3/12/7 - 3/21/7
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 3/2/7 - 3/11/7>>
Watched Goldfinger with Chris Funderburg. It was fun getting his fresh perspective on it (I don’t think I’ve ever watched it with anyone who hasn’t seen it at least 2 or 3 times) but I didn’t have any new or revelatory thoughts on the movie, or any of the Bond series we viewed over the week. They’re just immensely enjoyable films: the girls, the villains and the action set pieces, for their very specific period placements, are timelessly entertaining.
3.13. Fast Food Nation.
The problem of fast food chains, dug into the world like massive greasy ticks, is a complicated issue expertly examined in Eric Schlosser's anthropologic book and not so satisfyingly ruminated upon in Richard Linklater's loose adaptation of the same material (Schlosser co-wrote the screenplay.) To be fair, Linklater, a smart and talented filmmaker who made my favorite movie of last year, did not have an admirable task when he took it upon himself to create a Babel-like narrative out of the nonfiction outline. The movie follows a marketing exec (Greg Kinnear), an illegal immigrant couple (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama) working for a meatpacking plant in Colorado, and a teenaged clerk (Ashley Johnson) at the fictional fast food dive Mickey's (I know it's an issue of legality, but it irks me when screenwriters don't label their satirical targets less obviously after the templates – ever since Arlington Road involved the bombing in "Kansas City" and the FBI shoot-out at "Red Ridge.") The characters are catalysts for these three assertions: fast food production is flawed, meatpacking plants are terrible places to work, and beef comes from dead cows.
Like the director of the excruciating documentary Super-Size Me, Linklater simply picks the wrong targets and charges into his arguments ill-equipped and half-cocked. For example, Bobby Cannavale plays a lecherous foreman with a pimped-out pickup who threatens to send workers to the "gut line" if they don't put out. What does that have to do with the big picture? When a family spoon-feeds their baby a McDonald's milkshake, is it because some jerk is pushing migrant workers around? When Linklater finally brings us to the dreaded killing floor, an attempt to give the film a horrific denouement, what is it he's trying to say? Is the solution to our fast food nation for us all to become vegetarians?
The use of live slaughterhouse footage is a familiar staple in several notable films. In Georges Franju's Blood of the Beasts, it was used to capture the strange, serene beauty of methodical slaughter. In Killer of Sheep and In a Year with 13 Moons (a favorite of Linklater's), it was a manifestation of the characters' place in the world. Linklater wants to have a place for his own animal disembowelment scene, but its inclusion in this film (and its placement) is very wrongheaded. The two best scenes turn out to be the walk-on cameos of hotshot stars Bruce Willis and Ethan Hawke. Willis, appearing in one scene as a meat buyer, lays down the frank defeatism of trying to bring quality beef to an all-consuming society, and he does it with the tactful understanding of his equable character. Hawke's character, a shiftless uncle to Johnson's pretty, intelligent clerk and clear product of a country of drive-thru windows, tries to impart some kind of wholehearted yet half-brained wisdom to his niece but comes off as miles less convincing than Willis' confident corporate flunky. In these scenes, no solutions are reached, but you can see the effect of the crushing junk food empire Linklater attacks incorrectly on the lives of the film's characters.
3.14. Open Water 2: Adrift.
Open Water 2 is a movie for the dangerous lunkhead in all of us. Some weeks ago, I locked Chris Funderburg and myself out of his upper Manhattan apartment at 3 in the morning wearing only a t-shirt and boxers. The situation, which arose from a set of staggeringly lamebrained circumstances all of which were my fault, was made all the more pitiful, defeating and stupid because its mending was impossible despite being infinitely solvable (the keys were RIGHT INSIDE!) This direct-to-video companion to the 2004 Blair Witch/Jaws hybrid is set apart from the original movie by having its heroes' deadly predicament be entirely of their own thoughtless making. Specifically, a group of friends in their late 20s (one of them hydrophobic) end up in the water around their boat with no ladder placed to help them back on and, as an added bonus, a baby onboard ("something something Burt Ward.")
This is an atypical subject for a feature length film – it's a relatable disaster movie. Honestly, an entire ocean liner flipping over in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is not only unthinkable: if it happened, it would be completely out of my control to prevent it. Even the diving couple from the original Open Water were faultless beyond the pardonable offense of staying underwater too long. But how would it feel to know you were responsible for the incredibly stupid and easily avoidable death of your friends: that you had doomed them and yourself by playfully jumping off a goddamn boat? That thought is terrifying. A "King of the Hill" episode also dealt with this same predicament, albeit much more light-heartedly (it made me wonder whether the episode and film were based on the same true-life incident, but I've found no mention of any said actual occurrence, leading me to wonder if this movie ripped off "King of the Hill.")
As for Open Water 2 itself, as a movie, it's by no means impressive. Things play out pretty much the way you'd imagine. To their credit, the filmmakers don't use sharks as an added terror factor (of course if it hadn't been for the way they filmed the actors with the sharks, there'd be absolutely nothing interesting about the first one.) A short documentary on the disc verified what I'd suspected, that this was an independent film that was purchased and marketed as a sequel to the first film due to their similarities.
You'd think that a teaming of Salma Hayeck and Penelope Cruz – whether it was a rich drama from Spain or, say, a goofy Western actioner – would be marketable. Directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg (read: Luc Besson), Bandidas was the brain child of its actresses, Hayeck apparently still hungry for an overproduced, anachronistic cowboy comedy after Wild Wild West (which, for its universally-acknowledged shittiness, was actually a huge hit.) But beyond its star power, Bandidas, and this is coming from someone who hates all "girl westerns," is absolutely fine. It's not John Ford territory or anything, but compared to a Hollywood stinker like Wild Wild West it's every bit as watchable as, say, Tombstone.
Basically a retelling of the Zorro myth relocated to Mexico from Spain with the hero spliced into two hot women, the film sets its leads in an easily manageable princess-and-the-pauper scenario to establish sight gags like a hoity toity Hayeck getting pushed in the mud by the uncouth Cruz and character arcs such as Cruz learning the advantages of posh gesticulation when it comes to conning her way into a bank robbery. The actress are a little too similar in their antics and accents to fit into the "opposites attract" buddy film formula – white cop/black convict in 48 Hours, cowboy/Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon, black cop/Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, Jackie Chan/stupid bimbo in The Tuxedo and The Medallion – but play off each other well, especially since Hayeck is willing to give Cruz the "cute" role. They join forces to stop ruthless bank magnate/murderer Dwight Yoakam, the go-to dirty ugly villain, with the help of Steve Zahn a.k.a. luckiest man alive: he's already gotten to work with John Dahl, Linklater, Herzog and appear in Soderbergh's best movie, now he gets to lie around in a scene and have lacey-underweared Hayeck and Cruz crawl all over him.
There's even time in between the shameless action set pieces to include a well-conceived plan to break into a protected vault that's more satisfying, and funny, than safe heists in films that center around the hero's witless execution like The Score. I'd never accuse Bandidas of being original or even discernable from any number of forgotten action-comedies, but did it not deserve a nice January spot between Smokin' Aces and Alpha Dog? The bankability of its stars seems validation enough.
3.15. Harsh Times.
Harsh Times, it should be said, is much better than it deserves to be. Crucial to its success is the central performance of Christian Bale, who I've tried to get a handle on over the last few years: Do I like him? Are his performances actually worth anything? The answers are yes and no, and here is my reasoning As an actor, the Reign of Fire alum is a ham sandwich. I'm surprised he was able to lose so much weight for The Machinist with all the scenery he consumes. He's in no danger of becoming an internationally revered thespian: he's strictly B-territory. But he behaves like all those "classy" show-off heavies by shifting weight and physique, inhibiting roles with the unbridled gusto of the method actor, and exploding into pink face vein-mapping fury. He does all this without great deviation from one role to the next (his Batman and Bateman are not too far apart), but I think it works because he believes in it. So often in genre films the lauded lead actor gives a purely paycheck performance, letting the film sink into blandness around him while their reputation remains theoretically safe: think The Recruit or 15 Minutes or the frequent sabotaging of films due to Marlon Brandon's disinterest (although those performances usually become accidentally interesting and the actor's best work.)
Say what you will about Bale, he has respect for whatever project he's appearing in and his work in the film, though inarguably cheesy, tends to class it up by virtue of his pure intentions. Since American Psycho, he's had a penchant for playing ugly characters (which doesn't increase my hopes for Newsies 2: What's Newsie?), and his Jim Davis is no creator of a beloved cartoon cat: he's a ticking timebomb, a former Army Ranger staving off total meltdown from PTSD by gittin high and running around South Central pretending to be a cop along with unemployed friend Freddy Rodriguez. Rodriguez offers solid support as a regular dude trying to maintain his male-posturing street cred around Bale while keeping up his responsibilities as respectable member of society for the sake of girlfriend Eva Langoria, and I can't think of the last time a movie tackled the bros vs. hoes theme with such sympathetic balance. It's easy to get Rodriguez's indignation at his lady's harassment and emasculation over her successful career as a lawyer, but just as easy to understand Langoria's distaste for Bale, to whom she says: "You're crazy and you're dangerous and my biggest nightmare is you with a fucking badge!"
Directed by David Ayer, the screenwriter of Dark Blue and Training Day (who I hope will have the decency to lay off the Wild Bunch remake he's reportedly attached to), Times shares with his previous scripts a creditable contrast between the lawless behavior of private citizens and the above-the-law vindication that comes with being in an authoritative position of civil service (in light of events like the Rampart Scandal, is the real LAPD seen as anything other than a gang of licensed thugs? Bale's character, like Kurt Russell in Blue and Denzel in Day, believes that he's the kind of guy who should be regulating things, and the fact that he clearly isn't and never will be allowed to only fuels his already destructive ego, leading to a point that whatever he has no control over, ultimately himself, must be destroyed. The movie is less obnoxiously twisty than Training Day, and not just in terms of plot: Ayer is a more controlled director than music video auteur Antoine Fuqua, and even manages to bring some Taxi Driver-era Schrader sensibility to the table in his handling of individual sociopath inside casually brutal environment.
The movie is constantly skidding into either languid stoner comedy or silly street melodrama, but again it's Bale to the rescue, committing to whichever route the film's turning onto and meeting it head on: his "soldier of the apocalypse" monologue delivered by a waterhole in a small Mexican town is near iconic, and performed with less goofy fervor than Denzel's "King Kong' speech from Training Day. Herzog recently made one of his controversial (i.e. insane) late-period pronouncements that Bale is the greatest actor working in film today. He's far from the greatest, but he's certainly dedicated and interesting. Terry Crews, who is becoming something of a hero among character actors, has a small role.
A Cruel Picture
aka They Called Her One Eye aka The Hooker's Revenge aka Thriller - A Cruel Lab Mistake
Recently made popular for inspiring the Daryl Hannah character in Kill Bill, this is an interesting European rape-revenge exploitation film full of technical innovations and the surprising use of actual hardcore pornography. Christina Lindberg stars as Madeleine/Frigga who, already stricken mute by a horrific childhood sexual attack, is kidnapped, forced into heroin dependency and prostituted to the sickest fucks in the area, also consequently losing both of her parents and her left eye. Conveniently, her monstrous abductor/pimp allows her to have Mondays off (!), which she constructively uses for target practicing, stunt driving and mastering of martial arts (although her drug addiction gets her wordlessly kicked out of class.)
Thriller is everything an exploitation film should be and a little more besides: Lindberg (who was 22 at the time) looks about fourteen years old, so her frequent nudity and rape footage (the explicit stuff is made up of obvious cut-ins using a different actress, but the effect is still disconcerting) feel slightly statutory, and takes up a good deal of the movie. But by the time she's got her trenchcoat, sawed-off shotgun and roadster, her bloodlust equals that of the film's core paracinema audience, whose prurient interests (and I'm not excluding myself) lead to the same sort of reveling in the gruesome acts against the villains that they had enjoyed inflicting upon the hero/victim.
Director Bo Arne Vibenius relishes in artistically constructed slow motion shots of Frigga beating cops and blowing away the people who've sodomized and abused her, and by that I mean blood flying at something like 500 frames per second, the effect falling somewhere between hypnotic gravitation and impressive, painstakingly textured choreography. By the time she's gone far over the edge and started to push innocent drivers off the road (their cars off course explode majestically) to get to her final showdown with the man who started it all, her violent retribution has gone from balletic inertia to heedless bedlam, set to Ralph Lundsten's great soundtrack. The quality of all of this is surprising, considering Tarantino usually draws attention to unwatchable junk, the film has obviously influenced things like Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45. Warning all pimps: do not give your girls Monday off!
Rollergator was rented based on its promising title and the credentials of director Donald G Jackson (the auteur behind the Frogtown film franchise), who between 1986 and 1992 took full advantage of the skating fad and helmed five roller-related features: Roller Blade, Roller Blade Warriors: Taken by Force (great subtitle), The Roller Blade Seven, Return of the Roller Blade Seven and Legend of the Roller Blade Seven. I haven't seen any of the Roller Blade Seven series (although I have heard the legend), but I'm willing to bet that like Frogtown, they resemble actual movies. Rollergator, a movie Jackson made years after the start of his professional career, which is available for rental or purchase at any major retailer or video store/mailing service, is nothing. It hardly merits the reputation of a bad movie: it's more like a video some retarded middle school kids shot with their dad's grainy video camera – and would afterwards readily admit is unwatchable – in 1987. While the writing is nearly spared from critique due to generic noodling on an acoustic guitar arbitrarily placed on the soundtrack that overlaps every word of poorly-recorded dialogue, what's discernable through the drunken ravings of Joe Werewolf Estevez is that he's the owner of a sinking carnival that requires the popularity of a sass-talkin' purple baby alligator to get back on its feet.
Said gator (which looks like something you'd win at the Claw Grab machine in a Pizza Hut circa 1990) is under the protection of some chick on rollerblades: the bulk of what-have-you is shots of the girl casually skating along, sort of intercut with shots of another girl in a ninja Halloween costume casually skateboarding, the effect meant to be a chase sequence to rival the likes of E.T. or Mac and Me. The purple puppet might have broken into a rap at some point...no, that seems too good for the movie. He did SASS unrelentlessly, that much I remember. The pitch for the film must have gone something like: "Come on: what do kids love more than alligators, babies, ninjas, skateboards, rollerblades, carnivals and Joe Estevez???"
Whatever the go-to movie to make aspiring filmmakers feel better about themselves was, it's been replaced, and the query "Hey if Rollergator can get released, why shouldn't my groundbreaking 4 hour comedy about lesbian cowboys eating soup?" is poised to become a Sundance catchphrase. Of course, your lesbian cowboy movie needs some unrelated shots of Joe Estevez as an alcoholic rancher spliced in there, as well as a hastily-written acoustic score by your 7-11 clerk cousin, but beyond that the distribution agents at Brentwood Home Video (I looked it up - it still exists!) apparently have no overly unrealistic requirements for its selections. Production design credit for the movie goes to "Sergio Kurosawa." Hmm - highly suspect!
I wasn't an instant fan of Supertroopers until I saw Beerfest in the theater: I liked it so much I decided to give the earlier movie a try, and now I'm a fan of both. For its part, I think this one was trying to set some kind of record for making Das Boot jokes. There are at least half a dozen, the best of them being the presence of Jorgen Prochnow as the central villain. Funny this recent trend in American comedies (like this and Deuce Bigelow 2) to cast a European character actor as the bad guy. It says a lot for the Broken Lizard crew that they took so many risks with a formulaic movie that could have just as easily been a generic commercial comedy for frat boys. They get us to care enough about the characters that when one of them tragically dies, they instantly revive him (and make a brilliant joke in doing so.) Jay Chandrasekhar proves a competent director and a reliably charming leading man. As writers, he and the rest of the crew often display a kind of humor-logic that’s near-Pythonesque in its complexity. The fact that Beerfest works at all is impressive; that its jokes – whether witticisms or non-sequitors – are at such a high level is pretty much a miracle. "I once saw him fart a plum I was plum surprised."
3.18. Let's Go to Prison.
Bob Odenkirk has had a bad string of directing gigs (Melvin Goes to Dinner, The Pity Card.) It seems that with the failure of Run Ronnie Run, he just decided not to put in the effort to make funny movies, or at least to abandon the kind of manic brilliance of "Mr. Show" for safer, more formulaic comedy. That would even be fine if any of these projects were getting him any attention, but it appears that he's been relegated to an Oz-like position of man behind the curtain for things like "The Man Show" and "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" That said, Let's Go to Prison, while no classic, is not a waste of time and, while not exactly a step in the right direction, seems to at least be an attempt by Odenkirk to get back into the riskier sort of humor he once flirted with on a regular basis. Maybe even too risky, because when you get down to it, movies set in prison aren't funny. I mean I don't want to go there, and only part of that inclination is based on severe claustrophobia. Prisons are scary, and the things that happen there, all of which are touched upon and sent up in the film (itself based on a straight-forward, nonfiction guide to adapting to prison life, Jim Hogshire's You Are Going to Prison – the script is by three of the State/Reno 911 people), are absolutely frightening to think about. That's why people try to stay out of prison.
Whether this psychological reasoning had any impact on the movie's lackluster box office – that is, if the audience equated Let's Go to Prison with, say, going to prison – is open to conjecture, but at the very least it makes the comedy that much more uncomfortable and reality-grounded, practically requiring that the director work harder to make the jokes funny and original in order to transcend their situated, uneasy foundation. To his credit Odenkirk meets the challenge head on, focusing much of the film's humor on shanking, rape and general discomfort, but he's occasionally unsuccessful at convincing me that things like getting a fork jabbed in your knee is more funny than horrific. But he manages to exploit an average citizen's primal fear of imprisonment: the set-up for most of the gags is Dax Shepherd purposely giving a green Will Arnett the worst advise possible when it comes to surviving in a state penitentiary, apparently taken from Hogshire's book. Arnett is the preppy son of a judge responsible for sending Shepherd to jail more than a few times, effectively running his life. Shepherd decides to exact revenge by getting Arnett busted on a trumped up charge and sent to hell with him, although for him lockup has become more of a cozy residence over the years than the outside world.
Shepherd, the working man's butler's Jason Lee who did all that was expected of him in Mike Judge's disappointing Idiocracy and walked away from that movie fairly blameless, creates an endearing loser and gets all the best jokes: "If I had a nickel for every time I've been incarcerated, I'd have fifteen cents." / "Freeze, or I'll fill you with more holes than the Asshole Day Paradise." ("There's an Asshole Day Parade?") For his part, Arnett (who looks a lot like a young Bob Odenkirk) brings along his smug "Arrested Development" personality, making him an ideal candidate for enduring internment and torture. Chi McBride of The Frighteners is funny as a flirtatious inmate. Again, the movie doesn't rank among the great comedies – or the great prison movies – but is thoroughly enjoyable for a one-time viewing, although the DVD alternative ending is actually better than the original.
3.19. The Color of Lies.
The movie that reteamed Chabrol with his La Ceremonie star Sandrine Bonnaire, and it's almost as rightfully a masterpiece. The layer of deceit and suspicion is so thick, the characters themselves seem to be second-guessing their own intentions. It's fuelled by two awesome central performances from Bonnaire and Jacques Gamblin, whose scruffy features and reliance on a cane to walk bring to mind House M.D. He's a tortured artist whose fragile mind state might have made him a child killer, and in any case may lead to a complete breakdown since everyone residing in the lake town seems certain of his guilt. The transitions, which often cut abruptly through scenes like a knife, are distracting, with the exception of one crazy cut from the murdered girl's tiny submerged coffin to the married couple in bed, boxed in by the darkness. There is an amazing and unconventional confrontation scene between the two of them that speaks for Chabrol's ability to externalize the subtle agony of his characters. "Guess the murderer" plots are usually tedious, but as the female chief inspector points out, sometimes one crime eclipses another - in a word, heavy layers of intense drama, and plenty to pay attention to.
3.20. The Cry of the Owl.
This is Claude mid-80s, at his most De Palmaesque (or late Hitchcockian). Chabrol is often labeled "the French Hitchcock," and I'm sure he doesn't discourage such comparions, but the characters in a Chabrol film don't fit comfortably into an easy psychological outline. That's evident in this case, in which he adapts Patricia Highsmith and yet trickily leaves out an obvious villain. Here you've got a man (Christophe Malavoy, sort of a "French Harry Shearer") who approaches the newly-engaged Mathilda May (of Lifeforce booboriety) in her backyard to inform her that he's been watching through the window for three months. It's nothing dangerous, he assures her: he just likes to see her happy. Things get creepy from there, where it turns out she's the obsessive one, and Malavoy learns that sometimes doing nothing is enough to ruin all the lives around you. The final shot is like an image from a nightmare, and to me rivals the most famous and overrated shots from the oeuvre of "the Master."
3.21. Innocents with Dirty Hands.
Hit the wall like a bat in a brick factory with this one. I guess it was my fault for wondering what Chabrol was up to in the 70s. Just as Color of Lies was complimented by two excellent performances, so is Innocents with Dirty Hands hampered and ultimately rendered unwatchable by the ridiculous scene chewing of Rod Steiger and Romy Scheider. It doesn't help that their characters' name is "Wormser," forcing me to compare it to the superlative Revenge of the Nerds. He's a rich drunk, she's the young wife who plots - if you've seen the American version of Diabolique you can pretty much fill it all in from here. The real innocent here is the director, who must have had to resign himself to Steiger's cheek-flapping ham theatrics, this being his last chance to show them off in what could be called a prestige film before plunging into B-movie character actor hell as the senator in FIST and the priest in Amityville Horror. To accomodate his casting, everyone else in the film is subjected to horrible Jackie Chan-style dubbing...I like to think they were all making fun of Steiger in French. Not Chabrol's weirdest film (that would be The Swindle), not even his worst casting choice (Andrew McCarthy in Quiet Days in Clichy, anyone?) but by far his blandest.
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