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All We Make Is Entertainment December 21, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, movies.
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When it comes to movies, we’re conditioned to respect singularity. The pop culture landscape is cluttered with the names of directors who are credited as the sole voice, the lone vision, behind their films.  This gets hammered home through trailers, commercials, and opening credits, when movies are billed as “A (insert name here) Film” or “A Film by (insert name here”).  This often gets done without recourse to logic or reality, when even marginal talents who haven’t contributed anything of real consequence to cinema history, but who also don’t write or produce their own films, are granted an authorial credit.  I don’t particularly have anything against Jon Turteltaub, but I remember being especially peeved during the trailer for his recent film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when it was marketed as “A Jon Turteltaub Film,” as though that actually means anything to anyone.  (“The visionary behind National Treasure is directing a Disney flick marketed to kids?  Sign me up!”)

Sometimes, though, it’s earned.  In this country, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane stands as probably the most obvious example, with Welles as producer-writer-director-star of what is often considered to be the greatest movie of all time.  Woody Allen is another good example, taking a writer-director credit on all of the 42 features he’s directed, and starring in many of them, including undisputed classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Probably the most relevant contemporary example is writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose films clearly boast the man’s unique visual style and verbal gameplay. Even pulpier names like Kevin Smith and George A. Romero can lay legitimate claim to singular authorship.  As both writer and director of many of their movies, there’s no denying that the end products reflect their particular sensibilities.

More interesting to me, though, is the creative partnership.  Whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s brilliant work over several movies with Robert de Niro, Tim Burton’s partnership with composer Danny Elfman (13 films), or Christopher Guest’s unparalleled troupe of improvisational comedians, I’m drawn more to the work of people who clearly inspire one another and do their best work in each other’s company. I’m sort of fascinated by things like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s brilliant trifecta of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, or even how Judd Apatow has continually worked with certain actors over the course of his career.  Interpersonal dynamics, and the process by which artists complement each other, are, for whatever reason, much more compelling to me than the notion of one person taking primary responsibility for a work of art.  I’m not taking anything away from that accomplishment (when was the last time I wrote and directed a movie?); I just find it less interesting than, say, Bill Murray showing up in every one of Wes Anderson’s films.

My favorite partnership, though, is pictured at the top of this post.  Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – while not solely filmmakers – have done more to entertain me in the last seven years than anyone.  Their original UK version of The Office is one of the best shows of the decade, and I watch the whole thing at least once a year.  Their follow-up, Extras, doesn’t hit quite the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s every bit as entertaining and possesses some impressive emotional undercurrents  that sneak up on you when you don’t expect it.  And their podcast with Karl Pilkington is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.

I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais elsewhere on this site, so what I really want to do is take a few moments to talk about the underappreciated Merchant.  As good as Ricky is, it’s only in his collaborations with Stephen that he truly soars.  For instance, Gervais is a fine standup comedian, but his two American specials aren’t essential viewing in the way The Office or Extras are, and Ricky’s first directing credit without Stephen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying, is certainly sly and funny, but it’s also frustratingly uneven and dips significantly in an overlong final act.  While their individual strengths are obvious – Ricky is an expert at broad comedy, where Stephen seems to be subtler, quieter, and more self-deprecating – it isn’t clear exactly what role each man takes in their collaborations.  However their responsibilities are defined, it’s clear that Gervais’ best work is done with his frequent partner.

One of my favorite things about Extras is that it allowed Merchant to introduce the character of Darren Lamb, the well-meaning but completely incompetent agent to Gervais’ character, Andy Millman.  Their scenes together transcend typical TV comedy because their interactions are based 100% in character; there’s never a sense that the comedy comes in favor of jokes at the expense of who these two men really are.  And, more importantly, each of their scenes is tinged slightly by sadness and frustration, giving the show surprising emotional heft.  Darren really wants to do well, but he lacks the necessary something (responsibility? mental acuity? common sense?) to get the job done.  Even so, there’s always the sense that the shallow and indecisive Andy doesn’t deserve someone as loyal as Darren, even though the agent is clearly not helping Andy’s career.  It’s a virtuoso tightrope act, where the viewer’s allegiances can shift within a scene, from wishing Darren would finally do something right for a change, to wishing Andy would take it easy on a guy who’s clearly trying his hardest.  I think this dynamic is mainly a credit to Merchant, who could easily play Darren as a dolt.  Instead, he comes off as a good-natured and fiercely loyal scatterbrain, whose best will just never be good enough.

What follows is a montage of some of the best of Darren’s bits with Andy.  I don’t know how well these brief excerpts will translate to someone who doesn’t know the show, so I’ve also included a longer scene, which is one of my favorites.

These scenes serve as a compelling testament to the quality of Gervais and Merchant’s partnership, but they also prove that Merchant is crucial to their joint endeavors.  In this way, Merchant looks to be Brian Eno to Gervais’ David Bowie: Gervais is capable of quality stuff on his own, but it’s only with the right collaborator that he achieves greatness.

*****

Current listening:

Duran Duran – All You Need Is Now (2010)

Last movie seen:

The Alphabet Killer (2008; Rob Schmidt, dir.)

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Cinema Sunday (12/19/10) December 19, 2010

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Director David O. Russell presents me with an apparently insoluble contradiction.  On the one hand, he’s directed two movies in the last fifteen years that I consider to be the very best of their genre.  Flirting With Disaster is a comedy both broad and subtle, based in finely-sketched characters as well as in the conventions of traditional farce.  This story of a man attempting to reconnect with his biological parents has one of the richest and deepest comedic casts of any movie I can think of: Ben Stiller (easily his best work), Tea Leoni, Josh Brolin, and Richard Jenkins are remarkably funny; Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal are reliably great as Stiller’s adoptive parents; and Russell made a savvy move in casting Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda against type as a pair of ex-hippie LSD-manufacturers.  It’s easily one of my all-time favorite comedies.

Similarly, Three Kings is one of the best recent war movies, and was the best movie about the Gulf War (albeit the first Gulf War) until The Hurt Locker came along.  It’s a sly little movie about a group of opportunists (George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze) who attempt to get rich at the end of the war and end up as unexpected humanitarians.  In its discomfiting mix of humor, violence, and sentiment, it’s too clever and complicated to be pigeonholed as “just” an anti-war film, and what we’re left with is a keenly-observed film about human nature under duress.

So, yeah, Russell is an immensely-talented director.  But he’s also, by many accounts, a massive douchebag.  His conflicts with Clooney on the set of Three Kings are well-documented (Clooney, apparently as nice a guy as Hollywood has ever seen, charged Russell with, among other things, being in over his head, physically abusing an extra, verbally abusing everyone else, and generally being an asshole) and Clooney has vowed never to work with him again.  And then, of course, there’s his legendary freakout on the set of I Heart Huckabees.  To wit (and skip to 1:07 for the good stuff):

It’s difficult for me to completely admire the work of a guy who’s apparently sort of a dingus in the filmmaking process.  It’s not nearly the same thing as reconciling the brilliance of Roman Polanski’s movies with his other career as, you know, a child rapist, but I’d much rather the people whose work I like be kind, gracious human beings instead of immature, tempter-tantrum-throwing bullies.

So it was these reservations that I brought to The Fighter, along with the fact that I hadn’t been a huge fan of Huckabees, which seemed to me to be a movie too overly pleased with its own cleverness.  But I’d heard great things about Christian Bale’s performance, and if Wahlberg was willing to re-up with Russell after Three Kings and Huckabees, maybe he deserved another chance from me, too.  Oh, and Amy Adams.  That’s reason enough, right there.

So, first off, The Fighter is a sports movie only in the sense that Three Kings is a war movie. Simply put, it’s got other things on its mind.  Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a hen-pecked boxer who’s never really amounted to much. He’s managed by his overbearing mother Alice (played by a terrific Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, more on which later), a former fighter and present-day crackhead who constantly relives his glory days when he supposedly knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring.  It’s clear from the start that Mickey has the potential for greatness, but he’s hamstrung at every turn by his mother’s poor management.  Not helping matters is the constant drama that results from Dicky’s unreliability (as well as their unresolved sibling rivalry), which is a distraction when Mickey should have the focus of a laser.  It’s only when Dicky is arrested and Mickey falls in love with Amy Adams’ rough-edged barmaid Charlene that he’s able to extricate himself from his family and begin to train in earnest.

The Fighter is a curious movie because, as I said above, it’s not really a boxing movie.  It’s a movie about family, and how sometimes the people we love are the worst things for us.  With that as its thesis, it’s crucial that Mickey be a compelling character whom we want to see transcend the struggles that threaten to hold him down.  As played by Wahlberg, however, Mickey is hardly there.  He’s understated, indecisive, passive, constantly overshadowed by Alice, Dicky, and Charlene, who are all stronger characters than he is.  As The Fighter is based on a true story, it’s possible that this is how Mickey really is (an assumption strengthened by a clip of the two real-life brothers that runs with the end credits), but it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling film.  This isn’t necessarily Wahlberg’s fault, who does serviceable work with an underwritten character.  I think my brother actually hit the nail on the head when he asked me, “Does Wahlberg play a character dumb enough for him to be good?”  That seems to be an accurate summation of Wahlberg’s talent as an actor: he’s great, as long as he’s not required to stretch.  And, as I said, he does decent work here as a simple guy torn between allegiances.  But if the movie had to live or die with his performance, it would be on life support.

No, the movie’s success (and it was successful, in that it was an interesting story and I was never bored) comes down to Leo, Adams, and Bale, who all give top-flight performances.  Adams’ is the least demanding of the bunch, as an unapologetic college dropout who’s perfectly happy with the life she’s living.  Leo just barely dodges caricature to find real depth as Alice, a deeply flawed (and deeply unpleasant) woman who can’t seem to reconcile her love for her sons with her overwhelming desire to take the credit for all their success and none of their failure.  And then there’s Bale.  He’s not quite as gaunt here as he was in The Machinist, but he’s lost enough weight that his face is all bony angles and bulging eyes, and he plays Dicky as a motor-mouth huckster who can sell anyone anything – and that extends to the illusions he has of himself.  An HBO film crew follows him around; Dicky seems to sincerely believe it’s about his inevitable comeback, when it’s actually a documentary about the ravages of crack cocaine.  The moment when he realizes the truth – of the documentary and of his life – is heartbreaking.

There’s enough other good stuff to admire in The Fighter to make it work (Jack McGee’s performance as Mickey and Dicky’s father; the well-shot boxing sequences), but it’s a movie battling schizophrenia.  On the one hand, Mickey’s pencil sketch of a character dukes it out in a conventional sports movie, while on the other hand, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale seem to be transmitting their performances from another, better movie, where much more is at stake.  Given my own indecision about Russell’s work (and working style), it seems somehow fitting that a similar tension would be present in The Fighter.  It’s an entertaining movie that should be so much better, directed by a guy whose work I enjoy even though I wish I didn’t.

*****

Current listening:

Violens – Amoral (2010)

Current reading:

George R.R. Martin – A Feast for Crows (2005)

A Darkness Rises Up December 9, 2010

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Neil Marshall has had a very curious career so far, but I kind of like it for its eccentricities.  His 2002 debut, Dog Soldiers, was a cool little low-budget horror flick about werewolves terrorizing an unarmed group of soldiers in the Scottish highlands.  He hit the next one out of the park with The Descent (2005), a claustrophobic thriller that I routinely name as one of the best horror films of the last three decades. Where a lot of directors, fresh off a huge success,  might be happy to plow the same furrow, Marshall delivered Doomsday (2008), an ambitious action flick about a post-apocalyptic society that sprang up in the wake of a worldwide pandemic.  It was an odd film in tone and subject-matter (it’s a medical thriller; no, it’s a rescue movie; no, it’s got … knights?), that was an ambitious failure, but which I still can’t avoid watching whenever it turns up on one of the movie channels.  The one common thread that runs through these films is that Marshall has an outsize vision – he’s credited as the director and sole screenwriter on all three of them, and as each one has increased in scope, it’s hard not to fault his ambition and his desire to chase whatever narrative obsession is currently intriguing him.

And that brings us to Centurion (2010), another of Marshall’s curious diversions that has little obvious similarity to any of its predecessors.  Set in Northern Britain in the 2nd Century, Centurion details the tension between the Roman Legion, led by Emperor Hadrian (yes, that Hadrian), and the Picts, a tribe of early Celts who, if the movie is anything to go by, favored animal skins and poor hygiene.  Early in the movie we see the Picts destroy a Roman garrison and take a lone hostage: Quintas Dias, played by the reliably great Michael Fassbender.  In this skirmish the Picts are established as a ferocious enemy, easily capable of besting the more heavily armed and armored Roman soldiers, and never settling for just stabbing a guy when they can impale him through his mouth or cleave his head in two with an axe.  If there were sensitive poets among the Picts, they were saved for another movie.

In York, the Roman 9th Legion, led by Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West – McNulty, for all you fans of The Wire) is preparing to move against the Picts. Before they do, they’re assigned a Pict scout – the beautiful mute Etain – to help protect them against the enemy.  It’s during this march that the 9th Legion discovers Quintas (who has escaped from the Picts), and finds itself besieged and routed by the Picts, who were working in collusion with the traitorous Etain.  The bulk of the movie is then taken up with the efforts of a ragtag band of surviving Roman soldiers, now led by Quintas, to find its way back to York and the Roman army while evading the Picts that are chasing them.

Marshall’s decision to go the historical fiction route seems odd since his previous films have all dealt, to one degree or another, with elements of horror or fantasy.  Centurion, by contrast, is a straight-up action movie in its first third, and more a chase film for the remainder of it.  In this way, the movie suffers some by comparison.  It was hard not to compare the early moments – and especially the vividly shot battles – with other Roman and Celtic action flicks like Gladiator or Braveheart, and, whether intentional or not, there were definite shades of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the soldiers’ struggle to return home.  Etain possesses preternatural tracking abilities (much like Lord Baltimore in Butch Cassidy) that allows the Picts to remain perpetually on the Romans’ heels, and there’s even a daredevil leap from a cliff into the raging river below.  The similarity was so heavy that at one point, while the Romans are hunched behind rocks on a hillside, watching the Picts draw ever closer, I was half-expecting Quintas to turn to the guy next to him and ask, “Who are those guys?”

Even though Marshall’s jones for historical fiction seems out of place with his previous efforts, I’m certainly not slighting his interest in giving it a shot.  In fact, the movie eventually won me over.  For one thing, the movie’s about as panoramic as it gets, bursting with stunning wilderness images: mountains, moors, rivers, forests, snowfields – they’re all captured beautifully by Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy.  In the Britain of Centurion, the North is bleak, unrelenting, mysterious, and breathtaking.  There’s also a bravura sequence where the 9th Legion has to defend itself against huge balls of flame that suddenly come bounding down a hillside out of the mist. It is, in short, a movie that’s beautiful in its desolation and violence.

The acting is more or less what you’d expect.  A bearded West hams it up nicely as the gruff and inspiring Titus, his English accent about as convincing here as his American one was in The Wire (but miles better than his ridiculous attempt at a New Yawk accent in Punisher: War Zone).  Fassbender lends the movie some much-needed gravitas as the soldier who’s charged with rescuing the men of the 9th, but who really just wants to go home and turn his back on the war.  Olga Kurylenko glowers convincingly as the fierce Etain (it’s unfortunate that, as a mute, she isn’t really asked to do much more than ride a horse and not talk).  And the unfortunately-named Imogen Poots (the daughter in 28 Weeks Later) has a nice turn as a Pict who’s been accused of witchcraft and cast out of the tribe.

There’s some final silliness at the end, with superfluous double-crossery and treachery, but here’s the thing about Centurion: it passes the time, and does so entertainingly.  It’s a well-made B-movie, and while I’m all about encouraging movies to strive to be Great Art, I also think there’s a place for movies that want to do no more than give you a good time for 90 minutes. More important still, I’m excited to see what Neil Marshall will try next.  He’s done horror, post-apocalyptic thriller, and period piece, and he’s done all of them convincingly (if not always 100% successfully).  I could see a Danny Boyle-like future for him, if he’s given the chance to hopscotch from genre to genre as it interests him.  I like directors like Marshall – even when his movies are noble failures, they’re always ambitious, and they’re never not interesting.

(Sidenote: Did this ever play in U.S. theaters?  I don’t remember hearing about it, but as I no longer live just up the road from Los Angeles [where all films eventually go], it wouldn’t surprise me to hear it enjoyed a short run somewhere.)

*****

Current listening:

Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust (2005)

Even Heroes Have to Die April 13, 2010

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I love Sigourney Weaver. Always have, regardless of what she’s in. But if it’s possible for an actor to jump the shark, she just did it.

If Weaver is to be believed, Avatar director James Cameron lost the Best Director Oscar “because Jim didn’t have breasts.”  And The Hurt Locker picked up Best Picture “because it’s fashionable to give the Oscar to a small movie that nobody saw.”

I understand sour grapes, Sigourney, and I get that you’re proud of your work on Avatar and that you want to defend your director.  Your loyalty is commendable.  Hell, I could even make a case defending Cameron as Best Director based solely on the tenacity it took to get Avatar to the screen.

But the simple truth about Avatar is this: remove the (admittedly beautiful) special effects from the equation, and you’re left with a movie that’s staggeringly mediocre.  Horribly scripted, terribly acted by much of the cast, overlong, and, as many other people have pointed out, a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of other, better movies, Avatar is an entertaining trifle that absolutely no one would remember if it weren’t so technologically advanced.

As for the slam against Best Director winner Kathryn Bigelow, it’s depressing to see Weaver – a woman who’s made a career of playing strong female characters – employ a sort of reverse sexism charge in supporting Cameron. To me, Bigelow’s win had nothing to do with being a woman and everything to do with creating a tightly-wound, multi-layered look at the Iraq War that somehow managed to avoid being overtly political.  That entire movie is a high-wire act, and to have done it on such a small budget with no name actors in leading roles is pretty remarkable.

So, c’mon Sigourney.  Continue to defend your crappy movie.  As a cast member, that’s to be expected.  But if you’re going to fabricate reasons why Cameron lost the Oscar, try coming up with something that doesn’t also insult the person who, quite deservedly, won the award.  Say Cameron lost because he’s a megalomaniacal asshole.  Or because he already won for Titanic.  But to claim it’s because he doesn’t have breasts is kind of catty, and seems beneath you.  Make like your character Ellen Ripley and challenge Bigelow to a fight if you must.  But press junket passive-agressiveness?  That’s just not something Ripley would do.

The Huffington Post (4/13/10): Sigourney Weaver: James Cameron Lost Oscar Because He Didn’t Have Breasts

*****

Current listening:

R.E.M. – New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)

Fade to Black January 7, 2010

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It’s sort of impressive that it took me seven movies to reach the first Stephen King adaptation to unequivocally suck.  Children of the Corn (1984) is so bad, though, that one suspects director Fritz Kiersch was trying to make up for lost time.  To be fair, memory tells me that King’s novels make better movies than his short stories.  When I think of his movies that I consider to be sub-par, the ones based on short stories are the ones that leap to mind first.  I don’t remember much of the “Children of the Corn” story, but if the movie’s anything to go by, it must have been the very definition of flimsy.

The movie opens in the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska, and the first thing we hear is voiceover narration courtesy of Job, a plucky little kid who’s out on the town (after church, I think) with his father.  They swing by the local café, where Dad makes a phone call to his wife, and Job gets a milkshake because he’s a plucky little kid and that’s what plucky little kids do.  While all this small-towniness is going on – much coffee is drunk and many slices of pie are eaten – Job notices a creepy-looking kid (who, with his wide-brimmed hat appears to be Amish) peering in the front window.  He seems to be making eye contact with a second creepy-looking kid (this one with red hair and a serious overbite) playing pinball in the back of the café.  An unspoken signal is passed between them, and a third kid locks the door to the café.  It’s only then that all the children turn on their elders, poisoning the coffee, slicing their throats with knives and sickles, and being generally antisocial.

Cut to three years later.  The town has been taken over by the children, led by Isaac (the creepy Amish kid) and kept in line by Malachai (the redhead in need of orthodontia).  We learn from Job’s plucky narration that not all the kids are on board with Isaac, and we see Job and his sister Sarah attempt to help another boy escape.  He dashes into the cornfield, only to be killed by someone wielding an especially pointy knife.

It’s only now that we meet Vicky (a pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton) and Burt (a pre-Thirtysomething Peter Horton).  They’re driving cross-country for Burt to take a medical internship, and as they pass through the Nebraska cornfields, they accidentally run over the escapee, who’s been tossed in the road by his murderer.  Vicky and Burt throw him in the trunk, and then, with a troubling lack of urgency, tool around the country backroads in search of a hospital.  They finally end up in – you guessed it – Gatlin, and discover that the town is deserted and covered in cornstalks.

As it turns out, Isaac makes ritual sacrifices (of the kids once they reach their eighteenth birthday, as well as any adults unfortunate enough to stumble upon the town) to some unseen creature referred to only as He Who Walks Behind the Rows (it tunnels under the cornfield, so maybe it’s a big worm like in Tremors).  It’s unclear what these sacrifices are achieving since all the kids dress like extras from Witness and technology has apparently been outlawed.  Logical incoherence notwithstanding, once Isaac and Malachai discover there’s fresh meat in town, the rest of the movie involves a lot of running and chasing and hiding.  Vicky is eventually captured, taken to the middle of the cornfield, and – in a symbolic act as subtle as a punch to the nads – is hoisted up, J.C.-style, on a crucifix made of cornstalks.

The climax of the movie, such as it is, involves Burt preaching to the kids that a religion not based in love is a rotten, no-good, really bad thing.  And then they blow up He Who Walks Behind the Rows with gasohol.

It’s pretty bad.  I remember bits and pieces of it from when I watched it as a kid, and it certainly hasn’t held up well.  It’s obvious that the two leads would eventually be headed to bigger and better things (for Hamilton, The Terminator would be released later the same year, and Horton would have to wait three years for the debut of Thirtysomething), and while they make the most of a severely crappy acting situation, even they can’t save Children of the Corn.  The dialogue is laughable, even by horror movie standards, and it’s hard to feel any sort of suspense when Linda Hamilton looks like she could mop the floor with these twerpy little kids.  Some movies are bad, but just miss being passable.  Children of the Corn, however, is a failure on pretty much every conceivable level.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

The Dead Zone, 1983 (12/11/09)

Christine, 1983 (1/3/10)

Next up: Firestarter (1984)

*****

Current listening:

Arctic Monkeys – Humbug (2009)

Perfect Movie Moment #1 January 5, 2010

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I’m unveiling a new semi-regular feature on Three Seconds of Dead Air: Perfect Movie Moments.  Occasionally I’m struck by how some movie scenes are exactly right – there’s a convergence of character, of music, of script, of set design, of lighting, of any combination of these things – and the scene’s perfection resonates with me for a variety of reasons.  These won’t be organized or presented in any way other than how they come to me, based on memory or whatever I’m watching at the moment.  I fully realize they might not mean anything to anyone but me, but my guess is some of these will be favorites of yours, as well.

Perfect Movie Moment #1:

From Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Gwyneth Paltrow (as Margot Tenenbaum) descends from the Green Line Bus to the sublime strains of Nico’s “These Days.”

Cinema Sunday (1/3/10) January 3, 2010

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Maybe it’s the premise.  Maybe it’s the profoundly sucky latter stages of John Carpenter’s career.  Maybe it’s my ailing memory.  Whatever the reason, I went into Christine (1983; my sixth Stephen King adaptation) with the assumption that it sucked.  I was wrong.

One thing I hadn’t considered is that Christine is embedded firmly in director Carpenter’s golden age.  Check this track record, from 1974 to 1986: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China. I mean, yeah, The Fog kinda sucked (as can be expected of a movie about zombie pirates), but that list contains at least four stone-cold classics, as well as a couple of bona fide cult favorites.  Christine slots confidently into this fertile period, and is astonishingly good.

The movie is, of course, about a haunted car.  It’s ridiculous and preposterous, and the fact that it works at all is credit to Carpenter and the cast he’s assembled.  It all hinges on the role of Arnie Cunningham, the high school nebbish (played by actor turned director Keith Gordon) who purchases the titular ’58 Plymouth Fury and finds himself possessed by its malevolent spirit.  Arnie finds himself inexplicably drawn to the car, buys it against his parents’ wishes, and gradually sees it transform him from a glasses-wearing dweeb into an arrogant and callous stud muffin.

Even before Arnie buys it, though, we know all is not right with Christine.  In an opening sequence set in the 50’s, we see Christine on the assembly line, and it’s here that it (she?) slams its (her?) hood on a worker’s hand, and later kills another worker who thoughtlessly flicked his cigar ash on her pristine seat.  When Arnie buys the car, we learn that its previous owner killed himself in Christine, and his 5-year-old daughter choked to death in her.  So we know from the get-go that Christine is bad news, and Arnie’s best friend – Dennis, the popular jock (played by John Stockwell, another actor turned director) – seems to sense this and tries to talk Arnie out of the purchase.  It’s all for nought, though, and soon Arnie is storing Christine at a local garage and fixing her up in his spare time.

It doesn’t take long for Christine to show her true colors.  Leigh, Arnie’s new girlfriend, nearly chokes to death while they’re at a drive-in movie, and when Christine gets trashed by a group of juvenile delinquents who torment Arnie at school, she systematically wipes them out.  At the same time, Arnie himself becomes crueler and more dismissive of the people around him, choosing instead to spend all his time with his car.  It’s at this point that Dennis and Leigh realize what’s happening, and decide they need to destroy Christine before the car destroys their friend.

As I said at the top, it’s a dopey premise, and Christine was never one of my favorite King books.  I don’t care how gullible you are, a haunted car will never be scary, so for the movie to work, there had to be some other appeal.  The appeal in this case is the uniformly excellent cast, and Carpenter’s direction of it.  As I watched the fun and funny opening scenes – set in high school and introducing the main characters – I found myself wishing Carpenter would try his hand at a straightforward high school movie.  The hallway banter between the characters (even the minor players) was loose and believable, and it effectively created the sort of reality that would be necessary for the rest of the plot to work.

Gordon, especially, is impressive.  Most people will know him from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School (1986), but in Christine he has to run the emotional gamut, starting out as a completely powerless, perpetually victimized nerd and ending as a raving lunatic, in thrall to an obsession that everyone else sees but him.  The movie can’t be taken seriously in good conscience, but Gordon goes all-in, playing Arnie with a straight face as a real person.  He initially wants to buy Christine because it would be the lone thing in his life over which he’d have any control.  When you think about Arnie in those terms – and I think we all know at least one Arnie in our lives –   it’s sort of profoundly sad to see what eventually happens to him.  The dude just wanted to fit in. (Interesting side note: Gordon, as I mentioned earlier, became a director.  Among his films are excellent adaptations of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night.  His standout, though, is a World War II flick called A Midnight Clear, which I think is a brilliant film.  Seek it out.)

The rest of the movie is exactly as good as a movie about a haunted car can be.  As we see Christine start to hunt down Arnie’s tormentors, it’s mildly spooky to see this giant metal predator silently tail them, and the way Carpenter has shot these sequences, it works to not know yet whether Arnie is behind the wheel.  The one bravura scene happens after Christine blows up a gas station (don’t worry – the ridiculousness of that sentence doesn’t escape me; you just have to go with it) and goes careening down a darkened street in a ball of flame, chasing down one more victim.

There’s some other ancillary stuff (the reliably great Harry Dean Stanton shows up as a detective investigating the sudden rash of murders; Arnie and Leigh break up once she realizes he’s become a deranged nutbag), but really, the whole thing is building up to the final showdown between Christine and Dennis driving a bulldozer.

As that last sentence indicates, the movie is, in some ways, review-proof.  Criticism is almost beside the point, because Christine really has no hope of ever being anything other than dumb fun.  But damn it all if it doesn’t come close.  Carpenter somehow makes it work, and the reason, of course, is that, despite what I wrote at the beginning, he’s made a movie that isn’t really about a haunted car.  The car is on the poster, but at its heart, the movie is about one man’s descent into madness, and the friends who try to save him.  It’s less frightening than you’d hope, but deeper than you expect.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

The Dead Zone, 1983 (12/11/09)

Next up: Children of the Corn (1984)

*****

Current listening:

Warm Jets – Future Signs (1997)

Cinema Sunday (12/13/09) December 13, 2009

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The highest praise I can bestow on Lee Daniels’ amazing and heartbreaking film Precious is that it made me take seriously as artists both Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey.  A movie that doesn’t have a plot as much as it simply traces the living hell of its title character, Precious could have gone wrong in any number of ways.  It could have been a tedious slog through an urban Dante’s Inferno – a way for guilty white people to get a glimpse of inner-city strife.  On the other hand, the movie could have come across as the phoniest of bolognas.  In an effort to make the brutality of Precious’ life palatable for mainstream audiences, director Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher could have downplayed the violence and turned it into a sort of Wayans-esque depiction of squalor.  Against all odds, though, Daniels has made a movie that’s brutal, uncomprising, and ultimately uplifting.

A lion’s share of the credit has to go to the cast, which is uniformly excellent.  Gabby Sidibe plays Clarice “Precious” Jones, an obese, sixteen-year-old 8th grader who was serially raped by her father.  These attacks have given her one child already (a daughter with Down’s Syndrome), and as the movie opens, Precious discovers she’s pregnant with a second.  Comedian Mo’Nique plays Precious’ mother, Mary, a woman who only leaves the apartment to play the lottery, and spends the rest of the time in front of the TV.  After Precious is expelled from school, she is allowed to attend an alternative school.  Here she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), the teacher who makes all of her students write regularly, and in doing so, take control of the narrative of their lives.

These three actors are amazing, but most of the accolades are justifiably going to the two main characters. As Precious, Sidibe seethes quietly, and through her we see how living in a domestic war zone affects a child.  She’s been taught – by her mother who beats her and verbally abuses her, her father who rapes her, the school which neglects her – that she means nothing, that she is nothing, and this is personified in the slump of Precious’ shoulders, in the way she mumbles and keeps her eyes downcast, in her refusal to share anything about herself at the first class in her new school.  The movie is personal, to be sure, but it’s also a scathing indictment of the system that has allowed Precious to become this way.

And then there’s Mo’Nique.  Playing one of the most thoroughly despicable characters in film history, the danger here is that Mary would become a one-note villain – just a variation on the mustache-twirling bad guy from the silent film era.  There are two absolutely virtuoso scenes where we see the depth of the performance, as well as the metaphorical cancer at the center of Mary’s personality.  In the first, a social worker comes to the apartment earlier than expected to see if Mary is still eligible for benefits.  Wearing a terrible wig and holding Precious’ daughter to complete the tranquil domestic scene, Mary comes across as the doting, attentive mother and grandmother.  When the social worker isn’t looking, however, Mary shoots murderous glances at Precious and is barely able to contain her rage at the squirming child on her lap.  It’s a high-wire act that’s thrilling to watch.  The second scene comes late in the movie, as Mary is interviewed by a second social worker (played by a de-glammed and frankly astounding Mariah Carey, hereby forgiven for Glitter).  In the course of the interview, Mary admits how Precious’ father began sexually abusing his daughter, why she allowed it to happen, and why she ultimately blames it on Precious.  It’s disgusting and infuriating, but it’s also heartbreaking to see how Mary is a victim of the same system that has so beaten down her daughter.  All the awards talk focusing on Mo’Nique’s performance is entirely justified.  If the Academy knows anything about acting at all, she’ll both be nominated and win in a landslide.

As I said at the top, while the movie is certainly harsh and terrifying, it’s also optimistic.  This optimism comes in the form of Ms. Rain, Precious’ teacher.  While Precious isn’t an education movie in the mold of Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds, it does present the thesis that education is one of the best ways for disadvantaged children to break free of the system that has held them down.  As Precious becomes more comfortable with both Ms. Rain and her peers, she becomes an avid writer, and this gives her hope that she can earn her GED and go to college.  And this is where the movie becomes more than just a tour of an inner-city hell.  Ms. Rain’s compassion, as well as her unrelenting determination that Precious not give up on herself, reminds us – especially those of us in education – that we have to help empower those less fortunate than we are.  Precious is one of the best movies of the year because it says, simply, this is what’s wrong with our system, but here’s how we fix it.

*****

Current listening:

Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Respect (1993)

Another Version of the Truth December 11, 2009

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Of all the adaptations of Stephen King’s work, there are five films regularly – and justifiably – singled out not as just great adaptations, but as great movies: Carrie, The Shining, Stand by Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption.  For my money, though, I think you could easily add David Cronenberg’s 1983 version of The Dead Zone to that list.

One need look no further than the principal figures involved with the movie to get a sense of its quality.  You have Cronenberg, who had just come off Scanners and Videodrome (two of the creepiest, most imaginative films of the early 80’s), and who was just about to make The Fly and Dead Ringers (two of the creepiest, most imaginative films of the mid to late 80’s); screenwriter Jeffery Boam would go on to write The Lost Boys and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and Christopher Walken – long before he became a parody of himself – gives one of the most restrained, nuanced performances of his career as Johnny Smith, a man blessed, or cursed, with visions of the future.

At the start of the film, schoolteacher Johnny is happily involved with Sarah (played by Brooke Adams), one of his colleagues.  They giggle, engage in a little hallway PDA, and go on a date.  At the end of the evening, Sarah invites Johnny inside but Johnny, ever the gentleman, declines.  Driving home in the pouring rain, Johnny plows into a milk truck (one of the movie’s few bum notes), and flips his car.  He awakes from a coma five years later to discover that Sarah is married and – oh yeah – when he touches people’s hands he’ll occasionally get a flash of some future event in that person’s life (and it’s always bad – no one wins the lottery or gets a surprise promotion at work or finally scores with the hot Waffle House waitress).

The rest of the film is split in half.  In the first section, Johnny struggles to come to grips with his newfound ability.  He’s enlisted by Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt, in a cool little role) to solve a string of murders that have been taking place over the last few years (and get ready to cringe at one of the most grotesque death scenes in film history).  In the second section, Johnny meets Greg Stillson (played by a wonderfully messianic Martin Sheen), a Congressional candidate who’s not above playing hardball with the local newspaper to get a negative editorial retracted (it involves, as these things often do, photographs of the publisher in flagrante dilicto with a young lady – at which point one of the bad guys predictably points to a photo and says, “I think this one is my favorite”).  At a Stillson rally, Johnny shakes hands with the candidate and receives a flash of the future – Stillson as a presidential demagogue, about to wage nuclear war on the rest of the planet.

It’s at this point that Johnny finds some of these premonitions have, as he describes it, “something missing” – a dead zone.  In these instances, Johnny realizes that the future can still be changed, and now he has to decide how to keep his vision of President Stillson from becoming a reality.  This leads to a darkly funny climactic sequence that is brilliantly executed and, more importantly, 100% satisfying.  I’ve seen too many movies that have cruised through the first 85 minutes, only to blow it in the last five.  Here, Cronenberg wraps things up exactly as he should – it’s the perfect ending.

I don’t remember enough of King’s book to make a comparison, but one of the things I admire most about Cronenberg’s movie is that, yes, it’s a thriller, but it’s also a fairly potent exploration of some heavy moral and philosophical issues.  For instance, if you could have a hand in altering the future, what level of responsibility do you have?  At first, Johnny doesn’t want anything to do with Bannerman’s police investigation, but he changes his mind when he realizes that any future victims could be partially his fault.  Later, as he wrestles with his premonition of the maniacal President Stillson, Johnny approaches his Jewish doctor with a hypothetical scenario that’s usually tired and worn-out, but which works remarkably well in this context.  If, he asks the doctor, you had met Hitler in his youth and knew what he would ultimately become, what would you do?  The doctor’s response is terrific: “I’m a man of medicine. I’m expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch.”  The movie goes beyond typically Stephen Kingian, things-that-go-bump-in-the-nightisms to delve into some darker, deeper corners.

I think there are a variety of reasons why The Dead Zone isn’t remembered as fondly as some of its peers.  It doesn’t have the striking imagery of The Shining or Carrie; it’s not as overtly suspenseful as Misery; it’s not as proudly sentimental as Stand by Me or The Shawshank Redemption. Those aren’t flaws, though.  Cronenberg’s direction and pacing are as sure-handed as ever, and Walken’s performance – while not as flashy as Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining or Kathy Bates’ in Misery – is sensitive and believable.  The Dead Zone is suspenseful and compelling, and, as is usually the case with Cronenberg’s movies, shot through with a rich vein of dark humor.  It’s an understated and effective movie that deserves to be elevated to the top tier of Stephen King adaptations.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

Up next: Christine (1983)

*****

Current listening:

The Seahorses – Do it Yourself (1997)

Cinema Sunday (12/6/09) December 6, 2009

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If you don’t know the films of Werner Herzog, you owe it to yourself to track them down.  In many ways, his filmography is a compendium of obsession, both in his fictions (Aguirre: The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; Cobra Verde; his remake of Nosferatu) and his documentaries (Little Dieter Needs to Fly; The White Diamond; Grizzly Man).  Reduce many of his films to their core, and you will see men who are wrestling with demons, gripped by inspiration, or in thrall to some urge so primal and powerful they can’t help but heed it.  Herzog is one of cinema’s great treasures, and his films are some of the most exciting, yet most overlooked, in the last forty years.

In many ways, it’s fitting that in his latest film, Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans, Herzog finds himself paired with Nicolas Cage.  Love him or hate him, Cage is an actor who is no stranger to obsession himself.  Take a look at a list of his movies, and you’ll find him inhabiting characters that grapple with many of the same issues that trouble Herzog’s protagonists.  Cage has appeared in plenty of turkeys – in fact, turkeydom has largely been his domain since the mid-90’s – but when he’s firing on all cylinders (Wild at Heart; Leaving Las Vegas; Adaptation; the vastly underrated The Weather Man), he’s as good as we’ve got.  Herzog and Cage are unafraid to go too far.  Sometimes this ends in failure, but it’s always seemed far better to overshoot the mark than to not try hard enough.

As a hugely entertaining document of this pairing we have Bad Lieutenant, a not-really remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 vehicle for Harvey Keitel.  Here, Cage stars as Terence McDonagh, a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans.  McDonagh is less concerned with protecting and serving the public than he is with allowing his police work to protect his own needs and serve his own interests.  He is a violent drug addict (painkillers, then cocaine, then heroin) and a compulsive gambler, the boyfriend of a prostitute, and the kind of cop for whom the thin blue line is more an inconvenience than a moral calling.

The plot is a thinly veiled coathanger on which Herzog gets to hang Cage’s fantastically unhinged performance.  Five people are murdered, execution-style, and it’s up to Cage and his sidekick (an unusually understated Val Kilmer) to find the murderers.  Over the next two hours, the movie gives us, in no particular order, numerous scenes of McDonagh doing crack, cocaine, and heroin; McDonagh having sex with a stranger in a parking lot while forcing her boyfriend at gunpoint to watch; rapper Xzibit as – wait for it – a drug dealer; an emaciated Fairuza Balk as a highway trooper who wants a piece of McDonagh’s sweet lovin’; McDonagh cutting off an old lady’s oxygen until she gives him the information he wants; a boilerplate Italian heavy, played by a guy who’s watched Goodfellas one too many times; Eva Mendes as McDonagh’s hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend; the breakdancing spirit of a murder victim; and a bizarre fascination with voyeuristic iguanas.

For Herzog’s non-documentaries, characterization is where it’s at – the plot is secondary to watching his protagonists contend with their demons.  Bad Lieutenant is far from a perfect film – and probably doesn’t even rank with Herzog’s best work – but it’s fun to see Cage inspired again, and it’s always fascinating whenever Herzog dips his toe in the mainstream waters.  Your appreciation for this movie will hinge on whether or not you’ve grown tired of Nicolas Cage.  For me, this movie was the cinematic equivalent of a warm blanket and a cup of cocoa, as I got to watch two masters do what they do best.

*****

It’s not worth a full review, but I wanted to throw in a quick plug for this subversive little gem.  As high school movies go, I Love You, Beth Cooper isn’t Election-good or Rushmore-good or Say Anything-good, but it’s definitely on par with the second tier of high school movies, like Clueless or Mean Girls or Can’t Hardly Wait.

When valedictorian Dennis Cooverman (newcomer Paul Rust) proclaims his love for the titular blonde (Hayden Panettiere) in his graduation speech, it sets in motion a night of hijinks that plays like a junior-league version of Martin Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours.

Director Chris Columbus (working on a small scale for the first time in years) made an inspired choice in casting Rust as the gawky Dennis.  By refusing to go with a recognizable face (Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg leap immediately to mind), Dennis is allowed to be fresh and original, and not just another in the long line of soft-spoken, stuttering dweebs that’s so popular at the moment.  Similarly, Panetierre does a remarkable job with a character that could have just been a typically brassy high school bitch.  Instead, she imbues Beth Cooper with the nuance necessary to teach Dennis the movie’s difficult lesson: it’s a disillusioning loss of innocence to see for the first time the real-world flaws in the object of our fantasies.  When we fantasize about people we don’t know well, we see them as an idealized version that says more about who we are than who they are.  I Love You, Beth Cooper is a smart, funny diamond in the rough that got lost in the summer shuffle.  Seek it out.

*****

Current listening:

Black Kids – Partie Traumatic (2008)

Rules of Disengagement November 30, 2009

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Cujo (1983) is an important movie in the Stephen King canon, mainly because it’s the first of his film adaptations to kind of suck.  His first three films (not counting the TV miniseries ‘Salem’s Lot) were directed by Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, and George Romero.  For Cujo, the producers enlisted a guy named Lewis Teague, whose only claim to fame at that point was a horror spoof named Alligator (notable mainly for the fact that it was scripted by indie phenom John Sayles).  Post-Cujo, Teague went on to direct one more King adaptation (Cat’s Eye),  Jewel of the Nile (the crappy sequel to Romancing the Stone) and Navy Seals (starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn!), and then found himself relegated to episodic television.  Long story short: for the first time, King’s work was being directed by a guy who didn’t have an impressive track record, and whose name wouldn’t eventually be remembered as one of the leading lights of cinema.

Despite that, though, the movie isn’t entirely terrible.  I said it kind of sucks, and it kind of does.  But some of it is pretty great.  It stars Dee Wallace (fresh off her starring role in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial) as Donna Trenton, a housewife married to Vic (an ad executive), and mother to 6-year-old Tad (a shockingly believable Danny Pintauro, who’d go on to play adorable moppet Jonathan in Who’s the Boss?).  Unbeknownst to Vic, Donna is having an affair with the local carpenter, and this rot at the center of their marriage is what takes up most of the first half of the movie.  The hook of the film (and King’s book), of course, is that it’s about a killer St. Bernard, but one of the weird flaws of the movie is that the horror and suspense essentially play second fiddle to this domestic drama.

So where does the dog come in?  The titular St. Bernard is out frolicking at the start of the film, chasing a rabbit into a cave (but not rescuing a stranded skiier with the keg around his neck, which is what I was hoping he’d be doing ).  He barks, the bats living in the cave get angry, one scratches him across the snout, et voila! Rabies.  Cujo belongs to a mechanic who lives, conveniently enough, way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.  VIc Trenton leaves on a business trip (apparently a cereal for which he designed the ad campaign has started killing kids – which sounds like a pretty good horror movie by itself), and while he’s gone, Donna and Tad drive out to the mechanic’s home to try and get their car fixed.  Little do they know, the mechanic and his family are gone – but Cujo is very much there and very much foaming at the mouth.

The rest of the movie focuses on Donna and Tad, who are now trapped in the car.  Every time they try and set foot outside, Cujo comes barking, smashes himself against the door, nearly shatters the windshield, etc.  It’s all very tense.  And of course no one comes to their rescue because Vic is out of town and the mechanic put his mail on hold before leaving.  There’s a wholly unnecessary subplot wherein Donna’s jilted paramour (she decided to dump him shortly before Vic left town) decides he’s going to take a pair of scissors to every piece of upholstery in the Trentons’ home, and Vic, who has returned from his business trip, thinks the carpenter has abducted Donna and Tad.  Imagine if George Lucas had tried to insert a detective story in Star Wars – it works about as well here as it would there.

The movie works best when it remains on the drama unfolding for the trapped and increasingly desperate Donna and Tad.  One of Cujo‘s strengths is that Teague was working with cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would, of course, be the DP on Die Hard, and go on to direct, among other things, Speed and Twister), and he makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, shooting mother and son in a way that amplifies the cramped isolation of the car.  Mid-summer, windows rolled up, attacked by a vicious, blood-streaked dog – it’s pretty visceral, and both Wallace and Pintauro pull out all the stops in portraying their terror.  To their credit, neither actor plays it tongue in cheek, and one of the most effective parts of the movie is seeing Donna devolve to the point where she single-mindedly and animalistically protects her son.

The movie doesn’t entirely work for a couple reasons.  One is the uneasy balance between the two stories it seems to want to tell: 1) how a seemingly happy domestic family can rapidly disintegrate, and 2) how a rabid dog can terrorize a couple in a Datsun.  The two halves just don’t mesh.  The other problem, I think, is that King’s novel essentially takes the story in a different, much more interesting, direction, implying that Cujo is possessed by, or the reincarnation of, a murderer from his novel The Dead Zone. Teague, on the other hand, plays it as a straight case of rabies, like he wishes Tim Johnson (the rabid dog from To Kill a Mockingbird) had ripped out Atticus Finch’s throat instead of being shot dead in the street.  There just isn’t enough plot in the rabid dog story to warrant a feature-length film, and as a result we get the boring domestic stuff at the beginning, and a movie whose 91 minute running time feels longer than Roots.

I think it’s great that Teague didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the book (although the Hollywood ending feels like a cop-out after the truly pitch-black conclusion of the novel), and it’s undeniably terrifying to see Cujo – fully gored up by the effects crew – attacking the mother and her son.  But the movie as a whole is strictly C-grade stuff, and marks the first (but definitely not the last) time when Stephen King’s work failed to make a smooth transition to the big screen.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Coming next: The Dead Zone (1983)

*****
Current listening:

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (2009)

Good Morning Midnight November 29, 2009

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There’s something about excessive fandom that never fails to turn me off.  I can’t explain it, but the more excessively people love something, the less likely I am to give it the time of day.  This is why I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, nor have I read The Da Vinci Code (despite this brilliant piece of advice from Roger Ebert: “Sometimes it’s good to read a book like The Da Vinci Code just to remind yourself that life is too short to read books like The Da Vinci Code“).  I have not, and will never, watch an episode of American Idol for this same reason – it’s just a hopped-up version of 80’s favorite Star Search, only instead of Ed McMahon you’ve got a surly Brit who likes wearing t-shirts so tight they display his flabby, middle-aged nipples.

This is also true of things I actually like (the obsession, not the nipples).  I love Radiohead, have seen them in concert on multiple occasions, and their Kid A album is definitely in my all-time Top Ten (and, considering what day you ask me, it might sneak into the Top Five).  But sometimes I get so tired of their fans obsessively fawning over them that I absolutely hate Radiohead (see also: Arcade Fire).  There are lots of great bands out there, and some of them – whisper it – are actually better than Radiohead.  But don’t tell their fans that.  They won’t listen.  And while they’re not listening, they’ll casually tell you your taste is lousy simply because you dare give another act the time of day.  The more people who love something – and the more ardent their fanaticism – the less likely it is that I’ll want anything to do with it.

And that brings me to Twilight. One thing I want to say right off the bat is that I wouldn’t even be writing this if the series had kept its fans isolated to its primary demographic: kids.  I have no problem with kids loving weird things, and loving them obsessively.  That’s part of what being a kid is all about: being undiscerning and just following your passion wherever it takes you.  You don’t know any better because your experience is limited.  As you get older, you develop a frame of reference, and you begin to realize that A) some of the things you love aren’t actually all that good, and B) it’s okay to maintain some affection for those things, but that affection is tempered by a recognition of their flaws.  Even though I’ve never read a single one of the Twilight books (nor have I seen either of the movies), I know enough about the series to see why it would be popular with young girls: mysterious creatures, forbidden and unconsummated love, hunky dudes fighting over a likable female character.  It’s a Harlequin romance, only with vampires instead of pirates.  I can even understand why older people would read (and like) the books.  The story is clearly engaging, and I’m not going to begrudge people their decision to read something trashy (I’m currently working my way through a collection of Stephen King short stories, so who am I to judge?).

There is, however, a difference between liking trash (which, again, I advocate) and becoming so wrapped up in it that you turn into the people above.  There’s a point where fandom crosses a line from respectable to creepy, and I think a lot of it is contingent upon A) age, and B) how that fandom manifests itself.  I’m almost tempted to give the people in the picture above a pass.  Despite their tacky, 9th-grade-English-class-quality sign, they probably just sneak in under the wire of acceptability.  But how about this motley assortment?

This was taken at a Twilight DVD release party back in March.  Finding someone under the age of 25 in this photo (and if that girl in the yellow jacket weren’t in the foreground, I’d raise that number to 40 – curse you, girl in the yellow jacket!) is as difficult as playing Where’s Waldo? To flip out over the mediocre movie version of a book series that is, after all, a Mormon abstinence parable is, frankly, weird, and these women should know better.

So should these.

One important thing to note is that I’m not, even for a second, impugning their taste.  It’s well-documented on here that I like plenty of stuff for which my hipper friends automatically deride me.  No, it’s more a question of decorum.  See, it’s one thing to like a movie or a book.  It’s another thing entirely to be a middle-aged woman sporting a Team Jacob shirt or brandishing a sign that reads, “Bite Me, Edward!” (although, to be fair, at least that person’s sign has correct comma placement – and that’s how I know it wasn’t designed by a 13-year-old).  This kind of behavior is unbecoming once you reach a certain age, and it’s even less appropriate when the object of your adoration was designed for someone young enough to be your daughter – or your granddaughter.

My initial thought was that maybe it has something to do with the actors playing the roles – maybe these women were simply responding to the attractiveness (using the term loosely) of actors Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.  Maybe this was just another version of middle-aged men going to the Transformers movies and losing their collective shit over Megan Fox.  But it’s not the same.  Not really.  It would be the same if these middle-aged men went to the movie premiere dressed as robots, or sported Team Mikaela shirts, or made signs that read, “You can shift my gears anytime, Mikaela!”  But no.  These men go to the movie, get their action fix, mentally drool over Fox’ vaguely greasy sexuality, and call it a day.

The Twilight fans’ obsession, on the other hand, transcends merely thinking these two actors are hot stuff.  Instead, they get overly wrapped up in the plot – displaying bizarre partisanship with their Team Edward and Team Jacob shirts – and seem instead to love what their characters represent.  For Pattinson’s Edward, I guess it’s the unrequited love aspect – that he has to love Kristen Stewart’s character chastely, romantically, and without giving into his baser instincts (essentially neutering everything that makes vampires even remotely interesting in the first place).  Lautner’s Jacob, by contrast, represents – what?  I don’t know the story well enough, to be honest.  The promise of protection?  Noble savagery?  He’s a werewolf who looks like he’s 12, so I’m not exactly sure what the attraction is.  But my point is that the fans have latched onto the characters in ways that have more to do with the story than with the actors portraying the characters.

It’s absolutely fine to relate to or find comfort in a novel or a movie.  That’s one of the reasons we read books and watch movies in the first place.  But again, it’s all in how that manifests itself.  Maybe these older Twilight fans are just doing it in the spirit of good fun, and they know it’s fairly ridiculous for them to be carrying on the way they are.  But to make that leap I have to be willing to bestow on them a level of self-awareness that I just don’t see in the screaming mob scenes and the t-shirts and the crying and the homemade signs.  That level of obsession just strikes me as weird and, again, when we’re talking about 40- and 50-year-old women, a little creepy.  What would we say about a 50-year-old man wearing a shirt with Megan Fox’ picture on it?  Exactly.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to dismiss art (using its broadest definition) based solely on its fans.  I admit that I could be missing out on some great stuff.  Maybe I should be watching Grey’s Anatomy, snatching up the books in Oprah’s club, and rushing out to catch Twilight: New Moon. A good rule of thumb for me, though, is that when something’s most ardent fans are people I generally wouldn’t want to associate with in other situations, it’s probably best that I stay away from that thing.  So: sorry, Twilight. You might be great.  But thanks to the middle-aged woman crying and screaming for Robert Pattinson’s attention, I’ll never know.

*****

Current listening:

Fanfarlo – Reservoir (2009)

Intermission November 28, 2009

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Another reason why YouTube is occasionally magnificent.  Here, John Cleese delivers the eulogy at Graham Chapman’s funeral.  For those who don’t know how the Pythons did their writing, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were a team, Cleese and Chapman were a team, and Eric Idle wrote his stuff individually.  For this reason, no matter how long the troupe had been together, Cleese clearly knew Chapman best, and his farewell to his friend is both touching and brilliant.

Thanks, Graham.

As I watch this Python documentary on the Independent Film Channel, the sight of these aging geniuses is undeniably exciting, and it only reinforces why, collectively, they’ve been one of the biggest influences on my life, my sensibility, my personal philosophy of life, etc.  And even though the sight of them now reminds me too much of the passage of time – and that they won’t always be with us – it’s gratifying to hear Michel Palin talk about how, against all odds, he never really grew up; whatever it is that causes most people to become staid and boring as they reach and exceed middle age never happened to him.  And, watching the rest of the troupe in their interview segments (including Eric Idle singing a newly-penned song titled “Fuck Christmas”), it’s clear that Palin’s in good company.  We should all be so lucky.

Regularly scheduled programming should resume in a day or two.

*****

Current listening:

The Trash Can Sinatras – In the Music (2009)

Last movie seen:

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009; Wes Anderson, dir.)

The Ones We Managed to Win November 24, 2009

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I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to George Romero.  Giving us Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead earned the guy a free pass for the rest of his career, as far as I’m concerned.  And yet the argument could be made that if it weren’t for those two movies, we wouldn’t know who George Romero is.  His non-zombie output has been, shall we say, underwhelming.  Bruiser, anyone?  Knightriders? Just like Roland Emmerich (Independence Day; 2012) is only good at blowing up the world, Romero is primarily only good when it comes to the shambling undead.

Creepshow (1982; one of two Romero adaptations of Stephen King’s work – The Dark Half is the other), however, is a funny, affectionate anthology of King-penned tales, some previously published, some written expressly for the screen.  The first thing to note about the movie is that I used the word funny, and not the word scary. I also could have said it was clever and goofy; both of those adjectives would be more accurate than saying it’s frightening.  That might seem like a weird thing to say about a movie with Romero’s and King’s names attached to it, but there’s always a darkly comic undercurrent running through much of the author’s work, and as for Romero … well, let’s not forget that Dawn of the Dead includes a zombie-human pie fight.  They might primarily be known for their horror, but both artists are no stranger to humor.

The movie itself consists of five individual stories, with a shorter, wraparound story bookending the movie.  None of the stories are especially scary, choosing instead to mine a sort of middle ground between the grotesque and the droll, and for that reason the movie has always reminded me more of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits: it’s fantasy as much as it is horror, and dark humor as much as it is either of those other two things.  Some of the stories work; some don’t.  But they’re always interesting, and in their best moments, they’re terrific fun.  The easiest way to attack this movie is probably story by story, and I’ll try to avoid spoilers for people who haven’t seen it yet.

“Prologue”: Paired with the epilogue, this is the silliest of the bunch.  A father throws away his son’s scary comic book, uttering the immortal line, “That’s why God made fathers, babe. (Sips beer.)  That’s why God made fathers.”  The windswept comic book provides the individual stories that follow.

“Father’s Day”: Written by King for the movie, this story is, unfortunately, a dumb and inauspicious way to start.  A group of money-grubbing relatives gathers each year for the titular holiday, and the new member of the family (an in-law, played by a very young Ed Harris – hair intact) is introduced to the story of Aunt Bedelia.  Seven years prior, Bedelia killed her father, Nathan, by smashing in his head with an ashtray.  Three guesses as to who rises from the dead to kill his family members, and the first two don’t count.  Key line: “I want my cake!”

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”: Did I say the prologue was the silliest story in this movie?  I misspoke.  Inexplicably starring King himself in the title role, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is an inconsequential sci-fi nothing, based on his short story, “Weeds.”  King plays a backwoods rube who stumbles across a meteor (key line: “I’ll be dipped in shit if that ain’t a meteor”) and has designs on delivering it to the local college for the king’s ransom of $200.  Unfortunately, when he touches it, something tragically agricultural happens to him.  This vignette is definitely funny (shots of King delivering the meteor to the university’s “Department of Meteors”), and the last section is unexpectedly poignant.  It works, despite its goofiness.

“Something to Tide You Over”: My favorite of the bunch.  Here, Harry (a pre-Cheers Ted Danson) is abducted by Richard (Leslie Nielsen, before he was forever typecast as the dimwitted cop by the Naked Gun movies) for canoodling with Richard’s wife.  He takes Harry to a remote beach and unveils the plot he’s devised to enact revenge on both Harry and his wife (hint: it involves burying both of them up to their necks in sand).  Of course, because this is a horror anthology, things ultimately don’t go as Richard planned.  (Key line: “I can hold my breath for a long, long time!”)  The real kick of this segment is seeing Nielsen in a dramatic role.  It’s easy to forget that he had a long career prior to Airplane! (according to IMDB, 236 roles dating back to 1950), and it’s a lot of fun seeing him act so convincingly as a cruel tough-guy here.  Danson, too, is entertaining to watch.  The gift of hindsight – getting to see him in a supporting role just as his career was about to skyrocket – can’t be underestimated.

“The Crate”: Originally published by King as a short story, this section of the movie stars Hal Holbrook (who most recently portrayed Chris McCandless’ elderly benefactor in Into the Wild) as a henpecked college professor who uses the discovery of a century-old crate (or, rather, its contents) to punish his shrewish wife.  As with the previous story, it’s a lot of fun to see an actor of Holbrook’s stature stoop to pulpy, B-movie fare.  This segment is an awful lot of fun: creepy, gory, clever, and a nearly-perfect melding of King’s and Romero’s sensibilities.  Key line: “Get out of my way, Henry, or you’ll be wearing your balls for earrings!”

“They’re Creeping Up on You!”: Written by King for the movie, this story involves a Howard Hughes-esque tycoon (played by venerable actor E.G. Marshall) who has sealed himself away in his apartment, but who still maintains a healthy fear of bugs.  Cockroaches, specifically.  (Key line: “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got this bug problem.”)  As the story progresses, we learn what a repellent figure this guy is, and are gratified when the bugs get their revenge.  I’m not sure this segment exists except to provide the viewer with the highly gratifying sight of roaches erupting from a person’s chest.  Entertaining, and Marshall – who is essentially the only actor in this segment – does a terrific job, but it’s kind of a nothing way to end the movie.

“Epilogue”: The other half of the silly story that bookends the film, it quickly shows how the kid from the beginning of the movie gets revenge on his dad.  The only upside is getting to see Romero’s longtime FX guru Tom Savini as a garbageman.

Creepshow is certainly not a great film.  It is, however, good, pulpy fun, and the trick is to go into it expecting something campy and silly, with a B-horror-movie sensibility.  If anything, it reminds me of the cinematic version of those schlocky horror and science fiction mags that published King’s first work (as well as Ray Bradbury’s, Kurt Vonnegut’s, and Harlan Ellison’s).  Pulp, which I used above, is probably the best adjective for the movie.   Creepshow has a low-budget, borderline ridiculous, Grindhouse feel to it.  And I absolutely mean that as a compliment.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Coming next: Cujo (1983)

*****

Current listening:

Bear in Heaven – Red Bloom of the Boom (2007)

Accidents Will Happen November 18, 2009

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The National Council of Teachers of English annual conference kicks off tomorrow, so I’m headed to Philadelphia for a few days.  That means two things: 1) Things will be slow (or absolutely silent) around here once I leave tomorrow afternoon until Sunday evening, and 2) I needed to write my weekly review of a Stephen King movie adaptation before I left.

*****

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) probably has the most impressive pedigree of any Stephen King adaptation.  Brian de Palma was still making his reputation when he gave us Carrie; David Cronenberg was (and, really, still is) a cult director at the time of The Dead Zone; ditto George A. Romero (Creepshow and The Dark Half); and Frank Darabont was primarily a screenwriter at the time he made his feature-film directorial debut with The Shawshank Redemption. The only adaptations comparable to Kubrick’s would probably be John Carpenter’s Christine, which came in the middle of a long run of early 80’s, post-Halloween hits (Escape from New York; The Thing; Starman), and Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery. (I know Reiner is also responsible for Stand by Me, but his two films previous to that – This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing – weren’t huge hits at the time.  Misery, on the other hand, was his William Goldman-penned follow-up to the enormously successful When Harry Met Sally…)

As much as I like Carpenter and Reiner, however, they’re no Kubrick.  When he directed The Shining, these were Kubrick’s previous four movies: Dr. Strangelove; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; and Barry Lyndon. Holy shit, indeed.  No other director of one of Stephen King’s books has that track record, and it really is sort of curious that a director of Kubrick’s stature would take on an adaptation of a pop horror novel.

For those who don’t know the story, it’s actually one of the simplest in King’s canon.  In a nutshell: Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in what might be his most memorable role) takes a job as caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel during its closed winter season.  He brings his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall, who, to put it charitably, never quite finds her footing in this role), and young son, Danny, to spend the winter with him.  Madness and ax-murder ensues.

One of the benefits of this little adventure of mine is that I get to watch some movies that I haven’t actually sat all the way through in a long time.  The Shining is certainly one of those.  I’ve seen bits and pieces on television, but it’s been years since I’ve watched it in its entirety.  I’d forgotten, first of all, what a beautiful movie it is.  Those first, sweeping images of what’s supposed to be Colorado (but which is, in fact, Glacier National Park) are still breathtaking, but these opening shots are really just a prelude to Kubrick’s use of Steadicam in the Overlook Hotel, rolling us seamlessly through the hallways and stalking the characters as they move in and out of the hotel’s cavernous rooms.  Not just virtuosic from a technical standpoint, The Shining also contains a handful of iconic images that linger even after the movie is over: the twins in the hallway; the elevator pouring blood; the hedge maze; Danny tearing around the hallways on his Big Wheel; Jack sticking his head through the splintered bathroom door and uttering the line, “Here’s Johhny!”  Regardless of what you might think of the story (or of horror movies in general), it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

That said, the movie has some odd flaws.  Pacing is one.  It’s entirely possible that this was part of Kubrick’s grand design, but most of the conversations between the characters seem uncomfortable, stilted, wooden.  There are weird pauses and wonky reaction shots in the opening interview scene between Jack and the Overlook’s manager, and none of the scenes where we’re supposed to buy into Jack, Wendy, and Danny as a family really work.  Try as I might, I can’t see Nicholson as a family man, and this is only compounded by the off-putting scenes where I think he’s trying to convey fatherly love but actually seems more like a sarcastic SOB who’s just killing time with this family until he can clock out and head to the Playboy Mansion.  Nicholson’s descent into madness is one of the selling points of the movie; unfortunately, it’s only when he’s crazy that he’s actually believable.

But Shelly Duvall takes the Grand Prize for acting atrocities.  It’s a bizarre casting choice, to be sure, as there was nothing in her acting history to suggest she could play Wendy with any degree of credibility.  It’s a fairly demanding role – she fears for her son, watches her husband descend into madness, and has at least a couple confrontational scenes that a better-suited actress could have knocked out of the park.  Unfortunately, it looks for all intents and purposes like Duvall was already auditioning for the role of Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. It’s a shrill, off-kilter performance that, amazingly, never hits one authentic note in the movie’s entire two hour and twenty minute running time.

Despite its flaws, the movie works.  It works because of the amazing visuals (and I’d be remiss not to at least mention cinematographer John Alcott), and the nearly-palpable sense of dread that infuses virtually every scene of the movie.  It’s far from perfect – and not nearly up to scratch with Kubrick’s earlier films – but when Nicholson’s performance finally jives with Kubrick’s direction and visual acuity, it’s a masterwork of tension.

*****

Current listening:

Marillion – Holidays in Eden (1991)