Saturday, March 26, 2005

Grimm Future

After his Don Quixote adaptation fell apart due to circumstances out of his control, director Terry Gilliam dove right into another project. It's a major studio script that had been bouncing around called The Brothers Grimm, by a screenwriter named Ehren Krueger, best known for his American adaptation of The Ring.

I'm a huge fan of Terry Gilliam's films. He hasn't made a movie I don't like, and several of his works, like Brazil or Twelve Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas rank among my favorites. So I'm excited any time he has something new coming out. But most Gilliam fans I've spoken to seem lukewarm on this idea. They're either more excited about Tideland, another upcoming Gilliam film shooting now in Canada, or still sour about the failure of his Don Quixote project to get off the ground.

I guess it's because the film stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. They're not exactly the darlings of the indie hipster film dork set that typically salivates over a new Terry Gilliam film. Or it could be because the film is so mainstream. It's written by the guy who did The Ring and its sequel (and also the reprehensible third Scream movie). It's starring movie star pretty boys. And it's plot isn't exactly the twisted chaos of 12 Monkeys. Two charlatans ride around Medieval England pretending to kill imaginary monsters. But when they stumble upon a town where real children are disappearing, they must actually solve a supernatural puzzle.

Yeah, it ain't Time Bandits. In fact, it's the exact same story as Galaxy Quest, which itself repeated the same story from Three Amigos. Which probably ripped off some other film, but my knowledge of middle-of-the-road PG comedies only goes back so far.

I'm still eagerly looking forward to the movie. Gilliam has never once disappointed me, and I see no reason why he's lose his vivid imagination or splendid eye for fantastical imagery just because he's taking on a mainstream studio production.

Anyway, today on Ain't It Cool News, I found this link. It's an interview with the Production Designer for Brothers Grimm, Guy Dyas reposted on the Gilliam fan site Dreams. And it includes some incredible early designs and sketches by Dyas and Gilliam himself (who started as the animator and cartoonist for Monty Python...duh...)

That's a Gilliam original sketch for a character named The Woodsman. Kind of an unfortunate name for a fairy tale character, considering the nature of the Kevin Bacon film The Woodsman from late last year (he was a pedophile). But, still, a very cool looking design. I just want to see more movies with characters that look like that. Considering the state of film technology, there's surprisingly little real visual imagination in film today. I'm tired of CGI used only to make bigger and more fully realized explosions...

This was my favorite image from the whole article. You should probably click on it to biggify, so you can see the detail of what I'm talking about. This is a sketch for a set of a massive dungeon the Matt n' Heath will visit during their mystical quest. I so damn sold on this movie. A Terry Gilliam movie set in the Middle Ages with troll-like monsters and dungeons? Akiva Goldsman could have written this thing and I'd want to go see it!

Akiva Goldsman? The worst working screenwriter today? He scripted Batman and Robin, people, and then a few years later, you gave him an Oscar. For A Beautiful Mind, the dippiest, most shallow film about mental illness in a generation.

But that's a rant for another column.

Here's a Dyas design for a village that plays a major role in the film.

Oh, man, this movie needs to come out right now! Can I download it somewhere or something, or possibly upload it directly into my brain? When will Sony design a handheld for that! Then maybe I'll shell out my $250.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Oldboy Opens

Just a reminder: if you live in a major metropolitan area, you probably have a theater not terribly far away from you showing Oldboy. It's the best movie I've seen in a long while. Yeah, it's in Korean with subtitles, and yes, it's violent and disturbing. But sometimes violent and disturbing films are good for you, like broccoli or cardiovascular exercize routines.

Roger Ebert gives the film four stars in his well-written review today. But I'm not linking it because you shouldn't read it if you haven't seen the movie. You shouldn't know anything at all about this movie before seeing it, and his plot summary walks you through at least the first 20 minutes. Nuts to that!

One thing I've noticed as I go back through the Laser Blazer DVD collection...I enjoy not knowing anything about a movie before I watch it. I'm so used to having a fairly complete idea of the plot of a film now, from watching trailers and reading sites like Aint It Cool News, it's refreshing to just let a director's work wash over me, to discover it as it unfolds.

So go see Oldboy. That's all I'll say on the subject.

Pickup on South Street

Every film nerd has gaps in his knowledge. Oh, some may deny it, but there's just no way you can see all the movies there are in the world. Even if you devoted yourself to the task of watching 3 movies a day, every day, for several years, you couldn't possibly see the work of all the Italian Neo-Realists, French New-Wavers and Chinese Fifth Generationists. Plus, there's all those Coffin Joe horror films.

And what about Abbas Kiarostami? You gonna skip right over him? Actually, you probably should, because he's overrated. But that's a review for another day.

This is supposed to be about Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street. My point was that, despite the massive amount of love he now gets among cineastes, I haven't really seen many Fuller films. I saw Shock Corridor and enjoyed it back in college, but like a good deal of incidents from my UCLA years, I don't remember it terribly well. And that was it until two days ago, when I rented and very much enjoyed Pickup on South Street, Fuller's 1953 melodrama about a shifty pickpocket and the desperate girl who takes a chance on him.

That's Richard Widmark as the pickpocket, one of those actors that pops up in literally dozens of old, classic movies yet doesn't have a loyal, intense following among a lot of contemporary fans. In addition to this film, he's in Night and the City, Panic in the Streets (both recent DVD releases), Warlock, Judgement in Nuremberg, Madigan and countless others.

He's terrific as Skip McCoy, a grifter working the New York subway system following release from his third trip to prison. Skip filches the wallet of the attractive Candy (Jean Peters, who 4 years hence became Mrs. Howard Hughes) on the subway, not knowing it contains a microfilm detailing government secrets. Even Candy doesn't know what she's carrying - it's a package she's taking somewhere for her boyfriend, a Commie spy played by Richard Kiley.

So, Skip winds up with government secrets, which he hides along with all his other loot in a secret spot in his flophouse on the docks. The FBI wants it back, Candy wants it back (the commies beat her up), and all McCoy wants it to get paid. I mean, this is a fantastic set-up. Fuller just plays these three sides off one another, wringing all that he can out of their various double-crosses and conflicts.

Of course, Skip and Candy fall in love during the course of their various wranglings. And they all encounter a loopy professional snitch played by Thelma Ritter. Ritter was nominated for an Oscar for her work in the film, but I found her performance the least appealing part of the film. It's a hammy, old-fashioned kind of role. Her Mo is a ludicrous, chatty "type" rather than a character. Mo dreams of an expensive funeral in a classy cemetary, and saves up all her stool pigeon money working towards it. It's a silly subplot, but Fuller manages to pay it off in the most satisfying way possible. I suspect it's his masterful writing and direction that people remembered, more than the actual Ritter performance.

It's clear why so many contemporary directors cite Fuller as inspiring. He makes tight, bold, visually striking movies. What I like most about them is his directness. He's not Welles, filling a film with trick photography and elaborate, graceful cinematography. He's telling a story and goes about telling it efficiently and with maximum tension (he did begin his career as a copy boy at a newspaper). Take the opening sequence, in which Skip purloins Candy's wallet. There's not a single wasted moment in the scene. We see the subways doors open, we see people push up against each other (it's congested on the train, leaving no wiggle room), we see the car rock to life as begin down the track, we see Skip dart his eyes around looking for a target, we see Candy, we see Skip, we see Skip take a newspaper and hold it between himself and Candy, he reaches his hand in her purse, he puts the newspaper on top of the purse and he gets off at the next stop.

That's it. It's lean storytelling, simple and direct, which has become rare. Filmmaking has become something of an exercize for some directors, a challenge about who can come up with the best angle on a scene, who can devise the best trick or gimmick, who can devise the most realistic special effect. Even contemporary movies I like, such as Oldboy, depend largely on flourish, on purposefully testing the limits of cinema to see what can be done and how. But films like Pickup on South Street don't want to show off, don't want to give you some nifty effect to talk about after the movie's over. They want to tell a story in a matter-of-fact way. Fuller had something to say, about the lives of common criminals, about people on the fringes of society, and he said it simply.

It's a striking and very entertaining film that's not a noir, despite half of the Internet reviews I've read labeling it as such. It does contain something of an anti-hero I suppose (although I'd cite Candy as the protagonist, and she's a hero-hero), but he's not tortured by the past. It's much less able style than the great noirs, as I said before focusing much more on character, plot and dialogue than mood. And, most importantly, it has a freaking happy ending. Come on, people!

It's clearly a melodrama, an emotional story concerning several different people and their heated conflits and interrelations. And it's a very good one, at that.

The Decemberists at the Fonda Music Box Theater, 3-24-05

Upon first arriving at the show last night, with my friends Jason and Stacy in tow, I noticed a mid-20's girl with a shirt that queried "Does your vorpal blade go snicker-snack?"

That's a cool reference to the Lewis Carroll poem "Jabberwocky." It took me a second to recognize it (I knew there was no such thing as a vorpal blade, so it had to be a famous quote...I was about halfway through opening act Okkervil River when it finally dawned on me), but I think that says something about the Decemberists.

Like Carroll's writing, they're laid back, easy to enjoy and approachable. This is not the fringe rock of Fly Pan Am or Tom Waits, that (I'm told) reward multiple listens but sound at first like feedback recorded on a cassette tape through a wet towel. Also like Carroll's writing, they don't appeal to every sensibility, relying on a love of history, a keen eye for allusion and most of all a penchant for imaginative flights of fancy.

Also, it's just nice to a see a cute girl who reads. In LA, that's about as common as a left-hand turn signal (which is, you know, not at all common).

But anyway, back to the band. The website refers to them as "five wan vagabonds," but I counted six Decemberists on stage last night. That's because they recently lost the services of the multi-talented Rachel Blumberg, who provided vocals and assorted instrumentals for the band since their inception. To make up for the loss of Blumberg, who left to work with another band called Norfolk and Western, the Portland group added two new members - drummer and singer/violinist Petra Hayden.

You 90's music fans may remember the delightful Ms. Hayden as a member of Weezer offshoot The Rentals, who burst on to the scene with smash alt-rock hit "Friends of P" before disappearing completely. Well, I have no idea where Hayden's been for the past decade, but she's a terrific performer. The Decemberists called on her for violin accompaniment on most of their songs as well as falsetto vocal backup, and she carried both off swimmingly. She sang lead on the Kate Bush cover, "Wuthering Heights," that proved one of the evening's most surprising selections, and an audience favorite.

But this was a show full of highlights. The Decemberists, despite only having been a band for a few years, have a staggering catalog of music to draw from. The just-released "Picaresque," full of warmly engaging pop melodies, is their third full-length album. The previous two, "Castaways and Cutouts" and "Her Majesty" both include a number of wonderful ballads and offbeat rock songs, some of which made it into the show. Plus, there's the concept EP "The Tain," which relates an old Celtic myth through the most driving hard-rock songwriter Colin Meloy has composed thus far. The entire 25 minute "The Tain" suite was performed as the show's encore.

Meloy's songs are unique in the rock canon. They're historical, dense, narrative and filled with esoteric and often obscure allusions and vocabulary. Even the subject matter speaks to the atypical nature of these rock and roll songs; "Leslie Ann Levine" tells a ghost story about an abandoned child whose mother died giving birth, "We Both Go Down Together" speaks of an aristocrat and a labor camp refugee who run off together, "The Mariner's Revenge Song" is a 10 minute sea shanty about two men stuck inside the belly of a whale. And yet these songs work because of Meloy's studious attention of the craft of pop songwriting.

He's seemingly incapable of writing a song without a terrific hook. One is reminded of the New Pornographers, who similarly fill entire albums with catchy, hook-filled tunes. However, their music lacks the weight, drama and intensity of the Decemberists music.

The bank kickstarted the evening with the first track off "Picaresque," the soaring story of a child monarch, "Infanta." It's one of the album's jumpiest, bounciest, most fun tracks, and along with the first single off the new record, the satirical "16 Military Wives," and "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" were among the most danceable, energetic of the show's moments. But the real highlight, to my mind, was the stirring performance of "Engine Driver," off of "Picaresque." This newer song exemplifies everything great about the band. It tells an intricate, detailed story told in a fluid, engaging manner that builds to an emotional and musical crescendo.

Meloy gets into these songs as he's performing them. They're not the obscure baroque gimmicry of a band like Ween. Though massively talented songwriters themselves, Ween approaches genre as a challenge - can we write the perfect blank? But Meloy focuses only on his specific genres and interests, because that's apparently what matters to him in terms of storytelling. I couldn't tell you why so many Decemberists songs deal with going off to war (particularly World War I), young women being lost at sea or love torn apart by battle. I can only say that it works spectacularly well.

The show was longer than I expected, culminating as I said with the performance of the entire "Tain" EP as an encore (along with Colin soloing on "Red Right Ankle" from "Her Majesty"). But I was never restless, as I sometimes get during long concerts. A terrific show.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The John Gibson Complete Idiocy Watch: Week 2

I just wrote about John Gibson, the biggest moron at Fox News, last week. That's right, he's the biggest moron at Fox News. This is a station where both Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly have their own shows. Where Brit Hume is the voice of reason and experience. This is the network that has Michelle Malkin on all the time to promote her book on why we ought to lock up all the Japs. So, to say John Gibson far outdoes all of his peers and colleagues in terms of complete object lunacy really says something. It's kind of enviable, stupidity on this level. Oh, to be blissfully ignorant!

So, anyway, I think this may have to become a regular column. The John Gibson Complete Idiocy Watch.

Here's his column today (thanks to Atrios for the link, although I'll just be checking this website on my own in the future...). It's about (what else?) the case of Terri Schiavo. Guess what John thinks? Give up? That the government has no right to intervene in the intimate affairs of a married couple? NOPE!

Just to burnish my reputation as a bomb thrower, I think Jeb Bush should give serious thought to storming the Bastille.

By that I mean he should think about telling his cops to go over to Terri Schiavo's hospice, go inside, put her on a gurney and load her into an ambulance. They could take her to a hospital, revive her, and reattach her feeding tube.

Isn't cute that John thinks he has the reputation of "a bomb thrower." That implies someone knowing saying something outrageous in order to start an argument. I think that's probably the nicest spin you could possibly put on Gibson...that he's aware of the lunacy of what he says, and does it just to stir up trouble and spark debate.

I think the truth is more like: John knows he wants to agree with what Republicans do, but has no critical thinking skills whatsoever. So he winds up proposing tortured, nonsensical arguments, trying to jump on the right-wing bandwagon but lacking the (and I never thought I'd type this...) wit of Rush or Hannity.

And as for his argument itself? Ugh. He wants the Governor of Florida to go into a hospice, kidnap a woman, bring her to a different hospital and thrust a tube back into her throat in order to prolong her comatose, vegetative state indefinitely while more politicians bicker about judges overstepping their authority. Monstrous. Is this what we've come to as a nation? We're ready to turn over decisions about our individual lives and deaths to Congresspeople?

Have you ever watched C-SPAN? Have you ever actually read something written by a Congressman? They're not smart people on the whole. I know we think a political career takes intelligence, education and wisdom but it really only takes money, connections and charisma. I don't want some guy who has a nice complexion and a couple million in the bank deciding whether or not my feeding tube gets removed or left in! Come on! Think!!!!!

For instance, Michael Schiavo and Terri Schiavo are still married, under the law. Anybody else in the world notes with interest that Michael Schiavo has a new love interest and has been engaged in living long enough that he has two children by her.

Here, John tries to make one argument and winds up disproving his entire thesis. Here's his point: Because it has been so long since Terri and Michael were able to carry on a relationship, he shouldn't have any say about whether she lives in her present state or dies peacefully.

But think about that for a second...why has it been so long since Terri and Michael had a spousal relationship? Why aren't they functionally married any more? Oh, yeah, because she's been fucking unconscious for 15 years. Because she's brain dead. She's not coming back. She's not having conversations with anyone (despite the senseless lies of her other family members). She's dead, okay, her remains are just showing signs of life because we've kept them going with equipment.

Better living through technology, no?

So, once again, John proves himself incapable of abstract thought. In trying to argue (not very well) that Michael Schiavo doesn't deserve a say in what happens to his wife, he winds up making the case that there's no reason to keep this woman alive and hooked up to machines.

But for me the big one is the judicial tendency to say, as long as the law and the process has been followed correctly and justly, doesn't matter if she lives or dies.

Strikes me that that's adherence to law to a fault.

So, he's saying that, to theoretically save the life of a brain dead woman, it's okay to break the law. What if everyone acted that way all the time, John? Would this be fair: "Well, a homeless guy near my building is going hungry, and he'll die of starvation soon, so I'm going to rob a convenience store to get him some food and money?" Or: "I need an operation and I don't ave insurance, so I'll die unless I get a couple thousand dollars...I guess I'll mug John Gibson." Or what about this one..."The war in Iraq is wrong and we're senselessly bombing Arab children, so in order to save their lives, I'm going to have to assassinate a lot of public officials."

No, none of these actions are appropriate. Because a law is a pre-established rule that we all agree on before hand. You don't get to violate them if you really really want to, cause golly gosh this braindead woman should be able to remain in her comatose, unconscious, vegetative state as long as possible! I mean, obviously! What an idiot!

So Jeb, call out the troops, storm the Bastille and tell 'em I sent you.

I'll finish up with proof, once again, that John Gibson doesn't know shit about history. He's citing the Storming of the Bastille, the start of the French Revolution, as inspiration for Jeb Bush kidnapping an unconscious, braindead woman.

These two events have nothing to do with one another. If he's just using "storm the Bastille" as a cliche, that's fine, I guess, even though he uses it twice in the same article. But if he's implying that this would somehow become a grand, famous act of civil disobedience, he's pretty far off base. This would be a case of the government coming in and kidnapping a woman because they disagree with the treatment agreed upon by her husband and doctors. It's basically the opposite of the French Revolution, when the peasants got together and decided to kill a lot of government officials and aristocrats.

Dammit, John, you're a professional writer and journalist! Read something every now and then! Friggin' idiot!

Get Down With the Sickness

Ever have one of those days where you wake up feeling fine but then start to feel super-sick by noon? Isn't that weird? It's like, what's wrong with my body this hour that wasn't wrong two hours ago? Can things have really turned south so rapidly?

I went to work my usual happy-go-lucky self. In fact, I was particularly happy-go-lucky this morning because (1) I had an abbreviated 7 hour shift, (2) it was my last day of work before two blissful days off and (3) I am going to see the Decemberists live tonight at the Fonda Theater.

But by 1 in the afternoon, I felt as if a large colony of rhinoviruses had set up permanent camp inside my nose. My sinuses were throbbing like Queens of the Stone Age was having an impromptu jam session up there. It sucked.

The thing about my job is, it's really easy and fun if you feel alright. But dealing with customers when you don't feel proves a bit more challenging. All their dumb requests seem just a bit more dumb. For example, the guy on the phone today who asked me if we had any copies in of "Bring Me the Head of Alfonso Garcia." Now, you and I know it's Alfredo Garcia, and on any other day, I would have found the error minorly amusing and moved on. But today, this guy's ignorance really bothered me. I wasn't really upset...mucuous congestion just brings out the worst in me.

So, anyway, I feel much better now. It only lasted for about 2 hours before passing, and now I'm better and ready to enjoy an evening of Colin Meloy's unique brand of folky indie rock. This sort of thing happens a lot more now, in my mid-20's, than it used to when I was younger. Like that cyst thing I was complaining about a month ago. I never used to get cysts as a teenager! The worst thing that would happen, medical-wise, at 13 was an itch in a place that's uscratchable whilst in public. That used to happen to me all the time in high school. But nothing like temporary colds or odd growths on my backside.

I can just tell I'm going to be one of those sickly older people who always have 500 ailments going at once. Any conversation with a 60+ Lons will probably involve at least 20 minutes of me relating recent bowel activity. Because I'll be an old Jew, and they all get gastrointestinally focused in their august years.

So, things are looking up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Laughing Policeman

The Laughing Policeman debuted in theaters in 1973, two years after The French Connection. The impact of William Friedkin's 1971 cop thriller still reverberated around Hollywood, obviously. Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern star in Laughing Policeman as two laconic, occasionally violent San Francisco cops trying to solve the messy case of a mass murder on a city bus. Their story unfolds in a variety of seemy locations awash in prostitutes, junkies, pimps, hookers and drug dealers, and methods reflect the hopeless urban decay around them. It's not a nice, happy, uplifting kind of movie. As Bruce Dern's detective complains at one point, "The nice cop on the beat has turned into a pig."

He's talking there of the public perception of police officers; they can't do their job any more because they public doesn't trust them like they once did. And maybe part of this goes back to the media's presentation of cops, which in the 50's had generally reflected admiration. 70's cop movies reflected a certain level of disdain and a recognition of the racism, sexism and overall disregard for the common man circulating throughout the police force in many urban areas. Think of Popeye Doyle's constant racial epithets and disdain for black suspects. In Laughing Policeman, we instead have Lou Gossett in an early role as a black detective attempting (with woefully poor results) to bridge the divide between the urban dwellers and the cops who move among them.

So, though in many ways Laughing Policeman works best as a procedural, a whodunnit with a surprisingly complicated backstory, it's also a fascinating touchstone in the history of police in movies. It's a hyperreal image of the tough inner-city cop - he's not just in touch with the seemy underbelly of San Francisco, he revels in it, he becomes a part of it, he's inextricably linked to the crime and perversion that go on nightly downtown.

Which makes the casting of Matthau and Dern in the lead roles so ingenious. They're both likable guys given roles that are grim, determined and most of all distant. These are funny people intentionally stripping away every ounce of good humor and charm from their personas. Dern gets a few fun scenes in away from police work (including a delightful scene in which he flirts shamelessly with a nurse whom he's interrogating), but when these guys are on the case, it's all business.

It's unexpected to see Matthau not play a lovable cad. In his previous film, the awe-inspiring Don Seigel crime classic Charley Varrick, he played a bank robber, but he was an especially clever, deft, likable bank robber who only committed heists because his crop dusting business never took off. As SFPD Detective Jack Martin, he's an empty shell, a man who amounts to nothing other than being good at his job. It's established early on in the film that he has a family only so he can ignore them. His distaste for the criminals he arrests and pursues is matched only by his distaste for his superiors down at the precinct.

Martin and his new partner Inspector Leo Larsen (Dern) are instructed to follow-up on a horrific mass murder. A man walked on to a San Francisco city bus with a high-powered machine gun and killed every person on board. One of the victims is Martin's old partner, who was supposed to be taking vacation time off from police work. Why would he have been on that bus? Could this have any connection to an unsolved case from 2 years ago that has always haunted Jack?

The film structurally resembles an episode of "Law & Order." Martin and Larsen go around the city, interviewing people connected to anyone who died on that bus. They make a few thin connections, but Laughing Policeman refuses to show only the highlights of the investigation. Jack and Leo track down several leads that go absolutely nowhere, including an extended search for a drug dealer who may or may be connected to a junkie who died in the shooting.

The plot gets extremely complicated, and though I suspect it all links up in the end somehow, I became less concerned with how the puzzle fits together by the conclusion. The movie's as much about the hopelessness inherent in police work than anything else. I was reminded of the scene in Seven in which Morgan Freeman's and Brad Pitt's characters wait for evidence overnight on a bench. They debate the utility of police - whether they really solve crimes and make the city safer, or whether they just clean up after horrible incidents and record what happened.

I was reminded of that conversation during Laughing Policeman frequently. Even Larsen and Martin seem largely unconcerned with solving the case. Martin's more hung up on working out the guilt he feels for his dead partner, and Larsen's just making time until retirement when he can collect his pension. The facts add up or they don't. Either way, everyone's still dead, and they have to come back to the office tomorrow and start again on some other case.

Additionally, I haven't mentioned director Stuart Rosenberg's terrific sense of timing and action. Like French Connection, Laughing Policeman is a taut, gripping action film as well as a cop movie. A late sequence in which Larsen and Martin tail a bus through San Francisco features one of the great car chases of the era. It's reminiscent of Bullitt, obviously, as any car chase through SF has been since that film's release, but it manages to bring some new angles to the table. Also of note: the film has a nuanced understanding of the nature of surveillance. We follow Martin and Larsen on several stakeouts, and Rosenberg constantly gives us new ways to understand their methods of following without being seen.

He had previously directed Cool Hand Luke before sliding into obscurity with a string of flops. This film announced Rosenberg's return to Hollywood. He'd go on to make notable if lackluster films including The Amityville Horror, Brubaker and The Pope of Greenwich Village.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Affleck, Auteur?

Ben Affleck's pretended to be an actor, he's pretended to be a screenwriter, he's pretended to be a professional poker player...So, what's next for this Master of Make-Believe? What else? He's going to pretend to direct a movie!

But let me back up a moment. Many of you may be thinking, "Lons, didn't Affleck not only write the successful film Good Will Hunting, but even win an Oscar for his efforts?" And you would be correct. You may also be thinking, "Lons, don't you overuse the fake rhetorical question device when starting posts, for a lack of another, more original comic idea?" If you were thinking that, shut up.

Affleck theoretically composed the script to Good Will Hunting with his good friend Matt "Bagger Vance" Damon. But the circumstances surrounding the creation of this screenplay are a bit odd. First of all, where are the other scripts written by this duo? I'm not a huge fan of Good Will Hunting myself, but it's a highly polished script that follows the screenwriting formula so well, it's actually used as an educational tool in screenwriting programs at universities around the country.

So before you could just sit down and knock out Good Will Hunting, you've probably written a few other feature scripts, whether or not they've been produced. But I've never heard of any discussion about anything Matt and Ben wrote before the production of their first feature! It's a bit strange.

Also, where are all the scripts they've written since then? Or, actually, any written material from either one of them. I mean, I know the guy likes poker, but he's had no brainstorming time since the mid 90's?

If you're a screenwriter, a screenwriter good enough to earn an Oscar before your 30th birthday, is it likely you'd only have one story to tell, ever? Wouldn't you think the two of them might have whipped up at least one other concept by now? Neither one of them has even written a long column or anything. It's like, one Oscar-winning script, then nothing for a decade.

It makes such a good story. Two lifelong friends struggled for years before writing the script that rocketed the both of them to instant stardom. I can see why publicists and studio executives climbed all over one another to get on board with these guys after the movie hit it big. And I could understand if they embellished the truth about their involvement in the actual writing, for the sake of the legend. I'm not saying I know for sure Affleck and Damon didn't scribe that movie, and like I said, I don't think it's exactly a classic film...I'm just saying that I'm skeptical.

Which brings me back around to Affleck directing the upcoming film "Gone, Baby, Gone." Believe it or not, I've actually read the Dennis Lehane novel upon which this film will be based. It's one of his private eye books starring wisecracking detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. I've never really dug these Kenzie/Gennaro stories. They're usually too flip and jokey for my tastes. I really dig Lehane's clipped, dime-novel style and his narratives are generally compelling, but he's occasionally too ambitious for his own good. In the case of "Gone, Baby, Gone" and "Prayers for Rain," the books are too jokey and off-the-wall, and the cavalier attitude winds up sacrificing the intensity.

But as I said, it's a pretty decent mystery story, and I've no doubt it could be made into a zippy, fun movie. It's usually the mediocre books that make the best movies anyway.

But what has Ben Affleck done that's supposed to fill us with confidence about his ability to direct? It's also kind of a shame that his Project Greenlight projects, which he produces, only get meager $1 million budgets, which make any sort of practical contemporary studio filmmaking near impossible. He'll get $30 to start with, easy. And that's just for casting and catering. Why not just agree to star himself in the Project Greenlight movie, get John Gulager a budget of $30 million, and see what he can do?

Free Fiona!

Sony has refused to release the new Fiona Apple album. Actually, "Extraordinary Machine" has been complete for long enough now, it doesn't really even qualify as the "new" Fiona Apple album. It's just the much-maligned rock girl's most recent effort. And it's really good. Easily as good as her last album, "When the Pawn." It's a little weird, but not much more weird than "Pawn." It's obviously releasable...Fiona fans will clearly like it. I mean, I like Fiona Apple albums, and I like it.

Track 2, "Red Red Red" sounds a lot like you'd expect a Fiona Apple song to sound. And the whole thing was produced by Jon Brion, who wrote the popular scores to films like I Heart Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch-Drunk Love. So what gives, Sony?

Apparently, they felt the album was unmarketable and doesn't have a radio single on it. True, it doesn't sound utterly homogenized. No one will mistake this for the latest Lindsay Lohan anti-paparazzi screed. But this is hardly "Trout Mask Replica." It's a pop-rock album with, granted some odd production effects, but also plenty of catchy tunes and solid hooks. If bands like Modest Mouse, Interpol, Wilco and The Arcade Fire can garner some mainstream attention, I see no reason why an already-established artist like Fiona should have to pander to the lowest common denominator just to have her work see the light of day.

Anyway, if you're so inclined, you can semi-kind-of-not-totally-legally download it from the blog Geek Dreams here. I'd highly recommend it - definitely one of the more inspired, tuneful, energetic pop efforts of the year thus far. It kind of reminds me of Fiona's first album combined with an arty indie ensemble like Architecture in Helsinki or the Fiery Furnaces.

Anyway, if you don't have a problem with file downloading, get on top of this Geek Dreams thing, cause it probably won't last there forever. I'm also betting it's on Soulseek or BitTorrent if you're 1337 enough to know where to look for that kind of thing.

Oh, and if you want to know more about the whole Sony situation, or want to make your anger about the release hold-up, why not go to Free Fiona? It's a website set up to press Sony into releasing the album ASAP, and they also seem to be behind getting a downloadable version out there on the 'Net. And you can donate to their efforts! Do it for the kids...

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead

I tried to watch this movie several times before actually completing it the entire way through. It's not that I didn't like it. In fact, I've liked it each time I've sat down to watch it. Like a lot of masterful British comedy, it's complex and silly at the same time, so even when it's going completely over your head, you still find yourself chortling at the pratfalls and shenanigans.

I kept turning the film off over the years before I felt like I wasn't "getting it," that I had become lost for some reason and should watch it over again from the beginning. It was only a few years ago, in college, that I finally made the realization that not getting it was the point. This movie follows around two minor characters in a play who don't actually understand that they are minor characters. They think they're important characters. Oh, and they don't know that they're in a play exactly either, although they do begin to get suspicious when they find themselves with no control whatsoever about their destiny.

I think it's pretty clear that Stoppard means all this goofiness as a sort-of existential metaphor for life, and though that comes through when reading the play, I'm not sure the movie quite gets there. But as a wonderfully funny, clever exercize in meta-meta-metafiction, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead succeeds triumphantly.

People not familiar with Shakespeare's "Hamlet" would do well to give it at least a cursory glance before watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Any attempt at all to follow the logic of the film depends on at least some familiarity with the story of the so-called Melancholy Dane. I've never really liked that nickname for Hamlet, by the way, as he's not so much melancholy as bitter, confused and pissed-off. But you get what I'm saying.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were Hamlet's good college buddies. They're called to Elsinore by the newly-crowned King Claudius, who took over the throne following the untimely demise of his brother, Hamlet's father. Hamlet suspects his uncle of the murder, particularly because, you know, the guy married his mom. Oh, and cause his dad's ghost tells him all about it. So, anyway, Hamlet starts acting strange and his uncle calls in his college friends to essentially spy on him. Find out what he knows and why he's acting strange, and then report back to the king, essentially.

Playwright Tom Stoppard has called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the two most boring characters in all of Shakespeare. They serve an entirely functional role in the actual play "Hamlet" - their intrusion on his life tips Hamlet off that his uncle suspects he may know too much, and provides the audience a glimpse into the true nature of his madness (namely, that he may be faking it). Then, they accompany Hamlet to England and disappear from the action of the play.

So in casting them as the heroes of his production, Stoppard alerts you instantly to his intent. These are two guys who exist on the margins, who don't matter, who unknowingly take part in the great events of great people without really noticing or concerning themselves. In other words, they are us, carried along by events totally out of control, only barely perceiving the forces that move them here and there, unaware of the true nature of their existence.

But I'm making it sound heavy and daunting. In fact, the movie is a gleeful delight. Stoppard has a true gift for dialogue. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth) mill about the grounds of Elsinore having elliptical, non-sequitur discussions about life, fate and invention, Stoppard's given countless opportunities to demonstrate his verbal wit. Oldman and Roth, two of Britain's most popular and charismatic actors, are wonderful in their roles (though neither can say which is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern, their identities being totally interchangable), speaking Stoppard's occasionally heady words with deft ease.

Richard Dreyfuss gives a fun, oversized performance as well as the Player King, the head of a traveling group of performers stopping by Elsinore Castle. In the action of "Hamlet," they put on the play "The Mousetrap," mirroring the murderous actions of Claudius back at him. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they put on several masquerades, fortelling future events for the main characters, reminding them that nothing they do or so can change their fate. The future is already written. They are but characters, puppets, pawns, actors on a stage. By the end of the film, Dreyfuss' character has morphed from a traveling actor into the controlling force behind all of the film's action. Stoppard in this way suggests the entire film we've just seen is simply another artifice, another "story" into which these two identity-less men have been dropped.

So, I'm going on and on and making the film sound boring, I know. But it isn't. You'll just have to trust me. As for the DVD that came out today, it looks pretty good, though the transfer isn't exactly sparkling or clear. It retains the low-budget PBS kind of look, but for this material, that's really alright. The special features, however, are lacking, particularly considering that the film is a 2-disc set that's priced as such. You get interviews with Stoppard, Oldman, Roth and Dreyfuss, but they're rather mundane interviews. Stoppard, for example, is asked to recall many of the details of pre-production on the film, including the long stories behind the casting of Tim Roth and arranging of the finances. I don't care about that sort of business-talk. I want to hear where he came up with his ideas, how he knows when a play is done or if it needs more work, how many times he had to read "Hamlet" in order to interalize all that play's emotion enough to write Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

But it's not that kind of interview. Too bad.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Vol. 1

Yes, I'm doing a post about Star Wars. I'm a dork. I can't help it.

I know, we've all been horribly dissatisfied with the two prequel movies we've gotten so far. Well, most of us have been. Those few, proud uber-dorks still cling to the notion that George Lucas can do no wrong, and that they can make Episode I and II enjoyable by a force of sheer will. They'll pretend Jake Lloyd doesn't yell "wizards" at the top of his lungs 800 times in the first film, that the hot Naboo love montage didn't break up the action in Attack of the Clones more efficiently than a phyiscal tear in the celluloid reel. Mostly, they'll pretend that these films provide even a small fraction of the giddy, fantastical thrill of the original three movies.

But I've come here not to harp on poor, rich, rich GL by bagging on his two previous films. I think even he kind of senses they weren't too good. So he's busily trying to redeem himself, by assuring us fans that Episode III will be a hardcore, in your face bruiser in which no Jedi will be left unsmoted. Plus, he's allowed the Cartoon Network's hugely talented Genndy Tarkovsky (he of "Samurai Jack" fame) a chance to animate a bunch of the interstitial action between Episode II and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the People Who Paid Good Money for Attack of the Clones...Oh, I mean Revenge of the Sith.

So, essentially, this hour-and-15-minute animated film includes all the cool Jedi action Georgie's been denying us for two overlong films. For those of you with girlfriends, when Episode II ends, the Galaxy has become embroiled in a very confusing civil war. Some banking planets or something want to break off from the Federation, or Republic, or Republican Federation, and the Jedi must unite with a clone army farmed on the mysterious planet of Kamino in order to preserve order in the Galaxy.

Why would it be such a big deal of these banking clans split off on their own? I don't know. Honestly, I don't even get what a banking planet could possibly be like. Is everyone on the planet a banker, or do they simply handle all the money for their whole star system? Wouldn't every planet likely have bankers? Why would division of labor be done by planet and not, you know, town like it is now on Earth?

See, after the wars themselves, as we'll see in Episode III: Sympathy for the Vengeance of the Sith, Senator Palpatine will use the division in the universe to assume power. So the Sith themselves are spending most of the actual Clone Wars jockeying for post-Clone-War position.

But these are questions for the main prequels. Clone Wars is all about kicking ass.

As you can probably tell, even the animated film gets a bit bogged down. But Tarkovsky doesn't let his film stop to even try and explain this silly plot stuff for more than a moment or two. He's mostly focused on providing cool-looking animation, smoothly edited and highly cinematic in style and presentation.
We get a series of vignettes which find our Jedi heroes fighting off badass foes with ties to the villainous Sith. In my favorite section, Mace Windu (played by Samuel Jackson in the live-action movies) fights off an entire army of robots being controlled by a massive spacecraft. It's a dazzling sequence which provides more innovative attacks utilizing The Force than Lucas has given us in the past two movies. Windu knocks whole battallions of robots aside, punches holes in the hull with his lightsaber, and even removes the bolts from a killer robot using only the powers of his mind. It's incredible.

Another sequence of note finds Anakin Skywalker, the Future Mr. Darth Vader, battling for his life against Asajj Ventress, a sworn enemy of the Jedi hoping to make a name for herself. It's a terrific fight sequence, although it highlights a problem George has been having in all of the prequel material thus far.

Shall I elucidate? Okay, I will.

You see, in the Original Three Movies, the old ways had died out. There were very few vestiges of the "sorcerer's ways" that once existed in the galaxy remaining. Almost no one is in touch with The Force. So, it was quite easy for Luke to amaze and startle everyone with his incredible Force powers. No one could do that stuff at the time.

But in these movies, the Force is strong with, like, every other person. There are tons of characters about whom we've been told amazing stories of power and conquest. Think about it: Qui Gonn, the sage Jedi Master who trains Obi Wan, Obi Wan himself who trains Anakin, Yoda, Mace Windu, the rest of the Jedi Council, Anakin, Palpatine, Count Dooku, Darth Maul, the aforementioned Asajj, General Greivous in Episode III...I mean, as they say in The Incredibles, if everyone's special, then no one is.

So, I feel for George. It's really hard to give all these badasses screen time and keep them all equally badass. I mean, guys like Mace Windu haven't really gotten to do much yet (save maybe fight a few Clash of the Titans rejects in some long long ago version of "American Gladiators"), and that guys supposed to be the ultimate Jedi superstar or something.

It may sound like I'm down on all this Star Wars stuff, and in many ways I am. I thought a new series of Star Wars films might be a real nice nostalgia trip. Everyone in my generation loved these movies coming up. In fact, I remember going to a friend's birthday party as a young child, and his parents had rented out a small movie theater for all of us. What movie did they show? Episode IV: A New Hope. So new Star Wars stuff represented a chance for all of us to get back together again and rejoin these exciting adventures.

But what we've gotten thus far has been a series of limp kiddie films, movies less about thrilling spectacle and more about marketing, advertising and the occasional bone tossed off to the fan community. I've been less impressed with the films than most fans, I think, and I'll go so far as to claim Clone Wars: Volume 1 as the best film made thus far from prequel material.

But I'm still hopeful, dammit! I still want and expect Episode III: The Chewbacca Defense to rule the Earth. I mean, all the material's right there - ultimate betrayal, death on a massive scale, final showdowns. Don't disappoint me, George, or I''ll whine about it on my blog!

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

It's a wacky title. The first time I saw it, I was browsing through Hollywood Video with my friend Tim. We were intrigued that an American film would be so forthright about its violent content. Our interest was piqued by the involvement of Sam Peckinpah. For some bizarre reaosn, we didn't rent the film that night. We probably went for something similarly profound, like Office Space or that one about the volcano. No, the other one.

But I have gotten around to this movie by now. You know, after the volcano pictures. And I discovered that it's a harrowing, steely road movie about a man, a woman and the severed head that comes between them. Can you believe the studio worried about the marketing?

Warren Oates wonderfully portrays Benny, a small time crook and part-time piano player living in Mexico. After a wealthy man puts a bounty on the head of chronic philanderer Alfredo Garcia, who has knocked up his fair daughter, Benny finds himself on a quest, along with his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), to find the man's grave.

Garcia's already dead, you see, having perished in a car accident. So, Benny figures he should be able to go to the grave, dig the guy up, cut off his head and claim the reward. Easy, right? Well, not so much.

It would spoil the fun to let you know exactly how Benny's trek turns out, but suffice it to say, it involves a good deal of whisky-slugging, violent gunfights in the Mexican desert and more than one heart-to-heart conversation between a half-crazed maniac and a severed head wrapped up in a satchel.

Many have called the film nihilistic, and there's certainly an element of hopelessness to the enterprise. Benny encounters random cruelty at every turn, from drifters who attempt to rape his girlfriend (one of whom is played by the ever-bearded Kris Kristofferson) to the vaguely sinister fellows who hire him to find Garcia to his eventual face-off with the wealthy aristocrat who started this nonsense in the first place by issuing the film's title request.

But I think this interpretation focuses too much on the film's darkly comic side. Peckinpah often uses the head, and Benny's relationship with it, as fodder for laughs. Though he doesn't appear on screen at all during the film, we get to know Alfredo in an odd way, and this situation - a man whose only friend is a rotting skull attracting flies and suspicion wherever he goes - more often than not reflects a kind of manic wit than a point of view about life.

In fact, the film offers a somewhat hopeful vision of class warfare. At first, Benny eagerly accepts the job for a good deal of money, explaining to his girlfriend that it will provide them a "way out." A way out of Mexico, perhaps, or a way for her to get out of the prostitute business, but most likely a way out of the quiet desperation of their daily lives. But over time, he comes to resent his gruesome assignment. This aristocrat whom he's never met finds Alfredo's life so cheap, he offers reward money to have his remains hand-delivered. Just so he can know for a fact the man died. This resentment drives much of the violence of the film's final act.

And someone who sees themselves as a class warrior can't be much of a nihilist. They believes in nothing, Lebowski, nothing!

Right away, it's clear when watching Alfredo Garcia that it's the work of a special, visionary director. This is not some anonymous action film, but a deeply personal work in which Peckinpah deals with some of the defining issues of his career. Oates famously based Benny's mannerisms on Peckinpah (IMDB informs me that he even borrowed the director's sunglasses), and obviously there's that whole alcoholism thing. But what really drove it home for me was the final shot - the barrel of a gun points out at the camera, while we see the words "Directed by Sam Peckinpah" on the screen.

That's sort of the man's worldview. Shit is just coming at you, and what makes you a man is how you decide to deal with it. Not the most complicated idea in the world, but then, when you make a movie as brisk, entertaining and daring as Alfredo Garcia, even the simplest idea can seem mesmerizing.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Porn Man

We have an annoying customer at the store. Well, we have thousands of annoying customers, but I'm only referring to one of them at the moment. No, I'm not going to give out his name, though I doubt he has time to surf the Internet, what with all the porn he must be watching.

See, this guy comes in every Sunday and buys lots of pornography. And when I say "lots," I don't mean one DVD, which if bought every week would eventually constitute "a lot of pornography." I mean, 4-8 DVD's a week. And then, the next Sunday, he comes and trades in the pornography he purchased in the last few weeks (for pennies on the dollar), and uses the trade-in money to buy more pornography.

I estimate this man spends $50 a week on porn at our store. He's reached the point where porn isn't just a hobby, isn't just a passionate interest, but is a full-blown psychosis. He watches porn the way you or I watch...well, nothing, really. I don't watch anything as much as this guy watches porn.

And that alone would be kind of annoying. I mean, every week we have to go back through all the old porn he bought, reprice it and put it back out on the floor. Plus, there's just something unsettling about traded-in used pornography. No, he's not leaving actual fluids on the discs or anything. (Man, I just grossed myself out...that's a first...) But, still, you don't want to think about where these DVD's have been, what they've been used for.

But I haven't even told you the annoying part yet! On Sundays, the store closes earlier than the rest of the week. 8 pm instead of 10 pm. And, without fail, every week, this guy shows up right before closing and then takes forever to browse.

Tonight he actually showed up at 7-ish, which was a welcome change of pace, although we still had to kick him out once 8:00 rolled around. Last week, it was 7:57 when he popped his head in the door, and proceeded to argue that we should remain open for his benefit because he's "such a good customer."

Still, though, these are minor nuisances. If it was just relentless tardiness followed by endless pornographic browsing, I'd probably grouse about it to people I know, but I wouldn't really consider it blog-worthy. It's his mid-browse conversations that have inspired this post to Crushed by Inertia.

You see, while I'm waiting there in the porn room for this guy to finish up (no pun intended...), he likes to talk to me. Sometimes about the relative youth of the girls appearing in his favorite pornos. Sometimes about how silly it is that we close so early when people like him are just arriving at the store to shop. But tonight, the topic of conversation was a lawsuit in which he believes he will win $20 million.

Now, I didn't ask him about the lawsuit. I don't ask him about anything, except whether or not he's finally ready to pay for his purchases and get the hell out. He just started telling me that in a year or so, he's going to be a millionaire, and he's going to spend a ton of money at our video store. Cause he's suing someone, and he's got great lawyers and the government on his side, and he firmly believes that he will win the case.

You meet people like this once in a while. People who don't have the social grace to realize you would rather peel the flesh off of your bones with a rusty pocketknife than converse with them. People who like to brag incessantly about things they haven't even done yet and probably never will do. People obsessed with telling you more about their lives than Dave Eggers on a Barbra Walters special under the influence of sodium pentathol. But I swear I've never met someone more deluded and out of touch with common human responses than the customer in question.

Folks, I have never indicated to this man in any way that I want to get to know him. That I want any inside information about his life. Frankly, I'm kind of weirded out by him, and I don't think I hide this fact particularly well. And yet still, every Sunday, I have to deal with his oddball conversation, with his peculiar insights. With him.

Why did I want to work at a video store again?