Friday, July 31, 2009

"IN SPITE OF ALL THEIR EFFORTS, I DID IT THE WAY I WANTED"

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, along with his wife and daughter, were arrested yesterday at a memorial service for Neda Soltan after attempting to lay flowers at the slain protester's grave site. (NOTE: Filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi - whose work I am unfamiliar with - was also arrested.)

According to reports from Iran's national news service IRNA (and more reliably, this blogger) both filmmakers and Panahi's wife and daughter have since been released.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ON "MUCH BELATED" DVD: 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER (1967)

White watching Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, I began to realize how much this transitional puzzle of a film satisfied the many intellectual gaps that, I feel, hinder the intentions of the modern documentary. Needled throughout 2 or 3 Things is a hushed and whispered narration/monologue from Godard himself ruminating on his favorite post-New Wave topics: economics, language, war, America, sex, and politics. In this diced up monologue - more an internal conversation than a soap box diatribe - Godard invites criticism not only from his viewers but from the narrowly drawn characters on screen. Godard's verbalized observations, quotes, repeated questions, and knee-bent philosophizing (of both the pop and collegiate kind) provoke thought in this open forum of fictional film, a blasting contrast to documenatries that simply cheerlead to the already devoted. The answer to the documentary's limitations lies in narrative film.

The "her" in 2 or 3 Things is Paris, circa 1966, a city still steeped in fashion and culture but stunted and stunned by a slowly progressing industrial landscape where stiff high-rise buildings house families and couples in tight spaces versus the lavish landscaped flats of Bardot and Piccoli's cozy life in Contempt. Cutbacks on state spending has forced Parisians to look for more work (what a concept!), which in turn has opened-up a Belle Du Jour-type job option for the movie's main MILF Juliette (Marina Vlady). But while decrying a government and marketplace he sees as discompassionate, Godard also spoofs his peer's (and his own) self-imposed problems, culminating in a wash of subtle, oddball humor that ranges from a meter man walking in on Helena Bielicic's bath time, to a john offering up cat food as payment to a pimp/babysitter for some "pussy", to a pair of pseudo-revolutionary buddies scanning classified conversations of LBJ in a room filled with materialism.

"Modest" may seem like an odd adjective to use in conjunction with the name Jean-Luc Godard, but the more I make my way through this great director's career, I truly think it's starting to fit. While Godard's self-confidence is unquestionably about as high as an filmmaker's has ever been, a careful examination of his work and interviews reveals a man so confident with himself that he can freely offer up where he is limited or when he is wrong. The title "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her" is an admission of limitation in itself. Godard, the narrator, unleashes his sometimes caustic, sometimes pensive feelings about Paris and its place in the world, all the while acknowledging that he really only "knows two or three things" about his beloved city. It's a naked, up front, and refreshing card for a political artist to play. Godard is by no means discounting any of his deep-in-the-gut feelings, but he's telling us he's not the authority either.

The style of 2 or 3 Things foreshadows the cinematic technique that Godard would eventually perfect in his under appreciated masterpiece Passion, where mixed-up juxtapositions of imagery and sound fold in on themselves to create a new language of film. Watching 2 or 3 Things today - an unbelievable forty-two years later - still presents a challenge, a jolt to our media consuming instincts that anticipate consonant ebbs and flows and cyclical storytelling. But it's a welcome jolt, a slap that comes with respect for you-the-viewer because Hollywood sure doesn't anymore. Sure, maybe it's too late some forty-two years later, but in just 87 minutes (you hear that Orphan? Eighty-friggin-seven minutes!!!) Godard reminds us of the significance in being an active viewer, and that - no matter what David Thomson says - a film can be just as rich and unfolding and layered as a great novel.

Monday, July 27, 2009

HEY LOOK...

... another ridiculous and boring Jake Gyllehaal movie!!!


I mean, honestly, is there another actor out there as blank and monotonous** as this guy???

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**As with most mean things I say, I hope I'm ultimately wrong about J.H., because I'm really looking forward to Jim Sheridan's Brothers this winter (although I'm not too thrilled by its screenwriter).

Sunday, July 26, 2009

ORPHAN

By the end of Orphan, one can only hope that the talented Isabelle Fuhrman has a strong pre-teen head on her shoulders as well as some right-minded parents at home keeping this child actor sane. (Perhaps in between takes of her bashing & stabbing, the crew pumped her full of happy Jonas-imagery). At eleven, Fuhrman already shows the wise instincts of a traveled young-adult thespian, not to mention that she can do a hundred times more convincing Russian accent than Harrison Ford (see K-19 : The Widowmaker). But what a gauntlet this poor kid seemingly had to go through while filming Orphan. It's difficult enough imagining a young actress like Linda Blair channeling Satan through her pre-pubescent body, but at least she was aided with special effects, make-up, and the confines of nearly one location. Fuhrman's wickedness, however, comes from her face, her eyes, glaring as if she's projecting the evil thoughts of 1000 of the world's craziest bitches.

I'm no prude, nor am I one that's ever been convinced of the damage that a specific role can have on the psyche of a child (Jodie Foster seems to be a well-adjusted woman today), but I still can't help but worry about an eleven year-old actress that is asked to portray a psycho killer and to be a part of mildly sexual subplot. Though, to be fair, editing wise, the filmmakers did appear to do their best in keeping Fuhrman out of any full-on sexual situations. Maybe, now, in being an uncle to seven kids, I am just more sensitive to these protective issues, or maybe it's because Furhman also appeared in Hounddog (which I've yet to see), that highly controversial Dakota Fanning movie which caught heat for its sexualizing of young actresses. I just know that when I walked out of Orphan, I was hoping Isabelle Fuhrman was an older actress playing young. When I realized she wasn't, I was kind of disturbed.

As for the film, Orphan surprises with its first half of cleverly paced lead-ins, slick cinematography, and across the board strong acting (Vera Farmiga, especially, is fantastic; Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle accurately describes it as a "two-hour nervous breakdown"), but then buckles to generic genre boredom in its second. Orphan quickly moves past frustration and into nearly unbearable tedium with that age old everybody-in-the-audience-can-see-that-the-mom-is-telling -the-truth-about-that-crazy-kid-so-why-don't-the-father-and-psychiatrist!?!. When the doctor finally tells the mother that she needs to enter rehab for relapsing into alcoholism (when a trained professional could clearly tell that she hadn't), I wanted to reach into the screen and grab a wine bottle to smash over my own head.

"Awww... come on Fox, roll with the punches, suspend that disbelief!". Fair enough, and ordinarily I would have no problem with that, but, in Orphan, director Jaume Collett-"I did the House of Wax remake"-Serra couldn't decide whether he wanted us to sink into a seriously tense thriller or ride along with a B-movie goof of a film. Screenwriters David Johnson and Alex Mace certainly filled their script with enough gags for the latter, tossing in darkly-comic pranks such as Peter Sarsgaard's perpetual blue-ball problems, Fuhrman's so-bad-it's-funny Russian roulette spot, and - for the ultimate - a ridiculously ribald reveal of a climax that had me cackling out loud and not really minding, anymore, that the douche two rows in front of me kept texting some other douche or skank while he should be looking at the movie.

But as a I sit here and ponder the reasons why Orphan ultimately doesn't get a passing grade from me, the answer is actually oh so seems painfully clear ... once again. A film like Orphan shouldn't play on past the 82-minute mark, yet Collett-Serra pushes it to 101! Why??? The only answer I can offer up is self-indulgence. Had Orphan ended 20 minutes earlier than it does, I would have liked it. I would have been able to find forgiveness for a second-half that still would have fallen short in comparison to the frontloaded first, but it would have at least had a merciful tourniquet tied on to stop the bloodletting - and thus, life - of the film. Maybe one day we'll start seeing Director's Cuts that are actually "cuts", shorter versions that better compliment the original intentions of the creators than what the studios eventually rolled out.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

STREAM-OF-CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION - straight-to-dvd edition: THE HORSEMEN

Even the bootleggers on the Mex/Tex border are probably ashamed to carry this movie.
[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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I can't remember if this movie is called THE Horsemen, or just Horsemen. I don't know. Check your Netflix and I'll check mine after this. (The) Horsemen gives new meaning to straigh-to-video, or at least it might signify a new era in that little thing. Used to be kinda charming that straight to video thing. Some stars were born out of it. It was kind of fun. Now it's a sad graveyard. There's no question that this movie starring Dennis Quaid, Ziyi Zhang, and the weirdo Frogger guy from Seinfeld and weirdo Fargo guy from Fargo, was meant to make it to the big screen. Michael Bay produced it after all. Funny thing is, the credits are mostly white on a mostly white background, so you get the feeling everyone involved really wanted their names to fade away on this one. No kidding on that. Rent this for the credit sequence and then send it back to Netflix. You will impress your mailman and Netflix person on how quick of a turnaround time you have on your rentals. They might think you are cool or at least unemployed and then you will at least make them think that they aren't in your shoes and that life isn't that bad because of that. But yeah, Michael Bay. I mean you can say what you want, but the guy has an ear for what will do well at the box office. What they hell happened here? Jonas Akerlund directs. I guess that's a Norweigan name or somewhere from one of those three penis countries. He used to direct videos for The Offspring or No Doubt or someone. Poor guy. And then Patrcik Fugit is in it too. "Almost Famous" is sadly very true. They little dude just can't get over that hump. He's running out of time too because that baby face is gonna lose it's elasticity scene and he's gonna look washed up at 29 like Edward Furlong did. Poor E.F. And Lou Taylor Pucci does his best not to look too androgynous in his terrible haircut and angelic face. The kid is good, but like Fugit, his agent must just suck. So in the last few minutes here... the movie is like Se7en meets The Cell, but shortened down to 90 minutes b/c it sucks more than both of those movies combined. There is a seedy underside that I'm sure the set designers put all of their strength into. There is a dude who is like that Jaqioun Phoenix character in 8MM and he talks about wacking off to Belladonna. That was my favorite part b/c I'm into Belladonna too. She's scary but I like scary girls. And the dude talks about "cock stretching". I'm proud to say that even with all the sick thoughts and curiousities I have, I have no idea what taht is, but maybe I will look it up on Google after this. At least Horsemen, THE gave me that. Dude, Dennis Quaid, you are DOA in this movie. BAd joke, but kind of a cool reference. You get it?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

THE HURT LOCKER

Without question, the Iraq War/War on Terror-era has been host to some of the worst wartime cinema in history. Just make a list: Syriana, The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, the Bourne movies, United 93, A Mighty Heart, The Road to Guantanamo, Traitor... the list goes on. However, somewhere around two years ago, things started to change. We got a rush of average-to-good films (ie, improved and undeniably better than the aforementioned) that shifted focus away from the grandstanding Hollywood types who just wanted to show-off their smarts, to the actual impact that the war has on soldiers and their families. In short, the "Iraq War movie" got a personalized makeover. Among this new batch of films were Grace is Gone, The Lucky Ones, Home of the Brave, and Battle for Haditha.

Perhaps, as a blogger friend once offered up, the poor quality of these films - and, thus, the public's shrugged reaction to them - was all just a matter of poor artistic digestion. Meaning, it's possible that many of our modern-day war films were just prematurely made in the shadows of 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in a time where we all were still scrambling to get a foot hold on our own political feelings and beliefs. If the lawmakers in Washington took advantage of our unsettled natures, at the time, to make decisions and pass legislation, then so did our filmmakers push their agendas on us in films, that in hindsight, look a lot like propaganda. But it's my prediction that, since the dust has settled (relatively speaking), we shall begin to see more textured and thoughtful films about the experiences and trickle-down effects on Iraq War veterans and active duty soldiers. Of course, it's easy to make such a statement after seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, not only the best Iraq War film to date, but one of the best war films, period.

Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who was embedded with a U.S. military bomb squad for a period of time) part the seas of loud politics and media noise that compromised so many of those early Iraq War films, and focus their lens & pen square on the soldiers of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. There is little talk of politics, foreign policy, or current events amongst the soldiers outside of the events that dominate their days of surviving. Bigelow's idea to play The Hurt Locker as a kind of thriller doesn't harm it at all. In fact, it enhances it. It would be disingenuous to try and replicate the experiences of ground combat and then ask the audience to empathize with it. Most of us can't. By narrowing the focus down to a single bomb squad, Bigelow still doesn't make the the tensions, fears, and victories that these three men experience relatable, but they do feel instantly identifiable.

A lot of the early hype surrounding The Hurt Locker singles-out the performance of Jeremy Renner. Well, believe the hype - I suspect the guy will be a shoo-in for Best Actor nominee - but don't discount the character work that both he and screenwriter Mark Boal fleshed-out together. In a way, Renner's Staff Sergeant is every part the typical Kathryn Bigelow cocksure male, but, in addition to that, he owns a kicked-back sensitivity that pushes the character beyond the awesome cartoonish-ness of, say, Bodhi in Point Break or Severin in Near Dark.

Our introduction to Renner's character is big-screen macho poetry. While listening to some heavy metal as Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, also great... the two actors share on screen chemistry that rivals that of Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan from last year's Happy-Go-Lucky) approaches him for reassignment, Renner gets off a line about the trade-off of sunshine coming through the window versus mortar shells penetrating the roof. In many, many other hands, this scene would have flirted with the embarrassingly dramatic, but Bigelow's respectfully backed-off camera capturing Renner's posture and dialogue brings home a 2009 moment-to-remember.

If I have one beef with The Hurt Locker, it's in the quote that Kathryn Bigelow uses to open her film with. I don't recall it word-for-word, but the last part reads something to the effect of, "war is an addiction". It comes from socialist historian/field reporter Chris Hedges, who, in knowing his opinions on war, most likely penned the phrase in dramatically different terms than the sentiment that Bigelow expresses in her film. While Bigelow undoubtedly traces the addictive nature of combat, that adrenaline fix of "rolling the dice on life or death", she also portrays the soldiers as heroic (the tag line on The Hurt Locker's poster is "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A HERO TO DO THIS JOB, BUT IT HELPS"). However, Hedges' reflections on war often speak of red-fanged warmongers and hawks getting pumped on carnage and power. That's not the kind of adrenaline Bigelow is tapping here, and the quote feels sorely misplaced.

Otherwise, 2009 is feeling mildly special to me in that it's marked the "return" of both Sam Raimi and Kathryn Bigelow, two old-time favorites who had disappeared - either entirely off the radar, or down the hole of lame film franchise - but now return, perhaps, stronger than ever.

Monday, July 20, 2009

TOERIFC # 7 : ZWARTBOEK aka BLACK BOOK (2006)

Ahh... I can't believe it was only seven months ago when a group of bloggers got together and dreamed up the dream to have a place where film nerds could go, once a month, and discuss a movie in a raw, unrehearsed, uncensored round table discussion.

This month, that place is Ed Howard's Only The Cinema, where TOERIFC members will be discussing Paul Verhoeven's crazysexycool WWII film, Black Book. But you don't have to be a TOERIFC member to get involved. In fact, I don't think any of us hold actual memberships, it just feels important to say such things.

But seriously, we want more people getting in on the debating, agreeing, arguing. It's so fun and your presence will only make it funner.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!

No, that isn't me on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums you silly goof monster... it's a still from Wes Anderson's new movie!

...and here's another!:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

BRUNO

One of the oft-mentioned misconceptions about Borat was that it was a work of satirical art that rightfully exposed an underbelly of American bigotry. It didn't. Comedic hitman Sacha Baron Cohen simply cherry-picked pop culture's most acceptable and accessible targets and coaxed them into saying what he wanted them to. There are many moments in Bruno where you can sense Baron Cohen's eyes widening, as if he's lured his prey to the killspot where he wants 'em. "So, what your saying is _______" is the typical summary question Baron Cohen will level at one of his victims after a stream of quick answers to a barrage of quick questions. It's a brilliant way to pigeonhole and categorize the thoughts of a nervous, off-balanced interviewee and then, afterwards, to shape that person into any kind of negative character you desire. Sacha Baron Cohen would make for a great cable TV news pundit.

If you've tired of me bitching about Baron Cohen, I don't blame you a bit, but as long as he keeps turning his terrorist comedy into feature-length films, it is my Blog-given duty to fight that bastard until one of us dies. The thing is, Baron Cohen really comes out limping in Bruno: putting models on the spot about the difficulty of runway walking? Picking on two well-meaning blond women for not knowing where Darfur is?? Telling a gay-to-straight converter that he has good dick-sucking lips??? Yeesh. What's next? Bruno giving a blind person the wrong directions and then stepping back and snickering? I do admit to a kind of satisfaction, though, while watching Bruno, because it truly felt like watching a hack running out of juice. Even the lukewarm critical response to Bruno has been somewhat of a validation (albeit shallow), because - and don't let the face-saving apologists tell you otherwise - Borat and Bruno are the exact same movies. They both suck for the same reasons.

Though the recorded reactions of Bruno's subjects are manipulated in post-production in the same way that your standard reactionary documentary would do it, I'm still amazed at the amazement audiences and critics express when they witness somebody react outrageously to Baron Cohen's outrageousness. Seems pretty in line to me. Are we really supposed to flip out when Ron Paul - in the middle of his Presidential campaign, mind you - flips out after Bruno gets pant less and puts moves on the congressman? Should we seriously feign disbelief after an Alabama hunter can't believe he's been duped into thinking that the naked man forcing his way into his tent genuinely wanted to learn about outdoors-y stuff? Should we truly be frustrated with the swinger who gets frustrated at Bruno for interrupting his c*mshot?

One thing is certain, though, and that's that each one of those men were noticeably embarrassed and humiliated. Of course, the smoking gun in all of those scenarios (save the hunter... as far as I can remember), the "crime" that Baron Cohen intends to hang his justification of invasion on, is the usage of the "Q" word. What Baron Cohen really wants, what his treasure hunt through interview after interview entails, is to catch his subjects on camera using defamatory slang for gays. So, when Ron Paul and the swinger dude both say "queer", Baron Cohen gets his money shot. He's like a mobile paparazzi hiding behind freakish costumes and base makeup waiting for that ultimate upskirt.

"Paparazzi-comedy"... maybe that's the best way to describe Cohen's approach to humor. Whatever it is, it's no surprise that this type of crass entertainment can grab the #1 box-office slot in our TMZ-obsessed culture, it's just a shame that so many should-know-betters continue to praise it. Although, happily, that appears to be shifting. Screw Sacha Baron Cohen and that one-trick pony he rode in on.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

PLAYING PING PONG WITH THE ETHICAL GRAVITY OF MOON

Before I start, this post openly discusses the movie Moon, so if you're picky about knowing stuff before you see a movie, then you may not want to read further...
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Duncan Jones' Moon exists to confront us with the ethical question of "what is life?", or, rather, what deserves to have the same rights as we humans? Well, maybe Jones didn't intend for his film to have that issue front-and-center (and considering Moon's sloppiness, I'm pretty sure that he didn't) but with the solitary performance of Sam Rockwell (entertaining as always), it's hard not to walk out of the theater with any other pressing thoughts in your head. Because of this, Moon hangs out in the same Summer '09 moral arena as Nick Cassavettes' My Sister's Keeper and the upcoming District 9.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut with a three-year contract on the moon to observe and assist some weird doodad machines that send containers of Helium back to Earth as a post-Green revolution energy source. We quickly learn that the Sam Bell presently on base is simply a clone of the original Sam Bell, who, twelve years ago, went back home to his family. The question then lingers: to what do we owe the clone(s)?

Now, I'm no expert on cloning or clones, and because - at least to my knowledge (gulp!) - I've never encountered one in my lifetime, my frame of reference on the "humanity" of a cloned human is about as limited as it is to the rest of you. However, a clone of a human would still be a human... I think. You see, the clones in Moon have a three-year lifespan (hence the three-year "contract"), so when their time has elapsed, they loose their functions just like Vicky from Small Wonder did when stupid Jamie flip her switch off.

Of course, the human clones begin to physically fall apart (ie losing hair, elasticity in the skin, etc.), so the company painlessly disposes of them in some sort of zap chamber that misleads the clone into thinking they are being zapped back home. The last third of Moon attempts to yank at our humanity so we feel compassion for the cloned Sam(s). The thing is, I didn't feel anything. I knew the original embryo-to-adult Sam was back home with his family, so I saw the Sam(s) on the moon as nothing more than programmed blobs of tissue. I'm not suggesting that should be the proper real-word response, but it's how I felt. I've felt compassion for robots, animated fish, and inanimate objects in countless movies before, so I blame Duncan Jones for not taking me to that place with a being that looks as close to human as you can get.

I mentioned sloppiness earlier, and Moon really mucks up any chance at profundity on the issue of "the humanity of human clones" by directing its message toward one of corporate greed. (What about the question of whether cloning is ethical to begin with???). Jones' story reveals that the Helium mining company, Lunar Industries, uses clones on the moon as a matter of cost-cutting. But really?!?! How would it be cheaper to produce, manage, and store thousands of clones in the hull of a ship than to send one human up ever few years or so? I guess the cost of fuel for a trip from Earth-to-moon would be quite expensive, but I would imagine the creation of clones would be too. Further, if technology has progressed to the point which it has in Moon, then why do we even require a human up there at all? Couldn't a robot (like Gerty, the Kevin Spacey-voiced robot that keeps Sam company) do the exact same tasks?

Ultimately, Moon gets by on the performance of Rockwell (I didn't like the movie, but I've read some critics label Moon as "coma-inducingly boring", which I don't get at all), who carries the film because his director is still so extremely wet behind the ears. Yes, I'll be cynical and say that I don't think Duncan Jones would have made this film were his father not so famous and wealthy and influential. Hey... maybe as an experiment to further the human cloning debate, we should clone Duncan Jones and see if his pod person does a better job directing than he. If so, I might just jump aboard the pro-cloning side!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

THE SPIRIT OF ED WOOD BLOG-A-THON: LARRY COHEN'S ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996)

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This post is part of
Cinema Styles' week long The Spirit of Ed Wood Blog-A-Thon.
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Combined, Larry Cohen has written over 200 teleplays and screenplays. Along with that, the ambitious, native New Yorker has directed 22 films. Of those 22, he wrote all but 4 of them. 1 of those 4 was Original Gangstas.

I adore Larry Cohen, but in order to do my surgical best in pinpointing what gives him that indomitable spirit (of Ed Wood) to keep going, despite the fact that he's barely - if at all -improved as a director since his debut in 1972, I felt I had to reflect on a film of his that he didn't write. You see, Larry Cohen's strength lies in his writing. In his writing, and in being an idea man, a story man. Arguably, Cohen's best pictures are the ones where his stories are fleshed out by the hands of another: Maniac Cop, Body Snatchers, Cellular, Phone Booth.

Or, one may even argue that Cohen's never been involved with the making of a good film ... PERIOD. I would disagree with that, but I'd also completely understand the sentiment. When I watch something like God Told Me To, I'm with the film (flaws and all) for about the first 30 minutes... but then, quickly, I'm kind of done with it. The same can be said about It's Alive, The Stuff, and Q : The Winged Serpent. Still, I'm always charmed enough to keep going back to the films of this overworked weirdo. In doing so, I've discovered good films that, to my surprise, are among his least celebrated : Special Effects, Perfect Strangers, and Original Gangstas.

Because Cohen's non-horror fare generally comes with a one-to-grow-on social message dressed-up in a clunk-ily acted, shot, and produced package, these "serious-minded" movies of his often feel like After School Special episodes for adults. Yet it's amazing how light-hearted a director's heavy-handed approach can become when you realize that one of his actors is wearing a really awful wig. All-in-all, though, none of that can discount Larry Cohen's earnestness. Many will laugh at the set-ups and line readings in Original Gangtas, but there's no denying the genuine concern he expresses for those inner city blues.

Original Gangstas missed out on the early nineties box office success of inner city hood films (no matter, it went to straight-to-video anyways), but its premise isn't too far removed from the well-known BoyzJuiceMenaceNewJack story lines. Kenny is a talented high-school basketball prospect on the verge of breaking free from the ghetto, but after he hustles some hoods in a one-on-one game (where the rim looks like it's only eight feet high), he goes down in a drive-by denouement. When an old shopkeeper snitches on the culprits, he goes down too... but not completely. He lives. And his son is Fred Williamson. And Fred Williamson's friend is Jim Brown. And Jim Brown used to be married to Pam Grier. And now they're all back in Gary, Indiana ready to kick-ass and clean-up the streets.

With a budget of just under five million, I'm guessing that half of that bank went to the movie's "big names" and the rest went to a dramatic fire sequence (pictured above). Because of that, there is a guerrilla-style feel to the makeshift sets and costumes look of Original Gangstas. Punches don't land anywhere near the face, scream match-up with lips worse that The Wilhelm Scream, and bullets don't leave holes around pools of strange-looking blood.

Cohen's ultimate message here is not unlike when our parents used to lecture us "more respectful days". Williamson and Brown's characters used to gang bang too, but at least they didn't kill people! In Original Gangstas' most unintentionally funny moment, the young gang leader looks up at Brown with an end-of-life clarity and waxes philosophical about how it is Brown and Williamson (the old-school that laid the path for the new-school) who have blood on their hands and who are partially responsible for Gary, Indiana's tough times by abandoning it. Without a beat, or even quick cut to Brown's face to show pause or contrition, Brown knifes the dude and he and Williamson walk off into the smoggy sunset.

This isn't calculated cynicism on Cohen's part, just the product of a four day shoot with actors and crew who don't improvise that well. It may be bad, but it's honest, and because of that it retains the spirit of movie-love until the very end of the end credits.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

WHATEVER WORKS

When Woody Allen serves up a double-shot of narcissism and nihilism in that coffee cup that Larry David drinks from in Whatever Works' opening scene, it is a back-breaking "ohhh sh*t..." moment; a heavy, defeated sigh following months of nervous hope that one of your favorites wouldn't go down the path of tired and trendy antipathy that was hinted at in early plot leaks and trailers. Had Allen spent the rest of the film filleting the exaggerated caricature of himself that Larry David portrays, or, had he turned Whatever Works into another of his late-period madcap, bittersweet, love-tinged comedies (among them, Small Time Crooks, Melinda & Melinda, and Scoop... all of which I regularly defend), then the writer/director's forty-third film might have had life. Instead, it's just plain bitter... and might be one of his worst.

Larry David plays Boris (a psychoanalyst of Woody's would tell us to look for deeper meaning in that character name, as in: "bore-us") a former self-appointed genius gone crotchety who precisely brings to mind that "lady with the shopping bag in the cafeteria screaming about Socialism" that Alvy Singer worries about turning into in Annie Hall. Oops!!... it's happened! In one of Whatever Works earlier moments, Boris' ex-wife leans back and tells him she can't take his "sophomoric tirades" about the world being a cesspool full of inchworms and cretins any longer. Sure, many former "Woody" characters have expressed a similar dissatisfaction with the world, but never with so arrogant a scowl as the surrogate Boris.

Actually, a "sophomoric tirade" might be the best way to describe the script for Whatever Works. Bashing gun-owners, pro-lifers, the religious, and right-wingers in general, has become so commonplace that I was shocked to hear so many audience members laugh at the limp jokes about the NRA (by my count, there were three of them). Woody was once funny about politics in something like Everbody Says I Love You when he poked fun at both the savior complex of limousine liberals and the way Lukas Haas' character became wrapped-up in the ideas of National Review because of a blood clot in his brain. But here, today, Allen simply comes off like an out-of-touch dolt.

Back in February, while embroiled in Natty R.'s We Can't Wait countdown, I expressed concern over Woody Allen taking on Southern characters in the comedic arena. Apparently my concern was well warranted, because Allen shows nothing less than full-on contempt for white people from the Deep South. What Allen/Boris posits in Whatever Works, is that Southerners are nothing but half-wits, mild vessels of potential who don't fully realize their true talents and identities until they've been embedded into the cultural and intellectual mecca that is New York City: Marietta's (Patricia Clarkson) life-chronicling photography in Mississippi quickly blossoms into serious artistry; Melodie's (Evan Rachel Wood) "abortion clinic" sense of fashion unravels and resurfaces as cute elegance; and John (Ed Begley Jr.), whose repressed gay urges have manifested into homophobia, ends up... well, duh!

For their part, both Clarkson and Wood do fine jobs circumventing Woody Allen's prejudice by turning in fine, human portrayals of Mississippians. Their performances are solid examples of a smart actor's conscience not getting corrupted by a nasty script. Clarkson grew up in Louisiana, and Wood in North Carolina, so the generosity and color they give to their characters isn't surprising. What also isn't surprising - the more I think about it - is the answer to what may be plaguing Allen, the filmmaker, right now. Like Boris, Allen seems more and more isolated from society, culture, and film than ever before. Yes, he recruited current "it" cinematographer Harris Savides to do the lensing, but as my wife rightly observed, Whatever Works lacks Savides' trademark glide. Worse, Allen's direction seems shiftless, uncaring, dare I say... senile.

I don't know what Allen is doing, where he's culling inspiration from, or if he himself is living by the "whatever works" pseudo-philosophy espoused by Boris. Whatever he's doing, it isn't working, because three out of Allen's last five films have been dreadful, and I don't think I can say that about any other period in his career.

Monday, July 06, 2009

DON'T FORGET...

... about the The Spirit of Ed Wood Blog-A-Thon going on at Cinema Styles this week.

I will have a post up later in the week, but in the meantime, go enjoy everybody else's by clicking on the link above.

**Pictured banner made by Greg @ Cinema Styles.

Saturday, July 04, 2009