12/2/6 - 12/11/6
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 Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like Haxan to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. 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 11/22/6 - 12/1/6>>
12.2. Little Children.
At the Toronto Film Festival, I saw The Fountain and Chris saw Little Children. Each of us warned the other against seeing either movie. That somehow didn't stop us from going to the Angelika and swapping movies, criss-cross, so technically we have only ourselves to blame. Little Children is a celluloid atrocity of the American Beauty/Happiness school of seedy suburban suffering that feels like director Todd Field fit an Every Neighborhood USA inside a petri dish to study the cute little weirdos swimming around down there. After the highly overrated In the Bedroom, he was on probation and now I'm demanding he be thrown into film jail on charges of irresponsible auteurism. Kate Winslet is a selfish, pseudo-intellectual housewife who starts an affair with Mr. Mom Patrick Wilson while the remainder of the community gets their panties in a bunch over the return of a convincted pedarast played by Jackie Earle Haley (apparently ruined by the boyish Tatum O'Neal back in Bad News Bears.) I can't decide what to be more pissed-off about: that we're meant to sympathize with negligent parents or that Wilson whiles away his time staring at kids on skateboards as a symbol of his lost youth. What douchebag wouldn't be happy married to Jennifer Connelly? The child molestor subplot seems thrown in for the sake of controversy and black humor: the film's only good scene, where Haley has a blind date with Jane Adams (poor Jane, why are all her characters fated to be involved with perverts, losers and assholes?) just doesn't belong in the movie. The film smuggly sets up cliches specifically to avoid them, but the effect of that technique is simply that each scene has no ending and drama is sapped from the storyline. But the real sap is the viewer, led into this mindless circus of inquiry by Field and novelist/co-writer Tom Perrotta with strict instructions to be smart and you'll get it, just like they do. Probably one of the worst experiences I've ever had in a movie theater.
This movie jumped right into Nicole Kidman singing a medley of cheesy pop songs, and I immediately called shenanigans. Had I been bamboozled into seeing Moulin Rogue, a film I walked of, all over again? Goddammit. Half an hour later, Brittany Murphy was leading a clean, boring version of "Sombody to Love" and I was ready to ditch. Let's give it five more minutes," suggested Funderburg. I'm glad we did, because the next scene is an intense chase featuring nature's douchebag the leopard seal, followed by the introduction of Robin Williams as a Latino puffin (why can't he just do voicework?) and some semblance of plot beyond bad singing. Which led me to wonder: why was the singing necessary? Sexy as Hugh Jackman might sound crooning Prince a'la Elvis, it could've just been a movie about a tap-dancing penguin who introduces music into his rigid society rather than an arctic karaoke copyright hassle. What's with Australians and this retarded idea of taking popular songs out of context, acting as if they had existed long ago and far away from their actual origins or were being made up on the spot?
Happy Feet is directed by George Miller, the mastermind behind Mad Max who recreated himself as a helmer of children's fare. He's still a deft hand at action sequences: the leopard seal chase and a run-in with a pair of orcas are the most exciting animated scenes this side of The Incredibles. The animation itself is first class: when humans come into the picture, it's live action footage placed inside the CG world, which sounds terrible but looked great. There's a scene where our hero is trapped in a zoo and has a breakdown that is definitely too intense for kids, but otherwise I'm not sure why people are flipping shit over the movie. It goes in all different directions without having a clear idea about why it's charming, most of it seems like guesswork. But at the end of the day, it's got penguins so who's complaining?
12.3. Midnight Express.
The ordeal of would-be drug trafficker Billy Hayes, more than a little sensationalized by director Alan Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone, works as an entertainment – a prison break movie – but is more fascinatingly a portrait of ethnocentric hysteria in the environment of the post-Iran hostage crisis. It's all based on real events, of course: Hayes really did catch the "midnight express" out of his sentence to years of imprisonment handed down after he was caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Istanbul. What Parker and Stone (woah – weird!) are mainly interest in is globbing on the xenophobic terror of being stranded powerless in a strange place, most recently used to great effect in Eli Roth's Hostel movies, and the film's reputation since its initial release has been something of the ultimate global after-school movie: this could happen to YOU! Displaced isolation in the film, denoted throughout by authority figures barking in unintelligible (and naturally unsubtitled) foreign tongue, introduces the paranoid/incarcerated equivalent of other familiar fears: physical harm, family abandonment, loss of friends, in-house back-stabbing.
These and other existential crises, exacerbated by virtue of being held in a horrible Turkish prison, are marred by the film's other terror tactic, a signature theme of Stone's: the threat to masculinity. Stone, who once said his greatest fear was getting testicular cancer, associates the loss of machismo with the loss of freedom, identity and sanity, and Midnight Express (which I confused with Midnight Run for years, and still do sometimes) is his chef d'oeuvre of irrational male dread. In the infamous "Oh, Billy" quasi-conjugal visit sequence, Hayes' salvation comes in the form of boobs being pressed up against glass, reminding him of his male desire and heterosexuality, and congruently his rationality and determination to escape.Of course it's all dick-swining inanity (it's also pretty funny) and it trivializes any ounce of credibility the movie has. As for the infamous controversy surrounding the film's depiction of Turkish police, legal and penal systems, I can't imagine anyone actually takes it seriously today. I'd certainly risk traveling there for Sibel Kekilli, even if trying to smuggle her back meant subsequent imprisonment in Parker and Stone's (WEIRD!) hellhole.
Incidentally, after watching the film and its glossy bathing montage, I wondered if Brad Davis was considered something of a gay icon, starring in this and Fassbinder's Querelle. Turned out that he actually died of AIDs, and was reputed to be the first heterosexual celebrity to succumb to the disease, although it was later revealed that he was in fact bisexual. He also starred in the play The Normal Heart, in which he played an AIDs activist. Yikes.
This is actually the second version of Scum Alan Clarke made: after the BBC banned the first made-for-TV version, he and the producer re-shot it for theatrical release (like Mike Leigh, Clarke started out in British television - however with this exception he never really left.) They once again cast Ray Winstone, who with his short hair and cherub face looks like Alan Price in O Lucky Man if he'd been beaten in an alley, in the lead role of Carlin, a young tough surviving in a borstal where the sadistic keepers make things as miserable as possible and actively turn the inmates against each other. As I was just saying about prison films, most of them are based on extreme discomfort, and Scum is no exception. Besides the token beatings, racial baiting, sexual assaults, power struggles and suicides inherent to the prison movie, the world of Clarke's penitentiary is corrupt and foul right from Carlin's introduction into its society.
Things get really scary when our reliable protagonist starts playing into the hands of his tormenters (one of whom, if I caught it right, is named "Mr. Grieves" – are the Pixies fans of the movie?) by becoming the prison "daddy" and conforming to their manipulations. Keeping it real is the likable, passive rebel Archer, so well-spoken and accepting of his role to play that he doesn't seem to belong inside. With its ambient silences, shut-in locations (especially the magnificent boiler room) and great acting (including Phil Daniels, star of Quadrophenia which also featured Winstone), Scum deserves a place among Brute Force, Le Trou and most appropriately Bad Boys as one of the all-time great incarceration dramas. Super-highlight: Winstone executes a seamless one-shot camera trick where he fills a sock full of pool balls, moves to another room in the rec hall, and whams an adversary clean on the head. The scene between the prison matron and a black inmate where she consoles him over the news of a pet's death is also highly memorable. I haven't seen the TV version and accounts as to which of the versions is superior seem to vary.
12.5. The Firm.
Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise-in-a-monkey-suit lawyer movie, this is a short film about football hooligans engaged in some serious PMT (pre-match tension.) Alan Clarke represents them in a Mean Streets-style mileau of claustrophobic living and a reliance on macho rituals. As with Scum, Clarke is interested in the mentality of the collective without the psychological oversimplifications of individual complexities, instead presenting his subjects in their naked environment through a distanced view (although the camera isn't afraid to get down and dirty, pushing in for hand-held close-ups as confrontations on the street regress to barbaric maiming.) Gary Oldman and his mates, taunted by a rival squad with a penchant for pranks that quickly escalate from spray painting cars to blowing them up, raise the ante in retaliation, driving things toward uncontrollable chaos and personal tragedy.
Oldman vies to be head hooligan, "top boy," as Winstone fought his way to become the prison "daddy," the difference being that Oldman is a grown man with a wife and child, a child he boyishly teaches to tell its mother "piss off." He's not an unloving husband and father, but the further he's drawn into the football feud (not American football – the one with all the kicking) the more his bloodlust offsets his responsibilities. The game itself is barely shown: it's like the herds of opposing team members are thrashing each other for the sake of implied rivalry, the epitome of Clarke's theme of useless violence. It was a little confusing to me that the team keeps referring to "going to Europe," but I guess people in the UK don't consider themselves "Europe?" Additionally, with its appearance in this movie and Beverly Hills Cop 2, George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" has become the official movie strip club theme song.
Alan Clarke's films are all about walking. Scum and The Firm are rampant with endless tracking shots of characters moving down prison hallways and London streets, and Elephant, his last film, moves from one set of feet moving menacingly in one direction to another in a cycle of violence that, out of political context (which is how I first viewed the movie before learning it was meant to represents the Troubles) seems like a moving scourge of apocalyptic purification. In a series of isolated sequences, assassinations are performed by various killers (all anonymous) who move like silent angels of death to their intended prey as if they know exactly where to find them and, in some instances, clearly know the person they're murdering. Some of the hits are performed indoors, others outside. Some of the victims react, others don't. Some appear to be planned attacks while other seem spontaneous, like whoever was in the way was fated to die, blown away by a rigorous agenda of bullets: Bang Bang Bang.
Clarke follows the path of the assassins through cold, lonely locations and landscapes with a beautiful and precise steady-cam: it's like Kiewslowski meets Shining-era Kubrick. Gus Van Sant, in his excellent film inspired by Clarke's short, removes the passionless gunmen's stride to the long corridors of an empty high school, but unlike that feature this short film has no dialogue (except a single expletive from one victim, apparently a mohawked Thom Yorke.) The title, which producer Danny Boyle explains on the commentary refers to the phrase "elephant in the room," i.e. the issue of IRA terrorism, also relevant to the issue of school shootings that people would just as soon forget (an elephant doesn't – boo-yah!), could also refer to a person's ignorance of impending doom. Elephant, Clarke's final film, is a movie about how people die.
12.7. Night of the Comet.
Night of the Comet, considered by the same people who love Solarbabies (both films were just released simultaneously on DVD) to be an 80s classic, is the worst post-apocalyptic movie ever made. Yes, worse than Cherry 2000. Things begin promisingly: earth passes through the tail of a comet which turns anyone not protected by metal surroundings into calcium dust, and most of the remaining population become flesh-easting zombies. The main girl, a video game whiz a'la Last Starfighter (which also featured Comet star Catherine Mary Stewart), is forced to fend for herself and her sister once everyone she knows is gone. That's the first twenty minutes of the movie, so far so good. One problem: THE REST OF THE MOVIE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. After one really good attack by a nasty looking cannibal-mutant, I'm pretty sure we don't see another zombie for the rest of the film.
Instead, it shifts to being about the plucky heroes coming up against a gang of oddball thugs in a shopping mall (I wonder why that sounds familiar.) A cast of complete unknowns (supporting people from Weekend at Bernie's and Chopping Mall and a washed up Factory superstar – they couldn't even score C Thomas Howell?) run for their lives when they're not busy trying on clothes in a fashion montage set to some fake version of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." The city exteriors, with red skies and a lonely car or two on the highway, are pretty great looking but the movie fails to even meet a reliable quota of 80's cheese (embodied by Mayor McCheese of the McDonalds family.) Maybe The Goonies, Spacecamp and Flight of the Navigator have no actual value, but one could always count on them to produce a high amount of brainless merriment, whether it be an unlikely fight with an octopus, an improbable hip robot, or Pee Wee Herman as a living alien spaceship (all apologies to Ray Roy: Flight of the Navigator is actually kind of amazing.) You would think that a movie about post-apocalyptic zombies would be much more thrilling than one about an autistic kid who plays Nintendo, but The Wizard is far superior to Night of the Comet.
My girlfriend didn't like this movie, which is highly indicative of its worthlessness as even a relic of the decade: this is a girl who loves such dispensible 80's cheese as Vibes, Electric Dreams and My Best Friend is a Vampire. The fashion montage with its faux-Lauper soundtrack sent her into fits of derision against the movie and director Thom Eberhardt (who would go on to bigger and better things like Captain Ron*), the content of which is better left unprinted. Even when the ragtag squad of youngsters are taken to an underground research facility, almost nothing interesting happens: no zombie attacks on the bunker, no gun battles comprised of anything more than an actor shooting blanks off-screen: Stewart playing a video games at the beginning is pretty much the most the movie has to offer in terms of action. Maybe I'm expecting too much of a frivolous time-waster of a film, but not since The Howling: New Moon Rising, which features not a single werewolf, have I been so scandalized by a lack of required monster appearances: where are all the zombies? Why aren't there more zombie battles? Who turned this movie into a word-of-mouth cult "classic?"
* I'm only half-joking: I have an odd affection for Captain Ron, as I do two other laughless Martin Short vehicles from the late 80's/early 90's, Three Fugitives and Pure Luck (although Pure Luck is pure Glover.)
12.8. Thieves Highway.
Being familiar with the back story of Thieves Highway makes it difficult to watch: the treachery and dubious dealings of the film's plot are made all the more profoundly seedy knowing that Darryl Zanuck reshot a tacked-on ending, and that it would be the last movie Jules Dassin made before being sent up by the House Un-American Committee and forced to continue his career overseas, ending his run of great American crime-dramas that included Brute Force and Night and the City (his first film in Europe was Rififi, so at least he was able to continue his hot streak there.) Dassin got the hard shaft, and the cynical tone surrounding the movie's inhumanly dark dealings almost make it seem like he was somehow aware of what was about to go down.
A noir sans guns, my favorite kind, the film's about trying to make a lousy buck in the heartless markets of post-war America, and it takes time to consider some very amazingly anti-cinematic things like budgeting for gas, figuring out the ripest time to collect fruit from the farmer, competing over prices and parking regulations in front of vendor's shops. Dassin raises the level of double-cross from truckers horning their way in on each other's action to short-changing simpleminded apple growers until we meet Lee J. Cobb, playing one of cinema's dirtiest impenitent bastards: the kingpin presiding over an empire of spies and thugs, swindling sellers as craftily as he can before resorting to brutal pilfering. In a truly frustrating scene, the hero, already fatigued from road travel, is drawn away by a deceitful floozy for an absurd amount of time, literally making me want to shout at the screen, "Dude Lee J. Cobb is stealing your apples!" The man is impelled by that classic noir motivation of revenge – he's trying to stick it to Cobb, who was responsible for crippling his father. Jesus, who knew apple hauling was such a shady enterprise? The underhanded deviousness at the market is played against a supplier maneuvering his dilapidated rig with its overloaded cargo around perilous twists and steep hills that rival the relentless roads of Wages of Fear in highway scenes that speak to the anxious night driver in all of us.
On the Criterion disc interview, Dassin says what drew him to the film was the image of apples tumbling down a hill in the aftermath of the driver's fatal hairpin turn - the movie's climax - and a more wicked metaphor for futile exertion against the demoralizing callousness of capitalism has not yet been depicted (who said this guy was a Communist??) In the interim there's the usual overplayed romance sprinkled with snappy/sappy noir quips like "You look like chipped glass" – always enjoyable. A more honest (the movie is a favorite of Errol Morris) and devastating working man conflict film than something like On the Waterfront, Highway suffers from Zanuck's bubbly conclusion but up to that point is the kind of sinister claustrophobic crime melodrama.
12.9. National Treasure.
Wherever Jerry Bruckheimer is right now, I can guarantee that he is snorting the finest cocaine off the ass of the most expensive prostitute in town while bathing in gold and wearing Mickey Mouse ears: his union with Disney has been the most successful merger since fish and chips. At first it was hard to understand how this ridiculous movie could make so much money, but I was underestimating Bruckheimer's marketing genius: what could possibly be more popular than a movie that transplants Da Vinci Code into an Indiana Jones-style adventure about American history? I can't remember the last time, if ever, I expected to have to take a pop quiz after an action movie, but this pelts the audience to death with shoutouts to obscure patriots: "you know, he was the guy who ran the shipping company that delivered the ink used on the receipt for the paper purchased to write the Declaration of Independence, taken from the blood of a British general?" Due to Bruckheimer's producer-as-auteur style, you might think that this was directed by Michael Bay, but in fact it's by the director of 3 Ninjas.
Nicholas "I don't read scripts – just promise me I get to act as retarded as I want" Cage has to steal the Declaration of Independence to read the invisible map on the back of it, which leads to a hidden treasure the founding fathers, um, hid. He has at his disposal a number of neat technological aides (I want one of those anagram-decoding devices) and help from a supporting cast. Sean Bean reprises his role from Don't Say a Word as the former partner turned backstabbing villain trying to beat the hero to the treasure with the help of a pack of cronies, Jon Voight reprises his Last Crusade-biting role from Tomb Raider as the archeologist's father, and Harvey Keitel reprises his role from Bad Timing, Imaginary Crimes, Clockers, The Young Americans, Rising Sun and numerous other films where he plays a gruff cop. Two other actors – I can't remember who it was, I'll just say it was Maria Bello and Giovanni Rabisi – play Cage's treasure-hunting buddies.
One part of the movie didn't pay off the way I hoped it would: after successfully securing the Declaration, Cage is trying to get out of the Smithsonian via the gift shop. A clerk sees him and demands he pay for the rolled-up document, which looks just like the various simulacrums sold in the shop. I thought this would later be used as a backdoor legal trick in Cage's defense, i.e. they'd state that the museum officially sold him the Declaration of Independence, but unfortunately it never comes up again. What was I thinking: that kind of thing has no place in a movie already overstuffed with significant Philadelphia locations, facts about Benjamin Franklin and other historic details: for further information, consult the DVD section of your local library (whatever you do don't spend money on books: there may be vital clues on the back of your dollar bill that lead you to the national treasure!)
12.10. To Sleep With Anger.
I was anxious to check out the other movies on Charles Burnett's skimpy filmography, so it was enormously satisfying that his second feature, made 13 years after Killer of Sheep, turned out to be just as brilliant as its predecessor, if entirely different. Set in a present-day Los Angeles neighborhood that often seems timeless, the film is about an extended black family – husband and wife, two grown sons, their wives and children – whose lives are invaded by Danny Glover's Harry, an old friend of the couple from their younger days in the South. Harry is a specter, a strange embodiment of a sordid past whose entrance is foreshadowed by the ill-omen of a cup shattering on the kitchen floor and whose approach causes an unborn child to kick in defense inside its mother's womb. In the modern setting he's even more of an enigma, filled with old superstitions, ready with Bible verses used out of context and ominous axioms like "Sometimes the right action comes from the wrong reason."
Glover is ingratiating and weirdly threatening, but has an infectious smile and country charm that captivates certain members of the family, especially irresponsible Babe Brother, the younger of the two sons. Played by Richard Brooks (Jubal Early on "Firefly"), he resents his tightly-knit family and likens them, in a mild allusion to Burnett's first film, to simple farm animals, accusing them of "leaning on the fence, chewing their cud" (his wife also feels isolated from them, stating they "pride themselves on making life difficult.") Harry's presence brings in-fighting tensions to a boil, especially between Babe Brother and elder son Junior (Carl Lumbly), and threatens to split the family apart, although ultimately his imposition into their docile world changes things for the better. Harry is a masterful creation, a great character brought to crooked life by Glover, who plays him like a snake oil salesman who knows he's running out of tricks and is trying to get the most use out of them while they can still get him some free coffee. The rest of the cast is also great, each given their own moment to shine (Paul Butler telling his joke about the preachers is a highlight.)
Shot in an understated manner by Walt Lloyd, the film is like an exceptional stage play – any criticisms of Sheep's stretches of silence that blame lack of writing skill are now wholly without merit) that's been blessed with introspective direction. Although stylistically dissimilar, there are echoes of Burnett's Watts ghetto. The kids still run in packs, this set shouting insults at a neighborhood kid ear-splittingly practicing his trumpet-playing. Gideon, the family patriarch, exudes in quiet contemplation and overblown chastising of Babe Brother the same kind of fatigued responsibility with which Stan regarded his household. Despite being more narratively driven, To Sleep with Anger is loaded with tranquil moments that are as smart and funny as anything in Killer of Sheep, enhanced by Burnett's clear understanding of how families work. My terrible video copy didn't do the movie justice (luckily the screenplay is available online), so let's hope Sheep does well when it's released in the near future that this one might follow.
12.11. Bend It Like Beckham.
Bend It Like Beckham became a critical darling upon its release despite the fact that it came out two decades too late: if it had bee made in the 80's with Sarah Jessica Parker in the Keira Knightley role and Fisher Stevens (doing his character from Short Circuit) in the Parminder Nagra lead, it would probably deserve its popular following. As is, I don't know why anyone would even attempt to make a soccer movie after the extreme Shaolin Soccer, and as a women's soccer movie this one doesn't quite match up to Ladybugs. What's important to know going into it is that Bend It Like Beckham's title is misleading. You're not in store for a sports movie, unless you count Billy Elliot as a sports movie. It's a cultural class comedy that just happens to have soccer at the center of the story, so instead of exploring whether Nagra's Jesminder could really be as good as Beckham, it's more interested in whether her Punjabi parents will even allow her to play.
Therefore the movie doesn't care if she is a good player, and the game coverage is some of the worst looking sports action ever filmed (like soccer needed help with that.) So instead we focus on how good a player tomboy Knightley is, but again the movie's more concerned with the comedy and pathos that can be wrung from her parents' fear over her apparent homosexuality. I've never understood what's so alluring about getting on a field that so passionately spurred Lucas, Rudy and the Quarterback Princess, especially considering that participating in sports is one of the most conforming thing you can do. If the movie was willing to show us what a good athlete Jesminder was, maybe it would be easier to understand why she is forced to disrespect her family in order to fulfill her dream: the way it is, she just seems rude and the movie seems insulting to Sikh traditions, kind of amazing considering the director is of the same background: I guess she was going for easy Nia Vardalos-style "check out my crazy outdated culture" laughs. It seems to be getting into a serious examination of ethnic barriers when Jesminder becomes involved with coach Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (not playing a gay character? I hope his agent was fired), but that aspect is barely touched upon. Beckham does manage to get by on the charming performances of Nagra and pre-Pirates Knightley, but it's overlong and unengaging. I don't think I'm being harsh in my judgment of the title: it's more exciting sounding than The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and at least you can guess that movie's focus isn't going to be intense soccer matches.
<<click here for 12/12/6 - 12/21/6>>
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