11/22/6 - 12/1/6
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 Fassbinder's 15 & 1/2 hour Berlin Alexanderplatz to goofy teen comedies like Savage Steve Holland's worthy One Crazy Summer to idiotic dreck like Open Water 2. 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 11/12/6 - 11/21/6>>
11.22.06. The Painted Veil.
Adorable Chinese orphans to the rescue! Naomi Watts successfully defends her title in the eternal championship of "best performances in the worst movies" and Edward Norton picks up a valuable assist. Remember when I used to like him? This year alone, he's down more than enough to squander that respect. So, what’s the deal, y'all? He's a solemn bacteriologist, she's a spoiled flapper; can their sham of a marriage be saved after an affair rocks it shaky foundations?
Before I get too glib, I should mention that there's about twenty minutes or so of this film that I really liked. Early on, after the affair is revealed, Norton and Watts begin to engage in a game of nihilistic one-up-manship and it works really well. They settle into a nice rhythm of emotionally pummeling themselves and each other and for a second, the film feels unpredictable, dark, and (almost) thrillingly upsetting. Watts gets embarrassed by her lover and agrees to move to a remote Chinese colony with Norton, who will be there to reign in a cholera outbreak. The scenes leading up to their departure and the first few scenes after their arrival are surprisingly grim and mean-spirited.
Of course, from the beginning, there's a terrible musical score that gives away the entire film. The music is too bland and cloying for the film to not be headed to a pat resolution. Will the life lessons Watts learns from Chinese orphans cure her selfishness? Will dealing with the outbreak make Norton into more of a man? Will one of them die of cholera just after a deathbed reconciliation? Boooooring! Watts is really good, though and I keep wondering how many truly terrible movies she will have to make before I start to hate her. Also, it's based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel. Which counts for exactly nothing.
11.23. God’s Country.
(vhs) my apartment.
Louis Malle's work as a documentarian is roughly analogous to Werner Herzog's, not in terms of aesthetics or philosophy, but in that their documentary work is generally seen a sidebar to their larger career. Also, in both cases, I generally I prefer their non-fiction films to their feature work and believe that their most ardent admirers would put films like Lessons of Darkness and Phantom India on the same level (or higher) with Fitzcarraldo and Au Revoir Les Enfants. God's Country is no exception to this trend – it's a half-forgotten but completely charming little movie about Malle's short visit to Glencoe, Minnesota in the fall of 1979. Most of Malle's documentaries are travelogues and the form suits him well: it plays to his strengths as a naturally curious person who genuinely enjoys exploring the world without passing judgment on what he encounters. For instance, you might imagine that a Frenchman in Minnesota would sneer at the food served at the local Diary Queen, but Malle refers to it as "one of Glencoe's few gastronomic resources" and explains that the crew happily eats there at least twice a day.
He seems enchanted by the sturdy, church-going farmers that make up most of the town's small 5,000 person population and he never once raises an eyebrow at their provincial behavior or condescends into sociological critique. It’s an amazing film that focuses on people normally regarded with suspicion or disregarded altogether by more "urbane" types, the regular folks who I myself mainly avoided when living in places like Glencoe. His enthusiasm is remarkably innocent; even when he has little fun at the expense of the hefty participants in a local women's softball game, there's not an ounce of mean-spiritedness in his tone.
Sadly, there’s a coda that's a bit depressing: Malle goes back to Glencoe six years later and Reaganomics are destroying the farming culture that is the heart of the area. Some of the previously sunny residents are now engaging in conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the banks and talking about taking up arms, forming militias. Men who come to farming from generations back speak mournfully about finding a way to make sure their children don't grow up to be farmers and a bleakness pervades the community. Even still, Malle resists the urge to play the role of know-it-all, the intelligent outsider with obvious solutions to complex problems; he has too much respect for the people he now considers "friends" and realizes that the most powerful gesture of solidarity he can make is to simply listen.
(dvd) my apartment.
An early Godard film that's pitched somewhat in the Alphaville frame: a deconstructed genre film set in a vague, uncertain time/place with regular France affectlessly standing in for said imaginary time/place. Whereas Alphaville is science fiction, Les Carbiniers is a war film about two peasants who leave home to join the army and reap the spoils of war. It's loosely structured like an epistolary novel, with frequent voice-over taken from the two soldier's letters home. The most overtly political early Godard I've seen (just ahead of Le Petit Soldat), it's an interesting picture of the possibility of some kind of alternate reality his career could've taken. The cinematic tactics it employs are very similar to Band of Outsiders or A Bout de Souffe: jump cuts, double takes, a loose improvisational feel, and idiosyncratic sound design with a sense of humor pervading the whole enterprise. It manages to convey all of the political cynicism and strident critique present in his later films like Tout va Bien or In Praise of Love, but it doesn't in any way resemble their tedious, didactic style.
Les Carbiniers is definitely not one of the best early Godard films (though to be fair, few films in the history of cinema are on the level with Pierrot Le Fou, Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders, etc.), but it's not a failure either – it still has that wide open feeling of the immense possibilities of cinema that characterizes Godard's early stuff and his effortless command of editing makes it a pleasure to sit through. So why did he abandon this approach in favor of droning, essayistic messes that would antagonize even the most patient audiences later in his career? In the alternate reality of Godard, he refined the style of Les Carbiniers and went on to make films that were both as politically urgent as this later work and as vital as his early films – it's a shame I'm not living in that reality.
The Phantom Museum.
(vhs screening copy) my apartment.
The Quay Brothers trade in the stock of evocative images. One would be hard pressed (or patently disingenuos) to identify anything resembling recurring themes, ideas or politics in their work. They trade in obsessions, dreams, and fleeting resonances. So, when their images there are anything less than expressively abstruse, their work deflates almost instantaneously. It's why their best works are their short films: it's simply easier to sustain such a delicate mission for a shorter amount of time. Also, stop motion animation has a naturally ethereal quality that plays right into their hands. Notably, The Phantom Museum's dull awkwardness is a sign that their recent failings in feature filmmaking may also now extend to their short work as well.
2000's In Absentia was the first of their short films that I found to be more bad than good, their first essentially deflated work – it's a screeching, blurry film, full of clichéd images such as a close-up of hands nervously scribbling nonsense. Their specialty (and sole virtue) was generating previously unimagined worlds, ornately crafted artifacts of newly minted dreams. The Phantom Museum is even worse than In Absentia and I dare say there's scarcely more than two minutes worth of material worth viewing in this 15 minute film – that's a shockingly poor ratio when you consider that their earlier works (like The Comb or Street of Crocodiles) are pretty much dynamite from start to finish. Museum is basically just an irritatingly oblique and poorly edited documentary about antique medical paraphernalia – it doesn't whisk you away to any particular place (previously unimagined or otherwise) and has not a single oneiric quality. You might be really into it, though, if you like shots of white gloves sliding up and down banisters. It mainly reminded me of how I'd rather be at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia seeing such medical oddity live and in person rather than home in my apartment toughing out this piece of unnameable little dreck.
11.24. Quai des Orfevres.
(dvd) my apartment.
You have to give Clouzot at least this bit of credit: his love of hot lesbians is about five decades ahead of its time. He shares with Bunuel an ability to create unbearably erotic images – and maybe that’s stating things in too fancy-pants a fashion. What I should write is that Clouzot is (along with Bunuel) one of cinema's great perverts, his films always have one or two sexually super-charged moments and usually those moments don’t even come during romantic/sexual scenes. Vera Clouzot in Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques has a live-wire sexual presence that often shorts out simple dialogue scenes: you can't concentrate on anything because the camera is casually capturing just the worst angle of her rear end or her cleavage and you get sick to your stomach with desire.
Quai des Orfevres puts the ideas of sexual transaction, jealousy, monogamy and manipulation on the forefront and, while the film is still basically a light enjoyable thriller, the territory is exactly Clouzot's. The plot follows an appealingly doughy burlesque performer named Jenny L'Amour (aka Marguerite Chauffournier, "with two f's") who isn't above using her estimable rump to advance her career. Her husband isn't so hot on her professional tactics, so he threatens to kill the "dirty old man" who wants help her get into the movie picture business. It's seedy, but not in the way Les Diaboliques is seedy and mean-spirited; even after a botched crime, it has an atmosphere that never seems so dangerous (at least until the gangly police inspector Antoine shows up).
The character of Antoine is a great addition to the long line of curmudgeon-y detectives who play off of vague hunches while still strigently doing things by the book. He's both goofy and intense; it's a strange testament to the performance of Louis Jouvet that he's the most likable character in the film, but that you constantly root for his failure. The film turns the screws very nicely, constantly taking little unexpected twists without ever straining too hard to redirect and subvert your expectations. I also got to thinking about how Clouzot is regularly accused of being a misanthropist and, while I'm not exactly sure that characterization is entirely incorrect, this film pulls off a remarkable feat of constantly shifting your sympathies amongst a gaggle of deeply flawed and frustrating characters. I think he may be the least cynical misanthropist in existence: he doesn't seem to have an ounce of condescension or self-righteousness in his depiction of awful people making bad decisions. Maybe he's just a product of France circa World War II: philosophically detached, a bit debauched, worn out by the crushing awfulness of the world but still hopeful about the irrefutable fact that light can sometimes pierce the darkness.
(dvd) my apartment.
Few films could realistically claim to be an obvious inspiration for both the work of Pixar and Jan Svankmajer, but Wladislav Starewicz's stop-motion animated tale of a stuffed animal that come to life features such a breadth of imagination that it ends up being exactly that. Made in 1934, the film benefits from being created before the boundaries between "family" entertainment and regular entertainment were so firmly entrenched: it's both a saccharine story about a stuffed dog that comes alive upon receiving a tear for a heart, but also an ultra-bizarre fantasia revolving around a party thrown by the devil. There are some very Svankmajer-esque animated chicken bones that give birth to unsightly egg-goblins and the devil himself is borne out of a vagrant's spilled whiskey. The stuffed dog just wants to bring home an orange for the sick little girl he belongs to, but he ends up caught out in the city after dark where an assortment of grotesque characters attempt to steal the orange in a series of disturbingly brutal and diabolical set-pieces. The animation itself is beyond beautiful and frequently ingeniously clever – it features a great use of rear-screen projection to feature the stuffed dog out on busy city streets, avoiding real people. Inexplicably, this short came on a dvd with Carl Dreyer's Vampyr. The films have absolutely nothing to do with each other, aside from being fucking awesome.
11.25. 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her.
(35mm) Film Forum.
I hadn't seen this Godard film and the new 35mm print screening down at Film Forum was as good an excuse as any to do so. Having just watched Les Carbiniers, I was mainly interested in seeing how 2 or 3 Things fit in with my theory that Masculin/Femininwas the turning point in his career. Specifically, I think of the sequence in which he grills beauty pageant contestant as the literal end of Godard as a bearable filmmaker – the scene is both so sour and so similar to his work from that point forward that it seems to represent a literal break in his tactics and level of tolerability. In that scene he's utterly obnoxious, ambushes an easy target and is politically incoherent. From the tone of the scene you can tell he's angry about Vietnam, the USA's political influence, etc; but you can't get much more from it than that - and, to boot, he express his rage by being curshingly cruel to an underserving bystander.
My complaint with Godard is not that he became political, but that being a politically-oriented cinema essayist/philosopher plays to all of his weaknesses as a filmmaker – and then to top it off, he's clearly such an asshole. That's really the divide, with Masculin/Feminin: he goes from being a virtuoso (someone who can effortlessly make funny, charming, brilliant films) to being a philosopher. And quite frankly, he's not much of a thinker. He's certainly terrible at communicating his thoughts in the essay form. So, I was interested to see if 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (made the year after Masculin/Feminin) supported my idea that there was a literal turning point. Unfortunately, the answer is "yes." 2 or 3 Things might actually take the title of "most unbearable film I’ve seen all year" away from Marie Antoinette. It's ostensibly an examination of the cultural changes happening in Paris circa 1966, but really who knows what the fuck he’s talking about. Maybe it made more sense at the time.
Not that the film doesn't have its virtues: the production design is gorgeous and Godard never lacked the ability to create interesting collisions of sound and image. Also, there are one or two nice comic moments (where the prostitutes cavort with travel bags on their heads or the meter-reader busts in on the Italian woman in the bath), but those scant instances of comic relief aren't enough to save this endlessly didactic (but still somehow muddled) film from being a total bore. He just doesn't seem to know how to convey his ideas in a way that an audience has any chance of responding to. What's wrong with the cinematic tactics of Alphaville or Contempt; don't they convey his political meanings even more clearly than stating them in meandering, opaque voice-over? I think of his later films as being blurry, as though they are poorly composed photographs taken slightly out of focus – his early films conversely are crisp, clear, and clean. The early phase is invigorating (what person doesn't get their mind blown by Band of Outsiders the first time they see it?) and the later phase is exhausting. With a film like 2 or 3 Things , you feel like you are constantly struggling against the material, working to find some depth of meaning to its aggressively standoffish posturing. But why bother? If you want to ingest some muddled, out-dated Situationist bullshit, pick up a pamphlet.
Some of you may be saying, "but what about Weekend? It was made a couple years after 2 or 3 Things and you love that movie!" Well, you're right, Weekend is the absolute last trace of early Godard, but even that film has plenty of material that manages to skirt the edges of tolerability (like the philosophizing garbage-men or the pig slaughter). Actually, Charlotte Glynn pointed out that what really distinguishes early Godard from late Godard is that he "gives up on fun." And movies like 2 or 3 Things, Numero Deux, and In Praise of Love are no fucking fun. Weekend is the last ounce of fun you will ever have with a Godard film. By the time he tries to give fun another go (like in Keep up Your Right or King Lear) he's completely lost his touch. Those movies are no fun. His new movies (For Ever Mozart, Notre Musique) are the worst of all. God, what a frustrating body of work.
(35mm) Cinema Village.
I wanted to give this film another chance because when I first saw it, I couldn't tell if it was a film about misogyny or just a film made by a misogynist. After seeing it again, I think that it is actually both: a film about misogyny made by a misogynist. The film feels aware of its viscously condescending depiction of women and not entirely comfortable with it; like the filmmaker tried to wrestle with that part of himself, but ultimately came up empty. Sexual politics aside, the film is one of those Antonioni rip-offs where characters wander silently around desolate landscapes, pausing from their loneliness only to engage in emotional violence. The filmmaker plays the lead role and his wife (maybe ex-wife) plays the woman he abandons, pursues, and re-abandons. She's no prize either: a chubby, snippy, emotionally distant jerk who makes his life miserable and then tries to kill him by covering up his eyes while he's driving them around on a motorcycle. She's the worst kind of adolescent male nightmare: the mediocre woman who rejects you anyway. The whole film seems to be about some complicated process of revenge in which the main character gets revenge on this woman for not forgiving him for his affair by getting her to forgive him and then rejecting her. Lovely.
This unpleasant mess ends with an extremely creepy title-card: "For my Son, _____." (I can't remember the kid's name.) Is this film some cinematic explanation of why mommy and daddy aren't together anymore? I've never been one much for the type of slow-moving, landscape-intensive style that the film employs, so I ended up focusing on the themes and ideas of the film more than I think a lot of audiences would – it looks great and has a confident rhythm, so I can easily imagine someone getting swept up in the aesthetics of the whole thing. I guess I had that reaction a bit the first time through. Anyway, I feel like the jury is out on this one still, certainly until I see another film by the same filmmaker or read an interview with him. For now, I just find the film creepy. It creeps the hell out of me, to tell you the truth.
No film today as I almost killed my dog. I was supposed to go to a preview of Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, but I instead spent several hours working with greedy Upper Westside vets to induce my dog to vomit. The dog is ok now.
This is exactly the 55th movie I've seen for the blog. Wait a second. According to my calculations, if you take away the number of days until the New Year as I write this (32) from the total number of films I've viewed you end up with... the number... 23. And 32 is 23 backwards! You can’t ignore signs like, Johnny, you just can’t!
Anyhoo, the only Almodovar film I've particularly liked is Talk to Her. I hated his previous incarnation as the bourgeoisie John Waters and I just as much dislike his current status as the mother hen of world cinema. The guy just isn't that good of a filmmaker. Since transitioning from flamboyant enfant terrible to serious artist, he's created a body of work that in no way justifies his ginormous reputation: Bad Education and Live Flesh are genuinely terrible, All About My Mother is merely so-so, and only Talk to Her is in the realm of "really good." Volver is another milquetoast effort that does literally nothing to justify the incredibly strong reviews and positive reception it has gotten. It's not bad, just airy and kind of pointless: it's both a mildly wacky ghost comedy (á la Ghost Dad) with a super-obvious twist and a "hide-the-corpse!" thriller (á la The Deep End) with absolutely no pay-off. All narrative strands are strictly "sitcom" in conception and execution.
Once again, Almodovar uses the thinnest veneer of camp imaginable to cover up the frivolous material. His particular brand of camp at this point feels like a defense mechanism used to hide his clumsy grasp of plotting, dialog, and dramatic tension. We're supposed to forgive the awkward, boring, and down-right lame parts of the film (such as the farting scene, all of the clumsily inserted exposition, and the endlessly tedious final confession) because they are intentional. Riiiiight. I should definitely mention Penelope Cruz, who is by far the best thing about the film – I can criticize Almodovar for many things, but not for his pathological commitment to Cruz's cleavage in Volver. In that regard, he's actually one of the world's greatest heroes. Beyond that, her performance has a depth that the material never really earns and she's got thoughtful face that easily conveys sensitivity even when she's not given a whole hell of a lot to do. Her lip-synched performance of the title song is kind of a disaster, though. I guess it's supposed to be campy. You know what? If that's the case, then I think I really find him reprehensible – she really puts herself out there emotionally in a difficult scene and the film undermines the moment with jokiness for... what reason exactly? The cheap laughter of "knowingness?"
Anyway, if you've already drank the Almodovar Kool-aid, you'll probably like this film just fine; just smile and pretend you're in on the joke, that a crappy idea with poor execution can be salvaged by self-satisfied giggling or a purported affinity with femininity.
11.29. America’s Deepest Feelings.
(dvd) flatscreen in the JBFC green room.
I wasn't thinking of including this in the blog, but after I brought it into work to inflict a couple co-workers, I realized that I actually find this movie more interesting than just as a simple, sick provocation. For those of you who don't know what it is, America's Deepest Feelings is an actual episode of 'America’s Funniest Home Videos,' only with all of the normal crotch-hitting, adorable puppy antics replaced with footage that wouldn’t be out of place in Faces of Death. Essentially, you get grainy video footage of man getting shot in the face at point blank range accompanied by Bob Saget's silly voice-over and "bloop! bloop!" type sound effects. It's 100% grisly, full of the type of deeply upsetting video clips that are now commonplace on the internet, usually listed with titles like "OMFG – puppy lawnmower!" However, the filmmaker's devotion to the concept is total and much more fleshed-out than you would expect: it is a full half-hour episode including Bob Saget's live studio audience interstitchal skits and a variety of re-edited/made-up commercials where the commercial breaks once were.
The fake commercials are actually enjoyable/strange parodies of advertising (and generally not very stomach-churning). They frequently have a weird innocence about them that suggest the filmmaker isn't going for mere provocation and add some legitimacy to the idea that Deepest Feelings is a deconstructionist project as much as it is a disgusting endurance test. My personal favorite commercials are the re-edited Victoria's Secret/Wonder Years mash-up "When Lust Meets Nostalgia" and the "concerned parents" infomercial "Snakes are Constantly Lying." They're a much needed bit of relief from the brain surgery, death squads, and gang violence that take up the bulk of the show. Still, that’s mainly what you get: a man who has taken a large fall with his guts literally spilling out of his side accompanied by Bob Saget’s voice-over saying "Whoa, whoa, whoa, somebody get me an aspirin" or a bull goring a matador (which is, admittedly, somewhat satisfying to watch) with Saget's wacky voice saying "so many cowboys, so little time" laid over the image. I cannot stress how truly upsetting the material is - even having seen it twice before, I still left the screening fairly shaken up.
So, what’s the point? I think Deepest Feelings is truly a blunt-force deconstruction of how even transgressive materials can be framed in order to over-ride your sense of decency – the re-used voice-over only works in conjunction with the new material because it is so similar to the material it actually replaces. The new material is often only a shade away from being "America’s Funniest Home Videos"-worthy. Folks want to see men getting hit in the nuts and dudes flipping off of motorbikes and bulls nearly killing cowboys, but they also want to be assured that the monster can be put back in the box, so to speak. They want Bob Saget to say "I know that looked painful, but maybe they’ll win $10,000!" Deepest Feelings consciously stretches the limits of that box to see how far you can go before the monster can't be put away. And that's what strange – I find that most people can make it to the first commercial break; it's upsetting stuff (the Senator who shoots himself at the press conference, the bull/matador, a tourist getting attacked by a lion, cowboys getting knocked unconscious at the rodeo, etc.), but the second section ups the ante.
The second section features autopsy footage, brain surgery on children, gang members fucking with a corpse – the footage now features more close-ups and fewer images that could be fake. It also features fewer people putting themselves in dangerous situations (like the matador/tourist/cowboys/Senator) and more folks having violence inflicted on them by forces beyond their control. The third section (after the second commercial break) is practically unbearable: close-up footage of genocide, death squads, 9/11 victims, the absolute nightmare scenarios. Even this deliberate intensification of material suggests that the filmmaker is at very least engaging in a game of chicken – what can you take before it's too much? How will you respond to the images? Will you laugh at the sickness initially (and early on, the precision in selection of clips/voice-over has an undeniable queasy humor to it) and then feel guilty later on for having accepted any of the material in terms framed by the fake show? How much are you willing to look this in the face? What's the delineation between laughing at Johnny Knoxville getting nearly gored by a bull in Jackass 2 and seeing a man get actually gored to death in Deepest Feelings? How many of the clips are real (early on, there's some famously faked footage recycled from Faces of Death)? How much is the reality a factor in your enjoyment/non-enjoyment? How far can the boundaries of "entertainment" and "deconstruction" be stretched before they snap? As I said, what could easily be a sick provocation - the filmmakers themselves laughing at the grisly footage and daring you to laugh along – is actually a much deeper an assault.
11.30. The Bird with Crystal Plumage.
(dvd) my apartment.
Dario Argento's first film has an opening sequence that's as justifiably famous as anything he ever created in his notorious career: passing by on the street, a man witnesses a murder happening in the front hall of a desolate, antiseptically modernist building. He rushes into the building’s vestibule to save the victim – but while the doors into the vestibule are unlocked, the next set of doors (into the front hall itself) is locked. He turns to run back out onto the street and get help, but doors to the vestibule have locked behind him: he is now caught in the vestibule, forced to stand and helplessly watch the murder attempt be carried out. The sequence is as good as anything in Argento's filmography and immediately calls to mind other sequences in films like Opera or Deep Red, for both its excessively baroque execution and obsessive preoccupation with helplessly bearing witness to violence. It's weird how Argento's style seems to come out fully grown: he never develops as a storyteller beyond the shaky grasp of narrative on display in Crystal, he repeats its "witness tries to solve a crime but can't recall one crucial detail" plot in at least four other films, and his flair for elaborate set-pieces is instantly in full force. Plus, his titles continue to not make any sense. The Bird with Crystal Plumage? There's such a decorative object on display in Suspiria, seven years later. But there isn't one in The Bird with Crystal Plumage. Nor are there four flies (on grey velvet or otherwise) in his third film. Cat o' Nine Tails? Fuckin' beats me. Incidentally, Suspiria means "sighs" in Italian and, while there is much squealing, shrieking, and cackling in Suspiria, I can't recall a single "sigh."
Anyway, I can really appreciate Argento, though, because the pleasures of his films are so essentially cinematic: they are all based around looking, remembering and then interpreting what was witnessed. He has a savant's command of staging and cinematic space along with the easy- to-underestimate ability to use aesthetics to extend a sequence beyond its narrative significance – his attitude towards a scene is rarely, "get in and get out, give the audience the information they need and move on to the next plot point." He massages images, creates a mood, lets the camera linger on strange details, gazes at everything in the film's world with a monomaniacal persistence. He's frequently compared to Brian DePalma and I don't think that's unreasonable: they share many virtues as filmmakers and were both undone later in their careers by their particular shared weaknesses. However, there is something about Argento that is completely unique and it's hard to put your finger on it. For certain, when watching an Argento sequence like the one that opens The Bird with Crystal Plumage, you will have the exhilarated thought, "I've never seen anything like this – it could only be Argento!"
(35mm) City Cinemas Village East.
Touristas, go home. Director John Stockwell fits the original 'Cahier du Cinema' definition of an auteur as well as any filmmaker working today: he's a studio hack assigned to thankless projects who is nevertheless able to put a distinctive, easily recognizable stylistic/thematic stamp on his work and elevate the sub-par material to a level it probably doesn’t deserve. Really, he fits the definition of auteur better than filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, who have a high level of selectivity in regards to the films they choose even if they are theoretically required to do commercially viable projects as well. So what links Blue Crush, Crazy/Beautiful, Into the Blue, and Touristas? What defines the Stockwell aesthetic? It's fairly simple: lush beach locations, gorgeous underwater cinematography, loose seemingly improvised dialogue, solid performances from clearly talentless actors, and ass shots. Lots and lots of ass shots. Really, no modern director can compete with Stockwell in terms of ecstatic camerawork that meticulously inspects firm, young bodies: he's like the Malibu Leni Riefenstahl, a beach bum with a Fascist's enthusiasm for flawless physical forms. Touristas is no exception to any of these rules: the paper thin plot follows a gaggle of toned and tanned America youths who get waylaid in rural Brazil and eventually caught up in a web of black-market organ dealing. Needless to say, they get involved with the part of organ dealing you'd want to avoid: some crazy Brazilian doctor wants their delectable America guts so he can give them to underprivileged Brazilian orphans. It's easy to compare the plot to Hostel, but Stockwell is twice the cinematic stylist of Eli Roth (and, in all fairness, half the storyteller) and he clearly has his mind on things other than the good doctor's harebrained scheme. The final chase through underwater caves is confusingly shot and edited, but you will see few images this year as striking as our heroes sucking air from tiny pockets in the roof of the cave or their muscular stomachs flexing as they swim.
(35mm) UA 14 Union Square.
This was the first Bond movie I ever saw. I never saw any of them growing up and by the time I got to college, it had become a point of pride: if I've gotten this far without seeing a Bond film, it's more valuable to me to never see one than whatever pleasures an individual Bond film might hold. In retrospect, I'm not entirely sure what caused me to abandon that position – partially, it was that the revamp of the series seemed like a natural point of entry and also the trailer looked pretty cool. Paul Cooney and Cribbs have been trying to sell me on Bond for years now and Pfriender hadn't seen any of them either, so the plan for us to go see it together seemed like a good idea. And Eva Green. Yeah, that's actually what clinched it.
So, did I like it? Am I now a Bond fan? Well, whatever Casino Royale is, it is that solely in relationship to the other Bond films. How does Daniel Craig stack up next to Pierce Brosnan? To Sean Connery? Is Vesper Lynd a good bond girl? Does the attempt to make the series more realistic succeed or does it work against the Bond ontology? Did I catch the little nods to past Bond mythology? Is the re-boot a step in the right direction or a miscalculation? And obviously, none of those questions were of any particular relevance to my experience of the film. The first hour or so of Casino Royale is fairly generic action fare: the set-pieces and plot could’ve just as easily revolved around John McLane or Martin Riggs – and quite frankly, I would've preferred if it did. There's certainly nothing special about the vaguely cocky, terse action-figure hero that chases an equally non-descript terrorist though a construction site (is there some reason parkour is in every action film now?) or stops yet another blank zilch of a villain from blowing up an airport.
The second hour or so of the waaaaaay overlong two and a half hour running time is more what I imagined a Bond film to be: tuxedoes, a creepy cartoon villain, exotic locales, high-stakes gambling, lewd double entendre, double crosses, fast cars and a stunningly attractive uber-babe holding her own with Bond. I actually enjoyed this part of the movie (which was, incidentally, the least action set-piece oriented), but I think the weak link in these scenes was definitely Daniel Craig. I feel like there's a good reason he hasn't starred in anything but Layer Cake: he's not much of a leading man. He's totally forgettable in Munich and Infamous, so I have no idea why the producers thought it would be a good idea to rest a multi-billion dollar franchise on his shoulders. He's not terrible or anything (certainly not Hayden Christensen terrible), but he is constantly getting blown off screen by infinitely more appealing actors: first Eva Green, then Mads Mikkelsen, then Jeffrey Wright. Ouch. The last half hour of the film is a disaster and I can't imagine anyone not being bored/irritated by it. The film reaches a natural conclusion and then adds another three or four twists onto the plot. It's not exactly a riveting plot to begin with – some terrorists are doing something with stocks for some reason. To get rich? And then it adds more characters into the mix just when it should be saying, "goodnight." It's a real mess. A real boring mess. None of the emotional stuff works for a second, either. Plus, throughout the film, there are several distracting split-second cameos of vaguely note-worthy sub-celebrities like Richard Branson and Alessandra Ambrosio. Is that a hallmark of the other Bond films?
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