in a nod to the virus that has been lodged in my throat since thanksgiving day, this week's entry is for one of my favorites pieces of seventies science fiction, robert wise's the andromeda strain (1971).
thanksgiving day turned out to be kind of a peculiar, solitary affair this year. i was a little under the weather and, as a result, only ventured out of the house for food. the rest of the day i spent with mystery science theater 3000 weirdly bookending the movie i wanted to talk about here today, monte hellman's two-lane blacktop (1971).
i ran this on a loop all afternoon and, in retrospect, it seems the perfect way to see this film, as it left me with that distinct hum in my head that you only get when you've been on the road for a long time, like i was still in motion but no longer had a destination. it is beautiful and confounding that way.
it was the only major studio full-length feature that hellman ever made (i love the universal logo with nothing but engine sounds over it) after about a decade and a half in roger corman's boot camp. it remains one of my favorite efforts of the last golden age of american filmmaking. there is no love lost between me and easy rider (1969), i think it's silly and ham-handed, but i owe it a debt of gratitude, nonetheless, because without its success we never would have had this movie or others like it. a seismic shift happened in the wake of easy rider that resulted in a cultural climate where something like two-lane blacktop could be the single most anticipated film of the year. no less than esquire magazine touted it to be to the movie of the year while it was still in post-production. they even went as far as to print the entire screenplay in the magazine.
unheard of. try this at any mainstream magazine with a circulation like esquire's today and it would be considered downright commercial suicide. this golden age couldn't last forever, obviously, but there was a glorious window of about five years where a guy like monte hellman could get a major studio budget and final cut to make an austere road movie with a cast of almost exclusively non-actors. throw in the attendant publicity from esquire and the like and it must have seemed like the possibilities were nearly limitless.
the film relates the story of four people whose lives intersect as they traverse the nation's highways. identified in the credits simply as the driver, the mechanic, the girl and GTO, they move through the middle american landscape like ghosts, rootless and grim. the driver and the mechanic (james taylor and dennis wilson in their only film roles) move from town to town racing their '55 chevy against local talent to pick up enough cash just to get to the next place. the girl (laurie bird) sneaks into their car while they are in a diner and they continue to move down the road as if she's been there all along. GTO (vitagraph favorite, warren oates) is identified solely by the car he drives because, as the stories he tells to a series of hitchhikers demonstrate, he has no identity of his own that he cares to keep. these four ciphers convene at a gas station eventually and a race across the country, with pink slips as the prize, is proposed. racing enthusiasts, turn it off now. if you came to see nitro burning dragstrip action, you are in the wrong place. that's not what it's about.
in fact, i can't tell you what it's about and that's the beauty of it. it is, in every way, a vessel. it is going to be about something completely different for you when you watch it, and i hope you do. the best i can do is tell you what it made me think about.
it made me think about the irreconcilable and the inextricable. you have the grim, mostly silent driver and mechanic and their machine. their '55 chevy is cruelly efficient, lovingly maintained, primer gray, nothing unnecessary, nothing to weigh it down come race time. it exists solely to perform its function. it is beautiful in its purity. at one critical juncture, the mechanic has the driver pull over to deliver some news, as if he doesn't want to interrupt the constant conversation they are implicitly having with the car. GTO's namesake car is flash, conspicuous consumption, delivered from an assembly line. he can cite reams of statistics and specifications, all gleaned from sales brochures and owner's manuals. he never stops talking long enough to listen to it. each serves to illustrate the defining characteristics in the other in high relief. GTO's incessant insecure blather highlights the gravely meditative interplay between driver and mechanic. the joyless, almost ascetic way the driver and mechanic approach racing, and what little else they do, underscores GTO's understanding that there is more to be had from this life, whether he knows how to achieve it or not. the girl is on a different trajectory altogether and cannot/doesn't care to, ultimately, move any of the three from their respective orbits. we only truly understand these characters in relation to their opposite number. they wouldn't fully exist without each other as foils. at least, we wouldn't have as full a grasp of them. they do have one thing in common. they are all points on a spectrum of yearning, of loneliness, but their brief interaction does nothing to alleviate it. it only exacerbates it, each pushing off of the other, moving faster and farther away in reaction to their brief contact. they are more real for the encounter, but no less alone.
it made me think about my dad's america, the things he was able to see and do. i was born just before this was made but he was a young man, living this moment. he was a quiet guy but there was an active mind behind that. there had to be a restlessness, as a result. i'm pretty sure it's where i get it from. so, it's easy to picture him out there, always moving. he traveled back and forth across this country a good deal as a young man and it makes me wonder what he thought about while he watched it go by his window, if it seemed to him like the last gasp of a certain type of american dream. it makes me wonder if it is ever possible to know these things as they are happening or if they are only available to you in retrospect. it makes me wonder if he's why i like to drive so much. the car will always be best refuge for people like us. as the frontier disappears, we always have the lure of horizon, even if it's just the dashboard. we take our frontier with us.
and it made me think of the tragedy in wisdom that brings no profit to the wise. at the end of the film, GTO is relating his final story to the last set of hitchhikers he has picked up. he tells them about winning his car from a couple of street racing punks, claiming he defeated them in a cross-country race by three hours in his '55 chevy. he has appropriated the story of the driver and mechanic for his own, extolling the virtues of their monastery on wheels versus one of these detroit machines. the recognition of just what he is and how far it is from what he wants is palpable when he tells the soldiers he picked up that "those satisfactions are permanent". it's one of the most devastatingly sad lines i have ever heard uttered onscreen.
i highly recommend it, obviously. hellman's frame compositions are painterly. the landscape is open but not void and the colors are beautiful. the amateurs in the cast are awkwardly real. oates is brilliant, as always. it's a glimpse of something we'll never see again, so take full advantage of it. if you do see it, let me know what you think. i'd like to hear what you found in it.
starlite cinema makes a triumphant return to the smiths' abode in december with a twist on a holiday theme - silent night.
we are going to take advantage of this year's bevy of notable silent film restorations and show you two of the best of the lot. first up will be buster keaton's sherlock jr. (1924).
buster plays a lovelorn projectionist/amateur sleuth who is competing for the object of his affection with a conniving scoundrel who frames him for stealing the young lady's father's watch. dejected, he retreats to the sanctuary of the projection booth. our hero then falls asleep and dreams himself right into the melodrama happening on the screen. from that point, it is filled with daring and imaginative sights. as always, keaton does his own elaborate stunts, all in real time. this film is a perfect link between the non-stop gags of his two-reelers and the more plot driven features like the general (1927). it is my favorite silent comedy ever made and an enduring testament to the power of movies to spark our imaginations.
our feature presentation will be the new, complete restoration of fritz lang's metropolis (1927).
there really aren't the words to tell you how beautiful i think this film is. there are some shots in it that just make my heart ache to live in that vision of the future, ultimately dystopian or not. the particular version we will be showing has twenty-five minutes of footage in it that had been though lost for the last eight decades. in 2008, a museum curator in buenos aires discovered a 16mm negative that contained the lost footage and, in conjunction with the murnau foundation, went to work putting together the most complete version of the film anyone has seen since its premiere in berlin. it changed the face of film. come see it as fritz lang intended for the first time.
there may be one or two other, more christmas-oriented surprises, if you've been good. if not? cole in your stocking! hey-o!
the screening will take place on friday, 12.17.10 at 7 p.m. here is the facebook event page. as always, if you're not facebook-equipped and you would like to attend, just send me a message and i will make sure you get all the pertinent details. i can't wait for this one. hope to see you there.
p.s. kino international is the fine company responsible for both of these sterling releases. no other company can touch them when it comes to the quality and quantity of significant silent film holdings they have. if you are of a fan of silent cinema and you somehow don't already know their work, your whole world is about to change.
november's edition of starlite cinema is now history, and a great evening it was.
our double feature tonight was a charlie brown thanksgiving (1973) and big night (1996). it was a beautiful night with old friends and new in a lovely new venue, courtesy of lauren and stephen smith. the smiths went above and beyond for starlite, stuffing us all to the gills with a dinner that had thematic ties to both films tonight.
sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone.
there was a pumpkin pie that was promptly devoured. lauren made s'mores by blowtorch! and the bruschetta was a work of art.
it all added up to a lovely celebration of film and food with my austin family. i wish everyone could have been there.
some things vitagraph is thankful for right about now:
the annie street arts collective - this would have never started without them. i am privileged to know a group of such imaginative, caring and endlessly entertaining people. i am proud and happy to call them my friends and i appreciate them helping me get this series rolling more than i can ever say.
lauren and stephen smith - i can't thank you guys enough for the wonderful food and hospitality tonight. you added a touch of home that was indispensable, especially appropriate for thanksgiving. i can't tell you how much i am already looking forward to the next time.
my friends that come to these screenings - i am grateful that you come out and share these evenings with me. i am glad you trust that i am going to show you something worth your time and energy. it's nice to discover new things and re-examine old favorites in your fine company.
my friends that don't - i am glad you meet me here, virtually, and listen while i prattle on about how much i love the movies. thanks for indulging me and thanks for participating in the discussion.
late autumn in texas - in august, these screenings can be murder. right now, though, it is damn near perfect. i can't think of a much better setting for this than a cozy night under a (nearly) blue moon with the wind rustling through the dry leaves.
the movies - a whole world of cinema is out there. in the months to come we are going to try and take advantage of all the places it can take us. i hope you find time to come along with us a time or two.
and now, charles durning will lead us in the invocation...
i'll be back soon with details about the december installment. happy thanksgiving, everyone!
when it comes to silent film comedians, one debate will continue eternally - charlie chaplin versus buster keaton. chaplin, to me, is the beatles of this argument. virtuosic, precise, total. he also has that blasted sentimental streak. keaton, the rolling stones. he gets by - ahead, even - more on guts and guile. he's no slouch in the talent department either, he's just more about the heart than the head. he certainly was much more blues than tin pan alley. it may be stating the obvious, but i am an unabashed keaton guy, all the way. chaplin, although i always recognized his considerable skills, always just seemed so damned smug and self-satisfied. w.c. fields, who makes me laugh like no other single person on the planet, once said about chaplin, "he's the best ballet dancer that ever lived, and if i get a good chance i'll strangle him with my bare hands". while i wouldn't go that far, there was always a bit of a gulf between me and the man's work.
well, that gulf was bridged a great deal this week when the criterion collection released a stunning two-disc set of my favorite chaplin film, modern times (1936).
the film opens, appropriately enough, on a ticking clock. chaplin was certainly up against it. almost a decade into the sound era, anyone else would have been laughed out of town if they had stubbornly attempted to make a (nearly) silent film in 1936. time was running out for the little tramp, make no mistake. this would be the last time chaplin portrayed the character - the most universally known and loved cinematic figure in the world, at the time - on film and he certainly makes the most of it.
the film plays as a series of episodes, really, like a number of thematically linked two-reelers. chaplin's little tramp perseveres through each, enduring a number of indignities foisted upon him by the encroachment of the mechanized age. the socially conscious (and critical) tone is established right away as the opening credits fade in on a flock of sheep that quickly dissolves into a shot of workers coming up from the subway on their way to the factory. once inside, we find chaplin tightening bolts on an assembly line. right away, the choreography is noteworthy. it's a simple introduction, but his grace and cleverness are immediately evident. the toll of all this progress on the little man is evident, as well. it is easy to draw parallels between the burdens borne by chaplin's alter ego and the position he found himself in, professionally. the technological advances in talking pictures threatened to be his undoing, but his solutions to the problem were fairly ingenious, the spectacular sound design of this film being just one of them. amidst the static and whirring of modern industry, human voices are heard for the first time in a charlie chaplin movie but every one of them is via a transmission of some sort. intercoms, phonographs, closed circuit systems - every human sound is filtered through a device of some kind, every voice one step removed from humanity. it is a clever concession, indeed. and the human voice is just the beginning.
in the race to outdo competitors with more production and efficiency, a machine is brought in to feed the workers directly on the job. of course, the machine goes comically haywire and, not long after, the little tramp suffers a nervous breakdown on the assembly line, which, at one point literally swallows him. he has become, in no uncertain terms, just a cog in the machine. the worker is simply fodder for the industrialized era, to be devoured in the name of progress.
it drives the tramp around the bend. he ends up in the hospital to get his mind right and is released only to stumble right into another misadventure. again, chaplin's (sometimes muddled) politics that would come to full flower a few years later in the great dictator (1940) begin to peek through. he is mistaken for a labor agitator and thrown in jail. for the duration of the film, the tramp goes back and forth between the relative comfort of jail and a series of jobs that were obviously in short supply in the depression-era united states. all along the way, authorities threaten to impede his pursuit of happiness. those authorities, however, did not count on this film's secret weapon, paulette goddard.
the kid's a pip, i'll tell you. as the gamin, she is every bit chaplin's equal here. there's a light in her eyes that poverty and hunger cannot extinguish. i cannot think of a woman in the history of film that i would rather live by my wits with. that whole pursuit of happiness thing? she's game, and no lousy cop, pencil-pushing social worker or any other cheap chiseler is going to keep her from it. for the first time in chaplin's career, he had a co-star that was as exciting as he was inventive. she makes every scene work that much better. the roller skating sequence in the department store isn't just thrilling and funny, with her on hand it's poignant also. and late in the film, when we finally hear chaplin's voice on camera for the first time ever (the only voice in the film that's not a transmission), she seems crucial to me. it feels like the line between life and art blurs right there and chaplin might not have been able to summon the courage to sing, a brilliant routine too, if it weren't for her moral support. this indispensable chemistry was a result of their close relationship offscreen, as goddard was chaplin's common-law wife for a number of years, and his camera never made her less than radiant. he afforded her things, including his trademark finale, that no other acting partner of his had ever gotten and, as a result, ended up with the best picture of his career. it's a valuable lesson for all of us, auteurs or not - the important things are often better when you share them with someone.
paulette goddard - no yoko.
the film was already my favorite chaplin, by a mile - long on inventive sights and sounds, relatively light on treacle, the undeniable spark goddard brought to the proceedings - but criterion's work on this is just lights out. it has turned a film i simply liked a great deal into one i can now say i love, one of my dvd releases of the year. the restored transfer is as crisp as if the film was just made and i can't say enough about the special features. with criterion, the features are almost always great but they outdid themselves this time. if you watch this edition of the film without taking advantage of these extras you are just straight up cheating yourself. there's an insightful commentary track, trailers, a two-reeler that gives you more of chaplin's mastery on roller skates and home movies. in particular, a pair of visual essays plus a feature on the sound design and visual effects provided me with a depth of understanding of chaplin's work i had not had previously. the hanging miniatures chaplin employed were fascinating, both for their effectiveness and subtle sophistication. a dissection of the aforementioned roller skating sequence left me even more impressed than i already was with it.
most importantly, though, i have a better grasp of chaplin's devotion to his medium and am staggered by the amount of effort and ingenuity he demonstrated as performer, writer, director, producer and composer. i send a sincere thanks to criterion. their work turned simple enjoyment into true appreciation.
and, yes, that makes harold lloyd the kinks.
today we bid a tearful goodbye to the first of what i hope will be several installments of queue de grâce. i want to say a most heartfelt thank you to my curator, miss chelsea george.
it probably wasn't the easiest thing in the world to put together a list of some of your favorite things and hand it off to someone knowing they might publicly rip it to shreds. i am glad she went to the time and trouble. i hope she feels like it was worthwhile. i certainly do. and, in addition to the other benefits of this viewing experience, anytime i need a laugh i can just picture a li'l chelsea doing her best rodney dangerfield impression. man, she loved that guy.
for posterity's sake, here's what i saw:
valley girl (1983)
soldier child (1998)
the count of monte cristo (2002)
center stage (2000)
how to be a serial killer (2008)
rover dangerfield (1991)
sweet home alabama (2002)
terminator 2: judgment day (1991)
la bamba (1987)
romy and michele's high school reunion (1997)
now and then (1995)
gentlemen prefer blondes (1953)
the land before time (1988)
the september issue (2009)
i ran out of time before i could get to these, but for chelsea i will keep them in the queue and watch them all, eventually:
clash of the titans (1981)
corrina, corrina (1994)
wristcutters: a love story (2006)
trailer park boys: the movie (2006)
if you are late to the party, you can go back to the beginning here and for more insight into the infernal workings of chelsea's mind please visit something terrible has happened. if you're a tumblr user you can follow her there. she craves minions to do her
if you would like to be my curator for a week some time please drop me a line and let me know. i plan on doing these on a semi-regular basis, a few times a year, anyway. cabby, caroline, jon, shen, summer and joe - i already have you guys on the list. anyone else who is interested i will add in order of when their request was received. thanks for following along.
in honor of my liberation from the iron grip of chelsea's island, this week's entry is for papillon (1973).
an interesting artifact. i can't think of very many trailers for major studio films that set about immediately destroying the illusion of the film as reality.
an interesting artifact. i can't think of very many trailers for major studio films that set about immediately destroying the illusion of the film as reality.
we have arrived at the final day of our little experiment. bloodied but unbowed.
without a doubt, the most heinous thing i saw all week was the first thing in the chute today - gentlemen prefer blondes (1953).
the opening is an awkward leap directly into a musical number, as if they can't establish the twin pillars this thing is built on - sexual objectification and abject moneygrubbing - fast enough. i am a big fan of howard hawks, typically, but i hate this movie. it's a musical, yes, so it's intentionally broad but any satire that could have brought me over to their side is lost amid the sparkle of a million sequins. since they miss the mark with that so badly, all that's left is a bunch of people ironically and glibly reinforcing the worst gender stereotypes of the fifties leaving me no one to root for. i think about what preston sturges could do with these themes, for instance, and am left profoundly disappointed. the plot is barely enough to bother recounting - two showgirls in search of love and money end up on a cruise to france, betrothed's father sends private investigator - with good reason - to see what hijinks they're up to, men chase women, women chase men, women chase money, wacky mix-ups abound, they get straightened out, everyone gets married. the end. somewhere in between, marilyn monroe does her iconic "diamonds are a girl's best friend" number.
this number is the film in a nutshell. marilyn essaying the twin roles of innocent and whore simultaneously, the men as playthings and objectifiers simultaneously. sex as power, used to manipulate. never once in this film is sex portrayed as something partners do for each other. it is always leverage, something you do to someone, usually for gain. at least in sweet home alabama (2002), from earlier this week, reese witherspoon, after being knocked for a loop by tiffany & co., came to the realization that she actually wanted her husband to be her best friend, not a diamond. fancy that. our young lovers in this gem never have that epiphany. the showgirl snares the millionaire. the lure of pure sex in a pink satin gown landed a man that is dull-witted and easily manipulated. for his trouble, he now has a beautiful wife who is vapid and mercenary. congratulations. you all lose.
next, we leave this mess for a more advanced and enlightened era, the prehistory of the land before time (1988).
i was long past the target age for this thing upon its release, but i imagine if you were five years old in 1988, or any year since, it fairly made your head explode. dinosaurs! and they talk! and they're like me and my friends! seriously, these things are freaking adorable. while it doesn't quite have the art and depth to make it into the pantheon where disney reigns, it does pretty much everything right. a band of li'l orphaned dinosaurs go off after a cataclysmic event in search of the great valley. they learn to trust each other. they learn that even though they're each a different type - longneck, three horn, et cetera - those differences are no reason they can't love and look out for one another. they persevere through a number of adventures and run-ins with a sharptooth and are reunited with loved ones in the land of milk and honey and abundant leaf growth as a result. it looks decent and teaches kids to be decent. as modern kids classics go, i can see why it is so endearing and enduring. plus, i repeat, dinosaurs! that just punches you right in your five year old heart.
the last thing i took in for the week was r.j. cutler's documentary, the september issue (2009).
ostensibly a behind the scenes look at how vogue's iconic september issue, the 2007 issue in particular, is assembled, it actually plays more like a propaganda piece. it is neither incisive nor particularly insightful when it comes to the nuts and bolts of assembling a magazine. it seems chiefly designed to humanize vogue's editor-in chief, and red queen, anna wintour in the wake of the devil wears prada (2006). it doesn't help matters much that she seems to be surrounded by nothing but sycophants and cowering toadies. to those of us (read: almost everyone) who operate outside the world of high fashion it just seems farcical that she inspires such terror. it's a house of cards, the fashion world. it's a mirage. and nothing she says about it to justify it to us, and seemingly, more importantly, herself, can make me believe in it. i can't be made to believe that anyone should be afraid of someone based on the fact that she doesn't like your frock. tug on that thread and it all comes unraveled. you know who could make me care, though? grace coddington.
grace is the creative director at vogue and she steals this whole show. she is the only person in the film that i would like to have a conversation with. actually, make that love to have a conversation with. everywhere her boss is cold, calculating and aloof, grace is warm, witty and earthy. make no mistake, she is a canny veteran of the fashion trenches and she has a few tricks up her sleeve but her motivation sets her apart from the endless stream of bootlickers and the icy automaton at the head of the parade. every other single person onscreen is trying to sell something. grace, it would seem, is trying to make something. she genuinely seems to care about the art and history of fashion in a way that celebrates the creative force, not just commerce. more importantly, it's just as obvious that she cares about art and history beyond fashion. fashion is her lifelong career but you can see in her demeanor that she understands the folly of it. she loves it and is devoted to it, but in the way that people are devoted to a craft, not to the almighty dollar. i was very taken by her. fortunately, she hijacks the proceedings fairly completely, a wise decision on the part of the editors of the film. it's worth the time just to get to know her.
well, there it is. hope you guys enjoyed it. i am off to watch something of my own choosing for the first time in a week.
this first run of queue de grâce is nearing its end but that doesn't mean it's getting any less bizarre...
rodney dangerfield makes his second apocalypse chelsea appearance this week in ladybugs (1992).
i loved this picture so much i thought i would run it out there again.
rodney, who the hell is this movie for? i thought rover dangerfield (1991) was confusing but this thing blows past that like it was standing still. the basic plot is simple - in order to impress the boss and get a promotion at work, which will also allow him to get married to his long-suffering girlfriend, rodney takes the job as coach of the girls soccer team that the company sponsors. wholesome enough set-up, right? you know what this needs, though? how about a healthy dose of leering awkwardness and underage crossdressing?
he enlists the help of his girlfriend's son, a whiz on the soccer pitch, to ensure the success of the team which, in turn, will ensure the success of all of rodney's machinations. the obvious answer? pass the kid off as a girl. this allows for some delightful misunderstandings. for instance, once their scheme gets busted and his girlfriend gives him the gate, rodney is drowning his sorrows at the local watering hole where he tells the bartender by way of explanation "i took her son and dressed him up like a girl and talked him into playing with me".
my sentiments exactly. what's a family comedy without a few incest and pedophilia jokes? the other material is only marginally better. it's still fraught with near-constant crude/sexual humor. i have no idea what possible audience they thought this was going to work for - ten year old girls who love to play soccer when they're not busy being longshoremen? honorable mention for the most uncomfortable moment in the film goes to the rodney/jackée duet on "great balls of fire". nothing like picturing his sweating face and bulging eyes singing "i wanna love you like a lover should" to a minivan full of ten year old girls. no respect, indeed.
so we go from rodney dangerfield's career going down in flames to robert de niro going up in them in martin scorsese's casino (1995).
i remember when i walked out of the theater after having seen this in 1995 thinking that it was good but it was no goodfellas (1990). had i known i was watching scorsese's last great film, i would have paid closer attention. i took it, and him, for granted. in retrospect, he brought all of his considerable powers to bear for one last time on this film. it is virtuoso work. even at 178 minutes it feels lean, sleek. it takes nicholas pileggi's true crime source material and elevates it to grand opera. it is beautifully lit and impeccably edited. the camera work is lithe. strong performances all the way down the line, especially the rabid joe pesci and surprisingly good sharon stone. it really made me wish i could go back to that day in 1995 and watch it in that same theater knowing what i know now. i would look harder at everything. i would stay in my seat until the lights came up. i would thoroughly enjoy a really great day at the movies, having a good time with old pals.
i am learning, or being reminded of, all kinds of things from this experiment. even with a film like this, that i have seen a number of times, this approach is offering me a fresh perspective. it makes me grateful that i was there the first time around for this, especially now that it seems scorsese's best work as a director is behind him. i saw a lot of great things during that part of my life and my film education was at a point that everything still felt extremely new and exciting. i still get those feelings but i have to work a lot harder for them. it takes a great deal more to surprise me these days. revisiting this movie for this project has reminded me to be open to the possibility of greatness in everything i go to see. when i sit in the lovely cold and dark, and those images begin to flicker, i may be seeing a future favorite's first tentative steps or i may be going around one last time with a master at the height of his powers. you just never know. man, i love the movies.
p.s. even if his recent output has not been on par with these earlier efforts, scorsese's time lately has been well spent. his work in support of the restoration and preservation of neglected films from around the globe via his world cinema foundation has been of incalculable value to filmmakers and cineastes. if you ever bump into him, please tell him i said thanks.
one more day to go. let's make it a good one.
as the days roll on, i am starting to get a clearer picture of just who chelsea is.
today had a definite theme and that theme was true friendship served with a side of janeane garofalo in a bad haircut.
first up today we have romy and michele's high school reunion (1997).
i suppose another theme with today's offerings would be "universal" experiences that i just cannot relate to at all. was high school really that bad for all of you? i will just never get this one. i can understand it maybe being a little confusing as a kid, when you're trying to figure it out. those "scars" being so readily accessible now that you're not a child, though? jesus, as much as this theme is a part of our cultural currency, it's a wonder anyone can function within one hundred yards of a blackboard. apparently, we are a nation so traumatized by the experience that it haunts our collective consciousness. guess what? turns out, it was just high school. you're welcome. no need for the sound of a locker door slamming to reduce you to a fetal position anymore. take back the night!
as for the film itself, it's essentially a funnier, more feminine counterpart to dumb and dumber (1994). not a lot funnier, necessarily, but at least a little. to my surprise, there were a number of things i enjoyed about the film. the chemistry between mira sorvino and lisa kudrow is good. their loopy devotion to each other is endearing and there are moments where each comes to the other's defense that belies their state of perpetual naiveté. the physical comedy nails it more than once, in particular when lisa kudrow is hit by a stretch limo, the whole thing, and a spectacularly absurd spotlight dance. what was most surprising, though, was how technically sophisticated the camera work was. the opening shot is one uninterrupted take that flies in over the ocean, zooms in on their apartment building, goes through the window, pans around the room and then recedes, introducing our two leads in a fairly ambitious manner. it will never be confused for touch of evil (1958) but it's a damn sight more impressive than any other ditzcore i've ever seen. and it continues throughout the film - a clever dissolve from club scene to daily grind, helicopters, crane shots. some of it works and some of it doesn't but cheers to david mirkin for not making something static and visually pedestrian when it would have been the easy thing to do. i don't know that i'd watch it again, but i'm glad i saw it.
next up - now and then (1995).
these girls are alright. don't blame them because i generally don't like coming of age stories. again, i just don't relate to most of them. i just don't share a lot of the common experiences, and reactions to those experiences, that so many people apparently do. don't get me wrong. i have seen good ones, just never any that i thought had anything to do with me.
again, through lines all over the place today, as this one also has a male counterpart in a relative minor key - stand by me (1986). a pivotal summer long past, a dark/mysterious turn of events, the first signs of "it's not going to be like this forever" that come with the onset of young adulthood. unfortunately, the girls get the short end of the deal this time precisely because of the other reason i hate coming of age stories. they're so condensed and artificial, so many monumental events to squeeze in and so little time. they typically don't unfold in any fashion that is similar to life. i wish more of the consequential conversations happened in the margins. i wish more wisdom was dispensed in minor moments, almost in passing, rather than in full close-up with a string section telling you to pay attention. i wish it was more real and less obvious. i wish robert altman made it. the girls all do a fine job. i definitely liked them better than their grown-up versions. they just aren't given a lot to do that's not rote. everything that happened just made me think of a better way that thing could have been done. i was pulling for the girls. i am glad they got their treehouse and i am glad samantha had the guts to go back and talk to crazy pete, but i just wasn't ever unaware of what i was watching. i was never that invested. it's the pitfall of the coming of age story, for me - there's hardly ever anything in them that i remember fondly so there is no haze of nostalgia to distract me from the shortcomings of the film, no gooey reminiscences to caulk up the plot holes. plus, if i thought you were going to grow up to be demi moore i probably wouldn't want to ride bikes with you.
today, an interesting day of unexpected parallels. tomorrow, i don't expect that to be the case.
you can never be too sure, though.
who knew that the queue de grâce name for this experiment would have been so apt? it took some doing but i think i have sufficiently recovered from yesterday to move on, though the black mark on my soul in the shape of reese witherspoon may never be completely erased. it's strange. i am stained but that stain is just as cute as a button!
we begin today by revisiting james cameron's terminator 2: judgment day (1991).
again, this is one of those films that i haven't seen in its entirety since around the theatrical release. unfortunately, time wasn't as kind to this as it was to valley girl (1983). the much ballyhooed advances in special effects from the T-101 to the T-1000 still have a certain charm but everything else, with one exception, is a generally a drag. there is a good reason that james cameron is constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to filmmaking technology - he is terrible with actors. ideally for him, his films will eventually not contain one single organic element and his ego will become the most formidable, unstoppable juggernaut he has ever created. no cyberdyne systems model will be able to defeat him.
stilted dialogue, one of the most unappealing juvenile leads in the history of film and a couple of process shots that are distractingly bad for a movie that was supposed to be so cutting edge are just a few of the problems here. time travel stories are fraught with peril for even the best writers, none of whom came within miles of this thing. the inconsistencies with other science fiction elements are irritating as well. i understand that some terminators have to be able to double as humans, but if the neural network was so damn smart why didn't it make combat terminators in some form other than human? give them four arms, eight arms, make them smaller, faster, more heavily armed. and that whole explanation about the limits of the T-1000? bunk! we're told it can imitate anything it touches of an equal size but it can't form complex machines that include chemicals and multiple moving parts. it then proceeds to spend the rest of the film imitating other humans almost exclusively. last time i looked, the human body was nothing but chemicals and complicated moving parts. in all fairness, there were a couple of spectacular stunts, particularly in the final third of the film. the motorcycle jump into the helicopter and the sequence with the liquid nitrogen truck are particularly noteworthy. only one special effects scene actually made a lasting impact on me, though. the central dream sequence after she escapes the institution in which linda hamilton clutches the chain link fence while everything, including her, is reduced to skeletons and ash still maintains its power after all this time. the only consistently good thing about the movie?
joe morton. solid dude. i love this guy.
next up - la bamba (1987).
this movie is delivered in such cinematic shorthand that it could have been over in half an hour, the weekly reader version of ritchie valens' life. i'm not sure if it's just because i am so familiar with the mythology of the day the music died, but this seemed almost embarrassingly remedial. the only thing that really redeems it is the good-natured ebullience of lou diamond
forehead phillips. and few things drive me crazier than poorly faked playing in music biographies. really just isn't a whole lot to say about this one. it's competently assembled but i don't feel like i know ritchie valens any better. buy the records, skip the movie.
still, not a bad program for a day of healing. nothing too taxing, a few good songs, joe morton's calming influence. i think i see a light at the end of the tunnel.
or maybe it's a train.
after the debacle of center stage (2000) it seems as if we are through the looking glass...
how quickly fortunes turn. i was riding high on day one, thinking i had it made. that was folly. i have lost all mooring. did you know that sweet home alabama (2002) and rover dangerfield (1991) were the same movie?
more on that later.
the day began with how to be a serial killer (2008). there is one reason, and one reason only, that this made it on the list - chelsea maria george is of the opinion that matthew gray gubler is one hot bitch.
we can debate that all you like. what is not up for debate is that this movie is a mess. it follows the story of mike, a serial killer who, through his violence, feels he is teaching people not to take life for granted. he takes the milquetoast bart (the hot dog pictured above) under his wing to impart lessons on the ethics of murder. it jumps back and forth between narrative vignettes, talking head/documentary style footage and motivational speaker sections with little rhyme or reason. it's all over the place. it fairly reeks of "indie comedy", just like dozens we have seen before. low budget doesn't have to equate to little imagination, especially disappointing with a subject this rich with potential black humor. i know the handheld, faux documentary thing is a cheap way to get a first feature made but can we trot out a new cliché for the twenty-first century? take the schizophrenia of natural born killers (1994) and the savage comedy of man bites dog (1992) and dilute it with clerks (1994) until what you have left is neither interesting nor funny and you end up with how to be a serial killer. by the way, he was a terrible serial killer. rash, unprepared, impatient, hardly thorough - i wouldn't take lessons from this guy unless i wanted to go straight to jail.
next! rover dangerfield.
does your kid like broads, nightclubs and gambling until the wee hours? then this will be right up their alley. this is, without a doubt, one of the weirdest movies aimed at kids i have ever seen. at what point did rodney dangerfield decide that his best bet was to court the under-ten set? take his bug-eyed, tie-tugging schtick and shoehorn it into a lovable schlub of an animated hound dog and you get the picture. rover, owned by a showgirl, gets waylaid by said showgirl's boyfriend and ends up in the country living on a farm. there he learns a number of valuable lessons about life and love, wears boxer shorts with hearts on them (hilarious) and sings a few tunes, most notably "i'll never do it on a christmas tree". did i mention it begins with him shooting dice in an alley and in the first ten minutes he busts up a mafia meeting and he is tied in a bag and thrown off hoover dam? and not in a funny cartoon way, either. it also ends with the aforementioned boyfriend taking that long ride with the aforementioned mafiosi. i know pixar has gotten especially good at that one level for the kids/one for the adults kind of thing but i think that was the furthest thing from rodney's mind - he was scriptwriter, songwriter, executive producer - when he made this. i'm not sure how i feel about this one beyond just baffled.
i know how i feel about sweet home alabama, though. i feel depressed. i would have rather watched this for 108 minutes.
you know the plot, or can find a synopsis, so i am not going to rehash it in detail here. if you're patient, ten new films will rehash it by next summer, anyway. i don't know what it is. i can watch the most scathing, harrowing, violent examples of man's inhumanity to his fellow man and not bat an eye. this stuff, however, leaves me in a dark place. i think some of it has to do with how readily people want to invest in these things, what people think is important. one of the things that really stuck with me has to do with that thing i mentioned yesterday about how adept they are at exploiting your princess dreams and how willing people are to line up for it over and over. i think about a theater full of women aflutter at the notion of tiffany & co. being at their disposal and it just makes me sad. i contrast this presentation of conspicuous consumption masquerading as a crucial component of true love with an example from the count of monte cristo (2002) from yesterday's entry. in that film, the bride-to-be in question wore a piece of twine around her finger for sixteen years, while she thought her betrothed had been imprisoned and executed. i'll take one mercedès iguanada over an army of melanie carmichaels any day of the week. while you go shopping we will have many a dashing, bold adventure, living and loving as you never could. i know that's not all there was to the message of the movie but i know for a fact that there was a segment of the audience that audibly gasped when the lights came up and mcdrippy told her to pick out any ring she wanted. i just wish more fairy tales emphasized pieces of twine over shoes and accessories.
and how are sweet home and rover the same? well, let's see...
main character starts in the city, amidst the glitz and glamour, fast paced, with their crew, in their element.
somehow character is shanghaied, physically or emotionally, and ends up in the country.
after of period of adjustment and reflection, character begins to put their life in order.
pivotal scene revolves around dead, or soon to be dead, dog.
parental figure comes around to see that maybe lead character isn't so bad after all.
repeated, gratuitous comedy sound effect - rover's rimshot/fred ward's recliner's boing sound.
city element is reintroduced to character's life, seemingly being what they want.
character figures out what the city has to offer is not what they want after all and decides to stick with the rural life and their soul mate, eventually raising a family.
same movie. at least with the cartoon i laughed a couple of times. advantage, rover dangerfield!
whew. that was a rough one. maybe tomorrow will be better.
queue de grâce rolls on. day one was free of catastrophe, but i have an uneasy feeling about this...
first in line was kevin reynolds' adaptation of alexandre dumas' the count of monte cristo (2002).
"my subtlety and restraint, have you seen it? i would have sworn i left it right over there."
all things being equal, it is a fair adaptation. it's much better than i had anticipated, my only previous exposure to kevin reynolds having been a couple of insipid kevin costner vehicles. guy pearce, uncharacteristically, provided the biggest hurdle for me in this one. i understand he is the villain but it's a shame to resort to such overplaying to put the point across. and, dear lord, poor luis guzman. i love the guy but in this thing he is a walking anachronism. he couldn't have taken me out of the film any more if he had reached through the screen and grabbed me by the shirt. every time he opens his mouth we might as well be on the set of boogie nights 2: the scarlet pimp-ernel. it's the one major flaw that seems to fly right in the face of the most important thing that the film gets right, and that thing is that it makes few concessions to a modern audience's sensibilities. i admire how much it plays things right down the second republic line. it doesn't resort to a lot of ridiculous CGI. it doesn't attempt to update the film in some way so the 18-25 year olds will shell out for a ticket. it's a grave mistake people often make, not realizing (or not caring) that these things only make a film eventually look dated, even more dated than by basing it on a book written in 1844. this film sidesteps those problems altogether, thankfully. i would imagine guzman's casting is just unfortunate, not a ploy, otherwise you would have seen a much more marketable face in the role. the screenplay may take a number of liberties with dumas' novel but never with the intention of modernizing it. some good work from the location scouts goes a long way in maintaining the mid-nineteenth century feeling as well.
the true ace up the film's sleeve is jim caviezel's earnestness, his righteousness. it's easy to believe in him. the film plays it in pretty broad strokes, but what you see in his eyes burns right through that. his holy innocence and his unyielding fervor in his quest for retribution are two sides of the same satisfying coin. i have only seen him in the passion of the christ (2004), otherwise, but he seems to have the market cornered when it comes to brilliant and resolute purity. seems like typecasting might be an issue. how many times can you play jesus? richard harris provides a nice turn as his fellow prisoner and mentor in the château d'if. overall, a good, not great, bit of swashbuckling action adventure.
i knew it was too good to be true, though. now the heavy lifting begins with nicholas hytner's center stage (2000).
"life is no rehearsal", the tagline says. this film follows the lives and loves of a group of young dancers chosen to attend the prestigious american ballet academy in new york. life may be no rehearsal, but maybe life could shell out for an acting coach once in a while.
i am a sucker for processes. if you can show me how something works, how it's put together, you have my attention. rehearsal, collaboration, creation, performance - i'm game. these sequences in the film are fine - interesting if you like the creative process, probably great if you love dance/ballet. i enjoy watching people put in their 10000 hours. i like the dedication to craft. i like to see artistic ideas clash and combine. when these characters are working in rehearsal studios or onstage, it can be captivating. the cast, largely professional dancers, are skilled and athletic. personally, i prefer the ballet sequences to the more overblown production number-type things, but it's all very well choreographed and executed.
then there's the other hour of the movie, which is wretched. there is not one character that is introduced in this thing whose fate you are unsure of five minutes after you meet them. stock characters, incredibly lazy writing. paint by numbers, primary colors all the way:
chubby (in the world of ballet this means 115 lbs.), vaguely ethnic girl who gets the boot - check
token black guy - check
token gay guy - check, and a bargain for payroll as he is also the token black guy.
tough-talking diva from the street with a bad attitude - check
stern teacher with a heart of gold - check
ice princess overachiever who is troubled on the inside - check
shrewish stage mom living vicariously through her daughter - check
the boy who really understands and supports you and will wait until you're through being mistreated by that jerk - check
and on and on. i am always surprised that studios don't have to work harder to earn your money. they count on, and exploit, your short attention span and princess dreams. it was called fame (1980), and a hundred other names besides, stretching back to the beginning of filmdom. i know it's made for young people, but young people can grasp more complexity than this. and i know films like this are primarily a vehicle to display the dancing or singing or whatever else it is that these kids do but don't you find the presentation ridiculous? why don't you demand a better story in between? in this day and age, you can just go to youtube and watch endless drum battles/dance competitions/vocal tryouts/et cetera. you don't have to have your intelligence insulted on either side of it to enjoy the art, a fact that outs all of you people that claim "oh, i just watch it for the competitive parts". plainly, you're liars. reality television has exposed you all. you also watch it for the poorly scripted, poorly acted "drama", but i'll be damned if i know what it nourishes in you. if the dance is really what moves you, why aren't you just watching a ballet? if you need soap opera with your dance try the red shoes (1948) instead. final verdict - ballet should be choreographed, not story arc. as actors, they are spectacular dancers.
but, taking a lesson from those plucky kids, i shall prevail. i won't let this get me down. i will come back swinging on day three. damn it, i've gotta dance! or write. or something. talk to you tomorrow.