June 11, 2007

TV Show Finale Has Open Ending, America Loses Collective Shit

America -- stay far, far the fuck away from Valdez is Coming. You're not ready.

Posted by kza at 07:16 PM

September 05, 2006

TiVo Alert! Milos Forman's "Taking Off"

We interrupt this previously scheduled blog hibernation to alert the world that Milos Forman's 1971 comedy Taking Off is showing this Saturday, 4:35am PST on the Sundance Channel. Unreleased on DVD (although as it's showing up on cable, that's bound to change), I was fortunate to see it on the big screen a few years ago. (I can't say where; that should be a big clue.) That viewing was one of my favorite movie-watching experiences of all time, and I hope to fucking God it's as hilarious as I thought it was then, because I'm gonna tell everyone I know to see it. Great performances by Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin, one of the best bits of editing I've ever seen in a movie, and the late great Vincent Schiavelli demonstrating how to smoke a joint. How can you go wrong?

Goddam I'm glad I checked my Wish Lists.

Posted by kza at 10:04 PM

February 09, 2006

Masque of the Red Death (1964, Roger Corman)

Comments to come.

Posted by kza at 07:15 PM

February 08, 2006

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Hayao Miyazaki)

Typically jaw-dropping visuals from Miyazaki, and all the usual concerns are here, in his first feature for Ghibli: strong heroine (perhaps too strong; she evinces no faults), environmental issues, no real villains (although he comes close here), and flying, flying, flying! Also here is the somewhat-lax storytelling we've come to expect; while it's admirable, for the first hour or so, that nothing of this strange post-apocalyptic world is really explained, by the second half, the twists and turns concerning phenomena I don't really understand dampens the enjoyment. (Doesn't help that, because of the toxic air, characters tend to wear funky gas masks, making some of the secondary characters hard to tell apart.) Finally, the end is so Hero's Journey that it almost seems like a parody. Luckily, Miyazaki-san (as John Lasseter likes to call him) figured out by Totoro that small and subtle works much, much better.

Posted by kza at 11:11 PM

February 04, 2006

No Down Payment (1957, Martin Ritt)

Critique of the suburban, ticky-tacky box lifestyle of the 50s that would be silly and obvious if it wasn't actually made in the 50s, predating the predigested "wisdom" that continues to inform a lot of films. (Apparently The Chumscrubber is the latest offender; talk to Scott about that one.) Starts off slow, with newlyweds Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens moving into their new house and meeting the surrounding neighbors, who all live stiflingly close to each other. (The fences that separate the backyards seem more for show, and they can see into each other's rooms.) Then things get dark when Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall, wonderful in an atypical role), boozer and lech, hits on Owens, and then proceed to get darker still. It's hard to figure why this is so obscure (and thanks to Filmbrain for writing about it) -- the performances by Randall and Pat Hingle are terrific, and Joanne Woodward, as a randy, bored Southern transplant, is Oscar worthy. (It's a shame she never worked with Cassavetes -- her work here would've fit right in with the gang from Faces.) What's more, it lacks any of the didacticism of Ritt's more famous Edge of the City -- the only real villain here is the society that encourages people to mortgage whatever they can in pursuit of the American Dream. By the end, some of the characters make peace with their desires and dreams, and some pursue them to the grave.

Posted by kza at 10:41 PM

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki)

Miyazaki's masterpiece, despite, no, because it so casually throws away the time-tested rules for storytelling. (Yes, the same rules I've pretty much devoted my life to studying and mastering.) There is no real conflict in this movie until the last ten minutes; until that point, it's almost completely observational, following two girls as they move into an old country house with their father to be near their hospitalized mother. While there, they meet... Nah, forget it. It's beautiful. It's amazingly observed (the two girls are probably the most realistic characters ever created in a cartoon, and yet, at the same time, they probably couldn't be replicated by human beings). It's hilarious. It's like a story that was created by an eight year old who somehow has the artistic genius of... well, Miyazaki. (While I love the other Miyazaki films I've seen, this is the only one I know that gets down to the level and temperament of its protagonists.) If you haven't seen it yet, then, dammit, what are you waiting for?

(Oh, that's right, this. 27 more days, as of this writing.)

Posted by kza at 06:39 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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

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)

December 07, 2005

That's Entertainment! (1974, Jack Haley Jr.)

Worth viewing for the great, lengthy clips from classic MGM musicals, but there's a bit of a sting as well -- when (for example) Fred Astaire walks through a crumbling set that was used for The Band Wagon, the subtext is clear: this shit is over, yo. It aint coming back. Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted, and here's the document-cum-obituary that confirms its existence. (Oh sure, we can pretend that it continues on with the next generation -- Liza Minnelli! -- but Cabaret was two years ago.) Bonus points for excerpts from the work of Busby Berkeley, who apparently was a Surrealist on the level of Dali. More bonus points for the Esther Williams retrospective, when the title of the movie temporarily becomes That's Puzzling!.

Posted by kza at 12:56 PM

September 15, 2005

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, Amy Jones)

Danny Peary: "But as hard as one looks, it's impossible to find a satirical-political-feminist theme that would explain why Jones or [screenwriter] Brown would be associated with this entry in the slice-and-dice genre." This is the movie where, at one point, the killer is filmed from behind with his drill hanging down between his legs, and same drill is later cut down to size by one of the girls. I know it aint Jeanne Dielman but c'mon. Also: pretty good mise-en-scene (I dug the opening van scene -- swiped for Scream 2 -- and when the killer sneaks into the bedroom) and the humor (the pizza scene and the aforementioned bedroom scene) makes it feel, at times, like a sandpaper-dry version of Student Bodies or something. Not great, but probably due for some kind of critical rehabilitation.

Posted by kza at 09:06 PM | Comments (1)

May 10, 2005

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, Sam Peckinpah)

Three films into his oeuvre, three tries for this particular flick (once in a theater!) and I’m thinking I don’t care much for Peckinpah. (No, not even The Wild Bunch.) Something about his mise-en-scene – unadorned and unpretentious, yes, but in an in-your-face, holier-than-thou kind of way. Sam Fuller’s kinda the same, but he’s saved by the pulpy hysteria that infuses his films and performances; Peckinpah’s like the guy who wrote to the Seattle Weekly to complain about the article about hamburger joints; aren’t there any places, he asked, that served, you know, a real burger, just meat and a bun, with none of them fancy toppings or sauces? So combine that with a rather trite revenge-and-redemption tale, and yeah, I’m pretty close to bailing. Luckily, I haven’t seen a Peckinpah with bad performances, and this one’s no exception. Oates exudes a sleazy charm, and Isela Vega is wonderful as his lover; she’s subtle and earthy and radiates genuine warmth (something usually lacking, intentionally I imagine, in Peckinpah films). I’m just embarrassed that it took me three tries to notice.

Posted by kza at 10:01 PM | Comments (4)

Juggernaut (1974, Richard Lester)

Nearly goddam perfect, but it should be noted that the following are features, not bugs: Lots of characters in a cross-section of society (in this case, on a luxury liner), which usually means less depth, but here everyone is painted with such deft brushstrokes that they come alive regardless; a cold, distant camera that observes rather than tells the action, sometimes turning stars (like Anthony Hopkins) into scenery; yet at the same time, not above some razzmatazz (like introducing our heroes in front of a huge crimson painting). And of course, a mad bomber with fiendishly clever traps. I imagine the stiff-upper-lippedness of the British characters could grate on some, but the tension is handled with such remarkable aplomb that their reserved nature adds to the film. (Compared with the panicky nitwits of the same year’s The Towering Inferno, Juggernaut’s potential victims, from the steward to the bag man, convey plenty of soul through stoicism.) A shame about the kids, then; loud nuisances all, with the implicit notion that they’re better not seen and not heard, and that’s just a missed opportunity, methinks.

Posted by kza at 09:56 PM | Comments (1)

April 11, 2005

"It's Alive!" (1969, Larry Buchanan)

Not to be confused with Larry Cohen's mutant baby saga of the same name, this is one of the many films of crap director Larry Buchanan, known for taking mediocre AIP science-fiction flicks and remaking them into something far worse (Best example: 1957's Invasion of the Saucer Men into 1965's Attack of the The Eye Creatures [oh so sic], an MST3K fave).

This bizarre little flick was one of Buchanan's originals, and it's definitely unhampered by any rational thinking. A married couple on a road trip through the Ozarks run out of gas in front of Greely's farm. Old Man Greely takes them (as well as Tommy Kirk, as a paleontologist) in... to feed the 40-foot tall monster he found in a cave. There's no need to go into much more detail, when Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension has a exhaustive overview here. (Thanks to the Dread Pirate for pointing me to this site; it's like a combination of MST3K and Bill Warren's classic tome, Keep Watching The Skies!.)

Normally, there wouldn't be much else to say about a movie that, for the first ten minutes, looks an awful lot like Manos 2: The Knees of Doom. The acting is as bad as you'd expect. There's a gap in logic in just how people enter and exit the cave prison, so unbelievably obvious that I can't bring myself to go into further detail on it. The monster (who only appears briefly in the beginning and the end) is on par with Robot Monster, The Giant Claw, and The Creeping Terror. It gives rubber suits-and-zippers a bad name. (Apparently, the thrifty Buchanan used the costume in a previous flick, Creature of Destruction. That he'd use such an embarrassment twice, let alone once, says it all.)

But then the weirdest fucking thing happens.

Greely has a sidekick in his fiendish plans, the put-upon and sympathetic Bella, who really wants to help the captives escape. Forty-four minutes in, she tells them her sad tale of how she ended up under the mad Greely's power, and we get a twenty-two minute flashback. As Ken Beggs states in his Jabootu review, the movie, which is only eighty minutes long, is thirty-six minutes from ending when the flashback begins, and fourteen when the flashback ends. A quarter of this movie is devoted to a narratively-unimportant flashback of a supporting character.

But that isn't the weird part.

Strangely, the movie actually gets better in this sequence. Supposedly, Buchanan lost the soundtrack for this sequence, and the entirety of it is silent, save for music and the occasional narration by Bella. There is some evidence that this is true -- several shots feature Bella and Greely conversing in a static camera position, indicating that some sound was intended to be there. Yet... I'm not totally convinced. For in this sequence, and only this sequence, Buchanan begins to use his camera not as simply a recording device, but to actually tell Bella's story visually. The lack of sound (whether by choice or by lack of a microphone) frees Buchanan to move the camera, compose shots, and use editing to create an effect. It's not great by any means, but it works, and compared to the first half, it feels like there's some kind of life and intelligence behind the lens. If I didn't know better, I'd say somebody else directed this part, but I haven't found any indication of this.

But that isn't the weird part, either. This is:

Bella's story is about how Greely held her captive in his house as he tried to break her will and make her his slave. At the climax of the sequence, she throws peroxide in his eyes and flees the house, escaping into the woods. Greely chases after her, and Buchanan films it almost entirely in slow-motion. It really feels like a nightmare (Bella's obvious narration doesn't hurt as much as it should), almost like something out of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And then the bravura ending: the camera pans and follows Greely, in a long-shot profile, as he corners Bella on a rickety wooden dock, and then removes his belt and beats her. There's only word that can begin to explain how these shots look: Kubrickian. Even more improbably, these shots are incredibly reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange... which wouldn't be released for two more years.

Did Buchanan back his ass into something resembling a style by accident? Did Kubrick catch "It's Alive!" on British TV while in pre-production on Orange? (Not impossible; this, and a number of other Buchanan films were commissioned for late-night television.) There's something delicious about a Maestro of Cinema copping ideas from one of the foremost King of Hacks, and I'm certain Kubrick would take ideas from wherever he could find them. It's unlikely there's any proof he did, of course. And seeing how literally no-one's mentioned this in all the write-ups I could find, it's possible I'm seeing something that isn't really there.

Still, I know what I saw and what I felt, regardless if there's a Kubrick connection or not. Other than a fake-backhand from Greely that doesn't even come close to looking real, the sequence got a genuine reaction from me. It's disturbing. It's visceral. It works. For a brief moment, Larry Buchanan is a real director, an artist. You can keep your Da Vinci Code -- this is truly paradigm-shattering.

Posted by kza at 10:35 AM | Comments (4)

April 03, 2005

The Sentinel (1977, Michael Winner)

Mild horror flick about a woman who discovers her fate is tied to her haunted New York apartment. Distractingly star-studded (at least in film buff terms), with supporting roles divided between the bright past (Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, John Carradine, Martin Balsam, José Ferrer) and the bright future (Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo, Tom Berenger, Nana Visitor), as well as an unrecognizably-young Jerry Orbach and an all-too-recognizably-young William Hickey. There's some decent atmosphere from the on-location shooting, and the punchy editing keeps the narrative carrot dangling and attention away from the goofy story. (It's kinda like a Fulci movie that sacrificed gore for coherency.) Unfortunately, most of the goodwill is frittered away by the blank acting from leads Cristina Raines and Chris Sarandon, some awful dialogue (choice quote: "Jesus, Allison, you really are reading Latin!"), and most heinously, the boneheaded choice to cast people with real-life deformities as Damned Souls in Hell, using their disfigurements as a kind of monster makeup. (What the fuck, Winner?) In the middle of all this is one genuinely unnerving moment (similar to one in Pulse), and in these days of advancing years and lowered expectations, I'll take it.

Posted by kza at 10:31 PM

January 10, 2005

Killer's Kiss (1955, Stanley Kubrick) (v)

Kubrick's second feature, and, as Trio reminded me incessantly, the last one to be filmed from original material. Not surprising; Kubrick is credited with the story (there is no screenplay credit) and eeet's wayfair theen, a noir about a down-on-his-luck boxer and a down-on-her-luck private dancer and their attempt to leave New York and her thuggish boss behind. The characters are ciphers, and since most of the plot is them getting dicked around for wanting a better life, it comes across as kinda silly and inconsequential. According to Trio, Kubrick filmed it entirely without sound, dubbing it in later. It's a pretty good job (I don't think I would've noticed), but more importantly, it allowed Kubrick to put the camera anywhere he pleased, and any interest comes from the remarkable shots and bits of business that punctuate the film. The last fifteen minutes or so is an extended action/chase sequence, and done very well, considering the low budget and Kubrick's inexperience. Looks like he could've been another Don Siegel if he wanted; luckily for us, he chose to be himself.

Posted by kza at 09:44 PM

January 07, 2005

So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (2004, Kevin Brownlow & Christopher Bird) (v)

Documentary about Buster Keaton's lesser-known MGM years, when he went from an independent filmmaker to a contract player, and from a hugely successful comedian to an unemployable, alcoholic one. Certainly valuable for an archival interview with Keaton in 1964, as well as some of the footage from very minor sound films, showing the maestro of physical comedy straining under the dialogue-driven farces he was forced to make. Problems, though: It's too short (45 minutes) and although the focus is narrow, there's still very little depth here, as if pitched to the non-buff. That's an odd choice, since the context necessary to understand this story as the tragedy it is -- that Keaton was a genius -- is barely demonstrated. Also, there's not enough detail on Keaton's life or personality; in some ways, his story comes across as not that different from MC Hammer's. Speaking of which, another problem is the use of clips; when the narrator (James Karen, most famous to me as Ernie from Return of the Living Dead) says that Keaton had an "uphill struggle against alcohol", we cut right to a scene from What -- No Beer? showing a truck slowly driving up a hill. And frankly, how is that different from the Simpsons' "Behind The Music" episode? Finally, the one thing I hoped would be covered -- Keaton's role in Film, the only screenplay Samuel Beckett ever wrote -- goes completely unmentioned. Consolation prize: a scene from a remake of The Cameraman (starring Red Skelton) that was excised and destroyed in the original.

Posted by kza at 12:47 AM | Comments (2)

January 03, 2005

It Came From Outer Space (1953, Jack Arnold) (v)

And this is how the message ran: Humans will try to destroy what they fear. Not the most original idea, but certainly interesting, perhaps even brave for a 50s SF flick. (Although, for my money, I'll take the same idea, expressed in two seconds, in Plan 9 From Outer Space: "You humans are stupid! Stupid!" says the alien leader, and is immediately decked by the lunkhead hero.) Too bad that, as a story, it's a bit blah; there's no character development, just the usual types (disbelieved scientist hero, disbelieving sheriff, faithful girlfriend) that probably seemed like clichés even then. This coupled, with the non-hostile aliens (the movie plays like a benign version of Invaders From Mars) creates a narrative that's all movement and nothing emotionally involving. But damn, what movement. Although it can't compare to Arnold's masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, nearly every shot is fantastic -- he and cinematographer Clifford Stine seem incapable of a bad composition. Using both real locations and sets, they manage to create the desert that exists mostly in the imagination, a landscape that is both Romanticized and alien, moon-like, not unlike what Ang Lee would later do in Hulk. A couple sequences, virtually wordless, turn his usual strong and pulpy style into poetry: the initial investigation of the meteor crash, revealing the spaceship, and the hero chasing after his girlfriend, who unbeknownst to him (but clear to us) has been replaced by an alien, as she attempts to lead him, siren-like, to his death. Arnold apparently made a few Westerns in his career, a genre that rewards those who find beauty in the rocks and cacti of the Southwest; I'm curious to discover if he was able to bridge the gap.

Posted by kza at 02:25 PM | Comments (1)

December 11, 2004

Scary Movie 3 (2003, David Zucker) (v) 50

It's no Airplane! or Naked Gun -- hell, it isn't even Hot Shots! Part Deux -- but it had me pressing the pause button several times to catch my breath, usually in any scene ripping into the godawful Signs. Narratively, Anna Faris is the protagonist, but Charlie Sheen is the real hero here. He really knows how to do this kind of movie, so well that he can turn his rather humdrum opening gag into something hilarious. The big gags are rarely funny, admittedly (except for the excellent Teleprompter bit), but there's always a minor bit of business that kills (Sheen singing along to the Mexican Hat Dance is my favorite moment). Not sure why anyone would care that non-horror films get spoofed here; I haven't seen the first two (and I can't imagine I need to), but I'm sure most of the horror material was exhausted there. As disposable as you might expect for a film that tries to have a joke every 1.5 seconds, but not without charm.

Posted by kza at 11:07 PM

December 08, 2004

Fire Sale (1977, Alan Arkin) (v) 53

Unaccountably derided on release (Leonard Maltin: "BOMB", Dave Kehr: "Goes horribly wrong"), this always-amusing but never hilarious comedy still isn't the long lost gem I'd hoped. More than anything, it feels like a dry run for Seinfeld: a digressive, increasingly complicated narrative, progressed by small character actions; loud argumentative Jewish characters; and the occasional coincidence to perk things up. Kehr also called it "shrill and frenetic", but that's part of the charm; like a lot of comic universes, this one is perpetually out of control, and Arkin (who also stars) deals with it with his usual deadpan anger. He gets good, if high-pitched, performances from his cast, even the minor characters, but like one might expect from an actor directing, the visuals are secondary. Solid script by Robert Klane, who scripted Where's Momma?, which I haven't seen, but I suspect is similar. However, if a movie full of George Costanzas, Mr. Costanzas, and Mrs. Costanzas sounds unbearable, avoid.

Posted by kza at 02:56 PM | Comments (20)

December 07, 2004

Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin) 79

Exactly the kind of movie you'd expect from a future blacklisted director: hard-hitting and unrepentantly liberal. Burt Lancaster and his fellow cellmates are going to bust out of prison, but there's all sorts of politics to be navigated first. I'd like to think this noirish jailbreak flick rocked 'em back in the forties, but its impact has lessened over time. Dassin probably wanted to thwart the Hays Code by giving his inmates backstories that show they aren't such bad guys; unfortunately, the flashbacks slow the film down. (It would've been really cool if all the women in the flashbacks were played by the same actress -- coupled with the sentimental music, it would've reinforced how the prison system simultaneously strips them of individuality and binds them together -- but that's obviously too anachronistic a choice.) I don't necessarily need to think these men are good guys in order to root for them; the incredibly sadistic Captain Munsey (a terrific performance from an unlikely choice: Hume Cronyn) is reason enough. And after a TV show like Oz, with its racial- and gang-warfare, a place like Westgate looks like some kind of nostalgia-derived paradise. But this is still a tough movie, even now; the murder of a stool pigeon is chilling, and the Grand Guignol climax is still shocking (albeit exciting as well). Val Lewton fans: Lewton regular Sir Lancelot appears as "Calypso" (natch), an inmate who sings all his dialogue.

Posted by kza at 05:45 PM | Comments (3)

December 06, 2004

The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller) (v) 47

Easy to dismiss if you're a Lovecraft fanboy, unless you think Dean Stockwell getting to second base with Sandra Dee is the epitome of Cosmic Terror. And that seems to be the thing: there's a definite "straights vs. hippies" thing going on here, with Ed Begley's Professor Armitage representing the old guard, trying to protect blonde, All-American Dee from Stockwell's sideburns. While it could be read as an attack on the "cowntuh cul-chuh" (as Senator Tankerbell would pronounce it), with its freaky body-painted free-love cultists and a pre-Cronenbergian fear-of-the-body theme running throughout, I can't help but think that the filmmakers are on the side of Yog-Sothoth. (Especially after a primally effective, if incredibly typical, freeze-frame final shot.) Remarkably faithful to the story despite the focus on sex; I saw this on TV ages ago, but didn't remember the rampage of Wilbur's brother, a major part of the original story. There's a couple good shots in that part, mostly done with wind machines, that capture the sense of invisible horror key to Lovecraft. Yet, this is incidental; what's important to the film is that the monster strips the clothes off Dee's friend while attacking her (one layer at a time!) and kills all the rednecks. Kudos to the writers for pulling up all this subtext from a 1928 short story; but still, still, Lovecraft's intent is missed.

Posted by kza at 02:12 PM | Comments (6)

December 01, 2004

Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1968, Kim Ki-Duk) (v) 61

First, not that Kim Ki-Duk, unfortunately. Second, don’t be fooled by the rating: this is one godawful movie. However, the pleasure quotient is through the roof.

The pleasure here, for me at least, comes in two forms. The first is that it’s what kids today call a Kaiju, but in my day we called ‘em Giant Monster Movies. I have a weakness for this genre; while it has been argued that all film is a kind of dream, the strangeness of a Giant Monster Movie has always struck me as particularly oneiric, with their cardboard cities and impossible creatures, who would realistically break their bones the moment they took a step. (This is why War of the Gargantuas remains my favorite, since Inoshiro Honda ditches the lumbering rubber suits for body makeup, resulting in almost-acrobatic monsters.) Frankly, there aren’t many things more wonderfully cinematic than giant monsters fighting it out in an urban landscape.

The second pleasure is one that, unfortunately, usually goes hand in hand with Kaiju: It’s genuinely terrible. Not mediocre, but jaw-droppingly and head-smackingly bad. The plot lumbers from moment. Yongary (rhymes with gymboree) breathes fire, and we can see the metal tube of the flamethrower in the monster’s non-articulated mouth. There’s a little kid (isn’t there always?), and at one point, he gets Yongary to dance, and the soundtrack encourages him with a little bit of fake rockabilly. The less said, the better, actually.

However, the following exchange had me on the floor in tears. It really has to be seen to get the full effect, but I’ll do my best. The hero pulls up to the front of the military base; he knows how to kill Yongary. The MP at the gate stops him, and hero explains, dubbed, why he needs to get in. Now, imagine a traditional two-shot of the hero and the MP, with no real urgency on the part of either actor. The MP says, as the hero stares at him dumbly:

You got here a bit too late, sir. They’re going to hit Yongary any minute. (Pause.) They’ll be using guided missles. (Pause.) You’d better go. (Pause.) They’re going to hit Yongary any minute. (Looks at watch, then:) They’ll be using guided missles. (Pause.) You’d better go.

It’s unclear if the dubbing team ran out of time, were intentionally trying to camp up the movie, or just didn’t give a fuck, but the result is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

At the end, the hero and the military finally defeat Yongary with itching powder; I assume that we don’t see the previous attempts to kill Yongary with a whoopee cushion, an electric buzzer, or binoculars with ink on the eye-pieces. He seems to scratch himself to death (without leaving any physical marks), then collapses into the river. Yet, one of the final images is of a trail of blood on the water… and the trail appears to originate from Yongary’s ass. I shit you not, Yongary dies from bleeding from his ass. Which makes me think: maybe it is that Kim Ki-Duk…

Posted by kza at 03:00 PM | Comments (1)

October 20, 2004

The Devil Bat (1941, Jean Yarborough) (v) 2

Another excerpt from “On Strings Of Darkness: An Interview with the World’s Phoniest Bat”, Cinefantastique, Vol. 28 No. 7 January, 1996, pp. 56-59.

You played both bats?

That’s right, the “before” and “after” bat. We shot all my skinny bat scenes first, and then I gained a bunch of weight to play Bela’s killer bat. I’m small, I’m used to eating insects, so it didn’t take more than a couple hamburgers. But mind you, this was years before DeNiro. I’m not going to say I’m better or anything, I’m just saying I was probably there first. But no one thought about those kinds of things then, either. You did what you had to do to get a film in the can in three weeks. I played all the bats.

You did?

If you look carefully, you can see that each time a bat flies out of the window, there’s a cut. I played a whole colony’s worth. Got paid once, though. [Laughs.]

PRC [Producers Releasing Corporation – ed.] offered you a three-movie contract after The Devil Bat.

That was Bela’s doing. He was the total “leave nobody behind” kind of guy. It didn’t matter that his career was on the wane. He still wanted to make sure doors opened for those less fortunate than him. And PRC treated him like he was Gable. So when Devil Bat was a hit – I don’t know how or why – Bela used his influence to help me out.

But you opted to invest in the company instead.

Well, here’s the thing. I could do three more Devil Bats, movies that a six year-old would find patronizingly stupid, movies where people don’t know what a bat is, if it’s a kind of bird or something, movies where news reporters do the work of police detectives… Anyway, I could do that or I could put myself in a position where I could make something I’d be proud of. It’s a horrible, awful cliché, but truth is, I wanted to do Shakespeare. Or O’Neill.

What happened?

[Long pause.] PRC didn’t do too bad, and I took the money. And that’s all I want to say about that.

Did you also provide the Devil Bat’s scream?

Oh God, no. I forgot about that. No, that was dubbed in later. Sounds like Carol Burnett, doesn’t it?

Posted by kza at 10:37 AM | Comments (1)

October 18, 2004

A Name For Evil (1973, Bernard Girard) (v) 58

The movie that forced me to boycott American Movie Classics. Not that I should’ve been giving them my time to begin with; once the commercials came in, it was inevitable that they would start editing for content. But when they announced it in front of Prophecy (resulting in its immediate deletion from the TiVo), I figured they always said as much. But after doing some research on this obscure flick, I was surprised to discover that there’s a whole lotta nudity going on, and thanks to AMC, I was none the wiser. Sorry, AMC, but I get cable to see hippie pagan orgies, thank you very much.

So anyway, the movie: it’s basically Altman’s Images, only with Susannah York replaced with Robert Culp (!). He’s an architect who leaves the big city with his wife to inhabit his grandfather’s decrepit house in the woods. Like Images, it’s upfront that the protagonist sees things that are only in his head; a slight difference is that Culp seems to know the difference, at least in the beginning. However, his grandfather’s ghost may be haunting the place; or it may be Culp’s imagination; or it could be the ambiguous direction and cinematography just trying to confuse us as to what the hell’s going on; or it’s possible that a plot point got lost cuz there was a boob in the shot. It’s difficult to say, and thus the 58 is provisional, since I don’t know what to blame on Girard and what to blame on AMC.

Despite this, I liked this intriguing mess of a movie. Culp is really good; his architect’s a depressed guy with an active fantasy life, and Culp, a pretty masculine guy, seems to be enjoying playing such a withdrawn and emotionally fragile character. As Kim Newman in Nightmare Movies points out, movies about insane men usually portray the insanity through violence, while movies about insane women seem to have the option of using (a usually pastoral) location to represent the decaying mind. This is the only film I know that switches the gender roles in this way.

The beginning is energetically bizarre, as well: Culp quits his firm, but the conversation between him and his boss is heard only in voice-over, over images of the skyscrapers (presumably that Culp designs) that dominate the landscape. He then leaves, and through a series of shots, we see the city and the urban lifestyle gang up on him (including a automatic pool sweeper!), culminating in him throwing his TV out his high-rise apartment window. Frankly, it’s as good an indictment of the modern world as anything in Richard Lester’s Petulia.

The rest of the movie isn’t up to this beginning, but it does squeeze out a few more interesting moments until Culp’s final crack-up, including a hallucinatory hippie pagan romp that borders on Wicker Man creepiness. Except that its logical climax, the aforementioned orgy, is cut. Fuckin’ AMC.

Posted by kza at 11:16 AM

October 13, 2004

the horror... the horror.

Wow -- what a hacky way to announce that I'm doing all horror films this month. Am I not even trying anymore, or what?

Squirm (1976, Jeff Lieberman) (v) [68]
Surprisingly effective; probably the best movie that could be made about killer albeit-otherwise-normal worms. Apparently some worms really do have fangs, as we get super close-ups of said choppers; the footage is repeated ad nauseum, but it does give the film a skin-crawling mood that otherwise might be lacking. Slow to get going, but decently-written characters (a slightly geeky city boy in the midst of small-town southerners) and a good location held my interest until things picked up. The climax is impressive, and creative: I don’t think I would’ve thought to turn the worms into a Blob-like menace, but that’s probably the only way to make it work. The jealous lunkhead who is driven insane from being half-eaten by worms is probably a bit of a cheat, but I suppose it has its roots in Caltiki, The Immortal Monster, and it leads to some nice complications, so I won’t bitch too much.

Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973, Bob Kelljan) (v) [43]
I’m a big fan of Kelljan’s Count Yorga films; more than Romero or Coscarelli, he’s been the architect of my nightmares ever since I first saw them, oh shit, about twenty years ago. All the usual Kelljan elements are here: the use of zombie motifs in a vampire context, the shock cuts, letting the monsters stare into the camera (so that it feels like they’re looking right at you), and a cultured vampiric villain who can turn monstrously violent in a flash. (Unsure, but I wonder if Buffy’s now-we’re-human-now-we’re-not vampires can be traced back to Kelljan; it’s clear to me, though, that Tobe Hooper’s 'Salem’s Lot owes a lot to him.) There’s some nice scenes, including a very tense vigil over a soon-to-be reanimated body. Yet, despite all this, the film’s a complete disappointment, even with Pam Grier. Mostly, it’s the script; Yorga, unlike Blacula, was never meant to be sympathetic, and Kelljan can’t accommodate that sympathy (give him pure evil any day). And although there’s a nice police vs. vampires climax inside a mansion, it doesn’t have the pressure cooker quality of his previous films, and kind of drags from scene to scene. The final scene is nicely abbreviated though; guess they had to work that title in there somehow…

Posted by kza at 01:07 AM | Comments (4)

September 23, 2004

69 lines about 36 movies

Just peeking my head up to say I'm still here. Some announcements on the way. Etc., etc.

Hero (2004, Zhang Yimou) (f) [97; up from 95]
Sorry, but it's too sad and tragic to be unambiguous propaganda.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, William A. Wellman) (v) [93]
Everything Theo says about the ending is true. Unlike him, I just. Don't. Care.

Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur) (v) [92]
Get out of my past (out of my past) and onto my DVD shelf (onto my DVD shelf)...

Last Year at Marienbad (1961, Alain Resnais) (v) [91]
Watching it, every time is like the first time.

8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini) (v) [90]
I always thought if you wanted to know everything about making a Hollywood narrative film, watch Jaws. If you want to know everything about making an art film, see this.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974, Brian DePalma) (v) [89]
Paul Williams? Good. Jessica Harper? Good. Brian DePalma's mise-en-scene? Good.

Love Me Tonight (1932, Rouben Mamoulian) (v) [89]
My heart stopped when the film went slo-mo.

Spartan (2004, David Mamet) (v) [85]
David Mamet's Rainbow Six. Where's the petition to have Mamet direct all the action movies from here on out?

The War of the Worlds (1953, Byron Haskin) (v) [84]
One of the great SF films, even if the climax hinges on the hero trying to remember if his girlfriend is Catholic or Episcopalian.

Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer) (v) [83]
Ann Savage -- wow. Her performance makes you feel like you just had really rough sex.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban/ (2004, Alfonso Cuarón) (f) [79, up from 71]
Better than Spider-Man 2, I decided. Some of you say "duh".

Leave Her To Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl) (v) [78]
Leave the courtroom scene on the cutting-room floor and you've got a deal.

One Hour Photo (2002, Mark Romanek) (v) [77]
Someone's been eating their Ku-Bricks!

The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann) (v) [75]
Not up to snuff with other Mann westerns, which should say something about other Mann westerns.

Cuba (1979, Richard Lester) (v) [74]
Like a John Sayles characterathon, but with a more fluid directorial eye behind the camera. Bogs down in the third, though.

The Crimson Pirate (1952, Robert Siodmak) (v) [70]
Burt Lancaster in drag. Not quite Randy Quaid in drag, but almost as scary.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton) (v) [70]
A quick look between Hoffman and Streep turns a stupid courtroom scene into a heartbreaking one.

Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen) (v) [69]
Admittedly, I haven't even made a first feature yet, but I still think this movie's too easy.

The Women (1939, George Cukor) (v) [65]
I was surprised to learn that Joan Crawford can actually act, which probably says something about a lot of things. She ever-so delicately reveals the scared girl underneath the brassy golddigger.

Garden State (2004, Zach Braff) (f) [64]
Every negative thing people say about this movie is true. But it still worked for me. Might be a genetic immunity, so you've been warned.

Desperate (1947, Anthony Mann) (v) [61]
Steve Brodie: my new favorite actor from the old days. (See also Out of the Past, above.) Wish I could tell you why.

Bluebeard (1944, Edgar G. Ulmer) (v) [60]
Behind the shoddy technical aspects, there's a great John Carradine performance here, who treats his role seriously, if not with seriousness. Nice rooftop chase, too, but I'm always down for those.

Tender Mercies (1983, Bruce Beresford) (v) [57]
It's all perfectly goddamned delightful, to be sure.

Shenandoah (1965, Andrew V. McLaglen) (v) [57]
Movie's i-ight, but mostly I love how the stuttering, stammering Jimmy Stewart turned into the hard, wise, always-listening Jimmy Stewart. That shit's awesome, yo.

The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer) (v) [56]
Sorry, but I really don't like camp in my horror. Nice house, though; I'll take it, and don't skimp on the dynamite.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1965, Roger Corman) (v) [56]
More like The Rack of Ligeia. Anyway, settles the age-old question of whether it's possible to kill a cat with a cabbage. (A: No.)

Two Rode Together (1961, John Ford) (v) [54]
Ford is either too old or just doesn't care at this stage of the game, and just lets the camera run on Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark. Fortunately, they're up to the task.

Forbidden Zone (1980, Richard Elfman) (v) [52]
Probably easy to miss (and thus, dismiss) the obvious talent behind the camera, but the intentionally cheap sets and the Fleischer-inspired craziness are just as much handicaps as they are badges of honor.

Strange Illusion (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer) (v) [49]
Hey, gang! Let's put on a modern-day version of Hamlet! That'd be swell.

The Mountain Road (1960, Daniel Mann) (v) [39]
Interesting premise -- Jimmy Stewart as WWII Army demolitions guy who has to destroy China to save it -- crumbles under mediocre direction. Wrong Mann for the job. (Ha! Where does he come up with these?)

Foul Play (1978, Colin Higgins) (v) [38]
Another childhood memory crushed (see also High Anxiety). Dudley Moore = Awesome, though.

The Last Broadcast (1998, Stefan Avalo & Lance Weiler) (v) [32]
A good ending to a mediocre movie ruined by cinematic mixed metaphor. If you see it, you'll know what I mean.

Alice Adams (1935, George Stevens) (v) [32]
Another Family Guy flashback: Sniper leans over to Meg, sotto voce: "Try talking about him."

The House By The Cemetery (1981, Lucio Fulci) (v) [28]
Looks like the World's Phoniest Bat might be on the comeback trail with A Sound of Thunder. Go, Bat, Go!

The Late Show (1976, Robert Benton) (v) [21]
Dave Kehr calls The Long Goodbye a genre rehash, but calls this tired, by-the-numbers noir "genuinely ingratiating". Davey, please.

Japón (2002, Carlos Reygadas) (v) [10]
If a train kills a cipher in the middle of Mexico, does anyone care?

Posted by kza at 12:10 PM | Comments (5)

July 23, 2004

kza love

Hey Nerd,

I saw on TV the other day a commercial for something called Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie. Isn’t that based on a card game, or something? Or is this the new Miyazaki I’ve heard about?

Really Interested in Nerdy Games, Except “RIFTS”

Dear RINGER,

To explain the phenomenon of Yu-Gi-Oh!, I’ll have to approach the subject laterally.

Pokémon is a cartoon about a boy named Ash and his sidekick Pikachu, a yellow mouse-like creature. In the world of Pokémon, people train the Pokémon (short for “Pocket Monsters”) to fight each other in friendly, non-deadly duels. In the cartoon, Ash travels around, fighting duels with other trainers, and in general, learning, living, and loving. Most episodes are built around these duels between the various Pokémon.

Developed more-or-less simultaneously with the cartoon, the Pokémon Collectible Card Game is a game where two players take the roles of trainers and use cards representing Pokémon to fight duels. Each player races to play the correct combo of cards that will allow their Pokémon card to attack and deal damage to the other player’s Pokémon. When one player loses three Pokémon, the other player wins.

Now, the Pokémon Card Game needs to be placed in a historical context with the first collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering. In this game, each player is a wizard, and is trying to place “land” cards on the table, which are used to power “spell” cards , which are used to attack the opposing player and his summoned army. When one player loses all his life points, the other wins. Although Magic can get very complicated very quickly, Pokémon, which is in essence a slimmed-down version of Magic, remains simple enough for kids.

Then there’s the Yu-Gi-Oh! Collectible Card Game. Although I’ve never played it, from what I can tell it also is a simplified version of Magic, but without any of the charm that separates Pokémon from the Magic clones. Players use cards to summon monsters to attack the other player. It’s unclear to me whether the players are supposed to be wizards, or just a pair of dorks playing cards.

Which leads us finally to the Yu-Gi-Oh! cartoon. Because of the Pokémon cartoon’s immense populaity, the creators of the Yu-Gi-Oh! cartoon opted to use the same premise: a guy (and his friends) travel around a made-up world, fighting duels, and in general, learning, living and loving. However, there’s a small, yet key, difference between the two. Where in Pokémon, the creatures and the battles are real, in Yu-Gi-Oh! the battles are simply holographic representations of the card game they’re playing. The creatures in Pokémon are friends with their trainers, and are genuinely characters; in Yu-Gi-Oh!, there’s no possible emotional response to the fighting monsters, since they are literally just illustrations. Essentially, Yu-Gi-Oh! is about watching people play a Magic rip-off.

Or, in other words, RINGER, Yu-Gi-Oh! is quite possibly the stupidest cartoon to ever grace our airwaves. And I say that having watched the Tweety & Sylvester Mysteries, or whatever the fuck that is. Avoid the movie.

Posted by kza at 09:03 AM | Comments (4)

May 26, 2004

Holes (2003, Andrew Davis) 92

This one caught me off-guard. Basically a prison movie, like Cool Hand Luke, only in a kid's orange jumpsuit. Lots of great details: the shot of the desert pockmarked by thousands of holes, the kids tossing their shovels in a big pile as they come back from their duty, the special shovel that's a little smaller than the others. And it's pretty tough, too: the kids treat each other shittily without apology (I could've sworn one of them muttered "motherfucker", but obviously that's impossible), there's a surprising amount of violence (I found the racially-motivated murder of one character gut-wrenching), and then there's Tim Blake Nelson. All of the acting is superb (including Shia LaBeouf -- that guy's gonna be amazing when he hits his thirties), but Nelson creates a portrait of petty, human-sized evil, one that lurks behind a smile and a suspect title of "Doctor" that's jaw-dropping. His jovial "Go on, hit 'em" bit is horrifying.

Unfortunately, reading through Theo Panyide's review, I realized another reason for my high rating: some of the plot moments that were explicitly foreshadowed (like the identity of the bandit and the significance of Zero's last name), I totally didn't pick up on. (I blame my sprawled-on-the-couch-okay-On Demand movie-impress-me posture.) So, what was probably obvious to every other viewer had the force of revelation to me, rather than the soft thud of the other shoe finally dropping. I can imagine the rating going down on a second viewing.

But then again, Tim Blake Nelson is so awesome, maybe not.

Posted by kza at 01:11 AM | Comments (1)

May 17, 2004

now that's a fuckin' commercial

Check out this German commercial for a product called "K-fee":

Auto

Warning: it's not what I'd call 100% work-safe, even though there's nothing sexual or violent about it. And yet, it could never, ever air in the States.

Additional Warning: Best not to use headphones, either.

Enjoy!

Posted by kza at 12:00 PM | Comments (18)

May 03, 2004

The Office - Season One

Mind-blowing. If you've never seen it, every good thing you've heard is true. If this was a three-hour movie, it'd be number one on my top ten list.

What strikes me most about the show is David Brent, the character played by creator/writer/director Ricky Gervais. He's been described as a "boss from hell", but I see him as a guy who is conflicted about the power he wields, but delusional about how that power is percieved ("I'm a friend first, a boss second...entertainer third"). He wants to be popular and everybody's friend -- he wants to be loved, more precisely -- but doesn't want to sacrifice the power and show the vulnerability that that requires. There ends up being such a split between the lonely, unfunny guy he is and the charismatic leader that he insists to himself he is, all you can do is gaze dumbfoundedly.

Now, that description probably sounds a bit general, a bit intellectual. Yet I think we've all met this guy at one point in our lives, and I can't think of any other movie or TV show that's ever portrayed this kind of character, at least not with this kind of detail. It's like he sprung into existence fully formed, yet was always lurking out in the ether, an archetype waiting for expression. In other words, I hope Ricky Gervais gets around to doing other stuff, otherwise he's going to be seen as David Brent forever.

I don't necessarily think that every episode is equivalent in quality, though; Episode One is a bit dry, and Episode Five is probably the least successful. (I'm assuming it's Episode Five that features the new secretary sub-plot; it's one of the few times they push their super-realism to the breaking point, I think.) Episodes Two and Four, the porn and the teamwork seminar, are the funniest. Episode Two is actually the first one I saw, and I think my love of the show was solidified by "Gareth Keenan Investigates".

Then there's Episodes Three and Six. Understand that the humor of "The Office" is raw, in the sense that, like "Curb Your Enthusiasm", it deals with uncomfortable situations and awkward silences, and mining the laughs from these encounters. In Three and Six, they plunge so deep into the heart of this office environment that they end up stripping away all the humor to reveal, without a buffer, the darkness at the center of it. The ending of Episode Three, in particular, featuring David Brent's best friend, the monstrous Chris Finch (a brilliant performance by Ralph Ineson in a series full of brilliant performances) is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen.

Can't wait to see Season Two!

Posted by kza at 12:21 PM | Comments (2)