Monday, April 30, 2007

Mazursky, Marvin, and more this month

I'm something of a lapsed member of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I pay my annual dues, mostly to check out the competition at Film Comment magazine, its publication, and to get a jump on the New York Film Festival in fall. But I haven't been to a repertory screening at the Walter Reade Theater since December. It's not the commute; it's easier to get to Lincoln Center from Brooklyn than it was from the Upper East Side, which involved two buses, an annoying subway ride, a long walk, or a combination of all three. But as life changes, so, too, does moviegoing patterns, and when I have the time I'm more inclined to see what's going on at BAMcinematek or Film Forum than I am at FSLC, whose programs I used to copy-edit when I worked at Stagebill (has it really been five years since that sank without trace in the East River?).

I've noticed, though, that the organization has made its program more user-friendly of late, and that May offers a number of appealing cinephile options. I've often thought that Brooklyn-born filmmaker Paul Mazursky was overdue for a retrospective on his home turf, and thanks to the Film Society he's finally got one, from May 4-10. The five-time Oscar nominee, who started as an actor (appearing in Stanley Kubrick's first feature, Fear and Desire, in 1953), is probably as well-known today for his occasional appearances on The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm than for any of his writing and directing credits, which is rather surprising, given how popular (and how very good) films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and An Unmarried Woman (1978), the unacknowledged template for Sex and the City, were. My movie watching group watched his Bob & Carol followup, Alex in Wonderland, a few years back; it's marred by its Fellini side (including a cameo by the director), just as his later Willie and Phil (1980) leans too heavily on Truffaut for inspiration. Yet it's still an appealing mix of trenchant satire and a keenly observed appreciation of life's foibles, and beautifully acted. It's not in the Lincoln Center lineup, but three other looks at CA, Bob & Carol, Blume in Love, and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, which he wrote, are; the former remains as funny and freshly performed as it did 40 years ago, and Toklas has one of Peter Sellers' unsung (but still fascinating) "normal" performances, as an uptight Jewish lawyer unstrung by hippie life. All I know of Blume is that it is controversial, and unlikable, but the humanism that suffuses his best pictures does not always follow the straight and narrow.

The New York stories selected--Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, the cross-country Harry and Tonto (best cat movie ever), and the transcontinental Tempest, with its warm pairing of marrieds John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, are also on the bill. The last is a pretty flaky free adaptation of Shakespeare, but they are all Mazursky being Mazursky, which is all for the best. And then there is the sublime Enemies: A Love Story (1989), with Mazursky being Isaac Bashevis Singer, and doing exceedingly well by his source and himself. His latest, a Ukraine-set personal documentary called Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy, will also be presented, and there are numerous opportunities scheduled to chat with the filmmaker (an excellent DVD raconteur) himself.

John Boorman is expected to be on hand to present his fine 1998 documentary on Lee Marvin on May 11. It kicks off two weeks of Marvin films (May 11-24), including his two Boorman-directed features, the quintessential neo-noir Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific, which in its quirky way reflects the actor's World War II experiences. This retrospective gives the full measure of his career, from brutish supporting parts in The Big Heat and Bad Day at Black Rock to his surprise Oscar parodying them in Cat Ballou, and a string of leads, some well-chosen (Emperor of the North Pole) and some, well, not (the musical flop Paint Your Wagon, which has not improved with age, and the curious, sensationalistic Prime Cut, too wayward for cult infamy). He was not an ideal Hickey for The Iceman Cometh, but it is still a full-bore Lee Marvin performance, strongly supported by Frederic March and Robert Ryan, on their way out with last hurrahs. 1974's The Spikes Gang, directed by the late Richard Fleischer, is a surprisingly downbeat revisionist Western that really hooked me when it turned up on Showtime recently; maybe someone at Lincoln Center also saw it, and thought, wisely, to book it, along with some TV rarities from that facet of his resume. "The last of the great wintry heroes," wrote David Thomson, and it is hard to disagree.

All this, plus some a quartet from director John Schlesinger's transatlantic career and six screenings of a new print of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon around Memorial Day weekend. Time to bulk up my Metrocard.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Stanwyck scribbling

A few years ago I was in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, researching Katharine Hepburn's life in the Turtle Bay neighborhood for a magazine article. Task completed (there wasn't much, but enough to get 1,500 words from) I found myself with some time to kill before my next appointment, so I decided to research a personal favorite subject, Barbara Stanwyck. There was a bio of her on the shelves, so I cracked it open, only to find that it had two authors.

One was credited. And the other was an anarchist annotator, who with a ballpoint point appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner over the author's findings. "RIDICULOUS" read one scrawl in the margins. "THIS IS COMPLETELY INADEQUATE" was another, with a line drawn to indicate the offending paragraph. Another passage was thickly circled. "SUCH POOR RESEARCH AND WRITING; HOW DOES THE AUTHOR KNOW ANY OF THIS?" it read. And so it went, on every page of the manuscript.

I can only guess at the unknown author's identity. Maybe another, would-be biographer whose project was cancelled when this one got the greenlight? Or perhaps a garden-variety film buff who, like many of us, felt a kinship with Stanwyck, the most un-movie star-ish of movie stars, with an appealingly diverse career, and wanted it gotten right.

Facets of her talent are on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is hosting a centenary film tribute in her honor. Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens, was a Flatbush Avenue girl, and she never really left the neighborhood. Even when living the high life, or roaming the Wild West, there was that tough, New York scrappiness about her. Anthony Lane has much to say about her difficult upbringing and amazing career, stretching from silents in the 20's to Aaron Spelling TV shows in the mid-80's, in this week's
New Yorker. As always with Lane, I'm incredibly tempted to write "OVERWRITTEN; STICK TO THE SUBJECT, FANCY PANTS" in the margins (and "IDIOT!" when he lambastes The Untouchables in his Hot Fuzz review, which is also online) but it's a place to start before heading off to BAM. And you should, because Stanwyck had such a multifaceted resume. I think science fiction was the only genre she didn't attempt, which was just as well, as she would have told any fearsome bug-eyed monster where to get off.

If you can get there tonight a real treat, the complex generation-spanning noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), is playing. Stanwyck is indelible in Double Indemnity, to be shown May 5, but that portrait of pure, calculating evil was just one side of her story; Martha Ivers puts a few cracks into the picture. The Lady Eve showed on Valentine's Day but Ball of Fire shows off her lighter side; she really knew how to detonate a wisecrack. The best-known of her credits with Frank Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Meet John Doe, are on the docket, as are two films with director Douglas Sirk, All I Desire and one of her other pairings with Indemnity star Fred MacMurray, There's Always Tomorrow. If you can only see one I'd go next Friday to see Sam Fuller's bizarre Freudian Western, Forty Guns, where at age 50 she does her own back-bruising stunts. Critics dismiss her cinema swan song, The Night Walker, where she is cast with her ex-husband, Robert Taylor, but the movie offers lowbrow fun that the actress did not condescend to and she made similar pictures for TV once her stint on The Big Valley ended.

She always worked. The top-rated Thorn Birds miniseries, made after she received her honorary Oscar, loses something once she's out of the picture. And there is so much more beyond BAM. Her powerhouse "woman's picture", Stella Dallas, still capable of wringing tears 70 years later. Her best credit with Capra, the cut-from-the-headlines phony preacher story The Miracle Woman. Formidable with a pair of well-aimed scissors in Anthony Mann's incredible Western The Furies(1950)--where is this on DVD? Touching opposite Robert Ryan in Clash by Night. Giving William Holden a helping hand in Golden Boy then supporting him in Executive Suite. Adding A-list moxie to the B-thriller Jeopardy. Out-sassing Edward G. Robinson in The Violent Men, as a more violent woman. And more.

Without annotation, I'll let another author, David Thomson, have the last word on Stanwyck in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film. "While she was alive, she did not seem one of the great stars. But at her death, it was clear how much she was loved. She was honest, sharp, gutsy, and smart. Terrific."

More last words. I should add 1962's Walk on the Wild Side as another must-see; she and hothouse newcomer Jane Fonda, in a remarkably uninhibited performance, are fascinating contrasts and steal the film from its morose leads, Laurence Harvey and Capucine (Stanwyck's lesbian madam is supposed to be smitten with Capucine, but the younger actress has the charisma of a floor mat).

And There's Always Tomorrow, screened today before a gratifyingly large afternoon audience at BAM, was captivating--the codes and mores of 1956, where even the teens dress for supper at home, seem as remote as Jane Austen today. It invites a comparison between Stanwyck's independent dress designer and Joan Bennett's content housewife (herself no slouch in the glamour-noir department, Bennett gives a serenely untroubled performance) but never puts the poles of experience they represent into conflict. Rather, it leapfrogs past feminism and in a distinctly modern touch urges that more attention be paid to toymaker MacMurray, who is so whipped by family life that he comes to identify with his automaton creation, "Rex the Walkie-Talkie Robot." (Its influence on You Better Watch Out, which I screened for my movie group last Christmas, is palpable.) Stanwyck's best moment comes when she gives up any illusion of a future with MacMurray, an old flame and associate; the reflection of a rain-streaked window puts tears on her fretful face, years before a similar, more famous sequence in the film version of In Cold Blood used the same photographic metaphor.

The arrogance of power

A dynamic duo, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, put flesh on the bones of the thin but absorbing Frost/Nixon , from the Live Design website. It looks like they're going into film adaptation, which the author, Peter Morgan, should rework to make it a little less predictable and schematic--but I have a feeling the director, Ron Howard, likes the unnecessary italicizing and underlining. As it is I'd put it third in the Morgan library, behind The Queen (which it resembles) and HBO's troubling and underrated Longford, but ahead of the too-obvious Last King of Scotland.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Drama Desk nominations announced

The Drama Desk nominations are out. Debate about them rages at All That Chat. Don't blame me for nominating In the Heights or The Apple Tree for anything, and I tried to get Translations nominated for something, but no dice. I haven't yet seen the leader of the pack, LoveMusik, which claimed 12 nominations. But all in all another eclectic and interesting assemblage representing a best-faith effort to keep tabs on everything on, off, and off-off Broadway. Winners will be announced on May 20.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Election day

New York's Film Forum offers Johnnie To's excellent Election films beginning tomorrow, April 25. The 2006 sequel, Election 2, or Triad Election, is being spotlit, with the first Election (2005) being shown twice per day during the two-week run. It's true that you don't necessarily need to see the first part of this cold-as-ice gangster saga to appreciate the second, but in for a dime, in for a Hong Kong dollar, I say. Go toe-to-To with the filmmaker via my co-interview with him for Cineaste.

Film Forum is also bringing back The Earrings of Madame De... for another two weeks, also beginning tomorrow. I blogged about it in March; it's a quintessential revival film for today, in that it's not overly familiar and it's not currently available on home video or cable in the US. May as well make it a day trip.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Valet service

Onto lighter subjects. After a dismal week weatherwise here in the Northeast, spring finally seems to be asserting itself, and a nice complement to fun in the afternoon sun would be The Valet, the latest farce from France's Francis Veber, which Sony Pictures Classics opens tomorrow. I put down Robert Zemeckis' Used Cars as the funniest movie I had ever seen in my responses to the personal movie quiz I posted earlier this week, but if I had thought about I might have picked Veber's The Dinner Game (1998), which come to think of it may be the funniest movie I have ever seen in a theater, to judge by the constant laughter that greeted the film when I saw it.

The Valet is a milder film, still funny, but rarely explosively so. It's comforting to know that somewhere in a world that seems colder and crueler by the week someone is still writing doctor jokes, and still wringing chuckles from them. Veber, who turns 70 in July, has been practicing his craft since the 1960s, and craft it is; few directors know how to frame a widescreen image as perfectly as Veber (the film was shot by Robert Fraisse), with every element placed legibly across the long rectangular expanse of screen.

Think how many movies use their canvas poorly, or resort to closeups or unimaginative setups that waste the possibilities of space. This is important, for if there is a bedroom door on one side of Veber's screen, you can bet that before long there will be two or three characters sprinting toward it at some point during a scene, usually from the exact other side of the tableau, which is of course funnier. Watching a Veber film is like watching a film from the 60s, when there was no fear of the wide image--the need for films to "read" on the square TV, before the advent of letterboxing on home video, discouraged directors from making more use of this essential, and elemental, tool. And that is a cinephile's highest compliment.

I can't say that with this picture the content lives up to its form, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with The Valet. It's on the verge of being hysterical, but Veber, the author of La Cage Aux Folles and other scripts later Americanized for remakes, is too genteel, too polished, to push it over. Pierre (the faultless Daniel Auteuil, who, given his appearance in almost every French film sold abroad, is as much an export to the US as bottles of fine wine) is a spoiled business magnate who lives in fear of his wife, Christine (a pan-European Kristin Scott Thomas), who holds the pursestrings to his empire. Nevertheless he dallies with a top model, Elena (Alice Taglioni, pictured). When he and Elena are caught in a tabloid photograph, he turns, as trapped men must in a Veber film, to a guileless, and somewhat clueless, Pignon; in this case, valet parker Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh). The nebbishy Pignon is also in the picture, and to reduce Christine's suspicions Pierre's minions convince him to pretend to be Elena's boyfriend, going so far as to install her in his dilapidated flat. But this sudden notoriety as the "lover" of the nation's hottest model disrupts his fumbling courtship of Emilie, the girl next door (the always winsome Virginie Ledoyen, one of the nicest reasons to go to French films), and causes Elena, who is far less haughty than her standing in the world of haute couture implies, to rethink her lot in life (Pierre is bribing them to play along). Designer Karl Lagerfeld, a real-life character Klaus Kinski died too soon to portray, makes a suitably flamboyant cameo on the runway.

The Valet is a little reminiscent of Billy Wilder's The Apartment--a great accomplishment in widescreen filmmaking--but it is all plot, with reversals the actors play fast on their feet, and no subtext. Like many of his films, it's like a solid one-act theatrical farce. But his handling of the lightweight material is purely cinematic, and perfectly enjoyable for what it sets out to do, and accomplishes, in all of 82 minutes. Unless Veber is in charge of it, count on the proposed Hollywood remake to be much longer, and graceless.

The Oldboy connection

Last night, the news regarding the Virginia Tech school shooting cycled toward the Korean film Oldboy (2003). In apparent imitation, the killer photographed himself in a pose from the film, whose protagonist, mysteriously incarcerated for years, lashes out at his captors with a hammer. You can read more about that here.

No one knows if the killer even saw Park Chanwook's film, the second part of his "revenge trilogy," which was bookended by 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and 2005's Lady Vengeance, which is pictured below. (Another vengeance-themed film was 2004's Cut, part of the Three...Extremes omnibus). But to imply that is somehow racist to infer that he did seems completely disingenuous, defensive, and PC to me. Just as black (and white, and Asian) kids take their cues from gangsta rap and the latest pop tart, why shouldn't a Korean American, one who seems to have fetishized loneliness and isolation, find some strange kinship with a Korean film that he may have felt mirrored his situation? This seems to me a matter of purely forensic deduction, and nothing to incite suspicion, xenophobia, or censorship.

In the spirit of inquiry, and to shed a little light on the subject for anyone unfamiliar with the films, I've decided to post a discarded draft of an article I wrote for last summer's Cineaste. I interviewed Park about Lady Vengeance at the 2005 New York Film Festival and folded some of our discussion into a published review, as the still-pertinent interview was rather short. I really didn't like Oldboy, which is being remade Stateside for Nicolas Cage, but can better see what Park was driving at regarding love with the other two films. Alas, the shooter does not seem to seen the forest for Park's trees.

Two other observations. The "endless vicious cycle that goes round and round" that Park talks about has been renewed. And if the killer had access only to hammers, and not guns, it might not have been so.

"For Park Chanwook, revenge is a dish best served sizzling, with all the trimmings. With Lady Vengeance, which Tartan Films is scheduled to release in the U.S. on March 26, Park has completed what has been called his "revenge trilogy," a cycle of films that have galvanized—and divided—critics and viewers with their intense violence and equally intense emotion. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), a businessman, distraught over the kidnapping of his daughter, goes to extreme lengths to avenge her subsequent death at the hands of the impoverished criminals, who, complicating the scenario, are shown to be as sympathetic as "Mr. Vengeance." The moral waters are equally murky in Oldboy (2003), a loose adaptation of a Japanese manga (comic). Its protagonist, imprisoned without seeming cause for 15 years, goes on a killing rampage afterwards, only to discover that the young woman he has become enmeshed with...well, the movie is three years old now, but for the sake of its twists and turns the uninitiated are advised to skip over the first question in this interview.

Lady Vengeance (2005), the final film in the trilogy, is billed on the Tartan Films website as a "comedy-drama," a rather optimistic assessment, but not entirely misleading, either. All three films in the series are shot through with a rueful humor, and Lady Vengeance adds a sort of warmth to the cold recesses plumbed by its companions. Its avenger, Geum-ja, is played by Lee Young-ae, a co-star of the film that put Park on the international map, 2000’s Joint Security Area, a humanistic thriller about the illicit fraternization of South and North Korean border guards in the divided country’s demilitarized zone. Lee has since gone on to star in the Korean TV series A Jewel in the Palace, which is wildly popular throughout Asia, and Park toys with her audience-friendly image. An ex-con, Geum-ja was a model prisoner, an "angel" to her fellow inmates, but her good deeds during her 13-year stretch mask an obsessive hunger to right the wrongs committed by her betrayer, a murderous schoolteacher played by the star of Oldboy, Choi Min-sik. Giving Geum-ja some pause in her retribution, which is more than just purely personal in design, is a reunion with her daughter, long since adopted by another family.

Thanks to the proliferation of region-encoded DVDs that can be viewed on multi-system players, the 42-year-old Park enjoyed a cult following well before his movies debuted theatrically in the U.S. (a two-disc edition of Lady Vengeance, featuring a version of the film where in a characteristic stylish touch the color fades gradually to black-and-white, is available). A jury headed by Quentin Tarantino, a kindred spirit who has buoyed the director’s work, awarded Park the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for Oldboy, which has inspired a Bollywood remake (Zinda) and may be getting a Hollywood makeover besides. The choice was not without controversy, given that Park’s skilled, in-your-face orchestration of the mayhem in his films (including a prolonged electrocution in Mr. Vengeance and a squeamish act of consumption in Oldboy) can obscure the state-of-the-nation views on class, totalitarianism, and feminism his champions say the trilogy offers. It is a rousing, and troubling, set of films, which Park spoke to Cineaste about last fall on the eve of Lady Vengeance’s unveiling at the New York Film Festival.

Cineaste: Some audiences find it difficult to look past the violence of your films. Is your main intent to shock and provoke?

Park: The films are about love. Where there’s rage and hate, there has to be a loss, or something precious that’s been stolen. That’s where it begins. The most extreme case is in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, where the main character has lost his daughter. And love is where it ends as well. In Oldboy, the protagonist, after all the violence, chooses love, by erasing his memory and going back to a time where he didn’t know that his lover is in fact his daughter. A normal person would find that quite immoral; the natural thing would be to tell the daughter and try to reestablish a normal father-daughter relationship. But he chooses to forget, and in so doing he overcomes the boundaries of morality. That makes him a heroic character in my eyes.

Cineaste: Lady Vengeance climaxes with an act of group revenge against a single character. Do you feel that any such violence is justified?

Park: At the height of their anger, the audience is just as troubled as they are by his terrible actions. The film shows very clearly the consequences of their rage. The cruelest character in the story, this child murderer, suddenly becomes pathetic, surrounded by avengers who, wearing raincoats as they are, look to him like ghosts. (I purposely used fluorescent light, hitting him from below, to make the scene even more eerie.). So I do throw that question out, in a way that confuses the audience, who are themselves looking for revenge at this point.

Cineaste: The first film of yours to make an impact abroad, Joint Security Area, was political in nature. Why choose revenge for your next subject, much less for a whole trilogy of films?

Park: Joint Security Area is a warm and touching film in some ways, but nonetheless it deals with violence. Violence is one of those forces that drives people together. It’s certainly not the best way to communicate, but it exists, and it can exist between a nation as well as a couple. I’m fascinated in how violence begets violence, in an endless vicious cycle that goes round and round. As an artist who is interested in violence, it was very natural for me to be interested in revenge. Just as if I’d been making films about love, I’d be interested in the subject of marriage.

Cineaste: The characters in your films operate at extreme levels of emotion. How do you get the actors to that high-pitched level of performance?

Park: I don’t want them to think about the overall script. The ambiguity of the ending, the themes—all that’s out the window. I want them to convey the emotion at that moment; if it’s rage, then it’s that that I want to see, if it’s a moment of self-justification, it’s that emotion. There’s a scene in this film where a character is holding a knife, right before he’s about to kill someone. The scene is about his fear, holding a knife, waiting to kill someone. That fear is what I want to see, not the character (and the actor) considering why he’s afraid at the moment, thinking "this guy killed my daughter and now is my chance to kill him, can I or can I not do it?"

Cineaste: Are your films perceived differently in the West than they are in Korea?

Park: In Lady Vengeance, the lead actress is certainly perceived differently. She’s a big star on a TV show that’s popular all over Asia and Korean audiences are shocked at her association with this film. It’s like if Audrey Hepburn were playing the role in a Hollywood film. It’s not at all surprising if you don’t have that association in mind when watching it.

Western critics read into Oldboy and Lady Vengeance a metaphor for the divided Koreas. That’s fundamentally different from how they’re perceived in Korea, where no one sees that in those films. Also, in the West, audiences are much more shocked by the scene where a live octopus is eaten raw in Oldboy. [Laughs]

Cineaste: Is the director character in Cut, your contribution to the Asian horror anthology Three...Extremes (2004), a self-parody? [In the piece, a lowly extra, unhinged by the “goodness” of a noted film director, puts the filmmaker’s perceived virtue to a horrifying test on the set of his latest movie.]

Park: [Laughs] No, there’s no relation to me whatsoever, though it is the favorite of all my films. For that story I needed a professional character whose workplace could double as his home, and I decided that filmmaker would fit. I don’t look, or act, like a "Mr. Vengeance" at all, or so people tell me. When you look at my films people expect me to be a certain way, but I guess I don’t fit the bill. Maybe David Lynch, with that buttoned-down look, is a little strange, I don’t know. People expect the same from Dario Argento, but I hear he’s a nice guy, too.

My next film, I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, is an offbeat love story about two patients who meet and fall in love in a mental institution. It’s very much a PG-13 kind of story, the first time a film of mine would ever get that kind of rating in this country. I’m doing this sweet movie as a lead-in to my next, a vampire film called Evil Live, which will be very, very violent. I need to cleanse myself first."

Rate your movie geekdom

Another day, another time-soaking quiz. The author responds here; scroll down to the second page of responses. I got a 62, or Dressed to Kill and Pulp Fiction level, need to crack the books and rep cinemas more to hit the Mean Streets and Breathless (1959) stratosphere.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Grindhouse memories

Monday night was not the best evening to see Grindhouse. A movie that consciously revels in the moronic possibilities of gun violence was not going to sit well as news of the real-life horror that had overtaken Blacksburg, VA, unspooled on my TV, but I had three hours-plus to spend, so off I went.

It's easy to see why the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino collaboration, a watershed in movie junk, tanked. Too smart for its own good, but too dumb to be very pleasurable, the movie is at best only spottily enjoyable, and the spots pretty much belong to the guest filmmakers brought onboard to create the fake trailers that follow Rodriguez's half. Don't, from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright, is a riotous and affectionate parody of cliches that is indistinguishable from the way Brit horrors (like the scabbily disturbing films of Pete Walker) were marketed Stateside in the 1970s (coincidentally, I happened to see the oddball film of Rad Bradbury's The Illustrated Man on DVD last weekend, whose trailer also leans on the word "Don't" to arouse curiosity).

The best part of Rodriguez's chunk is his own faux trailer, for a "wetback" revenge pic called Machete. But it's only a little more ridiculous than Planet Terror, his feature, and not a lot sillier than any of his films, which are pretty much the work of an arrested adolescent whose statis has become embarrassing, like a 40-year-old who bunks with mom for the convenience. (It comes as no surprise to learn that Rodriguez would like to expand Machete into a feature.) Planet Terror has some nice things happening on the surface; the title is classic exploitation bait-and-switch (the threat is global in nature, but the movie takes place entirely in a scruffy patch of Texas), the storyline has a typical genre nod to topical events, and its coda is pleasantly daffy, and a relief after so much ado about very little.

For me, though, Planet Terror ended after about two minutes. It begins with a jarful of testicles being crushed, and a lot of tin-eared dialogue to get its zombie military storyline off the ground. Unsurprisingly, Rodriguez, whose lighter, comic films (Spy Kids) are too stylistically self-impressed to be all that funny, doesn't know how to shoot this outrageous imagery for humor, and the writing is flat-out poor--far worse than spoofery requires. I passed its near 90 minutes in an uncomfortable silence. Maybe it might have helped had I not seen the similarly, more cheerfully inane Feast a few months earlier. But I couldn't reconcile its Iraq-charged narrative, goofy as it is, with its treatment; intentionally, the movie is in terribly beat-up shape, with splices, speckles, scratches, and missing reels, to make it look more like a disreputable cheapie that had been in constant play at rough urban theaters 30 years ago. Why, though, would a newly minted film, with torn-from-the-headlines subject matter, look like this?

I know, I know--putting on my film buff's hat, I'm supposed to pretend that this is all supposed to be time-warped. But I suspect the filmmakers, and The Weinstein Company, thought that the general audience needed to make this $60 million-plus film profitable was much more conversant in trash cinema than it really is. I'm part of the niche, but I've always part of it, and this movie needs a lot of backgrounding to get the not much out of it that it offers. I'm sure reports of audiences up and leaving after Planet Terror ended, either unaware or all-too-aware that more was to come, are true: Who wants to waste more time with a movie that looks, feels, and sort of smells like garbage?

Rodriguez did his job ardently, but neither wisely nor well. If only last year's coolly clever Slither, or, better, a naturally aged print of a more vintage title, say, Re-animator, could have been dropped in its place. As it was, my biggest reaction came when star Rose McGowan, a Maxim and tabloids fixture, was referred as to as resembling Ava Gardner. This may have been meant as a love tap by the allegedly smitten Rodriguez, but, c'mon; McGowan wears a machine-gun attached to a leg stump with some verve, yet she does not suffer from an overabundance of talent or presence, and I would hope that she does not let the compliment go to her head.

I'm not sure why Rodriguez puts up with Tarantino. For one thing, he is a terrible (and terribly unattractive) actor, who really stinks up the screen in Rodriguez's segment (his acting, which has gotten worse over the years, isn't grindhouse, just a grind). For another, he gets the good reviews and the accolades. Theirs comes off as an unhealthy sibling relationship, with Rodriguez sadly co-dependent; even the movie that some critics liked, Sin City (I was at best lukewarm), has a bit of Tarantino woven into its DNA. He can take some consolation this time, knowing that he and Tarantino went down together.

Tarantino's segment, Death Proof (pictured), is better, discarding most of the gimmicks (save for his own nostalgically worn-looking cinematography) and feeling like a real movie, but it's not that much of a lift, and idles. He can write a good line but most of the femme-delivered dialogue here is just breeze-shooting, which tires easily. There is a big wham at about the midpoint, then it just moves on; what should be more upsetting is just a bad patch on the highway. The show crests again with a nicely engineered car chase that, internalizing its grindhouse roots, isn't that spectacular; it's just as good as it needs to be to ratchet up the thrill count, and stuntwoman Zoe Bell is fun playing a version of herself. It climaxes with a spasm of road rage, which might have played better had the recipient of the abuse, Kurt Russell, acted as if he really believed a trio of girls could whip his veteran ass; I usually like Russell, who gets the crime part of his character, but not the punishment. The End. There's not even a final, teasing end-credits bit to send us back home on, and if ever a movie justified the inclusion of one, Grindhouse was surely it. (Reinforcing the mood, shouldn't the picture have seemed to be starting up again?)

What Grindhouse really lacks, natch, is grindhouses--faded movie palaces gone to seed--to show it in. Young audiences don't know what they were except through accounts. I saw it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Rose Cinemas, which have nothing crummy about them except small seats; my haunches still ache. (BAM's wonderfully distressed Harvey Theater is almost an ideal venue in terms of interior but not a moviehouse). The Mobius Home Video Forum had a question about real-life grindhouse experiences, and I answered back (with a few new additions here):

"I spent some time at the Chicago 'mini-deuce.' I was too young for its big brother in New York, and probbaly would have too chicken to attend at that age. The Woods had the roughest fare and the toughest customers (I saw a double feature of Werewolf Woman (pictured) and the strange '82 picture The Black Room there), while the State Lake had Deathstalker marathons. The Woods held on as long as it could but the other neighboring theaters moved to more conventional fare like the Friday the 13th pics and Streets of Fire, once Cineplex Odeon bought them out. It was definitively all over by 1986, when the Chicago (which kept its lights halfway on during weekend shows to discourage troublemaking), whose movie theater days ended with the family-friendly Brewster's Millions in 1985, reopened as a legit theater a year later, which the town fathers applauded but more rabid cineastes mourned. Even when the programming turned Hollywood at the "md" I still went, just to soak up the ambiance of stately decay and decline.

As I said, I never experienced New York's finest. Funnily, the one cinema near my hometown of Randolph, NJ, went from Disney double features (I think I was taken to them all) to porn (not one viewed), by the late 70s. The K-Cinema is now a bank, or a gym. Something corporatized and non-threatening.

Favorite grindhouse memory: Fleeing a showing of Charles Bronson in The Evil That Men Do when rival gangs started throwing bottles at each other. Lee Marvin drives past those old Chicago moviehouses in 1972's Prime Cut, which is on DVD."

So, Grindhouse. Coming much sooner than expected to a DVD player near you, or as separate, skippable films in countries that lack a grindhouse culture, which American audiences have also forgotten if they knew it existed at all. Except a few others and me, and I accept no substitutes.

Postscript: I got home, turned on the tube, and saw that the death count in Blacksburg, a town I have spent some time in, where my best friend and best man is from, had hit an appalling record. Damn.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The personal movie quiz

This has been flinging around the web for a few days; I saw it on the Mobius Home Video Forum. My answers below. Anyone else care to take aim?

1. Name a movie that you have seen more than 10 times.

King Kong(1933).

2. Name a movie that you've seen multiple times in the theater.

Die Hard (five, on two continents).

3. Name an actor that would make you more inclined to see a movie.

Jack Nicholson, still.

4. Name an actor that would make you less likely to see a movie.

The smarmy Josh Lucas gives me pause, but if the movie is interesting I'll see him, or the increasingly dull Jude Law and Colin Farrell, in it.

5. Name a movie that you can and do quote from.

This time of year, The Ten Commandments (1956): "So it is written, so it shall be done." "Moses, you adorable fool, Moses." "Now we have new taskmasters!" [TC may be the only movie of its vintage still shown, and still capable of drawing big ratings, on one of the Big Three networks.]

5. Name a movie musical that you know all of the lyrics to all of the songs.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--not such a surprise, as rock lyrics stick to my brain more easily than traditional show tunes.

6. Name a movie that you have been known to sing along with.

The Wizard of Oz.

7. Name a movie that you would recommend everyone see.

Citizen Kane. At least once.

8. Name a movie that you own.

One movie? Most recently, The Naked City (1948).

9. Name an actor that launched his/her entertainment career in another medium but who has surprised you with his/her acting chops.

The improbable Arnold Schwarzenegger.

10. Have you ever seen a movie in a drive-in? If so, what?

First was Bullitt; last, a few years later, was Heaven Can Wait (1978). Both with my parents, in NJ.

11. Name a movie that you keep meaning to see but just haven't yet gotten around to it.

The Sound of Music.

12. Ever walked out of a movie?

Bad movies usually exhaust me too much to flee them. I fall asleep during turkeys. I conked out for at least a half-hour during a screening of the arthouse flop Dear Wendy, which many of my colleagues fled.

13. Name a movie that made you cry in the theater.

The Whole Wide World (1996). The way the climactic suicide is revealed, in a letter read aloud, kills me. Also Glory (1989).

14. Popcorn?

Usually, but a small bag now, lightly buttered and salted. Have to watch my levels. I sometimes stop by NY's Film Forum just to buy a bag of their sea-salted popcorn.

15. How often do you go to the movies (as opposed to renting them or watching them at home)?

Maybe three or four times per week, press screenings mostly.

16. What's the last movie you saw in the theater?

As a "civilian," Shooter. I'll cop to it.

17. What's your favorite/preferred genre of movie?

All things considered, still horror, though I feel somewhat alienated from the genre of late.

18. What's the first movie you remember seeing in the theater?

Bullitt. It was a reissue, as the preview for Ben (1972) tagged to it made a far greater impression on me and sent me on my monster-strewn path.

19. What movie do you wish you had never seen?

The fact that I wish I had never seen Salo, which revolted me, sort of makes me glad that I saw it. I suppose I'm sorrier to have spent so much time on higher-profile, big-budget pablum, still a hard habit to break but, as with movie popcorn, I've reduced my intake.

20. What is the weirdest movie you enjoyed?

I suppose Last Year at Marienbad counts as "weird," but I dig it.

21. What is the scariest movie you've seen?

The original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I ran all the way to my dorm room after my first viewing, at midnight.

22. What is the funniest movie you've seen?

Off the top of my head, Used Cars never failed to make me laugh, the 15 times or so I caught it on HBO and Cinemax many years ago after its failed 1980 opening. [I've seen KONG even more often, though.]

Friday, April 13, 2007

Serious Thinking

I've finally liked Vanessa Redgrave onstage. A few thoughts about The Year of Magical Thinking for the Live Design website, and a little more about a somewhat misbegotten production of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, though I liked how co-star Eve Best graciously laughed off a persistently ringing cellphone during last night's performance.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Desert bloom

With rainy 40-degree weather persisting here it's hard to believe we were enjoying dry 90-degree heat in Arizona just last week, but here's the evidence. I took the picture during a 3.5m hike around Granite Mountain, near The Boulders resort where we stayed, last Wednesday. I'm impatient to trade my winter jacket for shorts for a long spell. I added a picture taken at The Boulders below.

A Road to nowhere

Red Road, the debut feature of Scottish writer/director Andrea Arnold, has a "thank you" to screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga within its end credits. This was the least Arnold could do, given how much the film borrows (or "homages") from his work, which includes the screenplays for Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. There is a willfully misdirected storyline, which, once righted, is supposed to provide some sort of third-act catharsis; a fateful car crash; an explicit sex scene between deeply conflicted characters; and, as it happens, perros. I'm not saying the film, honored by Cannes, the Scottish BAFTA Awards, and the British Independent Film Awards, is unoriginal; Arnold has a good eye, and Red Road has finely observed performances and an intriguing set-up. But I'm something of an Arriaga agnostic, finding his contrived screenplays rather cheap, and think Arnold, who won the live action short Oscar in 2005 for Wasp, might want to follow her own path next time.

Red Road trains its eye on Jackie (Kate Dickie), a surveillance camera operator whose equipment is focused on the gritty Glasgow neighborhood of the title. Unlike snazzed-up US films that revel in the possibilities of this increasingly Orwellian technology, the movie isn't overawed by spying culture; it's useful, if a little grubby, and not the be-all and end-all to crime rates. (DP Robbie Ryan and editor Nicolas Chauderge give the sequences at Jackie's workplace, where she is planted, in near-isolation, in front of her roving monitor, a distinctive look and rhythm.) And it's no use solving crimes of the heart. Life is literally passing the taciturn Jackie by, for reasons unknown. One day, she spots the boorish Clyde (Tony Curran) in her lens. Clyde, a figure from Jackie's past, is a tough customer clearly best avoided, but Jackie is drawn to confront him, even if this end involves some questionable means on her part. The film means to upend what we know, or think we know, about Jackie and Clyde, but I've learned to expect the unexpected from this kind of drama, however interested I was in the performers (Martin Compton and Natalie Press are the two other main characters in Clyde's unstable orbit) and their shabby, hard-scrabble milieu. (Subtitles are provided to guide us down these mean streets.)

Red Road, which Tartan Films opens tomorrow, is the first film in a planned trio (sigh; movies big and small seem all to come in threes anymore) from Advance Party, a Dogma-style UK and Denmark initiative whose three directors will put the same Scots characters through different scenarios. Different, I hope, from films, and cinematic trends, that have come before. For the plan to bear true artistic fruit, Advance Party is advised to stick to its own road next time.