1/11/7 - 1/20/7
In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.
<<click here for 1/1/7 - 1/10/7>>
1.11. The History Boys.
(35mm) at the Jacob Burns Film Center.
Why did I see this movie? (Besides having a couple hours to kill in Pleasantville between the end of my grueling workday and Paul Schrader’s appearance with Rules of the Game)* Well, how about a little thing called "the fat kid from All or Nothing?" Or does that mean nothing to you? Honestly, though, I wouldn't have been able to convince myself to see this movie if I didn't notice on the poster that (way in the background) the fat, abusive teenage monster from Mike Leigh's masterpiece was one of the main scamps in this theoretically charming and complex tale of education, wisdom and growing up. Yeah, your mom would probably like this movie (especially if she also really likes Madame Bovary or Keats), but she also probably secretly likes Oprah Winfrey and claims that Judi Dench is not just a talentless, one-note sham of an actress.
So, the fat kid isn't in this movie nearly enough for me to justify sitting through it. He's good when he's actually on-screen, though – in fact, everyone involved is very good in a bland, serious theee-ate-err kind of way. The writing is crisp and the ironies well outlined: this movie is the cinematic equivalent of a well-pressed, 3 button suit: it's attractive, professional, classy and utterly boring. The central conflict centers around a group of students with a chance to get into Cambridge who must choose between bending the system to their advantage and submitting to the system to actually try to learn. Fair enough – that's a real conflict (for almost inconceivably privileged people). But there's no damn air in the thing and its studied, intelligent professionalism ends up feeling glib and shallow.
* I didn't stick around to watch the film itself, though – I was saving my re-viewing for later in the week when Terrence Rafferty would speak afterwards.
1.12. No movie.
I did, however, get locked out of my apartment at 3:00am. I won't point any fingers or place blame as to how it happened because the fact is that I probably didn't get the worst of the situation. John Cribbs ended sitting around my building's filthy basement in only his underwear while I traveled to Brooklyn from my apartment on W. 100th Street to get my extra pair of keys. Keep in mind, this was in January, so it was freezing and my sleazy landlady had a tendency to randomly turn the heat off for hours at a time. But my on-again/off-again girlfriend was really thrilled to get a call from me saying I needed the extra keys from her right now. A good time was had by all.
(dvd) Allen Cordell's apartment, three flights of stairs up from my own apartment.
This was actually a pretty perfect afternoon. Not that Click is any good (it's not), but you know what you're going to get with a high-concept, low-brow Adam Sandler vehicle and sitting around with Allen, Laurie Isabella and John Cribbs, staying out of the cold, eating a bucket of fried chicken complemented by all of the delicious biscuit-y, mashed trimmings imaginable well, that's as good a way to spend a Saturday afternoon as I can think of. Of course, in that setting, a film like Click is exactly what you want to see: a half-baked, comfortingly predictable, amusing-to-funny throwaway that you don't have to focus on too hard - a good movie would've actually derailed the experience.
If you don't know the set-up by now, here it is: Adam Sandler plays a repressed, hostile Broseph with severe emotional development issues placed in an outlandish circumstance that allows him to indulge in/work through his problems and overcome the idiot-man-childishness at the core of his being. In Click, the outlandish circumstance is a universal remote that can – get this! - actually control the universe. In a typically dispiriting series of developments, Sandler's character displays an utter lack of imagination with the remote and uses it almost exclusively to forward through the "boring" parts of his life, such as walking his dog, working, talking to his wife, dealing with his family, etc. He does hit the slow-mo to watch an enormous pair of jugs on a female jogger bounce up and down. But you probably saw the trailer, anyway, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Sandler explores the trademark "idiotic or funny?" dichotomy that drives his cinematic oeuvre.
The last half-hour of the film doesn't even pretend to be a comedy and Sandler indulges his equally trademark tendency towards sentimentality: life lessons are learned and Sandler's character becomes a well-adjusted adult. You see, don't fast-forward through the boring parts of your life because you just may miss all of the important parts, too. Life is for living! Love your family! Don't work too hard! While it deserves points for addressing these controversial issues, it remains ambiguous on the pressing subjects of over-sexed dogs and mean-spirited violence directed towards spoiled neighborhood kids. Sandler always has the good sense to populate his films with delightful character actors like Steve Buscemi and Ben Stiller and Click delivers two great Sandler-sidebar performances from Henry "A very nice man, covered in bees" Winkler and Christopher "I'm the Angel of Death!" Walken. Laurie guessed the "twist" ending ten minutes into the film causing Allen, John and I to immediately feel like boneheads for not instantly catching such an obvious set-up. Whatever. It's unimaginative, formulaic and not nearly as funny as it needs to be to justify its bloated running time, but still I'm not sure there's any other movie that would've been better on that particular afternoon.
Also, this is as good a place for this as any: I would like to explain my patented, break-thru concept of "Futro." Futro is a fairly simple, but pretty crucial idea: it describes things (objects, hairstyles, clothes, cars, buildings) that were designed to look futuristic but have since aged poorly and now look dated: "Retro-Futuristic Style" in long-form. Objects that are suposed to seem futuristic, but are unmistakably of their time. The most prime example of Futro is the DeLorean – it was supposed to look like it came from the not-too-distant-future, but now looks painfully like a product of the late 70's/early 80's. Other good examples include Han Solo's vest, the hoverboards in Back to the Future Part II, and the entire last half hour of Click.
The Good German.
(35mm) The Angelika Film Center.
For the first hour or so of this film (maybe even less), I was really with it. Tobey Maguire's deceptively "aw shucks" conman is one of the most entertainingly sleazy characters I've seen in years. He's like Sergeant Bilko, only if Bilko were into anal sex and drug-running. After the film takes a twist mid-way and begins to focus almost exclusively on George Clooney's well-intentioned journalist, it rapidly becomes boringly convoluted and, in the last thirty minutes, the whole mess completely stalls out. Clooney's stiff, mannered performance really is the film's undoing this time – and, just to be clear, he doesn't even normally bother me in this type of dashing leading-man role. But he brings almost nothing to the table in a story that should theoretically revolve around his hard-nosed pursuit of bigger and bigger fish.
The ultimate intrigue isn't nearly as tantalizing as it needs to be to keep us worming our way through the requisite double, triple and quadruple crosses. Cate Blanchett is appropriately opaque as the mysterious German with a psycho-sexual hold over Clooney, but her utter lack of chemistry with him makes the film's noir-ish machinations seem dry and labored. There's a level on which I can't forgive her performance for holding back, especially in light of the fact that Clooney himself is also giving the audience nothing to sink their teeth into. Soderbergh continues his erratic tendency to run hot and cold: this film demonstrates both his considerable editing chops as well as his nearly complete failings as a cinematographer. Half of the performances are dynamite, half are unwatchable; the script veers from fantastic to disastrous; and while he once again deserves credit for trying out a new stylistic hat, I still wish Soderbergh would exhibit some semblance of awareness for what he does well and what he simply can't pull off.
1.14. Rules of the Game.
(35mm) Jacob Burns Film Center.
I still don't get it. This is the sixth or seventh time I've seen this film and I just understand what the big deal is. L'Atalante? I know what the big deal is. The Seven Samurai? Yeah, I get it. Even La Grande Illusion I understand being placed amongst the towering masterpieces of world cinema. But this? I just don't connect with this film in any way. I'm told over and over again that it's amazing, but when I watch it, none off that pops off the screen for me. I'm told it engages issues of class and love and friendship and philosophy and that it does so by creating a singular ontology virtually unrivaled in the history of narrative art... so, I give it another chance. And I see it again. And I leave the theater thinking, "meh." Why am I supposed to forgive Jean Renior's jokey, ham-fisted performance as Octave? What is it, exactly, that's supposed to be impressive about the decidedly banal rabbit hunt? What, supposedly, is the film saying about class and love and friendship and philosophy?
The great critic Terrence Rafferty spoke after this screening at my theater and he laid out some very interesting ideas about how the film sets up an opposition between being an automaton and being full of life. Mr. Rafferty is a really smart guy and is the all-time expert at bringing out invisible connections within a film and making them seem clear as day, essential, obvious even. He left me with a lot to think about, but at the end of the day, I just don't buy it with Rules of the Game. And I've really tried. I don't want to disparage anyone who does, but whatever trick the film is pulling, whatever spell it is able to cast, for whatever reason it doesn't work on me. There's a level on which that makes me very sad – there are very few significant films that I'm not able to engage with some level of passion, positive or negative, and I feel left out with Rules. I'd love to hate it, even - but all I can summon up is a big, bland "meh."
1.15. Children of Men.
(35mm) City Cinema Village East.
This movie all but collapses under the weight of its fundamental silliness. Its vision of a future gone awry is painfully goofy, which is a huge problem considering how seriously it takes itself. An aimless mish-mash of hot-button issues like The Environment and Immigration, it fails to generate few particularly striking/interesting ideas amidst a laughable stew of dreadlocked white shamans, Pointed Political Symbols and Thunderdome cast-offs. At the end of the day, its reputation is predicated upon two "bravado" action sequences: an unexpected backwoods ambush and a grimy city riot suppression. They're both excuted in a seamless single take, so if you're excited by the thought of man-childish filmmakers noodling impressively with their cinematic toys, then you're probably one of the folks calling this woeful cinematic stroke session "a masterpiece."
It really is the filmic equivalent of a Joe Satriani album: technically masterful, utterly devoid of originality, impossibly cheesy. Who hasn't seen a scene exactly like the backwoods ambush? So what if it's all done in one take?! It's the exact same kind of fucking scene we’re treated to over and over again in movie after action movie! Frankly, I preferred the scene where they couldn't get the car started and had to run it down the hill - however, I should admit that because I was paying attention to the film, I can't rule out the unfortunate possibility that the filmmakers used the technique called "editing" and through that technique to "cut" several times during that brief chase. I know, I know: that could be a huge strike against it. Who knows whether that scene was actually good or not: we'll have to study the tape before we can rush into any rash decision.
Ok, enough about how I don't give a shit about what kind of car rig and fancy computer they used to create derivative, silly wankery. The really irritating flaw of this film is its perspective: why on Earth is this Clive Owen's movie? Granted, I'm glad there was a white man around to help the poor black girl save humanity (lord knows, a poor black girl would just fuck it up without his help). Honestly, though: why does this film follow middle-class schlub Clive Owen's predictable, well-trod path from cynicism to hope and not the story of the young immigrant actually having the freakin' baby? Yeah, yeah, yeah the realities of the Hollywood business demand white male star power and this film is a hugely expensive product of the Hollywood system, but why should I excuse the film just because it was made in an inherently racist system? You can cry "market realities!" all you want, but I'm not about to excuse the fact that this film is a giant pile of condescending, liberal bullshit designed to make middle-class white people feel good about themselves. Also, you know what? Children are our future. I just made that up! I'm glad all of our problems (including, apparently, war) can be resolved by babies. Michael Caine plays the wacky friend who suffers nobly at the hands of the villains and gives our heroes just enough time to get away.
(dvd) my apartment.
John Cribbs innately understands my attraction to truly terrible films, so when he demanded that I see this Rob Cohen (xXx, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) masterpiece, I knew I would be getting a particular kind of crap. My love of garbage films isn't really about condescension and camp and pointing out flaws in an artwork of dubious competency. As a matter of fact, I don't have much interest in a certain kind of technical incompetence - the messy, garish vibe of Troma and John Waters doesn't hold any particular attraction for me. I don't even particularly enjoy the first Evil Dead because it has so many overwhelming, glaring technical deficiencies (I enjoy it almost exclusively in the context of the virtuosic following films, that is: I like looking back at the embryo that grew up to be Dead by Dawn). I don't get a kick out of laughing down my nose at lame dialog, botched special effects and poorly lit shots. I think this has something to do with my inherent love of cinema – I never want to be laughing at the medium because I identify too strongly with cinema as a way of organizing reality: I process the world cinematically and have sympathy for how essentially difficult it is to pull it all together and create a coherent series of images from the blurry, jarring noise of reality. So, when a film fails on a technical level, it arouses sympathy rather than derision, insecurity rather than arrogance. I nod my head in disappointment and move on.
No, the truly terrible films I love, the awfulness in which I seek to revel, are exemplified in a film like Stealth: loads of resources, money, time, and the competence of hard-working professionals operating at the top of their craft (and say what you will about the Hollywood system, but craft is not its problem) come together to create a movie so magnificently brain-dead, so hopelessly clueless, so utterly devoid of philosophical logic, moral scruples, narrative care, so devoid of any sense of style or meaning, that one is left with no choice but to sit up and take notice with glee. I think J. Blake Fichera had the best observation about this tale of a Super-intelligent Robot Plane run amok: it seems like it must've been made from a script that has been laying around since the 80's and rewritten a million times. First off, rewriting a script endlessly with several different writers invariably leads to the exact problems from which Stealth suffers – it's over-loaded with kind of (sort of, but not really) cool ideas and detailed set-pieces placed next to each other with absolutely no focus on how they are supposed to come together. It's the standard "forest for the trees" problem that arises when there's nothing guiding the changes in a script other than several unrelated folks "improving" it.
Secondly, hey wait a second, who is credited with the original screenplay idea? None other than W.D. Richter! Not familiar with Richter? Well, his heyday just happens to be the mid-80's when he created the screenplays for incredibly idiosyncratic action/Sci-Fi hybrids like The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai across the 8th Dimension and Big Trouble in Little China as well as the Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which is the late 70's, but whatever.) I'm sure the original title for Stealth was actually something like UCAV Meltdown: Target World War III. Oh, did I mention the film is about a super-intelligent robot plane that gets hit by lightning and starts destroying military targets with no regard for human casualties? It was actually kind of hard to see what the Navy's problem with the plane is (also, shouldn't it be the Airforce’s problem? I'm no military buff) and even at the end America’s dreamiest male-pattern baldness sufferer Josh Lucas and the plane sort of become friends to rescue Jessica Biel from behind North Korean lines.
Granted, the military doesn't seem to like the fact that "Eddie" (which is the nickname for the evil plane) has been downloading songs off the internet. "Which ones?" "All of them." So, that dialog exchange happens and then later on the plane starts cranking some Incubus or other instantly out-dated shit and they’re all like "At least it has good taste." Didn't you just say it was downloading every song on the internet? How does that demonstrate taste in one direction or the other? It's the very definition of arbitrary! Of course, stuff like that is the least of the film's problems. W.D. Richter's signature loopy imagination and philosophical thoughtfulness turn up just enough to make the movie seem utterly out of its mind in term of appropriateness: it's a film that has dialog exchanges about the moral quandaries of conducting military operation through the distance of technology (i.e. what does it mean to rain death from above without experiencing combat on visceral level), brings up the idea of moral position of technological power (is destructive technological power inherently evil or is it neutral/dependent on who is wielding it?) and then it has Jessica Biel cavorting in a bikini in a gratuitous scene under a waterfall while Josh Lucas explains what a "prime number" is and Jamie Foxx grooves on working the flyest job imaginable.
Also, I hope our current world leaders have all gotten together at the U.N. and watched this film because it has some valuable ideas about how to handle the situation in North Korea. I don't want to spoil the movie, but its solution involves a rogue, super-intelligent plane. Also, I'd like to add: this movie is fucking psychotic. I should give props to John's favorite moment: when Josh Lucas' very futro machine gun runs out of bullets, he throws it at the helicopter pursuing him. Throws it. Good work, Josh, I'm sure that’ll slow them down.
Also, Sam Shepard plays a grizzled authority figure.
1.17. The Makioka Sisters.
(35mm) tech screening at the Jacob Burns Film Center.
Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters is an odd film, for certain: seeing it is like discovering the selakanth or some other living fossil long since thought extinct. Set in pre-war Japan but made 1983, it is an utterly sincere example of the gendaigeki style popularized decades earlier by Ozu and Mizoguchi. There's no layer of irony or deconstruction, not the faintest hint of self-awareness or critique: other than color photography and an extremely shitty synthesizer score, this film moves and feels exactly like Tokyo Story or Street of Shame. Ichikawa displays the same talent for strikingly geometric compositions that he exhibited in Tokyo Olympiad, but not an ounce of the desperate combustibility of Fires on the Plain. Truthfully, the only reason I was interested in this tale of "sisters in pre-war Osaka and the social codes of the world they inhabit" was the intensity displayed by Fires.
Sure, there's tons of pretty photography (the film revolves around the seasonal blooming of Osaka's world-renowned cherry blossoms) and I know plenty of folks that are deeply affected by the type of repressed dramatics inimical to the genre, but I've never been one for endless scenes of families quibbling, grimacing, hemming and hawing while being slowly submerged in the overwhelming tides of family and responsibility - it's especially distancing in a film that so closely tows the line to a style decades out of style. Also, be forewarned that even if you are sympathetic to that kind of film/story, the synthesizer score is really, truly atrocious and could potentially ruin the film for even the most hardcore devotee of clenched-up chamber drama.
(In addition, this isn't a movie, but I went and saw Dutchman written by Nobel Prize-winner and New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka. It was directed by none other than Bill fucking Duke. He was in Predator. And was the bad guy opposite Fitty Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Also, he directed Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. I love legitimate theater. Seriously, though, that play is awesome – it's at least willing to entertain the notion that black people would be happier if they just straight up started murdering white people. Of course, you know, I wouldn't be so into that if it actually started happening but you gotta give the man some credit for radical ideas. How fucked up is it that I found Baraka, who was there after the performance, to be "adorable?" Very fucked up? Or only slightly fucked up?)
1.18. Cria Cuervos.
Now here's a film with a great soundtrack! The catchy signature tune is almost perversely at odds with the cruel story of youthful anger and fear at the heart of the story. The plot is fairly complicated (it jumps through time, has surreal fantasy interludes, features the same actress playing different characters, has horrific dream sequences etc.), but it boils down to a young girl, Ana, who blames her mother's descent into illness and death on her philandering Fascist father and, as a result, she becomes compulsively obsessed with living in a fantasy world. Hmm, that doesn't sound like any movie you've seen recently, does it? Ok, plot aside, this film has much more in common with Victor Erice and Luis Buñuel than Guillermo del Torro – the scenes of the ghostly mother appearing reminded me directly of the ghost story from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the empathetic, yet creepy world of the children brought to mind Spirit of the Beehive (two films that predate Cuervos by only a couple years).
The title translates to "Raise Ravens" and is a reference to the proverb that goes "Raise ravens and they will pluck out your eyes." That should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the film – it's one of the few films I've ever seen that acknowledges just how nasty, vindictive and selfish children can become, but it still never does so at the expense of your identification with Ana: the collision of her innocence and malice is one of the most strikingly true things I have ever seen depicted on film and it feels like a discovery. The pain and mystery of the adult world around her gets translated into a miniature fantasy world, a fantasy world that is direct reflection of that pain and mystery. Yeah, great scenes abound in this movie, including a kidnapping nightmare and a prayer after a game of hide-and-seek. It manages to get everything right that I felt Pan's Labyrinth got wrong.
(35mm) AMC Loews 19th Street, near Union Square.
I already wrote about this film in this blog, but I saw it again specifically to give it another chance – too many people I respect had good things to say about it and, at the end of the day, I felt like I was just holding it to too high a standard. After all, the fantasy sequences are top notch, the photography is gorgeous, and it has one of the best, most memorable scores of the last couple years. Unfortunately, upon second viewing, I went from lukewarm on the film to utterly hating it: it's vacuous, insipid, and politically facile. I didn't cut visually impressive, emotionally exploitative, morally facile Spielberg films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan any slack, so why should I do the same for Guillermo Del Torro's attempt at being Spielberg, Jr.?
The fact remains that the Spanish Civil war (and its aftermath) is absolutely one of the most ambiguous, confounding, strange times in history and its infinite shades of grey deserve way more thought than cartoon fascists and noble rebels. Even for a moment ignoring the completely dishonest hopeful ending offered by the film, there's the strange matter of the complete de-politicization of the material - which wouldn't be a problem if the film weren't cast in such explicitly allegorical terms: how am I to read the subtextual meanings of the little girl's adventures and address the notion of fantasy's contrast/relationship to reality, when the "reality" of the film exists in some unrecognizable, Manichean Spain where the Fascists were defeated and the Anarchists didn't line up priests and execute them against church walls? What's the point? Also, having seen one of its obvious and superior influences, Cria Cuervos, earlier in the day didn't help its case.
Vietnamese ga xao xa ot. Aborted bowling. Zombie drinks. However, no movie.
1.20. Tears of the Black Tiger.
(35mm) Film Forum.
This is the type of film that sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun: a Technicolor Thailand-set western with musical numbers, mustachioed villains and midgets with rockets launchers – what's more, the dastardly Miramax films originally purchased the American distribution rights with their minds on a remake and proceeded to shelve the original, rendering it virtually un-seeable! Unfortunately, this laborious piffle is a huge chore to sit through: its campy mix of Eastern settings and Western clichés runs totally out of steam within the first half an hour. The problem is that its stilted dialog and over the top action scenes are never nearly clever or inventive enough to overcome their generic origins and lack of emotional resonance. It feints jokingly at being "the greatest love story ever told," but ends up being "the longest love story ever smirked." There are several moments of genuine cinematic beauty and the photography makes maximal use of its digitally generated pastels, but the whole ends up being nothing more than the tossed together sum of its second-hand parts.
<<click here for 1/21/7 - 1/30/7>>
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