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

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)?

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!)

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

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)?

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 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.)