Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hot Fuzz

dir. Edgar Wright

A rare appearence of Haagen Dazs in a movie that, like this reviewer, prefers Ben and Jerry's.

March 5, 2007 - 35mm/Broadway Screening Room

During the invasion of the nearly finished dreamhouse of Cuban drug kingpin Johnny Tapia (Jordi Molla), some hot-shot detectives and CIA super-soldiers happen upon the drug lord’s elderly mother, who in turn pulls a shotgun on them and starts unloading. It is one of the most annoying and unfunny moments in the string of overblown meanness that is Bad Boys 2. That is not to say the Bad Boys saga is not peppered with moments of overblown creativity and humor. The simple state of absolute excess in all areas is bound to yield a degree of brilliance, and in Bad Boys 2’s case, it does. Alas, this minimal, but fierce brilliance is beaten to a pulp by filthy, filthy, aggressive garbage (such as the camp of an old lady firing a shotgun).

With a firm grasp of its wits, a full heart and open arms, Hot Fuzz embraces Bad Boys 2 and the likes of many, many other movies like and unlike it, primarily those concerning police officers. In embracing these pictures, like with the team’s previous movie, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz takes a Bob Beamon leap from the spoofier side of the tracks and creates a movie that simply, eloquently becomes a member of the genre it initially appears to be spoofing. It is the stuff of reverent homage, made with the virile aggression of Bad Boys 2, but displaced to the English countryside with scenes of dialogue that are directed rather than presented as an annoying necessity separating car chases.

Again (and again and again), like Bad Boys 2 and Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is a buddy comedy featuring a straight-laced man of action (Simon Pegg) and his doofy doting sidekick (Nick Frost). The buddy cops patrol the rural, isolationist town of Sandford, where the community’s primary concerns are hooded youths and a “human statue” street performer. Needless to say, things are not what they seem and violence ensues, but it is these early character-driven and positively meditative by action movie standards scenes that allow for the success of the chaos to come. Jokes are tossed back and forth between the two buddies and an alarmingly prestigious supporting cast featuring the likes of Jim Broadbent and a mustachioed Paddy Considine. These scenes and jokes (catching an escaped swan, eating ice cream as punishment and so on) are only mildly amusing, but due to their modest existence, when this movie takes off and fully explores its action roots the image of an elderly woman firing off a shotgun actually becomes funny! The smalltime, composed jokiness of previous scenes juxtaposed with full-throttle old lady artillery equals funny!

While these “smalltime” scenes are moments of quiet, the transitions between them are anything but. In Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright utilized a series of three or so quick cuts as transitions from scene-to-scene. Used again in Hot Fuzz, these quick cut, loud-as-all-hell bits drag on and on in the queasy, mean-spirited style of every single scene in Bad Boys 2. The bits eventually develop into the stock “lock and load” gun montage, which, again, is funny though extremely loud and lacking the cocksure bravado Edgar Wright displays when the triggers of those guns are being pulled.

Cars explode, our heroes fire every variety of gun known to humankind and most importantly, bodies start flyin’ and start droppin’. The deft balancing act between the complicated, creative action and inventive and referential comedic one-liners tips Hot Fuzz to the rim of greatness. The movie takes a giant leap forward anytime its characters grow tight-lipped and straight-faced. In other words, the picture gets a whole lot funnier when the characters get serious and curb the chucklesville joke-time.

As the picture wraps up it returns to chucklesville, population: cameo. As brilliant as the likes of Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy are, the movie belongs to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. They outshine even the otherworldly talents of Jim Broadbent and Paddy Considine, and because of their spark and Edgar Wright’s extraodinary chops as an action director, Hot Fuzz excels. Comparisons will unavoidably be drawn to Shaun of the Dead, as Hot Fuzz is quite close to stylistically being the same movie. They’re both welcome, ambitious additions to their respective genres, and if you like one you’re likely to enjoy the other, but more importantly if you like Bad Boys 2 at all (and damn you if you do!), Hot Fuzz’ll be worthy of more than a hearty Mike Lowrey/Will Smith “WOOOOO!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Black Book

Black Book
dir. Paul Verhoeven

Carice, starlet (not to be confused with Clarice Starling)

February 27, 2007 - 35mm/Walter Reade Theater

The sexiest holocaust movie ever made, Black Book tackles the European World War II narrative through the lens of a different variety of heroism from your typical liberation saga. It has its share of benchmark or stock moments of World War II cinema, such as the young soldier struggling with his first “murder,” but thankfully moments like this are presented without the annoying “oh so tragic, oh so important” air that detracts from such scenes in the Flags of Our Fathers and Saving Private Ryans of the world. There is no droning music, washed-out old-timey muted color palette or even a moment to reflect. Most of all there is little to no catharsis or self-congratulatory back-slapping. Instead, you get layer upon layer of enjoyable thrills blending in successfully with horrifying scenes of inhumanity garnering heroically human reactions.

Carice Van Houten stars as Rachel Stein, a Dutch Jewish girl who, upon the execution of her family, joins an underground resistance against the Nazi occupation. There in lies one of the many fascinating grey areas this movie addresses. Is our heroine fighting for revenge or some political cause, and more importantly, does any of that even matter as long as she’s fighting/fucking? Fucking? In order to infiltrate a German base and liberate a fellow resistance fighter, Rachel Stein becomes Ellis de Vries and seduces the handsome Ludwig Muntze, head of the Nazi Intelligence (the Sicherheitsdienst or “SD”). In the typical and always refreshing style of director/co-writer Paul Verhoeven, our heroine is presented in a way that breaks down the term “sex-symbol” giving us a character of immense sexiness borne not only from statuesque beauty, but of human, earthy strength and frailty. A great deal has already been written about the transitional Rachel to Ellis scene where she dyes her hair blonde, including (gasp!) her pubic hair. Paul Verhoeven, never one to shirk the details, presents this scene with a frank matter-of-factness that only enhances the sexiness of his lead. Mr. Verhoeven’s inclusion of not just that scene, but scenes such as one where Ellis and another Nazi mistress swap dialogue over peeing lends profundity and a sense of human realism that lacks from not just World War II movies but historical movies of all kinds.

The sexual and physical realism brought to the table by Mr. Verhoeven and his brave actors gives the "War thriller" narrative a sense of urgency as the plot careens forward through double-crosses and side-swapping. At times it seems the Nazis may as well be gangsters who have taken a hostage and a sexy police officer goes undercover to get to the bottom of it (see The Departed). Yet, the stakes are greater, and more often than gangsters the Nazis appear to be the American military complex colonizing nations with a presence of boastful cocksure instability.

For the Verhoeven aficionados and obsessives out there (I know I’m not alone! Top five living directors!) the authorial trademarks are ever present. His attitude toward WWII and war in general has wavered little since Soldier of Orange, though his rollercoaster ride through Hollywood has made him a slicker narrative beast, with Black Book his most cohesive (only in the narrative sense) picture since Basic Instinct. His anger toward his native Holland’s role in The War is reiterated, and Black Book is an excellent companion to Soldier of Orange, maybe its big sister (Katie Tippel would be its cousin). While Black Book will be toted as Paul Verhoeven’s “return to form,” he did not go anywhere. He made one, and only one, self-described bad movie in Hollow Man after a string of consistently brilliant efforts. Black Book is another great one, consistently brilliant throughout, thrilling, sexy, bold, smart, brash… all of that good shit, but mostly, most of all, human, and human in the face of the craziest big picture moviemaking around.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


300: the IMAX Experience
Dir. Zach Snyder


Jeff Larson, NEW YORK CITY
March 22, 2007 - IMAX/Loews Lincoln Square

Aw, hell. It's:
and (Ann Coulter at her worst),


(I apologize to you all for the shallow nature of this post. 300 is the kind of pap -- sometimes called "art" -- that sucks the lifeblood of culture and leaves a burnt shell containing only scores of massacred brain cells. It's by far the worst movie I've ever seen. America needs to wake up now, and 300 is putting us all back to sleep.)

(Click on the comments below. As always, Jeff GP has a far more erudite and accurate portrayal of 300 than I could ever hope to write.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ennio Morricone Festival, pt. 3

dir. Giulio Petroni

J.P. Law heads out for a cold dish.

February 13, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

On the off chance you or anyone you know decides to massacre a family in the Western part of the United States of America in the 19th century, make sure they kill ‘em all. Death Rides a Horse takes the familiar trope of a young child, witness to his family’s death, growing up to wreak havoc and take revenge, bloodying the landscape along the way (see Once Upon a Time in the West). Unlike Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West, John Philip Law does not take his time in becoming the baddest most feared of all gunmen. His pride won’t let him admit that, but he reluctantly takes the aid of an old outlaw, played by Lee Van Cleef, who happens to be hunting the same gang of rapin’ murders.

Young, handsome John Philip Law will have nothing to do with compromise or bribery and will stop at nothing for his revenge. His fury has warped his perspective of his familial tragedy. The images have been playing in his mind for 15 years to boiling point. Anytime one of the gang members are in sight, passion takes over in the form of a red-hued replay of that specific gang member’s part in the massacre over Law’s steaming eyes. Ennio Morricone provides a thumping, rhythmic, primal score to these moments that is the stuff of dreams and has since become the stuff of legend. I’ve done well to not specifically reference how his scores have been used in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, though in this case, Mr. Tarantino borrowed not just the music cue, but the fury of revenge close-up/red-hued flashback, and to great effect. In a picture more subdued, such as Death Rides a Horse, the insanity of a gut-curling score and stylized close-up pack an emotional wallop.

Lee Van Cleef delivers another brilliant and emotionally complex performance here, as the convict who is not all he appears to be. His swagger as he trots his horse around a buried-to-the-neck Law is both charming and mean with a balance of manner practically unique to his on-screen persona. While The Big Gundown is his swan song, the legendary “Bad” makes us love him yet again.

It would be an understatement to call this trailer "awesome." Watch it.

dir. Maximilian Schell

Wedding Crashers, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson

February 14, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

This tired, unnecessarily moody thriller, featuring a barely existing, unnotable score by Ennio Morricone is the low point of narrative contrivance in an otherwise nearly perfect selection of challenging, complex and mostly unseen classics in the Ennio Morricone program. Director Maximilian Schell takes a little whodunit and throws so much disinformation at you that it becomes bogged down with nonsense.

Jon Voight plays a young go-getter detective taking and shunning advice from a dying old detective. They’re investigating the very mysterious death of yet another detective. The corpse of the murdered detective is played by Donald Sutherland, the lifeblood of so many fantastic ‘70s pictures. The case and point being the lack of pulse in End of the Game. Mr. Voight, who plays innocence wrapped in a rough exterior very well, is unaware of the very personal battle being waged between his old, doddering partner and the suspected murderer. The movie opens many years earlier as the two friends pick up a young lady.

“I could murder her right in front of your eyes and you couldn’t prove it.”

Both the tagline of the picture and the overarching thematic “haunt” of End of the Game lies in that line, spoken by the murderer to the detective (best friend to best friend, rival to rival). The movie would be better off as a tale of cruel obsession with pride, and if it were more focused on the dying old man, it would be a better picture. Instead, Jon Voight unnecessarily takes center stage and observes. Madness, friendship, themes of regret and frustration for a life lost and lives lost; these are all interesting things presented in the blandest possible package. Fog rests heavily over the countryside as the two detectives explore the crime scene, but the heaviest fog distorts what could, in fact, be great if it were less Love Me If You Dare and more The Conversation.

This is part of the ongoing Morricone Festival coverage.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Witches

dir. Mauro Bolognini/Vittorio De Sica/Pier Paolo Pasolini/Franco Rossi/Luchino Visconti

Dancing around a boiling cauldron?

February 12, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

The Witches is one of a thankfully short string of highly unsuccessful short film collections released as one motion picture. The most famous relatively recent American forays into this medium have been Four Rooms and New York Stories. Like those two pictures, The Witches, is a mixed bag, so mixed in fact, that only one of the pictures displays any ambition and success. Unsurprisingly this short comes from Luchino Visconti, director of the legendary Burt Lancaster epic, The Leopard. This is not the first time Mr. Visconti partook in such a short film exercise. Prior to The Leopard, he directed a segment of Boccaccio ’70, a collaborative short program between himself, Federico Fellini, Mario Monicelli and Vittorio De Sica, who also contributed a short to The Witches.

The thread linking all of the shorts in The Witches' program is the lead actress, Silvana Mangano. It is a celebration of Ms. Mangano’s dexterity as an actress. The five drastically different characters she plays may simply be described as the titular “witches” though only a few demonstrate literal supernatural abilities (none have warts or wear pointed hats). The least supernatural is also the least comedic and most superlative of the shorts, which can all be described classically as “comedy.”

The first short,
The Witch Burned Alive, from the aforementioned Mr. Visconti follows Ms. Mangano appropriately playing a beautiful, famous actress worn down by her popularity and the constant fawning of male suitors. She retreats to an old friend’s snowbound resort to escape some of these pressures for reasons initially unclear. Her discomfort is clear from her introduction. Outside the confines of her room she plays the prim and proper entertainer, regaling everyone with her sophisticated beauty; tugging men’s heartstrings this way and that as she is naturally inclined to do. Yet, in private she is on the brink of an emotional breakdown. Her life is in tailspin and nobody can tell. She is pregnant. Pregnancy, in her universe is the end of a career and the start of a many, many things that accompany pregnancy, and her crisis is levied with an appropriate weight and subtle humor. Of course, the “woe is me” attitude of a wealthy beauty cannot help but be funny, though Visconti’s “witch” has kept her pregnancy to herself, because she is tragically unsure of her own personality. All of these threads are very unspoken and play out as our “witch” traverses room to room, a flurry of unpointed emotion. It is wonderful, smart, and thankfully maybe the longest of the shorts.

Pier Paolo Pasolini contributes a slapstick fable, The Earth Seen From the Moon, about a doofy father and son team searching for a new woman of the house, as their wife/mother has recently passed. Their misadventures play out as a silent comedy would, all bug-eyes and body jestures, complete with a whirling soundtrack. Ms. Mangano plays a mysterious, beautiful and loving deaf gal, adding a certain contextual flair to enhancing the extreme physicality of the comedy in a way that clearly refers to Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights (where The Tramp falls in love with a beautiful and loving blind gal). Pasolini’s general sense of humor is different from Chaplin's, often drawing from visceral recklessness, but in this case the tempered chaos he attempts, with a neon-bright color palette (never more prevalent than in the father and son’s orange hair), burrows into cartoony tedium. There remain a fine joke hither and thither, but the sheer volume of jokes and numerous misses resemble a live-action episode of The Family Guy.

Speaking of cartoons, the two least known directors in the program, Mauro Bolognini and Franco Rossi, contribute very brief, slightly amusing tales that could be told in a single panel comic plunked between a Henrik Hertzberg and Lauren Collins piece of The New Yorker’s “The Talk of the Town”. A young “witch” rescues an injured man from a car wreck and appears to speed him off in the direction of the hospital. As she passes a hospital it is revealed, she just wants an excuse to drive fast and meet her date in time! THE END!

Perhaps the only segment of The Witches Americans may be farmiliar with is Vittoria De Sica’s An Evening Like the Others co-starring Ms. Mangano and a boyish Clint Eastwood. Eastwood plays the silly, repressed American husband to a sexually dissatisfied Italian wife. He complains of being tired and calmly refuses nights out on the town. His wife bottles up her anger, releasing it in flights of daydream musical fantasy sequences. It is amusing to see Eastwood so unhinged in these fantasy sequences, with his prevalent, unencumbered sexuality on display, though the simple representations of the spouses in the non-fantasy sequences is the stuff of, well, short movies (pleasantly light, when not attempting to be uncomfortably heavy). Like in Pasolini’s short the joke gets old and drags into the horrifying predicament of the movie short that is just too long.

Someday, The Witches will be released in a digestible DVD format, where you can pleasantly spread the shorts out or just relish Visconti’s over and over again. But, for now, if you speak Italian, enjoy the slightly sped up version that youtube has to offer, complete with Ennio Morricone’s finest score of the picture.

This is part of the ongoing Morricone Festival coverage.

Friday, March 16, 2007


dir. Billy Ray

Thick Brows.

Jeff Larson, NEW YORK CITY
February 23, 2007 - 35mm/42nd St. Loews

In February of 2001, John Ashcroft held what would be among the first of many carefully scripted press conferences to announce that the FBI had caught the worst spy in the history of the United States. Breach, directed by Billy Ray, opens with a serious, but nonetheless smug, Ashcroft intoning, as if in prayer, “Let me be clear - individuals who commit treasonous acts against the United States will be held fully accountable.” Ashcroft is passing judgment upon one Robert Hanssen, a devout catholic and unabashed capitalist who accepted $1.4 million dollars to spy for a country that had long ago folded its hand.

In Breach, Mr. Hanssen, played by Chris Cooper, is an FBI agent who has long ceased to matter, and Cooper is a perfect match for the role. In his twilight hours as an FBI agent, Hanssen is desperately trying to talk to anyone who listens about the pressing need for more security and better infrastructure throughout the bureau, but in his eyes we can see that he is preoccupied with other matters. Once he had been the FBI’s top Soviet analyst – apparently the best.

Eric O’Neill, played here by the thick-browed Ryan Phillippe, was the man who brought Hanssen down. An overachiever who spends his nights spying on Arab targets fighting with their wives and his days writing 50 page memos about data mining, he is playing the game and doing everything he can to become an agent. Kate Burroughs, his not-so-immediate superior, (Laura Linney-- doing her best Jodie Foster impression, without the terrifying stilettos) informs Eric that his efforts to fight the new hidden war are no longer needed and that he will now be shadowing Hanssen as his assistant. The reason given is purposely unclear; something about Hanssen being a “sexual deviant,” and Eric slowly begins to see through the ruse. But, in the merit-based hierarchy of the FBI, pride and status are paramount, and Eric, the klutzy underling, isn't appraised of the full extent of the investigation until much later.

Early on, two workers exchange a couple of hallway portraits from those of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno to George Bush and John Ashcroft, and it’s clear that Robert and Eric are playing out a similar changing of the guard. Hanssen takes O’Neill under his wing to teach him not only the inner-workings of the FBI – he sees every bureaucratic conflict as a game of politics – but also how to be a “Good Catholic,” and good husband -- that O’Neill’s fiance is a Protestant, let alone an ex-pat from a former soviet bloc country riles him to no end. But, more importantly, the guard is changing under the auspices of a pervasive sort of dumb pride. Hanssen brags about writing an unbreakable encryption program in binary code, ones and zeros, before lunch, and sends pornographic videotapes of himself to eastern European countries. Of course, then, it is obvious that the bumbling overachiever, O’Neill, is assigned to track his movements – the simplified psychology in the film casts his diligence as an immediate match for Hanssen’s self-love.

And, unfortunately, too many instances of this sort of filmic stenography occur in Breach. So much of the film is bogged down in the pervasive clichés of the spy thriller -- one moment involves a security camera and a series of cut-aways to a slowly advancing download bar -- that the end product becomes exhaustingly familiar. Rather than creating characters who are believable, in Breach, the characters are built out of their vices. But, we’ve seen these vices before: Eric’s girlfriend can’t understand his obsession with the FBI and threatens to leave him (sound familiar?) while he hits the bottle, and Hanssen is portrayed as a caricature of a straight and cartoony ultra-conservative – his wife looks surprisingly like Barbara Bush, and he insists that the soviets lost the war because they were atheists. Now, usually I’m fine with a measured amount of shorthand – movies are too short to include everything – but masking shorthand as serious character building, in a movie that takes itself as seriously as Breach, just amounts to sloppy filmmaking. As the movie progresses, Both Hanssen’s and O’Neill’s pride emerges as the sum total of these vignettes, and ultimately this pride leads to Hanssen’s downfall – and, we are to assume for we have assumed before, the downfall of the FBI.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Ennio Morricone Festival, pt. 2

Four Flies on Grey Velvet
dir. Dario Argento

Two fists on brown velvet


February 8, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

The appeal of Dario Argento over the likes of, for example, Lucio Fulci will never cease to amaze me. Argento is very effective at molding neon-technicolor color schemes into something that means “horror,” coupled with three or four wham-bang scenes or ideas for scenes. In the case of Four Flies on Grey Velvet part of the wham-bang comes from something as sophisticated and clever as scary masks.

A young, hip rock n’ roller in some way unbeknownst to him and us becomes the victim of a very, very convoluted series of events that frame him in a murder plot. The person wearing the scary mask is the one behind it! Our protagonist being a dopey drummer in a rock band reeks of something as tired as a sleep-away camp horror story with the sex-starved little kiddies being haunted by a Scooby-Doo monster.

At its heart Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a mystery with a result so stupidly unlikely, and plot devices as gooftastic and amateurish as our protagonist having an affair with his wife’s obnoxiously hot cousin, and thus living out some sort of teenage fantasy. Like with most of the Argento movies I have seen there are moments, and I mean moments, that are very strong, funny and creative. These moments would be enough in a movie of greater ambition, not one feigning ambition with a nonsense plot, cheap thrills and slack performances by pretty faces.

Decidedly awesome trailer for decidedly fair movie.

Elio Petri directing a roped and diapered Franco Nero

February 8, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Franco Nero
plays our hero, Leonardo, who leaves the pressures of being a city-bound artist to find some inspiration in a rural, isolated existence. Leonardo finds himself drawn to a particularly beaten-down country home. As it turns out, this place is haunted and Leonardo’s previous mania (both urban and sexual) molds itself into an obsession with the young woman who met her demise on the premises during WWII. Soon enough the girl’s sordid history unravels and the house starts acting unruly. The old townsmen reveal their many lusts and conquests with the girl and Leonardo’s obsession with the girl grows and develops into something sexual, much to the confusion and chagrin of his manager/lover, played by an adventurous Vanessa Redgrave.

A Quiet Place in the Country director Elio Petri demonstrates admirable restraint in presenting the horror elements of this story with little to no bloodshed. It can be seen as a clear precursor to Stanley Kubrick’s comparably plotted and restrained masterpiece, The Shining. They are both haunted house movies revolving around an artist’s need for peace and quiet, and the resulting rebellion and betrayal against the loved ones who pressure them to create. Kubrick and Petri also infuse the haunted house genre with a sense of poetry and artistry, by considering their subjects with the utmost sincerity. A Quiet Place in the Country respects its characters, though at the same time, acts as a critique of the bourgeois fascination with rustic living and the idealization of finding some sort of earthy sanctuary, ala Straw Dogs.

Ennio Morricone provides the cacophonous score, full of what sounds like clanging pots and pans melded with various orchestral string plucks, emphasizing that yes, this is a horror movie. While a horror movie, Petri molds an accomplished post-war nightmare, like Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. This layer and his awareness of the intellectual implications of including a ghostly victim of not only her sexuality, but of The War are almost a bit heavy-handed. This contextual intellectualization of the post-war horror pulls out some of the visceral fear that could have been gut-wrenching stuff, if Petri weren’t so intent on elevating himself above the junk-art of other 60’s and 70’s Italian filmmakers.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Deadhead Miles

dir. Vernon Zimmerman

"God Almighty damn! That was fun. That's what I call fun."

March 4, 2007 - VHS

This film resurrected memories of Sally, a man I once met, who in reflection seems more like a movie character than a real person. Along with four other high-school classmates, I was taking a field trip to a student video festival, and we were all to be transported in my film teacher’s hatchback Honda. There was one seat too few, though, so the teacher—who was an oddball himself—picked up a telephone and called Sal, a friend of his. Kind of bug-eyed and unsettling, this guy showed up half an hour later in an orange pick-up truck, grinning wide as he waved hello.

Somehow it was decided that I’d ride along with him, maybe because I displayed just a glimmer of curiosity where my peers all visibly recoiled. Just as Sal and I were about to leave the school parking lot, my teacher chuckled and said something like, “Sally, maaaybe you should take the tank out of the truck bed and keep it up front where it won’t bang around so much.” I’m thinking, “What tank?” Very soon after, and without a good grip on how exactly I’d gotten into this situation, I found myself with a fire-extinguisher-sized canister of propane sitting between my legs as Sal pulled the rickety pickup onto the freeway.

From the minute we set off until we arrived, Sal spoke a stream of whacked-out consciousness; everything from episodes out of his Brooklyn youth, to probable conspiracies surrounding the minutiae of gasoline prices, to his (serious) idea for a remake of Striptease starring himself in the Demi Moore role. He didn’t seem insane, exactly, but he was definitely being beamed in from left field, and I felt extremely nervous being stuck in a moving vehicle with him behind the wheel. Sal also talked about the irrelevance of time, and that everyone in this world was much too hung up on where to go and how long it takes to get there. While no great slice of philosophy, the sincerity with which he said this (coupled with the fact that I thought I might become a human rocketship at any second) actually managed to make the sentiment stick with me, and it has sometimes served as a steadying, head-cooling thought if I ever get too worried about deadlines or schedules. Needless to say, when we finally arrived at the festival, it was half over.

Watching Deadhead Miles is like taking this wild ride again. It’s not always pleasant, it’s often irritating, but the sheer, weirdo spectacle is enough to want to hang in there with it, and by the end it manages to carve out a little hole for itself in your permanent memory. Whatever else this movie is, it isn’t one that’s easy to shake.

Alan Arkin plays a redneck
big-rig driver (complete with loud, twangy southern accent; yes, we're both thinking of the same Alan Arkin) and aspiring adventurer. He seems to live his life as a search for pure, good ol’ boy fun (he especially loves throwing full bottles of soda at road signs), and welcomes action and experience above all else, especially a clear trajectory or end goal. He’s always quick with a half-baked plan to get out of mischief, and—more often than not—these silly efforts somehow seem to work out in his favor. Other times, he’s as wide-eyed and curious as a little kid, and seems content to soak up the world around him. When a hitchhiker, who he’s already traveled many, many miles with, suddenly decides to rob him at gunpoint, Arkin responds by saying, “I didn’t know you were a bad man. That’s interesting.” He then somehow manages to disarm the hitchhiker and lock him in back of his trailer. How? God only knows. He’s lucky like that.

The “story” consists of Arkin and the hitchhiker driving fast and getting nowhere, occasionally running afoul of police officers, and always finding something to do, be it good, bad, pleasant or distasteful. Without anything to grab on to in a narrative sense, the picture earns our attention through Arkin’s crazy performance and an endless supply of sometimes obnoxious, sometimes wonderful, always delirious episodes. It all builds to a quiet tragedy, though, when Arkin ultimately seems to discover that the USA really isn’t as fun or fulfilling as he’d like it to be. Expecting innocent whimsy, he often gets sudden ugliness. In one of my favorite passages, Arkin seeks out a prostitute he (apparently) used to know, and just when he and she are about to commence with the sex, he discovers that she has an elaborate harness on her body, connected to a rope, which ties her permanently inside the room. Arkin’s reaction to this discovery is heartbreaking in its way, in that it seems to utterly crush his unassuming feeling about the way the world ought to work.

In a weird way, his aimless trip across the country parallels the one in Easy Rider; what he’s looking for isn’t really out there, or if it is, all he can find is the dark shadow of good times long gone. Add to this the fact that even though America’s never really been the land of romantic cowboys and way-down-the-trail mythology, that doesn’t stop us from wanting to think it was and still could be.

And there’s one more level working in Deadhead Miles. A person might, I think, be able to make a convincing argument that a great majority of the adventures contained in this movie are actually only playing out in Arkin’s head. There’s a constant trade-off between successes and setbacks; soon after the disturbing scene with the girl on the rope, Arkin and his hitchhiker are passed by a long car, in which a whore lies seductively in the back seat, naked, and holds up a sign that says “10 Dollars.” Arkin passes on the offer, but you can tell by his face that “this is more like it.” Same with a sequence later on: the big rig breaks down, and out of nowhere a mysterious old cowboy dressed all in black shows up and instantly fixes the engine, only to hop into his own big rig—all black—and drive off back down the road. Arkin reveals that this was, in fact, the ghost of a six-years-dead truck driver who was killed in a jackknife, and who now patrols the roads lending a friendly, ghostly hand to truckers in need. This is impossible to take literally, and seems instead to reflect Arkin’s dearest wishes about what mysteries “the road” might contain. If this theory is to be embraced, then the movie becomes even a little more profound and sad, in that we’re watching a man slowly lose a mental grip on his own dreams, both about himself and about his home country.

As to the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking, the direction is pretty limp and occasionally ridiculous; scenes have a tendency to end with loopy little “jokes” that call unnecessary attention to themselves. The script, the first ever produced by the soon-to-be-legendary Terrence Malick, feels like it rests somewhere between the spray-gun, first-draft-is-the-best-draft style of Hunter S. Thompson, and Malick’s own more ethereal future masterpieces about the American consciousness. Regardless, let it never be said that the world has no use for hare-brained films like Deadhead Miles; its faults combine with the things it does right to make it a completely unique experience, and that counts for a lot in my book.

The worst movies leave you feeling empty inside, as if you haven't gained or lost a thing. This film makes you feel like you’ve seen around a corner you never knew existed, and if you don’t necessarily want to look around that corner again, then you’re certainly better off for having peeked once. It deserves to be viewed, and to not be forgotten. And for me, it put me right back in the cab of Sally’s orange pick-up truck, where he happily told his life philosophies to me, some kid he’d never met before, while I anxiously made sure the propane canister didn’t clank too hard against the carpetless floor.


dir. David Fincher

San Francisco Vice

March 1, 2007 - 35mm/Regal E-Walk

The lights are on, but it is dark, because it is nighttime. Dark and muddy, and somehow, if you adjust your eyes to the dark, there is an incredibly detailed figure looming somewhere back there. You can see him! Most of the time Jake Gyllenhaal (portraying Robert Graysmith) is the one in the darkness, hunched over a book or a file in the middle of the night. We can see him, in the dark! It actually looks dark, but there he is! Harris Savides, the cinematographer of Zodiac, and possibly the best in the business, displays as much prowess with digital video here as he has with every ounce of film he’s shot in the past. His clear technical prowess with the actual celluloid stuff, in this case, translates to a near perfect use of digital video. Director David Fincher and Savides play video to its strengths, shooting in blackness appropriating a happy medium in reproducing actual human night vision, something film has struggled to do (though Savides did it very well in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days). Just after last years mega-million dollar art project, Miami Vice, Zodiac sits as one of the most beautiful and digitally shot pictures ever made.

Fincher forgoes the insane virtuosity he has shown in the past with his popular pictures Se7en and Fight Club, instead opting to make a rare character and word-driven piece of filmmaking that is able to balance its relentlessly paced flood of facts with the feeling of an exacting thriller. The most common comparison with this technique of deluge of fact is likely to be the flashy-as-all-hell and great, great, great, great movie, JFK. I would also like to pat Zodiac on the back and lump it in with another paranoid talking men movie, The Insider.

Like both of these comparative pictures, Zodiac is bogged down with the annoying, but essential scenes of wives complaining about their husband’s obsession and leaving them, with the kids in tow. In Zodiac, the responsibility to play out these difficult scenes is plopped into Chloe Sevigny’s very capable hands. She does what she can with those stock scenes, and they would be the most tired scenes in the picture if it weren’t for Ms. Sevigny’s introductory scene. In this scene she meets an already obsessive Graysmith and practically forces her love upon him by simply hanging around, and not giving up. It’s saddening and lonely, but also very romantic. Other attempts to “humanize” some of the obsessive men are not so effective, particularly Mark Ruffalo’s Inspector Toschi’s cutesy addiction to animal crackers. If that bit was cut out completely from the script we would all be better off.

Now, what Zodiac is about exactly is a decade-spanning investigation of a true-life notorious murderer, not a serial killer, as we learn there is nothing in particular linking his victims. This dead end case becomes a media phenomenon, and the San Francisco Chronicle is the newspaper wrapped around this big fish. For a while, we spend a great share of time with Robert Downey Jr., as the hard-drinking Chronicle writer Paul Avery. Downey Jr. is stellar as usual. There’s also the aforementioned Mark Ruffalo as the lead Inspector on the San Francisco end of the case, with his partner, well played by Anthony Edwards. Gyllenhaal, the Chronicle cartoonist, carries the bulk of the story, and the movie is based on his character’s book (Robert Graysmith). Zodiac is brimming with strong, exhausted performances from all of its actors, and the casting is impeccable the long way down through the smallest bits of the movie. Fincher enlists pitifully underused actors like Dermot Mulroney, Ione Skye and Clea Duvall who are given their due and master their scenes. Duvall is specifically grand as a bruised up prison inmate.

Beaten down with frustration, every character has bags under their eyes, particularly the obsessive trio of Ruffalo, Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. They’re exhaustion, filtered through Fincher's time jumping narrative, translates as riveting and the “long” duration of the picture breezes by, ending abruptly. Their performances do take a back seat to the sumptuous photography and rich tabloid essence of the story, which is regrettable because so many of them are on the money. The images simply overwhelm and will live on and on. David Fincher pulled out marvelous, marvelous performances and told a whammy of a fun tale, but Harris Savides is the great big muddy star of Zodiac.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Navajo Joe

dir. Sergio Corbucci

Burt Reynolds deliverances us from evil.

February 7, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

Burt Reynolds, who is a quarter Cherokee, plays the titular character in Navajo Joe. It is only slightly disconcerting to see Mr. Reynolds caked in a reddish layer of body covering make-up, as the movie takes on an approach of reaching back to a time, and a race, that has been wiped out of history. Joe lives alone; his tribe and lover’s lives stripped from him, and thus the last pieces of something humane and familiar have disappeared. He cannot simply be described as lovelorn and lonely, as his loss is larger than that, reeking of post-apocalyptic recklessness and despair. His people are gone and he exists in a deserted wasteland of a patch of ground, resembling something far less than a hogan, and more like the scarecrow-strewn plains of Planet of the Apes.

Joe lives a superhero existence, living out his days fighting for a code of honor and justice, and spending his off time at a dilapidated lair, but he has no need for a mask or an alter ego. Instead he tosses his body from horse to horse with complete abandon, selflessly, instinctively saving the day. Reynolds excels with his ferocious, grounded physicality, balanced by his very direct, very funny line delivery. “I’m going to need some dynamite,” Joe repeats over and over again to much laughter, intentionally or otherwise… it doesn’t matter. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of loud high-pitch screaming coupled with rhythmic chants of “NAVAJO JOE!”, effectively tempering the rather placid Joe with an undercurrent of operatic anger and desperation. This musical cue also functions in further injecting some sort of comic book or superhero element by giving Joe a theme song.

While these layers of apocalyptic emotions flood Reynolds’ performance and the overall feeling of the picture, it is unfortunately framed as a revenge saga. The folks that murdered his people scheme to rob a large lump of cash and lay waste to a blossoming Western town. Joe volunteers to protect the town, and in turn volunteers to kill every last one of the bandits, with shotguns, pistols, knives, dynamite and his hands. The story would succeed to a greater degree if revenge had nothing to do with it. Joe never stakes his claim of revenge, or demonstrates ill judgment due to any personal emotional involvement with the crooks, and thus themes of revenge are never really explored and are irrelevant. Director Sergio Corbucci seems to favor the idea that Reynolds is playing a wanderer who has stepped out from the dust of some extinct species and different time, frightening even those he volunteers to protect. This idea is far more interesting than simple revenge, and thankfully there is greater time spent on it. As a result, any hint of the revenge narrative feels a bit tacked on, though fun and action packed.

Eventually the townspeople acquiesce to the idea of a mythic stranger unquestionably saving their skin, yet once they’ve used him all up the dinosaur wanders off into the sunset. He may be going to save another town, but more likely he’ll fade away.

This is part of the ongoing Morricone Festival coverage.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Beguiled

dir. Don Siegel

“…and we could prepare them especially for him.”

KALEN EGAN, Los Angeles
February 28, 2007 - DVD

Here is a film so ahead of its time that even today it feels like something relevant, wise and alien. Yet it is equally locked into and cogent about its own era, and also manages to be intriguing in its depiction of history. Set during the end of the civil war, The Beguiled aims its thematic guns on nothing less than the clash between national red and national blue, depicting the worst of both worlds in a battle for American supremacy. At the same time, it envisions men as salacious, liberal liars, and women as conservative, repressed rage-machines, and in doing so anticipates centuries of harbored, built-up animosity between the two sexes. Shit, this is one cy
nical little monster, and one of the great social terror pictures of the 60’s and 70’s, hanging right beside classics like Don't Look Now and, especially, Rosemary’s Baby. Like that film, The Beguiled embraces metaphor over plot and logic, and builds toward a calculated leap off Lunatic Ledge. It’s never as bracingly scary as either of those aforementioned movies, but I think it's more sharply satiric, and no doubt much funnier.

Clint Eastwood plays Corporal John McBurny, a yankee soldier who is shot out of a tree and blown up, then discovered and rescued by a 12-year-old girl (“Old enough for kissin’.”) named Amy. Instantly seduced by his forwardness and rugged sex appeal, Amy brings the war-ravaged John to her nearby boarding school, which is populated by six or seven other women. As John recuperates from his injuries, he single-mindedly sets to charming the skirts off as many of the house’s females as possible. Foremost among these ladies is the school’s headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, played with a cool mix of austerity and longing by Geraldine Page. Why is John so determined to collect all of their individual affections? And why are they so eager to give in to him? Who, in the end, is manipulating whom? Or, hold it… is anybody really manipulating anybody?

See, the great comedy of this whole scenario, it turns out, is that John and these women are utterly compatible in their collective desires, yet they’ll never be able to acknowledge that fact. In one of the movie’s most alarming and insightful scenes, Martha actually fantasizes about a three-way orgy involving John, herself and the house’s etiquette teacher (who has also fallen head over heels for the wounded soldier, and who might be the only reasonably sane, moderate person in the house; of course, her simple wants will eventually crumble under the weight of everyone else's selfish desire). And throughout his experience in the house, John seems determined to keep each of his seductions secret, as if it’s just more rewarding to feel like he’s getting away with something. In both cases, they’re just looking for kinky sex with “the enemy,” and if they could only sit down and admit it to each other, everyone would probably be better off.

The women are the product of stern, religious-minded morality, and John represents unbridled desire and self-interest; these traits are hyperbolic extremes of the political right and left, respectively, and of women and men, and it’s a credit to Don Siegel’s even-handed humor that the scales don’t ultimately tip in any one direction. Nearly everyone here is equally weird and destructive, and as the film ends—with the North beginning to claim its victory over the South—we sense a definite time-bomb already starting to tick. The South will indeed rise again, and then slip again, and then rise, and then slip…

It’s so exciting to me that a film from 1971 could see this phenomenon as a perpetual give and take, a battle destined to wage for a long, long time, and perhaps serve as the defining characteristic of this particular country—a struggle between unrestricted freedom and self-imposed oppression.

But give us a fuckin’ break, Kalen, this isn’t really a political film. It’s one where Clint Eastwood gets his leg chopped off by a bunch of angry girls. Indeed, The Beguiled is a movie that keeps its relevance buried inside, to be mined afterward, and during its 105 minutes glides along on a consistent stream of enthralling madness. Few films are confident enough in their craft and concept to go all the way over the edge, and this is one that gets away with each of its nutso indulgences. The intermittent voice overs, the arty/trashy dissolves, the gore, the ever-more over-the-top performances, etc. All good, all entertaining, all relevant to the central idea.

In short, this is a movie that proves unequivocally that the best and most memorable way to inspire thought and conversation is by mashing it into pulp, and serving it to the viewer like a bowl of tasty, poisonous wild mushrooms. Once you watch, you’ll never get it out of your system, and the country surrounding you might seem just a little more violent and hopelessly absurd.

Click the film's title at the top of this article, and buy the movie for $6.05! I'm not getting any kickback off this recommendation, it's just... could you ask for a better deal than that?!