Pazar, Aralık 30, 2007

The Best Movie Posters of 2007

I am currently suffering the usual post-Christmas depression - by which I mean that there are far too many great films in theaters, all of them being released at once in anticipation of Oscar campaigns, and all I read in the papers and blogs are Top 10 lists populated with films I haven't seen because they haven't hit Madison, Wisconsin yet. So while I make frequent trips to the movie theater to catch up, here's an easier list to compile, because you don't need to see the film to make a judgment.

A list of the best movie posters of the year is not equivalent to a list of the best films of the year, as is proven by the attractive designs at left and right. But browsing through the IMDB's (approximately) 9,000 films released or produced in 2007, and then clicking on the links to the small percentage that I had actually heard of, I was pleasantly surprised by some really beautiful designs. The following images are antidotes to the Photoshop-nightmare posters that plague most major Hollywood releases, where the only criteria is to cram as many recognizable celebrity faces into the image as possible. (It's also unfortunate that we live in a decade in which poster artists are discouraged from painting original images, instead being prodded toward the less time-consuming task of scanning the actor's faces into a computer.) My preference here was toward simplicity and imagination.

1. Grindhouse

The original Grindhouse poster--before it was divided in two for the individual "Death Proof" and "Planet Terror" DVD releases--was the perfect distillation of a drive-in exploitation double feature bill. It also pits the films against each other like opponents in a prize fight. To the left: Robert Rodriguez's extended John Carpenter homage, placing its key attraction, go-go dancer Rose McGowan with a machine-gun leg, front and center. (Just like in any exploitation art, the most sensationalist element--even if it's a major "spoiler"--must be prominent.) For Quentin Tarantino's slasher film, Stuntman Mike's lethal weapon, his "death proof" stunt car, heads for the viewer at high speed while the eight female leads pose in silhouette against a setting sun. "These 8 women are about to meet 1 diabolical man!" In a typical grindhouse poster, the art would promise more than the actual film delivered. But this double feature actually aimed to live up to its promises--yes, McGowan really does have a machine-gun leg (albeit only in the final act), and she even hurtles through the air while firing rockets from it. Indeed, "two great movies for the price of one!"

2. Vacancy

From Nimród Antal, the director of the cult hit Kontroll (2003), comes this extended homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. OK, I haven't seen it. But this poster makes me want to: a gorgeous painted image of the prototypical sleazy roadside motel, with the title worked into the only neon which is lit. The stars and credits are worked very naturally into the design, but the eyes are drawn to the gray sky and the ominous-looking letters "M-O-T-E-L." This teaser poster is a much more effective advertisement than the release poster, which simply shows Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale peering around the edge of a latched door--a bland image indistinguishable from any other thriller.

3. Zodiac

David Fincher's critically acclaimed mystery--and genuinely one of the best films of the year, whether or not it's granted an Oscar campaign--has a poster design which, like Vacancy's, prefers to focus on signature architecture instead of attractive actors. As with the eerie motel of Vacancy, this fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge suggests the film's theme: in this case, mystery and obfuscation. As Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr., pursue the Zodiac killer, they descend into obsession as the truth seems ever out of reach; they're virtually driving into the dense fog which dominates the center of this image. Of course, the stylized logo also calls to mind the one for Fincher's "Se7en" (although it's decidedly less annoying), almost subliminally letting fans of the earlier film know that this is something they'd like.

4. Michael Clayton

This poster actually looks like the cover of a contemporary novel called "The Truth Can Be Adjusted" written by one Michael Clayton, which tells you a couple things: (1) novels these days have first-rate design, and (2) the poster means to sell the film as a classy piece of literature. I like that they've got the confidence to trust that we'll recognize George Clooney's features, even out of focus and hidden behind a giant tagline. I like that the slogan is bigger than the title. I like that the tagline is so Orwellian. I like the strong reds against the indistinct, washed-out background colors. The poster actually tells you very little about what the film's about, but you understand that it's a political thriller starring Clooney, and that sells itself.

5. Youth Without Youth
The rose-themed poster for Love in the Time of the Cholera almost made this cut, but I ultimately found it a little too boring. Then I saw this poster for Francis Ford Coppola's new film, which tops Cholera's in typical Coppola fashion: by piling on more. More roses! More luscious red offset by deep blacks! It's a beautiful design, with the lovers almost like ghosts--appropriate enough for a story about immortality--and the upside-down, mirror-image letters suggesting Cyrillic writing, subconsciously evoking the story's Eastern European setting. I even love that the credits are at an angle in the upper-right corner, somehow complementing the image instead of distracting from it. It's like a Soviet propaganda poster for puppy love.

6. The Hottest State

I love this poster so much that I have it hanging in my basement. It's a good movie, but the poster is better. Here the actors seem lost at the bottom of the image, with the credits and logo pressing them down from above. The emphasis, then, is on the ruddy-red wall, suggesting a cheap apartment or hotel room baking in the heat. While Mark Webber still hasn't gotten dressed, and lounges with a beer (or some stronger drink) and a newspaper, Catalina Sandino Moreno gazes out an unseen window, guitar in hand, either daydreaming, writing a song, or focusing on her goals and dreams. As with the characters in the film, Webber is virtually oblivious to the desires of the woman sitting beside him; although a more representative image might have had him standing outside her window, gazing up with flowers in his hand while she ignores him, this poster is more evocative and interesting.

7. Ocean's Thirteen

Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" films have always been style over substance, which is precisely the point. They have the best cast, the best trailers, and the best posters in the business--who cares about the films themselves? Here's another ultra-stylish poster, this one cleverly finding a way to squeeze twelve--not thirteen--of its cast members into the picture by taking a bird's-eye-view. All are grinning up at you, ready to deal cards like the perfect con artists they are. The length of the table even gives the designer a chance to fit in the most prominent names in the film's cast, and the remainder of the credits are (almost illegibly) moved to the edges, framing the image. That just leaves the topper: adding a logo of the fictional 13 of spades, turning the entire image into a playing card.

8. Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Critics dismissed it has high camp, but the poster to Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) sequel has an effective simplicity. It's also a sharp turn away from the poster to that film, which emphasized grandeur and sinister red hues; this is just the radiant Cate Blanchett, the only hint of royalty being the slight tuft of a white lace collar peeking out from under her shimmering armor. The only background is a tattered flag, suggesting a giant, ravaged battlefield. Doing a lot with very little: apparently not representative of the actual film.

9. The Hills Have Eyes 2

Whatever you might think of the so-called "torture porn" movement in modern horror, they have consistently inspired some of the most striking and original movie posters of the last couple of years. This reviled B-movie--as the sequel to a remake, it's many steps removed from the 1970's Wes Craven classic--may have pluses that only a gorehound can love, but the poster deserves a closer look. The image shows one of the backwater cannibals dragging his prey--tied up in a sack--through the desert. Grid-like lines suggest a much-used map that's been unfolded and spread across a table; or, perhaps, a well-travelled 70's grindhouse movie poster. The center of interest is the battered, naked feet of that poor fellow in the bag, as well as the path left in the sand. Lovely grime, this.

10. I'm Not There

Cate Blanchett dominates another great poster, only this time you wouldn't know it, because in silhouette, with sunglasses and a cigarette, she's a dead ringer for Bob Dylan. And in the middle of that silhouette is the gimmick of the film: a run-down of the eclectic cast with the winking tagline: "...are all Bob Dylan." The only colors are white, gray, and a platinum color which suggests the legend's record sales. Incidentally, since smoking is now enough of a taboo to make it onto MPAA warnings ("rated PG-13 for a scene of smoking," etc.), is this poster suitable for all audiences?

11. Redacted

Brian DePalma's drama is taken from all sorts of media--soldier's home videos, cable news reports--so it's fitting that the poster is a palimpsest with the various media images hidden underneath a text document. That document is a censored report, the title and director of Redacted highlighted in yellow, and the blacked-out letters becoming the background images, suggesting that the pictures are pieces of what the government doesn't want you to see. There's even another layer, in the foreground: the silhouettes of barbed wire and a gun turret. The design might be a little busy, but the effect is almost psychedelic, particularly with the mix of colors. Beneath it all is a less-effective tagline, "Truth is the First Casualty of War," which ham-handedly refers the viewer to De Palma's other film about wartime rape. But it will take a while before your eyes even reach those words.

12. Brand Upon the Brain!

The latest Guy Maddin fever dream evokes a silent film, and indeed played in select cities as one, accompanied by a live orchestra, sound effects, and narration. The official release poster--with the young "Guy Maddin" character hiding in shame behind a door while his sultry sister lounges in lingerie--is very good, but its main purpose is to cram as many critical raves as possible into the image. The promotional art at left, however--printed as a postcard for theaters to give away--may or may not have appeared in full-sized "poster" form, but does a more thorough job of suggesting the hysteria, sexual repression, and humor of the film, as well as its style and methods. It's also more in line with the sensationalist poster art of an earlier era (long before grindhouses). Who in their right mind would turn down a film promising these: "Guy Trysts with Phantom Wendy!", "Strange Holes...in the Orphans' Heads!", "Dead or Alive, It's Back to Work!", and "What's a Suicide Attempt Without a Wedding?!"

13. Across the Universe

It would seem that when creating a promotional image for Julie Taymor's Beatles musical, the temptation would be to cram as many Beatles references and in-jokes into the poster as possible. This designer got it down to three: the "All You Need is Love" tagline, the image of its two lovers contained within a giant strawberry, and the cosmic background which illustrates the title song, Across the Universe. Wisely, the emphasis here is on the love story, and given the film's reported rising popularity among young college females, that's one effective way to get the film to its audience.

Oh, and the font in the title is the Beatles' official font. There's a reference too...

14. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Given a lengthy title like that, I would think the temptation here would be to present it as a newspaper headline, or at least a wanted poster. Instead, the font of the title evokes a 19th-century newspaper, but emphasis is placed on a giant blue sky--just a little dark, with stormclouds on the border. While Brad Pitt's Jesse James looks out at the horizon, his future assassin stands behind him, brooding in a tall black hat that makes him look just a wee bit mysterious. The colors are slightly bleached, but still seem to shimmer and glow. It would be a crime if the poster didn't advertise this film's breathtaking landscapes, and it does, but with dollops of menace.

15. King Corn

A classy 1950's silkscreened print that just happens to be a custom-made movie poster. To sell this documentary on the corn industry, naturally a critical rave is given prominence, plus a catchy tagline, but I dig that all the art is hand-drawn, and that the stalk of corn in the background looms like some atom-age monster about to crush those poor bastards on the truck. Also a good use of fluorescent green, a color that doesn't appear in advertising very much, perhaps because it evokes nuclear fallout. This designer embraces all of its toxic connotations.

16. Hostel: Part II

Whether you love or hate Eli Roth, the satirical-minded horror director often credited for launching the new "torture porn" movement, his poster for the first Hostel--the single image of an inexplicable claw-like tool intended for the use of God-knows-what--quickly became iconographic. There were a few posters created for his follow-up, but the one at left is the best: a ponytailed girl suspended naked and upside-down, with--water? snot?--about to drop from her nose. Sure, by now he's just flaunting those accusations of misogyny, but those accusations matter little to the teenage girls and guys who love these films. This poster is a coded message to that audience: your parents will hate this, and you will love it.

17. Margot at the Wedding

Noah Baumbach's latest domestic satire has a poster which is almost bleached white with its bright sky and diffuse colors, but Margot (Nicole Kidman) proudly proclaims that she's the title character by wearing a striking pink hat, color-coded to match her name several inches above. She's also looking determinedly in the opposite direction of everyone else, asserting her individuality. Again: simple, elegant design.

18. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

A smart evoking of some logo-driven posters of the 50's and 60's, including Anatomy of a Murder and The Man with the Golden Arm. Of course, the film could be about anything--a sequel to The Devil Wears Prada, perhaps, or a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick--but it's so confident and cool that you'll be drawn into the theater anyway.

19. The Golden Compass

For a big-budget franchise picture like The Golden Compass, you can imagine that plenty of promotional art and posters were created and used. This is the best of them, which manages to depict the spectacular while keeping the image uncluttered and easy on the eyes. What I find appealing is not necessarily that there's a big armored polar bear growling at something outside the frame, but that his bulk and ferocity are contrasted with the young girl, virtually nestled in his paw, who is calmly looking upward (just slightly awe-struck) while holding the glowing compass in her hand. Everything that a fantasy movie poster should be.

20. My Kid Could Paint That

The poster reads, "She's four years old. Her paintings sell for $25,000." The girl holds the paint brush as though it were a broom, looking at the camera with perfect innocence--despite the fact that the line below the title is: "American dream or art world scheme?" The conundrum of the documentary is functionally stated, but the design is still very attractive, with the girl's painting as the bulk of the poster, and she standing before it, essentially becoming part and parcel of the subject--an abstract made into a portrait.

Perşembe, Aralık 06, 2007

Catching Up on Blizzard Days

When you get snowed in every couple of days, and you live across the street from a video store, you end up watching lots of movies. Here are some I'm "late" reviewing.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (U.S., 2007) * *
D: Matt Maiellaro & Dave Willis

Before you fans attack me for the two-star review, let it be known that I am one of the original fans of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, although I haven't watched it in a few years. I used to look forward to the block of late-night Cartoon Network programming called Adult Swim, which, amidst reruns of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, would feature Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, and the Aqua Teens, all of which fused supremely poor animation with non sequitur, quasi-hallucinogenic comedy. Adult Swim continues, expanded and more popular than ever, but for me watching the inevitable feature-length film based on ATHF was an act of nostalgia. (I always preferred the early days of Adult Swim, with lots of recycled Hanna-Barbera animation, and, God, those brilliant early episodes of Harvey Birdman, and the Captain Murphy era of Sealab...but anyway.) For about half an hour, I was enjoying the hell out of the Aqua Teen movie. There's a great parody of "Let's Go Out to the Lobby" which opens the film, and typically bizarre humor involving ancient Egypt, Abraham Lincoln, and a legendary exercise machine. It might take the non-initiated quite a while to figure out that the humor isn't supposed to make sense; the more dizzying the momentum, the more irrelevant the digressions, the better. But the movie drags on to 80 minutes, and it's important to remember that the Adult Swim version lasted no longer than 12 minutes. Those shorts were euphoric bursts of mayhem, followed by commercials, followed by another inexplicable program. To drag out this brand of comedy to feature length is fatal. And I'm surprised by that. I found myself thinking of the Mr. Show feature film spin-off Run Ronnie Run, in which David Cross and Bob Odenkirk took Ronnie Dobbs, just one of the hundreds of characters on their brilliant HBO sketch show, and developed his personality over a straight-faced plotline with very few irreverent digressions. Their approach had its logic: it's difficult to write a sketch-comedy movie that can sustain interest for 90 minutes, and even the Pythons hammered out plotlines for Holy Grail and Life of Brian. But with Run Ronnie Run you felt that they were taking their plot too seriously. The audience couldn't care that deeply for a one-joke character. They needed more digressions, like the profane, Jack Black-led Mary Poppins parody which is that film's high point. On the other hand, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie proves that if you have no plotline (well, a very insubstantial one), you can fall off the other edge of the cliff. The film's just a chore. But I suspect that if you chop it up into 12-minute segments, and watch it one day at a time, it will be restored to full hilarity. This may take some surgery, but I think we can save the patient.

Knocked Up (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Judd Apatow

Much was made by the press that the summer of 2007 would be the season--if not the year--of Judd Apatow, who already had a major hit in 2005 with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and was now releasing Knocked Up, which he directed, and Superbad, which he produced with Knocked Up's star, Seth Rogen, co-writing. It was, I suppose--as much as these things matter (which they don't; I don't think audiences were screaming, "It's the summer of Apatow!" while leaving the theater). Both films--smart, crude, sarcastic, and funny--were hits. I don't even know why I'm going through all this with you. You already know everything you need to know about Judd Apatow, and you've seen Knocked Up, most assuredly before I did, and you've come to your opinion. Still, let me tell you the plot: unemployed stoner Ben (Rogen), on an extraordinarily good night, flirts successfully with entertainment news host Alison (Katherine Heigl), and sleeps with her. Because of some bedroom confusion, he didn't wear a condom, and several weeks later she learns she's pregnant; unexpectedly, she decides to get to know Ben better rather than ditching him entirely, which leads to dating, love, etc. If the plot is conventional, the execution is not. Apatow is a master of populating his comedies with convincingly human characters. Ben seems real, perhaps because he's modeled so closely upon Rogen himself. Certainly Alison's sister, Debbie (Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), convinces--I have a friend exactly like her--as well as her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd, behaving like Paul Rudd). All of these actors are excellent, including Heigl, although it is very difficult to believe that she'd fall in love with Ben so quickly. In fact, it almost seems like a crucial scene is missing: a moment when Ben sacrifices something for her, so that she can see his commitment, and thus see him for more than he'd presented. That scene, actually, comes at the very end of the film, but long before then she's confessed her love, and they've pursued an active sexual relationship. (This leads to a wonderful little scene in which Ben, deathly afraid of harming the unborn baby, tries to find the safest sexual position.) Anyway, it's an obvious flaw that somehow doesn't seem that important, since the film is so consistently funny, the characters so likable. You want to hang out with Apatow's friends, in Apatow's universe. Yes, if only it were always the summer of Apatow.

Tekkonkinkreet (Japan, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Michael Arias

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a rabid fan of original, boundary-stretching animation. What I like most about Michael Arias' Tekkonkinkreet (original name Tekon kinkurîto, which I presume is pronounced "Tom Tancredo") is that it does not resemble any other Japanese anime ever made. The characters don't have the oversized, expressive features typical of anime and manga, but diminutive eyes placed just a little too far apart; though admittedly, their mouths stretch as wide as any Sailor Moon, and the central characters, "Black" and "White"--two kids who preposterously are the ganglords ruling over a Japanese district called "Treasure Town"--sail through the air and land from great heights with little apparent damage. They are our escorts through this bizarre metropolis, a landscape of lavishly detailed painted backgrounds. There's an elevated train, a clocktower with an animatronic Ganesh, and countless blocks of seedy movie theaters. Pursuing the two boys--the younger of whom is nearly autistic--is a new gang-boss, who controls superhuman warriors who may or may not be extraterrestrial. Just when this disproportionate gang battle begins to heat up, little White is severely injured and taken out of Black's custody and into a home where he begins to furiously sketch out crayon visions, most curiously of some evil entity he calls the Minotaur. Whatever the film means in concrete terms escapes me completely--and this is coming from someone who claims to understand Akira. Obviously the film is ultimately about loyalty and friendship, and on a basic level it works--and the action scenes are exciting. But the climax is a bit of a puzzle, and there's a long lull leading up to it which is genuinely morose (and curious). American FX wizard Arias' first film is successful as an experiment in style, not storytelling. I'm anxious to see what he does next.

Letters to the Editor: Is MST3K Cynical? Am I Cynical?

I don't get emails regarding Kill the Snark that often, but when I do (when someone does stumble across this corner of the blog-iverse, and wants to say something about it), they're usually pretty interesting. Here are two emails about snarkiness and cynicism--one thoughtful and complimentary, the other not-so-complimentary and from a filmmaker whose work I reviewed in probably the most mean-spirited piece I've ever written.

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Hello Jeff,

I was directed to your recent piece on Mystery Science Theater 3000 by MST3KINFO.com. I really liked the article, to the point of taking notes on it as I made my way through, preparing myself for a good, thoughtful comment on your blog. Then, to my surprise, there was no comments section to be found. (A blogger who doesn't crave praise and attention? What?) So, still wanting to get these thoughts off of my chest, I'm writing you this email instead.

I really liked the article. I often find that people look at me funny when I insist to them that MST3K warrants this amount of thought. But what's really funny was how absolutely opposite my views of the show were from yours. I had actually held the show up as my shining example of how great UNcynical and UNironic humor can be. My views on humor seem very much in line with yours- I find that most people use humor in a negative way, for reasons I don't even care to get into. But I had always seen Mystery Science Theater as the antithesis of this. Just look at the sketches. Have you ever seen a group of guys (Midwestern to the core) more genuine and unassuming in your life? I love how unapologetically goofy they are. They're happy and love life. And, unlike most people, aren't afraid to show it.

BUT- There was always that nagging feeling in my the back of my mind... Isn't what these guys are doing, making fun of other people's art, kind of mean, cruel and... ironic by it's very nature? I came closest to actually realizing this concept when I read about how Joe Don Baker said he would punch the cast if he ever saw them, after hearing what they said about him during their episode featuring the film "Mitchell". (Why does it always seem to be the case that MST3K's most deplorable moments are also their funniest?)

Now that your article has clearly laid this out for me (Thank you so much), I find myself trying to reconcile this idea in my head. And I think I've come up with something fairly significant, or worth exploring anyway. MST3K should have also assaulted good movies. They should have given the same treatment to work they actually enjoyed. You can't tell me that you wouldn't sit through the entire three hours of Joel and the 'bots ripping through Seven Samurai. (Ignore the fact that they could never have gotten the rights to do this- we're waxing philosophically here.) I don't think it would be any more difficult for them to write, and I think the results could be just as funny. This type of indiscriminate assault on their part would have eliminated the "mean" aspect of that they were doing. It would have changed where they were coming from completely. In fact, just thinking about how well it would have worked almost makes me feel better about the reality of what they did.

That's what I have to say about your lovely article. You can take it as praise, or let me know what you think.

Thanks again.
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I stumbled upon your old take on my Q&A at Ebert's '06 festival, and my film "Duane Hopwood" and was struck by how... cynical it was. And how dismissive, of the film, the performances, and me. I'm also an actor and I'm used to criticism, but I wonder, just what your qualifications are to arrive at these conclusions. Are you a professional critic? Are you a a trained writer? A published writer? A professional in the arts? If you'd been at the Q&A with Ebert the day before, you'd have heard him call Schwimmer's performance "Academy Award caliber." He also went on to list the film as one of the "best of 2005." This from the most influential and (arguably) most respected film critic in the world, as opposed to...you.

Happy Holidays
Matt Mulhern

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Thoughts of your own - on cynicism, cynical criticism, or my own measly, unqualified ideas? (Hey, I've got a Masters in Writing - does that make my opinion worth more or less, and if so, by how much, percentage-wise?) Write me here, and I may post them in a future Letters to the Editor column.

Pazar, Kasım 25, 2007

She Who Must Be Obeyed

She (U.S., 1935) * * *
D: Lansing C. Holden & Irving Pichel

At certain points during She--the 1935 Merian C. Cooper adaptation of the novel by H. Rider Haggard--I wanted to shout at the TV, "Where have you been all my life?" At other times, I cringed in embarrassment. This is pure pulp extravagance, with a big budget bringing Depression-era audiences savage savages, femme fatales, spectacular sets, a square-jawed hero and improbable fantasy. In the mountains of the frozen Arctic, adventurer Leo (Randolph Scott), his girl Tanya (Helen Mack), and scientific researcher Horace (Nigel Bruce, best known as the most famous screen incarnation of Dr. Watson) search for a legendary flame which can bestow eternal life upon those who bathe in its fires. Instead, they encounter the aforementioned savages, as well as a secret kingdom ruled by an immortal queen (Helen Gahagan). "She" believes that Leo is the reincarnation of her lover from 500 years before--whom she murdered out of jealousy, mind you, though she wants to make it up to him. Horace urges Leo to find out the secret of the magical flame, and the queen tries to convince Leo that he's her one and only--while privately attempting to put Tanya to death. This appealing boy's adventure goes down easy, and with a budget flush from King Kong profits (Cooper's 1933 success), you get some really stunning visuals, including a battle at the edge of a cliff, a wall of smoke through which the queen commands her minions, the shimmering lights of the immortal flame in a narrow, hidden cave, and the Art Deco sets themselves, immense, set against detailed and realistic matte paintings, but permeated with touches of Caligari-esque Expressionism. The vast gates that lead into the palace are meant to recall King Kong, but make no logical sense within the story, except to suggest that all which follows is the product of a Kong-sized imagination. Alas that more illogic pops up here and there (if this is the Arctic, why are all the natives half-naked?), and the characters are often given stupid dialogue, particularly the doltish hero, who understands things about ten minutes after the audience has. It's still a must-see for anyone with a weakness for these cliches. It's also fun to spot the moments which influenced later films: "She" dons a crown and garb which makes her strongly resemble the evil Queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); the high priest, conducting a human sacrifice, dons a shaggy horned helmet like Mola Ram's in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in the same scene where an extra swings from the center of the temple to an outcropping, and back, a la Indiana Jones in that film. Of course it all resembles the entertainments of Ray Harryhausen, too, even though there aren't any monsters; Harryhausen, a big fan, provides a commentary track on the new DVD from Kino and Legend Films. Harryhausen struck a deal with Legend to colorize his film 20 Million Miles to Earth, and She is colorized also, although you can watch it in black and white if you're some kind of, you know, purist or something. While one can theoretically defend Harryhausen's decision to colorize 20 Million Miles to Earth--it's really his film, and he claims it would have been in color if the budget had allowed for that--there's no point in colorizing She except to make it more garish and absurd.

And really, why would you want to? The original's black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and appears to be drawn in broad charcoal-pencilstrokes. It actually resembles the preproduction drawings of Harryhausen himself, if you've seen his recent art books. Now that we live in an age where films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are made--deliberately meant to invoke this kind of retro-pulp world, and shot with the colors drained out by computer--you have to wonder why Legend Films thinks there's an audience for a colorized film. Let's face it, thanks to DVD, film buffs are a dime a dozen (same goes for blogs like this one). There's a big enough audience for the untouched She.

The Apple (U.S., 1980) *
D: Menahem Golan

Speaking of spectacles, I can't recommend The Apple too strongly. Is it terrible? Oh yes. Oh God yes. But it is a time capsule--not of 1994, the year in which it takes place, but of 1980, just before the 70's had completely expired, but certainly when disco was on its way out. Nobody told director Menahem Golan (later to produce, with partner Yoram Globus, many of the cheesiest films of that decade), whose film imagines that disco will live on and on, to eventually topple the government until all of our lives are controlled by a music producer named Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal), who is most certainly the Devil Incarnate. Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour) are country bumpkins (although apparently he's Scottish and she's not) and a singing folk duo, innocent and pure, and when Alphie refuses to sign Mr. Boogalow's contract, he helplessly watches as Bibi does--and becomes an international, soulless superstar. Alphie tries to win her back. He does. They live in a hippie commune for a year, before Mr. Boogalow and his stormtroopers find them, and there's a deus ex machina which actually involves God. The spectacularly crappy songs are by one Coby Recht, who has done--uh, let me look at at IMDB--nothing else. His lyrics are so consistently obvious and stupid as to make one wonder if it's not some brilliant bit of subversive parody; alas, the film's satire is much too obvious for that. But the film is undeniably entertaining and consistently hysterical. If you're having a group of friends over on a Saturday night, show them The Apple. But serve drinks. You'll need them.

Cumartesi, Kasım 17, 2007


Beowulf (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Robert Zemeckis

Remember when Robert Zemeckis was the gifted director of breezy fantasy comedies, such as Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He has morphed, CG-style, into the strangely clinical director of motion-capture computer-animated films, beginning with The Polar Express (2004), and now extending to Beowulf, an adaptation of the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. I miss the old Zemeckis. I think a lot of us do. Just prior to the release of The Polar Express, Newsweek published a massive story on the film, apparently convinced that it would not only be the hit of the season (it wasn't), but also the harbinger of a new era of digital animation. Zemeckis enthused about the possibilities provided by motion-capture. By sticking ping-pong balls on his actors, he could direct their performances in a studio and their body movements could be mapped onto a computer. Really, it's just a fancy form of rotoscoping, the old technique in which actors are painted over by animators; it was used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and most prominently--and to great criticism--by Ralph Bakshi in his later films. Rotoscoping was used to great artistic effect in Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), proving that the form could still be a form of creative expression, rather than laziness--the most common criticism. No one seemed to think motion-capture was lazy when Zemeckis used it, or when Peter Jackson used it to map Andy Serkis' physical acting as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and as the title character of King Kong (2005). That's because the goal of most Hollywood digital animation has become realism and versimilitude, not artistic expression. So, these days, on occasion you have the computer being used to create visually imaginative films such as A Scanner Darkly (2006) and The Incredibles (2004), but too much of the time studios are pushing their animated films to recreate the dimensionality, contours, and texture of reality. Mickey Mouse could flex his body like a rubber band, and when he whistled in "Steamboat Willie," his mouth virtually popped out of his head. Great expressiveness, but he didn't look much like a mouse, did he? In Brad Bird's Ratatouille (2007), Remy the rat can stand up and talk, and when he gets on all fours and scurries, he looks just like a real rat. Critics gave rave reviews to Ratatouille, and the film deserved them, but they also took care to note how realistic the rat fur looked. As though that had much to do with the excellent storytelling.

I went into Beowulf with a bleeding heart for 2-D and a deep cynicism toward Zemeckis' grand project to make a CG animated film as convincing as live action. If I was going to experience all that Beowulf had to offer, I figured I'd better see it in Dolby Digital 3-D, in our local Sundance Cinema, with the polarized 3-D glasses. So this was literal 3-D animation, with the spears and severed limbs popping right out of the screen. The 3-D was spectacular, but the animation itself maddeningly uneven. Let me be more clear: this is a far better film than The Polar Express in every respect, and especially on the level of technical craftsmanship, but the technology has come so close to recreating the illusion of realism that the final gap to be bridged--making a CG human character completely convincing--seems all the wider. We ain't there yet. Some of the characters--all of whose faces are modeled directly upon their actors'--are astonishingly realistic, in particular King Hrothgar, played by Anthony Hopkins, and, in her sexed-up grand entrance, Grendel's mother, played by Angelina Jolie. Others, such as Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn) and Unferth (John Malkovich), look plasticine and just plain creepy, which was the effect I got from all the passengers of The Polar Express. Although characters show a little more emotional expression than before, their faces remain stiff. These mannequins lack soul. But I'll give Zemeckis credit, because while watching Beowulf I found myself wondering, for the first time, about where this is headed. All this time I've been patiently waiting for cel animation to make its inevitable comeback (you can't replace the specific charm and expressions made available by line drawing and paint), but Beowulf has finally made me realize that the day is coming when a computer-generated simulacrum is indistinguishable from a human being. Sure, it might not have a soul, but a finer form of motion capture could conceivably pick up on all the actor's nuances. Zemeckis may be on a fool's errand, but the technology is beginning to catch up with his ambition, and ultimately it will improve to the point where animation can be invisible--already occurring for special-effects shots in live action films, but something of a technological holy grail if a CG creation can convincingly replicate a live actor for 90 minutes. Imagine the money you'd save on catering.

Zemeckis is aiming for the fences with Beowulf. The Polar Express, for all its realism, sought the look of the illustrations of Chris van Allsburg (realistic, but "storybook" nonetheless). Beowulf, by contrast, is improbably steeped in earthiness and overt eroticism. This isn't just a fantasy action film. It requires that the sweat-dampened skin seem tactile, that you can see the dirt under the fingernails and the slight blemishes on the cheek. Fur garments are dropped. Golden water streams across Angelina Jolie's voluptuous body. Tendons and flesh are lovingly slashed, with red viscera splattering across the screen (and at you, if you've got the glasses). You get the feeling Zemeckis wanted to graduate early, so he skipped a few classes and went straight to his thesis. When Beowulf strides through a dark cave lit only by the dim light of a magically-illuminated horn, the shadows hide the CG's limitations, and he is strikingly human. But when the feast/orgy is held in the film's opening sequence, you can pick out characters in the background who look like rubber dolls. You wouldn't be this picky if Zemeckis weren't asking you to be. Give him credit for making his thesis an R-rated film that, ironically, gets a PG-13 from the MPAA for the likely reason that it's animated--you know, just like Toy Story, except that Beowulf strips naked to fight Grendel. (But thank God that's not really Anthony Hopkins' naked behind sagging into the frame.)

Not only is the film gory and erotic, by turns, but the entire theme is aimed at adults. It's a story about disappointment, about not living up to the image that you present. It's a story about aging, and about taking responsibility for the children we've neglected. Credit the maturity of the screenplay to author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction's co-writer, Roger Avary, who have collaborated on a script that faithfully recreates the context of the story's historical origins (this takes place in 10th-century Denmark) as well as its broad outline. But it also deepens and subverts the plot. Beowulf, the text, is the legend; Gaiman and Avary purport to be telling the real story. Yes, Beowulf severs Grendel's arm, but did he really slay him by cutting off his head? In this version, it's actually Grendel's mother who decapitates her already-dead son--now reduced, pathetically, to a disfigured, dried-up fetus--while hastily seducing Beowulf. Beowulf succumbs to her charms as well as her promises of wealth and power, a mistake already made by the king (who fathered Grendel). The king eventually commits suicide, but first declares Beowulf the heir, because he knows the warrior will be the new slave of Grendel's mother, and that the crown will be heavy indeed. But what has Beowulf now fathered? This is a very fine screenplay, and Gaiman and Avary can acquit themselves. It cleverly subverts the heroic myth, and risks losing the audience by portraying a Beowulf who's a braggart, a narcissist, and a bit of an oaf. Naturally, Grendel has siphoned some sympathetic qualities; while he does chew up the heads of his enemies, he's also reacting only because of his very sensitive ear, which pains him whenever the noise of the castle reaches his mountain cave. He's dispatched early, which is kind of a shame, because as the Frankenstein monster of the narrative, he's also potentially the story's heart. (The second son, Beowulf's--revealed later on--is not granted as much humanity, in the haste to deliver an exciting climax.) I find it fascinating that Grendel literally shrinks in size when he's wounded by Beowulf, as though these blows force a monstrous legend to be reduced to reality--and a humanity. The notion reinforces Gaiman and Avary's chief concern, which is uncovering the flawed being that lurks behind a legend. The exploration of this theme gives this adaptation an intelligently postmodern spin.

But how perverse that their screenplay requires so much sensuality. This should have been a live-action film, obviously. It probably would've been much cheaper to produce if it were--after all, there's only two sets to build, a castle and a cave. And this is probably not the film to resuscitate Bakshi-style adult animation, dripping with sex and violence, even if that were the intention of the collaborators. Beowulf is a film made in the awkward years of an evolving medium. Like a lot of CG animation, it will not age well. (The early Pixars already look very primitive by comparison to the newer ones.) Ultimately, this will be a footnote in the history of cinema, cited alongside The Polar Express as an example of animation's first steps to mimic reality, whether or not that direction proves misguided. That's a shame, because there's a decent movie buried somewhere underneath all these photorealistic ones and zeros.

Perşembe, Kasım 15, 2007

Tale of a Test Screening

It seems to me that there have been more advance screenings of late in Madison, or maybe I'm just hearing about them more, but last night was the first time that I'd been aware of a test screening in my city. The difference between a sneak preview and a test screening is that the latter is done by a studio or a filmmaker to get feedback from an audience which might affect the final cut of the film. All right, I'm still not absolutely positive that last night's free showing of Stop Loss, the latest film by Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce, was a "test screening," but since it is not scheduled for release until March 28, 2008, I think it's safe to assume Paramount Studios--reps from whom, with Pierce, were in attendance--were looking to gauge the audience's reaction. Passes were distributed via a mailing list for the Wisconsin Film Festival; you were asked to RSVP, although my wife and I did not (actually, we were waiting until the last minute to see if we could get into a sneak preview of Beowulf, which didn't happen)--we were still able to get in with no difficulty. It was held at the small but cozy theater at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and as you stepped through the gallery you were confronted by security guards ensuring that you had no cameras or video equipment. This frequently happens at sneak previews, too, although the security looked a little more professional, and there was also a table at which you could sign up for a Stop Loss mailing list and pick up stickers and posters for the movie. I strongly suspect the mailing list was actually another method to get feedback from the audience and to follow up with them. I did grab a sticker, which contains a link for a website containing a streaming video interviewing real soldiers grappling with the army's "stop-loss policy." (The page is owned by Paramount and linked to the official movie's promo site.) The stop-loss policy, of course, is the method by which U.S. soldiers have their service in Iraq extended beyond their initial contract and against their will, and is also the main concern of Pierce's (narrative fiction) film. The screening began fifteen minutes late, and for approximately an hour before it began, a looping slideshow played on the screen, set to loud music and depicting photographs taken by soldiers in Iraq. After a brief introduction by a UW film professor, Pierce took the stage, explaining that the film was inspired by her younger brother's service in Iraq. Up to this point, my wife and I were convinced that the film was going to be a documentary (she seemed to introduce it as such), but in fact it's a very conventional story of a soldier (Ryan Philippe) going AWOL when he learns that he'll be sent back to Iraq through the stop-loss policy, and he travels from Texas to New York in hopes of meeting with a senator who will help his case. I won't comment too much on the film, since it may not be the final cut, but we disliked it to the point of not even staying for the Q&A with Pierce (most of the audience also left). The Q&A was going to videotaped, either to be included on the film's website or on a future DVD, I'd guess. On the way back to the parking garage, we discussed our disappointment with the film--maybe a little loudly, I'm not sure. I said that it addressed my criticisms of In the Valley of Elah by presenting the soldiers as humans instead of machines, but that it felt like an afterschool special, and the script was didactic and obvious. Actually, I believe I said, "Why did it have to SUCK?!" In the stairwell of the garage I noticed that we were being closely followed by a man with a notepad whom I recognized from the screening. I stopped talking. Midway between the third and fourth floor, this man, without looking up to see where he was, suddenly turned around and headed back down. Perhaps I'm being paranoid, but now I'm wondering if Why did it have to SUCK?! was scribbled down on that pad, and is now making its way back to the execs in Hollywood. Oopsie.

Pazar, Kasım 11, 2007

Making Fun: Mystery Science Theater 3000

In 1990, I was unreasonably (and inexplicably) excited about a new cable channel that was finally coming to our Waukesha county cable provider: The Comedy Channel, alongside its rival the Ha! Network, had been heavily hyped--at least in my issues of TV Guide--and I actually remember turning to the channel where this "comedy" was supposed to be appearing, checking in on that placeholder screen and waiting for the network to be switched on. At last The Comedy Channel materialized, and I was initiated into the scrappy beginnings of what would later become the hugely successful Comedy Central. Mostly it was clips of stand-up comedy--Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Larry Miller, Paula Poundstone, Dana Gould--packaged with Monty Python and Kids in the Hall clips in a program called Short Attention Span Theater, hosted by a nobody called John Stewart. There was a lot of original programming, but all of it exceptionally low-budget: Rich Hall's Onion World, The Higgins Boys and Gruber, and Late Night with Allan Havey. I actually become devoted to these shows long before finally catching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I'd seen advertised; I believe I was babysitting the neighbor kid when I caught episode 203, Jungle Goddess, a 1948 programmer with plenty of stock footage, cheap sets, and the racist chestnut of a white woman being revered as a goddess by African savages. At the bottom of the screen, in silhouette, series creator Joel Hodgson, with two handmade puppets named Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, mercilessly skewered the film.

I would have watched the show even if the jokes weren't funny. As a macabre kid whose parents never let him watch R-rated horror movies, I became well-versed in old Universal horror and fantasy pictures, as well as B-movies of the 1950's: the MST3K specialty. It was a two-hour program, and the main feature, sometimes preceded by a short, played from shortly after the opening credits to the end. It was just the sort of entertainment I usually sought out on Saturday nights; and in fact I had already seen, on my local TV station late at night, many of the movies which the show chose or would choose to "riff," such as The Mole People, City Limits, and Laserblast. But the jokes were funny, even if many of the references went right over my head, and I quickly came to love Joel and the 'Bots, who interrupted the movie for short, low-rent comedy sketches, as well as the mad scientists who forced them to watch these bad movies--Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu, also the voice of Crow) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff).

The show became The Comedy Channel's first success, and when Onion World and the Higgins Boys dropped from sight, MST3K received a cushy contract to produce expanded seasons. Each Thanksgiving was "Turkey Day," and the network would show a full day's worth of MST3K episodes. The cult following became large, they won a Peabody Award, and the show was met with generous critical acclaim, most vocally from TIME's film critic Richard Corliss. Although Joel left the series midway through the fifth season, he was replaced by head writer Michael J. Nelson; despite some allegedly intense Joel vs. Mike fights on the "internet" (an entity of which I was barely aware at the time), the show's success continued to build with barely a hiccup. Conventions were spawned, and the cast and crew began to riff on movies live to an enthusiastic response. A feature-length film was financed, to be distributed by Universal, and featuring a slightly shortened version of their film This Island Earth. In the Bantam tie-in book published around this period, there's only the slightest hint that things were about to go sour--a few ominous paragraphs by writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl: "Since January of this year, Jim Mallon, producer, has said at least three times a week, 'The channel deal for Season Seven should be coming through in a couple of weeks.' It has yet to happen. Frankly, I'm losing hope and I have to face the fact that I don't even have a cat." Comedy Central (which it was now called, having since merged with the Ha! Network and having been sued by Canadian television for their brief use of the moniker "CTV") had grown sour on the show, whose ratings were good, solid--but also reached a plateau. The show also ate 120 minutes of air time, a good thing in the early days of the Comedy Channel, but now, not so much. The show was canned, only to be revived the next year, following a fierce campaign from the fans, by a different fledgling network: The Sci-Fi Channel. Sci-Fi had already gone through its growing pains, and had cut much of its original programming in favor of cheaper reruns like The Six Million Dollar Man, Dark Shadows, and The Incredible Hulk. It was looking to invest in a few select, cheap-to-produce nuggets of original programming, and MST3K, with its built-in audience, seemed like an attractive bargain.

As it happened, the show ran for three more seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel. I watched it as periodically as ever, a fan who didn't have much time to watch two-hour episodes of a TV show, and usually just caught it in bits and pieces. By the time Sci-Fi cancelled the show, when I was already in grad school, I tuned in to watch the last episode (#1013, Diabolik) and got a little nostalgic in the end, as Mike and the Bots finally returned to Earth. I hadn't watched the show in a year or two, but it was still bittersweet: the show had run for ten years, and I'd grown up with it. Yet, in many ways, the show hasn't really died. Rhino Home Video had begun releasing episodes on VHS a few years before the end, and has persistently cultivated the MST3K fan community by continuing to release DVD box sets of the show, at least two a year. Although there are only four episodes in a set, this is no small gesture, as Rhino negotiates the rights to each individual "experiment" (feature film) in that episode, barring the public domain ones of course. Sometimes the rights lapse, and episodes go out of print. Sometimes a mistake is made, most notably with Godzilla vs. Megalon (#212), which Rhino released without securing Toho Studio's permission--and that whole box set is now an eBay collector's item (a shame, as it was the best set released, and a good "starter package" for new fans). Because of the labyrinthine rights entanglements for so many episodes, it looks like MST3K full-season sets will never be released; but the show was designed with little continuity anyway, so not much is lost by the random order these sets contain. Most volumes now are split evenly between the Joel and Mike years, and Comedy Channel/Central and Sci-Fi. It's easy to get into, and an addictive show to collect.

Still, while MST3K is easily one of my favorite shows and "comfort foods," I always feel a strange ambivalence toward its cultural impact, as well as its philosophy as a whole. The reason I entitled this blog "Kill the Snark" was because I was tired of the kind of cynicism which pervades so much online critiquing--the mentality in which (1) the critic steps on one film in order to elevate another, but crudely, without properly appraising the merits/demerits of the former film; (2) the critic dismisses a film entirely without providing real criticism; (3) the critic makes the piece more about his/her own writing style, hangups, or whims rather than the actual qualities of the film, in a kind of minor form of gonzo journalism in which the writer is the star of the piece; (4) the critic succumbs to snarkiness, in particular with films that require a greater patience or openness to originality. I sometimes wonder just how influential MST3K has been upon this lower level of critical discourse. Naturally "snarkiness" and dismissive criticism has been around since the dawn of the newspaper, but MST3K makes it an art, just as it gives a bit of respectability to the risible act of talking loudly in the theater. Naturally the writing, directing, and editing of an "experiment" are ruthlessly torn to pieces, but there can be a mean-spirited angle: actors are often bashed for their appearance, and certainly for their talents (and lack thereof). With hundreds, if not thousands, of jokes crammed into a tightly-written 92-minute episode, the skilled writers and former stand-ups of MST3K have produced an astonishing comic machine, but also a behemoth of take-no-prisoners criticism that essentially leaves nothing in its wake intact. When directed toward a completely incompetent piece like The Creeping Terror, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders, it's exhilarating to behold. So exhilarating that it's difficult, if not impossible, to then immediately watch a respectable film without the urge to tear it to pieces. For a little while, Everything Sucks. And indeed, there's hardly a film that can't get a severe hole or two punched in it somewhere, when watched with that slant. It should also be noted that I've heard many complaints, in online forums and elsewhere, from movie buffs dismayed at inappropriate laughter from members of the audience during revival screenings of classic films. I've witnessed this many times, most depressingly during a should-have-been-great screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some now avoid revival screenings--and the theatrical experience in general--preferring to watch their serious films at home, where they don't need to worry about wannabe Tom Servos.

Some of the creators of the original films handle the MST3K treatment better than others. Sandy Frank, who redubbed and distributed many of the Japanese films from the show's third season, was so angered by the personal ridicule he received on the show that he refused to renew the show's license to air his films. Subsequently, the Gamera movies, among the series' best episodes, remain unreleased on DVD. With Time Chasers (#821), a 1980's low-budget sci-fi film, the creators of the film were actually fans of MST3K and excited to find out that their obscure little movie was going to be featured on the show. Writer Paul Chaplin, in his "Reflections" on this episode written for the Sci-Fi Channel's MST3K website, recalled positive feelings for the film: "We...got a definite sense that the whole project was undertaken by a group of well-adjusted people. That is certainly not true of most of our movies, and they're to be commended. And truth be told--and remember, I'm only saying this in order to be polite--this really isn't a horrible film." Mike Nelson has a more painfully honest account, in his DVD introduction to the episode: "When the show premiered, [the makers of Time Chasers] had a party, and we talked to all the people beforehand, especially one of the characters--the little guy with the mustache, I don't remember his name...and they showed the movie, and we talked to the guy after that and things weren't so good anymore. Apparently they didn't think we would actually savage the film. Maybe they thought we would say, 'Wow, this is a great film.' It didn't happen that way, and apparently the party was kind of a downer, so to all of those people involved in Time Chasers: I'm sorry." On the other hand, Don Sullivan, one of the stars of The Rebel Set (#419), has found a somewhat strange, if philosphical appreciation for the treatment his film received by the show. On an interview included in the recently-released Volume 12 box set, he says, "I've always liked [MST3K] for reasons that most people don't understand... The first time I saw it was The Giant Gila Monster [#402], and the little robots added humor to it. It was a nice film...however, the Science Fiction 3000 [sic] robots added luster to that. And the same thing with The Rebel Set. Here's a good movie, with a lot of interesting interplay of three losers, which, if you really look into it, has a lot of psychological interplay. They added humor to it in a beautiful way, the robots, that takes it...from a 'B' movie to an 'A' movie and that makes it very nice for the actors that are in it. So I love it." Now, perhaps Sullivan, like Chaplin, is just being polite, but his argument seems to be that MST3K improves its films in its efforts to tear them apart. Many fans would agree. On the other hand, he defends the qualities which he believes inherently exist in the original version of The Rebel Set. I admit I can't see much of any "psychological interplay" among the characters of the film--certainly nothing of any depth--but Sullivan clearly invested himself in the picture and continues to feel a natural protectiveness toward it. It's just that he's also managed to reconcile it with the MST3K version in what is either reflexive doublethink or an appreciative serenity which comes with time and distance.

At fan conventions and other MST3K-related events, it's not unusual to see cast and crew from the original films showing up to express their love for the show. Although I've never attended an MST3K convention, on two occasions in Madison I was able to see, up-close, how these subjects of so much "riffing" have reconciled their feelings toward it. The first was very positive, the second very weird. At the 2003 Wisconsin Film Festival, Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo) introduced a screening of Giant Spider Invasion [#810] with one of its stars, Paul Bentzen, who was very appreciative of the crowd and enthusiastic right alongside them, despite the fact that the film, though presented "un-riffed," was greeted to a roar of laughter that barely abated for its entire length. That's what you call a good sport. The director, Wisconsin-based auteur Bill Rebane, was scheduled to appear, but didn't because he was "snowed in," as Murphy told me skeptically before the show began. A couple years later, Rebane did show, this time for a festival celebrating his films hosted by Murphy and Mike Nelson. My wife and I planned to stay for as long as we could, but after the excruciatingly awful, two-hour-long documentary on Rebane's life as a director, edited incompetently by his wife, we bailed. The real reason we left is that it was just too awkward to be watching a recap of this director's life while every clip is mocked mercilessly by the audience. It was like an episode of "This is Your Life" hosted by Satan. The clips from his films--the "highlights," supposedly--were so awful that at a certain point, despite all my efforts to resist, I couldn't help but join in the laughter. We both did, and I think we felt a little dirty after that.

So I'm not saying that the films chosen for MST3K are not worthy of mockery. It's particularly cathartic when applied to the backward and even sexist values imposed by the older films, like the short subjects, many of them meant to be screened in classrooms, instructing young women to take home economics classes while the boys take Shop. (In one short, women are given a very limited array of careers from which to choose, should they--gasp!--actually want one; the most ambitious is being a stewardess.) Hey, snark has its place, and can provide a useful satirical function in undermining the status quo. On the other hand, some of the show's episodes have received vehement objections when the films being savaged are fondly remembered. Kevin Murphy recounts, in the MST3K Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, of encountering a hostile Dennis Miller when the crew was invited to his show: "Dennis mumbled something about us slipping because we had done Marooned on our show and it was a pretty good movie and maybe we'd lost our touch. In a word, he slammed us. Then he just sat there, sweating, staring at us blankly, and we smiled and stared back, then it was time to go." Marooned starred Gene Hackman and Gregory Peck and won an Oscar, so it was an odd choice for MST3K, but it was also the premiere of the fourth season, with the show at a creative peak, and it served as kind of an announcement by the show that they were hitting the big time, getting bigger films, and yes, some of those big-budget blockbusters were pretty bad, too. The objections were much stronger when they chose This Island Earth for use in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. I remember being surprised at the choice because my recollection was that the movie was kind of good. Certainly it was a cult classic, thanks to its bright primary-color cinematography, elaborate sets and plotting, and a memorable monster as iconic, in some circles, as Robby the Robot and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (they'd riff a Black Lagoon sequel later). What I--and a lot of other people--had forgotten was just how silly This Island Earth was. It's not a bad movie, it's a silly one, profoundly so: the aliens disguised as humans have suspiciously elongated foreheads, the captain's chair of their spacecraft looks like a toilet, and, well, it's got the Professor from Gilligan's Island in it. If you're in the right mood, you can laugh at the movie while still enjoying it. And while this was the most controversial experiment choice the crew of MST3K ever made, for me, conversely, it is the very justification for why I love this show. In the best episodes, the movies are a lot of fun to watch. They remind me of when I was a kid, watching beaten-up prints of B-movies on tape and on TV, waiting anxiously for the next monster they put up on the screen, just to see if it's going to look good or if it's going to be another lizard in a dinosaur costume. I love how goofy many of these movies are, and I love the movies. That's not doublethink.

In a recent interview with Joel Hodgson on Starwars.com, he explains: "As time went on I began to have affection for all these weird movies we were working with. I don't have the attitude like, 'bad movies suck and I'm going to put my eyes out with a pen because I curse you, bad movie!' I like all movies, good and bad. The good ones I call great, and the bad ones I call horribly great." In the end I think that's the best way to view MST3K. It isn't a savaging, but a salvaging: a way to recycle these ephemeral B-pictures into something entertaining again. Approached in the right spirit, MST3K is a justification for loving movies. After all, the sketches and the framing segments are just a small portion of each episode; the bulk is taken up by the actual film itself, and you're right there, with Mike, Joel, and the Bots, watching them. You wouldn't do that if you didn't have some kind of affection for the genres and the trappings of the drive-in or direct-to-video picture. These are still fun movies. So when you settle down with the latest box set, a bag of microwave popcorn and a beer, go ahead and laugh guiltlessly, but also remember why you're laughing: because deep down you love movies.

[Although the show has been cancelled since 1999, the creators of MST3K have eventually gravitated back toward movie-riffing. Mike Nelson produces a steady stream of podcast movie commentary on his Rifftrax site. (He does the commentary, but you have to go and rent the film.) Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett (the voice of Crow during the Sci-Fi years) have also formed The Film Crew, and started a line of DVDs in which they riff on various bad films from yesteryear. Finally, Joel Hodgson has just reunited with J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Tom Servo), Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl for Cinematic Titanic, another movie-riffing project which promises to release DVDs in the near future.]

The Best of the Rhino Releases
Although a few of the episodes have slipped out of print over the years, Rhino has released enough "experiments" to make for a healthy MST3K schooling. Here are the first you should seek out on Netflix or at your local video store.

1. 424 Manos - the Hands of Fate
Appallingly slow-paced horror film from the imagination of a manure salesman, though Joel and the Bots make it hysterically entertaining. Generally considered one of the worst films ever made.
2. 303 Pod People
The ideal combination of Alien and E.T., this is the story of a boy who befriends a "cute," snout-faced, furry little alien, who proceeds to slaughter all of his friends. The best bits involve a band led by a guy who looks like Greg Brady, and sings incomprehensible songs (which Joel expertly parodies).
3. 1003 Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders
Less a film than a tax write-off, this ill-advised "children's film" patches together two grisly horror movies, noticeably produced in different decades, and both coincidentally featuring a household pet being set ablaze. Also, a man dressed in a wizard's costume walks through a park asking people, "Have you seen my monkey?"
4. 506 Eegah!
Richard Kiel (Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me) plays a caveman discovered living in the hills of a California desert. Listen sharply for the weird, looped line "Watch out for snakes!" which has become something of a catchphrase. Arch Hall, Jr., sings.
5. 212 Godzilla Vs. Megalon
This episode went out of print quickly, but it's signature MST3K, with lots of rubber-suited monsters and one of the best host sketches ever: "Rex Dart, Eskimo Spy."
5. 321 Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
A very special Christmas episode with this notorious children's film in which Santa Claus is abducted by Martians, and, in one disturbing sequence, almost blown out of an airlock by the murderous yet wacky aliens.
6. 820 Space Mutiny
Eighties direct-to-video SF movie features the moving story of a bodybuilder romancing a middle-aged tramp and battling a mutiny with gun-battles on golf carts. A minor character is killed in one scene, and then reappears in the background of the very next scene.
7. 404 Teenagers from Outer Space
The title says it all, except that there's also, inexplicably, a giant lobster on the loose. Edited so incompetently that it approaches avant-garde art.
8. 207 Wild Rebels
Rhino has released about all of the 60's biker and Hell's Angels movies featured on MST3K, and this is the best of them, with a priceless "Wild Rebels Cereal" sketch.
9. 908 The Touch of Satan
This low-key 70's horror film is far from the worst film MST3K ever did, but at one point, while a beautiful young witch shows a hunky drifter a small lake in a field, she points to it and says: "This is where the fish lives." I have spent years ruminating on that line, trying to decipher what exactly the screenwriter meant and how in God's name it ever made it into a motion picture. I don't recommend you do the same: that way lies great agony.
10. 518 The Atomic Brain
Women with poorly-realized foreign accents are abducted by a mad scientist, who is practicing body-switching experiments in the basement of his Gothic manor. These foreign accents are a beautiful thing, fluidly changing in the middle of single syllables. The plot is straight out of a Gilligan's Island episode: another reason I love it.

Do not start here:

1009 Hamlet
: The MST3K writers wanted to prove that even Shakespeare could write a horrible film, but the result is excruciatingly boring.
515 The Wild World of Batwoman: This film is so incompetent that it's hilarious for the first few minutes, but then the "deep hurting" sets in. I find myself physically unable to sit through this movie.

Cumartesi, Kasım 10, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (U.S., 2007)
* * * 1/2
D: Andrew Dominik

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is nearing the end. He stages one last train robbery, then his older brother (Sam Shepard) splits, and it's up to Jesse to put the gang on their separate ways. In these last days, with the law hot on their trail and the pressure bearing down hard, Jesse's men start to get anxious and more than a little paranoid. Each thinks James is gunning for him, and he just might decide that's a good idea, when he sees the guilty look in their eyes. This includes the brothers Ford, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and his kid brother Bob (Casey Affleck), both of whom have a severe loyalty to their leader, although Bob's is a fealty born of youthful idolization. He keeps Jesse James novellas and portraits stored in a box under his bed, and he's bitterly ashamed and defensive when Charley and the other bandits tease him about it--although he's just as willing to heap praise upon James to his face, with earnest eyes and a stupid smile that creeps up his face despite his best attempts to bat it down.

Chopper director Andrew Dominik's sophomore film, in its quiet, frontier lyricism, bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Terrence Malick (Badlands in particular); but he contributes a unique flavor with a modern, moody score, courtesy rock musician Nick Cave (who also wrote and scored The Proposition), and interludes shot as if through smoked glass, narrated by Hugh Ross, who provides historical footnotes as well as beautiful snapshots of the characters' well-hidden emotional lives. These passages are presumably taken from the novel by Ron Hansen, and they certainly lend a literary texture to the film, which unfolds at a gradual pace, with each moment of suspense or action drawn out and dissected before being folded back into its package. Most notably this can be seen in the train robbery, which begins as an almost spiritual ritual, as the train's spotlight floods the woods like the coming of Titania, casting eerie white light upon each of the shoddily-hooded faces of the James gang, who gaze at it, enraptured; Jesse merely waits with his lantern in the middle of the tracks, waiting for the train to stop. Never mind that it shouldn't be able to so quickly--the sequence is in slow-motion, and by film logic, the train has an eternity to come to rest. This gorgeous scene soon transitions into the nature of the heist itself, with thundering guns, startled passengers, and one fellow guarding the safe, visibly summoning all the courage he can to stand up to Jesse James. He'd be a minor character in any other film, but by Dominik's method, every face has a story worth telling. That extends to the curious assignation between Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and the young wife (Kailin See) of the father of his friend Wood Hite; the two make preposterous passes, hers a bit more clever than his, until they finally meet in an outhouse. The sequence does bear some import upon the plot, but it plays as its own isolated sketch, and it's just about as perfect as anything you'll see in a modern Western.

But the focus, of course, is on the story of Bob Ford's fascination with Jesse James. At the start of the film he's just a tagalong desperate to be a sidekick in the gang. Soon James begins to treat him like a little brother, to the relief of Charley Ford, and the resentment of everyone else, including Jesse's wife. What makes their relationship interesting is that it isn't static: Bob picks fights with Jesse where others wouldn't have the courage, in his confused efforts to deal with his own devotion to this sometimes undeserving bully, sadist, and killer. Jesse, in turn, threatens Bob's life, then apologizes to him the next day by presenting him with a nickel-plated pistol. Since you know the outcome of the story, the telling depends upon building interest in this relationship and its import; it almost succeeds. I found Casey Affleck's Bob Ford to be a bit too slow, a bit too sweaty-palmed and simpering, to sustain my interest for every moment he's on the screen, although I can't say the same for Pitt. It's telling, if predictable, that reviews of this film bypass Pitt in their recognition and praise for Affleck. That's because this is Affleck's first major performance; quite the opposite of his role in Gus van Sant's understated Gerry, here the camera focuses on his face and studies every tic and twitch and bead of sweat. It's a good performance, but a tiring one in this 160-minute film. Pitt, on the other hand, is the best that he has ever been. When he catches the camera's stare, it's a pure pleasure to see him studying Bob and the other members of his gang, judging their loyalty, finding it lacking, and then, with an almost sublimated despair, forging ahead regardless. He does shoot a man in the back, beat an adolescent boy senseless, and implicitly threaten everyone else, all while nursing a paranoia that grows wider by the day--but you still have a magnetic attraction to the man. All that works beautifully, thanks to a moving performance by Pitt. Sam Rockwell is good, too, although a bit overplayed; this is the kind of Western where there are no stalwarts, only nervous wrecks, and Rockwell is here the most toady of sidekicks, eager to please James lest it cost him his life.

There's one drunken barroom scene, with Nick Cave making a (strangely anachronistic) cameo, that is so unnecessary and familiar that it seems to belong to any other Western--or every other Western. And the film does, finally, drag on just a little bit too much. But it is so absorbing, so perfectly paced, that these slightest missteps seem glaring. This is a patient, observant, and valuable film, and there should be more like it.

Perşembe, Kasım 08, 2007

Day Watch

Day Watch (Russia, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Timur Bekmambetov

This two-and-a-half-hour sequel to the Russian fantasy blockbuster Night Watch boasts an impressive budget, almost nonstop action, and a script so packed with characters, digressions, and subplots that it's visibly burst at the seams. It is, in many ways, the Russian version of The Matrix Reloaded. The first film was of almost historical importance in its home country; Russia (and the Soviet Union) has had a heritage of films that are either high art propaganda (Battleship Potemkin, Aelita Queen of Mars, Man with a Movie Camera) or simply high art (The Mirror, The Return, Russian Ark), but Night Watch was escapist fun for the masses. Granted, it was extremely ambitious escapist fun, with a plot that many critics found impossible to follow, but others likened it to The Lord of the Rings (whether or not they could follow that plot). The film, based on the international bestseller by Sergei Lukyanenko, explained quickly that two supernatural forces are holding an uneasy truce in the modern-day world: one side, the good guys, have formed the "Night Watch" to keep an eye on the bad guys, and vice versa for the "Day Watch." It's basically a cops versus gangsters story, but populated with witches, wizards, shapeshifters, and vampires. When one side transgresses against the other, the other side muses on how to react. (This chess game is really no different than what goes on in The Sopranos.) In Night Watch, we were introduced to Anton, a low-level wizard who learns that his son can become a powerful agent of darkness; despite his attempts to keep him, the boy is recruited, at the end of that film, to the other side. As Day Watch opens, Anton has initiated his friend Svetlana as an agent of the Night Watch, and while on duty they both encounter Anton's boy, and get a sense of how powerful and evil the adolescent has become. Anton grows obsessed with being reunited with his boy, and spends his spare time tracking down the Chalk of Fate, an ancient, magical piece of chalk which can alter the past, and a plot device better suited for a Harry Potter novel. That pesky chalk also provides one of the most absurd deux ex machinas in all of modern cinema. But that's not until you've reached the end of this epic, which features so many fistfights, car chases, and mystical twists that I certainly don't have the time to recount them all here. The most notable and entertaining of these involves Anton going undercover by switching bodies with a female Night Watch agent, which leads to gender-bending complications when he and Svetlana confess their love for each other. It's a great idea in a movie that has a lot of them--I also liked Alisa the witch's golden ring, which allows her lover to feel her emotions and immediately identify if she's cheating on him--but this breathless film has a strange tendency to show off its budget while pursuing blind alleys. Like when Sventlana first mentions that she loves Anton (his car dives off the road and he makes a spectacular crash in a snowbank); or when Alisa drives up the side of a hotel, shattering through windows and driving down hallways, just because she's anxious to see her boss; or when Anton goes to great effort to board a plane to Samarcand, only to turn around when he realizes that's not where he really wants to go. Day Watch is worrisomely obsessed with providing one spectacle after another, each bigger than the last, until you arrive at an absurd, apocalyptic climax replete with tango dancing, a weapon of mass destruction disguised as a yo-yo, a little spider with a baby-doll's head, multiple drunken speeches into a microphone, another car chase--this one with a car crashing straight through a truck lengthwise and surviving intact--a completely irrelevant whodunit unmasking of a murderer, and a ferris wheel crashing down a city street. They might as well have called upon the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It's a shame, because the exhausting and pointless finale undoes a lot of goodwill the film had built before then. Bekmambetov, although he relies too heavily on fast-cutting and heavy metal music, shares with Jean-Pierre Jeunet an intensely visual storytelling style which requires the audience to pay attention to the smallest details, which inevitably become important later on. This provides for some delightful little gags as well as bigger payoffs. Kudos also to the costume design and makeup, which outfits Alisa with red leather, a spiked dog-collar, and a haircut that points upward into little devil horns. The look of this film is richly detailed in its decadence. The decaying slums in which the Night Watch lives and works is in dramatic contrast to the elegance of the forces of darkness, who drink their blood out of fine wineglasses while wearing the sexiest gowns. But, like The Matrix Reloaded, it's much ado about nothing much. Anton is torn--in one scene, almost literally--between his love for his son and his love for Svetlana, but it's never convincing that either one should love him. He's a chain-smoking, drunken, usually bloody wreck. Yet upon these relationships turn the plot--and apparently the fate of the world. I appreciate that all the large-scale action and mayhem pivot on a personal story about love and devotion, but it just doesn't work. All that's left is to lean back and watch the eye candy, and marvel without being charmed.