12/22/6 - 12/31/6
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 12/12/6 - 12/21/6>>
12.22.6. The Puffy Chair.
The success of this indie road movie lies in the fact that I made it all the way through despite its very familiar storyline and inherrent hipness. A hoodie-clad Brooklynite (Mark Duplass, writer and brother of the director - he's kind of a schlubbier indie rock version of Ron Livingston) drives a van from New York to his parents' house in Georgia with his weirdo brother and intolerably needy girlfriend, planning to pick up a present for his father (the title comforter) en route. From an early moment when the movie substitutes Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" with Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlantism" in the old holding-boom-box-outside-window scene, I did not think I'd make it another five minutes. But the movie (nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award, the only accolade on earth which I covet) turns earnest from that point on and devises several good scenes with its well-developed characters.
And what's more truly independent than a dv movie shot on location with a small cast of friends? The Little Miss Sunshines of the world are Jerry Bruckheimer productions by comparison. And while we're comparing, Puffy Chair also takes the same tried self-discovering road trip premise and makes it work. A lot of credit goes to Duplass (the actor), whose character is relatably burdened, realistically flawed and likably cynical. He perfectly captures fatigue and frustration in his helpless reaction to his girlfriend when her personal issues come flooding to the surface ("What do you love about me?") The script is funny and well-written, the ending offers resolution without selling itself out.
12.23.06. Superman II (Richard Donner Cut).
So here's the story: the studio made the decision (before Back to the Future or The Matrix or Toxic Avenger series came up with the same idea) to shoot Superman I and II back to back and edit the footage into two separate films. For whatever the reason, after a lapse in production Warner Brothers decided not to invite Richard Donner back to finish shooting the second movie, even though an alleged 70% of it was already in the can (he claims that he offered to come back for no additional money.) They hired Richard Lester instead, who finished the remaining movie and did several reshoots (most notably an Eiffel Tower terrorist subplot that serves as prelude to the main story.) Now the first Dick has returned to edit what is a semblance of what his own cut would have looked like, and it's really interesting to see the differences. The biggest is the presence of Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El in the first film and shot footage as a hologram for the second movie, but wanted too much money to appear in the sequel and was edited out in favor of Susannah York as Superman's mom. It's the biggest improvement of the Donner cut. No offensive to York: again, it's the father-son relationship that got me, and those scenes are much more effective, actually some of Brando's best work (the dirty look he gives Margot Kidder's eavesdropping Lois Lane is harrowing.)
Donner's take on the transformation from Superman to regular human is better, actually the best scene in either two versions, and Reeves pathetically calling out to his absent father after changing his mind is also kind of great. Lois discovering Clark's secret is handled completely different: instead of having him accidentally fall into the fireplace, in this cut Lois shoots him! It's hard to judge the Donner mix as a film since there's so much patchwork involved. The revelation scene itself is actually just a screen test since Lester changed it and the original version was never actually shot (Jordie demanded to know why Chris Reeves is suddenly wearing different glasses) and technical details like music cues don't sync up very well. But the small differences are fascinating, like the sense of humor: gone is the silenct comedyesque sight gag of a man trying to talk on a payphone while the villain's super-breath is blowing him away, inserted is Miss Teschmacher trying to find a bathroom in the Fortress of Solitude, complete with toilet flushing sound effect (later, when Superman emerges from behind an ice wall instead of magically appearing for the final showdown, it's a real missed opportunity to not bring the sound effect back.) There's a lot more Gene Hackman (no complaint there) but the relationship between Clark and Lois, the most effective thing in the original version, and Lois as a character are not as well developed (for the record, a re-endowed Superman is just as petty as in Lester's world, going back to beat on the bullying trucker in the last scene.)
Instead of kissing away Lois' memories, he takes yet another spin around the world - I shit you not - to make everything the way it was (why does he have to worry about anything when manipulating time and space is so easy for him? And wouldn't that technically make his retribution on the trucker assault, since the original fight would have never happened in the first place after his planet-rewind?) In the appropriately bitter and surly commentary (David Denby gets served pretty hard), Lester claims that turning back time was always the intended ending of but the producers moved it to Part I. Still, little confusing. Given the chance to turn time back myself and let the Donner cut stand alone, leaving Lester (who Donner refuses to call by name, claiming he doesn't remember it and referring to him as "what's-his-face," also staying silent during scenes Lester obviously shot - is he as petty as Superman?) in the lull, I'd leave things the way they are. I don't think this is uniformly better than the first movie, but it's an entertaining exercise in what could have been.
12.24.06. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
"Dyin' time's here!" Funderburg was scandalized to learn I'd never seen the third Mad Max movie in its entirety as we sat waiting for the start of George Miller's recent Happy Feet. "It's the BEST ONE! It's ten times better than Road Warrior!" (He didn't really say that. Nobody would say that.) Anyway - it seems like Miller (strangely liste as co-director with George Ogilivie...imdb states that Miller handled the stunts and action while Ogilivie directed the cast... hmm) did for Australian cinema what Peter Jackson would later do for New Zeland's: sell it to the world and consequently sell it out. While the Max films made Austalian film visible in the states to larger audiences than attendees of a Peter Weir Restrospective, it also probably helped create an image of the outback that to the minds of most Americans included motor fueled by pig feces, hot sax music and a leather biker-ruled "Pocky-Lypse." I know I'm hoping that there's a least a Thunderdome-themed amusement park somewhere down under, with attractions like Lord of the Jungle Gym, Bartertown (for souvenirs and such) and "Tomorrow Morrow Land."
The first third of the film, with Mel Gibson wearing his hair exactly the same as he would in Braveheart and matching wits with Tina Turner (in a comparatively toned-down post-Tommy performance) and fists with Master Blaster in the title arena, which is little more than a large wicker basket turned upside down, is the highlight. The next two acts seem to be feeble attempts to one-up the previous movie, with a whole family of feral children to rival Road Warrior's one and a chase that's like a greast stain compared to that film's prestigous finale. The series seems to be seriously teetering the self-parody line at this point, so maybe it's best that Fury Road didn't happen in time for Mel's anti-semitic comments and global osterization.
Another interesting imdb fact: apparently, Miller was given the rights to Road Warrior and Thunderdome to get him to stand down as director of Contact???
Christmas. My family wouldn't let me watch a movie, even a Christmas-themed one. What a pack of grinches and Scrooges!
12.26. Children of Men.
There's a moment in Children of Men where Clive Owen watches another character from a window as she performs some kind of silly yoga in the yard. "How does she look to you?" someone asks. "Earnest," he replies. That's exactly how I felt about the movie: it was made with the best intentions, and for the most part really well by Alfonso Cuaron - but for all its heart, it's pretty goddamn goofy. Set in the year 2027 (Scanner Darkly had the right idea with its "seven years from now" opening - why do so many science fiction films have to set a date? I was really bummed when Robocop didn't show up to fight the Terminator in 1991), no babies have been born in eighteen years, bad news for all mankind especially the CEOs of companies that produce contraceptives. Clive Owen is Mr. Chain Smoking Can't Be Bothered Five O'Clock Shadow Man (I'm pretty sure that was his character's name) who is brought into an activist group led by former wife Julianne Moore and Chiwetel Ejiofor (seeing he and Owen, who are great together, in the same movie again made me remember how good Inside Man was and how much I like these actors.) They've got their hands on a Hope for the Future, which the group wants to exploit for their own pathetic political purposes.
Visually, Children is a feast and should win every technical Academy Award this year. Characters are talking and suddenly there's a giant pig floating outside the window. Two scenes, each shot in one take, are ridiculously well executed (as is Moore, in the first of those scenes.) But the eye candy, earnest as it is, glosses over an otherwise clichéd series of events: for example, the whole Michael Caine as laid back friend/hippy guru in the cabin who ends up helping the fleeing heroes and becoming victim to the villains because of it has been done to death (just like Caine), in Bird on a Wire, Love & a .45, True Romance and eXistenZ to name a few. It's been compared to Blade Runner: the difference is, Children tries to be relevant to modern issues like immigration and rampant violence in third world countries and for all its ideas, it has none. The set-up of its conflicts are so half-assed that I didn't know who the movie's dangerous mobs were supposed to be or what they wanted: usually, it's just a big screaming group of extras running at Owen and company like zombies from the Dawn of the Dead remake. And the film's overall message, that global healing comes in the form of an infant/there's always hope even for us/all you need is love is pretty naïve and mundane, not in keeping with the dark tone of the earlier scenes.
12.27.06. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.
"When you live in a dysfunctional family, you think it's normal." While by no stretch of the imagination a particularly innovative or groundbreaking documentary, this PBS funded feature makes use of shocking footage from the days of People's Temple up to its horrific destiny, the assassination of a congressman and suicide of 909 members in Guyana on November 17, 1978, and interviews various former cult members who lost money, family and very nearly their lives to the depraved yet seductive influence of Pastor Jim Jones. Up to viewing this informative analysis I was only familiar with the basics of the tragedy: Jonestown, cult, grape Kool Aid. I didn't even realize there had been a murder involved, a murder the film examines in harrowing detail. The 24 hours leading up to it make for the most gripping material in the documentary, with scenes of Congressman Leo Ryan visiting the site, appearing initially optimistic, then in absolute fear for his safety: you can literally see the moment in his face that he realizes things are about to go very badly. The footage taken by his film crew captures the growing tension in the camp, people begging to be taken home, Jones raving insanely and threatening Ryan's life.
In the first hour of the film Jones' casting of certain popular counter-culture ideologies (like Jim Phelps at the time, he was pro-integration) as bait to his open-minded flock are mixed with anecdotes of his attempted propositioning of younger members and an unsettling moment of the wolf's tail hanging out of its sheepskin when, after condemning the manipulation tactics used by Hitler, the pastor looks directly into the camera with palpable malignance. Phrases like "If you see me as your god, I'll be your god" are met with thunderous applause – Manson must be envious of this guy. Jones is depicted as the world's greatest con man who moved from planting cripples in his "healing" ceremonies to programming over a thousand people to give up their lives and join him: his precognition of where he would eventually lead his followers is revealed by witnesses relating his mass poisoning "rehearsals" during sermons. For their part, the interviewees seem clearheaded but dubious, like they managed to get their life back on track but are still not ready to be completely honest about their time with People's Temple or their own involvement in the events of November 17. Having lost parents, spouses and children on that day, most of them seem like veterans of a personal war, remorseful over a time in their lives when salvation turned to damnation in a misguided attempt to "make heaven down here."
12.28.2006. Little Miss Sunshine.
Receipe for Little Miss Sunshine (feeds: its own ego.)
Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups recycled characters from every allegedly cutting edge American independent film since 1990 - the horny Rabelain old man, the tortured homosexual, the oppressive father, the stupid white trash mom, the angsty teenager. 2 tablespoons all purpose broad starical targets (recommended: self-help motivators, heartless hospital nurses, underage beauty pagents.) 1 (16 ounce) package nasty, mean-spirited humor. 8 ounce unberable sentimentality, softened, to counteract.
Directions: 1. In a large saucepan, saute unlikable family of eccentries in standard life changing road trip situation. Bake up all sorts of eccentrice problems to resolve. Stir in dimply cherub wearing "chubby suit" with oversized glasses and family's positive attributes for easy audience sympathy. Add series of crazy misadventures involving an ancient vehicle that has to be pop-started like the station wagon in The Karate Kid, a make-or-break deal that falls through leaving the desperate dad with nowhere to turn in the Fargo mold, and absurdly journeying with a corpse in tow à la National Lampoon's Vacation. Bring to boil, remove.
2. Gradually mix in syrupy feel-good reaffirmation of charmingly eccentric life throuhg need to protect obnoxious pony-tailed cherub, stir until bland.
3. Add Steve Carell to cast for absolutely no reason other than to give him a stinker on his otherwise unbeatable recent filmography. Heat through but do not boil. Serve immediately, while the getting's good. Plenty for all at PGA, SAG and Academy Award ceremonies. May they choke on it.
12.29. The Bridesmaid.
The Bridesmaid has one of the most incisive and gleefully subversive opening shots in recent cinema. The camera travels down the street of a neighborhood, and we sit through the credits wondering where Chabrol's going to lead us, and that's exactly where he wants the audience throughout the film: wondering which storyline will prevail, which implications will turn out to be true and what the ubiquitous sensation of menace is drawing towards. We end up at the scene of a disappearance: authority figures, police tape, nosy neighbors, a correspondent breaking the story. Exciting stuff! But then the scene converts into a report on the television of a house shared by young adult siblings, who are speaking excitedly about an upcoming wedding, and Claude Chabrol has had his opening joke.
As scant resemblance as I can actually perceive between Alfred Hitchcock and the man famously dubbed "the French Hitchcock," one thing they share is a macabre sense of humor, only Chabrol's is more sophisticated and woven into his mischievous nature (and free of implied misogyny.) It's closer to the sinister tang of Lang or Polanski, not merely based on visual plot-related gags (specifically I'm thinking of the car that won't sink in Psycho.) The introduction has set up the sort of playful malice imbedded in the director's best film: his effortless shift from danger to safety, from day scene to night scene, from crowd of extras to intimate lead actors, from fake plot to actual storyline. Chabrol doesn't just tell a story: he traverses arcs like threads that his characters move across from one to another, obscuring outcomes while revealing more of his players' secret motivations, whether it's simply gleaning what effects them (La Ceremonie), judging their alleged guilt (Color of Lies) or both, as in Bridesmaid. The fact that the disappearance doesn't come up again until the end of the movie shows how little the director cares for standard plot reveals and twists.
The Piano Teacher's Benoit Magimel plays the typical atypical protagonist, a twenty-something who seems like a genuinely good guy, cares for his family, has a respectable job and is very good looking, but when alone seems strangely affected in some profound way, something beyond the personality his family recognizes. This private temperament is channeled through his obsession with a bust of Flora, on once hand a symbol of his enigmatic guardianship over his mother and, later, an emblem of the exotic mystery that is Senta, a bridesmaid at his sister's wedding with whom he becomes instantly drawn to and involved with. Laura Smet, as Senta, has a strange beauty with sculptural cheeks that make her resemblance to the statue all the eerier and deep-set eyes that glare brilliantly. Magimel's eventual obsession with her is very understandable and what's more, her performance is dynamite.
Chabrol, like Senta, keeps his skeletons (literally) in the closet until the final dastardly joke similar to the one that ends La Ceremonie, his late-period masterpiece which, like Bridesmaid, was adapted from a book by Ruth Rendell. Leading up to it, we're treated to several of the director's favorite fixations: scrutinizing but honest policemen, weird television programs, the obscuring of what's an innocent lie and what's deadly real, not to mention his familiar touch of morbid hyper-reality that borders on the absurd.
The last time I wrote a blog on my daily film viewing, I watched and reviewed three Chabrols I'd never seen before: one was excellent, one was highly entertaining, the other was a tragically dumb misfire with Rob Steiger staggering around set like a drunken gorilla who didn't know where it was which nevertheless featured hints of expert filmmaking. The quality of his prolific filmography may fluctuate (just note his films starring Isabelle Huppert – half great, half just plain weird – as a perfect example), but when he makes a good movie, even at 76 years old, it's vibrant and invigorating. A supplemental doc on the DVD features one of the best insights into the process of a master filmmaker, up there with the documentary on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Charisma.
12.30. The Good Shepherd.
Robert De Niro's sophomore directorial effort is a real treat for people who can't get enough close-ups of side-lit men talking quietly in profile (albeit beautifully side-lit by the always amazing Robert Richardson.) Specifically, people who like falling asleep watching close-ups of side-lit men talking quietly in profile, because it’s impossible not to. Basically a movie about guys who go from being in secret fraternal groups to being in secret government agencies, at which point the world becomes their own private clubhouse from which they can elect and eject members at will, making up hidden notes stuffed in hat brims and reading codes on the back of dollar bills (like National Treasure!) I'm a fan of intrigue and eager to learn more about the history of the CIA, but Good Shepherd is a film made up of tiny intimate scenes, each stretched out at least two minutes too long, that are neither intriguing nor revelatory when it comes to past activities of operatives in trench coats and glasses. Seriously, with all the stories out there about the unspeakably evil history of the CIA, this is like butterscotch taffy: it actually makes them look like just a bunch of descent hard-workin' Americans, if anything.
Eric Roth, whose work with Michael Mann constantly leads me to believe he's a good writer, makes things cryptic to the point of inaccessibility and stiffer than a body fished out of the river. Taking its cue from past surveillance dramas in which the excessive secrecy of the protagonist's line of work induces excessive paranoia (from The Conversation to Munich), De Niro’s movie keeps its main character, a Yale grad who goes from working with the Office of Strategic Services in World War II to high ranking agent in the CIA during the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco, strangely guiltless despite the increasing number of corpses.
Matt Damon, an actor I like who is nevertheless always on the verge of being overly tight-assed and boring, is here overly tight-assed and boring, and completely unconvincing playing a 20 year-fluctuating version of his character. Speaking of unconvincing, this sausage fest can’t think of any reliable reason to have Angelina Jolie around, and she certainly can't think of any way to be interesting in the slightest: the family subplot is deadly. Damon was recently in a movie where he played a government employee with a young wife and son, but at least that movie had the sense to kill the kid off. Here, his offspring grows and becomes a whiny reminder of why, if you set out to make a spy movie, you shouldn't sabotage it with infiltrating, cloying subplots.
12.31. The Bedroom Window.
It's 1987, and thank god someone finally decided to give Steve Guttenberg his well-deserved role in a dramatic film. Was Bob Saget not available? In the first scene, Guttenberg is bedding a very hot Isabelle Huppert, and already the movie has reliability issues. While bathing in moonlight quite nude at Guttenberg’s apartment window, she witnesses an attack on a woman (Elizabeth McGovern), which is aborted when the would-be murderer catches Huppert spying. Afraid her husband (also Guttenberg's boss) will learn of the affair, she convinces him to lie to Carl Lumbly and various other policemen and lawyers by testifying that he was the one who actually witnessed the struggle. What starts out as a combination of Bonfire of the Vanities-lite and Kitty Genevese-influenced drama quickly turns into a Hitchcock knock-off that rates as, based on the best the video box could muster, a "*** ½ thriller" (I love when the marketing department of a mediocre movie is content to have it thought of, at best, as "pretty good.") The movie is also a case of the villain looking so incessantly sinister that there's no way anyone could possibly mistake him for anything other than a sadistic rapist/killer, yet people constantly do - except of course our plucky curly-haired hero.
This is early work from Curtis Hanson, who started out making unremarkable, imitative suspense pieces like this, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild (both of which also featured an unmistakably evil antagonist). Hanson's stunt casting results in general fuddy-duddying by an unconvincing Gutte, bad dialogue made worse when filtered through a bored Huppert's beautiful, heavy-accent lips and flat-out piss terrible acting from McGovern, who jumps the bones of accused murderer Guttenberg despite the supposedly traumatic sexual assault on her earlier in the film. The Hitchcock biting script tries to pull off twists like the innocent man accused, gimmicks like a murder at the theater (speaking of which, who’s letting all these people park in front of the Kennedy Center?) and dusty devises like the old car that doesn't start gag.
My favorite moment is when, ten minutes after Huppert is killed (spoiler alert), there's already a news report about it on TV that uses a hilarious glamour photo of her as the reporter gives details of her demise. I guess her character moonlights as a professional model and it was just never brought up. I also love that Guttenberg's plan to trap the bad guy is thwarted by an angry biker who won’t get out of the phone booth. All that aside, I think I still liked this movie better than anything Hanson's done during his "golden years" that garner more respect despite their evident suck factors. Executive produced by Robert Towne, probably attracted to the project by the prospect of a nude Isabelle Huppert (he possibly suggested the flashback later in the movie that would allow us one final look of her framed au natural in that infamous window).
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