Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blogorium Review: The Baron of Arizona

The Baron of Arizona, director Samuel Fuller (The Naked Kiss, Pickup on South Street)'s second film, is based on the true story of James Reavis, a clerk in Santa Fe, New Mexico that perpetrated one of the most elaborate hoaxes in U.S. history, claiming that he and his wife were the rightful owners of the territory of Arizona in 1883. Told in flashback by Reavis' antagonist (and, ironically, mentor) John Griff, the film is generally fun - if tonally inconsistent - thanks to Vincent Price's performance as the so-called "Baron of Arizona."

During the 19th century, the U.S. honored land grant titles from the Spanish government, and Reavis saw his opportunity to steal Arizona away by claiming to be the "rightful owner." Reavis spent years constructing his story, creating false tombstones, carving a stone proclamation from Spanish King Ferdinand VI, and falsifying records allowing an orphan he adopted to become Sofia de Peralta, the legal heir of Arizona (not then a state). The Baron of Arizona follows Reavis (Price) from his arrival at the home of Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), announcing that Alvarez's adopted daughter Sofia (Karen Kester) was the heir of Miguel Peralta - an invention of Reavis.

Reavis hired Loma Morales (Beulah Bondi) to be Sofia's nanny, then leaves Arizona to forge entries in the two existing copies of Ferdinand VI's Land Grants; one in a monastery in Alacantra, Spain, and the other in the Madrid castle of the Marquis de Santella. After three years in the monastery and an undisclosed time living with gypsies, Reavis is reunited with the adult Sofia (Ellen Drew), and proposes marriage to here, the final component of his plan.

The Baron and Baroness Sofia de Peralta-Reavis arrive in Phoenix and lay claim to their land, sending the Department of the Interior into a struggle to prove or disprove their paper trail. The Government sends John Griff (Reed Hadley), an expert on forgery (and author of the book Reavis uses to create the false documents early in the film) to crack the case, while Reavis begins charging railroad companies, businesses, and landowners for the privilege to use "his land," raising the ire of locals.

The Baron of Arizona is hampered from the get-go by a frame story set in 1912, immediately after the territory became a state. A much older John Griff recounts how Reavis almost pulled off his hoax from beginning to end, and the narrative accordingly lacks suspense from the get-go. The audience is privy to every trick that Reavis pulls, every bit of deception he uses, and when Griff arrives in the story, there's no mystery to how the "Baron" crafted his con. There's no point in following Griff as he cracks the case (and to the film's credit, Fuller never tries to deviate from Reavis), but because we know he will be caught and we know how the lie was constructed, it's really a matter of waiting for the ruse to end.

Would the film be more effective had it begun with James and Sofia arriving in Phoenix, laying claim to Arizona, and working backwards? Maybe; I can't say with any certainty because that's critiquing a movie for something it doesn't do rather than the film that is. The lack of narrative tension isn't the only problem, however: the film's reasonably jovial tone takes a sour turn late in the film when mob justice leads to a near lynching of Reavis, a scene that directly follows his admission of guilt to Griff. That, coupled with an eleventh-hour change of heart by Reavis towards Sofia (when he decides he truly does love her, without much clear character development) closes the film out on a "love conquers all note," another tonal shift that The Baron of Arizona doesn't earn.

And yet, I left the film enjoying Fuller's second effort nevertheless; Vincent Price carries the entire film as the conniving, devious, yet charming silver-tongued James Addison Reavis. From the moment we meet him until the very end, Price (who was 39 when the film was made) is a magnetic screen presence, capable of selling the manipulative, power hungry, serial-seducing "Baron" as someone you want to see succeed. When Hadley's John Griff arrives, one can't help but cheer for de Peralta-Reavis, even when we know he's totally in the wrong and shamelessly ripping off Arizona's rightful landowners.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag: Hadley has a Joseph Cotton quality to him, and he does the best with what amounts to a dual-role (the elderly, wistful statesman, and the cocky investigator determined to take down Reavis). The film's low budget hurts the most with Ellen Drew's grown Sofia de Peralta, who at no point is ever believable as the half-Spanish / half-Native American the Baroness turns out to be. She seems to have flown from New England to central casting in Los Angeles. For his part, I never questioned that Sokoloff - and actor of Russian descent - was anything but an authentic Mexican, which cannot be said of most of the cast members from the "Spanish" section of the film.

Fuller gives The Baron of Arizona some nice touches; while the film was shot in 15 days at the Corrigan Ranch in California (and partially in Arizona), the Spanish monastery looks authentic enough, and despite a few obvious "in studio" shots (and the least convincing "day for night" scene I can remember), one can appreciate the effort to distinguish the movie from other "period" films of the 1950s. While one shouldn't come in expecting the Vincent Price from his Corman years - the slightly campy, heightened version we tend to associate with his performances - he and Fuller do generate some laughs, particularly in a scene of mis-communication between Reavis, Father Guardian (Gene Roth), and local police, that pays off in an appropriately ironic wagon crash.

Criterion included The Baron of Arizona in their Eclipse series The First Films of Samuel Fuller, and I was glad to have seen the film, warts and all. It's not something I might have been aware of otherwise, and it's certainly worth checking out if you want to round out your Vincent Price experience.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Melancholy Video Daily Double

It's been a strange and sad week for film-related deaths. Yesterday, Quentin Tarantino's long time collaborator, editor Sally Menke was found at the bottom of a ravine in Glen Oak Drive in Hollywood. At the moment, the suspicion is that she fell victim to Monday's heat wave in California (113 degrees), and at 56 Menke had a lot of life to live. Her influence on Tarantino's films is inestimable, and I'm very curious to see what his next film looks like.

At 88 years of age, perhaps it's not as big of a shock to hear director Arthur Penn passed, but his impact on the "new Hollywood" in the late sixties and early seventies bears mentioning. While Penn was 45 when he made Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, its violence and unorthodox editing style (particularly for a major Hollywood studio film) paved the way for the "next generation" to bring independent spirit to the masses for the next ten years.

Today I'll share two videos related to Menke and Penn.


Our first video is one of many you can find on Quentin Tarantino DVDs. During filming, he would ask almost every cast member to say "hi" to Sally at some point. This collection comes from the filming of Death Proof.

Our second video is not from Bonnie and Clyde. I considered it, but since just about every media outlet immediately gravitates towards the film (and it's pretty easy to find the ending on YouTube), I thought it would be more fun to share some of Alice's Restaurant, another Arthur Penn film.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From the Vaults: Blogorium Review - Zoo

So Zoo, as it turns out, is short for Zoophilia, which, kinda like Furries, is for people who feel more closely affiliated to animals than humans. Mind you, this is the same argument NAMBLA makes, except their love is for little boys and not horses or dogs or goats.

Zoo is pretty much what you'd think it was about, although not in the way anyone probably expected. It's told through re-enactments, mostly of middle aged guys hanging out and drinking and wandering around town while the actual people involved in this tell you how normal they are and how normal playing with a horse's balls is to get your kicks. I'm not making any of this up.

At first I was incredulous, because the filmmaker is really trying to paint these people up a misunderstood and decent folks who happen to love animals so much they're more interested in having sex with them than humans. Again, I must stress this is coming from things said by the people who owned and frequented this ranch in Enumclaw, Washington.

There are some kind of disturbing bits in this movie, but the two that stand out is the shot of actors playing the men (and the one guy who plays himself) stroking these devices used to tighten around a horse's testicles, and the scene where police find the video of "Mr. Hands" in the act of being bred by the horse, and forcing the owner of said horse to watch the video, even after he vomits and tries to leave the room, just so one of the cops can say (not making this shit up) "is that your horse?"

Speaking of which, Happy Horseman, one of the gentlemen involved, has some narration as the scene plays, where he says "you can't even say that the horse is having sex with him in the tape. All you can see is the horse doing something."

Which of course is why he tried to destroy all of the videos in the ranch while running from the authorities.

And why are none of the men who refuse to share their real names or be seen on camera in jail right now? Well, it turns out that bestiality was legal in the state of Washington until just after Mr. Hands died. Did I mention that even though there's "nothing wrong with this" according to H, Happy Horseman, Coyote, and the others, that no one would stay at the hospital to answer any questions about why he was bleeding internally into his abdomen? Thought I should share.

Zoo tries really, really hard to make these people sympathetic, but the fact that you can hear these same kinds of arguments on "to catch a predator" is really telling. It's hard to feel sorry for these bastards when one of them promises it will happen again near the end of the film, all the while insisting that he's being persecuted. There's even an attempt to suggest that clearly the animals are consenting to this by Rush Limbaugh on one of his radio programs around the time this happened, but good old even Limbaugh can't make his case sound reasonable, let alone give a reason why they have a case.

I can't honestly recommend this movie to anyone, because you'll probably learn more about the story from following the news reports. Unless you really want to spend 75 minutes listening to forty to sixty year old men chastise you for not understanding their love for animals, or you're keen on seeing some quick shots of what may or may not be the video they shot of the event happening (something totally glossed over by the people involved) or a guy walking around naked and hugging horses, then Zoo is a waste of your time. The ludicrousness of it wears off pretty quickly, and you’re left with a nasty taste in your mouth, which is what happens when horseshit gets shoveled in for and hour and change (no pun intended, although there is never a specific mention of the zoophilics in the film eating actual horse shit).

2010 Thoughts: The Cap'n is pretty much sticking to that review. To properly contextualize Zoo, I'd heard the news reports about what happened in Washington state, found it to be morbidly amusing, and rented Zoo to get the scoop. The film is artfully made, and certainly has a hypnotic quality about it. At the same time, it's impossible to separate what it is these men are telling you from the reality of the situation, which becomes less amusing once you've seen Zoo.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Blogorium Review: Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps

It would be unfair to say that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps "almost" works; for one thing, that's not actually true - it does work. It might not work the way audiences were expecting it to, but as impossible and presumptively unnecessary sequels go, the film is pretty close to successful. It shouldn't work, and there are a handful of tiny things that keep Money Never Sleeps from being a great movie, but Oliver Stone pulls off the impossible more or less by continuing the Gordon Gekko saga and bringing it into the stock market collapse of 2008.

Out of prison after serving 8 years for insider trading, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) sets about rebuilding his life by writing and lecturing about the dangers of sub-prime loans and toxic assets, largely falling on deaf ears. What he really wants to do is reconnect with his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a left-wing blogger engaged to Jake Moore (Shia LeBouf), an investment banker / day trader and Green energy enthusiast. When Bretton James (Josh Brolin) sets about the collapse of the firm Moore works at - and the subsequent suicide of its owner, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) - Jake turns an encounter with Gekko into an opportunity to get even with James. Winnie's increasing discomfort with her father's presence puts a strain on her relationship with Jake, and it Gekko's intentions may not be so pure, either. Meanwhile, the housing bubble inches closer and closer to bursting, and the Federal government may have to bail everyone out...

Honestly, that shouldn't work. Most people heard that a sequel to 1987's Wall Street was in the makings and said "really?" The Cap'n was one of them, although I don't think I ever bothered writing about it here. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps starts with Gekko's release in 2001 and then jumps forward to 2008, right before the collapse. It hits all of the major beats regarding the "why" of the market downfall: Jake's mother (Susan Sarandon) is a former nurse turned realtor that makes risky investments she can't pay off, Bretton causes the collapse of a major bank by leaking information about their toxic holdings, then makes money betting against its own interests. There are two board room scenes set in the Federal Reserve. This movie shouldn't work.

But it does, and that's kind of amazing. The key is that, although Wall Street was about the mentality that allows this film to happen, Money Never Sleeps is about the people. And the people carry the movie, even through a story we already know the ending to. Whether it was serendipity or not that a sequel to Wall Street began development right before the failure of major banks, Oliver Stone is merely using real life as a backdrop to logically extend the story of Gordon Gekko and the stock market mentality, and in that he succeeds.

The success of Money Never Sleeps, in large part, comes from an excellent ensemble cast, anchored by (and this surprises even me) Shia LeBouf. I haven't been too kind on the man in the past, but LeBouf's Jake Moore keeps the whole film running. Everything in the film is told from his perspective, and he stands toe to toe with some of the best in the game and holds his own. Despite appearances, Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko isn't all over Money Never Sleeps; he's a major character, but Gekko is frequently relegated to the background. That being said, his character development doesn't get the short shrift; as (one of) the only returning cast members from Wall Street, Gekko has evolved since we last saw him, in expected and, frequently, surprising ways. When he takes over as Jake's mentor, there's a sense that more is going on than strictly manipulation, and Gordon genuinely regrets the rift with his daughter.

Speaking of which, Carey Mulligan takes what could be a thankless role and really brings humanity to Winnie Gekko. The part could easily be a cipher: daughter of the main "bad guy," liberal blogger who distrusts wealth and those who chase it, but Mulligan gives her an emotional core that keeps you invested in her relationship with Jake. Better still, there's a fantastic scene with Douglas and Mulligan outside a benefit that really sets up the stakes for how the rift happened, and how they see its outcome differently. Josh Brolin is also excellent as Bretton James, a wholly unscrupulous investment banker that takes an interest in Jake but who seems to lack any semblance of basic human interaction. It could be a one-note "villain" role, but like so many other actors in the film, Brolin takes one scene (a lake-side discussion with LeBouf) and elevates the character beyond stereotype.

While they aren't in the film as much, it is worth noting that Frank Langella, Eli Wallach, Jason Clarke, and Susan Sarandon are also fantastic, and each finds something to stand out with in a film swimming with roles. Austin Pendelton makes the most of a thankless role as the director of the Hydro Fusion project Jake is funding, and there's another cameo I'll get to below, which is interesting, although I'm not convinced it was necessary, and I'm not talking about Oliver Stone's small part as an art dealer.

The trailers are a little misleading, in that they set up a more sinister tone for Money Never Sleeps than the film actually delivers. Yes, there is a degree of cynicism and a hint of the cautionary tone of the first film, but Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is an overwhelmingly optimistic film for an audience that isn't expecting that. Gekko is arguably the protagonist of the film, although his role is secondary to Jake's, and even though Gordon hasn't changed as much as he pretends, I still think you're going to be surprised at how Money Never Sleeps ends. It shouldn't be terribly surprising, considering that the mood of Stone's films have been more optimistic since World Trade Center, but I suspect many of the negative reactions have something to do with the fact that Money Never Sleeps is less of an indictment on Wall Street than, well, Wall Street was. Greed isn't good anymore, and while Gekko suggests it's "legal" at the outset, that's very much not the case by the end of Money Never Sleeps.

The reason that Money Never Sleeps only "almost" works is that there are small, but persistent, touches in the film that are a little too "on the nose." Stone has a fondness for visual metaphors, but he pushes it too far by including lingering shots on actual bubbles floating above the New York skyline more than once. If that weren't enough, a shot descending one of the skyscrapers is accompanied by the sound (and eventually a split-screen shot) of dominoes falling, tied to the stock market crash.

Stone is also quite attached to the soundtrack, which consists largely of songs from David Byrne and Brian Eno's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and has a bad habit of playing songs where the lyrics are perhaps too literal in describing character arcs and plot points. I understand why he chose the songs, and why Stone gravitated towards them, but they may be a little too perfect over the course of a two hour film. There's also a scene where Gekko bumps into Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) at a benefit that doesn't really go anywhere. It's interesting, in that it provides a bridge from the Gordon Gekko in the first film to the Gordon Gekko in the sequel, but the presence of Fox is largely superfluous to the story, and considering that Gekko has plenty of other opportunities to establish growth, it's really more of an excuse to bring another character from Wall Street back.

Of course, not all of Stone's choices fall flat: there is a consistent intertextual connection to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (literally played out as Jake's ringtone, although it works more than it should) in Money Never Sleeps, although it remains up to the viewer to decide who's who (hint: Eli Wallach could still figure into it, if you so desire). Stone uses a myriad of split screens within split screens to mirror the dizzying pace of stock market jargon and floor-level dealing, as well as a clever misdirection involving an iris transition. Honestly, the things that keep the film from being great don't tend to dominate Money Never Sleeps; they simply appear in small doses throughout the film in such a way that you remember them while you're leaving.

The overall impression, however, is that Stone (and writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff) crafted a film that defies nearly every negative possibility one could expect from a sequel to Wall Street. The film never feels superfluous or exploitative of the original and, more to the point, logically extends the themes of Wall Street into the twenty-first century. The acting is top notch across the board, and even if the positive tone is disarming at first, there is something to be said for Stone's lack of persistent cynicism in the face of financial crisis.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pre-Shocktober Sampler Trailer Sunday

At least one of these movies will play during Horror Fest V...

The Brain Eaters

Curse of the Undead

Point of Terror

Basket Case 2

Fangs of the Living Dead

The House of Exorcism

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Blogorium Review: Best Worst Movie

For those readers who haven't been reading the Blogorium for a while, Michael Stephenson's Best Worst Movie, a documentary about the cult status of 1990's Troll 2, has been something of an obsession for the Cap'n. I first heard about the documentary a year ago or so, and it awakened foggy memories of Troll 2 from my younger days. I didn't remember the film being bad enough to attain a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like "Midnight Movie" status, but apparently that was the case, and Stephenson (who played Joshua Waits, the boy who saves the day with a bologna sandwich) had put together a film about the phenomenon and how that impacted the cast and crew of the film. I've been trying to see the film all year long, just missing it when it played in Durham, NC, but it finally opened in Santa Fe on Friday. (Original Blogorium reactions are collected here).

Best Worst Movie is primarily about George Hardy, a dentist in Alabama that, once upon a time, played Michael Waits, the father in Troll 2. He, like many cast members, went up to Utah in 1989 to make a horror movie for three weeks and then waited for the film to come out. But it didn't. Troll 2 (which is really a sequel in name only to Troll) made its debut a year later on VHS, much to the dismay of everybody who appeared in the film. Troll 2 is a terrible, terrible movie, filled with awkward line readings, strange plot machinations, bad special effects, and one of the most incomprehensible scripts in film history. The film is almost impossible to watch seriously and has, over the past twenty years, gained a cult reputation around the country.

When Stephenson reconnects with Hardy and introduces him to the sensation that is Troll 2, the actor-turned-dentist is fascinated with audience responses and quickly becomes enamored with his celebrity-like status. Hardy is eager to quote his most memorable line from the film "You don't piss on hospitality!" to anyone in earshot, and travels around the country, alternately championing the film he forgot about and basking in his new-found "star" status, happily re-enacting scenes from the film whenever asked to.

Meanwhile, Stephenson introduces viewers to the rest of the cast, most of whom seem alternately horrified and fascinated with Troll 2, as well as some of the film's die-hard fans from around the world. Whether it be home made costume makers, a guy who designed a Troll 2 videogame, or just folks who put together parties to watch the films (and Trollympics), the fans seem to really love this horrible film, mostly in a non-ironic way (more on this later).

It's not all chuckles and triumphs though; while much of Best Worst Movie is lighthearted and uplifting, it's clear that two of the major cast members of Troll 2 - Margo Prey, who played the mother Diana Waits, and Don Packard, who played the Nilbog store owner - are suffering from serious mental illness. Their interviews are more disturbing than amusing, in part because they genuinely don't seem to be on the same page that other cast members are during Q&A's or when discussing the film.

On the other hand, Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso and co-writer Rosella Drudi are blissfully unaware that their film is considered one of the "worst" movies in history (it has the only 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and insist that the movie is a deep exploration of a family in crisis. Drudi admits that she made the goblins vegetarian because it "pissed me off" that so many of her friends were going veggie, and that she "took the standard vampire mythos - and turned it into vegetarians" for the film. Fragasso seems pleased that audiences have "embraced" the film and "taken it back" from the critics.

Fragasso and Drudi return to the U.S. to attend two screenings in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, and the director is continually frustrated that audiences are laughing at his film. He yells at viewers during Q&A's, insults his cast (who he continually refers to as "dogs"), and seems frustrated that no one takes his film seriously, which generates a number of laugh-out-loud moments in Best Worst Movie. Fragasso's insistence that his cast members not laugh while re-enacting scenes in the house where Troll 2 is set is indicative of his Italian filmmaking mindset around American actors.

Hardy, on the other hand, is having a grand old time with his unorthodox fame, until he agrees to attend conventions in England and Dallas, Texas. When almost no one turns up for a Troll 2 roundtable discussion or stops by to visit the booth, Hardy begins to walk up to British convention attendees, desperately trying to explain who he is, what Troll 2 is, why they might know him, and recite his signature line, all falling on deaf ears. Things get worse at a horror convention in Dallas, when Hardy learns just how small the audience for Troll 2 really is amidst horror fans, and finds a moment of clarity while comparing the relative obscurity of cast members from the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels to his own.

There's a touching climax to Best Worst Movie when The Alamo Drafthouse has a Troll 2 screening outdoors in Utah and fans and cast members introduced during the film interact for the first time. Fragasso also shows up, and continues to insult his cast members, accusing them of making up stories about the script and suggesting that one character's arc was deleted because "we saw you were not a very good actor," but the ultimate tone of Best Worst Movie is a hopeful one. While Hardy eventually grows tired of "pissing on hospitality" over and over, when Stephenson asks if he'd be in hypothetical Troll 3, he enthusiastically says yes. It's nice to see some good come out of something so bad.

At the screening we went to, about half of the twelve people in the audience hadn't seen Troll 2, which must make for a strange experience. It's not as though you can't find Best Worst Movie compelling or worthwhile, because there's a healthy smattering of footage from the film - all of which helps cement its reputation as one of the "worst films of all time" - but I do wonder how they reacted to Hardy, Stephenson, Fragasso, and Prey. Based on a question from the Q&A after the film, it seems like most audiences for Best Worst Movie fall one of two categories: 1) the type of fans who appear early in the film, or 2) people who heard about the film based on the growing reputation Troll 2 has been experiencing.

The former category is further split in the film and, as it turned out, in our audience. Early on, George Hardy is traveling from screening to screening with fans that seem genuinely enthused to be seeing Troll 2 in a theatre, people who actually love the movie for all its (many) faults. Later in the film, particularly during a screening in Salt Lake City that Fragasso attends, more of the "smart-aleck," derisive fans appear, including one that decides to ask the director "why the film is called Troll 2 when there are no trolls?" something the director takes umbrage at.

We had one such viewer in the audience of Best Worst Movie, a guy that howled with laughter during cringe-worthy moments involving cast members that had serious mental problems, as though their conditions were nothing more than fodder for his amusement. While I agree that the bulk of laughs in the documentary come from the clueless nature of Troll 2 participants as to why people fill up theatres to see their film, there is a point where the laughs are mixed with seat-squirming. It's not as though the unfortunately hysterical outcome of Troll 2 gives viewers license to mock people who moved on with life and are being reintroduced to their film in a way no one would have expected. There's a fine line between finding humor and assuming that everybody is open for mockery because they were in the Best Worst Movie.

Soapbox aside, I had a great time with Best Worst Movie, which is a consistently amusing, insightful, heartfelt, and occasionally disturbing documentary. George Hardy's arc from small town dentist to quasi-celebrity to something in-between anchors the film, but it's clear that Michael Stephenson has an affinity for his cast mates and wants to impart some of Troll 2's cult status on them, even if that's not always the best thing that could happen. It's refreshing to know that so many fans of the film - which again, is awful, but never unwatchable - are genuine in their enthusiasm, even if the dark underbelly of sarcastic fandom pokes its head up during the film. The film comes highly recommended from the Cap'n.

Check out the site here, and since Best Worst Movie is traveling from city to city without a theatrical distributor, it might help to mention that it arrives on DVD on November 16th.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Most Impressive.

Before I get to the review of Best Worst Movie, the Cap'n would like to heap some effusive praise on The Screen, a partially independent / partially tied to the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Not quite knowing what to expect, Professor Murder and I arrived an hour early for the 9:10 showing of Best Worst Movie, got lost on campus, and eventually found building that hosts The Screen and is also partially the school's film school production building. While the sign outside said the doors would be locked until half and hour before Best Worst Movie started, the two employees were nice enough to let us wait in the lobby while The Desert of Forbidden Art was playing, followed by a Skype Q&A with the director.

If there's a good way to describe the lobby to The Screen, I suppose it would be best to compare it to a smaller version of The Colony or Rialto in Raleigh, or perhaps a more compact version of the lobby in the Janus in Greensboro (back when the Janus existed). After buying tickets, we were directed down a long hallway to the entrance of the auditorium and waited on a bench. Here's where I had a real kick, because the hallway was lined with framed 8 x 10 versions of posters, all of which had the title removed. "Identify the film," a sign said, "and get a free concessions snack of your choice."

Strangely enough, I've never seen something like this before in any of the "indie" theatres I'd been to, but it's a clever idea and encourages the students on campus (as well as visitors like the Cap'n) to seek out and identify movies we wouldn't otherwise notice. It's great exposure, and since in my slackitude, I only identified The Old Dark House (which earned the Professor a free bag of pretzels) and Thriller: A Cruel Picture / They Call Her One-Eye, there are at least two dozen others to check out if I get back out to The Screen.

The auditorium was surprisingly spacious, particularly for a college campus, and for the twelve of us who attended Best Worst Movie, the seats were comfy and well spaced, the screen large, and the atmosphere welcoming. The staff, who I erroneously assumed were hipster-ish, were quite accommodating considering that our interloping distracted them from setting up the Skype chat and they were in no way obligated to let us in so early for a documentary about Troll 2.

While it was great to see Best Worst Movie, I'm slightly bummed that I missed the Casey Affleck / Joaquin Phoenix film I'm Still Here, which played for one week (the previous week) at The Screen, and I didn't know because their listings are only available on their website (I normally check Yahoo! Movies). Still, I'm very glad to have experienced The Screen and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone visiting or living in Santa Fe.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blogorium Review: Le Samouraï

I sat down last night to watch Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï knowing relatively little about the film, other than effusive praise coming from Quentin Tarantino and it's place in the auspicious (for the most part) Criterion Collection. Coming out on the other side, I'm quite certain that without Melville's homage to film noir and police procedurals, there would be no Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or The Limits of Control from Jim Jarmusch.

Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hitman who covers his tracks impeccably. He steals cars to avoid being tracked, puts together a two-fold alibi for the evening of his latest kill, and then heads to an ultra-chic nightclub to assassinate the owner, then leaves (almost) unseen. When the police pick up Costello, he calls in Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon) to vouch for his whereabouts, as well as the other man she saw that night, Wiener (Michel Boisrond). Unsatisfied with his story, the police superintendent (François Périer) puts a tail on Jef, but that's the least of his worries. Olivier Ray (Jean-Pierre Posier), the man who hired him, wants Costello out of the picture, and Jef finds himself being hunted by the police and his employers.

Le Samouraï is a movie of efficiency; not a moment is spared on stylistic flourishes or unnecessary technique. In fact, not a word is spoken for the first ten minutes of the film, and Delon's Jef Costello barely says anything during the story. His routine and dispassionate attitude do the heavy lifting, and while the direct link to the samurai code is tenuous (right down to a dubious "quote" from Bushido after the opening credits), the silent assassin is effective, adaptive, and attached only to the barest of routine - other than an insistence on making sure his fedora looks "just so," Costello is barely interested in the world around him.

Melville's film is a study in contrast, particularly between the run-down Paris that Costello (and his rare associate) inhabit, and the hyper-modern world of the men chasing him. Jef's apartment is, save for a few pieces of furniture and a caged bird, barren. The streets he walks are dirty, worn, and filled with shadows. On the other hand, Olivier's apartment, the nightclub, and even the Superintendent's station are a study in antiseptic straight lines, brightly lit and reflective at all times. Compare the dingy gray of Costello's apartment with the pristine white hallway in Oivier's penthouse suite - where Jef hides out alongside Valérie (Cathy Rosier), the club's piano player and only link to his mysterious employer. Jef doesn't know that Olivier lives there - yet - but his persistence is matched only by Delon's inexpressive face.

The old clashes with the new during a tense (and mostly silent) chase sequence between the police force and Costello in the Metro system. Alternating between the Superintendent's office and Jef switching trains, Melville manages to make a simple blinking light generate most of the suspense. The Metro may be the only modern structure that Costello feels comfortable navigating, and even though his escape may be questionable, the sequence is the closest Le Samouraï comes to having an "action" sequence.

Jef's insistence on wearing a trench coat, suit, and fedora may have been anachronistic in1967, but it points to Melville (and much of the French New Wave)'s obsession with the American film noir movement. The film itself is unabashedly straightforward, lacking much of a sense of self parody, even when the stoic assassin needs to play tough with a colleague sent to kill him (or hire him). Jef Costello is arguably the model for the Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) in Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, a character so exaggerated that it is difficult for this reviewer to find the latter effective. Similarly, the samurai ethic hinted at early in the film seems to have been extrapolated on by Jarmusch in Ghost Dog, which has a similar narrative structure.

While Le Samouraï is an efficient, entertaining exercise in straight-faced extremes of behavior, I sense that audiences would view the film today as more intentionally sarcastic than Melville intended. Jef Costello is too stoic, too silent for fans of "bad-ass" cinema to take at face value, and his "hits" are over as quickly as they begin. Le Samouraï is an action film limited in action: a study in contrasting styles, one that is rewarding if you don't know what to expect, but certainly a film whose imitators have stacked the expectations unfairly against their point of reference.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy Video Daily Double to You!

This may be a boring Video Daily Double for some readers, but as it falls on one reader's 30th (and another's tomorrow), the Cap'n is taking the time out to celebrate both of them - and all of the other big 3-0's from this year.


Our first video comes from Futurama.

Our second video is the trailer for Bloody Birthday, which I must admit I've never seen.

Enjoy the birthdays, folks. Now you're responsible thirty-somethings! Bwahahaha!!!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

From the Vaults: Blogorium Review - Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

editor's note: the review was initially coupled with a brief anecdote about Criss Cross and Steven Soderbergh's remake The Underneath. While that has been excised, the original text from the Thunderbolt and Lightfoot remains untouched.

On the other hand, I kind of enjoyed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. It's not by any means a classic, but there's enough charm sprinkled throughout the far too long running time (it's almost two hours when it should have been 90 minutes tops). It falls somewhere between the Michael Cimino who made The Deer Hunter and the Michael Cimino that made Heaven's Gate. It's basically a buddy heist movie that gets a lot of mileage out of co-stars Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

Eastwood is the grizzled ex-thief and a young Bridges is the carefree drifter who talks him into one last score. So you'd think you knew where this was going, but it turns out that Cimino isn't looking for a double cross twist. Instead, George Kennedy floats in and out of the first half as Eastwood's old partner, and even though he tries to kill Eastwood (twice), they somehow iron their differences out.

This is the problem for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in the end; it can't really decide if it wants to be funny or serious, and it doesn't really work as both. After spending the first half of the movie trying to kill the main characters, Kennedy suddenly becomes a cantankerous pal who makes jokes and is along for the ride.

I suppose the ending is supposed to be bittersweet or say something about young people fighting old men's wars, but instead it's a little hollow. I get what Thundberbolt and Lightfoot was trying to do, but I don't believe it. It doesn't work. Of course, I did say it wasn't a classic by any means. It also takes a long time to figure out exactly where it's headed, so the middle is episodic and sort of pointless.

Where and when it does work comes largely from Bridges, who plays the kind of character you don't expect to see in a heist film. He keeps things interesting during the episodic parts of the film, and he plays well with Eastwood. It's a renter at best, but if you're a fan of either actor or want to see a really young Gary Busey then it's worth checking out.

2010 Thoughts: If you've read my review of Crazy Heart, then you know the Cap'n has softened a little bit on the "renter" quality of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Of the two, I'd certainly recommend the latter over the former, although nothing is particularly wrong with either one. It may be that the presence of Eastwood helps balance out Thunderbolt, but my strong fondness for Jeff Bridges certainly factors in recommending both in varying degrees.

Also, I'm slightly amazed at how many posters for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot intentionally play on the Eastwood association to Dirty Harry. Considering that the film is in no way like a Dirty Harry picture, it's a little surprising that they'd think people wouldn't walk out after realizing they'd been duped. Of course, the movie has an easygoing charm early on...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Five Movies: Five Theatrical Cuts I prefer over the Director's Cut

Apologies for that mouthful of a title, but sometimes cutting it down can be a little tricky. I'm returning to Five Movies to pick up on an older column reposted a few Tuesdays ago. Since Aliens is clearly a movie I prefer the shorter, theatrical cut, of, I'll simply include the link in this list. The other four films are movies that I think benefited from studio involvement in one way or the other, which sounds a little weird. Allow the Cap'n to make his case.

Normally speaking, I side with the writer / director / creative team when it comes to a film: ultimately, their vision should be on the screen and not some watered down compromise designed to appeal to larger audiences. A film can, under varying circumstances, find its audience without dumbing things down or spelling things out. There are plenty of examples where a "complete" version came out that made a considerable difference in viewers' reactions to the film: Brazil, Kingdom of Heaven, Blade Runner, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Touch of Evil, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Almost Famous, Once Upon a Time in America, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The New World, Alien 3, Payback, The Big Red One, Major Dundee, and Leon: The Professional*.

In other instances, there are alternate versions of films where I feel nothing is particularly gained or lost (Apocalypse Now: Redux springs to mind, or the "extended" cut of Alien Resurrection), and then there are the "Unrated" cuts so prevalent today that add anywhere from one to thirty-five minutes of footage back into the narrative (Hot Tub Time Machine and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story respectively), some of which is negligible unless directly compared. Every now and then, a director's cut will be shorter, like the Coen brothers' Blood Simple.

That being said, sometimes that extra studio input comes in handy. Sometimes (at least in five instances listed below), a mandated "studio cut" turns out to benefit the narrative and provides a better viewing experience than the subsequent extended director's cut that follows in DVD or Blu-Ray (and, periodically, in a theatrical re-release). I've said before that this is a subjective system, but for my money, the following films work better under the duress of "studio interference" and compromise, and when the "pure" vision came out, I wasn't as impressed. Feel free to agree or disagree.

THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut - It's tempting to beat up on Lucas' tinkering with the Star Wars trilogy, but the unaltered cuts are at least available (albeit in non-remastered, chucked out DVD versions), whereas his first film, THX 1138 exists on DVD and Blu-Ray only in a 2004 "director's cut" form. The imposition of new special effects, an extended car chase, cgi monsters, and a number of deletions drastically alters the claustrophobic tone of the original THX 1138, substituting instead a noisy, digitally cluttered version of the film that Lucas "always wanted to make." That's fine, but since the original version hasn't (and won't) see the light of day again, we're instead stuck with a film that replaces the ingenuity of budget limitations with a cut that undermines the tone and story of the original cut. (for a very comprehensive list of exactly what's different, check out the side-by-side comparison here.)

Donnie Darko - Sometimes a director strikes gold without realizing it, and then goes back and messes things up by giving the audience more of something they don't need. Donnie Darko is such a case. Like many people in the Cult of Donnie Darko, I was immensely curious when the word came out that writer / director Richard Kelly had another cut of his first film, one that delved deeper into the philosophy of time travel and fleshed out the family dynamic (flashes of which were apparent in the "Deleted Scenes" section of the Donnie Darko DVD), but when his "Extended Director's Remix" arrived on DVD, I was underwhelmed to say the least.

The longer Director's Cut removed all of the ambiguity from the theatrical version of Donnie Darko, replacing implications and conjecture with obvious, awkwardly inserted "passages" from The Philosophy of Time Travel that spelled out exactly what was going on in the story. Suddenly the mystery of the film vanished, replaced by explanations that made any discussion of the film feel stupid and unnecessary. Does it really help to have the film explain what the "manipulated dead" do? That Donnie's medication was a placebo? How "time arrows" work? All of the magic of Donnie Darko evaporated, and it was coupled with a disastrous commentary track where it became clear that Kelly didn't have any idea what it was that worked about the film and why it attracted the rabid fanbase it did.

Aliens - While I'm including the link to the Four Reasons article, might I add that this is generally how I feel about the director's cut versions of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Abyss as well. I feel the additions add nothing particularly interesting to the story, and at times unnecessarily pad the films in ways that dull their impact.

The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen - It bears mentioning that this is more of a "Writer's Cut" than a Director's Cut, although William Friedkin ultimately signed off on the theatrical re-release of this longer, less effective version of The Exorcist. What once was a relentlessly creepy, tension building film about demonic possession returned to theatres in 2000 as an unintentionally goofy, padded cut, including one genuinely good effect (the "spider-walk" sequence, which despite looking cool doesn't add anything to the film), an unfortunate subplot near the beginning, and the "Casablanca" ending that writer William Peter Blatty preferred to the original cut.

I had an opportunity to see The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen a few times with audiences (the Cap'n was working as a projectionist when the film opened), and rather than squirm, most audiences howled with laughter during the film. This was due, considerably, to the inclusion of a pre-openly possessed Regan (Linda Blair) being erroneously prescribed Ritalin by her doctor. At the time, Generation Y was having a field day with the ADD / ADHD craze and Ritalin was the prescription drug du jour, meaning that this "old' movie was hitting on their buzzword, rendering the establishing plot immediately comical.

The inclusion of the Pazuzu "flashes" during scenes didn't help anything, as the frozen demon face popping up in shadows elicited chuckles rather than generate suspense or foreboding. The "spider-walk" scene failed to unnerve audiences, and many who had been exposed to the over-the-top gags in Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, responded by laughing at the clear effect. At this point, nobody in the audience was taking The Exorcist seriously, and in the ensuing year or so, I had a number of arguments about whether the film had ever been "good" or "scary," a direct result of this unneeded "Version You'd Never Seen." That this cut has become the "norm," to the point that it - and not the original cut - will be playing this year in theatres is unfortunate to say the least.

Bad Santa: The Director's Cut - The Cap'n may be alone on this one, but as much as I like Terry Zwigoff's other films (particularly Louie Bluie, Crumb, and Ghost World), the truth is that the Weinstein-mandated recut of Bad Santa works better for me than the subsequently released Director's Cut (not to be mistaken for Badder Santa: Unrated, which came out simultaneously with the theatrical version on DVD). Having seen all three cuts, the "Badder Santa" version is probably my preferred cut.

By saying that, I'm sure that the Cap'n is now the enemy of die-hard Zwigoff supporters (and the director himself) because I settled for - and laughed at - the "watered down, studio version" that replaces his original vision with lowbrow yuks for the cheap seats. Well, here's the truth: the Director's Cut doesn't work. The significantly shorter cut has a less fluid plot structure (the immediate jump from Willie's first robbery to the second gives us no indication of why Marcus really needs him instead of finding a more reliable crook), and I'm going to be honest, the removal of Thornton's narration at the outset replaces any sympathy for the character with a sense of "why should we care about this pathetic drunk?"

Honestly, I understand that Zwigoff was more likely interested in exploring the less appealing side of Willie Stokes and giving the audience a protagonist that was in no way likable (much like his follow-up, Art School Confidential), but what works about the earlier (and in my opinion, more successful) Ghost World is that despite the fact all of his characters exist on the margins of "civilized" society, there's something about Enid and Seymour that's worth sticking around for. Zwigoff's cut of Bad Santa left a bad taste in my mouth, whereas the crass, studio involved theatrical cut at least generated some guilty chuckles.

So there you have it: five movies where the creative forces clashed with the studio and the end result turned out to be more successful. For the Cap'n, anyway. Feel free to disagree in the comments below, or add examples of films you think work better one way or the other.

* It is important to note that in the case of Touch of Evil, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Major Dundee, The Big Red One, and the not mentioned Mr. Arkadin, that the "director's cuts" were made without the participation of the director, who had passed on.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Trailer Sunday: Where Dreams are Made

Jason and the Argonauts

Nancy Drew.. Detective

The Mad Doctor of Blood Island

Cat-Women of the Moon

King of the Hill


Friday, September 17, 2010

Blogorium Review: The Other Guys

It's taken me some time to get to reviewing The Other Guys, the new film from Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. Like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Other Guys is a pretense for McKay and Ferrell to insert their goofy humor into a specific genre: in this instance, the "buddy cop" film. Unlike 1970s news anchors or Nascar drivers, the Cop film has been explored more than once in the last ten years, which hampers The Other Guys in a way earlier collaborations didn't.

Detectives P.K. Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Charles Danson (Dwayne Johnson) are the big bad boys of the NYPD, constantly getting involved in wild shootouts and destructive car chases. Since they can't be bothered to do their own paperwork, it usually ends up on the desk of Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell), whose partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) can't stand. Hoitz made a mistake and shot the wrong person, curtailing a promising career, and Gamble's lack of ambition - and surprisingly hot wife Dr. Sheila Gamble (Eva Mendes) - baffle him to no end. Hoitz and Gamble bear the brunt of abuse from the force, including detectives Martin (Rob Riggle) and Fosse (Damon Wayans, Jr.), but when one of Allen's seemingly inane investigations may involve a massive Ponzi scheme at the hands of David Ershon (Steve Coogan), they might have a big break. If only Gamble and Hoitz can convince beleaguered Captain Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton) to let them investigate, and if they can keep the mysterious Roger Wesley (Ray Stevenson) from killing them both...

There's really not much to say about The Other Guys; of the Adam McKay / Will Ferrell collaborations (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), this is going to be the film I revisit the least. That's not to say it isn't funny, but I find that the silliness is toned down in The Other Guys, or directed towards running jokes that only halfway work (hot women are inexplicably attracted to Ferrell's Detective [?] Gamble, or his insistence on listening to The Little River Band to get pumped for cases). The "losing face" midsection doesn't work as well in The Other Guys, in part because it interrupts the mystery and doesn't serve the narrative as well as it does in Talladega Nights or Anchorman.

Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson aren't in much of the movie, but their extended cameos add necessary spice to the beginning of The Other Guys, even if their (SPOILER) deaths don't make any sense, even as a spoof of "Super Cop" movies. It's a convenient and inexplicable way to get rid of their characters, which does open the door for the rest of the story. It opens the door for Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr. to take over, but their roles turn out to be about as incidental as Jackson and Johnson.

On the other hand, there are a handful of running gags that work very well, including Captain Mauch's supposedly unintentional quoting of TLC when giving Gamble and Hoitz advice, or Hoitz's unending grief for accidentally shooting Yankees' Short Stop Derek Jeter. Wahlberg actually benefits the most from the goofy character touches, and his explanation for knowing ballet saves an otherwise directionless scene involving his ex-girlfriend. There's a revelation about Gamble's past about halfway through the film that shouldn't work as well as it does, but Ferrell sells the transformation so well that I didn't mind.

It also helps that McKay and co-writer Chris Henchy have a knack for writing throw away lines that consistently bring the biggest laughs (one involving a hobo orgy and Gamble's much derided Prius comes to mind immediately), and the cast seems to be having a lot of fun. Ice-T's narration was a nice surprise, and while I can't guarantee it, there's a line that comes so close to the premise of Dexter that I wondered aloud if it was an intentional reference*.

It may be that The Other Guys suffers from the inevitable comparison to Hot Fuzz, which deconstructs the "buddy cop" genre with such insight that any subsequent take is going to pale in comparison. The only real new take The Other Guys makes is killing off the supercops early in the film and handing over the detective work to Hoitz and Gamble, who do actually follow a trail of evidence and do actually crack a case - mostly without cheap saves. This is nice, but as the film doesn't go as far afield as one might expect, the exercise is less than exemplary. The Other Guys is, admittedly, light years ahead of Cop Out, a movie I had so much trouble finishing that the Cap'n eventually gave up on reviewing both films at once**.

I also want to mention the end credits, which run alongside graphics on how a Ponzi scheme works, how the economic crisis happened, and who benefited from the taxpayer bailout. This is timely and rather informative, but the film handles it as such a secondary plot point that the graphics seem wildly out of place, even if they inform the "crime" Ershon is perpetrating.

Are you going to chuckle during The Other Guys? Oh yes. There are times when you'll laugh quite a bit, even if it doesn't reach the same sublime goofiness of Anchorman or Step Brothers (there's nothing that comes close to "Boats 'n Hos" in this movie) and the bizarre supporting characters are considerably scaled back (despite fine turns from Mendes, Coogan, Stevenson, Keaton, Riggle, and Wayons Jr.). Considering how much footage from the trailers is nowhere to be found in the film, I sense that there's a much funnier version of The Other Guys waiting in the wings for DVD and Blu-Ray release, so while I'm not necessarily say wait to rent it, there's a good chance the film will step it up in an "Unrated" form. Either way, feel free to check it out.

* it's something along the lines of "a good cop knows how to use his dark side for good, and then he moves to Florida"

** I genuinely disliked Cop Out, a movie that at no point elicited a chuckle from the Cap'n. I don't blame Kevin Smith for the dialogue (because he didn't write the film), but his workmanlike direction does the film no favors, and the performances he draws out of Tracy Morgan, Bruce Willis, and Sean William Scott are frankly pathetic. There's no reason for Cop Out to be as unwatchable as it was; it took me three tries to get through the painfully unfunny "interrogation" sequence.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rogue Commentary Track Video Daily Double

Picking up where we left off yesterday, I thought it would be fun to use today's Video Daily Double to demonstrate how difficult commentary tracks can be. Enjoy.


Our first video is an actual commentary track, from Conan the Barbarian, featuring John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's amusing enough in its own right, even though it falls squarely into "describe the action" mixed with "amusing anecdotes":

Our second video is a bit of home-made Rogue Commentary Track-ery. This was from Horror Fest IV: The Final Chapter, and is a slice of Night of the Lepus riffing:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From the Vaults: Commentary Tracks Are Tricky Things...

From 2008-ish:

Uh... so I now see why so many dvd commentaries are so awful. It was an experiment, sort of: Dr. Adams wasn't all that interested in just another discussion of Sunset Boulevard, especially since half the class never says anything as it is.

So he cued up Sunset Boulevard on the dvd player and said "let's do our own commentary". Mercifully, it wasn't recorded, because when the room gets dark, even the chatty students seem to shut up. Some of them fell asleep (I think).

There were fits and bursts of analysis, particularly regarding the way Billy Wilder was playing with expectations for his second fore into film noir. Sunset Boulevard could, in fact, be considered a proto-neo-noir; much like Ace in the Hole (or The Big Carnival, whatever you've heard it called), Sunset Boulevard is Billy Wilder playing with the conventions of noir in very different circumstances. He subverts and in many cases reverses shots, themes, and motifs established in Double Indemnity (six years separate Indemnity from Boulevard), so it's hard to say it fits cleanly into "classic" noir*.

But that's getting away from the discussion of our group "commentary", which ended up being mostly Dr. Adams pointing something out, one of three of us occasionally piping in noticing something strange (like the connection between Mabel Norman and Norma Desmond in a biographical sense) or pausing to appreciate the deep focus during the coffin scene. Most of the time we just watched the movie. For long stretches I'd want to say something but instead got caught up watching what was happening on-screen and not wanting to narrate the action.

To be honest, I don't know how many of you listen to commentaries, but they frequently fall into one of the two traps I just listed. The other big one is the actor commentary which is generally anecdotal stuff about pranks on the set or "how great it was to work with blah blah blah". Very rarely do you get a commentary track that provides solid technical information, decent analysis of subtext, narrative, or intertextuality.

One of the reasons I enjoy Steven Soderbergh's films so much is that when he records commentaries (for his films or others like Point Blank, The Third Man, and The Graduate), they're frequently very informative beyond "it was really sunny that day". For as bad of a movie as it is, the commentary on his remake of Solaris is endlessly fascinating. Soderbergh is teamed up with director James Cameron (who produced the film), and they have very different styles of direction which leads to a good discussion of the process of adapting existing material and approaches to shooting it.

There are some good commentaries out there, but often they're a lot like the Film Noir class was this afternoon: lots of dead air, sporadic bursts of qualitative content, and two hours better spent watching the film itself. Next time I'll try harder, or maybe MST3K had the right idea all along: riff til you see the credits rolling.

* there's the possibility of a series of really long essays about elements of
Sunset Boulevard: it's place in film noir, the long list of citations in the film (obvious or otherwise), and the way that Wilder, knowing audiences were expecting another Indemnity, set about deconstructing the style he helped make famous.

2010 Thoughts: I wish that'd I had been able to point out that Jean Luc Godard lifts shots from Sunset Boulevard near the beginning of Breathless, but the Cap'n wasn't as up on his film history as he ought to have been. In retrospect, it may be that with better preparation and more gregarious participants, a commentary could work. As I'd pointed out, the students were never chatty to begin with, but in the ensuing years the Cap'n has frequently considered recording "rogue" commentary tracks for Night of the Lepus, Terrorvision, and very recently Shit Coffin. It remains to be seen whether those will ever come to pass, but it was something I considered doing as a semi-regular feature in the Blogorium.

Monday, September 13, 2010

So You Won't Have To: Resident Evil - Afterlife (in 3-D)

Folks, I know what you're thinking. Before the chants of "no duh, of COURSE Resident Evil: Afterlife" was a waste of time from start to finish, allow me to make my case. I hated Resident Evil, and I haven't been able to watch even part of it since the first, unfortunate, time. Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Resident Evil: Extinction are loud, stupid, vapid entertainment, but at least they succeed in entertaining on some level. The sequels are the kind of films you feel bad having watched and hesitate to tell your friends about, but as high budget schlock goes, you get what you pay for. I've certainly seen better made films that were less amusing.

Resident Evil: Afterlife, on the other hand, was a waste of time, money, and brain cells.

Of course, the missing link in all of this is why Resident Evil Apocalypse and Extinction work and the first and fourth films do not: Apocalypse and Extinction were written by Paul W.S. Anderson, but not directed by him. Resident Evil and Afterlife were written and directed by the same hack that brought us Soldier, Event Horizon, Alien vs. Predator, and Mortal Kombat. To date, the only movie he's made that I found remotely re-watchable was a remake / sequel to Death Race 2000, which works in spite of his inability to tell a story visually.

For a horror / action / video game movie, Anderson fails to generate any tension, atmosphere, or scares. This shouldn't have been a big surprise to me, since he's never been able to do that, but I thought the sheer desperation of 3-D would provide some chuckles. Instead, the 3-D gimmickry is used for no apparent reason other than to demonstrate how the pointless use of technology can be in the hands of a creatively bankrupt "auteur" (by the fourth time Alice shoots someone with a shotgun full of quarters and the coins fly at you, the gimmick has lost even a rudimentary charm). When James Cameron said this:

I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D. When movies got to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity and at the last gasp of their financial lifespan, they did a 3-D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip.

I really wish he'd been addressing Resident Evil: Afterlife 3-D, because unlike Piranha (which it was directed at), RE:A actually utilizes Cameron's specially developed technology, cameras, and projection methods. But it's all gimmick, servicing a film that barely has a plot and is most certainly deserving of the "bottom of the barrel of their creativity" moniker.

Resident Evil: Afterlife is an incoherent mess of a narrative. For what it's worth, the Cap'n will try to explain what passes for a plot:

Alice (Milla Jovovich) is continuing her assault on the Umbrella Corporation, headed by Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts). Umbrella was responsible for unleashing the T-Virus, which turned most of humanity into bloodthirsty zombies. After Wesker foils the attempt by Alice and her clones (it's a holdover from the end of Extinction), Alice escapes and seeks out Arcadia, the "last refuge for non-infected survivors," but instead finds Claire Redfield (Ali Larter, reprising her role from Extinction) with some sort of jewel on her chest that stole her memories and renders her semi-feral. Alice and Claire fly down to Los Angeles from Alaska for some reason, land on a prison where survivors have holed themselves up, including former sports star Luther West (Boris Kodjoe), Hollywood Agent Bennett (Kim Coates), and soldier / prisoner Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller). They then discover that Arcadia is a boat, have to wander around the prison, and discover Arcadia's horrible secret just in time for the final boss fight, followed by an obligatory tease for an epic battle between our heroes and former "good" character Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), who has a jewel on her chest.

See how that sounds more like a synopsis? There's no overriding story or motivation for much of anything that happens in Afterlife. At the points in the film where exposition is desperately needed, or connective tissue would make all the difference in the world, W.S. simply dissolves, cuts away, or jumps ahead without bothering how, why, or even what it means for the characters to move from one point to the next. Bennett, for reasons of plot convenience, steals Alice's plane and lands on Arcadia. By the time we next see him, he's working for Wesker and looks like he's been infected with... something. Only Anderson never bothered to get around to that part of the plot. It's enough that we know he's EEEEEEEVIILLLL now, so that his death at the hands of Wesker is semi-ironic.

Resident Evil: Afterlife is astonishingly willing to leave audience members behind. The first film, while narratively sluggish, insulting, and utterly without tension, at least made sure the audience had some idea who the characters were and why anyone should care about them. Apocalypse and Extinction went the next step and periodically integrated characters from the games with some modicum of personality. Afterlife has no such interest: Chris Redfield (a fairly major character in the series) is introduced in a way that doesn't make sense (he's being held in a makeshift cell in the bottom of a PRISON!) and the when's and why's of his release and relation to Claire Redfield are irrelevant. He's really just there so that Claire and Alice have someone else to fight Wesker with. The point at which Claire goes from not remembering that Chris is her brother to being best pals isn't something we're privy to; it's only important that Alice saves them in time to shoot Wesker, Boondock Saints style (pay attention to that; it'll come back later!).

Speaking of which, if you haven't played Resident Evil 5, almost nothing about the character of Wesker is going to make sense (he has a cameo in Extinction, but otherwise is introduced wholesale in the film). The easy argument is that "you probably won't be seeing the movie unless you play Resident Evil," but the truth is that you can easily watch the first three films without knowing anything about the games and do just fine. Not so here.

What you can do, however, is marvel at a section of the movie where Alice, Chris, and dispensable female character (Kacey Barnfield) need to travel underwater through the prison in order get to the secret military armory. I guess it's supposed to be tense, but Anderson is such a terrible director that all of the shots are close-ups on the characters faces, or mid-shots where they appear to be WALKING underwater. They also hold their breaths for what I'd consider to be an unreasonably long time, but who cares, right? They also come out of the water and are able to fire their weapons with no problem at the dozens of zombies they somehow missed while walking underwater.

Meanwhile, Claire and Luther are standing at the prison gate as a Axeman (that's what the character is listed as), a giant wielding a half axe / half spiked mallet is pounding away at the only thing keeping hundreds of zombies out. Considering that it takes five minutes before they make any effort to stop him at all, it should come as no surprise that he appears just in time for a mid-level Boss Fight with Claire and Alice, which is really just an excuse for more "quarters in your face!" 3-D shenanigans.

Professor Murder was so disgusted with Afterlife that he took his glasses off halfway through the film and announced "It's sad when I have to say that Troy Duffy (The Boondock Saints) would have made this a more entertaining movie than this piece of shit." I'm astonished by the level of enthusiasm for Afterlife on IMDB's boards, because I can't understand how anyone would be willing to put aside a movie where nothing works at all (down to the 2003-esque score by Tomanandy and seven year-old A Perfect Circle song remixed with the title of the second Resident Evil movie).

It's not often when I can't find anything nice to say about a movie, but Resident Evil: Afterlife sucks. It just sucks, for all the reasons listed above and many more. I was bored well before the film was over, and both of us were angry we wasted time watching this movie. Paul "What Script" Anderson, there's no chance I'll ever pay for another one of your movies, and especially not the idiotic sequel that's no so much implied as assured in the credits. This puppy learned his lesson, and that lesson is you couldn't make a movie to save your life.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

All Singing, All Dancing Trailer Sunday!

Summer Stock

Point of Terror


Alice Cooper: Good to See You Again

The Way We Were

Finian's Rainbow

Friday, September 10, 2010

Blogorium Review: Louie Bluie

For those of you who think documentaries have to be somber or (shudder), dull, the Cap'n humbly points you in the direction of Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World)'s debut film, Louie Bluie. His subject - real name Howard Armstrong - was a Tennessee born, Chicago based bluesman, artist, poet, and genuine personality. Zwigoff discovered Armstrong while collecting 78 records from the 1930s, and as luck had it, "Louie Bluie" was alive and kicking in 1985. The end result of Zwigoff and Armstrong meeting is an immensely entertaining documentary about the "old time" music, at a point when the "old timers" were still around to tell it in person.

Louie Bluie is as much a character study as it is a documentary; Armstrong spends most of his time playing music and telling stories. As a musician, he's a hot-dogger of a mandolin player. Whether he's at home playing for Zwigoff or in front of a crowd, he has a habit of flipping the instrument over his head and playing blind. His fiddle solo during a concert nearly steals the show from the headliner, although it's hard not to pay attention to the singer, who announces "I wrote this song in 1929, when I was thirty years old."

When Armstrong isn't playing, he's chatting it up with just about anybody around. After a few songs, he begins joking with bandmate Ted Bogan about women and clothes, and ribs another friend about eating all of the chicken while they were playing. His joy of life is infectious: when Armstrong travels back to LaFollette, Tennessee (where he grew up), he stops to chat with anyone he sees, telling stories an reminiscing. While visiting his sister-in-law ("I don't care how many times she's been married; she's still my sister-in-law."), a gospel tune is followed by an innuendo riddled anecdote about woodpeckers Armstrong told in church as a boy.

There's an amusing encounter with a record-collector (not unlike the type that populate Seymour's party in Ghost World) after a performance in a Chicago night club, followed by Armstrong wandering around town and shopping at a street fair. An encounter with an old man selling perfumes is cause to share the story of how his band The Tennessee Chocolate Drops ended up as the musical accompaniment for a Hindu Snake Oil Salesman.

His experience with immigrant communities helped Armstrong and the band learn to speak Italian, French, and Hungarian well enough to perform popular songs and emulate styles of the Old World. And I haven't even mentioned his paintings, poems, self bound books, or The ABC's of Pornography, a tome he proudly shows off to a banjo playing friend. Armstrong, 66 when the film was made, seems to be as spry as any man half his age, and he and the boys are happy playing in front of a paying audience or on a street corner.

What's so very impressive about Louie Bluie is that Zwigoff manages to impart all of this about Armstrong in just sixty minutes. On top of that, he also intercuts anecdotal history with vintage footage of other blues acts from the 30s and 40s to contextualize what Armstrong is saying. While Louie Bluie isn't intended to be a comprehensive history of the blues in America, one still comes away with an impression that Armstrong, as fascinating a subject as he is, isn't all we've learned about. The film is a tremendous breath of fresh air considering that it addresses Jim Crow, poverty, and old age in various forms.

If you've seen Crumb, then you have some idea of the access that Zwigoff has to his subject, and I was quite impressed with how open Howard Armstrong is during the film. It's also nice to see a film that's about the early twentieth century from the perspective of people who lived through it, who aren't somber or shrinking away from the camera. Howard "Louie Bluie"* Armstrong was happy enough to let Terry Zwigoff into his home, and I'm happy to have been privy to the result. Check this film out as soon as possible.