. And to think I’m only being half sarcastic when I write this!

Where FD3 really succeeds is in its execution. It throws away the build up to everyone’s crazy deaths that was so prevalent in the first two, and instead of building up tension using fake scares and slow mo as people turn on ovens and stuff, it lets us know how the characters are going to die using a cheap plot device. The entire movie is a race to see if the main characters can convince people not to go tanning or whatever, and when they can’t, getting there just late enough to watch their heads explode as the main characters look on in terror with blood all over them. Seriously, I would say an eighth of the scenes in this movie end with two people looking on in horror as blood splatters all over their faces. For some reason, I enjoy this every time it happens. (Funnily enough, it seems as if MTV agrees as they just premiered this show called Scarred that seems to have the same premise. Only with skateboarders and in real life.)

In the end, I think the reason I love this movie so much is for the same reason I used to love that game Mouse Trap. It’s literally like watching that game happen over and over again, only if some kind of outrageous idiot savant had designed it. In one scene, two valley girls turn the heat up in their tanning salon, which melts the ice on a soda; the condensation from the soda leaks into the box that controls the temperature on their tanning beds, frying them; the heater blows a coat rack over; which knocks a shelf on top of the two tanning beds, causing the two girls to burn to death in a tanning bed. All while the chorus of Roller Coaster of Love plays over and over again! I know it’s stupid, but it’s great stupid. I think. I don’t know what else to say, I love this movie!

So, go see Final Destination 3, but please don’t blame me if you think it sucks.