the view from row q - sullivan's travels

file this one under "they don't make them like that anymore". and do you know why they don't? they think you're idiots. fortunately, preston sturges didn't think so. exhibit A, sullivan's travels (1941).

the paramount theater screened this tonight, along with bing and bob in road to morocco (1942), as part of a double bill of road movies and all i could think about afterward is how things could be. in 2010, seven of the top ten grossing films were sequels or remakes. throw out cartoons and precisely one out of ten of those films was an original idea written for adults, christopher nolan's inception (2010). how in the world can we be satisfied with that? apparently we are, though, as the box office doesn't lie. the blame can't be placed exclusively on the studios if we continually line up to pay for inferior product. here's a gentle reminder:

every dollar you spend is perhaps your most powerful vote. by extension, every ticket you purchase is a vote saying "please make more like this". cast your votes wisely.

in an impressive run in the late thirties/early forties, preston sturges wrote, and then also directed, some of the wittiest and most literate films to ever come out of the hollywood studio system. he achieved great commercial and critical success without once underestimating his audience. his rapidfire dialogue never sacrificed its sharpness or sophistication for a lowest common denominator laugh and his story presentation often took on an experimental edge that pushed the boundaries of what mainstream films could be. he paved the way for other prominent auteurs, billy wilder and john huston among them, and his influence on the coen brothers cannot be underestimated. he managed to do all of that without pandering, going for cheap laughs or talking down to us. in tonight's film, john l. sullivan, sturges' surrogate, takes those very ideas right out among the people he was making pictures for.

joel mccrea is sullivan, a director who specializes in the lightweight, generating big bucks for the studio with candyfloss like ants in your plants of 1939 and hey, hey in the hayloft. he longs to do something with substance, a film called o brother, where art thou? detailing the plight of the common man. the problem is, he's a product of privilege who doesn't know the first thing about being hungry. he takes it upon himself to leave behind his life on a velvet pillow and take to the open road with only one thin dime to his name. he vows to not return until he knows what trouble is, until he knows what it is to be "without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. alone". of course, he's too valuable a property for the studio to lose and they strenuously object. strenuously, that is, until they realize what a publicity bonanza this promises to be. this caravan hits the road, shadowing sullivan the "hobo", but no matter what he tries, he ends up back in hollywood. he crosses paths with veronica lake, an actress whose story is ending like so many who made their way west in search of stardom, flat busted waiting for the next bus home. nothing to lose, they take to the road together.

they do a fair bit of traveling and are exposed to precisely the plight that sullivan envisioned for o brother - hopping freight trains, soup kitchens, flophouses, makeshift camps - but you know they are never more than tourists. they are always but one phone call away from luxury and opulence. sullivan, affable, honest and good-hearted but ultimately soft, calls a halt to the proceedings when the hunger gets to be too much and returns to hollywood to document the experience. he is shanghaied while handing out five dollar bills to the destitute and ends up with a bump on the head on a freight train to parts unknown. the bum that stole his money is misidentified as him in the morgue and sullivan, still in a fog from the beating he took, ends up at odds with a railyard bull which lands him in court, then in prison, sentenced to six years hard labor. he is finally where he so naively wished to be - friendless, nameless, alone. the only way out of this mess is to come forward as his own murderer. from that point, things are sorted out and sullivan eventually makes his way home, wiser for the time he spent in stir. he no longer wants to make o brother, preferring to go back to comedy, after having seen firsthand that laughter is all some people have in the world.

not everything in the movie works, but it plays to its strengths. joel mccrea was never the greatest actor, but he is well cast here, bringing an underlying simplicity that is essential to sullivan's eventual growth and his chemistry with veronica lake is great. this is probably my favorite performance of hers - it's at least tied with i married a witch (1942) - because i think she's so much better when she's playful. the femme fatale business was always too one-note for her. she is faster, smarter and funnier than that. she's easy to want, sure, but i like her better when you're allowed to see why you could love her rather than simply desire her. all around mccrea and lake, sturges fills the margins with his usual stock company of players, each bringing their vital eccentricities. the dialogue is always snappy and any sentimentality registers as sincere, never treacly. it doesn't hurt that the characters on the lower social rungs are the ones who are most in touch with their own, and others', humanity. sullivan's butler, burrows, lectures him, quite rightly, on the dilettantish nature of his experiment, telling him that "the poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous". the all-black congregation that welcomes the group of prisoners which includes sullivan into their church for movie night is the only group of people in the entire film that is wholly righteous and dignified, notable for 1941. there are some tonal shifts that can be jarring and the gravity of some of those scenes undercuts sturges' "laughter is the best medicine" valediction but it's a complicated line he's trying to walk and he does most of it so well that these minor problems end up just being good places to begin examining the film, ultimately enhancing rather than detracting from the experience. there are a number of thorny questions, deftly introduced. the occasional slapstick may mirror the kind of tripe that sullivan wanted to turn his back on but it is certainly funny, providing the entertainment that keeps us coming back to the movies over and over, and you can't sell a message to an empty theater. the ease with which his legal situation is sorted out is convenient plot-wise but to pretend his status and wealth wouldn't have an effect on the way the proceedings would have been handled is even more naive than sullivan was when he started out. for every time sullivan makes a clumsy attempt at understanding the human condition, a diner owner comes up with a free cup of coffee for someone who is down on their luck, this simple act of human kindness saying more than any orchestrated gesture. there is plenty going on here to dig into and the craziest thing about it, given the current cinematic climate, is that sturges trusts you to do just that. that's rich and rare these days. i recommend you take advantage of it.

the view from row q - high plains drifter

if, due to hazy memory or just the laziness of easy association, you think of clint eastwood's high plains drifter (1973) as just another spaghetti western, you should think again.

the paramount theater screened this film in tandem with rooster cogburn (1975) as part of a set of double features they have going on this week. tonight's was a slightly ironic pairing, as john wayne apparently held drifter in extremely low esteem. he told eastwood that the film "did not represent the true spirit of the american pioneer, the spirit that made america great". well, as far as i am concerned, those two phrases express vastly different sentiments. if he had said that it wasn't flattering, though, he would have been right on the money.

it begins with eastwood as an apparition, fading into view through the waves of heat given off by the scorched desert. a solitary rider on a pale horse, he makes his way down from the mountains, through the graveyard on the edge of town and into the heart of a godforsaken village named lago. the name is appropriate enough, as it a lakeside hamlet, but i have to wonder if it also a nod to the lago d'averno in naples, which dante characterized as the entrance to hell. with all that time spent with sergio leone, it's not outside the realm of possibility that clint picked up a little local color.

it would also be in keeping with the less than subtle symbolism on display throughout the picture. this is a brazen and obvious film on most levels. it's wrathful and has no time for subtlety, very old testament. this version of "the man with no name" wastes no time making his presence felt. he inspires an almost supernatural level of fear and curiosity in the townsfolk and in about as much time as it takes to hitch up his horse, get a drink and sit down in the barber's chair, he has killed three men and raped a woman. it's the treatment of the latter crime that i think is still one of the most misunderstood things eastwood ever committed to film. i see an awful lot written about how the dodgy sexual politics of the rape with the accompanying "she didn't seem to fight it too much" attitude are just in keeping with the less enlightened tenor of the times. i think this is far off the mark. i think that comes from still wanting to view eastwood as a vengeful ghost seeking justice, amoral at worst. well, forget about it. he is trying to make you understand that he is the devil here, as manipulative, disruptive and malevolent as can be. quit trying to make him out to be an antihero based on what you've seen him in before. he's practically daring you to despise him, making you complicit in the debauchery if you don't. look beyond the clint you're comfortable with. see the bigger, uglier picture.

it's the picture that john wayne wasn't ready to accept. the townsfolk want to hire him to protect them from a trio (trinity?) of bad guys that used to wear the mantle of protector he is being offered, until they outstripped their usefulness and were unceremoniously shipped off to a territorial prison. he relents once they make the offer of anything he wants with "no reckoning". now they are speaking his diabolical language. they are craven cowards, so desperate to avoid reaping what they've sown that they will resort to ignoring murder and rape and handing over the run of their town to this mercenary who immediately turns things upside down for nothing more than anarchic glee of it all. he installs the town dwarf as sheriff and mayor and begins "training" them to protect themselves with exercises that are nothing more than charades underlining how foolish and incompetent they are. it's also not enough that they are weak, childish, cowardly and incapable. we also learn, through a set of dream/flashback sequences, that they are also harboring a terrible secret that may have provided the otherworldly impetus for this stranger's arrival in the first place. there is almost no one worthy of redemption here and eastwood is certainly no redeemer. he is here to have what he wants, damn the hindmost. damn the foremost while you're at it. damn the whole thing. just paint everything red, "especially the church", and remove all doubt that hell has come to town.

the day of the inevitable showdown arrives, but just as the final preparations are being made and the townspeople are laying their trap, the stranger simply rides away, leaving them to flounder and fail, some fatally. our "bad guys", also the perpetrators of the crime that has left this black mark on the town's soul, take control of lago, setting fire to half the joint and terrorizing everyone until the ghost of floggings past comes to visit. the stranger exacts his final vengeance on these three, with a curtain of flames erasing whatever lingering doubts you may have had about his more infernal qualities. his work done here, he fades out in the distance exactly the way he faded in, leaving me with an unsettled feeling. there wasn't really a sense of a spirit avenged that can now be at peace. i felt it much more likely that the second he faded from view here he faded in somewhere else, to just start the game all over again, as there is obviously no shortage of the selfish, criminal and morally deficient for this devilish ghost to prey upon. pioneer spirit, indeed.

it's a worthwhile film, if not particularly nuanced, occupying a ghostly terrain somewhere between more traditional western fare and the non-westerns that robert altman and the like were making at the time. i appreciate how bleak and downright nasty it was willing to be. i don't think it gets enough credit for that. watch it again, if you haven't in a while. it may surprise you. and if you've never seen it, i recommend it. you can decide for yourself if the duke was right or not.


good news from row q

this morning's email brought a piece of news that certainly made the day brighter.

the paramount theater officially announced that they are expanding their film offerings this year. now, in addition to the summer classics series, they will be programming all manner of classic and foreign films all year long. they had already been leaning this way with the noir and frankenstein double features last month and this week's shows but it's nice to know that it's not just a diversion to while away the winter (what little we have). it's also nice to know that they aren't just spreading a summer's worth of films over the entire year. the summer schedule is going to be just as full as usual, if not more. they have also started the film at the paramount blog, so check in there for film notes and to keep up with what programmer jesse trussell has in store for us in the coming weeks and months. it promises to be a pretty fun year. i'll see you downtown.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for preston sturges' wry comedy sullivan's travels (1941).

you can catch this gem this weekend at the paramount theater on a double bill with bing crosby and bob hope on the road to morocco (1942). see you in row q. take a date!


crash course in norse

i love festivals. so many chances to see films i wouldn't otherwise get to see. i especially love smaller festivals with a specific focus. i can't think of many better ways to spend a day than immersed in the idiosyncratic little universes that make up a genre or combing through the cinematic underbrush of a culture i seldom get to interact with. i woke up this morning, opened the paper and one of those opportunities fell right into my lap. turns out, today had a pleasant surprise in store for me in the form of the austin nordic film fest.

it's a modest undertaking, with ten shorts and three features, all taking place in one day. don't let that fool you, though. it has both quality and variety. with entries from denmark, sweden, finland, iceland and norway, it features multiple award winners and a number of genres and styles. i arrived in time for the third, and final, block of films and am still kicking myself for having missed the luminous, stop motion animation short veeti and the beanstalk (2009). it was one of the finnish entries, directed by susanna kotilainen and it has all the requisite magic any good kids movie ought to. here's enough to get the idea:

the films i did see, however, were not disappointing. the program started with the icelandic short epic fail (2009) by ragnar agnarsson.

it's an amusing short about a good natured, but not exactly successful, young man whose ambition extends only as far as the end of his boom microphone. he is an avid collector of sound but you are given the distinct impression that nothing more will come of it than being the proud owner of the largest collection of samples of tires on rain-slicked reykjavik streets in the whole wide world. his bike with all of his equipment on it goes missing when he steps into a pizzeria for lunch setting off a chain of misunderstandings and misadventures that leave you thinking about the kindness of strangers and the power of coincidence. all in all, a decent start. i might have enjoyed this a little more were it not marred by technical difficulties that threatened to make its title more than a little ironic. the interrupted flow is a tough thing for a 13 minute film to recover from.

next was another icelandic short, helena stefánsdóttir's anna (2007).

it plays a little like the dark side of amélie (2001). imagine if audrey tautou's tics and compulsions weren't whimsical and charming but instead were uncontrollable and bordered on frightening. our title character is beset by a disorder that manifests itself by compelling her to imitate the actions of everyone she meets, adding each new blown kiss, sneeze, smile, cry and scream into an ever-building loop that makes going to the market for sugar an almost unbearable ordeal. her syndrome is so severe that her infatuation with her handsome neighbor doesn't stand a chance and so she climbs out onto the ledge. fortunately, he climbs out with her. his caring gesture momentarily threatens to be the thing that will unwittingly lead to her demise until, in the final moments, he truly understands her and, crisis averted, romance is given space to bloom among peals of laughter that could be genuine or could just be her disorder again. a nice, ambiguous note to end on and the program picks up steam.

norway was the source of the feature presentation in this block, erik poppe's troubled water (2008).

you guys know how much i love the cold and dark of a theater. imagine how much i love the cold and dark when it's geographical, when it's so much a part of a cultural identity that it seeps into your bones. nordic films have always appealed to me on this gut level. the intimate cold and the quiet dark that gave us the likes of carl theodor dreyer and ingmar bergman has produced another wonderful filmmaker in erik poppe. this film takes those nordic cinematic mainstays, penitence and grief (and penitential grief), and makes something fresh and lovely out of them. it tells the story of jan thomas who, as a kid, committed a stupid crime that resulted in the death of a young boy. he has served his time and, freshly paroled and shedding his first name to avoid recognition, has found a job as a church organist. his tentative exploration of his new life, his only freedom since he has become an adult, finds him alternately seeking solace in music and comfort in a budding relationship with the church's pastor. this new life is not without its obstacles, though, as the pastor is a single mother whose son bears a striking resemblance to the boy whose death thomas is responsible for. complicating matters, the dead boy's mother recognizes thomas when she brings her class to the church for a field trip. what the film does best is convey a sense of dread and inevitability. it seldom telegraphs its punches, instead relying on gentle, persistent suggestion. maybe thomas' rehabilitation isn't as complete as we might want to believe as we are subtly shown he still carries the potential for violence. perhaps the striped shirts worn by the dead boy and his live counterpart are meant to hint to us that the specter of this crime has had everyone involved imprisoned since the day he disappeared. certainly there are parallels between the baptismal font and the river where the crime occurred, forgiveness and a new life being chief among them. in a wonderfully effective structural trick, the film takes us right up to the point where the new youngster in thomas' life disappears and then retreats to the very beginning of the story, this time telling it from the grieving mother's point of view, showing us every point at which their lives had intersected after his release as she becomes aware of and observes thomas, becoming slightly more unstable, though not wholly mad or unreasonable, throughout. we are left just like she was, lost, pondering the fate of a child, in limbo for almost the last third of the film. these twin paths of unrelenting grief and guilt are a couple of heavyweight performances and poppe keeps everything brilliantly minimal all around them. nothing intrudes on their necessary cycle of redemption and finding hope in love and maternal forgiveness. and i find a certain satisfaction in the implicit suggestion that, in at least thomas' case, it may still not be enough. it would have been the easy thing to do to wrap it up in a nice, tidy package. i'm glad that's not the nordic thing to do.

if you'd like to dig a little further into the films from tonight's closing block and others like them, here are some handy links:

film movement

the icelandic film centre

the swedish film institute

the norwegian film institute

the danish film institute

the finnish film foundation

thanks to the festival organizers. that was a great lineup today and a wonderful evening of viewing. looking forward to next year already.

making my contribution

there are a couple of things on the vitagraph horizon that i am looking forward to that you guys might want to keep an eye out for. first, my friend bryce over at the entertaining and edifying things that don't suck is running a sam raimi blogathon from 3.27.11 to 4.2.11 and it promises to be great fun. i participated in the one he organized last year devoted to christopher nolan and i am honored and excited that he asked me back. in the meantime, read his blog. there's always something interesting going on over there.

second, i threw my hat in the ring for the fifth annual white elephant blogathon over at silly hats only (i think bryce is doing this as well. i hope so).

the rules are simple. you submit a title you want to see someone review and you are randomly assigned one from someone else's submission. we all reconvene on april fool's day and post the results. i received my assignment a couple of days ago and i am/am not looking forward to it. i take small consolation in the fact that, thanks to me, someone, somewhere has to/gets to watch the misunderstood genius that is unmasking the idol (1986). come back on 4.1.11 and see who had the biggest joke played on them.

starlite recap

last night heralded the triumphant return of the starlite cinema series after taking the month of january off.

we returned to the lovely smith residence and once again transformed the backyard into the crestland arcadium for a belated valentine's day program that included bill forsyth's charmer, gregory's girl (1981) and jean cocteau's visual poem, beauty and the beast (1946). in keeping with the valentine's day theme we also watched mystery science theater 3000's deflating of the short what to do on a date (1950). and, since oscar fever is already sweeping the land we added a mini-program of animated shorts with two of this year's nominees - andrew ruhemann and shaun tan's the lost thing (2010) and bastien dubois' madagascar, a journey diary (2010) - and last year's winner, the we-dare-you-to-sue-us masterpiece, logorama (2009) from the french animation collective H5. as if all this wasn't enough, once again, lauren outdid herself in the kitchen, especially with the homemade thin mints. a grand time was had by all and i want to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who came. if you run into stephen or lauren tell them how incredible they are for hosting us. these couldn't happen without them.

next month is a program that vitagraph is already delirious with anticipation over. the march installment of starlite cinema will be freaking KUNG FU NIGHT!

oh dear lord. if you know me, you know how excited i am about this. i am working on whittling down the list to two features but that is going to be difficult. there are so many choices. new school? old school? wire work? swordplay? shaolin? this could take forever. you can count on a few things, most likely - some beautifully awful english dubbing, a dead master or two that must be avenged and some incredible beard/eyebrow combinations. our tentative date right now is the last friday in march, 3.25.11, so keep it free if you can. i will be back with an update soon outlining the films and confirming the date. i promise this one is going to be worth your while. hope to see you then.


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for steven kastrissios' the horseman (2008), just one more example that no one in the last few years is making better, grittier noir/crime films than the australians.


happy valentine's day

"i've had twenty years of perfect companionship with a man among men. he is a rock and a protection. i have never regretted it." - katharine hepburn on spencer tracy


he's got the look

pay attention, now. ben stiller has a message for all of us.

your twenties are difficult and confusing.

your thirties are difficult and confusing.

your forties are difficult and confusing.

so gather ye rosebuds while ye may.


in animate objects

i just wanted to make a brief entry today to introduce those of you unfamiliar with him to the work of barry purves.

he is a master animator from the UK whose work with elaborate puppets is of the highest order. his body of film work consists of six shorts, each more beautifully crafted and complex than the last. when not bringing his finely detailed creations to life, he works in the theatre as a director and designer and this influence shows up in almost all of his puppet work, as the short films touch on shakespeare, japanese stage traditions, grand opera and gilbert and sullivan. his animated version of rigoletto (1993) for the british television series operavox is incredible and his achilles (1995) is a rigorous and striking examination of the relationship between achilles and patroclus, laid out in such intimate detail that it forever demolishes oscar wilde's claim that puppets "have no private lives". just a few frames to give you an idea of his consummate skill...

and here is his brilliant next: the infinite variety show (1989) in its entirety. watch as a stop motion bard puts on the audition of a lifetime, squeezing an image or two from his entire catalog into a scant few minutes.

unfortunately for us on this side of the atlantic, most of his work is not available as a region 1 dvd. if you're savvy to the ways of the internet i am sure you can find more if you are so inclined. you can also visit his website to see more of his work, both with and without puppets. i highly recommend it all.


right on queue!

alright, the queue de grâce gauntlet has been picked up! everyone, meet thomas laszlo.

thomas is my favorite seven year-old on this whole goddamn planet. it is obvious from the photo that he is an intrepid adventurer, so it comes as no surprise to me that he was the first to accept my challenge. this week he will be watching a list of films i provided him and giving us his impressions via his blog, awesome nine bazillion. he just posted his first entry today, so head on over there and check it out!


this cab is off duty

another installment of queue de grâce has come to an end and was a roaring success, if i do say so myself. once again, i extend a heartfelt thanks to my curator, miss cabby lawry.

don't let her kid you. she's not that sweet. kind of a cowardly move to hit me with that patrick dempsey business and then get on a boat headed for the safety of international waters, if you ask me. enjoy your cruise, chump!

here's the full rundown of what i saw this week:

when harry met sally (1989)
how to kill your neighbor's dog (2001)
sleepers (1996)
capturing the friedmans (2003)
the fifth element (1998)
lock, stock and two smoking barrels (1998)
amélie (2001)
a perfect world (1993)
the beach (2000)
aimée & jaguar (1998)
return to me (2000)
the pledge (2001)
the dark crystal (1982)
big (1988)
the garden (2008)
JFK (1991)
loverboy (1989)
the hudsucker proxy (1994)
billy elliot (2000)

the only one on her list that i didn't get to this time was up (2009). i have seen it before, though. here's the short version: i thought it was incredibly well done and much more for adults than children. how many kids (besides me) would be into sepia tone nostalgia and airships? and how many children can grasp the notion of the loss of a life-long love (which is what the movie was about)? pixar perfected their formula with that one. and i cried once, at the end.

if you are completely in the dark as to what i am rambling on about, feel free to go back and start at the beginning.

as always, i welcome any and all who would like to participate as curator for the week. just let me know you are interested, i will add you to the list in the order you request was received. the line right now is about ten deep so i will be doing these more often. my friend caroline is next up and we will be doing that some time in the middle of april, so stay tuned. in an exciting bit of news, my friend thomas is the first one bold enough to take up the queue de grâce challenge and i am formulating a list for him as we speak. i will let you know where you can keep up with his exploits as soon as his reports come across the wire. thanks for following along, everyone. talk to you soon.

trailer tuesday

this week's entry is the piano tuner of earthquakes (2005) from longtime vitagraph favorites, the brothers quay.

if you get the chance, i highly recommend that you avail yourself of their more experimental animation. street of crocodiles (1986) is a particularly fine example.


attack of the cab monster: day seven

day seven comes just in time. many more days like yesterday and you might find me jellyin' up the sidewalk. fortunately, it's a new day and this is the sweet baby that's going to put us back on top.

i love the coen brothers' the hudsucker proxy (1994) more every time i see it. this viewing confirmed for me that it belongs in what i consider to be the top tier of their output. looking back, those first seven films were an incredibly strong way to begin a career, with this one being the dark horse. it has all of the hallmarks that made me fall in love with their work - the incredibly specific devotion to language, the dizzying camerawork, the playfully omniscient and wise narrator, the oddball sense of humor - and, for the first time in their career, it adds to that a layer of screwball comedy and movie magic the likes of which hadn't been seen in about forty years. even the opening credits promise something grand and the coens do not fail to deliver. the opening pan across the city is beautiful. everything in the boardroom gleams. even charles durning's suicide is majestic (and momentarily hilarious when he wipes his eye). the homages to preston sturges, katharine hepburn, et al. are loving and sharply executed. the film took a lot of heat upon its release for not having any heart but it seems that these critics never took into account the fact that this is satire. as for it being pastiche, sure, there's some of that. i wonder, though, why demonstrating a thorough knowledge and love of a certain genre from the thirties and forties is unacceptable when these same critics have multiple orgasms every time quentin tarantino cobbles together some whizbang nonsense in which literally every scene can be traced to an (often superior) antecedent from the golden age of the drive-in? hardly seems fair. ah, well, pay them no mind. the years are going to continue to be kind to this one. i'll stake my pulitzer on it. any time someone bemoans the state of filmmaking in our life and times, whenever you think to yourself "they just don't make 'em like they used to", remember this film. it's a pip.

we ring down the curtain on this edition of queue de grâce with stephen daldry's billy elliot (2000).

i guess this is a fine enough, feel-good way to go out this week. it seemed to me like just another in the long recent line of scrappy upstarts overcoming grim conditions in the UK. echoes of everything from the commitments (1991) to brassed off (1996) - my favorite of the lot, thanks primarily to the late, great pete postlethwaite - to the full monty (1997). and, like monty, this has spawned a musical in its wake as well. what makes this film special is obviously the kid. jamie bell does a fantastic job as billy. there's a character in his face that belies his tender years. he strikes a fine balance between the hard-won wisdom of someone who has seen their fair share of tough times and the perplexity that comes with adolescence, sometimes communicating the subtle difference between the two with just his forehead. i would recommend it based on his performance alone. otherwise, you've seen the story a dozen times.

round two is now in the books. thanks for reading along. i am now off to reclaim my television.


attack of the cab monster: day six

day six started off strong with scott hamilton kennedy's documentary the garden (2008).

it chronicles the bitter struggle between a group of south central los angeles farmers maintaining a 14 acre urban garden, the largest is the u.s., and a shady cabal of land developers, lawyers and ethically challenged local politicians. the garden itself was a result of community programs meant to enrich impoverished areas in south central in the wake of the rodney king riots and more than a few people have a vested interest in this plot of land. about 350 families are responsible for the food that is grown on the property and it feeds a few thousand in this section of los angeles' latino and immigrant community. they depend on it to eat and it is an oasis in the middle of a part of the country in which there is little comfort to be found. it is sacred to them. the owner of the property strikes a backroom deal with a local councilwoman and a corrupt community activist (referred to in the film as a "poverty pimp") that is the impetus for him to reclaim his property from the farmers and evict them. i am sure they expected little resistance from this group of farmers and expected to be pocketing a windfall as easily as they had on a previous deal to build a soccer facility in the area. man, were they wrong. the farmers organize, get legal representation and mount a furious opposition. the struggle plays out in the courts, the farmers up one minute and down the next. internal strife besets the garden. protests, fundraisers and community outreach programs are set in motion and the lawyers go at it hammer and tong. there is a pesky question of entitlement that runs underneath this whole thing. it is the owner's land after all, and he is within his rights to do what he wants with it. had he handled it honorably, in an above board fashion, i don't think you could quibble with the decision. it was his land. he allowed farmers to use it for fourteen years but now it was time to do something else with it. had that been the case, it would have been sad, even tragic, but not wholly unreasonable. but when you start looking at the soccer field that was built you begin to wonder. $4.7 million dollars allotted to it and it looked like about five grand had been spent on it. a dirt field with one porta-potty and a chain link fence around it leaves a few million floating around in someone's pockets. when the community gets wind of a secret deal being struck that will oust them and exploit the community even further they dig in their heels. they are not going to be your underclass to be trampled today, buddy. they are going to be your worthy adversary. it's a riveting portrait of a community making sure its voice is heard.

we go from fuckery on the community level to the international stage with our next film, oliver stone's JFK (1991).

ok, gang, here's the deal. we're never going to know. even the truth, if we have heard it, is going to seem like just one more scenario that anyone can debunk with ease. there are loonies on every side of this case. i look at this film more like a really good magic act. there's diversion, some excellent sleight of hand and some moments of wonder that seem to reveal something true but, in the end, none of it is necessarily real. it's great to look at it, with stone using a variety of techniques and film stock, foreshadowing a style that he would take to its manic terminal point a few years later with natural born killers (1994). and i know it might be a little odd to say about a film that is 205 minutes long, but i think the editing in this film is its greatest achievement. in almost three and a half hours i don't feel like the energy ever flags and there are a couple of scenes, particularly donald sutherland's centerpiece, in which the rhythms of the film just pull you along whether you want to go or not. just relax and let oliver take you for a ride, back and to the left, back and to the left...

which brings us to a piece of film capturing acts more heinous than anything abraham zapruder saw in his worst nightmares, joan micklin silver's loverboy (1989). i would have rather watched this on a loop for 98 minutes.

i don't even know where to start, so i am just going to skip to the end first. after coming home from college for the summer, patrick dempsey ends up working as a prostitute, servicing a coterie of deranged beverly hills trophy wives for two hundred dollars a pop to raise tuition so he can get back to school to be with his true love. yeah, you read that right. true love comes to visit and he attempts to explain how, in the span of a few weeks, he has become a morally bankrupt manwhore.

"it sorta just happened."

yeah, you read that right.

i knew i was in trouble from the outset with the delightful eighties cartoon credits. how fun! it didn't help matters when the opening dorm room "punk rocker" party scene segued from edie brickell right into the escape club. the movie wastes no time in introducing us to the quite obviously insane barbara carrera who will become dempsey's de facto pimp. other repulsive characters include his best friend who boasts with great pride "i come onto every girl that walks", and his dad, who is chiefly involved in the film via a wacky subplot revolving around the misunderstanding that his son is "a fruit". stop! oh my sides! e.g. daily speaks in some language that is mostly squeaks whenever she is on screen and carrie fisher makes a surprise return appearance this week, adding cigarettes to her provocative mélange of desperation, maybelline and liquor stink. as if all this wasn't enough, in a hilarious oedipal twist, our casanova is hired to bang his mom. oh no he di'n't! actually, he doesn't. unable to deliver that pizza, he instead offers his mother up to a miniature-stallone, exchange student date rapist (one of two date rapists featured prominently in this cast). oh! the hijinks! well, i know you're wondering, and yes, his plan to sleep with forty-three women during the course of a summer does eventually get him back in his girlfriend's good graces - she's not crazy - so everyone lives happily ever after. cue the dance number and the smooth saxophone over the closing credits!

one odd note: in an eerie echo of apocalypse chelsea: day six, today also had a disturbing rendition of "great balls of fire" sung in a car, this time by vic tayback and his amazing toupée.

i can only think of one way this could have been redeemed. as dempsey is spinning his true love, and future sharer of his stds, around the dance floor, a sound begins to invade the music. a high pitched beep insistently pushes through as the dance scene fades out and we fade in to dempsey being hustled down a hospital hallway on a gurney. turns out, when he took that corner to talk to the redhead that kicked off this mess, he was plowed into by a dumptruck. this whole thing was just the final vision of a horny, stupid clown making his way into the light while he lay crumpled and broken in an intersection strewn with anchovies. how's that for a mcdreamy sequence? time of death? the moment some moron green-lit this abomination. call it.

cabby, the next time i see you i am kicking your ass for this.

tomorrow has got to be better, right? lord, just give me some kind of sign.

whew. thanks, buzz.


attack of the cab monster: day five

the forecast for day five is fair. nothing really knocked me out or raised my hackles all that much today. first out of the chute was sean penn's the pledge (2001).

it begins with a disheveled and disturbed jack nicholson drunkenly mumbling, completely incoherent. fade from that to an earlier, more composed nicholson as a police detective who is attending his retirement party when a call comes in about a young girl who has been the victim of a horrific murder. he has six more hours left to his career and, being decidedly of the old school, he goes out on the call. thanks to the bungling incompetence of other officers on the scene it falls to him to inform the girl's parents. her mother forces him to swear upon a cross that her murdered daughter made that he will find the person who did this, the titular pledge, and that hooks the thread that eventually unravels the man. he continues to work the case on his own when his instincts tell him that the suspect they picked up on the day of the crime, who subsequently committed suicide, was not the killer. it's this middle third of the film that i enjoyed the most. what started as a competent, average police procedural begins to grow into something else. this man, now retired, buys a gas station in the middle of nowhere, as it lies in an area between where two other crimes occurred that he attributes to the same killer. he is setting a completely improbable trap. the film forgoes the usual tropes of the obsessed detective coming apart at the seams and downshifts for the entire second act as he gambles on this longshot and bides his time. in the meantime, he takes up with a local barmaid and, along with her daughter, they begin to forge an unlikely family. the film is at its most effective in this section because where we would typically see the cop who just can't let it go poring over reports with crime scene photos tacked to the walls we instead get nicholson reading bedtime stories and shopping for flea market furniture. the case is always in the back of his mind but only when we get to the finale do we truly wonder about how much of his retired life was devoted to angling for this killer rather than a stringer full of fish and domestic contentment. thanks to a fiery crash, he never gets his man and his idyllic new home is torn asunder. that tends to happen when you use someone's daughter for serial killer bait. all in all, good not great. it doesn't hurt that a number of my favorite actors turn up in smaller roles - mickey rourke, helen mirren, benicio del toro, the particularly effective vanessa redgrave - but it's not enough to make this more than mostly average with a good second act. a demerit for making me look at aaron eckhart's weasel face.

i think this picture is from when he was in bon jovi.

here we make a 180° turn and delve into frank oz and jim henson's bizarre puppet epic fantasy, the dark crystal (1982).

the story itself is completely unremarkable. it is a standard quest by "the one" who has been prophesied to restore good in a land blighted by evil. he faces various perils, narrowly escapes and saves the day in the eleventh hour amidst some mystical mumbo jumbo. what is completely remarkable is the previously unheard of puppet and animatronic work on display here. i remember when this came out and what a great hue and cry there was about the direction oz and henson had taken. where were the muppets? why the hell is everything, including the hero, creepy and weird? what have you done with the cute?!? well, i am glad they stuck to their guns because it resulted in a daring and complex world inhabited by puppets the likes of which filmgoers had never seen. the production design is overflowing with detail while remaining completely true to the dark, sometimes ugly aesthetic. their biggest crime was simply so thoroughly confounding people's expectations. if you had no foreknowledge of the muppets or sesame street, i suspect this would have proved intriguing rather than upsetting. it's a shame the story is so rote and pedestrian. at times it is so boring it makes it hard to stay interested in the revolutionary puppetry. you don't achieve the mona lisa through painting by the numbers. this one fights itself to a draw.

finally, we have penny marshall's big (1988).

i'll say this right up front - i have never liked this movie. i know, i am a monster. it just does nothing for me. there are a couple of laughs but, to me, it just plays like an episode of amazing stories that has been padded out to feature length. almost without exception, body switching stories are the bunk. i suppose that stems from my finding zero sympathy for people who wish they were someone/something else. do the work, clowns! to be fair, there are one or two elements that i think are effective and accurate when it comes to putting the inner life of a kid onscreen. the fact that the kids find it much easier to accept the transformation than adults seems like it would be true. it requires imagination and adulthood tends to quash that (again, i refer you to day one, film one). the best joke in the film is the subtle exchange immediately after josh convinces billy of the truth of his predicament. "you look terrible", billy says. "i know", replies josh. it's probably the best line reading tom hanks has ever given. but for every time they get it right they go and do something distracting like the "got it, need it" baseball card bit in the beginning or the "shimmy shimmy coco bop" routine. i thought this was set in 1988, not 1958. maybe after school they can race home in time to see kukla, fran and ollie. the iconic piano scene gets away with it because piano lessons have been the same for the last four hundred years. i give it kudos, as well, for being the first film directed by a woman that grossed over $100 million. i am sure that opened a lot of doors and created a lot of opportunities that might not have been there for women otherwise, so i appreciate that. without it, debra granik might not have had the opportunity to make winter's bone (2010). who knows? viewing it in a vacuum, though, just tells me that women, too, are capable of making sentimental claptrap aimed at those for whom cinema is easy escapism and not much else. congratulations?

ho hum. don't worry. tomorrow might get my hate tank rolling again.



attack of the cab monster: day four

the halfway point of our experiment this week finds us halfway around the world and all the way annoyed.

yes, leo, i was equally horrified. in the wake of becoming king of the world in 1997 and the hearthrob of choice for a legion of adolescents pining for seven minutes in heaven in steerage class (were there titanic moms too?), leonardo dicaprio took a few left turns. i think he should at least be given credit for not falling back on his doomed romantic laurels and cashing in by starring in a series half-assed romantic comedies/period pieces. that being said, it doesn't mean danny boyle's the beach (2000) was a good choice. for anyone. exhibit B this week in my case against rave kids making movies. if what is missing in your life is a stoner version of "lord of the flies" at 120 bpm, then step right up. everyone else would be better off leaving this alone. in what had to be a huge stretch for him, leo plays a smug, spoiled american who, while vacationing in thailand, gets wind of a legendary beach that is paradise on earth. he talks two french tourists into going with him in search of the island - there are two reasons for this. one, he wants to have sex with the girl behind her boyfriend's back and two, he lacks the backbone to do anything alone without whining about it, either onscreen or in voiceover - and they find it, much to my chagrin. it turns out the island is split between a gang of marijuana farmers and the most annoying mutlicultural commune you have ever laid eyes on. they maintain a precarious truce as long as conditions remain beneficial for both sides. well, guess what. leo makes sure things don't stay that way because he has neither common sense nor impulse control. he has sex with the french girl right away and they begin a relationship that has all the passion and fire of a magazine layout, a pack of sharks make for a mild diversion and then the last third of the film descends into a morass of video game graphics and leo doing his best colonel kurtz impression.

hint: his best is not good. still can't fathom why scorsese has put all his eggs in leo's basket. i suspect he will always look like, and have the skills of, a little kid wearing grown-up clothes. watch it if you want, but don't say i didn't warn you.

you know you're having a tough round of viewing when a holocaust film makes you feel better. max färberböck's aimée & jaguar (1999) did just that, though.

this has been on my list of things to see for a long time, so i was very pleased to see that cabby had chosen it and i was not disappointed. leo could afford to take copious notes from these women when it comes to telling the story of an ill-fated love. it's the true account of lilly wust and felice schragenheim, two women living in nazi germany at the height of world war two. lilly is a soldier's wife, casting about for something to give her life meaning and felice is a jewish woman living under an assumed name and working for the underground. felice is the thing that finally wakes lilly from the somnambulance that her life has been until now and the two begin a tender and loving affair that shows them both gilmpses of a life they had never previously thought possible. it would be easy for the choice of love over survival to veer into maudlin, melodramatic territory but that fortunately never happens here. perhaps that is so because of the backdrop of the holocaust. under those circumstances, the audience would have to be blind to not constantly be aware of the potential of the tragic ending. either way, these women are very real and they put a very real light in one another's eyes. you get a true sense of the power love has, through the hope it creates in people, to whittle the impossible down to the merely improbable. of course, sometimes improbable is also insurmountable and this story ends in heart-rending fashion. on what might be the best day of their lives, the nazis capture felice and she is shuttled off to the gross-rosen concentration camp. it is believed that she died on a forced march from there to bergen-belsen. maria schrader and juliane köhler do such a fine job essaying these characters that i was immediately struck by the urge to get erica fischer's book, which contains a number of photos and letters, and get to know these women better. this is the best thing i have seen this week. it's going to be hard for the rest of the list to compete. you never know which time you kiss someone is going to be the last time. make the most of it.

we wrap up our day with bonnie hunt's throwback of a romantic comedy, return to me (2000).

my feelings about the quality of this film will probably vary depending on the day you ask me about it, but right now i lean towards sweet rather than saccharine. it's one of those unlikely scenarios that test my patience right from the beginning. david duchovny's wife dies, minnie driver is in need of a heart transplant, minnie gets david's wife's heart, minnie and david fall in love only to discover this connection they have that threatens to ruin what was otherwise perfect. that nonsense earns you strike one and two. on paper, awful. fortunately, there are plenty of things in the film that transcend this ridiculous premise. for one, this cool dog:

two, set in chicago. alright, film, i am now inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. what else you got? robert loggia and carroll o'connor? ok, we can be friends. in general, it's just refreshing to see material handled this way in a contemporary romantic comedy. no one has to be sexy, sassy or snarky. it's populated with characters that you'd actually like to get to know. yes, it's polite. yes, all the rough edges have completely been sanded down. in this day and age, though, it's almost a bigger risk to simply be nice. it's definitely a bigger risk to be genuine with your heart than to buy into ironic games that hedge your romantic bets. i also enjoy that duchovny and driver seem to be in no hurry with things, another pitfall of the current crop of edgier romantic comedies. this could just as easily have been made in the thirties or forties, so you know i'm in favor of that. i probably wouldn't watch it again and there may be some days i am rougher on it than others. in the context of today's selections, though, i am willing to see more of the good. for the dog.

i get the feeling that tomorrow i might not feel so charitable.

see you then.