11/2/6 - 11/9/6

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 epic high art masterpieces such as all ten parts of Kieslowski's Decalogue to instantly forgettable Hollywood crap du jour like A Perfect Stranger to cult classics like Sam Fuller's White Dog. 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 10/23/6 - 11/1/6>>

11.2.06. The Dam Busters.

The first thing I should get out of the way in reviewing Michael Anderson's excellent war film is that, yes, the dog is named "Nigger" and it is unfortunate every time one of the officers cheerfully calls out, "Hello, Nigger, old boy!" But even though these moments feel flinchingly out of a Dave Chappelle sketch (and Pink Floyd decided the dog's name was some political item they had to point out in the patchwork of The Wall), it's a single distraction from the animal's subplot, which is as well played out as anything else in the movie. Michael Redgrave stars as a professor working for Vickers in 1942 who develops an unconventional weapon: a bomb placed inside a round casing which is launched so that it skips down the water like a pebble and hits a concrete damn at an exact point to demolish its infrastructure, therefore flooding the surrounding enemy territory and thus crippling the area's industries and transportation system.

The movie has three solid acts: Redgrave's testing of the weapon, the assembling and training of a special squadron to fly them into Germany, and the mission itself. Because Redgrave's idea is so unique and technical, the first half of the movie is as exciting as the perfection of specific and scientific plans in great heist movies by Dassin or Melville. The rest is high quality action laced with pre-attack anixety: the men never falter in their task, yet the uncertainty of their fate and the success of the mission loom ominously (what Sarafian achieved with the hum of a car engine in Vanishing Point, Anderson creates with the buzz of the crusading bombers.) The team is made up of typical heroic ragtag types: Dinghy, so named because he always crashes into the ocean and paddles home in his rubber boat...two Aussies whose accents sound about as convincing as Richard Harris' in Guns of Navarone...Robert Shaw (although I was hard-pressed to pick him out, since he wasn't blonde and bare-chested, or sticking out of a shark's mouth)...and Joe McCarthy, the "glorious blonde" and former Coney Island beach guard.

Coming in only sixty feet above the water with guns blazing at them from below, these guys show the pussies from Top Gun who suffer equipment failure and mid-flight freakouts what real pilots are made of. It's no wonder Lucas modeled the Death Star raid after Dam Buster's attack sequences: it's classic dogfighting, from the silent intensity of the planes' approach to the almost beautiful spray of light representing deadly enemy fire. Great moments at the end of the movie: returning flyboys in post-mission duldrums - it's just another day - juxtaposed against shots of the empty rooms of pilots who didn't make it.

 

11.3.06. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

"I think the joke is on people who believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist." - Sacha Baron Cohen.  

Someone should crown this project the all-time most successful and popular piece of performance art.  Cohen disappears so completely into Central Asian reporter Borat Sagdiyev, it is genuinely difficult to think of the two as the same person.  As in the series of sketches on "Da Ali G Show," the genius of the character is not so much the envelope-pushing jokes or Cohen's uncanny talent at timing and improvisation, but the reactions he gets from the people he's interviewing and interacting with. That he could be tolerated as long as he is at an etiquette-based Southern social dinner, or not be instantly kicked out of a public place when he walks around sans pants, says so much about the people and the society, and reaction is the crux of performance art.  A car dealer becomes Cohen's conduit for completing a joke when he has an instant answer to which vehicle will provide Borat with the most action: he responds that way because that's who he is and how he deals with people, and Cohen knows and uses it.  

By proxy of the Borat guise, Cohen - between providing connective voice-over and executing amazing pratfalls - is seeking an explanation for absurd culturalisms, the prejudicial result of which is predisposed classification and segregating xenophobia: "Cultural Learnings" may be the most appropriate subtitle since "The Secret of the Ooze."  The protests of the Kazakhstan government against the film are demonstrative of how little his purpose is understood on a popular basis.  Its pointed ethnic probing aside, this is also a groundbreaking comedy.  Whether a sequence is kick-in-the-balls funny because his actions elicit shocked responses from hapless bystanders (riding the subway, his appearance on the local news show) or because they are immaculately staged and structured the way brilliant comedic scenes are (the opening scenes in Kazakhstan, his stay at the bed and breakfast), Borat's humor is consistently on-target and caused my brain to hemorrhage a number of times.  Other good news: jokes from the show aren't recycled, and Ken Davitian as Borat's producer Azamat is an excellent inclusion: the movie's funniest and most scandalous scene would make Ken Russell turn red.

 

11.4.06. The Driller Killer.

Abel Ferrara's first movie is a strange affair: it's the story of a frustrated artist in which the unmotivated murdering of random homeless people with an electric drill is inexplicably worked into the narrative. Ferrara plays Reno, a put-upon painter going slightly mad who decides to cope with the prying of his weasely landlord, the throbbing bass of the band next door and the harsh criticisms of an art gallery owner by strapping a battery belt around his waist and taking to town for some bum boring. And...it's boring. The grisly attacks are gory and plentiful (Killer's vagrant death toll rivals that of Street Trash) but never connect logically with the rest of the movie. It's like a sudden, violent series of bludgeoning scenes popping up in the middle of The Commitments.

A freshman sampling of the same script problems he'd have on later films, but Ferrara's atmosphere almost makes up for it. His movies, especially the early work, are pleasures - albeit guilty ones. His Manhattan is a much seedier place than Scorsese's and, like Larry Cohen's New York, full of characters that only exist in that under-lit urban world: the mute vigilante of Ms. 45, the martial arts-trained stripper-killer in Fear City, Harvey Keitel's moaning, masturbating, Jesus-hallucinating lieutenant. It's the hellish celluloid vision of late 70s/early 80s New York, a neon cityscape stained with the smutty fingerprints of Son of Sam, polluted with weirdoes and hookers who enter their dirty studio apartments under a crucifix perched above the doorframe. The environment and the aesthetic are symbiotic: the main problem with something like American Psycho or Stuart Gordon's recent Edmond is that they're set in the same kind of world but are distanced from it simply because the movies were made 25 years too late. Killer may not work as a horror movie (for a lot of the same reasons American Psycho doesn't) but it's a sign of its time. Ferrara also deserves an honorable menton for raspiest and least coherent director's commentary. Also, the movie features the most disgusting looking pizza ever placed on screen.

 

11.5.06. Lair of the White Worm.

"Since when did you become a Ken Russell fan?" Funderburg asked as we watched this 1988 Bram Stoker adaptation. It's true: the first time I saw The Devils I deemed it "stupidest movie ever made" and was subsequently underwhelmed by Tommy, Lisztomania, Salome's Last Dance, Whore. It was Women in Love and his early composer biopics made for television that turned me around, and I realized that Russell must be intelligent enough to know how infuriatingly juvenile his movies are. But in that case, what kind of irresponsible maniac would unleash such films onto the world? Does the giant snake monster in White Worm look so crappy on purpose? Are all the uber-Freudian imagery and caddy innuendos the cinema's most committed exercise in excessive tongue-in-cheek? And is there any merit to that style, even if it's intentionally executed?

With White Worm, we get the sort of exhausting domestic monster movie along the lines of Hellraiser, a kind of drawing room drama in which two couples have to stop an ancient race of vampiritic Roman snake gods before they resurrect the titular serpent and destroy the Christian world (I think that was the plot.) Rather than employ his usual spinning camera and punch-in zoom techniques, Russell straps the action down in mostly claustrophobic interiors that made me long for the psychedelic blackhead-focusing fishbowl-lens closeups of past films. What's really missing is a lack of the grandiose. With the exception of two extravagant hallucinations, every scene is main characters exchanging suggestive banter like they're in an episode of "Are You Being Served?"

Something about edgy filmmakers: they make their movies more conventional and they get boring. In Russell's case this was the point of his career when he began to slide from respected art filmmaker to B-movie director to server of flaccid mediocrity (The Fall of the Louse of Usher, anyone?) Not that the movie's without its guilty charms, such as Hugh Grant's fantasy/nightmare involving wrestling stewardesses and Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia, her well-measured, just slightly over-the-top performance could have been absurd but is skillfully held together.

 

Tourist Trap.

This late 70's horror offering opens bleakly, with a lame death scene that might do something for those who think dolls bobbing up and down is scary (producer Charles Band is  obviously one of them, this being a precursor to his endless stream of Puppet Master and Demonic Toys movies.) The quality of the film sky rockets, however, with the introduction of Tanya Roberts' chest and legs (she's a brunette, and often in bondage.) She and her traveling companions find out there's strange doin's transpirin' at the roadside wax museum Slausen's Last Oasis run by Chuck Conners, who gives an unabashedly sweaty performance as the heavy (I think the revelation of him as the killer is supposed to be a surprise), chasing very slow-moving victims around in a mask that's a complete rip-off of the one Leatherface is wearing in the second half of 'Saw. There are a lot of ideas, possibly too many: death by plaster, telepathy, living mannequins, fratricide - all of them mashed together from films like House of Wax and Carrie (to be fair, Stephen King does endorse the movie.) Trap is elevated to a high level of cheese, not all of it ineffective. Great score by Pino Donaggio.

 

11.6.06. Lost in America.

When Albert Brooks (the character, the alter ego) gets excited about a revelation he's had, it's infectious. "We really can do anything we want, can't we?" his wife (a great performance by Julie Hagerty) asks confidently after hearing his plans to drop out of society, inspired by the romantic rebels of Easy Rider ("They had a nest egg! They had a shipment of cocaine!") Thinking of this and Brook's other triumphs - Real Life, Modern Romance, Broadcast News, the Scorpio episode of "The Simpsons," Finding Nemo - makes it painful to remember he's also the guy responsible for Mother and The Muse. His brand of Baby Boomer in Existential Crisis comedy went out, inevitably, with the decade and have since become almost fossilized even though those first three films are still pretty great. One reason might be that while he's basically using Yuppyism as toast for his comedic oleo, the very nature of the character arc demands a smug conclusion of Reagan-era materialistic happiness: the couple reuniting at the end of Romance, or the nearly defeatist ending of America in which they ultimately haul ass to New York to beg for Brooks' job back. I suppose the ultimate idea is that these kind of people really know nothing and while it's hilarious to observe them exercising their naive vexations the director is forced to circle back to where we first found them: unfulfilled and lacking life-affirming desperation, trapped in the comfort of conformity.

 

11.7.06. Pan's Labyrinth.

Guillermo del Toro has been rehearsing for his first truly great movie. I've been into everything he's done up to now - Cronos, Blade II, The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy, even Mimic (the parts that weren't co-directed by Bob Weinstein) - but something about each film feels unfinished. Not "unfinished," but "underway," like a great looking sketch. And unlike Robert Rodriguez, whose work also has that feel, he's not skimping or cutting corners for budget's sake: everything looks clean and well-executed and just-nearly amazing. With Pan's Labyrinth, he's created his first completed mural and it's wonderful to behold. Like Devil's Backbone, it's an intense period drama that happens to have a fantasy subplot which, though comparatively marginalized, is the focus of the movie. The Alice in this Wonderland is Ofelia, a fatherless girl whose mother marries the sadistic leader of rebel-ferreting Spanish soldiers and moves them into the captain's base, which is also home to the mysterious maze of the title.

Basically del Toro did exactly what Peter Jackson should have done after Lord of the Rings (and what I keep hoping Sam Raimi will do): he went back and did a smaller movie - the kind he kicked his career off with - on the tail of his big Hollywood kick. He's a good storyteller, and while the various themes of civilization/organization/military/reality vs natural world/chaos/rebellion/fantasy may not be anything new, he reimagines them in greens and blues with the dark allure of old Disney films before they went all Disney. There are more than shadowy references to the vastly superior Spirit of the Beehive, although Labyrinth does a good job taking that idea and channeling its "spirit" with modern effects and sensibilities. With this, del Toro becomes forerunner to modern films' Great Visualist, picking up where Terry Gilliam, Jeunet y Caro and the Quay brothers dropped the ball. It's a fantasy film with a child lead that also has the maturity level of Miike's The Great Yokai War and Dave McKeon's Mirrormask, that doesn't hesitate to let the devil out of his box: the Pale Man's feast is the scariest scene in any movie this year, and one of the best. Ivana Baquero is amazing as Ofelia, and Doug Jones (Hellboy's Abe Sapien) gets dual make-up jobs as Fauno (Pan) and the Pale Man.

 

11.8.06. Mark of the Vampire.

God bless Rob Zombie. He might not be completely successful as a filmmaker, but at least he has good taste. His new program "Underground" for TCM (which I have to say is the best network on television - who else shows the uncut Fanny and Alexander?) is the best film hosting program since Joe Bob Briggs went off the air, and when I flipped on the channel the other week to see a Russ Meyer double feature was playing, I knew I'd be taping the hell out of the show. This week was a Tod Browning double bill, and after watching Freaks for the eight billioneth time (it's a convenient movie to watch over and over since it's an hour long), I checked out this lesser-known title (with some trepidation, as its poster was used in the Val Lewton documentary when they were talking about how Bela Lugosi's career had belly-flopped.)

It's an interesting if flawed creation that's pretty much exactly as Zombie introduced it, a murder mystery version of Dracula. Lugosi is again photographed caped and scowling, appearing in shots that seem like they could have been lifted straight from the former film. He has no dialogue until the very last scene, and is prominently featured lurking through a cemetery so there didn't seem much difference between this and his "performance" in Plan 9 from Outer Space. He plays Count Mora, a local vampire who comes under suspicion when a rich man is found dead, two puncture wounds in his neck and all the blood drained from his body ("Police are baffled!") One interesting feature of the film is a blood splotch on Lugosi's right temple which Zombie explains was part of an intended back story involving Mora's incestuous relationship with his daughter that led to his suicide. That this macabre subplot was removed from the final film is suggestive of how much the studio (who apparently already hated Browning after the scandalous Freaks) messed with the cut and had a hand in its overall mediocrity. Lionel Barrymore doesn't help with his over-the-top performance as Van Helsing surrogate Professor Zelin, but Carroll Borland adds some undead sex appeal as pre-Vampira vixen Luna. There are also a hopelessly embarrassing amount of cheesy rubber bat effects; although they are explained by the far-fetched twist ending, they're still distracting.

 

11.9.06. Hotel Room.

For some reason the concept of a hotel room really enticed American auteurs in the early 90s. The Coens made Barton Fink, Tarantino et al concocted the Four Rooms fiasco (interesting fact: Steve Buscemi turned down the part of the bellboy in that one, not wanting to reprise his role from Fink) and Lynch produced a similar idea with this television project: three stories, all set in the same room at different time periods, though the bellhop - played by Clark Heathcliffe Brolly, a Kyle MacLachlan/Dana Ashbrook hybrid - remains the same.

This should be viewed as a wholly Lynch production: the only other way to look at it is as a sandwich made of fresh bread with steaming cow shit in the middle. The second story, directed by the guy who made Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, is useless, even worse than the Allison Anders segment of Four Rooms, if that's possible. Written by Jay McInerney, it's a mind-numbingly dull stretch of truly bad dialogue - drowned out in a distracting jazz underscore - delivered by hollow characters played by Griffin Dunne and Deborah Kara Unger. It's just as bad as I remember it being...this is what the fast forward button was created for (and it's not archaic to say that: Hotel Room hasn't been released on dvd.)

The superior bookends are directed by Lynch and written by Barry Gifford, whom I associate with the director's two least successful efforts Wild at Heart and Lost Highway. But since both of those films fail on a large scale yet work in great individual sequences, it makes sense that the two shorts here come off as well as they do. In the first ("Tricks"), Harry Dean Stanton just wants to get it on with hooker Glenne Headley but is cock-blocked by a sinister stranger who has some sort of ominous tie to him (Freddie Jones, the most subtle of Lynch's psychopaths.) Stanton's great as usual, broken meekness shattered by sudden bursts of frustrated malcontent. There's a great uncomfortable sense of dread as the characters allude to their seedy pasts: the trademark Lynch feeling that something bad is about to happen, or already happened a long time ago.

The same tension hangs in the air of "The Blackout," in which Lynch directs Crispin Glover (match made in a oddball heaven?) and Alicia Witt as a couple from Oklahoma visiting Manhattan but on a one-way trip to Freak Out Country during a power failure. The whole thing feels like an early dress rehearsal for Mulholland Drive: there are several great moments and images in this entry and, on an eerie note, a story Glover's character tells about a boy from his hometown kind of creepily mirrors the details of Jack Nance's strange death, still three years away. The major failing of "Blackout" is that it reveals too much, which is actually reassuring when considering Lynch's tendency to obliqueness - in his world, mysticism is better than psychology. Of the two, "Tricks" stands out, but they're both worthy of comparison to any of his major works. Great score by Angelo Badalamenti and photography by Peter Deming.

<<click here for 11/10/6 - 11/21/6>>

 

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