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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Catch-Up Screening Log: July

Alphaville (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) - Mystery/sci-fi hybrid where famous French detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is sent to the utterly logical city of Alphaville to find Dr. Leonard Nosferatu van Braun (Howard Vernon), who developed a super-weapon for them. One of those early post-modern exercises in film, which is both effective and hilarious. The destruction of Alphaville at the end is handled more by implication than effects, but is all the more surprising for it. And Godard does a hilarious deadpan, from the futuristic newspaper name of Figaro-Pravda (he can at least imagine a post-Cold War society) to the utterly perfunctory initial attacks on Caution to the way that interstellar travel is just represented as a car driving down a highway. B+

Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (d. Larry Cohen, 1977, NIV) - Larry Cohen's ambition severely outstrips his ability in this film. As I've seen more and more Cohen, the less impressed I am with his film-making ability. His shot compositions are very basic (with the exception of one where Hoover, at his favorite restaurant, is framed as to be surrounded by his own reflection). Cohen's script is an amorphous blob; refusing to organize his picture around one era or one theme or even one character (!), Cohen aims for a "greatest hits of Hoover" approach. Poor, under-utilized Rip Torn serves as our on-again, off-again narrator/POV character (who doesn't even show up on screen until 40 minutes into the film!).
Broderick Crawford is amazing as Hoover, managing to bring some gravitas and mystery to a rather unsympathetic character. To Cohen's credit, he tries to position Hoover as an anti-hero with loathsome methods who still shouldered the huge burden of protecting his Bureau from even more loathsome people. Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy is probably the best of the politician impressionists, bothering to suggest a person behind the familiar affect. C-

Walk Hard (d. Jake Kasdan, 2007, NIV) - I really regret not seeing this in theatres now. I watched it in my bedroom on the heels of a bad break-up, and I still laughed uproariously. The screenplay strikes the perfect balance between stupid and clever in the best Airplane! and Top Secret! traditions. It perfectly punctures the pomposity of the biopic, with the prepackaged life story that always follows the same arc. The cast is excellent (Tim Meadows in particular displays a great comic sincerity and innocence totally at odds with what his character is doing) and the cameos are well-deployed. A-

Piranha (d. Joe Dante, 1978) - A great example of what B movie film-making represents at it's best. Although the opening sequence is well handled, and the Jaws video-game is an incredibly clever joke, the next ten minutes are kind of annoying as Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies are thrown together by over-contrived circumstance and without any regard for the characterization they've established (because young, attractive girls go for paunchy, angry alcoholics all the time where I live). But once it gets past those 10 minutes, the pacing and plotting builds relentlessly and cleverly. The action sequences are well-staged and the caricatures that populate the story are engagingly depicted by a cast of b-movie character actors (Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Kevin McCarthy). And Dante's visual wit (the escape attempt from the army, the race to stop the dam from venting) helps to lighten the mood. Like a fresh Krispy Kreme donut, you wouldn't want to devour more at one sitting, nor would you make a meal of it. But a fun time and not insulting to the intelligence. B-

Gypsy (d. Mervyn LeRoy, 1962) - A horror movie disguised as a musical, as suggested by one of my favorite blogs, Shadowplay. Rosalind Russell does a great job of portraying someone who has bought into the combined fantasies of show biz and the American Dream, trying to disguise her selfishness as kindness and bulldozing past any attempt at realism with sheer enthusiasm. Karl Malden and Natalie Wood also turn in great performances. Wood in particular deserves commendation for the decidedly tomboyish and defeated posture she carries through most of the film, totally effacing herself with a pitiful anti-charisma. LeRoy's direction marries these performances to a decidedly tactile universe that continually undercuts any attempts at show biz glamor by Rose (the cow head adds a particular grotesqueness, always lingering at the corner of the frame in most scenes). A

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (d. David Yates, 2009, at theater) Do I really need to give a synopsis? Yates does a great job of staging his scenes, so that a glimpse of a by-passed conversation in a quiet scene suddenly explodes into violence a second later. He and the production department also find a nice balance between the magical feeling of Hogwarts and the lived-in aspect that any such place would have. A good, game cast, but Jim Broadbent as Professor Slugworth adds a particular poignance. As a compromised, faded professor drawn to celebrities like a moth to flame, he offers a reminder of fates worse than death or Dementors that Voldemort can offer. B

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thoughts brought on by "Antonio Margheriti" rubbing shoulders with G.W. Pabst in "Inglourious Basterds"

Howard Vernon, a mainstay of Spanish schlockmeister Jesus Franco and Jean Rollins, got his start with Fritz Lang on the 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and appeared as Dr. Leonard Nosferatu von Braun in Godard's Alphaville.

Jesus Franco was a 2nd unit director for Orson Welles on Chimes at Midnight and Don Quixote. It was his Count Dracula that forms the basis of Pere Portabella's Cuadecuc, vampir.

Ruggero Deodato, director of Cannibal Holocaust, got his start as second unit director on Rosselini's Il Generale della Rovere.*

This is on top of Roger Corman's record for starting such luminaries as Monte Hellman, John Sayles, and Robert Towne, on top of Coppola and Scorcese, of course.

The cross-pollination between auteurist sensibility in the approved and the shadow auteurs that exist in the netherworld of exploitation film deserves greater examination.

Jesus Franco is no Orson Welles, it's true. But just as Cahiers du Cinema rehabilitated Samuel Fuller, Edgar Ulmer and Howard Hawks for the art-house, our generation has to grapple with the disconnect between exploitation/genre and art-house. Some art-house filmmakers are breaking down the boundaries of their own accord. But we don't have any kind of discussion between these two worlds except in the practical terms.

In addition to the economic reasons, Hollywood and whatever metonymy would represent the independent film-world need to face the artistic legacy of these overlapping, cross-breeding worlds just because of the artistic options they suggest. This examination offers something beyond blockbusters and middle-brow.

*Cannibal Holocaust might deserve some sort of comparison to the goals and practices of neo-realism. It is grappling with the social systems that hold together society, looking at media's methods of manipulation of reality. The hypocrisy or effectiveness of the approach also deserve discussion, but blanket dismissal is way too easy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The King of Casting...

Just watched Scorcese's "The King of Comedy", his acerbic take on both celebrity and would-be celebrities.

And then I found this article (h/t The Playgoer).

Short version: Some douchebag casting director tweeted the results of her casting session, complaining about specific (though un-named) performances.

She claims she's being helpful, giving advice, but it seems to me that she could always just write an article or blog post or something constructive for future auditioners. The internet does allow you to post more than 140 words at a time. She knows that, right?

And if she really had a problem with something a specific performer does, why not address it to that specific person? That's a really passive-aggressive way to deal with your frustration.

I hope the next time Ms. Eisenberg does something private or personal that someone tweets every detail.

This is the exact kind of deafness to personal interaction that characterizes Rupert Pupkin's character in "King of Comedy", that makes you want to retch when he actually becomes a success. But in the defense of that character, the movie does point out a severely messed-up and disappointing life that made him that way. What's a successful, powerful casting director's defense?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Let a Thousand Audrey 2s Bloom...

Idea 1: The American film industry's best hope is a hundred modern-day Roger Cormans: profit-minded entrepreneurs with some artistic curiousity and cost-motivated desire to seek out and train new talent.

Idea 2: Perhaps the American film industry stands as the final titan of America's monolithic industries. I think it also the one that that has experienced the least government interference and/or support. Hollywood as the next Detroit?

Idea 3: Hollywood's creative destruction and the rise of the modern Cormans would be capitalism perfected. The pro-business, pro-family wing of the conservatives will be dismayed by this exercise of capitalism. The aesthetic/creative wing of the modern left will face incredible discomfort at the products.

I promise I will actually explicate and expand on these. But for now, whet your appetite with an article that points out how Corman was an auteur and craftsman in one of his most atypical films.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The geeks were right

Seriously, Richard Corliss? Netflix is ruining the movie-watching community?

He does remember that most of us were going to Blockbuster or Hollywood Video or some other awful video store which carried 50 copies of the latest blockbuster (with a little b) and maybe one copy of Gone With the Wind, if you were lucky? Right?

I mean, growing up in Raleigh, we didn't have a trendy place like Kim's Video to go to. My video store never even carried a copy of The Taking of Pelham 123.

Corliss is right that wait times suck, and Netflix's recommendation software isn't as good as a knowledgeable video clerk. But then again, in my memories of Blockbuster, you were lucky if there were two guys on register on a Friday night and a third person working the floor. That's awful customer service. Good luck getting out in 10 minutes with the movie you wanted, let alone getting recommendations!

I don't want to just snark Mr. Corliss. There are probably some cool video stores driven out of business by Netflix. But 99% of the places were crappy, ill-stocked chains that wanted to sell you over-priced popcorn and never carried a video that wasn't put out by a major studio.

And the thing is, I've been learning a lot about movies from the film blogosphere, by people not motivated by the urge to move product, who aren't in a hurry to get me out so they can serve someone else. Most of the people who blog about movies that I read care about more than the latest blockbuster and they want to have a conversation. Isn't that the kind of community that Richard Corliss misses?