2/23/7 - 3/1/7
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. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the puzzling experiment in cinematic endurance.
2.23. The Exorcist III: Legion.
I have a weird relationship with the Exorcist films. I like the idea of the first movie (and the original novel) much better than the movie itself. The second is famously abysmal: it upset me to learn that Martin Scorsese is a fan, as it cheapens his endorsement of truly underrated movies like Cemetery Man and Shakes the Clown.) The twin prequels are an evening's curiosity I've not yet indulged in. And then there's Blatty's own film, an adaptation of his literary Exorcist follow-up Legion, which is equally ridiculous and amazing. Taking place 15 years later, this one sees minor characters from the first film being picked off by possessed old ladies. I think the most interesting angle of the movie is that it basically poses the question "What if the world were subtly coming to an end and you were the only one who noticed it happening?"
The man in question is George C. Scott, playing a new character with ties to ones from the original film. He;s an investigator who delves a little too deep in demonic territory (preceding In the Mouth of Madness; Sam Neill and Ninth Gate;s Johnny Depp); his frustration over the mounting gory sacrifices of innocent lives metastasizes into literal hell on earth. It;s not much of a stretch to propose that all the spider-women and hooded decapitators are the crisis of faith. Scott is an acting dinosaur, towering above the cast - which reunites The Ninth Configuration's Ed Flanders and Jason Miller, but also includes Brad Dourif and Nicol Williamson (usually a Bargain Basement Connery, here a Bargain Basement Max von Sydow) - like a bear standing on two legs poised to strike at any moment. His monologue about the carp in the bathtub is made all the more uncomfortable by his quiet, grizzled delivery ("Have you noticed how close we're standing together? I STINK.") I don't know if Blatty's pervo perception of a society on the brink of utter chaos is quite as smart as he'd like to think at the end of the day it's Lovecraftian a-white-man-set-them-free fantasy storytelling but it plays well. Keep your eyes open for weird cameos from Samuel L. Jackson, Fabio and (as the Angel of Death) Patrick Ewing.
2.24. Letters from Iwo Jima.
The success of Iwo Jima over its blandly received big brother Flags of Our Fathers seems like an accident. I'm sure Eastwood is as surprised as anybody that his comparatively scaled-down story of the battle's losing side scored big with audiences and the Academy Awards. Key to the film's success is its complete lack of old Japanese guys reminiscing about the struggle to their note-scribbling children, probably because there weren't many of them left to do the telling. In the opening scene, modern site diggers unearth war artifacts like they were fossils from an empire long-since vanished, a civilization that's hard to imagine having ever existed on earth. And, honestly, it is hard to imagine an entire civilization of people almost instinctually predetermined to fight a battle where there's no hope of victory. Once the battle's actually started they're too busy killing each other and themselves to defend the island.
Eastwood approaches the Japanese out of pity for the dehumanization caused by their dedication to honor and sacrifice, which would be an interesting way to look at any military establishment but here is certainly a better take than their being demonized as tiny feral gremlins that sneak out of the shadows to take you as they were in Flags. There's still an amount of American moralizing, mainly in what's meant to be Japanese ignorance regarding how monstrous U.S. troops are. The scene where an American executes two unarmed Japanese soldiers simply because it's inconvenient to watch over them is ballsy, but of course the one to actually pull the trigger has to be smoking, setting him apart in a way that says: "See? Not all people smoke, just like not all Americans are casual murderers." It's also not without sentimentality: you'd think they might have fared battle in the battle if they hadn't spent so much time gathered solemnly around dead countrymen. But those are small things to complain about: overall this is Clint's best effort since Unforgiven, and my mind is still haunted by such memorable scenes as the barking dog flashback. Ken Watanabe, playing the true last samurai, reminded me of a civil war general the way his career has familiarized him with both cultures yet he's ultimately obligated to fight for his own country, whether he agrees with the military politics or not. Incidentally, his performance is outstanding.
2.25. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.
Much as I gushed about Vanishing Point earlier in 200 Days and 200 Movies, I've decided that the mythic road movie might be the most annoyingly self-glorifying of subgenres. Grindhouse didn't help: next to Point, this is the movie that got the most mentions in Tarantino's atrociously boring half of that Weinstein wreck. When I really think about it, Two Lane Blacktop is the only clear masterpiece of its kind. Ever since Easy Rider, the mysticism of the road movie has inflated to levels of alleged deep meaning. Not that those kind of films weren't already a little overrated circa-1969: Robert Mitchum's Thunder Road (which gets a Tarantino-sized shout-out in this movie) isn't very good either. Sometimes a free spirit in a car doesn't symbolize anything beyond that. But even the reliable stables of this kind of movie existentialism, fatalism, the feeling of freedom feel forced into this story of three crooks riding as far away from"the man" as possible.
The film starts out as a scary heist movie, with Adam Roarke creepifying as a man who takes hostage the family of a supermarket manager (Roddy McDowell, in the Henry Gibson role.) But it turns out Roarke's a good guy, and with pals Larry (Peter Fonda) and Mary (Susan George I can't remember if she was attractive in Straw Dogs but she's hideous in this movie.) I thought it would be funny if Roarke was named "Harry" but his name is "Deke." Is "Dirty Mary" supposed to be some kind of play on "Dirty Harry?" Dirty Harry is a much better movie. The one thing this film does have going for it is the language of the road: moods and tone related through signs on the side of the road ("Seattle," "Out to lunch") and ironic bumper stickers. That aspect is kind of interesting, but isn't quite enough to be memorable. Eerily, Vic Morrow spends most of the film in a helicopter that's running out of gas: there's even a really unfortunate moment where he's watching it land dangerously near some power lines and I couldn't help thinking, "Whoops."
2.26. Chronicle of a Disappearance.
Elia Suleiman is an excellent narrative filmmaker, which sort of creates a conflict when handling the sort of material he is here. It works when he's intercutting scenes with talking heads: the priest saying "anyone can walk over water and make miracles now" as the jet skis cruise the surface of Lake Kinneret, or the old man relating his grandfather's story of "sparkling pans" in Istanbul. It's less effective when the film moves to Jerusalem and becomes almost a stylized, surrealist thriller - not that some of this stuff isn't great too, but the two styles don't fit together. Still, images of the man toking a hookla while playing computer backgammon and the line of cops leaping out of a truck in formation to line up for a piss are pretty priceless.
What Time Is It There?.
When I see a Tsai Ming-liang film in the theater, I get the ultimate experience of being alone, because that's what his movies are about. And while I'm a fan of his deliberate pacing, Bresson-style single shots and minimalist acting, what was missing from Goodbye Dragon Inn and The Wayward Cloud were relatable characters, which this one has. It's most instantly comparable to Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild, as it thematically links these characters by time. A man, after selling a watch with dual time to a woman who's traveling to Paris, starts setting all the clocks in Taiwan to Paris hours, resulting in parallel visual motifs between the two of them as well as surreal concurrences (he watches 400 Blows, she runs into Jean-Pierre Leaud in a cemetery). Like Chronicle of a Disappearance, it opens and closes with quiet scenes featuring an old man (in Chronicle, I imagine it's Suleiman's father - here it's Miao Tien) that bookend the stories very nicely. Also... best-lit masturbation scene in film history (sorry, Marc Reshovsky).
This is the first of several small movies Steven Soderbergh signed up to make, and the fact that none of the actors being interviewed on the dvd extras are laughing about that time Catherine Zeta-Jones snorted champagne off Brad Pitt's back on George Clooney's yacht off the coast of Sicily is a good thing. I avoided this film because I wasn't sure what to think of the politics behind releasing it in the theaters and on dvd simultaneously (still don't know how I feel about that) but it was recommended so I went ahead and picked it up.
The crew basically came into a town and cast the people living there, and the result is a high level of authenticity: the characters in this world don't sit around brooding, staring at pictures of J. Robert Oppenheimer. They work, they eat, they watch TV, they steal, they respond to drab conversation with "I hear that." It's a credit to Soderbergh that he can step down from his Solaris-mode of self indulgence to make such an entertaining movie out of this "found" world. In it we discover a strange triangle of doll manufacturers; beneath their monotonous break room pleasantries you can feel a sinister resentment over a breach in the tranquility of tedium start to build. It's dark and interesting and weird. The second half sort of becomes Soderbergh's Vera Drake, but it doesn't ditch our investment in the characters to dabble in plot contrivances: rather, it pays off. The three central performances say a lot for non-actors: I'd take a Debbie Doebereiner over twenty Julia Robertses. The score is by GBV's Bob Pollard.
Decision at Sundown.
Everyone in Sundown loves Tate Kimbrough - until Randolph Scott rides in to show them what he's really like, inadvertently turning the dark mirror on the townsfolk at the same time. Less exciting than the other three "Ranown" westerns I've seen (Commanche Station, The Tall T, Seven Men from Now) but with the best tagline: "His wife was a tramp... a gun duel reveals the truth!" I think the movie's biggest problem is that, unlike the other collaborations between Boetticher and Scott, this one isn't a journey: it's staged entirely in a small town so that, unlike the others in the series, you can really feel the small budget. I guess that's the thing with Westerns: out in Monument Valley or Mesa Verde with a couple horses and some character actors it still feels epic; add sets and they look like... cheap sets. Interesting. Excellent performances by Noah Beery Jr. as Scott's partner who refuses to die on an empty stomach, and by the great Larry Cohen regular Andrew Duggan as the cowardly sheriff. It's a good thing I didn't read the back of the ratty old vhs box I purchased at a flea market recently - it literally gives away the entire movie. When are more titles from this brilliant Budd Boetticher series going to be on dvd?
2.28. ROBOT REBELLION NIGHT!
I know - I really should have seen Westworld 15 years ago, when I first heard about it. But it's one of those flicks the plot to which you're so familiar, you sort of never bother seeing it and just create the movie in your head over time. That said, the actual version of Westworld didn't hold a candle to the one in my head, although the scene of Brynner blowing James Brolin away was very satisfying (that guy was enjoying his robot coitus too much...there was almost more android sex than there was action, they should have called the movie Breastworld.)
I'm surprised more lawsuits didn't happen since the release of this movie. Why didn't Brynner sue Schwarzenegger for stealing his stoic, unstoppable killing machine character? Why didn't Richard Benjamin sue Jake Gyllenhaal for stealing his Freddie Mercury-style cowboy stache? Why didn't Michael Crichton sue himself after Jurassic Park was released? He should have - that movie was a big hit, he'd have made a shitload of money. Final word on this one: Yul Brynner's Gunfighter is to me more iconic than the roles that inspired the character (Brynner in Magnificent Seven or Invitation to a Gunfighter.)
Sins of the Fleshapoids.
Mike Kuchar's Fleshapoids wait a little longer than Brynner to begin their revolt against the humans who've oppressed them: one million years in the future, and they've been servants for 20,000. Bob Cowan plays the android slave Xar, who looks like Conrad Veidt in wrestling tights wearing a conquistador's helmet. He and his fellow androids turn on their masters and fall in love between the silk curtains and plastic fruit in what may be the most extreme meshing of Hollywood kitsch and decadent fantasy I've seen from the vast Kuchar library. It's hilarious - the robot birth and death of George Kuchar's Prince Gianbeno are scenes that need to be experienced. Watching this underground classic, I felt sad thinking about how there'll be fewer beautiful 16mm films made each year. Two other excellent Kuchar shorts are on this amazing dvd: The Secret of Wendel Samson, starring outsider artist Red Grooms (check out the amazing execution scene), and The Craven Sluck, featuring an appearance by Mongreloid star Bocko the dog. Somebody start releasing more Kuchar titles!
3.1. Altered States.
People have always asked me, "You've seen Altered States, right?" and I pretend that they said, "You've played Altered Beasts, right?" and nod. It was too embarrassing to admit that this was one of those titles that fell through my movie-viewing cracks over the years... but it was on t.v. so I decided to plant myself on the couch and strap myself in for an enjoyable evening of Ken Russell insanity/inanity. 20 minutes in we've got a seven-eyed goat head crucified on a floating cross and I know I won't be disappointed. Amazing shot of Jessup in the door frame against white background.
William Hurt in this movie is the cleanest-looking person I think I've ever seen on film. His hallucinogenic visions are sort of anti-transcendent, going from freak masturbatory religious images a'la The Devils to sensory reflections as he makes his journey to godlessness. The image of he and Blair Brown (she's one of those late 70s/early 80s lead actresses who I always think they should have replaced with an attractive woman) turning into sand and getting swept away is beautiful. Later on, when he transgresses into the primitive creature - that shit is scary. I'm actually glad I didn't see these scenes as a kid. I miss effects like these: everything in movies today looks too fucking perfect, or perfectly fake. I
'm surprised Brown got second billing: I feel like Drew Barrymore, John Laroquette, and the guy from the Police Academy movies ("He's a fucking gorilla!" - great line) were in the movie more than she is. Bob Balaban is even fuzzier than the ape-monster. In between commercials I'm switching to Van Wilder on Comedy Central. Another great silhouette of Jessup at the back of the house. The love-conquers-all ending is exhausting (although the stuff in the hallway is guiltily mind-blowing), and probably not what Russell wanted... he probably wanted Hurt to vomit frogs that ate Barrymore and melded into the colorful cemetery statue of Jim Morrison.
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