Wednesday, August 31, 2005

MOVIE OF THE MOMENT: AU HASARD BALTHAZAR


Tonight is one of those nights. The world seems smaller and a lot heavier, and I’m not even anywhere near New Orleans. It’s a night to run through the few hours I’m allotted every couple of months or so to feel like it’s all just a little too much. That time will pass, and so will the sensation of being overwhelmed by the everyday, the challenges that, during most every other moment, are not only surmountable but pleasurable, the tugging and chattering and pleas for sympathy and empathy and intervention that are most often sweet music, but which tonight, for those few hours, seemed more like inescapable, burdensome static.

It’s not often that I see a film that seems to me so shrouded in mystery, in intangible effects, that I cannot put a solid finger on not only why it is as moving as it is, but even, to some degree, the core of exactly what it is. Rarer still is the movie that seems so ineffable, yet so insistent in memory that one can literally feel it expanding inside one’s head like a balloon of enlightenment in the hours and day(s) after it is finished. Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar is one such film, so much so that at the same time I feel compelled to write about it, I also feel compelled to respect that sense of disorientation, of feeling my way through such a pure, unfamiliar vision, to back away from analysis and description and simply see where the movie takes me.

Bresson’s main character is the donkey Balthazar, witness, from the humble beginning of his life to its sudden (and transcendent?) end, to all manner of human behavior and degradation as he passes from owner to owner. As one writer observed, Bresson avoids simple anthropomorphizing of Balthazar—his life of thankless work and casual humiliation is that of any beast of burden, and goes as well without comment. Yet somehow his presence-- he is, despite his relegation to the sidelines of much of the film's narrative activity, the main character-- is also intensely anthropomorphized, if we can take that to mean he is somehow able, through no trickery or special effects, to bear and reflect human understanding with the film's audience through simple, close observation of his face. Given that quality, Balthazar’s entrance into a circus full of caged animals that, motionless and silent, return his gaze (of wonderment? of simple understanding? of divine connection?) is a shiveringly vivid and strange moment, full of inexact emotion and the sense that Bresson is taking us into an uncharted realm. It’s a kind of magical realism with absolutely no sense of coy engagement in a singular point of view about that magic.

Even more so, though, the spiritualized access Bresson allows us to his titular beast seem to take us even further somewhere-- inside the animal, perhaps, or perhaps inside Bresson’s own vision of the poetry of submission to the everyday, of the sacrifice of saintliness, toward a religious allegory all the more powerful for its seemingly organic appearance not simply through the director’s style, but through how that style amplifies, without self-consciousness, a clear-eyed vision of utterly ordinary events touched by the sacred. The Criterion DVD features a wonderful bonus piece (best seen after having first experienced Bresson’s movie) in which critic Donald Richie claims that one of the things that makes Au hazard Balthazar such an important and moving film for him is this very mystery, its essential unknowableness, his inability to track precisely how Bresson comes to his vision, his potent allegory, and how, for so many people who love it, Au hazard Balthazar seems to be so many different things. For me, this is a sign of a movie being alive, and being of life. In the way it continues to haunt me and expand in my consciousness and engage my intellect and my emotions in the first few hours after having seen it—an organic process that I fully expect to continue well past the point where I can find my own copy of the DVD—it seems a very rare movie experience indeed, one uniquely suited to exploration within its world, and reflection on the viewer’s world without it.

Monday, August 29, 2005

A SCRIBBLE FROM THE UNDERGROUND



There is, or there can be, structure in the blogosphere. One of the bits of self-discipline that I try to honor in my own little enterprise here is to try not to let a full seven-day week go by without a post of some kind, and over the past nine months I've been pretty consistent with that. When I haven't, I've usually tried to prepare for the lull in advance and load you all up on verbiage before I take my little break. This past week, however, is the first time I've taken more than seven days between posts, for reasons related entirely to time and my commitments beyond this page, and considering that I don't have an editor or a sponsor nagging me to get more material out there now, now, now, the degree to which I am perturbed or otherwise disturbed by my recent inability to find that 25th and 26th hour in the day which to dedicate to my blog writing is kind of surprising.

And reassuring. It tells me that blogging, expressing myself however formally or informally, about films, baseball, life, and interacting with those of you kind enough to take precious time out of your days to read what I offer here, has actually become an important part of my life, something that I miss when I'm unable to tend to it. Outside interests relatively concurrent to my experience in blogging have cropped up that are time-consuming as well. I have been trying a little harder than usual lately to break through a self-imposed shell of antisocial tendencies that have calcified around me over the past eight years and remember how to step out with friends. My daughters are growing up, becoming independent little beings with their own curious thought processes and unshakable curiosities, yet still so dependent on the love and guidance and interactivity that my wife and I feel so honored to be able to provide, even when we're exhausted beyond reason. I am learning to recognize over and over again what my friend in the blogosphere, Preacher Beege, just today reminded me of-- how lucky my wife and I are to, as Beege put it, realize "how far we've come, how hard-won the comfort has been, and how good it is to fall asleep every night beside our best friend." I am struggling with the difficulty of balancing all these good things with keeping close with loved ones who are not so far away, geographically speaking, even as they might as well be on Jupiter when it comes to figuring out ways to spend time together. I've been learning to balance my natural thirst for cinema-- good, bad and indifferent-- with being more selective and seeking out the best in my choices, simply because I'm not a carefree bachelor no more, no more. I've been learning how not to live or die on the outcome of a Dodger game (nothing like a season like this one to drive that point home). And I've been trying to learn to live by that Bertrand Russell quote you can read at the top of this page, to balance that thought with the driving urge to gobble up as much work as I can in order to keep my family swimming in macaroni & cheese and basking under the glow of electric lights.

These are the things that are going on every day that I blog, and twice again on the days when I don't. No news to anyone who reads this page, I'm sure, given that I don't know too many honest-to-God slackers (malcontents, maybe, but they're hard-working malcontents). Most everyone's lives are as busy or busier than mine, to be sure. I'm not complaining, just 'splaining a little as I sit here at work late on a Monday evening, avoiding what looks to be a relatively compelling assignment for just a few minutes longer while I indulge in one of my relatively newfound loves. There will be better things to read than this in the coming week-- tonight, not Wednesday, is my hump night, and I have plenty of itches to scratch before the weekend arrives. I just wanted to check in, say hi, and, as Elvis Costello might have said, had he Internet access in 1977, welcome to my blogging week. Hey, the Dodgers can't take a home series from the worst team in baseball (Colorado), but they sure put the screws to Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and, with tonight's 9-6 win at Wrigley, the Cubs. Will the Padres fold and allow the Dodgers to take the NL West with 80 wins, or less? I made it to another drive-in, and I managed to catch up on new Almodovar, new Herzog, new Craven and old Russ Meyer all in the past seven days. And maybe 2046 soon? I'm busy, but I guess I'm no hermit. Stay tuned. And what did you guys do last week?

Friday, August 19, 2005

READING DAVID EDELSTEIN


“We're always going to need good critics. Not so much as consumer reporters--now you can get that on the Internet. We need them to keep the discussion going. To help catalyze the reaction between the viewer and the work. To teach by example how to think about what we see--or in some cases how not to think about it. It probably sounds silly to evoke wine, but here it is: A movie doesn't just have an aroma and a taste. It has a finish, and if it's a great movie that finish lasts decades while you weigh all the nuances and components in your mind. Criticism is a living thing. At its best, it's revitalizing. And as we sink further and further into a stupor, we need it more than ever.”

- Slate film critic David Edelstein, from an interview with Aaron Aradillas on rockcritics.com


Good film criticism is always fun to take on, writing that challenges a reader to learn about recognizing one’s own reactions and perceptions and fine-tuning them. That criticism can lean more toward the academic (Jonathan Rosenbaum) or the self-consciously provocative (Armond White), but even in moments of argument or frustration with the writer it’s usually easy to determine which road is best suited to the reader’s own desires and expectations for the criticism. Bad, lazy or ill-informed film criticism, on the other hand, no matter whether the writer’s opinions coincide with the reader’s or not, is just not much fun at all, and almost never edifying in any meaningful way. In fact, in can be downright unreadable (just these quotes provided by ReverseShot were more than enough for me).

And then there is David Edelstein, whose work I admired in the mid ‘80s, the period he correctly characterizes as among the worst in the history of the medium, when he wrote for the Village Voice. Back in the days before the Internet, I had lost track of Edelstein after he left that paper. But a few years ago I reconnected with him on the Internet magazine Slate, where he has been the resident film critic since not long after its initial launch. And it has definitely been a happy reconnection. I’ve always admired Edelstein’s ability to maintain an intelligent, informal voice, a voice that easily connects to the less hoity-toity element of engaging with Hollywood mainstream films, while never losing its edge of credibility, of authority, when dealing with films that are outside that mainstream, whatever their country of origin.

And I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece written by Edelstein that made me feel like he was trying to elevate himself above a piece of work in order to make the reader understand how crummy the work really was. In his review of the execrable Van Helsing, Edelstein made clear that what was wrong wasn’t the fact that the movie had monsters around every corner, as if the very delving into the horror genre made the work beneath contempt—he has never tried to mask his love for the Universal monster films that were Van Helsing’s jumping-off point. The problem Edelstein had was that the movie so desecrated the memory of those Universal horror creations, and the idea of a coherent narrative as well, at the altar of criminally excessive computer-generated imagery and hyperactive editing. Yet he can also turn around and deal with more “serious” work, like, for example, the Dardennes’ film The Son or Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that same recognizable voice without suddenly making himself sound like your least favorite film professor who has some cinematic spinach he insists on foisting upon you before you sit down to your Hollywood cheeseburger.

I remember seeing Pauline Kael on The Mike Douglas Show when I was a latchkey high school kid back in the mid ‘70s and, of course, being fascinated by her wit and her observations on film. (Is it just my wishful memory that’s to blame for “remembering” a look on Douglas’ face that revealed she was way over his head?) But I never picked up one of her books until I was a freshman in college in 1977. It was Reeling, and that’s how I’ve been ever since I read it—reeling at the worlds of possibility and imagination and creative thinking that book opened up to me (I went through four paperback editions before I finally got wise and found a used hardbound copy a few years ago). But discovering Edelstein amongst all the rigid free-thinkers and auteur theorists at the Voice had some of the same impact on me, as I floundered through my post-college days, facing an uncertain future and week after week of the kind of tepid, uninspiring film fare that would filter down to the cracker box cinemas of Southern Oregon.

I wrote film reviews for the Ashland Daily Tidings, the main newspaper of Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, and more often than not Edelstein’s less-than-reverential tone was one that I found comfortable and tried to find ways to adapt to my own assignments. I can remember my scathing review of a certain “brat pack” epic which I wrote as a parody of a studio executives boardroom meeting charged with coming up with the lowest-common-denominator idea and ending up with, yes, St. Elmo’s Fire; I managed to muster up the balls to submit that piece largely by conjuring impressions of Edelstein’s smart-ass, take-no-prisoners reviewing, which I imagined was founded largely out of boredom with these same kinds of pictures. I don’t recall if Edelstein actually reviewed St. Elmo’s Fire, but I do recall the nasty letters I started getting from irate readers in the wake of that review that, the opposite of discouraging, actually made me feel like I was on the right track. A few years later Edelstein did review the awful Michael J. Fox comedy The Secret of My Success by breaking down its elements into a faux mathematical formula, which spoke volumes (and hilariously) about the kind of mass-marketed, test-screened homogenization of studio filmmaking in that decade, and I’ve held the memory of that review dear, though it’s been a long time since I’ve actually read it. (Edelstein hasn’t yet collected his reviews into an easy-accessible volume so as to ambush an unassuming young film buff like Kael once ambushed me, but I really hope he will someday.)

I’ve had my disagreements with Edelstein over the years, and as much as I enjoy the validation of a shared opinion with someone I respect, I’ve come to appreciate those occasional disagreements more for the opportunity they provide to clarify and strength my own critical perspective. It’s a reader/writer relationship I’ve come to enjoy not only with him, but with Stephanie Zacharek (Salon), Charles Taylor (late of Salon, and hopefully coming soon again to a weekly venue, headed up by a smart editor, near you), Matt Zoller Seitz (New York Press), A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (the New York Times) and Walter Chaw (Film Freak Central), all excellent writers and fertile, independent thinkers whose weekly contributions to the navigation through and understanding of film culture in a particularly reticent time, politically and creatively, cannot be undervalued. (Every one of these writers, and many, many others, by the way, can be accessed with a click of the mouse on the sidebar to the right.)

A click of that same mouse can also take you to rockcritics.com where one Aaron Aradillas has been on a bit of a tear bringing a series of very entertaining interviews with various film critics to that Web site. Among Aradillas’ subjects over the past year have been USA Today critic and long-time Leonard Maltin associate Mike Clark, Entertainment Weekly senior film critic Owen Gleiberman, former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, New York Post film critic Jami Bernard and Premiere magazine’s garrulous film critic Glenn Kenny. It’s a series of talks with folks who are not often heard from in this particular format, and the reads are very refreshing ones indeed. I hope that Aradillas can continue his series long enough to get to some of the other worthy scribes mentioned in this piece. (I came to my appreciation of his efforts only after having passed through an initial wave of jealous rage that I hadn’t thought of it first.) Recently Aradillas landed a lengthy session with Edelstein as well, and I was again both excited to read the interview and perturbed that it wasn’t me who was posing the questions.

The Edelstein interview is indeed a good one—the critic, friendly and forthcoming, occasionally parries with some of the assumptions within his interviewer’s questions and leads him (and us) on a very interesting journey into the relevance of film criticism in an age when a lot of people would rather not read, and if they do it’s largely to have their own point of view confirmed, not challenged. That said, it’s most gratifying indeed to notice the many similarities in taste the critic and I shared, particularly in the realm of horror films—Edelstein’s mentions of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Dark Shadows and Count Yorga, Vampire were even more satisfying to hear expounded upon here than they are to see mentioned glancingly in his own reviews. It’s also fascinating to read about how a writer develops into a film criticism career—everyone has his story, I’m sure, and Edelstein’s accounts of being lucky enough to come up amongst the ranks of some of the writers listed above will be worth a look to anyone who’s ever wondered how to get his own writing read by the right people at the right time. And, yes, his fortuitous meeting and subsequent friendship with Pauline Kael is touched upon in surprising ways, especially when the nasty term “Paulettes” rears its head yet again, as it has so many times since Kael’s recent death. Most tellingly, in regards to his background and sensibility, here’s Edelstein, from the interview, on acting, actors and the temptation and tendency of critics to trash people in print:

“It was also useful to watch real actors up close, which I did when I apprenticed at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. Believe it or not, I used to enjoy reading John Simon on theater in the '70s, right up until the time I started seeing the same productions he did. There was an actress he described over and over as masturbating in public, and I had a chance to work with her at the A.R.T. She was a total sweetheart, and I did see that expression on stage that enraged Simon. It appeared when she was momentarily unsure of what she was doing and became self-conscious. So Simon had called it exactly wrong and had used his misperception to bludgeon her. To write about actors well you have to have some empathy. You can't sit there measuring their features with imaginary calipers.”

Those who want a cogent expression of the medium’s possibilities, and its failings, on a weekly basis have few options that are as consistently delightful and enlightening than checking out David Edelstein’s column on Slate. He’s not always going to confirm your thoughts, your hopes for a certain movie, or your idea of how a film critic should approach any given subject. But where’s the fun, and the value, in reading someone as predictable as that? Sometimes he’ll drive you nuts; sometimes he’ll feel like your smartest buddy. If you can find a writer like that in your travels through journalism and literature, you’re a lucky reader, and you should stick with that writer and keep discovering the surprises he or she undoubtedly has in store. That’s what I’ve done with David Edelstein off and on for 20 years now, and I’m unreservedly glad that I have.

Monday, August 15, 2005

THE FANTASTIC WEDDING CRASHERS OF HAZZARD


The buzz (here rather conservatively defined as the appearance of a positive-leaning story in the New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section, enthusiastic reaction to those beatifically demented bus kiosk and billboards ads all over hell and gone, and the good word of someone I know who has actually seen it) seems to be that The 40-Year-Old Virgin is going to be an adult (read “R-rated”) comedy to reckon with. The look on star/cowriter Steve Carell’s face in those ads is a perfect mix of blessed cluelessness and the thinnest patina of twisted mania—he looks sweet and innocent, but it might not be a bad idea to keep your distance. This is, of course, a single image crystallized from Carell’s oddball Daily Show persona, and that of his brilliantly perverse turn in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and that image, combined with the pedigree of director Judd Apatow (producer of Anchorman and the writer/producer of the believe-the-hype TV series Freaks and Geeks) suggests that fans of fall-down funny, smarter-than-the-average-European-gigolo-gross-out-fest comedy may have yet another treat in store this coming weekend.

But before the torch is passed, if it is, a word about the summer’s other expectation-defying comedy. In my pre-summer article about the season’s coming attractions, I dissed the probability of Wedding Crashers having much at all to offer beyond a headache. I complained about yet another shuffling of the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn/Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller combo platter and, without inside information of any kind, took bets on whether Stiller would worm his way into another “hilarious” cameo appearance. Just over a month passed between my Nostradamus-like prognostications and the release of the movie, and in that time I started hearing some pretty good things from some pretty reliable writers about Wedding Crashers. Although I had to admit my interest was now somewhat piqued, I couldn’t get past my weariness at the prospect of seeing these actors buddying it up again. The wounds from Zoolander, I Spy, Starksy and Hutch, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story were just too fresh.

But the subtle indicators were there that Wedding Crashers might be the real thing. The director, David Dobkin, had guided Wilson and Jackie Chan through Shanghai Knights, the equally swift, silly and enjoyable sequel to their Shanghai Noon success, with a genuinely spirited light touch. Wilson’s role seemed more grounded in the kind of easy-going sensibility of romanticized realism that fits him much better than does the strained absurdity of something like Zoolander or the curdled irony of Starksy and Hutch. And Vaughn seemed (in the trailer, at least) much more alive bouncing off of Wilson and vibrant players like Christopher Walken and the bizarrely funny Isla Fisher than he did wearing Bill Murray’s old gym shoes in Dodgeball or John Belushi’s “College” sweater in Old School.

My wife and I decided that Wedding Crashers might be just the thing for a Saturday matinee, and as we were walking in I remember worrying aloud that we might be in for another Meet the Parents, where the movie just couldn’t live up to the glow cast by the blurb whores and the cannily-leaked preview audience buzz about how hilarious it all was. About a third of the way through, between belly laughs, I stopped worrying. Halfway through I thought, the reviews were right—this is good stuff. And by the time the credits rolled I was thinking, no, they weren’t—Wedding Crashers is actually better than all the advance praise indicated. It’s turned out to be that rarest of rarities in this age of the blitzkrieg opening weekend, where no phenomenon goes unpackaged or unresearched or unpredicted by incessant infotainment “journalism”—a word-of-mouth hit, and a well-deserving one at that.

By now you’ll have either seen the movie or someone will have blabbed to you enough that it couldn’t possibly seem as fresh as it might without people like me nudging you in the ribs and telling you to go buy a ticket. Fortunately, thanks to my sieve-like capacity for retaining comedy bits and jokes for further telling and retelling in writing and to those I can corner in person, there’s little likelihood I’ll spoil any of the setups or jokes in Wedding Crashers, nor do I have much of a desire to do so. I can laugh like hell with the best of them, but unless a comedy has stood the test of time with me (Horse Feathers, Blazing Saddles, The Big Lebowski) there’s no chance I could ruin much of the comedic surprise of a movie like Wedding Crashers for the uninitiated because, frankly, I don’t remember many of the specific things that made me laugh my ass off. Now, for someone who tries to write about films with some degree of credibility this can be a big problem. If I could have marshaled my resources and my schedule, or if I had an editor who was paying me and insisting that I have a Wedding Crashers review ready for opening weekend, then it’s more likely I would have spilled some of the movie’s magical jumping beans in print out of sheer enthusiasm. As it is, I only remember one line that made me laugh out loud—Wilson’s “sincere” pick-up line when he soulfully claims to yet another prospective notch on his bridesmaid bedpost that “some suggest that we only use 10 percent of our brains; I say we only use 10 percent of our hearts”—and that’s a line that indicates much of what is successful about the comedy in Wedding Crashers, despite its gleeful vulgarity, is based not in tit jokes or exploding toilets but in the movie’s characters instead.

But don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’ve actually come to look upon this inability to corral my memory of movie comedy bits as oftentimes a good thing. I saw Austin Powers in Goldmember in a theater the summer it was released and happily brayed like a donkey for 90 minutes. Three or four months later, when it debuted on DVD, I couldn’t wait to see it again because, though I remembered loving it and laughing so hard that my eyeglasses were speckled with salt-crusted projectile tears afterward, I could barely remember a thing about the movie beyond the way it looked, and how Beyonce Knowles updated Pam Grier’s Coffy ‘fro and form-fitting gold lame outfits so, um, delightfully. Seeing it again, I almost felt like I’d never seen it in the first place. For me, creeping memory loss seems also to mean that comedy, particularly the very silly variety, can be an endlessly renewable resource.

It’s been a month now since I first saw Wedding Crashers, and there are things that I do remember. I can tell you all about how sharp Vince Vaughn’s instincts seem in the movie, how his manic cynicism echoes so well off of Wilson’s heavy-lidded hipster cues and his sincerely dazed responses to the unexpected appearance of true love for bridesmaid Rachel McAdams (all of the sudden, I’m really looking forward to Red-Eye-- hell, I may even go back and catch Mean Girls and The Notebook). Or the delightful visual joke of the six-foot-plus Vaughn slow-dancing with the diminutive Isla Fisher and casually remarking how small he feels in her arms. This is probably Vaughn’s finest hour as an actor, and that includes his breakthrough in Swingers. Earlier I invoked the Vaughn/Bill Murray comparison sarcastically to emphasize how Vaughn can really dog a performance, phone it in and hope that you won’t think less of him while you’re noting the obvious touchstones off which he’s constantly glancing. But seeing Vaughn in Wedding Crashers made me think he’s the first comic actor who may be worthy of comparison to the Harold Ramis-era Murray of, say, Stripes, if he can just keep up the energy he’s tapped into here, and not just the nervous tic mannerisms designed to make it look like he’s doing something other than marking time.

I can also tell you about the bristle of anticipatory electricity when the movie opens on Wilson and Vaughn, professional divorce arbitrators playing good cop-good cop while wedged in the wide-screen frame between the delightfully nasty Dwight Yoakam and Rebecca DeMornay, two none-too-happy soon-to-be exes. I can tell you about the twisted gleam in Isla Fisher’s eyes as she bounces and giggles in a post-fornication glow, excitedly chattering about what a wonderful life she and Vaughn will have together, all right in his squirming, flabbergasted face, and about the twist in his character’s progression regarding this perky little insane person that lends Wedding Crashers one of its many levels of comic richness. I can tell you how unexpectedly delightful it was to see Jane Seymour on screen again, shedding her Dr. Quinn petticoat (metaphorically speaking) along with her wedding reception ensemble (happily, quite literally speaking) in a brazenly sexual comic riff that, immediate pleasures notwithstanding, unfortunately doesn’t add up to much more. I can tell you that Ben Stiller does not appear in Wedding Crashers, but Will Ferrell does and, par for the course from the man who breathed life into Ron Burgundy, his appearance is teeth-gnashingly creepy, though not as brazenly funny as his work as San Diego’s best-feathered newsreader. Finally, I can tell you how good it felt watching a movie that really isn’t transgressive in its old-school vulgarity—nobody’s trying to break through any Farrelly-inspired barriers here (hell, even the Farrellys don’t seem much interested in that strategy anymore, to their credit and, most probably, to their agent’s horror)—but one that was still bracingly nasty even as it settled into some very familiar romantic comedy formulas and structures. Wedding Crashers is, amazingly enough, still hanging around in theaters, and it’s worth catching there for the wide-screen frame director Dobkin uses so well and so unobtrusively, and for the particular fun of laughing loudly and often with others who are similarly caught up in the comedy. And who knows—if The 40-Year-Old Virgin ends up being half as good, we may be in for a formidably funny double feature coming soon to a drive-in or second-run house near you. *

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But then again, what do I know? That’s the unspoken theme here today, so I might as well cash in the latest revelation of my misdirected studio-fed preconceptions. It was the recipient of some of the season’s most witheringly reviews, and even I smelled a Daredevil-sized skunk myself when I first saw the preview in front of that other skunk that kicked off the summer. But about two weeks after the early July release of Fantastic Four, two weeks being just about enough time for the nearly universal pans to have calcified into accepted conventional wisdom, I got an e-mail from my good friend Andy who took his son to see it and was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was. Now, though Andy and I often agree on films of this sort (see that skunk link above), we’re just as likely to come down on opposite sides of the fence—I found Batman Begins to be exceedingly well-crafted and unexpectedly rich in character; he, and his son, thought it was a colossal snooze. So though I valued his recommendation, especially in the face of so much negative reaction, it was no guarantee that his response would reflect my own. Nor was Stephanie Zacharek’s late endorsement of the movie. She starts her review thusly:

“Fantastic Four is a breezy summer blockbuster that already has the feel of an antique: It exists largely to entertain and delight, which used to be precisely what summer blockbusters were engineered to do. But in the summer of 2005, so far at least, Fantastic Four seems like an anomaly: It's not a "quality" blockbuster -- note the quotation marks – like "War of the Worlds" or "Batman Begins," pictures with heavy, doomy spirits that work overtime to convince audiences they're getting some spinach (or even just some craftsmanship) with their alleged entertainment. Fantastic Four is so light, it sometimes seems in danger of blowing away.

I had reservations about War of the Worlds too, and obviously I disagree with her description of Batman Begins as heavy-handed. But was Zacharek’s backing of Fantastic Four simply a case of sticking up for the poor little beat-up blockbuster, a backlash against the backlash? Or was she on to something about the movie’s lack of pretense, about its desire simply to amuse? Would it be too much to hope that she was right?

Well, as it turns out, no, it wouldn’t. Fantastic Four is about the least pretentious comic book movie to have been made in the long shadow of Tim Burton’s stylistically influential Batman and all the graphic novels that have refashioned the origin stories of popular comic book heroes and grafted a certain level of seriousness onto their framework. There’s none of that kind of angst-y inflation going on in Fantastic Four, and really, when you honestly examine the original comic book, how could there be? After The Incredibles, wouldn’t we be more likely to chuckle at an overly portentous version of the same sort of material (even if Marvel did get there first), especially since the Pixar film did end up engaging some serious themes amidst all the spectacular filmmaking? And just what is wrong with resisting that blockbuster urge to justify making gigantic movies out of every known comic book by insisting they each become their own dark night (ooh, I almost said “dark knight”!) of the soul?

Director Tim Story keeps things moving at a lively pace and never bothers to engage some the movie’s (and the comic book’s) surface-level absurdities, like the complete lack of explanation as to what causes each member of the Four to be affected by the same radioactive cosmic cloud in distinctly different ways. And the special effects never strive for War of the Worlds-level realism—there’s a certain CGI-age cheesiness to them, which may or may not be intentional, but which turns out to be a good thing, especially when one of your main heroes is brought to life by some very remarkable, yet very old-school-style latex rubber appliances made to look like living stone. Fantastic Four never presses, thematically, much beyond what the acquisition of these powers (or these “symptoms,” as they are initially referred to) means to each of the Four personally, and it surprised me with its genial tone (which is distinctly different from a “gee-whiz” tone, at least here) and its sense of humor (also a trait that can be traced back to the comic book). The movie also doggedly refuses to give the Four’s plight any kind of global significance. The villainous Dr. Doom, who finances Reed Richards’ checkered date with that cosmic cloud and is along on the ship when the D.N.A.-altering storm hits, is angry that he too has been affected—his flesh is transforming into some form of hyper-conductive, super-hard metal—and that Richards has stolen Doom’s biophysicist extraordinaire and love interest, Sue Storm, away from him, and the resulting second-half action is, essentially, a superhero street fight over some very personal issues.

That scaling down (such as it is) of the movie’s narrative ambitions proves to be liberating, and the action scenes are both kinda clunky and kinda limber at the same time. They’re mostly terrifically exciting, too, and I responded to them in much the same way I remembering responding to the incredible dynamism of Jack Kirby’s original illustrations. Don’t get me wrong-- Fantastic Four isn’t a stylistic feature-length money shot along the lines of Sin City-- I doubt Tim Story would be up to the kind of grand visualization schemes that informed Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel earlier this year, and I couldn’t be happier about it. He’s basically got his hands full with the movie we see on screen, and his breezy, workmanlike approach is a refreshing antidote to the kind of self-consciousness that is the hallmark of graphic novels, and movies, like Sin City.

The actors tap into this spirit of fun too. Michael Chiklis has really only his eyes to work with as Ben Grimm, who gets transformed into the walking rock known eventually as the Thing, but he brings a surprisingly delicate physicality to the table as well, while at the same time conveying the necessary credibility as regards Grimm’s newfound body. He has several scenes in which play humorously off his inability to use, say, a knife and fork (he gets the reverse moment as well when he’s seen squeezing an entire bag of oranges to make a mixer bowl’s worth of juice), but Chiklis has the grace to underplay what Zacharek aptly describes as a potentially cornball moment—Grimm’s fiancĂ©e rejects his new appearance, takes her engagement ring off and leaves it on the street, and Grimm realizes he cannot even pick the ring up off the ground with his gigantic stone digits. It’s time to leave the old life behind, all right, and as he turns and walks away, dressed in a really oversized trench coat and hat, he looks like a refugee from a ‘40s romantic melodrama, and the bitterness of his understanding carries with it echoes of Bogart. But Bogie could never crumple an entire car and toss it at someone like a paper ball. Chiklis never lets Grimm’s despondence get the best of his characterization, and you can see through the rubber suit the joy he takes in getting to dish out some Clobberin’ Time, when Grimm realizes there might be something to being a man of stone after all.

Chris Evans (of Cellular) has surprisingly sharp timing as Johnny Storm, the extreeeeeme kid (Sue Storm’s astronaut brother) who becomes the Human Torch in the aftermath of the space disaster, and who is the only one of the Four who sees the potential for fun in their newly acquired powers. It was his character I was dreading the most, based on the trailer, because I wasn’t sure I needed to see more Hollywood genuflecting at the altar of the extreeeeeeme, and it’s a credit to Evans’ likeability that his prankster persona comes off less annoying (to everyone but Ben, perhaps) and ends up helping to keep the movie on the right track, sensibility-wise. Julian McMahon has the eyebrows that give away Victor Von Doom’s character arc in his first five seconds on screen, but he’s pretty delightful to watch here anyway. Doom doesn’t relish his villainy in the usual way—it’s too based, at this point anyway, in pure anger and a sense of being wronged for him to much enjoy his power. But that doesn’t prevent McMahon from enjoying himself, and without, significantly, ramping up the stakes in the Can-You-Top-Jack-Nicholson department of superhero foes. His Doom is power mad, and with a sardonic sense of humor that may be a holdover of his national origins—at one point there is a close-up of an award given to him by the people of his home country, fictionally located somewhere in Eastern Europe: “To Victor Von Doom, for all you have done for the people of Latveria.” The plaque, it is revealed as the camera pans up, is attached to a glass-encased mask, an evil visage made of steel that Von Doom will soon adopt as his signature face plate, once his own bodily transforming becomes too grotesque for family viewing. Who wouldn’t, coming from national stock like that, eventually find pure evil as a viable option? Likewise, who wouldn’t be just a little miffed at having a sex kitten like Sue Storm stolen from you by your old high school nemesis? There are moments, especially on the spacecraft, where Jessica Alba is photographed with the right sensitivity to the spunky luminousness of her facial features, and with her cheerful sexuality never far from the surface, that I thought someone like Roger Vadim would have loved her. And she’s a good choice for the Invisible Woman—it’s neat to see what she can do when she’s using her powers, but, by gosh, you miss seeing her when she goes all gossamer. Alba keeps the vamping in check, though, and provides a nice counterbalance to the boyish bickering between Ben and Johnny (even if she’s not particularly believable as a biophysicist—but then, who in Hollywood would be?), and she ends up shouldering perhaps a little more emotional gravitas than one would have ever expected by the film’s conclusion. The only thing she really doesn’t do too well is make us believe that she could ever keep up much interest in Reed Richards, but that, I think, can be laid at the feet of the miscast Ioan Gruffudd, who simply doesn’t bring much intensity or spirit to the character. Richards has always been the least interesting of the Four, but giving a more dynamic actor in the part, one who didn’t acquiesce so quickly to the character’s own reticence by receding into the background himself, could have solved this particular problem without changing a line in the script (which is fairly sharply written, by the way, by Mark Frost (Twin Peaks) and Michael France (Hulk, The Punisher). Fortunately, once Reed starts using his taffy-twisting torso as Mr. Fantastic (the moniker Elastic Man was already taken) the movie comes up with enough for him to do that you momentarily are relieved of the awareness of what a stiff he’s been for the previous 90 minutes.

Fantastic Four is proof enough that not every blockbuster needs to have apocalypse appeal or heavy-duty underpinnings in order to be a success. Unfortunately, a lot of the bad press it has received seems to have been based on the fact that it eschews those elements, that it is as faithful to its source material as it is. Maybe those who hold the original comic book dear have had their expectations altered over the course of the last 20 years of Hollywood’s raiding of the DC and Marvel vaults. Maybe a revisionist take is what many assumed would be the tack taken. But what of movie critics who have fallen all over themselves deriding the movie as disastrous trash? Could the simple pleasures a movie like this has to offer be beneath some of the critics that raced to overrate a sub-par horror thriller like Land of the Dead based almost entirely on its directorial pedigree and not, it would seem, on what’s up on screen? Or the Internet infotainment prognosticators who began dumping on the movie as soon as its director was announced, before a frame of film had been exposed? I’m not sure what’s up with the way Fantastic Four was received in the press. But personally, I’m just grateful for all the different ways it managed to tickle me when I saw it, and that it didn’t, after all, turn out to be a sausage like Daredevil. It’s a small gift, but I’ll take it.


And now just a couple of words for the double feature that could have been. While out at the 99W Drive-in in Newberg Saturday night I was treated to my second screening of Herbie Fully Loaded and my third screening in two weeks of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think Tim Burton’s movie is just fine, perhaps better, in significant ways that have less to do with nostalgia than with performance, than the much-loved Gene Wilder version. In fact, Depp and all five kids have it heads and tails over Wilder and company in the 1971 movie—the new Augustus Gloop is an cosmic Aryan crackup, his pale blue eyes twirling with sugar-fed mania; Violet Beauregard is a hilarious riff on Dakota Fanning, and her mother (Missi Pyle) has the funniest psychotic stare I think I’ve ever seen; the new Mike Teevee takes video game mania to frightening new heights (helped along by a title card introducing him, over the sounds of gunshots from one of his games, as a resident of Denver, Colorado); the 2005 model Veruca Salt more than holds her own with the 1971 version, though there’s not much variance between the two in terms of the way the character is approached (and James Fox is not as funny as Roy Kinnear was in 1971 playing Veruca’s haplessly indulgent dad); and Freddy Highmore’s take on Charlie Bucket is very Roald Dahl; childlike, clear-eyed, but not a whit sentimental, whereas Peter Ostrum’s gee-whiz Charlie walked through the entire movie with real big tears at the ready, should his Grand Canyon-sized smile ever fail him. As for Depp, I locked in on his bizarre wavelength from the start and found his demented reveries and high-pitched, sing-songy barbs and non sequiturs creepy and hilarious. If you find this version too weird and disquieting, you may not have seen the 1971 movie in a while—I’d guess it’s probably quite a bit nastier, in its own way, than you remember. Burton’s wonderfully perverse eye has not failed him here, and the Freudian jokes and behaviorally suspect Wonka that Depp offers up are more than satisfactory enough for me. And no Anthony Newley songs!

That said, I don’t need to see it again, that’s for sure. As it turns out, Herbie Fully Loaded worked much better at the drive-in, what with its artlessly amusing car antics, lowbrow comedy and a lead actress poured into one tight-fitting T-shirt after another. Trade the T-shirts for a bikini top and pair after pair of criminally short shorts, and you basically have The Dukes of Hazzard, which would have been the perfect co-hit with Herbie at the drive-in. Alas, it was not to be. So I had to leave my hotel room last night and find an indoor theater near me playing the tender story of Bo and Luke Duke and their pulchritudinous cousin Daisy (admittedly not as difficult as task as tracking down, say, a Bela Tarr retrospective within driving distance).

I did, however, hesitate for a moment when, just before leaving, I found a review on IMDb that gave me pause:

“This movie is a shame and a disgrace to the Duke family name. I was a huge fan of the show. HUGE. But this was the worst movie I've ever seen in my life(italics mine). John Schneider must be spitting nails to see Stifler in his driver's seat. Calling this film The Dukes of Hazzard was a poor smokescreen for selling a bad film. No matter how hard they tried, none of those jokers are, or will ever be, Dukes. Daisy Duke (played by Catherine Bach) was hot, smart, and sassy. Now don't get me wrong, Jessica Simpson is one of the hottest women alive, but she is no Daisy Duke. Her Daisy was a bimbo who just walked around in a bikini all of the time. Also, I love Willie Nelson, but he wasn't Uncle Jesse, he was Willie Nelson. All in all, this film turned my stomach and did a great dis-service to the name of The Dukes of Hazzard. Nice car and jumps though.”

This cogent, level-headed piece of criticism pretty much had me convinced that spending my $8.50 to see The Dukes of Hazzard might just be one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I was in the act of putting down my wallet and car keys, readying myself mentally to stay in the hotel room and catch the 8:30 pm showing of Berlin Alexanderplatz on HBO when I read that last line: “Nice car and jumps though.” The language resonated, as did the sentiment. Nice car and jumps. That was it. I picked up my car keys, raced to the parking lot and peeled as much rubber as my cheap rental car would allow on my way to two hours of redneck bliss.

And, oh, what bliss it was. There hasn’t been a movie this unabashedly idiotic since philosophy major Patrick Swayze took up bar bouncing in Roadhouse, and the fact that Dukes director Jay Chandrasekhar (Broken Lizard’s Super Troopers) revels in the goofiness of the original concept, without turning it into a humorless Starsky and Hutch-style condescension-a-thon, just adds to the giddy, wide-screen thrills. Johnny Knoxville cackles and yells “Whoo-hooooo!” real good; Seann William Scott yells “Yee-haaaah!” real good, and he has a creepy-funny sexual attraction to the General Lee that, unfortunately, the studio’s insistence on a PG-13 rating apparently prevented from being fully, ripely explored; and speaking of ripe, Jessica Simpson, despite the objections of John Simon above, wipes out all vestigial memory of Catherine Ba---? See? I’ve forgotten her name already. When Jessica/Daisy bends over the open hood of her Jeep and begs the help of a pie-eyed sheriff, asking him to check her undercarriage, well, that’s movie heaven right there. No, wait, movie heaven is Jessica/Daisy putting her boot on the neck of a redneck who tosses one too many sexy drumstick cracks her way in a bar. No, wait, movie heaven is all them car chases, which, whether on the back roads of Hazzard County or on the freeways of Atlanta (where the movie crafty deals with the issue of that confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee), are staged with enough fire and giddy-up to make Hal Needham rock hard with envy and limp with the realization that he never did ‘em half so good. There’s a place for reckless, dumb fun, and right now that place is a seat in any auditorium (or drive-in) showing The Dukes of Hazzard.

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* (By the way, in my review of Mr. and Mrs. Smith I took a moment or two to consider Armond White’s rather strong reaction to the movie. White surmised: “You don't have to be Osama bin Laden to think that only a horrible culture would produce an ‘entertainment’ like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But when a bootleg of this facetious comedy does get satellite-projected to that crazy hermit in a Middle Eastern cave, he'll probably break into an ‘I told you so’ grin.” My own reaction to the movie was sufficiently the opposite of what I considered White’s rather reactionary one that I made a supposition of my own to end my comments: “I can’t wait to find out how Wedding Crashers is so wretched as to justify not only bin Laden’s hatred of America but perhaps further action against its citizenry, and during his lecture White will surely find a way to bring up Mr. and Mrs. Smith yet again.” So, in the interest of fairness, here is Armond White’s review of Wedding Crashers in its entirety:

“The first half hour ofWedding Crashers makes you expect a comedy classic. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, playing divorce counselors, are also dogs who scheme to bag babes by cruising at the nuptials of complete strangers. It begins with such hilarious aggression (Dwight Yoakam and Rebecca DeMornay as greedy divorcees) that Vaughn and Wilson’s antic complete a satirical portrait of neurotic, new-millennial American appetite. They are allured by the catering as much as the available sex. Director David Dobkin can’t make the humor grow; it devolves into a Meet the Parents knock-off. Just shy of vulgar, there remains the spirit of a perfect, mythic joke premise.”

The review basically serves as a segue from a long review of 2046 to three or four more lines on The Aristocrats, so it’s not like White spends a lot of time considering Wedding Crashers, which is, I suppose, as good an indicator as any that he liked it—his vitriol tends to get much more free rein when it comes to cinematic offenses. But I felt it only fair, after my own prediction about his reaction, to highlight in print that, in much the same way that I misjudged Wedding Crashers itself, I misjudged how the New York Press’s premier contrarian crankpot would respond to the movie.)


Au revoir, Portland!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

IN THE SHADOW OF MT. HOOD



Here I am, sitting in a hotel room in Oregon, taking advantage of the opportunity to write, and resisting the temptation to run outside and breathe in the atmosphere, the fresh air, the sense of being somewhere where life means something other than weekend box office results and the endless annoyances of the everyday. I miss my girls, the babies and the grown-up, something fierce, but the good folks at Verizon have made sure we don't pine for each other too long and too painfully. (Have you ever pulled the toes of a five-year-old over a digital phone connection? Nor had I, until last night.) I whiled part of yesterday away driving down three-lane highways surrounded by pines, making my way toward the company of beloved relatives with whom I haven't spent nearly enough time in the last 20 years or so. I enjoyed the best burger in the state (with a side of Walla Walla sweet onion rings) for dinner, and logged a couple of hours talking with Brian Francis, owner/operator of the 99W Drive-in in Newberg, walking the field, checking out the projection booth, soaking up the ambience before settling in with a double feature that got out at around 2:15 this morning. And today, while I'm writing, I've got the Angels/Mariners game on (Fox Sports Northwest doesn't feature the Dodgers/Mets) and I've been switching over occasionally to keep up with what's going on downtown between the Portland Beavers and Colorado Springs at PGE Park. So I can't watch the Dodgers, but thanks to the joys of the Internet, I can still read about 'em, and Jon Weisman's latest piece, posted less than an hour ago, speaks to me like wise words from an old friend, even though Jon and I have never met. I have tonight and all day tomorrow to write some more, and I am having a wonderful time taking advantage of it, letting the Oregon vibes keep my fingers humming, to say nothing of my spirit. Why, I might even head out and track down my best friend's old neighborhood tomorrow too, and take a drink from that fountain on Thurman Street. All is well in the shadow of Mt. Hood as the sun starts to make its exit toward the coast (ah, the coast), and I am all the better for it.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

FOR CHARLIE: Baby Mine, Don't You Cry...


Baby mine, don't you cry
Baby mine, Dry your eyes
Rest your head close to my heart
Never to part, baby of mine

Little one, when you play
Don't you mind what they say
Let those eyes sparkle and shine
Never a tear, baby of mine

If they knew sweet little you
They'd end up loving you too
All those same people who scold you
What they'd give just for the
right to hold you

From your head down to your toes
You're not much, goodness knows
But you're so precious to me
Sweet as can be, baby of mine

All of those people who scold you
What they'd give just for the
Right to hold you

From your head down to your toes
You're not much, goodness knows
But you're so precious to me
Sweet as can be, baby of mine

Baby of mine



There is a picture of my son Charlie that I keep hidden away, in a box dedicated to his memory. I will never post it. I will never ask anyone to look at it. I may be the only person who ever again sees it. But I have it. I can see him now, just as he looks in the picture, just as he looked the one and only time I ever held him in my arms. And I can imagine how he might look if he were here today, on what might have been his eighth birthday.

I say "might" because his birthday was supposed to be one week later, on my birthday, as it happened. Of course, if he could have lived, we all would have gladly welcomed him seven days early. But when we arrived at the hospital on this day eight years ago our worst fears were realized, and our lives began a tailspin from which, I think it's safe to say, we have yet to fully recover. We ended up burying Charlie exactly one week later, on the day he should have been born.

For me, eight years later, there are no more sudden stabs of grief that seemed to descend upon me usually during private times, in the shower, for example, where no one else could see. And that blanket of pain that would suddenly cover me when I would happen upon some imagery or filmed situation at work that would trigger memories and the overwhelming desire to crumple into a heap-- that blanket hasn't been thrown over my head in quite a while. So I guess, to all appearances, I'm "moving on." Not surprisingly, however, my wife, though she's certainly better than she was eight years ago, has been so profoundly affected that her experience is often beyond my understanding, and certainly that of her closest friends and associates. Charlie was physically part of her; he was in her. She is the only one who knows that particular loss, but even she had no idea (and still doesn't) of its depth and endurance. Perhaps the most difficult thing I've had to do in the last eight years is not empathize with her pain-- it's too great even for me to know, and too easy for me to assume that my pain in any way resembles hers-- but instead to realize that she needs a strong hand and a strong heart to love her and help her heal at her own pace, a pace I can only respect and perhaps never understand.

I think of August 11, 1997 as probably the worst day of my life. And each day after, for months and years, was only better by the slimmest of degrees. I can remember sitting in a mall only a couple of weeks later, waiting for my wife to take care of some business, when a little girl, whom I'd never seen before, walked up to me, smiled and said, "Hi, Daddy," and then walked away. I've never been much of a believer in things supernatural, but that moment was so inexplicable, and so strangely relevant to what we were going through, that it has always given me pause, as well as chills, and a blindingly emotional rush of desire to see my boy alive.

And that following September we had tickets to see Alison Krauss and Union Station in concert, tickets we had purchased earlier in the summer, projecting that it would be our first opportunity to spend time together away from taking care of Charlie. Instead, the night became our first opportunity to try and function in public cloaked in the shadow of our desperate grief. The music was, of course, transcendent, but neither of us could have anticipated that one of the songs Alison Krauss would sing, in that haunted, piercing soprano with which she is so blessed, would be "Baby Mine," the song from the Disney film which is sung by Dumbo's mother to the son from whom she has been taken and locked away. Krauss' performance, sung only to the accompaniment of Dan Tyminski's guitar (played offstage), is a brilliant expression of the yearning and pain of isolation from the one(s) we love, and it blindsided my wife and I like simultaneous punches to the temple, the chest and the gut. The song, and her rendering of it, remains a cherished thing to me because it so readily connects me to all the feelings and hopes I had for my son and myself, but it is one that I can never again approach lightly. And Dumbo is a favorite film of my daughters, and rightly so-- it is about as wonderful a creation as has ever come forth from the Disney studios-- but that scene still hits me in my most tender spots. More than once one of my girls has asked me why I'm crying when we're watching it. I can only say, "Because it's sad, sweetheart," and I am not lying.

Charlie, I can see your face. I can remember what you felt like in my arms, wrapped in your swaddling blanket. I can remember trying to blink away the rush of tears so distorting my vision that I kept thinking you were waking up and that the horror of that afternoon eight years ago was some sort of sick flash-forward from which I, and all of us, would eventually wake. Instead, the summer was the dream, and the waking, like the fate of the Confederate soldier in Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, is bitter reality.

We love you, son.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

APOCALYPSE NOW! T.J. Simers Likes Jeff Kent!



I’ve never been a fan of T.J. Simers’ tongue-in-cheek bulldogging journalism on page 2 of the Los Angeles Times sports section. Ultimately, it was Bill Plaschke’s writing that sent me into the arms of the Daily News, but I’ve always found Simers too much of too little of a good thing, about an eighth as funny as he thinks he is, and always less than insightful about his favorite whipping boys, the Dodgers. Today, however, Simers writes about his contentious relationship with Jeff Kent and—what’s this?—actually allows for some real human feeling to come through, from Kent and himself. The article is a real keeper, not only because Simers shows some restraint in the anti-Dodgers/DePodesta/McCourt department, but because he portrays unusual insight into a player most journalists, and most fans, would describe in almost any other way than hospitable or outgoing. Simers’ acid sensibility is still in evidence—there’s never any inkling that the piece will devolve into any sort of maudlin Plaschkean hand-wringing—but so is there a fresh angle on how players relate to an antagonistic media, and how that media can distinguish between a Jeff Kent and, say, a Kevin Brown. I never, ever thought I’d say this, but, thanks to T.J. Simers for keeping today’s page 2 of the Los Angeles Times from its usual fish-wrap fate and instead elevating it to scrapbook status.

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As for me, I admit I’ve been lax in my blogging duties over the last week or so. A couple of references to other people’s pieces does not a satisfied blogger (or a satisfied reader, I’d be willing to project) make. If it’s necessary, please forgive me. This is, annually, not a good week for me, but I do have a bit of a working vacation planned for the coming weekend, during which I intend to write copiously (and, hopefully, intelligibly) from within the borders of the City of Roses, Portland, Oregon. I’m counting on the clean air and the 40% chance of showers for some blogging inspiration and to lubricate the typing fingers. I hope to have a couple of other things up before I fly out on Friday night too, just so I can avoid the tag of “Hopeless Slacker” for a few more weeks at least. As always, thanks for stopping by and for hanging in there with me.

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P.S. I’ve noticed a few of my other blogger friends doing this lately, so I think I will too. If you’re someone who’s just dropping by for the first time, would you mind letting me know how you stumbled upon this address? And if you’re a regular lurker and have never left a comment, for whatever reason, I invite you to do so—just a note to say who you are, what you think of what I’m doing (or not doing) here, and anything else that strikes you would be so very much appreciated. Hope to hear from ALL of you soon!

Friday, August 05, 2005

EL GRITO DEL MUTILADO Roberta Findlay Refuses To Explain It All For You



For the less continental, that'd be Shriek of the Mutilated...

If you think the infamous film actor/producer/writer/editor/cinematographer/director Roberta Findlay would be impressed that you knew anything at all about her work, let alone that you knew she was the cinematographer on the nearly forgotten semi-shocker Shriek of the Mutilated (1974), or the credited co-director (with her late husband Michael) of the infamous exploitation movie Snuff, or that she’s made films using over 15 different aliases in her career, including Anna Rivas, Linda Michaels, and, yes, Bob Davis, be assured she would be unimpressed. In fact, she’d probably think you were a demented stalker, or perhaps just plain ol’ demented.
And you might think, look who’s talking. This detachment from artistic rationalization about her work, and her outright refusal to romanticize anything, is one of the things that New York Press writer J.R. Taylor discovered when he tracked her down for a little bitter nostalgia over the grimy old days of Times Square and the scratch-and-claw realities of grindhouse filmmaking in the ‘70s. To appropriate the famous country-and-western tune, Roberta Findlay was exploitation when exploitation wasn’t cool, and she harbors damn few illusions about the lasting value of what she continues to do. Take a look at Taylor's fascinating article for a visit with a filmmaker whose oeuvre may be, to some eyes, worthless, but who, if nothing else, would cock her head back and laugh a dismissive, throaty, nicotine-ravaged laugh if she ever heard anyone referring to her oeuvre, or if she was ever offered the kind of cushy Hollywood deal that seems to be the goal of most Sundance-oriented independent filmmakers in the post-Tarantino age.

And here, for those who don't mind reveling in some schlock movie memories, is the ad I remember seeing for this mind-numbing shocker in the Portland Oregonian around 30 years ago...


Blaaagh, don't you have a story about this unheralded classic? If so, would you mind sharing it?

(My apologies for being a bit late in pointing the way toward this article, which ran in the Press almost two weeks ago. Now, with this duty done, if I could just get to those Netflix rentals that mock me every time I walk into the living room, or the 12 or 13 books I’m a chapter or two into, or that back porch shelving project I can’t seem to get started, or…)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

COMING SOON: V FOR VENDETTA



A couple of months ago SLIFR friend and contributor Benaiah got me interested in a project I had, to that point, never heard of before. The upcoming movie V for Vendetta stars Hugo Weaving as a harlequin-masked terrorist engaging in explosive resistance to a newly fascistic government holding near-future London in its grip, and Natalie Portman as a woman kidnapped by the terrorist, who is quickly swayed to his belief system and, most ominously, his methods. Dodgy subject matter for the post 9/11 universe, to be sure, but even more so in the light of the recent bombings in London. The movie, based on a well-regarded graphic novel by Alan Moore (From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), looks to be treading a very thin line indeed. But that line might thicken up a bit, provided the audience to whom Warner Brothers will be pitching V for Vendetta displays the kind of political awareness and sensitivity that appreciating the movie will require (assuming the movie is any kind of artistic success, of course), and provided that audience cares to engage it outside the inclusive universe of comic book appreciation, amongst the lingering, acrid smoke of the aftermath of real-life events. I got a look at the trailer over the weekend, which you can see here, and though I have been burned by raised expectations based on trailers before, what I could see of the look of this movie—even that highly stylized masked protagonist— seems very promising. Take a look and see if you agree. V for Vendetta, thanks to Benaiah and this trailer, has certainly gone from unknown quantity to queasy prospect to hopeful prospect in a very short time. Here’s hoping these hopes for an artistically solid and challenging movie won’t be dashed on the cinder heap of MTV flash and lowest-common-denominator demographic patronization.

ALL HAIL THE MARQUIS OF GRISSOM!



In this age where the dominoes set in motion by revelations of steroid use in baseball have probably only just begun to topple, it would be nice if someone somewhere could find some column inches to devote to a player who wasn’t a showboating me-first blowhard or a chemically enhanced cheater (or both). It turns out Ray Ratto has done just that. Ratto is a pretty good sportswriter who, despite the fact that he can run two sentences together in one paragraph to great effect, is to the San Francisco Chronicle what Bill Plaschke is to The Los Angeles Times, and he's routinely been a voice of reason during the BALCO scandal and other Giant problems among the Chronicle sports pages. The only problem: Ratto's most recent piece is devoted to a player who is, after 16 seasons in Major League Baseball, taking his leave. Marquis Grissom was designated for assignment by the San Francisco Giants yesterday, leaving his future as a ballplayer in doubt.

But as Ratto’s fine piece points out, tears shed for Grissom would be tears wasted. Grissom is perhaps one of the most down-to-earth, levelheaded, decent, hard-working fellows to have ever picked up a piece of big-league lumber. I regretted his departure from the Dodger clubhouse two seasons ago far more than I ever did that of Dodger “heart and soul” Paul Lo Duca (who was a favorite player of mine on that team, no doubt) or Shawn “Never Met a Double Play I Couldn’t Hit Into” Green (a favorite of my wife’s, but not, grumble-grumble, especially for his efficiency with a bat and glove). The absence of Grissom’s solid ability and genuine good humor—he could actually make it sound like he enjoyed being interviewed on the radio by serial digressor Stu Nahan—was made even more painful by his traveling 300 miles to the north and settling in amongst the Hated Ones. And sure enough, whenever the Giants would play the Dodgers—and those games were always intense enough to begin with—Grissom would inevitably, through that solid ability as a clutch hitter and center fielder par excellence, make life tough on Dodger players and Dodger fans, especially those of us who appreciated what the Dodgers would be missing in his absence.

Ratto’s column, sent to me courtesy of best friend and frequent SLIFR contributor Blaaagh, is concise, eloquent testimony to the fact that not every Giants fan (especially not my very reasonable, good-natured friend) is a blind rubber chicken dangler or otherwise ignorant of the qualities, beyond the ability to knock balls into the bay with robotic regularity, that make a truly good player on the field and a truly good man off of it. Marquis Grissom may never play on a Major League Baseball field again; at 38, he is facing up to the realities of aging in a sport that doesn’t exactly lend itself to player longevity with characteristic quiet and unfathomable dignity. And if he doesn’t, we’ll still have the memory of seeing him play, as a Dodger, and a Giant, and a Brewer, Brave, Indian and, of course, an Expo. Check out Ray Ratto’s good-bye to Grissom and doff your cap to an excellent player and one of the really good guys of baseball. If he only could have gone out as a Dodger…

SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MISSION TIKI



Way back in the fall of 2001, Blaaagh and I set out on a modest three-day road trip on which we hoped to take in two or three drive-in movies. We set off up the 101 and stopped in Santa Maria, thinking that we might check out the Hi-Way Drive-in. But since the double feature was one of K-PAX and Driving in Cars with Boys, we decided it would be better to keep moving on up the road, get a motel in San Luis Obispo and take in whatever the offering was at the beautiful Sunset Drive-in, where we’d once seen an extra special double feature of the Sylvester Stallone disaster movie Daylight and the Pierce Brosnan volcano epic Dante’s Peak. Well, imagine our horror when we drove into town and took a gander at the marquee for the Sunset: K-PAX plus second big co-hit Driving in Cars with Boys! Providence was with us though, as it started to rain like hell, and there wasn’t a motel to be had in town, owing to it being Homecoming Night at Cal State SLO. So instead of soaking through that wretched twosome, we spent most of the evening driving up the 101 looking for a place to rest our weary heads. The next night we made it up to San Jose to the Capitol Drive-in and actually got to see a double feature—the only one we would on this aborted drive-in tour-- Shallow Hal and the execrable remake of 13 Ghosts. Ever since that fun but largely foiled attempt to make a drive-in run up the coast, we’ve talked about mounting another such trip.

And since this has turned out to be the summer of the resurgence of the drive-in into my consciousness and movie-going experience, maybe we’ll finally get there. Last Saturday night’s trip to the Mission Tiki for the first meeting of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society was a big success. Founder Chris Utley has boundless enthusiasm for what he hopes to do with the group, in terms of organizing visits to the existing theaters in the greater Los Angeles area, San Diego, Barstow and even Las Vegas, but also in terms of the awareness he hopes to raise about the quality of the drive-ins we do have and just how much fun the drive-in movie experience can be. We met fellow club member Kathy Byers, a drive-in enthusiast with a camera and a photo album chock full of wonderful shots of drive-ins (dead and alive) from across the country—she also handed out DVDs of terrific video pieces she shot and edited on the now-closed Azusa Foothill Drive-in in Azusa and the Skyline Drive-in in Barstow (this one seems to have a spectacular setting, up on a plateau with the bright lights of Barstow twinkling behind the screen in the distance—Thanks a bunch, Kathy!)

It was also nice to meet member Sal, who shared memories of drive-ins of his youth like the El Monte in East L.A., and Linea, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who was there to check out the drive-in, and the club, in the hopes of raising awareness of the plight, and the renaissance, of the drive-in within that historical preservation organization. And the whole group was treated to a tour of the projection booth courtesy of Mission Tiki manager Jeff Thurman, who couldn’t have be nicer, more patient or knowledgeable (he’s been in the drive-in business since the ‘60s) or accommodating to a bunch of drive-in movie nuts, who just happen to find the establishment he runs out there in Montclair to be a little bit of movie paradise. Jeff also told us that since the DeAnza Company (which owns the Mission Tiki, the Van Buren and the Rubidoux, as well as a multi-screener in San Diego and others) invested in the Technalight projection system and other upgrades to the lot and snack bar, business has doubled-to-tripled since last summer. Great news, indeed! There were also a couple of new members signed up at the tables we set up in the Mission Tiki snack bar, so hopefully those folks will be able to join us for the next meeting, this one at the Van Buren Drive-in in Riverside, California, on August 29. You can contact Chris Utley for more information at: socalozoners@comcast.net.

We even saw a good movie that night-- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory far exceeded my expectations, and the girls and I were having a great time sitting in the back of our van, pillows and blankets spread as far as the eye could see (or at least as far as the butt could sit), enjoying the show. Little Nonie, age 3, was particularly enthralled, and kept shouting, every time Johnny Depp flashed that dentured, disdainful grin, “Willy Wonka’s happy! Willy Wonka’s happy!” Wonka probably would have hated her, but she loved him! It was only when we got to the chocolaty fate of Augustus Gloop that things started going south. Emma, 5, found the sight of a pudgy Aryan youth drowning in melted chocky just a bit unsettling. By the time we hit Violet Beauregard’s blueberry bloat and Veruca Salt being attacked by squirrels and shoveled down a candy-colored garbage disposal, the jig was up. Nonie looked a little confused as we packed up during one of the dazzling Oompa-Loompa production numbers—she knew damn well the movie wasn’t over, but she accepted that, for some reason, we had to leave, and she was very good-natured about the whole thing (a lot more so than I was, selfish dad that I am.) Emma fell asleep less than a mile away from the screen that was reflecting those sugary nightmares, and as we drove home to Glendale I promised Nonie I’d take her to see it again in an indoor movie theater, news which she greeted with one of her inimitable mile-wide smiles. (We’re off to an 11:00 a.m. show Friday morning!)

One last drive-in note: In the afterglow of Saturday night’s meeting, I signed onto a Yahoo! drive-in movie discussion group populated by lots of enthusiastic “ozoners” from around the country, including Chris and Kathy, and one poster who goes by the on-line moniker MannyMoNHak. This MannyMoNHak turns out to be a feature writer for Entertainment Weekly who has been attempting to mount a story about the small-scale renaissance of the drive-in across America, and apparently he/she has had some success. He/she reports on Yahoo! today that the story will appear as a sidebar inside a larger article in the upcoming issue of the magazine (available this coming Friday) relating to the Great Movie Attendance Slump of 2005, or Why People Aren’t Going to Movie Theaters Anymore, or something like that. And according to information posted this morning by MannyMoNHak, one of the drive-ins that garnered specific mention is, indeed, the Mission Tiki. Congratulations to Jeff, owner Ralph Nardoni and the regular patrons of the Mission Tiki, who already know what hopefully a whole lot more people will soon find out, thanks to the Entertainment Weekly exposure—that the drive-in can be a great experience for family and friends alike; that the drive-in, far from being dead, is actually seeing a kind of resurgence, almost to the point that the novelty of the experience is comparable, for this generation, to what it was when drive-ins were introduced and became so popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s; and that the Mission Tiki is one of the great ones, in its own way, and in no small part, responsible for what will hopefully become a growing movement to bring back the drive-in in an even bigger fashion than before.