Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blogorium Review: Paul

I must admit I felt a twinge of sadistic glee reading online reviews of Greg Mottola's Paul when the film finally made its way to theatres two weeks ago (it opened in the United Kingdom last month): "geek" friendly sites were falling all over themselves trying to find nice ways to pad the disappointment of what seemed to be a great idea: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost write a movie about two geeks that run into an alien while touring famous "UFO" landmarks, and then star in the film with Seth Rogen as the alien, directed by the man who made Superbad. The phrases "feel good geek movie" and "hard to pin down tonally" didn't help trailers that already made Paul look less than appealing, so in a cruel way, I felt vindicated in not wanting to see the film.

But clearly I did see Paul, or this review would be happening on Friday (check the date) and probably masking another review, like last year*. Standing on the other side of the film, I understand the reviews attempts to soften high expectations from its target audience, but I think that many critics didn't quite set their disclaimers up in the right way. Paul is actually a pretty good movie, but you have to wait a little while before that's clear.

Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg), a comic book artist, and his best friend Clive Gollings (Nick Frost), a science fiction writer, have made the pilgrimage from the UK to the San Diego Comic Con, the geek mecca. They've also rented an RV in order to travel the Southwest in search of major alien landmarks (Area 51, Roswell, The Black Mailbox), but when a car whips around them and crashes on the road, they unwittingly become accomplices in the escape plan of Paul (Seth Rogen), an alien trying to get home after a long stint as prisoner of the United States government. On the lam, they inadvertently pick up Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a fundamentalist Christian that believes Earth is only 4,000 years old. Pursued by Agent Zoyle (Jason Bateman) and two junior agents, Haggard (Bill Hader) and O'Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), who work for the mysterious "Big Guy," as well as Ruth's father Moses Buggs (John Carroll Lynch), our unwitting heroes race to return Paul to a rendezvous point before it's too late...

The film's biggest problem is that the introduction of Paul doesn't really work. That Seth Rogen plays Paul isn't the issue: it's that Paul IS Seth Rogen for the first fifteen minutes or so that we see him. Rather, Paul is the same kind of character type that Rogen gravitates towards, and his introduction in the film is more distracting than effective. It doesn't help that many of the jokes involving Paul rely heavily on vulgarity (anal probing, alien nudity) or obvious nods to other "first contact" films - to this I have to disperse the blame evenly between Pegg and Frost's script and Rogen's delivery, neither of which help Paul find its way early on.

Frost and Pegg do a fine job of setting up the world of the film (as do Bateman, Hader, and Lo Truglio) but Paul seems "off" in the character dynamic. Part of it is the wildly uneven comic tone, including a running joke about whether Graeme and Clive are gay that doesn't go anywhere. It's not something I can really pinpoint in one scene, but the film doesn't regain its footing until Kristen Wiig's character is introduced; suddenly the interpersonal relationships make a little more sense, Paul moves into the background (somewhat) or at least isn't the load bearer for comedy in the film. Wiig's understated delivery actually helps settle down Rogen's over-the-top delivery as Paul, and the way the says "because of his blasphemous theories" was the first big laugh I had in the film (the second really big one was the discovery of Agent Zoyle's first name).

Paul throws so many "geek" references at the wall that I can't possibly mention all of them, but not only can you expect several nods to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Star Trek, Predator, Mac and Me, The X-Files, E.T., and Aliens (the last two prominently featuring people involved in the films), but there's also Clive and Graeme's conversing in Klingon, a Wilhelm scream, two separate Indiana Jones references, a Back to the Future joke, a redneck bar version of the Cantina from A New Hope, and a clever way for Pegg and Frost to address a question raised in Shaun of the Dead (hint: it involves dogs).

Early in the film, the references seem more forced, which doesn't help the struggling first act to find its footing. That's also coupled with the bulk of the cameos in the film, including Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Jesse Plemons, Jeffrey Tambor, and (KINDA SPOILER) the voice of Steven Spielberg - part of a scene that's so obvious I wish it hadn't made the final cut. Reviews seemed to think it was a big deal not to reveal that Sigourney Weaver was the mysterious voice that Agent Zoyle is talking to, but if that's the case then why can you clearly hear her in the trailer? I didn't think that was supposed to be such a surprise, to be honest, unless you've never heard her speak before.

Because I feel you're probably thinking that I didn't like Paul, it's important to mention that despite the bumpy first half, I found myself really engaged by the midpoint and actually rather enjoyed the film by the end. If the first section of the film is trying too hard, once the film finds its footing, Paul is actually quite good and something I wouldn't hesitate recommending. I would warn you that it isn't that the film is uneven or that the "geekery" comes hard and fast (to be fair, half of the characters in the film really don't get the whole "Comic-Con thing" and that there's a running joke involving no one knowing any of the books Tambour's character wrote), but that the film is so front loaded that you might be tempted to tune out.

Don't. Stick around until Kristen Wiig shows up, and Paul improves tremendously. The chemistry within the cast finally "clicks," the jokes shift in direction (including a push towards ridiculous bursts of vulgarity, many coming from Ruth's inexperience with cursing), and the evolution of Bill Hader's Haggard from loser to obsessed psychopath is worth the price of admission. Jason Bateman is pretty fantastic playing the "straight man" role; Pegg, Frost, Lo Truglio and Wiig are all great, and when Rogen settles down it's easier to tolerate Paul as a character. By the time that Blythe Danner appears as the adult version of a child we meet early in the film, I was completely on board with the film.

Paul is a better movie at the end than the beginning, which I suppose is a shame, because if it had the consistency in the first half that it does in the second, then it could be something really special. As it is, it's pretty good, a three-and-a-half star out of five kind of movie; you'll have a good time, and will probably rent it and watch it on TV, but won't run out to buy it in a few months. Then again, it is nice to see a movie that tries to entertain and mostly succeeds when far worse movies can't be bothered to do either week in and week out.



* You didn't really think I watched New Moon, did you?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Video Daily Double Dedicated to Cleansing the College Campus

Welcome back, readers, for another Video Daily Double. Today we'll be looking at college protesters, or should I say "Communists"? We only have one video today, but I have the feeling it's going to cover all of your educational needs in the wake of last week's super long, super sexy journey down STD lane.

In two parts, please enjoy Tragedy or Hope, a film devoted to quashing student demonstrations by questioning the patriotism of America's youth. Take that, hippies!



Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Retro Review: Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead

Hey, so back before that whole Dead Man / Human Highway thing, when I was still planning on covering George Romero's "Dead" films? You know, the one I teased after writing about Night of the Living Dead's 30th Anniversary the varied history of Dawn of the Dead on home video? Yeah, I didn't either; the Cap'n totally forgot about that, and here we are at the end of the month of March, staring down four (well, five) movies that fit into the "March of the Dead" moniker I came up with and abandoned for no apparent reason. The good news is that individually, I don't know how much more I could say about Diary and Survival of the Dead, my history with Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead don't have much in the way of anecdotal stories, which leaves me with one story to tell about Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake*.

I suppose I saw Day of the Dead on VHS, shortly after renting Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, although my earliest impressions of the film are scant: the opening - that desolate street somewhere in Florida (?) that flooded with zombies (and a crocodile), the hands through the wall gag that Romero uses to both call back to Dawn of the Dead, but also to twist around our expectations of "reality." I also remember the machete to the arm, Bub, the zombie torso reduced to almost nothing but a brain, the holding pen, and the even more upbeat ending on a tropical island.

Subsequent visits to the film, on DVD and Blu-Ray reminded me how much the military vs. science debate plays into the film, but also how less simplistic I remembered the film being - I always seemed to wander into Day of the Dead thinking that Joe Pilato's Rhodes is a cartoon cut-out villain, only to discover that Rhodes is at his wit's end in the film. His soldiers have been assigned to protect the scientists, who assured the government (or what existed of it before Day of the Dead begins) that they would find a cure. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in rehabilitating the dead one by one, and when he starts pilfering military corpses, the soldiers reach the breaking point.

I understand that Day of the Dead is the least "imminently watchable" of Romero's first zombie trilogy, and it's not rewarding or packed with goofy moments like Dawn of the Dead, but with time I've found that I like the film more and more. Oh, I never saw the remake. Sorry.

Land of the Dead was long awaited, and the Cap'n was not the only person excited to see Romero return to his stomping grounds, and while the excitement was palpable, I still had nagging doubts while I continued telling others how "awesome" the film was. It wasn't the setting, or even most of the story, which I really like: a world where the dead have completely taken over, where humanity is rebuilding but not on their terms, and the film was a glimpse of how people would adapt once they lost the proverbial "zombie war."

I liked the extension of Bub's evolution, crossed with the reason the dead wandered into the Monroeville Mall, into a slowly developing sentience among some of the living dead. Was Big Daddy a little silly? Yeah, maybe it does sound like he's saying "Duuuuude!" when he growls, but there was something to him teaching the butcher zombie to cut down that wall, or the way he organized the dead to avoid simply being slaughtered. Romero hit the reboot button after Land of the Dead, so we never saw where that evolution would head, but not even that is the sticking point for why I have trouble sitting down watching Land of the Dead from beginning to end.

The problem, as I can surmise, is the cast: everyone seems to be giving the film a "B" movie effort when Romero is clearly trying to make the most of major studio backing. Simon Baker seems to be trying, so does Asia Argento, but I can't get past John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper play variations of characters they play all the time. Robert Joy's Charlie is another matter entirely, a character I only hate slightly less than Scott Wentworth's professor in Diary of the Dead.

When Professor Murder and I went to see Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, we ran into some mutual friends who were there to see the other movie we considered seeing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perhaps our allegiance to zombies sent us to Dawn of the Dead first, then later to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's memory-wiping romantic drama; either way, we swapped our reasons for seeing the respective releases, then went to see the subtext-free, fast-zombies, not-afraid-to-be-nihilistic-ending remake of one of the most admired horror films in the last fifty years.

If that quick succession of descriptors makes it sound like I didn't enjoy Dawn of the Dead, I'm afraid I'll be disappointing you. Of the remakes made starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, well, yet to end but one can hope with how awful the A Nightmare on Elm Street butchering, I put Dawn of the Dead up there with The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha as one of the better re-visiting's of horror films. Yes, it essentially lacks substance, but Snyder does manage to create momentum, slow it down and drain out hope, re-instate it, and then send everything to hell again during the closing credits. It remains the only film by Zack Snyder that I like, let alone enjoy, and while it may be Dawn of the Dead lite, I'll take it over what Platinum Dunes vomits into theatres every spring.

Honestly, I've said all I can say about Diary and Survival of the Dead in my reviews: I haven't watched either film since, and I did honestly try to take the films on their own terms instead of pre-judging the films. They're both terrible, obvious, and at times thunderingly stupid, all the while failing to generate the slightest amount of tension, scares, or decent performances. Is it possible I'll come back to them down the line, as I did with Day of the Dead, and appreciate more? It would be nice, but somehow I don't see that happening.

Sorry to end March of the Dead on such a dour note, but Romero's second trilogy is almost uniformly underwhelming, a pale reflection of his first three "dead" films. Romero is currently working on another "dead" film, and while I've burned my hand two-and-a-half times, hope wins out over being jaded. There's always the chance of recapturing the old "magic." In the meantime, that's the history the Cap'n has with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead ('05), Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead.



* For Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, please go here. For the wretched 3D remake, go here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Moving without moving.

A very happy Monday to all of you readers: the Cap'n has been a little behind on timely posts lately due to the fact that I've been moving what's left of my stuff from Blogorium storage unit A to Blogorium storage unit B. As the two storage units are roughly 90 miles apart and I can't afford one moving van to accomplish all of this in one go-round, the moving process has been time consuming to say the least. I saw my boxes of VHS tapes for the first time since July, only to see them covered up again by more boxes (those tapes may be the heaviest boxes I have left), and realized there were books in plastic storage bins that I'd forgotten about.

This is, of course, mostly irrelevant to the discussion of film, which is ostensibly what Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium is all about, and as I haven't had time to watch anything beyond an episode or two of Battlestar Galactica (a TV Talk that will have to wait another season and a half), the Cap'n spent the last thirty minutes trying to think of anything to write about that didn't involve moving. You can see how well that worked out.

I'm so early in the stages of making my own "digital copies" that I don't really want to discuss it yet, other than to say that I can now make non-anamorphic transfers "enhanced for widescreen TVs." I have a backlog of rare, obscure, and typically unavailable in the U.S. films to watch or review (including Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, Steven Soderbergh's Kafka and The King of the Hill, Willard, Ben, Matewan, 1984, How I Won the War, and Prospero's Books). There's also the matter of Bad Movie Night, which is in about two weeks, and the question of whether I can get anyone other than Cranpire to go see Scream 4 as our field trip feature.

On the upside, Summer Fest Presents: Cap'n Howdy vs. Giant Sharktopus is almost locked in place, as is Horror Fest VI (which doesn't have a catchy moniker... yet) thanks to an influx of offbeat titles I've located in the last few months but would prefer not to disclose. Rest assured, none of them is a "Trappening"; okay, one of them - maybe two at the most.

I think I'll be done moving tomorrow, but it means getting up early to do it, so there will be a Retro Review and a Video Daily Double on Wednesday. Stick around, this is the calm before the storm, kiddos...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Trailer Sunday Presents: Elizabeth Taylor


National Velvet


BUtterfield 8


Little Women


The V.I.P.s


Father of the Bride


The Taming of the Shrew


Ivanhoe


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Cleopatra


Reflections in a Golden Eye

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Five Movies: The Most Repetitive Music in Film

Sometimes I'm not even sure where these come from, but after hearing that True Grit and Tron Legacy and Inception all had "repetitive" scores, I started thinking about films that truly test my patience with an over-reliance on one or two pieces of music, and this edition of Five Movies finds offenders far more egregious than any of 2010's punching bags. Take a look for yourself, and when possible, a listen:


5. The Creature from the Black Lagoon - It's not that all of the music for Creature is so tedious, but the fact that there's one theme for the Creature, and that it plays every time it appears onscreen, really robs the film of actual thrills or chills.



4. Dead Man / Human Highway - I'm lumping the two of these together because it feels like there isn't a piece of music that Neil Young doesn't love to play to death when he's in charge of the soundtrack. Dead Man's first half is punctuated by the same guitar riff played ad nauseum, which does add to the hypnotic effect of the film, but is nevertheless taxing on one's patience after a certain point. In Human Highway, we're subjected to the same Devo song ("Worried Man") every single time Devo appears on-screen during the narrative proper, so much so that it's a minor relief to hear the unbearably long "Hey Hey My My" during the film's dream sequence. That said, no sooner are we out of the dream sequence than the rest of the cast is performing "Worried Man."



3. The Graduate - I rarely have complaints about Mike Nichols' The Graduate, but its famous soundtrack, featuring music from Simon & Garfunkel, has the unfortunate tendency of playing "Mrs. Robinson" in different incarnations for most of the film (among other S&G songs). If there's such a thing as beating a song into one's head, The Graduate finds a way of doing it, and in the process sullies an otherwise entertaining piece of music.

2. Man on the Moon - Like The Graduate, R.E.M.'s score for Milos Forman's 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic suffers from the overuse of an instrumental version of one song - R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon," which plays over and over and over again with little variation over the course of the film. Were it not such an obvious choice or not performed by the band whose song title inspired the film's title, or if it had simply been held back just a little bit, I might not be so perturbed by it, but nearly every time the film changes location, or the progression of Kaufman's life or career switches, it's back to the same old theme.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - The number one, without fail, all time worst example of "playing a theme to death" I can think of. Howard Shore has two major pieces of score for The Fellowship of the Ring, and depending which part of the movie you're watching, you'll hear them both repeatedly. Early in the film, he plays the "Concerning Hobbits" theme for all its worth:



In the second half of the film, after the fellowship is forged, Shore relies on its theme for nearly every transition, action sequence, or musical bridge:



If you've ever tried watching The Fellowship of the Ring on television, or found yourself in the second half of the film, it's embarrassing how much of a crutch this "theme" is; it's one thing to return to a theme, touch on variations of it during other pieces of music (take Danny Elfman's Batman score, for example), but to play the same theme without variation for half of a three hour movie is taking it too far. Considering how toned down the repetition is during The Two Towers and The Return of the King, it certainly seems like Shore was aware of this too.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

News and Notes

Normally, the Cap'n tries to avoid being "too" topical: for example, I tend to not mention celebrity obituaries. I struggled with mentioning the death of Elizabeth Taylor, a name that ought to be instantly recognizable to film fans, casual and devoted. She's an icon, a legend, and if I mentioned Charlton Heston's passing, it only seemed fair. That being, said, I don't know what to add to the wave of coverage yesterday, save to point out the one movie that doesn't seemed to be mentioned alongside Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, National Velvet, Giant, or The Taming of the Shrew (all fine films in their own right, mind you).

If you want to see why Elizabeth Taylor is more than just an icon, more than just a sex symbol, do yourself a favor and watch Mike Nichol's directorial debut, an adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are fantastic; the movie is exquisitely written, directed, and acted, and while it's not an easy film to watch emotionally, you will come out of it understanding why Taylor is remembered the way she is, even after being out of films for nearly twenty years.

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Oh, speaking of Charlton Heston (my go-to guy for 70s paranoia films), Soylent Green is coming to Blu-Ray. If we're going to stamp this particular post in time, I thought you might want to know. That concludes his "Science Fiction Hero Trilogy" (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green) on High Definition, so go ahead and pick those up. No seriously, I'm not actually being sarcastic there. The Planet of the Apes series are all worth seeing, the first one all the more so; silly ending aside, The Omega Man does a better job of portraying the loneliness of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend than The Last Man on Earth or, well, I Am Legend; Soylent Green doesn't quite have the budget to back up its scope, and it's the least surprising twist this side of Psycho*, but the film is still compelling.

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While I understand Patton Oswalt's argument that the over-availability of films is slowly destroying "geek" culture and removing what seemed to special about being a cinephile, I have to say that the rise of Blu-Ray and the movement on the part of DVD manufacturers to stay alive have only increased the availability of films I never knew existed, and that's a treat.

For example, the concept of having a "Blaxploitation Night" for Summer Fest may well have been a pipe dream were it not for the discovery of Blackenstein on DVD, which then led me to Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, a film that fortuitously was scheduled for release this month. That led me to Abby, the Blaxploitation Exorcist, and then gave me cause to expand my search beyond the 1970s to include Tales from the Hood and Bones. I realize this seems to have less to do with the previous paragraph than it ought to, but the sudden presence of a "35th Anniversary Edition" of Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde is attributable to the growing market for smaller titles, in part because most of the "mainstream" audience is moving to high definition.

It also explains how and why films like Santa Sangre, The Dorm that Dripped Blood, WUSA, Boss, and Teenage Mother are suddenly appearing after years of wallowing in obscurity. Meanwhile, cable channels increasingly have been picking up movies that still haven't made their way to home video. Turner Classic Movies, who launched TCM Underground in 2006 and continued the series unofficially until some time this year, still shows a Friday night double feature of exploitation, cult, or obscure horror films.

Last week, their double feature included Ghoulies and a horror film from 1981 called The Boogens. I had no idea The Boogens even existed, it's not on DVD, and as best I can tell there are no plans to release it. Is the film any good or not? I don't know, but I'll certainly check out the film after recording The Boogens, which seems to be about killer turtle creatures. For someone like me, who loves the thrill of discovery, this period is a blessing.

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Finally, when I went to check out TCM Underground's page, I found that it no longer existed, but the "error" image almost made its absence worthwhile:






* Imagine, for a second, what it must have been like to not have the "shower scene" in the collective subconscious of moviegoers, and to have entered Psycho thinking that Marion Crane was the character we were supposed to follow throughout the film. And then the "shower scene" happens.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Video Daily Double Knows When to Keep It in Its Pants.

Good day to you all, Blogorium readers. Today's important and influential Video Daily Double deals with an insidious menace hidden behind the facade of "casual sex." It doesn't matter if you happen to be John or Jane Q. Public or a member of the Military, if you aren't careful about where you put your naughty bits, you will pay!

On to the education, via two true "viral videos"!

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Our first video today, 1944's To the People of the United States, is about a more insidious threat to the military than DADT, the dreaded enemy that haunts your nether regions, the VD! (Oh, and does that guy on the right in the first vignette look like Robert Mitchum to anyone?)


Our second video is a sequel, of sorts, to Reefer Madness, titled Sex Madness! What happens when the dreaded VD infiltrates civil society???

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Retro Review: Human Highway

When I put together a "worst of 2010" list, the Cop Out section included my list of films I've never finished, which included Horror of the Blood Monsters and the remake of The Wicker Man. Had I thought carefully about the list, I would have included Neil Young's 1982 anti-nuke pastiche of Hollywood slapstick, primitive computer generated effects, and New Wave synthesizers, Human Highway. Until today, I could never bring myself to finish the film, and when I finally did, I really had to ask myself if it was worth it.

In Linear Valley, located between Megatropolis and the Nuclear Power Plant, Lionel Switch (Neil Young) is trying to get his friend Fred Kelly (Russ Tamblyn) a job at Byrd Mechanics, a gas station, auto shop, and diner under the new management of Young Otto Quartz (Dean Stockwell), taking over for his late father (also Dean Stockwell). Lionel also wants to perform in the Nuclear Plant talent show, where music legend Frankie Fontaine (also Neil Young) might make an appearance. Meanwhile, the diner's employees Cracker (Dennis Hopper), Kathryn (Sally Kirkland), Charlotte (Charlotte Stewart) and Irene (Geraldine Baron) are trying to adjust to Young Otto's new cost-cutting techniques, while dealing with the unusual patrons, including a Milkman lothario Earl Duke (David Blue), blue collar workers, obese women, and a sexually dubious Sheik accompanied by his harem. What they don't know is that the Nuclear Garbage Crew (Devo) may have doomed them all while transporting waste through the valley...

My first encounter with Human Highway happened when I worked at Suncoast Video; at the time I focused 90% of my VHS interest in the "Music" section of tapes, and the prospect of seeing a movie by Neil Young seemed too good to pass up on. I bought the tape, brought it home, and made it about twenty minutes in before turning the movie off. A few years later, the tape resurfaced in college and we tried watching Human Highway again, to the same result. I gave the tape to a friend, who I believe then handed it off to someone else, and most of us forgot about Human Highway for years. When I watched Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man last week, I got to thinking about Neil Young (who wrote the score) and morbid curiosity kicked in: why not give Human Highway one more shot? That, it seems, may be a question better unasked.

The nicest thing I can say about Human Highway - directed by Young and Dean Stockwell - is that it feels like a sitcom beamed from the planet Lynch, which is something considering that the artificiality in Blue Velvet was another five years coming. Nearly everything in the film is inauthentic, from the minature sets, rear and front screen projection, or animated augmentation of nuclear waste. Apparently, the film is supposed to capture the characters' "last day on Earth," but I challenge you to work that out at any point in the film. Beyond that, the film is interminably dull, annoying, and feels twice as long as its actual running time.

Believe me, I should have known I was in trouble when the opening animation faded into Booji Boy (Mark Mothersbaugh) warbling through a parody of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" that included lines like "the answer my friend is breaking in the wind." Booji Boy, a shrill, obnoxious Greek Chorus for part of the film, sets an appropriate tone for the mess to follow. Devo's presence as the "nuclear garbagepersons" diminishes as the film goes on, although their song "Worried Man" appears nearly every time the band is on-screen.

There's a totally superfluous, overlong dream sequence that looks suspiciously like a cross between footage from a Neil Young / Devo concert, home movies of shenanigans while Young, Stockwell, Hopper, and most of what I suspect would become the cast of Human Highway fooling around, performing on a Native American reservation, and burning cigar store Indians. But wait, the "dream sequence" isn't done: there's also an extended music video for Young and Devo performing "Hey Hey My My." In all, the dream sequence takes up nearly thirty minutes of the film's 83 minute running time.

Human Highway falls apart after Lionel wakes up from his "dream," and rather than actually go anywhere with the first forty minutes of the story, Young decides to blow up the nuclear power plant, arrange a song-and-dance number of "Worried Man" with the patrons and staff of Byrd Mechanics / Diner, and then drop in some Mutually Assured Destruction before wrapping everything up in a literal "stairway to heaven."

The film is alternately unwatchable and compellingly bizarre, and I can't in good conscience recommend anyone - including die-hard Neil Young fans - watch Human Highway. It's scant 83 minutes drag on interminably, the jokes aren't funny, the music isn't compelling in any way, and the cast is all over the map (the worst of which is Young, who hams his way through every scene in a manner reminiscent of Stephen King's appearance in Creepshow). While it has a strange, deliberately false visual palette, a tone that defies description, and a very long dream sequence that genuinely feels like it came from another film. All of this might seem like a reason to check out Human Highway, even in a "trainwreck" capacity, but I assure you, some things are better left unseen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Cap'n Presents: Adventures in Projectioneering (Part Four)

Sometimes, being a projectionist has its perks, although by the end of this story you might wonder how much of a "perk" it really turned out to be. One night, while I was working for a local multiplex, a few friends thought it might be fun to stick around after the theatre closed and watch one of the fourteen films playing*, and much to my surprise the assistant managers in charge that night gave it their blessing.

"Lock the doors when you leave," they said, and then took off. Maybe I got the pass because two of the people stick around were also employees, and another was a former employee, but I was genuinely not expecting this endorsement after the "Summer of Sam" incident**.

The only non-employee who came by (and who had a habit of simply wandering into the projection area when I was at work) wanted to see God's Army, an all-Mormon film playing at our theatre. For some reason, we were the only theatre playing the film in the Southeast, so busloads of Mormons would arrive to see the film, and it played for quite a while considering its status as a low budget independent film released late in the summer of 2000.

Now, I didn't really want to stick around and watch God's Army, so I struck a bargain with out interloping visitor: we'd watch a double feature instead. Here's where the question of how much of a "perk" staying after hours is, because despite the fact that we had access to a number of presumably better films, the double feature everybody settled on was The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, and The Replacements.

Why? I can't honestly say I remember; for the life of me, I can't figure out how three die-hard horror fans couldn't find anything better playing at that theatre than those two films. Some cursory searching into the films released on July and August of 2000 indicates that while our choices weren't, *ahem*, "good", we could have done slightly better than what we picked. Admittedly, I think we'd already slogged through Hollow Man, Bless the Child, What Lies Beneath, Loser and The In Crowd***, but considering that Scary Movie was still playing and that John Waters' Cecil B. Demented was probably playing there, I cannot fathom why we'd pick such a milquetoast pair of features.

The proof is in the pudding: during The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps (a really boring, not-very-funny sequel to a movie that wasn't great in the first place), the only thing I can remember comes not from the film but from the enjoyment two employees took in being able to smoke in the auditorium. While I remember a little more about the Keanu Reeves / Gene Hackman / Rhys Ifans starring The Replacements, a film I imagine most people don't recall in any fashion (it involved a rag-tag team of football substitutes and, um, well, that's what I can remember; that, and it was "harmless"), what stands out is again what happened surrounding the film. Of the five people hanging around to watch the film, two of them wandered off, one fell asleep, and two of us were left to watch the movie.

It wasn't the last time we'd come in and watch a lousy movie in 2000: I can recall seeing Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Highlander: Endgame, Urban Legends: Final Cut, Bedazzled, and Little Nicky, to name a few. It was, I believe, this period of time, from 1998 to 2004**** or so, that the Cap'n earned the reputation of "will watch anything," a reputation I am unable to live down to this day. What we never did again was stick around "after hours" to watch any more bland, generic Hollywood comedies, or anything else for that matter.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I never did see God's Army. I don't regret this oversight in my cinematic quest for knowledge.



* There are sixteen screens, but I'm leaning in the direction of having two screens for one or two marquee titles.
** The employees gathered together for a pre-screening of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, only to make it 2/3rds into the film when the manager cut the projector off and told us he wanted to go home.
*** Looking back at what came out, the summer of 2000 may have been the weakest time to ever have unfettered access to a multiplex.
**** For the record, I think that ended during a group outing to see the wretched Alien vs. Predator.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Trailer Sunday: Special Edition!


Aliens: Special Edition Director's Cut


The Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition


Donnie Darko: Director's Cut


THX 1138 Director's Cut


Blade Runner: Director's Cut


Apocalypse Now Redux


Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Special Edition


The Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water

For almost twenty years, possibly longer, but certainly as long as the "director's cut"* of Blade Runner has been available on home video, a long standing debate exists as to whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant or not.

In fact, any iteration of the boxed set (the four disc set or the five disc "briefcase" edition) has a ten minute featurette titled "Deck-A-Rep: The True Nature of Rick Deckard" where both sides make their case (Ridley Scott says Deckard is, Harrison Ford says he isn't, and a number of people involved in or admirers of the film weigh in). One of the contributors is director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist), and his impassioned defense of why Deckard isn't a replicant is embedded below:


video


What I've always found interesting about Darabont's argument is how many people I know simply dismiss his entire reading of the film because of the last sentence. Because he "rejects" the "Deckard is a replicant" argument out of hand, they accordingly reject the points he's making. One professor suggested that his unwillingness to consider the alternative automatically invalidated his position, which seems problematic to me.

Darabont's point - that Deckard's evolution in the film is meaningless or at best ironic if he's a replicant - is a valid reading of the film. His reading that the film being about Deckard's slow return to humanity is a valid one, a point that has plenty of thematic evidence in the narrative. If Deckard was a replicant, the character arc is somewhat rendered moot because his sense of humanity is totally artificial; the film ceases to be a "human" story and instead a clinical study of manufactured morality played out by pawns.

Now, I'm not saying that's not also a valid reading of the film: Blade Runner opens itself to a myriad of interpretations, beyond whether the protagonist is actually what he hunts or not. What I find fascinating is the willingness to completely ignore a perfectly valid reading of the film based on the last part of one sentence. Darabont rejects Deckard-as-replicant, and therefore several people I know summarily reject his argument, not on the grounds of the argument itself but because Darabont makes a sweeping claim on personal grounds.

It's fine to disagree with Frank Darabont that the "theme" of Blade Runner might not be the emerging humanity of its protagonist, or even that the idea Deckard might be a replicant undermines that, but to simply disagree with his point simply because he disagrees with one reading of the film is actually performing the exact kind of sweeping claim he closes the argument with. He rejects the "Deckard replicant" argument, ergo you reject his argument; the baby out with the bath water. It doesn't matter that he might have a point (or that "Deckard is a replicant" proponents might have a case), because you disagree with his disagreement, everything is nullified. In a manner of speaking, the whole dialectic collapses for almost comical reasons: I disagree with your disagreement, therefore you are wrong, regardless of your evidence.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but this is an academic equivalent of internet "comment wars" between two opposing sides: your valid claim and argument is eradicated because you misspelled one word in your argument, therefore I am correct. While that may sound ridiculous taken out of context, consider that many people are ignoring the almost everything Darabont says in order to focus on the word "reject" in order to invalidate his position entirely.

He's taken not on the grounds of his argument, but the perceived imprecision of his closing, coupled with what I will concede are sweeping claims about the sophistication of the theme, which can either be applied to Darabont himself or to the editor who chose this particular thirty second clip from the entirety of an interview. Regardless, the contention I've found almost never stems from the "theme" argument, but from the word "reject." I'm not going to reject your rejection, but I will say that it confounds me that spirited academic (or cinematic) debates collapse so easily.




* Contained in quotations because the 1992 re-issue was not overseen by director Ridley Scott, who was filming Thelma and Louise during its construction, thus necessitating his "Final Cut" in 2007.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Blogorium Review: Cyrus

John (John C. Reilly), a freelance editor*, has been divorced from Jamie (Catherine Keener) for seven years, but when she comes over to tell him she's marrying Tim (Matt Walsh), she also insists he joins them at a party in the hopes of meeting someone. After striking out repeatedly, John meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) and they hit it off. After two dates, John follows Molly home (wondering why she leaves early), and meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), her 21 year old son. Cyrus and Molly have an unusual mother / son dynamic: she dotes on him too much, and he takes advantage of that to drive a wedge in her burgeoning relationship with John. When John realizes what Cyrus is doing, he must decide: "do I wage war with her son, or is this relationship worth pursuing?"

If I had seen Cyrus while working on my "year end" list, it would have fallen right in the middle; there's really nothing wrong with the movie, but at the same time there's nothing exceptional about it. The film, written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) is a by the numbers romantic comedy, right down to the predictable ending, presented under the auspices of an "indie" cinema. The catch is that, unlike the low budget Baghead or The Puffy Chair, Cyrus was produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, and despite their efforts to disguise the production values, the film is too conventional for anyone to by the mumble-y dialogue or gently-strummed-high-pitched-whisper song soundtrack.

The Duplass brothers do try to trick their fans into thinking Cyrus is more than a by-the-numbers romantic comedy: the camera work is designed to look like an "on the fly," caught in real time cinema verite, at least for a while. Before long, they begin to indulge in montages with dialogue that leaps forward and backward with the image**, and then the camera seems to settle down into "master/close up/reverse shot" setups. So too does the awkward, "mumblecore" dialogue begin to shift to the more traditional, and characters cease to behave like humans and simply behave according to story devices.

Story-wise, Cyrus falls into the "man-child" genre of comedies that Judd Apatow and Adam McKay have been occupying for the last six or seven years; John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill are essentially playing variations of their "type" - Reilly as the soft spoken, awkward loser and Hill as the sarcastic jerk. The only real difference is the level to which Hill pushes Cyrus into a manipulative sociopath; he just barely keeps himself out of stereotypical territory, despite all of the blank stares, muttered threats, and bogus "panic attacks."

Marisa Tomei has virtually nothing to work with as an actress: as the film progresses, Molly becomes less of a character and more of a cipher, an object for the emotionally stunted man-boys to fight over. By the time her character goes catatonic when John finally leaves, one struggles to remember the woman who saw past his act early in the story. Catherine Keener and Matt Walsh have absolutely nothing to do outside of giving Cyrus a "supporting cast": Walsh is barely in the film and Keener's Jamie is saddled with all of the "am I just being neurotic or is the kid evil" rants from John. Since Cyrus is transparently manipulative, Keener's assurances that he's "weird, but not in a bad way" are hollow to the audience.

I realize I sound like I'm panning Cyrus, which is being unkind to the film; I tend to be very hard on films that settle for being in the "middle": movies like Cyrus don't actually try to do anything that sets it apart from every other comedy of its kind, nor is it bad enough to simply ignore. John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill are all doing good work with what they have, and the film at least tries to insert a modicum of "realism" into an otherwise trite rom-com dynamic. Aside from the ending, everything that happens is organic within the story, derived from things unsaid or from character traits. The problem is that I just can't get that enthused about Cyrus: there's not enough going for it to merit recommending, and at the same time I don't hate it (the same way I do, say, Juno, which is as transparently obvious in its storytelling). Cyrus is just there, and for me that's not enough.




* The film is so vague about John's job that it isn't actually clear he's a film editor until he barges into Jamie's office (where he also works, although that's not clear until even later) to talk conspiratorially about Cyrus.
**I'm tempted to call this the Soderbergh effect, since it's one of his most relied on techniques, but that presumes that he invented the style instead of co-opting it from films like Point Blank

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Video Daily Double for the Ladies!

Greetings, readers! Welcome back to another set of life lessons from the golden age of film strips. Today we're going to take a look back at the "good old days" of gender equity: specifically how men relate to women in the work place, and perhaps what jobs the fairer sex should pursue in order to maximize their womanly skills.

Make with the edutainment, Cap'n!

---

Our first video from McGraw Hill isn't like the "good old days," so if a man isn't available for your work place, you're going to have to get used to The Trouble with Women:


Our second video, The Home Economics Story, makes the case that not only shouldn't women focus on "manly" studies, but thanks to Iowa State University, you can actually make money doing "womanly" work!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Retro Review: Dead Man

I hadn't actually planned on watching all of Dead Man yesterday; the Cap'n had been backing up some videos and stumbled across a copy of Jim Jarmusch's 1995 western, and when I put the movie on, I found I couldn't turn it off. Jarmusch's sparse, black and white photography and minimalist camerawork had me transfixed, unable to turn away.

Dead Man, like Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner, is a film that operates in a dream-like state; I've seen all three many times, and while the narratives are all reasonably straightforward, they have a hypnotic effect that renders me incapable of remembering the story until I watch them again. For the life of me I couldn't remember the progression of Dead Man's story. Only moments, images stuck with me: Crispin Glover covered in coal soot, Lance Henriksen's cannibal bounty hunter, Iggy Pop wearing a dress, and Johnny Depp painting his face with the blood of a dead fawn.

Bill Blake (Depp) leaves Cleveland, Ohio and heads west by train to Machine, where he's promised an accounting job at Dickinson Metal Works. Informed by Dickinson's assistant, John Scofield (John Hurt) that the position was filled a month before he arrived, Blake demands to see John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), which is met with disaster when the old man threatens to kill him on sight. Broke and with no work, Blake meets Thel Russell (Mili Avital), who left her life as a prostitute to sell imitation roses, but their romance is cut short when Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) returns to kill Thel, his former lover. Charlie kills Thel, and in the process shoots Blake near the heart, before Blake kills him and escapes. Unbeknownst to Blake, Charlie is Dickinson's son, and the old man hires three outlaws - Cole Wilson (Lance Henrikson), Conway Twill (Michael Wincott), and Jimmy "The Kid" Pickett (Eugene Byrd) to track down Blake and the horse he stole. The injured Blake awakens to find Nobody (Gary Farmer), an outcast Native American, trying to dig out the "white man's metal" next to his heart, but when Nobody discovers Blake's real name, he sets out to return the lost soul to the spirit realm.

Dead Man is a film of facsimiles, of imitations and "almost there"'s: Nobody mistakes Bill Blake for the spirit of poet William Blake, although Bill has no notion of his namesake. Blake wanders home with Thel Russell, who sells paper roses. Nobody is a mixed-blood Native, captured by white men and taken to England. Despite his escape, his heritage is denied by his tribe, and he is left to wander the desert, alternately imitating and mocking the "stupid white man." Blake, who arrives in town wearing a "clown suit" from Cleveland, doesn't seem to fit in anywhere - Depp's appearance is reminiscent of his role in 1993's Benny and Joon.

The hypnotic effect is a result of Dead Man's episodic lapses; despite the fact that the story is a simple "pursuit" film, Jarmusch and editor Jay Rabonwitz made the decision to fade out after every scene, effectively creating a series of dreamlike vignettes, starting with Blake's train ride from Cleveland to Machine - itself half-dream, half shifting reality, and closing with the Train Fireman (Crispin Glover)'s stream of consciousness warning against going "all the way out here to hell." The lapses in narrative, coupled with Neil Young's ethereal (if repetitive) score, result in an experiential, rather than linear, tone.

Nobody (a character whose name is almost certainly borrowed from Tonino Valerii's 1973 spaghetti western) has most of Jarmusch's directorial flourishes: his flashbacks fade to white (how appropriate) with images surrounded by a hazy iris. When he takes peyote midway through the film, Nobody sees Blake with a skeleton superimposed over his face (perhaps a too literal image for the film). Gary Farmer does manage to transition Nobody's role from off-kilter comedic to sage-like smoothly, which helps smooth over Dead Man's few, but obvious, thematic touches.

I'd also forgotten how funny Dead Man is, and not simply because of Nobody's insistence on calling Blake a "stupid fucking white man." As is the case in most of Jarmusch's body of work, the comedy comes from character quirks or awkward situations; the way that John Dickinson admonishes Wilson, Twill, and Pickett like errant school children, or the way they behave like petulant truants waiting in the Principal's office before Dickinson arrives. The bounty hunters, who are not accustomed to working together, are a mismatch from the outset: Conway Twill talks to much and sleeps with a teddy bear; Cole Wilson barely talks at all, but is prone to random, brutal acts of violence; and Jimmy "The Kid" Pickett is trapped in the middle, unable to fully grasp how out of his league he is.

The film teeters on the brink of self-parody during a sequence involving Blake and three trappers: Big George (Billy Bob Thornton), Benmont Tench (Jared Harris) and "Sally" Jenko (Iggy Pop), who eat beans and talk of philistines, then argue amongst themselves who gets to kill Blake, the interloper, before Nobody swoops in for the rescue. That Thornton actually utters the line "Well, I guess nobody gets you" before Nobody kills him, is almost too on the nose, but Dead Man recovers by resorting (as it often does) to a violent conclusion.

There are a handful of recurring themes in Dead Man: the conflict between Christianity and Native spirituality (particularly in a late confrontation between Nobody and a trader played by Alfred Molina), mistaken identity, running gags involving tobacco and beans, Blake's encounters with sexuality appearing increasingly bestial, of innocence corrupted, and miscommunication between allies. This is excluding the numerous references to William Blake in the film, both direct and implied.

I must have seen Dead Man for the first time in high school, almost assuredly on video. I have vague recollections of the film (dubbed an "acid western") not being received well, but can only find one truly negative review from the period: a one-and-a-half star review by Roger Ebert that might be the basis for my conception (although knowing the News and Observer, which nothing is ever "good enough" for, that was no doubt also a pan).

Revisiting the film, beyond the fact that I could not wander away from Jarmusch (and cinematographer Robby Müller)'s black and white photography, I find that I enjoyed Dead Man more than I have at any of the various points I've spent with the film in the ensuing sixteen years. While it doesn't have the intangible joy of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, or the laconic wit of Down By Law, or even the emotional resonance of Broken Flowers, Dead Man is certainly head and shoulders above the obvious, show-off-y The Limits of Control, and more cohesive than Mystery Train, Night on Earth, or Coffee and Cigarettes. Dead Man may never be clear where it's going (if it is, in fact, going anywhere), but the trip makes up for its ambiguous destination.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Recommendations of a Supplement Junkie

Earlier this year, I came clean about the horrible, terrible affliction the Cap'n lives with every day: an addiction to supplements on DVDs and Blu-Rays. In order to help myself (and others), I thought it would be in our best interests if I shared some of my favorite "making of" documentaries found on various discs.

As I said previously, of late there have been some really clever, well designed, and revelatory documentaries (or "extended featurettes"), so I'll be focusing on those as opposed to feature-length "making-of" docs like Burden of Dreams of Hearts of Darkness. Mind you, those are fantastic in their own right, but they tend to have their own releases (or, in the case of Hearts of Darkness, are included as its own disc on Apocalypse Now's Blu-Ray set), whereas the longer pieces listed below are sometimes buried behind EXCLUSIVE INTERACTIVITY POCKET BLU BLAH BLAH BLAH. Don't let the noise and the trivial extras scare you away, because many of these longer pieces are every bit as good as the stand-alone docs.

The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys - directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha), The Hamster Factor is a nearly 90 minute look behind the scenes of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, focused primarily on the director's working process. Gilliam, who has a partially deserved / partially exaggerated reputation as a "difficult" perfectionist, may do himself no favors by giving the documentary its title: the "hamster" in question is holding up an otherwise perfectly executed and technically elaborate shot because the rodent refuses to do what Gilliam wants in frame, slowing production to a halt. That's one of the many confounding, fascinating elements about making an already confounding, fascinating film.

Beware the Moon - While it balances "making of" stories with a "locations then and now" host structure, Beware the Moon is as thorough document of the making of An American Werewolf in London as you're likely to find. Not only has writer / director / host Paul Davis managed to track down most of the original locations, but he also assembles as many surviving members of the cast and crew to discuss Werewolf's origins, its filming, the special effects, and its peculiar balance of horror and humor. Among the heretofore unrealized tidbits was the fact that John Landis had the idea to make An American Werewolf in London while working as a production assistant on Kelly's Heroes; Rick Baker had already committed to The Howling when Landis finally pulled him back into Werewolf, after finding out the makeup effects artist would be using his designs for Joe Dante's wolf film; and the queasy feeling Griffin Dunne felt after seeing his "corpse" makeup design for the first time.

One By One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga of The Evil Dead, Life After Death: The Ladies of the Evil Dead, and Discovering The Evil Dead - Taken together, this nearly 86 minute story of Sam Raimi's debut film covers nearly every angle of its inception: from the attempt to raise money by knocking down investors' doors, to the extended filming in Tennessee, to the film's release, subsequent success, and controversy after being labeled a "video nasty" in England. While Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, and much of the cast and crew appear in the first two docs, the third featurette is equally as interesting because it focuses on the film's appearance in Great Britain, and the subsequent trial that Raimi faced after the film was deemed "obscene."

The Making of the Alien Legacy (The Beast Within, Superior Firepower, Wreckage and Rage, and One Step Beyond) - If you haven't seen this epic set of documentaries (which total nearly 12 hours in length) and consider yourself a fan of the Alien series, I highly recommend checking the fifth disc of the Alien Anthology Blu-Ray. I highlight the Antholgy version over the Alien Quadrilogy version if for no other reason than Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien 3 is included in its full, uncut format, restoring footage devoted to the battles between director David Fincher and studio executives at 20th Century Fox. Exhaustive might be the best way to put the docs in perspective: nearly everything you can think of about the making of Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien: Resurrection is covered in detail, warts and all.

These comprehensive stories are not without controversy, divided opinions, embittered participants (Michael Biehn's explanation of why and how he discovered Hicks wouldn't be in Alien 3 is a great example), and various takes on why certain things didn't work, especially in the third and fourth films. That doesn't mean everything on Alien is roses, however: there's a protracted segment about the approach to the script with writer Dan O'Bannon on one side and producer / co-writer Ronald Shusett on the other. In totality, while it will take you a few viewings to get through, you'll learn so much more about the series than you ever thought possible. (This does not, by the way, include the BD's "enhancement pods," which extend all four documentaries by nearly an hour apiece!)

While I'd love to continue, this is going a bit long; also check out Empire of Dreams: The Making of the Star Wars Saga, Indiana Jones: Making the Trilogy, The Battle of Brazil: A Video History, Inferno: The Making of the Expendables, Fear of the Flesh: The Making of the Fly, Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner, 30 Days in Hell: The Making of the Devil's Rejects, and Orson Welles: One Man Band.

Tomorrow: a Retro Review of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.
Next Tuesday: a Retro Review of Neil Young's Human Highway.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

There's No Such Thing as a Free Trailer Sunday


The Brother from Another Planet


I Was a Teenage Werwolf


Tetsuo: The Iron Man


Gandahar


Rolling Thunder


Night on Earth


Something Wild


Breathless (1983 remake)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Five Movies: Five Books About Movies Worth Your Time

Yesterday, I briefly mentioned that literature about film was a useful way of feeding the Cinephilic meme, so it only seemed fair that the Cap'n give you some suggestions. More often than not, the casual-to-curious film fan will wander into their local bookseller (or retail chain), head for the "Media" section, and find themselves inundated with oversized "making of" books, unauthorized celebrity bios, and more "1001 ____ Movies You Must See Before You Die" than you can shake a stick at. The end result tends to be that they leave with nothing, feeling perplexed about where all these "great books" their friends talk about are.

One of the problems - perhaps the largest problem - is that the critical analysis or scholarly approach to film texts are limited to small, university presses, and most major chains don't feel the need to carry them. It is, after all, not their target demographic - typically the casual shopper looking for a paperback to enjoy on a sunny afternoon - so you won't find analytical texts just anywhere (periodically they pop up in used book stores, especially ones in the vicinity of a college campus).

Then again, the neophyte or leaning cinephile will want to wait for most of those texts, so while I'll mention a few after the list proper, this edition of Five Movies will focus on good "entry points" with a dash of heavier reading to keep you busy. Whenever possible, I'll link the titles to Amazon, so you have a reasonably priced starting point.

1. VideoHound's Cult Flicks & Trash Pics (edited by Carol Schwartz with Jim Olenski) - Let's start with a video guide; when I was younger, I used The Video Movie Guide by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, but as the list of films grows, the reviews become shorter and shorter, and omissions ramped up. VideoHound publishes guides by topic, genre, and year, so you get more concentrated subsections of films, with better information about the film and its relative merits. I chose Cult Flicks & Trash Pics because if you want a handy guide to the "underground" films that exist in the realm of meme-dom, this is a great point of entry. It also makes a good companion to J. Hoberman and Johnathan Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies.

2. Hooked by Pauline Kael - From movie guides, let's move on to collections of reviews by critics; while I do own a few books by Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael was far and away my favorite "newspaper critic" - her reviews are insightful, witty, and so effortlessly well written that it drives me crazy I can't come anywhere close. Kael died ten years ago, and her collections are woefully out of print (I found Hooked at a used book store), but our number 2 pick is a little bit easier to find than 5001 Nights at the Movies, which is also excellent. Hooked deals with reviews from 1984-1989, covering a number of titles you may be familiar with (and many you won't be), and even when I don't agree with Kael (like her pans of After Hours and Raising Arizona), I appreciate the level of writing she brings even to pithy dismissals. This book would make a fine counterpoint to Harlan Ellison's Watching, which covers much of the same time period in cinema.

3. The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans - You may have seen the documentary based on our third choice, also narrated by Evans, but it doesn't even scratch the surface of this entertaining, frank, and frequently revelatory autobiography from the former head of Paramount Pictures. Evans makes it clear from the get-go that this is his version of the story, but his path from salesman to B-movie actor to mogul is never dull, even if the facts tend to lean only in one direction. As "tell all"'s or Hollywood biographies go, skip what you normally see on the shelf and gravitate towards The Kid Stays in the Picture; you'll learn a lot more and have more fun doing it.


4. The Director's Series by various authors, editors, et al - This series, which sometimes goes by the name Directors on Directors, is a collection of interviews with various filmmakers about their process, history, craft, and themes in their body of work. There's one for just about any director you could be interested in: David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, David Cronenberg, Douglas Sirk, Lars von Trier, John Cassavetes, Louis Malle, Ken Loach, Woody Allen, Kryzysztof Kielslowski, Pedro Almodoovar, Tim Burton, Paul Schrader, Barry Levinson, John Sayles, Robert Altman, and Terry Gilliam. Personal favorites? I'd start with Lynch on Lynch or Gilliam on Gilliam, which have a more conversational tone with the directors in question. Burton on Burton is a treasure trove of information, but its structure is more of introductory text preceding a quote from Tim Burton moving chronologically through his films. It's interesting, but less intimate, so I'd start with Gilliam or Lynch and more forward from there.


5. The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film by J.W. Rinzler - As chronicles of making a film go, you'd be hard pressed to find a more in-depth exploration than The Making of Star Wars. I assure you that even the most die-hard Star Wars fan is going to find plenty of revelations in the book, about the writing process, the conceptualizing of Lucas' vision, the perils of making the film, its disastrous first edit, and the effort that went into making the first film a cultural landmark. Rinzler does similar work with the Indiana Jones series and The Empire Strikes back (and, one must assume, eventually Return of the Jedi), with plenty of access to everyone involved in the making of A New Hope, and the book feels like it steps beyond the typical "Lucas whitewash" that other "histories" of the films have.

This is just to get you started, of course; if you want some really good "theory" I suggest More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts by James Naremore, Horror, The Film Reader, edited by Mark Jancovich, Theories of Authorship, edited by John Caughie, or Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction by Scott Bukatman. If you like more niche or subgenre guides, hunt down Stuart Galbraith IV's Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films.

If you want to have some fun with reviews or career pieces, check out Vern's Five on the Outside, Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, or "Yipee Ki-Yay, Moviegoer!": Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema, and Other Important Topics. You can also look at the series of director interviews with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch and The Coen Brothers. Want to know how to make a movie? Try Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without a Crew or Lloyd Kaufman's Make Your Own Damn Movie!. Want a cultural history of a genre? Check out David J. Skal's The Monster Show, Kendal Phillips' Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, or Joe Bob Briggs' one-two punch of Profoundly Disturbing and Profoundly Erotic.

I'm always looking for more good reads, so if you have one, pass it on.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cinephilia: Meme Without a Cause

Before the internet made (no pun intended) virtually everything accessible, I used to wonder how it was that knowledge of the obscure, the forgotten, or the "cult" films came from. The information seemed to travel like a meme; no one could pinpoint exactly where they heard it from, or declare with any certainty that this knowledge originated from any source more reliable than a "friend of a friend told me." It just appeared - one day you didn't know about these movies, and the next you did.

Voracious readers experience a similar phenomenon, one that provides a gateway into the experience I'm talking about: at a certain point in time, almost invariably high school, some students clue in to "alternative" literature, seemingly without a point of reference. The only point of entry that makes sense is the one student that always seems to carry around The Portable Beat Reader, but how one makes the leap from Jack Kerouac to Aldous Huxley or Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, William Gibson, or Hunter S. Thompson, I can't say. If my library had a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I didn't know it. I don't even remember how I knew the book existed: I just did. Ironically, years before I had been reading issues of Rolling Stone that Thompson wrote essays for (the one that springs to mind is "Polo is My Life," which became the book he never released between Better Than Sex and Kingdom of Fear), but I didn't read those articles. In retrospect, I wish I had, but the literary "virus" infects without warning.

The same is applicable to film, even if there are a few more tangible sources to point towards. Most film "geeks" spend (spent? considering current trends) hours poring through the titles at video stores, attracted to lurid cover art or titles that confound the mind. The video store clerk, not always the stereotypical "comic book guy" from The Simpsons, was handy in offering suggestions. True story: while applying for a job at a local video store (a job I did not end up getting because I was too young), the manager interviewing me suggested that I watch Swimming with Sharks because I really enjoyed Kevin Spacey in The Ref. Had she not suggested I rent Swimming with Sharks, I may have missed out on the film entirely for years.

Looking back on the job I did get, a seasonal shift working for Suncoast Video (now FYE), the root cause for the cinephile "meme" still remains elusive: aside from a friend asking me to find Sid and Nancy*, much of my time working there wasn't spent combing through titles I didn't recognize or hadn't heard of. To be fair, it was the holiday season and I was only sixteen, but both prime opportunities to identify an originating "there" for the cinematic virus both come up blank.

The truth is that I don't know who told me that The Evil Dead was a film to see. Maybe it was The Video Movie Guide by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter - that was, I recall, the first time I ever heard that Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn was practically a "remake of the first film" - then again, maybe it was a review of Army of Darkness in the local newspaper. I didn't see Army of Darkness at the time, but I knew it existed, and with a bit of diligent investigation, it's possible I traced the sequel back to Sam Raimi's debut. The problem is that you always seem to be telling other people about these films, but can never suss out how you knew about them. Nobody told me about The Rocky Horror Picture Show; it just always seemed to be there, a midnight listing for The Rialto every week. One week, we decided to go, not really knowing much more about the film or the rules than when we didn't want to go.

Once the meme reaches you, infects you, the information and the desire to learn more increases exponentially. One film leads to another, that leads to another, that leads to a dead end, a rumor, a film no one can find: the Cannibal Holocaust's, the "director's cut" of Dawn of the Dead, a "workprint" cut of Alien 3, the "five hour" Dune. At the time, with limited resources, these seem like impossibilities. They have to be "out there" because you read some arcane reference to the fact, or saw a discrepancy in the running time** somewhere.

Now, things are a little different: the internet leveled out much of the conjecture, many of the second or third-hand sources, and the growing availability of DVDs have, in many ways, altered the landscape permanently. Access is different, although surprisingly as vague as the meme was before an era of instant availability. While it's much, much easier to find out about apocryphal "geek" trivia, like what's missing in different versions of a film (see Movie-Censorship dot com), the paper trail is nevertheless no more definite. The availability of information is more prevalent; it's source remains nearly as ethereal.

Apropos to this discussion is the fact that I don't consider the internet to have "ruined" geek culture: Patton Oswalt made several salient (if tongue in cheek) points in a Wired article titled "Wake Up, Geek Culture: Time to Die" and maybe the "cult" aspect of fandom is vanishing thanks to over-saturation. We live in an age when the random, the lost-in-the-shuffle, the marginal can not only be found on the Internet Movie Database, but the poster is only a Google Image Search away (often linked to a page where it's for sale), has at least one link on Amazon***, and if an industrious pirate has enough perseverance, the film itself is floating somewhere in the digital cloud.

The digital cloud, so to speak, has become another fold in which the film meme hides itself. What's different is that the limited resources of fifteen or twenty years ago have, for the most part, disappeared. People visit this blog as a result of image searches for films like Monsturd, a movie I can't imagine is really that widely discussed. Still, someone heard the title from a friend of a friend (or from Netflix), and plugged the title in. They ended up here, and I take great pride in being a source that passes on the film meme, or Cinephilia as I like to classify it. Maybe I can tell you where I heard about these films from, but I'll be more than happy to pass them on if they're worth your while.



* True story - Sid and Nancy was, at that point, not available on VHS. I jokingly suggested she buy a sixty dollar Laserdisc copy of the film. The laserdisc's publisher? Criterion.
** This continues to be a point of curiosity among friends: when Artisan released The Ninth Gate, the Spanish running time was fifteen minutes longer than the American version, which I have never found any accounting for, or if a longer cut even exists.
*** Take, for example, Five Minutes to Live, also known as The Door-to-Door Maniac: a Johnny Cash and Ronnie Howard vehicle from the 1960s that most Cash fans don't even know exists. Seven Amazon listings for the DVD as of five minutes ago.