Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The 25: Part 3: Big Trouble In Little China

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)



So, now that I understood that movies where made and a director made them (I know this is simplified, trust me, but I remain a staunch auteurist so just work with me here) It was only a matter of time before I became a fan of one. I suppose you could argue that I was a fan of Hitchcock first, and that Man Who Knew Too Much/Birds double feature certainly led me to viewing many of the master’s films, there are two things wrong with this.

1) Hitchcock was foisted on me, I saw a documentary about him first, then saw his films. In other words I was prepped. Carpenter I had to discover independently.

2) Then as now I almost thought of Hitchcock in terms of a genre rather then a director. When I went to the video store there were Western’s, war movies, and Hitchcock pictures. I wasn’t really consciencely exploring an artist’s work yet. Just wondering what I should grab for the night.

Carpenter is a filmmaker who seems to be going through a mini backlash right now, with younger film fans especially wondering what all the fuss is about. I’ve got to call shennanigins on this, Carpenter’s not a perfect filmmaker. Indeed just as he was the first filmmaker I ever really loved, he was also the first to let me down. By the time I was old enough to see John Carpenter movies in the theater they weren’t worth seeing (Though in all fairness, I’m really hoping The Ward knocks my ass out, and Cigarette Burns is just as good as his eighties work (Pro Life not so much). But he is a great one. True he make his films with the confident sturdy steps of a craftsmen rather then the flailing of a virtuoso. But just because he isn’t showy doesn’t mean he’s not an intelligent valuable filmmaker.

Take Big Trouble In Little China. Certainly it’s a movie that’s regarded fondly, both by the general public and cineastes as the pinnacle of a certain kind of 80’s excess filmmaking. And while it certainly is that, though in terms of wit and imagination it puts many of its fellows to shame. As dated as Batman feels Big Trouble is fresh you could put it in the theater today and it would still play, though everyone would be confused by lack of shitty CGI and the fact that the movie has an actual color palate beyond the grey of most genre films.

And that’s still not doing justice to what a smart innovated film Big Trouble really is. It’s a mash up film, a full generation before that was supposed to happen, beating Kill Bill to the punch by twenty odd years. Mixing old serials, The Yellow Peril pulps, Five Fingers Of Death, The Shogun Assassin and Howard Hawk’s and mixing them into a frothy exhilarating brew. Taking imagery and recontextualizing it for its own nefarious ends.


It is in short, a complete fucking blast.

But that’s not all. Few give credit for just how narratively clever Big Trouble is, without once drawing attention to itself. It is after all a movie told completely from the perspective of the sidekick. After all it’s Dennis Dung’s Wang who gets the girl, fights the big bad, and saves the day. Russell’s Jack Burton, gets his ass kicked, complains, and looks goofy.


It’s a keen bit of postmodernism, that far from being clever for its own sake, serves the story and subtly comments on the ethno centricism inherent in pulps. For all the talk about it just being a dumb cheesy pleasure Big Trouble In Little China has a lot on its mind. Lets see Raiders Of The Lost Ark top that.

Of course this wasn’t on my mind at the time. At ten I can pretty much say without a doubt the thoughts this movie brought up weren’t “My that’s a clever deconstruction on narrative convention and racial politics in genre fiction.” It was probably somewhere more along the lines of “OhmyGodKurtRussellisthecoolestanddidyouseethepartwheretheguywiththehatexplodedandIthinkyoucanseeboobsinthebackgroundofthatonescene.”

My point is that Carpenter is able to layer things so well into his films, that he often misses out on the credit. If you can catch the nuances in his work great, but he’s not going to lead you by the hand and place them front and center. The story always comes first.

And that’s why I started to follow Carpenter, from Big Trouble, to Escape, to The Fog, to The Thing. He is like I said, the first filmmaker I was ever consciencely a fan of. I've been one now for about fifteen years, and I’ve loved every minute of it. So thank you Mr. Carpenter. Thank you very much.


SIDENOTE:

Conventional wisdom says you should never meet your heroes. I’ve been lucky so far. As everyone who I’ve met who I’ve admired has been at least cordial, and sometimes truly wonderful. So I thought I’d go ahead and relate a time when meeting one of my heroes kicked ass.

Carpenter was having a tribute to him at The Aero Theater in Santa Monica (Which is truly an amazing cinema. If you ever get a chance to go. I don’t know if I can quite rank it over the New Beverly, but trust me, if its not the best theater in LA, its certainly the second best.) I was trying to make it to the double feature of The Fog and Christine, but tickets where sold long before I got there. I picked up tickets to the next days Escape Double Feature, and decided since I’d driven all the way out to Santa Monica I might as well enjoy.

I walked down to the beach and about an hour later as I was coming back, I noticed about a half dozen people gathering around a black town car outside the theater. Talk about timing. Carpenter comes out, with a gruff pitch perfect “What do you assholes want?” as soon as someone had the balls to mention signing, he smiled and said he’d be happy to, adding only a “One per customer guys I’ve got to get inside.” I had Big Trouble In Little China and Assault On Precint 13. I went with Assault as I figured he saw it less. I shook his hand told him my name He was nice enough to personalize my copy. I asked half jokingly, if he needed an intern and he gave me a smile and a “You and everybody else kid.” Then moved onto the next guy.

I hung around just happy to be hanging with the guy. He was charming and personable with all his fans and as it began to thin out I mustered up the balls to ask him to sign Big Trouble too. Not unfriendly he asked “Why should I kid?” To which I responded, it was my favorite movie he ever made. He stopped considered, and said, “Well that’s a pretty good reason.” And signed Big Trouble as well.

If that had been the end of it, I would have been more then happy. But it wasn’t.

When Carpenter really impressed me was the next night. I came for The Escape double feature. After a great Q&A I went out for a cigarette and saw Carpenter getting MOBBED. If you’ve never been to The Aero, it has this kind of outdoor lobby, its basically the theater at the back of you, then two long walls and an open entrance to the street. Carpenter was in the middle. And the entire thing was filled with fans trying to get at him. Dozens if not a couple hundred people all pushing and shoving trying to get their stuff signed.

It looked kind of like this.



I’m mildly claustrophobic and just looking at the crowd nearly gave me a case of the screaming memes. But to Carpenter’s ever lasting credit far from losing his shit and screaming for everyone to get the fuck away from him. Which I almost certainly would have done. He calmly waited it out, signed something for everyone in the crowd, and was never anything less then gracious.

So here’s to Carpenter, a great filmmaker and a true class act. Like I said before, he was my first favorite director, I doubt I could have picked a better one.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Prophet



A Prophet is the most ludicriously visceral experience I’ve had at a film since City Of God, and is the greatest crime film made since same. As A Prophet opens with handheld images of France seen through a prison van its like The French New Wave never ended. It’s the type of impressionistic vernacular based film the French used to excel at, and seeing this type of filmmaking again, alive and hungry is nothing short of a joy. And despite all its darkness there is something joyful about The Prophet, it’s the joy of an artist running on full steam, hitting all the marks with breathtaking precision, yes but it is also undeniably filled with the joy of watching someone crawl their way from nothing to something with swagger.

Just so we’re all aware, I know how much of a complete fucking philistine that makes me sound.

Because if there ever has been a gangster movie so utterly brutal, harsh and deglamorized as A Prophet, it doesn’t immediately spring to mind (I haven’t seen Gomorrah yet, but have it on the table next to me). The prisoner's in A Prophet make the squalor of City Of God look like the opulence of the Corleones. And yet I can’t help but feel that the undeniable charge the movie gave me was not entirely accidental. Audiard is a canny filmmaker he knows what he’s doing.

The film has classic gangster movie structure and despite its small scale, has a vividness of character and surrounding that makes it almost Dickensian. Sent to prison at 19 Petty theft Malik ends up inhabiting the netherworld between groups. There’s a power struggle in the prison between the Coriscan gangsters who control the power structure and the Muslim prisoners who greatly out number them. Malik Arab but not Muslim ends up serving as a valuable cat’s paw for the Coriscan’s, forced to murder a key witness against them and becoming something of a pet for the Coriscan’s. But Malik has a resourcefulness and ingenuity not readily apparent, and he’s not content to be a pet for long.

Audriad knows how to charge his films with quite irony. When after completing an important errand for the Corsican crime boss who runs the prison, Malik is transferred from his terrible cell to a slightly less terrible cell. The film takes it in with long loving shots, the wonders of the mini fridge, TV bolted to the wall and concrete walls. DePalma never shot Tony Montona’s mansions with such opulent splendor. And its this juxtaposition between the meagerness of their surroundings and the ferocity of the battle over them that gives A Prophet its unique frission.

And ferocious this film is, A Prophet is an utterly brutal movie with some of the most startlingly graphic violence I’ve scene in a film. But its all anchored in very human terms, by two tremendous performances by Tahar Rahim as Malik and Niels Arstrup as the aging Coriscan Cesar. Though nothing like the friend or mentorship you normally find in these films, the two have very little affection for each other at least on the surface, without them the movie would not succeed. They are fully realized characters and thanks to their performances we understand them every moment they are on screen.

The film has some flaws, particularly some over arty dream sequences in which Malik is haunted by the man he assassinated to gain the Coriscan’s favor. Near the end these scenes get down right Lynchian and jar with the film’s gritty tone. But these are little more then speedbumps.

Filled with pulsing intensity, unforgettable characters, effortless authenticity and even a couple moments of quiet beauty A Prophet is an electrifying experience.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Unseen #24: Rock N' Rule



Why’d I Buy It?: I haven’t written about it before on this site, but one of my favorite movies is Walter Hill’s Streets Of Fire (Not joking). It’s a movie I love dearly because its so batshit crazy that I have to constantly remind myself that its something that actually exists, rather then something my subconscience dreamed up while having a fever dream under the influence of Cough Syrup. “Oh Streets Of Fire, isn’t that that one movie where Willem Dafoe, dressed in rubber overalls, kidnaps Diane Lane and has to fight Michael Pere, Ed Harris’s wife and Rick Moranis as a tough guy? And the whole movie takes place in this weird retro future Studebaker based fifties dreamland that looks like what Meat Loaf sees when he sniffs airplane glue while reading SE Hinton and then drives around Cleveland for an hour and a half? Isn’t it a rock opera? And hasn’t the ultimate form of music been discovered to be a blend of Motown Doo Wop, 50’s rockabilly and 80’s synths. And isn't a lot of the movie, including the incredibly overblown concert scenes, shot in ways that are unironically innovative and genuinely stylistically exciting, thus elevating the movie above simple kitsch and thus confusing your poor brain? And isn’t there a scene where Willem Dafoe walks out of a burning building, then turns around and walks back in? Holy fuck this thing actually exists?”



I feel that its important at this time to point out at this point that the film's title is not a metaphor. Yes. There are literally Streets Of Fire in Streets Of Fire.

Oh wait... I'm not actually writing an article on Streets Of Fire.

I’d only heard one movie with a premise as remotely insane as Streets. Rumors of an animated Rock Opera that made Heavy Metal look like a Merchant Ivory production. The plot goes a little something like this. “So it’s hundreds of years in the future and mankind’s dead. But Dog’s Cats and Mice have evolved to replace them, and they’ve become supertechnologically advanced. Everyone walks around like nightmares from a furry's tortured sub conscience. So there’s this struggling bar band of rock n’ roll playing dogs, and their lead singer is picked to summon a demon, by Lou Reed whose basically playing Swan in Phantom Of The Paradise except now he's a rock and roll space wizard and he wants to end the world, which he will do by summoning a Lovecraftian Space Demon played by Iggy Pop to destroy the entirety of existence with the power of Rock. It’s a cartoon. Its Canadian. Earth Wind And Fire contributes some songs. Oh and the singer whose going to do all? Debbie fucking Harry.” No I did not just make this shit up.

Fuck. Yeah.


Why Haven’t I Watched It?: I had a bitch of a time finding this movie, I luckily came across it in the great Hollywood Video Closing that just happened recently (expect to see that sentence pop up a bunch of times in the next dozen or so columns I picked up some kick ass stuff) Basically I put it on as soon as I could.

How Was It?: In away films like Rock N’ Rule are tough to review, because no matter what problems you may have with it they’re inconsequential to the fact that it features Lou Reed as an evil Space Rock Star who summons a demon played by Iggy Pop to destroy the world with the power of his rocking.

Main character an underwritten douche? Space Demon.


Way too much time spent on sub Borscht Belt gags? Canadian Mutated Dogs traveling to a place called “Nuke York” featuring half the cast of SCTV. Nothing in this movie makes a lick of sense? Earth Wind and Mutherfucking Fire.

The film’s animation is impressive in a pre computer animated, Don Bluthy sort of way (that’s good eighties Secrets Of Nimh, Land Before Time, American Tail Don Bluth not Pebble And The Pengu- OHJESUSCHRISTMYEYESHAVEBEGUNTOBLEED Don Bluth).

But overall it must be admitted that the movie never rises above kitsch. True rising above Camp is a lot to ask for a Canadian cartoon about Rock N’ Roll Mutant Dogs, but there it is. I always hate it when critics say “You already know whether or not this movie is for you.” But in this case its true, your either excited out of your mind for this oddball mutant bastard of a movie, or you couldn’t give less of a fuck.

It’s less a movie then an artifact. A gloriously tacky artifact. Where synthpop both destroys and saves the world.


Wallace Beery. Wrestling Pictures.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Open Letter From An Angry Catholic...

JESUS WARNING

(In the interest of fair warning there’s gonna be some Jesus in this post. Should this be a problem, I suggest you come back tomorrow when our regularly scheduled programming of writing goofy stuff about movies will recommence.)


I am about to partake in the time honored tradition of sticking my hand into the hornet’s nest. I’m going to be writing harshly about organized religion which by consequence will probably piss of the religious. But also writing just as passionately about the roots of said faith, thus losing me the atheists in the crowd. That’s right there’s something here to make everyone mad!

It's your basic no win situation. So why write it? Because my conscience won’t allow me to do otherwise.

"No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

-Luke 6:43-45

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

-James 2:14-16

It must be said that to being Catholic and frustrated is nothing new. I certainly have had personal schism’s with Church dogma before, for example the church’s stance on Gay rights and a woman’s right to choose. Yet even in these intensely devisive issues never once have I doubted the church’s inherent good intentions in dealing with these matters, however wrong headed a place those intentions may have led.

This is no longer the case.

Before I write any further I should be clear that I come not to renounce my church or abandon my faith but to call for its accountability. It is because of the very things my church taught me that I now must write this letter.

Beyond everything, the core of what the Catholic Church has taught me is what I do matters. That my thoughts, words, and deeds are not inconsequential but permanent. It remains to be seen if the teacher has absorbed the lesson.

The church cannot claim infallibility while embracing corruption of the most sickening kind. No man can serve two masters. For the Church to survive beyond a mere physical meaning of the word, but with spirtual authority intact it must humble itself like never before. The fact is. If the extent of Benedict’s corruption that is suspected is accurate he has no choice but to step down as Pope. He is unfit.

Some will say that it is not Benedict’s fault. That he merely happens to be in charge when the full extent of the horrors became known. That the corruption was systematic, that he is much more responsive then John Paul the II in the face of the crisis. All of this is true.

BUT. In the New York times on March 27th a correction was printing, saying the paper had misquoted an Irish study saying that hundreds of thousands of children where molested, by priests in Ireland. As the Vatican pointed out, The revised statistic, brought the number down to a much more manageable tens of thousands.

That one number should be comprehensible and the other apparently permissible sickens me to my very core.

I will say again, if The Pope, as a Cardinal and Arch Bishop did actively cover up Child Molestation and hide guilty priests, as the revelations from Munich seem to suggest, he is unfit to be the spirtual leader of 1.115 billion people.

I believe The Gospels are the greatest truth bestowed upon mankind. Whether you believe their orgin is divine, or merely brought forth by the better aspects of the human mind is on this point inconsequential. If man does not embrace their true spirit (as opposed to the greatly hypocritical one many do), which is not necessarily the same thing as excepting them as celestial; mankind will not survive. I truly believe this.

It pains me to say that the Catholic Church, has become an unworthy bearer of this message. For years Catholicism has, thanks to its strong central leadership, and grounded theology has served as a bastion against the lunatic fringes of the religious right. Now it finds itself shamed, even by the venal hypocrites who parade around that freakshow. Say what you will about Ted Haggard, but his love for Gay Prosititutes and Crystal Meth was hurting no one but himself.

The coming months will be a crucible where The Church will either prove its worth or begin to diminish.

I am proud, still, to be a Catholic. Nothing I have encountered in this life has changed that. And in all likelihood nothing will. What has changed is my wrong headed belief that the church is beyond, not fault never that, but judgement.

The Church must be held accountable for its actions. If not by others then at least by itself.

The Church as you may know has some rather well formed ideas about confession and atonement. Tear down the years of cover ups and lies. Let the truth out no matter how ugly it is. It can’t be worse then what we’ve already seen. At this point the church has precious little to lose. And I mean all four of those last words.

This week is the holy week. The most important in the liturgical year. What better time to show that the what the Church’s judgment, and high standards that they expect from others, apply also to itself?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The 25: The Man Who Knew Too Much: Part 2

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)



Among Hitchcock’s early British Classics (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Lodger) I rank The Man Who Knew Too Much The Best. Among Hitchcock’s entertainments I rank it near the top. As one of the formative viewing experiences of my life I merely rank it sublime.

I’m still not sure how I came to be alone that day, for that long, with access to the TV something that always had to be carefully negotiated.

It was on a family trip, I remember that much, we’d met up with several members of the extended family. But for whatever reason, I stayed behind at the hotel, with the cable TV.

Once again, I’m not sure why I did this as at the time my interest in film was rather limited. But for whatever reason I settled upon a documentary about a fat bald British man who made films. After the documentary the station promised that they’d be playing a few of the man’s films directly afterwards. I was intrigued enough, to stick around. And that’s when I had my first encounter, with one Alfred Hitchcock, and suddenly I understood what a director did indeed.

They played The Birds later that day as well, which certainly made an impression, but they played The Man Who Knew Too Much first and as a result that was the one that absolutely blew my mind.



It’s a film that I believe is underappreciated these days. Its overshadowed by its inexplicably popular remake, which I personally consider to be Hitchcock’s worst film. This in all fairness has as much to do with my affection for this one, as it does Doris Day’s dreadful performance, an apparently doped Jimmy Stewart, and an astounding narrative paucity coming from Hitchcock (not that I’m bitter or anything).

The genius thing about The Man Who Knew To Much, is how utterly tangential to the action the heroes are. A married 1930’s English couple, they’re not spies, or polititcians, they’re playboys and athletes, who have the bad luck of having one of their coaches be an MI5 agent. When he’s assassinated at a mountain resort he tasks them to deliver his intelligence to the British consulate. Only, a gang of sabateours and spies led by the great Peter Lorre (whose trademark mixture of intelligence, wit, a certain dapperness, and sublime creepiness has never been put to better use) kidnap their child. Being upright British citizen’s they’re not going to let a little thing like the kidnapping and possible death of their only child get in the way, they decide to go bust the spy ring and foil their plotted assassination themselves.



And what a charming couple they are too. Unfairly, Hitchcock often seems to be used as a synonym for misogynistic. And while you can’t deny that the master probably had some, shall we say unresolved issues with women (You really only need to watch Stewart’s self immolating final scene in Vertigo for that) indeed that’s what gives a lot of his film’s their queasy psychological intensity I don’t think this can necessarily be translated to misogyny. Say what you will about Hitchcock but he nearly unaminously portrayed the company of women as something to be enjoyed not endured, and marriage (like Powell and Loy) like something that might be fun and worthwhile for both parties. This is something the movies can’t seem to get right now.

Compared to other filmmakers accused of misogyny brings Hitch’s complexity to further light. When Gasper Noe or Lars Von Trier wants to show you a famous woman on the receiving end of a humiliating gang rape, they spare no expense on reveling in the full ugliness of the situation. The suffering of Hitchcock’s women is more abstract, nearly pieta like. Hitchcock is not often discussed in terms of his Catholicism, but what is Kim Novak’s suffering in Vertigo, or Bergman’s in Notorious but the expression of the superhuman? Hitchcock heroines lose much, but never their dignity.

In the end Hitchcock portrays women as equal as if not markedly superior (Note it’s the wife who saves the day at the end of The Man Who Knew Too Much, both in the macro assassination plot and the micro kidnapping one (or is that the other way around one never can tell with Hitch). However, they will always be intractably alien beings to Hitchcock. Alluring, Intellegent, Brave and entirely unknowable.


While there are other more acclaimed Hitchcock films (Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho), and there are ones I like better (Strangers On A Train, Notorious, Shadow Of A Doubt) to me The Man Who Knew Too Much is the purest distillation of The Hitchcock Mystique. The others are all mutations, The Man Who Knew Too Much delivers the base strain. In short, you are not safe nor will you ever be safe. No matter who you are, danger will find you. I can still remember the moment that hit me. The heroes have tracked the spy ring to a “sun cult” as they investigate, they come under attack, frantically they begin to break chairs and cause a commotion trying to get the attention of the outside, when calmly the organist starts to play, drowning out their noise.


Yes, strange dentists will try and gas you, when you knock on a door you’ll be shot from behind it, sinister foreigners will take your child, sun worshipers will try to kill you, and an organ will drown your screams, cruel fate will not merely fuck you, but smile while it does it.

The fact that Hitchcock could deliver such a harsh message in the strictures of an entertainment, not once or twice slipped past the censors, but consistently in almost every film in his entire career, and that he would not just have people come, but knowingly flock to his films to be told so astounds.

The fact that Hitchcock delivered these messages not in “serious” films but in entertainments, had no small effect on my film going psyche. Film in all its many forms and geneses is worth attention, observation, and consideration. Anyone who dismisses a film outright risks one day biting into a candy and finding a razorblade.



Thursday, March 25, 2010

The 25: Batman: Part 1

((The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)



I’ll be the first to admit that Batman doesn’t exactly hold up well. Batman is the nineteen eighties version of timeless meaning people wear fedoras and rubber bracelets. Though dark at the time Its Frank Miller meets Adam West vibe doesn’t really work now. Nicholson is too old, fat and hammy to make a convincing threat (what Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight made me realize is how amazing it would have been if Five Easy Pieces era Nicholson had taken the role). The fight scenes are static. There’s not a moment when Basinger is on film that isn’t literally painful to watch. And as the main man himself Keaton makes a stiff Batman and an anemic Bruce Wayne (The “Lets get nuts." scene is one of the most embarrassingly squirm enducingly bad scenes I’ve ever watched in a movie).

By most accounts Batman’s schiziophrenia comes down to Sam Hamm’s killer script, basically a filmed version of The Dark Knight Returns, getting watered down by the studio and producers, to something more “palatable.” As a consequence the movie is neither fish nor fowl. Juxtaposing scenes that truly get Batman (one of my favorites being the walk through Bruce’s “Hall of armor” seeing the elements he took from each suit) and the Joker (The nihlisitc lunacy of The Smile X commercial) with Alfred letting Bassinger into the batcave, and The Joker dancing to Prince.

And that’s the main problem with Batman, not so much that it’s a bad movie, but that it has a much better one just peaking through. Don’t get me wrong it has its moments (“MIRROR!”) The Joker’s first appearance executing Palanace, The finale, and the great mime massacre. But it fails to hang together. There’s zero cohesion to the movie, a sure sign of too many cooks. The problem can best be summed up with Nicholson. The greatest flaw of Nicholson’s performance is not its oversizedness, but its smallness, its pettiness. Unlike Ledger, or Hamill’s potrayls, or even Morrison’s and Miller’s written versions, There’s nothing larger to The Joker’s nihlism, despite his throwaway lines of being a homicidal artist. At the end of the day he’s just some guy who likes to kill people. Thanks to the vigorous rewrites he swings without warning from petty gangster to shades of the grand Nihlistic force that Ledger would make him.

While Batman Returns has enough of Burton’s intensity and perversity to make up for its flaws, his personality is somewhat diluted here. Batman is a graceless, unwieldy behemoth. It doesn’t help that Christopher Nolan came around and made the films look about as long in tooth as that one super racist Batman Serial that was made during World War II.

So why mention it at all? Why regard it as anything other then a sad relic of 80’s excess?

Because Batman made me realize one crucial thing at the tender age of eight…

Somebody made this.

Note that ever important singular (I was an auteurist from the beginning I’m afraid). Sure I must have been vaguely aware that there where people whose business it was to make movies. Not that I really was paying that much attention. There’s that great line in Sunset Blvd. where Holden says, “Are far as the audience is concerned the actors make it up as they go along.” And that is basically the truth. Most kids and probably a depressing amount of adults, give so little thought what goes on behind the camera no more thought then “The Actors make it up as they go along.”

Until you see something that make you realize that’s not the case.

I can still remember the second I realized someone was behind the camera. It comes during Nicholson’s raid on Axis Chemicals, right before his Joker transformation. As he escapes he smashes a few tanks full of anonymous chemicals and they explode into fever dream greens and crimsons. No chemical has ever looked that way in the real world. Ever. Someone chose to make it look that way.



Once that clicked, the film clicked, it added an extra dimension to everything. Like one of those stupid hidden 3D pictures it's something you can’t unsee. My mind had slipped into a different mode and I knew that this movie, and therefore every movie was a series of choices.

Choices made by someone.

And then it all clicked because I could see them leading from one to the other. The dutched (though I didn’t know that at the time) angles, oppressive shadows, the fetishic minutia of the moving parts that make Batman's Wonderful Toys, The grotesque balloon’s spewing more luridly green poison silhouetted against the night sky, all buttressed by the dark operatic score. It all fit together.

I wasn’t there yet. I didn't know who it was to give credit to, or assign blame, didn't know it was the director I should pay attention to. I couldn’t connect the prankish deliciously malicious tone of the Smilex commericial to the similarly subversive advertisements in Beetlejuice, nor could I relate Batman’s lonely isolated hero to Jack Skellington who I had encountered earlier that year. But I was on my way.

Because now I understood, that cinema was something deeper then I had thought it was. Not something made up as it went along. No, it was something made.

Oh God Yes

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The 25: A Cinematic Autobiography: Intro



I turn twenty five today. I can’t lie, its been a hard year. A year where things didn’t quite go my way. Not to get all quarter life crisisey here, but I can’t say I’m wear I thought I’d be five, or even two years ago. But twenty five is a good year to do some evaluating. I’m certainly not where I thought I might be at twenty five, I still can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the path my life has taken. I can’t claiming its an easy one to follow, and the temptations to throw up my hands and yell “Fuck it” isn’t an ever present one would be a lie. And a great deal of that life has been the cinema. So I’m launching a column that should take up most of the space here at this blog for the next month or two.

I’m calling it The 25. It’s the twenty five films that turned me into the movie mad writer who see before you. For Better or for worse.

There’s only two complications, by all rights Gangs Of New York should be included on this list, but lord knows you don’t need to read another couple thousand words about me geeking out over Gangs Of New York. The other is The Bride Of Frankenstein, which is as the first movie I’ve had seared into my brain pan, was influential to say the least. So I’ve decided to give Gangs Of New York a kind of special jury prize, you all know I love it, no need to harp on it again. As for Bride Of Frankenstein I’m reprinting the piece here as a kind of prolouge. Those two and the upcoming twenty five are the movies that hit with that rarified narcotic bliss, that simply put, made me a junkie for life. Here we go:



The Bride Of Frankenstein is the first film that I can remember seeing. True I have a jumbled infants memory of the forest fire from Bambi on the big screen. But that's just a flash. My memory of watching Bride is so much more real and complete. I couldn't have been more then three or four, and for some damn reason I'd gotten a hold of the film from the public library (same one with The Wolfman). I popped it in, and made it all of about two minutes before I literally ran sceaming from the room, ran down the hall to my bedroom and hid under my bed.

It was the hand that did it. For those unfamiliar with the movie, the film opens with the villagers standing around the burnt windmill that serves as the location for the first films climax. There's alot of exposition being thrown around, but it all basically amounts to the monster's dead and they're glad of it. The teeming villagers head back to the burg for a pint, leaving only the grieving father of the girl murderered in the first film behind. He's not happy with the outcome, a burned building isn't enough. Until he sees the fucking things smoldering corpse he won't be happy.

He ends up falling through the wood into the cave below the windmill and as he splashes helplessly in the water, a hand comes out from behind a blind wall. A decayed, stitched up dead thing, dragging behind it Boris Karloff lumbering body and lifeless eyes.

At which point I promptly lost my four year old shit.

It's probably just as well, I most likely wouldn't have known what to make of Bride. By far the most sophisticated of Universal pictures. While the others Universal films work by jumping feet first into the myth pool, Bride is an incredibly knowing film. What my four year old self would make of it's camp, religious satire, and gay subtext I know not. Probably not very much.

But I sure appriciate it now. The Bride Of Frankenstein is simply put one of my favorite films. A grand tragedy with a wicked sense of humor. A film that hurts, Karloff's doomed monster, and his dead unrequetted queen, the fey Dr. Pretorious, James Whale's moody style. So many things to recommend it.

But really what it comes down to the hand. The one that sent me screaming from the room. Seeing it now still makes me shudder in some primal place that I like to pretend I don't have. It made me an instant horror junkie of course, but in alot of ways I learned on that day, not just what I want from Horror movies, but from movies. I got an object lesson that Film is the most visceral of the arts. The ability it has to brand itself the brain with nothing more then a plaster wall and a slightly made up hand. I like cinema that scars.

And while it took ten years and another horror sequel (Evil Dead II) for me to realize that I wanted Film to become my profession and life. I like to think that my fate was set, as surely as Karloff's poor monster's was from the moment I laid my eyes on it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Getaway



(This Post Is Part Of The Steve McQueen Blogothon Over At The Cooler. It doesn’t start until tomorrow. But then again I have my own plans for tomorrow. So I’m posting my entry a day early)

(While searching for images for this review I couldn’t help but notice that The Getaway has some of the greatest posters I’ve ever seen. Most of them online thanks to http://www.stevemcqueen.org.uk I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them.)

(This review will work best if you start the below song)




Today in honor of the man who shares my birthday, and defines cool for a generation we’re looking at Steve McQueen.

As you might recall from last December, I Like Peckinpah Quite A lot. So perhaps its no surprise I chose, in honor of McQueen to write up The Getaway.



The Getaway’s
a strange movie to write about, a star at the height of his iconoclasm, a director in full possession of his incendiary talent, scripted by another badass filmmaker I’m quite fond of, coming from what is arguably the greatest novel from the greatest hardboiled novelist of all time. It’s a movie I wouldn’t hesitate to call a classic. And yet on some level I can’t help but find it unfulfilling.

But first some words about the man himself.

I don’t know what it is but I didn’t have as a young film goer that instant attraction to Mc Queen that I had to the other glorious badasses, such as Clint, Connery, Mitchum, Bogart, and Newman that I met as a kid. Of course, this same feeling of conflict is exactly what draws me towards him now.

There’s something disquieting about McQueen’s presence. Its not sophistication exactly, more of a kind of urbaneness. An aloofness, a disdain. There’s something disquieting about McQueen. One could never imagine Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman being anything less then a good guy (Even on the rare occasion say White Hunter Black Heart or Road To Periditon where they’re not good guys they still are). McQueen it was all too easy to see going to the dark side. It’s a cruelness he possesses. He’s not just cool, he’s cold. Perhaps no action star has ever looked quite so at home in a black suit. He’s the existentialist’s action hero.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that McQueen came to stardom in the fifties, just as the iconoclasm of the studio age was dying out, and the tougher man’s men stars of the seventies such as Eastwood or Bronson, had yet to take his place. McQueen’s only real contempary was Sean Connery. And while Connery coasted through on a mixture of sophistication, misogyny and excess, always acting from Darby O’ Gill on as if the whole world was here only for his personal amusement, Mc Queen never seemed to get much pleasure out of his badassness, or much of anything at all. Hell he never seemed to want much aside from a baseball to toss against the wall. McQueen always seemed driven by darker things, or perhaps more accurately never seemed to be driven by anything at all.

Contrast those two great San Fransico cop films Bullitt and Dirty Harry. While Harry Calahan smolders with Clint’s righteous rage, Bullitt cuts through with cool professionalism. Look at Nevada Smith (Maybe my favorite McQueen film and one I’m sure to revisit to write up later) which builds towards its climax only to step away from it with a disaffected shrug. The gentleman thief who prefers other to do his thievery for him in The Thomas Crowne Affair. The poetic doomed cowpoke in Tom Horn. All serve the same purpose, all look surgically from perpendicular angles at what a hero is supposed to be.



Look finally at Doc McCoy in The Getaway. A gentle man whose no stranger to violence. A man who as soon as he’s released from prison goes to a park so he can be out in nature and beauty for just a few moments (oh hi High Sierra, I didn’t see you come in) and soon after is executing people with a shotgun.

I don’t know if anyone has ever shot McQueen as well as Peckinpah. Using wide angle lens to distort the space around him Peckinpah makes him look like a lethal God. The scene where he calmly holds up a pawn shop for weaponry, every TV in the place broadcasting his face, holding a gun that makes Dirty Harry’s Magnum look like an air rifle, all so he can get the shot gun he needs to take down the mother fucking PO-lice. Its badassery of the highest order.



McQueen repays Peckinpah in kind. He becomes the quintessential Peckinpah man, out of time and out of touch, with himself as well as others. He’s a man so isolated he doesn’t even have a crew to run with. While other Peckinpah heroes face the betrayal of those they’ve counted closest to themselves, Doc has never had anyone close enough to betray him. Except for his wife, and much of the tension in the movie comes from the question of whether or not he’ll even give her a chance to.

There are other Peckinpah signifiers as well, children witnessing violence, the fragmentation of time, and the loss of honor inherent in modern society. Despite the films reputation as an anonymous studio product, which suffered the indignity of McQueen editing close-ups into the final product, Peckinpah if anything goes to far. Even editing a child saying “Bang Bang” into the sound mix of the final shootout.

The film opens bravely with a pure montage, chronicling Doc’s prison life, in a fragmented, numbing blur of chess, hard labor, corrupt officials, all cut to the deadening tempo of the omnipresent textile mill (Later the jazzy repetive Lalo Schrifin like score will serve a similar effect). By the time Doc pimps his wife out to the corrupt lawman to secure his release its more then understandable, its almost a relief.

Doc is forced into participating into a heist in exchange for his early release. When things go tits up, he decides to escape with his loot and the wife he can’t trust, and head for the border, with some truly pissed off people in pursue. The first half hour of the film is meticulous, following Doc as he sets up things, and realizes just how unqualified his partners are. Its hard to imagine a studio allowing an action movie to start off so slowly nowadays (there’s nothing approaching an action scene for over half an hour), even tougher to imagine it being a hit.



When the mayhem does come though its on a scale only Peckinpah can bring. Like the opening scene of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah delights in putting chaos where it doesn’t belong. He turns small town America into a war zone for the opening heist, exploding bombs in nice safe suburbia. And later in the film’s justly famous hotel climax delivers one of his career best action scenes. A display of geography and carnage that is nearly surgical in its sickening precision.

McQueen cuts through the movie with some his trademark iconic cool. The telling competent swagger that is his trademark, watching him disassemble the engine block of a cop car with a shot gun never gets any less appealing.



Yet it’s the little moments and shot, him looking oddly mole like and vulnerable behind his dark glasses, his non verbal uncomfortable attempts to suss out his wife’s true motives that make an impression.

Ali McGraw as McQueen’s lesser half has never been what you would call a good actress. Still, she has her moments playing up her vulnerability and her childlike nature. You can see why Doc would want to protect her, if not why he’d be so entranced by her.



Peckinpah has a lot of fun with Al Lettieri, as perhaps the most personality filled heavy to ever appear in a Peckinpah film. Watching Lettieri climb his way out of the pit that McQueen left him in, like something clawing its way out of hell, is quite intimidating to say the least. He then kidnaps a doctor and his wife Sally Struthers (!), (the scene in which he informs them of this. On his back, bandaged up, playing with a kitten, but totally in command is kind of a joy) and they act as a counter narrative/comic relief, until the doctor is obliged to commit suicide thanks to Lettieri rampant boning of Sally Struthers. Let us pause for a moment to reflect that even the comic relief in Peckinpah ends with some poor dumb bastard hanging themselves, while some asshole takes a shit next to their still warm corpse. Ho-Ho!

Struthers herself is one of the film’s most probamatic aspects. While I’m not one who labels Peckinpah a misogynist, the films that usual get him pegged as such, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and Straw Dogs are both too complex to be dismissed as such. But Struther's, simperingly carrying around a kitten she's named after the husband she drove to suicide. Whimpering like a puppy during the climatic shootout, after a film’s worth of dumb behavior comes mighty close.



Peckinpah’s keen visual wit is on display, such as the shot in which McQueen and McGraw find themselves leading a parade of cars seen in the rear view, after passing through a police blockade. Even in the quite moments the chase is always on.

And yet there is that niggling bit of dissatisfaction. Look, The Getaway as written by Jim Thompson in the grip of DT’s and misanthropy is basically unfilmable. It ends in a village built of human shit for Christ sakes. But if anyone COULD film it, it would be Peckinpah, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Gracia, is as far as I’m concerned the best Thompson adaptation ever made, even if its not actually based on his work. To make it even more infuriating The Getaway does occasionally grasp the book’s supreme ugliness, see the scene where Doc pulls to the side of the road after the confrontation with the corrupt lawman, and promptly slaps the living shit out of McGraw in a way that’s unflinching and brutal. He even show himself able to capture Thompson’s tequila drenched surreality, like in the scene where McQueen an McGraw somehow survive a trash compacting, and have a nice long chat about their relationship while covered in refuse, in the middle of a rusted out junkyard. I’m not saying Peckinpah had to shoot Thompson’s Jodorowskyesque ending, but did he have to make it a fucking happy one?

Still despite its shortcomings, I have to admit that my problems with The Getaway are more about what it could have been (IE a flatout masterpiece) rather then what it is (the best of the second tier). It’s a snarling lively bit of drop dead cool cinema. A piece of filmmaking with real balls, I can’t be too disappointed in it.







Monday, March 22, 2010

The Ghost Writer


(Warning. Here There Be Spoilers)

The Ghost Writer is by far Polanski’s most intertextual film. It stands on its own as a work of art, but casts back reflecting virtually everything Polanski has ever made. This provides its own difficulties, as even before with Polanski it was notoriously difficult to discuss his art without discussing the man. With the recent developments in his decades long scandal, its damn near impossible.

But I will endeavor anyway. Like Tenant, Macbeth, Oliver Twist and Rosemary’s Baby, The Ghost Writer is a film about a person warped and forced to fill a role by malignant forces. Like Knife In The Water and Cul De Sac the film has at its center a psycho sexual relationship that develops from odd to actively poisonous. Like Chinatown its about the depths of the hidden power of those eternally behind the throne (There’s even a throwback to the sinister bibliophiles of The Ninth Gate in the opening sequences). And like all Polanski films it thrums with a malignant paranoia that threatens to devour its protagonists whole.

Oh and did I mention its funny?

With all this auteurist solitaire, it is easy to miss the many things that The Ghost Writer does so very well. So before we really start chasing down this rabbit hole in earnest, lets take a few moments to recognize them. McGregor gives a strong central performance, seeming younger then he has in years and very vulnerable. Olivia Williams whose comeback in the last couple of years has been very heartening gives a fantastic performance. As she’s gotten older, the softness that made her so appealing in Rushmore and The Sixth Sense has been replaced by a severity that somehow, never threatens to undermine her inherent vulnerability, nor her genuine sensuality. Her role is genuinely erotic, and is the true pitch black heart of the film. Williams has always been an underrated actress, and Polanski here uses her as a landmine that explodes with concussive force when you least expect it.

The movie is impeccably cast, this is the kind of film where even the likes of Kim Catrall and James Freaking Belushi are on their A Game.

Bronsan himself is fine in the role, all Teflon charm. We are never quite sure what to be allowed to think of him, and the late period twists of the movie make his character almost tragic. A charming putz of a pawn who never would have gotten into anything more damaging then alcholism and sleeping around, who has perhaps found himself turned into a war criminal against his (none too strong) will.

We can never be sure.

Polanski’s narrative is a sleek serpentine thing. He keeps the tension on high boil despite the fact that not much happens on the surface. We’re not even allowed a hint of what the true conspiracy is until the final third of the film. And even then not all the implications are known until the closing moments. The Ghost Writer is a film that begs repeat viewings. As well it should, because despite being such an enigmatic film. I would not be at all surprised if the film ends up being regarded in later years as something of a Rosetta Stone for his work.

The Ghost Writer follows McGregor as a callow young writer for hire, hired to whip the sagging manuscript of an English Prime Minister who greatly resembles someone whose names sounds like Dony Dlair. McGregor’s predecessor has seemingly committed suicide, possibly over how bad the books come out, and it seems like just a salvage job, trying to scrape some profit out of a boondoggle, until Dony Dlair finds himself under investigation for handing over British citizens to the CIA, and finds himself in the midst of a genuine media shit storm. McGregor now under tight pressure to finish the book, starts digging frantically, and manages to uncover some very nasty secrets. Secrets that suggest Dony Dlair being such a stooge for the US is not a coincidence.

What makes The Ghost Writer so effective is how long Polanski is able to keep his cards off the table. Its us who are uneasy not the characters. Because like Polanski’s poor doomed character in The Tenant, and poor doe in the headlights Rosemary Woodhouse, McGregor is being groomed. Not intenitionally this time, but by the cruel fate that haunts all of Polanski's films (and as a side rant are there people out there who still don't understand why he directed Macbeth? It always rankles me how that movie gets dismissed.)

He ends up sleeping in the dead man’s room, driving the dead man’s car (in one of the film’s funniest scenes the house’s garderner attempts to literally force McGregor into sitting in the dead man’s seat), wearing his clothes, even sleeping with his mistress all before embarking on the dead man’s crusade, McGregor is a ghost alright, just not of the man he’s been hired to be.

And what to make of Tom Wilkonson’s (deliciously toad like) Paul Emmett. Crouching in his hole in the woods like a troll from a fairy tale, licking his chops waiting for a second foolish writer to come knocking on his door. He is the unseen power. He is the corruption. He is Cross, Balkan, The Weird Sistees and the Cassevettes. The terrible thing at the center. The consuming corruption. The Rot.

And the rot does consume swiftly and terribly, first Bronsan in a moment no less shocking for the fact that you can see it coming one second before it happens (How it happens leaves many intriguing questions. Was an opportunity provided? Or is their a parallel Manchurian Candidate narritive?). And then McGregor in what has to be the most ignominious death a hero has received since The Bad Sleep Well.In the end the exact hows, who's and whys matter very little. Who kills them? The same terrible sharpshooter who drew a bead on the fleeing Dunaway in Chinatown, the same force that drove the Nazi's into Poland to kill Szpilman's family, chose to fuck with Macbeth's destiny and sent a stupid hippie with a messanic complex to Polanski's home because it used to belong to a music producer the hippie was mad, at forcing him to kill Polanski's wife and unborn child instead.

Polanski’s humor has always been one of his least appreciated attributes. And this is perhaps his funniest film since The Fearless Vampire Killers. But his humor is so undervalued because it seems so primarily unhinged. Not jokes but funhouse distortions. Take the bizarrely dressed seemingly zombiefied young woman who clerks McGregor’s Bed And Breakfast in Clown make up. Or Bronsan’s health fetish in the background of nearly every scene he’s in. Or the nonchalant mugging McGregor gets in one of his first characters seen. Take finally the Gardener, futily trying to sweep the leaves off the deck as the harsh Hampton winds blow them on and around. Chasing after natures fury with a broom, dustpan, and a wheelbarrow. As futile as McGregor’s would be whistleblowing. Perhaps that shot sums up the whole of the movie. Perhaps that’s the shot that sums up the whole of Polanski’s career.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Soul Eater And The Slow Stumbling Progress Of Gender In Anime



Soul Eater is being touted as the next big thing in anime. Whether its because of genuine excitement, or the fact that the flailing anime industry really, really needs a next big thing I’ll leave it for you to judge. But even though I don’t consider myself an anime fan anymore I like to keep abreast of what’s going on with the medium, and when I hear something described as “Harry Potter ripping off Bleach with Woo style heroic bloodshed” well that’s worth a look.

Visually Soul Eater is tremendous, a showcase for fluid animation that blends traditional anime style with Graffiti Art (note the bold angular line work), while appropriating tropes and styles (Particularly the shading) from Western and European animation in a way I’ve never seen a Japanese show do before. The theme song gives a pretty good over view of its style.



Story wise there’s not a lot of internal consitancy to the mythology or set up. While most anime series take pains to ground themselves in the real world, or at least set up a counter mythology, Soul Eater takes about the same time explaining the world and the rules of it as Nickolodean spent explaining why Spongebob lives in a pineapple under the sea. This is both annoying and invigorating. There’s no logic in Soul Eater save internal logic, and the show tends to have the free form feel of a krazy kat comic.

Eschewing the well worn Shounen tropes of the competent mentor and earnest kid, Soul Eater bravely makes most of its characters incompetent nimrods. Defined by their egos and fetishes that are Suzuki like in their intensity.

I haven’t gotten a lot from Soul Eater so far (The end of the first story arc), but in all fairness had I seen this when I was actually in Jr. High, the target demograhic, I most likely would have flipped the fuck out.

Soul Eater is more interesting to look at from a sociological perspective nowadays. It’s a Shounen (boys action series) but its lead is a girl. Shocking I know but bear with me here. The leads for women in this kind of anime are pretty well defined, you got wallflower, tomboy, and shrew, usually all united by the fact that they’ve been secretly in love with the hero the whole time. If you’ve ever watched five minutes of an anime series you’ve probably seen one of these. There are exceptions of course, say Rukia in Bleach, but even these exceptions tend to be problematic (and the mishandling of that character deserves an essay of its own).

Soul Eater’s lead, Maka displays exactly none of these tropes. What’s more, its not some quasi formed marketer’s idea of girl power that makes her victorious it’s the fact that she’s the most competent. True she’s the most competent out of a gaggle of doofuses but competence is competence. Her gender is a defining aspect of her character, not the defining aspect of her character.

The success of things like Soul Eater, The Hunger Games, the work of Joss Whedon, the success of Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, and James Patterson’s Max series (hey I didn’t say they had to be good) are all slowly chipping away at the conventional wisdom that though a girl will follow a story with a male protagonist a boy won’t follow a female lead.

Soul Eater is not without its problems. As if in a panic that they’ve actually done something progressive, the filmmakers go out of their way to make just about every other female character on the show as regressive and fan servicy as possible. To be fair, this does fit in with the show’s motif, in which just about everyone is a complete moron, But around the twenty fourth leering revealing shot in any given episode you begin to wonder if they couldn’t have scaled it back just a little bit.

I’m not suggesting that the playing field is level, in terms of gender equality. But the popularity of these titles is encouraging. And that’s what’s really heartening about Soul Eater is if a series like this can happen in a genre as regimented and boy centric as Shounen manga it can happen just about anywhere.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo


I was one of the three people who didn’t like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Part of the problem was my admittedly high expectations for the book, I first heard it described as Ingmar Bergman’s Silence Of The Lambs. When one is told that something is one of the best crime novels in decades, one expects a bit more then an Agatha Christie knockoff with copious amounts of anal rape and an unlikeable self impressed hero. But beyond its lack of innovation, its slow pace and insultingly simple solutions to the films two mysteries made The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo damn near impossible for me to slog through. Not only did it fail to draw the moral terror and existential dread that great crime fiction from the likes of Lehane, Pelecanos, Chandler, Highsmith, Westlake, Peace, Mosely, and Ellroy do, it failed to even reach the level of workable boiler plate ala Michael Connely or Sue Grafton.

While the film cannot completely overcome book’s flaws, Oplev is as unable to integrate the unwieldy subplot involving a corrupt corporate titan that has taken Blomkievst down any better then Larssen was, nor is he able to make the mystery’s solutions seem anything less then unspeakably underwhelming. Nor is he able to streamline the many many pointless Red Herrings that Larsson has strewn through the novel, most involving Nazi’s and religion. However, he is able to minimize many of them, eliminating some particularly vacuous subplots and much of the skullduggery going on at Blomkvest’s magazine. While drawing on the source materials strong points, its ingenious set up for a “locked room mystery” its feeling of Scandinavian darkness and angst and the titular girl herself, an iconic gothy hacker with whom you do not want to fuck. All in all The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is one of those happy rarities, a film markedly superior to its source material.

The story for the half dozen of you who haven’t read the book. Follows disgraced financial journalist Michael Blomkvist (Much more tolerable now that we are not privy to his long smug internal monologues) who is hired by former captain of industry Vanger to investigate the decades old disappearance of his granddaughter who disappeared from the family compound on a remote Swedish Island. The only bridge off had been blocked in a traffic accident, and her body was never found, leaving her disappearance a mystery that has haunted the old man, and his family full of horrid people for the long years afterwards.

Artfully juxtaposing the warm domesticity of Blomkvist’s sister’s middle class family with the Aristocratic corrupt venality of Haus Vanger. Oplev like DePalma’s misguided adaptation of The Black Dahlia portrays the upper class as preening vicious jackal’s who prey on each other when they get bored with the meals the make of the poor.

This is followed by a counter narrative (indeed if there is one thing that the book has over the film its that the saga of Lisbeth Sanders seems to be even more separated from the Blomkvist’s ongoings then they did in the novel) following Sanders as she gets sexually assaulted by her guardian and then goes on to get some righteous revenge. It should be warned that the film features not one but two graphic (though to the film’s credit not in the least eroticized or gratuitous), prolonged scenes of rape.

These scenes match up thematically if not narratively to the on goings at Haus Vanger. The film’s original title is Men Who Hate Women. Both the book, but I think even the film more so are focused on the way misogyny fuels violence. The book serves as an angry polemic about how society ignores and mistreats “disposible women.” The film actually deepens the theme, subtly drawing it out unlike the novel which just bluntly stated raw statistics. The film subtly draws to memory the works of Hitchcock, De Palma, and Von Trier without being beholden to any of them and quietly wonders why it is men love to do horrible things to beautiful women. His dark avenger of these deeds Lisbeth Salander was the one undeniable success of Larsson’s work, and Oplev and actress Noomi Replace do justice to his seminal creation.

Opley does a fine job overall, even if the quality of the digital film is unusually poor. He invests the film with a dark rich color palate and dark tone, and has a few moments including the killer’s reveal and final confrontation shot mostly out of focus as Blomkvist swims in and out of consciousness that borders of virtuosic filmmaking.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is destined for an American remake, with Tarantino and Fincher both expressing interest in getting the job done. What seemed sensible on the other side of Opley’s film seems less so now. I can see little room for improvement in an adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, something I certainly couldn’t say for the source material.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Under The Great White Northern Lights



In a weird way, we all like to think of our favorite bands like the Beatles in The Yellow Submarine. Living in the same house the best of friends, going on wacky adventures. Of course that really doesn’t happen. Even the non animated Beatles were at the time of the film’s recording, barely speaking aside from the occasional hiss of pure venomous hatred.

But its sometimes difficult to remember. Watching a movie like LoudquietLoud is depressing, and not even because it shows The Pixies as dysfunctional. Instead it shows them as bored middle aged professionals who are too mature to let their past acrimony get in the way of a lucrative partnership. What was once one of the greatest bands of all time and is now the closest thing my generation has to a Vegas act. Its somehow insulting (in that nonsensical immature part of the brain where fandom lies) that the band should be cordial. Even something like Some Kind Of Monster is preferable. Sure it shows the band to be a disaster, but damn it they’re a Metallica sized disaster.

The White Stripes have made their career by appearing to actually live in The Beatle's Yellow Submarine house. And there have been remarkably few cracks in their persona. The White Stripes is the great band of contradictions. Jack and Meg preach a back to the roots simple style of music, and have garnished it with the most elaborate persona’s they could come up with. They concocted not just a back story but an out and out mythology for themselves. There are fantasy series with less Apocrypha then The White Stripes.



Much like everything they do Under The Great White Northern Lights feels at once almost queasily intimate and a complete put on. Giving you an up close and personal look while never even coming close to puncturing the bands mystique. It’s basically Year Of The Horse done right (Mainly because unlike that particularly woeful missed opportunity Under The Great White Northern Lights gives you some indication of why you’d want to see this band play music).

Chronicling the bands tour through the Canadian north, The Great White North portrays Jack White as the rarest of creatures, someone who is not uncomfortable at all with being a rock star (This was showcased ealier this year in Guggenheim’s documentary It Might Get Loud, which White stole out from under Jimmy Page and The Edge). He’s friendly and approachable seeming, with a goofball persona and a panache for rambling stream of conscience rants that will range from Old Blues Singers to the place of the raven in native American mythology in the span of a sentence. But he has just enough of that odd livewire energy that shows up in his performances for it to make sense. There’s something of the trickster in Jack White. He seems to have emerged living and breathing from some half forgotten piece of East Germanic folklore. One that was probably intended as a warning. His live performances are some of the most alive and vital in modern music. White doesn’t just play music when he’s live, he exorcises it from his body with a guitar, organ and banshee shriek often at the same time.

Meg is the quiet ying to Jack’s madman yang. She’s a private persona and has happily ceded the limelight to Jack since the beginning of their career (in one of the films funniest touches everything she says ends up subtitled like its holy writ). The Great White North is probably the closest we’re ever going to get to knowing the real White Stripes. But as the last scene suggests, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Which is exactly how it should be. Their secrets are what make them great.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Unseen #23: Black Mama White Mama



Why’d I Buy It?: It’s a Roger Corman Women in Prison movie, written by Demme, shot in The Phillipines (AKA the place you go when you don’t have enough money or dignity to make a movie in America) starring Pam Grier and Sid Haig in what basically amounts to the sleaziest possible remake of The Defiant Ones.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: I just recently picked this up at a closing Hollywood Video, so in all fairness I watched this basically ASAP.

How was it?: This is one filthy fucking movie.



Things start out rapidly with Grier and White Mama being shipped to a Phillepino prison. The movie doesn’t waste any time jumping straight to a shower scene. Then ups the ante by having a lesbian guard masturbate while she watches them.

Yeah its that kind of movie.

Anyway the Lesbian guard has Grier brought to her quarters, with none of the staff minding because apparently you’re allowed to do that (Its not even like she’s the warden). Grier isn’t down with this turkey’s jive, so the guard starts smacking her around with a leather glove shrieking orgasmicaly.

Yeah its that kind of movie.

Somehow this leads to a rivalry between Grier and White Mama and its not long before their tearing out their clothes and getting disciplined by being sent to the box. Where they’re stripped and forced to writhe their sweaty naked…

Like I said, its that kind of movie.

Anyway, it turns out White Mama belongs to a revolutionary group (Because it’s the seventies) and the prison, apparently vested with the authority to do its own counter terrorism missions decides to use the Mama’s as bait to draw out the revolutionaries. Which they do. Resulting in a massacre which leaves virtually all the prison guards dead and the audience wondering if perhaps this could not have been planned out better.

But the actually cops and army show up driving off the revolutionaries, and leaving the Mama’s to escape and cross miles of harsh terrain. Which they do with style.

THIS IS THE FIRST TEN MINUTES OF THE MOVIE. I haven’t even gotten to the part where they start beating up Nuns yet.

So everyone is after the Mama’s including Sid Haig. Haig is in proto Captain Spaulding mode, as a foul mouthed CW obsessed gangster who loves fucking around with cops and double teaming his business partner’s fair daughters, almost as much as he loves chasing Pam Grier. All whilst rocking a handlebar mustache and hanging with Doberman Pinchers. I kind of fucking love him in this movie.



The film is Skeevy to the point of actually being skuzzy. You might feel the need to take a shower afterwards, but you won’t hate yourself in the morning. Everything from its bizarre grim ending, wall to wall nudity and violence, and righteousness of Pam Grier seem teleported in from another dimension where everything is awesome.

Black Mama White Mama is everything you could ever want from an exploitation film. Copious amounts of violence and nudity, a bevy of jaw dropping “I can’t believe I just saw that in a film that’s not snuff” moments, all topped with a fuck it attitude towards convention that is genuinely invigorating.