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Based on writer/ director Cameron Crowe’s experiences touring with rock bands like Poco, The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin, Almost Famous gives us Crowe stand-in Patrick Fugit, a 15 year old rock fan who writes for his school newspaper and a San Diego alternative mag.  His work garners the attention of Creem magazine and its famed rock critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  Bangs tutors Fugit, who gets an assignment from Rolling Stone to cover rising band Stillwater, fronted by the suspicious and bloviating Jason Lee and the more talented and enigmatic guitarist Billy Crudup.  As Fugit is ensonced with the band on the road, he is charmed by groupie (or, Bandaid) Kate Hudson while his mother (Frances McDormand) monitors his trip via regular phone calls.  Fugit falls in love with Hudson, who is in love with Crudup and considers herself a muse to both.

The film is unabashedly nostalgiac, particularly the scenes of McDormand allowing and then regretting letting her son go on the road with the band.  McDormand is a conflicted personality, half free spirit, half overbearing “DON’T DO DRUGS” nag.  But her affection for her child is undeniable and as she sees him grow up, their distance becomes more painful.  Worse, she intuits he has found a new family (all of whom assure her when she calls that she has raised a wonderful boy while raising the specter that he is being plied with sex, drugs and rock and roll).

This is a fan’s movie, interspersing great 70s rock with a coming of age tale.  Fugit evokes the awkward, sweet nature of a 15 year old lovestruck boy and his performance is beautifully sentimental.  Crowe shows no fear of the maudlin which is for the most part to the film’s advantage.  When the band and its coterie, breaking apart due to various strains on the road, spontaneously sing Tiny Dancer on the tour bus, you can imagine eyes rolling after reading the scene.  But it works perfectly, all part of Crowe’s love letter to rock.

This is not to say that the film never missteps.  It is occasionally too cute, a Crowe weakness.  At one point, Hudson tells Fugit, “You’re too sweet for rock and roll” as if it needed to be said.  Crowe then makes him prove it.  Hudson, despondent over Crudup’s rejection of her, overdoses on Quaaludes.  Fugit saves her and as she gets her stomach pumped before his eyes, he remains starstruck, mooning as she vomits (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” plays in the background).   In another scene, the band plane appears to be going down, and the members all trade simmering accusations and long held secrets, which feels pat and forced.

But by and large, the film’s tone is just right, evoking the memories of your first LP and the moments when your mother actually read the lyrics on a record sleeve and took it away.

There are also laugh out loud moments, my favorite being Lee’s first interview with Fugit, where he waxes poetic on rock:  “Some people have a hard time explaining rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think anyone can really explain rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe Pete Townshend, but that’s okay. Rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle and a way of thinking… and it’s not about money and popularity. Although, some money would be nice. But it’s a voice that says, ‘Here I am… and fuck you if you can’t understand me.’ And one of these people is gonna save the world. And that means that rock ‘n’ roll can save the world… all of us together. And the chicks are great. But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music.”

When the quote makes the article, his response is priceless:  “Rock ‘n’ roll can save the world”? “The chicks are great”? I sound like a dick!”

There are precious few good movies about making movies  Tropic Thunder is uproariously funny, a brutal send up of dozens of Hollywood tropes, which get a less raucous going over in Get ShortyThe Player reveals a Hollywood machinery that routinizes art, creating a war of sorts between the suits (Tim Robbins) and the creativity.  A Cock and Bull Story and Adaptation are examples closer to Seven Psychopaths, in that you don’t necessarily know where the movie and the “movie in a movie” begins and ends.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges was a surprising dark comedy about the philosophical doubts of hitmen as they tracked each other in the beautiful Belgian city.  In  Bruges marked McDonagh as a Quentin Taranatino disciple, but his dialogue was meatier, more complex and less reliant on pop culture diversions.

In Seven Psychopaths, the setting is LA, where McDonagh veers deeper into Tarantino-country.  His characters, however, retain the penchant for discussing deep moral and meditative matters as they negotiate an increasingly circuitous plot.  An actor (Sam Rockwell) tries to motivate his screenwriter friend (Colin Farrell) who is listlessly working on a script entitled “Seven Psychopaths.”  Farrell, despondent over the exploitative, repetive crap of violent pictures, has taken to drink at the thought of writing another.  Rockwell, however, is a proponent of the genre Ferrell seeks to escape, creatively urging a shoot ’em up with a blazing guns finale.  To that end, he puts out an ad in the “LA Weekly” inviting real psycopaths to come see Farrell and provide their stories.  Concurrently, Rockwell and an older gentleman (Christopher Walken) run a scam where they steal dogs and return them for rewards.  When they steal the beloved shih tzu of a real psycopath (Woody Harrelson). the script and reality meld.

I first took note of Sam Rockwell in Galaxy Quest, a very funny ensemble comedy which he completely stole.  He has the face of a supporting player, not quite Steve Buscemi odd, but one is often reminded of a rat gnawing on cheese.  Looks aside, which probably deny him leading status, Rockwell is a kinetic yet soulful actor, either riffing or expressing a heartfelt need to be understood.  Walken brings his trademark quirkiness, Harrelson his jovial menace, and Farrell, playing the straight man, his increasing frustration.  But the movie belongs to Rockwell, who blends psychoses with the LA surface cool of an aspiring actor/writer.  His performance is hilarious.

The preview portrays  the film as zanier than it really is.  There are a bunch of funny set-ups and coincidences, but McDonagh provides a sharp commentary on movies and contemporary LA.  He has also written some clever scenes where the characters toss around their screenplay ideas and in the process, write the movie before our eyes.  It’s a neat, meticulous trick.

If there is a weakness, it is the part of the film where the characters appear to suffer writer’s block, and in response, run off to Joshua Tree National Park to reflect (Walken takes peyote). The movie drags a bit at this point, but not for long.

AMC’s The Walking Dead is successful in part for its visceral presentation of a dystopian United States, where calamity has not only brought the dead to life, but those dead have pretty much overrun the country.  Even more disturbing, our cast of characters has learned that all living people carry the virus that will make them zombies hungry for flesh after they die, and that only a post-zombification destruction of the brain can stop their lust for humans.

Still, zombies in The Walking Dead are slow, near catatonic (though, like me passing a Chick-fil-A, they get more animated when near a meal).  If you stay in an open space or avoid them in bunches, you should be fine.  These zombies are like the walking dead in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).  Don’t get in an elevator without knowing what’s on the other side of the door and you should be okay.

This is a trial for the show’s writers, who have to continually come up with scenarios where the protagonists and the zombies must come to close quarters (i.e., the group just wrangled with hundreds trying to clear them out from a prison that, if habitable, will be the perfect fortress).

No such problem for Zack Snyder’s (300, Watchmen) unappreciated remake of Romero’s film.  Nurse Sarah Polley and her husband wake up to see a little neighbor child at the foot of their bed.  Awww.  Sally is sleep walking again.

And away we go.  The zombies are like bullets, carbon copies of the victims of “the rage” in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.  The decision is brilliant, because now, it becomes plausible that zombies actually took over the world (a ridiculous notion if, to become zombies, they had to die, and then get up and move about at the speed of latter years Andy Griffith).  A motley crew of survivors, including Polley, Vingh Rames as a cop, Mekhi Phifer as a hood, Jake Webber as the conscience, and an impressive Michael Kelly as the security guard who traverses from self-interested and greedy to semi-heroic, hole up in the mall.  All is well until they try and help a man they can see from their binoculars and it goes poorly, to say the least.  What follows is a harrowing escape from a their breached fortress.

First time director Snyder makes his mark at the outset with an introduction showing the breakdown of society as scored by Johnny Cash

It’s a helluva a ride and has numerous touches that elevate the material.  I’ll list three.  First, the film has the guts to show us what happens to a baby in the womb if that womb belongs to a zombie.  Second, it can be very funny, one such moment being target practice on the top of the mall that becomes a competition to shoot Burt Reynolds:

Third, it features my favorite zombie ever

Ty Burrell of Modern Family.

With Halloween upon us, I thought I’d recycle a review of the finest scary movie ever made.

Any film where the director bars the Jesuit-influenced screenwriter from the set because the screenwriter wants the film to be unequivocal in its conclusion that God triumphs over Satan is unique. As the screenwriter – William Peter Blatty – observed:

Like so many Catholics, I’ve had so many little battles of wavering faith over the course of my life. And I was going through one at that time. And when I heard about this case and read the details, that seemed so compelling. I thought, my God, if someone were to investigate this and authenticate it, what a tremendous boost to faith it would be. I thought, someday I would like to see that happen. You know, I would like to do it . . . the research into it affected me. And the novel, it very much strengthened my faith.

The film opens near an archaeological dig in Iraq. There, Director William Friedken shows a harsh and poverty-stricken world where the blind are led by starving children, a widow grieves, people work in small foundries like toilers in a fiery, oppressive Hell, and Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) receives a sign that he will soon be meeting Satan.  We are immediately transported to Washington, D.C., where another priest – Father Karras (Jason Miller) – is in a modern Hell.  He is counselor to Catholic priests.  He tells one, “There’s not a day in my life when I don’t feel like a fraud.” To another, “I think I’ve lost my faith.”  Karras’ mother is in her own hellish 70s New York City, she needs care, she lives in a slum, and he is wracked with guilt over her abandonment.

Friedken masterfully demonstrates the connection between a society sick by sin and the infestation of one little girl, Regan McNeil (Linda Blair), the daughter of a Hollywood actress (Ellen Burstyn) filming on location in D.C.  As Regan’s personality changes, she undergoes rigorous medical procedures (an arteriogram and a pneumoenchephalogram, to name two) that are graphic and invasive, and psychological probing (way before its time, the film has a doctor extolling the virtues of Ritalin); her father forgets to call her on her birthday, pointing up the damage of divorce; and, she is alone and lonely, in a foreign town and a rented townhouse.  She is the quintessential “modern” child.

The other characters are also on the point of knife.  Father Karras is distraught and on the edge of breakdown after the death ofhis mother; he counsels other priests sick at heart and doubting of faith; the director of Burstyn’s “film in the film” (Jack MacGowran) is a lonely drunk cursed by memories of the Holocaust, who scathingly brands Burstyn’s housekeeper of Germanic descent as a closet Nazi.  Everything seems rife with wrong and discomfort, somehow vulnerable.

As Regan descends into the throes of possession, Friedken and Blatty smartly turn the world on its head: the physicians, once cocky, can offer Burstyn only the Jesuits, and when she talks to Karras (himself an Ivy League trained psychologist), the priest immediately sends her back to the doctors and recommends the child’s institutionalization. This is what modernity does when confronted by evil – denies it, locks it away.

When it can’t be so easily denied, Friedken uses all means at his disposal to discomfort the viewer visually, from the foul, such as the vomit and goo and the masturbation-with-crucifix (Blair had a stunt double who was used in the disturbing sexual scenes, for those who may have been wondering – double or no, it is still quite a shock to see a little girl utter the abomination “Let Jesus fu** you, let him fu** you”) to the subtle (the use of subliminal cuts, as when Father Karras dreams of his mother and sees a death mask and when the samemask is overlaid on Blair’s face during the exorcism).   Friedken also had the set dropped to below freezing and the effect on the actors is stunning – their fear is enhanced by physical cold and the steam of breath is another frightening component.

Indeed, Blatty – an earnest writer of a morality tract in constant combat with the bombastic Friedken – expressed his concerns over Friedken’s depictions: “A large section of the audience probably came because something that shocking and vulgar could be seen on the American screen. Bill Friedken always said that would be the case; that they would come to see the little girl masturbate with the crucifix . . . At the time I didn’t believe it; I thought he was destroying the film. But when I perceived that he was absolutely right, I thought it was terribly depressing.”

Friedken is constantly tracking his characters slowly, taking the time to lovingly show what they see. Burstyn’s walk home from a film shoot in Georgetown, where she witnesses Karras furtively counseling one priest and then walks by two nuns with the wind whipping their garb, lends an eerie sense of the foreign and hidden.  Much of the camera work is tracking or slow zooms in and out, with the occasional hand-held jolt (mostly, when characters are rushing to Regan’s room). The effect lulls the viewer, making the terror – when it occurs – all the more jolting.

The performances are just right, to a fault. Blair is sweet and gentle as needs be, until – with the help of a stunt double, the guttural voice of Merecedes MacCambridge and various pulleys – she transforms convincingly into a leering, goading demon.  Burstyn presents as a pampered star and mother at the end of her rope, but she grows to a hardened, more simple warrior by the end of the film.  Von Sydow is appropriately spooky as the doomed Father Merrin.  McGowran and Lee J. Cobb are memorable as the murder victim and the murder policeman.  Indeed, Cobb’s gentle interrogations of Karras and McNeil are the kind of quiet respites necessary for such a tense film.  These characters also  represent the skeptic challenging the believer at the believer’s most tenuous.  Indeed, the film should be a Hollywood treatise on the exposition of minor characters

The great performance, however, belongs to Miller (who succumbed to drink and never really did much after The Exorcist). His is a tortured existence, filled with doubt, and his trepidation shows in his eyes.  Physically, Miller plays him almost as a man who fears that his weakness and doubt is obvious to all, so he shrinks himself so as not to be noticed.  In that way, Father Karras almost becomes a man who knows Satan is looking for him.  Friedken films Miller hunched over, or huddled in talk, or sitting down, or crouched, or in a crowd, making Karras as invisible as a man who is losing faith needs to be.

In the end, due to the exertions of Blatty (who was at one point banned from the set), the film is a clear triumph of good over evil.  Father Karras defies the devil “Come into me! Come into me!”  The devil obliges, and for a moment, it looks as if Satan/Karras will kill Regan. Karras, however, summons his faith and hurls himself out of the window.  He is given last rites, and later, a recovered Regan (having no memory or the possession) sees a priest and kisses him.

The Exorcist is a cinematic declaration that palpable, defined evil exists, a conclusion that can be attributed to Blatty.  It is an ultimate rejection of moral relativism, with harsh observations on modern mores and technological advances. It is hyper religious.  After all, you cannot really find “good” or “justification” or “well, sure . . . but” in Satan. There is no bargain, even as Burstyn asks a herd of befuddled doctors “You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?” The answer is, yes, there is no modern skate or help for you.  And Friedken, the carnival barker, effectively shows you just how frightening Satan can be.

A closing note: Blatty wrote The Exorcist many years after attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  One of his inspirations was newspaper reports of a real life exorcism of a boy in Mt. Rainier, Maryland.  That boy went to my high school, and you can read about his story here — http://www.strangemag.com/exorcistpage1.html  Enjoy.

With Halloween nearing, and my son in eighth grade, the number of scary films appropriate for him to see is increasing, and he is chomping at the bit (he’s already secured a promise from me that I will take him to The Exorcist for its 40th anniversary next year).  I remembered 1408 as having been both scary and appropriate and so we watched it this weekend.  It is scary and appropriate, but on a second viewing, it is pretty weak tea,

The movie is based on a Stephen King short story, so naturally, the protagonist (John Cusack) is a writer, and not just any writer, but that certain writer whose first book was brilliant and serious and moving, but it just didn’t sell (how could “The Long Road Home” not sell?).  Cusack is James Caan in Misery, even down to the sole cigarette.  So now, embittered, Cusack writes a schlocky travelogue based on his visits to haunted hotels, inns and B&Bs.  Cusack is enticed by an anonymous invitation to spend the night in New York City’s The Dolphin Hotel, room 1408.  Despite the best efforts of its manager (Samuel L. Jackson) to dissuade him, Cusack insists, and soon, he is ensconced and psychologically assaulted.

The lead up is good stuff.  Cusack is convincingly cynical in his pooh poohing and Jackson is effectively ominous in his warnings.  Moreover, the plot is equipped with a nifty “in” to the room – Cusack’s agent (Tony Shalhoub) engaged lawyers to find a civl rights statute that prohibits a hotel from refusing to rent an available room.

But there are only so many holes that can be patched.  Cusack learns that there have been 56 deaths, both natural and unnatural, in Room 1408, and Jackson also informs him that recently, a maid went in the room and gouged her own eyes out.  Cusack doesn’t believe it, which is fine, but Jackson knows the room is a meat grinder.  How in the world could the room be made available to anyone under any circumstances?  The civil rights law wouldn’t override gutting the room, or making it a part of the hallway, or simply declaring it off limits to any renter.   And who needs to tidy up this room?

This is a failure of writing.  There are any number of ways around the “we have a haunted room but it is still available” conundrum, but first, you have to cut the body count down by 46 to make its availability to Cusack, even under threat of litigation, reasonable, and its availability to victims 15 and up plausible.

Once Cusack gets in the room, it becomes a decent fright fest, starting with a few slight tricks (chocolates on the pillow appearing magically, a creepy clock radio that only plays The Carpenters).  Ghost jumpers follow, then an unexplained slasher and soon, you name it, it happens.  The room plays on Cusack’s pain, and torments him, inevitably, with the memory of his dead daughter.

Cusack is excellent as a man fighting losing his mind, but without backstory, the movie becomes all about the visuals.  And those remain interesting only for so long.

Still, state senator Clay Davis from The Wire (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) steals the picture in his one scene as a reluctant air conditioning repairman.  So there’s that.

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit!

"In 1974's Emmanuelle, the Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel — who died in Amsterdam on Wednesday, at 60, of esophageal and lung cancer — plays a young model who moves to Thailand with her husband, a French diplomat, and embarks on a journey of erotic self-discovery.  If you're straight and male and your own journey of erotic self-discovery began sometime between the dawn of premium cable and the advent of the Internet, there's a good chance you knew that already. Today every 14-year-old who can work an iPad is perpetually about three taps away from a firehose blast of HD-quality smut graphic enough to put Caligula in the mood for a Silkwood shower. But back in the '80s, to see people doing it on film, you had to either tune into the Playboy Channel's scrambled signal and squint for glimpses of Cubist nudity, or stay up late, like Linus waiting on the Great Pumpkin, until that magic hour when Cinemax's programming turned bleu."

www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/60212/sylvia-kristel-the-original-emanuelle

She was a bit of a first love.  She never loomed as large as Jill St. John, someone I was allowed to watch in a James Bond film, but she was a close second.  The problem was I could only watch her when I was at my father's apartment as a kid, he had a date, and in absolute wonder, I accessed the building-specific cable option.

Ah, youth.