Monday, February 26, 2007


dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

And the Oscar goes to: Earth Wind & Fire (as remixed by Fantastic Plastic Machine)!

Spencer Owen, BERKELEY

February 24, 2007 - DVD/Academy screener (thanks, Anonymous!)

What needs to be said about Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel? Hopefully not much; it's a bad film, and the Academy saw fit to recognize this fact by... well, by doing whatever they wanted, since as we're all aware, neither a nomination nor a win means a thing about the quality of a movie. It was nominated for several awards and it won only one. Yet, of the nominations for which it had any sort of decent odds (not, for instance, best picture), best score, its sole and meager prize, is the most offensive one of all. Why? It's a fascinating story! Promise!

But let's talk movie shop before we talk music shop. People talk about Crash and Babel in the same general category, and so here I distinguish between them. Crash is an incompetent time-waster, akin to the rough cut of a made-for-TV movie or, in my dream world, a local film festival also-ran. Its condescending and pretentious intentions are painfully obvious, its insipid situations painfully unconvincing and contrived. It is about racism. Babel is competent, just quite obnoxious. It is not about racism; if it is trying to be, it fails. It paints a somber picture of a globe easily tipped to crisis, and does so with a pointlessly-structured set of four "interlocking" stories by turns boring and infuriatingly manipulative.

Like Crash, it is based on a lot of contrivances, but these aren't as irritating as the manner of narrative assemblage, and most importantly the effort one has to expend to care about Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and their two kids. I spent a good deal of time on my critique of Babel's construction and ultimately decided to heed the advice of my opening sentences. I will, however, bring in my comment about the nominated Adriana Barazza (who lost to Jennifer Hudson): good acting, but by the time she has her climactic scenes, we're so infuriated at her puppet-masters that we'd rather see the strings cut.

Now I'd like to talk about someone offscreen, Gustavo Santaolalla. What is his role in this free-for-all? He's a Los Angeles-based Argentinian composer and solo recording artist, and has also been the producer for a wonderful Mexican band, Café Tacuba, and others, too. He provided the musical backdrop, in part, for Iñárritu's previous films as well as this one. This man just won last year for the score to Brokeback Mountain, and I was not wholly displeased by that choice. Though I wasn't enamored with the theme, it gave the movie a memorable, non-regrettable signature. And now, it's 2007 – another year, another Santaolalla, this time for Babel. He sure seems to have the stuff! Let's look closely.

Santaolalla has several cues in the film, and they're all rather insignificant, very brief mood enhancers and segues. Fine; this is the stuff of a score, more often than not. But in Babel, it often seems arbitrary. So much of the movie does a fine job without music, and it doesn't seem particularly organic when Santaolalla's worldly noodlings show up. There is other music in the movie, and it's all perfectly appropriate; in fact, generally, the music from outside sources works much more organically within the film than Santaolalla's original compositions. Past the one-hour mark, in the film's best sequence, the deaf Japanese girl (my favorite character) has a delightful day with some of her disabled and non-disabled peers, feeling accepted and feeling finally like a part of the world she lives in. This day climaxes in a dance club, and as they enter, the Fantastic Plastic Machine remix of "September" by Earth Wind & Fire is gradually introduced into the ambience of the soundtrack and then joyfully takes over. As the revellers revelled, I felt completely involved in the movie for the first time. Rather effectively, Iñárritu takes this opportunity – for the first and only time in the movie, tastefully – to occasionally cut the sound out completely with the edits, to remind us that this girl is inherently alienated. It isn't the first time someone's employed this technique, but since he'd withheld it this far along, it comes in as a surprise, and casts a perfect emotional contrast in the moment.

But that's Fantastic Plastic Machine! Criminy, where is Santaolalla's big Academy-baiting moment? Where's the sweeping statement equal to Pan's Labyrinth's lullaby theme? The Pan's theme took over a half-hour to show up; with Babel, we're at the two-hour mark! The trusted name of Gustavo isn't enough for the Academy to nominate a sparse and ambient tapestry, is it?

No, but "Iguazu" is enough. Yes, it's a song by the man himself. I've gotta admit – it's not bad. It's named after a waterfall, and it sounds like an imitation of one, a harp-like pattern of quick, arpeggiated string plucking on an instrument I can't quite recognize. You might recognize this piece of music not by name, but by source. Iñárritu used it previously in Amores Perros. You can also find it in Michael Mann's The Insider from 1999. More recently, it also showed up, I'm told, in the cable serial Deadwood. The first place you'll find it is on Santaolalla's 1998 solo album for Nonesuch entitled Ronroco. The latest place you'll find it is in Babel. This is correct, and you'll find few who deny it: Santaolalla's music makes, incomparably, its biggest impact on Babel when "Iguazu" is used as backdrop to a climactic montage over two hours into the film.

Let's recap. A song is released on CD, without film accompaniment or the intention thereof, nearly a decade before a particular Oscar year. It is used in at least two other films during the interim. It is then the primary force leading to an Oscar nomination, in said decade-later Oscar year, for best original score. There's a first for everything, I suppose. (By the way, if anything like this has happened before and you're aware of it, I urge you to comment on this post; I love to learn.)

I will allow you to guess what piece of the soundtrack they chose to represent the score during the presenter's nomination montage. Then the thing straight up won. It is perhaps hyperbole to add up all the elements of this situation and call it an insult to the art of musical composition for film, because it's the Oscars. But I'm insulted, as a music enthusiast first and a film enthusiast first-and-a-half. So should be, at the very least, the other four composers that were nominated. (Even Javier Navarrete for Pan's Labyrinth.)

A coda. In the film's final scene, we wrap up our Japanese story, and a lovely piano trio is introduced, fittingly melancholy with a beautiful tune. This piece is called "Bibo no Aozora." It is written by Ryuichi Sakamoto, and it is performed by Sakamoto, accompanied by the cellist Jacques Morelenbaum (with whom Sakamoto has recorded a couple of albums) and the violinist Everton Nelson. After about four minutes of this piece, the final shot fades to credits, and the music crossfades awkwardly to more Santaolalla. It isn't "Iguazu," but it sounds just like "Iguazu" ... "Son of Iguazu," maybe. At the end of the credits, you can hear some of the noodling that makes up some of the rest of the score. Here's that whole cue. Thanks to whoever uploaded this to Odeo.

powered by ODEO

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ennio Morricone Festival, pt. 1

The Film Forum here in New York City just finished up a series of movies scored by Ennio Morricone. They showed 26 different movies over a period of 3 weeks. I saw 18 of them in the theatre during those 3 weeks. The other 8 I had previously seen. This entry is the first of many, examining each of those 18 pictures, often with visual/aural aids. Some of them have already been reviewed here, and for those I will simply post a link.

Mr. Morricone is receiving an honorary Academy Award tomorrow. I can only hope this means brief clips of some of the below movies get shown on national television. To be very, very brief, my favorites of the bunch I saw were Arabian Nights, The Burglars and The Big Gundown.

Big posters of some hand prints.


February 3, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

The title of this picture is pretty much the sum up its parts, though it leaves out the very Philip K. Dickian twist that the investigator is also the “citizen above suspicion.” After meditatively, deliberately murdering his kinky mistress, the titular citizen (and investigator) sets out on an Ouroboros quest that begins as an intellectual experiment and folds upon itself to Dostoyevskian/Dickian paranoia. Dostoyevsky meets Dick is a fine way to describe this artsy and introspective, yet pulpy, handheld detective yarn.

The anti-establishment bent of the picture and the detective’s proto-fascist power abusing intents build something that is more intellectually palatable for the Film Forum-going audience than say, Burt Reynolds as a Navajo, and thus it makes a very fine two-day long opening to the Morricone program. It tastes a bit like a much trashier detective version of Army of Shadows or The Conformist (both of which enjoyed extended runs at Film Forum). The brand new 35mm print looked pristine and is clearly indicative of an impeding, overdue DVD release in the near future and a chance for Dickheads all over to imagine a world where Elio Petri could direct Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

Arabian Nights
dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini


February 5, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s mythological celebration of life takes the form of a series of short moral tales strung together with hyper-ecstatic energy. The lesson or moral of each is fairly unclear, but what is clear is that the characters in this blissful, meandering journey are more than likely to be spending their time fucking or dying than anything else.

The story charged with holding the picture together and running from start to finish revolves around the lusty passion between a young boy (of about 14 or 15) and his young (also 14 or 15) dominating slave girl. They are beautiful kids and the young boy’s beauty is so paralyzing that as he loses his slave girl and searches for her far and wide he ends up copulating with a wide variety of smitten young women. This young kid looks like one of the heroes of Larry Clark’s wonderful Wassup Rockers and Pasolini rests his camera on him with the same affection and awe, marveling at his frequently nude figure, skillfully blending human, animal passions with fantastical elements with an ease that would make Guillermo del Toro blush.

This joy-filled movie is currently not available on this country on DVD, though once was, briefly. I do not want to assume this is due to the frank use of graphic teen sexuality, and rather the delay to gather the best elements for a marvelous American Pasolini box set.

Danger: Diabolik
dir. Mario Bava


February 6, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Danger: Diabolik is a silly, sly, visually stunning, yet entirely straight-faced comedy about a handsome James Bond-ish super villain and his lover’s adventures in lucrative, victimless crime. While John Philip Law is the charming, statuesque “star” of the movie as the titular character, the set design and visual gags clearly take center stage. Eva, his lover, sterilely writhes around in piles of money and the two passionlessly kiss the night away, as we crane our necks to observe the gadgetry that adorns Diabolik’s lair. Eventually all gadgets are exposed, and are creatively designed, though all a bit too polished. The polish and camp making the stuff of cult appreciation, Danger: Diabolik is best when it is a music video, not just to the Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin'," but to Ennio Morricone’s electric guitar twang as well.

After The Burglars, this manages to take the prestigious spot as the 2nd best of the Ennio Morricone scored emerald heist movies. Though the score for Danger soars among the greatest, with Morricone flexing his silly muscle and elevating the 60'sness excess of James Bond music to another level. Danger is great fun, but for its lack of substantive material (minus the score and visuals) and its impression on the ham-fisted idiotic bullshit of Roman Coppola’s CQ, it deserves to sit in the corner of this series with a dunce cap atop it’s funny little head.

dir. Henri Verneuil


February 6, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Click here.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Big Gundown

The Big Gundown
dir. Sergio Sollima

Run, man, run.


February 13, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

A young girl, a real young girl, has been ravaged and murdered. Government endorsed vigilante lawman Jon Corbett is going to stop at nothing to catch the motherfucker who did it and watch him bleed. The motherfucker is Cuchillo Sanchez, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t the craftiest, dirty-fightingest scumbag on this piece of shit maneatin’ planet. I’ll be double-damned if you don’t love fucker by the end of this picture.

Largely due to the bravura performance of Tomas Milian, who plays Cuchillo, The Big Gundown stakes its place as arguably the greatest non-Sergio Leone spaghetti western (Lee Van Cleef’s strongest performance, a glorious score from Ennio Morricone, no-nonsense direction from Sergio Sollima and the intellectually complicated subject matter may also contribute).

The first taste of the sort of man Cuchillo is comes from a scene where he appears to be taking a second victim, another pre-teen, a blonde Mormon girl. He bathes giddily in a river beckoning the young lass to join him in the fun. Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) to the rescue! Cuchillo’s playfulness and good humor is a shocking display of objectivity on the part of director Sergio Sollima. With dramatic irony in place, the audience well aware of Cuchillo’s predatory tendencies, the scene plays out as if Solima just stumbled across Cuchillo taunting the pre-teen from the water and found it simply a source of mild amusement. The confrontation with Corbett is doubly strange, considering that it occurs so early in the movie. The set-up is one suggesting an endless chase, and the hero and villain are already facing off? Wait, Corbett gets shot? Already? I would call it a spoiler, if it didn’t occur so soon in the story. Cuchillo, caught red-handed and practically naked, rags hanging from his skin, starts blubbering like a fool when threatened by Corbett. Pathetically and half-mockingly repenting to God, Cuchillo, by flailing and whimpering on his knees manages to coerce the young girl into, get this, shooting Corbett! Cuchillo has a great belly laugh and takes off. When Corbett comes to, an old Morman man thanks him for protecting his wife and apologizes for his getting shot. Wife? Yes.

Nothing as it seems is the status quo in The Big Gundown as Corbett, used to fighting for simple right and wrong, is now drowning in a world where a raping murdering motherfucker is actually charming and likable. There will be no take ten paces and “draw!” with these two. Cuchillo barely picks up a gun the whole movie. Instead, he uses a knife, whines, squirrels his way out of trouble and runs about like a chicken with its head cut off from scene to scene through Texas and Mexico, every once and a while injecting a political diatribe about the state of his oppressed peasant culture, which are all strikingly genuine. Slowly Corbett discovers his foe is not as simple as things seem and he is faced with not only being outsmarted by this ruffian, but having his ideological and geographical worlds turned upside down.

The wonderfully junky and comical candy scenarios and characters in The Big Gundown coated with the hard emotional shell of poverty, rape, murder and desperate fatalism make a delicious masterstroke of moviemaking. This picture is the missing link between the bombastic poetic schlock of the spaghetti western genre and the intense character studies as haunting political and emotional landscapes of the Sam Peckinpah genre (yes, he deserves his own genre). In other words, come for the goofy hijinks, rousing score, snap dialogue and fun performances, stay for self-critical crises of ugly introspection, dishonorably charming cheating motherfuckers and brain-busting, jaw-droppingly brave motion picture creation.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Fires on the Plain

Fires on the Plain
dir. Kon Ichikawa

Kon, artist.

Guest Article!
Jeff Larson, NEW YORK CITY
February 19, 2007 - 35mm/IFC Film Center

In Fires on the Plain, Kon Ichikawa’s WWII masterpiece, a soldier walks. He does not fight, and only twice sees the enemy. It’s 1945 and the Japanese have no hope of winning, or even, as the film contends, returning to the realm of the living. Fires on the Plain imagines, in stark black and white, a world where even surviving is more harrowing than the hells that wait beyond the grave.

In a small hut on the island of Leyte, the soldier Tamura, who is suffering from tuberculosis, is reprimanded for returning to his unit unwell. The squad commander tells him the dire situation facing the Japanese on the Philippine front: there is no food, little water – a supply officer fills out requests for supplies with no one to send the requests to – a burgeoning guerilla war, and, now, here is this young soldier who is too sick to help his men dig air shelters. Tamura, played by an angelic Eiji Funakoshi, waits through this scene with an abject stiffness that seems to be a remnant of some long lost muscle memory of military decorum, and as the film progresses, his slowly stiffening limbs parody any semblance of discipline. He is ordered back to the hospital, whether he is admitted or lies dying outside is of no consequence, and reminded that he has a hand grenade to blow himself up before starving to death.

At the hospital, the chief medic refuses to admit Tamura on the basis that he can still walk. And while waiting outside among the sick-but-still-walking, Tamura watches the medical staff desert their post shortly before the hospital is destroyed by air raid. His dying comrades scamper like ants from the huts serving as the hospital before an unseen enemy drops his bombs. The resulting scene is the first of many striking apocalyptic visions: the ground is strewn with scores of the dead and the dying, and the movie stops to indulge in the bleak and devastating landscape.

Without bombast -- except, oddly, in the score -- an atypical theme arises out of the destruction: on Leyte, comrades-in-arms are only helpful as survival tools, there are no letters to write home, girls to fantasize about, or even any hope for escape. Ichikawa’s camera pauses on the most horrifying scenes long enough for them to become terrifyingly beautiful in their stillness: Tamura ventures, at one point, up to a deserted church which is literally bursting with the bones and flayed limbs of his fellow soldiers, shortly before he shoots and kills a young girl for a pouch of salt. The film’s sensational score drops out in the village, as if it embodies an observer who received more than he bargained for and is obediently reverent to this desecrated chapel.

Ichikawa’s morals in this film are hard to pin down -- one would be hard-pressed to simplify the message as merely anti-war. Tamura’s hardship always arises out of following orders, and being a largely heroic soldier. He is generous with his small amounts of food, he is strong and good-looking despite his health condition, and he blindly follows orders. In a lesser film, we would admire his hardships, but his outstanding qualities are moot: there is no one to fight, and everyone will die.

After rendezvousing with the retreating Japanese forces, he marches, without shoes, towards an evacuation at Palompon. Tamura is following the rest of his comrades because he has nothing else left to do, and he is hardly alone in his despair. In one scene, after being strafed by enemy aircraft, the survivors slowly get to their feet and leave the dead where they lie. In another, a soldier eulogizes over a seemingly dead soldier. “Are we all going to end up like that?” he asks. The exhausted, yet not dead, soldier lifts his head from the mud and answers, “What?” On the hellish Island of Leyte, simple conceptions of heroism and honor have broken down. This is the rare war film with no warriors. Surprisingly, without war, Ichikawa manufactures a plausible and veritable war zone, but even more amazing is how he creates an army of broken individuals through subtle and motionless camerawork, the lines around a man’s eyes, and a patience that conveys a devastating stillness and an odor of death. Fires on the Plain is a necessary movie, and even a slice of it affects us more deeply than all of the most successful scenes in all of the Saving Private Ryan clones. Fires on the Plain breathes death, and yet is tasteful enough not to rely on simple sleights of hand to invoke the horrors of war.

Near the end of the film, Tamura happens upon a survivor who proclaims he is the Buddha on the mountain. Like all Buddhas – past and future – salvation is coming to him. He is waiting for a helicopter to save him while surviving on a diet of his own shit and the maggots who are living in it. Tamura looks to the sky and sees no helicopter. “What kind of birds are those?” he says. The shit-eating Buddha retorts, “those aren’t birds, they’re flies.” Indeed.

(All six of you reading this should buy the DVD when it is released on March 13.)

Pennies From Heaven

Hoskins vs. Martin
(Spoiler: Hoskins wins in a bloody triumph)

February 18, 2007 - DVD

Uncompromising and uncomfortably honest, the television miniseries Pennies From Heaven was visionary in the way it introduced a new, freaky road into the minds of fictional characters. It was such a triumphant and surprising technique, in fact, that it would serve as the cornerstone for the justly-celebrated career of its creator, Dennis Potter, who would put this weirdo idea to use in a number of other BBC miniseries'. It was not, however, strong enough to survive being transmuted into an American musical, and the attempt to do so stands as a sad testament to the side of Hollywood we’ve occasionally wished didn’t exist; its tendency toward grandiosity and overstatement, and it’s singular ability to (maybe inadvertently, maybe intentionally) elbow out intelligence and logic in favor of spectacle and self-importance.

But before we get too deep into that unpleasantness, let’s talk about the great and often mind-blowing original work. Over more than eight hours, Potter has us completely enthralled with the lives of some truly cruel, gullible, and pathetic people, and only in the end does it feel like we (tragically) have to turn our backs on all of them. The aforementioned “surprising technique,” of course, is that throughout their misadventures, the characters spontaneously lip-sync to 1930’s era pop songs. The predominant read seems to be that these frequent departures from the otherwise very, very grim day-to-day reality are essentially reflections of the characters’ wildest wishes sprung to life. The sunny songs, then, are (in theory) a kind of ironic, relieving contrast to the story. But is this really what’s going on? Well… according to me (and, c’mon, who else’re you gonna believe?), yes and no.

The truth is that Potter was aiming at something more complex, and more insightful. Each time a character mimes a song, the context and outlook are carefully constructed so that we know exactly whose perspective we’re observing. For example, the fantasies of Arthur, the sheet-music salesman played by Bob Hoskins, generally reflect an alternate version of himself; one in which he is confident, truthful, and an all-around good man (or, if not “good” per se, then at least he imagines that the world around him is as twisted as he is, and happy about it). Eileen, the school-teacher-turned-prostitute played by Cheryl Campbell, has musical fantasies that serve to soften the world around her; she’s actively, desperately looking for the good in other people, even when (or, perhaps, especially when) they’re looking to exploit her. These are two completely different motivations for fantasy, yet they both draw upon the same stock of popular music from the period, as they naturally would to people in this place and time. Each musical sequence, then, is not merely a break from the story, but their break from the story. Most of the people in the series get at least a single song to themselves, and in each and every case the motivation for the fantasy represents an angle unique to their character. In all cases, Potter is using the lip-syncing sequences to bring us closer to the character. What, after all, is more intimate than a grown person's fantasies?

Consider this for a moment, and you’ll realize what a completely out-there concept it is, yet it’s so skillfully executed that after a brief period of growing accustomed, it becomes as natural a storytelling device as, say, a flashback. Very rare in motion pictures is a new concept introduced that’s creative and easily accessible, yet here is an amazing example where both are true.

The story of Pennies From Heaven is unceasingly depressing, involving deception, abortion, marital discord, murder, contrition, and a great, great deal of self-loathing. Bob Hoskins’ Arthur is one of the most reprehensible, weasely characters I’ve encountered, yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t seriously love the fuckin’ asshole. He’s such a thoroughly considered creation, and so human, that there’s really no way not to love him, assuming you have a shred of empathy inside you. His perverse dreams are our perverse dreams—he desires affection, sex and absolute support in equal amounts, without any obligation to give the same in return. Anybody who’s never felt like this to some degree is either delusional or boring. This miniseries is something for the ages.

In sharp contrast, the 104-minute movie version has no idea who Arthur really is. He comes across as nothing more than a dumb rube, more a man-child than Hoskins’ childish man. This should probably not come as much of a surprise, since basically Steve Martin plays the character as The Jerk in depression-era Chicago. And yes, I know that sounds funny. Just trust me that it isn’t. (By the way, The Jerk is great, great, great. Don't get me wrong about that.) By this same token, the musical sequences are painful to endure—they look kind of cool, I guess, and they're very large in scale, but they possess no interesting perspective. Herbert Ross, the director, has envisioned the story as both a classic musical and as a simultaneous comment on the falsity of classic musicals. This is such an obvious approach, and such a disservice to the original work, that at first I thought he must have a secret idea up his sleeve. This isn't the case. For Ross, what these sequences really are, I eventually and sadly discovered, are nothing but the fantasies of the filmmaker as opposed to those of any given character; odes to Busby Berkeley (who wasn’t even notably famous during the period in which the movie is set) and references to Singin' in the Rain, a musical released nearly thirty years after the events in this story, suggest that Ross really doesn't have any interest in probing the minds of these characters. Instead, he's just looking to recast an old-fashioned and typically joyous art form in a darker mold. Boy... quite the revelatory concept, eh? Even in 1978, when the miniseries first premiered, Dennis Potter knew this was much too simple an approach, and so took it straight to a higher, more interesting level.

Now, I know that it isn't fair to criticize a movie based on respected material for being its own thing... I don't have a problem, really, with the film version downgrading the importance of certain key characters from the miniseries. It's just that what this film winds up being is so comparatively pointless. Here is the best example I can give to illustrate what's so aggravating about this version: this is a still shot from the film. Look familiar? It's a recreation of the famous painting Nighthawks, from 1942. Why is this included in Pennies From Heaven? The characters certainly don't imagine that they're sitting in a painting from eight years in the future. The best explanation I can muster is that it's in there as a Scary Movie-esque gag, a self-congratulations on the part of the filmmakers.
But you see the fundamental problem, here? This isn't a film about people, and it isn't really about investigating anything relevant... it's about the cleverness of the creators, and as such possesses almost no central drama, and offers no reason for us to care about anything that's happening on more than a candy-coated surface level. Each individual sequence is kinda fun on its own, but they don't accumulate into anything greater. Worst of all, this movie strips Arthur and the rest of their humanity, and all we have left is a tap-dancing director. This is not, not, not, not, not interesting.

But more important than discrediting the weak movie version, I really can't recommend seeking out the miniseries more emphatically. It's really one of those things.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Superman II

Superman II
dir. Richard Donner

"Oh, God."
"It's Zod."

Guest Article!
Matt Robison, NEW YORK CITY
February 17, 2006 - DVD

True fans of the original 1978 Superman film-- true fans, such as myself-- who adore it for its beauty and its taste and who are never hesitant to defend it vehemently as most obviously the greatest super-hero film of all time—well, we’ve always found Superman II to be sort of an embarrassment. It’s overly sentimental and crudely pasted together and frankly I blame it wholeheartedly for lowering the standards for embarrassing sequels to come (of which the latest, Superman Returns, surely is included). But perhaps the most disheartening thing for us (true fans) when watching Superman II is the sense of such seemingly limitless potential for the thing. Three escaped convicts from Superman’s home planet escape the Phantom Zone to wreak havoc on the Earth! Anyone, even casual, less than true fans, would assume that such an awesome plot would render the thing nearly fool proof. But Warner Brothers, it turns out, are exceptional fools. They fired Richard Donner, the original director, for reasons still undisclosed, and his replacement, Richard Lester (whose name Donner smugly claims in the commentary track not to remember), no doubt firmly misguided by the film’s producers, managed to cut together one of the shabbiest, schmaltziest super-disappointments of all time. Donner had been filming Superman and Superman II simultaneously up until the first picture was released, and it was after great financial and critical success that the company inexplicably chose to change their horse in mid-stream, leaving us with only a partial sketch of what Superman II would have been—lost, along with The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and quite probably the fourth season of Deadwood, forever to the annals of tragically unrealized masterpieces.

But wait.

Now after nearly 30 years, finally the original director’s cut of Superman II has found the light of day—or almost, anyway, in the shape of a DVD. The new disc does contain a film and it is approved by Richard Donner, but, weary fans be cautioned, it is also something that could hardly be thought of as definitive or even really finished. For instance, I would never show it to, say, my girlfriend. I assume that it would be like someone trying to foist on me a late record by Warren Zevon; I, who am not a true fan of Zevon but only a general, insouciant fan of Zevon, would not begin to understand the infinitesimal quirks and nuances of the thing. I can’t read Braille either. The point is that though this new (or old) version of the film does have superior pacing and marvelous taste compared to its bizarro counterpart, not to mention much, much better fight scenes, an (almost) total lack of embarrassing voice-over, a far better story and some great previously unseen footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, it still just doesn’t quite feel like a whole movie. It is unavoidably, through no fault of the film’s sensational restoration team—who thankfully included in their added computer effects nothing nearly Lucasian in scale—missing those final finishing touches that make a film really feel over when it’s over. The ending of this version is terrific by comparison, but it doesn’t make any more sense than the other one. It couldn’t, because this version was never made properly with its own ending; it has to borrow and steal from the other films just to be coherent.

What this disc really seems for is not usurping Richard Lester’s version of the film—this by now would be totally impossible—but to serve as an outlet for properly mourning the unsung majesty of the series. We’ll never know how good it could have been, but if this disc is any indication, probably a lot better that what we got. In other words, something more than a wonderful curio. But for true fans only.

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia
dir. Gabor Csupo

Running is nothing like Narnia, despite the inane advertising campaign.

February 17, 2007 - 35mm/Regal Union Square

The most effective children’s movies and, for that matter, children’s stories are often full of peril. Not peril in a hanging from a helicopter sort of way, but in a fear of discovery sort of way, and there is no time more perilous for a youth than that ledge on the brink of pubescence and independence of thought.

Bridge to Terabithia introduces its young hero, Jesse, as he begins to observe his family with a new pair of eyes. He may have always known his parents and older sisters were hardly perfect, but for some reason, his eyes start to linger a bit longer on his emotionally exhausted parents, as if the camera finally realized it could hold a shot of them for just a little while longer, in the process catching an overwhelming sadness. Jesse’s younger sister provides a nice contrast, as she still blindly and lovingly perceives herself as daddy’s little girl. His father is played by Robert Patrick, enriching a similar role to his horribly written and performed bit in Walk the Line. His fatherly distance and regality is a bit less intense than Kevin Arnold’s father on The Wonder Years, but in the same ballpark. The family’s fiscal and emotional struggles permeate Jesse’s psyche, yielding a very no-nonsense state of melancholy.

These initial scenes coupled with Jesse’s navigation of the treacherous waters of Jr. High School conjure familiar, tucked-away emotions of the daily life and death struggle of pre-pubescence. The atmosphere this creates is not one that should be simply referred to as fear, but more of a necessary, inevitable maturation that is justifiably scary, a loss of innocence and a new fascination with knowledge. It just so happens this knowledge is a double-edge sword.

In an emotionally overwhelming scene of startling beauty Jesse’s music teacher, played with unfettered love by the wonderful Zooey Deschanel, takes him on a field trip to an art museum. Jesse has never been to a museum before, though is a talented young artist. His jaw-dropping reaction to the discovery of these otherworldly paintings is incredibly moving, not just as something to vicariously relive through the eyes of youth, but also for a parent or teacher who has ever observed a child realizing their potential, becoming as blissful as a kid in candy store. Note the simile, because Jesse is no longer a kid, and this movie is about dealing with just that, but also having it be okay to enjoy yourself as a kid would, no matter your age.

The aforementioned museum scene is a result of quite a journey for Jesse, particularly due to an adventurous new neighbor, Leslie. Leslie is quite a fashionable young poetess who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. After a typically Jr. High, and therefore rocky, start to their friendship the couple build an elaborate tree fort in the woods and play fantastic games of make-believe that mirror their day-to-day struggles (some more literal than others). Their relationship and banter is quite believable, reminiscent to those that pepper such terrific movies (and books) as Holes and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Their friendship continues to blossom as the two become best of friends, and again, this friendship is fierce and passionate in an oddly gut-wrenching way as the pre-pubescent peril looms large throughout. Together the pair ponder questions of social structure, parental authority, nature vs. nurture and heaven and hell, and frankly it would be a bit easy to guffaw at some of these things and other genre conventions if it weren’t for the rock in your stomach and impending dread.

Bridge to Terabithia is an optimistic, hopeful tragedy. It is a journey well-worth taking, and I suggest seeing it in a theatre full of young ones, so you’re not idly thinking, can a child understand this? Is this okay for a kid to be watching? It is more than okay, and feel free to add Bridge to Terabithia to a list of the best wonderfully serious children’s movies of the past decade, such as the aforementioned Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Holes, Happy Feet, The Iron Giant, Eight Below and Finding Nemo to name a bunch.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Burglars

dir. Henri Verneuil

Regrettably, the youtube version of the chase is not in the proper aspect ratio, limiting its monumental power, but... you get the picture.


February 8, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

The concept of cop and criminal being of the same mental geometry is a tired one, and something I would like nothing to do with. With a tired genre convention such as that, something easily grasped, comes the fruition of a new world amass in possibility. Utilizing a pre-existing, innately understood concept is freeing, letting one delve deeper into concepts both flighty and psychotically fearsome without the limitation of having to spend time establishing rules.

Abel and Azad are a crooked cop and a crooked criminal, respectively. They are quintessential foils, and the expediency with which they discover that they are pieces of the same puzzle (accepting their own social conventions) is in effect a safe-cracking, an unlocking of scenes that may otherwise make no sense. These scenes explode the senses, bringing joy, excitement and laughter at every turn, in the coherent, masterfully told motion picture event, Henri Verneuil’s The Burglars.

An extremely quiet, mostly dialogue free emerald heist kicks off the story with a whisper, harking back to that extremely serious, marvelously quiet heist in Rififi. The Burglars’ heist is detailed and systematically interesting, though the technological gadgetry is the stuff of a bad spy movie. Logically following a scene of dialogue-free quiet is a scene of dialogue-free loudness; without a doubt, one of the most riveting, wowing car chases in movie history. The hyperbole is well earned. Two crappy cars careen in every direction though the streets, sidewalks, back alleys and stairs of Athens, Greece. Yes, the cars chase one another down stairs, just like Jason Bourne. An utter lack of what today one would refer to as special effects or controlled locations load this pursuit with an air of refreshing reality, rendering each near miss of a pedestrian jaw-dropping, every impact eye-popping. This is a lengthy chase, worth dissecting, but what carries the heft of the never boring chase are the moments when one or both of the cars come to a halt. There is no blood thirst amongst these rivals, and the chase is not a murderous one. There are moments of quiet when the cars stop, often practically on top of one another. The struggle to then escape an automobilic chokehold, a duel even, is endless entertaining. There is an urge to scream at either of the drivers to get out of the car and pull the opponent out, but then the opponent would be able to jet away. Even a slow car is faster than a man.

The chase comes early on, and is long, but what follows is thrilling set piece after set piece matched with Abel and Azad’s delicious cat and mouse banter. The crazily cool Omar Sharif, playing the civilized super villain the utmost ease, plays Abel. Jean-Paul Belmondo (yes, the guy from Breathless), a physical man’s and ladies’ man hurdling and tumbling through the picture’s creative set pieces and colorful supporting characters, plays Azad. Both characters spill over with confidence and zero fear. In order to improvise escape, Belmondo runs up to a moving bus, jumps up, shoves his arms through a window and holds on while the bus continues down the highway, Sharif in tow, attempting to knock him off with his car door. There are showdowns at a seemingly abandoned toy warehouse and a stunning conclusion in a silo (pre-Witness, obviously). Again, as action-packed as this all seems, it is tempered with winning, witty, wordy power plays between the leads, and a constant grinning joy.

In the movie’s most amazing moment, a clear demonstration of exuberance and joy for cinema, Belmondo has evaded Sharif during a showdown at a carnival by hiding in the bed of a truck hauling salt. The truck takes him to the top of a mountain of salt and trash and he is dumped overboard. The vantage point is from the bottom of the mountain. Belmondo tumbles, and it is undoubtedly him, in a moment of sheer physical bravado, flipping recklessly down a mountain, enormous chucks of salt and rock chasing him down and down and down and down and right into your face. BAM! This is movies!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Pride - Theatrical Poster

We here running this, the most popular blog on the internet, thought we'd take a break from our opinions and request some of yours. There's a minor debate going on right now behind the scenes as to the aesthetic/artistic quality of the poster above. One of the Six-Reel editors has called it "the best poster I've seen in years." Another said, frankly, "blech." Well, only one way to settle this-- put it to the masses; the millions and millions of our loyal readers. Post your comments below. What do you think?

Monday, February 12, 2007


dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Sir William Walker can out-puppet Don Corleone any day of the week.

February 12, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Not unlike Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s previous feature, The Battle of Algiers, Burn! is a sprawling, rambling, geographically contained epic of timeless urgency. The lesson is a simple one. No person can free another person; a person can only free themself. The method by which this lesson is taught is the interesting thing here. An unusually and appropriately restrained Marlon Brando plays an Englishman with flowing locks of hair. This hair, along with his collected demeanor first suggests the classic “white man out to save the black people” narrative, though Mr. Brando turns out to be the classic “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

He lands on a Portuguese Caribbean colony where, naturally, Africans have been enslaved to work sugar plantations. After witnessing a government endorsed beheading of a “friend,” our white knight helps the deceased’s family carry the beheaded body back to their home. He then proceeds to hang around looking for the smallest indication of rebellion amongst the enslaved. Once he discovers this, in the form of Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez), a band of revolutionaries is formed and Brando leads his pupils by the hand through a successful revolution. This first portion of the movie is riveting political thriller/revolutionary cinema stuff, and it all carries the impressive weight of a “why dunnit?” rather than a “who dunnit?” Why is Brando’s Sir William Walker doing this? Is it out of hate of the Portuguese? Has he been hired to free the people for their own good? Yeah, right. Sir William is on that island for the same reason any imperialist country has any presence in any “unstable” country. Money.

Abruptly Sir William convinces Jose that he is unfit to actually run an organized government and installs a puppet ruler. Britain wins! 10 years pass; talk about abrupt, a title card just flashes on screen. Brando no longer holds any interest in the island he fought so hard for. It was all in a day’s work, and now he is enlisted by his government for another day’s work, this time fighting against the still wound up and enslaved islanders and their still powerful leader, Jose Dolores. The second half of the movie is far more ambiguous and difficult to comprehend than the first, due to the fact so much time has passed and that Britain and therefore Sir Williams Walker’s interests are in stark opposition to their previous allies. This is a historical norm with imperialist governments, and it has never been so pointedly represented.

Brando’s character, through the first half of the picture, is presented as a morally ambiguous presence, but this ambiguity is exposed as heartless and inhumane, no matter if his actions seem well intentioned in the first portion. No matter if this imperialist nation is fighting for “good” or “evil” they are still “evil,” but more than evil, greedy. Brando plagues this island like a curse, and this time around the violence takes on a far more affecting strain in the form of civil war. The island is divided between those who decided to follow the puppet leader, and thus Dolores’ troops now war, not against English or Portuguese soldiers, but against their own people. Brando simply observes, a political puppet master with only the slightest twang of guilt over the chaos he caused at the behest of his nation.

Sir William Walker is a fascinating, complex creature and Brando plays it all with maniacal detachment in his eyes. Struggling to figure him out, Jose becomes the audience’s eyes and ears, which adds to the complexity of the movie’s structure, considering Jose is not the main character. Sir William is our hero, and it is often a horror to be left alone with him. Ennio Morricone adds a gripping musical theme of epic heroism with an underlying current of menace, as the camerawork acts similarly, shaking through a chaotic mass of extras, yielding a grand scope of intimacy and uncertainty. The uncertainty yields passages that are uneven and less interesting than others, but Burn! remains one of the most politically complex movies I’ve seen, even if the morals of the story are beat over your head in the final moments.

Monday, February 5, 2007


by Samuel Beckett

"Buster, if they click the title above our picture, they can watch the entire movie."
"Don't make me laugh, Beckett."

Guest Article!
Jeff Larson, NEW YORK CITY

February 5th, 2007 - World Wide Web

In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame -- Cormac McCarthy fans take note: this is the precursor to The Road -- a character says to the others, “Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” And what a delightfully accurate summary of Beckett’s works it is. Samuel Beckett: the bromide solipsist, the shit satirist, the despair humorist, the maximum minimalist. The ultimate modernist.

Beckett’s works approach life as a purgatorio, as a tedious affair of rotting flesh, locked limbs, and failing bodily functions punctuated by flatulence and discomfort. For Beckett, death merely is an inconvenience, a release to undergo at the end of life, and while watching it draw near, his characters indulge in complex algorithms to stave off boredom with the hope that this sweet release will seem to arrive that much sooner. Yet, Beckett’s talent for conveying comedy darkly removes us from the tedium of their realities. In his novel Malloy, the titular character, who is starving and suffering from an increased inability to use his legs, focuses on sixteen “sucking stones” which he found at the seashore -- this will be long, but here we go:

I distributed them equally among my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two
pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone form the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it.

But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four.

And repeat ad infinitum: Malloy will, of course, go on. The world, for Beckett, contains only these most simple and devastating minutiae of humanity, completely unlike the overwhelmingly beautiful and complex stream of consciousness found in Joyce or Faulkner. This excerpt occurs 40 pages into an 80-page single paragraph which describes Malloy’s increasing inability to survive and his reluctance to do so, and by the end of his journey, he is reduced to slowly crawling forward at less than 14 yards a day. But even in the most tedious of passages, a hint of darkly tainted hilarity bleeds through the futility and insignificance of Malloy’s persistence. Beckett’s novels exclude such pedestrian foofaraws as plot, arc, and often, traditional treatments of character: in Beckett, the characters are always less than human. Whether they are suffering from failing limbs, going blind, or slowly suffocating, these figures often seem to embody mere faint shadows or whispers of the wind. And yet, paradoxically, it is precisely these shortcomings that produce characters who so profoundly and uniquely display existence, and synchronously, all its failings. This singular combinational talent largely accounts for Beckett’s reputation as an extreme bore – Waiting for Godot was once summed up as a play where, “Nothing happens. Twice.” – and, in contrast, a practically knighted champion of literary experimentation.

Beckett, an Irishman and secretary to James Joyce, spent most of his life in France. His sole journey to the States was to enlist Buster Keaton to star in a short film he had written. (Charlie Chaplin, who echoes throughout Beckett’s works – it seems everyone wears a bowler, was his first choice.) In what would be Keaton’s last silent movie, Film opens with an overused, undergraduate shot of Buster Keaton’s eye opening and closing, and unfortunately, the duration of Film feels decidedly French (in the stereotypical sense e.g. self-referential, pandering etc.). However, since his novels and plays were often first published in French before English, his influence on French film – including its preoccupations, and hang-ups -- is deep: Godard reportedly even wanted to film an adaptation of Waiting for Godot, but Beckett balked. Later, we see Buster, 60 years old, nimbly running -- over piles of bricks and construction debris -- alongside a lower eastside New York wall, and nearly tackling a couple standing in his path. This disgusted couple then notices the camera – or, perhaps, Keaton’s pursuer -- and is shocked and dismayed. References of this sort are on par for Beckett, yet often we are to treat them as simple, yet devastatingly dire, jokes: in Endgame, a character, while searching for a living soul outside of his shack after an apocalypse, exclaims, upon turning towards the audience, “I see…. a multitude….in transports …. of joy. […] Well? Don’t we laugh?”

After a scene in which an elderly lady carrying flowers looks at the camera and dies, Keaton rushes into a bare room which contains a cat, a parakeet, a fish, and a dog – plus a mirror, a window, a photo of a statue, and a rocking chair. Over the course of the rest of Film, Keaton will cover up – with the multiple coats that he is wearing – destroy, or remove from the room each of these objects. All the while the camera floats, lazily behind his back and only at the very end do we see Keaton’s face. His goal, we soon realize, is to cease being perceived, for, here, being perceived is to exist. “What a folly! What a boring metaphor for film!” I hear you say. But, there is magic here, if only for the briefest of moments. Keaton is in his element: he has a profoundly difficult time removing the cat and dog -- whenever he throws one out of the room, the other runs back in – and when his coat falls to the floor, he dives to the ground a little too forcefully. And all we can do is laugh, for what a foolish endeavor it is to try to cease to exist and to try this hard. Unlike in Keaton’s other silent films, in this desolate place there is no one left to save, no goal to accomplish. Of course, his project fails, the camera can see him, we can see him, and it turns out he can see himself (in a twist, finally, Keaton observes his pursuer, who is not the camera, but himself).

Film is a spectacular failure, mostly because of its incessant pandering to the theory crowd; it ends with the shot of the eye from the opening sequence, for Christ’s sake. Yet, the dog and cat episode, the sickness-inducing camera movements, and Keaton’s efforts not to be seen are deliciously fun. We celebrate his refusal to live in the present tense, to take place in the here and now, because of his dedication to the cause. And because such blind dedication strikes the rest of us as foolish, the results, through Keaton’s anarchic grace, tremble a tinge of delight and sympathy deep within us. In short, these are complicated and contradictory themes being expressed here, both Keaton’s determined perseverance and his utter failure to accomplish any sort of sane outcome display an exhausting plea for human reality, however fantastic its manifestation may be.

Within this portrayal, Keaton’s determination not to exist contains a distinct odor of heroism – in the classic, and fantastic, sense. This sort of Heroism-through-dedication has its roots everywhere from Odysseus to Hamlet to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. All are spectacular failures: Odysseus fails to return to his wrecked home for 19 years while cavorting with a sea nymph, Hamlet pines for the majority of the play only to kill his family and friends, a
nd Ethan Edwards spends 5 years searching for his nemesis only to have the film’s fool find him. And so it is with Keaton, but no one is around to help this hapless hero. His doomed project is merely his own.

(For a more modern, and more successful, take on the themes expressed in Film, check out Matt Larson, directed and shot by the Shuffle’s own Kalen Egan. The similarity between them both is coincidental: we had no knowledge of Film when we made Matt Larson. For all of you out there who insist that the coincidence is too significant, and that we must have been aping, and conversing with, Film: why don’t you just take your salt-and-pepper beards and sweater vests and shove off?)

Duck, You Sucker!

dir. Sergio Leone

Blondie and Tuco. I mean... Harmonica and Cheyenne.
I mean... Sean and Juan. Whew.

February 4th, 2007 - 35mm/New Beverly Cinema

There are “transition” movies, and then there’s the almost comical embodiment of everything a “transition” movie could be. Duck, You Sucker! is the latter. Falling directly between Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, this is the film to watch if you need either a quick cliffs notes version of Leone’s entire output, or an unruly recap of one of the great one-classic-after-another directorial careers in history. Nearly every one of his thematic staples are on display here, and it’s almost a game in itself to identify those that reflect where he’s been and those that indicate where he’s going (yes, America was his last production, but there’s enough idiosyncratic material in that 229-minute monsterpiece for it to be considered the intellectual equivalent of at least four average movies). It may be telling that I was seriously tempted to begin this article with, “This movie is all that is good, all that is bad, and all that is ugly* about Sergio Leone’s wonderful, awe-inspiring body of work.” But if I did that, you might groan!

Perhaps not surprisingly, Duck, You Sucker! is not quite as formidable as most of Leone’s other works. While it certainly builds on the grandeur of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the West—it’s one of the hugest movies I’ve seen, and absolutely underlines the fact that Leone was every bit Lean’s equal (and I’d sometimes say his superior, depending on which day of the week you ask me) in the visual scope department—it also finds the filmmaker working at a heretofore unseen level of self indulgence. Leone’s lowbrow, European brand of satiric comedy is all over the place in this film (and would pop up again in an even more unrestrained way in My Name is Nobody, which he produced and, as I understand it, sort of ghost directed), and Ennio Morricone’s music follows him right to the edge of the cliff. For many, the music might be too much-- follow this link, and listen to the sample of Track 10 on Disc 1. That’s right, the female voice is singing “Sean, Sean, Sean,” the name of James Coburn’s character. Imagine hearing this at least a dozen individual times throughout the film, and you’ll have some idea why half the audience I viewed this with twittered and laughed each time the theme returned.

Of course, both Leone and Morricone had been down this spaghetti western road so many times before that they’re probably entitled to a little genre-poking fun... but this approach poses problems for the film every time it aims to be taken seriously. When the scenes dealing directly with the Mexican revolution come around, you can almost feel Leone losing interest, chomping at the bit for something more universal and mythic. I don’t like to get into the “making-of” history in these articles, but in this case it’s worth pointing out that Leone wasn’t even initially going to direct this movie—he was going to produce it for Peter Bogdonavich. It’s strange to say, but for the first (and only, in my estimation) time in his post-Colossus of Rhodes career, Leone seems uninterested in his central premise. Indeed, I’ve just this moment read a quote by Leone in Christopher Frayling’s indispensable book Once a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone in which he stated, just before the production of this movie, that he’d “fallen out of love with the things associated with the West.” Well, sir... hate to say, but it kinda shows.

You see, boiled down, this is a film about political revolution that seems only very mildly interested in revolutionary concepts. For a film to be ambivalent about its own position on such an issue is fine, of course, provided it's going to really put some thought into it, but the way Leone deals with this is by too often retreating into comedy and genre familiarity. That the “genre” in question is one Leone himself created only compounds the problem. Rod Steiger’s performance as “Juan,” for instance, is such a big, over-blustery Eli Wallach impression that it's hard to see through to the sensitive work he contributes in some of the quieter scenes. (If you think about an "over-blustery Eli Wallach" hard enough, by the way, you might be able to understand why my companion at the screening said Steiger reminded him more than once of George Costanza).

Another example: Leone seems to believe that his classic bridge explosion scene in Good, the Bad was just an overture for the out-and-out symphony of “KA-BOOOM’s!!!” in this movie; a church, a mountain, a tree, another bridge, a train, a bank, a rock wall... There are some reviewers and fans that defend this somewhat schizophrenic approach as being Leone's comment on the smattering of politically-minded spaghetti westerns that had popped up in recent years past (The Big Gundown--which I'm so goddamn jealous Jeff GP is going to see and review sometime in the coming weeks, Run Man Run, A Bullet for the General, Campaneros, etc). I say, unless they're referring to
"Hot Shots!," be very wary of anybody that says a movie is principally a "comment" about any other movie(s). The odds are pretty good that a person like that doesn't have any idea what they're talking about. Odds are equally good that they currently or will soon instruct a college course in film studies. Ha, ha! Take that, teachers!

Whoops! I’ve written all this, and failed to report that I really, really enjoyed the movie. When it’s able to side-step political concerns, it’s utterly splendid. The upside to Leone’s devil-may-care approach is that he’s willing to experiment even more than in Once Upon a Time in the West, and (as I intimated earlier) you can see Once Upon a Time in America’s central “guilt” storyline being born. Leone’s sense of revenge is also in good supply, and nobody does payback like this guy. In addition, Coburn is having a blast (yuk, yuk) playing an on-the-run, dynamite-toting IRA rebel, and the primary villain of the story drives around the desert in what can only be described as a giant Darth Vader helmet with machine guns for eyes (Leone loved his own brand of wacky machinery). It also represents the most "fuck's" I think I've ever heard in a supposedly PG-rated film.

In other words, for a Leone fan, the picture is completely essential. If it doesn’t quite approach the fun and adventure of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or the sweep and imagination of Once Upon a Time in the West, or the novelistic lyricism and heart of Once Upon a Time in America, then Duck, You Sucker! at least distinguishes itself as the single most "signature" picture of the man’s filmography; it's ambitious, rollicking, and endlessly entertaining. From one of the all-time masters of movies, that’s pretty damn good.

* “Ugly,” of course, standing in for a more appropriate adjective, like “fuckinglorious.”


dir. Douglas Sirk

A Magnificent Obsession... with MURDER!

January 25, 2007 - 35mm/Pioneer Theatre

With The Naked Kiss Samuel Fuller takes the domestic melodrama and injects a harsh bite of reality by infusing it with the urban emotional landscapes of his earlier noir. He relishes exposing unspeakable suburban perversion without condescension, in a way that should make the Todd Field’s and Alan Ball’s of the world cry themselves to sleep every night. A tiny twinge of what would make The Naked Kiss one of the best movies anyone has ever made can be felt in the Fuller-scripted Shockproof, directed by Douglas Sirk.

Douglas Sirk is no slouch of a moviemaker either, and the simple fact that this early collaboration of these soon to be legendary moviemakers exists should be indicative that, considering the guts of the content of their output, the pairing is not all that unlikely. On the surface, yes, Fuller is attributed to a certain run and gun, blood and guts hard-boiled type of junk movie, whereas next to “melodrama” (the word was practically invented for Sirk) the most common attribution of Sirk’s movies is “weepies.” Fuller’s movies, full of madness and nihilistic rage are often full of touching, subversive, politically progressive interpersonal behavior, whereas Sirk’s, caked in upper-middle class Technicolor, are filled with emotionally dry relationships that get turned upside down by scandal and a rage and helplessness below the bright, fancy dresses. The similarity between the two genres really come to a head in The Naked Kiss and Fuller firms himself as a far riskier director, but the suburban sentiment is the same.

A parole officer, Griff (a name Fuller would recycle for a crooked cop in The Naked Kiss), is assigned to keep tabs on a recently released murder, Jenny (Patricia Knight), who just so happens to be a leggy blonde knockout. Griff is a hard luck George Bailey type Good Samaritan caring for his blind mother and very young kid brother, while inviting parolees into his home for dinner. Despite his incredibly bland goodness, Griff (Cornel Wilde) carries a quiet desperation, nursing an oddly placed band-aid wrapped around his ring finger. Is it a bandage suggesting a previous heartbreak? Possibly.

Though at first she rejects it, Jenny eventually becomes swept up in the goodness and parolee and parole officer become husband and wife, but THEN! Bonnie and Clyde! The Honeymoon Killers! Jenny’s murderous streak strikes again, and her doting husband does everything to protect her, abandoning the comfort of suburban domesticity and his loving family. It would be easy to assume the rich Sam Fuller content kicks in hardcore with a murder, but this is where the movie starts to fall off the rails. The hard-nosed Jenny trading words with the well-intentioned citizens of this small town early on is where Fuller’s knack for dialogue shines. The melodrama hits hardest when the lovers are on the run as they struggle from meal to meal and toward the Mexican border. This is very typical genre material, with an added stroke of weepy drama yielding something a little north of boring, but lacking the life and vitality of the domestic scenes.

Shockproof is an oddity, as two not-yet young auteurs join forces in a movie that quite basely does combine what would come to define their careers. For fans of either, this is essential history, and considering the lack of availability of Fuller’s movies, a treasure for his fans, myself included. The boring bits are worth the always-priceless lyrical snap of Fuller dialogue, and while Fuller’s writing chops were established, Sirk’s direction is not what it would become.