Saturday, May 30, 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL

Drag Me to Hell drops in on our movie culture at the most important moment. First off, it almost single-handedly erases the depressing memory that was modern American horror during the Y2 aughts. (I challenge you to find a substantial foreign film market that made worse horror films, this decade, than Hollywood.) Secondarily, Sam Raimi's new masterwork now proves the once kicked-around theory of "acceptable mediocrity", that current tendency of film critics (in print and on blogs) to keep the ratings bar high while the general quality of films slid low.

Take Star Trek, for example. The movie is below-average at best, some mild entertainment for a day when your sports team is inactive and/or your mental faculties are as well. Yet not even the critics who rated the film the highest-of-the-high could muster enough convincing passionate prose in favor of it. Star Trek's raves rallied around the admittedly impressive abilities of media man JJ Abrams and the way he successfully revived and refashioned a movie franchise that was already crap to begin with; critics confused a good business sense with quality artistry. Star Trek lacked any movie magic.

But here struts in Drag Me to Hell, a film rim-full of wide lens wit, punctuated humor, rhythmic stunts, special effects wisdom, and a sound design that'll blow your ears back. All of this slaps up against the screen between two large title cards that'll close you in and then lock you out after 99 minutes. Raimi's visual ideas hose onto the audience as if he's been pinching them back for 14 years now (and some would say that that's very much been the case). The man is clearly having fun again. After wasting a near decade on three Spiderman films and a Katie Holmes nipple slip, I don't blame the guy.

Overshadowed by the G-rated Grand Guignol (that's a compliment) up on screen is Alison Lohman in the role of Christine Brown, an ambitious loan officer with eyes on an assistant manager position. Lohman's adorable lisp and behind-the-ear blond bangs suit the role of Christine perfectly as she rides the emotional fence of fighting for a promotion and, er, escaping the hooves of the Hades dwelling Lamia that seemingly wants to "swallow her soul". Lohman's presence is comfortable, physically understanding the sight gags and frights that Raimi lines up for her. From hunching over a half-gallon of chocolate ice cream to standing rain wet and chest strong in the grave of the woman who cursed her, Lohman is a non-stop joy to watch.

Of significant special mention should be the implementation of effects by Raimi. Using both CG and the authentic kind, Raimi's heady mix exhibits a lost art understanding of when the use of one or the other is appropriate. There is a tactile cinematic exuberance in seeing real-time goop and gadgets in real light, especially when the scene calls for the aggressively absurd. Seeing a gypsy arm in a prosthetic Alison Lohman head, a toothless gypsy mouth slurp on the chin of a real Alison Lohman head, or a wax-figure gypsy corpse flop on top of a real Alison Lohman body is as important as the most wizardly wicked camera shot.

The final test now lies in how American audiences end up responding to this film. Will Drag Me to Hell, as my wife predicts, be a slow-build box office success and a bleed over DVD smash, or will it simply satisfy geeks for a weekend and fizzle away. Critics responded correctly by almost universally acknowledging the greatness of Drag Me to Hell, but they undercut its arrival onto the scene by also universally laying down for something like Star Trek (as of now, both films are separated by only one point in their Metascores). Drag Me to Hell is an open-window opportunity for bloggers to grab those reins and correct the mistakes their grandpappy print counterparts keep making. Draw those lines!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SUMMER AT THE PARAMOUNT : AMERICAN MADNESS (1932)

A summer at the Paramount is a pretty neat thing. You can see new prints of old films, ranging in class from Alien 3 to Lola Montes in the short course of three and half months. I don't take this for granted. I don't even mind the jacked-up ticket price this year because, like Greg and Marilyn, I'm lucky to live in a town with a strong sense of film preservation and history, a town where you're able to kick it like your grandparents did and catch Irene Dunne's merry mug projected up on a long n' tall screen. Here, we get the chance to look up at beauty's giant face instead of down at ground or eye level on an inferior TV screen.

The thing about old movies, old American made movies, is that they remind you of how new or country still is. Go ahead and thump Frank Capra for whatever you'd like to, but the man had a mind to keep his eye on the driving social issues of the day and to then turn them into simple, cheery entertainment. Take American Madness. Its human truths about an economically depressed 1932 are validated today as we face tough cash-flow issues ourselves. Eh, they're validated any time. When are we not concerned about finances? Granted, American Madness was made pre-FDIC, so scenes of a frantic public running full frenzy for the first free teller to withdrawal funds can come off a smidge goofy (though cinematically pleasing in overhead camera shots), but the sidewalk sentiment still rings true.


Walter Huston plays the "George Bailey" in this brief, 81-minute Capra pic. No, Thomas Dickson didn't sacrifice his hearing by saving a kid from an icy pond, but he's the banking equivalent of a good Samaritan, a jolly and generous branch manager too good to be true. So good, that he will lend out a loan without much collateral on the other end. (In this way, actually, Huston more closely resembles Jim Carrey's "Carl" from last year's Yes Man.) But don't you just know that Dickson's thrifty lending is gonna pay itself back when the proper time comes?

American Madness' quickly delivered, universal message works because it's on a infinite spin cycle of sorts. Capra's film is almost symmetrical, the ending reprising the beginning as events come to a comfortable close. But there is some darkness here. There is crime, and there is death, and there is a slightly uncharacteristic black humor to Capra's handling of it all.

In fact, the one scene that stood me up and stood out amongst the predictable idealistic pleasures was the darkest place I've even seen Capra go to (though I'm certainly not a well-versed Capra devotee). The sequence involves Huston, guilt, a gun, and a silhouette by the office drapes. I won't say more as for wanting to keep it special for anyone else who will see it, but the scene deserved a sad round of applause mid-film, for sure. Perhaps this moment was the result of American Madness being a pre-code film. Regardless, it felt otherworldly compared to my frame of reference for movies of this time, a sweet surprise that I probably wouldn't have experienced if not for the Paramount.

Monday, May 25, 2009

TERMINATOR SALVATION

Terminator Salvation is a mess. It's a mess to look at, and it's a mess to try and make something sensible out of. "Sensible"? True, how crucial is rationality in a sci-fi tinged action movie franchise already four episodes deep anyway??? I never watched the old-timer TV program Charlie's Angels, but I still got a kick of out McG's Full Throttle sequel adaptation of it. Granted, I'm also not the best boy to be connecting dots from movie to movie, storyline to storyline. I've only seen the three previous T movies once apiece, and I would be knee-deep and hard-pressed in trying to tell you what happened in the third edition of them. Shoot, after just seeing the fourth, I can't even remember who Kyle Reese is or why he needs to be sent back to the future to save Sarah Connor (or if he even does... maybe I heard that incorrectly).

But there's something specific about the Terminator franchise that makes all of the films enjoyable regardless of the final cut quality in each. There is an endlessly enticing US vs. THEM motif that gets me pumped, and it gets me pumped because it is all-encompassing, a unifying call-to-arms: humans vs. machines. That is the type of simplistic battle line drawing that we can all get behind. There's no political parties, no social soap boxes, no petty pet peeve issues to picket for. You either fight, or you die (that kind of ideological clarity is refreshing... though not desirable in real life, mind you). The "fight" is to be taken to a global technocracy run amok in the name of Sky Net, some "thing" that wants to wipe the human race off the face of the Earth... for some reason. (Like I said, I don't keep track of these stories, so forgive me.)

Throughout Terminator Salvation, things happen: a rubbery, prototypical Arnold Schwarzenegger terminator model shows up; Christian Bale says "I'll be back"; McG sneaks in a stinky wink to Guns N' Roses T2-touting "You Could Be Mine" (rivaling the cringe-worthiness of "Sabotage" in Star Trek); Dirt, by Alice in Chains, is still in Sam Worthington's character's brother's Jeep when he hot wires it and "Rooster" is the song it is on (I kinda didn't mind this choice of song because at least it was war appropriate); Bryce Dallas Howard is still pretty, but thinking that wigs me out because I can see her dad in her face; one of the gate-keeping terminators wears a white headdress, and I wonder why it would even care to put one on in the first place; "how to kill a terminator" scenes are becoming as tedious as "how to kill a zombie" scenes; door is open for T5.


But there is also something culturally current about Terminator Salvation. All of the Terminators have had an "end of days" scenario looming over them, but this latest episode fully lives in the dystopian nightmare that the previous films only hinted at, a calculated nightmare brought upon humanity by a silent, intangible, global elite. Well, for news nerds like myself, many of you may know where I am headed here... that's right, Bilderberg/NWO/Jekyll Island. Just name your preferred powerful puppet-master poison and you'll be on the track. Those who follow the conspiracy theories attached to these big names will know that the elimination of 80-90% of the world's population is one of their "agenda items". Sky Net's mission statement probably says something similar.

Lest you think I'm stretching it here in my attempt to connect a modern and topically hot form of global paranoia to T4, well, check this out...

The Halcyon Company produced Terminator Salvation. THC is a newly formed, independent media venture that owns the rights to the Terminator franchise and who also plan on releasing a series of Philip K. Dick film adaptations (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is currently in production). I'm no Philip K. Dick expert, but an "Orwellian future" is something I feel safe in saying the author drew upon in some of his work. The same can be said of the Terminator franchise. Interestingly, it was just reported a wee few days ago that The Halcyon Group purchased the rights to The True Story Of The Bilderberg Group, a book about... well, you know. Whether this will makes its way to screens as a documentary or a political-thriller starring Clive Owen, I don't know, but it makes for some fun brain candy when you're out of Twizzlers and there's still forty minutes of a mess of a movie left to stare at.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE

Steven Soderbergh follows up his 265 minute movie about a low-rent guerrilla with a 77 minute movie about a high-priced call girl. For that kind of mercy, the ambitious director/producer should be praised. More praise: The Girlfriend Experience isn't nearly as irritating as Bubble and ends up being a million times more watchable than The Good German (both stand among the worst films of the '00s). But Soderbergh's latest film is nothing more than a yawn, a barely risible slice-of-life expose of entrepreneurial prostitution in a post-Spitzer New York City. To be more specific, the exact time frame is late 2008, before the election, but after election fatigue has already set in and the dark clouds of TARP have covered the skies more quickly than the Patriot Act.

But Soderbergh doesn't use these fresh political and cultural touchstones as anything other than tools to paint the character traits of Chelsea (Sasha Grey)'s clientele. The bailout and the election cross the lips of Chelsea's johns before they touch her own, but to attach any deeper meaning to this chit-chatter would be foolish. The cross-cutting story lines of Soderbergh's Traffic made the drug wars entertaining, but it wasn't probing, nor are the investment and economic strategies lobbed around in The Girlfriend Experience. Luckily, Soderbergh knows this and doesn't linger (77 minutes, remember?). In fact, The Girlfriend Experience could be read as, if not accepting, then legitimizing the black-market sex industry. Steven Soderbergh, libertarian crusader? Pfft... nah.

The film's title doesn't refer to the temporary female companionship that Chelsea's socially and sexually dissatisfied customers purchase from her, but to the commitment she craves in an after hours living partner. She seems to have found that in Chris, a personal trainer who accepts Chelsea's offbeat profession, but that soon falls into jeopardy when Chelsea decides to go on a weekend trip with a client who matches up well with her beliefs in Personology ("it's NOT astrology!", she corrects her friend... um, ok). Chris doesn't approve of her overtime ("we agreed on no out-of-town jobs!"), but Chelsea lets her voodoo beliefs drive her decision making anyway. Soderbergh ends the film in a fashion that film-journo types might call "artistic", but I think he just didn't know how to end it.

When I first heard of Soderbergh casting the young (and veteran... sad how the Adult industry works) porn star Sasha Grey in a mainstream film, I was intrigued. This wasn't just a cameo for the perverts in the theater to wink at, no, this was a film that was going to revolve around a frequently fu*ked actress. But after seeing The Girlfriend Experience, I was scratching my head as to why Soderbergh felt he needed Grey. Sasha Grey is a beautiful woman: her porcelain jaw curls around her chin, up to a pair of perfect lips that lead to a nubile nose, while her eyes, like arrows, piercing and dark, are given complete power by the heavy and bold brows that hang above.

But Soderbergh and, er, "Peter Andrews", confoundedly ignore the character in Grey's mug. Outside of an often used over-the-seat close-up of Chelsea's face, Soderbergh routinely shoots her from a distance, from behind, and - in a extended climactic scene - fully hidden behind couch cushions. Further, none of the confidence and dominance that that Sasha Grey exudes in her porn performances is given a chance to play out here in a safer setting. My suspicion is that Grey could be a fine mainstream actress, but The Girlfriend Experience is not the place to test that hunch. Soderbergh constrains her, puts limits on her exuberance, and ultimately makes Sasha Grey out to be more of a doll and sex toy than in her adult films.

Based on its intentions, Soderbergh's film should be renamed "The Pornstar Experiment", because, frankly, the casual offhand casting of Sasha Grey comes off as mere exploitative stunt, more so than any DP scene she might have filmed.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

LIKE THOSE FREAKS AT THE BALLPARK WHO HAVE THEIR HEADPHONES ON SO THEY CAN LISTEN TO THE RADIO COMMENTATORS DURING THE GAME...

In the news...

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The Brothers Bloom is currently playing in theaters and is getting decent reviews. To get you to see the flick, Summit Entertainment has made available a download of the Director Audio Commentary. The idea is for you to download it onto your iPhone or MP3 player, grab your headphones and then listen to the movie with the commentary while you watch it on the big screen.

But is anyone planning to actually do this, especially if it's your first time seeing the film? (Worstpreviews)
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I actually like this idea.

Well... let me qualify that. I like the idea of having a director's commentary available to listen to after I've seen a movie on the big screen. Most industry critics are given press packets with their preview screenings which can add a bit of context before or bit of perspective after seeing a film. I've kind of always been envious of that. Simultaneously releasing director commentaries with a film's release could rememdy that selfish issue.

Of course, I don't wanna see the glow of iPods in a theater while watching a movie, but, as Worstpreviews said above, I doubt anyone will actually do that. I'll take their word that the studio is doing this so viewers can take a commentary track into theaters with them, but my hunch tells me that director Rian Johnson ultimately did this to convenience curious customers after they've exited for the evening.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

STREAM-OF-CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION : RUDO Y CURSI

[NOTE: This is where the blogger gives himself a strict 10 minutes to rattle off whatever about a movie he just saw that he doesn't feel deserves a thoughtful edited review but still feeds the need to feed the animals anyway. Quality is of no concern.]

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Rudo y Cursi. Cursi y Rudo. Rudo and Cursi. I wish it was actually Curso y Rudy. Or Curso and this Rudy. If it was the former, she would stand a tad taller than Gael Garcia Bernal who is probably the shortest actor alive. Not that short people got no reason to act, or anything. Bernal is quite good in this film in fact. Diego Luna is good as well. They are the best things about it. It's really not a good film. But the two actors bring a oddball humor to the film that directo Carlo Cuaron totally ignores. Is this what Del Toro, Innarritu, and A. Cuaron intend to do with their CHA CHA CHA company??? Just put out movies by each others bros and brothers? Yep. Carlos is Alfonso's brother, and not that I care for Alfonso at all, but his brother seems in over his head. (Actually, I probably like Carlos a bit better... but that's getting away from myself and I only have 1o minutes her, man...). Anyways. Getting your brother a directing gig isn't exactly the best idea for good art or even good movies, right Tony Scott??? Yeah. Also, the title made me think of Jules et Jim before I saw it. Also because people kept comparing Y Tu Mama Tambien to the French New Wave, and while it may have had some Godardian internarration going on a la a Two or Three Things I Know About Her if it wasn't in a whisper, to think of Alfonso Cuaron in the same mind bubble as a French New Waver is pretty gross. But yeah, the two actors are pretty charming. Diego has a mustache and he owns the sucker the whole movie. Bernal could be a pretty same swell comic actor, I think. It must be weird though for actresses to have love scenes with him though because he is so small. I mean SHORT. I know, it sounds like I have a thing against short people. I don't! I just think of the scene with Bernal and the female lead opposite him in Rudo y Cursi and when they have sex he seems to be on his tippy-toes in an effort to slip it in while she's on the counter. Maybe he was on a foot stool. Poor guy. But he's good looking and makes more money than me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

TOERIFC # 5 : DANCER IN THE DARK (2000)

Each episode of TOERIFC, thus far, has stirred-up a lengthy and fiery discussion. I can't imagine how a roundtable of Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark is gonna be any different.

Pat, at Doodad Kind of Town, could not have timed her hosting of TOERIFC # 5 any better, because Mr. Von Trier is in the news again for doing what he's done to so many movie audiences over the years.

So, please come to Doodad Kind of Town and join in on the discussion. Or, if you don't feel like sharing your opinion, just read along. Either is fine, but you MUST stop by! Cuz you know what??? I've got some things to say about Dancer in the Dark, and if you don't come over to Pat's, then you're never gonna hear them because I don't like to repeat myself.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

ON DVD : MOMMA'S MAN

Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man is a low-budget dry comedy that burns slowly into a heartbreaking, personal open letter to the director's own parents: underground/experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and wife Flo Jacobs. His parents play themselves in the film while the cherub-faced actor Matt Boren plays Mikey, a surrogate fill in for the actual Azazel. What Jacobs' accomplishes, without sneer or selfish grin, is a healthy communication with his parents through the process of making a fictional narrative feature. What's special, is that we get to witness this unique brand of artistic therapy without any of the icky familial crucifixions that were central to documentaries like 51 Birch Street or Tarnation that became so popular after the shameful Capturing the Friedmans.

Mikey is a middle-class husband and father living in California. Upon a business trip to his birthplace of New York City, Mikey becomes comfortably reacquainted with the house he grew up in and, at departure time, finds it emotionally and physically impossible to leave. Jacobs and Boren do an expert job of patiently revealing the metaphorical clumps of cement on Mikey's feet, eventually leading to a subtle and tasteful sequence where Mikey crawls on hands and knees through the home he grew up in.

And what a home it is. Upper East Coast eccentrics and artists, Mikey's parents live in a loft with organization and storage not unlike that of a warehouse. Theirs is not a filthy living, just one of convenience and quick access. Cardboard boxes, Tupperware drawers, stacked rafters, art supplies. Dinner conversation tends toward such off road topics as the death of modern art movements, but Jacobs portrays it in a casual, truthful way, taking pains to not paint his parents as intellectual stereotypes. Still, Mikey is an outsider. He doodles during art talk and shrugs when his father points out the jazz-rock fusion coming through the speakers. Mikey prefers two chord rock-pop chuggers and comic books.

These differences aren't points of friction or generational walls erected for the purpose of high drama, but simply examples of a common disconnect we've all felt with our parents whether it be over politics, religion, art, or sports. The love is unconditional, and because that is universally understood, Jacobs doesn't waste time convincing us of the bond between Mikey and his parents. In fact, Momma's Man never even explains the internal dilemma that is keeping Mikey away from his wife and daughter and job in California, and grounded in pajamas and four-day old stubble in his childhood bed next to high school memorabilia and sticker books.

Sometimes what we feel and what we need is something we can't even identify ourselves, and that's what makes Momma's Man's autobiographical elements transcend regional, class, and social differences. This is in stark artistic contrast to other art house autobio-pics like the awful The Squid and the Whale, which instead seemed keen on promoting class envy by way of Noah Baumbach's bragging on how "hip" his New York asshole parents were. If anything, Momma's Man is a movie that Ken and Flo Jacobs can be proud of, not just because their son made a great film, but because the sensitivity and insight within it is a partial reflection of their own guidance.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ACTUALLY, IT'S THE SIZE OF THE BOAT AND THE MOTION OF THE OCEAN.

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"Not only in those scenes, but every shot in the film -- as was true with my last film -- the camera never moves. You look in the corner of the frame of any movie, you will see it is constantly adjusting and moving. In this film, it is rock steady, because, in fact, there is no operator. These are framed images, and everything is done through the structure of the editing. I don't think you notice, when you see the film, the extreme to which the camera doesn't move. It moves about seven times in the entire film -- when people are moving or when there's a dramatic moment. This is, over the years now, a style that I feel comfortable with -- a little reaction to contemporary movies where the camera is moving around so much I get seasick. It's more of an offshoot of the way we shot "The Godfather," where it was a very classic style where the camera didn't move at all. Everything was tableaux. Or the Japanese filmmaker Ozu, who at the end of his career decided that if you don't move the camera, then all the movement within the frame is more exciting, people's entrances and exits."

- FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA (THR)
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Yep. Most of that is mostly true and needed to be said (again) in these Ides of The Blockbuster Summer - Part May.

"What, you don't like camera movement?!?"

Bite your tongue! I'm no purest. Brian DePalma is probably my BFFilmmaker, for chrissakes! But there is a difference between elegance and retards running around with steadicams and hand-helds.

Let's take some extreme examples : Blair Witch, [REC], 28 Days Later, Cloverfield. These films may be conceptually interesting, but each one ultimately fails because the viewer can't see a damn thing. Defenders of the shaky-cam cinematography in those four films might counter with "well, that's kind of the point!". Well, maybe, but I didn't find the shaky-ness in Diary of the Dead* or Rachel Getting Married to be a distraction, nor a betrayal to the eyes, so there must be another variable at play.

Lest you're thinking that I'm a hand held hater or digi-damner, well, last weekend I watched a movie called Trigger Man that was shot guerrilla-style on digital and I thought it was very well made. So, much like the truth of "guns don't kill people, people kill people", there is now born, "camera's don't film bad movies, bad directors film bad movies". The director is that variable.

Lastly, on Coppola's point - via Ozu - that if the camera is still, movement within a frame is more exciting. I don't think that's absolutely true, because a bad director working within a still frame is still a bad director. However, I will concede that, when done well, a long-shot of a still frame has the power to connect with an audience more directly than any other set-up that comes to mind. I felt this while watching Frank Borzage's Lucky Star last week, and I felt it during the "phone booth" shot in Coppola's The Rain People, which I just coincidentally saw part of a few weeks ago.

*yes, I know that 87% of you hate Diary of the Dead... even a few of you who haven't seen it!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

WOW, JOAN ALLEN LOOKS REALLY... DIFFERENT.


(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Or, maybe she's the voice of the dog, like in Dr. Doolittle or Homeward Bound.

I know, some of you mean people are already thinking of a variety of jokes on the Richard Gere/gerbil thing, and I won't suppress your right to free instincts, but bring your "A" game if you decide to go there.

Much more progressively crude and low-brow humorists would go for Hachi (that's Hachiko : A Dog's Story, in American language) being about a rich, convenient Buddhist saving a Chow-mix from a starving Chinese family of eight, or something.

I just hope they have a scene in there where Joan Allen Dog sniffs Gere's butt after he gets out of the shower and he's all "Hey! Whoa!" and she's all "Get ouuutta heeere! I'm a dog, remembah?!? RUFF!". That would be the best.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

GOODBYE SOLO

"Goodbye Solo." is the unspoken silent valediction given from seventy year-old William (Red West) to the twentysomething cab driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) near the end of director Ramin Bahrani's third film in almost as many years. The scene proves Bahrani's talent, his ability to pull out physically communicative performances from first time actors. Red West is a seasoned veteran, but it's his face that Bahrani obviously fell in love with during casting: eyes of regret, smoker's hair, that leathery type of skin that evokes a past life lived fast and hedonistically. When William shows Solo the biker tattoo on his right bicep, the ink is so aged and faded that it almost looks like a bruise.

On the surface, Solo is not unlike Ale from Bahrani's Chop Shop. Both are jack-of-all-trade immigrants working overtime in order to make a better life for themselves and their family (in America and abroad). But Solo is a more complex character. His sympathy and charity toward the emotionally weary William reflects a caregiver instinct that comes from his family-oriented life in Senegal. After picking William up from a movie theater, Solo pries as to why William is moving into a motel instead of staying with family. William's response that he has no family confounds Solo, an immigrant in awe of the fruit in the land of plenty but puzzled over William's solitary living.

Thankfully, Bahrani avoids convention and steers clear of white-man/black-man racial anger or a soft-headed immigrant pity party. Bahrani shows his characters in Goodbye Solo as living in a post-racial reality, a melting pot of lower-middle class workers living hard and living free if not always living well. Solo's ambition is the film's greatest asset and attraction. His sun-up to sun-down exuberance brings to mind Happy-Go-Lucky's Poppy and her unphased attitude in the face of negative reinforcement. Solo's ability to follow through on his multiple verbal promises of "don't worry, I got you man" bucks the language of the stereotypical hustling immigrant that we get from Hollywood far too often.

But having just mentioned Goodbye Solo in the same breath as Happy-Go-Lucky, I've alerted myself that I must slow down, pause, and refocus. I'm finding myself falling victim to that quick overpraising of a film that, yes, may stand out in an age of 80-20 where a small portion of truly great films has caused an increase in praise for the average majority. Yes, in lieu of all that nice stuff I just wrote in the above three paragraphs, I still can't help but think of Goodbye Solo as a continuation of that "acceptable mediocrity" that appeased critics and hovered over Oscar season last year. Right now, Bahrani is a filmmaker with potential, not prowess.

I have little doubt that Bahrani is someone to watch. Goodbye Solo is superior to Chop Shop, noticeably correcting some of the faults in that previous film. The characters in Goodbye Solo are more assured. There is a slight humor on display. Bahrani's camera feels more at home in the streets and corner shop parking lots of Winston-Salem than that of Queens (indeed, Bahrani is from Winston-Salem). But it's the scarcity of Bahrani's style that bothers me. Some will laugh, but I think rich characters such as William and Solo belong in a road trip movie. Perhaps a modern mix of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild and Melvin and Howard.

Bahrani should let go of the modern "realism" approach he seems so enamored with. To me, it feels stifling, like walls around a would-be major player.

Friday, May 08, 2009

1/20/09 + 5/8/09 = COOL AGAIN


There's a quote going 'round the web today by Slate's Dana Stevens. It's from his review of the new Star Trek movie, and it goes like this:

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“Yet in a weird way, Star Trek’s cheerfully square naiveté makes it the perfect film for our first summer of (slimly) renewed hope. It’s a blockbuster for the Obama age, when smarts and idealism are cool again. In fact, can’t you picture our president—levelheaded, biracial, implacably smart—on the bridge in a blue shirt and pointy ears?”
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I haven't seen Star Trek yet, and I have no beef with reviewers tying films in with a current zeitgeist (I enjoy doing it as well), nor do I fault President Obama for the way certain media figures choose to slobber over him, but a few things bug me about Stevens' quote.

1.) "our first summer of (slimly) renewed hope"-

I'm guessing many of you will disagree with me here, but if you're looking to a politician for any kind of emotional renewal then there is something in you that I just can't relate to. Sorry, but I don't want politicians to influence or inspire me, I want them to shut up and get to work.

2.) "It's a blockbuster for the Obama age, when smarts and idealism are cool again" -

Oh boy. Now this is something that really irritates me, this idea that people suddenly aspire to be "smart" now that we've elected a politician that's popular with the public. Was "being dumb" fashionable during the Bush years?

This has nothing to do with whether you thought Bush was dumb, or whether you find Obama to be intelligent... I don't care about that. This is about Stevens' thinking that the election of one man could signal an age where people start kickin' philosophy in the office breakroom once again. Plus, if our culture's so newly "smart", then how does Stevens account for last week's X-Men Origins : Wolverine?

As for "idealism" being cool, well, I've never thought idealism was cool. Cute and admirable, yes... but not cool.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

GETTING ON MY CYBERBULLY PULPIT

To quote a "Peter Travers" movie blurb via a Saturday Night Live skit, "I Like Anything, So This Counts!".

Well if Rep. Linda Sanchez gets her do-gooder way, we may end up with a blogosphere of inane criticism like that Rolling Stone movie man provides on a bi-weekly basis. True, I'm jumping ahead of myself... I'm sprinting to the worst case scenario... I'm getting all Andrew Sullivan hysterical up in here, but so long as everyone is talking about freakin' Star Trek (and probably will be until the end of the month... or at least until T4 comes out) I've decided to get drunk on coffee and let it rip.

Let's back up for a sec...

Megan Meier was the young woman from Missouri who killed herself after being bullied and humiliated on MySpace. It was a terrible story. The pain of a parent in a tragic situation like that must be unbearable, and a mother's desire to have something done in order prevent future tragedies of the same kind is understandable. However, what happened to Megan Meier - a victim of bullying - cannot be prevented, especially through legislation that would open up a cans-o-worms like the recently proposed "cyberbully bill" introduced by Linda Sanchez of California.

Her bill, co-sponsored by fourteen other members of Congress, defines "cyberbullying" as such:
(a) Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

(b) As used in this section--

(1) the term "communication" means the electronic transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user's choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received.

(2) the term "electronic means" means any equipment dependent on electrical power to access an information service, including email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.'.
Calling that definition of "cyberbullying" vague is being polite.

For example, what does "substantial emotional distress" mean? A quickening pulse? Crying Trouble sleeping? And is there anyone reading this who has never felt intentionally "coerced", "intimidated", or "harassed" before... especially in the arena of ideas, critical opinion, and debate???


Of course, being a politician, Sanchez is trying to sell this on the back of a "let's do it for the kids!" campaign. Check out this sentence pulled from her recent op-ed in the Huffington Post:

"When so-called free speech leads to bullies having free-reign to threaten kids, it is time to act."
Errrrrk! Hold up, L.!! In your proposed legislation you said "distress to a person" and now you are saying "kids" (ie anyone under 18). Which one is it? And since most bullies of other kids are kids themselves, are you calling for the imprisonment of children? I'm confused congresswoman. Will you please explain it to me without making me feel stupid, and thus, "emotionally distressed"?

But, since we talk movies here, let's bring this issue back to the realm of movie blogging...

So, according to Sanchez's op-ed, I couldn't get in trouble for blogging how Eli Roth is a hack, but I could get in trouble if I blogged the same thing about Dakota Fanning. But in the legislation, it states that I could get in trouble in both situations. (This, of course, presumes that Eli Roth and Dakota Fanning read my blog, which I'm almost certain that they do... at least in the case of Dakota.)

Now, because Eli and Dakota are celebrities, that would probably make it harder for them to find someone like me guilty of cyberbullying (although, the conclusion of this case should make for interesting precedent concerning "public figures"), but what about when I get in a dust-up with Bill or Marilyn or Rick or Ed or Greg or Jason ? That happens, often. And while they are generally friendly fights, who knows when I'll go "Sean Penn" on one of them one day?

Well, Sanchez says her legislation "would give judges and juries discretion to recognize the difference " between blog ranting and genuine "hostile communications". Umm... yeah, relying on judge and jury discretion ain't so comforting.

In any case, to be especially safe, I now want to go ahead and formally recuse myself of possibly "substantially" nasty things that I've said about "persons" on here in the past:

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*Bill, you were right about The Dark Knight.

*Jason, you were right about Gran Torino and JCVD.

*Documentarians, you make great films.

*Gus Van Sant, you are is NOT a pervert.

*Ed, you were right about the acting in Paranoid Park.

*Alexander Aja, you are cinema.

*Kevin Smith, you = Ernst Lubitsch.

*Rick, Alabama is the best place ever.

*Indiewire, you = Cahiers Du Cinema.

*Marilyn, I blame the patriarchy.

*Bill Maher, you are open-minded.

*Greg, down with L.R. Hubbard!

*Sacha Baron Cohen, you are awesome... awwwww, SCREW IT! Sacha Baron Cohen, you are a hateful scumbag!!!!!
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-Fox, founder of TRACTOR FACTS, admitted "cyberbully", and proud of it!

Monday, May 04, 2009

ON DVD : LUCKY STAR (1929)

After a weekend of loud movies and sportscasters, there's nothing like cleansing the palette with a silent film. It's like meditation or a skin peel, but much more productive and not so new age-y. The black & white photography will take you back to day one while the occasional intertitles will pace your heart rate down and give your eyes time to soak in the scene. But it's the special ones that will remind you how short a century of cinema we've truly had. For, in Lucky Star's best moments, Frank Borzage's simple film can hang with the exotic work of Bertolucci, Kubrick, and Wong-Kar Wai and never feel out-of-time and dated.

I'm remembering a conversation I had a while back with blogger buddies Greg and Bill over The Earrings of Madame De... or, more specifically, the 1950's films of Max Ophuls as a whole, and how elegant and sophisticated the camera movements in those movies were and how shocking it was for me to witness such technical expertise from an era five decades in the dust. You can chalk that ignorance up to a lot of things: age, lack of wisdom, lack of exposure, a modern film culture's indifference. You certainly can't blame the many hero film preservationists from Criterion to Bogdanovich to Blue Underground and on for pulling the old forgotten oeuvres of yesteryear back up against the tide of the current iMovie revolution. Bless them all.

While the personal discovery of a movie like Lucky Star is reason enough to celebrate the advent of DVD, it's also a scary reminder of perhaps what's been lost (and what will be) as the transfer from film to video to DVD continues to selectively thin out the annals of film history. We should be thankful for what we have, I suppose, but it's a little disheartening to discover a masterpiece like Lucky Star, look into its directors past, find that he directed over 100 films in his career, and then realize that, roughly, only 15 of them are currently available on DVD. It's true that Borzage worked in an era where studio directors made 20 films in a year without sneezing, but as his post-1930s output "slowed" to 2-3 movies a year, he began making big time films with stars like Spencer Tracy.

So tell me, how is it that a movie produced by Ernst Lubitsch, directed by Frank Borzage, and starring Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich isn't available on domestic DVD???


I mentioned earlier that Lucky Star is a simple film. The set is basically constructed of two houses with a winding path in between. Mary (Janet Gaynor) is a bloody-knuckled teenage farmhand playing the role of husband and son to her widowed mother, and Tim (Charles Farrell), is a young, foppy-haired, ethical and honest cutie who works for the utilities company. Their paths cross when Mary brings Tim and his co-workers some milk but they kind of hate each other at first like star-crossed lovers always do. WWI comes between them, and when Tim gets back, he's in a wheelchair and Mary has matured (almost). Her idea of a first reunion is to go schoolyard on Tim's house by slinging a stone through his window. But Tim shrugs it off, or, rather, in his loneliness, welcomes it like a angry kiss. Mary and Tim are inseparable.

The rest of the film mixes through classically romantic and melodramatic images that have been parodied away in the eighty years since Lucky Star's release, but it is validation of Borzage's talent (and Gaynor and Farrell's as well) that the onscreen moments between the two lovers retains a passionate sincerity. It's difficult for me to pinpoint how. The explanation probably lies somewhere in the intangibles of a great director, the invisible genius you can't capture or teach, but just admire from afar and in wonder over nerd-circle discussions.

I'll take my shot in naming at least one definitive, however. Key to Lucky Star's brilliance, I think, is Borzage exploiting his cinematic limitations. Yes, this was the silent era, so directors were without a cloud of reference that included sound, color, tracking shots, etc., but Borzage still exhibited a tremendous amount of confidence in his actors by letting his camera sit on a scene for an extended take. Take, for example, the scene where Tim attempts to walk on his crutches for the first time. The still frame simply holds Tim, his wheelchair, the crutches, a dresser, a window, and a door, yet the moment is like a mini-movie in itself. We know Borzage is letting it roll, so we settle in and tell ourselves stories about Tim's struggles. It's the ultimate in image-to-eye transference of information, and it rings like anything but silence in my head.

**The image of Janet Gaynor was found on DVD Beaver.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

STREAM-OF-CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION : X-MEN ORIGINS : WOLVERINE

[NOTE: This is where the blogger gives himself a strict 10 minutes to rattle off whatever about a movie he just saw that he doesn't feel deserves a thoughtful edited review but still feeds the need to feed the animals anyway. Quality is of no concern.]

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The Wolverine movie. It wasn't the worst movie of the year so far. Hugh Jackman jumps of a waterfall naked and it weird. Patrick Stewat looks like a Magick Marker drawing behind the worst greenscreen ever. But those are good things. Good things (maybe) were one of the little elves from Lord of the Rings in a brief supporting role. He was good. Also, "Fat Bastard" is in this movie. It's weird. It might be the only good part b/c it looks like the guy is wearing an actual body suit instead of dumb CGI like in Iron Man when Jeff Bridges turned into the villain. Liev Shrieber looks kind of cool. They all have muscles and veins. The girl looks like a Megan Fox reject which isn't supposed to be a compliment to Megan Fox because I agree with whichever annoying celebrity blogger said she looked like a tranny. Wolverine doensn't die in the end! If you thought that was a spoiler then you are dumber about comics than I am. But any below average movie is at least fun to watch at the best movie theater in the world (the Alamo Drafthouse with 4K projection. Best projection in the world. I bet the president doesn't even have that quality in his movie theater). But the guy next to us talked to his girlfriend! And this was right after their was a faux-PSA beforehand from Danny Devito to tell everyone to shut up. This one thing I don't like about the Alamo. They let you drink beer. Beer makes normal people think they are funny. The dumb guy next to us threw out one-lines like "bummer" and "ouch" that luckily made nobody laugh. He was also wearing gross shorts and had a goatee and use a flashlight to eat his food. But Wolvering. Yeah, the director of that movie Tsotsi did this Wolverine movie. That movie wasn't any good. People said it was b/c it was about a little boy who lived in a shack and smoked crack but it was really not good. Then he did Rendition which was just terrible. So then why Wolverine?? Who knows. OH, and Will.I.Am is in the movie as a shape shifter. What the hell? And then I'm about to watch Planet Terror which has Fergie in it. Nice Black-Eyed PEas in all the movies I"m watching. Why are the BEPs in movies? At least WIl.I.Am dies from Liev Shreiber takeing his claws and crishing his spine. Is this how he financed those lame Obama yes wE Can videos on YouTube? Yeah, I bet you guys are gonna be embarrassed by those one day. Or maybe not because you think it's cool to name yoursefl Will,I.Am. THE END.