1/1/7 - 1/10/7

john cribbs

In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Max Ophul's The Earrings of Madame de... to lesser films by great directors like Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to idiotic dreck like A Night at the Museum. 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 12/22/6 - 12/31/6>>

1.1.07. Crank.

I was actually caught off guard by how weird as shit this movie was. Taking a concept that, as an action movie, could not be more workable, Crank wastes no time introducing Jason Statham as a hitman who's been poisoned and will die unless he's able to keep his adreniline up: DOA for the Die Hard crowd. While his methods of doing so aren't particularly inventive, they are fucking crazy: antagonizing armed gangstas in a bathroom, holding up a convenience store for its candy bars and energy drinks, pounding nasal spray, and getting head from his girlfriend (Amy Smart, who at this point has surpassed Chloe Sevigny as the most exploited actress on film) in the middle of a car chase/shootout. It's hard to tell what we're supposed to think of his desperate Chev Chelios, who threatens the lives of various random innocent bystanders in order to stay alive. Directed by two former visual effects artists, the movie has cameras jacking up and around the spinning action as Statham grunts and scuttles around town. There's definitely a strong lack of maturity exuding from all involved and the first fifty minutes of the movie are so jacked up on its own juice, it inevitably runs out of vigor by the time it starts to resolve itself. But the ending lives up to the balls-out action of earlier scenes, with Statham doing his own version of Belmondo's "I can't make it baby" finale from Melville's Le Doulos.


1.2. The Black Dahlia.

I've been a certified De Palma apologist since the mid-90s. It's almost a second job. Especially after seeing The Fury again recently, and Dressed to Kill and Blow Out earlier this year, it's been easy for me to recall the excellence of Sisters, Carrie and Obsession and delete memories of Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale (the last of which I actually kinda liked anyway). Now I'm not so sure. This is the sort of movie James Ellroy was probably talking about in the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction documentary, the piss-poor attempted to adapt one of his books. Worse yet, it's from one of his most sensationalistic, far-fetched novels: a treatment of the investigation into Elizabeth Short's infamous murder that plays out like Oliver Stone's JFK.

The one thing it had going for it was the character of Lee Blanchard, who like Ellroy becomes obsessed with Short post-mutilation almost to the brink of psychosexual ruin. Aaron Eckhardt plays him in the movie, and it's like a firecracker that never goes off (I keep thinking that he and Neil LaBute really need each other, then I remember Possession.) With that interesting element taken out of the mix, the story is bland enough, but De Palma's execution makes it worse. The scenes are flaccid and transition into one another without verve, in a vague obligation to keep some sort of progression to the brutally long proceedings. The dialogue feels like the self-parody Ellroy's always on the verge of.

Tough Cop: "I don't get modern art."
Sultry Vixen: "Maybe modern art doesn't get you. But I do."

The "tough" cop is Josh Hartnett, who name drops Mickey Cohen and Meyer Lansky in mumbled, indistinct voice-over as if everything will connect at any given moment. Who would believe this shrimp is a heavy-weight boxer with an axe to grind? Didn't he already fail to convince one of LA's finest in Hollywood Homicide? It took Fiona Shaw's grossly miscalculated performance later in the film just to take my mind off how wrong Harnett is in the setting, which is already struggling to be historially authentic, or even believable. De Palma, you've broken my heart. How could you make a movie so crummy that a synopsis trashing it doesn't even get around to the ever-so offensive Sco-Jo? (Don't worry, we'll get to that tomorrow.) The pulp here is paper, flat and unremarkable.

But speaking of the Dahlia, my sister gave me a great book for Christmas that everyone should purchase post-haste.


1.3. Scoop.

It's amazing that Woody Allen can get millions of dollars for a project that is basically a pretext for him to touch Scarlett "Sco-Jo" Johansson as much as possible. For her part, she's under the impression that her character should be played as the female Fielding Mellish, but I can't recall Woody ever having to wear a revealing bathing suit in any of his movies. The reaper from Love and Death returns, as does the serial murderer subplot of Shadows and Fog and the strange obsession with stage magic from that film and Stardust Memories, while Ian McShane materializes as soundlessly as an invisible Mia Farrow in Alice (which is not a good movie, but much better than Scoop.)

Being prolific doesn't work as well for Allen as it does other filmmakers - he draws too much from the same well. I'm working on the theory that he can come up with one great film in ten years, which means he's due by 2009. Besides his sad attempts at contemporizing the well-worn screenplay (ooh a "google" reference!), he's managed to completely desexualize Hugh Jackman, here playing a bland rich boy who may or may not have murdered a woman in a London apartment to stop her from blackmailing him (sounds oddly familiar, Woody Allen...) The chemisty between he and Sco-Jo resembles Ethan Suplee staring at the magic eye picture in Mallrats. Allen's presence in this movie has absolutely no relevance to the story, more evidence that he just wanted to be around the "overwhelming sexuality" (his words) of his young co-star.


1.4. The Orkly Kid.

Didn't have a lot of time today, so I watched this short film on youtube thanks to a recommendation from a friend who has great taste in film and can be relied on for outstanding information such as news of Frank Henenlotter's first film in fifteen years. The third incarnation of The Beaver Trilogy, the life work of Ed and Rubin writer-director Trent Harris, this installment stars Crispin Glover in a role based on eccentric Groovin' Gary (who in an earlier film was played by young Sean Penn.) Believing that small town conservatives will better understand his special talents and celebrity impersonations once he's broadcast around the world ("People understand when it's on television," he assures himself), Larry sets up a talent show where he will unveil his stage persona, Olivia Neutron-Bomb, with a performance of Newton-John's "Please Don't Keep Me Waiting." This is the part Glover was born to play, himself being a misunderstood performance artist in his own right, and he's great in the movie, the final two scenes being particularly good. That's EG Daily behind the counter in the dinette scene!


1.5. Tideland.

The dvd opens with a black & white, creepy-looking Terry Gilliam staring into the camera. After making a few excuses as to why the movie sucks and saying of children "when you drop them, they bounce" (jesus, is he really going around dropping kids?) he states, "I was 64 when I made this film. I think I finally discovered the child within me...it turned out to be a little girl."  Yikes. The psychotic breakdown of Gilliam that started with the failure of his Don Quixote project and coursed into the baffling vacuum of The Brothers Grimm has manifested into a film which blatantly rips off, yet never evokes the spirit of, Christina's World.

Eric Pfriender provided a spot-on sum up of this nasty little movie (although the doll heads she speaks to didn't seem to have very distinct personalities to me: when she talks to them, the dialogue is almost completely unintelligible). Once Bridges bites it and the girl's left alone, she meets up with an insane woman and her retarded son or brother (I can't remember), who ends up french kissing the kid. "If it's shocking," Gilliam explains, "It's because it's innocent." So is - uh - child pornography? But since he IS the little girl, is Gilliam trying to say he wants to make out with a retarded dude? Honestly, what is this film trying to say? Tideland is an auteur's train wreck of epic proportions, a symbol of what happens when a filmmaker who's struggled his entire career to get his vision on screen becomes old and tired and starts failing and just goes insane.


1.6. Snakes on a Plane.

"You can't make cult movies," Roger Corman said in an interview. "The audience makes cult movies." As tired as Samuel L. Jackson was of those motherfucking snakes on that motherfucking plane, a majority of the filmgoing crowd was equally tired of all the hype and promoting of the one-joke gimmick, thus proving there's no such thing as a new cult film that hasn't been released yet. Regardless of what Tarantino and Rodriguez would have folks believe, cult films happen twenty years after a movie comes and bombs, the latter of which Snakes on a Plane at least managed to do.

While it's better than, say, Flight Plan, the movie actually fails to deliever the one thing it promised: snakes on a plane. There's basically an extended scene of the serpents attacking, after which the survivors move to the next, snakeless level of the aircraft and the lethal problem is treated more like an annoyance: "Oh don't go down there - remember, snakes." The conflict becomes more like Airplane!, since both pilots buy it and they have to rely on Good Burger to land the plane based only on his simulated Playstation 2 experiences. What snake effects exist are pretty terrible, possibly on purpose? Nice try movie. I don't think a python could look worse than the monster in Anaconda, but here's the proof.

The movie breaks other obligations by introducing a character as a champion kickboxer then having him NEVER KICK ANYTHING, having a baby on the plane who doesn't get eaten then horribly regurgitated and leaving the set-up backstory of an untouchable crime boss go unresolved. I don't blame David R. Ellis, director of Final Destination 2. Surely the film was taken out of his hands by Jackson and the studio to give it that "exploitation feeling," re: a shirtless girl and a few more "fucks!" (you'll note that in the movie, which they retooled for an "R" rating in post-production, most of the swears come suspiciously from actors with their backs turned.) I just hope that by the time they start previews for Armadillos on the Tea Cup Ride, they realize that cult movies aren't actually bad, which may be why people like them.


1.7. Zelly and Me.

An interesting little blot on David Lynch's filmography is his appearance in this displaced 1988 film, which is something of an encore to Blue Velvet since it stars Isabella Rossellini as the title nanny ("Zelly," not "me"). Of course the similarities stop there – although there are some dark moments in this film about a wealthy woman's possessive hold over her granddaughter and director Tina Rathborne would go on to helm some episodes of "Twin Peaks," it's a comparatively light hearted affair about the relationship between Rossellini, all cheekbones and tennis shoes, and the girl who sees her governess as a Joan of Arc figure with her long neck and Maria Falconetti haircut. Still, Glynis Johns' domineering granny Coco seems like a template for Diane Ladd's witchy Marietta Fortune in Wild at Heart and Lynch, as a baby food mogul in love with Rossellini, is for once the bewildered innocent in a bizarre world of oppression (in his first scene, after Coco has cruelly "punished" the girl’s favorite doll, Rossellini announces "She put Waddles in ammonia!" much to his startled confusion).

Many props to Alexandra Johnes as the young girl driven to mental breakdown by her sadistic guardian; it's a shame she hasn't done much else. She popped up in the Neverending Story sequel and a "Buffy" but afterwards largely disappeared and hasn’t starred in anything since (the curse of the "introducing" opening credit). Also, the great Joe Morton is on hand in the Ernie Hudson kindly gardener role. You know now that I think of it, Lynch was dating Rossellini at the time and probably agreed to do the film to be near her. That's very sweet. Curiously, special thanks in the credits go out to Brian De Palma and Steve Martin.





1.8. Paperhouse.

When I listed the various films Terry Gilliam's shambles of a movie Tideland was guilty of pilfering, I completely forgot Bernard Rose's Paperhouse, with which Tideland very coincidentally shares a similar young female lead, an isolated old shack, an absent/grotesque father, underage make-out sessions, various fantastical elements and, most notably, the visual Andrew Wyeth referencing. The location in general seems to have inspired Gilliam's uninspired flop. I admire Rose's underrated film, one of those classic Vestron releases that used to occupy the video store shelves, marketed as a horror movie although it's more like a fantasy coming-of-age drama - I'm surprised it doesn't have a bigger audience.

Though it does have its flaws – inconsistent tonal shifts, an overextended ending, a so-so performance by its young leading actress – Paperhouse feels like a more worthy modern reworking of the Spirit of the Beehive formula than something like Pan's Labyrinth. Its child heroine, named Anna (go figure), is suffering from a glandular fever that sends her into the world of her ominous drawings, a shadowland of real life where she reconciles her perceived childhood apprehensions and experiences newfound emotions. The entire movie, inside and out of the fantasy world, has a great atmosphere.

The film's based on the book Marianne Dreams by the tragically late Catherine Storr - I don't know why they changed the heroine's name. Glenne Headley plays the mom, and I'm a big fan (which says a lot for her, considering her largely shitty filmography) so getting to hear her English accent is pleasing. Pretty much the only music video director to move to features that I like (you heard me, Fincher fans!), Rose would also be pilfered by another noted music video-to-feature director, Tarsem, who borrowed elements of Paperhouse for his uninspired The Cell. Rose has had a weird career since Paperhouse and Candyman, directing stuff like Immortal Beloved and the mixed cast of 1997's Anna Karenina (Alfred Molina's a great choice for Levin, but Sophie Marceau in the lead role?)


1.9. Blood Tea and Red String.

Seeing this film validated two things for me: 1) that the corruption of cold, impersonal computer animation is not absolute as long as there are excellent and imaginative storytellers still willing to spend a decade in their basement handcrafting their own fables and 2) apparently nobody cares: why wasn't this film given more publicity and nominated for an Academy Award like Happy Feet? Maybe next time Christiane Cegavske will write some pop culture-friendly dialogue so she can put Mike Myers' voice on a character or two. This film has more allure and originality in the cuticle of one painstakingly crafted toenail than those movies have in their entire computer generated bodies. A fantasy that's not only visually stimulating, but fun and challenging in a way that really great adventures like The Wind and the Willows were, and nothing but the rare feature by Jan Svankmajer is today.

The lead characters are a family of squirrel/bird creatures (I tried to give them a name, but years of TV and movies have badly degraded my imagination, and I could only think of "ewoks") who create a doll with an egg sown inside. The doll is coveted by a group of red-eyed aristocratic mice, who make off with it in the middle of the night, prompting three of the ewoks to go in search of it. The piece of animation the film brought to mind was Wladyslaw Starewicz's The Mascot, another recent Chris Funderburg recommendation: both deal with the race to obtain an inanimate object which leads their protagonists to unlikely places (in Mascot it was hell itself, here it's a garden of predatory plants). The mice at their blood tea party/card game, set to a very Svankmajerian perpetual clock-ticking, is an extended scene that pulls you right back into it every time it restarts. The composition of shots and inventive visuals (red string from the butt of a black widow for webbing, etc) bring to mind thoughts and images of which I can't stop wondering were intended: obsession, anxiety, claustrophobia, serial killers, death and rebirth - it may sound unpleasant, but it's a rare and magnificent feeling. I want to own Cegavske's original wizard frog figure. This movie should be required viewing in schools (hey it's not as scary as Watership Down, which I was shown in second grade).


1.10. The Science of Sleep.

As president of the Charlie Kaufman Hate Club, I've had little positive to base my opinion of Michel Gondry besides his neat looking "Knives Out" music video. Dave Chappelle's Block Party was fun, but aesthetically unremarkable. So maybe I'm giving The Science of Sleep way too much flack when I say it was one of the better movies I saw from last year, a perfect mix of childlike "Pee Wee's Playhouse"-style cardboard cutout creativity and the dark ramifications of having that dreamy existence cross-over distractingly into the hero's waking state. Stephane is the host of Stephane TV, an cataleptic outlet for his thoughts, anxieties and fantasies. Apprehension over his dull job, pain left over from his father's death, frustration with his mother and her new husband, and especially obsession with the pretty artist next door are all processed in his surreal sleeping hours to the point that he can't tell which feelings and events are real and which have been invented by his overworked pastel of a subconcious. Was she ultimately charmed by his surprised mending of her remote toy horse, or just annoyed and creeped out that he broke into her apartment to get to it?

It makes for an interesting comparison to Paperhouse: both deal with artists who not only nurture their psychological pangs and near-insanity through their work but ultimately find their reality threatened by the submersion into areas nobody else in the world would understand. Gabriel Garcia Bael is hilarious and painfully sad as Stephane, and Serge Gainsbourg's cinematic daughter Charlotte fragile as the neighbor he pines for. The visuals, particularly of Stephane floating/flying through the city, are a vast improvement over the cutesy "earnestly fake" look of fantasy sequences from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although as Chris Funderburg pointed out the "giant fighting hands" are recycled from Gondry's video for the Foo Fighters' "Everlong." Once again it's a question of whether ripping off oneself is a form of plagarism (another example: the magic spell that makes the mops and brooms clean the rooms themselves in the Disney cartoon The Sword and the Stone, clearly a swipe from the more famous scene in Fantasia.) This film is a step in the right direction for Gondry, and his new movie Be Kind Rewind has a promising premise.

<<click here for 1/11/7 - 1/20/7>>


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