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Pazartesi, Ekim 19, 2015

Random Pulp Art #1: The Sailor on the Sea of Fate

(In which I randomly scan things and post them here…)

This Michael Whelan illustration from the old DAW paperback – my favorite in Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga – captures the dream-like quality of an episodic novel, as Elric boards a ship that travels between dimensions.



The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards


Voting is now open for the 2015 Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. Cast your ballot here.

“Salvage” at Fiction Vortex

My new short story, “Salvage,” is now available for your reading pleasure at Fiction Vortex, a magazine of speculative fiction.

“Salvage” is part of a collection of fantasy stories that take place in a larger world called Panidore. I’ve been quietly assembling these tales, and this is the first to reach publication. There are more, including the novel I recently completed as part of the Madison Writers’ Studio.

Fiction Vortex is currently raising funds to keep the online magazine going. Please consider contributing to the fantastic work they’re doing – more information is at Patreon.

Pazartesi, Nisan 06, 2009

2009 Wisconsin Film Festival

This blog has been hibernating for the winter while I've been off finishing work on a novel. I wasn't planning on blogging about this year's Wisconsin Film Festival, but, well, it's been a tradition...so let's do it. Here's a quick rundown of what I saw this year.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Sacha Gervasi

I've been wanting to see this since reading a glowing Film Comment article from last year; it's a documentary about a heavy metal band that hasn't been big since 1984. And even then, they weren't so big. Canadian rockers Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (yes, his real name) have kept the Anvil brand alive, albeit with just a small group of loyal fans, while laboring at miserable day jobs, still dreaming of one day breaking through to the big time. The film follows their last-ditch effort at success through a mismanaged European tour and a big-budget studio album (their thirteenth, with money fronted by Lips' older sister) in which record labels may or may not have any interest. Much like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the dialogue could be straight out of a Christopher Guest comedy (or, more obviously, This is Spinal Tap), were it not all real. But the film is also unexpectedly moving, as Gervasi--who toured with the band as a teenager, and has since become a Hollywood screenwriter--makes pains to emphasize that Lips' devotion to the Anvil dream has real-world consequences to his family and Reiner's, who are waiting on the sidelines for a better life.

Live from New York...: 1950s Television from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (U.S., 1952-1958)
D: Sidney Lumet, Hal Keither, Lou Sposa

This program assembles three half-hour live television broadcasts from the 1950's, rare copies held in the Wisconsin Film and Television Archive (and shown on DVD to preserve the prints). "Danger" was an anthology mystery/suspense program; the episode screened, "Death and the Family Jewels," is an amusing film noir with a young Cloris Leachman prominently featured; but it's of interest primarily for Lumet's innovative camerawork, which does its best to bring a certain amount of style to the live format. More entertaining was an episode of "Mr. Peepers," starring Wally Cox as a nebbishy science teacher. Much of the comedy still works marvellously, although the sitcom format had a long way to go: much of the humor seems to meander aimlessly, which gives the unintended feeling of (bad) improv. Best of all was "ESP," a failed game show hosted by Vincent Price. UW Cinematheque curator Heather Heckman unfortunately forewarned the audience this would be "boring," and so I saw at least one couple leave right as it was starting. Their loss. Poor Vincent Price struggles to make the most of an unworkable concept (none of the contestants demonstrate any psychic powers, unsurprisingly--including the prize fighter, a palooka who admits to not knowing what "ESP" meant until the producers told him he had it). The series, which premiered while the game show trials were ongoing, deserves a DVD release--all two episodes, as the plug was quickly pulled. The unintended humor value is extremely high. I can't imagine that any film at WIFF this year generated louder laughter.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (U.S., 2008) * * * 1/2
D: Kevin Rafferty

Rundown of the legendary Harvard/Yale game of 1968 is deceptively simple, cutting between talking heads and footage from the game itself. But this is the best sports film I've ever seen. Despite the necessary distancing of the talking heads, despite the grainy quality of the 1968 film, despite the fact that the outcome of the game is in the TITLE ITSELF, the enjoyment and the palpable suspense of the game is translated perfectly, partly because of director Rafferty's clean technique, but mostly because it was a damn good game. First and only celebrity spotting of the festival: Mayor Dave attended. First "sensurround" experience of the festival: sitting next to me was a gentleman who attended the actual game, and helped provide me with additional play-by-play commentary. (Past "sensurround" festival experiences include watching Werner Herzog's Buddhism documentary Wheel of Time with exiled Tibetan monks, and the horror film "Isolation" next to a WIFF volunteer who was in hysterics and borderline catatonic collapse for the entire film.)

The Trap (Serbia/Germany/Hungary, 2007) * * 1/2
D: Srdan Golubović

When the son of a middle-class couple falls ill, only an expensive surgery can save his life. In desperation for the money, the wife places an ad in the paper despite her husband's protests and injured pride. But options are running out when the husband, Mladen, receives the only answer to the ad, from a mysterious benefactor who will provide the money on one condition: that Mladen perform a murder. While he agonizes over the decision, their son is hospitalized, and Mladen's marriage begins to fall apart when he refuses to tell his wife just what's been bothering him. Golubović does a fine job illustrating the "quiet desperation" of a man living through hard economic times (it's easy for the viewer to relate anyway), but unfortunately the film is predictable from its plot through its method: in every scene the viewer can anticipate what will follow--which on the one hand provides a sense of doomed inevitability, but on the other hand makes for a very plodding film. One good twist regarding the blackmailer, in an excellent scene at the climax, almost redeems the enterprise, but it's a long time coming, and all too fleeting. It's not bad, but this has all been done before, and in more rewarding or insightful films.

Our Beloved Month of August (Portugal, 2008) * * *
D: Miguel Gomes

As an (almost Godardian) experiment, this film is fascinating. Imagine a filmmaker who wants to tell a story called "Our Beloved Month of August," involving a teenage singer, her tentative flirtations with her handsome cousin, and her overprotective father. Then imagine that while the director prepares to shoot, in his research he becomes distracted by the Portuguese countryside and its eccentric inhabitants. Thus, he begins to film 2nd-unit footage without much interest in initiating the main story itself, much to the chagrin of his investors. Essentially this is the story of Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August, which does, ultimately, get to its story-within-a-story, but not before spending about half its 147-minute running time in leisurely distraction. We meet a young man who, once a year, jumps off a bridge; we watch local bands play; we go up and down the river and its surrounding hills, occasionally glimpsing the director, or locals who may or may not want to involve themselves in his film. The temptation is to speculate on what the film would have been as a conventional narrative, without such an expansive prologue, but truth is that it's the experiment which makes the film something which can't be dismissed. An endurance test, perhaps (there were many walkouts), but a rewarding one.

Between the Folds (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Vanessa Gould

This documentary on the art of paper-folding transforms one's notions of what origami is, as we witness artists from different nations creating elaborate three-dimensional sculptures: figures with detailed facial expressions, flowers that blossom before your eyes, beasts which stand as tall as a person. Most surprisingly, we learn of its practical application to fields of math and science, from designing unfolding solar panels for satellites, or doing cutting-edge research on protein folding; which is why the art is of growing interest to professors who spend their spare time folding paper and elaborately diagramming their work. Great fun at a sold-out show (one of many this year), with director Gould in attendance. Accompanied by two animated short films on the origami theme.

Tulpan (Kazakhstan, 2008) * * *
D: Sergey Dvortsevoy

Dvortsevoy's portrait of a family of Kazakh farmers living within the same small dwelling on the dust-devil-swept steppes is most remarkable for capturing the rhythms of life: herding the sheep, singing to pass the time, eating dinner on the sandy floor of the hut, playing with a radio to capture the fleeting signal from a distant broadcast, and occasionally venturing out to try to get young Asa a wife. There's only one eligible girl left on their corner of the steppes, and that's Tulpan, who is never seen, though she advises her parents that Asa's ears are too big. Thus deemed unsuitable, Asa miserably returns to his homelife, and chafes at the idea of being just another shepherd, his big-city dreams fueled largely by his hyperactive friend Boni, who collects Western pornography and tapes it to the inside of his truck. Very similar to The Story of Weeping Camel--in fact, replete with a graphic animal birth--but with, naturally, a more adult edge.

Idiots and Angels (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Bill Plympton

Plympton's fifth feature-length animated film is, once again, done almost entirely by Plympton himself, which is still a very rare and exceptional thing--and which is why it's so unusual that there are two such works in this year's festival (the other being Sita Sings the Blues, reviewed below). I haven't seen his last, Hair High, but have been following him pretty avidly otherwise, being a fan since his first film, the surreal musical The Tune (to date, his only "family" picture). Plympton's style is unique: hand-drawn, sketchy, ribald, violent, and most of all a slow-burning surrealism, where one incident leads to another with a deliberately-paced comic inevitability. Idiots and Angels is the apotheosis of his style, and one he's been building toward since The Tune and, in particular, I Married a Strange Person (previously my favorite, now usurped). Like IMASP, Idiots and Angels follows a man who inexplicably receives strange powers. Unlike IMASP, those powers--which come in the form of angel-like wings--manage to inhibit rather than enable his out-of-control Id. Our protagonist, who begins the play as a thoroughly wicked scoundrel who follows his every lustful and vengeful whim, is pummeled into an unwilling character arc by his animate wings, which blind him when he tries to spy on a nude sunbather, and send him soaring to right every wrong against his wishes. Meanwhile, two others--a surgeon and a barkeep--want the wings for their own personal gain. Plympton has been working toward dialogue-free storytelling for decades now, and he achieves it with Idiots and Angels; it's telling that even though sound problems took out the soundtrack for the first five minutes (thanks, Wisconsin Union Theater!), the audience could follow along perfectly, and were laughing at every gag. Plympton also simplifies his elements, limiting himself to the same locations and a small cast of characters, so that only the surreal comic action becomes complex and rich, as with the best Loony Toons. WIFF Sensurround moment #2: when the ending credits began to roll, a man toward the front of the theater stood up as his pants fell down, mooning the audience--a perfectly Plympton finale.

Revanche (Austria, 2008) * * * *
D: Götz Spielmann

Alex is carrying on a secret relationship with the Ukrainian prostitute Tamara, against the wishes of their mutual employer at a Viennese brothel. Tamara is offered a chance to move up to the role of a higher-class escort for the elite, at a fancy hotel, but when she refuses, her pimp hires someone to rough her up. Alex offers her a chance to escape when he concocts a bank heist plan, but when it goes horrifically awry, he's left to pick up the pieces in a country village with his sickly, accordion-playing grandfather, and the couple next door, a police officer and his wife, who are unable to conceive. I've probably given too much away already. What should be stressed is that Spielmann is uninterested in crafting a traditional thriller, and forsakes "suspense" in favor of a documentary-style realism as he tries to access the emotional lives of the characters, and untangle the very complex moral dilemma each one faces. What makes Revanche so remarkable is that it arrives at a rare and potent emotional space, one which could never be anticipated from the setup.


Mermaid (Russia, 2007) * * 1/2
D: Anna Melikyan

I want to award this film higher marks simply for existing: it's a Russian fantasy-comedy, directed by a woman, aiming for Amelie-style imagination and romance. But it never quite pulls together, and leaves one dissatisfied, even at 115 minutes. Masha Shalayeva plays Alisa (Alice, by the subtitles, perhaps to emphasize an Alice in Wonderland connection), who was born out of a waterbound tryst, and who decides to become a mute after witnessing her mother seducing a passing sailor (her father has been absent for many years, though she still waits for him). Sent to a school for special needs children, she focuses on honing her latent psychic ability, at first by causing apples to fall from trees, and later by orchestrating much larger events, usually unintentional catastrophes (to Alisa's distress, many people die in the course of this film as the results of her psychically-enhanced Id). When her mother moves the family--which includes Alisa and her grandmother--to Moscow, she adjusts to city life by taking a job as a cell phone ad (wearing an elaborate phone costume), and eventually falls in with a man who makes big money selling plots on the moon. That is, "falls in" with him literally--rescuing him from a suicide attempt as he jumps off a bridge, and seconds before she was going to off herself in the same fashion. Enamored perhaps as much by her own legend (how she was conceived) as the man himself, she devotes herself to becoming his housemaid, while he easily bats off her naive advances and continues to stumble, somnambulistically, through his life. Of course, eventually she persuades him to see the world--and her--differently, but this happens as abruptly as the contrived crisis/climax which follows almost immediately afterward. The film feels a bit like a missed opportunity.


Sita Sings the Blues (U.S., 2008) * * * *
D: Nina Paley

A dazzling first feature-length animated film by Nina Paley, Sita Sings the Blues combines legends from the Ramayana, autobiography, and the songs of 1920's jazz singer Annette Hanshaw into an extremely personal feminist statement dressed up as sweet psychedelic candy. When I first read about this film on the Cartoon Brew blog, my curiosity was piqued enough to eagerly seek out whatever information I could find. At last able to view the finished product (and on the big screen!), I'm pleased to say that the film exceeds my elevated expectations. Most impressive--apart from the fact that this entire, studio-slick film was done by one person at her home computer--is the blending of animated styles, which dialogue with one another in charming and engaging ways. The Ramayana scenes, in which we learn the legend of Sita, her abduction, rescue, and subsequent marital discord, are illustrated by found art cut-outs, animated Terry Gilliam-style, and set to the voices of three storytellers trying (sometimes vainly) to settle on the details of the legend. These are intercut with scenes of Paley's own domestic upheaval, mirroring Sita's, and animated in a "squiggly" style of animation as if bringing to life doodles sketched into the corners of Paley's diary. Then there are the Hanshaw-driven musical numbers, the highlights of the film, which are frequent and eye-popping, animated like a Betty Boop short as visited by the Yellow Submarine. All of it is woven together so persuasively that the viewer is left convinced that there was no other way of telling the story, either Sita's or Paley's. A wonder: and you can watch it for free at the film's website.

Pazar, Kasım 09, 2008

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (France, 1973) * *
D: Fernando Arrabal

I earlier reviewed Fernando Arrabal's Viva La Muerte (1971), a film which I defined as "angry." Here is another film by anger (to borrow the byline used by Kenneth Anger). Arrabal, a founder of the Panic movement, seems determined to outdo fellow Panic artist Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) with a raging, nightmarish film on a similar theme. Like El Topo, I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse focuses on the calamity that unfolds when a holy man from out of the desert comes face to face with corrupt civilization. In this case, the holy man is a dwarf, Marvel (Hachemi Marzouk), who is discovered by a fugitive, Aden Rey (George Shannon), wanted for the murder of his mother - as is explained in an amusing opening newsreel interpreted into sign language for those "deaf-mutes" in the audience. Our hero actually had an excruciatingly Oedipal relationship with his mother, which has left him an epileptic, as well as a basketcase tortured by grotesque daydream/reveries of his childhood. As in a Jodorowsky story, he is unable to escape the shadow of a parent, leaving him in a state of arrested development, a sharply-dressed man of society who secretly longs to dress in his mother's underwear and relive the traumas of his youth. (Those traumas, always revisited to the sound of galloping hooves, include witnessing his mother at the receiving end of a graphic cumshot during an S&M session with a lover.) Having fled the authorities into the desert, he finds Marvel eating sand and goatshit delicacies, a complete innocent who can float into the air and perform other minor miracles. Marvel also grows out one toenail, clipping it only once a year, to store it with his others in a sack. At one point, Aden sorts through the sack to count the toenails, as one might count the rings of a tree, only to find them far too numerous. (Marvel has also lost count, and suggests he might be 10,000 years old.) Determined to introduce his new best friend to civilization, he takes the dwarf and his pet goat to the city, where they rent an apartment together. Disconcerted that there is no soil indoors, Marvel has Aden assist him in transporting bags of dirt inside to construct a garden. Absurdist misadventures follow, as Aden introduces his friend to the modern world (and the authorities continue to pursue, always one step behind). He tries to bring Marvel a lover, introduces him to eating meat in restaurants (which repulses the dwarf), and takes him to church--where Marvel performs a genuine miracle of stigmata that gets him promptly kicked out. All the while themes of incest, repressed homosexuality, and social and religious satire emerge, leading to a climax about as bloody and as memorably repellant as the one which ended Viva La Muerte. Much more so than Jodorowsky, Arrabal seems hellbent on providing a cathartic transcendence through rolling about in the grand guignol.

Taboo imagery is Arrabal's cinematic language. An erect penis is lit like a candle - which is the least of the phallic violations on display. Aden and Marvel are depicted shitting (for real) in silhouette against a desert sunset. A flower's stem is stuck into a woman's ass, to emerge coated in shit and devoured (not for real). When two nude lovers in gas masks copulate, it seems almost like a refreshing reprieve - the kind of garden-variety surrealistic symbolism which Arrabal usually tries to stampede past on the way to more aggressive imagery. While the Panic movement was partly established as an anarchic response to the commercialized state of Surrealism (thanks, Dali), I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse reminds one that Surrealism was originally intended as a weapon. This film is a weapon, perhaps more than it is a work of art, but as savage as it is, the film also feels less innovative and original than what was concurrently being created by artists such as Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini - even the stylish exploitations of Jesus Franco. Perhaps it is because many of the shocks seem pointless. Perhaps it is because the plot feels unoriginal, an imitation of El Topo or Simon of the Desert, but given a psychosexual twist.

Yet it is still undeniably a "film by anger," an exorcism of Arrabal's private demons. It is a product of a unique decade in which extreme transgression became, if briefly, not just a valid cinematic tool but also fashionable. I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse still provokes outrage, which is certainly one of Arrabal's chief objectives. That it also provokes weariness, exhaustion, and even cynicism from this viewer is, perhaps, one of the unfortunate effects of witnessing an artist set on taking every concept to its extreme - and bloody, and scatalogical, and repulsive - ends. I liked Viva La Muerte. But perhaps I've now had my fill of this kind of exploration, and hunger for real poetry now, not just belabored gestures at symbolism from the mud and grime.

Pazartesi, Ekim 06, 2008

Don't Touch the Axe


Don't Touch the Axe (France, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Jacques Rivette

There was, for a little while circa 2006, a bit of a Jacques Rivette revival. Rivette has always been one of the most underrated of the French New Wave directors, perhaps because his films were always more self-consciously theatrical than overtly cinematic. A touring program helped to reestablish his presence in the consciousness of film buffs internationally, screening prints of films such as Celine and Julie Go Boating (to date, his best-known and most highly-regarded film), Duelle, Noroît, Love on the Ground, and the sprawling Out 1. (Alas, when the festival came to my local UW-Cinematheque, they did not screen this last one, at 773 minutes his most legendary.) Oddly, the revival seems to have dimmed, and I'm still waiting on an announcement of some Rivette films on Region 1 DVD (ahem, Criterion?). Still, his latest film, released in the U.S. as The Duchess of Langeais, at least was released stateside, and to favorable attention, at that.

Anyone who has taken the time to come to know Rivette through his films will eventually come to Honoré de Balzac and Rivette's great affection for the author; and so it should come as no surprise that in 2006 he adapted "The Duchess of Langeais," a novella included in Balzac's collection The History of the Thirteen. Originally, Balzac intended to call the story "Don't Touch the Axe," after a pivotal line of dialogue. Significantly, Rivette restored the title to his adaptation, although, for reasons I can't quite understand, it was changed to The Duchess of Langeais for festivals and limited release in the U.S. Don't Touch the Axe is a rather savage title, which adds a bit of teeth to what will be, by necessity, a story told mostly through dialogue--a chamber drama of unrequited love, set almost entirely in the Duchess' boudoir. Guillaume Depardieu* plays Montriveau, a decorated general of the Napoleonic wars, visiting Paris with a gruff demeanor, like a seaman who hasn't gotten his land-legs; fittingly, he plays the part with a staggering gait, to imply a war wound, though he seems to move like Frankenstien's monster, and is just as out of place.** At a ball he meets Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), the wife of the wealthy, and perpetually absent, Duc de Langeais. Finding this fish-out-of-water entertaining, she decides to play with his affections for her own amusement. She invites him to her home, wearing only a flimsy nightgown and acting the engaged audience to his life story. As she intends, he falls intensely in love, declaring that she is the first woman who has ever stolen his heart. She is, of course, being the perfect coquette, building his expectations in perpetuity without ever intending to satisfy his desires. This echoes, ironically, the tale he tells her (in the film, stretched over several nights): of being taken through the African desert by a guide who promises him that the journey will be only a few miles more, a few miles more--until they have gone too far to go back. Montriveau is also being led on, so to speak, but when he reaches that "point of no return," he decides to turn the tables.

And here is the only departure from the novella, a minor one: in the film the implication is that Montriveau decides to have his revenge upon the duchess of his own will; in Balzac's story, it is at the instigation of his friend Ronquerolles. Ronquerolles does play a role in Rivette's adaptation, but it's a late and minor part; the result is that Montriveau becomes a more dynamic character here, and more responsible for the tragedy which unfolds. Yet this is a Rivette film, arid, sometimes clinical. We are removed from Montriveau's thoughts and feelings, so that he's somewhat more mysterious than he is the novella. Balzac presents a messy character, emotionally fragile, and given to a rage when he finds that he's been so emotionally exposed by the coquette's wiles. Guillaume Depardieu, to his credit, is effective and sympathetic, but Rivette seems to hold him back. Rivette, like Godard, has always been a little reluctant for the viewers to lose themselves completely in the story--he wants to emphasize the boundary between the viewer and the characters. In the novella, there is a distinct dividing line when the point of view switches from Montriveau to the Duchess. But since we are never entirely within Montriveau's head in Rivette's film, that narrative switch is never really applied. The dividing line of interest for Rivette is the emotional gap between the two characters. Montriveau falls in love with the Duchess, and then she falls in love with him; but they never seem to meet one another. In one of the final images of the film--a rare departure from the narrative, though a minor one--we see a cinematic illustration of this divide, although to avoid spoilers I won't describe it here. Really, this is an anti-love story, and Rivette's emotionally aloof approach seems strangely fitting, even if it was not Balzac's method.

Since this is not an experimental film by any means, or at least far less so than Rivette's early works, the result is a fascinating tension between artificiality and authenticity. The dim candles of the salons, the creaking of the floorboards, the dank corridors of the abbey and the clutter of Montriveau's apartment all lend a convincing verisimilitude. But Rivette keeps the emotions in check. He makes little effort to draw the viewer into sympathy with the characters. It is up to the audience to understand the dramatic stakes. Rivette's only cinematic trick is one he's used in the past: using interstitial title cards ("The next day--" "But, the next evening--" etc.), including some with extended quotations from Balzac's prose. He's always been among the most literary of directors; what is amusing is how Rivette, in his autumn years, seems to be pushing cinema toward the form of the novel. One could say that Out 1, which takes as long to see as a novel takes to read, was an early attempt to do just this; but an evening spent with any film of Rivette's is as intimate and as oddly comforting and involving as reading a book. That Don't Touch the Axe is a wonderful film is almost besides the point; it is another wonderful Jacques Rivette film, which is more than enough.

* Guillaume Depardieu tragically died of pneumonia just a short while after I wrote this review.
** Not entirely an artistic choice: Depardieu famously had to have his leg amputated following a motorcycle accident.

Cumartesi, Eylül 13, 2008

Lost in America

Lost in America (U.S., 1985) * * * 1/2
D: Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks is something of a lone albatross in American comedy for the past three decades; his films are razor-sharp, almost black comedies, but with a heart (and so appear, at first, to be less cynical than they really are). He's more populist than Woody Allen, but not a recognizable commercial name. Even when, in the first year of Saturday Night Live, he produced some brilliant, sardonic short films, he was booted off the show because he didn't fit into the SNL clique (shipping his shorts to NY from LA). Still, he's managed to--every few years--produce some very fine comedies, a handful of which approach masterpieces, and so his chief following is among film critics and film buffs. Lost in America is one of those near-masterpieces, perhaps his finest hour; and since I just found it for $2.99 in the discount bin at Pick 'N' Save, I'm writing about it here.

Brooks anticipated the Big Brother-style reality TV show craze with his satire Real Life (1979), in which he played "Albert Brooks" (much as in his shorts and in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, an arrogant send-up of himself), but in 1981 made his first great film, Modern Romance, in which his character cannot find happiness because he distrusts anything resembling contentment, and thus pathologically self-sabotages his relationships; somehow, the film comes across as more brutally self-analytical than Annie Hall, as Brooks dissects his protagonist's narcissism and pities anyone who would have the misfortune to fall for him. (I should mention it's also very funny.) Lost in America could be seen as taking this self-sabotaging character, here called David, into his 40's, having finally settled into a lifestyle, with a loving wife and a lucrative advertising career for which he's invested eight years. Anticipating a promotion, he buys a new home and toys with the idea of purchasing a luxury car; but when he's offered the "Ford account" in New York, and told that a younger, less experienced employee will be taking the promotion, he has an epic meltdown before his boss (a subtle shot suddenly reveals that his boss has been gripping a stress-ball through the entire conversation):

"I used to make fun of my friends in college who went out to 'find' themselves. I took the business route. So I end up here. I can't believe it. So what do I get? I get a transfer. After all these years, I get a transfer. I can get that at a bus stop, right now, I don't need any qualifications. Oh, by the way, our hairpiece secret is off."

After getting fired, he marches directly to his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), at work, channeling all of his frustration and crushing disappointment into a frenzy of euphoric inspiration: they're going to leave their jobs behind, sell everything, buy a motor home, and travel across America "just like 'Easy Rider.'" Never mind that this never happened in Easy Rider. Soon they're on the road in their motor home (a leather-clad man on a motorcycle pointedly flips the bird), and make a fateful stop in Vegas to get remarried. The chapel is closed, so they go to the Desert Inn and settle for the "junior honeymoon suite," which, impractically, has two small heart-shaped beds. While David sleeps--the beds pushed awkwardly together--Linda sneaks down to the casino for an all-night gambling spree. At 6 AM he stumbled into the casino in a bathrobe, only to find Linda playing roulette with the look of a strung-out heroin addict, perpetually putting chips on "twenty-two, twenty-two."

"The man says you're not on a lucky streak."
"I was down earlier, but come on, I mean--"
"And you're up now?"
"No, I'm still down, but I'm gonna hit now--"
"How down are you?"
"David, you're going to bring me bad luck, now stop it."
"But he's saying you've got bad luck..."
"Come on, come on, twenty-two, twenty-two...yes! Yes!"
"Wow! All right! I'm sorry, I'm sorry! All right! How much?"
"Thirty-five dollars."
"We're up! We're up!"
"We're still down."
"Down? How bad?"
"Down. Down. Twenty-two, down! Come on...twenty-two!"
"Down? How much have we lost?"
"Everything. Everything."
"Everything?"
"Everything...on twenty-two and make it happen for me!"

All of their life savings are gone, including the precious "nest egg." David goes to speak to the manager of the casino (Garry Marshall), who sympathetically offers to comp the room and breakfast. David has a better idea. Still wearing his bathrobe, he proceeds to make the biggest advertising pitch of his life.

"I'm going to tell you this idea now, and please, be secretive, because if another hotel hears about this, they'll take it. This is my business. As the boldest experiment in advertising history, you give us our money back... Think of the publicity. The Hilton hotel has these billboards all over Los Angeles with the winners of these slot machine jackpots; their faces are all over L.A., and I know that works. I've seen people in corners look up and say, 'Maybe I'll go to the Hilton.' Well, you give us our money back. I--I don't even know now, 'cause I'm just coming off the top of my head, but a visual where, if we have a billboard and the Desert Inn just handed us our money back. This gives the Desert Inn, really--Vegas is not associated with feeling."

The extended scene is the centerpiece of the film, and as David continues to pitch, and the manager continues to politely, but firmly, refuse him, the desperation seems to sweat out of the screen, until at last David is describing a Santa Claus/Vegas advertising campaign, and the manager replies, "We're finished talking." If ever Brooks touched greatness, this scene is probably it.

From there, events become slightly more predictible, and slightly less funny, although the performances of Brooks and Hagerty continue to shine, as they milk each moment for all its potential. The climax is a climax as only Brooks would stage it--understated and purely conceptual, and the natural endpoint of the satire: David, returning from his first day as a crossing guard, listens while Linda enthusiastically describes her day working as the assistant manager of a Wienerschnitzel, and then introduces her boss, a teenager. A more hopeful coda is then applied, but tempered by Brooks' cynicism: they return to the lives they had, having been permanently warned off the pursuit of happiness.

One imagines that if Brooks had been able to make a series with these characters, and Hollywood had that to offer in the 80's rather than Chevy Chase vehicles, the world at large might be a better place. Still, most recently he produced Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005), surely one of that year's most underrated (and underseen) comedies, whose plot suggests that even post-9/11, societies of all persuasions can unite under a solitary cause (in the case of that film, the cause is not liking the comedy of Albert Brooks). Yet who could dislike Lost in America, or any film which features this exchange:

"Phil Shabano, the unqualified son of a bitch! Why? I'll tell you why, because life isn't fair. But you know what'll happen? It'll balance out. He'll buy that boat I've had to look at in that stupid catalog for three years and he'll crash in Catalina and die and seals will eat him."

"Oh, now--you like fish."

"So what? I'm just telling what might be. Fine, he won't die, and he won't be eaten, but he'll never find his way back to the mainland."

Cumartesi, Ağustos 30, 2008

The Skull

The Skull (U.K., 1965) * * * 1/2
D: Freddie Francis

What a curious, wonderful find this film is, now finally available in a definitive presentation from Legend Films, which has given us the recent (unfortunately) colorized restorations of Ray Harryhausen's early films, but here has nothing to colorize, and so offers up the simple, perfect pleasure of a widescreen transfer of an oft-neglected, overlooked horror classic. Though it features many stock players of Hammer horror franchises (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Michael Gough, in particular), and is directed by Freddie Francis, veteran of many Hammer horrors, The Skull is actually a product of Hammer's chief competitor, Amicus, which is best known for producing anthology horror films like Torture Garden (1967) and Tales from the Crypt (1972). When I was in college, and watching Hammer movies voraciously--wondering why it had taken this horror fan so long to discover them--I would rent the Amicus films as a last resort (i.e. I couldn't find any Draculas or Frankensteins at the video store), and would derive modest pleasures from them. They often seemed like pale imitations of Hammer, featuring many of the players and directors, but with results that are choppy, garish, and considerably less handsome. (Although it should be noted that in Hammer's waning years, there wasn't much discernible difference between the studios.) The Skull is different. It's based on a short story by Robert Bloch, built upon the premise that the Marquis de Sade was possessed by an evil spirit, and that his skull still contains that spirit trapped within. Cushing plays a collector of occult items, who uses them in his research for books on demonology. Lee is his friendly rival. In the first proper scene in the story (after a pre-titles sequence in which we learn how the skull was first stolen from de Sade's corpse), the two Hammer superstars engage in a strangely obsessive bidding war over three Satanic statuettes, presided over by judge Michael Gough. This sequence alone should make the film a treasure for Hammer fans, and indeed is probably the best Hammer sequence never made by the studio; it also, being an auction of ancient and occult memorabilia, seems like an inspiration for an early scene in Guillermo del Toro's homage-laden Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Lee outbids his rival and wins the statues, though he's hard-pressed to explain to Cushing just why he wanted them so badly. Not a good sign. Later, Cushing is visited by Patrick Wymark (Repulsion, The Witchfinder General), who has two items which he thinks Cushing will want to buy--the first being a rare book on de Sade, the second being the man's very skull, for which he wants a thousand pounds. Of course, he can't very well prove it to be de Sade's skull, and he hopes that his own reputation will persuade Cushing; nevertheless, Cushing, though intrigued, refuses an immediate decision. Later, we learn that Wymark stole the skull from Lee, though Lee is only happy to be rid of it: he believes it was the skull which urged him to purchase the Satanic figures (for reasons unknown, but certainly sinister), and will now exert its unholy influence upon Cushing if he decides to take it. Of course, now that Cushing has been urged to stay away from the skull, his curiosity is piqued, and so begins an obsessive spiral which is one of the most peculiar and unique in the genre of British horror. Cushing, so often playing the most heroic of Hammer archetypes, here gets to sink his teeth (so to speak) into a more unsavory role. As his fascination with de Sade's skull grows, and his actions become more irrational and dangerous, he takes the viewer step-by-step through the man's unraveling--much more gradually and believably than, say, Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The film's long final stretch, almost set in real-time, is hypnotic, overpowering, almost claustrophobic, and beautifully illogical in the way nightmares are, in the way that the best Poe and Lovecraft stories are. Freddie Francis, always stylish but not always consistently good, here relishes the dreamlike quality of the story, and particularly indulges in the film's one actual dream sequence, which Tim Lucas rightly compares to Kafka's The Trial, but which also--in one drawn-out game of Russian Roulette--provides the kind of intense, sickening dread for which the horror genre is best suited. In Francis' most stylish and distinctive touch, several shots are taken from the point of view of the skull itself, as we gaze out of the skull's hollow sockets and the actors hit their marks so that they are perfectly framed--as though, somehow, the skull were arranging them like pieces on its chessboard. In several delirious moments, we are trapped in this POV as the skull actually pivots to follow them. All of this is most effective in a film in which so many of the Hammer horror clichés have been surgically removed, the plot stripped to its most archetypal players with all comic relief and other rote frivolities cast aside. The Skull gets straight to the heart of the matter, the heart of horror, but with the same stride as a sleepwalker grasping a knife in his sweaty fist.

Cumartesi, Temmuz 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Chris Carter

What if, in the middle of a summer of expensive, special effects-driven superhero blockbusters, they released a modest, intelligent, adult thriller based on the cult TV series The X-Files? What if it had almost no special effects, no extraterrestrials, no "government conspiracy"--and went in the exact opposite direction of its previous big-screen outing of ten years before (1998's The X-Files, aka The X-Files: Fight the Future)? What if, instead of delivering on what fans and non-fans would expect, they actually answered the criticisms leveled at the first film (and at the series' later, less-valued years)? The answer, I'm afraid, might be the death of the whole enterprise. And it's a shame, because in doing all these things they've actually delivered a very good film.

As every X-Phile knows, there are two kinds of X-Files episodes: one from the formidable "mythology" arc--involving UFOs, alien abductions, and government cover-ups--and the more common "stand-alone" hour, which might be either a "monster of the week" installment or a thriller on a variety of paranormal topics. Contrary to what an outsider might think, most fans prefer the latter, and indeed, the best episodes of the series have been stand-alone episodes with nothing to do with "black oil" or Alex Krycek or little spikes to be jabbed in the back of the alien bounty hunter's neck. Early in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, an FBI agent tips off the viewer by referencing a handful of the stronger X-Files episodes ("Beyond the Sea," "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"), all of them having to do with psychic phenomena. And that's exactly what you're getting here: a stronger stand-alone episode, stretched out to just under two hours. Expect anything else and you'll be greatly disappointed. Many of you will be.

It's a FBI-procedural mystery first and foremost, the kind you'd expect to see in a thriller starring Morgan Freeman and/or Ashley Judd. As the movie begins, FBI agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is employing a psychic, Father Joe (Billy Connolly), to help track down a missing agent. Instead he finds a severed arm buried in the snow. She then brings in former agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), late of the X-Files and now a practicing doctor, in hopes that she can contact paranormal expert Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who has been in hiding for years (the 2002 series finale left Mulder and Scully on the run from the shadow government lurking within the FBI). Mulder is now living in exile, having grown an Al Gore beard and working out of a cramped room layered with newspaper cutouts and the familiar "I Want to Believe" UFO poster, dozens of pencils stuck in the ceiling. It's pretty much how you'd expect the obsessive, eternally driven Mulder to be getting on. Distrusting the FBI, he thinks this is just a trap to bring him into the open; nevertheless, as another agent's life is at stake, he's persuaded to meet with Agent Whitney and the psychic Father Joe, who, we quickly learn, is a convicted pedophile, now castrated, and living in squalor while nursing an addiction to cigarettes. The man's visions are beyond his control, and very often lead nowhere. Scully is disgusted by his crimes and convinced he's a fraud, although when he tells her, apropos of nothing, "Don't give up," she can't help but wonder if it's a message from God, as she's locked in an ongoing battle to save the life of a young child afflicted with a terminal illness. She wants to put the child through an experimental and grueling stem cell therapy treatment, but another priest (Adam Godley), the "good" priest to Joe's "bad" priest, counsels the parents to have the boy taken out of the hospital, where he can die in peace. It's a completely unrelated subplot that regardless brings an emotional and philosophical weight to the film. Meanwhile, Mulder puts all his faith in the increasingly discredited Father Joe, and just as the investigation seems to be drying up, a sinister conspiracy of an altogether different sort begins to reveal itself. No, aliens are not involved. Stop thinking that.

While it's jarring to see how much Anderson and Duchovny have aged over the intervening years (a familiar face makes a cameo late in the film, and he looks uncannily, almost comfortingly the same), they slip so naturally into their old and best roles that it becomes easy to accept this as the latest chapter in their continuing relationship. Viewers unfamiliar with the last two seasons of the series (and, let's face it, that's 90% of the audience) will find it jarring to see the two agents romantically involved, the sexual tension of the first film long since dissolved as they hop into bed with each other early into this sequel. The more obvious path would have been to treat the agents like ex-lovers, with a frosty reception before finally rekindling their affection for one another--an overly-familiar arc that, I think, anyone else would have taken. But writer/director/series creator Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz have chosen a braver path with this film, more respectful of the fans who want to see Mulder & Scully grow, but also respectful of adults who want a mystery-thriller that treats them like adults. The plot goes in genuinely unexpected directions. The moral dilemma each agent faces has a severe and real-world weightiness--particularly Scully's. Father Joe is a fascinating character, alternately creepy and sympathetic, sometimes at the same moment, and a concrete symbol of the moral gray areas with which the plot concerns itself. The film's biggest flaw is that the climax feels too muted--and when Mulder wields a wrench and groggily shouts, "Does anyone here speak English?", it's easily the most embarrassing scene in the film. The movie is also slow and talky, which is poison in the middle of the popcorn season. But I will also admit that when someone complains to me that a movie was "boring" and "nothing happened," I consider that an endorsement. (Would you rather Michael Bay direct this?) What you actually have here is not a "boring" movie, but one that will, I suspect, look a lot better when viewed outside of the bigger-is-better frenzy of The Dark Knight (which is great, but an altogether different beast), Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc. It will seem considerably more appealing when viewed on DVD in the fall. It will also age well, as it doesn't tie itself up in knots trying to connect itself to the series' convoluted plotline.

But in making all these risky choices, Carter and Spotnitz may very well have killed off the franchise. Good grief, I thought as I left the theater: who knew that they would make such a modest movie? And release it in July? What were they thinking? But if you sit through the credits you'll get a clue that they knew the risk they were taking, in a cute, unexpected farewell shot of Mulder and Scully which might be--they know very well--the last time we glimpse the two characters. It's a sweet, whimsical wave goodbye. I would rather hope that they get to make at least one more.