Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What I Bought, What I Watched

I am getting so lazy as a writer and it clearly shows on this blah-ug. I struggled with severe writer's block for two days trying to create an eight-page intro to the new novel I am working on. Finally the words arrived today and when I finished I realized I was going to have to write it all over again, this time in a different setting. Same story, different stage. When writing fiction I have to dig around for the actors in my head and "get into character". Then I get to change locations. It's cheaper than making movies.
  Last night after work I used my 50% off coupon at Movie Stop and for about $13 I bought The Big Lebowski and (to my surprise found) Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. 
This would be my first time viewing this movie on TV. I have twice seen this film but only at a revival house. And I thought for years I could maintain a record of seeing it only in theaters before seeing it at home. Well, it's great to have it, in case I need to watch it for inspiration or if I want to study the amazing opening crane shot. Having reviewed the opening this morning it still doesn't compare to the big screen, even watching it on my 42" flatscreen.

  In its entirety I watched David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. This I haven't watched since it originally played in the theater a decade ago. Seeing it again I realized how much the story and concept owed to Philip K. Dick, so much so that the name of the fast food place they get their lunch from is called Perky Pat's (named after a hallucinogenic cynosure in the book The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch). Also, it is certainly a distant relative of Cronenberg's Videodrome and works much better than Naked Lunch because of its lower budget and original story, also written by Cronenberg. I also consider this a superior film to The Matrix. Less is more, in this case. Similar ideas appear in both films but the setpieces in eXistenZ are kept to a minimum. The factory where they build game pods out of animal parts is truly gruesome, possibly one of the most disgusting scenes in any movie (I would dare say it's on par to almost anything in Sweet Movie). It reminds me of my paranoid fevered dreams.
Also on the screen today was Orson Welles' The Trial. I had to watch an old public-domain tape I've had for about ten years. Eventually I will track down the remastered DVD and rejoice, since Welles stuck very close to the original source material for this low-budget, minimalist film. This movie demands another revisit. It deserves a new cult. I can't believe how much of it reminds me of Brazil. A few more viewings by me will determine whether this was Welles' best film.
  He seemed to think so.

Monday, February 25, 2008

In Your Face, Juno

Maybe it was a sympathetic nomination. Maybe it was popularity that got it nominated. It was inevitable that this "little" movie was destined to make a "cross-over". But I don't believe for a moment that it was ever destined to be just an obscure film. There was all sorts of hype behind it and all the kids loved it for its collection of Kimya Dawson songs on the soundtrack. They somehow related to this 16-year old who believes she speaks like an adult but is forced to make a very grown-up decision about an unwanted pregnancy.
It had identical, pretentiously blunt dialog and icky sentimentality that caused me to truly dislike Jason Reitman's previous effort Thank You for Smoking.
It would have been a hell of an upset if this movie had won the Best Picture Oscar over the four other stronger efforts. And that's also how I feel about the Oscar having been given to its screenwriter over the other movies nominated. How does Juno even compare? It barely surpasses the line of being an afterschool special. The pickings were slim, but doesn't mean there wasn't a superior product to choose over it.
Not that Juno was an awful movie. I really wanted to enjoy it. I thought some of the characters had authenticity and were slightly likable. Certainly the actors gave it a go, unfortunately working with a very flimsy script (a flimsy, Oscar winning script). This movie feels almost as if it was aimed at kids. Jason Bateman is completely unconvincing as a former frontman for a rock band from the early 90's. The conversations with his character and Juno weigh the film down with unnecessary references that the writer seemed to sprinkle all over the film to maintain some sort of hipster cred. The dialogue immediately dated the film with some references that even seem out of time. Not an awful movie, but a highly overrated one.
I'm glad to say that it was No Country for Old Men that went home a champion, having taken awards for Best Supporting Actor, Best Director(s), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, it will definitely get millions to start reading his books. Now, many can be exposed to the greatest living writer in America.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

R.I.P. Roy Scheider

In all the commotion of the last week (editing, rewriting manuscripts, etc.) I overlooked the sad news that Roy Scheider had passed away. Aside from Steve McQueen he was one of the first screen actors I ever recognized and was a favorite for many years (having seen Jaws three times during its theatrical run at the age of 4 when I lived in Puerto Rico). I got to thinking that there wasn't a sour movie in his filmography; never any film of his that I didn't enjoy or any character he played who I didn't like (he even portrayed Dr. Benway in David Cronenberg's version of Naked Lunch!!).
  What's your favorite Roy Scheider film? Not only is Jaws one of my all time favorite films, but I very much enjoyed him in The French Connection and its quasi sequel (with a better car chase) The Seven Ups; Marathon Man, Jaws 2 (hell, why not? I loved Jaws 2!), Sorcerer, The Jazz Singer, Blue Thunder, episodes of Laws & Order and so forth...
  I guess he was sort of the John Wayne for my age bracket.  Tough guy but with a heart. Martin Brody is one of the most lovable fathers ever portrayed in a movie. The scene in Jaws when Sean Brody mirrors all of his father's motion still gets a laugh from me, and I've seen the movie at least 30-50 times.
  Although Jaws is a favorite and very high on my list, my favorite Roy Scheider movie is... The Seven Ups.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Who's That Knocking at My Door?

We recently took in Martin Scorsese's first full-length film, Who's That Knocking at My Door? Originally conceived in 1965 under several different names, it was released in 1969, won a few awards (Chicago Film Fest) and opened the door for this iconic director to have greater opportunities. A truncated version of the film is known as I Call First. Scorsese had to gather funds over the years to complete this shorter version of the film and when it was completed it received distribution. Following his documentary Street Scenes in 1970, Roger Corman hired him to direct his first studio feature Boxcar Bertha, starring David Carridine.
The rest, of course, is history. What I gathered from Who's That Knocking, supports the belief I've always had that Marti's best pictures are the smaller, personal, gritty films based around the same stock of characters he's always had. The guys in Who's That Knocking? can easily be transplanted to films like Mean Street who in turn are like the characters in Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.

Scorsese is an incredibly ambitious director, going beyond the small and gritty limitations of those who inspired him. Sam Fuller and John Cassavetes are the directors he reminds me of most. They were certainly influential to him. The difference is, of course, Scorsese's epic vision surpassed these directors. Not always, but he sometimes lost himself when making huge films as Kundun, The Age of Innocence, The Aviator, etc. I could never imagine Cassavetes directing something like The Age of Innocence.
Looking at Who's That Knocking? is looking at the roots of his best characters; his personality. All that he absorbed growing up in New York, all the thugs he knew and the violence he'd seen. Who's That Knocking? starts out with a brawling fight scene that would not be out of place in Goodfellas or Casino. As stated above, it points the way to all the great violence and humor that would show up in his later films. The character of J.R. is often discussing films with the girl he is in love with (Zina Bathune) which leaves the movie open for Scorsese to make other (more subtle) film references. I am reminded of Bergman in the sex scene (I am also reminded of Swedish sex films and Performance, which Scorsese wouldn't have seen at this point). The scenes at the Staten Island Ferry terminal and in the car remind me of Godard. Some of the overlapping editing and camera work remind me of French New Wave, etc.

The scene when Harvey Keitel is in bed was later was echoed (albeit with a higher budget) in Mean Streets.

Unlike Brian DePalma (a contemporary of Scorsese's who went on to independently pave his own career while systematically destroying it) Who's That Knocking at My Door? was the beginning Scorsese needed to break into the mainstream and helped to shape a career that has given us 40 years of great films.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Naked Kiss

A former prostitute goes to a small town to redeem herself from her past and encounters a town of people who seem innocent on the outside but harbor some serious dysfunctional traits. Such is this great and sometimes campy film by Sam Fuller, The Naked Kiss from 1964. This was Fuller's follow up to Shock Corridor. There's a scene where the lead character Kelly (played by Constance Towers) gets off the bus and the local movie theatre marquee is showing Shock Corridor. The second she is off the bus, offering her wares (in this case bottles of Angel Foam champagne) she runs into the head of the local police, played by Anthony Eisley (he of television and Al Adamson's Frankenstein Vs. Dracula). There are episodes showing Kelly becoming a nurse because she can't children of her own. She's done turning tricks but when she refuses to go to the local brothel when Eisley's character orders her there, she sets off an avalanche of events that culminates with her being arrested and charged for murder.
  This was an unconventional film for the period. It begins with Kelly beating the shit out of her pimp and removing her wig, exposing her bald pate. 
There are flashbacks, unsettling imagery of children in peril, and more bitch slapping than was available that year in all the films made. It is a brutal, campy, beautiful and sometimes corny but all the while brilliant film. Kelly is a strong character that refuses to return to her previous life and doesn't put up with anyone's shit. 
Double crossed, jailed but eventually redeemed, she leaves town at the end, looking for hope in her new destiny.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hell is Chrome

Lately, I can only stomach the music of Fred Frith and have had patience for little else. Except maybe Thelonious Monk. And Wilco. And The Mars Volta. I've gone several days without really listening to much music and that's not always good for the soul.
I'm intrigued by the new Mars Volta album. Though I have enjoyed their records since De-loused in the Comatorium, once you've heard one album, you've heard them all. Not such a bad thing because the same can be said about a lot of bands that they borrow from: Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson, Santana (that's a bit of an exaggeration: King Crimson's In the Wake of Poseidon sounds nothing like Red). But in January The Mars Volta released The Bedlam in Goliath, their newest "concept" album with all sorts of multi-media ephemera attached to it, B-sides and a drive you plug into your computer with lots of extras. Great concept. I missed out on it on account of me looking for a new job. This band is coming to town soon but my new schedule may conflict with that date.

It's not a real goodbye from your previous job until you've cashed out your 401k. I imagine there's some sort of virtual "fuck you" available somewhere, I just can't access it.
I'm enjoying Wilco right now. Last night we listened to Sky Blue Sky which was the best album of 2007. There is still something subtle and haunted about A Ghost is Born that I always return to. Listening to "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" makes everything okay. What a release.

"he sun will rise, we'll climb into cars
The future has a valley and a shortcut around
Who will wear the crown of drowning award

Hold a private light on a Michigan shore
You fool me with a kiss of kidsmoke
From a microscopic home
It's good to be alone I'll be in my bed
You can be the stone

That raises from the dead

And carries us all home

There's no blood on my hands
I just do as I am told"

Wilco, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)"

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cop and 1/2

On TV this afternoon they showed Cop and 1/2. This is the one where Burt Reynolds teams up with an under privileged black kid and together they bust up the bad guys, motorboat chase and all thrown in. Not only was it filmed in Tampa, Florida but the end title song was sung by Joey (Gimme a Break, Blossom, etc.) Lawrence. Filmed in Tampa and end title song by Joey Lawrence. What's your recipe for a blockbuster movie?
 Also watched the original Get Carter, still among the best British crime films ever made. Right up there with The Long Good Friday, Performance, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, etc. The soundtrack by Roy Budd still amazes me as to how ahead of its time it was (title track was covered years later by Stereolab). There is a bonus extra on the DVD showing him performing the title theme. Sounds like all the backing was previously recorded and was filmed overdubbing piano and harpsichord, played in tandem. To that he also overdubbed Rhodes piano. That made up for the fact that chapters 11-13 showed excessive pixeling, damaged done by the sun (this was a used DVD).
  Also, there's this curiosity I found on YouTube:
  It's an alien invasion movie (Gremloids) starring Paula Poundstone and Chris Elliot.
Again, what's your recipe for a blockbuster movie?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Persistence of Dali- Spellbound!

There are only two museums in the entire world that maintain most of the artwork of Salvador Dali. One is in Spain, the other is just about forty miles away from where I live. Last night was the opening of a new exhibit at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. My close and personal friend is the curator of education and his wife is in charge of PR and marketing. They were kind enough to put us on the guest list so we dolled ourselves up to mingle with the discreet and bourgeoisie.
This new exhibit reminded me of Dali and Commercialism, a show they had a few years back. The museum was converted into a multimedia haven, showing films, commercials; displays of Dali's books and perfumes and other ephemera were shown as well. Dali and Film is similar but it focuses solely on his involvement with film as well as the legacy of his influence. Each room had a different theme and showed a different film. In the reception hall they showed a Dali documentary. The bourgeois crowd was a bit noisy, and anyway they were there to be seen (scene?) so we left to the main gallery after speaking with some great people. One guy remembered me from the radio show (happens every five years).
We caught some of the newer paintings, including The Persistence of Memory (this painting normally lives in MoMA in NYC; I've never seen it!). In one of the smaller galleries they showed Destino which I'd seen in their previous show. My companion had never seen her so it was a joy to watch it with her.

This little seven minute film was to have been the first collaboration between Disney and Dali. I believe the backing was pulled so only the storyboard sketches survived. It wasn't until 2004 that the film was produced and completed, available only at museum showings.

Destino would have fit perfectly within Fantasia, but would have probably usurped all other animation.
We caught Un Chien Andelou, which seems to play everywhere all the time. Best of all they showed a loop of the dream sequence from Spellbound and had the actual backdrop of the film pulled up on the wall! This was a canvas mural which has to be seen to be experienced! They had two other pieces of art from that movie and you can actually read the camera instructions on the surface of the eyeball painting.

My companion had never watched L'age d'or so we sat in the gallery and watched the entire film while people came and went. This film was the second collaboration between Dali and Spanish director Louis Bunuel (the first being, of course, Un Chien Andelou).

I love the ending and it packs one of the greatest punchlines in cinema history. Watching L'age d'or in its entirety I thought of two later Bunuel films which were prefigured here: The Exterminating Angel and The Milky Way.
Although I didn't qualify for the free champagne, seeing the existing backdrop to a Hitchcock movie was sublime and intoxicating enough.
Other upcoming events at the museum include film lectures by John Waters.
For more information, check out the Salvador Dali Museum website.

Friday, February 8, 2008

I Just Watched the World's Most Expensive Sword and Sandal Epic

So sometimes I fall behind in watching new movies. I run from hype like its a rabid dog. I've skipped through most of the films of the 80's & 90's and I'm sure I haven't missed much. Yesterday we decided to watch Ridley Scott's Gladiator ,
eight years after its release. My closest friends told me at the time of its epic scope and incredible fight sequences and they certainly built it up for me but I guess I had no interest then (what the hell was I watching then?). To me Ridley Scott's films have to be big and disastrous; actors should walk off the set, sets should catch on fire (as in Legend), the studio should take it away from him and recut it. As far as I know the filming of Gladiator went smoothly. Maybe that's why I didn't see it the first time.
I was excited to finally get around to watching it and was surprised halfway through it when I realized, this was just an adventure film all dolled up like a Cecil B. DeMille epic! But that was okay. That meant there would be nothing too deep or distracting from the swordplay. This was a big blockbuster film, after all, aimed at the masses that ate up shit like Braveheart and The Patriot. Although I have not sat all the way through Braveheart I was going to sit through this one if just for the fact that Ridley Scott directed. I wear my director biases like a T-shirt. But alas there was some drama and tragedy but overall it was a long but adventurous sword and sandal film. Possibly the best one ever made since, oh, I don't know...Ben Hur?
Best of all, I got to watch Olive Reed in his last role, hamming it up one last time, but hamming it up with great dignity. According to legend, once the film shooting wrapped up he went drinking with the crew, outdrank everyone and died after having won an arm wrestling match. What a way to go! Brilliant.
Also in the film, for a brief moment, was David Hemmings. For one moment these two film greats share the screen and it made me wonder why they'd never been in a film together before (though they may have been in a film together before this, but I am not aware of it).
So eight years after the fact, here I am giving my brief impression. This was the 155min. version of Gladiator that I saw, not the "extended" 177min. one. Gulp. That seems a bit long. I thought 155min. was sufficient. Not too much, but just enough.
I would say that the first sword and sandal film I ever saw was The Ten Commandments. This played in a theater in 1976 in Puerto Rico where I was living and watched it with my parents and grandmother. I was all of four years old, but very impressed. Alas, I fell asleep after Moses turned his staff into a snake.
  • Not swords or spears through the anus. After all, this was NOT Caligula. Pity.
  • Impressive violence: the catapult scene at the beginning was tops. The action could have been a little tighter. But it was better than the average floppy-sword fight scene of past movies. More blood was needed. Fuck it, go for NC-17 rating.
  • The score was at times reminiscent of Holst's "Mars". Still being plundered since 1916!
  • The fire in the forest and ashes which fell like snow was impressive. Dramatic for its own sake, but impressive.
  • Could Monty Python have bettered this? Yes.
  • Accents? Everybody was white. I was hard pressed to believe there were real Romans in this picture with the exception of Joaquin Phoenix, who can pretty much cast type for about five or six ethnicities. That's hard to do.
  • Ridley Scott's films should be controversial as stated above. But then again perhaps that's best left to Terry Gilliam.
So, there it is. My review of Gladiator. Maybe when I'm all caught up on films I have not seen I will get around writing more impressions.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Coup de Torchon

Transposing the action from the American South to Senegal West Africa, Coup de Torchon, a film by Bertrand Tavenier gives a new interpretation to the Jim Thompson book Pop.1280. This violent film is at times hilarious and though I have not read this Thompson book, it contained significant themes which had carried over from his novels. The film lets you feel the heat, sweat and dust of this African country. The colors are muted pastels and according to director Tavenier, at the beginning of the day the colors were vibrant during the shoot and by the end of the day the haze of the dust and heat would dull and fade them out. In the case of Coup de Torchon, the "formula" for noir was followed precisely, even though the story took place in West Africa. You had the heat, the antihero, the cheating wife, the scrappy mistress, the villains and the betrayed locals. The conflict and intensity of racial tension was perfectly placed within the colonial context.
This film was released in 1981 to some minor criticism and controversy. Dealing with colonialism and the racism it wrought, Coup de Torchon was not apologetic, nor was redemption attempted with any sort of liberal speech making. It presented the facts of history as they were, which made for a solid and often sordid plot. It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and was nominated for several Cesar awards (the French equivalent) and won for best film by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics and Best Foreign Film in Italy.

It starred Philipe Noiret (La Grande Buffet, The Old Gun) and Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher). Of all Jim Thompson adaptations, this one brings dignity to this gothic tale of greed, violence and prejudice.