Monday, October 31, 2005

Day 31: Fitzcarraldo: Man vs. Nature 2

Martin: "I feel like I'm in Fitzcarraldo."
Nelson: "That movie was flawed."

It’s Halloween, I’m pressed for time, and it’s now officially been a month of movie-a-day madness, so I’m not really going to review this movie in terms of filmic quality or thematic content.  Briefly, this is an amazing movie, beautifully made and featuring a Klaus Kinski performance as the titular character that cuts right to the bone.  What I want to do is talk about what this movie did to me as I watched, bleary eyed, and struggling to stay awake.

Fitzcarraldo, actually named Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, loves the opera.  He’s willing, as the movie shows in its opening, to paddle two and a half days down the Amazon to see a performance by his beloved Enrico Caruso.  He dreams of opening an opera house in the rugged, undeveloped Peruvian city in which he lives.  He’s failed at many things -- when someone mentions his failed venture to build a transcontinental South American railway, the sadness he feels about this failure is quite evident on his face – and the thought of opening this opera house drives him to obsessive and ludicrous behavior.  A lot is made (and rightly so) of this movie’s crowning achievement, in which a steamship is dragged over a mountain by an elaborate pulley system, but what comes before this set piece is so perfectly delineated, so delicately presented, that it seems moot to even mention the steamship sequence.

Nothing defines this better for me than the moment when Fitzcarraldo, in an effort to raise money for his opera house, brings his phonograph to a party full of rich people, and plays the opera recording to the disinterest of the party goers.  When someone walks up to turn the phonograph off, Fitz flips out, screams at and nearly attacks the man, and, therefore, loses all hope of finding the funding he’s seeking.  The sight of Kinski, desperate and fragile, nakedly presenting a group of people the object of his intense obsession, I felt such a kinship to this obsessive madman.  He’s so focused, so singular in mind, that everything in his life is devoted to getting the opportunity to open the damned opera house.  

The movie renders Kinski’s point of view so well that when, earlier in the film, he stares lovingly at an opera performance, the camera work, editing, and acting in the film represent his passion in such a way that I understood, for the first time in my life, what people see in opera.  Obsession is the name of the game and it’s something I understand.  But Fitzcarraldo’s obsession is not one of those dirty secrets, hidden from only those closest to him.  The whole town knows what he wants, and how could they not?  He, in a fit of desperation, barricades himself inside the church, screaming from the steeple that the church will not reopen until he has his opera house.  After all of this, after all the humiliation he suffers, why on earth wouldn’t he drag the steamship across the mountain if it would get him closer?  And why wouldn’t he trust the natives who respond to the same phonograph record with curiosity and, perhaps, a bit of worship instead of dismissing it outright as the so-called cultured people do?

The movie’s never clear on exactly why the opera is so important to him (not that it matters, I mean, obsession is so random, he might as well have been obsessed with sweet potatoes or robots and very little about the movie would have to change).  I think the key to understanding his obsession is that party scene.  He wants everyone to understand what he does.  He wants them to listen, to hear the beauty, to experience the ecstasy that he feels when he listens to the opera.  And when someone wants to shut off this pure, undistilled joy, he gets mad enough to dash all of his hopes to the curb.  That is, I realize as I’m writing this, exactly how I feel about Robocop, strangely enough.  And, when I think about it, sharing that feeling is exactly why I’m doing this blog in the first place.  Naked, honest obsession.

Happy Halloween

Here's a little present. Be warned, it may get stuck in your head!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Day 30: Lost in La Mancha: Man vs. Nature 1

Terry Gilliam: At least if we're going to be fucked, let's know we're fucked ahead of time.

I’m very glad that I did not watch this movie in the theater.  While it is a worthwhile film to watch, structured and edited competently, it never quite achieved a scope beyond “best DVD extra ever” and, as such, belongs on the DVD format as surely as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly belongs on the big screen.  

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like it.  I did.  It’s an honest and rich post-mortem of a film that was seemingly doomed to be incomplete from the start, pushed into its inevitable fate by the Gods.  It’s refreshingly blunt, showing the hardship of making a movie the way few of these behind-the-scenes pieces do.  The story of the piece is also a compelling tragedy, in which the hubris of Terry Gilliam, trying to make a dream film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is punished by rain, disease, and insurance people.

Like any good tragedy where men defy the Gods, the movie is full of ominous premonitions.  At the start, all involved worry about repeating the mistakes of a previous Gilliam film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, that went out of control and exorbitantly over budget.  Don Quixote, we’re told, is a film too ambitious for its budget.  Director Gilliam asks his crew to tell him immediately when he asks for something that can not be done.  Then, as the production date draws near, the assistant director is asked what worries him the most.  He replies in a deadpan, “Pre-production.”  He speaks of their first shooting location.  It’s near a NATO base where he’s assured jets fly over for only an hour or so.  The crew tours a studio where they’ll be filming and it’s basically just a warehouse with terrible acoustics.  Gilliam admonishes members of his crew, insisting on the importance of good sound.  Jean Rochefort, the actor who would be Quixote, comes down with strange pains just before shooting will commence.  Most ominously, though, is a moment when, as clouds gather on the horizon at a remote shooting location, Rochefort says, “…strange weather today.”

And like all such tragedies, these premonitions are ignored due to the hubris of the people in power.  The NATO jets fly over at the worst times and Gilliam, under the pressure of time and budgetary concerns, contradicts his earlier statement that sound is very important.  “I don’t care about sound,” he says, and, so, the cameras roll.  Storm clouds gather in the distance, and Gilliam assures his Director of Photography that blue skies surely lay on the other side of the storm.  The torrential rains that follow flood the location and, along with it, the production’s equipment.  Rocheport becomes increasingly ill to the point that he requires two people to help him off of his horse.  He is flown back to his doctors in France and his return seems unlikely.  Gilliam continues shooting, despite the fact that every one around him seems to know that, without a Quixote, the project is doomed.  And then the insurance company comes in to check up on their claims and everything comes to a stop.

There are passing references to Gilliam embodying Quixote, ignoring reality for the sake of his own purposes.  It’s not an unfair comparison.  It’s obvious, at least from the movie’s perspective, that Gilliam is complicit in the disaster, unable to compromise on his vision despite his earlier plea that his crew members warn him when he’s asked for too much.  When disaster strikes, he just wants to shoot something, anything, to salvage the day, plunging heedlessly into the making of the film.  However, as things get increasingly hairy, Gilliam shrinks away from the project, not ready to wash his hands of the movie, but lacking the strength to fight for its survival.  

All of this is well-wrought and candidly displayed.  What the movie misses, I think, is a sense that there is a very fine line between this disaster laden production resulting in an incomplete film and a similar production that results in an absolutely brilliant film.  Gilliam has, reportedly, been involved in more than one troubled production that had fine results, but the only movie discussed in relation to Quixote is Baron Munchausen.  My memory of Munchausen is spotty, at best, but I doubt anyone would hold it up as an unqualified success in the face of so many difficulties.  (I type that knowing that someone will contradict me in the comments, so have at it!)  I think a wider focus would have taken this from feeling like a very good DVD supplement to feeling like an actual movie.

Lost in my pants

Had fun at a Halloween party last night. The highlight was hearing the main theme to Beetlejuice with the volume turned to 11. I also did a vaguely sexual, spasmodic dance to the murder music from Psycho. Well, it was blatantly sexual but mercifully short for all involved. And all involved would be me. There were a couple moments of fire breathing and a few pumpkins were set on fire as well. As a result of partying, I now have to watch two movies during the day: Lost in La Mancha and Fitzcarraldo... but at least I get an extra hour due to some idiotic government program which, I'm sure, served its function when electric lights were still rare but now feels to me like some vague "we control time, we can also control you" plot.

Unfortunately, no pictures for you, kids. I was dressed as either Magnum P.I. or a rapist, depending on who you asked. Tara was either the rape victim or the Magnum P.I. victim, again, depending on who was asked.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Day 29: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter

Jesus Christ: If I'm not back in five minutes, call the Pope.

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter is like a good novelty song you might hear on Dr. Demento.  It’s roughly made and a little obvious, but it’s genuinely funny and makes up for its shortcomings with a ham-fisted enthusiasm.  It’s less religious satire and more a parody of inane kung-fu and action movie conceits in the same spirit as Team America or a lesser episode of The Simpsons, giving Jesus the action movie hero role and teaming him up with some very likable companions.  The overall quality of the movie exists somewhere between a decent student film and a bad Roger Corman film, but the writing is sharp enough, the use of locations is great, and the tone is spirited enough that none of this matters.  I was genuinely engaged by the film and stopped looking at the clock to see how much longer the movie would be playing at about the halfway point.  That means, judging it on this scale, the movie worked better for me than Hell Comes to Frogtown.

It reminds me of watching King Kong vs. Godzilla when I was 8.  All I wanted to see was King Kong and Godzilla fight and, well, they did.  They fought a couple of times and, so, the movie worked for me.  What I want out of Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter is to see Jesus slay vampires and that’s here in spades.  When he fights scores of atheists, that’s just gravy, as is the song and dance number when he arrives in the city.  Throw in a Mexican wrestler as his sidekick, a spot-on parody score, and the movie ending with a Journey-esque song with lyrics that sum up the plot, and you’ve got a nice dish with gravy, two scoops of ice cream, and a cherry on top.  So tasty.

Special mention goes to the moment when Jesus is seen, apparently, fighting two baddies in two separate locations at once.  When one of the characters asks Jesus how he can be in both places at the same time, Jesus replies, “I’m everywhere.”

Week 4 Index

Day 22: Dressed to Kill
Day 23: My Dinner With Andre
Day 24: Tess
Day 25: Alphaville
Day 26: The Battle of Algiers
Day 27: Robocop 2
Day 28: Female Trouble

Friday, October 28, 2005

Day 28: Female Trouble

Dawn Davenport: “Pretty pretty?”

I went to elementary school at a time when VCRs hadn’t yet taken over completely. There were times when a film projector was brought into class, the teacher would thread a movie up, the lights were turned off, and soon the rapid click-click-click of the projector would fill the room as we watched an educational film. The subjects were wildly divergent, and the only ones I remember specifically are a grisly eye injury film and a bus behavior film that both, at least in my memory, featured gore effects worthy of Tom Savini. What sticks in my mind particularly is the aesthetic of the educational film. It was a simplistic one featuring static camera shots, bad acting, and severely degraded film stock. While watching Female Trouble, it dawned on me that the film played like a mix between one of these old educational films and feature-length cautionary films like Reefer Madness, but from a culture vastly different than the one I grew up in. Female Trouble is an early John Waters film, a gleeful, kitschy mess that borders on annoying and boring, but is far too endearing to really quibble with.

If you’re wanting to watch a movie for revolutionary (or even competent) filmmaking, then move on. The movie is staged like an early sound film with static camera shots and characters gathered around a central location, talking to one another. The sets are cloistered and claustrophobic, as cheaply made or photographed as any Ed Wood production. The acting is, well, as far from naturalism or Stanislavski as you can get. This is all beside the point. It becomes apparent from the moment the title song plays, sounding as if it were recorded in someone’s basement, that it’s foolhardy to watch this movie with any attention or expectation with regard to production values. I bring it up only because it took me a few scenes to get into the movie’s rhythms and appreciate what was going on. (It should be noted that I’d blown my capacity for critical thinking on Robocop 2 the night before.)

The movie coasts on a joyous, sometimes shrill performance by Divine, playing “Dawn Davenport.” It tracks Dawn’s life in stages, from a high school student to a single mother living a life of crime, through a career as a model for grotesque forms of beauty. The climax of the film occurs when Dawn is given her own stage show, and it is marvelous. Divine jumps up and down on a trampoline, sits in a box of dead fish, and delivers a passionate monologue about the beauty of crime. All of this is met with thunderous, enthusiastic applause, hilarious in its improbability and, as far as the movie’s concerned, its inevitability. Female Trouble sketches a world of repellent characters celebrated for their audaciousness: there’s a hair salon where people have to audition to get their hair cut, but they’re chosen based on their repulsiveness. Dawn is a shoo-in, and after some time as a client (and a marriage to one of the hair dressers), the owners invite her to be a model for their photography project. Their project is a kitschy, ironic, post-modern deal in which Dawn is asked to commit crimes for the purposes of photographing them. It’s not entirely clear if the owners of the salon are taking these photos for their own enjoyment or if they plan on exhibiting them, but the joke is that Dawn takes their offer to be “in show business” seriously, believes she’s a famous and celebrated model, and, even after having her face scarred by acid, thinks she’s beautiful in response to the egging on from those involved in the project.

So, things get pleasingly out of hand. Along the way, the movie deals with topics as audience-friendly as bodily mutilation, sexual fetishism, incest, intravenous drugs, and child murder. What’s enjoyable in Female Trouble is how, despite a pervasive feeling that some of these things are included in the movie, partially, to shock people, they’re shocking in the same way a two-year-old is when it swears loudly in public. The makers of this film, it would seem, can’t help it, and so an aw-shucks cuteness emerges amidst all the (surface level) ugliness. It’s a bit like seeing a seven year old tell the joke from the recent movie The Aristocrats. Unsettling, but hilarious.

There’s a pretty awesome story here too about the nature of beauty and the insidious, influential nature of cloistered groupthink. Dawn’s character is similar to the one Nicole Kidman played in To Die For. Unlike To Die For, Female Trouble sides completely with the character and her point of view as she quests for beauty, fame, and freedom from her annoying and disturbed daughter (this is the kind of movie where the daughter is played by an adult wearing little girl’s clothes with her hair in pig tails).. When her fame develops into the criminal sort of fame, Dawn embraces it; loves every minute of her trial and eventual imprisonment. No such thing as bad press and all that. Because the movie sides so completely with this character, the pathos that emerges from the collision of Dawn’s worldview and that of society’s is genuine, even though the movie exists in an ironic, repurposed world in which the quest for beauty involves mainlining eyeliner.

Overall, Female Trouble is a very good time. Funny, irreverent, and purposefully, unabashedly silly. It suffers from bloat quite a bit, with scenes going on far longer than they should on a regular basis, and the crux of the narrative doesn’t really kick in until about halfway through. It gets a bit shrill at times, and so crosses from endearing to annoying during some scenes. But this is a movie that knows it’s a “bad movie” and revels in it, laughing at itself from the outset. At the same time, it believes in its badness the same way Schindler’s List believes in its goodness, and so it rises above being a kitsch-for-kitsch sake movie. It uses its unconventional quality to successfully examine a character that, due to the influence of powerful people, begins to believe that “bad” is “good.” And, accordingly, the movie had the same effect one me while I watched it.

Ooops: Woman vs. A Box of Dirt

I realize now that I've made an error, that the timing of the man v. nature week will start for the readers of the blog, not on the 29th, but on Sunday, the 30th. For the record here's the final list:

1. Lost in La Mancha
2. Fitzcarraldo
3. Little Otik
4. Walkabout
5. Go West
6. The Endurance
7. Gerry

Thanks to Rebecca earlier for suggesting a Shackleton movie (though not the one I chose). And Ash for inspiring me to keep Gerry on the list. I'm sad to lose C.H.U.D. but it might come back when I do a horror movie theme in time for Christmas.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Day 27: Robocop 2

So, the thing about Robocop, as portrayed in the original movie, is that he’s a symbol for the power of humanity over the cold, heartless mechanisms of technology and corporate enterprise. Robocop tells us that a corporation works much like a machine, treating the human elements as cogs within the machine and that eventually, due to the capacity for emotion in the human brain, these cogs will fail to function as they’re intended and will eventually take down the inhumanity of the machine by appealing to things like loyalty and compassion, or at least have the audacity to question what the machine is doing. Further, the movie Robocop depicts an iconic police hero while simultaneously deconstructing said police hero by creating the perfect cop who, like Dirty Harry, is remorseless, unstoppable, and driven by a sense of duty that overwhelms every other aspect of his life and also happens to be as robotic as these traits imply. But, ironically, where the robotic cop’s perfection fails is in a conflict of identity: Robocop is swayed by fleeting memories of a life lived in which stopping crime was not the only thing that motivated him, a life where he felt things that he is no longer able to. Robocop shirks his duty as he seeks answers to the inevitable questions, “Who am I? Where do I come from?”--the answers to said questions being two-fold: that he is first a product of corporate manufacturing and, second, a being with a name (Murphy) and sentience and, thus, an identity beyond his technological components or programming. So, when Robocop shoots Dick Jones at the end of the first movie and is asked by the leader of the heartless corporation what his name is and Robocop replies “Murphy,” it’s a symbolic victory of the power of human identity, no matter how tenuous, to override whatever programming may be inflicted on us by life and/or genetics. The movie also states that free will is an integral part of being human, one that will overcome all programming and that this is preferable, even at the great risk it entails, to the alternative (witness the failure of the purely robotic [and thus, anti-human] ED-209 due to its inability to take in
new information and Robocop’s persistence to get around his own robotic limitations).

Additionally, Robocop was a sly, though not subtle, critique of Reagan-era policies, realistically projecting the effects of favoring pure capitalism as the means to solve the problems of society to the point that the police department is privatized and ineffectively managed by Omni Consumer Products (OCP), causing the police to strike. There are quick digs at a society based on “cowboy-style” militarism (a family board game depicted in the film is called Nuke ‘Em) and the Star Wars missile defense system (which, when it malfunctions, only adds to the robotic/human crisis in the movie). Robocop also pokes fun at the very idea that corporations can effectively provide social services, since Robocop is prevented by his programming from arresting any members of OCP, at least one of whom is involved in illegal activities, particularly with the notorious criminal Clarence Boddicker (the man who happens to have killed “Murphy,” thereby providing the opportunity for Robocop to exist at all). The equating of crime and corporatism, technological failure and inhumanity provides a rich subtext over which a conventional Western (the cowboy kind) revenge story plays (reminiscent of the plot featured in the movie Hang ‘em High) as the noble sheriff relentlessly seeks closure to a crime that personally affected him.

To take it even further, the story of Robocop is a reinterpretation of the Christian myth (something I never thought of until I heard the film’s director, Paul Verhoeven [by all accounts, a madman] mention it on the Criterion Collection’s DVD commentary track), depicting Murphy as spiritually pure (he arrives in the tempestuous city from the beatific suburbs), tortured to death, and resurrected to administer judgment on the crimes of humanity, this time in a very literal sense. The movie wisely casts the members of the OCP corporation as members of the heavenly arena, working above the common folk of Detroit in lofty towers, led by Dan O’Herlihy’s benevolent “Old Man” character, designing a new, utopian paradise called New Detroit, something that would be rather simple for them to build were it not for this pesky problem of misused free will (i.e. crime) among the human population. When tasked with ridding Detroit of this problem, the #2 guy at OCP, Dick Jones or, if you will, Lucifer, comes up with ED-209, a purely robotic solution that hilariously malfunctions at a board meeting, causing the Old Man, or if you will again, God, to come up with a new solution, one that can make decisions based on the experience of having lived in the shoes of a man and thus, Robocop or, if you will one more time, Jesus.

In fact, the ending of Robocop encapsulates the thesis of both The Passion of the Christ (that the sacrifice of Jesus is instrumental in containing the devil in hell) and The Last Temptation of Christ (that Jesus’ sacrifice was the act of a superhuman making a conscious decision to create a better world for mortal mankind) as Robocop eliminates the Lucifer character (the Old Man’s favored staff member) from heaven. Dick Jones is even, funnily enough, depicted as falling out of the heavenly towers, plummeting to the earth, cast out of Heaven and sent to hell. Heaven is therefore purified of a corrosive, jealous element and Robocop has found a way to combine both his human-like free will and his robotic super powers (which carry the limitations of programming) by taking on the mantle of the people’s protector.

I fucking love this movie!These are half-assed, undeveloped, sophomoric reads on the film, each one of which can be elaborated on, all of which are firmly supported by the film, all of which play with and against one another simultaneously in the film, and there are probably a great many more reads one could apply to the movie. The movie is a superb example of how a surface-level, stupid, simplistic and commercial idea (PART MAN, PART MACHINE, ALL COP!) can be developed into something far beyond its facade by taking a plot chock full of conventions and clichés and using it as a framework on which to hang something that says much, much more than the simplistic narrative would. Robocop, the character, is taken from human, to robotic, to a synthesis of the two that is compelling, exciting, and, like a Shakespeare play, appeals to every aspect of my psyche, from the groundling desire for Old Testament-style revenge to the high-minded desire to see society and humanity seriously and effectively examined. I mean, I like to see men mutated by toxic waste and smooshed by cars and to see the bad people in the world get what’s coming to them as much as anyone, but at the same time I want to think about why I feel that way and what it means to be a “bad guy” and where “get what they have coming to them” comes from. Robocop is a movie that provides all of this and it’s funny too. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

So what the fuck happened with Robocop 2? There’s a scene about halfway through the movie where OCP needs to reprogram Robocop and they take the opportunity to make him “friendlier,” to have him shoot less and solve conflicts in a more non-violent fashion. The result is something that should be a funny comment on design by committee, but is not (I’ll explain why in a second), as Robocop consequently walks around smiling, teaching hoodlum kids lessons about hygiene or saying to a man whose shooting at him, “we should talk this out.” This isn’t funny in the movie because prior to this scene in the movie, the script has already neutered Robocop into being the lamest, squarest Joe fucking Friday by-the-book cop you’ve ever seen! He’s got these lame one-liners as he offs baddies, like Robocop has watched a bunch of cop shows or, hell, even the original Robocop (where the one-liners like “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” originate from the Murphy character in a naturalistic way [by that I mean, Murphy actually means “dead or alive you’re coming with me” when he says it, even though Murphy’s personality is also informed by watching a show called T.J. Laser {the key to, perhaps, a further read of the original Robocop}] so, when Robocop says these things, it’s depicted as nothing more than a distorted reflection indicating that some of Murphy’s memory has been retained and furthers the movie’s robotic/human questioning) and Robocop 2 emphasizes Robocop’s disdain for those who break the law to such a point that whatever nuance and humanity he learned (or remembered) during the events in the first film have, apparently, been tossed out the window. For God’s sake, before they reprogram and defang Robocop, he’s already admonishing children in an arcade to go back to school, he’s already defanged by, for some reason, not being able to assault a child who menaces him with a gun (Robocop’s three prime directives are “Serve the public trust”, “Protect the innocent”, and “Uphold the law,” which means that in the eyes of this movie, children are alwaysinnocent, even when they’re clearly not, a perspective that’s furthered by the tenderness with which the menacing child’s death scene is depicted [a scene so unintentionally schmaltzy, I wanted to throw my TV out the window] and a perspective which would seem to defy all logic in face of the fact that the movie is constantly depicting children breaking the law and hurting others [and one wonders at which age Robocop is suddenly allowed to hurt someone... is it 18?]!), so this “funny” bit where he’s a “by the book” socially mannered nice cyborg is painfully boring, as Robocop has already been depicted as someone with a robotic “users are losers” or “crime doesn’t pay” attitude, despite his ascension from one who rigidly follows the code of law to someone who learns how to negotiate subtleties within the law in the first film.

Additionally, gone is the sly critique of the Reagan-era policies; instead we have the most strident endorsement of them since Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” educational videos. Robocop encounters a cache of a futuristic drug called “Nuke,” sighs and shakes his head ruefully, and then says “Nuke” in a mournful tone. He might as well say, “Those kids today, when will they learn?” Additionally, though the police force is on strike again (in both cases I’m reminded of the air traffic controller strike that happened during Reagan’s term) Robocop is quite content to be a scab, one of the only cops working. Later, Robocop even indirectly inspires his fellow police officers to break their strike in order to fight the evil force that is soon to
plague the streets. Take that, you pinkos!

I think the problem with this movie is that someone, somewhere in the production took the whole concept of Robocop seriously. Verhoeven’s film was parodying itself while it played, constantly poking fun at its own moral code and asking the question of whether or not a robotic enforcement of the law would be such a good thing. This movie doesn’t get the joke and treats Robocop as seriously and with as much reverence (and as unsuccessfully) as The Passion of the Christ depicts Jesus. Yes, the movie says, Robocop is a good cop, particularly when he’s obeying his prime directives. The movie apes the original in style, but never what was going on underneath the style. To wit: the commercials and newscasts in the first film were satirical and brilliantly expositional, projecting a world where violence and technology were more commonplace than the time the movie was made. Here, they’re just silly, Saturday Night Live parodies of television commercials and newscasts exaggerated to the point that they’re completely unbelievable (though they are funny), nowhere near as smart as what was going on in the original film. The same thing goes for the corporate stuff: it’s all so arch, it’s as if it was made for kids. Strike that: it’s as if it was made by kids. The movie ends with Robocop stating, “we’re only human,” referring to the question of whether Robocop is a human or a machine. But this is one question Verhoeven’s film did answer. It concludes that he was both, but he got to choose how he saw himself, and I think it also suggested that this is true for all of us. It makes me angry because the sequel ignores this. I’m also angry because the original Robocop asked a lot of other interesting questions, and Robocop 2 either ignores them or answers them as if they weren’t tough questions to begin with. In fact, the sequel acts as if there are no tough questions at all as long as you’ve got a tough cop to gun them down.I fucking hate this movie.

The bastards

It's been a long time since a movie has made me as angry as Robocop 2. I have such vitriol and hatred for that movie, I cannot even begin to describe it, though it will probably be readily apparent in the "review" I will be posting later, a review that I had to start writing while the movie was playing because my feelings about what I was seeing were so strong. So, in response to yesterday's post about feeling like I'm on the cusp of something, I think I've fully embraced whatever it was I was bordering on since I have been unable to think of anything outside of Robocop 2 today. I think every single cell in my body is now magnetically attuned to my television screen at home, such that when I'm not in front of it, everything feels "off" somehow. It may be that I'm beginning to live in that cave Plato talked about, the electric shadows on my tv becoming my reality.

In other news, we carved a pumpkin last night. God I hate Robocop 2.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Day 26: The Battle of Algiers

Note: This review has not been thoroughly edited or proofread.

It’s impossible for me to watch this movie without thinking of the current American campaign in Iraq. Of course, it’s also a relevant film if you want to talk about Vietnam or the American Revolution, or any case of asymmetrical warfare. But yesterday, when I watched this film, the 2000th soldier was killed in Iraq and new details about the whole Valerie Plame investigation leaked out. This film depicts a struggle between a powerful Western force, in this case the French (insert joke about the French and war here if you like and then shut the fuck up), and a growing Islamic insurgency, screaming for independence. The location is Algiers, capital of Algeria where the French have established a prosperous colony. The movie is a prescient, patchwork look at the future of warfare, switching perspectives from the revolutionary Islamic side to the French side. The movie is fairly even handed, giving credence to both perspectives, though it’s weighted toward the revolutionaries.

But, sociopolitical concerns aside, the movie is a feat of faux-documentary style. A lot of the movie is shot on the streets with a shaky, handheld camera. The movie has some spectacular set pieces involving large crowds on the verge of rioting and some footage of terrorist attacks with large-scale explosions. Like <i>My Dinner with Andre</i>, the aesthetic of the film is pulled off with such skill and accuracy that, had I not known differently when I sat down to watch it, I would have been convinced that there was some true documentary footage mixed in with the narrative.

The movie is commendable for showing both sides of the conflict with equal compassion. As the terrorist attacks in Algiers increase, the French send in Colonel Mathieu to be in charge of the armed forces there. Mathieu has respect for the revolutionaries, but he knows the job he has to do and endeavors to complete it. He tells his men, quite plainly, that they will need to torture people to get the information they need in order to find the members of the insurgency. Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, we see the effect of bombings on the Islamic population and the cathartic sway of violence on a young Arabic man named Ali La Pointe. Ali is exposed to revolutionaries in prison and, once out, joins up with them. As he rises in power in this organization, he gleefully avenges the mistreatment he’s had at the hands of Europeans, gunning down enemies with abandon.

But herein lies another wrinkle presented matter-of-factly by the film. Due to the asymmetry of the battle being fought, my cultural and personal inclination is to side with the underdog (Americans being the descendents of dissidents and terrorists, after all). Yet there is a fantastic scene in which we’re shown exactly what the revolutionaries are fighting for. The revolutionaries ban drinking and prostitution among their people and, shortly thereafter, a drunken man is attacked by a throng of children who identify him as a wino and, thus, an enemy. This is followed by Ali ruthlessly gunning down a pimp in the name of the revolution. Now, my cultural and personal inclination is to not side with them since I loves me some hookers and beer. Or at least the option thereof. And then there’s the fantastic... excuse me, FANTASTIC... sequence in which three women take off their shawls, cut and dye their hair, carry timebombs in their handbags, and place them at strategic locations. The bombs are timed in such a way that after the first bomb explodes, the citizens nearby have enough time to dismiss it as a propane tank explosion before being caught up in the second. And yet, who are our sympathies with here? The civilians or the women who planted the bombs? For me: both.

The movie achieves this straddling of sympathies by presenting honest and coherent motivations for everyone involved. It’s as matter-of-fact as most documentaries, brilliantly shot and edited. I have a few quibbles. The score (otherwise wonderful) does fall prey to sentimentality a couple of times. I was also not pleased by the ending of this film: it presents documentary-style riots long after the characters we’ve been following are gone from the scene, depicting an event that could have been properly explained by a final title card. It seemed a bit show-offy and tipped the hand of sympathy squarely to the side of the revolutionaries. The way Ali’s backstory was placed in the movie felt a bit more arch than necessary. But these are all minor issues, nothing that detracts from the fundamental core of the film. This is a fantastic film.

(Author’s note 2: I’m going to make the controversial statement that I’m against torturing people, but the candidness of the commander’s plan to commit torture was refreshing in light of current events. So was his intelligence. He studies the enemy, analyzes the structure of their cells, and works to understand them better so that he can defeat them. When word of the torture leaks out, the press questions him on the subject. And, while he’s very coy about the whole deal with the press, he also asks the press (and, thus, the world) if France should even stay in Algeria anymore. His message is that France should withdraw from Algeria if the people are going to be too concerned with the humane treatment of the enemy. Additionally, he never, ever engages in any dehumanization of the people he’s fighting and speaks of his respect for the leaders of the revolution often. This is so starkly contrasted with the bumbling, overzealous, and ultra patriotic rhetoric coming from certain portions of the government [and the news media] as to make me wish for the umpteenth time that I were a sissy Frenchman with an understanding of nuance and subtleties. End of line)

Mentality bites

The experience of watching a movie a day is getting to me. I've got this feeling coarsing through me today that I'm on the verge of something, mentally speaking. Like, I'm in some kind of a border zone right before a grand change in thought comes over me. Perhaps I am on the verge of becoming part of the cathode-ray "new flesh" from Videodrome and soon I will have a vagina that accepts Betamax tapes in my tummy! I hope the new flesh comes with HD because if my flesh will become new, I don't want it to be low-rez. Also, I'd like to have an extra mouth on the inside of my throat so I can taste food twice. And a cookie.

Tonight is going to be one of those nights where I have no fucking clue where I'm going to find two hours of time to sit down and watch Robocop 2 or Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Expect tomorrow's review to be shocking. The Battle of Algiers will be up later today.


Here's the tentative list for Man v. Nature week:

1. Lost in La Mancha
2. Fitzcarraldo
3. Little Otik
4. Walkabout
5. Go West
6. C.H.U.D.
7. Gerry

Couldn't find Birds II, even at the all-inclusive Video Station though I'd love nothing more than to see that one as part of the week. I watched The Mosquito Coast about 3 years ago during a Peter Weir kick, so no luck there, either. If there are any more suggestions, I'm still interested since I'm looking for, maybe, a snowier or underwaterier movie than a couple that I've got here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Day 25: Alphaville

My interest in seeing Alphaville was two-fold. It often comes up on lists of the best science fiction movies, a genre that’s been dear to me for most of my life, and it’s a Godard film. I’ve always been curious to see more of Godard’s films. Up until last night, I’d only seen Breathless, a movie that I enjoyed on a purely intellectual level. It’s been a long time, but I remember feeling that it was, basically, a movie about other movies searching for an identity of its own.

So, here’s the deal: Alphaville is a good science fiction film, but that’s not saying much considering the way the genre is often cheapened in films by a reliance on special effects and pretty lights. The story focuses on a film noir-ish secret agent who, sometime in the future, journeys to Alphaville with orders to kill an evil scientist living there. The film jettisons the standard trappings of sci-fi. Everything in the movie looks contemporary with the time the movie was made. This is an interesting choice, visually, since the landscape is so familiar, but the attitudes and structure of the society of Alphaville are not.

The whole time I was watching it, I was delighted by how the movie played with (and put the emphasis on) language. The whole movie is about the power of language: the way it shapes our worldviews, the violence found in the logic of scientific language, the illogic of poetry (and by extension, the illogic of emotion). The residents of Alphaville refer to the dictionary as The Bible (and words deemed too challenging are stripped from it on a daily basis). They are sort-of ruled by a computer, but the computer is really just an Internet-like compilation of information that makes decisions for the populace based on mathematically derived projections of how to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The citizens adhere to these decisions with apathetic obedience, even when other members of the population are killed for disobedience. Yeah, we’re firmly in Orwell-lite territory, but I enjoyed the way this movie sought to examine more deeply the effect of language control on the population. Godard’s random, chaotic style also makes this one of the only science fiction films (the original Solaris being another) that actually plays as strange as the otherworldly events it depicts. The film sometimes feels as if a foreign influence has infected it and it’s working hard to rid itself of the intruder, mirroring the plot.

But, having said this, Godard’s style makes watching Alphaville akin to being prodded in the ribs with a pointed stick every few minutes. Godard’s filmic digressions from the plot are rewarding when he focuses on poetry and language since these are thematically consistent, less so when the digressions are incidental to the internal concepts of the movie itself. The movie has an obnoxious score that has to be a (not funny) joke, punctuating everything in the first twenty minutes with loud, overbearing horns. There are random cutaways to blinking neon lights and other, even more contextless, meaningless insertions throughout the movie, the intentions of which I wouldn’t begin to guess. At times, the sound of the film erupts into beeps for no discernable reason. A fight scene staged in stills and a wildly cut-up car chase are as inept and misguided (and unintentionally funny) as anything in Zombi 3. There’s a mania to the film as it seesaws wildly from conventional plot mechanics to bouts of pretension.

Alphaville is a frustrating film. It’s occasionally great but often dull. I’m left, again, feeling intellectually satisfied by a lot of the movie, but angry at the idiocy with some of the choices here. What’s particularly frustrating is the fact that this incompetence gets in the way of some really fertile material. In addition, there are moments where the movie really connects with the illogic that must exist in a society founded on logic, solely due to Godard’s chaotic and ill-advised choices. Call it a wash. Anyway, I’m done thinking about this movie for a few days.

Corsetted madness

I just realized that I forgot to praise Tess for not having a scene where she protests the corset. But then, part of the problem with the movie was that she symbolically embraced it, so I'm not sure what to think.

The Perfect Snob

Head over to Hollywood Elsewhere for Jeffrey Wells's honest and thoughtful evaluation of "The Film Snob's Dictionary", a book coming out next year. He includes quotes from the book's introduction which, among other things, talks about the film's snob's pride in having "populist, un-arty taste". Though I don't think I've ever been a film snob (I'm more of the Scorsese-style enthusiast also mentioned in the introductory text), I'm no stranger to having pride in populist, un-arty taste. But this is a trait I've been moving away from in the past few years of my life. Super-arty things like Bergman's films or My Dinner with Andre hit me harder, emotionally, than anything else these days (though like any decent human being, I'll shout the virtues of the very populist Sergio Leone or Dario Argento to anyone who will listen and sometimes to those who don't care.). I'm not entirely sure why this is, other than I'm tired of seeing people wrestle over who gets to hold the gun at the end of the movie.

Anyway, this sounds like a book I'll have to pick up when it comes out.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Day 24: Tess

Roman Polanski’s Tess is a trying film, overlong and dry. It’s based on Thomas Hardy’s book Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book I am unfamiliar with, but now know is one I won’t be reading. Most of the problems I have with this movie can probably be attributed to the source material, though that isn’t to let the makers of the film off the hook. I had a hard time caring for the main character here, a shy, retiring young woman whose naïveté is only surpassed by her capacity for self-martyrdom. The movie lacked any kind of traction in its narrative. At times I felt as if there were a checklist of plot requirements being checked off somewhere in the engine of this film. The movie has a sumptuous design and period detail to spare, but, when, twenty minutes into a two-hour and fifty minute film I am admiring the period detail, I think something’s gone wrong.

One thing that’s very wrong here is the lead performance by Nastassja Kinski as Tess. The character is withdrawn and depressed for most of the movie and Kinski plays only the surface levels of these emotions. She’s quiet, shy, withdrawn, but there’s never any indication that there’s anything motivating these character traits. Additionally, the few moments when Tess actually does make a decision and works to enact it are, for the most part, painfully confined to off-screen status. Very often, the movie abruptly cuts forward in time with little warning. At first it’s a great use of editing, but after three or four of these cuts, there’s a sense that all the developments the movie's skipping over would be more interesting to watch than the bits we do get to see.

And, so, we have a movie of inaction as Tess shuffles from job to job, is lusted after by various men and then abandoned by them. One sequence that stands out and illustrates the paucity of narrative friction in the rest of the movie is when a pious young man named Angel courts Tess. Previously, Tess had a child out of wedlock (the father was a louse and the baby died) and she decides to confess her history to him in a letter. When she discovers that, when she slid said letter under Angel’s door, she also slid it under the rug and, therefore, he never received it, the camera pans over, away from her and blinding sunlight fills the full frame. It’s a surprisingly effective evocation of her feeling, something the movie doesn’t engage in enough. Polanski has a gift for understatement, but in this movie, his stately, artful approach to filmmaking only serves to deaden the tale.

I couldn’t get over the feeling that this movie felt like a well-produced PBS version of the book. The movie’s narrative has a bit more weight when taken as a whole; Tess’s story is more moving in retrospect than during the piece. It’s the kind of feeling you have after reading a good book that is, at times, hard to get through. A book has the advantage of being an art form entirely out of time: one can set down or pick up a book at a whim, after all. Here, after the fourth or fifth time the movie depicts a character walking down long stretches of abandoned road, it becomes as plodding and dull as such a journey on foot would be. It's a feeling that the entire movie suffers from.

Why am I just hearing about this?

Sorry, fans of The Passion.

I think I can get to this by Thursday.

More dining with Andre

Got the following info from Phoenix about My Dinner With Andre for thems as is curious.

From Ebert:
Gene Siskel and I did a question-and-answer session with Gregory and Shawn after the first anniversary screening of the film's New York run. What I remember best from that night is that the two men, asked what they might do differently a second time around, said they would switch roles--``so that no one would think we were playing ourselves.''

Not in real time but filmed with exquisite attention to the smallest details by director Louis Malle over a period of weeks. And not in a New York restaurant but on a studio set. The conversation that flows so spontaneously between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn was carefully scripted. ``They taped their conversations two or three times a week for three months,'' Pauline Kael writes, ``and then Shawn worked for a year shaping the material into a script, in which they play comic distillations of aspects of themselves.''

Thanks Phoenix!

In other news: I haven't talked about this, but I've been watching these movies from the floor of my office. Over the weekend, back pain and leg pain inspired Tara and I to go buy some viewing chairs. They should be in sometime this week, at which time, I will give my thankful ass the opportunity to post on the blog.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Day 23: My Dinner with Andre

Wallace Shawn: I don’t know what you’re talking about!

Now this is how you do a movie about ideas. Two men, who were friends some time ago, sit down, have dinner, and talk for an hour and fifty minutes. Their conversation, philosophical and heady, contains some of the most riveting moments I’ve ever seen in a movie. I sat, rapt, leaned forward in an attempt to soak in every word. At times, it wasn’t even what they were talking about that held me in such sway, but how they were talking about it. There’s a frankness, an honesty, and an earnestness to the discussion between the two men that’s moving. Though they’re talking about concerns that can be readily dismissed with a flippant remark or a hostile joke, both men are game to probe their own minds and to take each other seriously. When they challenge each other’s positions, it’s in a friendly enough way but, nevertheless, still contains a great deal of suspense and tension. I never knew how extreme the emotions would get or how they’d be expressed.

Wallace Shawn (who actually utters the word “inconceivable” at one point in this film, bringing a meta-chuckle to everyone who’s familiar with his role in The Princess Bride) and Andre Gregory play the two men, presumably as themselves. Shawn is a struggling New York playwright, Gregory a once successful stage director who’s gone away for five years to indulge in consciousness expanding experiences. He’s done things like go out into the woods for days with a large group of people who don’t speak the same language, where they do… whatever feels natural. They talk about the state of the theatre, the way people conform to certain roles, science, and the nature of perceptual experience. Shawn starts off the movie distant from Andre (he’s going to the dinner out of obligation) and, for a while, humors the other man as he talks about things like the power of meditation and mind-over-matter. Soon enough, Shawn is swept along by Andre’s enthusiasm and engages with him. It’s here, where the two men begin challenging each other’s points of view, when the movie really takes off.

The overall theme of the conversation is consciousness itself. It’s amazing that, for its subject matter, the movie never comes off as pretentious or overly simplistic. A lot of this can be attributed to the two actors in the film. I don’t know how this movie was made, but the acting in it is so natural and honest, it feels like the director, Louis Malle, sat down with four cameras and just recorded these two intelligent men talking. Andre, in particular, is absolutely spellbinding as he relates his consciousness expanding experiences, nutty as they may seem to us and Shawn. He does most of the talking in the movie, and the way he talks about these moments in his life is evocative, creating images in the mind that are far more compelling than any filmic representation could be. Indeed, most of the experiences he describes would seem cheesy or cheap if they were shot on film, but how they affected him is so clearly written on his face that they can’t help but feel entirely genuine. One moment, in particular, when he describes a moment when he was buried alive, is so effectively delivered that it’s impossible not to share the fear and terror he felt.

But, if watching the movie is a great experience, what happens afterward is even better. When Shawn tells us, in a voice over closing the film, that he went home and told his girlfriend Debbie all about his dinner with Andre, I wanted to know all about that conversation (I thought it was too bad Malle didn’t make a follow-up film featuring Shawn and Debbie talking about the dinner with Andre). When the movie was done, I felt the way I always do after having one of these conversations myself, only, not being allowed to participate between these two men, I hadn’t yet gotten to say what I had to say on these subjects. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence or a desire for self-exploration will surely ponder the questions this movie asks, talk about these questions (as I did) with a similarly intelligent loved one, probe the thoughts and feelings this movie brings up. There’s a certain privilege in being able to think about the topics brought up here (a point the movie makes by having Andre, who’s clearly coming to the conversation having thought these subjects through more than Shawn has, pay for the expensive dinner at the end) and the film inspires one to take full advantage of that privilege.

Themes and Variations

I'll begin the first themed week on Saturday, October 29th. I've decided to go with the deceptively simple theme: MAN VS. NATURE As of now, I've got 2 movies in mind for this week, Little Otik and Fitzcarraldo. Part of the fun of doing themes will be finding movies that don't exaaaaaaactly fit in, but a case can be made. Please post any suggestions for movies that could be viewed on the theme "MAN VS. NATURE" here. Also, if you have any further ideas for week themes, let me know!

As you can probably see, I've got a feed service going now and an email subscription thingy. Try them out and let me know if there's any problems with them.

It's Day 23 and I'm doing all right. There's a feeling of obligation to the blog that, at times, is unpleasant. I've seen some great films in the progress, films that have inspired wonderful thoughts. I do feel as if I keep seeing the same plot over and over. I keep seeing women menaced by men or women controlled by men. Except in Who's That Girl? Which is probably why I was as nice as I was to that film. Last night, I watched My Dinner With Andre and that was also refreshing in that the man vs. woman factor was non-existent. The days are just flying by and I've realized how sad I'm going to be when this is all over.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Week 3 Index

Day 15: Dr. Goldfoot & the Bikini Machine
Day 16: At the Circus
Day 17: Corpse Bride
Day 18: Shadows
Day 19: All That Jazz
Day 20: Who's That Girl?
Day 21: Short Cuts

Day 22: Dressed to Kill

Voice of Bobbi: Don't make me be a bad girl again!

This movie has the distinction of being the first one mentioned on this blog during which I fell asleep. It’s not entirely the movie’s fault, I was pretty tired, but I dosed for a moment during a protracted ten or fifteen minute denouement that was just excruciating to sit through. Before watching Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, I’d heard jokes made at De Palma’s expense about how he aped Hitchcock. Having never seen a movie where he does so, I never quite got the joke. I get it now. This is, essentially, a remake of Psycho with nothing new to add but explicit nudity and violence. You’ve got the same cross-dressing killer, the same “twist” where you learn a character you’ve been following the whole movie is said killer, the same slashing strings that mimic the killing you’re seeing, and the same Puritanical violent reaction to a fear of sexuality. Hell, the movie even carries over the worst part of Psycho, the stupid and nearly unforgivable psychologist scene at the end. This isn’t an unenjoyable movie to watch, the technical stuff is confident and artful, but it’s a waste of time.

For the record, I was only asleep for a few seconds. After the killer is disposed of and we get the unfortunate and questionable psychoanalytic analysis of why this guy was acting the way he was, there are a couple of unnecessary scenes in which characters chat about what they’ll do now that all of this is behind them. Then, as if whoring out the fun and scary ending to his version of Carrie, De Palma inflicts upon us a lengthy sequence in which Nancy Allen showers, hears a noise, and is attacked by the killer we thought was dead. Then she wakes up. I was asleep for a bit during the showering because at this point, there’s absolutely no reason to be watching the movie anymore. The story is over and the sequence adds nothing to the film but a cheap shock, one that any astute viewer should see coming from miles away.

Another ridiculous scene has Angie Dickinson, playing a sexually frustrated housewife, pursuing a man through an art museum. She’s interested in having a fling with him because her husband is bad in bed. There’s a great tracking shot through the museum and some Herrmannesque music plays. At first, it’s refreshing because this is a scene of conflicting emotions played silently. It’s clear that Dickinson wants to seduce this man, but isn’t sure it’s the right thing to do. But the scene continues, there are complications, and soon, Dickinson has given up on any hope of a fling but is still pursuing the man because he has a glove of hers that she wants back. As she follows him through the art museum, there’s a question of why she doesn’t just call out to the man so she can get the glove. The sequence has gone from kind-of cool to plain annoying because the craft of the movie (following Dickenson through the museum in a tracking shot that looks neat) begins to intrude on the characters. I guess she probably didn’t speak up because the music from the movie was playing too loudly and he wouldn’t have been able to hear her. I don’t really know, but it was infuriating to watch.

I’m not sure why this film exists. Psycho is a perfectly fine movie in its own right. It’s not like this movie is just borrowing elements from Psycho to tell its own story… that I can at least try to get behind. This is thematically the exact same story with a different plot as window dressing. I suppose one could argue that this movie puts Psycho into the modern age, changing the setting from a rural environment of isolation to an urban one and upping the sexual quotient to be more explicit. But if that’s true, then why is Nancy Allen’s prostitute character so old fashioned? She’s like a 15-year-old’s conception of a prostitute, a woman who’s sexually available but for whom the sex trade is as simple and consequence-free as sending a greeting card. What’s more, if you’re going to try and update Psycho, why align yourself with the simplistic and improbable psychological explanation from the original movie? Why give an explanation at all since it’s just going to read as simplistic and improbable? Am I being unfair in comparing this movie to Psycho rather than just judging it on its own merits? I don’t think so. The movie brazenly invites the comparison and fails to live up to its predecessor every step of the way. There are new layers to find in the story and different perspectives to examine, but all this does is give us the exact same perspective with only minor variations on the theme. Yawn.

Edit on 2/17/10: 4 and 1/2 years later, I find myself regretting the comments made about the pursuit through the museum. In all this time, I haven't stopped thinking of that sequence. I now think it's gorgeous filmmaking that should be applauded for its bravura. Hitchcock-inspired or no, it is exquisite. One of the benefits of doing all this in bloggy form is the ability to come back here now and say, quite publicly, that I think I was wrong.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Day 21: Short Cuts

Short Cuts is a fantastic film, a triumph of story matching form and vice versa. It follows the lives of many, many characters (too many to recount) living in southern California over the course of a few days. Some of them know each other, some don’t, many of their paths cross as the movie plays out, and some never meet each other. I’m not well-versed in Robert Altman’s work, but I’ve seen enough to know his style and to know that this movie’s subject matter is perfectly suited to it. As the characters go about their lives, the perspective of the film is like a wandering observer’s, focusing on whatever the hell it feels like. The movie glibly shows us a character we’ve already seen nonchalantly passing the character we’re currently focusing on, zooms in during peak emotional moments to details that seem irrelevant and resonant at the same time, and hears the cacophony of people talking at the same time, its attention dipping in and out from one conversation to the other like a loner at a party. It’s an overwhelming movie, both very dense and very long, giving it the feel of one of those novels made up of vignettes.

Like those novels made up of vignettes, the whole time I was watching Short Cuts, there was a growing awareness that these disparate stories must culminate into something (otherwise why make it other than as a stunt?). But, even as the movie built to its climax, I admired the way this movie tied its characters together with thematic links. Even more, I admired the way that the linking threads changed as situations in the movie changed. At a certain point, I thought to myself, “okay, so all these characters are connected by failed marriages” and then, later, “oh, no it’s a movie about bad fathering” and then, “oh, death unites them all.” All of these were probably right at the times I thought them, but on further reflection, I think it is life that unites all of these people. The movie captures the way life is full of accidents, happy ones as well as bad ones, but, with one well-timed exception, the movie never imposes upon its characters any plot contrivances to cause these accidents. Rather, the accidents that affect the characters are very often caused by the other characters in the film, people that are living in very divergent storylines. The end result is a very pleasing butterfly-effect ripple as one small action in one plot line culminates in a huge result in another.

And yet, the movie never feels too insular (which was a bit more of a problem in the similarly structured movie Magnolia). Because the movie is packed with characters and extras and the roving camera often highlights these seemingly unimportant details, there’s always a feeling that the characters live in a real living and breathing world with a multitude of untold stories surrounding the ones we’re watching. When the movie culminates with an earthquake, the only moment that unites all the characters, it doesn’t ring out as a false tie. Because so many random things have happened and the world feels so alive, it fits right into the mileau. The way the characters react to the earthquake evokes something about a change or a stasis in all of them and it felt appropriately climatic.

As the movie neared its ending point, I was relieved (the density and the length make this a demanding viewing experience) but I was also anxious. The writing and acting is so good in this movie (despite a few stumbles… oh Andie McDowell… when will you learn?) that I didn’t want to leave these people. I wanted to continue to see how their lives played out. And, really, the ending is like a slow fade on a song (which is not nearly as powerful as ending on a hard beat) eventually tapering to the credits. But, all quibbling aside, this is a wonderful movie about the way people interact with one another without even knowing it. That’s life, right?

The Cutting Edge

When I got home from work yesterday, I felt as if I'd hit the "movie a day wall". So, Short Cuts seemed like the best choice to make. I knew it'd be long, I knew it'd be dense. What better way to push on through the wall than a cinematic gorging feast? Anway, the full review will be up later tonight, but I'll say now that I think this is a fantastic film.

If you've seen Short Cuts, you know that this is a great ensemble piece. There was no one from ALF in it that I could see, which was disappointing. Still, I want to know who gives your favorite performance in this movie? For me, it's a toss up between Jack Lemmon and Fred Ward.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Day 20: Who's That Girl?

Madonna: “Hey! A mall!”

This is an early Madonna vehicle of little note. The look of the film is a flat, boring, TV look (the director of photography was Jan de Bont!) and this isn’t wholly inappropriate since the proceedings often feel like one of those awful made-for-TV comedies, the likes of which used to air on Saturday mornings after the cartoons. Madonna’s performance ranges from annoying to flabbergasting. About the only redeeming features the movie has are Griffin Dunne (was he angling for stardom?) and an agreeable silliness that keeps most of the sag out of the shopworn plotting.

The movie is a winker, one that tries to tell us that it knows it’s dumb, and that’s fine; it goes down easier that way. It doesn’t linger too long on the inevitable romantic conflicts, and moves through its plotline at a nice, economical clip. But it’s an old story in which an uptight man is coaxed out of his shell by a wild woman of the world. Dunne plays the uptight man; a tax attorney who’s engaged to his wealthy boss’s daughter and oddly charged by this boss with the task of making sure recently paroled Madonna gets onto a bus to Philadelphia, out of New York. If I tell you that his fiancée is rather uptight and that Madonna’s character believes she was framed for murder by some wealthy corporate guy, can you fill in the rest of the blanks? At a very early point in the movie, the only question I had about the plot was whether or not the movie had enough money in its budget to show the wedding get interrupted at the end, or if Dunne’s character would just not show up for his nuptials and declare his love for Madonna's character somewhere far away from them (for the record, the movie had the money for the wedding, but no one fell into the cake).

The movie draws inspiration from screwball comedies of the past (something that took me longer to realize than it should have) utilizing the age-old “they hate each other at first, but then they fall in love!” arc and borrowing the wild cat from Bringing Up Baby. But, honestly, the last thing in the world I wanted to see was Madonna’s annoying character win the heart of anyone, much less Dunne’s non-character. Dunne coasts on a natural comic ability (he’s the only thing that made me laugh in the movie), but he really has nothing interesting to do but goof on the archetype he’s playing. There are some nice, absurd choices at times (the way the bickering cops end up is pretty goofy and the swordfight is fun and dumb), but, you know, I’m just being nice to the movie. I’ve seen what this movie’s doing countless times and much, much better. It’s Something Wild for the young adult set and, as such, the nuance has been drained out of it to make it more palatable for “young minds”.

Really, this is a middling, bad movie, aimed at teens that probably aren’t aware of how many clichés are being recycled. An unscientific survey at work and among friends revealed that this movie was a milestone for many people of my generation. This movie wasn’t part of my landscape when I was growing up, but it reminded me a lot of another movie that was: the Weird Al Yankovic movie, UHF. I liked UHF a lot when I was a kid, but recognize now that it’s middling at best. Both movies are vehicles for iconic 80s singers who have long since outstayed their welcome and have a screen presence that tends to be grating. Both have similarly uneven writing, bursts of inspiration in the casting (Who’s That Girl? has Dunne, UHF has Michael Richards and The Kipper Kids), and boring, TV-style cinematography. And both have an agreeable silliness, a breezy quality that makes it impossible to think about them seriously. The tone pushes the movie into and out of your mind before anything can register, erasing the memories of all you have seen and felt while watching them. I can’t say I don’t like this movie, because it’s too insubstantial to make such a claim. I can’t say I like it or hate it, because that would require it inspiring passion. I can say that at times I was mildly entertained by the film, but also bored by it. I’m bored writing about it now. Though it does make me want to watch Bringing Up Baby, a movie I’ve only seen segments of.

(By the way, this is the second movie in a row that featured a cast member from ALF! All That Jazz had Max Wright a.k.a. Willie and Who’s That Girl? had Liz Sheridan a.k.a. the nosy neighbor next door on ALF and also Jerry Seinfeld’s mother on Seinfeld. Who from ALF will appear next?)

All that Jazz: Part II

I forgot to mention in my review that the cast of All that Jazz includes turns by Wallace Shawn, John Lithgow, and the guy who played Willie on ALF. It's like a kitsch dream come true.

In Dreams

Last night was one of those nights. I was already dead tired at 11 o’clock when I sat down to watch the evening’s movie. I had planned to watch Short Cuts, but when I saw the running time, I knew that no matter how well crafted this Altman film was, I would be in very bad shape while watching it. In desperation, I took a look around the house to find something shorter that I hadn’t seen and what caught my eye? Tara’s copy of Who’s That Girl, starring Madonna, a VHS she’s had since her childhood years. I never thought that my blog would enable me to say I am a person who’s seen Who’s That Girl, and yet, there it is.

Tonight is going to be another late night for me and of the two movies I have from Netflix in the house, there’s Short Cuts with a running time of over 3 hours and Roman Polanski’s Tess which has only a slightly shorter running time. Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt into my TV screen. But, no pain, no gain, right?

The blog is working magic on my brain. Last night, my dreams had something to do with All That Jazz. I can’t wait until my subconscious suddenly mixes Zardoz and Who’s That Girl.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Day 19: All That Jazz

Joe Gideon: Sometimes I don't know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.

I don’t know anything about Bob Fosse. I’ve seen the movie Chicago and a stage version of Cabaret, but that’s the extent of my knowledge of the man and his work. I rented this movie because I’d heard that it was an autobiographical film about his life and I knew it starred Roy Scheider (who will hereby be referred to as Roy (Jaws) Scheider) as Fosse. The idea of Roy (Jaws) Scheider playing an influential choreographer seemed odd, to put it mildly. I was familiar with his work from Jaws, of course, as well as The French Connection, and Sorcerer (not to mention The Curse of the Living Corpse, but that’s a story for another day). I thought this was something different for him, because I always had this association in my mind of Roy (Jaws) Scheider in roles of sweaty manliness. Well, I was wrong and kind-of stupid. Why I didn’t think the world of dancing would lead to a similar form of sweaty manliness can be attributed to several cultural blind spots that I labor to remove every day of my life.

But about the movie: All That Jazz can best be summed up by two montages that open the film. The first details the morning ritual of Joe Gideon, by all accounts Fosse’s fictional stand-in. He listens to classical music in his bathroom, takes Alka-Seltzer, showers, and pops some Dexedrine. Ready to face the day, he looks himself in the mirror and intones, “It’s showtime.” This montage is used throughout the film, and to good effect. The bathroom is unclean and disordered, gritty and real. It’s edited quickly and economically, telling us all we need to know in a matter of seconds. The second montage in the film is a tiring, endless depiction of a cattle call audition for dancers. It goes on and on, using nearly the entire length of the song “On Broadway” as the large crowd is thinned out to Gideon’s final selections. It’s fun at first, watching the crowd slowly thin, but the whole montage wears out its welcome long before it ends. The conflict between these two types of story telling goes on for the entirety of All That Jazz, up until the final moments of the film. At the end of the movie, Gideon/Fosse performs in an overlong rock-operish musical number saying goodbye to his life and then the film cuts to his lifeless body, zipped up into a body bag.

The movie has one of those confessional tones that is endearing, yet superficial. The movie cuts periodically to Gideon discussing his life and attitudes with an angelic figure in an empty theatre and he’s blatantly honest about hurting others for his own purposes. This allows Fosse/Gideon to confess his many sins to both the angel and the audience, but the movie often winks at us and says of Gideon, “He can’t help it…” or “Ain’t he a stinker!” The result is that the confessions feel like an insincere apology, nice on the surface but fundamentally empty. The movie does effectively present Gideon’s self-hatred and how it feeds off the way he’s worshiped by the people he hurts. (Jaws) Scheider shines in the role as the conflicted, womanizing director. One scene in the movie has Gideon’s girlfriend and daughter performing an awkward dance routine for him and Scheider conveys a response that is at once embarrassed (at the bad dancing) and appreciative.

And then there are the musical numbers. The numbers are well choreographed, shot and edited with flair, and have an energy to them that is hard to deny. Generally, the set pieces depict an interior state of the main character’s mind, even when they aren’t hallucinations or dream sequences, and this is smart, but most of them go on way, way too long. They interrupt the flow of the narrative and pad the movie’s running time into overlong territory. One of them, in which dancers flop about in sexual poses, peel off their clothes, and cavort around, veers terrifyingly close to the ending dance sequence in Stayin’ Alive, a land no movie should wander near. The ending number goes on for ages, repeating the same emotional beat over and over again. It was hard to sit through, especially since some of the costuming would be more at home in a deliberately campy movie like Barbarella. It’s too bad that the dance sequences outstay their welcome because they are otherwise dramatically smart and, up until the overlong point, very fun to watch.

This movie is indulgent to its core. It wants to show us the flaws of the Gideon/Fosse character, redeem him, and then kill him. It hits all the tortured artist clichés that have been with us since the first caveman couldn’t finish his wall painting. But, for all these shortcomings, it’s surprisingly good. A lot of the credit must go to Scheider, but there’s a real intelligence to the editing for about half of the movie. When Gideon wanders the hospital in a drug-induced fervor, the movie cuts in segments of a stand-up comedy monologue we’ve seen throughout the movie. The way the stand-up routine (which we’ve seen so many times that we almost know it by heart) comments on the action in front of us is clever and poetic. One scene foreshadows Gideon’s health problems with shock cuts that is as effective at conveying the premonitions of bad health as anything in memory. It’s a fascinating, layered movie, but a deeply flawed one, not unlike Fosse/Gideon himself.

Weekly Themes

Starting on October 29, I'm going to start doing weekly themes. I want to avoid themes like "films directed by Peter Weir" and go more the route of stuff like "films directed by actors" or "Monsters, makeup, and mahem" or even something like The Onion's AV Club Underrated Movie List. Any suggestions out there?

Another blog to give a looksee

Check out Without Feathers. Another crazy-tastic moviewatching blog in which some poor soul attempts to watch Woody Allen's movies in a month! Outrageous.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Day 18: Shadows

There’s a title at the end of Shadows informing the viewer that the movie was improvised. It’s not surprising. Shadows is a free-form and lively character driven film. There’s a plotline, but it moves forward based on the characters and their actions, and there are many detours from it along the way. The movie pauses for long stretches to observe the behavior and attitudes of the people involved. And there are times when, perhaps, the movie pauses a bit too long or repeats itself as the characters find different ways to express the same thing. In short, it has the benefits of a good improvisation (feeling emotionally “live” and the ability to explore tangential areas at a whim), but contains some of the drawbacks (being too indulgent). It’s not a powerhouse of a movie, but it’s well observed and thoughtful.

Shadows is shot and edited not unlike Godard’s Breathless, a low-budget, haphazard style that obeys none of the traditional conventions and flaunts them at whim. There are a lot of close-ups in the movie, and there are a few sequences where the movie dissolves at random from one angle, close on the actor, to a second angle equally close. The sound ranges from adequate to awful. It’s unclear, from watching the movie, whether the roughness is a matter of choice or a matter of economic necessity. I’d lean towards the latter. But this is one of those movies, like Night of the Living Dead, where the dirt poor production values are an asset rather than a drawback. For instance, the score of the film is mostly solo instrument improvisation, not really synced to the action taking place. Because the movie deals, in part, with musicians, it feels like source music and is more effective at drawing us into the world than any finely orchestrated counterpoint could be. The story focuses on people who are on the fringes of society and the gritty, scrappy production echoes their lives. You could say this is a happy accident, but it’s also good casting: putting the right ideas into the right aesthetic.

The movie focuses on three siblings in New York City, sometime in the late 1950s. Hugh is an unsuccessful singer; when the movie opens, he has a gig at a strip club and he suffers the indignation of introducing the strippers after his set. Benny is a rootless, aimless young man. He hangs out with a two other similar men and together they play cards, wander the streets, and try to pick up girls. Leila is Hugh and Benny’s sister, a young woman, still uncertain who she is or what she wants out of life. She is somewhat enlightened (note: this being the 1950s, there is no scene involving a corset) and defies the convention that she must be subservient to or classified by the men that she dates.

All three characters are African American and they are rendered with an honesty and realism that seems progressive for the time. The emotional crux of the film occurs when Leila, who is so fair skinned she passes for white, sleeps with a white man named Tony. But, as this is an observational movie at its core and not a didactic, message movie, the racial conflict is subtly drawn. Tony is conflicted when he meets Hugh, and, though he’s just professed his undying love to Leila, makes a feeble excuse to leave the apartment. When Hugh then insists that Tony leave in order to protect his sister from being hurt, Tony insists that the two remember he was forced to leave. It’s an interesting character beat, showing Tony’s uncomfortability with the fact that he’s slept with a black woman, as well as his desire to not be seen as prejudiced. He later tries to redeem himself by offering some bland, racially sensitive platitudes and the movie wisely ridicules him for this empty gesture.

The acting in the movie is, for the most part, a treat. There are a few false steps every now and then, particularly with Leila. However, for every bad, overly acted moment, there’s a naturalistic one that follows it. Like everyone you know, the characters’ extreme emotions are held in check and break out in only the most dire of circumstances. And sometimes they break out in very interesting (and very honest) ways. Leila reacts to the hurt Tony causes her by making a new suitor wait for hours while she gets ready for their date and acting in a very controlling, powerful manner. Benny and his cohorts flee to an art museum when challenged about their unambitious lifestyle and engage in some funny and poignant discussions about the art they find there.

Where the movie succeeds is in its matter-of-fact presentation of the lives of these characters. So often, matters of racial inequality or discrimination are presented with pointed fingers and an epic grandiosity that cheapens all the characters involved, reducing all of them to “types,” no matter how well drawn the characters are (I’m looking at you, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Here, we simply observe the way these characters live and interact with the world around them. Racial issues are a part of their lives, but not all of their lives. Near the end of the film, Benny and his friends hit on some girls whose boyfriends are momentarily absent. When the boyfriends return, a fight breaks out between the two groups. I wondered if the extremity of the boyfriends’ reaction had anything to do with Benny’s race. The movie doesn’t say and there’s really nothing in the movie to suggest it. A lesser movie would make that the only reason the fight breaks out.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Rules of the Game

Editor’s note: These reviews are getting later and later, aren’t they?  I’m having some trouble keeping up.  Heh.  This is getting fun.  For the record: the rule is I post the review before I go to bed.  Not some, “ah! It’s not up by midnight!  I got you!  You’ve failed at your blog!” Gremlins-style rule.  Though if I eat after midnight, I sometimes dream of kissing a mogwai.  And sometimes, if I get wet, balls of fur pop out of my back.  But the fur thing is a medical condition known as mogwaitis.  It doesn’t result in gremlins.  But if you like Gremlins, you’ll love the Kappa!

Day 17: Corpse Bride

At once an exhilarating visual feast and a disappointing, shallow story, Corpse Bride is successful in creating an exciting world, but not in exploring it. Its main problem lies in its protagonists, passive characters who mostly wait for circumstances to revolve in their favor. The movie has a few good moments, but fails to capitalize on them. And yet, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie, probably because it is internally consistent. That and it’s very, very pretty.

I have a condition that is either genetically based or firmly rooted in my cultural upbringing. I like animated skeletons. It’s not something I have any control over. When I was a kid and saw an old Disney cartoon featuring dancing skeletons, I was delighted. Later, I became obsessed with the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion skeletons from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. There are a lot of animated skeletons in this movie and they are very well designed and have just the right lighting, highlighting the texture of the bones and giving them a nice expressive color. There’s a pleasing weight to the skeletons, too, an effect that only stop motion can produce. I realize I’m spending a paragraph here talking just about the fucking skeletons, but, again, I have no control over this. There were so many dancing, singing skeletons in this movie, it was like something out of a dream I had when I was ten.

The premise is storybook simple, wonderfully so. Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), is engaged to Victoria (who has the seemingly inevitable corset scene). It’s an arranged marriage in which the transfer of wealth benefits both of the two youngsters’ families. At the wedding rehearsal, Victor stumbles with his wedding vows to the point that the minister declares the wedding cannot go on until he can remember his words. Feeling the burden of saving these two families, Victor heads out to the woods, where, while practicing saying his vows, he inadvertently proposes to the corpse of a jilted bride. She whisks him away to the land of the dead, as she believes they are married.

The movie is clever in the way it paints the land of the living in grey, Victorian-era drabness while the land of the dead is a colorful, bawdy place. The animation is as top-notch and as inventive as it was in The Nightmare Before Christmas. But the story itself, while seeming like it should be a simple affair, is pretty stagnant. When Victor is taken to the land of the dead, he attempts one act of trickery to get him back to the land of the living, but after that, he mostly just sits around and waits for others to help him out of his predicament. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not particularly engaging here. The Corpse Bride is rendered with a striking scariness when she first rises, but her scariness disappears as quickly as Jack Nicholson goes crazy in The Shining. After a while, the rules governing the two worlds seem arbitrary and confusing (a bad step for any movie dealing in supernatural elements like this movie does) and, after we’ve revisited the same locations again and again, the two worlds feel too insular.

As much as it pains me to say this (being a huge Danny Elfman fan), the musical numbers don’t come off very well here. In fact, they’re a bit out of place. The big, bold, and brassy song that setups the back story to the Corpse Bride is the only song that seems to fit into the milieu correctly, appropriate to the New Orleans-esque land of the dead. The other numbers feel shoehorned in. The opening number suffers from this quite a bit. The characters singing are Victor & Victoria’s parents, stuffy, society people and they don’t look like characters that sing. Their song falls flat and goes on far too long. The other problem that the musical numbers have is something that has been bothering me since I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earlier this year. I don’t believe that Tim Burton has a knack for staging musical scenes. The direction of both Charlie and Corpse Bride’s songs felt flat to me, not in tune with the music Elfman had written. The character and camera moves aren’t kinetic enough to carry the songs, and that’s too bad (particularly on the brassy one).

These problems are not to say that I dislike the movie. I enjoyed it quite a bit (see: skeletons). There’s a lot of cleverness to it. I really enjoyed the maggot character who talked like Peter Lorre and the way the dead came into the land of the living at one point in the film (though the reason they do so is, ultimately, boring). If I believed in star ratings, (I don’t) on a four star scale, this movie felt like the perfect three-star movie. Not enough to really sink your teeth into, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but it goes through the paces enjoyably enough while you’re watching it for its running time (in this case, a paltry 82 minutes). I wish that it had connected on a simpler level with its very simple story, since many of the plot machinations served to literalize and dispel a lot of the magic. Perhaps it would have been better as a short-form film.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Day 16: At the Circus

J. Cheever Loophole: I bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork.

This is a definitely a lesser entry in the films of the Marx Brothers. The jokes are pretty stale, the plot is excruciating to sit through, and there’s a reliance on old tricks that worked better in previous movies. And yet, after sitting through Dr. Goldfoot & the Bikini Machine, it was clear that even a lesser Marx Brothers movie is still worth watching. At the Circus relies on a lot of the same tricks that Goldfoot did; it contains plenty of the same kind of mugging to the camera and contains a similar style of slapstick. But where Goldfoot felt like Carrot Top was nudging you for an hour and half and begging you to laugh, At the Circus feels more like spending time with an aging relative who is genuinely funny, but tired.

Full disclosure time! I watched this movie in about 20 minute increments as I worked on various things that needed to be done in my non-blogging life. I was also extremely tired when I watched it. I think both of these factors contributed to my liking the movie a lot more than I would have otherwise. As a straight-through 90 minute experience, I think the movie would have dragged on a lot more than I felt it did. And the second rendition of the song “Two Blind Love”, sung by the very boring non-Marx male lead, would have driven me to fits of violence.

I’d describe the plot, but it’s a Marx Brothers movie. The plot of a Marx Brothers movie is as irrelevant as the outfit a stripper wears at the beginning of its routine. Yeah, it sets the context for everything, but what lies underneath it all is what we’re here for. What matters is whether or not the three have the material they need to shine. As said, here they don’t. But there’s enough to keep one’s interest (if only in 20 minute increments). Groucho has a wonderful number in Lydia, the Tattooed Lady. The song is written with plenty of wit and staged (somewhat cheaply) with an anarchic fervor; it’s reminiscent of the musical numbers in Duck Soup. There’s a scene where Chico and Harpo search the living quarters of a strongman while he’s sleeping in them that builds nicely. By the end of this scene, after the two spend several minutes trying to be quiet (so as not to disturb the strongman), feathers from a pillow are flying around the room and Harpo is pretending to be Santa while ringing a bell. Additionally, Margaret Dumont makes a welcome appearance toward the end of the film, giving Groucho the opportunity to flaunt the high-society dame (and all the decorum she stands for) yet again. Oh, and special mention must go to this joke: After Harpo balks at going into the strongman’s room, Chico calls Harpo a coward. Harpo nods, pulls a gun out of his coat, and points it at his head.

It was somewhat depressing to watch several lengthy bits not work. There’s a scene with Chico preventing Groucho from boarding the circus train that felt like it was made up of bits that were cut from a much funnier scene from A Day at the Races and is so illogical in its placement in the film, it made the whole scene uncomfortable to watch. Groucho narrating the climax of the film (which features a gorilla and trapeze) as a sports announcer is the same joke as the one used at the end of Monkey Business with nothing any funnier added to it. Too much of the movie is taken up in adherence to the dud of a plot. This movie also continues a trend in the later Marx Brothers movies (started with A Night at the Opera) giving Groucho a sort-of Mad Max character arc, where he begins the movie caring only about himself, but he eventually starts working to help the young couple win out over adversity. This diminishes Groucho’s anarchic appeal, giving him some characters he won’t blithely insult.

But, you know, I don’t’ really care that this movie isn’t really any good. I can honestly say that no matter my mood, if I watch just a snippet of one of their movies (well, the snippets that contain at least one of the brothers [and not Zeppo]; the actors they cast as the young couples in love are always so bland as to make me prone to fits of violence) I come away feeling better. Even at their worst (Love Happy). There’s a scene in Hannah and Her Sisters in which Woody Allen, depressed to the verge of suicide, decides that life is worth living in a world where there are Marx Brothers movies. This is a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. I was tired while I watched this, cranky, and a little overwhelmed by the whole “movie a day” thing. I really watched this movie because I’d never seen it, it was already on my shelf, and it was short. By the end of the movie, when Margaret Dumont gets shot out of a cannon and a symphony orchestra floats out to sea, I was much happier. About pretty much everything. Take that for what you will.

What a Shine

A review of At the Circus, a lesser Marx Brothers movie will be up later tonight.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Day 15: Dr Goldfoot & the Bikini Machine

Man on Motorcycle: Why me? Why me all the time?
Every now and then, The Simpsons will portray a parody of an entry into an older genre of film. Dr. Goldfoot & the Bikini Machine plays just like one of these parodies. Of the movies I’ve watched so far, it was the hardest to get through. It’s a frantic, horribly paced, unfunny comedy whose only saving grace comes, just barely, from Vincent Price’s gleeful performance as Dr. Goldfoot. The score is atrocious, playing constantly, Mickey Mousing every minute detail of the film. For all its sound and fury, it just winds up being noisy and, really, really not funny.

Was this kind of movie ever funny? It reminds me of the lesser entries in Leslie Nielsen’s oeuvre, titles like Spy Hard, or Wrongfully Accused. So very, very misguided and desperate to make you laugh, it resorts to pulling your pants down in public, pointing and laughing at your underwear, and then nudging you with its elbow, saying, “huh? Huh?” Frankie Avalon stars in the film as our protagonist and he’s like Jerry Lewis’s unfunny 3rd cousin. Clowning, mugging, and slapstick are the order of the day. There’s no wit to the wordplay and the script has a lot of, um, “fun” giving Vincent Price lines containing slang, the kind of joke you’d see Estelle Getty doing on The Golden Girls.

Poor Vincent Price. He’s clearly having fun playing against his persona as Dr. Goldfoot here. I thought that his having fun would be infectious for a while, but the movie fails him time and time again by giving Price the lamest line you can imagine and then cutting to Frankie Avalon smacking a door into his boss’s ass or falling down or mugging while a slide whistle plays in the background. Ugh. Goldfoot wants to take over the world, like any good super villain. The plan is to make sexy women robots trick men into marrying them, and, then, stealing all their money through power of attorney paperwork. Avalon works for some government investigation place that’s abbreviated SIC (leading to such classic exchanges as, “I’m a SIC man.” “I’ll say you are.” UGH) and gets wind of Goldfoot’s plot. Yeah.

To be fair: I did laugh once or twice in the movie. One scene has Price instructing his bikini-clad robots on the arts of seduction (this is funny in and of itself, in retrospect). One of the robots starts dancing and the music takes on a surf-music beat. Then, as if dancing is a virus for robots, the others start dancing too. Price blusters and screams, “STOP! STOP! STOP!” as they dance around him. If they had let this scene go on longer, I probably would have been on the floor. And there’s one joke that is inexplicably funny to me, just in the way it’s so completely nonsensical. Price, showing off his lair to some captives, walks to a door and says “I think you’ll like this.” He opens the door and a man is chained to a running a motorcycle. The man looks up to the camera and says, “Why me? Why me all the time?” I’m positive I’m missing a reference here because this makes no sense whatsoever. And that’s precisely why I was on the floor after this, um… joke?

The movie is shot, acted, and paced like a live action Looney Tunes cartoon. But part of the joy of those cartoons is their running times. Ninety minutes is far too long to sustain this breakneck pace and, anyway, there’s hardly enough story to go around. This movie would have been much better as a five to seven minute short and, preferably, directed by Chuck Jones. As it is, it plays like a stereotype of a bad sixties comedy, rife with sexism, pratfalls, and crossed-eye fainting. It’s certainly an interesting curio piece that is easier to laugh at than to laugh with.