3/2/7 - 3/11/7
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 consensus classics such as Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur to lesser films by great directors like Claude Chabrol's Innocents with Dirty Hands to idiotic dreck like Rollergator. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the seemingly endless experiment in cinematic endurance.
<<click here for 2/23/7 - 3/1/7>>
3.2. In the Realms of the Unreal.
I remember as a kid being enthralled by the story of Harris Burdick and how he disappeared leaving these strange drawings behind, and then being disappointed to learn it was all Chris Van Allsburg. When I first heard of Henry Darger, he seemed like a real-life Harris Burdick - the difference being that instead of leaving a handful of illustrations with brief captions, Darger left behind a mountain of artwork to go with his 15,000 page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
This doc was a convenient way not to have to actually read a 15,000 page book to catch a glimpse of the world Darger created for himself, one in which he fused his own life (the most interesting story is how his losing the picture of a murdered girl he had cut from the newspaper and obsessed over causes near-apocalyptic repercussions in Glandelinia.) His work is as perverse and autobiographical as Crumb's (and since he left no family I doubt Ralph Bakshi would have difficulty stealing the rights for a Vivian Girls movie) but without the artist himself the movie isn't nearly as engaging as Terry Zwigoff's film. The narrating of the novel feels Ken Burns, and the animating of Darger's work tends to be more cheesy than inspired. Jessica Yu (unlike Zwigoff) approaches her subject as someone trying to understand it herself, an exploratory style that's naive and apologetic. Still, you can't make a movie about someone like this (he created this body of work but only left behind three pictures of himself) and not have it be interesting.
Also interesting is Darger's preoccupation with the weather (he kept a ten year journal of the daily climate for 10 years). David Lynch seems to have chosen the same experiment: he gives the weather almost every day on his site, davidlynch.com.
I was one day shy of catching all three films in Nicholas Refn's Pusher trilogy at last year's Toronto Film Festival, but thanks to the consistently film-conscious folks at Anchor Bay, the first of these titles is finally available on dvd. While the plot and characters of the film are comparable to the nauseatingly hip British gangster movies of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughan, the dingy Eurotrash atmosphere to the twisted hell-worlds of Gaspar Noe, and the overall feel to Spike Lee's 25th Hour, Pusher has the benefit of having been made before any of those movies. Its blunt tension creates the effect of being backed into a corner, the horrible claustrophobic sensation I most readily identify with the chainsaw scene in Scarface.
Over the course of a few days, a Copenhagen-based low level drug dealer (Kim Bodnia, the unholy love child of Tom Sizemore and Jason Statham) goes from what would be considered a glamorized existence to life as a marked man. It strums the familiar chords of such back-against-the-wall sagas as Michael Mann's Thief (with a sprinkle of Naked-mode Mike Leigh), but the way Pusher drains Bodnia of his resources and ultimately his humanity and freedom is actually more akin to neorealist films like Umberto D. It's a film that is interested in the demoralizing of its lead character through his own eyes, a stylistic Pickpocket. I look forward to checking out the sequels, With Blood on My Hands and I Am the Angel of Death.
This is the sort of evening to expect when a disasterous errand to the video store leaves you with the R-rated version of Y Tu Mama Tambien and some crap called Samurai Fiction instead of Twilight Samurai. I can't remember being more disappointed in a mix-up since the time I went into the city with Chris Funderburg to see a midnight screening of Emir Kusturica's Underground, only to be treated to a celluloid atrocity known as The Underground Comedy Movie.
Fiction is a seemingly low-budget movie that can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a broad lampoon (the humor is of the over-the-top Japanimation variety, dangerously close to Kung Pow-territory), a cool QT-style action movie (as the title suggests), or a sweet-natured homage to classic samurai epics. In the end, the highly obnoxious scenes are lucky because at least they're not boring. When I looked the film up online, someone said it was as if Kevin Smith had directed Seven Samurai...cringe at that thought for a few seconds and you might get the idea.
3.4. Mysterious Skin.
I got more shit for dismissing this film on last year's end-of-the-year summary than for anything else, so I decided to give it a fair chance. More or less Donnie Darko, Happiness, and Boogie Nights sitting uncomfortably in a room together (set to a score Angelo Badalamenti's legal representatives should be made aware of), Mysterious Skin sees Gregg Araki trading in the excessive vertigo of The Doom Generation and Nowhere for the angsty syrup of a WB show. Centering around Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenage adonis from the Larry Clark School of Underage Jailbait and a bespectacled version of Corey Haim, Skin slowly grinds them through the obscenities of small town life followed by urban corruption. The movie coasts for something like forty minutes, occasionally boasting its edginess with lines like "There's a porno in the VCR if you want to jerk off." The great Chris Mulkey, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Elisabeth Shue are around for window dressing, but there isn't anything not lifted from several "hardcore" indie movies or as standard as anything on a teen-geared TV show I can imagine being of interest to anyone who doesn't have a Billy Drago fetish.
Metaphysical melodrama from Japan posits, if after you die you could choose one memory from your life to relive over and over for eternity, which would you pick? Like Pusher, it chronicles a week in the "life" of its characters, in this case a batch of recently-dead folks trying to decide which memory they would have researched, reconstructed, and filmed on a soundstage that would allow them to literally transcend to "someplace else." Hirokazu Koreeda, who made last year's well-received Nobody Knows, approaches the ethereal topic with an almost unbearable sterility. I think if I died and they put me in an office to probe my life experiences, I'd kill myself.
Like most "limbo" movies, the pieces of this world never really fit: it's unable to consolidate its own created world. Koreeda's not interested in that, he's more the philosopher-poet who turns our brains around with double conjectures, like the teenager who's greatest memory is going to Disneyworld - even though every kid says that, it doesn't make it any less special or happy a recollection to her. In that sense, the film succeeds, but as a viewer I failed to be engaged by its light/deep thinking. It's fluff ultimately, the texture of its quest for true meaning as sticky as cotton candy. I feel like I may appreciate this one more when I get older and more aware of my own mortality...I mean maybe man, who knows?
3.5. AUTEUR TRILOGY: WALTER HILL.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is Walter Hill’s masterpiece. And I’m not just saying that because there's a character named “Cribbs” who gets impaled on a booby trap of spears! He's played by the great T.K. Williams, of Thing fame (I guess they wanted to make up for his messy death from that movie, which ended up on the cutting room floor). A company of nine National Guardsmen head into the bayou, M-16s loaded with blanks, en rote to the end of the river and some local tail when they run afowl of Cajun poachers and suddenly Deliverance looks like a dream vacation.
One example of a classic scene would be Powers Boothe and Fred Ward in a good old fashioned Louisiana knife fight (in a location so swampy and smoggy it looks like Dogobah) while a one-armed Brion James shouts "Kill him!" in the background. Based on their penchant for getting SC alum on the show, I wouldn't be surprised if Ward ended up guest-starring on "Deadwood" next season. The Vietnam parable is obvious, and so is the movie's influence: turns out Clerks pilfered the "I'm not even supposed to BE here!" line (Dante never looked like such a pussy comparatively) and the obscured, shaggy villains seem an evident inspiration for the "Others" on TV's "Lost."
Nick Nolte's skin is so leather-tight in this movie you could skin it and make boots. He's surrounded by what might be the most hardcore balls-out tough guy cast since Dirty Dozen: Rip Torn, Powers Boothe (in the dirty Warren Oates white suit), Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown, William Forsythe, "Tiny" Lister...Teddy from One Crazy Summer and Lamar Latrell from Revenge of the Nerds (hey, even D12 had Donald Sutherland).
This border bulletfest delivers with three epic shoot-outs (the final one being near-Peckinpah quality), a bank heist, Maria Conchita Alonso's ho-hos, and classic lines like "Sometimes I think you're one fucked up gringo!" Boothe to Alonso pre-Mexican stand-off with Nolte: "Show some tit if you wanna be useful - give us some motivation!" Co-written by everyone's favorite bombastic right-winger John Milius.
Hill took to the streets of the French Quarter for his directorial debut featuring Charles Bronson as a grizzled street fighter, breaking jaws while making time with an inmate's woman. The dvd is a lousy cropped version of the 1975 film, panning and scanning the hell out of what are undoubtedly well-shot hellacious throwdowns. Hill gets his hands good and dirty in his freshman effort (he had already written some great screenplays, like The Getaway and the sequel to Harper, The Drowning Pool) and the Sirkian melodrama that provides the heart of his future work takes front seat.
Working with Bronson had to have been a tough initiation, however... I just had a conversation recently about James Coburn being unlikable, and here he plays an extremely unlikable character. But Bronson's heart of gold is solid enough for everyone in the cast, which also includes Strother Martin (what movie from the 70s was he not in?) as a down-and-out doc with "a weakness f'opium" and character actor Bruce Glover of Walking Tall, Chinatown and Diamonds are Forever fame.
3.6. My Beautiful Girl Mari.
This Korean film came highly recommended on Chris Funderburg's 2005 list, so I thought I'd check it out. The animation is amazing: sort of a cross between Japanimation and rotoscope. It's very similar to Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, except here we have childhood experience interpreted through the fantastic looking glass from a male perspective, and the associations are more attuned to a viewer of the Y chromosome: what, your first awareness of sexuality wasn't of a girl with white hair floating in the clouds?
One amazing moment from the imagination of the film's two friends is what afterlife reincarnated as a tree must be like. The end gets a little Disney (as even the best of overseas children's fare tends to) but it comes from the magic of memory, and the dull indifference of adulthood has rarely felt so cold as in the film's bookends. A side note to that: I was just watching the Ultimate Avengers movie on Cartoon Network, and it shares with Mari a scene where the main character walks outside, a foreign stranger in the middle of a large city (in Mari after extensive flashbacks, in Avengers after being frozen in ice since WWII.) Not sure why this connection seemed significant: but it was a kind of magical moment in both movies that I easily identified with.
3.7. Lilya 4-Ever.
*SPOILER ALERT* to anyone who hasn't seen it.
This is my first journey into the world of Lukas Moodysson (I've got A Hole in My Heart for tomorrow) and it almost goes without saying it's not a nice place to visit and I sure as shit wouldn't want to live here. Lilya, played by Oksana Akinshina, lives, or is trapped rather, in one of those post-apocalyptic looking desolate cities of the former Soviet Union. She's systematically rejected by everyone for no apparent reason other than coldhearted viciousness except for Volodya, a young glue-sniffing lad who's enamored of her.
The movie has its Audience Guilt ray set to kill - watching Lilya's life is like watching another train crash into a trainwreck - but succeeds in finding a strong sufferer in Akinshina, the child-prostitute Antoine Doinel. Her torment sets up the incredible scene where she meekly defies her fate, and it's more a cheer-worthy moment than in any Rocky film (I've never wished more that Chan-wook Park were the one directing a movie I was watching, because every other character in Lilya deserves some dibilitating vengeance). Unfortuantely, the ending is a huge cop-out (*SPOILER!*)...suicide at the end of a film is almost as bad as "it was all just a dream" (and yes two of my all-time favorite movies end in suicide, lay off) and here it's unbearable. A still of Lilya running on the beach would've been better, at least that way the film wouldn't end with such a thud (yuk-yuk).
A Hole in My Heart.
I'm a sucker for movies about fathers and sons, and there's never been one like Moodysson's A Hole in My Heart, a film that reduces the search for happiness and social acceptance to four people in a small apartment in Sweden. The father in this scenario makes artistically-demanding amateur porn tapes with a younger man and woman while his teenage son isolates himself in his bedroom (he's a "moody son.") Unlike Lilya, these characters bore their own hellish cavity of an existence, based on a delusional emancipation from monotony, by corrupting the tools of human connection with sequestered talking heads and passionless sex. The excess itself becomes so humdrum to the characters (one of them falls asleep mid-threeway) that in the middle of the movie they decide to spice things up in one of the best and most disturbing scenes in recent cinema. After that scene, however, the film sort of starts all over again and the director's beating-over-the-head aesthetic becomes as numb as the lives of its characters.
Palindromes is dedicated to the memory of Dawn Wiener and opens at her funeral. Solondz is making a self-defeating play, saying that he has moved up and on from the world of Dollhouse, but also that ten years later we'll be revisiting that same world. The hot-shot breakout Solondz of 1995 has grown more cynical, more edgy, and yet far less effective than ever before. In this road movie, he follows Aviva, victim of the titular syntax who in a Bunuel-pinch is acted by eight different actresses, the best performance given by the obese Sharon Wilkins.
I'm curious as to whether any of the aggressive indie auteurs think that an image of kids inertly watching pornography is still considered cutting edge. Just in case, Solondz also offers abortion, pedophilia (again), ejaculation (again), child murder, and irreverent 9/11 dialogue from the lips of his characteristically broad nerds, religious zealots, and retards. This kind of material cast off into the world, not thematically set in the harsh apathy of the schoolyard or family dinner table, felt to me completely useless and the casting gimmick fell flat about a half hour in. At best, it's a John Waters knock-off without enough jokes that plays up the identity theme from Dollhouse with the irony level set to self-parody. Ellen Barkin is around to call an unborn fetus a tumor, one of the few laughs I got from the movie.
3.9. Kings and Queen.
Arnaud Desplechin has created a movie about a man and a woman that's almost like a Woody Allen version of Head On, with a dying father's resentment over the good nature of his daughter standing in for the requisite Bergman pinch. That might be selling the film short however - it's definitely great. There's a lot of investment in the characters, and Emmanuelle Devos is so pretty you can't help but want to lift her self-imposed burdens from her fragile figure. She's Nora, a posthumously-married widow with a 10-year-old son, who's about to wed a rich man because she thinks it's the right thing to do when she's thrown another curveball in the form of a cancer-ridden father. She's forced to get help from Ismael, an old boyfriend, who has some interesting problems of his own.
Mathieu Amalric - great and Polanski-esque in Fin aout debut septembre and Munich - creates an amazing character in Ismael, locked up in a mental ward not because he's certifiably crazy but because his uniqueness threatens the order of the world around him. The editing style is experimental - few shots last longer than five seconds in most sequences, several jump shots. I'm curious to see Desplechin's other films to see if he usually cuts this way, and how often it actually works, because here it's 50/50, and it seems that here the film belongs to the actors.
3.10. Wise Blood.
John Huston was ambitious in his literary adaptations, tackling Dashiell Hammet, B Traven, Stephen Crane, Hemingway, Melville, Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Lowry and James Joyce. Here, the man who once filmed the Bible tries his hand at Flannery O'Connor's best-known work. What's missing is O'Connor's voice and love for her characters: Huston has a severe dislike for aesthetic, and tends to flatten out subtext into straight-forward narrative, evident especially in the underwhelming Gonga scenes.
The cast is a bit of a crap shoot: Brad Dourif is an excellent actor and does all he can, but there's so much to Hazel Motes that the script - even if it more or less dictates the dialogue verbatim from the novel - fails to do the character justice. Ned Beatty is in Network-mode in a tailor-fit cameo, and Harry Dean Stanton makes religion sound more terrifying and threatening than anyone ("Jesus is a FACT! You can't run from Jesus!") Dan Shor (better known as Ram from Tron and Billy the Kid in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and Amy Wright (Moocher's fiance in Breaking Away) are too old for their parts, and Shor, though interesting to watch, plays Enoch as more of a man-child than a huckish idealist. Certain scenes are great, others just don't feel right, and the film peters out attempting to faithfully follow the book's unfilmable epilogue.
3.11. Funeral in Berlin.
There's no better spy movie than a Cold War espionage thriller made in the mid-60s, right in the thick of mistrustful relations between the east and west. The Harry Palmer series, which starred the best Michael Caine - the young one - was a popular adaptation of the Len Deighton novels which have since become overshadowed by the more flashy and profilic James Bond films.
This one was actually directed by Guy Hamilton, who had the honor of working with the greatest action heroes: Bond, Palmer, and Remo Williams. Hamilton's a great choice, Berlin is probably the best of the series (although speaking of Ken Russell, I just recently saw Billion Dollar Brain for the first time, and it's nowhere near the disaster it's reputed to be). It's great to see Caine in his iconic specs and raincoat, reacting to counter-culture and cheekily mocking his superiors, all the while sinking deeper into a pit of intrigue involving the Mossad and Soviet defectors. Technically, this film was already on dvd, but it (and Ipcress File) went out of print almost immediately after being released.
I've been interested in the life of Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma machine (and the history of cryptology in general) so I decided to check out this...what's the opposite of a sleeper "hit?" Turing doesn't show up in this movie, which seems competently directed by Michael Apted, well-adapted by Tom Stoppard, and not badly acted by Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet, yet doesn't work. I think the reason is that the movie feels small, condensed - the life of spies and codebreakers in WWII seems worthy of epic treatment, but here it's relegated to a small espionage thriller involving a handful of characters and centered around the disappearance of one blonde bombshell (Saffron Burrows - it's an "enigma" why the filmmakers decided to doll her up like Claire Danes). Only one scene, in which the group of mathematicians and strategists sweat in a room trying to discover a link in the coded messages sent from U-boats as they hone in on British ships, realizes the grand scale and tension the entire movie should've been going for.
<<click here for 3/12/7 - 3/21/7>>
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