Monday, November 28, 2005

Hi, Mom! (De Palma, 1970)

Made very early on in the career of homage-crazy director, Brian DePalma, Hi, Mom! is a film that captures much of what is so exciting about the cinema of the late sixties and early seventies. In order to reflect a world of tumult -- including racial tension, heightened political consciousness and sexual awakening – film directors often toyed radically with style, questioning convention and decorum at every turn. For those who have seen later DePalma films like Femme Fatale or Body Double, with their meticulous narratives, Hi, Mom! may be something of a surprise. Taking as its broad theme the increased public infatuation with media and the inherent voyeurism attached, Hi, Mom! also explores the arena of radical political theatre with scenes that fluctuate between comedic and disturbing.

Those unfamiliar with the kind of live performance that was happening at the time may find Be Black Baby, the play-within-a-film, to be an outrageous exaggeration. However, the audiences attending alternative theatre at the time may very well have been subjected to treatment very similar to the patrons that find themselves being asked to live through the black experience by eating black-eyed peas, donning blackface and getting harassed by the police. These scenes (in which Robert DeNiro’s lead character is only tangentially involved) are both extremely funny and very uncomfortable to watch. How serious is the performing troupe when they steal the audience’s valuables and then wander off to another room? How seriously does DePalma expect us to take the underlying political message? My initial suspicion wass that DePalma’s intention was merely to lampoon the absurdly aggressive tactics employed by performers at the time. However, when, later in the film, DeNiro’s character seems to adopt the spirit of revolution without quite understanding the artistry of personal expression, it struck me that perhaps DePalma was onto something deeper.

To get at that meaning, I first have to go back and tell you that the main thrust of the film involves a young filmmaker (played by DeNiro) fascinated with filming through the windows of other city dwellers as they go about their daily routines. Although the scenes he captures are only occasionally titillating, he receives his funding from a porn king (Allen Garfield) who sees the erotic potential of the endeavor. Perhaps in an effort to spice up his art, the voyeur soon inserts himself into his work, seducing a young, single woman while the camera rolls across the street. Unfortunately, she is entirely unwilling to go along with the script that he has predetermined before arriving at her door. Later, perhaps inspired by the group of radical theatre artists that offer him a bit part, the filmmaker begins to see himself as an ‘urban guerilla’ working silently from within the system. Where this leads him, I will not reveal. However, I suspect that DePalma is making some kind of point about the use of sensationalism in art and how easily shock tactics are appropriated by those merely interested in causing a disruption, in gaining attention without having anything legitimate to say.

All of this is accomplished in a loose, playful style that I wish DePalma was still able to capture. His actors seem to be using a high amount of improvisation and several scenes attain comedic heights because of the overlapping dialogue and the way these characters pursue their own goals. DeNiro, in the earliest performance that I have seen from him, is already a leading actor of great charisma and ability. The film’s lack of focus is noticeable at times as certain scenes seem without purpose; however, it must be said that this spontaneity is also what makes the film so endearing. In the end, Hi, Mom! has much to recommend and should make for a great viewing experience for fans of DePalma, DeNiro or films revolving around the political tension of the sixties.


Friday, November 25, 2005

A History of Violence (Cronenberg, 2005)

There is a compelling mystery at the heart of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but it has nothing to do with the identity of Tom Stall or the motivations of the menacing one-eyed gangster that drops by his diner one day looking for payback. No, the true mystery is how anybody could possibly take this ridiculous film seriously. Things do not bode well from the get-go, as the film’s first scene climaxes in a cute little girl being gunned down in cold blood for no better reason than a short-cut to character development. It wasn’t so much that Cronenberg decided to include this as a part of his film that bothered me, but rather that the scene plays out like an arrogant challenge to the audience. This film’s going to be hardcore, OK? Can you take it? This sets the tone for a parade of scenes that completely misfire because they are constructed seemingly in the opposite direction of logic. Why does a school bully flip out after a softball game simply because someone caught his routine fly ball? Why is Tom’s son calmly eating his breakfast and his daughter simply wandering around the house while Mom guards the front door with a shotgun? Why does Mom later make no effort to intervene or alert authorities after it is clear her husband’s life is being threatened at gunpoint? I could go on and on, but these contrivances would matter much less if A History of Violence had any sort of thematic heft. It does not. Cronenberg seems to think that by depicting graphic violence, he is making some sort of commentary on violence. Cyclical patterns of violence and the way they are ingrained into American society are, after all, a worthy topic of discussion. However, the truth is that unfortunately this film has absolutely nothing of interest to say on the subject and ultimately come across as thick moviemaking bullshit masquerading as socially conscious art. Unlike the films of Michael Haneke, for example, which repulse us with cruelty and unspeakable acts of inhumanity, the violence in Cronenberg’s film is there as a pay-off, making him no different than those exploitative directors he supposedly seeks to critique. At my screening of the film, audience members groaned at the eye-rolling plot developments and openly laughed as the final credits began to roll. I shared their sense of derision. Tiresome, pointless and ultimately insubstantial, A History of Violence is a truly bad film that has somehow managed to receive critical acclaim.


Thursday, November 24, 2005

Titicut Follies (Wiseman, 1967)

The most incredible aspect of Frederick Wiseman’s film, Titicut Follies, in which he documents the conditions and procedures of the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Bridgewater, is that none of the workers appearing on-screen seem the least bit aware that an exposé is underway. With supreme casualness they go about their daily routines, which seem to involve an awful lot of herding around inexplicably nude men with severe mental disorders. Wiseman conducts no interviews, nor does he provide any kind of narration, opting instead to act as a silent observer to the events unfolding in front of him. His primary source of commentary is in his editing choices, such as the decision to open and close the film with a bizarre cabaret show that seems to feature both staff workers and inmates/patients alike. Leading the proceedings is a gregarious guard that seems entirely oblivious to the human misery surrounding him. He is content simply to have a venue where his loud singing voice and lame comedy material can be heard and appreciated. Oddly, Wiseman has managed to shoot this ringmaster in spooky lighting that calls to mind Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. But, of course, that film would not be released for another 5 years.

Titicut Follies is an antidote for the cutesy versions of insane asylums that we see in films like 12 Monkeys or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The mentally disturbed people we see here are largely devoid of quirkiness or charm. They are clearly souls in pain. It’s difficult to see what sort of ‘correction’ could possibly take place in a facility run by the dispassionate staff we witness here. One man is baited by those attending him into a fit of frightening rage. Another attempts rather lucidly to plead the case that his incarceration has only worsened his condition, transforming his mild paranoia into something far more serious. What he needs, he says, is ‘peace and quiet’. Though it is difficult to ascertain the exact nature of his mental stability through the scenes we are presented in the film, it is easy to see that the environment would surely be enough to drive one mad if one wasn’t mad already. No one affiliated with the Institute comes out looking particularly well (or even competent really) and the ultimate feeling we take away from the film is one of disgust and sadness. We are witness to the kind of inhumanity that can occur when one party feels unquestioningly that they are acting with absolute benevolence. Beyond that, Wiseman exposes us to true ugliness in the form of broken minds that are usually kept safely out of sight.

Because of this, and a few other scenes that I will not reveal here, Titicut Follies is an exceptionally difficult and disturbing film to watch. If the film has a fault, it is that Wiseman does not provide us with any kind of expert testimony that would support the insinuations made by his footage and his editing. Perhaps he feels that the images speak for themselves; still, I was nagged by the feeling that it would not be difficult in this kind of circumstance to make those in authority appear like oppressors. Shot in the midst of the Vietnam era, the anger bubbling beneath Wiseman’s film has ramifications far beyond the walls of the institute. Like other anti-authoritarian works of the time, it is easy to admire the sentiment, while being somewhat curious about how passion has clouded logic. By offering outside support, Wiseman might have allowed the viewer to be in a better position to understand just how far the treatment we witness diverges from acceptable practice. Nonetheless, Titicut Follies is a uniquely unsettling cinematic experience and should be sought out by those who crave something out of the norm.


Monday, November 21, 2005

Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)

For the subject of his most recent documentary, Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog examines the strange, abbreviated life of Timothy Treadwell, a man so out of step with normality that at first he seems like an inventive piece of fiction. Treadwell is a sort of environmentalist-commando, documenting with his camera the secret life of grizzly bears. Not content to observe the highly dangerous beasts from a distance, Treadwell prides himself on being able to live amongst the beasts, bravely (or foolishly, depending on who you ask) earning their acceptance. Treadwell talks enthusiastically about his subject with the same kind of wide-eyed passion that Richard Simmons might talk about exercise. Despite his proclaimed heterosexuality, Treadwell’s gentle, effeminate nature often earns nervous titters from the audience simply because it is such a stark contrast with the outrageous macho-man risks he takes. His favorite stunt is to turn on his camera and place himself in the foreground with an ultra-dangerous grizzly not too far behind him, talking joyfully as if he were in the company of an ordinary house cat. Yet, despite the film’s title, Treadwell is more likely to remind viewers of Mr. Rogers than he is of Grizzly Adams.

As a documentary filmmaker, Herzog is the ideal person to tackle this subject matter since in many ways he shares a deep affinity with Treadwell. In previous films, Herzog has immersed himself in the wilderness in order to capture images of great beauty and wonder that would be wholly inaccessible to those of us that rarely wonder outside the comfort of civilization. Likewise, Herzog has always had a fascination with animals, using them time and time again for their metaphoric quality: the monkeys of Aguirre, the rats of Nosferatu, the dancing chicken of Stroszek, the camel of Even Dwarfs Started Small. Surely, Herzog was also drawn to Treadwell for his tenuous grip on sanity, even going so far at one point in the film to observe that a profanity-laden outburst by the grizzly man reminds him of anger demonstrated by previous actors with which he has worked. The primary strength of Grizzly Man is the way in which Herzog rides the fine line between transforming Treadwell into a kind of cult hero and using his flamboyant nature to paint him as a fool. Grizzly Man functions as both an inspirational and a cautionary tale, as both Treadwell’s close friends and his detractors are given their due. Though it will likely annoy some who still hold onto an antiquated notion of the supposed objectivity of the documentary film, Herzog also offers his own analysis and opinions at key points of the film. These moments are handled with the utmost respect and discretion, even when the director offers his pointed disagreement with Treadwell’s basic romantic philosophy of life.

Grizzly Man is extraordinarily thought-provoking and endlessly entertaining. Best of all, it is also a film with a palpable sense of danger. Once again, Herzog (with a heavy assist from Treadwell) takes viewers into dark territory, acting as a kind of wise, weathered tour guide. By this, I not only refer to the places where grizzlies roam free, but also the mysterious regions of the human mind. Treadwell’s tale is not only fascinating – it is undeniably haunting. Too courageous to be written off as a mere fool, too reckless to be hailed as a true hero, he occupies an elusive middle ground, forcing us to examine our own lives and the way in which we pursue our most cherished dreams. Grizzly Man is most certainly one of the best films of the year and most likely one of the best of Herzog’s career. Considering his remarkable body of work, that’s saying something.


Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bambi (Hand, 1942)

Based on a novel by Austrian writer, Felix Salten, Disney’s Bambi presented its war-era audiences with a film asserting the power of nature to withstand human intrusion and maliciousness. Bambi forsakes conventional plot in order to demonstrate the life cycle as seen from the point of view of a deer and his forest friends. In the beginning of the film, Bambi is born and greeted with much attention and affection. He is awkward, struggling to operate his long legs. He is also naïve, mistaking a butterfly for a bird, a flower for a butterfly and a skunk for a flower. Soon, however, Bambi learns both to walk and to speak. He learns the joys of play and flirtation, as well as to fear the menace of Man. Whenever the woodland creatures speak of Man, it is not with a sense of anger, but rather a sense of resignation. If humans must inevitably face Death and Taxes, then the animals of this picture must inevitably face Death and Man. Not surprisingly, the two often go hand in hand. The cute, cuddly iconic Bambi eventually grows into adulthood, despite experiencing profound loss along the way. Once the deer himself becomes a parent, the cycle is complete.

Though many will probably remember Bambi as a profoundly moving experience from their childhood, it may strike the 21st century viewer as a fairly shallow work. Its singular message is put forth in a rather blunt fashion, while parents are left to piece together an interpretation for their children. I do not feel that children need to be sheltered from all things unpleasant in their entertainment. On the contrary, I watched the film with my own little boy, looking for an opportunity to discuss the concept of death and the way that guns can cause harm. Though it contains one of the most famous deaths in all of children’s film, I was surprised to find that Bambi actually handles the subject matter in an awkward fashion, offering one solemn sentence of explanation before shuffling off to the next scene containing young animals in love. So what am I asking for? I’m not exactly sure. Those who have not seen Bambi in a while may need to be reminded that there are actually two deaths which occur, both of which are depicted in a rather cold fashion with little time to process what has just occurred. I don’t necessarily feel like the filmmakers needed to wallow in the sadness of the moment; however, at the same time, a little insight might be nice. The feeling I got was, “Hey kid … buck up, death happens, deal with it. Want a cookie?”

And what about Thumper’s famous advice, received from his father? If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all. Setting aside the double negative, there’s also a conformist sentiment in that phrase that strikes me a little oddly. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive and reading too much into a simple call for proper manners, but what if there’s some great bunny injustice somewhere down the line? Who’s going to be there to stand up for what’s right and deliver the cold, hard truth? Not Thumper, man. He’ll be at home watching reality TV with his five kids telling them not to rock the boat and to get a damn haircut.

Anyway, beyond that, your appreciation of Bambi will probably depend on your patience for cutesy animal antics. From time to time, the animation is indeed a true pleasure to behold; still, I found myself lapsing into boredom despite the film’s brief running time. Though it attempts to tackle weighty subject matter, Bambi offers little in the way of substantial philosophy or thoughtfulness. It remains a well-executed animated film, but somewhat air-headed, even when placed next to comparable Disney fare of the era.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (Ramirez, 1999)

From the director of Clifford’s Really Big Movie, the straight-to-video effort, The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue takes the beloved mechanical characters from the original film and gives them a film that is almost entirely without charm or inspiration. The first of many curious choices is to allow the mechanical characters to interact (in spoken English naturally) with living, breathing animals such as a cat, a rat, a snake and a monkey. Perhaps it’s silly to quibble about such intermingling in a film about a talking toaster, but this decision leads to a lack of inner consistency as we quickly fall into a thoroughly unengaging and needlessly complicated plot where we are expected to fret over both a group of lab animals and the lost thesis written by the owner of the animate objects. Apparently, the Master (as he is called) has made it 600 pages into his thesis without so much as hitting the save button. Not only has he never printed out pages to review with his advisors or to proofread himself, he presumably has never turned his computer off. Thus, the critical information is lost through a sudden electrical surge. Call me cold, but someone with this little sense deserves to miss graduation.

Needless to say, the fascinating allegorical subtext of the original film is nowhere to be seen. There is a critical moment that reprises the original’s theme of sacrifice; however, this moment is executed so awkwardly that it only serves to make us appreciate the care and tact with which the original filmmakers’ handled their challenging material. Upon watching The Brave Little Toaster earlier in the year, I immediately felt as if it was one of the most unique and powerful children’s films that I had ever seen. Therefore, I decided to at least give one of the sequels a try. True, it is not surprising that this installment falls far short of its predecessor. Still, it is disappointing to find out just how drastically it fails, even on its own modest terms.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #17 -- MEASURE FOR MEASURE directed by Neil LaBute

The Plot:

Claudio’s been having pre-marital sex with his fiancee. Unfortunately for him, he knocks her up at a time when the local authority is really cracking down on that kind of thing. All of a sudden, he’s a dead man walking. There’s a glimmer of hope though. His sister, Isabella, a nun-in-training, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life and finds that he is more than willing to pull a few strings – as long as she has sex with him. Holy hypocrisy, Batman! Isabella tells her brother that he needs to start packing for Purgatory, but fortunately for everybody (except Angelo), the vacationing Duke has been in disguise all this time watching the events unfold.

Why Labute?

Nobody can create an a--hole like Neil LaBute can. And as Shakespearean a--holes go, Angelo may rank behind only Iago and Richard III. He does not even get to complete his intended crime, but there is something about the way that he abuses genuine human love in order to fulfill his lustful desires that is just appalling. Think of LaBute’s shocking debut In the Company of Men and how sick you felt when the manipulative game was finally revealed. That’s kind of the effect that Angelo can have on an audience. This is another case where the category ‘comedy’ is very deceiving, as there are few moments of mirth in Measure for Measure. Indeed, it is a dark, cynical play in which even the heroine is difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. We may support her devotion to her faith, but to let her brother die? Perhaps the strongest evidence for LaBute’s suitability to adapt Measure for Measure comes from his stage play Bash, which he directed for Showtime. In Bash, he draws from Greek tragedy to bring together three tales of misguided faith and pointless violence. This, combined with his wicked sense of humor, his theatrical roots and the effortless way he conjures up vile manipulators make LaBute more than qualified to take on Measure for Measure.

LaBute films I have seen:

1. In the Company of Men ****
2. Your Friends and Neighbors ***1/2
3. Possession ***
4. Nurse Betty ***
5. The Shape of Things **1/2

LaBute plays worth reading: Bash, The Mercy Seat

Monday, November 14, 2005

Privilege (Watkins, 1967)

Peter Watkins’ Privilege, his follow-up to the Academy Award winning film, The War Game, notably shifts its target from those in charge of managing British government and defense to those in charge of managing British popular culture. Paul Jones (lead vocalist of Manfred Mann) plays the role of Steven Shorter, a manufactured media icon that is so incredibly huge that his latest hit can be heard on at least three different stations simultaneously. Indeed, his celebrity and influence have escalated to such enormous heights that he has caught the attention of powerful politicians and clergymen who wish to use his charisma to manipulate the will of Britain’s youth. Predating Ken Russell’s Tommy by nearly a decade, Privilege also draws a distinct connection between rock star and spiritual leader; however, it does not follow the traditional romantic view of rock and roll as a liberating force in the face of oppressive governmental and moralistic control. Instead, Watkins characterizes pop idols as tools used to distract young people away from issues that really matter. If your waking hours are spent obsessing over Steven Shorter and how good he looks in a swimsuit, then you’re not going to be out protesting your government’s involvement in wars overseas. Or so the logic goes.

Watkins’ tone fluctuates between silly -- such as a visit to the set of a commercial where the director’s training grossly exceeds the material -- and fiercely satiric, as when his off-screen voice informs viewers that the England of the near future will function under a one-party system, due to the fact that there was so little difference between the previous two parties anyway. As in his other films, Watkins employs a mixture of conventional fictional scenes and pseudo-documentary, not only to give his story a sense of immediacy, but to give him an opportunity to dissect the purpose and motivations of peripheral characters without having to construct an overly complicated plot. Steven’s stage show is an odd combination of pop balladeering and orchestrated pseudo-martyrdom. Led to the stage in handcuffs by police officers that bait the youthful crowd with oppressive glares, Steven inspires the same kind of reverential screams that met Elvis and the Beatles in their early years. What might serve as publicity grabbing offstage antics for other performers are here performed ritualistically as if there is some vicarious need being fulfilled in the hearts of his admirers as he goes through the motions of resisting arrest.

All of this may sound like a conventional parody of the rock and roll phenomenon fused with a healthy dose of Orwell, but even this description will not prepare the viewer for the brazen way that Watkins borrows fascistic imagery and uses it to indict the entertainment industry, the popular media and organized religion for their participation in manipulating the masses. Watkins’ film is at its best when it is at its most vicious, delivering the kind of unapologetic political scolding than is typical of his oeuvre. The more conventional dramatic scenes in which Steven expresses his inner angst are less effective, particularly since Jones, acting in his first film, is not nearly as engaging a presence outside of the concert scenes. Still, Privilege is well worth tracking down for its audacity and its prescience.


The 40 Year Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005)

While watching The 40 Year Old Virgin, I was struck by how much has changed since the early eighties comedy, Bachelor Party. Bachelor Party, of course, was the sort of film Tom Hanks did early on in his career before the movie-going public decided that he was the new Jimmy Stewart. An exceptionably bawdy comedy, Bachelor Party derived humor from male insensitivity and the way men fear that marriage will limit their sex lives. In the film, women are generally viewed as either potential conquests or obstacles that must necessarily be deceived in order to live as one pleases. Now we have The 40 Year Old Virgin which approaches the sex comedy from a completely different angle. Here we have a protagonist that claims he respects women so much, he does them the favor of staying completely away from them. In this picture, it is the sensitive male that is the source of humor, but also the character we urge on, hoping he will find satisfaction. Though they have their own share of anxieties and insecurities, the women for the most part know what they want sexually and use their directness to head off any potential shenanigans. Even a young woman that is targeted at a bar as a potentially easy lay due to her level of intoxication remains in both the proverbial and literal driver’s seat. Yet another, a particularly randy bookstore employee, demonstrates that Whitney Houston was right all along – learning to love yourself truly is the greatest love of all. And then we have Trish, played by Catherine Keener, who does not allow the unusual behavior of her virgin boyfriend to dissuade her from pursuing the healthy relationship that she eagerly craves. The 40 Year Old Virgin is a film where male co-workers cry in each other’s presence and support each other through the trying task of finding love, while women barf in public and commit sexual harassment in the workplace. Besides all that, it’s actually a very funny film with an ensemble that clearly enjoys working together. Though the film’s major joke eventually gets repetitive and Andy’s confession to Trish is surprisingly sentimental, The 40 Year Old Virgin is a solid crowd-pleaser that is certainly cleverer than one might initially expect.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

Alice in Wonderland (Geronimi/Jackson/Luske, 1951)

It is probably impossible nowadays for a reasonably sophisticated adult to see Alice in Wonderland without being aware of the parallels to psychedelic drug use made famous in the 1960’s by Jefferson Airplane. However, rather than distracting from what is essentially a film aimed at children, such subtext actually makes for a film experience that is extremely captivating as we notice the similarities in our childlike need to explore and the desire of an illicit drug user to push their brain beyond the limits of reason. For a film as mainstream as Alice, it has precious little plot and a complete willingness to indulge in extended digressions like the Walrus and the Carpenter sequence. A young, well-to-do girl, tired of her sister’s steadfast logic, desires to create a world of nonsense. Soon, she finds herself transported to this world where she, curiously enough, discovers that she is the one attempting to impose order on several colorful characters that resist such notions vigorously. Eventually, she wears out her welcome and hurriedly returns to a life of normalcy.

In many ways, Alice in Wonderland directly parallels The Wizard of Oz, which preceded it by twelve years, right down to a sung soliloquy early on in the film where the protagonist explicitly expresses her desire to venture outside of her humdrum existence. However, unlike its predecessor, Alice makes no attempt to provide the characters we encounter with anything resembling motivation or character development. In case it’s not clear, I mean this as a compliment. Indeed, Alice may just be the most mainstream example of surrealism of which I am aware. As Alice’s size fluctuates with every nibble of the enchanted mushrooms, we understand that there are adolescent fears being expressed without needing to be told explicitly what they are. By using dream logic, the filmmakers are able to venture into dark territory that may not otherwise have been palatable to viewers at the time. There is a particularly remarkable moment where one of the Queen’s guards (a walking talking playing card) expresses his fear of decapitation by drawing a paintbrush covered in bloodlike red paint across his throat. Other characters, such as the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat, possess an insanity that is somehow about two notches more intense than we probably expect. The result is a film that is not only very funny, but also steeped in danger.

The major disappointment I have in regards to Alice is the way in which the film ultimately attempts to explain away its warped perspective by placing all the events in the context of an elaborate dream. The reason for my objection is that such a notion seems redundant. We understand that we are viewing a film, something that allows us to transport away from the real world. The very process of watching a film is to enter into someone else’s vision. Why then do we need to be comforted by the notion that all we have witnessed fits into our preconceived notion of how the universe operates? The film’s ending undermines somewhat the subversive nature of the anarchy that has preceded it. Over a decade later, Grace Slick would make no such concession, declaring loudly that “logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.” It is one thing to envision a parallel world of disorder and mania. It is quite another to suggest such madness exists in the world in which we already inhabit.

Still, there is no question that Alice in Wonderland is top-notch Disney product and the kind of film that I wish they would try to emulate more often in the present.


Saturday, November 12, 2005

Hamilton Mattress (Purves, 2001)

A kind of poor man’s Wallace and Gromit, Hamilton Mattress is the tale of an aardvark with a dream. Now I know what you’re thinking … what could an aardvark possibly dream about that would be worth the trouble of two years of painstaking stop-motion animation work? Well, let me tell you. How about a decent pair of trousers? Still with me? To be fair, the trousers are indeed merely a device to get the critter out of the desert and into the big city where he can wow snobby club goers with his virtuoso drumming skills. That’s right. This stocky mammal’s got mad skillz. He can lay down some dope beats. Unfortunately, he’s also got a mug so ugly that his new employer has to hide him behind copious amounts of foliage. Will Mr. Mattress find happiness, acceptance and a decent pair of slacks? While it’s conceivable that this premise could have served for a decent kid’s film, Hamilton Mattress only succeeds in achieving moderate interest and the occasional laugh. Although it’s hard not to want a character as innocent as Hamilton to succeed, he lacks the kind of charisma that would really allow a viewer to become invested in his quest. The plot unfolds in such a conventional manner that, although we may not be able to predict specific events, the pacing and arc both lull the viewer into imagining the inevitable ending long before it arrives on screen. Hamilton Mattress is passable entertainment for the undiscerning, but it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to find something more satisfying.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

My 20 favorite films of the 2000's (so far)

1. Dogville (Trier)
2. Dancer in the Dark (Trier)
3. Me and You and Everyone We Know (July)
4. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Mitchell)
5. City of God (Meirelles)
6. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch)
7. The Isle (Kim)
8. Fat Girl (Breillat)
9. The Piano Teacher (Haneke)
10. Y tu mama tambien (Cuaron)
11. The Princess and the Warrior (Tykwer)
12. Together (Moodysson)
13. The Deep End (McGehee/Siegel)
14. Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky)
15. The Weather Underground (Green/Siegel)
16. 3-Iron (Kim)
17. The Fog of War (Morris)
18. Control Room (Noujaim)
19. Angels in America (Nichols)
20. Shaun of the Dead (Wright)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

My 20 favorite films of the 1990's

1. Breaking the Waves (Trier)
2. Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce)
3. Prospero’s Books (Greenaway)
4. The Celebration (Vinterberg)
5. Muriel’s Wedding (Hogan)
6. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang)
7. The Sweet Hereafter (Egoyan)
8. Orlando (Potter)
9. Kirikou and the Sorceress (Ocelot)
10. Fucking Åmål (Moodysson)
11. Run Lola Run (Tykwer)
12. Funny Games (Haneke)
13. Heavenly Creatures (Jackson)
14. Edward II (Jarman)
15. The Wrong Trousers (Park)
16. The Piano (Campion)
17. In the Company of Men (LaBute)
18. The Kingdom (Trier)
19. Welcome to the Dollhouse (Solondz)
20. 35 Up/42 Up (Apted)

My 20 favorite films of the 1980's

1. Amadeus (Forman)
2. Spoorloos/The Vanishing (Sluizer)
3. A Zed and Two Noughts (Greenaway)
4. Ran (Kurosawa)
5. This is Spinal Tap (Reiner)
6. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Greenaway)
7. The Elephant Man (Lynch)
8. Raising Arizona (Coens)
9. Brazil (Gilliam)
10. Blue Velvet (Lynch)
11. The Atomic Café (Loader/Rafferty/Rafferty)
12. Death in the Seine (Greenaway)
13. The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese)
14. Henry V (Branagh)
15. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)
16. Poltergeist (Hooper)
17. Prick Up Your Ears (Frears)
18. Santa Sangre (Jodorowsky)
19. Ladyhawke (Donner)
20. Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

My 20 favorite films of the 1970's

1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog)
2. Walkabout (Roeg)
3. The Holy Mountain (Jodorowsky)
4. Life of Brian (Jones)
5. Eraserhead (Lynch)
6. Grey Gardens (Hovde/Maysles/Maysles/Meyer)
7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones)
8. Punishment Park (Watkins)
9. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder)
10. A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick)
11. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jires)
12. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet)
13. Cries and Whispers (Bergman)
14. The Phantom of Liberty (Bunuel)
15. Salo (Pasolini)
16. All That Jazz (Fosse)
17. Scenes from a Marriage (Bergman)
18. A Real Young Girl (Breillat)
19. Star Wars (Lucas)
20. Stroszek (Herzog)

Monday, November 07, 2005

My 20 favorite films of the 1960's

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
2. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
3. Winter Light (Bergman)
4. The War Game (Watkins)
5. The Virgin Spring (Bergman)
6. Satyricon (Fellini)
7. Onibaba (Shindô)
8. The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo)
9. I am Curious Yellow (Sjöman)
10. 8 ½ (Fellini)
11. Simon of the Desert (Bunuel)
12. Marat/Sade (Brook)
13. Witches’ Hammer (Vávra)
14. Hour of the Wolf (Bergman)
15. Psycho (Hitchcock)
16. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols)
17. Belle de jour (Bunuel)
18. A Man for All Seasons (Zinnemann)
19. Juliet of the Spirits (Fellini)
20. Viridiana (Bunuel)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

My 20 favorite films of the 1950's

1. Los Olvidados (Bunuel)
2. Ikiru (Kurosawa)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
4. The Night of the Hunter (Laughton)
5. Sunset Blvd. (Wilder)
6. The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
7. Umberto D (De Sica)
8. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
9. I Live in Fear (Kurosawa)
10. Wild Strawberries (Bergman)
11. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)
12. The Cranes are Flying (Kalatozishvili)
13. El (Bunuel)
14. The Seventh Seal (Bergman)
15. Paths of Glory (Kubrick)
16. Night and Fog (Resnais)
17. Throne of Blood (Kurosawa)
18. All About Eve (Mankiewicz)
19. Animal Farm (Batchelor/Halas)
20. 12 Angry Men (Lumet)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #16 -- MACBETH directed by Terry Gilliam

The Plot:

Coming home from battle, Macbeth encounters three witches who tell him that he will one day be king of Scotland, but also that his friend Banquo will have heirs who are king though he will not be king himself. Hmm, well that’s a puzzler. Macbeth is skeptical, but his wife is already taking a tape measure to the Queen’s chambers and planning where to put her furniture. She wants to be Queen yesterday and convinces her husband to off the current king in order to speed up the process. Macbeth assumes the crown, but the witches never said anything about how long he would be king, so he continues to plot the deaths of all those who might take the crown from him and their children. The Macbeth reign, however, is comically short and comes to a screeching halt when another absurdly unlikely prophecy comes true.

Why Gilliam?

I’ve always thought that as tragedies go, there’s something very funny about Macbeth. I’m not saying that it’s filled with jokes, but rather that the mess the central character plunges himself into is funny to me in its absurdity. Macbeth’s coup is so ill-conceived and his treachery so incompetently planned that the audience witnesses not so much a noble figure’s tragic fall, but the Machiavellian schemes of a paranoid bungler and his crazed advisor – his wife. That’s not to say that Macbeth is a failure as a tragedy; in fact, I think it’s a very good play. It just has a very peculiar mood with moments that are just as likely to make you chuckle as anything. When the specter of Banquo returns to haunt Macbeth in the middle of a glorious feast and no one else can see it, there’s something humorous about the way that the schemer is being tormented. When Lady Macbeth wanders around in her sleep and tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands, it makes me smile because she is getting what she deserves. I also enjoy the way in which Shakespeare sets up a final prophecy regarding the woods traveling to Macbeth’s castle that you know has to come true somehow, but seems impossible. The solution and the associated image are glorious in their absurdity. Kurosawa understood this when in Throne of Blood he has a scared Toshiro Mifune attempting to elude a barrage of arrows. I think Gilliam would understand this as well. Macbeth is a play filled with supernatural effects and unusual characters. I would love to see how Gilliam envisioned the witches, the floating dagger, the moving woods, etc, etc. He is a director that loves to take on large projects and he has a talent for exciting action and inventive visuals. But he’s also a smart director and knows when it’s appropriate to lay off the humor and go for a mood that’s more sincere. He can also capture the pervasive level of paranoia in Macbeth that sometimes reaches farcical levels. Macbeth isn’t a tearful tragedy like Lear; it’s the tale of one man’s glorious disaster. It gives me great delight to give a play that is notoriously cursed to the director whose projects are notoriously cursed. Maybe the curses would cancel each other out and we’d get a damn fine film.

Gilliam films I have seen:

1. Brazil ****
2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (with Terry Jones) ****
3. Time Bandits ****
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ***1/2
5. The Fisher King ***1/2
6. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ***
7. Twelve Monkeys **1/2
8. Jabberwocky **

Short film worth watching: The Crimson Permanent Assurance

The Gladiators (Watkins, 1969)

Two years before Peter Watkins made Punishment Park (in which pacifists, dissidents and other enemies of the American government are forced to race across a brutally hot desert as part of an elaborate game) he offered up another politically charged fantasy with far less focus – The Gladiators. The Gladiators has the alternate title of The Peace Game, which is a play on Watkins’ Academy-award winning documentary, The War Game, in which he imagined the aftermath of a nuclear attack on England. The comparison is unfortunate, as The Gladiators lacks much of what made The War Game such a haunting, powerful experience – namely a clear political purpose backed by known facts. Instead, The Gladiators comes across mostly as unconvincing babbling, with moments of genuine insight sprinkled sparsely throughout.

The situation brings world leaders together in Sweden where, instead of mounting large-scale invasions and launching missiles, individual combatants have been selected to represent their countries and run a treacherous obstacle course hoping to find the control room which serves as the finish line. In another room, the leaders gather together for tea and light snacks, watching coldly as the soldiers dodge bullets and explosions which are intentionally triggered through a central computer. As the film was made in the late 60’s, the super-computer intended to be a metaphorical stand-in for the ‘war machine’ unfortunately resembles nothing more than a really malicious typewriter. Even so, the premise could potentially make for an effective platform towards political discussion about the way in which worldwide warfare benefits the wealthy and powerful everywhere more than it does any particular nation. Unfortunately, the rules of Watkins’ cinematic game are never clearly defined, nor are the participants who take part. We have little sense for what is at stake for the fictional characters and thus have little opportunity to find real-world connections. A brief glimpse of the film that could have been is offered in a memorable moment in which violent revolution is contrasted with genuine compassion and humanity; however, it arrives too late to salvage the meandering that proceeds it.

The Gladiators is ambitious and well-intentioned, but ultimately a cinematic misfire. Those wanting to experience Watkins’ original blend of documentary-style filmmaking and political commentary are advised to look elsewhere.


Chicken Little (Dindal, 2005)

Mark Dindal, the director of The Emperor’s New Groove, returns with a film that, despite being only about half as funny as its predecessor, nonetheless has enough charms to make for a worthwhile time at the cinema for the whole family. Chicken Little takes the familiar fairy tale as its starting point, but then constructs a whole new plot on top of it involving a troubled father-son relationship, a group of underdogs struggling to fit in, a budding underage romance and, naturally, alien invasion. As convoluted as it may sound, the events actually unfold in a somewhat logical manner. I very much enjoyed the explanation the filmmakers offered for Chicken Little believing that the sky was falling, as well as the reason why none of the other villagers believed him. I should also mention that the animation in Chicken Little looks simply fantastic. Each of the anthropomorphized animals has a distinct personality and is rendered with a sharpness that is truly impressive. I also very much enjoyed the environment which these characters inhabited. The town gave me a very warm, “apple pie” kind of feeling, much like the neighborhood we see at the end of the Mr. Rogers television program.

It is mostly in the humor department where Chicken Little struggles as much as it succeeds. I greatly enjoyed the Fish out of Water character, a very agreeable fellow that is able to attend classes on land because he wears a helmet filled with water. Because he cannot speak, he steals several scenes through physical humor reminiscent of Harpo Marx. This ultra-clever nod to foreign exchange students is unfortunately a rare gem amongst humor that mostly fails to generate true belly laughs. Steve Zahn’s Runt of the Litter has the most tired comedic act as he gets to be the one freaking out over every little hitch in the adventure. He is also saddled with an eye-rolling character trait – a love of Barbara Streisand and other cheese-pop which he sings to himself in times of high stress … which are many. Indeed, Dindal makes several unfortunate soundtrack choices, including the one billionth time that REM’s “End of the World As We Know It” has been played to underscore a potentially disastrous situation.

Still, despite only being mildly amused by the film’s humor, I must admit that there was something endearing about the little guy. I was invested with his quest for redemption and I felt for him as his composure began to unravel. I could have done without the intrusion of Oprah-level psychobabble coming from the Ugly Duckling urging Chicken Little to find ‘closure’ with his father; however, the basic theme of yearning for parental approval is a worthy one I think. In the end, Chicken Little skims by, producing an experience that is just good enough to recommend, but not good enough to inspire raves.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Culloden (Watkins, 1964)

At the most basic level, Peter Watkins’ documentary, Culloden, is a vividly realized recreation of the battle of the same name – one of the bloodiest in British history. With an eye for historical accuracy, Watkins recreates the costumes, weaponry and strategies employed in the 17th century clash between the British army and Scottish rebels from the Highland Clan. Watkins places his camera in the midst of the chaos and, as viewers, we are given and up-close look at the way the cannons are fired and the daggers are thrust. We also see time and time again the way that they maim their targets. Culloden is no simple-minded action flick; nor is it a dry history lesson. Fueled by the building political tension in Vietnam at the time of the film’s release and drawing inspiration from the way television journalists were increasingly placing themselves in harm’s way in order to capture the grim realities of War, Culloden is constructed around the conceit that a camera crew has arrived on the scene to cover the battle as events unfold. Before a single blow is struck, the camera falls upon individual faces as an off-screen narrator (Watkins himself) gives us background information on how each came to the field on this day. We see a man with no possessions of his own who has pledged his own life as his ‘rent’. He and others like him fight at the whims of absurdly wealthy men to whom they are indebted. We see another man whose total income over two years would not be enough to pay for the hat of the man that stands in front of him. The leaders on both sides are interviewed and we, as viewers, get a sneak preview of the strategy each will employ – or lack thereof in the case of the Scottish leader who arrives without a prepared battle plan, opting instead to simply place faith in God.

The battle, we are told, lasted just over an hour – approximately the length of Watkins’ film. Along the way, the fictional journalists document not only the end result, but also draw attention to the war atrocities committed by the victors. We cringe as we see the wounded allowed to suffer in agony for days on the battlefield, or as British soldiers chase the families of their enemies into the wilderness and indiscriminately slaughter man, woman and child. Participants in the massacre are pressed for thoughts immediately afterward and express different views on the necessity and morality of what just occurred. Watkins’ depiction of his native country is far from flattering, ultimately insinuating that his own people were responsible for the attempted annihilation of an entire generation. Though his film tells the story of lives lost long ago, his barely contained disgust for the horrors of war is evident throughout his film. By staging the events of yesterday, yet incorporating the intrusion of modern technology, Watkins draws a very clear line from the past to the present. The unspoken question is this: how can we still be capable of such acts of barbarism and cruelty?

Despite its obscurity, Culloden is high-quality filmmaking – educational, entertaining and charged with political anger – and certainly worth the effort it may take to track it down.


The War Game (Watkins, 1965)

I once had a co-worker who could not understand why Americans would honor the anniversary of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Her reasoning was that Japanese aggression during World War II warranted such a response. She is not alone. I know that there are countless others who feel this way, seemingly divorced from the realities of the devastation and suffering unleashed that day. I wish that each one of them could sit down and watch Peter Watkins’ documentary/cautionary fiction, The War Game. Acting as a kind of antidote to the dopey atomic age propaganda films produced by the American government in the 50’s (in which a whole generation of schoolchildren were led to believe that their desks doubled as makeshift bomb shelters), The War Game uses historical records of the aftermath of bombings in Japan and Germany to make an educated guess about how England would react in a similar situation.

Like Kubrick before him, Watkins discovers that there is something darkly humorous about the gap between the immense horror that can be wreaked during nuclear annihilation and mankind’s struggle to understand just how much danger it has put itself in by opening this particular Pandora’s Box. Hence, The War Game begins as a comedy. In an attempt to evacuate England’s population centers, citizens in other areas of the country are asked to take in as many as eight refugees that arrive unannounced on buses. Government officials pass out slim pamphlets door-to-door that are intended to instruct citizens what actions to take in the event of nuclear conflict. Apparently, these pamphlets suggest the liberal use of sandbags – never mind that at least one poor woman can barely afford enough to cover a single window. We also see several ‘man-on-the-street’ interviews suggesting that efforts to educate the general public on radiation and other grim facts of nuclear warfare have been largely unsuccessful, leaving the populace in an extremely vulnerable situation.

Once the bombs drop, the humor gives way to horror as we see the very serious consequences that can occur following a nuclear attack: horrible burns, blinding light, paralyzing shock. Considering the scale of the production, these scenes are executed in an extremely effective fashion. Watkins captures the events in verité style, his camera shaking with each explosion and the off-screen narrator offering supplementary information in a tone that is level and unaffected. There is no artificial drama inserted in order to win our sympathy. We care for these people for the simple fact that they are humans scrambling to stay alive in the face of something overwhelming and merciless. The following days and months reveal even more negative effects, including radiation, decreased rations and a pervasive feeling of apathy that falls over the citizenry.

The War Game is a film that is not only incredibly engaging and haunting – it is nothing short of honorable. In the midst of the 1960’s, Watkins asked his viewers to seriously imagine themselves in the place of those who lived in countries far away and had faced the most despicable weapon mankind had ever created. Over the course of this brief, but potent film, Watkins makes a passionate argument for the impossibility of ever using such a weapon with nobleness. The War Game is a film that should be shown in high school history classes and perhaps also presidential inaugurations. Beyond that, it is most certainly essential viewing for any serious film fan.


Edvard Munch (Watkins, 1974)

In 1968, Peter Watkins traveled to Oslo University to attend a special screening of his works and, during his time there, took the time to make a visit to the Edvard Munch Museum. As he looked at Munch’s painting, Watkins discovered that he had an affinity with the famed Scandinavian artist, best known for his iconic painting, The Scream. Whereas Watkins’ films often blur the lines between the past and the present, Munch had no trouble placing adult versions of himself and his siblings into a painting illustrating a traumatic childhood event. Like Watkins, Munch also made frequent use of characters gazing directly at us, weary looks upon their faces. In the films of Watkins, these looks often are a result of political oppression. There is generally a mixture of despair and accusation bubbling behind the eyes of these people that have been trodden upon by the wrong-headed policies of the wealthy and powerful. With his 1974 documentary/biopic, Edvard Munch, Watkins argues that the tension in Munch’s paintings comes from the conflict between a repressive, conservative upbringing and a revolutionary spirit schooled in the power of passion and sexuality as a driving force towards artistic truth.

Shortly after his visit to the Munch Museum, Watkins felt determined that he must create a film dedicated to examining the artist’s tumultuous life, his struggle to gain critical acceptance and his eventual descent into insanity. It took three years to convince the powers-that-be in Norwegian television to fund the project, which may come as a surprise unless we consider the chilly critical reception that Munch’s work received throughout his lifetime. The end result is a thoroughly revealing work -- not only of Munch and the various influences and conditions that made him into the tortured genius we remember today, but also of the way in which mainstream society fiercely resists artistic expression that does not conform to comforting depictions of realism.

Using a cast of non-professional actors, Watkins follows Munch over the course of several years from dreary childhood to early artistic experimentation to critical pummeling to tentative critical acceptance and finally ending up in the loony bin. Watkins’ method is to create a kind of time-travel pseudo-documentary in which known historical facts and quotes from diary entries are mixed with staged interviews of actors playing various key figures in Munch’s life. There are also recreations of critical moments in Munch’s life, such as two near death experiences and various unsatisfactory affairs. Growing up in an ultra-conservative community where the middle class citizens gather daily to promenade while the children of the lower classes work 11-hour shifts at the local factory and the police force takes it upon themselves to personally inspect prostitutes for venereal disease, Munch has the good sense to fall in with the local Bohemians. He listens attentively as his companions discuss free love, politics, the nature and purpose of art and who’s going to pick up the bar tab. Watkins skillfully intercuts these discussions with shots of Munch at home, battling with his disapproving family over his behavior and new moralistic outlook. It is here where Watkins’ film is at its strongest – connecting the various tensions at play in Munch’s life directly to the bold, confrontational nature of his paintings. Setting Munch’s biographical history and his artistic history side by side, Watkins attempts to offer a reconciliation, thus presenting a deeper portrait of a complicated man.

At each and every exhibition, Munch’s work is met with scathing reviews that question both the creator’s morality and his sanity. Smugly, we as viewers get the opportunity to scoff at critics that failed to recognize the breakthroughs Munch was making in becoming a pioneer of Expressionism. Watkins also stages various reactions that might possibly have been made by the general public. Notably, most of the criticisms revolve around the fact that Munch has dared to break away from Naturalism and not simply recreate his subject realistically. Munch’s distorted faces and bloodied skies do not simply meet with disapproval; they inspire scandal. The most compelling question arising from Watkins’ film is why such outrage in reaction to paint on canvas? By including comments from an upstanding bearded gentleman who believes that the strength of institutions like marriage and the church are the only thing keeping society from descending into utter anarchy, Watkins allows us to see how 19th century Norwegians might get their panties in a bunch over something like The Scream.

At nearly three hours, Edvard Munch does occasionally overstay its welcome, circling back to repeat critical moments (not the consumption scene again!) or meandering off the trail into vague poetical musings. Despite the fact that Watkins has clearly made an effort to give due attention to Munch’s lesser known works, the film inevitably builds up to the creation of The Scream and has a difficult time sustaining our interest beyond that point. Once you’ve heard ‘Freebird’, it just feels like it’s time to turn off the lights and go home, you know? It’s mildly interesting to be aware that Munch delved into wood carving and working with acid later in life (not the kind you’re thinking of), but at the same time, it does little to strengthen the themes Watkins has developed so effectively in the first two hours. Despite these minor misgivings, Edvard Munch is an extraordinary achievement, succeeding both in telling the story of an important and captivating artist, as well as provoking vital questions about the inflammatory nature of anti-naturalism.