Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spaghetti Madness: Alex Cox's "Straight to Hell" (1987)

Alex Cox’s 1987 flick Straight to Hell is an odd duck, to say the least. Cult fans know its bizarre history already, but for the rest of you, here’s the rundown from an interview with the director on his personal website: Producer Eric Fellner planned to expand a Brixton show featuring the Pogues, Joe Strummer, and Elvis Costello benefiting the leftist Sandinista Liberation Front into a full-blown tour of that organization’s home of Nicaragua. Politics came into play after the musicians agreed to hold off their own plans for August 1986, so Fellner convinced everyone to shoot a low-budget feature during that time instead. Hastily collaborating with co-star Dick Rude, Cox cobbled a screenplay together, and it was filmed in a few weeks in the expansive deserts of Almería, Spain, shooting location for many of the spaghetti Westerns that inform Straight to Hell. It was and always will be primarily a lark for the circle of friends who created it. But should it have ever been released to a wider audience?

Reviewers at the time certainly didn’t think so. Roger Ebert, having liked Cox’s previous films Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, described it as “a record of aimless behavior, of a crowd of pals asked to dress up like cowboys and mill about on a movie set.” Washington Post writer Hal Hinson jeered that Cox “never attempts anything other than antagonistically unfunny, home-movie-style gags.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin was more positive, merely dismissing it as “a mildly engrossing, instantly forgettable midnight movie,” although she also thought it was “[not] even halfway as amusing as it sounds.” Even contemporary reviews mostly write it off as the incomprehensible and indulgent equivalent of a cinematic vacation slideshow. The film did poorly in theaters but, like many of Cox’s features, has languished in cult status since.

I’m happy to report that twenty years have been good to this do-it-yourself, witty, sly little hodgepodge of a movie, and it’s time for a reevaluation. The ostensible plot involves three bungling but cool hit men (Sy Richardson, Clash frontman Joe Strummer, and co-writer Dick Rude) and their pregnant, whiny moll (a chubby, pre-plastic surgery Courtney Love) high-tailing it to Mexico when they over-sleep a job at a motel. They quickly rob a bank, the spoils of which are constantly being swept up by the wind or dropped by the inept crooks until they are finally buried, and find themselves in a ghost town run by a motley gang of coffee-addicted cowboys and Western stereotypes. As played by such punk luminaries as the Pogues, Elvis Costello, and Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks, and near-respectable actors like Miguel Sandoval and Xander Berkeley, the townspeople are funny, unpredictable caricatures, as apt to sing a song as to fire a six-shooter. The strangers ingratiate themselves through droll comic vignettes, killing off the dominant gang’s enemies, unsuccessfully romancing the local chicks, but kept alive only so long as their loot is still hidden. Eventually the thieves’ boss, an incongruously growling Jim Jarmusch, makes an appearance and triggers a nihilistic bloodbath tempered by some fine visual gags and ellipses. The final credits promise to go “BACK TO HELL,” but there’s not much chance for that at this point.

The first thing to notice in Straight to Hell is its striking visual style. Obviously taking a cue from, among others, Corbucci and Leone (even aping that director’s signature extreme close-ups), as well as the jagged landscape of Spain, cinematographer Tom Richmond employs a sumptuous widescreen aesthetic that allows all kinds of interesting compositions and eye-popping colors. The empty, piercingly blue sky in particular (even if its shade of blueness shifts between shots) gets a wealth of deserving screen time, contrasting with the grungy, lovingly-detailed characters below it. Costumes, from the mariachi-style dress of the Pogues to Jarmusch’s crisp white suit, bring characters a distinct visual appeal quite beside their performers’ acting abilities. If this sounds like an apology to Ebert’s phrase “dress up like cowboys and mill about on a movie set,” so be it; I am merely commenting that time, effort, and artistry went into this throwaway excursion of a film, and it shows.

From a generic standpoint, the movie is surprisingly, radically glib, most obviously influencing the work of Tarantino. It’s no less in-jokey and violent than Reservoir Dogs, say, and Sy Richardson’s Jheri-curled badass Norwood may as well be getting royalty checks from Jules Winnfield; but it purposefully lacks the slick, transgressive language Tarantino is known for in favor of cliché and deadpan comic dialogue. Despite this, it somehow received an MPAA R rating for “strong language” when the saltiest thing said is “heck.” While being ahead of its time, for better or worse, in fusing bloodily comic irrationality with specific genre tropes, Straight to Hell has its own share of cinematic referents and direct homages, from sassing a classic quote from Shane (“A gun is just a tool, it ain’t no better or no worse than the man who uses it.” “Just like shoes.”) to staging Peckinpah-inspired massacres; it at times has the sun-drenched incoherence of a punk-rock movie nerd’s El Topo. Even when the film’s non-sequiturs become more absurd than funny, a few actors still manage engrossing presences; Joe Strummer in particular has an energetic nonchalance, whether idly smoking a cigarette or running a gasoline-coated comb through his hair, that also enlivened Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. The aforementioned Schloss, as an inexplicable hot dog vendor-cum-commercial jingle singer, gets a ridiculous performance scene than nonetheless binds the community like a campfire singalong in Hawks or a funeral dirge in Ford.

Which brings me to perhaps rightfully Straight to Hell’s most overlooked feature, its pretty unsubtle capitalist satire. To call the film a revolutionary comic attack on corporate imperialism is blowing its real but minor virtues out of proportion, yet such a group of dedicated, organized political figures could not have made anything but with a left-wing bent. Without giving too much away, a major if somewhat indistinct plot point involves the smiley cameo of Dennis Hopper (who made his own disastrous pseudo-Western, The Last Movie) as oil magnate I.G. Farben and his drilling operation in the middle of the town. Such incidental details as his name on a pump handle in the city and oil drill towers dotting the landscape belie the shoot-em-up going on within the town, and death may be just another step in someone’s business deal. Money is supposedly at the root of the crosses and double-crosses that punctuate the film’s second half, yet it turns out to be a slippery commodity in itself. Whether purposefully considered or merely a byproduct of Cox’s and Rude’s political feelings, this subtext is admittedly slight compared to its insistence at being a down-and-dirty paean to the Western, camaraderie, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Buoyed by a lively, earthy soundtrack by some of the musicians involved, Straight to Hell is a relatively obscure, worthwhile cult diversion. What it lacks in polish, dramatic heft, and multidimensional characterization it nearly makes up for in visual verve and good-natured, clever senselessness. It deftly mingles punk’s homegrown spirit of communal anarchy with the movies’ creative generic structures, to produce a fun, headlong romp that’s too short to overstay its welcome.

More images:

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Personal Alternative to the AFI Top 100, Part 3

A Face in the Crowd
21. A Face in the Crowd (57, Kazan)
An extremely well-paced indictment of media saturation and superstardom. Making his film debut, America’s favorite sheriff Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a hobo/jailbird who becomes a radio and later TV folk hero with songs, wit, and not a little manipulation. Patricia Neal initially takes notice of him and is caught up in his media rise to fame. Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg mine the corruption of American glamour and its whirlwind in the media spotlight.
Alt to the Alt: Quiz Show (94, Redford). Some of the same themes show up in the real life drama of fixed TV quiz games.

Fat City
22. Fat City (72, Huston)
John Huston’s career produced a number of fantastic films in various genres, but Fat City is perhaps the most underrated of his filmography. Stacy Keach and the perennially underrated Jeff Bridges play boxers on opposite slopes of the profession, one going down and one going up. Fat City is in line with Huston’s subtle, realistic, dramatic output, from Night of the Iguana to his swan song, The Dead. If you can find it, it’s a real winner.
Alt to the Alt: Champion (49, Robson). With a searing performance by Kirk Douglas, this is also one of the great boxing films, akin to a classic Hollywood Raging Bull.

Feed the Kitty
23. Feed the Kitty (52, Jones)
Genius is taking the simplest concept and making every moment and detail count. Chuck Jones is one of the undisputed geniuses of animation, and Feed the Kitty is but one example of it. A bulldog named Marc Anthony happens upon and is immediately charmed by a fearless little kitten, and the entire cartoon concerns his efforts to hide it from his owner. From this bare premise Jones and Maltese and their team craft some of the most brilliant facial acting in Looney Tunes history, and despite his muteness, Marc Anthony truly comes alive in each of its seven essential minutes.
Alt to the Alt: One Froggy Evening (55, Jones). The other great animal Looney Tune, also with some fabulous animation via the frog’s owner and Michigan J himself.

Force of Evil
24. Force of Evil (48, Polonsky)
The eventually blacklisted Abraham Polonsky made his first film a keeper, a New York-based critique of the evils that can be perpetrated by capitalism. John Garfield (a corrupt lawyer) and Thomas Gomez (a banker trying to stay straight) are brothers caught in the web of illegal business. With poetically hard-boiled dialogue and a classical plot structure, Force of Evil is like a Shakespearean On the Waterfront.
Alt to the Alt: East of Eden (55, Kazan). Another brother-brother drama with gorgeous cinematography.

25. Freaks (32, Browning)
Unquestionably among the greatest of all American films, Tod Browning’s Freaks is a disturbing but humane examination of prejudice, mistrust, and conformity. Using real sideshow performers as actors and entirely sympathetic characters, the film upends the conventional connection between outer and inner beauty and instead puts the audience in with the “freaks.” Only when the performers eventually turn on the “normal” people does their righteous anger appear horrifying. A complex and important piece of work.
Alt to the Alt: The Elephant Man (80, Lynch). Less horrifying but still touching.

The Front
26. The Front (76, Ritt)
This black comedy about the Hollywood blacklist is the best Woody Allen movie that he didn’t write or direct. He’s Howard Prince, a politically neutral nebbish hired to stand in for writers in the industry. He still gets caught up in the House Committee on Un-American Activities witch hunter and must make a moral choice. Also features a superb turn by Zero Mostel in the most dramatic role of his career.
Alt to the Alt: Good Night, and Good Luck. (05, Clooney). Stirring and claustrophobic look at the McCarthy phenomenon from behind the doors of CBS News.

Groundhog Day
27. Groundhog Day (93, Ramis)
A high concept stretched just far enough and helped along by a genuinely transformative performance. Bill Murray deftly straddled humor and drama (although liberally leaning into the former) as the asshole forced by fate to change his ways on the most absurd of holidays. He carries the film on his shoulders and never falters on each successful day/life.
Alt to the Alt: Here Comes Mr. Jordan (41, Hall). A dead boxer is given a second chance at life by inhabiting the body of a millionaire. Hilarity and romance ensue.

Harold and Maude
28. Harold and Maude (71, Ashby)
Perhaps the most unlikely romance in the history of film, Harold and Maude are portrayed with vigor and life by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. He’s a death-obsessed adolescent who likes to stage fake suicides; she is a senior who ignores the law and defies social convention. It seems by the end that Maude provided Harold with the piece of his life, the joy of living, that he lacked; but perhaps they each had something the other needed.
Alt to the Alt: “Quirky” is a poor epithet for Ashby’s achievement, but another colorful tale of adolescence, age difference, and, let’s say, a “unique sensibility” is Ghost World (01, Zwigoff).

The Haunting
29. The Haunting (63, Wise)
A psychological ghost story of the highest caliber, this adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s story is blessed with an effective, low-key cast and the sure hand of Robert Wise behind the camera. Julie Harris is the ostensible heroine as the psychic and emotionally stunted Nell who is enlisted with others to investigate the haunting of Hill House. Brilliant sound design ratchets up the terror until the literally haunting conclusion.
Alt to the Alt: Rebecca (40, Hitchcock) is a similarly Gothic story more interested in character than outright scares.

The Heartbreak Kid
30. The Heartbreak Kid (72, May)
The second film in Elaine May’s ill-fated directorial career is perhaps her most perceptive on gender dynamics and the peculiar tendencies of the middle-aged Jew. A perfectly cast Charles Grodin waffles between poor, whiny Jeannie Berlin and fluttery blonde Cybill Shepherd. Infinitely funny and infinitely sad. A pitch-perfect final scene as well.
Alt to the Alt: My Favorite Wife (40, Kanin). Less cynical but still a funny marriage farce.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007)

Harry Potter has begun to truly grown up and with him the film series, for better or for worse, has outgrown the limiting drama of school life and childish make-believe into the realm of disenchantment. The awed faces of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his cohorts at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have matured and become suspicious of adult authority, hardened by successively twisted Defense against the Dark Arts teachers and the full return of the big baddie, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). At the conclusion of the previous installment, Goblet of Fire, Harry watched a fellow student die at the hands of the Dark Lord, a repetition of his earliest trauma of watching his parents die at the same hands. This Freudian complication also serves to further distance Harry from the reigning adult world when the Ministry of Magic deems the student’s death an accident and resolutely denies the return of Voldemort. In the opening scene of Order of the Phoenix, Harry practices his wizardry in a life-or-death situation against the wraithlike Dementors in the Muggle (non-magic) world, breaking the rules of the Ministry and in the process severing all ties to its bureaucratic regime. With an ultimate evil out there, practical application in the real world trumps theory in the classroom, and this is comically played out when the pink-suited iron fist of Dolores Umbridge (the sweetly sinister Imelda Staunton) rules over Hogwarts as an instrument of the Ministry. Magical standardized testing and overzealous punishments are her specialties, and the educational parallels with our current world become all too clear, as do surprisingly conservative jabs at contemporary politics; the Ordinary Wizarding Level (OWL) tests, although based on British secondary exams, could be called “No Wizard Left Behind,” and the Ministry’s collective head in the sand concerning the ultimate evil causes Harry to go it alone with his young “coalition of the witching.” But although Umbridge’s autocratic rule concerns much of the film’s plot, her fate and that of her administration are poorly handled, betraying a kind of weariness for Hogwarts hi-jinks and a stronger fascination for Harry’s psychological development.

Despite being the eponymous hero of the series, Harry has thus far had to share major screen time with his fellow students and teachers, and Daniel Radcliffe has been clearly overshadowed by various British acting heavyweights and modern luminaries including Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, and Emma Thompson; Order of the Phoenix somewhat changes that. Fine supporting turns by Staunton and Evanna Lynch as the dotty, pale outsider Luna Lovegood are tempered by the unfortunate interchangeability of nearly everyone else but Radcliffe, with recognizable faces like David Thewlis and Helena Bonham Carter shown then discarded. However, this film is finally Harry’s showcase and provides Radcliffe an emotionally dark dimension that has been hardly hinted at. Already angered by the Ministry’s worthlessly stringent rules and its denial of Voldemort’s return, Harry is betrayed not once but thrice by his male authority figures: headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) disappears in a fiery puff in a vain attempt to distance himself and thus keep Harry safe; adoptive uncle Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), for all of his honesty and warmth in comforting young Potter’s confusion, is dispatched in slow-motion during a climatic battle; and, in a despairingly touching scene, Harry lashes out at the mind-reading Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) with a taste of his own medicine, discovering that Harry’s assumedly angelic father was really a bully while at Hogwarts. Sour disappointment at the duplicity of adulthood strikes much deeper than special effects, and Radcliffe makes the most of these crucial emotional low points, highlighted by quickly cut nightmares. But all hope is not lost, for Harry’s first kiss and burgeoning leadership skills offset his myriad disillusionments. The title thus makes sense as the beginning of a young man's rebirth from destruction by personal tragedy. As the only Hogwarts student with any experience in using magic outside school walls, he takes it upon himself to prepare his friends for the inevitable attack of the Dark Lord, gathering a force of young people against what has amounted to a betrayal by the adult world, whether symbolized by Umbridge’s management, Harry’s father figures, or the series’ literal cavalcade of teachers-turned-Voldemort pawns. Harry is now beginning to take up the burdensome mantle of responsibility for his world’s future, and Radcliffe’s portrayal is equally up to the task.

However, the force of his growth is diminished by the film’s leaden plot threads, chief among them the aforementioned Zero for Conduct-esque school revolt and a muddled quest for a prophesying object at the Ministry of Secrets. Overused narrative shorthand, like animated newspaper stories, weakens the already obviously compressed storyline’s flow and coherence. Even the titular Order of the Phoenix, an assemblage of wizards and witches out to defend Harry and oppose Voldemort, only serve as a climactic deus ex machina. Unlike the imaginative style of the so far high point of the series, Prisoner of Azkaban, everything here (except for the opening scene that almost feels like a different film) is treated with the same visual stasis that prevents momentum and vitality. The proceedings at times seem perfunctory, and the admittedly solid computer effects have become workmanlike and fail to impress any more. Magic is unfortunately now the norm, no longer brightening the eyes of Harry, his compatriots, or the audience, supplanted instead by the gloomy concerns of Harry’s young adulthood. If only the series could capture that same spark of heroic sorrow that momentarily flash in Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes when he realizes the illusory magic of growing up.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Personal Alternative to the AFI Top 100, Part 2

11. The Conversation (74, Coppola)
A paranoid masterpiece, one that rewards multiple viewings and features a career high performance from Gene Hackman. The morality of observation is meticulously probed by the team of Coppola, Hackman, and sound editor Walter Murch, not to mention by Bill Butler’s surveillance-like cinematography. Hackman’s Harry Caul is one of cinema’s great voyeurs, a troubled professional whose personal obsession grows with each passing moment of the film. A watershed in 70s American cinema, a movie-bred auteur whose commercial success allowed him to craft an intelligent, European-style art thriller.
Alt to the Alt: Blow Out (81, De Palma). As indebted to The Conversation as Coppola’s film is to Blowup.

12. The Crowd (28, Vidor)
Although silent, King Vidor’s social commentary speaks loudly against group conformity and the clash of the individual with society. The average American is portrayed by unknown James Murray, and the fluid camera movements follow his life, with all of its shrinking expectations, disappointments, hopes, dreams, twists, and turns. Lacking any sentimentality or escapism of any kind, the film shows what it’s like to be a part of the faceless mass of American life, the crowd. Vidor would later produce and direct a kind of sequel, the landmark Depression-era Our Daily Bread.
Alt to the Alt: Greed (24, von Stroheim). A much more epic silent depicting the power of avarice on ordinary people. Worthwhile even in its butchered form.

13. Dead Man (95, Jarmusch)
Rips down the Western mythos and resurrects a fascinating hallucination in its place. From a skeletal Johnny Depp’s connection to poet William Blake to Crispin Glover’s brief but indelible monologue, Jim Jarmusch’s evocative and absurdly violent American fable touches on 20th century industry, Native American folklore, the classic presence of Robert Mitchum, and the ironic, philosophical chit-chat that is Jarmusch’s verbal bread and butter. An immersive experience.
Alt to the Alt: One would be hard pressed to find a similar film to Dead Man, but Little Big Man (70, Penn), while not as uproarious as its source novel, uses lighter humor to mine some of the same themes.

14. Dog Day Afternoon (75, Lumet)
With humanizing performances and an empathetic screenplay by Frank Pierson, Dog Day Afternoon chronicles a bizarre bank robbery that gets engulfed by the media. As the most likeable crooks ever, Pacino and Cazale lend depth to Sal and Sonny, two men over their heads and forced by circumstance to do what they do. Even when clichés threaten to derail the “bank robbery goes awry” plot, Lumet’s sensitive direction and the lead performances shine through.
Alt to the Alt: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (74, Sargeant). Although structurally more like Reservoir Dogs or Inside Man, this underrated thriller exudes its sense of place and time in a similar way to Afternoon.

15. Dressed to Kill (80, De Palma)
A derivative mix of Argento and Hitchcock with De Palma’s inimitably stylish camera movements, Dressed to Kill is a violent, meta, sexual thrill ride with interesting and surprisingly effective performances by Caine, Dickinson, and Allen. Probably De Palma’s most absurdly playful and self-referential film up to that point, the director would follow in this vein through Body Double and Femme Fatale.
Alt to the Alt: Sisters (73, De Palma). One of De Palma’s most effective thrillers, with a rollicking if somewhat incoherent climax.

16. Duck Amuck (53, Jones)
Among the greatest animated shorts of all time, Chuck Jones’s ahead of its time meta-work playfully investigates the very nature of cartoon logic and freedom. A vocal tour-de-force from Mel Blanc as the most human and fallible of Warner Brothers characters, Daffy Duck, makes each viewing as riotous as the last. Kudos also to Mike Maltese and the stellar animation team for transforming backdrops, inventive and unexpected challenges to Daffy’s ego, and the ingenious if retrospectively inevitable ending.
Alt to the Alt: Rabbit Seasoning (52, Jones). The best of the real Bugs/Daffy crossover vehicles, this one contains the immortal line, “Pronoun trouble.”

17. Eating Raoul (82, Bartel)
Roger Corman protégé Paul Bartel scripted, directed, and starred in his pet project Eating Raoul, a deadpan, almost whimsical black comedy about sex, morality, and cannibalism. He and Mary Woronov are the aptly-named Blands, who only want to start their own restaurant but find themselves caught with a cadre of swinging couples in their apartment building. The movie is defiantly laid back and un-PC, although some of it shock may have dissipated since its release.
Alt to the Alt: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (79, Arkush). This Bartel/Woronov vehicle isn’t nearly as black as Raoul, but it still has that charming DIY aesthetic. Not to mention the Ramones.

18. Eraserhead (77, Lynch)
Disturbing but undoubtedly unforgettable, David Lynch’s feature debut is a black-and-white surrealist nightmare vision with no light at the end of the tunnel. The bleak industrialized landscape houses the claustrophobic existence of Jack Nance as he struggles with fatherhood, work, and just plain living in this world. The opening salvo of a divisive but iconoclastic career.
Alt to the Alt: Few American films are as fiercely bizarre and experimental as Eraserhead. So I’ll just recommend the collective works of Deren, Brakhage, and Anger.

19. Eve’s Bayou (97, Lemmons)
Meandering but lovingly crafted and acted depiction of mid-century Louisiana. Director and writer Kasi Lemmons guides an impressive cast of women (and Samuel L. Jackson and Branford Marsalis among the men). Its episodic structure captures the daily goings-on of the Batiste family, including youngest daughter Eve’s coming of age with her father, the family history, and their cultural foundations. Even the overly melodramatic events build in resonance through Eve’s eyes, no small thanks to lead actress Jurnee Smollett.
Alt to the Alt: Baby Doll (56, Kazan). Even sweatier and even more Southern.

20. Evil Dead II (87, Raimi)
With an irresistible excess and what should have been a star-making performance from Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi’s sequel/remake of Evil Dead ups the ante on gore, stylized camera moves, and physical humor. Once again evil spirits haunt a cabin in the woods, and it’s up to a newly badass Ash Williams to save the day. Along the way he encounters laughing mounted animal heads, a bitey Deadite, and his own rebellious hand. It’s a breakneck comedy/horror hybrid too insane and imaginative to be ignored.
Alt to the Alt: Dawn of the Dead (78, Romero). More socially conscious, although it’s really just as fun of a zombie picture.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Personal Alternative to the AFI Top 100, Part 1

This is similar to what Edward Copeland on Film, Jim Emerson, and The Siren are doing in response to the new AFI list, but not quite.

I’m hardly the most absolutely qualified person to make such an alternative list, but I will take the same route of Jonathan Rosenbaum regarding the post-1997 version of the AFI list (see his cutting remarks here) and present my Alternative Top 100 American Films. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible, although I am not well versed in the avant garde and certain other byways of American cinema. They are all among my favorites, and in each case I will make a brief argument for inclusion and even present an “Alternative to the Alternative,” another similar film that would most likely have the longest of shots to be included in a list like this. None of these films appear on either the 1997 or 2007 version of the AFI’s list. The list is alphabetical and presented in groups of ten.

1. Airplane! (80, Abrahams, Zucker, Zucker)
The progenitor of a certain kind of distinctly American, anything goes, quantity over quality, rapid-fire genre parody, itself a more focused version of ZAZ’s Kentucky Fried Movie with touches of Mel Brooks, Airplane! eschews traditional plot and character concerns for sheer jokiness. Seemingly random sight gags, pop culture references, and witty wordplay abound in this take-off of disaster movies, helped along by some of the most straight-arrow acting into a profoundly silly movie since Dr. Strangelove.
Alternatives to the Alternative: Top Secret! (84, Abrahams, Zucker, Zucker). Perhaps even goofier than Airplane!, by the same writers/directors.

2. Alien (79, Scott)
Frightening to the core, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece presents the age old haunted house, monster-behind-every-corner framework in a fascinating new milieu, a working class cargo freighter in space. With a cast of reliable character actors whose lived-in bodies and faces lend some realism to what amounts to an outer space horror story, the film makes the most of confinement and the less than streamlined futuristic nature of the Nostromo to mount suspense. The single most disturbing creature design ever put on American screens doesn’t hurt either.
Alt to the Alt: Dark Star (74, Carpenter). The second most claustrophobic spaceship movie ever made. Both were written by Dan O’Bannon, even.

3. All That Jazz (79, Fosse)
Bob Fosse’s 8 ½. Perhaps even more infused with the best qualities of Fellini’s narcissistically brilliant metafilm than Woody’s Stardust Memories, writer/director/choreographer Fosse puts his alter-ego Joe Gideon (a fantastic Roy Scheider) smack dab in the middle of a maelstrom of a musical number. The best depiction of life and death as show business in the American cinema.
Alt to the Alt: The Band Wagon (53, Minnelli). Considerably less depressing, but life and theater intertwine not dissimilarly to Fosse’s masterwork. Speaking of…

4. The Bad and the Beautiful (52, Minnelli)
Does to Old Hollywood what All That Jazz does to New Hollywood. Kirk Douglas is backstabbing wunderkind Jonathan Shields, and the film outlines how he totally fucks over every person in his professional and personal life. His ego destroys “the little people” left and right, illustrated with a superb flashback structure and capped with a dour but ambiguous ending.
Alt to the Alt: A Star is Born (54, Cukor). Garland and Mason destroy the Hollywood illusion from the inside out. The ’37 version isn’t half-bad either.

5. Badlands (73, Malick)
Terr’s first feature, and one that, in my view, eclipses the likes of Bonnie and Clyde with its dirt road American poetry and stoic visual blankness. Bursts of violence punctuate the self-made myth of Martin Sheen’s performance, while Sissy Spacek’s flat narration (a device repeated in Malick’s future films) provides counterpoint to the luminous back road cinematography. It’s a particularly fierce landmark from a profoundly visual American auteur.
Alt to the Alt: Deadly is the Female/Gun Crazy (50, Lewis). An exciting, low budget Freudian take on the lovers-on-the-lam genre.

6. Ball of Fire (41, Hawks)
Brains meets beauty as linguistics expert Gary Cooper wants to study singer and mob moll Barbara Stanwyck in perhaps Hawks’s single most witty flick. Backed by a cadre of reliably off-kilter supporting players (from Henry Travers to Dan Duryea), the two leads wrap their lips around slang and science talk in equal measure, as the charmingly goofy plot rushes headlong into marriage, gunfights, and a maddeningly perfect example of physics at work.
Alt to the Alt: What’s Up, Doc? (72, Bogdanovich). This screwball throwback does pretty well to resurrect the genre for its running time, complete with musical numbers and some fast-paced action, just like Ball of Fire.

7. Breaking Away (79, Yates)
Misfit townies taking down the jocks in a bike race sounds like the typical underdog sports movie, but it’s the performances and details that put Breaking Away ahead of the pack. Begin with Dennis Christopher as the ostensible protagonist, an awkward Italian wannabe who can possibly rise up from his rut by pedaling. Mix in the touching but still hilarious performances of Barbara Berrie and Paul Dooley as his parents, pre-stardom Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern and pre-Little Children creepy Jackie Earl Haley as his Cutter friends, and the movie suddenly has a heart and soul longer than the Little 500.
Alt to the Alt: The Bad News Bears (76, Ritchie). Foul-mouthed kids who are both funny and sympathetic. Also features one of Matthau’s most underrated performances.

8. Broken Blossoms (19, Griffith)
As glad as I am that the superior Intolerance ousted Birth of a Nation from the list, the AFI could have been even more successful by including the infinitely simpler and more emotionally engaging Broken Blossoms. Griffith’s most affecting work is anchored by the profoundly sad performances of Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, whose ethnicity as Chinese is used more conceptually than literally. Proves to the skeptical that a silent film can be just as sensitive and powerful as a talkie.
Alt to the Alt: Way Down East (20, Griffith). The next best Griffith/Gish melodrama, stark and beautiful to look at.

9. The Brother from Another Planet (84, Sayles)
John Sayles has a maverick sensibility and has been able to cut an interesting swath across American independent cinema. My personal favorite of his out-there depictions of the US is the sci-fi fable/social commentary Brother from Another Planet, starring a mute Joe Morton as a black visitor from above. A funny but sobering allegory for immigration and the urban experience.
Alt to the Alt: After Hours (85, Scorsese). A nightmare vision of urban alienation with a blacker humor than Brother.

10. California Split (74, Altman)
One of the most easygoing and freeform of Altman’s already easygoing and freeform 70s works, this examination of a gambling duo benefits from the breezy, jazzy lead performances of Elliott Gould (the Altman actor) and George Segal. Mirroring the protagonists’ meandering from incident to incident, the film offers a fascinating portrait of a workaday risk-taker and his more wary companion. Even the expected jackpot climax is upended in true Altman style.
Alt to the Alt: The Sting (73, Hill). A much slicker gambling movie, but one whose star wattage burns just as brightly but with a different color than Split.


Friday, April 13, 2007

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

David Cronenberg is not a director for everyone. His very frank explorations of biology in relation to the human psyche can sicken or confuse viewers and critics alike. Still, his forays into borderline SF and fantasy have garnered a massive cult following – but A History of Violence is something new altogether. It is closest in tone to his 1996 film Crash, which alienated all but his most diehard fans for its heady mix of anything-goes sex and arousing violence. History similarly touches upon the entanglement of sex and violence, as well as the pervasive nature of violence in our pop culture and society.

Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, small-town Everyman and Indiana diner owner. He has a lawyer wife, a high school-age son, and a little blonde daughter. Life seems stably idyllic until two robbers show up at his restaurant. Faced with mortal danger, Tom deftly executes both criminals with a pot of coffee and one of the thieves' own guns. He's a local and national hero, but shady figures suddenly show up at Tom's door. They swear that he's Joey, a former criminal who needs to repay old debts. Stall denies these accusations until he is forced to messily dispatch the messengers. It is revealed that Tom used to be a gangland figure, an infamous killer, but that he shunned that life for something more. He must confront his crime boss brother Richie in Philadelphia and face his past. Meanwhile, his son becomes aggressive and brutal toward harassing bullies, and his wife must come to accept what her husband was and, it appears, still is.

This synopsis does not do justice to the weighty philosophical and moral questions posed by the film. First of all, it questions the nature of the violence depicted, as no one escapes its ill effects. Fans of Cronenberg are used to the graphic nature of his productions like Videodrome and The Fly, yet by the end (especially during the climactic scene in Richie's mansion) he seems to be asking us why we enjoy bones shattering and faces bleeding. Only when Tom has been pushed to his breaking point does he shift into "killing mode," and Cronenberg holds back the graphic nature of his actions until the height of his triumph. Can the audience both cheer a character's victory and disdain the outright viciousness of it? This is the problem inherent in much action cinema, where even the merest accountability goes up in flames with the villain's exploded headquarters. William Hurt's brief performance is spot-on as a man living in the midst of violence and destruction. He couldn't care less about henchmen being slaughtered, their twisted bodies lying on the floor. So how different are we, as the audience, from this character in our enjoyment or indifference to bodily harm? The film’s lack of flippancy regarding death is indeed "anti-Tarantino," as one reviewer has called it, and the aftermath of bodily violence is the antithesis of the darkly humorous "Bonnie Situation" in Pulp Fiction.

Tom's children are interesting characters in their own rights. Ashton Holmes gives a strong debut as the son, realizing his potential for violent but righteous behavior after his father's actions. Is violence hereditary, or is it actually ingrained in our culture? The reason for the bully's anger is mostly preposterous, but it hints at our culture's entrenched confidence in Darwinian survival of the fittest at any age. School bullies in film are wholly cliche, so its inclusion is meant to show the violence underlying what we as filmgoers look for and expect. The scene had to end with somebody getting pounded in the face, right? But why can't diplomacy work in that situation? Why does violence always have to enter into it? The unexpected reversal in this scene serves to make these questions known. The daughter is almost too perfect, too oblivious to the swirling events around her. For someone so young, maybe that's the point. She is the innocent one, trusting in the family dynamic and the status quo without understanding that those concepts have been irrevocably damaged by her father's past.

Mario Bello gives a brave performance as Tom's wife Edie, alternately fearful and aroused by her husband's revelations. They seem to be a perfect couple until the diner incident occurs, forever shading Edie's view of Tom. She screams at him in the hospital but covers up for him to the sheriff. The complexities of love are made clear here, as she finds a total stranger walking around claiming that he's her husband. She allows her body to be taken by him, but keeps her emotions to herself. Recognizing that the family is more important than just her needs, she accepts Tom's past and present but does not forgive them. Viggo Mortensen proves more than able to take the demanding central role. His entire demeanor hides a dark past of violence that he can barely live with. Whether he recognizes the extent to which he has irreparably harmed his family is not fully clear, but he has a constant inner struggle throughout the film. He is soft-spoken even when enraged; yet his animal physicality reveals itself often. Cronenberg once again elicits a brilliant male lead performance, continuing in the line of Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, James Woods, and Jeremy Irons.

All in all, this film is perhaps Cronenberg's most morally complex project to date. Gone are the SF trappings that can (to the viewer) cloud the issues within Videodrome or Naked Lunch; Violence is Cronenberg's attempt at realism to make his points more clearly known. Most of his other works can educe a kind of hushed fascination with the human body, or present viscerally intellectual questions regarding taboo subjects, but A History of Violence cleverly makes the viewer question their own motives and beliefs. Each instance of apparent comedy or heroic success brings along with it baggage of a sort that is no laughing matter. The bully makes a mountain out of a molehill in harassing the son, but the son's vicious response blows the high school cliche out of the water. Richie's nonplussed comments make us laugh even while we choke on Tom's unneeded physical cruelty. David Cronenberg has created a thought-provoking essay on violence in our society, in our brains, in our complete makeup. It raises questions that cannot be readily if ever answered but that should be brought up and examined, especially in today's age of pervasive sex and violence.

IMDb page

Friday, March 02, 2007

Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1979)

This is my contribution to Quiet Bubble's Kieslowski Blog-a-thon, and my first contribution to any -thon, for that matter.

To call Kieslowski’s Camera Buff simply a film about filmmaking would be to underestimate its elegant nuances and widespread artistic relevance. Without these added layers, the film would still be a solid portrait of a middle-class filmmaker’s evolution, but Kieslowski is far too intelligent and humanistic to ignore the social universality of his story. The film in turn also examines the tension between an artist and a simple craftsman, reality and fiction, objectivity and perspective, and truth and cinema. It is attributable to Kieslowski’s power as a filmmaker that these aspects are organic to the work rather than tacked on or seemingly irrelevant to the story’s themes.

The pudgy, nondescript Jerzy Stohr portrays Filip Mosz, a factory work who buys an 8mm camera to film his newborn daughter’s life. His wife Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) warms to the idea, until this simple hobby begins to change into something more. When Filip is eager to film the world around him, his company hires him to make a morale-boosting short about an anniversary party. He learns to use the camera as a new way of seeing, and the prestige of constructing a film based on his own perceptions becomes a consuming passion at the expense of his wife and child. Cinema engulfs Filip’s world, and his amateur but inspired editing wins the film a spot in a local festival. Kieslowski now gets his jabs at film criticism through the eyes of a genuine artist, free of guile or any intention other than presenting his own honest worldview. The festival refuses to give out a first prize due to the lack of a truly worthy film, but to deny homegrown documentaries on “artistic” grounds of quality is to ignore their purpose as record and as expression. Filip still wins third (actually second), which proves to be a double-edged prize. On one hand, validation is all of the fuel the budding filmmaker needs to keep working; however, this strains his marriage to the breaking point. Filip admits that cinema fills a void in his life so deep that even a loving family can’t penetrate it. This is the struggle of all artists: to be truthful to one’s inner being while balancing the expectations and restraints of society.

Luckily, Kieslowski gives each side their due. Irka is far from a harpy or art-hating philistine, and Filip is all enthusiasm and hopeless naivety. He is simply bitten by a bug beyond his control and must follow this new passion to its conclusion. The irony that his alienating film career started with a camera bought for his daughter’s benefit is not lost on the sympathetic but laughing Kieslowski. His later miniseries The Decalogue blows human foibles and incidents to the size of grand drama and in the context of morality and metaphysics; his Three Colors trilogy uses coincidence to shape everyday lives into something that appears designed. Camera Buff deftly does both. Filip is both Everyartist and a victim of fate.

Through Filip’s business connections with his company, Kieslowski pits the artist against the oppressive strictures hovering over a working-class filmmaker. The company subsidizes and wants final approval on his films, but Filip sneaks in subversive elements that amount to social commentary. Recognition through the festival and eventual TV work provides a way out from under the thumb of censorship. Filip learns to be a creator in his medium rather than just a technician to serve the company’s purpose. But even here, Kieslowski (whose hand and mind are present in every frame) hardly lets his protagonist off the hook. It is not enough to simply do what one thinks is right at the moment; one must look into a situation and examine all sides. When Filip decides to film a row of buildings that were only superficially repaired by the company for an upcoming public celebration, he thinks he is exposing a blatant hypocrisy. Instead, his supervisor reveals that the company used the remaining funds reserved for those fixes to make much more needed and important repairs, to a hospital and to a school. Just as Filip has learned to use a camera to create stories and impressions that may not literally exist at that moment, he has shown a hard lesson of perspective. A filmmaker must have a conscience in addition to an eye and a mind. As he grows as an artist, he grows as a person.

But Camera Buff is not merely an allegory for the place of the filmmaker in society, or even simply the story of one such example. As Filip grows excited and awestruck by the possibilities of cinematic creation, so the film becomes more and more in love with cinema itself. Filip’s camera swoops and follows anything that it fancies, and Kieslowski’s is along for the ride. The two frequently become one, as the viewer experiences the pure exhilaration of cinematic sight. And despite the loss of Filip’s wife and child due to his movie obsession, Camera Buff is one of the most optimistic works ever made about the medium. Where films like Peeping Tom and Man Bites Dog use murder, violence, and irony to essentially connect filmmaking with voyeurism and narcissism, Kieslowski’s film celebrates the creativity and personal fulfillment that can blossom from artistic expression. Filip discovers a unique and personal skill that leads to confidence, leadership, and recognition. Two of the most touching scenes in the film show the ability of film to keep memories and moments alive. Days after a coworker’s mother passes away, Filip shows the grieving driver a clip of him showing off for her. The coworker is tearfully grateful. Later, Filip makes a documentary on a near-retirement factory worker who is little. Where the higher-ups think he is exploiting the man, everyone else realizes the warmth and acknowledgment the film will bring. Both moments revel in the life-affirming qualities of cinema without ever seeming cloying or out of place. That Kieslowski can juggle each insightful thread of his film without seeming distant, academic, or convoluted, is a testament to the late Polish writer/director’s mastery of film grammar and, more importantly, his irreplaceable eye for humanity’s complexity.

IMDb page