Saturday, July 30, 2011

CANON OF FILM: "BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS"

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: William Finkelstein
 
 
If there ever was a better example of how to show the old adage true that it’s not what the film is about but rather, how it’s about it… Abel Ferrara’s 1992 masterpiece “Bad Lieutenant”, took place on the streets of New York and starred Harvey Keitel as a bad lieutenant. He wasn’t even given a name in the film. He did every drug he could, he pulled over women to sexually harass them, he fucked hookers, and gambled large amounts of money. In between, he tries to solve a crime, haphazardly involving the rape of a local nun. I met Abel Ferrara at CineVegas a few years ago. He’s an old man now, who still makes movies with the same passion as the other Little Italy born filmmaker of the streets, Martin Scorsese, although he lacks the ingenuity of his counterpart, he show his characters as cold, cunning and often single-mindedly obsessed, if they’re of a mind at all. Ferrara, along with Keitel’s great performance, created a character who not only lacked a moral compass, he had completely abandoned such decision-making obstacles years ago, and was therefore capable of doing almost anything and on top of that, he was thoroughly unpredictable. Ferrara made him fatalistic. His films are as much a reflection of Ferrara as Herzog’s films are as much a reflection on him. It wasn’t enough for the insane, maniacal German to remake the movie, give it an almost unreasonably long title, and set the movie in a post-Katrina New Orleans where you’re just as likely to run into an alligator on the road as you are an accident. To see through his reimagining, he gets Nicolas Cage to play the role. Cage takes more chances and risks with roles than any other actor today. Now, he’s given a role which has written to have an unlimited amount of freedom for him to work, and he’s got the only director insane enough to let him do whatever he wants. Going in, you know this film will be interesting to watch. Herzog takes the story, expands on it greatly, and pulls a sly trick by surprising us with an ending, that’s probably completely wrong for the character and the story, but perfect for this dark dark comedy. (Yep, 2 darks) The movie is a fucking trip. After getting addicted to Vicodin after injuring his back and being promoted to Lt., Terence McDonagh (Cage) works on solving a mystery involving the execution deaths of an entire Senegalese family. A local kingpin is suspected (rapper Xzibit). In the meantime, he’s gambling on college football and losing badly. His hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes, surprisingly good) is one of his few solaces. She’s a coke-addict as well, and theyir mutual bad habits keep them together. He has an apparent soft spot for his former cop father (Tom Bower), although when pressed, he doesn’t even know what his beloved dog’s name is. He’s an alcoholic who’s trying AA again, much to the dismay of his beer drinking wife (Jennifer Coolidge, also very good). It says something about a movie when it involves Val Kilmer as a fellow policeman and I could have easily forgot to mention him. He has a great exchange with Cage as they argue over whether there’s an iguana on Cage’s coffee table. There is one shown, and it like all the animals, including the dead ones, it's real, but whether it actually was there is anybody’s guess. Lt. McDonagh is so drugged up practically every second of the movie and does so much unbelievable crap that for all I know there wasn’t a single hallucination in the film. Well, they aren’t hallucinations to the person experiencing them, as Hunter S. Thompson would often point out. Although I’m attracted to a lot of different kinds of films, sometimes the films that grab me the most are the movies that go for broke, do everything balls out, warts and all, and despite my critical eye, I give credit as much for sheer guile as I do for storytelling ability. Herzog has made a career out of movies like that, so has Cage. Filmmakers like P.T. Anderson, David Lynch and Ken Russell have fascinated me in the same way. Their films can be massacred and criticized, but for all their indulgences, they are so rare, that it is a joyous relief to find films that don’t know the meaning of the word timid. This movie lost timidness when Herzog decided on the title. I rank it currently as the best film of the last decade. I doubt everyone will have my reaction, but I can guarantee this, you will be entertained.“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” I hate to repeat myself, but I have to say it again, it will be one helluva fucking trip.

Friday, July 29, 2011

AMY WINEHOUSE: WHAT DO YOU SAY, WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY?

I've been debating whether or not to write on the recent death of Amy Winehouse. If it wasn't the biggest story in the entertainment world, it was certainly the most momental and important, and this is a blog about the Entertainment industry, with the word "Entertainment," in the title. On the one hand, I have a lot to say and when I started this blog, I wanted to use the loosest definition use of the word "Entertainment," as humanly possibly. On the other hand, I am a screenwriter/filmmaker by trade, and frankly, pop music...-, ah hell, let's be frank, music in general, is not my strongest area of expertise. In fact, if anybody happens to check my facebook page, they'll notice on my profile, which I update often, many musical acts, but very few of them can be described as current or modern or pop acts. (The loosest definition and form(s) possible of the word/phrase "pop music", will be used throughout this article) In general, while I once dabbled in lyric writing in high school, like everybody does at some point, I have basically cut myself off from popular music from much of the last decade, in fact, this whole century, I've basically tuned out. While occasionally, I run into an artist or band that has a song or two I may like, I haven't bought a CD in years, I rarely listen to the radio, and I don't own a I-pod and don't plan on buying one in the near future, and I wouldn't know how to use it anyway. Some time at the beginning of the century, I gave up on music. That's not to say that I haven't occasionally tried to get back to music periodically, and some of the CDs I did buy in the last decade were newer and newly-released CDs, and occasionally, I'd borrow numerous CDs from the library and give a listen to something current if it in anyway peaked my interest. Amy Winehouse's "Back in Black," was one of those albums. For about a six-month period, all I heard was the song "Rehab," and I don't even like the song. I borrowed the CD from the library once. I think I listened to it, but honestly, I cannot swear to it. She was clearly talented, and had a singer-songwriter appeal that many of my favorite artists possess. (If you want to clarify my typical music selections, while there are a few anomalies in my collection, it basically consists of classic rock/pop, centered around Bruce Springsteen, and expanding from there, and another section I call the Lilith Fair era, which was post-Grunge nineties before boy bands and teen divas took over and was led mostly by mostly female singer-songwriters.) I tried searching for music many times, often writing names of artistis down I happen to see on a late night show that I liked, or on the rare occasions when I had digital cable, I'd listen for awhile on the music choice channels, usually the one called "progressive," if I remember correctly, or from some other place, and I'd look them up, and very often I liked them, and might keep an ear out for them, but rarely did I go any further. Frankly, it got to be a nuisance to go and search out modern, young artists for music that even when it was good, was hardly ever great. Why go and find and spend money on a CD or a music download, or whatever, on an artist or a song you're not even sure you're really going to like, when I can just put on my "Born to Run," CD anytime I feel like, and know that basically I'll be happy. And if I wasn't happy, I'd put on something by Tori Amos. If I lovesick, something by Melissa Etheridge or Alanis Morissette. For something to make me feel good, Sheryl Crow.  If I was still sad after I ran through my Tori Amos, there'd be Ani DiFranco or Aimee Mann to save me. For when I was angry, it'd always be Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville". There'd be other emotions, but generally there was a CD for them. Then when movies and TV became my focus, there became more movies and TV shows for emotions then there was, music. Most of the CDs I had long played so much by then, that I don't even have to play them anymore, I could simply remember them off the top of my head and play them track by track. (One of the other reasons besides cost that I don't particularly see a need for an ipod, or whatever mobile/handheld device that plays songs you already preselected. If you preselected it, you probably already know, so why listen to it again. Granted I've seen some movies so often that I know them by heart and will see them again anyway, maybe I should rethink that.)

So what can I say about Amy Winehouse, other than it made me spend some a week of regret that I didn't get as into music as I wish I did? Not much really, and I didn't need her to die to have regret about my lack of modern music knowledge.Of course, that's not why she died. We don't have an autopsy yet, but until otherwise corrected, I'm pretty sure we all know. She had demons. She abused drugs and alcohol for years, and had been in and out of rehab many occasions. According to many who knew her, ultimately, she didn't want to be clean. One more rock'n'roll casualty. Another added to the notorious "dead at 27," list that started with Bluesman Robert Johnson back in the thirties, which also include Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, and numerous others. I'm still mixed about her personally though. And frankly, if were categorizing most shocking music and/or celebrity deaths, even at her young age, her death was by no means a shock. How much is that contributed to the celebrity culture that exists now, where we know everybody's personal business and demons? I don't know. I have a feeling not as much as we'd like tothink. I mentioned that I didn't like the song "Rehab," of hers, which was the only one I really new. Even though it's been stuck in my head for a week, it struck a contradictory cord that I had buried since I was young. It had always annoyed me in the early-mid nineties, when rap artists would be constantly discussing how the depictions in there rhymes of violence was imaginary and part of their art. Then they'd get arrested for a crime very similar to the ones they rapped about, and as a nine-year old who didn't fully contemplate at that time the cultural importance of their work (Plus, taken in light of it being the era of the East Coast-West Coast rap war, that was the worst and most wasteful of music eras.), that was just contradictory and hypocritical, and it kept me off of hip hop for years. With "Rehab," it disturbed me how the song was written from a 1st person perspective, and not an imaginary one. This was an emotional song, that basically expressed one's desire to continue on a paths or sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and destruction. In hindsight, I think I heard the song, and basically waited for her to die so that I can rub it into the shocked fans, "What did you think was gonna happen to her?" and for a little while, I could say that, then reality and taste would set in. I will say this though, "Rehab," is a better song now that she's past. It's sad, but originally, it was a declaration of independence and freedom that had a forboding undercurrent. Now, it's a haunting premonition turned suicide note that only makes it's cries more powerful. I know that might sound like an unsentimental and disturbing view of her work, and that it's way too soon to talk about her like that, but to quote another tragic artist who passed-too-young, "What else should I say? All Apologies."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

CONFESSIONS FROM A "PROJECT RUNWAY" ADDICT, AND WHY EVERYBODY SHOULD BE ONE

Thanks to Netflix and Hulu, with a few days to go before the season 9 premiere, I've finally caught up with on my "Project Runway." And after finishing the Season 8 finale in the Gibson Library in Henderson, no lying, I'm still shaken up and not quite over it. A near fist-fight between the judges as Gretchen Jones won a shocking split decision in the finals over Mondo Guerra. (Mondo was robbed) While this happened about a year ago, I have been mostly kept in the dark on "Project Runway," since it I lost cable in the middle of Season 4. It was still on Bravo at the time. (It's a hard show to find online to download) Before then, I watched nearly every weekly marathon of the same episodes over and over again, until I had practically memorized the seasons. I caught the subtle signs in the early episodes that would be the indicators of who would last long into the competition, that might have otherwise gone unnoticed in a crowd of designers and outfits that would've otherwise gone unnoticed by the average viewer. The notably difficult and complex sewing techniques of Jay McCarroll's Chrysler Building inspired dress, that hinted that somebody that outlandish might not be just an eccentric character that was casted 'cause he might  be entertaining to watch. How on the second and third viewings, you realized just how hard it is to make an outfit using a print fabric, and that Uli Herzner, being a master at it and shocking the judges with a print dress in the dog challenge should've been more of a sign of things to come, but we got distracted by the upcoming news that one of the designers was cheating and eventually thrown off the show (Keith Michael, for sneaking onto the set, a pattern book). Only in hindsight, and careful thought would you think for a second and ask yourself "What would I do, if I could do something, with that piece of fabric," does it finally dawn on you that never would've done or conceived of how they worked with it. Although I will never figure out how the judges couldn't see that nearly everything that Christian Siriano made before the season 4 finale looked like something worn on "Designing Women". (Although granted, I think he did the best finale collection, and his technical skills were always there.) Yes, I have a fascination with this reality show, beyond normal fascinations I have with TV shows. Dare I say, fetish. I don't think it's unearned. The show has been nominated for the Emmy for Best Reality Show every year it's been on the air, and has been a critical and cult hit since it first aired. When the show switched from Bravo to Lifetime, after the Weinstein Company sold the rights, NBC-Universal sued, and delayed the next season from airing so long, they had already started filming the following season of the show, and that incident, I'd argue, rivals the most fiercest of disagreements and conflicts between networks over the rights of TV shows and stars, possibly more than both famous NBC Late Night conflicts. Yet, there's something particularly strange about my fascination with "Project Runway," while I think the show, as a reality show, ranks as high as any program on TV, my appreciation of it comes this odd caveat: I don't even like fashion.


In fact, I might be the least fashion-conscious person I know. To some extent, I'm the antithesis to fashion. I can't remember the last time I went out of my way to look good, except possibly a job interview I didn't get. I've basically narrowed my fashion choices over the years, to the most basic of male looks, jeans, t-shirt, and possibly a jacket. Jeans, usually in some shade of black or black, usually worn up to the hips, because no matter how often someone tells me jeans should be worn high above or at the waist, I feel like Steve Urkel keeping my pants up that high. A t-shirt, usually an older shirt, cheaply made, often I got them free for signing up for some players card at a casino. My favorites are graphic tees, usually with a saying of some kind, usually connected to a TV show, rock band or movie I like. My jackets have varied over the years. I wore leather through most of the teenage years because Fonzi wore leather jackets. (Apparently "Happy Days," wasn't as great a standard on which other people thought of as 'cool' as I thought it was) While I still have a preference for leather, it's not the greatest fabric for living in the Nevada Desert, so my jackets have become lighter and lighter over the years, occasionally wearing a zipper-down sweater jacket. If my style has change much from that, the biggest change is I now switch out jeans with sweatpants, 'cause the weather makes even the most relaxed-fitting jean uncomfortable after being out in the sun for hours a day. My fashion has become more practical over the year; if anything, what little fashion sense I had to being, I somehow managed to go backwards. Yet, "Project Runway," fascinates me. How did this happen? How did I get here? And why should everybody who hasn't become addicted to "Project Runway," come and join me in my addiction.


I didn't start watching until the second season, and even then, it was originally only a simple, mild curiosity. My family had just gotten cable back at that point, and back then Bravo was still in the middle of its reinvention from a network based around "Inside the Actor's Studio," and would air highly artistic movies and programs, to the reality show juggernaut it is today after it was bought by NBC-Universal. I was an avid viewer old Bravo network, in the sense that, when channel-scanning, Bravo was one of the channels I flipped through first to see if there was something on. Yet, I hadn't even heard of "Project Runway," until it got a Emmy nomination for Best Reality-Competition Program. This caught my interest. It was a cable show on an obscure network to begin with, and it was about fashion, but the Emmy voters thought enough to nominate it? Especially in this category, where it was abundantly clear that "The Amazing Race," was going to be the de facto winner for years on end, partly because it was a decent reality show that had critical acclaim, and partly because, as I suspect, since much of the TV world was still reluctant to admit to liking reality TV and consider it a legitimate art form, many probably voted on the final ballot randomly, or probably more likely, voted alphabetically. So a nomination in the category would stand out as much as a win. The second season premiere was a couple hours long, and it was being aired, or re-aired I don't remember which, on a rather unimpressive Saturday. Nothing was on TV, nobody else was watching TV, and I thought, basically out of pure curiosity, I'll watch it once to see what its all about, and why it might be interesting to some people. Not interesting to me, interesting to some people. Other people, who might appreciate this world of fashion. They eliminated three designers that episode, in two challenges, including the famous "Clothes-Off-Your-Back" challenge, but I also saw things I hadn't seen in reality TV before, or much TV of any kind before. First of all, while there were some interesting characters, I found myself watching a TV show where people where actually working. Working hard at something. I know such things like singing is technically working, but we don't see on Idol, everyone training their voice to sing for longer than maybe thirty seconds per contestant. Here, I saw contestants that were barely distinguishable from people working in a sweatshop, and harder yet, they had to be creative. The part of fashion I had never really conceived of before the show that it is in fact an artistic art form. It's practically in the same category as sculpture. Each day, they had to come up with something new, artistic, creative and good, and not like anything they had done before, and you can't suck or you're out. Then you got to do it again, the next day. Yeah, the episodes aired weekly, but I know how reality shows like this get shot, its shot over a matter of weeks, so they're actually doing this, basically everyday. Anybody want to try just the being creative part everyday? I'm a screenwriter, it's my job to be creative and create something new every time I write something down. Imagine writing a new script everyday? It’s hard writing just scenes everyday, even for the really good writers. Even if you're amazingly imaginative and creative, you get exhausted after a while, often to the point where you get sick of what you're doing, and can easily lose all sense of perspective whether what you’re creating is any good or not. Now, try doing that where the raw materials are fabrics and a sewing machine. And they're lucky. They have a Tim Gunn that can walk over and look and see if they might be losing it a bit. That was the first thing that struck me; the second thing was the models of the show. Not that they were good-looking or anything, although many were, but how they were treated and portrayed on the show. Modeling was a job for them too, and what an insulting job it could be at times. I had heard and even occasionally seen "America's Next Top Model," which I didn't particularly like, but I had been inundated with these images of models and supermodels as the essence of glamour practically all my life. I can remember as far back as when Kim Alexis was the biggest model in the world, and I could name many of the most famous (or infamous) models that were at some point the "It" model from my life. Many transferred over to acting, some successfully, others not-so-much. But on "Project Runway," a model was basically reduced to what they're job actually was, canvas. They were all brought out onto the runway with Heidi Klum, wearing the same basic black slip, and stood side-by-side, basically to be judged as they were picked by the designers. They all looked completely indistinguishable from another, and basically they were. They're job was to stand there, walk, maybe turn around. If they can clap, they'd be next-in-line for Vanna White's job. This picking of models looked practically meaningless, and after watching "Project Runway," it became clear that the artificial title of supermodel wasn’t that distinguishable from, an amazingly attractive girl. (And if you've noticed, there's been less emphasis in the media on models since the show's been on the air, as well.) And yet, there were subtle differences between the models that can make and/or break a person's outfit and cost them the show. They might be canvas, but like canvases, they come in different sizes. Different figures, different measurements. There were times where a model could screw-up a contestant, simply for being there, while other models can make practically make any outfit come off as amazing. Sometimes the reasons were visible and obvious, but other times, it could've simply been an x-factor that can't be identified. I'd argue that "Project Runway," has done more for models than any show, because it shows exactly what models do and how they work, and just how those slight details can distinguish them, while simultaneously showing the actual job of being a model. Again, going back to the refrain, while modeling may still be a rather interesting and easy jobs for those lucky enough to be able to get that kind of work, it is work. After a lot of work, and the usual reality show stress that one sees went people are placed in this bizarre, artificial, sociological experiment, we then see get a traditional Runway show and judging from experts. People who know the industry, and to my surprise, were not the caricature fashionista I would've expected. They didn't look like it, they didn't sound like it, and they took fashion incredibly seriously, as any art form should be taken. I didn't know who Michael Kors or Nina Garcia were before the show (While I had heard of Heidi Klum, I probably wouldn't have been able to pick her out of a lineup), and it was fascinating to see how smartly and intuitively they analyzed the work, even when I disagreed with them. Which brings me to one of the details about "Project Runway," and that some reality shows completely miss, an aspect that to me can make be a difference between a good reality-competition show and a great one. They let the experts make the decisions. This was a rather radical idea when the show came on the air. Previously, the decisions were made by fellow contestants, Donald Trump, or worse yet, the audience at home. This never made much sense to my why a show would give the audience a vote instead of trusting the people that they gathered together who actually know what they're talking about. This particularly annoys me with "American Idol," (Especially this past year if you were unlucky enough to watch) you have music industry professionals, including an actual Triple Threat (Jennifer Lopez, singer/actor/dancer), and a legendary Rock'n'Roll Hall of Famer (Steven Tyler), why let the audience pick? What could they possibly know that these judges don't? I certainly don't know nearly as much as the "Project Runway," judges do about fashion, and while I might vehemently disagree with the judges, I certainly can't and won't claim that my knowledge is any greater than theirs. The only drawbacks I generally have about expert judges opinions on reality shows is when I'm not able to judge and am entirely beholden to them. That's the problem with the second best reality show around, "Top Chef." No matter what, until they come out with tastovision, I can't judge whether the food is good or not, and I like to cook, and I know a little bit about cooking and food preparation, but I prefer the show about something I know nothing about is better. I get to judge and see for myself, and if I watching with somebody, we can have our own discussions or debates over our opinions. Despite its glossy appearance, in reality, "Project Runway," is the reality show for the idealist, artistic and the high-end intellectual. Plus, the fact that this show is so well-edited, which to some extent, is the only important detail in a good reality show. (Think about it, there's no story, no actors, no script, they had to create it from raw footage of people sewing and designing clothes predominantly. The fact that this and any reality show is entertaining at all is 'cause of the editors)  


Frankly, it's got every aspect I look for in a reality show. Talented people doing very difficult things, extremely well, people who can judge what they do with an incredible degree of knowledge and expertise, and complete trust that they can make a tougher and smarter decision than a random audience, and I have the option of agreeing or disagreeing (Make your own "Hollywood Squares," joke here.) with them. It just happens, and who knew, fashion, was the industry best suited to base such a reality show around. So, with the new season on Lifetime debuting soon, I highly recommend any of you who isn't converted yet to at least see what I and many others see, a show that's about fashion yes, but a show about talented creative people, trying desperately to be talented and creative at something most of people no nothing about. Just don't tell me what happens. If I can't watch it on Hulu or some other website, I'll wait for the DVDs.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

RANDOM MOVIES REVIEWS: EDITION #2: "ANOTHER YEAR," "GASLAND", "WAITING FOR SUPERMAN," AND MORE

Another week, another mix bag of films I've viewed. I'm ever closer to the , not-really-that-elusive 3,000 feature films in my lifetime. They run the gammit from Mike Leigh to Roger Corman this week, and includes two of the bigger documentaries of the past year. Oh, in case you haven't noticed, I'm going to try to make my blog only an every-other-day blog, 'cause pumping out a new thought or review everyday can be exhausting, and I don't want to cheat any readers I have with something I just whipped up because I thought I had to write something. When you put yourself out there, whether it's good or bad, you better have taken your time and made sure it was something that was really worth saying. I also work on my own screenplays and sketches when I'm not doing this, and neithers time should be taken up more by the other. Okay, with the business at hand taken care of, onto the reviews of the week:

Another Year: (2010) Director: Mike Leigh
5 STARS
After watching most Mike Leigh films, I immediately want to see them again. They aren’t quick-paced, half of them barely have a discernable plot, but they all touch on some of the most human of conditions and the most realistic of characters. Of his films, I’ve seen, “Topsy-Turvy,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake,” and “Happy-Go-Lucky”. His films center around eccentrics, but he then fills the screen with other characters that would seem ordinary or at worst cliché, under the direction of any other director. “Another Year,” involves an eccentric named Mary (Leslie Manville,” in an amazing performance. ) She’s a co-worker of Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and occupies the role of crazy aunt in their household, the kind that stomps by unannounced, for no particular reason other than she’s unhappy. Ruth and her husband Tom, (Jim Broadbent) can clearly see how unhappy and in need of help Mary actually is, but probably wisely put up with her until she figures it out on her own. Aunt Mary also has a crush on their 30-year old son Joe (Oliver Maltman), and there are allusions to some kind of history between them, but there are allusions to many unsaid moments in the film.
By now, many are familiar with Mike Leigh’s screenwriting  technique, where he gathers a group of actors from his basic plot and characters, and films improvised rehearsals for months on end, before forming a script out of the improvisations. It raises some questions when his movies keep getting Oscar-nominations in the screenwriting category, (as this film was) but it takes the best actors in the world just to approach his character development. “Another Year, “ is separated into four distinct segments, during different parts of a year, but the emotional undertones created in the subtle nuances in the Lesley Manville performance, that express Mary’s hidden pains and emotions are what the film’s really about. It doesn’t just take a great director to end a film on a long one-shot of an actor, it’s takes a great actor to make us feel for her while we just sit and stare at her.
Gasland: (2010) Director: Josh Fox
4 1/2 STARS
An Oscar-nominee for Best Documentary, and now a multiple Emmy-Nominee, Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland,” all but eliminates the notion that natural gas industry’s, mainly, Halliburton’s invention of the process of “fracking,” isn't systematically poisoning the water supply of all those who live on or near the natural gas reserves, and because of provisions in their government contracts, they’re immune from all the clean water and air laws that had been passed over the last few decades (many of which, were passed by Nixon, including the Clean Water Act). Skeptical, and want proof? Fox goes into many people’s home and is often handed water samples, and gets invited to do something strange. He turns on many peoples sink, holds a match under the tap water, and the tap water is then lit on fire, often exploding over the entire sink. It happens again and again and again, and that’s just the first experiment he tries.
Fox basically turns into a soft-spoken Michael Moore type figure, trying desperately to get interviews with anybody in any natural gas company or somebody who represents them, but he does it with a sly and somewhat maverick filmmaking style you’d usually see in a student film, and it’s strangely effective and times creepy, at times funny, and occasionally, he has a banjo. It’s an in-depth look at a process that we all are assured is safe, but undeniably isn’t.


Waiting for 'Superman': (2010) Director: Davis Guggenheim
5 STARS
It surprised most Oscar pundits when “Waiting for Superman,” didn’t get nominated for Best Documentary this past year. It had won many of the lead-up awards, and was one of the more popular documentaries in the nation, and director Davis Guggenheim had won an Oscar for his great Documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” a couple years ago. This movie does very well what it sets out to do, which is, to show the many ways in which public education is flawed in this country, and how the most basic of changes could drastically improve our schools. Well, having grown up in what was literally, the worst school district in the nation; I certainly knew and understood many of these issues. It focuses on a few students from all over the country, all of whom feel there education hopes lie in at least one lottery to a charter school, a private school, or a school without tracks, parents will do anything to get out sending their kids to a dropout factory in an inner-city. The scene where one little girl isn’t allowed to go to her Graduation at one of these alternatives because her mother didn’t pay the tuition in time is eerily reminiscent of the scene in one of the best of all documentaries “Hoop Dreams,” where Arthur Agee’s mother can’t get her son’s records from the high school that recruited him to play basketball because she can’t pay the tuition fees. Most students are put through a lottery process because there are too many applicants at the most prestigious charters, magnet, and alternative schools.  Even so-called good schools with top of the line technology, are outdated by using a track system which only allows certain students to take college-levels/ready classes.
From my own experiences, I went to a Magnet Program for a year, one that I did poorly at, and one that I later found was ran rather poorly compared to similar programs in other states. (I also found out that I didn’t know how to cheat, which most everybody else in the class did know.)It showcases a few education reformers, most notably Gregory Canada, the founder of Harlem Success Academy, which produces results better than all of the best Urban schools despite accepting mostly underprivileged kids that if they don’t get so lucky in the lottery, they’re all but guaranteed to enter dropout factory school, some of which produce 80% dropout rates, and the controversial Michelle Rhee, who took over the Washington D.C. schools, has been doing brash reinvention the moment she walked in, as has all but bullied the Teacher’s Union on practically every issue.  The issue of teacher tenure is brought up often, and secret videotape evidence of teachers who have clearly chosen to not teach, (or have never been qualified to begin with) is shocking, but what’s insulting is how the unqualified teachers aren’t allowed to be fired, ‘cause of the powers of the Teachers’ Unions in giving them tenure after two years of teaching.  
I don’t know if this is a perfect documentary, but I certainly looked back and thought about my education watching this film, and I had a pretty good education, or at least I think I did. In the last thirty years, America schoolchildren have dropped in every statistical category except one “Confidence in their schooling.” If there is a point to the movie it’s that certain things are proven to work, the system we have now, doesn’t, and any new idea that can radically change schools will be fought with by drastic force by, of all people, the teachers who we trust to teach our kids. It’s a powerful documentary, one of the most important, and hopefully one that will actually effect change.
A Man for All Seasons: (1966) Director: Fred Zinneman
4 1/2 STARS
“A Man for All Seasons,” won six Oscars in ’66, including Awards for Best Picture, Director for Fred Zinneman, and Actor for Paul Scofield. Based off of a Tony Winning Play, I think succeeds overall because of it’s narrow focus on Sir Thomas More (Scofield) and his crisis of personal conflict between England at the Roman Catholic Church during that notorious time when King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) formed the Church of England so he can get a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn.  This is one of those few time periods that I have always had a difficult time with in film and TV in the past. (Most recently, having to sit through the movie “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a more historical-fiction account, and the HBO TV series “The Tudors,” which I generally found more annoying and melodramatic as it went on [Although my mother’s opinion on that show in particular differs greatly from mine]) Henry VIII always comes off as a shallow and at times, pig-headed caricature, and the disturbing part is with all the other suspicious characters he apparently surrounded himself with, he was blatantly unaware how little of his own life he actually had complete control of. Maybe that’s why he’s so devoted to the altering of such trivial matters as who his Queen was, that he abandons his own Church. While at times, the behind-the-scenes melodrama of era creeps into “A Man for All Seasons,” More’s intellectual and religiously philosophical stances, or lack of stances famously lead to his beheading, are shown here not as the game of power roulette it was, but from the point-of-view of a respected outsider to the Crown, and frankly it’s a relief. More’s a much more interesting character, and while at times the film is overly repetitive in outlying his stubborn non-opinion stance, the film is an amazing small part of this story told well, and with a great performance by Scofield, which for intensive purposes carries this film.
Everlasting Moments: (2008) Director: Jan Troell
3 STARS
Everlasting Moments, is a movie that sprawls everlastingly. It’s centers around a Swedish family in Sweden in the early 19th Century. The father is a workaholic and alcoholic, and it’s often best when he’s away. The wife, wins a camera in a lottery, and suddenly her world opens up, and through that magic medium of photos, she’s able to record time, and express a hidden artistic nature that her typical role as simply mother and occasionally beaten wife doesn’t offer.  The family struggles to get by, and the movie is episodic in nature, and frankly so the episodes are more interesting than the others. The film was directed Jan Troell, who’s made many movies about struggling families in the past, most notably in America, “The Emigrants,” which earned him two Oscar nominations, and is a film made specifically for America’s bicentennial. (Yeah, Sweden made movies for our bicentennial, I don’t know what to think about that either. ) This film got a Golden Globe nomination, but in general, I think the movie drags as much as it hits, put the hits are powerful. While she loves her husband and her kids, the film is really basically her love affair with her camera, and through the operator of the store which she walks in at first to sell it, which happens, but she still gets to use it thanks to a nice and strangely fair man running the store. I’m on the fence, but I can’t think of any reason to stop people from watching it, so it’s a minor recommendation.
The Little Shop of Horrors: (1960) Director: Roger Corman 
2 STARS
I can see how quite easily, how this Roger Corman, ultra-low budget B-movie horror-comedy would inspire a Broadway Musical and another movie in the eighties that’s problem more well-known than this original version. While I had both on my Netflix, the library for some reason only has the original. Shame, the original was shot mostly on a soundstage and apparently only took a week to shoot, but I have a feeling it has better value having seen the second version. The movie involves, a  bumbling worker at a local struggling flower shop, and an ever-growing plant that talks, and then swallows you whole. The plant, an apparent variation on a venus flytrap, insists on being fed, or it dies quickly, costing the young man who grew it his job. The movie is shot with mostly unknown actors, including a then-unknown Jack Nicholson, in a weird scene in a dentist office, where he insists on the dentist taking his teeth out. That joke doesn’t quite work. A few of the jokes do, and a few work just on the pure absurdity of the situation and plot. Corman is certainly the king of the low-budget b-movie, but I think I’ve always preferred contemporaries of his like Russ Meyer more than Corman. No doubt his influence is vast, and this film in particular has unusual staying power, but it basically didn’t have enough to really keep my interest. I think B-movies are often “a matter of taste,” to quote Tim Gunn of “Project Runway,” but I do wonder if a newer, musical version of the film would’ve worked on me better.
Tank Girl: (1995) Director: Rachel Talalay
1 1/2 STARS 
“Tank Girl,” is exhausting. I was hoping to make that sentence longer with words like “interesting,” “unfortunate,” and “albeit,” but it’s just exhausting in that frantic and frenzied way a film is when it decides to throw everything including the kitchen sink at you all at once. I was getting dizzy by the middle of it, and then they throw in a musical number that’s just strange.  The movie claims to take place about forty or so years into the future where a “Mad Max,” type world now exists after a comet has destroyed most of the world’s water supply, and apparently, although it apparently happened in between episodes of MTV “House of Style,” and the beginning of a “Singled Out,” marathon. “Tank Girl,” is played by Lori Petty, you might recall her most at Geena Davis’s sister in “A League of Their Own,” plays “Tank Girl,” who speaks with a smart-assed ten-year old voice, and acts and dresses like a combination of Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics and Downtown Julie Brown. Are there any late ‘80s-early ‘90s MTV references I’m missing? If there is “Tank Girl,” probably thought of them already. For a sci-fi movie, this film has an unusual amount of pop culture references, most of which are fairly dated. The movie is filled with many ideas, too many. It quick-cuts between action scenes, animation that’s both comic book stills and actual animation based on the stills, special effects, elaborate campy costumes, elaborate campy soundstages made to look like desert, it even has a Human-Kangaroo hybrid of soldiers that are played by rap artists, Naomi Watts trying very hard to look unattractive for no particular reason, and a musical number set in something that resembles a strip club based on the Garden of Eden, again for no particular reason. It certainly has a lot of things that are interesting in of themselves, but shoving them altogether makes it look like the director, (a female director interesting enough for this material) didn’t want to make any decisions, so she made all of them. It might not have been the worst idea with material this campy, but even campiness should raise the level of the material. Instead, all it raised from me was a migraine.
Osama: (2003) Director: Siddaq Barmak
3 1/2 STARS 
“Osama,” was the first movie to be made in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era, and it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film. I remember that clearly, because it was the worst edited moment at an Awards show until the Emmys on FOX a couple years later when they cut to an overhead shot whenever Sally Field said something intelligent and thoughtful. Clearly the director of the Awards show hadn’t seen the movie or heard what the film was about. It’s about a young girl who during Taliban rule, after her father is passed, is forced to disguise herself as a boy so that she can get work and support her mother. The story itself is kind of slow-moving and predictable, but what I found interesting was the glimpses we get of like in Afghanistan, under Taliban rule. They have a presence in the everyday rules they enforced, like the ridiculous, to quote Bill Mahar, “beekeeper suits”, they force the women to live in, but mostly, the actual people seem to show out of nowhere. Sometimes they come to fire at a protest and ‘cause more havoc and hell. Other times, they just come down and pass out turbans to schoolchildren. They don’t seem as much a repressive government religious force as a sudden outburst that interrupts the daily lives of the citizens, most of which seem to just want to go on with their daily life. It’s an interesting little piece for a country that hadn’t made a movie for over a decade, and hopefully they’ll be able to make more, but in generally, this isn’t a film that particularly stood out to me in any memorable way, outside of its cultural importance of it being made, but maybe that's just enough.
 

Friday, July 22, 2011

CAN BASIC CABLE SAVE SOAP OPERAS?

Next summer, TNT will be bringing back the iconic TV show "Dallas," as a regular series for the first time in twenty years, and with members of the original cast, including Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing, Patrick Duffy as Bobby Ewing, J.R. brother, and Linda Gray as SueEllen Ewing, J.R.'s wife. To those who might be too young to know, "Dallas," was the first primetime soap opera, the first TV drama that had a continuous storyline structure, similar to the way soap operas work. When I was young, the big primetime soap operas were "Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place," and "Party of Five". (Neither of which, I ever lasted an entire episode of.) Today, while two of those show have, to my disbelief, been brought back to TV, I would say the best example of a modern primetime soap is "Desperate Housewives," which is a parody of the genre (Not the first, that belongs to the great sitcom "Soap.") and it's basic plot about families that all live on the same little cul-de-sac street, is blatantly borrowed from the longest-running of the primetime soaps, "Knots Landing". (Which was actually a loose spin-off of the "Dallas") And while I do have grave reservations about the reboot of "Dallas," I actually am looking forward to it. To those who know me, might be surprised to know that I am a fan of "Dallas;" it certainly doesn't fit in to my normal typical viewing choices, and also being a Philadelphia Eagles fan, it's unusual for me to even say the word "Dallas," without it being preceded and followed by about half a dozen 4,6,7, and 12-letter words you'd usually find in the most famous of George Carlin routines. But I am a huge fan of "Dallas." I've seen the first couple seasons on DVD, and I consider the infamous "Who Shot J.R." plotline to be one of the most ingeneous storylines ever formed on television.

We all make fun of the soap opera, and it's easy to do. My favorite one-liner complaint about them is that all the characters on "One Life to Live," have come back from the dead at least twice. (Probably an exaggeration) However, the daytime genre is quickly dying out. I know some of you might say, "Who cares?", and to a certain extent, I don't disagree with the sentiment. There's no soap I've watched on a regular basis, ever. They are melodramatic, often consist of lots of badly-written dialogue that's about what the characters just did or about to do, which can be spread over dozens of episodes, and often cuts between these seemingly random scenes can be awkward at best, and over a typical series, the storylines can be over-the-top and at times ridiculuous (Whether machine, anyone). Yet, frankly, I think I'd argue that daytime soap has been just as influential over the current primetime TV lineup as any other genre has been, and I'd also argue that they're be know J.R. Ewing without their first having been an Erica Kane on "All My Children". (Or as her full name is now, Erica Kane-Martin-Brent-Cudahy-Chandler-Roy-Roy-Montgomery-Montgomery-Chandler-Marick-Marick-Montgomery. Whew!)  And what about this soap opera continuous storyline structure, where loyal viewers have to tune in everyday to see what happening next? This isn't limited to daytime and primetime soaps anymore. Most dramas not named "Law & Order," or "C.S.I.", half of reality television, and frankly most sitcoms are basically soap operas. You can watch a random episode of many show and possibly enjoy them, but for all-intensive purposes, the era where one can watch a random episode of a TV show for a half-hour or an hour, and knowing that the end of the episode is the end of the story is over. To watch a random episode of, eh, what's a good example, let's say "True Blood," or "Fringe," or "Mad Men," is practically irresponsible, even with a highly-detailed recap of everything beforehand before the episode (and God help you if you miss an episode "24"). Even sitcoms like "Weeds," "The United States of Tara," "Nurse Jackie," even basic TV shows like "The Office," have been basically following a long-form storytelling formula created years ago when "Cheers," came up with the radical idea to have Sam & Diane take a long time before getting together, and then breaking up, then get back together.... Previously, the only times there'd be even a marginal storyline in sitcoms that wasn't completed in half-an-hour was because a character/actor either left the show, died, or was pregnant. Some soap operas had been around before television was invented. Now there's only about a handful on the air, they're ratings have been in steady decline for years, and if they aren't being cancelled, they're at least moving from TV to some alternative, ("As the World Turns" and "All My Children," have just announced they're going to continue making and airing episodes online next year), and are being replaced mostly by talk shows.

And now I return to basic cable and "Dallas." TNT is certainly taking a big risk with this, but they're already starting with a core fanbase, and a TV show that has a history of success. On top of more talk and judge shows on basic TV, there's lots of alternative cable channels as competition, that didn't exist thirty years ago, and weren't even concieved of sixty years ago. Many give these and other reasons why the soap operas is a dying genre that on it's last few death nails, but I'd argue that if there's some cable channels willing to take a shot, they could reinvent the TV soap. The soap opera has been basically stagnant for decades now, and is being replaced by what maybe high or low-concept talk shows, but they are a progressive extensive of TV as an art form. The soap has basically struggled to adapt, and often if it even tries, the core audience of soaps have often backlashed drastically. In the last decade, the only new soap to air that I can even think of was the short-running "Passions," on NBC. Also, soaps are limited in being on basic TV. Basic cable has some limitations, but they have more creative freedom than basic TV. I'm curious to know why Cable doesn't jump on the market, and start calling out for scripts and ideas for new soap operas to air in the mornings on cable? They wouldn't be beholden to the same restrictions, or fan expectations that other soaps created, and they can be adapted to the networks they're on to find a new and different audience, and possibly more opportunities for viewership if it's a network like Bravo, that might be willing to air reruns of their shows in marathons on a regular basis. Channels like Bravo, Lifetime, Oxygen, FX, OWN, MTV and SpikeTV have a opportunity to completely reinvent an entire genre of TV, if they only take a chance on it. If at all possible, most cable channels try to spend much of their lineup on reality programming, if nothing else because it's cheap to produce and even with decent ratings, it can earn back its money more easily. Soaps are relatively cheap to produce as well though, so even if a channel only tried one, the risk wouldn't be great. And, it's not like there's that much on basic cable in the morning to begin with. Reruns, attempts to challenge the two-to-four hour block basic TV uses for "The Today Show," and it's copies, news, the same "Sportscenter," shown about a dozen times, maybe a decent old movie if your lucky, cartoons and other children's television, and that's basically about it. I'm not saying I'm gonna starts staying home and watch these hypothetical soaps on basic cable. I mean, they could still suck, but hell, half of television sucks, and that doesn't stop people from watching. There's a chance for all of basic cable to at least take a chance if nothing else, a relatively inexpensive one as well, in a market that's suddenly lacking in competition, and there's room for innovation and reinvention from the traditions of the medium. Normally, all of cable would jump at opportunities like this, but because it's the dying and unrespected genre of the soap opera nobody even bothering. Or, maybe they just haven't even thought about it. In a way, TNT's "Dallas," might be the one sample that determines whether any of the other cable channels will take any shot at the Soap Opera genre in primetime or daytime, and it could be a new age of basic cable TV. It could be....

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HARRY POTTER AND THE, EH, SOME DAMN THING PART 2: A CRITICAL BUT AMBIVALENT OUTSIDER VIEW OF THE PHENOMENON

Less than a week after the film "Harry Potter" film came to theatres, the movies has already set numerous box office records, shorting only "Avatar," for all-time records, so far, and is ranked #69 on imdb.com's fan-voted Top 250.

Okay.

That's all I really have to say on that, okay. It's eight movies, seven books, a theme park, and and hundreds of other things into this phenomen that's basically lasted half my life, and yet, it's never struck me as something interesting enough to even draw a clear opinion on it. There've been many similar phenomenons that have peaked my interest in one way or another. I've basically become ostracized by many of my fellow filmmakers and cinephiles because I've been particularly critical of the "Lord of the Rings," trilogy, "Avatar," and "Twilight" in recent years, and I've been a fan of "The Matrix," trilogy (Well, the first two), consider myself at least a "The Next Generation" trekkie, and recently, I just finished reading all three books of the "Millenium Trilogy," after watching the movies. They fascinated me to such an extent that I had a strong point of view regarding those franchises. I don't dislike Harry, in fact of the four movies in the series, I've seen, "The Sorcerer's Stone," "The Chamber of Secrets," "The Prisoner of Azkahban," and "The Goblet of Fire," I thought three of them were good, and at times they were very good. I thought "Chamber of Secrets" was unfortunately boring and predictable and basically amounted to a new character being the obvious villain.  I also have very fond memories of "Goblet of Fire," being particularly creepy and thrilling. I gave that film 4 1/2 stars and was amazed at how edge-of-my-seat thrilling it was. However if you ask me what exactly happened in any of the four films I saw, I couldn't tell you. I remember certain visceral emotions I had watching them, but I couldn't even get a D on a test of Harry Potter trivia. I don't know the different between Ravenclaw and Voldemort or any other pieces of the lingo. I think I remember Timothy Spall playing a bad guy, either a bad guy or a rabbit, I'm not sure. I'm in no rush to see this latest Harry Potter, and I'm not in any particular hurry to catch up with the other movies. Come to think of it, three of the movies I saw was because they were on TV one night when there was nothing else on. ("Sorcerer's Stone," I saw because it was my Little Cousin's choice.) I never went out of my way to see any of them; I've never read a word of the books. As I've struggled to determine why I haven't jumped on this ship, or viametely opposed it, I'm just as baffled to come up with a reason. There's a few easy refrains that some who know me might say. "I don't like fantasy." Well, I can't deny I'm critical of the genre, but as much as I can't stand Tolkien, I absolute love Lewis Carroll, so I have some doubts about that simple explanation. I never read as much, and I rarely read series of any kind as a teenager and pre-teen, maybe I just simply wasn't attracted to the series from whatever reason. It can really be any or these things, a combinations of them, it's hard to tell. Maybe if I read the books, I'd have a stronger point-of-view, about the movies, but I hardly think that'd give me an opinion of the Harry Potter franchise itself, just now I'm critical of books and movies.

Actually, this brings me to the core question of, "What is the Harry Potter franchise?" What is it that distinguishes it; what is it that it represents; what are it's features? Every other franchise of these natures seem to have a dimension to them, not simply in symbolism, but strong points of view and things that really distinguish them. I think that's what really has puzzled me about Harry Potter, what is it really about? It seemed to me to simply be a seven-part miniseries, where eventually there's a final battle. It has wizards, kids, growing up, good vs. evil, prophecy, broomsticks, mysterious characters, but these almost seem parts the are randomly thrown together. While I don't like the "Lord of the Rings," I must admit that it has a far stronger and complete vision than Harry Potter. Somebody says "Star Trek," I have a very distinct vision and idea that that franchise represents. Same with "Star Wars," same with "Avatar," same with every other recent major franchise that has had the level of popularity in recent years. What do I think of when I think of Harry Potter? What does anybody think of when they think of Harry Potter? I don't think of anything in particular. What does this represent? I'm actually asking, what is it that Harry Potter represents, and why has this captured so many peoples' imagination? What distinguishese Harry Potter from all these other franchises? I'm four movies in, and frankly I don't have a clue. That's not to say that it needs one. To some degree I think it's refreshing to some extent. No extra apparent symbolism that underlies an ulterior motive, usually religious in nature, no blatant attempt to simply be apart of a trend. (There aren't too many other wizards out there, are there?) And yet, I am constantly underwhelmed by Harry Potter. I do not dislike, nor do I like, but I'm not overly praiseful of the franchise to the point of fetish, and I'm neither overly critical to the point of obnoxious disgust. Maybe the appeal of Harry Potter is that it's a good piece of fantasy and nothing else. If that's the answer, than maybe I understand it more than I thought, however I hardly think that alone would be enough to create such rabid fanfare.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CANNON OF FILM: PLAYTIME

PLAYTIME (1967)


Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Lagrange and Jacques Tati, additional English dialogue by Art Buchwalk



Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” is clearly a masterpiece, but I think almost nobody can actually master it. According to film critic Noel Burch, “Playtime,” doesn’t just have to seen multiple times, but has to be seen from several different points in the theatre. The movie is all action, not in a “Die Hard,” action, but in terms of filling up the screen. To watch one thing, usually in the foreground, you can miss many things happening in the background, and vice-versa. The most expensive French film ever made up ‘til that point, the film’s box office failure would eventually bankrupt Tati. Tati is known as much as a performer as he is a director. His comedy is sly, that seems inspired by slapstick, but is actually more intrigued by sound effects and quiet observation. His most famous character is Monsieur Hulot, an exaggerated character, that is on par or equal such silent staples as Chaplin’s Tramp and Fatty Arbuckle’s Strong Man. His movies have sound, and often dialogue, but they basically act more like silent films. This was the second Hulot film of his I’ve seen, after “M. Hulot’s Holiday,” his first Directing project. Maybe the best Hulot film is, “Mon Oncle,” which earned him an Oscar for Foreign Language film. It’s easy to say that he’s overrated because his films once watched rarely if ever produced the laughs one would’ve expected. (I personally didn’t care much at all for “M. Hulot’s Holiday,” which is generally considered a classic.) But, he doesn’t go for big laughs. He goes for the small chuckles that make up actual human existence and not say the over-embellishment of such moments as say the Tramp getting sucked into the machine in his great film “Modern Times,” a film that’s one of few that “Playtime,” could possibly be compared to. Its anti-technology stance is reminiscent of the great French comedy, “A Nous la Liberte,” and anti-establishment like Milos Forman’s anti-Communist comedy “The Fireman’s Ball,” which got him kicked out of Czechoslovakia. The film also has a very long restaurant sequence where everything goes wrong and the worse the better. It seems plucked out of one of Bunuel’s high society farces like “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and especially “The Exterminating Angel,” about guest who show up at a Dinner Party but can’t/won’t/don’t/forgot how to leave. If “Playtime,” wasn’t shot on the largest stage ever built, it was probably damn close to it. It takes place in a modern Paris where all the buildings are made of the cold blue steel and glass. So much glass, during one famous scene a guy asks for a cigarette light from another guy, not realizing he was on the other side of a large glass building. In another scene at a restaurant, a glass door is broken by M. Hulot, (Tati, most of the time) and a doorman, improvising by holding the door handle to an invisible door, and simply continues opening and closing as though it were there. There’s tours to see pictures of famous building, they even occasionally are shown in the reflections of the glass windows, but nobody can ever find where exactly the reflections come from.  M. Hulot is probably the closest we get to a main character in the film, although unlike other films, his oversized pipe and coat, undersized pants, argyle socks and hunched walk is basically used as a somewhat recognizable figure to keep track of and/or observe. Even he isn’t entirely reliable, occasionally running into Hulot lookalikes. If I were to compare his character to any other literary character, at least for “Playtime,” he seems to serve the same service as Waldo from “Where’s Waldo.” He’s there, you’re looking for him, but there’s more action if you look around closely. There’s no plot, there’s too many characters to make note of any of them, but seemingly odd little thoughts bouncing around the screen, some more in focus than others, some funnier than others, others just throwaway vignettes. Tati almost seems to be playing around, giving us a visual representation of how his mind might work. “Playtime,” might have bankrupted him, but the film is one of those rare movies that has to be watched and placed in it’s own category outside the regular notions of genre. It’s rare to make a seminal movie such as “2001…” or “Citizen Kane,” or “Groundhog Day.” “Playtime,” isn’t just seminal, it’s more importantly a work that hasn’t even been repeated or replicated, probably never will. Thank goodness, I’m going to be mulling over this one for years anyway.      

Monday, July 18, 2011

CANON OF FILM & THE ORIGIN OF THE LIST

As I mentioned before, I have a list of every movie I've ever seen. Right now it's up to over 2,950 feature films (FEATURES. That doesn't count short films, which many of which are also on that list), and I'm planning on printing the entire list, or at least a link to it, on this blog when I reach 3,000 feature films. If for no other reason other than to prove I actually have it, (Or prove that I'm actually that pathetic, whichever you prefer) and also because, I've been working on it for years, and I'll be damned if I know what else to do with it.

This origins of this list started innocently enough, as I was simply trying to make a short list of films to recommend to a friend of mine. I was at CCSN (Community College of Southern Nevada) and had not yet decided to become a film major, but was leaning in that direction. Anyway, I made a short list of what were at the time recent films that were highly intellectual, conceptual, good,...- basically a lot of artistic crap people that snobby critics like myself love. "Magnolia," "Mulholland Drive," "Lost in Translation," etc. etc. Anyway, this was under an assumption that my friend had seen basically most every movie that people needed to see. Classics like "Casablanca," and "Gone with the Wind," and "Sunset Boulevard," or even modern-day classics like "The Breakfast Club," and "Goodfellas." Alas, my friend hadn't. So, in my list-obsessed Aquarius way, I decided to make another list for her. As you can imagine from here, this got out of control, and eventually, I didn't finish until I had written down every movie that I can remember seeing. Well, naturally it became ridiculous to give her this kind of a list, but frankly, I like the idea and decided to keep it up. I mean, here is basically a documentation of my life, through the movies I've seen. I have measured out my life in movies, and frankly I can't think of too many better way to measure out my life. (Except maybe sexual partners and experiences, but that wouldn't nearly be as interesting, and frankly, a very short list.)

However, I still needed to explain to my friend, why, you know, it was important for everybody to have seen "Citizen Kane," and other such seminal works of cinema. Especially when you're not talking to a film person, this is more complicated than it sounds, so I started writing down the reasons, in brief, short passages, thinking one day, I'd just hand them over to my friend, and whenever something came up that I had written on, she'd know to watch 'cause I told her. Again, this was a ridiculous idea, that frankly never manifested, and thankfully so. But, there's nothing particularly wrong with this either. Collecting and writing on films is what many people do anyway. So, whenever I was in writing funk, or felt particularly inspired, I found a great movie to write a page or two about. I'll admit, this idea is borrowed heavily from Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" collection, which can be found on rogerebert.com. I called this, the Canon of Film, and a symbolic way to emphasize the absolute essential films one must see, the same way literature has an essential cannon of books that everybody must at least once, read. We all know which ones they are, many of them we were forced to read in school. I started this list with two rules, (later three) as to determine what films should be in this list and they are:

1. I've had to have watch the film on at least three separate occasions.
2. In order for inclusion in the Cannon, it must be at least 10 years past the film's original release date.
3. Certain documentaries can be excluded from the 10 year rule based on immediacy of content and greatness of film.

These rules started as a good strict guideline as to what should qualify for the Cannon of Film. Eventually though, the only rule that actually got followed was rule #4:

4. I made the rules, I can change and/or break them at anytime.

So that was stupid and useless. Anyway, what started as another project to get my friend to watch more movies, became, another obsessive side project, and now I've written, over 250 of these Cannon of Film entries. Don't think for a second that I'm going to use this blog as a cruel way to dispose of these entries, I'm not. Frankly, I don't have the time, desire or the energy to suddenly explode 250+ pre-written papers essentially onto the world, when most of the time, I'd rather talk about something that's happening right now, or at least that something, that I care about right now.  And honestly, some of them are terribly written. I know, I wrote them, and especially some of the earlier ones, they're not my best work, they were written out of obligation instead of passion, and that's not fair to anybody who might actually read them. If you're going to read my work, I hope you can read the best of my work. I already put my heart and soul out there when it comes to my own screenplays, and I've had it stomped on more than once, but that's fiction and storytelling, and I wouldn't get any better at it if I don't show all of my work like that, scars, soars, warts, tears, and all other metaphoric body deformities included. That's me getting stomped on, but getting stomped on for my own creation. There's little point in getting stomped on because I wrote a shitty article about how good "Casablanca," is half a decade ago. And I shouldn't be the only one writing these anyway. What makes me the judge and jury of all things great and essential in film? Because, I made a list? That's bullshit. Film is a collaborative art; it's a group of people coming together to make a piece of art. I shouldn't be the only one who writes these. Yes, occasionally, when I deem it, for some reason appropriate, I will post on this blog an entry in this "Cannon of Film," that I created, and it will be for all to see, but I shouldn't and won't be the only one. I'll be asking around to friends and others if they want to contribute to this blog their own entries into this Cannon, and I'd be very happy if they do. They should do it for the same reason I write them, 'cause I wanted to. It may have originally started as something else, but the reason I keep writing them is because I wanted to. Plain and simple. My next blog will be one of these Cannon entries, for the Jacques Tati film "Playtime". Why, well, I just saw/wrote on "The Illusionist," which was based on an unfilmed Tati script, and I think it's reasonably relevant to post something on an actual Tati film, and "Playtime," happens to be a great film, worthy of such a Canon. I'm not gonna stop writing Cannon of Film entries, I'll write them when I feel so inspired, and I'll  post those when I do, the same way I'll occasionally post an older one, and hopefully some of you will have opinions and thoughts on it. Some might agree, some might disagree, others might seek out a film I discuss that they haven't seen before, some might be ecstatic that I introduced them to such an amazing piece of work, others could despise the hell out of me for making them waste there time and money on a giant piece of crap. I'll be happy with any reaction to them frankly. Either way, my work is being read. That's basically what all writers are hoping for.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

WEEKLY SEEMINGLY RANDOM FILM REVIEWS: "The Illusionist," "Glorious 39," "Lovely, Still", & more.

In my earlier blog, I discussed the process through which I select the movies I get to view. The fact that I was so elaborate and detailed about it, was probably both an explanation of why the films I will review on a pretty much weekly basis will be rather random in their selection, (although I'll certainly make preferences for the more recently released films) and probably partial denial that I'm not a proper film reviewer, able to see every new release that swings into town with a little section of the free media that will be guaranteed to have hundreds if not thousands of readers. Well, at least I have a section of the free media, although that's available to anybody, hence the word, "free," instead of "unfree" media. Or not-free media. Whatever the word is. I have an outlet, and hears to hoping my opinions will be worth something to people other than me.

NOTE: ALL STAR RATINGS ARE BASED ON A 5-STAR RATING SYSTEM

The Illusionist:  (2010) Director: Sylvain Chomet
4 1/2 STARS
I recently began going through Jacques Tati’s Hulot movies. I started with “M. Hulot’s Holiday,” which I didn’t care for that much. I've since seen his Oscar-winning masterpiece “Mon Oncle,” and the amazing “Playtime,” which pretty much bankrupted Tati and for all-intensive purposed ended his career.  He was the last of the silent clowns. He should’ve been a star during the time of Keaton and Chaplin, but instead came around in the fifties and sixties, and his films must’ve felt like throwbacks even then, but underneath they’re satirist view of progress and materialism, the underlying themes showed the poetic humanity of it’s characters. The almost Chaplinesque ethos of Hulot is just as memorable as that damn fish fountain that’s only turned on for company. I can’t think of a better filmmaker to attempt to recreate the Tati magic than Sylvain Chomet, who made the strange but wonderful “The Triplets of Belleville,” a couple years ago, which was also a mostly silent movie about a determine bicyclist who made a wrong turn on the Tour De France. “The Illusionist,” I think is even better. It’s a tale of a very good magician, who’s old-time magic act is being replaced by the popularity of rock bands in late fifties yet continues touring and performing taking any part he can get to do with act. Based on an unfilmed Tati script that, which apparently emphasized a mother-daughter type relationship between the two leads,  the magician, and the young woman who is amazed at his apparent magic as he try to work beyond his means to impress her. That hand-drawn animation is simply magical. It earned Chomet his second Oscar-nomination for Best Animated Film last year, and he definitely deserved it. It makes sense too, no human can possibly recreate Tati in live-action, but in animation he comes alive once more.
Glorious 39: (2010) Director: Steven Poliakoff
2 STARS
Steven Poliakoff’s films seem to overpopulated the Gibson Library’s collection sometimes. While I’ve never watched any of his films before, I’ve picked up and put down “Friends and Crocodiles,” and “Gideon’s Daughter,” more than a couple times. I found it odd his name kept popping up ‘cause at the time, I had never heard of him.  He’s more well-known in Britain apparently, and “Glorious 39,” was an interesting introduction to his work, for a while anyway. Told in flashback, although at times, that seems questionable, the story set in 1939, pre-war Britain as Glorious, which is the nickname of Anna, the adopted older daughter of a well-respected member of Parliament, stumbles into a never-before-explored compartment of her house (Yes, we’re expected to believe that neither her nor her siblings ever went through the looking glass), and discovered numerous unusual material, including records that are labeled “foxtrot,” but are actually meeting between high-ranking politicos, a couple of whom soon end up dead. There’s some intriguing political mystery to begin the movie, as the country’s is in conflict between how to handle Hitler under Chamberlain’s reign, but the movie diverges badly into numerous overwrought puzzling encounters, oftentimes its difficult or even impossible to tell whether Glorious is being the victim of cruel pranks pulled to gaslight her, whether she's actually stumbled her way into a government conspiracy and that she's the next murder victim, or whether it’s all in her head. Some of the supporting characters even seem to be imaginary. By the time there’s an arbitrary ending and explanation, I had already felt the rug pulled out from under me,  and was tired of being jerked around.
Lovely, Still (2010) Director: Nik Fackler
3 STARS
“Lovely, Still,” works in spite of it’s really contrived and disturbingly disingenuous ending because it’s well acted and casted. I don’t mind twist endings, but we don’t need them in every movie anymore. This movie is about a wonderful little romance between two older characters. Martin Landau, plays the lonely old man who works at the grocery store, while Ellen Burstyn plays the newly-arrived next door neighbor living with her daughter. He lived along for a while and when she suddenly knocks on his door and asks her out, he’s unsure of what to do. He enlists the help of his young boss, played by Adam Scott of “Party Down,” and “Parks and Recreation” fame, to help him out as he stumbles through and relearns the nuances of dating. There’s some funny scenes where Scott and Landau, search through a Wal-Mart type store trying to find the perfect Christmas present. Elizabeth Banks doesn’t have a lot to do as Burstyn’s daughter, but what she has, she does extremely well. The days are separated by these strange visions that keep recurring in Landau’s dreams, and only at the end are we given an explanation; I ask why do we need an explanation, why is there something that needs to be explained? It’s not surprisingly where this road eventually leads, but it’s just annoying that the first-time filmmaker Nik Fackler, couldn’t think of anything better than trick the audience. He should get homework lessons from Sarah Polley’s wonderful film “Away From Her.” Even still, the performance are great, and at least for an hour, we get a really intricate and touching romance, and it’s not between a couple twenty-year old who don’t know anything.
Metropolis (Completed) (2010, 1927) Director: Fritz Lang
5 STARS
It’s the greatest and most important film find ever. It didn’t matter that the found footage was a  shotty transfer of 35mm to a 16mm film, and it looks worse that “Detour,” its only surviving complete version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” and it is an amazing mini-miracle that it was found at all. I had written and seen the most recent restoration of the film on numerous occasions beforehand, and considered it one of the greatest films ever made to begin with. Now, we get the scenes we could only imagine and infer before. Equipped with a new score as well, the elaborate biblical metaphors of the story become far more developed in this version, and we also finally get the great scenes of the worker’s night on the town, the reveal of the Hel statue that had only survived in photographs before, and a truly amazing scene where the children are saved from the flooding city after the workers, under the spell of the robot Mary, destroy the heart machine. On top of the great use of special effects, and the architectural models that have been repeated in sci-fi classics even today, I never realize that extras played one of the most important characters in the film. There’s thousands of them, and they just don’t populate the screen, they’re running, they’re moving, they’re climbing and bouncing along the machines, etc. etc. Today it’s not impossible to shoot these scenes, but it so much easier with special effects to create many extras out of a few, it’s just not viable to do it. The whole movie feels at times like the famous pullout long take from “Gone with the Wind.” Now that the movie’s mysteries are revealed, the film amazingly more mysterious and entrancing to us. 5 out of 5 stars.
The Wedding Banquet (1993) Director: Ang Lee
4 1/2 STARS
Part of the cross-culture family trilogy of films Ang Lee made in the late eighties-early nineties, along with the masterful “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” and the great “Pushing Hands,” “The Wedding Banquet,” is about the unexpected development of a family, as much as it’s about the culture clash between Chinese values and expectations and the more day-to-day workmanlike life of their American son, Wai-Tung. His parents try everything including matchmaking services to find Wai-Tung a mate, blissfully unaware that Wai-Tung is gay and has been living with his partner Simon for years, but an unexpected visit from the parents, and a downstairs tenant that’s in love with Wai-Tung, and needs a green card later, and this suddenly sounds like “The Birdcage.” And there’s some humor in the film, but the plot isn’t beholden to its contrivances.  Despite there barely being a wedding, there is a lavish wedding banquet, where everybody seems surprised that Wai-Tung has gotten married, but that doesn’t slow down the party, which doesn’t even stop when the couple enters the Honeymoon sweet. Truth does and eventually comes out, but it doesn’t lead to the kind of over-the-top farcical conflicts that normally occur with this material. Lee is too smart for that, and too observant of human behavior. It has it’s over-the-top moments, but because it’s not relying on them, the film has aged well.

Flushed Away: (2006) Directors: David Bowers and Sam Fell
3 STARS
“Flushed Away,” marked the first time the guys behind Aardman Animation, didn’t use they’re typical claymation, and switch to computer generated animation. While, that was a good decision considering how complicated the material is (Clay and water, can’t be a good combination),   the story was adequate. Nothing special, other that the amazing creation of the underground rat metropolis that bore many similarities to the London.  I also thought it was interesting how the Rita character looked remarkably like Kate Winslet, despite all the characters basically looking like the typical Aardman creation.  (They’re most noted for Wallace & Gromit).   Yet, I basically came out of the movie almost instantly forgetting it after guessing the entire story about twenty minutes in. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, and some of the animation scenes are quite creative, like the flying over London scenes with the balloon, and the speedboat through the sewers, but as a movie, It was basically a way to kill ninety minutes without thinking too much. Nothing bad, just nothing special
Oliver! (1968) Director: Carol Reed
4 STARS
Oliver won 6 Academy Awards in 1968, including Best Picture and Best Director for Carol Reed. I never got around to it until now, and while I hardly think this film was worthy of such high praise, (especially when compared to fellow nominees “The Lion in Winter,” and “Romeo & Juliet,” and the not-nominated “2001: A Space Odyssey”) it’s certainly an entertaining movie. It’s wonderfully visual, filling the art direction and set design with great and elaborate Victorian London scenery for the actors to chew about in. I kinda think “Oliver Twist,” is strange material for a musical (Although, I do admit that the Disney film “Oliver & Company,” is a sentimental favorite despite some of the films sappiness.) but the familiarity of the story helps. Since we know essentially what’s going to happen, it allows us to let the story be told instead of trying to outthink or outsmart it. While outside of the film, only one or two of the songs are particularly memorable, the movie as a whole it’s a surprisingly breezy and refreshing musical.
…And God Created Woman (1956) Director: Roger Vadim
2 1/2 STARS
Roger Vadim’s “…And God Created Woman,” is infamous for introducing the world to Brigitte Bardot, as St. Tropez’s town nymphomaniac. An orphan who constantly gets kicked out of her house, it’s hard to completely explain her character other than the harsh words I just used. She has some kind of Carmen-esque characteristics and devilishness to her, but when she then gets thrust into marriage, the story kinda becomes a reverse “Taming of the Shrew.” The movie, was controversial in it’s day, but would hardly raise any controversy now. I frankly was pretty much bored out of my mind at this film. There’s some discussion over whether she’s really in love with husband’s brother or with her husband, or if she’s even capable of love, but at a certain point, I lost the capability to care. 
The Lady Vanishes (1938) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
3 1/2 STARS
I’ve never been the biggest, early Hitchcock fan, but “The Lady Vanishes,” is one of his wittier works. A woman talks with another woman as they board a train. This happens fairly late in the movie, strangely enough. We’ve already had about twenty minutes of waiting for the train at the hotel, where we get introduced to most of the cast, including my favorite character, to uptight Brits who are obsessed with getting to see the cricket match on time. (Since cricket matches last days sometimes, this is an especially eccentric position) Suddenly, the woman disappears, or as the title claims vanishes, not just from the train, but apparently from all the passenger’s memories. Variations of this theme have obviously com and gone since, but it always seems more special when Hitchcock goes into classic Hitchcock thriller mode. While this isn’t in the upper tier of his canon, it’s certainly one of his better early works, that still has some influence today. 3 ½ stars.