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 Max Ophul's The Earrings of Madame de... to lesser films by great directors like Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to idiotic dreck like A Night at the Museum. 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. I Bury the Living.
Funderburg owns one of those great sets of 50 public domain movies, and I watched three of them in a row while chilling at his place. These things are fantastic, you can't stop at just one, so I threw on this movie, Beat the Devil, and my favorite late night movie to fall asleep to and have immensely satisfying nightmares, Carnival of Souls. The first time I read about this movie, it was Stephen King warning that when the caretaker replaced the black pins with white, the movie turned into a "big pile of shit." While it's true that nothing past that point (about 2/3 of the way into this short, underrated horror movie) is as mesmerizing and weird as anything in the first hour, overall the film is exceptional, the rare one to rise above the label "B-picture." Richard Boone is a businessman who for some reason is given the job of running a cemetery that comes with a giant map of every plot, listed in the name of the plot's owner: those that are filled have a black pin, the reserved ones have a white pin. To his dismay, Boone learns that when he places a black pin in the empty lot of a happy, healthy, living person, they die mysteriously within hours. That concept is really brilliant: a mix between a great "Twilight Zone" episode and psychological one-act play (somebody should adapt it to the stage: the film takes place almost entirely in Boone's cottage-office on the grounds.) Guilt over his bizarre "power" leads Boone to a virtual fugue state, especially since nobody in his life besides the friendly Scottish caretaker believes he actually has power over life and death and keeps challenging/bullying him into another experiment with the increasingly ill-boding map (one of the best looking props ever). Seemingly unable to tear himself from the malign synergy between himself and the map, Boone decides to bring the people he has unwittingly marked for death back to life by switching the black pins to white, and from there the unavoidable twist ending plays its ugly part. But the original premise and manic performance by Boone (who goes crazy Broadway-style in a trippy sequence similar to Spellbound's Dali-directed fever dream, the map contorting into ominous whirling outlines) make it stand out significantly. Plus, Stephen King calling something a piece of shit? He wrote Dreamcatcher, right? Hearts in Atlantis? Secret Window?
1.12. Beat the Devil.
John Huston's Beat the Devil is one of the most entertaining movies in which nothing actually happens. Technically, it's about a group of disreputable characters coalescing in Italy to plot out a shady plan involving the illegal mining of uranium in Kenya. You think you're onboard for the prelude to another miscreant adventure along the lines of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but one of the first things that happens is the boat to Kenya breaks down, and the characters are stuck waiting for its repair. So the next hour of the movie is the cast – Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley and Peter Lorre among them – basically chilling around Italy, bumbling about, word sparring, wife swapping and contemplating backstabbing without actually going through with it. The movie was famously scripted as it was being made by Truman Capote, so numerous campy non sequitors that have nothing to do with anything spontaneously leap from actors' mouths. The film, adapted from a book, was obviously supposed to be a grim crime drama about colonial exploitation, but was for some reason revised as a dry comedy that plays like a parody of the kind of movies Bogart was famous for (he hated the film and allegedly said, "Only phonies like it.") But it's kind of the original "hanging out" movie: I love just watching these guys tool around doing nothing in particular without a plot to actually concentrate on (even when they finally get on the boat, the focus on arriving in Africa is waylaid by a goofy drunk sea captain). Technically, it's a mess but I couldn't help but be charmed - guess that makes me a phony. I think of it as the Ocean's 12 of its day, with actual production being secondary to Bogart and Morley hanging out with Capote by the beach while Lorre challenged the locals to ping pong and Huston nailed Gina Lollobrigida in this Ravallo hotel room (now why couldn't Clint Eastwood have made a movie about THAT?) The scene in "that other Capote movie" where Toby Jones charms the conservative Kansas residents with anecdotes of slumming with Bogie on location seem to more or less verify this theoretical mental image.
Adam Sandler likes his high-concept comedies with as many pratfalls as possible, so it makes sense that they are the highlights of most of his oeuvre. Frank Capra loaded his Mr. Deeds with social commentary, Sandler loaded his with scenes of Allen Covert getting pummeled like Wile E. Coyote. Keeping with the formula, Click's funniest sequences involves Sandler using the magical remote control bestowed upon him by Christopher Walken to stop reality and beat up people while they are defenselessly "paused" (the worst service is dished out to Sean Astin, who gets a couple kicks to the nuts). Sandler loves beatings, so it makes sense that Click beats the shit out of a dead horse with its life-affirming message that we should treasure every moment of our existence, no matter how mediocre. That stuff's all dribble, although Henry Winkler did manage to get at me emotionally in one scene (I'm a sucker for father-son relationships no matter how manipulative, like that end scene in Last Crusade). His family life is not very convincing - he's an architect who can't afford bikes for his kids? - and soggy: it was fun to use our remote control ironically to fast forward through those parts. Walken is at least reliably wacky and unpredictably creepy ("I'm the angel of DEATH," he states matter-of-factly). I'm waiting for a new film called Zoom or Whish to complete the recent trilogy of onomatopoeic titles that started with Crank.
The Good German.
Steven Soderbergh scored big in my book with Bubble, a no-budget no-star bare bones experiment in minimalism shot on location in a Midwestern town with local non-actors in the lead roles. The Good German is its exact opposite, a glamorous Hollywood period piece with big names and a convoluted screenplay adapted from a best-selling novel. I can't get a handle on Soderbergh: at first I thought that he worked best in smaller formats, but he's had just as many "tiny film" duds (The Underneath, Full Frontal) as big studio stinkers (most of Traffic, all of Solaris and the unending Ocean's sequels). His best film, Out of Sight, is as star-powered as Schizopolis and The Limey are micro-budgeted. Espionage in post-war Berlin is what's essentially at play, although the focus is on knowingly cloning classic Hollywood techniques to no convincing effect: how many times can Cate Blanchett walk out of the shadows? The whole project would be easily dismissable as a misguided Casablanca update - "Of all the gin joints in all the world she had to walk into mine" becomes "An entire country full of people and she's fucking my fucking driver" - were it not for a great performance by Tobey Maguire, who uses his Peter Parker pretty boy "aw shucks"ness as a guise to cover his corrupt profiteer's wickedness. Clooney's acting actually made me nostalgic for the days he at least had a beard and beer belly to help him out: his performance is completely absent and passionless, like the events of the film might as well be happening to someone else. Blanchett isn't terrible as a wartime whore with an instinct for survival, but pales in comparison to Carice von Houten as the heroine in Verhoeven's Zwartboek. Black and white photography, by Soderbergh, has never seemed so flat and poorly utilized since the invention of color film, and the various twists and mechanizations of the plot put me to sleep more than once.
I was hoping this would be a masterpiece - that the movie would prove a triumph over the pigheaded studio that shortshafted it last fall. Thinking back, I probably set my expectations a little too high. In a baffling bit of studio politics, Idiocracy was buried in its theatrical release, not even opening in New York. This seems a terrible strategy for Mike Judge's follow-up to Office Space, which since its poorly-handled initial release has gone on to become such a pop phenomenon it makes me embarrassed to profess a fondness for it (a'la Borat). Even if the movie was bad, that didn't stop 20th Century Fox from foisting their Garfield and Big Momma's House sequels on us. Quality was clearly not the issue. Allegedly, it was the film's bashing of corporatations like Costco's, Starbucks (which now offers handjobs), Fuddrucker's (now "Buttfuckers") and Carl Jrs. (in one of the best jokes of the movie, their motto is "Fuck you, I'm eating!") that earned the movie the minimal amount of contractually obligated screenings. So I was hoping it would equal the quality of pretty much everything else Judge has done and, while it's far from terrible and has a couple of brilliant jokes, overall it's a mess. Lifting the cryogenic freezing plot from former "King of the Hill" FOX partner "Futurama," the movie puts average joe Luke Wilson into a future run by dingbats, a cultural combination of rednecks, ghetto trash, nice price consumers and frat boys. It's hard to tell what the parody is aiming for - does Judge consider me retarded because I like Fuddrucker's? A series of loose jokes somewhat related to how stupid people are (top TV show is "Ow, My Balls!" previously seen on "Family Guy" as "Kicked in the Nuts") make up the basic structure, with patches of plot (Terry Crews as a pro-wrestler president) placed to tie them all together. It was much better when it was the other way around in Office Space, where there was a funny central story with T.G.I.Friday's taking a few hits in the background. I plan on seeing this one again sometime - maybe then it will turn out to be the comedy masterpiece I expected.
1.15. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood.
Fooled again! Other than The Final Chapter (part IV), this Jason sequel (from the director of Troll) is the only one that's popularly referred to as being slightly different or having more to offer than the usual merry-go-round of dumb teenagers getting slaughtered. However, this one does not have the distinction of Tom Savini returning to do makeup effects, or Crispin Glover doing his dance interpretation of an epileptic fit, or being the last film before the masked killer became an unstoppable killing machine that returned from the grave the way a normal person would from the grocery store [with groceries? - funderburg]. What this seventh installment is selling us is a psychokinetic heroine with the untapped potential to hurl objects at her burly pursuer. What it feels like is an underwritten movie about a psychokinetic heroine that's been hastily reconfigured into a Friday the 13th movie, to no added effect or enhancement. For a good deal of the running time the gifted youth is sulking about uncomfortably – this sequel features more scenes of a timid teen storming out of the room after being humiliated by the popular kid than any movie ever made – only intuitively aware of the killer's presence while the usual number of 30 year olds playing heated adolescents come under the knife (or hedge clipper). Uninspired slasher movies become so overwhelmingly focused on the carnage that it's like watching a porno movie and getting upset that there's an actual plot to follow. Thus the inclusion of a character badly ripped off from Carrie is simply distracting from the decapitations, pantsless pratfalls, literal cat scares, TV fu, kazoo fu and hand-thru-torso fu. The only real draw to this otherwise routine hackfest is the guy who played Bernie in Weekend at Bernie's popping up in a supporting role: he who, like Jason, does not remain dead. Besides that, it's notable only as the initiation of Kane Hodder, the actor most popularly associated with the Jason role, and in the wake of See No Evil I think someone should greenlight a Kane versus Kane Hodder movie in the style of Freddy vs. Jason. That said, my dream cast for a Friday the 13th movie from the 1980's would be Jenny Lewis, Courtney Thorne-Smith and Lou Ferringo as Jason.
1.16. Cigarette Burns.
In this Masters of Horror entry, that ugly guy from Boondock Saints plays a programmer who investigates the possible location of an ultra-rare print of a film that allegedly causes anyone who watches it to go insane. No, it's not Spice World: it's called La Fin Absolute du Monde, though its title is said so many times I kind of wish he was trying to locate a print of Spice World. John Carpenter retreads In the Mouth of Madness territory (the investigation plot aside, that movie also featured a film that ultimately drives the character mad), and both this short and that former feature are of the "journey horror" sub-genre that includes The Seventh Sign, Exorcist III, Freddy's Dead and The Ninth Gate, but that Carpenter feeling is notably absent. Sure, it could be attributable to the low budget MOH production and Canadian crew (both get a little jab in the movie's dialogue), but the project is also surprisingly graphic for the normally anti-gore director: did he feel pressured being part of the same series as Takashi Miike? At its best, Cigarette Burns is a surplus of visual oddities and subtle comments on violence in mass media (the Al Quaeda decapitation videos are lightly referenced) and at its worst the establishment of an enticing maguffin that's designed to disappoint: there's no way a film as ominously spoken of as La Fin Absolute du Monde could possibly live up to its hype (at least it was impossible for the audience to actually read Sutter Cane's books.)
1.17. Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America.
I was curious to see this film since it came up on more than one Top Films of the 90's lists, including that of the sometimes - not always - reliable J. Hoberman. Craig Baldwin, a collage filmmaker along the lines of Bruce Conner or Robert Nelson, relates the history of he Quetzal aliens, who after fleeing their home world take refuge in the hollow interior of the South Pole and mate with snakes: their evolution causes natural disasters such as cancer, killer bees, climate change and Chilean earthquakes. Soon they infiltrate global politics, getting involved in the Guatemalan government, JFK assassination and the struggle in the Congo to name a few. Using newsreel coverage and stock footage from old sci fi serials, Baldwin intertwines every crackpot conspiracy theory while simultaneously satirizing the most controversial history of the twentieth century until so much has been thrown out there – the Bermuda Triangle, Noriega, Atlantis, Ollie North, Psy-Ops of the CIA, the melting of the Polar Ice Caps, Jim Jones, Watergate, Edwards Airforce Base, the rapture – that the two become indiscernible from one another. He finds some good visual jokes, such as using a picture of Blacula to reveal the vampire-self of self-declared Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, and the overall congregation of footage and cut and paste method is frankly staggering. Juxtaposing frightening world history and pop culture may not be the most original idea but Tribulation is set apart by the artistry in its construction. Ultimately, it's the kind of sensory bombardment you have to be in the mood for, but Baldwin perfectly captures the dizzing span of 20th century US foreign policy with a playful sense of the absurdity of it all.
1.18. The Molly Maguires.
Richard Harris is a cop assigned to infiltrate a mining gang in order to weed out the leaders of a terrorist group known as the Molly Maguires, headed by a sooty Sean Connery. Harris finds himself not only beginning to side with the pro-Union members of the Maguires, but also starting to be seduced by the characteristically charismatic Connery, to the point of actually participating in their crimes and becoming morally conflicted as to his original duty: Point Break with less surf and more soot. I didn't know anything about The Molly Maguires going into it, and was surprised by the similarities between its plot and the Sherlock Holmes novella The Valley of Fear. In Fear, an undercover policeman infiltrates a secret union of mob-like miners named The Scrowners: after looking it up, it turns out Arthur Conan Doyle based his group on the real Molly Maguires and their investigation by the Pinkertons, although Doyle portrays the group as more unrepentant gangsters than the film does: here there's a moral ambiguity as to whether this form of terrorism is justified considering the harsh governing of the workers and the dangerous circumstances of their job. That makes Martin Ritt's view of the gang, their actions seemingly necessary yet callously brutal, all the more interesting. Connery makes for a charming rebel and Harris' tendency to overact is dampered a little by the confining world in which the film is set. Expertly shot mine scenes by James Wong Howe make for some tense sequences.
1.19. The Anderson Tapes.
Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes combines two very dated subjects: late 1960's surveillance technology and early 1970's New York City culturalisms. In other words, what's on screen most of the time are whirling cameras following the activities of a flamboyant antiques dealer played by Martin Balsam. Neither would be distracting if the invasive instruments utilized – phone tapping, lip-reading, security cameras, reel-to-reel – weren't unveiled with wave-of-the-future reverence (even the opening titles have that futro print-out font and computer music) and the stereotyping wasn't notched up to such campy levels. But unlike The Conversation, the technology is revealed as if it were a ground-breaking World's Fair exhibit (the idea, vintage as it now seems, was swiped years later for I) and unlike The Taking of Pelham 123, hardened convicts, mafia toughs, and characters categorized as "spooks" and "fags" aren't husks for deeper personality study: they're just played for laughs. The comedy itself is uncomfortably handled, especially in an awkward scene of gangster Alan Bates having an existential breakdown in front of a comatose mob boss while feds on a nearby boat catch every word of his rambling on tape. These diversions are unfortunate after a promising opening in which jailbird thief Sean Connery blissfully equates safecracking to rape. He's let out of prison and instantly devises one of the most conceptually flawed, poor planned and badly executed heists of all time, securing the help of unreliable amateurs to rob every apartment in girlfriend Dyan Cannon's building over Labor Day weekend, when theoretically nobody will be home (most of them turn out to be!) While not as deadly as the later Lumet-Connery heist comedy-drama Family Business, Tapes similarly suffers from off-putting shifts in tone but finds its strengths in the same scenes of crackdown tension when the robbers' backs are against the wall as Dog Day Afternoon (both screenplays were written by Frank Pierson.) I can appreciate what Lumet was going for - and the idea is a funny one that new ways of communication are just going to be more confusing and crimes (no matter how badly planned and executed) will still go undetected even when every aspect of the set-up is under survelliance. It's even a good storytelling method. But I just don't think comedy is the director's strong suit, which is why the more serious parts of the movie are most effective. Christopher Walken makes his debut (discounting his appearance in Robert Frank's Me and My Brother) and, although his side character has little to do, he starts off his film career with the very Walken-esque proclamation, "America man, it's so beautiful, I wanna EAT IT!"
1.20. Sleeping Dogs Lie.
"My name is Amy and yes, in college, I blew my dog." That first line is indicative of why this film, Bobcat Goldthwait's long awaited (by me, anyway) follow-up to the brilliant Shakes the Clown, had trouble getting made and then trouble being distributed. Its original title, Stay, was done away with, theoretically because Marc Forster's studio film needed it to make his movie even more generic and instantly forgettable. I thought this kind of humor was going to set the tone for the proceeding comedy, but instead the movie is a surprisingly thoughtful drama about how a woman's relationship to a dog affects her relationship with the people in her life, making it an interesting companion film to Mike White's recent Year of the Dog. Not since Spanking the Monkey has an act of sexual aberration been used as a catalyst to deeper character study, and Goldthwait's film is definitely worthy of that comparison (for the record, Spanking the Monkey is one of my favorite movies). The people in Amy's life – her boyfriend, parents and stoner brother Doug – and their reactions when her secret is revealed (they react in a way not dissimilar to how most executives, auditioning actors and festival audiences probably did after the first scene) form a crucible from which Amy never fully recovers, and provide the movie with its prevalent theme: how one's sexual past adversely defines them. For anyone in a relationship (or, I guess, anyone who's ever sat alone on the couch with a porno magazine), that's a huge consideration, one that Goldthwait handles with absolute sensitivity and not without humor. Melinda Page Hamilton nails the character of Amy and her transition from being a smart, funny girl who did this crazy thing in college to being perceived by boyfriend and family as this weird sexual deviant becomes all the more a personal tragedy because she's so likeable and easily wounded. The negative reaction to the film might also be based on the assumption that the guy who played Zed in Police Academy and set Jay Leno's chair on fire wouldn't make for a smart filmmaker, but I honestly think this film proves that Goldthwait has an exceptional perspective and is thinking about things other people aren't (the movie's well-directed too).
<<click here for 1/21/7 - 1/30/7>>
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