An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Thursday, December 31, 2009

List 'em up, 2009.

OK, I'll do one'a these this year. Why not? (I attempted a best-of-decade list, but it was daunting and kind of a drag, and I'm sick of seeing those anyway. So here's this.)

There's the usual caveat that I haven't been able to see everything yet, blah blah blah, but I doubt that, like, The White Ribbon is going to crack the list anyway, so I'm ready to pull the trigger. My 25 favorite films of 2009, counting down, starting with the also-rans.

Honorable mentions: Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces suffers from a serious case of Third Act Problems, but for most of the way it offers further proof that nobody in world cinema tells a story as enticingly as Pedro; Lone Scherfig's An Education is also hobbled by a botched ending, but it's got some of the year's loveliest performances, and its take on the myopia of young romanticism is moving and subtle; Ti West's The House of the Devil is almost the Gerry of horror movies, with its rhythmically slow build and masterful mise-en-scéne; Cary Fukunaga's Sin Nombre, a harrowing immigrant drama by an exciting new voice in Mexican cinema, features some of the year's most gorgeous widescreen lensing; and Armando Iannucci's In the Loop can't sustain its early reels' headlong rush of verbal brilliance, but as a caustic satire it's probably the closest we'll ever get to a Dr. Strangelove for the Bush era.

Dishonorable mention: Is it possible to believe that Lars von Trier's Antichrist is great art that's also completely full of shit? Von Trier's artistry is undeniable, and the performances are incredibly brave and committed, but the laziness and faux-profundity of the script is hard to overlook. "There's no such constellation," indeed.

THE LIST PROPER:

25) Crank: High Voltage. Like Michael Bay as filtered through old Warner Bros. cartoons and the French New Wave. Jason Statham is an axiom of ownage.

24) Harmony and Me. Hilarious collection of deadpan comic vignettes; also a surprisingly moving picaresque about the redemption of a sad-sack slacker and the therapeutic power of art.

23) A Single Man. Beautiful companion piece to Mad Men, for more than just the 1962 setting: it's almost a feature-length exegesis on Don Draper's exhortation to "limit your exposure."

22) Collapse. An intimate conversation with one of those street-corner nuts ranting about the end of the world—except he may not be a nut this time, and the end of the world might be real.

21) Whip It. No, I'm not kidding: Drew Barrymore's roller derby movie is a bright, heartfelt, irresistibly energetic tale of teen girl self-actualization—the cinematic equivalent of a great young-adult novel.

20) The Hurt Locker. I don't love this as much as everyone else does, but who am I to say no to a blisteringly single-minded character study of men in war that also blows stuff up real good? Best shot of a supermarket in cinema history.

19) Drag Me to Hell. In a welcome return to his roots, Sam Raimi finds the perfect sweet spot where horror and comedy intersect. Contains the most outlandishly conceived, outrageously executed set pieces of the year.

18) Public Enemies. Gotta love a rough-edged art film disguised as a blockbuster. Michael Mann's half-ugly, half-stunning digital video scrubs away all residue of nostalgia associated with the '30s gangster genre.

17) Adventureland. I didn't think the world needed another coming-of-age story about sensitive outsiders sharing a summer, but Greg Mottola's authentic script and graceful direction convinced me otherwise.

16) Pontypool. Locked-room suspense gives way to the year's strangest narrative tangent, which I daren't spoil even here. Grizzled old Stephen McHattie is both dryly ironic and almost romantically sonorous.

15) Tetro. Are we still allowed to use the word "classical" in 2009? Francis Ford Coppola, the returning champ, doesn't care about anything other than the images and emotions swirling around his old-fashioned brainpan.

14) Somers Town. My fave British filmmaker Shane Meadows masterfully locks into the languorous rhythms of two lost youths aimlessly wandering around London. A lyrical, magic-tinged wonderment; 70 minutes of pure happiness.

13) The Girlfriend Experience. Steven Soderbergh's digital follow-up to Bubble is just as uncompromising and aesthetically thrilling. His jazzy, circuitous, experimental editing upstages even Sasha Grey.

12) Big Fan. Robert Siegel gets how fandom tempers alienation; this absorbing character study presents a scenario in which the fandom is compromised and the fan must reckon with the confusion that remains.

11) The Brothers Bloom. Clever writing, exuberant filmmaking, perfect performances—how was Rian Johnson's second film dismissed as a mere Wes Anderson knockoff? For shame, critics.

10) Sita Sings the Blues. Buoyant meditation on music, mythology and heartbreak. Stylistically and thematically, Nina Paley's labor of love beats all the lame, overrated animation offered by the big studios this year.

9) A Serious Man. In which the Coen brothers go rooting around for the meaning of life in their own childhood backyard. A seriocomic reversal of the old saw, "somebody up there likes me."

8) The Box. All the sweet, sweet crazy we've come to expect from Richard Kelly, made with just enough discipline and adherence to traditional horror methods. Kelly is in communication with those who control the lightning.

7) Moon. Like a great episode of The Twilight Zone writ large: a minimalist genre work that remembers when sci-fi was about ideas, not spectacle. Also a master class in resourceful use of a low budget.

6) Me and Orson Welles. Maybe it's just the erstwhile theater-dork in me, but this sparkling love letter to the stage pleased me all out of proportion to its lack of buzz. Kinda like Almost Famous, weirdly, but better.

5) Silent Light. An immersive movie experience if there ever was one. Love, sorrow and the sanctity of daily rituals painted in stunning widescreen tableaux. Proves that "art films" needn't be remote or inaccessible.

4) Two Lovers. Start appreciating James Gray. No straining for Oscar approbation—just a beautiful, finely detailed, character-based drama that recalls U.S. cinema's '70s Silver Age. Guess they do make 'em like this anymore.

3) The Informant!. Zany farce, twisty tale of corporate corruption, close-up character study of the world's funniest sociopath—Soderbergh went two for two in '09 with this carnivalesque psychocomedy. Best voice-over EVER.

2) Humpday. My favorite movie to emerge from the DIY/mumblecore school. Lynn Shelton uses humor to suss out subtle truths about human relationships, and shapes her lead actors' improv with unprecedented precision.

1) Inglourious Basterds. An apotheosis of Tarantino's penchant for measured pacing and rigorous structure. Every shot and every scene is mapped out with beautiful exactitude. In a time when quick-cut incoherence rules the market—when "the shot has been banished from mainstream commercial cinema"—we need QT now more than ever. Plus, it's the best script the man has yet written: "If this is it, old boy, you won't mind if I go out speaking the King's?"

Friday, December 4, 2009

Deflating UP IN THE AIR

I don't really get any pleasure from tipping sacred cows. Okay, I kind of do, but what I mean is that I want to like every movie I see. So it's with some reticence that I report that Jason Reitman's new Oscar-bound dramedy Up in the Air, which is currently rocking an 82 (that's "Universal Acclaim") at Metacritic, didn't really do it for me.

I've read interviews with Jason Reitman, and I can tell that he's a bright guy who genuinely wants to make good movies. Fine—I'll keep seeing whatever he comes up with. But there's something almost insulting about the way this dude has been hagiographed by the press in the months since his new movie premiered at Toronto. Some asinine movie bloggers even made the laughably hyperbolic statement that Reitman is "the new Billy Wilder," or some such bullshit.

Whatever his strengths—and I'm not convinced that he has any definable ones, other than picking good projects—Reitman is a decidedly unambitious filmmaker in an era (or at least a year) in which original American voices are flourishing in cinema more than the press would have you know. 2009 has seen a string of remarkable films by authentic, talented young American directors: Lynn Shelton, Rian Johnson, Robert Siegel, Duncan Jones (a Brit, but humor me); not to mention more established names like Steven Soderbergh, James Gray, Richard Kelly, the Coens, Tarantino. But none of their films are going to make the awards-season splash that Up in the Air was poised to make before it even opened. So that's where I'm coming from when I say that Up in the Air is not worth getting excited about, and why I'm slightly offended by the hero's welcome it and its creator have received (and will continue to receive all the way through Oscar night).

Now, the movie. It's not bad. The actors are appealing, the script has its share of clever exchanges. But for a movie ostensibly about alienation and regret, it feels fundamentally hollow and unaffecting. In her astutely skeptical review, Karina Longworth opines that the film's "inherent brightness [is] tinted blue but never significantly darkened." Yes. The main problem with Up in the Air is Reitman's inability to fully engage with the pain and melancholy that gradually overtake its protagonist's life. Reitman wasn't the right man for the job; imagine what a more emotionally nuanced filmmaker could have done with this material—someone liked the aforementioned James Gray, perhaps. Reitman attempts an unhappy ending—the twist (I'll be cryptic to avoid spoilers) is that, even though Clooney has the standard big third-act epiphany, he can't act on it. This is an improvement on Juno's cloying exeunt, but it doesn't sting the way it should—not by a long shot.

And what of Clooney himself? In recent years, the mega-star has proven himself a resourceful and inventive performer; consider the range between, say, his hilariously goofy mugging in Burn After Reading and his classicist composure in Michael Clayton. But this strikes me as a regression for him—for the first time in years, he's relying on movie-star charisma rather than acting chops, and the film feels shallower for it. It's the women of Up in the Air who come close to redeeming it: neither Vera Farmiga nor Anna Kendrick is a household name, but they probably will be once this film's Oscar campaign is over. Farmiga knocks it out of the park in exuding the smoldering mystery that entices Clooney, and when the painful truth behind that mystery is revealed, Farmiga's consistence retroactively sells it. Young Kendrick steals all her scenes as a more grounded-in-reality version of Election's Tracey Flick; the lone scene that Clooney shares with both these women is perhaps the most interesting segment of the movie.

One reason the ending (and by extension, the whole film) doesn't go down like the jagged little pill it should have is that Reitman tips his hand with a montage of recently laid-off employees extolling the importance of family and close relationships (y'know, the stuff Clooney doesn't have). The intended irony is obvious, but the schmaltzy montage itself seems truer to Reitman's softie nature. All I could think of was that episode of King of the Hill where ditzy Luanne, having taken over as the local TV weatherperson, warns of an incoming storm and exhorts her audience, "Hug your babies tight!" Reitman wants his own exhortation to be more complicated (complete with gestures toward way-we-live-now portent), but he can't disguise his true calling as a maker of slick, harmless, reassuring entertainment. And let's not forget that his visual sense is about as sophisticated as Kevin Smith's. Embrace it, Jason—you're not a poet of solitude. You're just a guy who's about to win a bunch of Oscars.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

sand, sky, gun, hat



The horizon is unusually diagonal in this strikingly composed shot from Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jerry's America

Today, a fascinating confluence of three things I love: (1) Jerry Lewis, (2) Dave Kehr's DVD column in the New York Times, and (3) 1960s culture. It seems there's a new DVD set collecting sketches from The Jerry Lewis Show, a TV show that aired from 1967-69 and that I didn't even know existed. Kehr covers it here, and this is the paragraph that really fascinated me:

"The most interesting sketches in this collection find Mr. Lewis confronting [the social changes of the late '60s]. A two-part parody titled “My Bonnie Lies Over the Clyde” offers Mr. Lewis and Audrey Meadows as the outlaw couple played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the 1967 film, which had come to symbolize the “new Hollywood.” Presented by “Nice Clean Pictures,” the sketch begins by satirizing the unprecedented level of graphic violence that “Bonnie and Clyde” had introduced to American movies: Mr. Lewis’s Clyde enters a bank, mows down a dozen extras with a machine gun, and announces, “Nobody move and you won’t get hurt.” But with his Bogart lisp and “Scarface” tuxedo, Mr. Lewis is playing a gangster of Hollywood’s old school, not Mr. Beatty’s stylish new model, and a revealing disconnection sets in."

My curiosity about this may not be strong enough to actually track down the DVD, but I like the idea of Jerry as an avatar for the Mad Men generation of formerly hip gents watching their own obsolescence in slow motion. There's something poignant about the idea of Jerry fucking up his attempt to engage with the changing times, as per Kehr's latter observation about the outmoded gangster impression. Jerry's richest artistic period—his run of self-directed films from 1960-1965, in my estimation—was also, as far as I can tell, the last time he was really taken seriously as an American cultural institution. Once the proper-noun Sixties began in earnest, so too began Jerry's descent into public ridicule; as early as '67, Roger Ebert was already indulging in that now horribly clichéd practice: making fun of the French for loving Jerry Lewis.

Incidentally, Lewis's influence can currently be seen in multiplexes, as Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (a disappointment, but that's another subject) uses the same Jerry-derived visual trick that he borrowed for The Life Aquatic—the "cross-section" shot, used to show the boat in the earlier film and underground tunnels in the new one, was deployed by Lewis in his 1961 film The Ladies Man to show all the busy rooms of a house. JERRY 4 LIFE.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Comedian's manifesto

"To be sure, gentlemen, my jokes are in bad tone—uneven, confused, self-mistrustful. But that is simply because I don't respect myself. How can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself?" —Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Friday, November 6, 2009

Mad worlds: Richard Kelly's THE BOX

Though it lacks the vividness and depth of feeling that made Donnie Darko a contemporary classic, The Box belatedly confirms Richard Kelly's gift for creating mind-bending tales of both personal and cosmic disorder. Like Kelly's debut and its colossally misguided follow-up Southland Tales, this is a confusing film that I wish came with a user's manual; I'll have to see it again before I can determine if its narrative convolutions make some kind of sense or are merely red herrings. I suspect it's a little from column A and a little from column B, but it hardly matters. Kelly has crafted a deeply involving, unnerving, and singular sci-fi/horror film—and he's done it, for the first time, from within the trenches of the studio system.

When I heard that Richard Kelly was adapting a Richard Matheson story for his next film, I thought it would be an opportunity for him to take a back-to-basics approach and rein himself in after the miserable excesses of Southland Tales. Yes and no. While the what-would-you-do morality drama of the premise does ground Kelly to a certain degree, expanding the original story to feature length gives him ample room to explore the stratosphere of his own vast imagination. After the expected tension produced by Matheson's set-up—Frank Langella (deliciously creepy in the tradition of genteel, matter-of-fact monsters) shows up at a nice family's house with the button that'll give them a million a dollars but ensure a stranger's death—Kelly's script veers into bizarre blind alleys and ambiguous sci-fi conspiracy-theory madness. His obsession with water imagery (remember Donnie's weird projectile liquids) shows up in a breathtaking sequence that verges on the psychedelic. The middle portion of the film resembles a fever dream.

And yet, because this is a studio film—or maybe just because Kelly learned his lesson after last time—this weirdness doesn't sink the movie. The key to The Box's success is that it's filled with relatively traditional scares. From the first reel Kelly plants little suggestions that some malevolent forces are intruding on the characters. Kelly's tone is one of dread, of perpetually creeping mystery and terror. Here is a film in which the simple pleasures of old-fashioned horror storytelling rub up against the wild eccentricities of an outré fantasist. The result is ungainly at times, but it works, and as more than just a prepackaged cult commodity.

As in Donnie Darko, Kelly is committed to evoking the suburban details of a particular time, in this case the 1970s. Steven Poster's cinematography bathes the characters in a halo-ish glow that signifies at once nostalgia for a bygone era and the presence of cosmic forces interfering in the lives of ordinary people. Kelly's framing is precise and chosen for maximum creepiness; he seems to be in total control, even when the plot runs off the rails.

If there's something missing from The Box, it's the absence of Donnie Darko's emotional richness—the one area in which Kelly doesn't seem to be operating at full potential. But this is somewhat rectified in the film's haunting, if not exactly unpredictable, conclusion. Kelly has at last made a worthy follow-up to his debut: once again, the dreams in which he's dying are the best he's ever had.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Catch.

Barb said, “The catch. Don’t tell me there isn’t one. And don’t tell me these tickets to Vegas aren’t part of it.”

Pete stashed his piece. “Are you saying that two tickets was being optimistic?”

“No. You know I’ll never leave you.”

Pete smiled. “There’s some fuck-ups I wouldn’t have made, if I’d known you better.”

Barb smiled. “The catch? Vegas? And don’t make eyes at me when we have to run for a plane.”

Pete shut his suitcase. “The Outfit has plans for Mr. Hughes. Ward’s putting some things together.”

“It’s about staying useful, then.”

“Yeah. Stay useful, stay healthy. If I can get them to bend a certain rule, I’d call it a lock.”

Barb said, “What rule?”

“Come on, you know what I do.”

Barb shook her head. “You’re versatile. You run shakedowns and you sell guns and dope. You killed the President of the United States once, but I’d have to call that a one-time opportunity.”

Pete laughed. Pete made his sides hurt. Pete leaked some wiiiiild tears. Barb tossed a towel up. Pete wiped his eyes and de-teared.

“You can’t move heroin there. It’s a set policy, but it’s probably the best way I can make the Boys some real money. They might go for it, if I only sell to the spooks in West Vegas. Mr Hughes hates jigs. He thinks they should all be doped up, like he is. The Boys might decide to humor him.”

Barb got This Look. Pete knew the gestalt. I fucked JFK. You killed him. My craaazy life.

She said, “useful.”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

Barb grabbed her Twist gowns. Barb dropped them out the window. Pete looked out. A kid looked up. The blue gown hit a ledge.

Barb waved. The kid waved back.

“The Twist is dead, but I’ll bet you could get me some lounge gigs.”

“We’ll be useful.”

“I’m still scared.”

Pete said, “That’s the catch.”


— James Ellroy, The Cold Six Thousand, pp. 68-69

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Adventures in aspect-ratio geekery, or, why I love the internet, or, leave it to Bogdanovich

So I saw a 35mm print of Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai tonight at the Music Box, and of course it was glorious. But I noticed something very strange. During the legendary climactic funhouse-mirror sequence, the aspect ratio appeared to change from the standard 1.37:1 Academy ratio (the square shape of all pre-1953 Hollywood films) to a rectangular ratio, with the screen letterboxed (black bars at the top and bottom), looking closer to 1.85 or 1.66:1. This was shocking because widescreen ratios weren't a thing in Hollywood until CinemaScope arrived in 1953. At first I thought it might just be a projection snafu of some kind, or a quirk of the print that wasn't supposed to be there. But that wasn't a satisfactory explanation; I wondered if Welles was up to something.

So I poked around on the internet.

What I found was a thread on Wellesnet.com addressing this exact topic, originated by a poster who had my exact experience: he saw a theatrically projected print of Lady From Shanghai, noticed some letterboxing funny business in the funhouse scene, and wondered what the hell was going on. Some speculation followed, and then another poster delivered the goods by transcribing a comment made by Peter Bogdanovich on a DVD commentary track:

"In some scenes - it's noticeable particularly in the funhouse scene, in the mirror scene at the end, but there are other places where you can see it - he actually changed the aperture in the camera when he shot, so that sometimes the image was narrower than normal, top and bottom. He did that on purpose in a way that in fact DW Griffith did, changing the shape of the image by masking the top and bottom or the sides or whatever, something that Griffith did. Orson brought that into sound pictures, something that very few people did. He was amused that he'd done it and nobody'd ever noticed it."

Well I noticed it, Orson.

It does make sense, really, because creating a wider image gave him more room to convey the scope of the funhouse and all the mirror doubling. He probably figured that you couldn't quite get a full sense of the visual distortion in the square ratio.

What I'm wondering now is if this has any implications for the ongoing, vociferous debate over the correct aspect ratio for Touch of Evil. It's all very involved and confusing, and there's no definitive proof either way, but a lot of people got upset when the recent DVD special edition of the film presented it in 1.85:1, even though by 1958 almost all theaters were projecting films in some kind of widescreen ratio. The argument, or one argument, goes that Welles hated the widescreen processes and composed his shots in 1.37:1 even knowing that they would eventually be masked for 1.85:1, or something like that. But to me his experiments in Lady From Shanghai indicate that he was interested in playing around with aspect ratios and widescreen effects. So it adds another layer to the debate. Or rather it would if any of those people read my blog.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Quiz kid

Noted film blogger Dennis Cozzalio is known for posting occasional quizzes for other film bloggers to fill out, discuss, engage with, etc. I've seen 'em before but never participated. There's a new one, and I figured, why not. So here are my answers:

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
The Killing. (#1 is Paths of Glory.)

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.
Either good or evil, depending on the filmmaker: the increasingly prevalent use of digital video (as opposed to film). Some directors (Fincher, Mann, Soderbergh, Lynch, Coppola, et al) have done lovely and/or interesting things with the new medium. Many others have used it to unwittingly create ass-ugly, shit-looking, hideous pieces of shit. Either way, it's the future of cinema and we have to deal with it.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?
Sadly I've seen neither film as of yet.

4) Best Film of 1949.
Hard not to say The Third Man, but my heart belongs to The Set-Up.

5)Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
The former.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
No—that's like asking if the Steadicam has become a visual cliche. It's just a visual strategy that filmmakers have at their disposal. Like anything else, it can be used for good or for evil. Is it sometimes used falsely or ineptly? Sure, but no moreso than, say, false or inept use of the 2.35:1 widescreen ratio (which rankles me a lot more). Whether or not it's overused is the wrong question; the important thing is how it's used.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
Hard to say, but the first one I saw theatrically must have been Amelie.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?
N/A.

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
There are a lot of major ones I haven't seen, so for now I'll say Stalag 17.

10) Favorite animal movie star.
Uh, has there ever been a good one? I will opt for a smartass answer and say the frogs at the end of Magnolia.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
Paul Haggis' Crash irresponsibly allowing smug, ostensibly PC white people in the audience to pat themselves on the back for not being racist like the characters on the screen.

12) Best Film of 1969.
Again, too much I've yet to see; I'll have to put down The Wild Bunch, even though it's not one of my favorite Peckinpahs.

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
Theatrically, a double feature of Humpday and In The Loop. On DVD, Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch. All splendid films in their own respective ways.

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.
The Long Goodbye. (#1 is McCabe & Mrs. Miller.)

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
Impossible to pick just one since I take everything in via RSS feeds and such. But if I have to single something out, I get a reliable combination of laughs and enlightenment from Glenn Kenny's wonderful blog.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)
N/A.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?
N/A.

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
Some Came Running. (I was going to say Carnival of Souls, but realized it doesn't actually feature a carnival.)

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
Motherfuckin' Zodiac, in a walk.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.
Can't decide between McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Unforgiven. I like the former more in general, but I think the latter works better as a deconstruction.

21) Best Film of 1979.
It's been too long since I've seen Alien, which I suspect is the correct answer. In lieu of that, I will put down All That Jazz, which I can safely say is the greatest musical about self-destruction and thanatotic obsession ever made.

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
I don't know about realistic, but for sincerity it's hard to beat Jacques Tourneur's underseen Stars In My Crown. (In the contemporary realm, of course, there are David Gordon Green's first two features.)

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
As Val Lewton understood, the scariest creatures are always the unseen ones. Having said that, I love the Gremlins in Joe Dante's comedy-horror diptych. And those things in The Descent were fucking scary.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
Too many gaps in my Coppola viewing. I'll say Apocalypse Now even though I only saw it in my youthier days. (#1 is The Conversation.)

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
The AV Club did a fun list related to this topic a while back. I don't know if I can think of one, since this question presupposes that movie franchises are a worthy undertaking, and I'm not convinced that's the case.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.
Any scene from the trashsterpiece Body Double. I love every moment of that giddily over-the-top, quintessentially '80s film. (And I suck at remembering individual sequences.)

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
Does the dream ballet in An American In Paris count as a moment?

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)
I am happily unqualified to answer this one.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?
N/A.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
I'm actually rather fond of his ingratiating, underrated comedy Scoop, from 2006.

31) Best Film of 1999.
American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (the only documentary I love as much as my favorite fiction films). For best fiction feature of '99, I'd pick Eyes Wide Shut.

32) Favorite movie tag line.
"Who will survive and what will be left of them?" (from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

33) Favorite B-movie western.
As others have pointed out, this depends on your definition of B-movie. I haven't really seen any true B-westerns (that's the cheapo kiddie stuff from the '30s, Roy Rogers and down). Closest thing I've seen is probably the Boetticher/Scott cycle, of which my favorite is Ride Lonesome, but even that's way above the B-movie station.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.
Great question. I'd say Stephen King, but there have been as many shitty films based on his work as good ones. I'll go with Raymond Chandler: Murder My Sweet, The Big Sleep, and Altman's The Long Goodbye ... an unimpeachable trifecta, even if it can't quite hold up to the best King adaptations (Carrie and The Shining being the preeminent examples).

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?
The former.

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
Is cameo the right word here? I can't think of anything.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
Inconsistent—the film is half satirical, half farcical. Cohen can't decide if he wants to expose hypocrisy or make himself the butt of the joke; his stuff usually works better when in the latter mode. Either way, I don't think negative stereotyping is really an issue, although he does rely a bit too heavily on the premise that gay sex and male nudity are inherently hilarious.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)
Damn, tough one. Orson Welles is a given. Billy Wilder would be a delightful conversationalist, I'm sure. Martin Scorsese, obviously—we know that man can talk. In the actor realm there's Jean Arthur, because I have a long-standing crush on her. And finally a man who I conceivably could meet, given that we share a city: the one and only Roger Ebert.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Liveblogging BTTF2 for some goddamn reason

Sigh. I was passively flipping channels tonight when I came across a cable channel that was just about to show Back to the Future II. These are, for me, the ideal conditions to watch a Back to the Future film, and it's very difficult for me to resist the impulse to do so. And because I'm apparently a masochist (and, if anyone else reads this, a sadist as well), I was seized by the urge to liveblog that shit. So I did. My efforts follow.

--------------------

-Wait so, maybe this is explained elsewhere and I'm just forgetting, but how much time has elapsed for Doc between the end of Part 1, when he oh-so-wistfully departs for the future ("About 30 years... seems like a nice round number") to the beginning of Part 2, when he shows up back at chez McFly? Of course it's only been a matter of seconds in real time — just long enough for Marty to drool over his shiny new car (and his literally new girlfriend, Elizabeth Shue replacing the jobber from Part 1), glance back at his new parents, and declare that "everything is great." But how long has Doc been gallivanting around the space-time continuum in the interim, and what exactly has he been up to (besides bearing witness to the poor life decisions of Marty's progeny)?

-Allow me to quote myself from an email I sent to Abe in response to this video: One of my favorite little nuances of the trilogy is that when he sees the DeLorean flying, Friendly Nu-Biff *instantly* reverts to Original Asshole Biff, presaging Evil Tycoon Biff. It's all there in that little moment. Thomas F. Wilson FTW.

-Jennifer is rather implausibly credulous in her response to finding out she's in a time machine. But that does set up the cute gag of Doc knocking her out with a future-y science tool. ("She's not essential to my plan.")

-Ugh: "The justice system works swiftly in the future now that they've abolished all lawyers." Some of these it's-the-future jokes are really lame.

"Power laces! All right!" Marty, your earnest enthusiasm about "power laces" is adorable.

-Despite the flying cars, weird clothes, and holographic shark-attack (an ad for "Jaws 19" that scared the holy living fuck out of me as a kid), the vision of 2015 Hill Valley is kind of mundane. It's neither a Blade Runner hellish dystopia nor a glowing vision of progress. It's just a crappy '80s suburb projected 30 years forward, like those computer composites of missing children.

-Speaking of the '80s, this '80s nostalgia cafe remains a truly inspired touch. And yes, here I will note the new resonance of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" blaring out of the cafe's speakers and a pixellated MJ computer animation appears as a waiter.

-Old Biff, I love you. How many different Biffs does Thomas F. Wilson play in this film alone?

-Oh my god, Griff is fucking hilarious. I can't believe Wilson got away with such a recklessly over-the-top caricature.

-WAIT. WAIT. Griff is Biff's grandson, yes? So this implies that Biff was married or at least got it on with a lady, and had some kind of family and life outside of his association with the McFlys (which is all we know of him). I, for one, would like to know a lot more biographical details about Biff. (Speaking strictly of regular reality Biff at this point, not skewed-tangent Evil Tycoon Biff, about whom we actually know a fair amount thanks to that helpfully exposition-packed video that plays in the casino later on. I want a bio-vid like that for the other Biff permutations too.)

-Um, that arcade joke — "You mean you have to use your hands? That's like a baby's toy" — doesn't really work by itself; it pays off in Part 3 at the shooting gallery. Sometimes the rhyming effects in the sequels are fun; sometimes, as here, they're kinda stupid.

-I'm sure this has pointed out a million billion times by nerds before, and I don't actually give a shit, but according to the interal logic of the trilogy shouldn't there be a space-time continuum-unraveling paradox when Marty comes face to face with Marty Jr in the cafe? Or at least one of them should faint, a la the two Jennifers later on? #whocares

"Your jacket is now dry." Maybe this is a utopian future after all.

-WTF: Why did they put an actor in crappy age makeup for the "save the clock tower" guy rather than just hiring an old actor? My first instinct was that it was the same guy from the first movie, but no — that was a lady.

-Much like Marty quoting Taxi Driver in Part 3, I did not understand Marty Jr's Midnight Cowboy reference for many years. Actually, in Part 3, I spent years thinking "You talkin' to me?" was a Clint Eastwood quote since Marty borrowed Clint's name as his nom du cowboy.

-"I was fraaamed!!!" This first act is maybe a little too goofy, but Griff makes it all worthwhile.

-Oh, wait, I guess the time paradox deal is only if you meet your future self, not your future son who looks exactly like you. Works for me.

-"So...Doc Brown invented a time machine." Aaaand time for the commercial break, if this were the taped-from-basic-cable VHS that I watched throughout my childhood! It really is a beautifully dramatic moment.

-Even as a kid, I appreciated the inventive wordplay of the line "Hilldale: nothing but a breeding ground for tranks, lobos, and zipheads." Although for a supposedly rough neighborhood there sure are some big, nice-looking houses. I think this was just a half-assed attempt to make some comment on (sub)urban decay, cf. Marty getting excited when he finds out he ends up in formerly richy-rich Hilldale.

-I really will never forgive this movie for putting Michael J. Fox in drag.

-On one of the channels Marty Jr is watching on that big multi-TV: an ad for a product called "The Headlight Tit," showing a busty woman with a bright light emanating from her, ah, endowment. Where's Billy Mays when we need him most?

-Where's Doc while Biff is stealing the Delorean? Is this explained later? I'm thinking it isn't.

-NEEDLES!!! Greatest 45-seconds-of-screentime character in the history of cinema. Bless you, Flea.

-"Read my fax." Ew boy. Couldn't somebody have told Zemeckis and Gale that probably no one would be using fax machines in 2015? On the other hand, I had to use a fax machine at my recent internship sometimes and felt the embarrassing sting of having to ask people how the hell to use a fax machine.

-Okay so. Biff keeling over when he returns the DeLorean never made sense, but I seem to recall a deleted scene on the DVD (I've since lost the DVD set I got when it came out, which is a fucking shame...got lost in the shuffle of going away to college) that explained it. But I do not remember what the explanation was other than that it was mind-blowing. I think it involved Biff being "erased from existence" per Marty's fam in Part 1. But I don't remember why. Shit, I need to replace that DVD set. Maybe if/when I eventually go Blu-ray.

-I love this stretch of the movie, exploring the dystopian alternate 1985. "I don't remember bars being on these windows..."

-Whoa uh, Doc is pretty cavalier saying he's about to dismantle the time machine. Did he make an announcement to that effect earlier? Guess it doesn't much matter; presumably Doc immediately noticed that something was rotten in Denmark and changed plans.

-At least two different Michael Jackson posters on the black girl's bedroom wall (formerly Marty's bedroom wall).

-Major tone shift now. The dopey humor of the 2015 segment is gone. "We ain't gonna be terrorized!" This scene is so evocatively hellish. Silvestri's score is really the fifth Beatle of these movies — it's so insistent.

-I love that Strickland addresses the gang who just tried to murder him in a drive-by shooting as "slackers."

-Aaand it's the best use if "I Can't Drive 55" ever. And here's that Biff bio video - "America's greatest living folk hero"(!)

-"I just want to say one thing...God bless America." Thomas F. Wilson you are perfect.

-Ha, I'd forgotten (or never noticed??) that this video links Biff to Marilyn Monroe.

"You're so...big." I wonder how many viewings it took before I understood this as a reference to Lorraine's boobs.

-The talk of George McFly's virtue does make me miss the presence of Crispin Glover. I'd like to know more about the supposed falling-out between him and Zemeckis that resulted in his exclusion from the sequels.

-And here's the line that delighted me for years with the impact of its coincidence: "Your father is in the same place he's been for the past 12 years...OAK PARK CEMETERY!" Seeing it now, it doesn't seem so odd - there are a few other towns called Oak Park and it's a fairly generic-sounding name for a cemetery. But, you know.

-"English, Doc." Marty really is not too bright, is he?

-Can of worms: since Biff creates an alternate reality by giving himself the Almanac, couldn't the sports results conceivably be totally different from those of the original reality, thus rendering the Almanac useless?!?!

-I was always impressed by the stairs trick Marty uses to ditch Biff's goons. I like when Marty gets to be a wily badass.

-Maybe the most rousing, triumphant, perfectly timed moment in the trilogy: Marty riding the DeLorean, Doc knocking Biff out cold with the car door, and this exchange: "You're not gonna believe this - we gotta go back to 1955!" "I don't believe it!"

-The idea that Nov 5, 1955 is some kind of fulcrum of the entire time space continuum is pretty fucking cool. "On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence." I like that they never explain which of those options it is.

-And now we get the second big shift in tone. We had the broad humor of the first act in 2015 turning to the hellishly grave drama of the alternate 1985, now back to the sweet "Mr. Sandman" world of 1955 Hill Valley and the misadventures of young bully Biff as he throws kids' soccer balls into gutters, haggles over the price for fixing his manure-messed car, and tries to woo the young Lorraine who is currently besotted with "Calvin Klein" aka her own son, our intrepid hero who's currently hiding in that selfsame car. And the wacky doubling comedy of the Old Biff hanging out with Young Biff. Although, again: why no universe-threatening paradox?

-I like how the Biffs are just out of earshot as Old Biff starts to explain that Young Biff should murder Doc or Marty if they ever come around asking about the almanac.

-Oh man. This scene between the two Docs is kinda sublime. Even if Zemeckis and Gale are really running out of ways for characters to talk about "the future" unknowingly in sentences. Christopher Llloyd consistently nails the pathos of this character.

-I wonder if audiences in 1989 remembered Part 1 well enough to really get this stretch of the film (at the dance), which is all about reconstituting scenes from the first movie from other perspectives. It had been four years, after all.

-The suppressed physical anguish on Marty's face as Strickland backs the chair into his hand might be Michael J. Fox's best acting moment in the movie. Which, frankly, isn't saying that much — MJF was kinda phoning it in for the sequels.

-Love that Marty gets the chance to see his old man deck Biff. And then we get a shot of original Marty panicking at the photo of his siblings being erased from existence. Very nice - makes up for the lame-ass "talk about deja vu!" line.

"I think he took your wallet! I think he took his wallet."

-Nice framing on this shot of Marty and a bloodied Biff on opposite ends of the frame standing outside the window showing other Marty saying goodbye to his futureparents.

-Quibble: the sequels did some retconning in how they downplayed Doc's tenuous grip on sanity. The point of Doc in Part 1 is that he's sincerely a crackpot weirdo who happens to create one successful invention. The Doc of the sequels is a reasonable, infinitely wise old man. It doesn't bother me too much, but it's worth noting.

-If you think about it, "I hate manure" is an utterly pointless declaration. Who likes manure?

-And off Doc goes to the wild wild west. A problem with this movie: anti-climax. I mean, the scene with Joe Flaherty as the Western Union man is pretty great, but it's not exactly a satisfying conclusion. The movie spends too much time setting up Part 3, when it could've been doing stuff like, oh, I dunno, EXPLAINING WHY BIFF KEELED OVER AND I GUESS DIED.

-I always loved Marty's use of the definite article in this scene: "IT'S FROM THE DOC!" and "THE DOC'S ALIVE!"

-Yeah, this ending is pure setup. Kind of lame. But jesus, I just spent two unplanned hours in the middle of the night watching this movie for the trillionth time and it was 100% pleasurable, even if it is a far cry from the geometrical perfection of Part 1. But of course it's impossible for me to objective about this. I briefly tried putting on my cinephile goggles to see if I could do any sort of high-minded auteurist analysis, but it was useless - these don't even register as movies to me so much as, I dunno...finding an old diary in the house you grew up in and reading over the entries. Or something. It's late.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bloodstains on the carpet

I was never a Michael Jackson fan, and I continue to be weirded out by all the cultural obsessiveness over his death/funeral, but I do have one MJ memory that seems worth recording.

I'm sure I'm not the only member of my generation for whom "Smooth Criminal" was a Michael Jackson song second and a shitty Alien Ant Farm cover first. This cover was briefly ubiquitous for a spell in what Wikipedia says was 2001 (but what I could've sworn was the late '90s), and as with many such hits, I thoroughly absorbed it into my bloodstream without particularly giving a shit about it. Then, some time later, after the cover's glory had faded, I listened—or paid attention—to the original "Smooth Criminal" for the first time, and it was a revelation. Like, wait, that annoying thing from MTV was actually this? Not only was it a gorgeous, electrifying pop song; it exuded a stylish sense of danger, a sense of cool, that the Alient Ant Farm version didn't even come close to capturing. I'm sure this is all no-shit-Sherlock stuff to MJ fans (which apparently is fucking everybody; I seriously had no idea that the man was regarded as anything but an '80s relic turned creepy psycho), but to me it was (and is even more now that I'm revisiting it) a pretty cool piece of news.

(I chanced to walk into a video store the other day while it was playing Michael Jackson videos on the TV, and this song caught my ear in a pleasant manner. Then they showed the one with an interminable intro starring George Wendt and Macauly Culkin. I think George Wendt got launched into outer space for some reason.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Outlands: VISIONEERS and MOON

Going to the movies the past two nights, I've encountered two indies set in the near future, both built around lonely, passive protagonists. They both owe a strong debt to films and ideas of the past. Only one is pure sci-fi, but it struck me as odd or somehow meaningful that I saw them so closely together. (In between the two I saw Francis Ford Coppola's new film, Tetro [yeah, I go to the movies a lot, you wanna fight about it?], which I liked very much but which, alas, I cannot shoehorn into this discussion.)

Jared Drake's Visioneers is undistributed—and it looks like it's going to stay that way, given that a DVD release is slated for later this summer—but I was able to see it last night at Chicago's magical Gene Siskel Film Center at the ceremony for the winners of some kind of local award for indie comedy. The one-man "celebrity" jury was this guy, who is totally cool with me because he wrote The 'Burbs and that is a great fucking movie. (It's a must-see for fans of Bruce Dern, who also starred in Silent Running, which was a major influence on Moon. See what I did there?!) I also had a random quasi-celebrity sighting in the audience: this awesome motherfucker, who played the dude who played Kramer in the show-within-the-show on Seinfeld (sidebar: Wikipedia says this guy was Larry David's first choice for the role of the actual Kramer). I spotted him just hanging out in the lobby/cafe area before the movie, although he did have an official-looking badge on. Insider events!

So, this movie. It's a disappointment—partly. I'd been excited about it since seeing the trailer last year, partly because it's a beautifully cut trailer but mostly because of the promise of seeing one of my favorite comedians ever, Zach Galifianakis, in a leading role. I did get to see that, and more on Zach later, but anyone who shat themselves with excitement over that trailer should brace for a letdown (and get some new pants—seriously, it's time). Basically it's an earnest, extremely derivative attempt at Orwellian satire that I might have retitled Dystopia For Dummies.

Corporations are inhuman and soul-crushing! Self-help gurus are full of shit! Having thoughts and emotions is better than not having them! These are a few of the facile non-profundities peddled by the Visioneers script, written by Brandon Drake, the IRL brother of director Jared Drake. (Will they someday be known as The Drake Brothers, a la Messrs. Coen and Duplass? Probably not, but let's call them that anyway. Their mom would probably love it. Mrs. Drake, if you're reading this, you should still be proud of your sons even though someone you've never met has reservations about their movie.)

The ideas in this movie are ideas that you have encountered before—cherry-picked from 1984, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the stories of George Saunders, and any number of other sources you could name. It's set in a vaguely-defined corporate dystopia in which people have been exploding (literally) if they...well, it's not too clear what the prerequisite for explosion is other than that our protagonist, an unhappy corporate drone trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman obsessed with a TV self-help show, is in danger of being the latest explosion victim. He's been dreaming at night, which his doctor tells him is veeerry baaaad (because good things like dreaming are bad, because the corporate power structure hates emotions and independent thoughts and authentic lives...you begin to see the movie's perspective?) I guess the idea is that people who break out of the bland complacency that's standard in this society get 'sploded, but the thing is, we only actually see one explosion take place—perhaps due to budgetary limitations—and the poor guy wasn't actually doing anything subversive. So the ideas here are both familiar and half-baked. Anyway, the only bright spot in Zach's existence is his daily phone conversation with a higher-up at the office named Charisma. Then Charisma gets fired, for being too nice I guess, and Zach has to save her from being de-emotioned by the evil corporate baddies. Will love conquer all? Will anyone care?

Okay, so it sounds like I'm being pretty harsh. But here's the thing: I felt that the directing half of The Drake Brothers actually treated this well-worn material in a paradoxically fresh, unpredictable way. There's an off-kilter approach to Drake's framing and cutting that suits the material. For a low-budget movie it's a surprisingly stylish affair, and here's where I shall praise Drake for shooting on film rather than going down the dark road of shitty digital video (as most of his microbudget peers understandably do). The 35mm print screened at the Siskel Center looked yummy. Drake's camera often lingers on scenes well past the point when a Hollywood counterpart would have cut away, like a party guest who won't leave, increasing the sense that everyone in this society is essentially uncomfortable with their lives.

And then there's Zach G. His performance here is so restrained and internal that anyone familiar only with his broad hijinks in The Hangover would be shocked. It is comprised alternately of long vacant stares, hushed line readings, and controlled physical freakouts that combine to suggest a basic discomfort with such acts as speaking and moving. It's a character that flirts with maddening passivity (Syd Field would disapprove) but Zach owns it—you can't take your eyes off him, even when he's just staring off into space (and Drake lingers searchingly on close-ups of his face, a lot, to a point that's kind of disconcerting, in a good way).

Even though I was ultimately let down by the film's adherence to age-old ideas about how it would totally be better to live in an imperfect world with genuine emotions than a perfect world with robotic sameness, I was never less than intrigued along the way. (It's also worth mentioning that during the first 10 minutes or so I thought I was watching a future classic; the opening scene is a perfectly realized peek into absurd corporate routine that the film never quite lives up to.) There are a lot of odd little details and grace notes—a largely unexplained subplot about a commune of hippies coming to live in Zach's backyard bears some nice absurdist fruit—and enough skill in the filmmaking that I'm eager to see what The Drake Brothers cook up next. The forthcoming DVD is something worth checking out.

And yeah, Moon. I don't know that I have a lot to say about it right now, even though it's a far far better film than the one I just wrote about. It is a modest, melancholy little sci-fi masterpiece that I look forward to seeing again. Although it does call to mind the idea-driven SF films of the pre-Star Wars era, writer-director-sonofDavidBowie Duncan Jones isn't interested in reinventing cinema or making grandiose statements about mankind, a la 2001 and Solaris. Indeed, one of the movie's virtues is its perfect simplicity, its smallness. Despite the big second-act "twist" there's not actually that much going on plot-wise. Jones finds the perfect tone and the perfect look, and the rest is taken care of by the amazing Sam Rockwell, who I believe may be the best actor of his generation (and this is his finest showcase to date). For the work of a first-time director this movie is almost shockingly fully-realized, especially compared to the other debut I saw last night, which was more "promising" than anything else. This is a sad, funny, and deeply human film despite the hard-SF trappings. J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader picked up on that humanity when he wrote this poignant line: "As it turns out, the moon is just another shitty place to work, and as the hero discovers to his horror, even his own selfhood is company property." As of mid-June this is my favorite new film of the year...unless you count Silent Light as a 2009 film, which I do, so okay, it's my second-favorite new film of the year so far. Not too shabby.

Monday, June 15, 2009

WHOA I NEVER THOUGHT OF THIS

You know, for as many times as I've watched the Back to the Future trilogy in my life, I've spent relatively little time thinking about it. Because these movies were a part of my life since I was very young, they were sort of imprinted on me before I was old enough to intellectualize them, which is kind of a shame considering that there's a lot of really fun, twisty, mind-bending stuff going on in the time travel plots, if you take the time to think about them.

This is all to say that I recently stumbled on to a blog, by circuitous googling that had absolutely nothing to do with Back to the Future, called Alternate 1985. It's a cool blog by some dude with well-written thoughts about various subjects. One of those subjects is Back to the Future, and Doc bless him, he likes to intellectualize the fuck out of it.

Much of the discussion of the films on his blog and in the comments section are of an explosively mind-blowing nature that I'm presently too tired to devote serious thought to. But one of his insights -- apparently first suggested in the pages of "some sci-fi magazine I remember seeing when I was a kid" -- is simple enough for me to understand it at 3:00 a.m., yet TOTALLY MIND-BLOWING. Behold:

"So Marty McFly goes back from 1985 to 1955 and changes the course of history such that, when he returns, his family is different (more confident, richer), Twin Pines is now Lone Pine or something, and Doc Brown wears bulletproof vests after ripping off terrorists. Right? But he remembers the original 1985, is from the original 1985. Even ignoring the problem that he's evidently exactly the Marty that his new family expects to find in their house that morning (why is he the only sibling unchanged by happier parents?), there's this problem: what about the Marty that he watches drive off in the time machine? That's the Marty who was raised by the actualized George and the satisfied Lorraine, the one who never had any reason to think that Biff had wrecked the family car, the one whose mom always liked his girlfriend and fully supported their going off to the lake for some good old-fashioned teenage sex. So what happens when he goes back to 1955, and what 1985 does he return to? Remember: whereas the Marty we know went back to 1955 knowing that his parents fell in love after Lorraine's father hit George with the car, this Marty knows that his parents fell in love after George rescued her from Biff at the Fish Under the Sea dance or whatever it was called; will he push George out of the way of the car?—and if so, will he do what our Marty did to try to get his parents together? Because if not, no way is George going to punch out Biff. And wouldn't that mean that the 1985 that Marty comes back to will be rather a lot like the one our Marty left? Back to the Future Part II is the one that specifically concerns itself with an alternate 1985, but because no unbroken circle can be formed, even the first movie seems to imply a potentially infinite series of alternate 1985s, or at least a kind of eternal oscillation."

IT'S SO CLEAR BUT I NEVER SAW IT BEFORE.

And of course, the REALLY mind-bending shit happens in Part II. The above refers to the otherwise relatively non-mind-bending first film.

I love this shit.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Goggins Recognized

It's time again to check in with our exalted obsession Walton Goggins, the actor late of departed television powerhouse THE SHIELD, and the one individual who causes us to use the "royal we" in our bloggings.

The recent news, as reported by revered TV critic (and fellow Goggins fan) Alan Sepinwall, is that Goggins has been nominated for a Television Critics Association award for "individual achievement in drama." I'll say! Goggins' achievement in the final season of THE SHIELD (the final two seasons, really) was exceedingly individual, all right, some of the most powerful acting we've seen on the small screen. As Shane became an increasingly volatile character, it was like a great '70s Method performance was dropped in the middle of a cop show. We believe, in fact, that Goggins deserves the award over his more widely-heralded fellow nominees Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston.

Note that Sepinwall leads off his post with the same photo of a distressed-looking Goggins that we used in a previous post.

Also note that the un-fucking-believable final season of THE SHIELD comes out on DVD on June 9th. You're welcome, Sony!

Go Goggins!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A FEW REASONS WHY "BREAKING BAD" OWNS YOUR GODDAMN FACE

Breaking Bad is groundbreaking, in a lot of ways. It does things that not even the canonical HBO dramas have done. And it does so while COMPLETELY OWNING YOUR FUCKING ASS with raw, unflinching, dark-night-of-the-soul brutality and despair and excitement and humor and horrible/beautiful humanity. And all that on basic cable!

Some stuff that the show does uniquely well:

Pacing. This is a show that knows how to take its time. The writers balance the occasional big, plot-advancing, high-drama episodes of nightmarish intensity (usually involving bloodshed of some kind) with lower-key episodes that slow everything way down and zoom in on the characters, their relationships and their internal lives. Even in plot-momentum episodes they're not afraid to keep the pace measured and deliberate. Other shows may have taken similar tacks, but none have pulled it off this gracefully; partly due to the pacing, Breaking Bad often feels more like great theater, or like an art film, than a television show.

Visuals. Many recent dramas have showcased excellent writing, but few, if any, have prioritized visual storytelling. Breaking Bad benefits from top-notch directors who find ways to tell the story in visual terms to complement the writers' verbal ones, and cinematographers who seize on the sun-baked loveliness of the New Mexico landscape in contrast with the human ugliness on display in the writing and acting. Several episodes have experimented with jazzy editing tricks and varied film stocks in kinetic montage sequences. Breaking Bad is perhaps the only TV show I've ever seen that looks and feels truly cinematic.

Characters and acting. Okay, so lots of shows have complex characters and deep performances, but none that I know of are as single-minded about developing and penetrating a character. As played with can't-look-away intensity by Bryan Cranston, Walt is a fascinating riff on the anti-heroes that have driven many of the big dramas: Al Swearengen, Vic Mackey, Tony Soprano, et al. But the writers here never really ask us to root for Walt as he descends into a hell of deception and criminality, or to identify with him, or to place us in a what-would-you-do moral quandary. The show doesn't make excuses for Walt other than the excuses he makes, unconvincingly, for himself. Instead it studies him, gazing with fascination at his increasingly corrupted soul. Throw in the outstanding Aaron Paul as Walt's reluctant young partner-in-meth, and a host of interesting supporting characters—including, in a recent addition, the great Bob Odenkirk as a crooked lawyer—and you're really, um, "cooking."

Termite Art, motherfuckers. I would argue that even the best TV dramas up to this point have fallen more or less under Manny Farber's designation of White Elephant Art. Deadwood and The Wire are sweeping, grandiose epics that take on the topics of, respectively, the forging and breakdown of American society. Breaking Bad has none of that grandiosity. It's about moments, and sometimes-mundane reality, and people dealing with bad situations in real time. And within that framework they find room for stuff like, oh, the decapitated head of Danny Trejo strapped to a turtle wired with a bomb. I call that having your cake and eating it too, and I say hats off to the show's creative team for pulling it off.

Did I mention the show is also really funny sometimes? The point is this is the dopest fucking shit you will see on television or even at the movies for that matter. Even when Don Draper and his merry band of morally challenged visitors from the 20th century return in August, they will take a fucking backseat to the absolute undisputed ownage of Breaking Bad.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I guess I should have posted this on Twitter? I don't even know anymore.

Does Wes Anderson know about Duncan Browne's Give Me Take You? Cuz these songs would all fit nicely up in his world. Or in any world.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Warden: Second prize is...Freedom.
Prisoners: Yay!
Warden: ...by Neil Young on compact disc.
Prisoners: Boo!
Warden: ...with previously unreleased material.
Prisoners: Yay!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

There's a new axiom in town.

Seems everyone's going crazy over Jason Statham these days. It started with a blog post by Patton Oswalt titled GAY-THAM FOR STATHAM. Patton recognized that Statham is a force of authentic, exciting, hardworking badassery who transcends the sometimes-questionable quality of his films. Everyone, including me, is rather giddily looking forward to this weekend's release of Crank: High Voltage. (I caught up with the original Crank on DVD a couple weeks ago; it's everything a dumb action movie should be, and then some.)

So all this Statham love reminded me of something. Back in the sixties, French critic Michel Mourlet made what Dave Kehr calls "the single most notorious pronouncement in the history of film criticism" about Charlton Heston, referring to the actor as "an axiom of the cinema." Rereading the full quotation, it struck me that one could easily substitute Jason Statham's name in for Heston's and the result would be totally resonant for the growing cult of Statham-worshippers. So here is the full, doctored-up passage, courtesy Kehr's transcription:

“[Jason Statham] is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso - this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that [Jason Statham], by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima Mon Amour or Citizen Kane, films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates [Jason Statham]. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.”

I am reminded of Armond White's similarly rapturous gushing over Transporter 3 (Armond is an axiom himself, really). A bit of Mourlet's homoerotic longing: "No star runs in character better than Statham," Armond swoons, "whose agile body is superbly sculpted while his voice remains tender—despite gruff edges." And just as Mourlet threw Citizen Kane and Hiroshima Mon Amour under the bus for either ignoring or repudiating Chuck Heston's glistening, quivering tragedy, so too does Armond dismiss the fall awards-season fare for not recognizing the Statham: "Nothing in cinema this week is more important than Transporter 3," begins his review. Call it hyperbole if you must, but once an actor has earned axiom status—and if Statham hasn't yet, he's well on his way—no words are too strong to describe our new "god imprisoned." Have you accepted Jason Statham as your personal lord and savior?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

First I observed, now I report

I wish I hadn't read anything about Observe and Report before seeing it. If I hadn't encountered the deluge of bemused reactions to the film's dark, Taxi Driver aspirations, I might've been surprised and delighted by its jarring tonal shifts instead of suspicious of them. But for better or worse, I knew going in that Jody Hill's new comedy would be subversive, that it would be weird, that it would be violent, that it would feature a protagonist modeled after Scorsese/DeNiro creations Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. What I didn't know is how scattershot it would be, how lost-at-sea, especially compared to Hill's much more cohesive and tonally controlled HBO series Eastbound and Down. Alas, Observe and Report is more satisfying in theory than in execution, but its crazed half-vision has an undeniable pull.

Joining the parade of delusional, obsessive grotesques that dominates certain corners of modern comedy (including Hill's previous feature The Foot Fist Way and the aforementioned Eastbound and Down, both starring Southern-fried creep/hero Danny McBride) is Ronnie Barnhardt, head of mall security, bipolar, lonely, angry and convinced of his potential to do great things. The main difference—and it is a welcome one—between McBride's characters and Ronnie is the teddy-bear sweetness of Seth Rogen (giving his "fat years" a hell of a send-off). Rogen makes us care about this messed-up loser even as he descends into violent, psychotic behavior. It's a memorable character, and there's bold commitment to him on both sides of the camera, but the movie surrounding him is an indifferently assembled mishmash of scenes—some funny, some heartbreaking, some disturbing, some that just flat-out don't work. It's not that I'm against a mixture of tones, but there has to be a sense of some purposeful authority behind it all, and you don't really get that here.

The film is not without its triumphs, however. The ending, for one, is a masterstroke of offhanded gear-switching, an unpredictable head-scratcher that has led some to speculate on whether it might in fact be a fantasy in Ronnie's head. The picture is stocked with excellent musical selections, and Hill is quite good at incorporating them, even if he's clearly taking cues from Wes Anderson in that department (a key montage during Ronnie's "date" with would-be paramour Anna Faris is set to the gorgeous ballad "Brain" by obscure '60s mod-rockers The Action). Speaking of Faris, she's the funniest thing in the movie, and I wish she had more screen time; her dead-on caricature of vapid, pretty party-girls will be painfully familiar to anyone who's spent time in a high school recently—or, I suppose, at the makeup counter in the mall. And then there's the excitement of not really knowing where the hell this thing is going, and of the unapologetic (if ineptly directed) weirdness of it all. Ultimately, the movie is rather like Ronnie Barnhardt himself: unbalanced, incompetent, unpredictable, yet somehow coming through it all victoriously. No one is ever going to confuse Jody Hill with Marty Scorsese, but it still makes me happy that somebody tried to make Travis Bickle: Mall Cop—and that the resulting misshapen oddity is playing in actual malls across the country.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Unfortunate Progression of Whit Stillman's Brief Filmography

For me, the career of Whit Stillman forms a perfect downhill slope: it moves from the sublime (Metropolitan), to the mildly charming (Barcelona) to the unwatchably grating (Last Days of Disco). If he ever makes a fourth film, and if the pattern holds, it will be a suckfest of epic proportions. I think Stillman's one of those guys who really only had one great work in him (the sublime Metropolitan, in this case) and so there was nowhere to go but down. Maybe Stillman himself realized this and chose to spare us any further decline. I don't know, maybe there are people who love Last Days of Disco (it's currently streaming free on Hulu, which is what brings about this rumination), but to me it substantiates all the anti-Stillman arguments that weren't true of Metropolitan because it was so funny and sweet and sociologically fascinating—the whole "why should we care about these obnoxious, absurdly overprivileged, joyless snobs who speak in artificial screenwriter tongues?" line of thinking. Metropolitan is cannily predicated on the audience asking itself these very questions. In that film we ask those questions as a sort of defense mechanism because we are so immediately interested in these characters and we feel slightly ashamed about it—and then Stillman spends the balance of the film answering those questions, and we're like, "Ohhh, I get it." But in Disco, there is no "Ohhh, I get it" moment. The movie is a plotless black hole of stilted dialogue and sloppy characterization. It's a character-based drama without a single character to care about. It's a lifeless retread of Stillman's (and Noah Baumbach's) earlier, better comedies-of-manners. It's a period comedy without any period detail—or any laughs.

The only ill effect of Stillman's de facto retirement from filmmaking (and Baumbach's ascension to bigger and better things) is that the great Chris Eigeman seems to have a hard time getting work these days. Although apparently he did an episode of FRINGE. Nice.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Goggins Triumphant / Dinosaur Matters

Yes, it has happened—I have more or less lost my drive to blog, for the time being. But I must drop in with exciting news about That Evening Sun, the new film co-starring blog obsession Walton Goggins. It has won two awards at SXSW: the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, and a Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Cast. That award-winning ensemble cast includes Goggins! Triumph! As far as I know the film has not yet secured distribution, but I look forward to seeing it EVENTUALLY.

Meanwhile, my viewing of Goggins's no less triumphant gig on TV's The Shield has slowed down considerably for no good reason. I have a few episodes left of Season 4 yet to watch, and from there it will be on to Seasons 5 through 7; at my current pace I might not be finished with the series until well into the bowels of 2009. Why the slowdown? Well, I don't think Season 4 is quite as good as Season 3. It seems slightly less purposeful and more confused about what kind of show it wants to be, and Vic Mackey is gradually shifting from portrait-of-evil anti-hero to straight-up, morally unquestioned protagonist. I have heard that the show gets REALLY awesome starting in Season 5, though, so I am not worried.

Now to address another recent subject of blog fixation, the upcoming Terrence Malick film that may or may not contain dinosaurs. Some of my questions about the odd project are addressed by Jeffrey Wells in a recent post. Apparently the parallel IMAX project will be called Voyage of Time, will run 45 minutes, will be released simultaneously with Tree of Life, and may share some footage with Tree of Life. Oh, and some source claims that it's still a year away from completion, which means a likely 2010 release (The Year We Make Contact, in case you've forgotten). This all seems too complicated. Terry, why can't you just put the dinosaurs in the damn movie and forget the IMAX thing? Nobody wants to schlep out to IMAX to see 45 minutes' worth of supplemental dinosaur material, some of which will apparently be a rerun. Come on! Dinosaurs in regular 35mm or not at all! (Pictured: dinosaurs demonstrating the coolness of cigarettes to kids)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Not So Fast

Remember how excited I was about the prospect of a Terrence Malick film with dinosaurs in it? Well, now my excitement is more like confusion, because some sources are claiming that Malick is splitting the movie up into IMAX and non-IMAX sections, with the IMAX-only film being the one with the dinosaurs in it, while the regular film (the one w/ Brad Pitt and Sean Penn that's in post-production now) is presumably dinosaurless. I'm not sure I understand this news, and even if I understand it I'm not sure I like it. Are these two completely discrete films, or will there be some overlap? Will the IMAX part be an actual feature or just a little dinosaur supplement? Does Malick even know the answers to these questions? Will this movie even be released within his lifetime, given Malick's penchant for spending eons in post? Things looked much simpler yesterday when I was able to make joyful exclamations about "motherfucking dinosaurs."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

OMFG YES

The upcoming Terrence Malick film WILL CONTAIN DINOSAURS. Motherfucking DINOSAURS!

Haha, also it's hilarious that the guy quoted in that article bothers to point out that the shots of the dinosaurs will be "long and lingering." Given how much attention Malick has previously lavished on trees and water and shit, I think it goes without saying that goddamn DINOSAURS will get the same treatment.

Hey

Has enough time passed for everybody to acknowledge that the Ethics 101 "prisoner's dilemma" scenes in The Dark Knight are a load of facile bullshit? Hey, Chris Nolan, thanks for showing us that SOMETIMES SCARY BLACK MEN HAVE COMPASSION.

I know there's no good reason to bring this up now (the fanboys have moved on, I guess there's this thing coming out called "The Watchman"). I'm just fascinated by the question of how history will remember TDK. And I have a feeling that us doubters/naysayers will be vindicated.

Also, will anti-Watchmen critics be subjected to death threats and subliterate castigations like Keith Uhlich and others were for suggesting that TDK wasn't the most awesomest thing ever? Only time will tell. Time, and Jeffrey Wells.

Friday, February 27, 2009

An Observation

Just returned from James Gray's Two Lovers, which I loved. But while watching Joaquin Phoenix's performance I couldn't help but notice that, in addition to his usual internalized roiling, Joaquin was affecting a slurred speech pattern which, combined with his character's troubled psyche and unpredictable behavior, kept reminding me of none other than Dr. Steve Brule. Some cursory googling indicates that I am the first person to make this observation. For your health!


I might post more substantive thoughts about the movie later, if I feel like it. For now, suffice to say that if James Gray didn't exist it would be necessary to create him—I loved his underrated, beautiful crime drama We Own the Night, and this, despite some basic implausibilities in the concept that are easy enough to get past, is perhaps even better.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Overblown Warning of the Week

As part of his borderline-obsessive tracking of pre-release Watchmen buzz, Jeffrey Wells cautions: "I say again that only non-vested straight-talkers who were never that into comic book geekdom can be trusted on this movie. It may be a great film, or a very good or deeply stirring one, but only the pure of heart and the culturally uncommitted can determine this. Trust no one with any kind of deep-rooted, strongly Catholic investment in geek fanboy culture." (Bolding his.)

Now, I understand Wells's frustration with fanboy culture and his quickness to disregard the opinions of that world. But isn't it slightly wrongheaded to claim that the only people who can be trusted to fairly judge an adaptation of something are those who haven't read the source material? It's rather like saying to avoid reviews of Revolutionary Road by anyone who has read the Richard Yates novel. If anything, the opposite is true in that case; you'd want the most informed opinions possible to tell you what kind of adaptation it is.

Still, I can't help be endeared by Wells's paranoid phrasing. And when you get right down to it I agree with him, and I do not give much credence to any of the early geekgasm reviews that are trickling in. As an erstwhile comic book nerd myself, do I resent Wells's implication that comic fans are not "pure of heart"? No; it made me laugh too much to resent this delightfully crazy old bastard for anything. Keep it up, Wells!!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Important

If you happen to be reading this, you should know that Nina Paley's animated film Sita Sings The Blues—which has racked up rave after rave at festivals, plus effusive praise from Rog, but which cannot be conventionally distributed due to legal issues pertaining to music rights—will be streaming online at the Reel13 website starting this Thursday. I gather that Reel13 is a public TV show in NYC dedicated to film, and that the station will be airing Sita Sings the Blues regular-style for those who live in New York in addition to the online option. I'm stoked about this because I foolishly passed up the chance to see the movie at last year's Chicago Film Fest (I was planning on going, but scheduling conflicts with other festival fare precluded it), and it may never show up in a theater near me again. Watch it!

Monday, February 23, 2009

OH MAN

Forget the Oscars—the truly memorable TV moments this month came from Conan O'Brien's final week of "Late Night" shows. Even though he's only moving one hour earlier, his 16-year "Late Night" run got a proper and very moving send-off last week. It was great television with plenty of memorable moments, but the best was Nathan Lane pulling a Bette-Midler-on-Carson and serenading Conan with this hilarious "My Way" rewrite, "Your Way." Special props for finding something to rhyme with "Andy Richter" in the song's funniest couplet.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Boo-urns

I was looking forward to two things at tonight's Oscar telecast: Jerry Lewis's acceptance speech and Mickey Rourke's. The former was disappointingly generic and brief, and the latter didn't happen. But at least I got to see a McDonald's commercial with an Os Mutantes song in it.

Also, what happened to clips? I'm not sure how I feel about this "five presenters" thing. And for the record, I thought Hugh Jackman brought his A-game but was woefully underused.

?!?!

Os Mutantes in a McDonald's commercial. For real.

That's what I get for not allowing enough buffer time on the DVR'd Oscar telecast.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Prospect of Wit

They were talking quickly and getting laughs on intonation alone, the prospect of wit. This isn't really funny, Lyle thought. It seems funny because we're getting half smashed. But nobody's really saying funny things. Tomorrow she'll say what a funny night and I'll say it just seemed funny and she'll give me a look. She'll give me a look—he saw the look but did not express it in verbal form, going on to the next spaceless array, a semi-coherent framework of atomic "words." But I'll know I'm right because I'm making this mental note right now to remind myself tomorrow that we're not really being funny.

—Don DeLillo, Players, 1977

Friday, February 20, 2009

THIS JUST IN

Haha, David Lynch twitters the weather. And yeah, it's really him.

Edit: apparently he's been doing this for a while, in video form. What a goofy goober.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Department of cruel tricks of fate

Oh you've gotta be kidding me. When I tried searching mp3 aggregators for "The Fall of Troy" by Tom Waits, I got a song called "Tom Waits" by some damn hardcore band named—wait for it—The Fall of Troy. Is this some sick joke? Come on.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Not bad, not bad

This comes perilously close to the Freiberg/Seltzer maxim of "Recognition = Parody," but the details redeem it: the economic doomcasting used in place of review blurbs, the handheld camera authentically mirroring specific shots from the movie, the masterstroke casting of Alyssa Milano as Marisa Tomei, and the Uncle Sam conceit itself. Springsteen ensures that this carries most of the pathos of the original trailer, too.

(Edit: the embedding is screwed up, so make sure you click the "expand to fullscreen" button.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Like "The Shield," But With The F-Word

Well, this is timely. Just after I finish watching the awesome third season of awesome cop drama "The Shield" (which is largely about a corrupt and brutal elite squad of L.A. cops known as the Strike Team), footage surfaces of real-life, inexplicable police brutality on a CTA bus (via Chicago Cop Watch).



"The Shield" was on FX, so they didn't get to drop the F-bomb. "Do you want to fight me???" I'd like to see this guy go head to head with Vic Mackey in a sociopath-off.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Goggins Slandered



We were shocked and appalled recently to discover slanderous remarks made against blog fixation Walton Goggins by NPR "journalist" Mike Pesca. In a largely favorable review of The Shield's third season DVD, Pesca opines that the cast is uniformly excellent "with the exception of Walt [sic] Goggins, who plays Mackey's chief flunky Det. Shane Vendrell. The character is played as too hot-headed and careless to have escaped serious censure for this long."

More than anything else we feel pity for poor misguided Mike Pesca, who was apparently too hung up on niggling matters of plausibility to enjoy Goggins's intense yet subtle performance as Shane Vendrell. Moreover, I would argue that Pesca's criticism has nothing to do with Goggins and everything to do with the show's writing, which does require a certain level of disbelief-suspension in order to buy that the corrupt Strike Team has gotten away with their malfeasance for this long. This is not a serious problem, though, and certainly not one to pin on "Walt," as Pesca took the liberty of calling him.

Everything you need to know about this Pesca character is revealed in his NPR bio, which offers this nauseating nugget: "He lives in Manhattan with his wife Robin, son Milo, and their dog Rumsfeld." That's right: Mike Pesca, anti-Goggins crusader, has a dog named "Rumsfeld." Now, it's not clear whether this dog was so named as an ironic joke or a sincere tribute, but either option reflects poorly upon Pesca, his family, and his judgment.

At the risk of stating the obvious I'd also like to point out that Walton Goggins could kick Mike Pesca's ass. And that The Shield is fucking awesome.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Just For The Surreality Of It

Theoretically I shouldn't care about this, but that new title sequence in 16x9 widescreen just looks fundamentally wrong. I might have to tune in just for the surreality of it. Matt Groening once complained on a commentary track about how people were watching Simpsons DVDs in the wrong aspect ratio because they didn't know they had to switch from 16x9 to 4x3 fullscreen. Well, now if anyone buys Season 20 (J.H. Fucking Christ, can you believe that number?), they won't have that problem.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Something dark will happen to them anyway"

Hilariously awkward clip of our generation's Saint Valentine, Stephin Merritt, interviewed on local Atlanta news before performing.

Whistlin' past the graveyard

I'm stealing this from Pendarvis because it's possibly the single funniest image I've ever seen, anywhere:



If Chicago ends up getting the Olympics in 2016, I'm storming Mayor Daley's office to demand that "Cemetery Pranksmanship" be added as a new event. And that this young man be retroactively awarded the gold medal.

Things we heard about five months late

So I guess this is happening. Man, that dude is prolific. If only his fellow TV genius named David, Mr. Milch, were as dedicated...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Between two ferns, so to speak



I'm a month or two late to be chiming in on this topic, but I'm still fired up, dammit. Basically, I'm feeling caught between two equally wrongheaded camps in my (favorable) response to Gran Torino. Ever since I first saw the movie in December I've been growing increasingly frustrated at members of my generation who are inclined to view the film as "unintentionally" funny or otherwise inept. And now I have another group to be frustrated at, thanks to the good-ol-boys at the National Review, who are doing a whole thing about the top 25 "conservative" movies. Gran Torino is #25. I'm not going to dignify them with a link.

I don't want this to come across like I'm saying "I'm the only one who understands it!", because that is not remotely true. Manohla Dargis got it. Glenn Kenny got it. Scott Foundas got it. Many other smart souls on the internet and in print have written smarter appreciations of this movie than I am capable of producing. Still. I don't think it's one of Eastwood's best films and I don't think it's a masterpiece, but it deserves better than (to put it in the reductive terms of the 2008 election) the snarky, narrow-minded, uninformed derision of Obama-voting youth and the racist myopia of McCain-voting geriatrics. (As long as I'm getting all CULTURE WARRIOR about this, let's say that my comrades on this issue belong to the part of the venn diagram showing the intersection of Obama voters and Gran Torino fans. And no, the irony that Eastwood leans conservative and supported McCain is not lost on me.)

At first I was thinking that the movie is something of an auteurist litmus test, since most of the positive notices take at least a semi-auteurist tack in placing Gran Torino within the context of Eastwood's career (as both director and actor), and most of the snark is coming from people who probably haven't even seen Unforgiven, let alone Bronco Billy or A Perfect World. But then how to explain the millions of Americans who ate the movie up and carried it to #1 at the box office (doing record numbers for an Eastwood-directed film)? Not a lot of auteurists in that bunch, I'm guessing, and there's obviously nothing wrong with that. But how many of those people watched the movie through the same lens as the National Review douchebags? Probably not that many, but still, read Andrew Breitbart's conservative take on the movie and you'll see why I'm uncomfortable with the reaction: "[Eastwood] blows away political correctness, takes on the bad guys, and turns a boy into a man in the process. He even encourages the cultural assimilation of immigrants."

Ugh. There's always a risk of this kind of misidentification—it's like when wannabe thugs view The Wire as a cool celebration of gangster life, opining on message boards about how Namond deserved to get got. Conservatives are particularly myopic about this stuff; if they see any representation of conservative "values" they automatically assume it qualifies as an endorsement. The politics of Eastwood's movies are famously ambiguous, but Gran Torino takes Clint's character Walt Kowalski on a journey that not only gives lie to Breitbart's Dirty Harry fantasies, but renders questions of political views pretty irrelevant (if they were even relevant to begin with).

As for my snarky contemporaries, I don't want to go all Denby on their asses, but gah. Listen hear, people: did it occur to you that while you were laughing at Clint's overheated growling and dated racial epithets that you were supposed to be laughing? Why did so many people jump to the conclusion that this humor is unintentional? Clint Eastwood knows what the fuck he's doing! He's working in a specific register, in which everything is melodramatically heightened and slightly removed from reality in its bluntness. Yes, he literally growls, and you're supposed to find it a little funny—it's not a flaw or deficit in the filmmaking or acting. It's the intention. Not many filmmakers adopt this kind of tone these days, so I understand why it confused some people. But you should investigate your confusion rather than chalking it up to dumbness or ineptitude on the film's part. And look, it doesn't take an auteurist to figure out that Eastwood is playing with his own iconic image—something he's been doing for decades, but rarely with the blunt humor on display here. That seems too obvious to state and yet I worry that members of my generation (and I'm talking about, you know, the smart ones) are so disinterested in film history/culture that it's lost on them. When snarkheads try to prove that they're smarter than Gran Torino, they're actually proving that they're stupider.

Ha, and then there's the splinter cell within the online critical community that's declaring Gran Torino overrated, best represented by this questionable piece of contrarianism at Reverse Shot, which muses: "The fact that so many smart, discerning critics have fallen in line behind such an obviously terrible movie speaks to entrenched auteurist agendas: Eastwood’s consensus status as the last American 'classicist' (to use a much-abused term) gives him a pretty long leash and leads to some remarkable feats of critical calisthenics—my favorite being the idea that Gran Torino is a seriocomic work of mischievous and pointed self-parody."

Well, self-parody isn't quite right, but uh, the movie is unequivocally a seriocomic and pointedly introspective work on Eastwood's part. And I'm not even getting into the movie's other virtues and subtleties, which are many. Really. As for the argument that critics give Eastwood too much slack because of his rep, how do you explain the mixed-at-best reaction to Changeling? Sure, there's always the danger when a living artist becomes canonized that his work won't be judged objectively. But it's insulting to both critics and Eastwood to suggest that the warm reception of Gran Torino is purely the result of "entrenched auteurist agendas," especially when that suggestion is clearly disproved by the reception of a movie released only a couple of months earlier.

This post is too long. I'm sorry. I blame Abe, for bringing that National Review list to my attention. I can only assume he was punishing me for some unknown offense. And now, if you read this, I've punished you.

One last thing. To the dismissive snarky jerks of my generation, and to the creepy crypto-racist Republicans of my parents' generation, may I politely suggest that all of you get off my lawn?