Thursday, March 27, 2008


As good as TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE and 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, & 2 DAYS (reviewed last time out) were they failed to gain an audience (at my hometown theater at least) so it's on to a couple of the new Spring crop of movies:

(Dir. Kimberly Peirce, 2008) The opening scene with mobile phone footage of soldiers in Iraq razzing each other with ethnic and whitebread stereotypes raging brought to mind unpleasant memories of REDACTED. For a short bit this film appears to have a higher purpose than that base insufferable Brian DePalma cinematic bloodstain then it drastically drops to a lower level. With his trademark worried eyes, squad leader Ryan Phillippe serves what he thinks is his last combat mission (involving a particularly hellacious gunfight which kills 2 of his men) and comes home with his surviving men to his hometown. They are greeted with a parade full of applause and teary eyes but Phillippe is told shortly afterwards that he is being “Stop Lossed” - that is, his term of service is being involuntarily extended and he is to be sent back to Iraq. He immediately responds in anger and escapes from the army installation becoming a AWOL fugitive. His plan is to appeal to a Senator who shook his hand and said “if you ever need anything...” back at the celebratory parade so he sets off for Washington D.C.

Phillippe's squad, who mostly remain back on the Stop Lossed sidelines, is quite the clichéd crew: there's the thick headed bully (Channing Tatum), the short-fused guitar-playing cut-up (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the religious square nicknamed “Preacher” (Terry Quay), the smooth Hispanic player (Victor Rasuk), and of course, the tough token black guy (Rob Brown). Try as they might neither the characters or the film rise above well worn cliches. Such can't be disguised by the quick-cutting MTV * technique of flashing hundreds of photographs in front of our eyes at supposedly key moments.

Phillippe talking with an awful Texas accent and brooding squint-eyed as if the movie is a foggy shadowy stage has shown more layers previously like in last year's BREACH, but here seems to have retreated back to the wood board mode that he walked-through CRASH with. His co-star and somewhat love interest is Abbie Cornish - ex-girlfriend to Phillippe's fellow soldier friend (Tatum). She travels with Phillippe across country in scenes that have an 80's road movie sensibility in the same sense that every element of this film feels borrowed. As for being Peirce's first film for nearly 9 years since BOYS DON'T CRY this is quite a let down filled to the brim with cringe-worthy acting and weak dialogue. For all its anti-war pro-troops posturing
STOP LOSS, though based on a very real and hard to stomach government policy, has a extremely low percentage of plausibility.

* The film is an MTV Films Production after all.

(Dir. David Schwimmer, 2007)

An unlikely movie-star if there ever was one, Simon Pegg still seems to have nudged a notable niche into the world of hip pop culture. Bit by bit - the first bit being his little seen but great British sitcom Spaced then his and director Edgar Wright's hilarious satires SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ and now a just revealed big bit is that he is tapped to play the iconic role of Scotty in the new STAR TREK reboot. In the present meantime though Pegg goes mainstream with this romantic comedy about marathon racing. How mainstream? Well, this is directed by David Schwimmer - Ross from Friends! So Pegg is a slacker sloth we gather right off as he abandons his pregnant fiancée (Thandie Newton) at the altar literally running down the street away.

The movie cuts to 5 years later and Pegg's still running but this time running after shoplifters as a low level security guard for a women's clothing store. He still pines for his ex and longs to be more of a hero to his son (Matthew Fenton) but that is increasingly difficult as Newton has taken up with Hank Azaria - a well-to-do muscular all too perfect suitor who runs marathons. “Why would you want to do a thing like that?” is Pegg's reaction to that last bit. He realizes though to gain his son's respect and possibly win back his ex he will have to take something seriously and see it through to the end and the Nike River-run in London may just be the ticket.

It's fitting that Pegg's shabby apartment has a poster of TEAM AMERICA up because as that film told us in song “you've got to have a montage!” and so a shaping up sequence of the sort is on. Pegg's SHAUN OF THE DEADSHAUN OF THE DEAD co-star Dylan Moran, who has some of the best lines, bets on his friend completing the 26 mile marathon as do his landlord's (Harish Patel) cunning daughter (India de Beaufort). Among the wacky physical humor in the training scenes and the underdog insults there are affecting face-offs with Azaria down to the starting line gunshot and beyond: “I can lose weight... but you'll always be an arsehole!” Pegg deliriously exclaims.

Though not in the same comedic league as and HOT FUZZ, RUN FATBOY RUN is extremely likable as fluffy and predictable as it is. It's not a laugh a minute, it's more a mild chuckle per scene but its big heart and sunny nature made me smile often throughout its running time (no pun intended). Doubt this will make much of dent in the U.S. box office but like the folk that gather behind Pegg FORREST GUMP-style as his lovable louse stumbles through the miles of the marathon RUN FATBOY RUN will no doubt accumulate fans. Pegg may not have completely arrived Stateside yet but this is one cheeky bit closer.

More later...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Abortion & Torture At The Movies - Happy Easter Everybody!

As 2 of the most obscure titles my hometown movie-house has had in a long time the following films are hardly crowd pleasers. Varsity Theater owner Bruce Stone said on a sparsely attended opening night - “Neither is really THE SOUND OF MUSIC you know?” Still, I recall Roger Ebert's proverb: “No good film is depressing, all bad films are”. With that in mind let's take a look at the films I heard that a fellow co-worker referred to as “a downer double feature”:

(Dir. Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

Sadly ignored by American audiences despite being at winner at Cannes and the Golden Globes, this affecting Romanian film had an intense grip on me from the first shot. That first shot is a cluttered table next to a window in a shabby ass dorm room. The camera pulls back and we are introduced to Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) who appears to be taking care of the every need (buying cigarettes, arranging schedules, etc.) of her room mate Gabriela 'Găbiţa' (Laura Vasiliu). It is 1987 in Bucharest, Roma under the Ceauşescu regime - as a 1930's stage narrator would tell us - and Găbiţa is pregnant so a shady meeting is set up with a stranger for an illegal abortion. Every required task for the plan gets botched - the hotel insisted upon is booked, Găbiţa lies about what month her term is (hence the title), and worst of all the man called upon to do the deed (Mr. Bebe played by Vlad Ivanov) is an asshole who bullies the women on every point. There are so many unpleasant draining circumstances that the stressed-out Otilia often has to sit down and regroup. I was right there with her catching my breath.

One certain lengthy dialogue-free sequence (don't worry - no
Spoilers) has an amazing display of body language entangled with tension. Grueling and degrading as the scene is it has a tone so much more human than in many recent movies. 4 MONTHS... is mostly constructed out of long unbroken shots - very little cutting - which enforces the air of being in the same room not just with these people but their worries and regrets. A family dinner, an obligation to Otilia's boyfriend (Alex Potocean) that takes her away from the scene of the crime, is as cluttered with folks in the frame as it is crammed with everybody's (some not in the shot but overheard) opinions. They pontificate about class relations, whether you'd be arrested if you didn't go to church on Easter, and why young folk shouldn't smoke in front of their elders. The scene by itself could be a great short film with Otilia squirming in a manner that doesn't necessarily need our knowledge of the uneasy background. A dark tale told with natural rhythms and as one character remarked at the dinner scene “a sense of what's real”, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 WEEKS is a stirring portrait of mislaid agendas.

Speaking of mislaid agendas:

(Dir. Alex Gibney, 2007)

Everybody gasped (me included) at the Oscar party I attended when this won Best Documentary over SiCKO and NO END IN SIGHT. At first glance one has to sigh and think “another anti-Bush administration talking heads piece of pop propaganda” and yes, that can be said but watching it such cynicism drops and the picture, as horrifying and disarming it is, becomes frighteningly necessary. In 2002 an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar is taken into custody by American soldiers. He dies 5 days later after being chained to his cell's ceiling getting his legs pummeled repeatedly by several guards and suffering numerous other forms of assaultive abuse. Later it is revealed from leaked documents and press inquiries that Dilawar was innocent and that he and his passengers were “no threat” to American forces. Angering interviews from a few of the soldiers involved as well as the architects of the invasion fit into the framework purposely especially the clip of Dick Cheney a week after 9/11 saying “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’re going to spend time in the shadows.” Another such chilling moment is when one of the accused soldiers says he had never heard of the Geneva Convention before.

Rewriting the rules on what defines torture is the slipperiest of slopes as we see over and over what can happen on a ginormous generalized dehumanizing scale. We are shown countless disgusting photographs, hear excruciating first hand accounts, and see for the first time on film inside Bagram Air Base where the horrendous activity occurred. Of course none of this sounds like fun but it is one of the most startling and compelling documentaries this side of NO END IN SIGHT. It very much deserved to win the Oscar over that extraordinary film. Gibney's work here has a passion and drive that with hope will gain a bigger audience. Since the film was bought by HBO and the Discovery Channel that is sure to happen.

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE must be recognized as not just another damning governmental practices diatribe. It is a film about torture that is not tortuous to watch for it calmly and calculatingly lays out a tale that can not be dismissed. Familiar footage of Bush has him stating of terrorists: “
wherever they are, we will hunt them down, one by one, until they are no longer a threat to the people who live in the United States of America.” One by one the offenses against America that Bush and his cronies have committed pile up into towers that will cast shadows on us all. Still thinking of Ebert's proverb I have to write that it is not just depressing that we yet again need a documentary to shine a light on these horrors it makes me miserable that people ignore them when they come around. Wake up, open your eyes, and get out of bed America and pay attention or we'll have nothing but films like this.

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE only plays for 4 more days at the Varsity Theater so if you live in Chapel Hill try and make it out to see it.

More Later...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

SLEUTH & A Few New DVD Reviews

"The film was a sadd'ning bore, 'cause I wrote it 10 times or more."
- David Bowie from the song "Life On Mars"

Bowie's couplet above could serve as perfect criticism of the following film. I wanted to see it on the big screen last Fall but it played for only a week at a local theater and was roundly panned. I loved the original so I put it in my queue and wished for the best. Well, what I got was the worst:

SLEUTH (Dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 2007)

This entire production screams "high concept!" It's a slick streamlined remake of the much beloved 1972 mystery which pitted Sir Laurence Olivier as a wealthy novelist against Michael Caine as a gold digging hair salon manager who is having an affair with Olivier's wife. The high concept here is that Caine now plays the wealthy novelist and Jude Law, fresh from remaking ALFIE, again steps into Caine's old shoes as the young gold digger. The gothic old house of the original has been transformed into a high tech palace with surveillance cameras and monitors in every corner - a cold and sterile museum of a house that Caine says was designed by his wife but it's hard not to think he took some notes from Batman. Taking the concept higher is a new screenplay by noted playwright Harold Pinter which throws out all of the original's dialogue and replaces it with even more twisted mental trickery. Branaugh's sharply stylised direction inhabits every frame - the film actually looks shiny like an expensive ad in GQ magazine. So why doesn't any of it work?

Hmmm, It's not because it's ridiculous, contrived, and over the top - the original was all those things and even more unbelievable in its conceit. The conceit being that these 2 men perform a series of double crossing mindgames over the never seen wife. There is one giant plot device that I won't give away, though if you watch the trailer you can probably guess what it is, that is handled so horribly it should have been discarded all together. Caine has sleepwalked through better material than this but he does give it the old college try. Jude Law, is well...just what I expected - glib but hiding overwhelming insecurities but just like with Caine we never believe these are people with lives outside of this movie. They're both constrained by their empty caricatures.

Like I said before - the film looks great, the actors are apt, and the direction is solid so I guess I can only really blame the script. Pinter's dialogue is simplistic yet over-reaching - he uses all of the original's hot premise points but retains none of their humorous charms. If the plan was to break down a grand theatrical melodrama down into a souless modern psychological thriller package with as much depth as a Tom and Jerry cartoon then Pinter is indeed a genius as he's been often called. With all due respect to the Nobel Laureate, the original was an amusing trifle; this is high concept tripe. The 2007 model SLEUTH only has 2 good things going for it: 1. At 86 minutes it is an hour shorter than the original so at least they didn't try and stretch what was already as thin as Shelley Duvall as Olive Oil. 2. The prospect that because this film was a critical and financial failure we can be spared any future Jude Law remakes of Michael Caine movies. Though come to think of it though, in the right hands Law could maybe pull off DEATHTRAP - if they stick to the original script, that is.

This next film isn't new but I'm writing about it because there is a recent English language remake that just came to my area. It's not playing in Chapel Hill however possibly because in the light of the tragic death of UNC student Eve Carson it could be seen to be in bad taste. Hearing that the remake is a shot-by-shot replay of the original from a decade earlier by the same director I got it from NetFlix and do strongly feel that yes the timing would be bad. Not sure though, if the time will ever be right for:

(Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997)

In a calm soothing manner we are introduced to a cultured Austrian family (A husband and wife played by Ulrigh Mühe and Suzanne Lothar with their son played by Stefan Clapczynski) arriving at their lake house. 10 minutes into the film a couple of creepy young men dressed in white clothes with white gloves appear - the first (Frank Giering) innocently asks to borrow some eggs from Lothar which he supposedly accidentally breaks. He asks for more, breaks those too and an awkward confrontation occurs when the second (Arno Frisch) assaults Mühe with a golf club severely injuring his right leg. The home invasion is in full swing now with the family taken hostage and a series of sadistic mind games with rules and deadly consequences set in place by Frisch. Frisch "breaks the frame" early on by winking at the camera then later asking the audience to bet on the fate of his victims: "You're on their side so who will you bet with?"

Many critics have labeled FUNNY GAMES - high art disguised as torture porn (or vice versa) and point out that we don't actually see much of the violence because it occurs off screen. That may be true but there is still enough voyeuristic violence with screaming and blood in sight to disturb not just the squeamish. Haneke has said that he intended to make "a film about the portrayal of violence in the media, in movies... an attempt to provide an analysis of the work within the work." I'm afraid that even with that lofty purpose and artsy asides to the camera we still just have another violent piece of work here - a pretentious and tedious one at that. Repeatedly the suffering family asks their tormentors "why?" - "Don't forget the entertainment value" Giering responds and it is the only thing that ever comes close to a sincere answer. The entertainment value of this pointless exercise however is non-existent. If Haneke is making a statement critical of the mass consumption of media violence and he is ideally chastising viewers with his own work then as someone identifying themselves as
Fuckhead on a Onion A.V. Club message board * asks "I guess the way to pass this film's test is to not see it? Is that it?" Yes, that's it. I failed that test by watching the original. But I expect to pass with flying colors when it comes to the remake.

* Actually from the comments on the article "A funny response to Funny Games" by Steve Hyden (March 17, 2008)

(Dir. Francis Lawrence, 2007)

I was planning on skipping this flick but some friends thought it would be good mindless fun one recent eve. They were right - this Will Smith fighting zombies spectacle (big enough to warrant an IMAX release) isn't too dumb for fun. Mind you, it considers itself to be too highbrow to call them zombies or mutants - they're called The Infected or Darkseekers. Based on the 1954 novel (which took place in the 70's) by Richard Matheson, the story is simple - in 2012, 3 years after most of the world's population is hit by a massive plague a man (Smith) who believes he may be the last alive on Manhattan Island struggles to find a cure for the virus. Dodging constant attacks, Smith talks to himself and his trusty dog Sam (who you just know won't make til the end) as he stockpiles food, broadcasts radio transmissions in hope of finding other survivors, and has several flashes to backstory about his departed family. He captures Infected ones in order to test treatments and thinks he may have found a possible anti-dote.

Of course, this plot seems designed as an elaborate laundry line on which to hang a series of immense bombastic set pieces including a scene involving the Brooklyn Bridge which cost $5 million (the most expensive scene ever filmed in the city at the time according to Wikipedia). The CGI demon dogs and Darkseekers provide some genuine scares, while the shoot-out scenes (as one-sided as shoot-outs can be) are actually fairly compelling. Despite the sci-fi action formula limits, Smith is able to build upon his acting standard set by THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS last year and again shows he can carry, pretty much on his shoulders alone, another overblown blockbuster with poise. Don't get me wrong though - it's no movie masterpiece; I AM LEGEND is a brisk 1 hour and 40 min. piece of populist entertainment - nothing more. So just put a cork in your brainhole and sit back and enjoy.

More later...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Nitpicking On NetFlix

I recently received the 1st DVD of season 1 of the much buzzed about HBO show Flight Of The Conchords from NetFlix. The 6 episodes on the disc were very funny with crazily catchy songs by the kooky kiwi folk/rap duo - but trouble was that I had waited for it for 3 months! That's right - since it was released on December 17th, 2007 it had been at "very long wait" in my queue. I enjoyed it but can't quite say it was completely worth the wait. During this "very long wait" I had composed a rough draft list of 10 complaints about NetFlix but abandoned it because it wasn't really thought out and also the next day my next DVD came broken in half - so I thought karma was against me. And I hadn't even posted it! So being newly frustrated with the DVD mailing program I decided to refine the list of pet peeves and pair it down to 5 complaints. Now, don't get me wrong - I love NetFlix and think overall they provide an excellent service. I do think some other high volume users and film buff geeks like me will find something to relate to in this persnickety list which I call:

5 Snivelling Bitchy Beefs About NetFlix

1. Lack Of New Release Special Editions Of Undeniable Classics - I noticed that the 50th Anniversary Edition of 12 ANGRY MEN - the 1957 Sidney Lumet Best Picture winning cinematic standard - has just been released on March 4th and contains 2 hours of bonus material. There's a new transfer of the best available print, a commentary by historian Drew Casper, and 2 "making of" featurettes. Sounds pretty sweet, huh? Well, NetFlix doesn't carry it. They only have the 2001 non-anamorphic Vintage Classics release that has only the trailer as bonus material available. Wha? Also, NetFlix doesn't carry The 40th Anniversary Edition of THE GRADUATE, The WALL STREET (20th Anniversary Edition), and even the 26th Anniversary of THE JERK is nowhere to be found! Okay, so maybe they have something against anniversary editions but Criterion re-releases are often dissed too - THE ICE STORM - Criterion Collection, set to be released tomorrow (March 18th), is nowhere on their schedule. The idea that NetFlix doesn't upgrade from the old original releases to the new enhanced editions with better transfers doesn't give the impression that they are catering to the real film fan. Seems like these titles would get more action if their definitive new models were available. To their credit they did have BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT available right off the bat.

2. The Removal Of Their Upcoming New Releases page - What gives? When I previously went browsing under the tab that says "New Releases" I used to have the option to see upcoming releases on a page that wasn't flashy, just informative about all the releases coming out the next week. Now that page is gone with just a basic showcase, movable by arrows, that shows 4 titles at a time - none of which are either brand new or upcoming just labeled as "Popular New Releases". It seems like they don't want us to know what to put in our queue in advance - the lack of a release date on say, GRACE IS GONE (Availability - Unknown) when Amazon lists it as May 27, 2008 seems a bit suspicious. Just sayin'.

3. No Saturday Service - Yes, they specify this on their website that they process "rental returns Monday through Friday, except holidays, via the United States Postal Service". Okay, but damnit for the "world's largest online movie rental service, providing more than seven million subscribers access to more than 90,000 DVD titles plus a growing library of more than 5,000 choices" - shouldn't Saturday be added to the workweek? I mean I hate that if I mail a disc on Friday (or sometimes Thursday) they won't get it until Monday and I won't get my next movie til Tuesday or Wednesday possibly! I mean, I just hate that.

4. Odd Inventory Practices - Sometimes as a heavy user a transaction can be a bit baffling. I had FACTORY GIRL, a movie that was not a hit or critical success in my queue at "very long wait" last year and it's status kept changing - availability: "short wait" then "now" then back to "very long wait". I got many releases in the meantime that were much more popular and sometimes sent to me on the Monday before their release while FACTORY GIRL kept hanging back. When it finally came the actual disc had printed on it: “Sale copy – not for rental”! Uh, NetFlix - is that even legal? I mean, I'm just wonderin'.

5. They Turned My Site Down To Be A NetFlix Affiliate - Yep, sour grapes.

Okay! So that about sums up my issues with the San Francisco based corporation that is successfully annihilating Blockbuster as well as Ma and Pa videostores across the map. And I'm all for that - videostores are pretty anachronistic and irrelevant these days and will soon be extinct for a lot of technological advances they can't adapt to. From the point of view that to truly love something one can see its flaws all the more and shouldn't be afraid to point out what could be improved I hope this isn't taken the wrong way. Otherwise I just may have to get used to an empty mailbox.

More later...

Monday, March 10, 2008

IN BRUGES & More Film Babble Follow-up Fun!

In the spirit of continuing the pre-Spring cleaning I started last post I thought I'd go through my email bag and follow-up on some past threads but first let me tell you about another fine film that is in limited release and unfortunately being overlooked:

(Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2008)

When I saw the trailer I feared that this would be one in a long line of Quentin Tarentino/Guy Ritchie ripoffs - you know wisecracking pop culture savvy figures of the underworld caught up in a series of crafty quirky possibly silly scenarios but IN BRUGES is so much better than that. Sure, it does have those elements but the restraint in flash and the edgy funny screenplay fuels a sweetly character driven piece that expertly balances dark comedy with a solid suspense yarn. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are two hitmen who after botching a job in London are sent to the medieval city of Bruges in Belgium to lie low. Gleeson makes the best of the situation to take in some of the local sights but Farrell, in one of his best performances as the daft put-upon Ray, grumbles "If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn't, so it doesn't." He even remarks: "Maybe that's what hell is, an entire eternity spent in Bruges." As they wait for further instructions from their boss Harry (an energized and hilariously intense Ralph Fiennes) their lives become intertwined with a few colorful characters including French actress Clémence Poésy as Farrell's love interest and Jordan Prentice as a racist dwarf actor named Jimmy *.

*an uncredited Peter Dinklage (THE STATION AGENT, DEATH AT A FUNERAL) also as an "Dwarf Actor" appears briefly.

It would be wrong to spill any more about the plot - the swift surprises in the film's crafty construction should not be spoiled. Everything seems to have nicely aligned in every department for this sure to be a future cult film. Even the score by Coen Brothers regular Carter Burwell should be noted as exceptional. It is incredibly encouraging that a new filmmaker can take the tired stale crime caper and reinvigorate it into something as satisfyingly fresh and vital as IN BRUGES. As the new to the scene writer/director Martin McDonagh is definitely a name to remember. I'm sure that as word of mouth spreads his next movie-film will have a much wider release. You would have had to grown up on a farm or be retarded to dismiss this as another PULP FICTION wannabe or a LOCK, STOCK... look-alike - this is no such pretender.

Okay, so now it's time to look back over Film Babble Blog past and follow-up on some of those much commented on lists.

In my post 10 Movie Moments That Broke The 4th Wall
(August 22, 2007) I told by many fine film loving folk that I missed a really crucial and much loved Movie Moment:

(Dir. Hal Ashby, 1971) I can't believe I left this one off! It's one of my favorite films ever and it's such a wonderful example of "breaking the frame". Harold (Bud Cort) having successfully scared off another computer dating candidate by staging another of his phony suicide attempts looks directly at us in a "see what I just did?" manner. His sly satisifaction is short lived however as he recoils into timid submission upon turning and see his Mother's disapproving glare. The passionate piano plucking intro of Cat Steven's "I Think I See The Light" perfectly punctuates the shot and takes us into the next scene. Just about as good as film making gets. Ah, Ashby - you'll never be forgotten.

I got a lot of feedback about my post 20 Great Modern Movie Cameos
(June 5, 2007) - so much that I already did a follow-up - The Cameo Countdown Continues (June 20, 2007) but there was one delicious guest appearance that a bunch of people have called me on - Frank Zappa in the beautifully bizarre Monkees movie HEAD (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968). It's another favorite of mine so boy is my face beet red! After Davy Jones's "Daddy's Boy" dance number Zappa, who for some reason is walking a cow on a leash, appears (credited as "The Critic") from out of a crowd of extras on the studio back lot to offer his comments: "That song was pretty white." Davy responds: "So am I; what can I tell you?" Zappa continues "You've been working on your dancing though...doesn't leave much time for your music. You should spend more time on it because the youth of America depends on you to show the way." To this, Zappa's cow with an imposed cartoon mouth says in a weird accent: "Monkees is the craziest people!" That aside was to the camera so the scene counts as both a cameo and a moment that broke the 4th wall. Thanks to Sarah R., Stephanie W., Tim Murcer, George F., and especially Everette K. for not letting this issue go!

This one came from a recent email from Michael E. of Illinois referring to a post I did last summer called Those Damn DirecTV Movie Tie-In Ads - Offensive To Film Buffs?
(July 19, 2007). Michael alerted me to a new DirecTV ad that features Kathy Bates reprising her Oscar winning role as Annie Wilkes from MISERY. Depicting the setup to the most horrific scene in the movie - the one where Bates cripples James Caan (who only appears from the original footage) with a sledgehammer - this commercial is the most misguided by far. Bates must have felt some hesitation to exploit her breakthrough performance for a satellite dish outfit. I guess on the other hand it was just another day's work and one that most likely got her an awesome high def TV hook-up.

For my post 10 Self Referential Moments In The Films Of George Lucas/Steven Spielberg (Oct. 18th, 2007) I really missed a doozey! In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on the wall in the background of the Egyptian temple that Indian Jones finds the Ark in you can see C3PO and R2D2 illustrated in Hieroglyphic form - like Club Obi Wan in TEMPLE OF DOOM this definitely ties together the...hey, wait! I never did a post about self referential moments in Lucas/Spielberg movies! Hmm, maybe I should. That new INDIANA JONES and the long ass title nobody will use * is going to be out soon so it may be a good idea...

* Actually INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL - but c'mon! Nobody is gonna to use it - it'll be like "2 tickets to Indy 4."

More later...

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Starting Out In The Evening & Some Pre-Spring Cleaning

This, of course is the post prestige Oscars season - a downtime in which theaters are so cluttered with crap that the occasional worthwhile film can get easily overlooked. This is such a film:

(Dir. Andrew Wagner, 2007)

Wagner's directorial debut is impressive for its purposely minimal staging methods as well as its crafty casting. The masterful but shamefully underrated Frank Langella plays Leonard Schiller - a reclusive writer whose time is seemingly past. His acclaimed 4 novels are long out of print and he has struggled for over a decade to complete a new work and create one final lasting impression in the world of literature despite being told that the market is dominated by "celebrity confessions and self-help books". His relationship with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) doesn't help matters as she is fiercely protective of him and intensely defensive about the loud ticking of her biological clock. Coming into the picture is the young glowing Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) who fashions herself as Schiller's protégé and wants to help republish his work and re-establish his place in the pantheons of New York literary society. Trouble is she is a bit too interested in the touchy possibly painful autobiographical sources of his earlier work which cause the agitated author to cut short their first sit-down interview. Schiller does however offer: "I'll concede this, I have occasionally drawn from my own life but I have I only done so in the spirit of objectivity." As to whether anything develops between them I'll plead my no Spoilers defense.

In the best sense of a 'filmed play' STARTING OUT... is a meticulous machine of a movie; every scene is exactly as long as it should be and every beat whether a solid point of action or a floating notion feels natural as can be in the construct. Langella, in what has to be called a "career best performance", has an enhanced elegance to his every gesture even when on the verge of emotional collapse. Ambrose (pictured to the left) and Taylor, who appeared on Six Feet Under as remarkably different but just as strained characters, both deflect different shards of the dying light from their powerful patriarch, each hitting their stage marks with aplomb. As Taylor's hesitant to be a Baby-Daddy boyfriend, Adrian Lester also has a well chosen charismatic demeanor and is refreshingly likable especially when considering that the stock disagreeing partner character usually is an asshole set up for audience disapproval. That's one of many well nuanced thoughtful touches in this moving film. When Heather questions Leonard accusing him of abandoning his characters, the crux of the ginormous "does art imitate life or vice versa" question hits hard. As one noted New York poet once observed "between thought and expression, lies a lifetime."

Now I thought I'd do some pre-Spring cleaning out of my notebook and Word files and post some reviews of recent flicks I've seen over the last few weeks - both new and old:

(Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2007)

Another film about exasperated literary minded folk uncertain of what their choices are, let alone if they are the right or wrong ones. Nicole Kidman, as the title character, is a recently separated successful writer who travels with her son Claude (Zane Pais) to her family's old home in Long Island for her sister's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding. It is immediately obvious that she doesn't approve of her sibling's groom to be - Jack Black, shaggy as ever with a mustache that he claims he's wearing 'ironically'. As Black is an unemployed rock musician and aspiring artist we can see why. There are other concerns for Margot - the
clichéd backwoods looking neighbors who menacingly demand that a tree on the property's line be cut down, her nearby lover (Ciaran Hinds) who she may have really come to see with the wedding as a cover, and her ex-husband's (John Turturro) constant phoning all drained her and me as I waded through.

It's a movie in which every character exasperates every other character - Black even says: "I have the emotional version of whatever bad Feng Shui would be!" Every actor is capable and has engaging moments but the malaise that inhabits their lives fills the screen and I was left wondering why I should care for these people. When sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asks Margot: "What was it about Dad that had us fucking so many guys? " I really wanted to leave the room rather than hear the answer. Like Leonard Schiller in STARTING OUT... (or more aptly Harry Block in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY) both Margot and her creator - director/writer Noah Baumbach have mined their lives for their art (Baumbach in real life much more successfully before in KICKING AND SCREAMING *, MR. JEALOUSY, and THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) but even with that illustrative insight this proceeding suffers from a severe lack of wit. And to truly ad insult to injury MARGOT AT THE WEDDING doesn't even have a wedding in it! And I don't care if that's a

* Not to be confused with the Will Ferrell family sports comedy KICKING & SCREAMING - directed by Jesse Dylan (Bob Dylan's son for Christ's sake!).

(Dir. Menno Meyjes, 2007)

Remember K-PAX? That lame ass movie with Kevin Spacey claiming to be from another planet? Jeff Bridges spends the whole film trying to figure out if he's crazy or actually telling the truth? No you don't remember it? Lucky you. Well anyway this is the kids version. John Cusack plays a successful science fiction novelist and a widower who is going ahead with his and his deceased spouse's plans to adopt. He is told by the adoption agency that they have a match, a reclusive six year old (Bobby Coleman) who thinks that he hails from the red planet. He wears what he calls a "hold me down" weight belt made out of batteries and duct tape because he feels the Earth's gravity is weak and he could float away without it. Cusack, who was an oddball outsider himself as a child, takes to the kid but worries about the mental celestial angle. He is encouraged by his dead wife's sister (Amanda Peet in an extremely undeveloped role) and his own sister (once again real life sibling Joan Cusack) who is justifiably cynical about the situation. Don't worry I won't tell if the kid really turns out to be a Martian or not.

I read on the internets that Cusack was not happy with how this picture turned out and I can see why. The editing creates an awkward mood with many stilted scenes. The DVD has 27 minutes of deleted scenes that expose dropped plot-points and reveal how much trouble the filmmakers had shaping this material. Still it's hard to be completely hating on this movie it looks like there's a good script with plenty of spunk in there somewhere with many good lines like Joan Cusack's about her own kids - "I've got to take Omen I and Omen II to soccer practice!" The crisp chemistry of the supporting cast helps too - Oliver Platt as Cusack's smarmy agent, the reliable stern Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) as a case worker, the underused Howard Hesseman as a child psychologist, and Cusack's THE GRIFTERS co-star Anjelica Huston as a literary publishing giant in a short but sweet part. As the kid in question, Coleman is cute and affective like in the scene where he reacts to a museum Mars landscape: "This is not how I remembered it."

As I wrote before about Cusack, he gets a film geek free pass for his work in the seminal SAY ANYTHING and HIGH FIDELITY among others so he can do rom com crap for the rest of his life if he wants and I'll look the other way but it's just that a film like this could've been so much more. It is such a lightweight movie that it needs its own "hold me down" weight belt to keep it from floating away. With its lack of real emotional impact it's just future Lifetime Channel afternoon fodder. You could do a lot worse than to rent MARTIAN CHILD but just like Cusack you could do a whole lot better.

SORCERER (Dir. William Friedkin, 1977)

When actor Roy Scheider died a month ago I posted a top 5 Essential Sharkless Roy Scheider Roles list. I got a few comments and a slew of email calling me on not having seen SORCERER. I put it in my NetFlix queue and just watched it so I'm happy to finally chime in on this underrated 70's spectacle. Well, first I'll say I hated that the only DVD version available is full screen and that it takes almost an hour to establish the premise that was as Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" book puts it "SORCERER revolves around the attempt of a small group of desperate men to drive a couple of trucks loaded with nitroglycerine across treacherous mountain terrain." To get to that we have to see each of the group, along with Scheider - Bruno Cremer, Amidou, and Fransico Rabal's violent and sometimes nonsensical background to gather somewhat why they are in exile in South America. Once we get going though it's quite a ride - that is, if you can get past the cryptic trappings.

SORCERER is horribly titled; of course when you first hear it you think of wizards 'n goblins 'n such. Well, there's nothing like that here - in fact it is so named because well, I'm not sure why it's named SORCERER. I think I read it was because that name is on the side of a truck but I watched it with that in mind and didn't see such. Tangerine Dream's score as noted by Jim DeRogatis as his favorite progressive rock movie music on a recent Sound Opinions (the NPR rock radio talk show) episode about great soundtracks is definitely a synthesized symphonic wonder. Anyway as the tale goes this film opened a week after STAR WARS at the famous Chinese Theater in Los Angeles in 1977 then was again replaced by STAR WARS the week afterwards with Friedkin lamenting "I dunno, little sweet robots and stuff, maybe we're on the wrong horse." Maybe it was the wrong horse but Friedkin's crazy literally off the rails (the truck on the wildly frailing wood bridge in the storm sequence is monumental in the annals of Hollywood 'how the Hell did they do they do that?'") movie is not one to be forgotten. I hope it gets a deluxe treatment on DVD or Blue Ray or whatever. At least let's get a wide screen version out there. Just sayin'.

More later...

Monday, March 3, 2008

10 Of The Most Misleading & Mis-Representing Movie Posters Ever!

In this interview with Pitchfork Academy Award-winning Irish songwriter Glen Hansard complains about the photoshopped makeover the poster for his film ONCE got on its recent DVD release:
"They have us holding hands, which we never do in the film! Those legs aren't mine. Those legs are like three times longer than my legs. It's a completely new body. They literally just used my face...If you look at my head, my head looks totally weird, because whoever did the Photoshop job was sh-t. My head looks really weird, they took my hat off, and they gave me an entirely new body. It's completely bizarre. And they made Mar [co-writer/performer Markéta Irglová] much taller than she really is. You can look at the original cover and then what they did to it and spot all the crappy differences. It's awful. It's a real shame."

Hansard is understandably upset because he designed the original poster and DVD cover himself. Some of the changes are more annoying than offensive but the "holding hands" deal - anybody who has seen the film knows how freakin' misleading that is! Also Hansard's comment illustrates how wide the gap is between who makes the art and who martkets it so it got me to thinking about misleading and downright mis-representing movie posters. Many have irritated me throughtout my years as a film fan. Now, it can be argued that most movie posters are misleading because that's their job - to make the movie look bigger and better than it is so it's a bit silly to pinpoint such offenses so call me silly as I make another patented Film Babble Blog list:

10 Of The Most Misleading & Mis-Representing Movie Posters Ever!

1. KING KONG (Dir. John Guillermin, 1976) As for trying to make the movie look bigger and better than it is, this one really takes the cake! Sure, there was a lot that was bogus about the 70's remake of the 1933 classic but the overblown spectacle depicted on this poster doesn't resemble what happens on screen at all. First off, Kong looks to be 5 times his size in the film - large enough to stand balanced between both World Trade Center Towers - he had to make a running leap from one to the other in the actual scene. Second, there were only helicopters in the movie so his crushing a jet plane (notice the size of it in perspective as well). Third, this sequence takes place at night. Fourth, this was not "the most exciting original motion picture event of all time". Okay, so those last 2 were nit picking but no less than Saturday Night Live pointed the former offenses out in a Tom Snyder show sketch with John Belushi as Dino De Laurentiis. Snyder (Dan Aykroyd) questions the producer: "Sir, the advertising for your movie, the billboards and so on, depict King Kong crushing jet planes in his hands, but, sir, there is not one jet plane in the movie...isn't that kind of a hype?" The elusive De Laurentiis by way of a slick slimey Belushi impression avoids the question by bringing up the hype of his competition - Jon Peter's A STAR IS BORN ("your monkey can sing!" De Laurentiis says he told Peters) but we all know that he's been satirically called out.

2. STAR WARS (Dir. George Lucas, 1977) This one always irked me as a kid. None of the characters look right - even Darth Vader looks a bit off. The image, while I'm sure some will grumble at it's inclusion here because it is inarguably iconic, doesn't really reflect the look and style of the record breaking blockbuster. Resembling 70's sci-fi pulp novel jackets with it's overly ripped muscular hero, overly sexy heroine (neither of which look anthing remotely like Mark Hamil nor Carrie Fisher), against a backdrop of battle, this poster most likely bugged me back in the day because the exact concept was redone a few times by other artists and never really improved upon. In the next few years when STAR WARS * was re-released several new poster designs appeared which were better in concept and presentation of the leads. Han Solo was even allowed to show his mug. Seems like it was only after it was a big hit with audiences did they figure how to market the movie. Or more accurately re-market the movie.

* Again, I'm not calling it EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE damnit!

3. THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Dir. Rob Reiner, 1984) This one is especially off-putting. Rob Reiner's debut film is made to look like a sight-gag filled laugh-a-minute spoof, and while it did have some of that to it - it was really a different comic model than the film its poster was referencing. Reiner in an interview from Mojo magazine (Nov. 2000) recalled how he hated the concept: "They marketed it with a guitar flying in the air with a twisted neck which looked like the poster for AIRPLANE! It looked like it was trading on another film. It was one of the reasons why I started Castle Rock because I wanted control over marketing." The image remained on the first video release of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (pictured to the left) but was replaced later but a plain black cover for the DVD releases. Glad to see it's gone.

4. BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (Dir. David Lean, 1957) The excellent blog Cinemania called this one to my attention. Dan Jardine wrote: "And could there be a more misleading movie poster?" It is pretty absurd in that it mis-represents the feel and focus of said Best Picture Winner. Not sure why Holden is billed above Alec Guiness either. I just saw this film for the first time all the way through (seems like it's been on TV my whole life but I never sat down and watched it all) so this caught my eye as being pretty notably non-complimentary.

5. SOYLENT GREEN (Dir. Richard Fleisher, 1973) Actually I think I like this poster better than the movie! It's more exciting and I can understand why they would want to draw attention to population controling monster trucks to fake moviegoers out about what SOYLENT GREEN really is. In fact you've got to give them credit because without all the misleads in the marketing and the film itself the quotable twist ending would not have been as effective and this would not be the sci-fi cult classic that it is.

6. CLASS (Dir. Lewis John Carlino, 1983) This may be a fairly insubstantial film, especially in the company on this list, being a mostly forgotten 80's drama/comedy (hate the word 'dramedy') but I think it makes a good point about mis-marketing. A popular genre of the Reagan era was the teen sex comedy (epitomized by such schlock as PORKY'S, THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN, PRIVATE LESSONS *, etc.) and while this film did contain some college party shenanigans it really didn't fit into that genre. That didn't mean that it couldn't be marketed as such - with a stupid poster that not only mis-represented the characters it gave away the only interesting plot-twist! The poster image may be hard to read - it says: "The good news is Jonathan is having his First Affair. The bad news is she's his roommate's mother!" Makes it seem like wackiness ensues, huh? Well, let me tell you - it doesn't.

* Not linking to any of that crap.

Dishonorable Mention From The Same Era: FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (Dir. Amy Heckerling, 1982) This also mis-represents majorly by making it look like Sean Pean's character Jeff Spicoli is the protagonist when he is a small player in an ensemble. His head appears to be cut from another picture as he is joined by two models who don't appear in the film at all. Like CLASS, the film had a good bit of depressing drama so the over selling of the sex really didn't clue in audiences. It also has a stupid tagline: "At Ridgemont High, Only the Rules get Busted!"

7. SCARY MOVIE (Dir. Keenan Ivory Wayans, 2000) This one is here for one reason only - the worthless promise of its tagline: "No mercy. No shame. No sequel." Did you get that? "NO SEQUEL!" There were 3 damn sequels to this should've been a one-off throwaway. Sure, you can argue that they didn't plan on a sequel until the movie became a hit but that's a possibility you know they were aware of. For the SCARY MOVIE 2 they ad campaign addressed this: "look, we lied!" but the damage was done. I liked it better when Mel Brooks' lame Python rip-off HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I didn't gather enough acclaim or box office to warrant a sequel. Ah, those were the days...

8. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (Dir. Robert Wise, 1951) This one is great as a piece of 50's sci-fi B-movie pop art but incredibly misleading on all fronts. Hell, some even complain that the title of the film is misleading but I won't go there. I won't bitch about a color image for a black and white film, that was pretty much the norm then, but the depicting of action that never occurs and that, uh, what looks like a monkey's hand on top of the Earth image is, well, just plain dumb. I do love the tagline though "From Out Of Space...."

9. JABBERWOCKY (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1977) Another from my childhood that really pissed me off. Although it followed the likewise Medieval MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and had Michael Palin as the star this was not a Python project - it was Terry Gilliam's solo directorial debut but was not billed as such. Wikipedia says: "For its American premiere the film was initially advertised as 'Monty Python's Jabberwocky', but this was dropped following protests from Gilliam." It wasn't immediately dropped though - for years posters and videocassette releases and many international showings had the Python credit. It confused me back in the pre-internet 80's when I was devouring all things Python. Watching it without the proper info that it wasn't really a Monty Python movie I felt like I was a victim of cinematic false advertising. Gilliam seems to have been successful in ridding the world of the inaccurate billing - The only image I could find was the Greek one-sheet (available from for $45.50!) above.

10. 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2002) This is a more recent title that annoys me terribly. It's one of my favorite films of the last 10 years and it's extremely rewatchable so I see the DVD cover a lot and hate that it has a close-up of a girl dancing showing off her tongue-stud when no such image is in the film. Maybe I blinked and missed it so if you saw such please let me know. Otherwise the image makes the film look more like a modern era ecstasy-rave movie than the spunky smart-ass 80's Manchester rock portrait it really is.

So, since there are zillions of misleading mis-representin' movie posters out there - please let me know your personal choices.

More later...