4/1/7 - 4/10/7
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 3/22 - 3/31>>
4.1. Spike of Bensonhurst.
(vhs) back from Philly, at my apartment.
I want to do full justice to this film: I know that most folks have never heard of it – I certainly hadn't before Paul Cooney spied a worn out copy for sale at a used video store and immediately snapped it up. "What the hell is that?" I asked and he explained the last scene in the film to me. "What?!" Then I looked at the box: it was written and directed by none other than Paul Morrissey. Morrissey is most famous for being the guy who actually receives the director credit on Andy Warhol's Flesh, Andy Warhol's Heat, Andy Warhol's Dracula and Andy Warhol's Frankenstein. Due to this close association with Warhol, I expected some amount of affinity for the countercultural mindset from this non-Warhol-guided feature – perhaps a knowing satire of NYC culture or an off-beat comedy of manners? Nope, Spike is easily the most reactionary, bitter, mean-spirited ultra-conservative film I have ever seen; John Milius and Sylvester Stallone are middling moderates compared to the toxic auteur on display in this sweet baby.
There's a level on which the Birth of a Nationesque political commentary coursing through Spike's veins like poison ceases to be upsetting: you can't be upset with a movie so bile-fueled as to bluntly portray New York City public school teachers as coke-snorting hypocrites * and slovenly cops as more concerned with making sure the rights of Step'n Fetchit-y crack-heads are respected than actually cleaning up the "P.R."-infested neighborhood of Red Hook. The only reasonable reaction to a film this rancid is to be momentarily stunned and, subsequently, deeply amused. Its satire is too cartoonish and ineffectual to provoke any reaction deeper than simple shock – to do so would akin to trying to seriously engage The Naked Gun's stance on law enforcement.
The plot follows a low-level mafia patsy (Sasha Mitchell of "Cody from 'Step by Step'" and wife-beating fame) who gets run out of Bensonhurst after getting too intimate ("She's crazy about me, I don't mind her") with the daughter of mafia big-wig Ernest Borgnine. He's also been skimming from the numbers racket money he’s assigned to collect and he’s started to get ideas about becoming a real boxer and not just taking dives in the fifth. Once exiled in Red Hook, he proceeds to get his Puerto Rican girlfriend (Talisa Soto of Mortal Kombat and License to Kill) pregnant and clean up the streets through the use of mafia tactics. He's joined by a posse of enthusiastic Latino kids, all too happy to employ his jack-boot philosophy. It's a broad (we're talking Farley Bros. broad) comedy that takes pot-shot after pot-shot at a series of head-scratching NYC-specific targets that must have seemed topical in 1988. Some bon mots from the witty screenplay include Spike's mother's acerbic rejoinder, "Spike, why don’t you do us all a big favor AND GO FUCK YOURSELF" delivered in a screechy nasal that has to be heard to be believed.
I wish I could just reprint big chunks of the screenplay here, but some choice lines are "I'm worried for my life and this cooze wants to get her rocks off!" "Your dad's a jailbird, you're mom's a dyke, those are the facts kid. Face 'em." "Fella? This guy says fella? Why don't you ditch this fuckin' fazool [sp?]?" And the most classic line of all, from the mouth of Mr. Borgnine himself, delivered as he warmly regards the infant child of Mitchell and Soto: "This one's almost light enough to pass for Italian!" And the film ends on that tender note. Now excuse me, I can't waste any more time on this review, I'VE GOTS TO MAKE MUN-AYE!
*Although, now that I think about it, Half Nelson did almost the same thing and was pretty politically progressive.
The Finishing Touch.
(16mm) at the Jacob Burns Film Center with live piano accompaniment by Ben Model.
Heavy hitters Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Awful Truth), Clyde Bruckman (The General) and George Stevens (Gunga Din, Giant, Shane, A Place in the Sun) pop up in the credits for this film, but there's nothing to particularly distinguish it from any other Laurel and Hardy fiasco: the quibbling duo shows up and, spurred on through a series of miscommunications, proceed to destroy the hell out of something. In this case: a building. Actually, they just build a house poorly, which leads to its destruction; but the basic Laurel and Hardy template is the same. Their films haven’t aged as well as Buster Keaton's or Charlie Chaplin's - the main reason being that their screen personae simply aren't that likable. Hardy is an abusive bully and Laurel is a fey twit deserving of abuse. Therein in lays the comedy.
But it's still pretty hard to be nostalgic about two very unpleasant human beings who have no intention of courting our sympathies – or actually, what's enjoyable about them is that their fine messes are the result of pettiness, greed, and recalcitrance: they're just like you and me! But there's no denying that this film, as they say, plays. Of all of the second tier silent comedians (Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, etc.), Laurel and Hardy are the most consistently funny – in fact, I'd go so far as to say that the inventiveness and pathos they lack in comparison to Chaplin, they make up for in actual laughs. They have great timing on their gags and Hardy’s hulking, huffy physicality is an inexhaustible source of violent comedy. Oh sure, you could dismiss it because, honestly, there's not much to The Finishing Touch other than the inconvenient little fact that it's consistently goddamned funny from start to stop!
Pass the Gravy.
(16mm) at the JBFC.
Leo McCarey also orchestrated the extremely unfunny hijinx in this short following justifiably forgotten comedian Max Davidson's trials and tribulations with a neighbor’s prize rooster. Davidson is a mugging, Jim Carrey-esque idiot who tries to generate laughs through the sheer volume of his frenetic flailing. Take it down a notch, dude. Anyway, Davidson hates his neighbor's chickens because they're always getting into his garden, but when their kids decide to get hitched, he does the right thing and doesn't let his seething pathological hatred of these birds get in the way of their pending nuptials. Which we can all agree is big of him. Anyway, the bulk of the film centers around a dinner where, through a series of convolutions too hilarious to be disclosed in brief, the neighbor's prize rooster has accidentally been prepared as the meal for the in-laws (pass the gravy, indeed). Davidson tries to hide the mix-up, but just makes things worse and, if this sounds like a sitcom to you, just imagine trying to stomach an episode of "Friends" where David Schwimmer did everything in a super-broad, silent-film pantomime
(16mm) in that same silent shorts program at the JBFC.
Charley Chase is also not that memorable of a performer, but his films are at least generally pretty well put together. In this film, he doesn't need to be as mind-blowing as Keaton or charming as Chaplin because he's working with a scripts that doesn't make him carry the whole load. In this one, he’s some poor sucker trying to make it to his wedding, but another woman (not his bride) gets drenched by a splash from a passing truck and decides to dry off in the back of his limousine. In the nude. How's he going to explain this one?! Whatever, the set-up is stupid, but it's silent comedy - back off, pal. Anyway, his cadre of friends helping him to conceal the naked chick is pretty great and the all of the stuff with the woman is surprisingly salacious. I mean, I'd be pissed if I were his bride-to-be and stumbled onto this flapper-broad flouncing about with my man with only a flimsy sheet between them. Also, I'm sure you’ll be excited to hear that the sheet gets blown off when she passes over some grating on the sidewalk.
(16mm) at the JBFC.
Holy shit, somebody call child protective services. I'm not sure I had actually seen a "Little Rascals" short before this one, but, oh geez, back in the silent era they had no qualms about putting kids in mortal danger. It was the roaring twenties and everyone was doing the Lindy Hop on telephone poles by speak-easys, so it was a different time and I guess that means nobody had any problem with 9 year-olds doing haphazard, semi-choreographed physical comedy with axes and whatnot. It's like Laurel and Hardy, Jr. with most of the laffs coming from kids getting hit in the face and breaking things - which, we can all agree, is pretty funny.
This one also has a kind of weird set-up where a dude dresses up like Satan in order to get this group of punk kids (the "Rascals," who are also called "Our Gang" in some instances) to do their chores. The movie's message seems to be that of Malcolm X: by any means necessary. Seriously, the kids are fucking traumatized by the devil himself appearing in a cloud of smoke and threatening them with hellfire. I'm not sure that constitutes responsible parenting. Actually, the guy isn't even one of their parents, he's just some homeless-looking dude who's spying on them in the park. So... that's not creepy and weird. Anyway, his plan works fine right up until everything goes to shit. I'm not sure if all of the "Little Rascals" shorts are like this, but I can see why people like them and also why they are never, ever shown on tv. Also, this film confirms it: kids hate spinach.
4.2. Black Book.
(35mm) tech for preview at the JBFC.
Michael Barker, head of the Sony Classics distribution company, apparently referred to this film as "Holocaust perv" – but that's not exactly right. Black Book isn't really a Holocaust film - it's more of a spy adventure. Luckily, however, Paul Verhoeven's first film in his native Holland in over twenty years is as gloriously perverted as you might hope. Carice van Houten is hot as hell in a star-making turn as a Jewish singer infiltrating Gestapo headquarters on behalf of the Dutch resistance. Verhoeven has always had a knack for bringing out the irresistible sex-power in his actresses (the fame-inducing turns of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Gina Gershon in Showgirls are two obvious examples), but in Black Book that overwhelming confluence of beauty, seductiveness, strength and pure raw animal magnetism is put to heroic use. The perversion extends just beyond the stunningly gorgeous lead actress dying her pubic hair (to better disguise for Semitic identity) and being doused by a tub of shit (as a cruel, undeserved payback) and goes beyond the physical realm into a world of moral perversion. Verhoeven has always been one of cinema's greatest grinning cynics, a world-weary fantasist with a flair for the black comedy mined from humanity's worst tendencies. Black Book not only manages to make a sympathetic hero out of a Nazi agent, but presents an endless succession of characters whose capacity for hypocrisy, selfishness and mercenary greed never ceases to be shocking. In a final slap in the face to the audience, Verhoeven ends the film with a pointed, sardonic allusion to the endless war between Palestine and Israel.
4.3. The Hoax.
(35mm) tech for preview at the JBFC.
File it under "better than it had any right to be." Richard Gere is unexpectedly good despite being fundamentally miscast as the Brooklyn-accented Jew who perpetrated the 20th Century’s greatest literary fraud: the fake Howard Hughes manuscript. Director Lasse Hallstrom delivers the kind of solid work that makes me feel less guilty about really liking My Life as Dog and having a soft spot for The Cider House Rules.* It helps that the story is a winner and the filmmakers hew pretty close to the real events – it's a weird rarity these days for filmmakers to actually understand what's compelling about the real-life subjects they've chosen to film-a-tize. The true story is endlessly fascinating and, wisely, the filmmakers make sure more than enough of the hoaxers' outlandish schemes and brushes with failure end up on screen that you can forgive a late-film development that gets pointlessly shoehorned in to the proceedings. Alfred Molina, as Gere's partner in deception, helps keep the film rolling along whenever it seems to be spinning its wheels – he's got a great knack for deadpan comedy and his nervous, unsteady academic is a great foil to Gere's arrogant schemer: Molina's anxious energy alone really patches over a lot of the film's narrative weaknesses. As a matter of fact, the awfulness of the A Beautiful Mind-aping twist that takes up a good chunk of the last 20 minutes is definitely all the worse for shuttling Molina almost entirely to the sidelines. Marcia Gay Harden continues to be one of my least favorite actresses, although her utterly unconvincing accent is really the worst she has to offer in this film; she's more or less fine. I think that's a fair way to describe the film overall: more or less fine. I went in expecting a debacle from the director of An Unfinished Life starring the dude from Red Corner, but I got something much better than I had any right to expect.
* C'mon, it's the only credible performance Michael Cain has delivered since he blamed an uncomfortably pseudo-incestuous relationship on Rio. I guess he's good in The Quiet American, too.
(35mm) CC Village East.
There are several major problems with David Fincher's latest film, not the least of which is the extremely dubious ethical position it takes in regards to an unsolved crime: the fact of the matter is that, despite Robert Greysmith's agonized contortions to prove it so, Arthur Leigh Allen almost certainly did not commit the murders in question. The film nonetheless follows the lead of Greysmith's books and all but declares the case closed. Never mind the over-whelming physical evidence pointing away from Allen or the extremely circumstantial nature of the evidence against him*, just act as though this unsolved crime has an "off the record" solution diligently unearthed by an assiduous student of the case. This unflinching willingness to paint Allen as the killer points to the main problem of the film: at the end of the day, it's simply too much of a film - and, just as a film requires a villain, a film naturally uses tactics including ominous music during suspenseful scenes, the sound of creepy footsteps, research montages, a calculated "period" soundtrack, and any number of heightened elements of reality that align it alongside any number of other Hollywood serial killer thrillers, from The Bone Collector to Fincher's own Se7en.
Not only is there something sleazy about that approach to an unsolved case (with real victims with real families and a real killer who was never brought to justice), but it also undercuts any greater artistic/philosophical mission that could justify shamelessly implicating several suspects – as much as it positions itself as being "about investigation" or "about obsession with an unsolved crime," this film has nothing more on its mind than cheap shocks and a standard resolution, a "we got 'em" to wrap up the proceedings and put the monster back in the box. The "we got them, kiddo" in this case being a final stare-down with Allen – we got them, indeed. Seriously, there's something entirely unconscionable about this film and I say that as someone who thinks there's absolutely nothing unconscionable about Visitor Q, America's Deepest Feelings or Little Man. Fincher has always seemed to me to be the worst kind of charlatan: an obviously gifted stylist with a theoretically unique vision who works his magic in service of shallow plots and idiotic characterizations, a "darker" Michael Bay with a predilection for servile crowd-pleasers disguised by their rebellious postures. This film confirms it.
* Also, as a side note, to my mind the most damning element against Greysmith's case is that the police investigators held an "off the record" belief in Allen's guilt and consistently steered Greysmith's informal investigation towards Allen. If the police really had any case against Allen, they would've built it themselves, not simply pointed a semi-competent fame-whore with a book deal down the "right" path. But police would never do something so scummy and unethical as attempt to ruin a man's life with no solid proof of his guilt. Especially not a man already convicted of the molestation of – hey, would you look at that, he was convicted of molesting the daughter of the main witness fingering him as the Zodiac! I'm glad the movie mentions that! As well as the fact that said witness revised the dates and wording of his account no less than four times, each time in accord with the changing details of the case the police were assembling. If you're really interested in the case against "the case against Allen," then look up the always luridly thorough and salaciously credible "Crime Library’s" online account of the Zodiac case.
4.5. Killer of Sheep.
see: 200 Days & 200 Movies: Killer of Sheep
(35mm) UA Union Square.
see: 200 Days & 200 Movies: Grindhouse
4.7. The Bear and the Doll.
(dvd) Megan Bennett's apartment.
Brigitte Bardot stars in this constitutively uninteresting late 60's trifle about a spoiled, wealthy woman attempting to seduce a reluctant cellist/family man played by Jean-Piere Cassel. It's one of those commercial films from a bygone era so totally without any purpose beyond quickly cramming a star into yet another flick designed to cash in on a set star persona, that it's unclear what was even supposed to be entertaining about it. There's a lot of swingin' 60's set design and costumes - which is why Megan netflixed it – but even that stuff feels rote and tedious in the context of this nothing of a dud. A wholly unremarkable film that's nothing more than excuse for Bardot to vamp, for Cassel to shake his head and for the producers to count their money.
(35mm) CC Village East.
Breach is one of those unfortunate films just good enough to be held to a higher standard that it doesn't meet. It's an engrossing, intelligent, fundamentally solid thriller with a bit to say about religion, a bit to say about mentors and a bit to say about politics. But it never quite breaks out to a level beyond "pretty good." I'm hard-pressed to put a finger on what exactly keeps this film from reaching a higher level – I had the same reaction to director Billy Ray's earlier film Shattered Glass – but, I will say, it's definitely not Chris Cooper’s prickly, forceful performance. Cooper dominates the film as an FBI agent suspected of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. In relationship to Cooper, Ryan Phillippe is perfectly cast as the inexperienced agent sent undercover to out Cooper's shady dealings: his soft, sensuous features give him a boyish vulnerability that's in perfect contrast to hardened, tight face of Cooper’s mercurial Cold-Warrior.
In general, I think Phillippe's not much of an actor, but he's certainly at his best here and his solid work opposite Cooper consumes the majority of the film. He's constantly in risk of getting blown off screen by Cooper, but that's the point: Phillippe is a rookie going up against a master that's so well-connected and entrenched in the system that FBI's internal investigators need someone green enough that he won't arouse suspicion. To have any chance of outing Cooper, they need to play to his arrogance and send a boy to take on a man. And all that works great – as I said, I think the best description of this film is "engrossing." You're with it as Phillippe feints and dodges, maneuvers and retreats, fucks up and inches along to expose whatever Cooper's got hidden. But I'm not sure there's a whole lot to this film other than the escalation of cat-and-mouse games.
Ultimately, I'm not sure if Cooper's opaqueness, such a compelling, fascinating force in his back and forth with Phillippe, isn't a problem for the film. We never get any closer to understanding Cooper's character or resolving the tangle of contradictions that Phillippe's investigation unearths: his true identity is guarded impenetrably behind his hooded eyes. I suspect that Ray would argue that that's the entire point, but I'm not sure that idea is anything more than an afterthought, an explanation for the dissatisfaction I felt when the film was over. A film arranging its themes and plot around an absorbingly incomprehensible character is obviously the stuff a great film could be made from: I think that Breach gets just close enough to being that great film that you're painfully aware it isn't.
4.9. The Reaping.
(35mm) CC 86th Street.
I think we can all agree that the bible is fucking crazy. I mean that not in the sense of disparaging its authenticity or the deep meaning it holds for many folks, but in the sense of: a plague of blood? Angels with four faces and eight sets of wings? Jacob wrestling a demon (or angel) until the break of dawn? The immortal Elijah ascending into heaven on a flaming chariot? That is fucking crazy. Theoretically, a horror film could crib endless and literally from the bible and come up with a whole bunch of messed-up, disturbing narratives. The Reaping kind of has that idea – what if you turned the Ten Plagues of Egypt into the basic frame for an epic horror survival film? Come on: a plague of boils, a plague of disease, a plague of hail with fire, even the early plague of frogs is so fucking weird as to be upsetting.
Disappointingly, this movie isn't about God freeing Israelites from the Pharaoh through extensive use of scare-tactics - instead we get the shopworn story of a skeptic finding her faith. Bo-ring. The filmmakers hedge their bets and fall back on cribbing cowardly from the towering cathedral of bible-themed horror: The Exorcist. Maybe director Stephen Hopkins somehow failed to notice that the plot of Diary of a Country Priest doesn't necessarily make for a good horror movie or, more likely, Mr. Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child simply doesn't have the faintest clue how to make a scary movie. It always seems like Hilary Swank is well on her way to obscurity and then, bam!, she wins another Academy award. This is another movie where she barely registers and you get the impression that her next performance will be headed straight to video, so now is probably the time to put money down on her winning an Oscar in 2009. Yeah, there's nothing really to be said about this film other than it is exactly as unimaginative as you imagine. I'm just sorry the film pusses out before we get the 10th plague. A plague of "death of 1st born child?" - now that's a subject for a movie. (Also, did you ever think about how God frees the Israelites with a plague of "death of 1st born child" and then Herod has his soldiers kill all children under two in order to get Jesus while he’s young? That's a weird coincidence, right – Herod using the same strategy of "child murder" as God? Lots of child murder in the Bible.)
(digital) IFC Center.
A puzzling little Bill Plympton short designed from the perspective of a bullet: in slow-motion, two cowboys call "draw" and the bullet flies out the barrel of a six-shooter, coasts through the air and hits the other cowboy. From there, the bullet penetrates the cowboy's chest, explodes his heart, and bursts out his back before falling to the ground. What's puzzling is that there's nothing more to it than that: no jokes, no pay-off, no punch-line, just a little bullet P.O.V. sequence rendered in Plympton's instantly recognizable spastic, pencil-drawn style.
(35mm) IFC Center.
see: 200 Days & 200 Movies: Cobra Verde
<<click here for 4/11 - 4/20>>
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