January 25, 2006

The White Buffalo (1977, J. Lee Thompson)

When I was little, I used to have a recurring nightmare of something vaguely animalish chasing me down the hallway. (Even though the nightmares ceased by the time I felt like I was old enough to defend myself from some kind of predator -- 28, I think it was -- I'm still uncomfortable in long, silent hallways.) Probably not a unique dream by any standard, but certainly the details of it, expressed by my subconscious, were particular to me. But, surprisingly, it wasn't until I saw this again, the first time in almost 30 years, that I finally discovered the source of those details.

I know I saw this in a theater, probably with my dad, but I don't have any memory of it other than being fascinated by the idea of this giant buffalo and the hand-painted, melodramatic poster that was typical of Dino De Laurentiis productions of the time. I wasn't sure why I found it fascinating, and was prepared to have another childhood memory revealed to be something worthy of repression. Yet somehow, it still works. The white buffalo (hunted by Charles Bronson's Wild Bill Hickok and Will Sampson's Crazy Horse) is both ridiculous and terrifying -- it's a giant puppet, and it seems to float, stationary, kicking its legs in an absurdly exaggerated mime of galloping but without ever going anywhere, and then suddenly BOOM! it's there, stomping people into the ground or goring them with its horns. There's a great shot, repeated several times, of a long, snow-covered expanse that ends in darkness, until the buffalo emerges, a small white shape with legs kicking furiously, white and mean, that gave me a chill of recognition. Ah here it is, I thought -- the source of so much youthful distress, the kind of thing that, if seen when young and impressionable, can apparently do all sorts of wonderful damage.

(To wit: I think there's also a link here to my fascination with (if you'll forgive my dorkier-than-thou-ness) kaiju eiga, that species of monster movie that, for my money, is more onieric than the work of Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali combined. The White Buffalo and the surrounding miniature work is shoddy as realism but evocative as dream, not unlike the adventures of Mothra or the war between the Gargantuas. Even the buffalo's roar sounds like Godzilla, fer cryin' out loud.)

Too bad the rest of the movie is a slog, with Bronson's aging but still badass Hickok on his way to killing the white buffalo that haunts his dreams but constantly waylaid by old friends, old flames, and mediocre gunfights. Admittedly, the first two help set the stage for Hickok's last hurrah, confronting his history of violence and racism, painting a portrait of a man who realizes too late that he never had a dream to follow -- all of which is thematically interesting, but good god it's fucking boring. (There was a reason I had absolutely no memory of the rest of the movie.) And I'm not sure what the film is trying to say about the plight of Native Americans -- Hickok realizes he did wrong, but the film's treatment of Crazy Horse and his tribe is stereotypical and patronizing. (I felt really bad for Sampson here, doing his best to bring some humanity to a role that's not much more nuanced than one in an oater from the forties.) And at the end, during the credits, pictures of both men are placed side by side, giving each equal weight as symbols of the disappearing West, which I suppose is the filmmaker's prerogative, but it's kinda like putting Martin Luther King Jr. and the Monkees together to mourn the passing of the sixties.

Posted by kza at 11:34 PM | Comments (0)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, Robert Fuest)

Stylish and off-the-wall thriller starring Vincent Price as the eponymous Phibes, a critically-acclaimed organist (!) who gets his revenge on the nine medical professionals responsible, in his view, for the death of his wife. The story itself is no great shakes -- in fact, it's a complete flatline, since there's no mystery (we know what's going on long before the police), and although we're put in the position of wanting Phibes to get away with it, the police (and target Joseph Cotten, with an on-and-off again accent) are complete idiots, so there's little suspense there. But Fuest, demonstrating a visual sense that was only hinted at in The Devil's Rain, puts all his energy in the mise-en-scene, giving us some unforgettable images: a "robot" jazz band, a victim frozen solid in the back of his automobile, Phibes, speaking from a hole in his neck and into a Victrola. What's more, Fuest treats Phibes' preparations for murder as ritualistic theater, with wide angles and long takes (like when Phibes and his assistant have romantic dance) on his Art Deco lair, giving this pulpy story a faux-seriousness that turns it into -- not camp, like both its supporters and detractors claim -- but something unexpected, like a dreaded blind date that turns out to be funny and charmingly eccentric.

And, while I have no proof, I can't help but think that a young Matthew Barney caught this on the Saturday afternoon creature feature and imprinted it on his brain. There are several parallels with Cremaster 3 that just don't seem like coincidence, from the aforementioned ritualistic sequences to the late 20s atmosphere (like in Cremaster's horse race scene) to the operating tables to the obsession with arcana (Freemasonry in Cremaster, Hebrew here) to the climax, which features a spiral glass tube dripping acid that is a perfect rhyme to the dripping wax in the Guggenheim. Of course, even if I'm right, if I were Barney, I'd keep my mouth shut, too.

Posted by kza at 10:00 PM | Comments (0)


Over on his other blog, Martin announced our new joint venture. I'm crossposting it here, because, well, I'm supposed to be hard at work on an important new entry in said joint venture, and it's hard to say what he said any better. Anyway, isn't that what all those political blogs do -- copy and paste each other? Daddy wants a piece of that action. And now, ladies and gentlemen, we present: Spitball!

My partner in screenwriting, Kent M. Beeson, had a great idea. Why don't we document the writing of a screenplay live on the internet? Everything about it--every conversation, every bit of back-and-forth, every fight and every success would be out there for the world to see. Such a great idea can't be passed up, so after much time of plotting, planning, we quietly began working on our site in December, started writing regularly in January, and are now continuing with our rollout. So, ladies and gentlemen, I'm proud to announce to you--the newest addition to the Hellbox family of blogs: Spitball!

Besides the fact that I believe we're on the only people around attempting this, we decided to go for broke and are releasing the entire work--including the finished screenplay--into the public domain with a Creative Commons No Rights Reserved license. No matter how good, or awful, this work turns out to be, it will belong to everybody. Our hopes are that by removing the profit incentive we will get a more honest and interesting dialogue happening about our writing, the work itself, and especially between the people who will come visit us.

In addition to the blog--essentially a dialogue back and forth between Kent and Myself (who have taken on the monikers of some famed baseball spitballers--Urban Shockah (him), and Burley Grymz (me))--we have a forum where people can hang, talk and diss us any time they choose.

Check it out, and tell us what you think. Spitball! is open--let the games begin.

So tell a friend! Then tell two more! And then come on over for the rootin'est, tootin'est screenplay blog around!

Posted by kza at 08:45 AM | Comments (2)

January 24, 2006

It's Up! The Inaugural Onion A.V. Club Film Poll!

And here it is.

Congrats to Steve (with three entries!) and Greg for getting quoted. I think that's pretty damn cool. (And I fully expect to be reading Steve's blurbs in the Village Voice film poll one day.)

Here's my ballot and comments:

1. A History of Violence: The biggest clue to Tom Stall’s identity isn’t how he smoothly dispatches the two hoodlums at the beginning, but the cold way he puts a bullet into the back of the head of his incapacitated attacker. That no one (including me) notices this the first time speaks to the subtlety of Cronenberg’s critique and how inured we are to cinema’s history of violence.

2. The Devil’s Rejects: It looks like a grindhouse flick, feels like a grindhouse flick, and probably smells like a grindhouse flick. But behind the façade of this seemingly-inconsequential horror movie is the best articulation of my personal post-9/11 malaise: the crazies on both sides are in control and the rest of us are roadkill. And yet, Rob Zombie does something amazing – he gives us the self-righteous torture the Rejects “deserve” and asks us point-blank, “Does this make you feel better?” To his credit, it doesn’t.

3. Funny Ha Ha: Technically a 2003 film, but it played in Seattle this year, so I’m counting it. An astonishing debut feature from Andrew Bujalski, it’s the only film I’ve seen that really captures twenty-something ennui, complete with inarticulate longing and noncommittal commitments. If you’ve ever passive-aggressively stomped out a would-be suitor with trumped-up melancholy (or have been on the receiving end of such behavior), then it’s a goddamn documentary; if, on the other hand, the prevalence of “like” and “um” seems like a stylistic contrivance (or you actually, y’know, got shit done in your twenties), then go somewhere else.

4. Grizzly Man: This would’ve been fascinating enough if Herzog simply strung together Timothy Treadwell’s videos and provided the occasional contextual remark. Instead, Herzog interrogates Treadwell’s naif philosophy, debating it, judging it, through voiceover and (staged?) interviews with the people who knew Treadwell. While he ultimately finds Treadwell’s doe-eyed Urisdaephilia lacking, he’s able to find worth in his filmmaking, despite how the two are intimately connected.

5. Munich: Spielberg delivers the most mature film of his career since “Schindler’s List”, a terrific thriller and excellent treatise on the price of vengeance, and people bitch about the usual suspects: daddy issues, foregrounding of the theme, a somnambulant Eric Bana. (Well, maybe that last one’s deserved – wherefore art thou, Chopper?) Truth is, if this very European film was credited to a French or Polish genius, there’d be nary a peep.

Posted by kza at 01:32 PM | Comments (8)

January 20, 2006

The Island (2005, Michael Bay)

You know... is there really anything I, or anyone for that matter, can say about this movie that's interesting or even surprising? All right, Theo comes close, but really, it's pearls before swine. It's probably Bay's best movie, and that still isn't a recommendation. I mean, when Ewan and Scarlett fall off the freakin' skyscraper and survive, that's hilarious, but who's really getting the last laugh here? The only thing really that kept my attention was wondering if Scarlett's absurd, girly running was a character choice or just natural.

Posted by kza at 10:03 PM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2006

Reminder: The Inaugural A.V. Club Film Poll

Only three more days!

I just sent mine in -- what about you?

(I'll probably post them after the poll is up -- it'd be cool if one of my entries got printed, so, just in case, I'm going to hold off and let it debut there.)

Posted by kza at 02:31 PM | Comments (2)

January 18, 2006

Emperor of the North (1973, Robert Aldrich)

Brutal story of Depression-era hobo A-Number 1 (Lee Marvin) trying to hitch a ride on the #19 train run by sadistic conductor Shack (Ernest Borgnine in bug-eyed mode), while showing the ropes to young up 'n comer Cigaret (Keith Carradine, who does the same thing better in the following year's Thieves Like Us). If you know Aldrich, then you know to expect violence (it's the kind of movie where people throw hammers at each other) but even I was a little shocked. Movie opens with a bum hitching a ride on Shack's train, and while enjoying a tasty sandwich, Shack clubs him over the head, sending him between the cars where he's ripped in fucking half. Then later, he uses a technique -- I'd rather not spoil it -- to dislodge riders from underneath the railways cars that's both ingenious and monstrous. The FX and train sequences here are really impressive -- I'm not sure how they did a lot of the shots, but it always feels like the characters -- and at times, the actors! -- are in danger. (Yet, there are few stunts of men falling off the train at great speeds that are so over-the-top they took me straight out of the movie.) As Ebert notes, there's the germ of a great action movie here, something simple and savage, about two men, one representing the powerful, wealthy class and one of the oppressed poor, using their wits and learned cruelty to get the best of each other. (I almost want to start page one of the remake right now.) But it all seems to fall apart. The pacing is all fitful starts and stops, and while the off-train scenes are full of great period detail, all they do is make me wonder when they're gonna get back on. The problem is that Aldrich never expands these characters past their types and starting relationships -- it's the triumvirate of the old pro vs. the young kid vs. the evil bad guy, straight down the line, from here to Portland, OR. By the end, there's a cheesy mano-a-mano on the top of the trains (which I'd hoped the movie was smart enough to avoid), but there's no weight there, just types going through the ritualistic motions. A missed opportunity.

Posted by kza at 11:55 PM | Comments (0)

January 17, 2006

Funny Ha Ha (2005, Andrew Bujalski)

"Kate puts the Doll in Dollenmayer!" -- Kent "Shalit" Beeson, He Loved Him Some Movies. Comments to come.

Posted by kza at 11:21 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2006

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, Roy Rowland)

The first five or ten of this Dr. Seuss-scripted musical are pretty corny, almost unbearable. But then it gets weird. And then it gets even weirder. And just when it seems like it can't get any weirder, it makes the leap into the Truly Fucked Up. (This occurs in the elevator down to the dungeon, for those playing at home.) Although nominally a kid flick, Seuss, co-writer Allan Scott and Rowland seem preemptively bored by the notion of something saccharin, and so the wafer-thin tale of a boy looking for a father figure (he has two choices, Hans Conried as the pompous Dr. T or Peter Lind Hayes as Mr. Zabladowski, a friendly-if-wary plumber) is often sidelined for whatever visual flight of fancy overtakes their imagination (with the help of production designer Rudolph Sternad and art designer Cary Odell). How about an impossibly tall ladder to nowhere? Maybe a piano constructed in one continuous, wavy piece, big enough for the eponymous 5,000 fingers (belonging to Dr. T's students/slaves)? Oh, and let's not forget mom's crazy costume, half-gown, half-business suit -- what better way to illustrate her divided attentions, between her life and her son? (This is also the closest live-action film has ever been to translating the Seuss visual sensibility into reality -- not that it's any surprise, but Ron Howard's How The Grinch Stole Christmas looks pathetic in comparison.)

And even when it swings back to the story at hand (kid actor Tommy Rettig is tolerable, at best), Rowland handles it with an adult sense of charm and insouciance -- Lind Hayes is wonderful here, muttering bon mots and getting down to Rettig's level without the kind of mugging you expect in these kind of things. Truly one-of-a-kind, without any real equivalent -- so it's no surprise that it was a box office failure.

Posted by kza at 10:23 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2006

The Quatermass Xperiment a.k.a. The Creeping Unknown (1955, Val Guest)

Despite a few nicely-executed sequences (the hospital escape and the zoo attack), this is a pretty routine SF alien invasion flick. For reasons that I can only assume were box office-oriented, Yank Brian Donlevy plays the previously-British Professor Quatermass, and his tedious performance reduces the character from the stern-but-conflicted Quatermass of later episodes (well, I've only seen the excellent Quatermass and the Pit) to a barking jackass. There's absolutely no subtleties or gradations in his performance -- the infected astronaut, played by Richard Wordsworth with no dialogue, is a more rounded character. Apart from him, it's solid enough -- Guest is good with the camera, including a Powellesque moment when Wordsworth awakes from his stasis, unbeknownst to his doctors -- but with him, it's a chore.

Posted by kza at 11:35 PM | Comments (2)

i'ma call you suckas out

Has everyone seen the Onion A.V. Club's Inaugural Film Poll?

If not, check it out. More importantly, if you haven't sent in your Top Five, I aint askin', I'm tellin' ya. (All right, all right, I haven't done it yet either, but I wanna watch The Island and Funny Ha Ha first.)

Even More Importantly, I'm callin' on the following people to send in your Top Fives. If you want to post said Top Five on your blog/site/ass/whatever, alls the better, but it aint required. Now, the following people have been Called Out:

Scott Black
Steven Carlson
Greg D.
Matt Lotti
Martin McClellan

Be there or be octagonal, punks!

Posted by kza at 05:50 PM | Comments (8)

January 08, 2006

Princess Mononoke (1999, Hayao Miyazaki)

Not Miyazaki's best by a long shot -- the oft-praised even-handedness is actually a hindrance, since it ends up flattening the drama. And that, combined with his most concerted effort (that I've seen) to present a straight-forward plot, what comes out is the most earthbound Miyazaki I've seen. It's strange -- I've seen this twice now (once during its original theatrical run), and images that should be burned into my brain (the thousands of dying forest sprites, the demon boar, the Night Walker), instead fade awfully quickly. It's no surprise at all that he decided to really let his freak flag fly with the next one, Spirited Away -- putting visuals first is when he's at his best. But those complaints aside, it's still Miyazaki, dammit, and that counts for a lot.

Posted by kza at 09:18 PM | Comments (4)

Great Day in the Morning (1956, Jacques Tourneur)

What first appears to be a stodgy and dodgy Western turns interesting about fifteen minutes in when protag Robert Stack is revealed to be an amoral asshole. He wins a saloon in Denver with the help of the equally-compromised Ruth Roman, and attempts to make a profit from the coming Civil War. No one is immune to the corrupting presence of Stack -- not even pure-of-heart Virginia Mayo. Cynical film posits that, despite the moral issues of the Civil War, what really drives men to battle is not North or South, country or family but simple bloodlust. In fact, it's clear that, for Tourneur and writer Lesser Samuels (working from Robert Hardy Andrews' book), America's religion is not Christianity but violence. Lincoln is mocked for praying instead of starting what is seen as an inevitable war, a box marked "Bibles" is full of guns, and a priest is killed in a crossfire -- all of this presided over by Stack's Owen Pentecost (it's not exactly a subtle movie). Potentially great movie (if handled by, say, Billy Wilder) is hampered by need to rehabilitate Pentecost by the end, but even this is mitigated by the strange, Life is Beautifulesque ending (you'll understand if you see it). Fine script by Samuels, which has to juggle a number of characters and factions and does so without confusion; also, good job by Raymond Burr as a financier of the Union army with the awesome name of Jumbo Means. I'm stealing that, btw.

Posted by kza at 09:17 PM | Comments (0)

Strange Invaders (1983, Michael Laughlin)

Self-consciously quirky SF invasion tale co-written by future Oscar winner Bill Condon. The dialogue-free prologue, set in the 50s, is well-done; but then it jumps to present day and gets haphazard in all the departments -- direction, acting, FX, etc. Only interesting thing for me was watching Paul LeMat, the cool rebel from American Graffiti, ten years on from his handsome days but not quite into that elder statesman/Jon Voight kind of stage, and looking uncomfortable for it. Here he plays a milquetoast college professor (specializing in bugs; he has a big speech in the beginning about how insects are so different and alien from humans, but nothing comes of it) and there's a tension between the nerdy character and LeMat's masculine aloofness. Shockingly, despite his heroics in rescuing his daughter from the invaders, the nerd wins, as if LeMat knew his best days as a leading man were behind him and, with a sigh, capitulated.

Posted by kza at 09:16 PM | Comments (2)

January 07, 2006

Dark Water (2005, Walter Salles)

Piffle, but for awhile there, pretty damn good piffle. I've said before that one of the best kinds of horror movies are the ones where the horror could be removed from the story and still be successful, yet paradoxically, the horror is inextricably intertwined with the everyday concerns of the protagonists. (See also: Divorce-as-horror in The Brood or Fear of sex-as-horror in Cat People.) But while those two examples, IMO, are thematically rich, here we're saddled with Parent issues-as-horror, and the whole thing deflates, when it becomes clear that the parent issues are merely a pretext for ghost clichés and nothing more. But wow, what a great ride until then! Top notch cinematography by Affonso Beato (Ghost World) and great sound design by Frank Gaeta, and a cast that's, frankly, too good for this. I've never thought Jennifer Connelly was quite the actress everyone thinks she is (she was better when she was younger and heavier) but she turns in good work here, convincing as a loving mother but subtle enough to suggest she's as crazy as her ex-husband suggests. And John C. Reilly, as you've probably already read, rocks on toast. (Everything he says is dripping with subtext; so why couldn't the little girl be given the same kind of respect? Why couldn't we just read her distaste of the apartment through her face and body language, rather than her banal whining? Just asking.) Finally, I didn't know beforehand who played Connelly's lawyer; when I finally recognized him, I let out a yelp of glee. Theo, typically, has it exactly right: "[He] is the real magician, moving from flaky Alan Dershowitz figure to plausible (if not quite endorsed) romantic lead without apparently changing a thing." Not successful, but definitely worth seeing.

Posted by kza at 09:15 PM | Comments (2)

The Cave (2005, Bruce Hunt)

Surprisingly straightforward and unpretentious telling of a delicious premise -- well, delicious if one of your key cinematic experiences was Cameron's Aliens. Seriously, I can't really get enough of the "team of professionals trapped somewhere with vicious monsters" genre, so YMMV -- but after watching a half-hour of the execrable Into The Blue, a celebration of wealth and vacuousness that makes "MTV Spring Break" look like Ken Loach, I'll take this relatively sober and clamped-down affair.

And it's not without its little surprises and tensions. There's a nice moment when lead spelunker Cole Hauser peeks over a rock and into a small chamber -- I won't spoil it, but it made me laugh with surprise -- and the set-pieces (Piper Perabo's climb, the rapids, the giant lake in the pitch black cave), in and of themselves, work.

Unfortunately, Hunt doesn't seem to know how to properly pace and draw out his set-pieces. It feels like all the necessary slow parts to properly set up the action parts were edited out -- imagine Aliens without the re-grouping scene right after the transport ship crashes on the surface, or any of the lab scenes. It's particularly notable in the rapids sequence, which could've been really cool but, because we're in the dark about where it might go or what precisely the dangers are, is merely interesting. And so the film ends up a lot like those rapids: fast, brutal, but a little monotonous.

Posted by kza at 09:14 PM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2006

Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog)

Sorry folks, but I'm going to have to throw my hands up in defeat. It's been 11 days since I saw this (I'm writing on the 12th) and I just don't remember enough to say anything even remotely worth reading. A shame, too -- formally interesting but also emotionally moving, it was the best film of 2005. With any luck, Matt will fill in the blanks.

Posted by kza at 09:13 PM | Comments (3)

January 01, 2006

Happy New Etc.

So anyway, eight days ago (I'm writing this on the 9th) he loved him some movies turned two years old. Pretty crazy that I've been doing this for that long (even if not exactly regularly).

Well, time for some changes, per usual. First, I'm going to try and blog every single film I see this year. I'm aiming for short, Scott Black or Matt Lotti-style capsules, but since my logorrhea know no limit, you know how it is. But actually doing this seems like something that needs to be done. You know the mantra: I need to write more, I need to be up-to-date, I need to freeze-dry my opinions for the edification of future generations. And towards that end, I'm going to put in a placeholder for each film I see and on the date I see it (as of this writing, you can see some of these already), and to further press myself into actually following through, I'm not letting myself watch any more movies if there are more than three (3) unblogged entries.

Let's see how long this lasts.

The other big thing is the upcoming debut of a brand new blog, run by two rapscallions known as Burley Grymz and Urban Shockah. More info -- and a URL -- to come. Swing batta batta batta swing!

Posted by kza at 09:12 PM | Comments (5)