11/22/6 - 12/1/6
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 11/10/6 - 11/21/6>>
11.22.06. Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny.
The first and last ten minutes of the movie made me wish it were an all-out rock opera. Meatloaf as Jack Black's dad in the opening flashback? It put me in the mood for a really fun flick. Sadly, everything between the beginning and ending is mediocre as hell: there's not enough music, not enough jokes (there is a funny, if random, Clockwork Orange gag) and too much recycling from the HBO show. It's gotten to a point where you can anticipate Ben Stiller's cameo to the minute in these movies. Having Ronnie James Dio pop up made me wish that instead of Stiller and Tim Robbins (although he does have the funniest joke of the movie), they'd have gotten Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Angus Young - why not be the Blues Brothers of hair metal heroes? Because this movie isn't much of anything else.
For all Jack Black's energy and Kyle Gass' dopey stoicism (I'm convinced he'd be a great straight actor) there's very little excitement and almost no innovation. Where's the animated sequence, a group musical number, something to liven things up? Instead director Liam Lynch relies almost entirely on Black doing his thing, for a ridiculously large portion of the movie in a small apartment, with a slacker's knack for missed opportunities. And not jokes that miss, jokes that simply do not exist. Cock push-ups, even if they were a fresh idea, are limp on the screen in the season of Borat and Jackass 2. Pick of Destiny was pushed back and kept testing poorly... they should have scraped the whole concept, hired Bob Odenkirk and David Cross to do a new script, written more new songs and started over from scratch.
11.23. Flushed Away.
I was understandably cynical at the news that Aardman Animations was taking the already cluttered CG route, but trusted them enough to deliver a passable entertainment. They do and they don't: the action sequences are pretty spectacular, worthy of The Wrong Trousers, but the comedy, the witty writing that is their stable, falls flat more often than not. Not that it's completely lacking in humor – Jean Reno's Le Frog and his army of mercenaries are enjoyable goofish. It just relies on the kind of reliable antics of many recent animated features: animals piping out popular music (in Happy Feet Jackman's penguin belted out Prince, here it's Tom Jones), parodies of other CG kid's films, in-jokes like Jackman's character wearing a Wolverine costume. Still, there's a clear knowingness in their change of format: for one, Kate Winslet's heroine is dressed like Lara Croft. From the preview, I expected the film to be more about the relationship between Roddy and Sid, Jackman's upper class pet rat and the sewer rat who sends him down the drain, taking over his lavish existence on the surface. But once Roddy is submerged in the gutter culture the story for the most part remains there, dealing with the scheming of a villainous toad voiced by McKellan. Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy are also welcome voice contributors.
Harakiri is Masaki Kobayashi's companion film to Samurai Rebellion, and shares with that movie what I like to call the Grisbi Factor: you're itching for a release to the building tension for so long that, when it finally arrives in the form of an action-packed finale, it's absolutely fucking awesome. Hollywood could learn from these films. Instead of a dozen effects-laden action set pieces every five minutes, they ought to focus on developing great drama leading to a slam-bang conclusion. Like Mifune's Isoburo Sasahara, Tatsuya Nakadai's Hanshiro Tsugumo (great name for a warrior) is oppressed by the hypocrisy of bushido-abiding clans in 17th century post-war Tokougawa Shogunate, a theme picked up by Yamada Yoji for his excellent The Twilight Samurai and its decent but redundant follow-up The Hidden Blade. Tsugumo, a masterless swordsman, arrives at a daimyo's manor looking askance for a private place to eviscerate himself as per the code of oibara, but he's got hidden motives.
Kobayashi, a pacifist who was drafted into the Imperial Army during World War II but refused to fight or be promoted higher than private, critiques the rigid conformity of Japanese society by scrutinizing its past and the honorable traditions that have become perverted into self-righteous and self-serving law - the tradition here being the act of seppuku, a practice turned by the feudal lords governing a warless land of idle samurai into depraved murder (seppuku is the formal term, hara-kiri is more of a colloquialism.) His premise of truth and the pretext of honor, like all great filmmakers of Toho's golden years, inform Kobayashi's exquisite mise-en-scene of action that takes place in essentially one location (the film, like Rashomon, is structured around revealing flashbacks.) Nakadai gives the best performance of anything I've seen him in, glaring intensely at the cowardly daimyo like a jungle cat about to pounce (and as I mentioned, when he does finally strike, boy howdy!)
11.25. The Black Hole.
The conclusion of Disney's The Black Hole, in which the space travelers finally go through the vortex to "someplace else," had reached near-mythic stature in my mind thanks to several people building it up over the years. The ending I'd conjured in my head was a series of Borchian imagery: demons and hellfire painted across the screen, flames, torture and madness the very sight of which would be enough to rend the viewer insane. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed. The actual ending feels like a bad haunted house ride where you get to the finish and angrily whine, "That's it???" It's obviously going for 2001-style hallucinogenic thrills (or, at very least, the creepiness of the freaky tunnel scene in Willy Wonka), but besides one crazy miniature shot it's all swirling distorted lens effects and visual babble. It's no wonder Paul WS Anderson and crew decided to try and improve the promising concept with Event Horizon (an unofficial remake, aka rip-off - the term "event horizon" is even used in this movie!) by making the "beyond" an actual hell dimension.
The last ten minutes aside, Black Hole reminded me of the George Kenendy movie Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby are editing in Modern Romance, especially with such B-powerhouse players as Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Forster (Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens voice the skittish C3PO-meets-R2D2 minibots.) In a role that would have been amazing if they had cast Werner Herzog, Maximilian Schell plays a mad scientist who's turned his crew into zombie-bots and unleashes his deadly steel sentinel (also named Maximilian) against those who would oppose him. It seems like this movie was based on a Disney theme park ride before Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion, but it's a stand alone venture - too bad, the ride probably would have been worthwhile.
11.26. Thieves Like Us.
Due to Altman's reputation as an old crank, it's surprising to see that he made at least one genuinely good-natured film, albeit one about murder and bank robbery. Keith Carradine plays Bowie, one third of a trio of prison escapees who go straight... back into business holding up banks in depression-era Mississippi. Frail and boyish, he hardly looks the part of master criminal and seems to continue a life of crime more out of obligation to his partners and because there's really nothing else out there for him. Bowie's two relationships - with Shelley Duvall's Keechie, a Coke-guzzling crack at Hully Gully, and John Schuck's alcoholic timebomb Chicamaw - represent the two extremes of his ambivalent personality: sheltered dust bowl survivor and ruthless desperado.
All the performances are top noch: the strange cinematic presence of Duvall is on full display in her first leading role, her improvised child-like wonder seems to mainly be her just reacting to things like the way she notices Carradine's new hat. Altman vet Schuck stands out in two awesome scenes, one where the group rehearses a robbery using kids (the children of Louise Fletcher, appearing here before discovering her true calling playing evil aliens in 80's horror films) as tellers, the other an intense night exterior involving a car crash and desperate murder. I don't know if Coca-Cola endorsed the movie or something, but it's all over the film, as is the ubiquitious radio, broadcasting inside the period cars and onto the porches of old houses like the PA system filling the surgical tents in MASH. Thieves could be the third part of a late 60s/early 70s trilogy of bank robber romances that started with Bonnie and Clyde and Milius' Dillinger (all are derivative of Nicolas Ray's They Live By Night, which was adapted from the same Edward Anderson novel as Thieves.)
11.27. La Belle et la Bęte.
Jean Cocteau must have had a problem with repo men. Under great financial strain, Belle's father constantly laments that one slip would mean they'd have to give up the furniture... and sure enough after his idiot son blows an investment deal, every chair and scrap of carpet is whisked away quicker than the heroine herself (when she puts on the magical transporting glove). In one hilarious moment, a chess game is interrupted by the reclaiming of a table from under the board. But what's more real than repo men? And the more mundane the threat, the more shattering its effect on the extraordinary world Cocteau imagines in his second film. It's been sixty years, and no one has been able to create the same dreamlike feeling he achieved in his adaptation of the "Beauty and the Beast" fable (the wicked stepsisters are also borrowed from "Cinderella.")
Through make-up effects that are still impressive (how'd they make his eyes look like that?), Jean Marais becomes the furry prince of misery, isolated in his enchanted castle awaiting the redemption of true love. It comes in the form of Josette Day, whose Belle lives up to her name by the luster of her shining white features gleaming from the screen. The castle itself is statues with following eyes, human arms for candle holders, shadows and bright spider webs - the movie deserves top place among fantasy films like Spirit of the Beehive and the work of Hayao Miyazaki, despite the weird and abrupt ending. It was great watching the excellent Criterion dvd: compared to the stuff on the big screen today, returning to this movie is a whiff of rose-scented oxygen on a big mountain of steaming feces.
11.28. The Third Generation.
Fassbinder's The Third Generation opens with Eddie Constantine watching the end of Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably, where the suicidal hero has found a way to get his friend to kill him. This form of social and almost artistic self-destruction has special meaning for Fassbinder, who used it as a basis for some of his best films - The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fox and His Friends, In a Year with 13 Moons - and in his own life and relationships. Generation deals specifically with the self-destruction brought on by the paradoxal symbiosis of corporation and terrorism, its effect on characters desperate to stand against something in the overbearing commercial world even to the devastation of their own identities and existence. Constantine is a computer company executive who decides to fund a terrorist group, his logic being that the heightened crime rate will force the police to by more computers.
Unaware that they are being funded by the very company they've targeted, the cell (made up of most of the Antitheatre group including Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Gunther Kaufmann, Volker Spengler and Harry Baer) run themselves aground through political paranoia and misdirection (the Bakunin keep-away is a particularly revealing scene.) Seperated into six segments by quotes from public bathroom graffiti (a perverse form of sloganeering), the film recalls Godard's La Chinoise while establishing its own technical innovations, most notably the amazing soundtrack that layers the perpetual din of television sets, mingled dialogue and oppressive room tone from one scene to another. The ultimate terrorist plan, acted out in masks and costumes during a festival, is an incredible scene. I've seen Generation three times now, and it rivals 13 Moons as my favorite Fassbinder.
11.29. Art School Confidential.
Warning to all art students: Art School Confidential is here to stick it to you. Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, eager sportsmen when it comes to the game of shooting fish in a fucking barrel, have got all your numbers. They know that there's always a kiss-up in class. There's always a butch lesbian and immature non-major who doesn't take art seriously. They know that you're all untalented losers who have terrible opinions and will never amount to anything. And more importantly, they know that the untalented teacher who tells you that you'll never amount to anything has never amounted to anything himself. Were Zwigoff and Clowes' mothers raped by a pack of art students or something? Why waste time humiliating a group of pople who are more than qualified to humiliate themselves without any outside help?
The main character, a Clowes surrogate (i.e. a second-rate R Crumb) is frustrated because his mall-sketch drawings go unappreciated while silly artless crap gets praised by professor and peers. Of course there are other broad targets the movie feels are overdue for satire: film students (Ethan Suplee has a Reservoir Dogs poster in his room - spot on!), self-important coffee shop owners (Steve Buscemi coasts through this one after his excellent Ghost World performance - wasn't he in Reservoir Dogs?) and dumb New York cops who think phony dark art implies murderous tendencies. Jim Broadbent graciously appears in a small part as an alcoholic failure, providing the movie with a few moments of pleasure ("I'll bury you alive and shit on your GRAVE!") while Angelica Huston is in the movie for absolutely no reason.
I have to give this movie credit for permanently discouraging me from ever again using the multi-story structure that interconnects the lives of various seemingly unrelated character arcs to represent one big "universal" theme. I've used it twice in my own projects, but seeing it done first in the abhorrent Crash (2005) and now here has convinced me that it's the worst, most manipulative and shallow kind of screenwriting imaginable, and Guillermo Arriaga has pretty much perfected it at this point. That revelation should have been apparent as early as Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia: guess I'm just lazy. I'd more or less tagged this movie as most likely an overlong, even more bloated companion piece to Paul Haggis' beloved shitfest ("I feel like when we can't communicate, we BABEL to each other "), but wanted to at least see if for Koji Yakusho (this before realizing that I never saw Memoirs of a Geisha despite the cast of Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh.) His screen time is less than five minutes, although his character is the one who inadvertently sets off the global chain of events that effect characters in Morocco, Mexico and Japan.
Whether in Africa, North America or Asia, all the people involved are in dire difficulties that are impossible to give a shit about, either because they happen to characters who seem terrible (in the Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett sequence) or are the source of their own feeble problems (the Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza plots.) I don't understand how so many people have praised this film while maintaining a straight face. I did enjoy the sequence of crossing the border, but probably just because it featured Gael Garcia Bernal vs. Clifton Collins Jr. Something else the movie made me think of in terms of my own shit is how useless cryptic McGuffins are. In the final reel, a suffering character gives a folded note to a man she's been reaching out to, one that will apparently give significant answer to her psychological torment and the sprawling tapestry of intermingling global storylines. The character reads the note quietly to himself in a bar and seems affected: but we never see it. It reminded me of a scene in the movie I've been working on for two years where a character is looking at a set of pictures that's supposedly connected to the loosely related narratives of the film: I shot the scene in June 2005 and still haven't included the close-ups of the picture. Why? Because I don't know what the pictures are of. Babel also features the receiving end of a phone call made earlier in the movie displaced later in the narrative, another cute little trick I used in my film. The gimmick looks so retarded in this movie I wanted to cry. So in a sense I owe Babel a great deal: Inarritu and Arriaga have helped me milk out just a little of the pretension I'd overlooked in my own work as innovative and original, and I guess that's something.
12.1. Turistas: Holiday of Horror.
A movie directed by John Stockwell is as instantly recognizable as a movie by Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick. His auteristic signatures? Ass shots and underwater photography. I honestly think he designed a camera that stands two feet from the ground specifically for keister close-ups. And like his other work - Crazy/Beautiful and Blue Crush - Turistas is much better than it deserves to be, although the marketing seems to have been influenced by the success of the recent snuff horror craze. With the exception of one scene, it's nothing like Hostel or the Saw series: it's a lot more like Stockwell's Into the Blue, which is to say a Most Dangerous Game for the rib-cage skinny, tanned, two-piece swimsuit set (both films are also hugely influenced by The Deep, which must be his favorite movie.) There are villains, but they fly around in helicopters and have hired help to do the dirty work instead of running around in masks made of human faces.
In a coincidence of cosmic porportions, a crashed bus in a rural area of South America (a scene that's delightfully overdone) sends a band of American and British backpackers to an isolated beach where the locals are involved in a conspiracy to quietly spirit foreigners away to nefarious ends (give you a hint: it rhymes with "jive morgan nansplants.") In addition to its clever playing on American xenophobia (the government of Brazil hasn't pubically decried its depiction and condemned this film as Kazakhstan did Borat, probably because for all the horror there are plenty of beautiful beaches and scenic waterfalls to seduce would-be travelers), the movie features a peppy young South American who turns against his fellow kidnappers to save our troubled whites with all the gusto of that ant who helped the shrunken children in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Additionally, I saw the best preview of the year (and possibly best teaser of all time) at the screening of this film.
The first real Bond film in 17 years is simultaneously a step in the right direction and a frustrating near-miss. Misguided critics who've labeled it the "best Bond film ever" are flirting with sacrilege, but they've got the right idea when it comes to Daniel Craig, who is an excellent 007. Smug, gruff, flawed and unpredictable, he's brought a danger back to the franchise that hasn't existed since Goldfinger strapped Sean Connery under that emasculating laser. It's the fault of the filmmakers that he isn't better utilized. The first two big action set pieces work because Craig makes Bond as desperate as the man he's chasing, but they're also given a heavy gloss by director Martin Campbell (veteran of the unwatchable Brosnan films and over-the-top Banderas Zorro movies) which makes them seem generic, like anything from Michael Bay or Tony Scott (albeit competently shot).
Enter Eva Green, the world's most beautiful actress, and things instantly improve: just as impressively as Craig makes Bond his own, she revives and reworks the idea of the Bond woman, her Vesper Lynd visually striking and verbally sophistocated. The center of the film, the big poker tournament, may be a departure from the usual formula but for the most part I was with it (although I would have liked to see more of Jeffery Wright as Felix Lighter.) Then the script starts to sink into some shady territory, not surprising with Paul Haggis co-credited with the screenplay. The relationship between Bond and Lynd is suddenly different and her character becomes more of a quivering victim, particularly in a weird and gross hotel room shower scene after a stairway shuffle with some crooks. After an amazing car wreck and torture scene, the movie loses its mind and becomes a Nicholas Sparks romance for about six hours, with dialogue worthy of Danielle Steel. The final reel is dismal and long - and leaves a bad taste after the rest of the movie. Still, I'm optimistic about the rejuvenated series and am going to start on my own Bond script (Queen and Country - Monica Belluci as the villain!) to suit the new suit post-haste.
<<click here for 12/2/6 - 12/11/6>>
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