Sunday, June 29, 2008

An education in 'Seagalogy'


The mere thought of an analytical book about Steven Seagal movies could provoke laughter, and yet I'm here to tell you that it's an essential read for any action movie fan, and a must-read for anyone who has enjoyed Seagal's works. I was skeptical about how Seagal movies could fill 400 pages (my wife even joked "Hmmm, what else can I say about Under Siege?"), but author Vern, of Ain't It Cool News and The Screengrab, presents his exhaustive research in an entertaining way that is neither overly serious or tongue-in-cheek. Vern knows Seagal movies are not Oscar-worthy, but he also bristles at the notion that they're all the same, or that Seagal is just another action star.

In Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, Vern's thesis is that since Seagal has always been involved with his films more than just an actor, they are all linked through recurring motifs (distrust of government agencies, strangely biographic characters) and visuals (bar fights, explanations of how badass he is, broken glass). Vern describes this thesis as badass auteur theory, that Seagal's imprimaturs are everywhere on his pictures -- almost like a director. Vern accurately divides Seagal's career into three eras: the Golden Age (Above the Law through Out for Justice), the Silver Age (Under Siege through Fire Down Below) and the current Direct-to-Video era that began after his last theatrical release, Half Past Dead (part of the "transitional period" that precedes the DTV era). Every movie gets its own chapter, with Vern offering a recap of the story (with welcome tangeants sprinkled in), followed by an analysis of how it fits in with Seagal's other movies, and the elements of his badass auteur theory that are present.

I approached this book as a casual Seagal fan, well-versed in the Golden Era, a little hazy on the Silver Era, and virtually no knowledge of his work beyond that. If you're like me and got turned on to Seagal during his early years, you know there was always something about him that distinguished his movies from the wave of other punch-and-shooters of the era. Seagal's fighting style (his own evolution of aikido) always looked great on screen and lent itself to creative scenes where the weapons and actions of enemies were turned against them. Hard to Kill was his breakout movie to many fans and his next two (Marked for Death and the darker Out for Justice) were of similar quality and plot, a loner out for revenge against seemingly overwhelming odds. Seagal's popularity peaked in 1992 with the blockbuster Under Siege, but when he followed that up with the preachy On Deadly Ground, it's easy to say his career was never the same. This is where Seagalogy is at its best, as Vern makes a good case for this part of Seagal's career. On Deadly Ground was directed by Seagal, and while occasionally ridiculous, it also effectively spotlights environmental issues that are now prominent and manages to find good roles for Michael Caine and R. Lee Ermey.

What I admired most about Vern's writing is how he didn't slack off during the direct-to-video era. It would have been easy to devote most of the book to Seagal's more popular movies, but each work gets equal time, no matter how generic or messy they are. And by doing this, Vern uncovers some action movie gems (Belly of the Beast, Into the Sun, Urban Justice), and makes a convincing argument that while Seagal's physique declined, his knowledge of Asian culture and occasional self-deprecating humor brought cult status to some of his DTV productions. About half the book is dedicated to the DTV era, but Vern makes it a fun ride by celebrating the shortcomings along with the highlights. A common thread through the DTV era is overly-complicated plots, leading to this line: "The plot leaves many questions unanswered. Notably, 'what the fuck?'".

Another key to the book's success is that it never tries to be a Seagal biography, it's all about the movies. When applicable Vern sprinkles in some information about Seagal's life, but the focus never really strays from Seagal's films. Vern's writing style makes Seagalogy an enjoyable read for any movie fan, and it was enough to make me want to re-watch many of the films he highlights (can't beat a Seagal four-pack at Target for only $9.99!), and possibly check out one or two of his DTV efforts.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

FRIDAY SCREEN TEST: Andrew Bemis

Like the Jodorowsky character represented in his avatar, Andrew Bemis is a wanderer -- collecting and reflecting on cinematic treasures here and there, while also celebrating the greatest things in life: title cards and gratuitous nudity (occasionally at the same time). As one of the Men Who Make the Movies (see below), Andrew sees a lot of them, and shares his experiences at the charmingly-named Cinevistaramascope. Andrew writes his reviews in a way that will get you nodding your head often while reading them (especially if you agree with most of them, like me). But if you really want to see what makes him tick, check out his most recent Top 101 list. Oh, and definitely read up on his Top 10 80s Fantasy movies (Fire and Ice!).

EARLIEST MOVIE-WATCHING MEMORY: 'John Carpenter's Halloween at age three. Thanks, mom.'

LAST DVD YOU BOUGHT: 'The Player. I caught the last half hour on IFC a few weeks ago, and I'd forgotten how sharp it is. Can't wait to revisit the rest.'

IF YOU WERE A TCM GUEST PROGRAMMER, WHAT THREE FILMS WOULD YOU CHOOSE: 'I'd go with three films I saw back-to-back-to-back for the first time when I was thirteen: Vertigo, Lolita and Blue Velvet. One jackpot of a trip to Blockbuster and my mind was opened to cinema's transgressive possibilities.'

FAVORITE MOVIE ENDING: 'There Will Be Blood. I was loving the movie until it got to the bowling alley, then P.T.A. turned it up to eleven. I feel kind of silly naming such a recent movie, but Citizen Kane was new once.'

WHAT MOVIE ARE YOU ASHAMED TO SAY YOU HAVEN'T SEEN, AND WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE: 'Probably half of my Netflix queue is made up of movies I'm way overdue on checking out. The most egregious of these, based on Netflix's prediction that I'll give them 5 stars, are Contempt and Nights of Cabiria.'

PICK ONE OF THE FOLLOWING FOUR MOVIES AND WRITE TWO SENTENCES ABOUT IT:
Date With an Angel
-- ' I watched Date with an Angel at least ten times in 1988 when it was in heavy rotation on HBO. I don't know why.'
Only Angels Have Wings
Angels in America
Angel Heart

WHO WOULD YOU AWARD AN HONORARY BEST ACTOR/ACTRESS OSCAR TO: 'Any of the four brilliant leading male performances - Gene Hackman in The Conversation, Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II - that lost to freakin' Art Carney in Harry and Tonto.'

LAST TIME YOU WERE AT A DRIVE-IN, WHAT DID YOU SEE: 'The missus and I went several times last summer when our daughter was still young enough to sleep through pretty much anything. The last movie we saw there was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.'

FILM ERA OR GENRE YOU'RE A LITTLE OBSESSED WITH: 'Horror is my favorite genre and the '70s were the best decade for film, so I'd say '70s horror is my most specific obsession. And it really was an incredible time for scary movies - De Palma, Argento, Carpenter, Herzog's Nosferatu, Romero, Alien...I could go on and on...'

FILM CRITIC YOU TRUST THE MOST: 'The answer would have easily been Ebert until a few years ago - while I can't fault him for loosening up after everything he's been through, his once-reliable four-star reviews now have to be taken with a grain of salt. I guess I'll go with Ebert's spiritual opposite, Walter Chaw. I disagree with the Chaw on a regular basis, but he somehow always lets me know whether I'll like the movie he's writing about. When I saw he'd given Indy 4 two stars, for instance, I knew that I'd like it.'

FAVORITE BOOK ON THE SUBJECT OF FILM: 'The Stanley Kubrick Archives, a beautiful, comprehensive collection of interviews, production backgrounds, stills, essays and assorted ephemera. It's not only a gorgeous tribute to one of my favorite directors, it also contains just about everything you need to know to make your own movie.'

DESCRIBE THE FREQUENCY OF YOUR FILM INTAKE: 'My wife and I used to go to the cinema a couple of times a week, but since our daughter was born we only make it to the movies we're both dying to see (if any Cinevistaramascope readers were wondering why my sidebar of recently seen movies is always crammed with As, there's your reason). At home I usually watch at least one a day, and I usually see whatever's playing at my night job through a small window in the projection booth.'

THREE THINGS YOU'VE LEARNED FROM WATCHING MOVIES: 'If you find a human ear in a field, it's probably best to leave it alone; If you dream of unicorns than you're probably a replicant; Never feed your pet mogwai after midnight.'

Email DVD Panache if you are interested in being featured on Friday Screen Test.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The first step toward a 'Ferris Bueller' remake?


I opened my new Car and Driver today to find something both tantalizing and disturbing. Pictured on page 29 were the first official pictures of Ferrari's next dream offering, an updating of the classic 250 GT California. The C/D curmudgeons predictably panned its styling, but I have to say it's the best looking new Ferrari since the 360 Modena -- everything past the rear wheels looks too much like a Lexus SC 430, but the rest of the car is a stunning tribute to the original California.

I'm getting to the movie aspect of this post -- if the name 250 GT California doesn't ring a bell for you, maybe this will:


Yes, the "gemballa" sports car that was the central prop in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Because there wouldn't have been a remake of The Italian Job without the neo-retro Mini Coopers making their entrance, could this have the same effect on the John Hughes comedy? Actually, I would predict sequel before remake, and I've had this idea in my head for awhile: it's the same plot as the original, except Ferris is grown up and he has to take a day off from his dead-end job, without his wife and kids (or boss) finding out. Of course he needs Cameron's help, and with his dad's inheritance he just purchased ... a new Ferrari California! It practically writes itself.

Monday, June 23, 2008

25 years of 'Bizarro III'


Note: This is not part of the Bizarro Blog-a-Thon at Attentive Ear Theater.

Has it really been 25 years since the third (and best) entry in the Bizarro saga? Audiences didn't expect much in 1983 upon its release -- the previous two efforts, directed by Richard Lester, had all been duds -- but Bizarro III would redefine what movie-goers expected from superhero movies. While Bizarro: The Movie and Bizarro II had been sci-fi adventures, the third installment (helmed by funnyman Richard Donner) would be a gut-busting comedy in the tradition of Ryan's Daughter and Silkwood.

Donner's first order of business was to have his movie feature a first-class super villain, but who? Fan favorites such as Zod and Otis had already starred in the previous movies, but Donner went with a less popular adversary who first appeared in Bizarro #302 ("The Hat of Fear"): his name was Superman. Since he was the exact opposite of Bizarro, Superman was an easy villain to hate. Superman possessed none of Bizarro's trademark ugly features, or impractical super powers. Instead of Bizarro's charming flame breath or x-ray hearing, Superman possessed the ability to see through almost anything (as opposed to just lead) and could concentrate his heat vision to accurately destroy objects (instead of randomly burning anyone within a 50-foot radius of him).

Actor Christopher Reeve was an easy casting choice for Superman, although some believed the villainous role could slow the momentum of his prestigious career. Once thought to be dropping out of the series, William Atherton signed up again for the title role -- ready to don the trademark gray makeup for one more go-around. Early dispatches from the set confirmed everyone's hopes, that Bizarro III would be perhaps the best American comedy since Nashville. Since Superman was obviously a thin character, Donner paired him with clever original creations Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) and Ross Webster (comedy kingpin Robert Vaughn). Donner struck gold with these choices, as a spinoff movie franchise with Gorman outlasted even the Bizarro series, and the Webster character would become a Saturday morning cartoon fixture.

The hilarious plot also broke away from the norm, focusing on computers and coffee (yes, you read that correctly!) with a streak of screwball gags (did someone say skiing down a skyscraper?). After principal photography ended, Donner reportedly lit a cigar and pronounced himself the luckiest man in the world, saying to Atherton "Billy, they better start tearing out those Hollywood Stars, because they'll need 50 of them just for you!" Audiences echoed Donner's sentiments, eating up the movie at the box office and clamoring for more of Bizarro. Movie-goers saved their biggest applause for the dramatic climax, when Bizarro tricks the ne'er-do-well baddie into giving up his powers before pushing him into an ornery super computer that transforms him into a bumbling robot.

The unmatched success of Bizarro III set a precedent for superhero movies: no longer would they be tied to the snoozer genre of action/adventure, but audiences would expect to leave the theater in tears of laughter. Future comic book adaptations would hitch their ride to this star: John Sayles' laugh-a-minute The Penguin, Francis Ford Coppola's hysterical Plastic Man and Robert DeNiro's infamous farce Johnny Quest Meets the Harlem Globetrotters. For the Bizarro franchise, the gang reunited for one last installment (without Superman, of course), 1989's Bizarro IV: The Last Picture Show. While not as universally loved as its predecessor, No. 4 gave America's favorite superhero a proper send-off -- with Bizarro tripping over his shoelaces on the way to the altar to wed longtime sweetheart Lana Lang.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The 1080 Times, vol. 2


A lot of HD-DVD reviews this week (including the best one yet), but first some odd goings-on in HD-DVD land: Some time last month, all the Warner Bros. HD-DVDs jumped in price. While they used to be going in the $12-15 range at online retailers, now it's hard to find even one below $21. This may not seem very strange, but consider that most of these are more expensive than even their Blu-Ray counterparts. A good example is the high-def-exclusive Blade Runner 5-Disc Complete Collector's Edition, which has an MSRP of $39.99. Amazon has the Blu-Ray version for $19.99 (up from $14.95 last week), and the HD-DVD for $27.95. Shouldn't it be the other way around? I hope this is only a temporary price hike, and that it's not motivated by Warner Bros. trying to entice more Blu-Ray converts.

Now, on to the reviews. And remember, these scores are for HD-DVDs, but many are available on Blu-Ray and feature the same high-def transfer.

The Wild Bunch -- This HD-DVD is proof that not every movie will translate well to high def. Peckinpah's classic still looks great, but it's barely an upgrade from the standard disc, and this may be due to the way it was filmed. The Wild Bunch is color-wise not very vibrant, brown and dark Earth tones typically fill the frame, not leaving much to be exploited by the HD upgrade. There are a few exceptions: the Bunch's send-off at the village with sunlight pouring through the trees is even more breath-taking, and the day-for-night shots after the opening shootout have more clarity. Still, this is easily the least-impressive HD-DVD I've come across and not worth the upgrade even for fans of the movie. Score: 3

Cat People -- An odd choice to be included in one of the first batches of HD-DVDs, Paul Schraeder's re-imagining of the Val Lewton classic is a stunner in high def. Set in New Orleans, there are shots that you will want framed after seeing them in this eye-popping presentation. Maybe the best example of what HD can do with dark scenes, as a shot of Nastassja Kinski disrobing in the moonlight retains a stunning amount of detail. Score: 9

2001: A Space Odyssey -- I was eager to see what HD-DVD could do with a 70mm movie, and the result is perfect, if not a tad disappointing. Maybe this is the kind of disc that deserves to be seen in 1080p (I watch in 720p) to really feel the full effect, because I was never truly blown away. Everything looks crisp and perfect (particularly in the final act), but compared to the remastered standard disc, it's not a startling upgrade. These releases in 2007 represented the first time 2001 was available in widescreen, and again I ask: how did we ever tolerate this in full screen? Score: 8

Miami Vice -- Another movie filmed in HD, putting it on a different level when viewed in this format. The opening boat race is a satisfying introduction to what you'll experience for the rest of the movie, and it only gets better with Michael Mann's usual dazzling nighttime urban photography. And yes, the mojitos look so good in HD, the mere sight of them could throw a recovering alcoholic off the wagon. Score: 9

Children of Men -- Like all recent movies on HD, there's a slight bit of disappointment since it looked great to begin with, but it's hard not to be impressed with Children of Men's realistic natural lighting and how it translates. The sudden, hot scorches of sunlight on the frame almost make you squint, and the violence seems more vicious. Score: 8.5

Black Snake Moan -- Another movie with cinematography that translates well to HD, as Craig Brewer's heat-soaked South fires up every pixel on your screen. The early shot of Samuel L. Jackson bulldozing a blooming rose garden is one of those visuals where you know you're not watching standard DVD any more. Score: 9

The Searchers -- Here it is, the best possible example of HD-DVD. I honestly don't know how it could get any better than this. What looked great on standard DVD causes you to drool in HD. I watched this twice in two days just because I had to get a look at it again. John Ford's photography deserves a lot of credit, but I really think it's due to it being filmed in VistaVision, which was billed as superior to CinemaScope. There are so many details on your screen, and life-like colors, it seems too good to be true. A 10 score doesn't do this justice, if you upgrade to HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, this should be your first purchase. Score: 10

King Kong -- In the previous volume, I mentioned how I was unimpressed with 300, and wondered how well CGI movies in general would fare in HD. King Kong somewhat supports that guess, but a few scenes prove me wrong. The shots of King Kong in a neon-filled Times Square almost looks 3-D, and is one of the best examples of HD visuals I've seen. In general, though, the many CGI effects look how you would expect them to, and don't amaze you that much. Score: 7

The Sopranos -- A true rip-off in many ways, good thing I only paid about $7 for it. With an MSRP of $129.95 (and still $84.95 on Amazon), The Sopranos barely registers a blip in HD. It could be due to inferior camera work, but whatever it is this is hardly better than a standard DVD and most people won't even notice a difference. Score: 2

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
-- Even better than I expected, with Roger Deakins' lauded cinematography looking more amazing in HD. The opening night train robbery is a true show stopper. Score: 9

Friday, June 20, 2008

FRIDAY SCREEN TEST: Craig Kennedy

Craig Kennedy chose Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove as his avatar, and the character suits Living in Cinema well, as the site's spirited comments sections are as lively as the movie's infamous war room. Craig keeps the conversation flowing with frequent posts, starting with the weekly Watercooler where it all begins. And like me, Craig likes to write about conversations that never happened -- for that I am grateful. Marlon Brando said as Jor-El: "they are a good people, they wish to be," and this quote also applies to the Living in Cinema readers, as they contributed to a year-end Top 10 that ended up being a very enjoyable read with plenty of interesting comments. If these sound like your kind of people, please join them, and I know for a fact they won't welcome you with any "gooble gobble, gooble gobble --ONE OF US!" chant.

EARLIEST MOVIE-WATCHING MEMORY: 'My childhood is a haze of age-inappropriate drive-in movies that my father used to drag my older brothers and me to in the mid-70s. He used to pack us into the station wagon and head to the multi-screen Valley Drive-In for a double feature. More often than not, I'd be asleep in the back by the time the second movie came on, but I have fragments of memories from a bunch of different movies. It's hard to say which came first, but I'll go with Walking Tall or perhaps the re-release of Billy Jack.'

LAST DVD YOU BOUGHT: 'I know it's un-American, but I'm trying to break the habit of movie ownership. The last DVD I bought was quite a while ago, but I think it was the Criterion re-issue of Seven Samurai. If the director's cut of Zodiac comes to Blu-ray, that'll be my next purchase.'

IF YOU WERE A TCM GUEST PROGRAMMER, WHAT THREE MOVIES WOULD YOU CHOOSE: 'Wings of Desire, Dr. Strangelove and Raising Arizona. These have nothing in common other than they're among my favorites. Ask me again tomorrow and I might pick a different three. '

FAVORITE MOVIE ENDING: 'A number of endings to Stanley Kubrick films get me, but I'll go with Dr. Strangelove. It gives me a little chill every time. The squabbling inhabitants of the war room (who have learned nothing) are interrupted by Peter Seller's echoing exclamation "Mein F├╝hrer, I can walk!" followed by a cut to nuclear annihilation set to the strains of Vera Lynn's ironically optimistic "We'll Meet Again." Does it get any better than that?'

WHAT MOVIE ARE YOU ASHAMED TO SAY YOU'VE NEVER SEEN, AND WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE: 'For some reason, I've never seen all of Annie Hall which seems weird to me now that I'm saying it out loud. It's not that I was avoiding it, but I've never been one of those who was obsessed with Woody Allen and I've never gotten around to filling in the gaps in his filmography like I have so many other directors.'

PICK ONE OF THE FOLLOWING FOUR MOVIES AND WRITE TWO SENTENCES ABOUT IT:
Date With an Angel
Only Angels Have Wings
Angels in America
Angel Heart -- 'Seeing the Cosby girl naked in Angel Heart was a highlight of my late formative years. Nothing much has changed.'

WHO WOULD YOU AWARD AN HONORARY BEST ACTOR/ACTRESS OSCAR TO: 'He already received an honorary Oscar, but I'd have to say Cary Grant for His Girl Friday or any other of a number of films. He was good in light comedy or drama. He could be the romantic lead or he could be more sinister. He made it look so easy that I think he was taken for granted.'

LAST TIME YOU WERE AT A DRIVE-IN, WHAT DID YOU SEE: 'In 1985 my older brother was in town with his family and for nostalgia value we went to the same drive-in where my father had warped our tiny little formative minds. We saw Tom Hanks in The Man With One Red Shoe. It was awful.'

FILM ERA OR GENRE YOU'RE A LITTLE OBSESSED WITH: 'I'm strangely fascinated by a small batch of pre-WWII French films. Stuff like The Fanny Trilogy (Marius, Fanny and Cesar), The Baker's Wife, Le Million, Pepe le Moko, Grand Illusion, Port of Shadows, La Bete Humaine and Le Jour Se Leve etc. '

FILM CRITIC YOU TRUST THE MOST: 'I try not to read critics until after I've seen a movie, so trust isn't really an issue. I gravitate towards the ones who write well, regardless of whether they share my sensibilities. I like the NY Times crew quite a bit. Dargis and Scott. I have a soft spot for Ebert because of his passion for the classics, plus watching Siskel and Ebert as a kid taught me there could be more to movies than simple entertainment. '

FAVORITE BOOK ON THE SUBJECT OF FILM:
'I think it's out of print, but Danny Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic. It taught me that even populist stuff like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly could be works of art. Plus it was a treasure trove of things I had yet to discover. Sadly, I thumbed through it recently and found I disagreed with Peary's opinions about a third of the time.'

DESCRIBE THE FREQUENCY OF YOUR FILM INTAKE: 'In the last five years I've averaged about 250 movies a year, mostly on DVD. In the last year, I'm seeing fewer movies overall, but more new releases in theaters. '

THREE THINGS YOU'VE LEARNED FROM WATCHING MOVIES:
1) When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.
2) You want to find an outlaw, hire an outlaw. You want to find a Dunkin' Donuts, call a cop.
3) All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Email DVD Panache if you are interested in being featured on Friday Screen Test.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Does anyone actually want to see 'Hancock'?



So the Fourth of July is coming up, and that means a super blockbuster is going to be released, and this year that super blockbuster is...Hancock? I can't imagine a July 4 blockbuster in recent years that had less buzz going for it than Hancock. Sure, the ads are everywhere, but is anyone excited about it? Does anyone actually want to see it?

I became intrigued by Hancock when I caught the end of a preview a month ago -- I had never heard of it, and by the title couldn't tell what it was about. I looked up its wonderfully informative Wikipedia page and found that it actually had an interesting story going for it, and that it was based on a script written in 1996. It was originally titled Tonight, He Comes and at one point Michael Mann was considering directing it before settling on Miami Vice. So over a decade after Vincent Ngo wrote his script, the movie is being released with a few notable changes:

  • The name was dumb-downed to John Hancock, which was again dumb-downed despite the objections of marketing consultants, who felt it was too vague.
  • The original story of linking the fallen Hancock with a troubled 12-year-old was changed to an alcoholic superhero who needs his image rehabilitated.
  • To avoid an R-rating, elements of statutory rape were removed from the movie.
Okay, I can understand the first two, but statutory rape? From what I've heard, Hancock was not completely excised of lewd material: an early review I read describes a scene that shows having sex with Hancock is similar to getting into an arm-wrestling match with Superman. I mention this only because Hancock is a comedy and the jokes in the trailer already seem stale. Pretty much every superhero movie has a gag relating to the hero not knowing the limits of their powers (Spider-man practicing his web slinging, The Hulk's accidental destruction, etc.), now we have a movie based around this joke?

It doesn't help that we have no reason to care about this superhero's downfall. Who is he? What are his powers? Why doesn't he wear a costume. This is the trouble with trying to sell an original superhero in a movie, and it's exacerbated by the fact that cooler, more established superheroes are still fresh in audiences minds with Iron Man and Hulk. Which brings us to the name: Hancock? This tells me nothing about the movie, and even less about the title character. The vague-ness is reflected in the movie's one-sheet: Will Smith's face ... OK, anything else you can give me? Sony could have at least attempted a play on traditional comic book movie one-sheets, which would helped people identify just what this goddamn movie is about, since the title is of no assistance. Even the tag line is a mess: "There are heroes, there are superheroes, and then there's ..." This could easily be taken to mean that Hancock is better than superheroes, because the one-sheet and title tell us nothing either way.

The title, story and one-sheet tell me that Sony believes Will Smith + Summer = $$. Does all of the above matter a bit since Will Smith is in it? We'll see, I just know I'm not going to see it, and that Wall-E will be in its second week of release when Hancock is released. Is it possible it won't even debut at No. 1?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Blood on the basketball

Note: This post is part of the Dads in Media Blog-a-Thon at Strange Culture.

Its name is Hoop Dreams, but very little of it is about basketball. The most memorable scene in the movie is a basketball game, but not once during the scene do you feel like you're watching a basketball game. Still with me? One of the main reasons Hoop Dreams made such an impact in 1994 and continues to be relevant is the fact that the documentary's primary themes and subjects persist. The documentary chronicles two rising basketball players through high school, but what gets in the way of their visions of swishing baskets is what keeps you glued to the screen for 171 minutes. The cameras of Steve James capture many unintended moments of crushing drama, and the most powerful is a father and son relationship that effectively ends with the drop of a sweet 12-foot jump shot.


We meet Arthur "Bo" Agee as he's eagerly discussing his son Arthur's prospects as a basketball player, which have led him to a scholarship from the prestigious St. Joseph High School outside Chicago. Bo speaks in glowing terms, but it's obvious that while he's excited about his son's success, he's also giddy about what it may mean to he and his family. Arthur idolizes NBA superstar Isaiah Thomas, and since basketball scouts have compared his son to the Pistons point guard, perhaps a future NBA career isn't out of the question. Hoop Dreams paints a portrait of Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood as a place where escape is only possible through unlikely feats like a pro sports career, and the local playground is full of kids like Arthur preparing for just such a leap.

Hoop Dreams hits you with its first dramatic punch when we abruptly learn that Bo has left his family and fallen into drugs again. Bo's disastrous behavior coincides with his son facing the reality at St. Joseph that there are plenty of rising basketball stars in the city, and he's just one of them. With only Arthur's mother, Sheila, to support the family, the boy's scholarship at St. Joseph comes into question and he is forced to withdraw and enroll at a public school.


Arthur never speaks about his father's transgressions, but there are several times when his silence tells us everything. When the power is shut off in their apartment, Arthur walks silently through the house with a candle and into his room, knowing the darkness is caused by his cowardly father. And in one of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie, Bo abruptly shows up at the playground while Arthur is shooting hoops. After trying (and failing) to dunk, Bo walks down to the edge of the playground where we see him flash some dollars to a small group of men. James' camera catches this perfectly as we see it through the silent eyes of Arthur, knowing exactly what is transpiring.

The silence grows when Bo returns to the family after some sort of spiritual awakening, escorting the family to church on his first weekend back. Bo's face is full of optimism, but his son appears to see through this act, perhaps curious how it coincided with his improving basketball success at high school. And when Arthur leads his school on an unlikely deep trip into the state playoffs, Bo is right there alongside him with the same fire in his eyes we saw in the beginning. Throughout the playoff run, Bo has the look of a fan and never has the courage to offer his son any real advice or encouragement before the games.


So it's little wonder that Arthur and his mom Sheila give a half laugh in disbelief as Bo tries to give some objective parental opinion as his son weighs a scholarship offer. It's not from Indiana or Illinois, but rather a downtrodden junior college in rural Missouri. Arthur and his mom know it's probably his best (and only) chance at a college career, while Bo is visibly disappointed that his son's late-blooming high school career didn't result in more interest from recruiters. After signing the scholarship offer, James immediately turns our attention to Bo and Arthur on the playground court, surrounded by well-wishing onlookers.

What starts as Bo playing around showing the ball skills he still has, devolves into a heated one-on-one between father and son. Arthur's motivation in the game is clear: showing his father what he achieved in his absence, and how he will never sink to the depths of his elder. Bo's intentions are a little foggier -- by trying his hardest to win, he may be attempting to show Arthur how there's no way out of Cabrini-Green, and that inevitably he'll end up just like his old man. As the game goes on and Arthur continues to get the best of his old man, things get chippier with Bo starting to get more physical and even shove his son as he puts in a lay-up. When Bo disputes the score, Arthur lets his emotions and memories spill out.

"Ain't no con game going on anymore, Dad," he says. "I'm older now."

He's not falling for his father's tricks like he might have at a younger age, he's settling this on the court with one more shot. With Arthur at the top of the key, Bo lays off his son to guard against a drive to the hoop, and like the cold-blooded scorer he is, Arthur takes this challenge by launching a jumper that goes right through. Game over. Arthur lets his game do the talking and leaves the court, while Bo mutters some frustration-filled excuses.

Bo Agee was murdered in 2004.

Friday, June 13, 2008

FRIDAY SCREEN TEST: Joseph Campanella

Joseph Campanella is a relative newbie to Print City, but he's spreading the word that his Cinema Fist should be considered a permanent residence (any other questions should be directed to his site's banner image). The Fist pounds you with the news that you must see Blast of Silence and 2001: A Space Odyssey may be the best movie of all time (also: naked knife fights). A little advice: as you'll read below, the dude has Sicilian roots, so hold off on reciting that Dennis Hopper monologue to him -- he's probably heard it before.

EARLIEST MOVIE-WATCHING MEMORY: 'It's not so much a single memory, but sort of an amalgam of thoughts... I remember long summers when I was around 5 or 6, where I would have marathons all day long with the films Jaws, Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Then there is my fond memory of watching Empire Strikes Back on my family's first surround sound stereo on VHS and the day my brother came home with our first laserdisc (letterboxed!) Goodfellas. I think the first movie I saw in the theatre was The Abyss.'

LAST DVD YOU BOUGHT: 'Touchez Pas Au Grisbi and Seven Notes in Black (The Psychic) Different shit. Same day. Touchez is a brilliant 1950's french crime film that has made me realize, there is more than just Melville. Seven Notes in Black is probably Lucio Fulci's finest picture. A fever dream of self-fulfilling prophecies.'

IF YOU WERE A TCM GUEST PROGRAMMER, WHAT THREE FILMS WOULD YOU CHOOSE TO BEST REPRESENT YOUR TASTES, OR A FAVORITE GENRE OR THEME: 'I've been looking at my computer for about 15 minutes, trying to come up with something, but I can't commit. I think it's a large character flaw on my part, but it does prove my love of film in general. Anyway, I guess, for the sake of anyone reading, I should stop babbling and pick three movies. How about some WESTERNS!!!!!!! If You Live, Shoot! (Giulio Questi, 1967) for its surrealist horror charm. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966) for being possibly the best movie ever made. And The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) for showing me that playing with guns is, in fact, dangerous.'

FAVORITE MOVIE ENDING: 'North by Northwest. The jump cut to her being pulled on the bed. The train going in the tunnel. It doesn't get much better than that. Except for maybe the final shot of Sleepaway Camp.'

WHAT MOVIE ARE YOU ASHAMED TO SAY YOU HAVEN'T SEEN, AND WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE: 'Gone With the Wind. It's just so long! When I watch a movie for the first time, I want to see it all the way through. I think to get through this one, I'd have to take a 2 week vacation just to get through the first act! In a way though, I'm lying to you all because I have seen Once Upon a Time in America more than once in a year. But, c'mon. There's always time for a little Leone, right?'

PICK ONE OF THE FOLLOWING FOUR MOVIES AND WRITE TWO SENTENCES ABOUT IT:
Date With an Angel
Only Angels Have Wings
Angels in America
Angel Heart -- 'I have never seen this movie, but I have talked about watching it with a friend of mine, almost on a monthly basis for three years. I can honestly say, this is a movie that I want to see, but have no interest in actually seeing.'

WHO WOULD YOU AWARD AN HONORARY BEST ACTOR/ACTRESS OSCAR TO: 'Joseph Pilato for his performance in Day of the Dead (George Romero, 1985). I wouldn't say he's better than Daniel Day-Lewis, but he is.'

LAST TIME YOU WERE AT A DRIVE-IN, WHAT DID YOU SEE: 'I have never been to a drive-in in my life. It's pretty horrible for a film fan, I know, but I hear they have shitty sound. Plus, I always thought I would die in a car. So, I stay out of them as much as possible.'

FILM ERA OR GENRE YOU'RE A LITTLE OBSESSED WITH: 'Italian films of all kinds. Spaghetti Westerns. Spaghetti Nighmares. Giallos. Modern Italian Cinema of the 1960's. Neorealist films. White telephone films. Crime films of the 60's and 70's. My parents are from Sicily, so these movies have played a large part in my life. But it's sort of ridiculous because I'm just as obsessed with American, French...etc...crime-horror-western...blah.blah.blah......'

FILM CRITIC YOU TRUST THE MOST:
'Roger Ebert. I've been watching his show since I was a kid. I've been reading his reviews since I could read. I had the honor of interning at the show for half a year, and I must say, he is A. One of the most knowledgeable people, not only on the subject of film, but on everything in general. B. A great champion of independent and foreign cinema. C. One of the nicest, most down to Earth people on Earth.'

FAVORITE BOOK ON THE SUBJECT OF FILM: 'Hitchcock/Truffaut Does that count, because its more of an interview than a book. Also, Film Form by Eisenstein. Film as Art. Painting with Light....'

DESCRIBE THE FREQUENCY OF YOUR FILM INTAKE: 'About 5 or 6 a week. Give or take a few from time to time. Sometimes in the theatre, more often on Digital Versatile Disc. Netflix is a Godsend.'

THREE THINGS YOU'VE LEARNED FROM WATCHING MOVIES:
'1. Violence is cool. 2. Violence is not cool. 3. Our world looks much better in GRAYSCALE.'

Email DVD Panache if you are interested in being featured on Friday Screen Test.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Games of future past


While the economy is slumping, natural disasters are back in vogue and every second of television news is devoted to analyzing what a presidential candidate meant by the word "is," one thing is certain ... we are in a golden epoch of video games. If you don't believe me, go down to BestBuy to try your hands at Wii Mario Kart and see if you can put it down before having the wireless steering wheel forcibly removed from said hands by store personnel. Beyond the carefree fun of Wii, the other two supercharged systems have such vast technological resources that their crosshairs are now firmly aimed at Hollywood. Upcoming games based on Ghostbusters, Aliens and Heat could become more popular than their movie counterparts for today's generation -- they look that good. It still seems like yesterday when a summer blockbuster was promoted with an 8-bit game featuring combative midgets and all the four colors of the rainbow.

I myself have no video game console at this time, but luckily I also don't have the time for one either. Thankfully a certain sibling of mine recently purchased a PS3, opening the possibility for a friendly pounding at his door demanding to help him revel in this acquisition. In the meantime, I can look back on some of my favorite, and most-despised, movie-based video games (excluding NES and Atari games, not only is my memory hazy about those titles, but it's similar to ripping the Lumier Bros ... what's the use?).

Blockbusters:

Terminator 2 (arcade): The game that gave millions of adolescents the confidence that they could defend themselves with a machine gun. Sure, there were shooting games before this one, but the T2 guns actually had kick (like that of a BB gun), and if you played it long enough your hands would start involuntarily shaking like Stallone's in Rocky V. Maybe the first video game to radically alter the plot of the movie to make a storyline even more kick ass -- you start out in the apocalyptic future battling leagues of T-800s, then defeat SkyNet before traveling back in time to blast Robert Patrick. Also known as the only video game to utilize the voice acting talents of Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong.

Jurassic Park (Genesis):
Doesn't play as well nowadays, but during the heyday of velociraptor popularity, this is what you played when you had dreams of biting the heads of scientists. Yes, in this Jurassic Park port you can play the role of Sam Neill or a raptor. The game actually made this a question: do you want to play as Sam Neill or the most ferocious hunter planet Earth has ever known?

Robocop vs. Terminator (Genesis):
Not exactly based on a movie, but a movie should have been based on this game. For reasons never fully explained, Terminators invade Detroit and it's up to former Lt. Murphy to shoot them (and many other people). Like the game, the highlight of the movie would be Robocop attaching ED-209's enormous gun to his arm and mowing down anything that moves. The linked Wikipedia entry says a movie was proposed in 1995, but a director couldn't be found. Hey, here's a suggestion: James Cameron.

Die Hard Trilogy (Playstation): Only one of the best game ideas ever, covering all three Die Hard movies, with each movie acting as its own unique game. Die Hard was a Lara Croft-like adventure game where you rescued hostages, Die Hard 2 was a shoot-em-up similar to the T2 game, and Die Hard with a Vengeance was a driving game where you defused bombs around New York City by ramming them with a car and making them explode. The first one was a little weak, but the latter two were endlessly entertaining with clever movie tie-ins.

The Addams Family Pinball: I'm cheating a little here, but this really is one of the very best uses of a movie license, as it's universally regarded as one of the top three pinball games of all time. Earlier I alluded to spending hundreds of dollars on this machine, and I've never regretted any of the $0.50 expenditures. When it's well-maintained (a rarity these days), this machine is flawless entertainment with tons of dialog from the movie and lots of gags, like when Thing takes a turn at flipping the ball.

Bombs:
Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (Arcade): And in case you forgot, Moonwalker was indeed a movie. This was very similar to the other beat-em-up arcade games of the early 90s, with one special twist: instead of beating up or shooting your enemies, you instead dance them to death. Or something. I just remember there were buttons for "dance" and "moonwalk," the latter making every enemy onscreen do a choreographed dance with your Jacko character, resulting in their death. It's also possible to find Bubbles the Monkey, who in turn transforms Michael into a powerful robot.

Tron (arcade):
While not necessarily a terrible game, it's in this list because of the high bar set by Tron the movie. If you had just seen the movie, and heard there was a new video game based on it, you may have had visions of being "in" the game like one Bruce Boxleitner -- but instead you have a game just like all the other crappy 1982 games. And since the movie features an awesome arcade game, it falls into the same trap as The Last Starfighter: why can't we have the game that's in the movie? I'm still asking this question with the above referenced movie games now in development, can we please have a kick-ass Last Starfighter game?

Gremlins 2:
There would seem to be a lot of potential for a Gremlins 2 game, what with all the crazy gremlin characters and their wacky hijinks. Unfortunately, what we get is Gizmo wielding a pencil and throwing tomatoes at gremlins, making it like most of the sidescrolling snoozer games of the time.

Friday the 13th (Nintendo): The only good thing about this game was the title screen, where a knife shoots through a hockey mask. From there you're asked to throw rocks at zombies (remember all those zombies in the movie? And how rocks were so effective at killing them?) There's also the impossible tasks of trekking across Crystal Lake, walking around the camp and killing Jason. Pretty much everything in this game was impossible, including being entertained by it.

The Goonies: I don't remember much about this game except that you used a yo-yo as a weapon against rats. A yo-yo? Rats? What about all of Data's gadgets? Nope, in the 8-bit age that would have been too much to ask, so you got a yo-yo and rats.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

DVD Notes 6/8


Before the news, allow me to tip my chair and brag about a recent find: anyone can find bargain basement HD-DVD prices these days (although even Amazon is reluctant to drop them too far), but today was a particularly shining example. Are you familiar with a store called Hastings? Medium-sized chain of big media stores that sell everything and also rent DVDs. I normally stay away because of their insanely high prices and the general feeling that you've just entered a flea market. But something drew me in today, and I was handsomely rewarded. Their modest remaining stock of HD-DVDs had been moved to a $9.99 clearance rack, along with a Buy 2, Get 1 for $0.01! sign. For a total of $21.19 I walked away with the following used HD-DVDs: Black Snake Moan (sticker: $19.99), King Kong (sticker: $13.99) and Part II of Sopranos season 6 (sticker: $74.99!!!). That's the kind of store Hastings is, at one point they were selling a used Sopranos set for $74.99. Keep in mind this set still goes for $84.99 on Amazon, with used copies starting at $40. Part of me wants to go back and buy their remaining two Sopranos HD sets just to sell, but the remnants of my moral compass is pleading against it. Thank you, now some news...

-- Deep Discount's big semi-annual 20% off sale is on till June 22. This is the biggest sale anywhere, and I've heard of people saving up to spend over $1,000 on the sale, as there is pretty much no limit on what you can save. The 20% off is significant because DeepDiscount's prices often rival Amazon. You'll never find Criterions at a lower price: Blast of Silence or The 400 Blows for $16, Ace in the Hole or Army of Shadows for $20, even the big Seven Samurai set for $22! The sale also applies to HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, meaning quite a few HD-DVDs for $9 or lower. You have to enter a code to get the discount, the one I use is DVDTALK. A tip on DeepDiscount: don't go for the free shipping, it takes ages and is often unreliable. Also, you might want to act fast on what you want because some titles go out of stock quickly during the sale -- I'm waiting for more funds to arrive from my Nigerian banker, but I've already seen more than a few titles I was eyeing go under.

-- Another fun sale is Barnes & Noble's annual Buy 2 Get 1 Free event. This is a tricky sale since B&E charges full price for all their DVDs, so it's up to you to find ways to actually save money, but it can be done. Since Barnes & Noble actually has a very good selection (with many titles yo won't find at BestBuy), I look for DVDs that rarely go on sale even at Amazon, like Criterions and television season sets. I'm thinking about picking up the Criterions of Two-Lane Blacktop, Playtime and Pierrot Le Fou, which will run me about $72 -- or slightly less than the DeepDiscount prices with shipping added on. Even though the savings aren't that dramatic compared to online retailers, I still get a nerdy thrill from seeing a "-$39.99" on my receipt.

-- Best news of the year: A two-disc collector's edition of The Night of the Hunter is coming in September! About freaking time, since the only available DVD of this classic is in full screen (1.66:1 is its original aspect ratio) and has zero extras. No word yet on what the extras will be, though DVD Savant has speculated in the past that behind-the-scenes footage exists, and I'm sure a critic or two would gladly lend a commentary track.

-- For anyone who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons in the 80s, like me you probably have fond memories of The Real Ghostbusters. Fans of the show have been clamoring for years for an actual DVD release, not just a random handful of episodes. So in the tradition of asking for a bicycle for Christmas and instead receiving a spot in the Tour de France, the series will reportedly be released in its entirety in one big set later this year by Time-Life. We're talking over 100 episodes across 26 discs! I don't think I would pay over $100 for this cartoon, and I know I wouldn't want every single episode ... be careful what you wish for, I guess.

Friday, June 06, 2008

FRIDAY SCREEN TEST: David Hudson

If you've ever spent any time at GreenCine Daily, then you know the name is misleading: it should be titled GreenCine 24/7 or GreenCine Perpetua if you want to sound smarter. The site, "joined at the hip" with GreenCine, is a constantly-updated snapshot of the movie world and the words that describe it. The ringleader is Berlin-based David Hudson, who keeps a hundred fingers on the pulse of the net's film circles and reports his findings back to GreenCine Daily. Thanks to David, every day you have an endless gateway to film information and writings, and you never doubt that he's leading you in the right direction.

EARLIEST MOVIE-WATCHING MEMORY: 'I'm guessing it'd be Mary Poppins. I don't know if I saw it during its initial run (I would have been five years old when it was released in August 1964), but I do remember that it was an event. I had some sort of tiny plastic model of Mary Poppins, umbrella aloft, that would rise and fall when you put it in a glass of water, thanks to some fizzy stuff in there. What I do remember is this: A teacher mentioned in class (kindergarten, maybe?; then again, movies would run forever back then) that the kids had to run up the stairs to the bank (or *down* the stairs *from* the bank?; hey, it's been decades) over and over again before they got it right. And it was a revelation to me, my first inkling of what it took to make a movie. They (whoever "they" were) don't just point a camera, shoot and move on. Evidently, this whole movie-making thing was hard work.'

LAST DVD YOU BOUGHT: 'Barry Lyndon. You know this strategy of sticking pick-me-ups by the cash register so that as shopaholics stand in line, they're tempted to buy on impulse? It works. There I was, in a bookstore, mind you, movies far from my mind, and there was Barry Lyndon, a Kubrick I didn't own yet, for a mere 6 euros. Snapped it up.'

IF YOU WERE A TCM GUEST PROGRAMMER, WHAT THREE MOVIES WOULD YOU CHOOSE TO BEST REPRESENT YOUR TASTES, OR A FAVORITE GENRE OR THEME: 'To really do this right, could I cheat a little? I'd prefer to go for either two or four movies rather than three. The idea would be to present a sampling of Fritz Lang in Germany and then an American Lang. If I could overstay my welcome and program four films, I'd love to present Metropolis and M; and then, The Woman in the Window and The Big Heat.'

FAVORITE GROSS-OUT MOMENT: 'The scene that immediately leaps to mind is clearly the one I need to tell you about, but it may take a little explaining. Not only because it isn't particularly gross but also because it had an impact in 1978 that it simply would not have now. What sets An Unmarried Woman in motion is the moment that Martin (Michael Murphy) breaks down and confesses to Erica (Jill Clayburgh), his wife, that he's having an affair. She is, in short, stunned. In a few moments, she's alone, leaning against a post, I believe - and vomits. So the friend I was with and I both very much liked the film - but he objected ferociously to Mazursky actually showing us the upchuck. I protested and we had an excellent argument. These days, though, characters barf at the drop of a hat - it's a screenwriter's crutch - so the *act* of vomiting as a physical expression of emotional upheaval no longer feels like a freshly revealed truth. And as for the sight of vomit itself; well, after Wild at Heart and Cronenberg's The Fly, not to mention Monty Python's Meaning of Life, An Unmarried Woman is pretty tame stuff - but still a minor landmark.'

WHAT MOVIE ARE YOU ASHAMED TO SAY YOU HAVEN'T SEEN, AND WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE: 'There are dozens, if not hundreds. Seriously. I'll often meet people and realize that there's a misconception floating around among some Daily readers that I'm able (never mind willing) to see most if not all of the films that get mentioned on the blog. Or that, if GreenCine has the film in stock, I've seen it. No, the Daily and a few duties at the main site constitute more than a full-time job, so I'm not really at any more of an advantage, free time-wise, than anyone else. But my favorite aspect of this job is the learning. Reading, filtering, sorting and posting, I put not just wanna-see but must-see films on my mental to-get-around-to list every day. No exaggeration. Films I suddenly realize I *ought* to feel ashamed for not having seen yet. Thing is, though, I'm not so much ashamed as I am anxious - not enough hours in a day, days in a week, years in a life. High on my list right now would be *any* film by Pedro Costa. I haven't seen a single one yet.'

PICK ONE OF THE FOLLOWING FOUR MOVIES AND WRITE TWO SENTENCES ABOUT IT:
The Big Sleep -- 'The Big Sleep is the classic example of a film that flies in the face of the old adage that a terrifically entertaining, star-studded studio picture must have an airtight narrative. Or make any sense at all, really.'
The Big Red One
The Big Country
The Big Bus.

FAVORITE KIND OF MOVIE TO REVIEW: 'Premieres. I just enjoy the occasional opportunity to get word out early on a film, whether that word's positive or negative. Of course, it's not long before that early word is drowned out by louder, better positioned voices, but it's fun while it lasts.'

LAST TIME YOU WERE AT A DRIVE-IN, WHAT DID YOU SEE: 'It'd be well over 30 years, the whole family piled into the car for a double feature: Patton and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My sister, who would have been pretty young, drifted off to sleep at some point during Patton; my father joined her not long into Butch Cassidy. But my mom and I had a blast, giggling away at every "Who *are* those guys?"'

FILM ERA OR GENRE YOU'RE A LITTLE OBSESSED WITH: 'Well, yes. I've had a thing for early to mid-20th century Modernism pretty much my whole life. When I was an English major, that was my area of emphasis; art, architecture, you name it, that's the period I'm drawn to. So even though it was Fassbinder and Herzog that got me interested in Germany in the first place, it wasn't long before I was tracking down German Expressionist films to see and books about them to read.'

LAST TIME YOU VEHEMENTLY DISAGREED WITH SOMEONE OVER FILM: 'Minus the vehemence, it happens all the time. I'm trying to think... I don't know, maybe I'm too damn civil. The only thing that comes to mind at the moment is the disappointment I felt when a friend whose opinions I regard highly mentioned that he was no fan of Rohmer. He didn't change my mind and I certainly wasn't angry - just a little saddened, I guess, to learn that this is one area of cinephilia we aren't going to be sharing.'

FAVORITE BOOK ON THE SUBJECT OF FILM: 'There are too many to choose from, but one I enjoy dipping into again and again is Geoffrey O'Brien's The Phantom Empire.'

DESCRIBE THE FREQUENCY OF YOUR FILM INTAKE: 'Very eclectic. Moviegoing happens in spurts for me. I don't plan it that way. Seems I'll be caught up in work and at some point realize that there's a whole batch of films about to leave town, and if I'm going to catch them, I'll have to catch them all at once. So I'll see a film a night for several nights in a row; and that might be it for another week or two or even more. DVDs are another story, but there's no pattern there, either. A lot of it simply has to do with the seasonal cycle of news to be followed; during Cannes, for example, when I'm trying to follow coverage of so many films at once while keeping up with the usual flow of news, I probably won't be seeing any movies myself - just pointing to people who are watching several a day. Same goes for the end of the year (all those lists to track!); but then, comes the Berlinale, and it's my turn to binge.'

THREE THINGS YOU'VE LEARNED FROM WATCHING MOVIES: 'I'm going to have to be a little cryptic - well, no, actually very cryptic - about the biggest instance in my own life of learning something from a movie. I walked into the film in a state of torment, not even realizing that what was tearing me up was the need to make a decision. When I walked out, I realized that I was facing a choice that hadn't been clear to me before. And I knew damn well which way I'd have to decide. And, sorry, but I'll have to leave it at that. I will say, though, that, as is often the case is such situations, the movie wasn't even a particularly good one!

'The other two things: Movies make you want to see more movies - but, because of the collaborative nature of their making, often in very interesting ways. If I read a book and I like it, or I'm moved or intrigued by it, I'll probably go looking for another book by the same author. Same with a painting and its artist. With movies, it might be more movies by the same director I'll want to seek out, but it might just as well be an actor's work I'll want to see more of, or a cinematographer's. Or maybe it's more the look and feel of that movie's genre or origin - noir, Iran, what have you - I'll want to seek out and sample again.

'The other thing's related: Just as movies arouse a hunger for more movies, they also arouse a hunger for more real living. They make you want to get out and do things - stay out late, eat, drink, fall in love, see new places, meet new people - even the downers. In a way, these last two impulses - see more movies; live more fully - are contradictory. Again, the old anxiety: not enough hours in a day, days in a week, years in a life.'

Email DVD Panache if you are interested in being featured on Friday Screen Test.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Best commercial of 2008?


I love this new commercial for M&M's Dark, transforming the Addams Family into creatures that resemble Humpty Dumpty more than the candy they're selling. I want to say M&M Gomez is my favorite, but check out Pugsly and Uncle Fester! I can't find it on YouTube, but the full version gives us an M&M Cousin It. I may like this commercial a little too much, maybe it has to do with the hundreds of dollars I spent on Addams Family Pinball.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Little girls lost


In a list of Best Horror Sequels, there should be a special place reserved for The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Engrossing and superbly creepy, Curse is a sequel in name only, as RKO rejected producer Val Lewton's name of Amy and Her Friend in favor of a title that would draw in fans of Lewton's most popular work, Cat People. Looking at advertising of the film, it's hilarious to see how fraudulent it was sold, promising viewers "the beast women stalks the night anew." Indeed the only cat in the movie is a small playful one in a tree (onscreen for probably 3 seconds), and the only stalking done is by Elizabeth Russell's strange character, usually on dark staircases with her scalding glare attached. What it lacks in feline terror, Curse is filled with chilling mystery, youthful fantasy and a sad air of loneliness.

The main character is Amy, who is celebrating her sixth birthday in Tarry Town, N.Y. -- Irving's setting for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. None of Amy's friends attended her party because she put the invitations in a hollow tree she once believed to be a magic mailbox. Amy's head is full of such imaginary thoughts and friends, much to the frustration of her parents, so they take some solace in the fact that Amy's birthday wish is to "be a good girl." Amy's curiosity takes her to an old dark house in the neighborhood, where a voice beckons her to come closer and then tosses her a handkerchief tied to a ring. The family servant Edward wonders if it might be a wishing ring, like he used to have in his native Jamaica, and Amy uses the ring to wish for a friend.


Amy's wish is granted, awakening the spirit of her father's first wife Irena (Simone Simon, from Cat People), who teaches the child songs and generally keeps her amused. In other developments, Amy finds the dark house where she found the ring to be home to a reclusive old lady and a younger woman who claims to be her daughter. This hardly sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but my wife found the movie so creepy that she refused to watch the final five minutes (true to Lewton form, these final few minutes contain the most scares). Like other Lewton horrors, the chills come not from the story but rather the movie's soul of creeping unease and startlingly effective photography.

Whereas other Lewton productions stick to shadowy cities (The 7th Victim, Cat People, The Body Snatcher) or isolated extremes (Ghost Ship, the desert town of The Leopard Man, the islands of I Walked With a Zombie and Isle of the Dead), Curse is set in an idyllic small town with its own unique potential for scary sights. The trademark set piece of Curse is Amy's backyard, her imagination's blank canvas where light and weather can change dramatically and a ghostly friendship is born. It's also a haven for finely sculpted shadows playing against stark white snow, with an endless barrier of branches and trunks to protect Amy from whatever lies beyond her house.


All the real scares happen next door where Amy meets Mrs. Farren, the woman who dropped the ring out of the window to her. Welcoming a rare guest, Mrs. Farren seizes the opportunity to give Amy an unnerving telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in perhaps the movie's creepiest moment. If you only know Sleepy Hollow from the Disney version, then you're in for a treat. A recurring subplot is Mrs. Farren's daughter Barbara, who the woman calls an impostor, saying her real daughter died at age six. Amy's role in this confusion is never explained, but there must be some connection since the girl has just turned six.

My favorite character in Curse is actually Amy's mother, Alice, who silently accepts the fact that her husband's previous wife is still in his thoughts and slowly forging a relationship with her daughter, whether real or imagined. The fact that a ghost is closer to Alice's daughter (and possibly her husband) is the movie's saddest element, and means that almost every female character has some sort of identity conflict. The one woman in Curse who isn't included in that theme is Amy's teacher, Miss Callahan, who has her own strange subplot. Miss Callahan is introduced at a parent-teacher conference talking about Amy's troubles and the next time we see her is riding her bicycle past Amy's house. Amy asks if Miss Callahan is there to see her mother, which she denies but decides anyway to stop in. This seems to be the first time Miss Callahan and Alice have met on friendly terms, with Alice giving her a tour of their house, but Miss Callahan is still at their house that night playing cards with Amy's parents. She then celebrates Christmas with the family, and at least one shot has Miss Callahan gazing at Alice with eyes that suggest something more than friendship.


Lewton's films have often been described as having lesbian overtones (he grew up with his aunt, the notoriously flamboyant Alla Nazimova), and Alice's suddenly close relationship with Miss Callahan could be read this way, especially when you factor in Alice's obvious loneliness. But like the other themes and subplots in Curse, there is little opportunity to explore them in its 70 minute running time. The 7th Victim had a story much too large for its abbreviated length, but Curse feels only a tad shorter than it needs to be, and it makes for a brisk pace despite the fact that the characters always take their sweet time in everything they do. While it's true that Amy is never in any actual danger, it's also undeniable that Curse keeps you on the edge, never sure where the young girl's odd imagination will take you next.