3/22/7 - 3/31/7

john cribbs

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 3/12 - 3/21>>

 

    3.22. Il Posto.

In his director's statement, Ermanno Olmi says that Il Posto is about "the subtle distinction between acceptance and resignation."  Most people have many a time - and some every day - stared at the walls forming an office space wondering what they're doing in an entrapment of their own life's design, and why things aren't different for them. Olmi's charming hero Domenico enters these walls with a romantic if unassuming vision of his future, and watching the film you'd like to believe any form of "acceptance" would be on his own terms (specifically, that he'd make time with a beautiful co-worker).  Through the lives of other characters, a clutter of submissive white collar clerks (think Ikiru made by Bresson), we see an eventuality in store for Domenico which is absolutely unacceptable. The power the institution works against the protagonist is in its cold indifference to anything excepting routine: like the opening of I Fidanzati, even the jollity of a dance is made artificial and awkard by the omnipresence of monotonous custom.  Its control is unchallenged without the existence of what Olmi calls "the unexpected hope which life continually holds out to us and for which we must not let ourselves be unprepared." Watching Il Posto, observing Domenico (up until the last scene, which is open to analysis) is to understand Olmi's distinction, and hope that his hero is in fact prepared.

 

 

    3.23. Secret Honor.

Criterion sure knew which Altmans to release on dvd.  For anyone who doesn't understand why people such as Paul Thomas Anderson have a mad hard-on for Philip Baker Hall, they need to check this out right away.  In a role he originated on stage, Hall plays a clearly insane, deliriously self-righteous, rambling, pathetic, beaten lunatic who just happens to be Richard Milhouse Nixon.  Trapped in his home office post-Watergate, Nixon spews forth "fuggim!"s while contradicting himself, reassuring himself and spying on himself.  Hall fills the screen, laying dialogue track over himself as he rants, turning his erratic victim/avenger/coward version of Dick (an original performance, not a lame impersonation) into an entire cast: historical figure as jabbering mental patient.  "As a matter of fact, I had promised, uh, Pat that I was going to, uh - Pat of course is my, uh - out of the race - uh, WIFE!"  For Altman's part, there are some terrible tracking shots, a poor, often unnecessary score and emphasis on props, all of which would be distracting were they not blown over by Hall's acting.  The argument could be made that this was intentional, but the final rundown indicates that this is, and always was, Hall's movie, not Altman's.

 

California Split.

As much as I liked California Split - and I liked it a lot - I couldn't help thinking what a missed vehicle this was for Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  It seems like it must have been written with them in mind: two American joes, one a charming, fast-talking opportunist, the other a lonely, injured victim of the American Dream.  I don't mean to short change Elliot Gould and George Segal, who gives great performances, but it seems to be a comment on Altman's anti-star aesthetic: his deglammorizing of anyone that could steal his film away from him (is it a coincidence that Paul Newman is the star of two of his most unwatchable movies?)  My favorite scene is Segal sitting at the restaurant after being torn down and shit upon as a human being by his bookie, listening to a loud drunken idiot make an ass of herself to the bartender, then on the way out she tells him to fuck himself. 

 

    3.24. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

The problem with a director paying homage to a great filmmaker of the past is that the two will inevitably be compared, and the consensus will almost always be, "Man, I wish Sam Peckinpah had directed this movie instead."  Actually, despite its obvious Peckinpah leanings, Melquaides Estrada is more like a bad Clint Eastwood film, right down to the poorly-drawn supporting female characters.  Granted, the male characters aren't written much better: we know the title character is a good man because he dances with a girl in a hotel room instead of fucking her, and we know Barry Pepper is a bad man because he masturbates to Hustler while on the job.  Tommy Lee Jones acts more like a jilted lover than a vengeful friend in mourning the murdered Estrada (who is so plucky and dimply he should've been played by Ponch himself), which makes sense when you get Brokeback-style glimpses of the two characters gallivanting happily together in flashbacks.  The first hour of the film is such a structural mess that it is almost unwatchable.  The second hour tries to make up for it by straightening out the narrative and throwing in some hilarious Weekend at Bernie's-style post-mortum humor, but by that time there's just nothing and nobody to care about.  Chris Menges shoots some pretty pictures: it's too bad he's mainly used here to tonally separate Texas from Mexico.

 

 

    3.25. The Seventh Continent.

Michael Haneke is influenced by Bresson, which is why faces don't appear until ten minutes into his feature film.  Instead there's a montage of a crimson alarm clock, pet fish voraciously attacking food on the surface of an aquarium, a distant conversation at a school entrance not unlike Cache's final scene.  When we do get the first unobscured shots of the lead characters - a married couple and their young daughter - they seem hollowed out: fearful facades of contentment.  Something's happened to these people, they've been dosed with a social affliction more wicked and corrupting than those of Red Desert or Safe.  They're victims of terminal methodology, their only thoughts of salvation a frozen beach with rocks that look like deformed dinosaur fossils, the image on a travel billboard.  Haneke takes a story he read about in the newspaper and turns it into a study of the mundane, in which the only hope of transcendence lies in miserable chaos.  I don't think I've ever seen a more effective use of a film's budget than the scene with the toilet, which Haneke refers to in the dvd's excellent interview as the scene that most noticeably shook up European audiences.

 

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.

The third part of Haneke's so-called "glaciation trilogy" examines a society with endless explanations and without any answers.  It's a film about the ceaseless ebb of information spewed forth by the media and what little there is to take from it, how it trivializes and degrades.  Again, Haneke takes an unfathomable event drawn from real life and shifts around the pieces leading up to it: a couple dealing with a sick child, another looking to adopt, a homeless Romanian boy (who, scrounging for sustenance in a pre-apocalyptic world, strongly resembles the character from Time of the Wolf), a troubled college student, a lonely old man.  The narratives are laced with the sporadic, fuzzy language of news television.  A precise and probing juxtaposition (Code Unknown is stylistically sort of a companion film), 71 Fragments is a poignant examination of the dread and isolation of information, featured with the amazing trademark-Haneke open/close-your eyes editing style that plays like an intellectual version of an old William Castle gimmick.  One minute you're observing the character, the next you're glaring into a cheap television screen, seeing through their eyes.  Everything Haneke has done is surprising and exciting.

 

 

    3.27. Running Scared.

Before Jackson and Levy in The Man, there was Hines and Crystal in... oops, wrong movie.  2006's Running Scared is an experiment which pretty much fails at everything it tries to be: creppy, ghetto-based Alice in Wonderland... twisty, action-minded update of Kurosawa's Stray Dog... brutal, straight-forward crime drama in the spirit of Joe Carnahan's Narc. As a whole, the movie collapses upon itself conceptually, but there are several sequences that work on their own: the opening violence, the abusive Russian father ranting insanely about John Wayne's death in The Cowboys, the ice rink torture scene/stand-off, and especially the weirdly-placed but effectively creepy child kidnapper scene, which could be taken away from the movie and stand on its own. Paul Walker is fun to watch, but isn't a good enough actor to sell his solitary, tormented low-level gangster. But he's fun to watch. Vera Farmiga provides enough actual acting to balance things out. Wayne Kramer overdoes the suspense in detriment to character development, but the movie is close enough to an enjoyable, 100 percent unbelievable "urban nightmare" movie on par with Judgment Night (minus that film's excellent soundtrack.)

 

 

Eight Below.

Frank Marshall, who is close to directing one animal-themed movie for every species on earth, reworks his 1993 Alive with sled dogs. It's a remake of a Japanese movie that was apparently based on a true story, and like so many of the Jack London-inspired snow dog/wolf films (Never Cry Wolf, White Fang, Iron Will...uh, Snow Dogs) the exhaustively trained canine cast is more interesting than the human characters. Eight Below (which they decided to make two hours long for some reason) cuts back and forth between the traveling pack and the worried, civilization-based Paul Walker, panged with guilt over leaving his furry team behind. Despite the uninteresting human sections, which include the always-unwelcome Jason Biggs, there's enough action in the 150 days the dog are on their own (who knew leopard seals were such dicks?) to keep the story going.

 

 

 

 

    3.28. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Whether the subtitle is an intended nod to Seijun Suzuki or not is unlcear: what's more apparent is how worthy an addition to the Fast and Furious franchise Tokyo Drift is. In terms of what we expect from an F & F movie - cool shit with cars - the editing and stunt work involved get a solid A , especially in the two climatic race scenes. Storywise, it supplies what every action movie needs but so few today offer: a likable hero (Lucas Black, the willful Southern lad of "American Gothic" and Sling Blade) and a threatening villain (D.K., the Drift King.)  There is a bit of laziness (an extortion ring subplot gets completely sidetracked), but then this ain't Shakespeare.  Black does a fine job filling Paul Walker's shoes, and brings credibility to lines like "I can't do it, Twinkie." This third movie finally clears up that not all Asians are bad guys in the personage of sagacious Han: the Ramirez of drifting, he signals the end of every montage shot with a firm "Again!"  The final scene got a loud ovation from everyone in the theater, including me. Strangely, the excellent preview line - "If you're in control, you ain't in control" - re: drifting didn't seem to make it into the final cut of the film. 

 

 

Cars.

Vrooooooom! F. No, not that bad...but aside from being the first of the last four Pixar movies to not out-gross the previous film, it's also the first not to raise the admittedly high bar set by its predecessor. None of the previews impressed me, and Larry the Cable Guy...I was ready to sit this one out. But then I remembered how much I regretted missing Finding Nemo in the theater, based on the prediction that fish would not make good characters.  And that's the key difference: the fish were good characters, the cars aren't.  It's very hard to accept a world in which cars do all the things human do - so much that, to me, the rides in Tokyo Drift were more lovable.  It's a vexing matter of chicken-before-the-egg vagueness: do cars grow up from little cars? Do they have sex to make babies? Do they have some sort of monetary system? I feel like these are problems that I would have been asking even if I saw the movie as a kid... Pilfering what could be termed the Doc Hollywood Premise, the movie features an arrogant racer named Lightning McQueen (like Lucas Black, he has trouble turning) who ends up stuck on an off-Interstate road with a group of goofy types who will eventually make him a better...uh, car. There's a lot of car-related humor, most of which is pretty bad (late night talk show host Jay...Limo?), but the excellent animation kept my ass in the seat, and "gang-gum!" Cable Guy turned out to be less a pervasive and obnoxious presence than I had anticipated (although the does get his retarded "Gidderdone!" catch phrase in there, and members of the yokel audience pissed themselves every time his character said anything.) As to the standard self-referential credit jokes, I think Pixar should take a cue from Incredibles and let it die.

 

    3.29. Disorderlies.

Somewhere slightly below A Hard Day's Night and just above the Jerky Boys movie is this Fat Boys vehicle. Cary Grant...Henry Fonda....Errol Flynn...Don Ameche...Darren "Buffy" Robinson.  It's hard to say which co-star Ralph Bellamy held in highest esteem. This movie really appreciates the genius of a fat-guy-bouncing "boing!" sound effect, as well as the classic pratfall involving a fat guy wrecking a daintily-suspensed pool chair.  Not only that, it has the mind to combine the two! Taken from the Brooklyn nursing home where they work (and indulge in sixteen cakes five times a week) the three heroes are tasked to care for millionaire Bellamy by his greedy son in hopes that their ineptitude will cause his death, or at least present him with the opportunity to knock the old man off. The villains don't count on an impromptu taping of the Boys' "Baby You're a Rich Man" video, which indirectly leads to the exposure of their plot. 

 

 

Rubin and Ed.

Crispin Glover is a movie cult icon, and prior to his elusive What Is It, Rubin and Ed was the holy grail for his devoted followers, as well as his most concencrated attempt to personalize a character (he even took Rubin Farr with him on Letterman, to memorably awkward brilliance.) Unfortunately, the film in large is a missed opportunity: writer-director Trent Harris can't seem to find enough interesting situations to put Glover's nutty characer in, and Howard Hesseman as straight-man Ed Tuttle is too much of a whiny loser to really care about. Not that there isn't plenty of greatness in little scenes, especially Rubin's obsession with the Echo People and the truly upsetting waterskiing cat fantasy/flashback sequence. The desert-placed plot seems to have inspired Gus Van Sant's Gerry, and the two actors really merit someone of Van Sant's talent to try a sequel.

 

 

 

    3.30. Masters of Horror: Homecoming.

I've heard all the bad rumors surrounding Showtime's "Masters of Horror" and in this, the first I've seen, there is little to assuage fears that the series really is just a glorified "Tales from the Crypt." For some reason, horror anthologies have not worked since 1955's Dead of Night.  Despite the conceit of involving the "greatest of all horror directors," Night Terrors, Two Evil Eyes, Tales from the Darkside, Body Bags, etc. are all near-misses to utterly unwatchable. I was hoping this project might be the exception, having such an undeniable lineup of all-stars and inspired choices like Miike, Larry Cohen and Lucky McKee. But this is the Joe Dante segment, and it fares badly for the rest that his would seem so cheaply pieced together. Dante, who hasn't worked on a flat-out horror project in twenty years, chose a Sam Hamm satire in which casualties from the "recent conflict" return as zombies to vote against the pro-war president.  Nudge-nudge!  It's not that Dante can't handle relevant political material - anyone who's seen his underrated HBO movie The Second Civil War knows that. But this is blatant bash-you-over-the-head stuff, with Robert Picardo (sadly, the only Dante regular to appear) as a Karl Rove/Dick Cheney hybrid making sly references to foreign policy and "Florida." The funny thing is that Dante is always satirical and subversive, but even in Gremlins he's never mean - this material is superior and condescending: I never would have guessed he had been behind it. At least Picardo is his usual amusing self: the rest of the mostly-Canadian cast (especially Thea Gill as an intolerably loud, offensively ugly media hog) is amateurishly bad. 

 

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.

"Deceitful" turned out to be an appropriate word in the recent unveiling of J.T. LeRoy, when vanquished was any authentic autobiographical experience the author may have claimed influenced the novel about a boy growing up among white trash monsters and oppressive bible maniacs. That same inauthentic feeling permeates throughout the movie version, the most predictable example being Asia Argento's casting of herself as the boy's southern whore of a mom. Her meshing of accents may have produced new words like "mind-i-cine," but she's still got undeniable cinematic presence: the movie dies when she's off-camera. This being her sophomore effort, her filmmaking is still shaky, and decisions that probably worked better in the book don't read well on screen (am I giving her too much slack?  Probably.)  The first images of the movie, angled tracking shots of buildings that make it look like the world is sinking, end up symbolizing the waning technical innovativeness from that point on. In terms of story, what we're left with is well-trodden territory that doesn't have much help towards being refreshed. Appearances by Winona Ryder, Peter Fonda and Michael Pitt are brief and unmemorable.

 

 

First Person: Leaving the Earth.

Errol Morris labels Denny Fitch a "hero," then shows us what a hero is. A hero is someone who takes a job where he knows that he is responsible for hundreds of lives, and trains himself to be prepared to save as many of those lives as possible should an unforeseen tragedy occur. In 1989, some insane form of fate put Fitch, a commercial pilot, in the passenger seat of a plane that literally breaks mid-flight with 296 people on it. Fitch is one of Morris' most reliable and modest subjects, not to mention an excellent storyteller: his descriptions are just as sad and gripping to listen to as sitting through United 93. The short, one of "First Person's" hour-long episodes, is just as good as if not better than some of Morris' feature work and deserves recognition.

 

    3.31. Agatha.

I got really depressed when I learned of the existence of a hypothetical version of what happened during Agatha Christie's eleven day disappearance of December 1926 (I wanted to write a play about it), but having finally seen it I feel better. It's devoid of anything resembling Christie's mystique: slow-moving and unabsorbing, not that I was expecting much from a movie I've never heard a single person mention: we only rented it because my girlfriend's a Timothy Dalton fan. The whole project was obviously written around Dustin Hoffman, who plays an obnoxious guy investigating the vanishing, and it's no wonder this was buried in his filmography along with Ishtar and Family Business (or anything he's done in the last 15 years...seriously, excepting I Heart Huckabees, has anyone cared about anything he's been in since, like, Hook?) It's interesting that this was directed by Michael Apted, who also made that bland film about the Enigma machine, another awesome true story that could have been made into a great film. He also made Nell.

 

 

 

Morvern Callar.

There's a scene at the end of La Dolce Vita set on the beach at the beginning of a new day - as the partygoers who've indulged in a night of orgiastic abandon groggily file out onto the sand, the weight of their miserable cleansing is felt on the audience (in part recooperating from 174 minutes of Fellini overindulgence). There's a scene that feels like a miniature version of that near the start of Morvern Callar, in which Samantha Morton sits pondering her existence after a night of loud techno music and a mechanical menage a trois. Callar, at this point less than15 minutes in, hasn't earned the scene, and has set itself up for another hour of Sulk City with about as much character investment as a polaroid of the back of someone's head. Callar's strongest attribute is Morton who, impossibly cinematic, plays the opposite of a Lars von Trier heroine: a woman who refuses to be made a victim. This is meant to be an empowerment, but because female characters who suffer are more narratively appealing - the fairly morose way Morton goes about liberating herself doesn't help - she ends up seeming selfish and unlikable. Lynne Ramsay's approach might be a breath of fresh air from Jane Campion's punished and tormented take on women characters, but it's a safe tactic that doesn't really go anywhere.

<<click here for 4/1 - 4/10>>

 

 

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