Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stuff I've Been Reading Feburary: The British Are Coming

Book's Bought

The Man Who Was Thursday, G. Chesterson
The Everlasting Man, G. Chesterson
Nature Girl, Carl Hiasenn
Blonde Faith, Walter Mosely
The Abstinance Teacher, Tom Perotta
The Historian. Elizabeth Kostova
Star Wars And Philosphy
Spook Country, William Gibson
Game Change, John Heilemann, Mark Halpernin
The Name Of The Wind
Me Of Little Faith, Lewis Black
Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson
Bad Asses, Ben Thompson
Hush, Jeph Loeb
Idenity Crisis, Brad Meltizer
Sandman Vol. 2, Neil Gaiman
Death Of The Stacys

Books Read

Storm Front, Jim Butcher
Mr. B Gone, Clive Barker
Gentlemen Of The Road, Michael Chabon
Odd And The Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman
Game Change John Heilemann, Mark Halperin
Audacity To Win David Pfoule
No Exit, Sarte
Me Of Little Faith, Louis Black
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules Of Writing, Elmore Leonard
Notes On A Small Island
Sabriel, Garth Nix

I’ve avoided Jim Butcher's Dresden books for a number of reasons. For one I’m pretty suspicious over any series that runs over ten books (Donald Westlake being the exception to the rule). For another thing I’m deeply suspicious of Magical Private Eyes not called John Constantine (and hell lets face it half of the time the one called John Constantine isn’t that great either). Lastly Horror and Crime are two of my favorite genres, and I find that both work best when they are utterly pitch black. From what I heard The Dresden books where about as dark as a elementary school version of The Sound Of Music. Still when I found the first three books at a price slightly cheaper then dirt, I figured why not.

Well now I know why not. True to form, I was a bit under whelmed by the first Dresden book. If you hope to read Jim Butcher prepare for a lot of earnest declarative prose delivered with a straight face straight faced lines like this…

“ Friday Night, I went to see Bianca; The Vampress.”


“The globule of demonacid sped toward’s my face.”

Now I have nothing against earnestness (Again reason I started the blog.) But COME ON man show a little finesse. In all fairness, the books last hundred pages are better then the first two hundred. But just because you pull out of a tailspin doesn’t mean that you weren’t in a tailspin.

I here the series gets better as it goes on, and I suppose I’ll eventually give the other two books a shot. But It’ll be a bit before I visit either Butcher or Dresden again.

I’m not one for meta fiction, or Clive Barker, a writer whom I like a lot more in theory then in practice. But I kind of liked Mr. B Gone. The book is basically a running gag, a novel that urges you to burn it on the first page, and keeps trying to convince you with ever more pressing urgency (The gag extends to the book itself which has been admirably aged). But Barker to his credit keeps the gag going quite well.

The novel eventually resolve’s itself into a demon’s autobiography. While it hardly reinvents the wheel; it’s a Barker book so you know to expect transgressive sex, lovingly detailed violence, and bored pseudo blasphemy, rinse repeat. It’s a toss off and reads like a toss off. Internal consistency and logic have never been Barker’s friends, but he pays particularly little lip service to them this time around (The medivial demon hunters lure their pray out with refrigerated cans of beer.)

Still at the end of the day Mr. B Gone is a success. It does what it does, tells a story that makes a point to attack your suspension of disbelief at every possible moment while still telling a story and does it well. Odd that a book so clearly minor, and one I only sort of like should feel like such an achievement.

Also a toss off, but one with a greater deal of love poured into it, and consequently success is Gentlemen Of The Road, which finds Michael Chabon once again in “fucking around” mode. Gentlemen Of The Road is a pastiche, a tribute to the “high adventure” produced by the likes of Howard and Moorcock (To whom the book is dedicated) but it’s a winning one. That deserves to be put upon the shelf next to Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

Odd And The Frost Giants is also a charming little story, by an author cracking his knuckles. Emphasis on Little, though. Though Odd finds Gaiman in rare form, the only problem with Odd is that it feels as though it should be tucked away in the back of a short story collection. Only a type face, spacing, and page size that is perhaps best described as “generous” drags the story kicking and screaming to novella length.

Game Change is everything you’ve heard it is. Have you ever seen that Dateline Bill Hader sketch on SNL? (Don’t feel bad if you’ve missed it, its really about the only decent skit left on modern SNL)

Well that’s the sound you’ll be making throughout Game Change. This is after all a book whose release has already caused several major scandals. Documenting an election that seemed less like a changing of the guard then a battle for the country’s soul (whether its been won yet is still an open question) It’s just bomb after bomb of shocking behavior. Particularly form John Edwards, who after reading this I think might literally have down syndrome, Elizabeth Edwards whose secular saint image gets shredded here, and Sarah Palin whose shocking final act breakdown left me agape.

But its not just eviscerations, Change takes the time to peel back the public persona’s of Mc Cain (Out of touch but still with sharp instincts), Obama (able to drop the idealistic act at the drop of the hat when he has to kick someone’s ass back into line) and the Clinton’s (Rarely have I seen Hilary come off so well and the apparently Gina Gershwin fucking Bill come off so badly. And can we pause to savor the irony that JFK had Marylin, while Bill gets to settle for Gina Gershwin).

Though it misses some opportunities on The Republican side, particularly in Gulianni’s fall from grace, and by dismissing Mike Huckabee, who through his excellent debates on The Daily Show has become one of the rarest of figures a Conservative moralist I like and respect. But all in all Game Change is an unabashed wallow through the quagmire of American politics. You just might want to take a shower afterwards.

Playing Gallant to its Goofus, is The Audacity To Win by Obama campaign manager David Pfoufle. Which I bought a few months ago for an inside look at the campaign not knowing that Change was one the horizon. While its interesting, Audacity is very much a product of the party line, which Change gleefully took a brickbat too, written by a man with a vested intrest in not pissing Obama off by writing anything too interesting. It’s fine, but that’s all it is.

From an intracible horrifying situation with no way out to No Exit then. I reread No Exit in the wake Of The Box, in order to confirm my philistine nature. No Exit is fine as it goes, but its one of those works that has been so thoroughly subsumed by the culture that reading it almost seems beside the point. Some such works can survive the treatment, As for No Exit I’m not as sure.

Though I’m not a big fan of Leonard, he does have my utmost respect, and his advice is sound. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules Of Writing, is fine for what it is, but it is a definite case of buyer beware. The actual text would probably be hard pressed to fill a magazine article. Dragged to book length with thick linen paper and sketches, and one sentence pages. It’s more an item for exhibition then practicality.

Me Of Little Faith is a disappointment. Lewis Black is a genius as a stand up comic. He’s without a doubt the best comic I’ve ever seen live, a dark sentient ball of anger and outrage. The way he works the stage is almost poetic, shuddering and gesticulating like a Street Preacher, his voice modulating from a shriek of righteous rage to a barely contained whisper that vibrates with the subtext that the words in this case simply aren’t enough for Black to describe how profoundly fucked this situation is.

As a result print is not his friend, sending Black into the ring with both arms tied behind his back. As a result Me Of Little Faith never finds its groove. Despite its potent subject matter it never really finds a train of thought it can quite follow. While no work by Black is without its moments of glory, but on the whole Me Of Little Faith is disconcertiningly muddled. Climaxing in a play that Black wrote in the eighties that he reprints here in the last fourth of the book which practically screams, “Fuck I need to drag this over two hundred pages.”

Sabriel was perfectly fine, if particularly boilerplate, piece of fantasy, elevated by the performance of Tim Curry on the audio version I listened to. I hearby decree that no one save Curry is allowed to read an audiobook ever again. He seems to be enjoying the work so much, rolling his tongue around every syllable as though it is delicious.

I do so enjoy an author whose uncommonly civilized. Bill Bryson is an uncommonly civilized writer, as well as one whose uncommonly warm, descriptive, witty, and laugh out loud funny. Bryson’s tour of Britain is a memoir combined seamlessly with a travelogue, that manages to work equally as both. While the book radiates with Bryson’s oblivious affection for his adopted homeland that doesn’t stop him from examining it’s flaws honestly, resulting in a fascinating portrait of both a country and a people, his wit and humor though benign aren’t entirely harmless instruments, and when Bryson wants to lay into an institution or person, he can be quite vicious. Still Notes on a Small Island is ultimately a warm and winning depiction one that has left me eager to explore more of Bryson’s work.

Likewise Chesterson in The Man Who Was Thursday. The Man Who Was Thursday manages to be at once startling modern and thoroughly archaic. Incorporating elements of mystery, espionage, philosophy, theology, and even steam punk. Its simply put, unlike anything I’ve ever read.

The story follows a young man who infiltrates and attempts to uncover an “anarchist ring” bent on destroying order in the world, led by the God like Sunday. This becomes more complicated then it would first appear as the character’s must not only defeat the plot, but manage to do it in a manner befitting Edwardian gentlemen.

What Chesterson is writing about isn’t so much political anarchism (although that certainly gets its drubbings) but the darker anarchism that lies at the heart of all things, the persistent entropy eating at the world’s heart. Chesterson is more influential then he is read nowadays, but I for one feel that I have made a friend. His writing and ideas are lucid, his prose a crisp joy to follow, and though he is witty he is never flippant. He currently sits on my bookshelf next to Twain (as high of an honor as I am able to give) and I’ve placed my copy of The Everlasting Man next to Letters From The Earth in hopes that they will fight.

Of course The Man Who Was Thursday is by its very definition a didactic novel. And like all Didactic novels Chesterson stacks the deck neatly in his favor. Its impossible to read The Man Who Was Thursday and not wish to ally yourself with the forces of order. Just as it is impossible to read V is For Vendetta and not be seized by an immediate urge to burn the local DMV to the ground.

To be besieged on all sides by excellent arguments is the lot of the constant reader. I can think of plenty of worse fates.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Good The Bad And The Weird

It takes a lot of balls to name yourself after The Good The Bad And The Ugly. After all we’re talking about naming yourself after one of the most entertaining films of all time. This can be proved with science. Leone’s operatic masterpiece, isn’t just one of the most entertaining of all time but one of the most influential, to the point where I think the effect it had on movies is literally incalculable. So like I said, it takes some balls. Short of naming your film, Abbot and Costello Raid The Lost Road Warrior With The Dark Knight and Meet Citizen Kane Versus Spiderman, its tough to think of something you could call your movie that would draw a bigger target on your forehead. There are demons that are less dangerous to invoke.

The fact that The Good The Bad And The Weird doesn’t live up to comparison is inevitable, that it survives none the less is admirable. The Good The Bad And The Weird is simply a kickass adventure flick with style to burn, that for all its flamboyance is almost touchingly old fashioned.

The genius move that The Good The Bad And The Weird makes is managing to find a play just as chaotic as the US Mexico border during The Civil War. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, as it began its expansion into China in the thirties, the film follows The Good, a bounty hunter, The Bad a hitman, as they battle over a treasure map, that everyone wants, drawing in rival bandit gangs, various factions of the Chinese, Japanese and Korean armies, and most dangerous of all, eachother. What they find waiting for them at the end of the map is too good to spoil.

The performers, particularly Lee Byung-hun as the dandyish Bad all give game performances. But the star of the picture is Kim Ji-woon, who creates a movie that is equally impressive in scale as it is mad in style.

Kim Ji-woon is behind the demented operatic Park, my favorite of The Korean directors. His previous movies include the seriously creepy A Tale Of Two Sisters and The Seriously Badass A Bittersweet Life. Hang on for a second, let me break down A Bittersweet Life for you. Imagine a hardcore gangster movie directed by Kubrick, Staring Lee Marvin. That’s kind of what it’s like. A Bittersweet Life is the kind of movie where a character is buried alive. Digs himself out. Finds his enemies waiting for him. Is buried alive again. And. Crawls. Right. The. Fuck. Back. Out. That’s how Kim Ji-woon rolls. He’s knows how to tell a story, how to build a sequence to it’s maximum potential, and how to soak it all in a dread inducing style.

The Good The Bad And The Weird is the most out right fun he’s ever had at the movies. It has a playful sense that, I’ve never seen Ji-Woon utilize before at least not in any of his films (There was humor in Bittersweet but its exceedingly dark). The movie is down right fun.

If you've never seen a film from The Korean New Wave This is an ideal entry point.

Post Script:

Some great posters for this thing, thought I'd share them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


What makes Alexander Payne such a remarkable filmmaker is how upfront he is about how awful his characters so often are. What makes him such a valuable one is how he manages to kind of like them anyway. Payne who doesn’t make film’s nearly as often as he should is the kind of merciless eye and uncompromising ability to leave his characters unredeemed that would seem to mark him as little more then someone from the Michael Hanke or Todd Solonz school of boring, superior, hateful slogs. But he has a sense of compassion that rivals Hal Ashby’s.

You’d be hard pressed to find a cast more dominated by Sad Sacks then the characters Payne has pulled out over the years. Think Matthew Broderick’s teacher in Election, Nicholson in About Schmidt, and the gaggle of idiots who populate Citizen Ruth. All are characters who are to one degree or another venal and stupid. All are characters who have been utterly frustrated by life. And if Payne does not always make these characters lovable he makes them at least understandable. That kind of talent makes a filmmaker invaluable.

And no where in Payne’s all too brief oeuvre is this collection better then in Sideways. Sideways plays like an American sequel to Withnail & I, its characters no longer romantically doomed, but fat, frustrated, middle aged and alcholic. It’s a movie about realizing that you are fucked. A movie about realizing that for all your pretensions and dreams and hopes, you are what you are which is a failure, so you better start getting around to looking for something else worthwhile. Oh and did I mention its funny as hell?
Payne doesn’t sugar coat anything, but he gets it down with a smile none the less.

The real heart of the movie is the relationship between Jack and Miles. Church and Giamatti have that rare intimacy of real friendship that the movies so often fail to capture (I think the only one that gets it half as well is Shaun Of The Dead). We all have that person like Jack in our lives, someone we can’t help but like, maybe even love a little, despite that half the time we spend in their presence our mouths are agape because of the horrible things they are saying and doing. But Jack is perhaps the greatest showcase of Payne’s gifts for showing someone’s humanity without hiding a single one of his warts.

Jack is after all, vain, cocky, a liar, an adulterer, and kind of an all around prick. But there is something decnt in him, a loyalty perversely enough, not to unlucky soon to be wife, but to Miles. Say what you will about him, but Jack remains a true friend to Miles. He’s been dealing with Miles depression for longer then anyone else, including his wife and Mother who have by this time thrown up their hands and said, “Enough Of This Bullshit.” Its never stated directly, or underlined to “redeem” Jack but every conversation they have is undercut with the fact that Jack is at any given time about the only thing keeping Miles from running head first into moving traffic.

And what of Miles? Has there ever been a character more instinctively pathetic then Giamatti here, with his hunch, gleaming bald head and hung over basset hound eyes. He’s the kind of person life gets a joy out of backhanding, and all he can do is flinch and invite some more. We’re talking after all about a man who steals money from his elderly mother, one who drunkenly harasses his ex wife at two in the morning, and lies and manipulates the two women who cross their path. He’s weak to the point to being hateful. A walking cringe. Yet I can’t believe that anyone can watch this movie and not love him a little. If you met Miles in real life you probably wouldn’t be able to stand him. Here you can’t help but want the best for him. That’s the great gift of the cinema. The way it forces observation, the way it forces recognition.

Movies aren’t supposed to be this honest anymore. Particularly films as funny and charming as Sideways.

Because what I keep failing to convey is how despite all this Sideways miraculously manages to remain a hilarious and adult comedy shot with a poetic eye in California’s Central Coast, and with a warm performance by Virginia Madsen. It is simply an enjoyable film to physically watch, on a very basic level. With some deadpan moments of comic glory (Jack’s bruised face in the car after his encounter with Sandra Oh, the large naked man running after the car).

The point of all this is Sideways is one of those films that’s so good it just makes most films of today look frustrating. Movies don’t need to be dumbed down pabulum to be entertaining. You can talk to us like adults and I swear some of us will really like it, honest and for true.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed By Lars Von Trier

Button Button Whose Got The Button

As the number one Richard Kelly apologist since 2006. It's my duty to inform you that The Box. No wait. Comeback.

Believe it or not the box is not as bad as you've heard. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. But it's an intelligent adult piece of science fiction with some great scenes and a mesmerizing central performance by Langella. Nothing would make me happier then to see it get a huge on Video success. I would also like a pony.

Seriously for all its flaws The Box feels like the work of a growing filmmaker. One who has truly taken the time to learn from his mistakes and evolve. And given its performance it might be awhile until Kelly gets a chance to. Man when Darko first came out and everyone started calling him the new Gilliam I bet he had no idea how scarily prophetic it would end up being.

Anyway give The Box a chance and it just might surprise you.

EDIT: I wrote another take on The Box for my column. Rather then risk open revolt by posting it as its own entity I thought I'd add it onto this one.

The Box was Richard Kelly’s bid for mainstream acceptance. Proof after the catastrophe that was Southland Tales that Kelly could play nice for the mainstream and create a movie that everyone could like. It didn’t work out that well. Instead of a safe by the numbers studio project The Box is a trippy, Sartre reverencing, expectation juking, mind fuck, that doubles as a serious morality play.

Just the sort of thing most people are looking for while they munch popcorn. Far from proving The director of Donnie Darko a safe bet, The Box flopped in theaters, and did only marginally well with critics. Luckily for Kelly, The Box is showing every sign of generating the kind of cult audience that saved Kelly’s career after Darko underperformed. With the T-Shirt ready iconic performance by Frank Langella (AKA I’m not Robert Loggia) score by Arcade Fire, and heady mix of style, ideas, and lunacy, its hard to imagine it doing otherwise.

The Box as it’s box office figures proved, isn’t for everyone, but those who it does connect with are going to be feeling the rarified jolt of cinematic ambrosia. Like The Sparse Moody Score by Arcade Fire, The Box at first appears to be doing very little, but reveals itself to be a rich, rewarding experience with further study. It’s one of those rare films that proves itself to be deeper and richer every time I watch it.

It opens with an upper middle class family in 1970’s Virginia, who find themselves on the receiving end of a very odd offer, given to them by the horrifically scared Mr. Seward, played by Frank Langella, with a mesmerizing polite malignance that’s worth the price of admission alone. Press the button that he has given to them, and someone “Who They Don’t Know” will die and they will receive a million dollars “Tax Free” (And remember these are seventies dollars) don’t press the button and well, in that case they get a pat on the back for being such good sports about the whole thing. Inevitably they press the button, and find the tables turned on them by a turn of phrase too good to spoil. Then things really get weird.

The rest of The Box is as heady, bizarre, and exhilarating as any of Kelly’s other’s films as our couple has to face Satanic Santas, The horrors of the Public Library, and K-Billy’s super sounds of the seventies. Though those put off by the purposeful obtuseness of Darko and Southland Tales should give this one a shot. Though Kelly isn’t interested in making it easy for you, all the pieces to solve the puzzle ARE here, and if you pay attention you can figure it out. I hope The Box finds the audience it deserves on DVD. Films as audacious as this deserve to be valued. So do filmmakers. I hope Kelly doesn’t find himself in director’s jail for too long over this. For all his flaws as a filmmaker (and as anyone whose watched Domino and Southland Tales knows, he has many) I can’t help but find movie theaters a more interesting place when a Kelly film is playing there.

Monday, February 22, 2010

White Lightning

(I mean holy Christ just look at this!)

Burt Reynolds has for whatever reason never really been my favorite member of the badass pantheon. I mean you have Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen right next to him. Why would you’ve got porter house steak, what on earth would possess you to open up a tin of spam.

Maybe its because by the time I came of cinematic age he was already a punch line, maybe its because so many of his films are so frankly bad, maybe because he tied himself so thoroughly with Dom DeLuise. For whatever reason, the love I had for Burt Reynolds was like the love you have for a creepy uncle, who you can’t really hate because you know your Dad loves him. The Longest Yard is when he bought you a sandwich, Deliverance was him sending you twenty bucks on your birthday, just about everything else he made was when he took you alone inside his creepy van and showed you this.

Well those terrible memories exorcised thanks to White Lightening, which is the equivalent of your creepy uncle letting you borrow his new non creepy car for the weekend and finding a hundred dollars left for you in the glove compartment taped to a sack of weed. In short its pretty righteous. How righteous? Go back up and look at that poster. Click on it. Let the beauty really sink in. Not enough huh? Well how about this poster of Burt Reynolds as FUCKING ZEUS!

(Not pictured: Terrified Greek Peasant shitting his pants.)

White Lightning is the rarest of all things a grindhouse movie THAT LIVES UP TO ITS POSTERS!

White Lightning plays like a Drive By Trucker’s album on film. A tale of darkness, the south, manhood and vengeance. It is without reservation one of the greatest Hicksploitation films ever made.

White Lightning opens with two law officer’s paddling out into a southern swap. They tow a boat behind them which takes a minute to come into frame. And holy shit there’s two bound and gagged long hairs there, cinderblocks tied to their legs. The sequence is pretty fantastic, really drawn out and taking its time to exploit the hopelessness of the situation, aided immensely by Charles Bernstein’s sparse eerie score (used to great effect by Tarantino in Basterds). The law officers stop, untie their tow line and then almost casually blast a hole in the bottom of their victim’s boat with a shotgun, and watch as the frantic hippies sink into the fetid swamp…

Holy shit. Now that’s how you start a freaking movie. From the word go White Lightning lets you know it means business.

Unfortunately for the law officers they chose to kill the wrong hippies. Because next thing we know we’re in prison and Burt Reynolds is being informed of his brother’s death. Oops. Reynold’s with a year left on his sentence and not being the patient type, decides to turn states evidence to get to the corrupt sheriff behind it all.

White Lightning is an interesting film because it takes care to examine Reynold’s persona. He’s an informer, normally a cardinal sin in the movies even for the right reasons (has anyone ever rooted for the “hero” in White Heat?) but doesn’t really give a shit for the government or anybody else. He’s southern as a chicken coop but doesn’t fit in with the corrupt good ole boy culture of traditional Dixielanders, or the “new south” college kids who condescend to him when he tries to pump them for information. He’s not even really a rebel, he just stubbornly doesn’t belong.

The rest of White Lightning isn’t much different from your average Reynold’s vehicle, there’s car chases, moon shining, nekkid Daisy Mae types, cop hasslin’, and of course a good deal of wrasslin’. But its got a mean streak a mile wide that keeps it interesting, and Reynold’s hyper masculine presence holding it all together at the center. This movie just plain kicks ass.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Road

Oddly enough the film that The Road reminds me the most of is American Psycho. Both are perfectly fine adaptations of books that really ought not be adapted. Both left me with the feeling that they probably represent the best adaptations of their source material. Practically platonic ideals really, keeping the essence of their stories intact, while toning down the parts that made them so prickly (The Road goes from mind numblingly bleak to merely depressing, American Psycho goes from sickeningly disturbing to a mere unsettling). And yet both left me with an oddly unsatisfied feeling. If you’re the reason we liked the source material was how different it was, then what’s to gain from an adaptation that tones down the very things that made it unique?

The Road, for those who missed it, became a bizarre best seller in 2006. Bizarre not because it’s a bad book. Like all of McCarthey’s work it’s superlative. But because its also phenomenally depressing. This is the only Pulitzer Prize winning, Oprah book club selection to feature the cooking and eating of a baby.

John Hillcoat proved to be an inspired choice to direct. His grim ass film The Proposition suggested that he was one of the few people who might actually be able to film Blood Meridian (this is a left handed compliment as anyone who has the balls to shoot Blood Meridian would have to be partially insane)

The film version of The Road has been toned down. But only just enough to make it bearable. The bleak vision of a world that has ended is intact. This isn’t something like The Book Of Eli or Mad Max. Something that humanity can eventually rebuild itself from. No the humans in The Road are like the last ants wandering around after some kid filled the hill with lighter fluid and tossed in a match. There’s no coming back.

The fact is the people in The Road are people for whom the phrase, “Nothing you do matters.” Is not a vagary of philosophy but a demonstrable fact. McCarthey’s book is about how it’s humanities impulse to try and do so anyway. The Road actually plays as a companion piece and counterpoint to McCarthey’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. While Meridian posited that civilization was inherently doomed, because the savagery involved in its creation sowed the seeds of its inevitable destruction. The Road argues that the desire to create such civilization is equally unquenchable. Like the post hole digger at the end of Meridian the Father and Son will keep striking their sparks even in the face of the thing that says it will never sleep and never die. There’s nobility in that. And that’s good because you’re not going to find it anywhere else here.

“Carrying The Fire” is an able Viggo Mortenson bringing his trademark intensity to the role (As well as his trademark desire to show his junk in every movie he appears in, seriously is he in some kind of contest with Harvey Keitel?). He’s strong enough to carry the movie, which is good because aside from his son and a few looters and cannibals he’s about all there is in it. There’s something feral in Mortenson’s performance in the best sense of the word. The protection of his son is a primal instinctual thing. The scene where he bathes his son in the wake of an attack is moving both for its unexpected tenderness and the way that Mortenson so thoroughly resembles a Wolf with his cub. Charlize Theron show’s up in flashback’s as the films only real departure from the novel. Aside from having a place for another name on the poster, I don’t think this added anything to the film.

The boy himself, Kodi Smith McPhee wasn’t very strong in his role, but Mortenson shows such a close tie with him he makes his performance seem better then it is. Robert Duval, Guy Pierce, and particularly Michael K. William’s unforgettable and nearly unrecognizable as an unlucky thief.

The problem with the film is that The Road relied so heavily on McCarthey’s sparse, poetic, neo biblical prose, that it simply refuses to translate. It’s like trying to translate William Blake to film, and without McCarthey’s harsh prose etching out the characters and their world, the film turns into a long slog from horror to horror without a great deal to make it work on its own as a piece of art. For those pissed about how No Country For No Old Men played with the rules of narrative The Road will make you down right apoplectic.

Still the film deserved better then the shabby shrug of a release The Weinstein’s gave it, and the apathetic eye roll it got from Critics. The Road is perhaps in the final analysis an unsuccessful movie, but its not for lack of some truly fine filmmaking, or some truly haunting moments.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cabin Fever 2

So a bit of background. Before making the great House Of The Devil West signed on to make a direct to Video sequel to Cabin Fever. It did not go well. Lionsgate kicked him off the picture and then extensively reshot and re edited the film. As a final insult, since West was not a member of the DGA he was not even allowed to Alan Smithee himself off the picture. As a result Lionsgate gets to ride the tide of good will From House Of The Devil despite totally fucking over West.

In short Lionsgate now gets to trap curious Horror fans with their usual DTV audience of the un discerning and the masochistic.

It should be noted that unlike many I actually kind of like both the original Cabin Fever and Eli Roth, despite the obvious flaws of both. Cabin Fever will never be a true classic, but it has its charm. It hits just the right note between the denizens of Traumaville and mainstream filmmaking, has a sense of humor but gets down to business when it needs to. Further more, Roth had both the balls to make Fever independently and the brains to get it picked up by a major studio and actually released. Neither are small things. He made and sold a successful R rated horror movie when such a thing was an oxymoron and you have to give him credit for that. It might be true that Roth’s true talents are those of a showman and a self promoter rather then a filmmaker, but neither are gifts that I rank cheaply (Roth may talk a better game then he plays, but its a lot of fun to hear him talk that game).

Despite knowing all this gory back story I couldn’t help but let my curiousity get the better of me. After all House Of The Devil was a tremendous film, and I couldn’t help but think even getting a glimpse of the real West underneath all the crap might be worthwhile. Well you can, but only glimpses. Look there was never going to be a chance that Cabin Fever 2 was going to end up a good movie anyway, but it did end up a pretty bad one. There are glimpses of Ti West here, but for every look at what he does well, there’s an equal but opposite scene where he throws up his hands and goes “Fuck it.” Cabin Fever 2 shows every sign of a film being cut down to the bone

While no one knows just what the nature of the rift between Lionsgate and West is, you might remember that in my House Of The Devil review I praised West as a master of the build up. I’m guessing that Lionsgate never know to be a studio all that enamored of the build up got sick of West trying to make a movie rather then a gag reel and booted him off the picture.

If this was the case, the plan backfired. Without West’s guiding hand Cabin Fever 2 merely feels slow rather then deliberate. Barely clocking in at eighty minutes, and that includes an animated nearly ten minute long credit sequence and a coda set in a strip club that defines superfluous.

The film itself follows the build up to a high school prom that has been infected with the flesh eating virus. We follow the usual gaggle of unfunny fat guys, losers, assholes, and unattainable dream girls, as one by one they start puking blood. Before you can say close up of a pus spewing penis, a government hit squad has sealed off the school and begun to systematically exterminate anyone who tries to escape. (On a side note its interesting how we’ve gone from the fifties’s “The Government Will Help You” to the seventies “The Government will try to help you, but will fuck it up” to now’s “The Government will straight up fucking murder you” in Rec, this and The upcoming remake of The Crazies”)

All the actors are terribly amateurish reading their lines in hurried gasps as if they just memorized them seconds before. Frankly its hard to believe that this kind of amateurishness came from a major studio. Even the DTV branch of said studio. Even though said studio is responsible for Saw… Ok now it makes more sense. But still.

The film’s lone bright spot comes from the previously insufferable Winston, you know the creepy deputy from the original who wanted to party. Though he only managed to be as annoying as sin the original he modulates his tone much better and in the interest of truth in criticism the way he delivered the line “Turn down the Sepultura and listen to me mother fucker.” Genuinely cracked me up. Plus he gets partnered with Larry Fesden (Whose presence only sadly reminded me that I could be watching a Larry Fesden movie) and Mark Boschardt who I’m always happy to see in a movie since it presumably means he can afford to buy food. Rider Strong makes the most out his brief cameo.

And I’m officially out of nice things to say about the movie. If Ti West makes good on his promise and becomes a great horror director (as I suspect he will) Cabin Fever 2 will be a fascinating watch. As is though its just kind of a waste of time.

Side Note:

The film is cheap that it features people drinking Red Oval. For those of you without a Trader Joes nearby, Red Oval is a beer that sells for a whopping total of 2.99 a six pack. It is so bad that the people who drink Trader Joe’s OTHER 2.99 a six pack beer Simpler Times (Like yours truly) look down on it. When you can’t afford Mickey’s or Natural Light for your film your good and fucked.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Shutter Island

I’d like to know what goat Dennis Lehane sacrificed to what long forgotten Sumarian God to get the kind of treatment he gets from Filmmakers. First Clint Eastwood and now Martin Scorsese, we’re talking about a man so lucky with adaptations that not even Ben Affleck can fuck him up. And I wouldn’t trust Ben Affleck to hold eggs.

So yeah one of favorite authors being adapted by my favorite filmmaker period, to say that my expectations for Shutter Island where astronomical would be an understatement. When I found out I was going to see the film in Austin I’m unashamed to admit that my thoughts abruptly blanked out into one long “SQUEEEE!” Somehow they where met. In fact this is one case where I would venture to say the adaptation is an improvement on the source material. As Scorsese brings one last turn of the screw that even Lehane didn’t have the torque to pull.

Though many might be worried by memories of Cape Fear, Shutter Island is about as far from that film as you can get in terms of control and tone.

Shutter Island for those who’ve somehow managed to miss the film’s gignormous marketing campaign, follows two Federal Marshall’s (or as Di Caprio’s Boston Accent puts it Federaaahlll Maaaahshaahlls) who investigate a missing persons case on an island prison in Massachusetts bay. After an investigation that seems beyond shady it seems like there might be some good old fashioned conspiring going on and before you can say “Giant hurricane hits the place releasing several of the island’s most dangerous prisoners,” things really go to shit.

For those who complained that The Departed was just Scorsese doing Scorsese (as if he should be doing something else. I mean why keep making brilliant, darkly spiritual dramas that vibrate with authenticity and style) Shutter Island has him at his most experimental since Bringing Out The Dead (And the film so far has been similarly polarizing with a sixty five on Rotten Tomatoes and a sixty four at metacritic). Shutter Island runs ragged through as many references and disciplines as your average Girl Talk track. The obvious precursor is Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, with its frenzied paranoid style and madness as a contagion theme. But there’s also Val Lewton hanging around with the all consuming carnivorous shadows and the buried secrets in the past eroding the present. In the extreme imagery in dream sequences that make up so much of the movies meat its possible to feel the dark operatic tones of Chan Wook Park. There’s even a touch of Gialli here, albeit more Mario Bava then Lucio Fulci. But I think that the key to the movie is the one that Scorsese gave to us at BNAT, by insisting that The Red Shoes play before it. The fact that Scorsese is a Powell disciple is no secret, but I don’t know if its ever been clearer then here.

Powell’s was a cinema of dreams. More so I think then any other director. Yes more so then Fellini, Cocteau, Lynch, Gilliam, and all the rest. This might strike some as odd if only for the fact that most of Powell’s films are fairly straight forward on a narrative level. Break them down to their base components and they seem down right unremarkable, the story of the feuds in a ballet company, a film following the carrier of a dedicated military man, horny nuns in the Himalya’s. But watching his films is a completely different experience, sensual, overpowering, and occasionally nightmarish. Powell understood the ways in which dreams and cinema line up, the way both subliminally code through imagery and constant repetition, how both hinge on something ineffable, the way both can turn on you on a dime and suddenly sink their teeth into your neck. Think the expressionistic sets in Tales Of Hoffman, think of the horrifying climax (the whole thing really) in Black Narcissus and think lastly of that last horrible, inevitable piece of dream logic that Powell deployed like an A Bomb in The Red Shoes.

Shutter Island is a film that operates on that level. Its horrific in an indefinable way. A film that takes your subconscious and gnaws on it until its bloody.

But of course under all the influence and juxtaposition, the only person a Scorsese movie belongs to is Scorsese. His films often deal with morality and ethics, and if you look at it from this angle Shutter Island fits in neatly with the rest of Scorsese’s oeuvre. How much responsibility can you take for actions that are not entirely your own anymore? Shutter Island is an existential thriller. Its like Camus collaborated with Hitchcock. I am reminded of Joe Hill’s great passage in Heart Shaped Box that noted that “Its not houses that are haunted but minds.”

He assembles a dream team here. DiCaprio using his natural callowness to his advantage, Mark Ruffalo making an excellent straight man, grounding all the crazy. Ben Kingsley actually seems to be giving a shit for the first time since Sexy Beast, a sight so foregein that it took me a minute to recognize it. Max Von Sydow shows no ill effects from the vast amount of sodium penathol that Brett Ratner pumped into him when he kidnapped him and held his children at gunpoint to star in Rush Hour 3 (That’s what I tell myself happened anyway. Because the alternative is that Max Von Sydow agreed to be in Rush Hour 3) . He’s having the most fun in the movie hiding behind thick coke bottle glasses and a sinister German accent, and when he posits late in the film syringe hidden behind his back “Ven you See va Monsta vou must destroooy it!” well its kind of amazing.

Jackie Earle Haley and Ted Levine both do what they do best, name act like terrifyingly convincing nutjobs as does Elias Koteas, although his make up looks so distractingly like Robert De Niro’s in Frankenstein, that for a few confused seconds I thought it was De Niro, and was disappointed when I realized Scorsese hadn’t kept an amazing cameo hidden. Patricia Clarkson and Emily Mortimer both do strong work in what amounts to cameos, and Michelle Williams is kind of stunning and fragile, in the role that ends up becoming the dark heart of the picture.

Stylistically this film is top notch as well. I love it when Scorsese shoots with Robert Richardson (Who between this and Inglorious Basterds is having one hell of a year) and the fact that they get to collaborate makes me excited for Hugo Cabearet (even if I am disappointed Silence is getting pushed back again). There’s something in Richardson that brings out the daring side in Scorsese. The three films they’ve made together so far, this, The Aviator, and Bringing Out The Dead showcase Scorsese at his most extreme in terms of imagery. He sets himself up with some pretty challenging motifs here, people bursting into ash, pools of water and blood spreading, the dead bodies of the innocent. Not since Friedkin made the central image of To Live And Die In LA that of people being shot in the face has a major filmmaker in a mainstream movie made such relentlessly unpleasant imagery so front and center to his film. And yet far from being overwhelmed Scorsese makes these images harrowingly beautiful.

Shutter Island is not a safe film. Its not here to tell you everything is OK. Its here to take a piece out of you. And brother its gonna.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Roger Ebert Esquire

If you haven't read Esquires profile of Ebert, you owe it to yourself to do so. A moving portrait of dignity and intellect surviving the worst possible circumstances.

Ebert is so good we tend to take him for granted. I would probably still love film if it where not for Roger Ebert, but I don't know if I would do it half so well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cape Fear

I’m going to teach you about loss

-Max Cady-

The excellent Shutter Island is coming out this weekend, so I thought it the perfect time to revist Scorsese’s other toe dip into the Horror genre, Cape Fear.

Cape Fear is probably the least loved Scorsese movie. Scorsese is, as I’ve mentioned, my favorite filmmaker. I maintain that there is no such thing as a bad Scorsese film. But while New York New York and King Of Comedy have plenty of followers thanks to their status as a clusterfucks, and his other movies that people deem too mainstream The Departed, The Color Of Money and The Aviator are, well frankly much better films, Cape Fear just gets left out in the cold, with precious few defenders. Perhaps it is more appropriate to call Cape Fear Scorsese’s least essential film.

Cape Fear is just an odd movie. An unabashedly mainstream thriller cum melodrama slash horror film, that is underlined by an edge that is frankly perverse. If there’s a film more steeped in psychosexual imagery and violence to play in the cineplex, outside of The DePalma canon it does not spring directly to mind. I mean hell the dog’s not even safe.

But it’s precisely that oddity of Cape Fear that I find so compelling. It’s a film made nearly hypnotic by the things it does right and wrong.

First lets get the wrong out of the way. It’s a film plagued by miscasting, first with Nick Nolte straightjacketed in the role of the straightlaced lawyer who has the wrath of God come down upon him. Nick Nolte is a fine actor but one thing he does not project is straightforward stability. It feels like every scene begins with him hiding a bottle just out of frame. Furthering the problem is Juliet Lewis, who as you might remember, I hate with the passion of a thousand suns. Its no exaggeration to say she’s my least favorite actress, and every moment she spends on screen is a moment where I am wincing. Furthermore, it is the only Scorsese movie that I would argue feels dated. It keeps doing this thing where it flashes to pointless, negative images that screams “Madonna Video in 1991”.

Still that last problem hints at one of the movies strengths. One of the things that I love about Scorsese is the way he uses his “minor” films to conduct his greatest experiments (“Can I make this shot a Teddy Bear propped up in a chair ominous?” you can hear him asking) Scorsese even gives a nod to himself “selling out” while simotanously drawing a clear line between his true investment in the project and Hollywood Pablum by setting an early scene in a theater showing that paragon of cinema Problem Child. Following one of his clumsy negative shots of Nolte and Jessica Lange (in fine form) doing the horizontal mambo, Scorsese showcases a startling Montage of an unsatisfied Lange in fixing her makeup in close up, intercut with startling fades to primary colors. The scene which moments before seemed faintly ridiculous takes on a Hitchcockian level of sexuality mixed with primal unease.

But then afterwards we cut to Robert DeNiro in front of bad CGI fireworks in an obvious Green screen. It’s Cape Fear in a nutshell, from the ridiculous to the sublime to the ridiculous again.

Robert De Niro embraces the spirit fully. Remember this is back when De Niro was still the guy who flung himself head first into everything rather then the guy who made you hold your head in hands wondering what the fuck happened. While Robert Mitchum played Cady like the worst possible scenario for redneckism, a lizard eyed dead souled cretin, De Niro goes the opposite way. Investing Cady with a mix of backwoods transcendentalism and Nietzschian . Scorsese plays right into it, framing De Niro’s rippling muscles covered in totemistic tattoos, making Cady such a powerful figure that he can even walk through the screen.

He's someone who can take a face full of boiling water and melted wax over his hand without flinching (One of my favorite lines in the film, “Grandaddy was a snake handler and Grandma drank Strychnine”). He’s so intimidating in the role that he gives Robert Freaking Mitchum pause (Another pleasure of the movie, it gives Old Hollywood fan Scorsese a chance to work with such true old school icons as Peck and Mitchum. For the first time since John Carradine in Boxcar Bertha if I recall correctly. He gets great performances from both. Particularly Mitchum as a cop none too concerned about the letter of the law. Peck is great, playing against his persona as a sanctimonious bastard.) Joe Don Baker also does a freaking tremendous job (You haven’t heard Thus Spoke Zathurstra until you’ve heard Baker pronounce it).

The best move Scorsese makes is making Cady smart (In one of his best scense De Niro brags that he can “Out Philosophize” Nolte). When Nolte offers him a pay off of ten thousand dollars (and remember these are nineteen ninety one dollars) Cady breaks down the amount showing what a pittance it really is, with a skill that surprises both Nolte and the audience. As mentioned the threat of Cady is sexual as well as physical. The fact that he was in prison for Rape is constant motif, the clear implication that he doesn’t want to take away Nolte’s wife and child through violence alone, he wants to taint them.

In a way Cady becomes for Scorsese, a perverse nighmare version of Ethan Edwards, Ford’s famous protaginist in The Searchers. In Scorsese’s tremendous video essay, A Personal Journey Through American Cinema, he mentions that for Edwards, “The Physical Death Of The Indian isn’t enough”. Likewise Cady turns away from the chance to merely kill Nolte several times (most pointedly during the scene in which Nolte’s hired goons fail to take Cady down). Cady is the intellect tainted, physical pain, physical death isn’t enough. Bowden must suffer mental and more importantly for Scorsese; spiritual, anguish.

For Cady sleeping with a woman is roughly the same thing as a dog marking his territory. And the two sequences, that are the films most famous, and not coincidentally its most sickeningly resonant are Cady’s seduction of Lewis and his seduction, rape and mutilation of the woman Nolte has been having an affair with (played by the great Illiana Douglas).

The scene of the actual assault is horrific, vile; maybe the one sequence in Scorsese’s oeuvre that can truly be called gratuitous (aside from the head in the vice in Casino). But the scene leading up to it is masterful, perhaps the greatest example of Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, I’ve ever seen. Trying to get over Nolte Douglas is drunk in a bar, flirting with Cady, who is doing absolutely nothing threatening. By the time we cut to them in bed together with Douglas drunkenly excited (with an all too real mixture of amusement, incredulity and genuine arousal) by the bondage Cady’s engaging her in. We know its going to be bad. We have no idea how bad. Its one of the most sickening scenes of Scorsese’s career. Its not a trivial. Greer and what she goes through are given full consideration. It’d be unfair to call Cape Fear a misogynistic film. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

In a way Cape Fear climaxes with this scene. Afterwards Scorsese swings wildly into farce. Particularly in the “trial” scene in which a now burned Cady and Bowden argue to an invisible “judge” that at once breaks the fourth wall and becomes a Bergmanesque induction of God. While the scene is effective and thematically consistent with Scorsese’s oeuvre, that doesn’t change the fact that it is also faintly ridiculous. The rest of the movie is a mixture of Eyes Wide Shut (With Cady tearing the nuclear family apart rather then strengthening it the way normal Spielberg produced film would) and Nightmare On Elm Street (With Cady jumping up like a Jack In The Box, infamously hanging himself under Bowden’s car and the film expecting us to believe that De Niro would make an effective drag queen.) Although it does pull it all together for the climax. When Cady sinks down speaking in tongues its hard not to feel some measure of awe if only for De Niro’s and Cady's utter commitment.

Cape Fear remains a troubling film, in more ways then one. Most dismiss it as little more then a detour in Scorsese’s career. And to a certain extent their right. But it’s a detour that reveals some great truths about Scorsese as an artist. Cape Fear proves that even when he’s making a mainstream summer blockbuster, Scorsese cannot help but be irrepressibly himself.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Just Tell Them The Devil Made You Do It...

As any reader of this blog knows, I am quite fond of Joe Hill.

His new novel Horns comes out today. And you might recall I'm was quite fond of it as well.

If you happen to be walking by the book store and want a peek at the most twisted, sad, and laugh out loud funny tale of revenge, grief, and the supernatural that you'll get all year, pick up Horns.

Just remember... You can't always get what you want.

The House Of The Devil

This Post has been seized by the Glorious People's republic and will be redistributed to The Final Girl's Film Club. All Hail.

House Of The Dead seems to be going through a mini backlash. After the enthusiastic theatrical reviews, and the positively SQUEE! Levels of excitement broadcast when it was announced that the film would be given a VHS release, the DVD reviews of House Of The Devil have been almost cagey. Most review, seem to run along the lines that, while the film has an effective build up it fails to pay off.

I’d respectfully like to ask what these critics are smoking and where can I get some. As House Of The Devil is the most satisfying horror experience I’ve seen in years. It earned its early fame by being a recreation of late seventies early eighties Let’s Scare Jessica To Death/ The Messiah Of Evil style zoom friendly horror. But the amazing thing is you eventually stop thinking of House Of The Devil as a gag and just immediately except it as a film.

In case you haven’t heard House Of The Dead is the story of Sam, who looks so much like a young Margot Kidder that it borders on uncanny. She’s a college student desperate for her own place who takes the job as a babysitter for an odd couple who seem desperate to get out of the house for the night. Things start to get weird when the husband played by Tom Noonan in a sublimely disturbing performance, drops the bombshell that its not a child she’ll be watching but an old woman. Things just get more disturbing from there. Jocelin Donahue is superbly vulnerable as Sam. Noonan gets his freak flag flying, being utterly unsettling by being unfailingly polite, never raising his voice even under the most desperate of circumstances.

But its really director Ti West who emerges as the star of the film.

Most genre filmmakers, not just horror, seem absurdly terrified of the set up. To a certain extent its partially the fault of the splatter punks of the 80’s like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and Dan O’ Bannon. But while their gag a minute enthusiasm spoke to their natural energy as filmmakers, the pale copy cats of today, your pre Frozen Adam Greenberg’s, The Sperig Brothers, and Jonathon King; for example seem motivated only by the fact that they are terrified their audience is a bunch of ADD addled idiots who will reach for their Xbox controller once their hands stop shaking from all the Mountain Dew they’ve injested. Its all pay off all the time, but once you get to a certain point all of that pay off becomes meaningless. And what you’re left with is a film that fails to connect on any level and devolves into a meaningless tableu of gore shots and shock moments all in the vague hope that they’ll stumble across something outrageous enough to get someone talking (Hello close up of a sheep biting off some guys cock). And its this calculation that makes the whole endeavor so patently joyless. When Sam Raimi mixed the Three Stooges with the Grand Guignol it felt like the actions of an irrepressible prankster who just couldn’t help himself. When Peter Jackson had his hero crawl through the head of an alien and out his “arse”, or have a bunch of muppets engage in hard drugs and kinky sex, or had his hero crawl his way out of his undead mother’s womb, it felt like the work of a genuine mutant. Now its all calculation.

What I’m trying to say is that the first hour of House Of The Devil only has two or three scares, but Goddamnit they actual do scare, because West not only isn’t afraid of set up, but relishes it. And the impact these scenes have has way more effect then an entire film that’s nothing but a montage of grotesqueries. Perhaps its fitting that West has the best use of a gun I’ve ever seen in a horror movie (Trust me you’ll know it when you see it). Everything about his filmmaking is deliciously perpendicular.

Which isn’t to say he doesn’t know how to pay off either, because trust me, despite popular opinion he does. The end The House Of Devil is a nightmarish phantasmorghipha of nightmarsish pay offs and sinister implications. Yes House Of The Devil is a pastiche. But its one that plays for keeps.

They don’t write em like this anymore.


Because I am a huge fucking nerd I couldn't help but buy House Of The Devil on VHS. And though this did lead to Amazon delivering the film two weeks late. It looks awesome.

Here's a closer look

And yes I do own Coven on VHS. Because I'm straight up Gangsta that's why.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I'd Spell It Out For You Only I Can't Spell

I'm saving the writeup for something I'm planning later in the year. But Its Valentine's Day which means I'm watching The Apartment. Every year single or with someone I set aside a bit of time to watch Wilder's melancholy little valentine. Still my favorite movie ever made about love, which now that I think about it explains a lot. If you don't have anything better to do, there's a lot worse ways we spend the day.

A Day At The Movies: The Wolfman, Up In The Air, The Book Of Eli

The original The Wolfman is one of the first films I can remember loving. But I was excited when the remake was announced. I was eager even. Despite the spotty track records these updates have, Bram Stokers Dracula is a film I have issues with, to put it lightly, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is so bad I have literally never been able to watch anything directed by or starring Kenneth Braunaugh without feeling white hot peals of residual hate. Benicio Del Toro is one of my favorite actors, and he heads films all too rarely. I’m a big Andrew Kevin Walker Fan, and was eager to see Mark Romenack pay off on the promising One Hour Photo. Add in Rick Baker and well we’ve got a deal. And then…

Faithful readers know that I’m not one for Hollywood gossip. Leave the backbiting treacle to the Finkes and Hiltons, I’m in it for the movies bub. So perhaps you will give me the benefit of the doubt if I step back for a moment and marvel at the production of The Wolfman. A chain of events so ghastly, that I have a feeling that once a few non disclosure agreements wear off, the best book about Hollywood since The Devil’s Candy, might be in it.

No one seems to quite know how The Wolfman got just so fucked.

It all seemed like such a sure bet while the movie was gearing up for production back in 2006. A script by a keen, though lately unheard from talent who had already proved himself adapt at Gothic Horror with Sleepy Hollow, an ambitious unproven director, a cast to die for, and a special effects wizard coming back to revisit the monster that made him famous and prove that practical effects can stand up with the best CGI.

Then it all suddenly went to shit.

Next thing you know, said young ambitious director is fired replaced by Journeyman Joe Johnston, the script is being rewritten, and Baker’s handcrafted effects are being overhauled with CGI. This all happens two weeks before production is slated to start. You can’t help but wonder just what lead to all of that.

As if that wasn’t enough, the film’s slated release of 2007 gets pushed back. A lot. Remember when the cast was at Comic Con, touting what they thought was a finished movie? From what I’ve heard, the entire film basically ended up getting reshot. Twice.

So finally here comes The Wolfman, three years late, God knows how much over budget. With a Rotten Tomatoes score sagging around 30%. I don’t doubt that I’m not the only one wondering What the fuck happened.

So to say The Wolfman arrives with some baggage is an understatement. That it works at all is a miracle.

I don’t know if I can call The Wolfman a good movie, but it is a spectacularly silly one and at times a ridiculously entertaining movie. By the time the film climaxes with a duel fought in what I can only describe as Werewolf Kung Fu, I was shaking my head in dismay with a big goofy grin on my face.

The film stars Benicio Del Toro as a successful actor who returns to his estranged family after years away in the aftermath of his brother’s death. His father, Anthony Hopkins lives in a dilapidated old mansion where he spends his day carving huge gooey slice of ham so he can wrap it in the scenery to munch on. He’s joined by fellow landscape culinarists Geraldine Chaplin and Hugo Weaving, and they all sit down and have themselves a nice little banquet.

As if to prove that every action has an equal but opposite reaction, Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt underplay their roles to a perverse degree. Just as well, had they gone off the reservation too, the film might have turned into a miniature black hole. Unfortunately, their inability to strike sparks really robs the film of whatever chance it had to gain some tragic weight. The main problem with The Wolfman aside from its rampant silliness, is that for all the intestines on display it never gets in your guts. The film is kind of displayed in microcosm by the dreadful asylum scene at its center, chronicling the month of Del Toro’s imprisonment in a wildly flailing mishmash of imagery, and attempted comedy. It throws everything at the wall and nothing sticks. Likewise the film throws subplot after subplot at the viewer hoping to intrigue and never quite catching.

Still, the sequence does climax with the films best sequence in which Del Toro transforms infront of a lecture hall of flabbergasted observers, and then tears them apart. Scenes like this and the wolf’s first attack on a gypsy camp combine a kind of pulp lunacy, with a wicked sense of humor, some well staged monster shots, and gore gags worthy of early Sam Raimi (The Wolfman is a surprisingly gory film on the whole. It more then earns its R).

While I was dismissive to him before, Joe Johnston on the rare occasion where he’s engaged by the material, like say The Rocketeer can bring it he’s obviously a man who loves by pulp storytelling (which makes him in my mind the perfect man for Captain America). And the scenes where he gets to treat Victorian London, with its gargoyles and opera houses like his own personal parkour set, or drape the moors in billowy fog are obviously a delight for him.

Still these scenes are few and far between, and it all devolves into so much Werewolf Kung Fu. The Wolfman could have been a better movie, its practically there beneath the surface. But I don’t know if I would like it half so much if it was. I have the oddest affection for this film. It’s the kind of affection one has for an idiot child true. But love is love.

I finally got to see Up In The Air, after all the hype and subsequent backlash, and I was glad I did.

Reitman gets a lot of doubters, but I find him to be one of the finest filmmakers of his generation. While many are incensed by the comparisons some throw to Wilder, I think they ring true.

Like Wilder, Reitman makes films that are slyly sophisticated and adult. Like Wilder he has an expert eye for dissecting people and their appetites, but enough compassion to keep his films from flying into full blown misanthropy. Like Wilder he brings out the best of his actors coaxing multi faceted performances from people too used to coasting. Like Wilder his style is confident and singular without being off puttingly showy. In short Reitman is a classy filmmaker, who creates mature films about adults. To my mind that makes him a Goddamn endangered species and a director to be protected and treasured.

I don’t have much to say on the film , that hasn’t been already said. Clooney continues to make the best out of his persona. Vera Farmigan exudes a persona of intelligence and sex that made me realize that I had completely underestimated her, and Reitman’s budding ensemble (Jason Bateman, JK Simmons, and most gratifyingly Sam Elliot) all step up to the plate and do excellent work.

It’s a human scale story that shocked me with its literacy and genuinely shook me with some of the turns its story took. It has the courage to leave its protaginist lost, only now he actually knows it. And as the old saying goes, How terrible is wisdom that brings no profit to the wise.

The Book Of Eli ended up surprising the hell out of me. Dumped in January to fair to middling reviews I wasn’t expecting much, but ended up being kind of blown away by it. It just snuck up on me, which doesn’t happen all too often anymore.

Eli is the kind of smart, original genre filmmaking I keep begging to see, and now that an example of it has shown up, I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t a bigger deal. I mean this is a film with Denzel Washington, battling Gary Oldman in the kind of operatic baddie performance he hasn’t given since Hannibal. It’s a fully realized world stylishly directed by the Hughes (filmmakers who’ve been silent for far too long) its got a great design with real life to it, a couple of set pieces that are just killer. And, oh yeah its got fucking Tom Waits in it. Sounds like a slice of fried gold to me. I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a classic, a minor classic to be sure, but this is the kind of film that ends up as a secret handshake between true lovers of the genre.

Now of course there is the Jesus element here that seems to be pissing people off. I have to admit, I don’t get it. I’m a practicing Catholic, and that’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it on this blog. I say that not to try and convince or convert anyone, I’m fairly against proselytizing in any form, but because I always feel its important if one is to be an honest critic to let their biases be known.

My point is only this, why is that people seem to think that Christian themes belong only in horrific amateur productions like Fireproof, or safe Pabulum like The Chronicles Of Narnia. Is it really so inexcusable for a genre movie to deal with Christianity? Much less an R rated genre film? Why? The film handles faith in what I thought was a mature and thoughtful way. It certainly doesn’t shy away from religions dark side or support an unthinking version of faith. We’re talking about one genre film that has the gal to bring up Jesus, amid about a billion secular Terminator Salvations and Transformers 2s, but from the way some of the detractors have been talking you’d think that you could hardly pass a multiplex door without hearing “Onward Christian Soldier” blasting from it. I’m not saying you have to like it, or have to believe in it. I’m just saying it was refreshing to watch a film that didn’t treat me like an idiot for having faith, nor try to exploit me by being sickeningly congraluatory about it like Kirk Cameron and his risible cronies. Instead it’s a film that asked intelligent questions about the nature of faith and the place of the divine in a place seemingly devoid of hope. Is that really something to get pissed aboutl?

Of course none of that would matter if the film itself wasn’t so damn entertaining. Post Apocalyptic films are a favorite genre of mine. They’re also one of the toughest to do right, and one of the easiest to do lazily (And you have to love the shout out the film gave to A Boy And His Dog). Eli takes the time to fully think out its world and its implications. The world its denizens and their way of life have all been fully thought out.

Washington embodies his roll with his trademark mix of effortless resolve, sly humor, and easy authority. He’s matched by Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors excelling in pleasure of doing what he does best, aka being utterly terrifying without ever once leaving the realm of the possible. Even Mila Kunis does a credible job. Her relationship with Denzel, that of an eager apprentice and dubious mentor rather then romantic coupling creates an oddly credible bond. And not to spoil anything but should their be a Book Of Eli 2 following her kicking ass and spreading order across the ready to reform continent I would be more then down. A lot of credit goes to the script by first time writer, Gary Whitta who never settles for two dimensions even giving such throwaway roles as Ray Stevenson’s lackey and Michael Gambon’s friendly cannibal surprisingly deep.

More then anything Eli plays like a post apocalyptic Samurai film, with Washington making for one hell of a Yojimbo, set in a rich world. It’s a world made up of equal parts George Miller, Japanese Anime, and Harlan Ellison without being beholden to any of them. It is in short a kickass genre movie. And though many of us share different faiths, we all subscribe to the religion of badass cinema. And we can all say Amen to that.