Friday, June 30, 2006

Edge of Outside

Talk to me for a while, and I'll get around to telling you how, in the words of Josh Becker, Turner Classic Movies is a blessing on my house. Old movies shown uncut and in widescreen (post-1954), old Warner Bros. and MGM cartoons, and some very, very good documentaries. This month, TCM is airing its first original (completely in-house) documentary, Edge of Outside, which offers some perspectives on independent filmmakers, their influence on cinema, and their place in the Hollywood pecking order.

Edge of Outside asks some encompassing questions. What is independent? What do these films have to offer? Why do they exist, and are they necessary? Director-producer Shannon Davis lets others answer those questions, including John Sayles, Peter Falk, Peter Biskind (author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), Edward Burns, Peter Bogdanovich (as always, smugly speaking about film history as though he witnessed it), Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese (always joyous and fascinating), among many others. Rather than offering a straight history of the indie film (important events like the forming of United Artists and Liberty Films are sidelined, while luminaries like King Vidor, Charles Chaplin, and Buster Keaton only rate a cursory mention), the commentaries flow in a sort of conversational stream-of-consciousness, covering topics unique and common to the indie experience, and focusing for longer periods on a few important filmmakers who, even today, are less well-known than they should be.

The interview subjects wax philosophical on subjects like financial problems, story approach, the independent spirit, and studio interference. Interestingly, rather than bitch about a lack of money and the inability to match the studio budget, most filmmakers credit the logistical and funding problems with forcing them to be creative problem-solvers and as a result, better storytellers. Henry Jaglom quotes what might be Orson Welles's best piece of advice: "the enemy of art is the absence of limitations." But the filmmakers also lament the missed opportunities, the compromises, the films that were never made.

The best part for me was the focus on specific talents. One of my favorite directors, Sam Peckinpah (above), get a good amount of screen time devoted to him. "Bloody Sam" made some of the most polarizing films in history, including Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Major Dundee, and The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah didn't fit into the mainstream mold, didn't buy the way Hollywood treated violence, and was basically forced to pursue independent filmmaking as a way to examine the violence he saw as something natural in mankind. Peckinpah saw civilization as an intrusion on our primal drives; every film he made was at heart a tragedy. Witness the death of the gunfighter as portrayed in The Wild Bunch. Even more tragic is the way Pat Garrett is forced to murder his friend, and by extension himself and everything that informs his person, in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. There's a reason Bob Dylan wrote "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" for that film.

Even less well known, tragically, is Samuel Fuller, whose works never really hit the mainstream. Fuller, too, was interested in man's relation to violence, and made stunning films like Pickup on South Street and the very controversial White Dog that were honest and almost aggressively mundane. Fuller's stories were not necessarily original, but his approach to them was. He loved to move the camera; he wrote people as they were, without any of the romantic drama of Hollywood productions. Often, his characters voice this same exasperation. Fuller's movies are more influential than people realize; Spielberg can't seem to stop ripping him off (not only did Spielberg lift the character Short Round from The Steel Helmet, but the best parts of Saving Private Ryan are taken out of Fuller's The Big Red One, the best movie about World War II ever made). If you ever have an opportunity to watch one of his films, jump on it.

Other filmmakers are focused on, too. Nicholas Ray, director of In a Lonely Place, one of the most unique films ever made (as well as Rebel Without a Cause), Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes (who I still think of as overrated, but who even went as far as to distribute his own films), David Lynch, and Roger Corman are all given time. Through talking about these artists, a consensus is arrived at: independent films are necessary because they offer alternative viewpoints that don't exist in mainstream films. Because they are untempered by committee meetings and executive opinion, they are an important reflection of critical ideas.

But there is another side to this that isn't spoken of very much, to the detriment of the film. Though many people talk about the business aspects, the large impact to the film industry is largely ignored. The eighties are basically skipped over, except for the by now standard of lamenting that Hollywood closed the door to alternative viewpoints and embraced moneymaking blockbusters instead. But no one makes the point that this is largely the fault of independent filmmakers themselves. Everyone likes to blame Jaws and Star Wars, and those are a good starting place, but what about the legendarily excessive cost overruns on Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie or Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now? Certainly situations like that did nothing to ingratiate indie filmmakers with the studios. And no one points out that George Lucas himself is, for all intents and purposes, an independent filmmaker. He may not fit the ideal, but he operates independently; he actually achieved Coppola's dream of total independence. Robert Redford is briefly praised for keeping the independent spirit alive in the 1980s with the Sundance Film Festival, but no one bothers to mention the corporate hijacking of Sundance. And though Quentin Tarantino is credited with a revival of independent film, it has less to do with how good Pulp Fiction was than the $100 million it made at the box office; Hollywood put up indie divisions because movies like Pulp Fiction and Clerks became successes, and the studios were quick to jump on a new, lucrative market. Nothing is made of the way Miramax turned the independent film into a studio-driven cash machine.

But, for those faults, Edge of Outside is compelling. You can feel the love for independent films throughout. Rather than attempting a chronological history, Davis creates a rhythm different from other documentaries, but very close to the independent films her subjects praise. It is at its best when dealing with the legendary Orson Welles, one of my personal heroes. Welles struggled all of his life with the money men, hustling in order to pursue his dreams. People who worked with him speak movingly about his special ability to see things in an unusual way. They, too, lament the lost opportunities and the films that were never made (Spike Lee calls him a cautionary tale, pointing out that he has no intention of selling wine on TV in 20 years in order to get by--an odd comment from a man who used to direct Nike commercials). In Welles's comments lie the real story of the independent drive, which he describes as "2% filmmaking and 98% hustling." There is a genuinely affecting sadness when he surmises, "It's no way to spend a life."

Edge of Outside airs 5 July on Turner Classic Movies at 8pm Eastern Time. There is a press release here. TCM is supplementing this documentary every Wednesday night with some of the very movies mentioned in Edge of Outside. Go to this page to look at trailers from those films and check out the schedule.

Throw 6/30

Now, normally this spot is devoted to 15 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week. But I just wasn't up to an entire 15 items this week. I've already talked about Tom Cruise's fictional child this week. I don't care about the number of stars who suddenly entered into all new temporary marriages. Fuck Star Jones-Reynolds and how mad Barbara Walters is. Aaron Spelling died? Whatever. So, here's what I do have: half of a Throwdown, which I guess I'm calling a Throw. Here are 7 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. What the fuck? Selma Blair and Sean "Dip Shitty" Combs? I honestly didn’t expect that.

2. Boy, say whatever you want about Mena Suvari being washed up and having a totally irrelevant acting career. But her ass is still smokin’ hot!

3. Oh, man, Nicole, you really need to get some help. When you make Lindsay Lohan look like the larger one, you are in serious trouble... Though Lindsay’s decision to make herself look like a cheap whore is her own fault.

4. Well, they’ve decided to redesign Bazooka Joe for today’s kids. Now, Bazooka Joe was always something like a naive marketing executive’s idea of what a kid from 20 years ago might think was cool when he was very young, but this one seems especially lame. I think the meeting went something like this:

Ad Exec: "We want a kid with attitude. He’s edgy, he’s "in your face." You’ve heard the expressions "let’s get busy"? Well, this is a kid who gets "biz-zay!" Consistently and thoroughly."

Krusty the Clown: "So he’s proactive, huh?"

Ad Exec: "Oh, God, yes. We’re talking about a totally outrageous paradigm."

Sorry for quoting The Simpsons, but it just seemed so apt.

5. I see Cameron’s been fiercely protecting the tits she so desperately doesn’t want anyone to see that she sued a man and put him in jail just for taking pictures of them.

6. I think it’s hilarious that Britney Spears is claiming that US Weekly stole these pictures, instead of just admitting that she had her hair and makeup professionally done and had these photos purposely leaked to counter the Matt Lauer interview. "See?" the pictures scream. "We’re really a happy family!" No, I’m sure it’s just a big, helpful coincidence. People in Hollywood really think we’re fucking morons. I guess we’re supposed to believe she travels with a professional photographer...

7. More Britney picture news: apparently, after the Dateline interview, US Weekly did a poll which showed that 87% of the same 100 people they always interview in Times Square actually had less respect for Britney after watching it. Britney’s first response was to do photos of her doing something she actually didn’t do on Dateline: looking nice. And then she shops the photos around for $200,000 to the same tabloids she bashed in the interview. She ended up selling them to OK! for a mere $5000. That poor girl is going to starve to death if she’s left to manage her own life, man. She still cleans up real nice, though.

The other major reason I have nothing is because... at last, TiVo has come into my life. Becca just up and brought it home and, after a very long, very frustrating, very sweaty, very three trips to Best Buy for equipment kind of day, it's up and running and recording programs for me. I thoroughly look forward to my life as a zombie for TiVo.

And one last thing: the teaser trailer for Spider-Man 3, in case you haven't seen it yet. My inner geek is throwing a fit.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Art of Having No Opinion: How OG Reads to Me

A critical reader's interpretation of Owen Gleiberman's review of Superman Returns in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly.

The 1978 version of Superman was a great movie.

Boy, it's hard to find anything in superhero movies these days that we haven't seen before, thanks to computers.

Superman Returns isn't very original, and it's surprisingly old-fashioned. And not in a good way, either. A lot of the 1978 film has been recycled into this movie.

The logic and motivations don't make sense.

Brandon Routh was obviously only cast because he looks like Christopher Reeve, and all he does is mimic Reeve's original performance. In fact, Routh isn't even as good as Reeve; he isn't as manly or as funny, and he certainly doesn't have the weight, authority, timing, or gravity. Kate Bosworth is bland and unnoticeable. Why bother remaking the film if you can't get actors with personality like Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder?

Buuuuuut... there's a plot, and sassy women 'n' stuff, and all of those pretentious comic book metaphors about independence.

But the movie has a slow first act and it's just a mannered ripoff of the 1978 version of Superman. Bryan Singer's a good director, though, despite my comments about how crappy this movie is.

Even though I find Kevin Spacey's performance inherently ridiculous, I'm going to elect to praise him.

This is Bryan Singer's best film. Despite my spending two full pages deriding its lack of originality, pacing, plot, humor, or spectacle.

This movie was just okay. But I loved it. No, really, I did!

Grade: B

(Entertainment Weekly is owned by Warner Bros., the studio which owns Superman and is releasing Superman Returns.)

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

This was a hard movie for me to take, and a hard movie for me to think about critically. This is an adaptation of fictional author J.T. Leroy's "autobiographical" novel, about a young boy named Jeremiah (the title is from a verse in the biblical Jeremiah) who is ripped from a happy foster family by his mother Sarah (Asia Argento, who also directed the film), and basically abused for the rest of his life. On the face of it, I really didn't like the movie. I thought the performances (with the exceptions of Asia and Michael Pitt, who I really am starting to like) were pretty bad; but, on the other hand, everyone is playing a type or a caricature. None of the characters feel organically real; all of the abusive men that Sarah winds up with (including Jeremy Renner, Jeremy Sisto, Kip Pardue, and Marilyn Manson) blend into one. Jeremiah himself is played by three different actors, first Jimmy Bennett (who is likable, which makes the scenes were he is abused--emotionally by his mother, physically by men--particularly hard to take), then by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse. They play the title characters in The Suite Life of Zach and Cody (a Disney Channel series), and I'm sort of familiar with them, which is another layer of distraction for me (they're not identical, and one is fatter than the other--why get twins to play a character that old?). They're not likable; in fact, they're barely tolerable. There's no emotional connection to the movie at all, other than the basic fear for a child in danger; once Asia the director beats you into accepting the child's lot in life, that fear dissipates, and you're left with no emotional center. You honestly don't care what's going to happen, because both Sarah and Jeremiah are so unlikable, so thoroughly dead inside, that you don't even care enough to hope they both fall in front of a bus. But.. what if that's the point? What if the point of the film is that these two characters do, in the very, very end, feel an emotional connection for one another that overcomes all of the empty deadness of their lives? Because there is a climax of sorts, and there is a genuine emotional turning point; it just comes at right past the eleventh hour, which will be too little too late for a lot of viewers. As for me... well, I'm willing to believe there's more there than I give it credit for, it's just very subtle. This is one I'm probably going to have to sit through again before I see it there. And I want to see it there; as much as I love Asia Argento as an actor, I love her even more as a director. Scarlet Diva, her first film as a director, left me cold the first time around, too; now I consider it among the best films I've ever seen. It suffered from the same problems--unlikable characters, an emotional resolution that was too subtle to comprehend at first. Becca brought up something I hadn't considered--that the title is very apt, and part of the point of the movie. The heart is deceitful above all things. Jeremiah looks for the emotional connection his heart tells him he needs, and is swept along in a tide of pain and disappointment that he eventually accepts. Sarah's heart deceives her, too, because she pushes away the emotional connection she thinks she doesn't want, but eventually realizes she needs more than anything else. That I didn't get it on the first go may not be a fault of Asia Argento's as a filmmaker. No rating on this one; I'm still trying to wrap my mind around what really happened. Which at least sets it apart.

This Russian fantasy film is the first in a trilogy, which to hear others tell it means that we're supposed to forgive its myriad deficiences because, after all, they'll be corrected in later entries. Bullshit, this is a terrible movie. The plot is nearly impenetrable; something about the Others, who are really the forces of Light (who are...angels?) and Darkness (vampires). And they're born normal, and can choose to be Light or Dark, and... there's a vortex... and a curse... and something about a Chosen One... I don't know. Where to begin with the amount of problems here? First, there are too many plots going on at once. There's the main character, Anton, who is much more tied to the coming Final Battle Between Good and Evil than he thinks he is. And, apparently, he's starting to question his own place in the balance. And then there's the overriding trilogy plot, which is about how the FBBG&E is being prepared for. But then there are the first installment plots: the woman who is now a vampire and wants to be normal; the virgin who has cursed herself and doesn't realize she's about to be responsible for the end of the world; the boy who may be the most powerful Other ever born and must choose his place. That's a lot of shit to resolve in 2 hours, and the movie doesn't quite make it to a satisfying conclusion on any of those things. Besides which, because it's the first part of a trilogy, there's no real ending, anyway. Which would be fine if the overriding trilogy plot felt like it was really there for a reason other than dragging the story out, but it doesn't. It's just a really long pastiche of several better (and even worse) fantasy movies that goes nowhere; and despite all of the fast-paced, obtrusive, needlessly distracting special effects, it goes nowhere at a... very... sloooooow... pace... It feels like it should be called The Lord of Highlander Potter's Crow Wardrobe Prophecy, Episode One: War and Peace Reloaded. A total waste of time. * star.

Philip Kaufman's third movie as a writer-director, detailing the final robbery of the James-Younger Gang. It's not as fully realized as I would've hoped, coming from Kaufman (his next film was The White Dawn, an underrated film about how violent culture clash can become; and that was followed by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which strips away the B-movie aspects of the original and makes a strong message even more insidious). But it does do a couple of interesting things. The first is in its characterization of some of history's most famous outlaws. Most movies take the tack of Jesse James as a romantic Robin Hood of the Old West, with Frank as his wise but moody brother and Cole Younger as the jealous, violent man in Jesse's shadow. Kaufman turns the tables, making Cole (an excellent Cliff Robertson) thoughtful and open to the shift he feels in America's culture. Jesse (Robert Duvall) is violent, unstable, even cruel, and Frank (John Pearce) is a fawning sycophant who has no mind of his own--he takes his orders from God and from Jesse. The second interesting thing is the way Kaufman highlights life at the turn of the 20th century as a struggle between the traditional way of life (Jesse is still fighting the Civil War) and the changes being made every day (Cole is fascinated with machines and steam power). The conflict is manifested in the plans each man makes for the bank in Northfield, Minnesota; Jesse wants to raid the bank and rob it, killing as many Yankees as possible so that a message will be sent from the guerillas of the Confederacy, while Cole wants to use the inherent corruption of the banks to make a legal withdrawal that will allow him to buy the votes needed to get amnesty for the crimes of the James-Younger Gang. It all comes to a head violently, of course. But there are touches leading up to it that make a lot of points about the old ways (the prominence of guns in everyday life, the distrust of banks) rubbing up against the new ways (a manic baseball game is a particular highlight, a steam-powered machine and a time-activated lock create disaster at the robbery). And even in the aftermath, the townspeople revert quickly to marauders, rounding up a posse to hunt down Jesse and Cole. There are a lot of things this film does effectively, and in a very interesting way. Unfortunately, the pacing leaves much to be desired, the center feels oddly unfocused, and the argument doesn't completely makes its point. But when it works, oh boy, it works. **1/2 stars.

I LOVE Michelle Marsh in the Kitchen

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Nacho Libre: Lesser of Two Evils?

In defiance of all Darwinian logic, my mom went to see Nacho Libre this weekend. I'm getting sick of hearing people tell me that they liked Nacho Libre. It's not because the movie looks stupid and I figure it has to be bad; it's because of the tone with which people tell me about it. They always kind of pause and say: "It was... pretty... good. I mean, it wasn't great intellectual importance, but it has its moments."

Urgh! God, it frustrates me to hear that crap. Because I can tell that, deep down, they didn't like the movie. That it's the kind of movie that, a year from now, they're going to look back on and say: "Wow, that was a really stupid movie." Well, what's wrong with saying it now? Why bother searching deep inside of yourself and telling me that, in relation to everything it could have been, it least it was marginally less horrible than eating your own feet? Are you afraid it's going to make you appear ungrateful somehow? Sure, hitting yourself in the thumb with a hammer is not quite as bad as stabbing yourself in the eye with a screwdriver, but that doesn't mean I'm jumping in the line for either one.

Or is it that someone went to see a stupid movie, and they're embarrassed they went to it and then didn't like it, so they just say something that sounds like: "Well, at least it didn't make me bleed from my anus"?

Bullshit. Quit lying to me and be honest. And a note for the future: just because I don't like any shit you put on the screen, it doesn't mean I feel everything should be so profound or important. I'll settle for entertaining. But I'm not so willing to settle that I'll sit in front of the TV watching Will & Grace for 25 years because it was almost sorta kinda fun at some point in the distant past. It's okay to have an opinion. You don't have to take whatever they give you.

Suggested new tagline: "Nacho Libre--marginally better than the crushing disappointment you feel from sitting at home listening to your own thoughts!" Or, more succinct: "Nacho Libre--at least it's not fatal."

Okay, I'm Calling it Now: There Is No Suri Cruise

Seriously, the kid's nearly three months old now, and there has yet to be picture one of the spawn of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. And it's just the latest in a line of things that don't really add up at all, which piled together really lend credence to the conspiracy theory that Tom and Katie are not a real couple, and that the pregnancy was some kind of scientology-related publicity stunt.

In March 2005, Katie Holmes dumps her fiance Chris Klein, and a month later she's out skipping around with Tom Cruise, who we thought was dating Sofia Vergara. The idiot couch-jumpin event occurs on 23 May (and, sadly, I see the whole thing on TV because the big-screen at the laundromat is turned to Oprah). Then there's the MTV Movie Awards, and then they're suddenly engaged in June, and Tom Cruise cries like a little bitch when some reporter squirts water at him in London. Then Tom has a wild meltdown arguing over the benefits of medication with Matt Lauer, which is a bit like Christopher Robin and Pooh debating the merits of a free market economy. And then, blessedly, we don't hear about them until 5 October, when it is announced that Katie Holmes is pregnant. Three days later, a picture of Katie Holmes looking at least five months pregnant appears in US Weekly. And after that, things start getting weird.

(Quick sidenote: what does it say about the way Tom Cruise sees their relationship when he throws her a lavish 27th birthday party at F.A.O. Schwartz? I mean, Tommy, a freakin' toystore?!)

Anyway, the whole pregnancy seemed odd. I mean, she converted to scientology, and she had that "scientology chaperone" with her all the time (which is, let's face it, barely-concealed code for a person who keeps recent converts from running off to a deprogramming center; I know this because I've spoken to people who have experience running afoul of the "church" of scientology). And for a pregnant woman, why was Katie being flown all over the world? The picture that finally got me was this one:

Not only does it look as though Katie Holmes is giving birth to a litter of horses (yes, I know horses don't have litters, it's hyperbole about relative size), but the rest of her body looks astonishingly thin. And this picture was from, like, February or something. This picture looks 100 percent like a woman who is carrying a beach ball or something under her shirt. It looks completely and totally fake. And somebody made this thing, too:

If you enlarge it, you can see how the shape and size of her belly seems to change over and over, growing and shrinking as, apparently, the mood takes her. On 8 October, she looks like she's four or five months along. Look at her on 17 December; she barely looks pregnant at all. On 14 January, she's drinking fucking coffee. On 14 December, she's standing perfectly straight, which must be painful for a woman who is supposed to be a few months pregnant. She never once carries herslef like a realistic pregnant woman. Why? Well, we've all seen her in something... she's just not that good an actress.

And the ultrasound machine... and the silent birth... it just seems like Tom wanted to keep the circle of people who examined any baby to the barest minimum, doesn't it? Even down to professionals...

I'm sorry, but this whole thing seems very fake to me. It seems very convenient to me that Suri Cruise was supposedly born on the same day, on the same floor, as Brooke Shields's new baby. It seems suspicious that we had pictures of Sean Preston Federline and even Shiloh Jolie-Pitt days after they were born, but we have yet to see Suri Cruise. I read some story yesterday about how Tom Cruise is auctioning off pictures of the baby, holding out to get at least as much money as Angelina Jolie did. But I wonder if he's really been auditioning babies to play the role of Suri Cruise. And where is Katie Holmes? In hiding, so her bad acting doesn't betray the truth of her condition? Actually, Katie's with her parents... And where's all of this talk about a wedding? Notice how fast that dried up?

The question remains, though: what would be the point of an elaborate stunt like this? Is it just another miscalculated horror show to make Tom Cruise look like a real man? Or is it to popularize scientology with young people (and if it is, what a dumbass move for thinking Katie Holmes has a legion of young fans)? Either way, I'm not convinced that any of this is real. It's stupid and annoying, but it ain't real.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Some Thoughts on Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue

Becca over at No Smoking in the Skull Cave has this post up about the really creepy special Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. Does anyone remember this thing? It was a special in which several cartoon characters get together to try to force a kid to get off drugs. Roy Edward Disney actually produced it, and having watched it on Becca's site (courtesy of YouTube), I can honestly say it's one of the crappiest things I've ever seen. In conjunction with her post, here's a few other things I can honestly say:

* Where does a kid get marijuana for twenty bucks? No, really, where?

* Hearing Simon from the Chipmunks say "marijuana" is really, really wrong.

* George C. Scott's giant cloud of dope-tempting smoke is the only three-dimensional character in the whole goddamn thing.

* Two years ago, everything was in black-and-white?

* Dude, you cannot convince me that Bugs Bunny hasn't smoked more than his share of pot.

* Isn't it a little disingenuous for ALF, a character closely associated with Jerry Stahl, to tell a kid that drugs are wrong?

* Where does a kid get crack for ten bucks? No, really, where?

* Okay, Michaelangelo lives in a sewer, literally wallowing in orange-and-yellow-colored sewage, and he's telling some kid not to poison himself? And why is it that, from a low angle shot, the bottom scales on Michaelangelo's torso under his belt look like a huge set of vaginal lips?

* Why oh why did the Muppet Babies think the proper way to scare a kid off dope was to take him on a literal head-trip? Dude, people pay money to feel the way the cartoon characters make him feel for free! And did Baby Kermit always sound like a fat, dull, infant Ray Romano?

* It's ironic that the parents of GEORGE W. BUSH are telling other parents how to keep their own children off drugs, isn't it?

* You know what really would've made that thing easier to take? If I had smoked a big, fat joint through the whole thing. That would've made it enjoyable!

Anyway, I recommend you head over and watch it, if only to see definitive proof that adults really, really have no respect for children.