Thursday, March 25, 2010


It was only about three years ago that I first wrote about Joe Dante and his distinguished company’s marvelous web site Trailers From Hell. Back in July 2007 I was very excited about the possibilities of this new site devoted to horror, science fiction and exploitation movie trailers, and in the interim it seems an awful lot of people have joined in my enthusiasm. The site recently collected another honor from the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, named for the acromegaly-afflicted star of such popular Universal B's as House of Horrors, Jungle Captive and Pearl of Death, where Trailers from Hell was named Best Website for the second consecutive year. But while awards and recognition are wonderful things indeed, and extremely important for sites like this one to remain healthy and grow their audience, the honors are not what is most exciting about Trailers from Hell these days.

Over the past three years the site has expanded its roster of original Grindhouse Gurus (including Dante, Edgar Wright, John Landis and Mick Garris) to include an impressive roster of names from across the vast expanse of exploitation and mainstream cinema. Some of the names gathered under the Trailers from Hell umbrella to share their thoughts on a spectacular collection of movie previews include screenwriters Larry Karaszewski, Josh Olson, Howard Rodman and directors Allan Arkush, Katt Shea, Alison Anders, Stuart Gordon, Michael Lehmann, David DeCouteau, George Hickenlooper, Neil La Bute, Jack Hill and Eli Roth, among many, many others. And that collection of trailers itself has grown into quite a library—nearly 400 titles at this writing, with more added every week, with the range of genres spanning from B-horror and sci-fi like The Green Slime, Destroy All Monsters and The Fiendish Ghouls to big-budget mainstream Hollywood fare like El Cid, Written on the Wind and Cool Hand Luke. Of course, the emphasis is on horror, sci-fi and exploitation, and just a glance at all the available titles is to disappear into a click-fest of movie geek happiness, a virtual guarantee of at least two hours lost, time you might have spent perhaps more constructively, but probably not having nearly so much fun.

And recently, as if the dangling carrot of hearing Edgar Wright wax on about the trailer for Michael Winner’s The Sentinel wasn’t enough of a come-on, the surfing experience at Trailers from Hell has just become even more seductive—now the preview for each film has an active comment field where you can leave your own impressions, either about the trailer or the observations of the guru who is there to guide your journey through two-minute time warps of such pictures as I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Shogun Assassin. And if seeing the trailer for Freebie and the Bean or Hell Up in Harlem stirs your desire for more, TOH now features buttons that will lead you directly to sites where you can buy official one-sheets and DVDs of the movies in question. Trailers from Hell has really evolved from simply a grand good time to a very special kind of bliss for exploitation fans.

But wait, as the carnival barkers on late-night TV love to insist, that’s not all! Now the good folks at Trailers from Hell have put together a collection of 20 of the best and most representative of their catalog of preview horrors on a DVD entitled The Best of Trailers from Hell Volume One, and it truly is a gem. You get Dante’s voluminous knowledge applied to such classics as The Curse of Frankenstein, Blood and Roses, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and perhaps most memorably, William Castle’s The Tingler-- He describes in detail the practical application of the movie’s “electric shock” Percepto gimmick and also notes that Vincent Price takes the first on-screen LSD trip in cinema history, before quickly adding that unfortunately Castle as a director was no Roger Corman, “so the whole thing just comes off kinda silly.”

John Landis, assuming various identities such as Hammer house director Terence Fisher, Swifty Lazar and Pigmeat Markham, introduces the sumptuous visual treat of Curse of the Werewolf from Dante’s rather beat-up personal print of the trailer (“Werewolves tend to like to hurl burning bales of hay at the howling mob—Look, there he goes!”), Paul Bartel’s Private Parts, the classic Willis O’Brien adventure Mighty Joe Young and Kenji Fukasaku’s memorably awful 1969 sci-fi opus The Green Slime, which is so mesmerizingly bad that it seems to hamstrings even the garrulous and reliably funny Landis, who is in such awe of its intense degree of cheese that he seems, for once, genuinely at a loss for words, which is, in this context, its own kind of comedy.

Hostel’s Eli Roth and The Stand’s Mick Garris check in with some great previews as well. Roth seems most at home, not surprisingly, with the gruesome shocks to be had from the previews for Squirm and Three on a Meathook (he also features The Birds and Forbidden Planet, whereas Garris lets out his inner stop-motion dinosaur geek for a look at Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi. Garris also grooves on David Cronenberg’s Rabid, the “groundbreaking” Hypnovista grue classic Horrors of the Black Museum and even American International’s Scream and Scream Again, which featured a poster that was far more memorable and exciting than the movie itself.

The Sentinel gets the Wright Stuff treatment in this hilarious Trailers from Hell highlight.

But the highlight of the collection of trailers featured on Volume One has to be Edgar Wright’s howlingly funny tribute to the cinema of Michael Winner, specifically his disgustingly outré post-Exorcist scare picture The Sentinel. Watching the trailer with Wright, you get a hilariously detailed trip through every vulgar misstep made by the director in this shockingly ugly and unpleasant, yet somehow very watchable religioso horror movie, from Sylvia Miles (“Have a hat and noisemaker for the party!”) to Winner’s indefensible choice to have the denizens of hell represented by a gathering of extras and performers with real-life ghastly deformities. And what’s more, Wright gives you the skinny on where he tips his own hand to The Sentinel in his brilliantly funny trailer parody Don’t! from 2007’s Grindhouse experience. Wright’s geeky enthusiasm is as infectious as Dante’s at its best, and he makes a real ride out of checking out the goodies inside the trailers for Silent Running and Corruption, with special awe and reverence reserved for Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, whose trailer is rhythmless and undistinguished but extra-long enough to give Wright plenty of time to sing the movie’s praises in his very funny way.

If this were all the Trailers from Hell DVD had to offer it would be quite enough. But Dante and friends go the eager consumer a couple of notches better by including a couple of vintage cartoons-- Ub Iwerks’ The Headless Horseman (1934), complete with a Castle Films logo that will give certain of us ex-Super 8 print collectors a bit of a thrill, and John Foster and Manny Davis’s The Haunted Ship (1930)— and best of all, the full-length 1933 Majestic Pictures horror classic The Vampire Bat starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas and Dwight Frye. The Vampire Bat was a staple of the weekend horror movie show I watched as a kid, Sinister Cinema out of Portland, Oregon, and cueing it up on the Trailers from Hell DVD I felt instantly transported back to the pre-VCR days of staying up late and eagerly soaking up whatever old classic Victor Ives and Jimmy Hollister cared to offer up. The Vampire Bat is juicy stuff—the director, Frank Strayer, who made 85 movies from 1925 to 1951 and whose best-known work outside of this little gem is the bulk of the Blondie movie series starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake, displays an eagerness to utilize his camera in surprisingly expressive ways. The movie casts an eerie spell that earns it a proud spot in standing with its contemporaries coming off the Universal lot around the same time. It’s a real treat to be reintroduced to this nearly forgotten horror title, and who better to bring it back to our attention that the gang at Trailers from Hell.

My ravenous appetite is now officially whetted for the second volume, which I’m hoping won’t be too much further down the road. But for now this terrific DVD is the best possible introduction, for those who haven’t already made Trailers from Hell a daily indulgence, perhaps even an addiction, to the playfully scholastic approach Dante and his stellar cast of crazies take to this most enjoyable and disreputable branch of film studies.

(You can order your copy of The Best of Trailers from hell Volume One by clicking this convenient link.)


Josh Olson and Howard Rodman Jr. wax ecstatic over the trailer for Charley Varrick

Joe Dante in his element riffing on She-Demons


ROBERT CULP 1930-2010

Robert Culp, star of TV’s I Spy and The Greatest American Hero, died Wednesday morning at the age of 79 here in Los Angeles. Culp fell and hit his head while walking near his home and was found by a passing jogger who called 911. He was pronounced dead at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, but the cause of death has not yet been determined. An autopsy is pending.

When I think of Robert Culp I think of his sublime exasperation as Maxwell, the mentor to William Katt’s bumbling superhero on the 1984 series, or his slightly distanced cool on I Spy. But he might have been even more memorable embodying a specifically Los Angeles kind of burn-out as illustrated by the slightly gone-to-seed swinger he played in Paul Mazursky’s Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice and the even more dissolute and defeated detective in his only feature directing effort, the collapsed, possibly suicidal half of Hickey and Boggs, from a script by Walter Hill, which reteamed him on the big screen with his I Spy costar Bill Cosby. But I also think of Culp as the most dogged and determined murdering guest star in the history of Columbo. (Is it my imagination, or did he appear on every other episode?) And he starred in perhaps my favorite of all the ABC Movies of the Week, a terrifying little picture called A Cold Night’s Death (1973) along with Eli Wallach.

”Very good, sir, you shall have it!”

But I like to remember how funny Culp was, and he had a great brief moment as a waiter on Get Smart that I’ve always thought was a classic of its kind. Just for the way he throws away the condescension toward Maxwell Smart with the line “Very good, sir. You shall have it!” he should be remembered as a talented comic actor. But for whatever role it might be, for those of us of a certain age, Robert Culp was television as we were growing up, one of those faces on the cathode ray landscape that made the medium what it was, always for the better. And just because he was out of the spotlight as an actor (more recently in it as an activist in a high-profile suit against the Los Angeles Zoo) doesn’t mean he won’t be missed by those who knew him only in this one special way. Robert Culp was a far more subtle actor than he was ever acknowledged as being, and if you don’t know his stuff from the late ‘60s through the mid ‘80s, you have a lovely acquaintance to be made.


Saturday, March 20, 2010


One could, I suppose, be forgiven for expecting that a documentary on the Iraq war composed entirely of video footage shot by soldiers directly involved in the long, slow roll toward Baghdad would more often than not resemble the unholy mess of the war itself, given that a change in administration and an ostensible shift in public opinion regarding its necessity have resulted in few real signs of light to signal the end of a long, dark tunnel. The highest-profile film to really approach taking a look at what being at war in Iraq is like for the soldiers was Gunner Palace (2004). Ed Gonzalez, writing in Slant magazine, praised the film for showing “the horror of people gripped by fear of American troops charging into their houses” balanced by views of “(American) soldiers playing with young children and helping an orphan boy who is hooked on sniffing glue,” in essence “showing us both the heroes and the schmucks.” But the documentary was also heavily criticized in some quarters for directing its anger at the Bush administration’s deceptive tactics in justifying the war at the ones most powerless to do anything about it—the soldiers on the front lines. Ken Tucker, writing in New York magazine, went so far as to wonder if the filmmakers, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, “were like the people who used to spit on Vietnam veterans when they returned home.” He decried Gunner Palace as “a portrait of self-pitying rowdies” lacking the context and distance “that might make the soldiers’ behavior seem like what it is: the natural reaction of kids who happen to have guns, blowing off steam,” concluding that “the movie is a narrative mess… (and) too often makes the grunts look like mean slackers—precisely the opposite, one presumes, of what was intended.”

And certainly Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), a fictionalized story of the rape of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl by American troops told through “found” footage and blog entries, was even more controversial, too didactic and unfocused for some, whereas others praised it for its anger and immediacy. Through its faux-documentary anti-style it purposefully capsulized the divergent and contradictory attitudes toward American fighting men that Gunner Palace seemed to leave open to personal interpretation, but it was by no means intended to present an objective, unvarnished look at what life is like for U.S. troops under fire.

Nor, truly, could Severe Clear (2009), a new documentary written, directed and edited by Kristian Fraga for Sirk Productions (a company presumably named for a director who couldn’t have less in common with this film’s raw aesthetic). First-person objectivity, however fragile a concept, is the film’s seductive hook, and it is the narrative construct around which Fraga assembled the multiple hours of chaotic footage given to him by Marine First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, who documented his each of his company’s steps, from the 40-day ride to the Persian Gulf on the USS Boxer, all the way up through Nasiriyah and Al Kut toward "the crown jewel" of Baghdad. It is immediately clear that first-person will be the movie’s perspective—Scotti introduces the film in his room and sets up the basics of his initial voyage with equal parts anticipation and trepidation, but it’s all framed with optimism and enthusiasm. (Scotti ends the opening segment with a Darth Vader imitation hissed from underneath a gas mask.) However, it’s Scotti’s voice on the soundtrack just before this piece that more accurately frames the more subjective journey both he and the viewer will go on toward a greater understanding— which includes the fathoming of unexpected moral conundrums—about both the nature of the men who willingly put themselves in harm’s way and of war itself. For Scotti, a truism of Marine life is the value of friction, “the force that makes the easy difficult and the difficult impossible,” a force which also dictates that war must inevitably gravitate toward chaos, uncertainty and disorder. It is with certain gravity and a distinct narrative power that Fraga has constructed Scotti’s footage into a great document of war which embraces those moral conundrums as signposts toward the deepening of understanding. There is a welcome complexity to Fraga’s filmmaking (and to Scotti’s sketches of Marine life) in which clarity of purpose is born out of confusion, in which the questions raised from the Marine’s experience rise above the initial anxious excitement and eventual stench and exhaustion to paint a meaningful portrait of combat reality. Severe Clear traces the landscape where verisimilitude and factual allegiance explode into the uncharted territory exploring the tension within men’s souls.

Certainly, as you would expect of a movie composed of soldiers documenting themselves (the mini-DV camera operated by Scotti is occasionally handed over to one of his buddies), the off-the-cuff references to past war films is inevitable. One soldier comments on how the helicopters flying around remind him of Apocalypse Now. The footage itself, particularly during the march toward Baghdad, in moments of forward movement and an agonizing period when the military planners call a pause in the action, most often recalls Full Metal Jacket, but never so explicitly as during a montage of exercises staged on the aircraft carrier taking the men toward their dusty destination when Scotti defines what it is to be a Marine (“All the clichés are true”) and confirms that the Marine’s closest relationship is with his weapon. (Fraga even scores the sequence with Beethoven to cement the Kubrickian allusion.) And though the soldiers themselves may not have been aware of it, Fraga certainly seems to have recognized a link between the documentary footage and another potent fictional meditation on violence—at one point during a lull in the fighting a group of soldiers sit watching and laughing as a swarm of ants attacks a lone scorpion, a real-life image here reflecting the metaphorical one preserved by Lucien Ballard and Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch.

There is also an abstractly horrifying sequence early on, when the bombs and rockets have begun flying in earnest, in which the Marines observe far-off explosions with the kind of juvenile enthusiasm that accompany a particularly juicy video game, a fact that Scotti, and presumably his buddies, are all too aware. As the rockets light up the darkness of a desert night, the soundtrack is filled with cheers—“What’s really cool is that… that’s really war,” one Marine is heard to say, “People are fucking dying for real! That’s fucking awesome, the coolest thing ever!” But Scotti and Fraga don’t leave the comment just lying there to be caressed and amplified by our easily accessed sense of superiority. Scotti himself jumps in on the narration, both to sympathize and to contextualize: “For me this was payback, revenge for 9/11, but it feels like videogame death from a distance.” And later he illuminates on that distancing—it isn’t born of ignorance so much as a strategy for survival: “Out here these dead people are just numbers on a grid, and that’s the way I want it to be. Maybe someday I’ll see something different. But not today. All I see is a job well done… That’s just the way it is.” With the addition of these voiceover observations, which are made most valuable by Scotti’s refusal to deny to himself even the most ugly of personal emotions, Fraga transcends the voiceover’s typical function of filling in or underlining the obvious and gives us glimpses into the heart of a solider whose understanding of why he’s where he is seems to mutate by the hour.

But for all of its documentary immediacy, the movie Severe Clear most superficially resembles (and certainly speeds past in its intimacy and depth of consideration of the soldier’s interior world) is the recent Academy Award-winner The Hurt Locker. Several sequences (including one in which two barely visible, dark figures on the roof of a building are identified as possible snipers) seem to directly connect to Kathryn Bigelow’s and Mark Boal’s dusty, hard-boiled narrative. Both movies share the soldiers disdain for the arid landscape-- Scotti complains early on that “The initial impact and beauty (of the desert) has been replaced by a intense hatred of all this sand”—and a palpable sense of fear and futility of fighting, especially in an urban setting, an enemy who is often indistinguishable from the citizenry that surround him. The fatal shot could come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. However, Fraga’s film does Bigelow’s several degrees better in the way that Scotti’s presence, in the footage and as our guide along the ever-shifting moral pathway the movie navigates, fleshes out what we’re seeing. Bigelow’s film was expertly crafted, even if her shaky-cam approach paradoxically seemed to take weight away from the film as a whole-- a certain degree of aesthetic distance-- a cooler camera, perhaps-- might have been beneficial in this instance in drawing the audience further in. (I experienced the cinematography in The Hurt Locker, ironically, as an insistent reminder that it was just a really well-made movie.)

Fraga, on the other hand (and it must have been a Herculean task), finds his way into this footage through Scotti’s patient voice, but also by understanding that a coherent portrait of battle is impossible—it is the glimpses of sensation, of horror, of fatigue, of determination, of rowdy behavior—that tell the true story. Seeing battle up this close, watching men struggle with cheap, badly constructed equipment, or against a blinding sandstorm that that confounds effective battle planning and makes even the simple act of trudging t the outhouse a laborious, multi-soldier affair, it is impossible to gain an understanding of how even and efficiently operated force could carry own complex military strategy successfully under such conditions. It’s as if Fraga, in compiling the clashing, unstable video images from Scotti’s camera, were showing us a pointillist painting of war, only from the position of standing three inches away from the canvas—a clear understanding is impossible (which is reflective of the position of the soldiers amidst the combat zone), while the sensation of chaos, of uncertainty, of inevitable friction remains. In this way, Fraga creates an aesthetic justification for the use of this kind of footage, expertly paced and edited as it is, in a way quite unlike any other film has up to now. Yet there is always Scotti's voice to give us that probing, pained look inside, the important interior perspective on the global picture.

Severe Clear shows you things you never wanted to see. At one point, in the aftermath of an awful incident in which an innocent man and his daughter are gunned down by American soldiers who have mistaken them for enemies hiding IEDs (improvised explosive devices), one voice—it might be Scotti’s-- can be heard to exclaim, “God, I can’t wait to get the fuck out of this place.” We don’t see the incident itself, just the evidence, which is too horrifying by itself, but again, Scotti’s voice is there to focus our minds not just on the ghastly images captured by his camera, but on how this latest incident in an ever-increasing catalog of nightmares, is scrambling his initial motivation to fight and reinforcing the everyday aspect of the horrors of war: “When the frightened man lifted his daughter out of the car, her brain fell out of her broken skull onto the road. The finality of it all was so confusing. Not sure why, but I buried the girls’ pink sandals near her body. Just seemed like the right thing to do.” In this unflinching sequence, and in its portrait of American soldiers as rowdy, profane members of a fraternity of fighting men whose swagger and self-assurance is hollowed out of them with every mile they creep toward Baghdad, Severe Clear earns the badge of honor bestowed by its rather oblique title, a military reference used to describe a sky that is so bright, so blue, so cloudless, that functioning without sunglasses is not an option, and even then it may no be possible. The sky is so clear that you cannot see. Severe Clear honors its subject—the men who find themselves on the sandy battlefields of Iraq—by daring to suggest that clarity in understanding can only be achieved by allowing the expression of questions that such a terrible purpose inevitably raises. The clear blue skies above the Iraqi desert are too bright. Fraga and Scotti introduce the opacity necessary for those of us stateside to begin to engage with what the experience truly means to those who lived it. As Scotti says after he returns home, “Once you’ve experienced it, war defines who you are. I’m a Marine, and right now that all I can trust.” It could be that Severe Clear is yet the most valuable artistic document to arise through the dark clouds wafting over the history of this second Iraqi war.


(Severe Clear is currently playing at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills for one week only and will move on from there to screenings in Dallas, Texas, Houston, Texas and Salem, Massachusetts. For information on dates, locations and show times for all of those screenings, please visit the Severe Clear website.)


Thursday, March 18, 2010


Those of you who will care at all will likely already know that Armond White’s “review” of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg went live yesterday. The Vulture Blog highlights some of the more incendiary moments, and J. Hoberman, who provided the evidence of a White review in which he seemed to suggest Baumbach’s mother, the “undistinguished, forgotten” film critic Georgia Brown should have aborted Baumbach (presumably so White wouldn’t have had to suffer through his movies), and who is himself scorched in the piece as (among other things) “the scoundrel-czar of contemporary film criticism,” has checked in with own rather bemused response. Who knows (or much cares, at this point) whether there is anywhere left to go between these gentlemen (White, Hoberman and Baumbach) outside of a three-way showdown in an empty graveyard, the whistles of Morricone wafting in the hot breeze? Assuming for the moment that there isn't, Bill Ryan has responded to White’s piece, and not only to the vitriol the critic unleashes at Hoberman and others but as a piece of writing, particularly the way White tries to explain his own murky metaphors by piling on even more muddled language, in a fine post entitled “Our Armond White Problem, and His,” which dismantles White’s defensive response with clarity and intelligence. Do check it out.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010


How often have you heard someone (usually a blurb whore, but sometimes someone you actually know) describe a movie as being “indescribable” or “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before”? And then you go see the alleged one-of-a-kind work and not only is it quite describable, it’s usually describable in terms of many things have come before or since. Not so Nobukhi Obayashi’s House (Hausu) (1977), a spirited, schlocky horror comedy that is so in tune with its own inexplicable wavelength of bizarre, cutie-pie and sometimes strangely lovely images as to make David Lynch look calculated and schematic in comparison. (The frightening images that are packed into Hausu’s bulging skin are as likely to inspire peals of laughter as fear, but laughter that may after a while begin to acquaint you with genuine madness.) Obayashi’s slapdash sensibility is firmly rooted in the explosively playful attitude of Japanese pop culture, and his cluttered, strangely cheerful mise-en-scene accesses the dark underbelly of that imagery while never betraying its playful, oddball innocence. The plot, such as it is, involves a young schoolgirl named Gorgeous who recruits her pals Kung Fu, Fantasy, Sweet, Prof, Melody and Mac to accompany her on a summer trip to her mysterious aunt’s dilapidated mansion after plans for a summer camp fall through. Gorgeous also undertakes the trip as a way of escaping the impending remarriage of her father, a film composer (“Leone tells me my music is better than Morricone’s”) to another woman, the beautiful, slightly stoned-looking Ryoko Ema, who is always posing, looking off into the horizon, a wind machine keeping her hair in the perpetual motion of a shampoo ad. The early sequences in the film, particularly those dealing with Gorgeous's father breaking the news of his nuptials, are fantastic avant garde-tinged experiments in which the frame is divided, broken-down and sometimes shattered into ever-shifting geometrical forms which unsettle the viewer and work out Obayashi’s visual muscles for the real test to come. Once the girls hop the train to Auntie’s house (the train constantly shifts between a stylized live-action vehicle and a cartoon chug-a-lug, with Obayashi playing all kinds of hilarious tricks with the rear-projected, painted and cardboard representations of the passing countryside), Gorgeous relates the story of how Auntie lost her fiancé in the war (Obayashi appropriates the restrained style of Ozu here, enough to make head-spinning contrast with the girls’ giggly commentary as the story unfolds.)

But once the girls arrive at Auntie’s house, which is situated on top of the creepiest matte-painting of a mountain ever devised, they are greeted by the wheelchair-bound biddy and her sinister cat Blanche, who seems to have the run of the manse and may be behind the evil goings-on that almost immediately begin to unfold. David Edelstein, in his review of House a couple of months back, suggested that language was insufficient to convey just what Obayashi manages to achieve with his singularly grotesque and absurd imagery, and I tend to think he’s right. But even if it could, I can guarantee you that reading my account, or any other, of what you actually see in this movie—and yes, I’m pretty much willing to guarantee you have never seen anything like it—couldn’t possibly be as much mind-twisting fun as actually seeing it unfold, especially amongst a full house of dropped jaws like the ones that packed the New Beverly Saturday for the midnight show. House is, in many ways, the perfect midnight movie, because as it is gets loopier and loopier, and as Obayashi unpacks his arsenal of cut-and-paste analog mattes, superimpositions, slow—motion, stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, frame-busting camerawork and Shining-esque torrents of bloodletting (three years before Kubrick’s movie was released, mind) and all manner of baroque horror effects inspired by what scares an 11-year-old most, the slight edge of delirium that sets in from staying up late does everything to augment the movie’s will to discombobulate the viewer, all while it proceeds to dismember its characters in the most outrageous, collage-like ways.

House doesn’t set out to “scare” you in any conventional sense—it’s too over the top for that, though some of the ways the innocent girls are dispatched— by a chomping and apparently quite hungry grand piano and, most memorably, by the cinema’s most devilish lampshade—have the ability to get under your skin despite the cheerfully manic and homemade feel to many of the effects. It is a horror movie chiefly in the sense that it deals with horror tropes not so much to be deconstructed as to be experienced like something completely new, as if this were the first movie the viewer might have ever seen—it has that quality of happily perverted innocence. Evan Kindley, writing about the movie for Not Coming to a Theater Near You last October got it exactly right: “The movie feels a little too fast and too dense for human viewing, like a state-of-the-art product that hasn’t undergone enough safety testing yet.” It is a movie that is, in the end, impossible to adequately describe whose genuine maniacal level of insanity is equally impossible to overstate, and as such it may be one of the few genuine cult phenoms in Japanese horror movie culture that might successfully resist the inevitable attempts at its being remade. There’s nowhere to go but homogenization and boredom in such a task; the complete sincerity, the lack of self-consciousness apparent in every frame of House, even the appearance of it being practically hand-made, is its best defense against the rapacious tendencies of a movie culture as eager to consume original ideas as Auntie and her possessed mansion is hungry for those delicious schoolgirl morsels.

House is touring the country in limited engagements from Janus Films, and if you’re in Los Angeles you’ve got one more showing (tonight at 9:45) and again tomorrow night, before this print moves on its merry way, hopefully toward an imminent DVD release. But as I said, House is best experienced with a large group of folks who know not what to expect, so if this reaches you in time, make your way to the New Beverly or somewhere else on the Janus schedule and don’t take my word for it—see it for yourself. It’s not that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore; it’s more that they’ve never made one like this, before or since.


Thursday, March 11, 2010


If one wanted to dwell on the negative, there was plenty on Sunday night’s Oscar show to be put one off one’s Cheetos. We could start with the ghastly Neil Patrick Harris production number. The guy is talented and fleet of foot, no doubt, but there’s just no way to put across those cringe-worthy “funny” lyrics about the year’s movies—I much preferred Harris getting all Mengele on the giant bugs in Starship Troopers, a far less grisly display than the one that opened up the show at the Kodak on Sunday. The Redheaded Kanye Moment, when an estranged co-producer of the Best Documentary Short winner Music by Prudence hijacked the director’s speech, was just bizarre—of all the times when cutting the mike and playing someone off would have been appreciated, this one went unexploited.

Yet no one in the Oscar control booth was bothered by cutting quickly away from Ric O’Barry’s sign, which he held up during his moment of glory after The Cove, which exposes the secret abuse and murder of dolphins in a Japanese fishing community, won for Best Documentary. O’Barry’s sign, which displayed a number to be texted in support of continuing to fight against the kind of ghastly policies depicted in the film, was in perfect accord with the sentiments of the award-winning movie. Yet because of an apparent policy to cut off anyone who displays any kind of signage or other overtly political message, the director, without consideration of whether the sign was appropriate for the moment, went to music and the winners were herded off mid-speech. (David Edelstein kindly filled in the gap by posting the entirety of the message on O’Barry’s sign here.) And I swear to God, I never thought I’d think back fondly on the Debbie Allen era of Oscar choreography, but this mindless modern dance interpretation of the nominated movies MUST STOP AT ALL COSTS!

For one who campaigned with such class, Mo’Nique came off more than a little self-aggrandizing when accepting her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (She seemed far too greedy to claim the legacy of Hattie McDaniel all to herself.). And I couldn’t have been the only one who would have sworn it was actually The Dude up there accepting a Best Actor award, and not for Crazy Heart but for that old John Belushi-SNL bit The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave. Let’s hustle off the little guys that nobody cares about so Jeff Bridges can be assured his chance to ramble on and on and on… It’s your big moment, ma-a-an, and you know, like, that it's coming; how about be a little bit, you know, prepared, at least, even if you’re not into the whole… brevity thing? And though she did seem a little ho-hum at first (“I’ve got two more of these at home”), it was nice to hear Sandy Powell, winner for Best Costume Design articulate that though the winner in this category almost inevitably comes from a period epic (as did hers for The Young Victoria), the virtues and hard work and dedicated research it takes to create costumes for a film set in the modern world, which mightn’t so readily draw attention to its costumes, requires an equal amount of care and consideration as to how the clothes reflect and comment upon the character as well as whatever setting in which the film happens to take place.

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And though I thrilled to the wins, and the speeches, of Christoph Waltz and Kathryn Bigelow and especially Sandra Bullock, my favorite moment of the night, both for the win and his brief, simple and eloquent speech, came courtesy of film composer Michael Giacchino, who finally won an Oscar Sunday night after having written at least three other Oscar-worthy scores (for The Incredibles, Speed Racer and Star Trek). Giacchino’s speech, in which he explicitly thanked no one but exuded sincere gratitude for all the people in his life who never discouraged him from his creative impulses and never once suggested he was wasting his time, really resonated with me, and I’m sure with millions of others, people who grew up with 8mm and Super-8 cameras making movies just like Giacchino did, some who were lucky (like I was) to get support from family and friends, and some who might not have been so lucky. The composer’s thoughts made beautiful sense to me too as a parent of a child who is having trouble keeping up in a standards-obsessed educational system that values test scores and rote memorization over real learning and the pursuit of educational avenues in music and drama, avenues that I took for granted when I was in school. This man deserves the Oscar he won for Up and the many more he will likely collect over the span of the illustrious career we’re going to be privileged to see unfold. I just hope that, as his music inspires young people to their own creative musical adventures, they continue to be surrounded by the people who will nurture that creativity and institutions that value learning beyond the proper bubbling-in of answers on standards exams.


(Insert Name Of Favorite Film Director Here) PRESENTS THE MOVIE TRAILER GENERIC

From Jim Emerson and Chuck Tryon comes word of the latest viral wonder, a little bit of movie satire that’s funny (and slightly depressing too) because it’s true!

It’s not video essay film criticism, exactly-- it’s video essay movie trailer criticism. Here before you is the most generic possible mishmash of every movie trailer cliché, and by extension the deadened ambition and tidal wave of conservative creative choices, that has plagued Hollywood (and indie) movies since around the time the sun began to set on the ‘70s. That’s about the time when movie marketing geniuses became the gurus who began speaking directly to their potential audience in the kinds of great, simple blocks of text (and subtext) this short parody skewers so perfectly, and when the studios and a certain stripe of filmmaker (you know, usually the ones who heavily courted and eventually won Oscar’s favor in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s) could be relied upon to “give the audience what it wants.” The “trailer” is dialogue-free, replacing the words that might come out of the characters’ mouths with perfectly crystallized phrases that represent with skin-crawling accuracy every trick in the modern movie trailer’s bag to simultaneously attract the viewer and to satiate the supposed desire to see the film without actually having to see it. (All the better for risk-averse ticket purchasing, you see, because it’s documented in some marketing guru’s manual—it must be somewhere, right?—that audiences don’t care to go into a movie not knowing exactly what they’re going to get.)

See Jim’s comments column for lots of smart reaction this clip, and of course feel free to leave your impressions below. Personally, as funny as this piece is, I don’t think I ever want to see another trailer again.


Monday, March 08, 2010


“Wanna be the daughter of Dracula/Wanna be the son of Frankenstein/Let’s meet and have a baby now…”
- The B-52s, “Song for a Future Generation”

What a magnificent weekend, and no, I’m not talking about that little soiree they held at the Kodak Theater on Sunday night (not yet, anyway). My family and I got to go to a shindig that was way more fun-- my daughter’s 10th birthday party at the New Beverly Cinema on Saturday morning. I have to say it was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had as a dad. Seeing her enjoying herself so much, in the company of so many friends who were thrilled and excited by the uniqueness of the setting and the sense of not knowing what was coming next, was a genuine thrill.

I arrived early, around 8:00 a.m., to start getting tables set up and make sure everything was ready by the time guests started arriving at 10:00 a.m. And when I got there, I was surprised to see Michael Torgan, owner and operator of the New Beverly, up on a ladder adjusting the marquee to include a birthday greeting that every driver whizzing past on Beverly Boulevard would see. It was a wonderful touch, and what made it even more special was that it was never discussed between Michael and I. He thought to do it on his own. It’s this kind of consideration that I find so lacking in general among people living together these days, for the most part—simple gestures like this are rarely offered without some hope or expectation of return and they are shrugged off or barely missed after so many opportunities to offer them go unfulfilled. Yet here was Michael, taking the time to make my daughter’s day even more special simply because he wanted to.

Emma and the rest of the family, along with a couple of guests, arrived at around 10:00 a.m., and I literally had to take her back outside (in the gathering sprinkles of a Saturday that would turn out to be a wet one indeed) to look at the marquee, because in her haste to jump out of the car and get this party started, she didn’t even see her name up in lights outside.

Emma introduces her buddy Isaac (the I-Man) to the joys of repertory cinema at the New Beverly

But as soon as she did, there came to be a wall-to-wall grin pasted on her beautiful mug that never once left during the course of the entire morning. The festivities got started with the wacky magical stylings of Rob Rasner, a very talented magician who knows his way around a room full of kids. Rob did hilarious bits involving bowling balls appearing out of mid-air, a yellow bandanna (only he thinks it’s supposed to be a yellow banana), and the old incinerating $20 bill (mine) that somehow gets reconstituted inside a sealed envelope inside his wallet, all of which had the kids and the grownups cracking up and enjoying themselves immensely.

After pizza and cake, enjoyed at a long, king-sized table stretched out in front of the stage, all the guests, grown-ups and kids alike, herded themselves up to the snack bar, where Michael served up popcorn and sodas. Everybody then returned to their seats and settled in on this rainy, blustery day for a good old Saturday matinee on the New Beverly’s big screen. The whole experience reminded me so much of the old 50-cent Saturday matinees I attended more regularly than I attended church when I was growing up, and I was so grateful to be able to facilitate channeling some of that movie-love feeling into my daughter’s life.

The movie got over in plenty of time for the afternoon’s regularly scheduled screening of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. My wife and I, along with our girls, helped Michael clean up and vacuum after the crowd had dispersed—it’s amazing the amount of trash that can be generated by such a relatively small group. (Multiply that by untold numbers in dealing with people sneaking in fast food and alcohol and leaving it all over the floor every night, and we got a good idea of what Michael and his staff have to deal with in between shows and the morning after on a daily basis.) It was the least we could do to repay Michael’s incredible generosity—he never asked us for a dime to use the theater space for the party, and he wouldn’t even take anything in compensation for the popcorn and sodas. All this combined with giving my daughter the joy of seeing her name in a birthday greeting on a marquee for the whole world to see—it’s no wonder she felt like a star. And it’s no wonder that I was barely able to contain my emotions when Patty and I hugged Michael and offered him our sincere thanks for making her day so memorable. I told him there was simply no way to express how much his generosity meant to me-- some 800 words in and I still haven’t been able to approach it. All he’s helped to do is create a day she’ll never forget and make her feel that coming to see great classic films at the New Beverly with her old dad is something she’ll continue to look forward to doing for years to come. We’re seeing Shadow of a Doubt there this week, her very first Hitchcock, and I can’t wait to watch her react to the way the relationship between Charlie (Teresa Wright) and her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) unfolds and then tightens into an exercise in exquisite suspense. I’ve no doubt she’ll love it. And we’re both looking forward to thanking Michael again and telling everybody else we’ll surely see at the New Bev all about the greatest birthday party a 10-year-old girl ever had.

One of the great songs: The B-52’s “Song for a Future Generation,” dedicated to my dear daughter Emma, who truly is the empress of fashion and first lady of infinity. Happy birthday, my beautiful monkey!


Sunday, March 07, 2010

IS THAT AN OSCAR IN YOUR CLUTCHES, OR ARE YOU JUST WAY TOO HAPPY TO SEE ME? A Lazy Sunday Afternoon Anticipating the 2010 Academy Awards

With just a few hours left before Oscar time, the sun, responding to an official dictum issued by Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic, has come out and is shining, so the final preparations have begun—all I have left to do is go buy some Hamms and at least plug in the vacuum cleaner. And so I thought I should do a little prep here as well. I should have done this yesterday, but I was occupied with one of the most delightful days I’ve ever spent as a dad (I’ll tell you about it later, I promise) so I had to put off Oscar stuff—considerably less important—for the morning of. It’s time for just a few notes and thoughts that have been running through my head and links I wanted to pass along before the pre-game show begins around 3:00 PST. No real structure here, just little post-its that hopefully will constitute a post in the end.


First off, if watching the Oscars on TV alone just isn’t something you want to do, yet you haven’t been able to talk anyone into coming over to join you, a couple of Live Oscar Blogs may be just the ticket for you. Glenn Kenny is gonna get started around 4:30, and there out to be some great material there for Glenn’s wicked wit as the stars travel up the red carpet.

You can also find lots of great comments courtesy of the stellar cast of on-liners lined up for Craig Philip’s Live Oscar Blog at Green Cine Daily. (Craig asked me to join in again this year, and I am completely honored, even though I have decided to restrict my MST3K wise-assery to the folks gathered in my living room, who will keep me on my toes, for sure.)

And good friend Ali Arikan is going to be live-blogging the Oscars all the way from Turkey at his blog Cerebral Mastication. Staying up all night for the Oscars-- they begin over there at 3:00 a.m.-- now, that's dedication! Join him, won't you?


A note from a very smart friend of mine received earlier in the week had the following subject header: “Why the Oscars Might Blow.” The entirety of the e-mail consisted of this announcement:

“(Adam) Shankman, who is also the show's choreographer, has cast about a dozen dancers (69 total will appear on the telecast) from So You Think You Can Dance, which he feels will broaden the program's audience.” For God’s sake, I hope I’m not actually missing Debbie Allen by the end of the night.


I’m one of those folks who finds Up in the Air entirely watchable and entertaining, and also about as superficial as a Healthy Choices Salisbury Steak dinner. The introduction of those real voices of the people who have actually lost their jobs throws the whole movie out of whack and lends a distasteful self-congratulatory tone to the whole affair. Clooney may have lost his soul by the end of the movie, but he’s still the avenging angel of the depressed economy—he’s still got a job informing people that they no longer do. (The movie lets the Anna Kendrick character off the hook far too easily with a very tidy and contrived set of circumstances.) And although the kinds of things about family being like a warm blanket of comfort when times are hard, and that being more important than money, may be fundamentally true, and it may be exactly the sort of sentiment the recently laid-off might say to themselves, and actually believe, in these circumstances, placed as the last sentiments the movie leaves us with, they are shockingly short-sighted and embarrassing, especially coming from a director who has never had to worry about the origin point of his next meal. The last time I checked, you still need money to buy the blankets and feed the people underneath them. More families and relationships have been rent asunder over financial horrors than have frozen to death in their apartments for lack of body heat. And as I was checked on all these bitter leaves, I was in no mood to hear the homemade cassette of the guy who wrote a theme song for the picture (“Here’s my song, Jason—hope you like it.”) Hollywood royalty Jason Reitman recasting himself as the Man of the People is the ultimate condescension to the working-class stiffs his movie leaves us flying over on our way to understanding how much better those who have next to nothing have it over the Ryan Binghams of the world.

But An Education was the movie nominated this year that really got my goat, especially in terms of its quite apparent (at least to me) and virulent strain of anti-Semitism. A friend wrote me recently to say that she had attended a Q &A with screenwriter Nick Hornby, who addressed the charges of anti-Semitism by saying that the intolerance of the time was something he didn’t feel should be glossed over, and this is why the characters’ nasty feelings toward the Jews are in the script. But the comment seems to fundamentally misunderstand where the troublesome roots of anti-Semitism in An Education really lie. The following is the text of a letter I wrote back to her:

I think that what Hornsby said about the screenplay being based on real events is undeniable, but that's exactly what I would expect him to say. Not having read the script, it's hard to assess any other attitude on his part. The problem is rooted in what that script becomes when it is interpreted as a film, when every excision, every editing decision, every decision period, has implications for the final narrative trajectory. It's hard to say, beyond blind adherence to "the way things happened" or "the way things were" (as if objective truth were even possible in a film, or a book, based on actual events, why it was even important to know that Sarsgaard's character was a Jew. If he were being set up for a more typical racial conflict, say over Mulligan's parental objections, then you have a reason (maybe not a particularly unique or even juicy reason, but a reason). But the Jewishness of the character doesn't affect ANYTHING in the plot and it is not reacted on in any way. The parents mention the "wandering Jew," which the excellent article by Irina Bragin informs us is a myth of racial intolerance based on the Jews subsuming and exploitation of a culture not his own, then moving on to plunder another and another. This slight bigotry on the parents part is never again addressed-- they are impressed with Sarsgaard because he is rich and nothing else, certainly not his age or his religion, matters a damn to them. His Jewish status therefore ends up functioning as context for his greed and immoral behavior, both as an adulterer and as a schemer out to manipulate "the schwarzes" into creating situations where he and his pal can blithely steal from unsuspecting senior citizens, thus fulfilling the stereotype of the Jew as caring only about money. Frankly, I can't believe Lone Scherfig managed to resist the opportunity to reveal Sarsgaard's horns as he sits in his car preparing to leave Mulligan in the lurch.

And as for that claim in the movie's defense that it's merely reflecting the common bigotry of the times, what about the scene where Mulligan confronts the headmistress of the school (Emma Thompson) with her intent to marry Sarsgaard? If the movie weren’t' at least sympathetic to this kind of casual anti-Semitism, I don't think it would have played the way it does. Thompson, in attempting to discourage the girl from getting married, hauls out the old horse about the Jews having killed our Lord. Mulligan counters with a sassy rejoinder about Jesus himself being a Jew, and then Thompson says, “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.” And just when you expect this insouciant, articulate young girl to jump to the defense of this guy's dignity or to express her love for him, she instead mouths off that she'd rather "marry my Jew" and have fun spending his money than studying her Latin. This is where the movies lets the argument lie, the implication being that Mulligan is willing to put up with him being a Jew if he can show her a good time. What's more, we're never led to feel, at any time during the film, that Sarsgaard's attentions are anything other than creepy and inappropriate and predatory. Sarsgaard is about as slimy and unattractive in that seduction scene as I've ever seen an actor on film. But shouldn't we as an audience have at least some suggestion that his intentions might be honest, even if they don't turn out to be, for the simple matter of dramatic ambiguity? There's never a doubt that this guy is anything more than a statutory scumbag-- a Jewish scumbag. Critic Joe Baltake, quoted in that article, suggests that the movie seems to go out of its way to justify Thompson's anti-Semitic outburst, and by the way it ignores every opportunity to suggest that anything other than the stereotypes about the Jew apply to this man, who is a Jew only by label here, I would have to agree.

The movie seals its point of view with a directorial choice that is downright shocking. (I would be surprised, and appalled, if Hornsby wrote it this way) Mulligan barely escapes having her life ruined and is seen on the Oxford campus, biking along and extolling her happiness at being able to go to school and create the opportunity for a better life for herself. She also tells us that she's happy to be spending her time with boys now, not men, who presumably have as much growing up t do as she does, and of course we are meant to contrast this new attitude with the experience we've just seen her come through. And the boy we see her riding happily across campus with differs from David not only in age-- he is pointedly blonde and blue-eyed, downright Aryan-looking in his fresh-scrubbed purity, the furthest thing from Semitic. This is exactly the kind of choice that, if avoiding the appearance of anti-Semitism, a sensitive director would be aware of. Why couldn't the boy have looked like Mulligan's earlier, fumbling suitor (the one who buys her a Latin dictionary for her birthday)? Had she been seen riding with a boy who looked like this, images of Rolf in The Sound of Music and the inferiority of her previous man because of his Jewishness, and because of all the specious and disgusting behavior that comes along with that, would have never occurred to me.

I left this movie reeling, and I wasn't sure if I was just being paranoid or what. So I went home and Googled "An Education Anti-Semitism" and I was shocked at how many different hits came up. The article by Irina Bragin rose straight to the top, and it is mightily convincing, confirming as it did many of the things I observed and pointing out several more offensive details that I did not. It blows my mind that charges of anti-Semitism are leveled against Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man, both films being the furthest thing from hatred directed at Jews, and yet we're supposed to think of An Education as simply a tender, bittersweet coming of age tale "to be cherished forever." (Kenneth Turan). In the parlance of our times, WTFFFFFFF?!


Speaking of the Basterds, I happen to be one of those who thinks there’s a distinct possibility that it could be at the center of an upset tonight in the Best Picture category. My theory, expressed convincingly by those folks at The Envelope who follow these things a lot closer than I do, runs like this: Kathryn Bigelow is a sure thing— the coronation of a woman as best Director may be something the Academy (there’s that mysterious monolithic “Academy” again) may want to do even more than they wanted to have African-Americans win Best Actor and Actress in the same year with Sidney Poitier blowing kisses from the opera box. But Avatar, while earning googillions at the box office, isn’t as universally loved as Titanic-- it’s being embraced largely as a technical marvel, with even its fans conceding that the story isn’t exactly fresh. (Let’s not even mention the degree to which Cameron misses the Eugene O’Neill mark—he misses the John Carpenter mark, for Christ’s sake—with his lead-balloon dialogue.) Is it the stuff of Best Picture? The theory, and I’m buying it, is that the Academy will say no. And the alternative, The Hurt Locker, a movie that is generally very well appreciated within the voting bloc, may be too small in its box-office to be crowned champeen in a year when the Academy went out of its way to broaden the viewership appeal of the Oscar telecast by expanding the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10. (Let’s not even mention the fact that the expansion from five to 10 never changed the fact that only five of those movies would be serious contenders and that the additional five would be seen, and rightly so, in terms of their likelihood to win, as mere window dressing.) So in steps Inglourious Basterds—big, controversial, a movie that most people seem to love, and it’s a big international hit too—no skyrocket like Avatar, but far less earthbound than The Hurt Locker.

But did Inglourious Basterds jump the shark in the last week or so before the deadline for submitting ballots passed. S.T. Van Airsdale at Movieline makes a strong case that the campaigning on behalf of Basterds reached an alarming and embarrassing new low for Harvey Weinstein, based on the outrageous excess of this full-page ad published in several major publications (including the Los Angeles Times) on March 2nd, the final day of balloting:

Read Van Airsdale’s detailed analysis of all the elements of the ad and consider whether Weinstein may have had a diamond in his hand before the heavy grip of this ad and and others like it may have pulverized the chances for Tarantino’s movie to reign supreme on Oscar night into a lump of coal.


Charles Taylor makes an excellent case of The Blind Side over Precious in a take-no-prisoners piece at After the drama queen display put on by Lee Daniels at the generally embarrassing Independent Spirit Awards on Friday night, I’m more glad than ever he has no chance to step on stage tonight (unless Mo’Nique drags his ass up there on the flowing tails of her Oscar dress).


And finally, by evidence of this interview, filmed (I’m guessing) around the time of the release Practical Magic back in 1998, Sandra Bullock proves herself one of the most down-to-earth and spontaneous movie star personalities in the business. She rolls with every good-natured punch when she sits down in a diner with genial loose-cannon comedienne Ruby Wax-- the two of them never hold their tongues, and they even end up getting in uniform and working the counter of the diner. It’s this kind of spirited, sense of being able to roll with just about anything that gets me on Bullock’s side every time, the latest example being her in-person acceptance of the Razzie for Worst Actress in All About Steve the night before she is likely to get crowned as Best Actress at the Oscars. (Yeah, that’s another one of my theories.) Anyone this sharp and with this level of self-deprecating is an automatic treasure, and I might be tempted to give her the Oscar for this interview even I didn’t already enjoy her performance in The Blind Side so much. Good luck, Sandy, and I changed my mind—I will have fries with that.


(And if you bet these in your office pool, I will take NO responsibility, positive or negative, for the outcome. If you’re foolish enough to let me make these kinds of decisions for you, you’ll get no sympathy from me.)




Supporting Actress: MO’NIQUE

Supporting Actor: CHRISTOPH WALTZ


Screenplay (Original): INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Screenplay (Adapted): UP IN THE AIR

Animated Film: UP

Art Direction: AVATAR


Costume Design: BRIGHT STAR

Documentary (Feature): THE COVE




Make-up: STAR TREK

Music (Score): UP

Music (Song): “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy heart)” CRAZY HEART

Short Film (Animated): A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH

Short Film (Live Action): KAVI

Sound Editing: THE HURT LOCKER

Sound Mixing: AVATAR

Visual Effects: AVATAR


All right, just about time to crack open the bean dip. I’ll try not to get any on the red carpet!


Saturday, March 06, 2010


On any career path there’s getting started, and then there’s getting started right. Imagine you’re a young film editor named Michael R. Miller, you’re looking to get a foothold in feature films, and like anyone just starting out in his chosen field you’re probably willing to take almost any job for the experience and the typeface on your CV. But you are Michael R. Miller, and one of your first jobs isn’t greasing the gears on the Moviola in some dank editing room as you labor on some low-rent car chase or kung fu epic. No, one of your first jobs as an assistant film editor is wrangling film ends and cataloging shots and massaging the flow of scenes beside a woman named Susan B. Morse who is editing a little film called Manhattan. Morse, who learned her craft as assistant under Ralph Rosenblum on the last two films he edited for Woody Allen (Annie Hall and Interiors), begins a long association with Allen on Manhattan, and you, Michael R. Miller, collaborate with her again for another ride on Allen’s subsequent film, Stardust Memories. You’re beginning to get a feel for editing film, especially black and white film, so it’s natural that you would find yourself on the editing staff of yet another monochrome masterpiece, the new picture by that Scorsese kid, Raging Bull. Dizzy yet? Remember, Michael, you’re just getting started.

Next, imagine that your first solo credit as film editor comes in 1982 on a short film for Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. It’s called Split Cherry Tree, it stars Colleen Dewhurst and, oh, yeah, it gets an Oscar nomination for best live action short film. Not one to rest on your laurels, you spend the next couple of years cutting a couple more films and initiating the long, perpetual process of honing your craft and making a name for yourself.

Then picture this: One afternoon, late spring sometime in the early ‘80s, you’re out of work and walking along Broadway in New York City when you run into a friend, a sound editor by the name of Skip Lievsay who had yet to break into feature films. You exchange pleasantries and he invites you to come along to meet these two guys from Minneapolis who are shooting a low-budget feature. You could just as easily have said no, but instead you say yes, and the two of you meet the two of them in a building on Broadway between 48th and 49th called the Film Services Building. (You remember it because there’s a plaque out front commemorating Bix Biederbecke.) You and Skip walk into this little cave –like room and there they are taking break from looking at footage, Joel and Ethan Coen blowing off steam by taking whacks at each other with a divided pair of boxing gloves. They show you a scene from their upcoming debut and you leave the meeting hooked. Though your duties as an assistant editor have often involved laying down temp tracks and attending sound mixes for features and shorts, you’ve never worked sound editing in an official capacity before. Nonetheless, that’s what you and Skip do for the Coens on Blood Simple, and off you go. The Blood Simple experience, which you could have missed altogether if you’d said no on that late spring afternoon on Broadway, leads directly to lead film editing credits on Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing and a solid career moving from the Moviola to the high-tech arena of the AVID system as one of Hollywood’s sharpest, most dependable editors.

Yes, you might have to imagine all that. But Michael R. Mlller doesn’t, because it all happened to him. And now, with a resume spliced together with credits ranging from Paul Schrader’s brilliant and underrated Patty Hearst (1988) to Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids (1993), Alek Keshishian’s With Honors (1994), Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Orgasmo (1997), Luis Llosa’s Anaconda (1997), Keenen Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka! (1998), Rupert Wainwright’s Stigmata (1999), Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), Anthony Hopkins’ directorial debut Slipstream (2007) and last year’s Motherhood, a comedy written and directed by ex-Village Voice film critic Katherine Dieckmann, what’s left for a seasoned film editor to do? We’ll get to that. For now, I thought it would be worth picking his brain during the last hours leading up to Oscar’s annual worldwide navel-gazing session to talk about what he looks for in Oscar-winning film editing and other sundry and fascinating topics surrounding the chosen profession he does so well. I connected up with Michael, who occasionally lectures and teaching editing at such institutions as the New York Film Academy, the American Film Institute and the North Carolina School of the Arts when he’s not on an editing gig, through a series of e-mails. We also eventually managed a sit-down at Starbucks (he went venti, I went water). So our conversation here has been cobbled together by means both technological and editorial. Whatever the medium, we enjoyed each other’s company tremendously, and I hope that ease and enjoyment translates here as I toss him 10 questions about the art and craft of film editing. Here comes the first return serve.


DC: Since the Oscars are looming and you are an Academy member, I won't ask you what film nominated in the Best Editing category you voted for. (The choices: Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious.) But I would like to ask, what do you think the mythical monolith referred to as The Academy is looking for when nominees in this category are selected?

MM: Yeah, that mythical monolith. When you’re talking the voting body, there really is no “they.” The Academy isn’t even close to monolithic. It's composed of branches for each film craft, and the editors' branch nominates its own candidates. What's more members of the editors' branch itself have diverse tastes and standards, as this year's nominees would indicate. I'm proud of us, too, because we tend to recognize good work regardless of familiarity (or a lack thereof) with the editor who did it. No one in Hollywood knew Daniel Rezende when we nominated him for City of God.Raging Bull, Thelma Schoonmaker's first Oscar-winning effort, was, I think, her first dramatic feature film. And we were true to form this year with an editing nomination for Julian Clarke and District 9.

So what do we look for when we make our selections for Oscar candidacy? I think our criteria are the same as those we apply when editing a film. First and foremost we look at storytelling. Is the story well-told? Engaging? Affecting? Good storytelling is the editor's primary goal. Pace is also important. Avatar would not have received a nomination had its three-plus hours felt like three-plus hours. Rhythms within each scene are something cutters weigh when considering films for nomination as well.

Finally, the criterion of which the public is least aware but which is of great importance to editors is performance. Each scene in a motion picture may be shot from a number of angles, and there are multiple takes for each angle. An actor's performance, then, may be composed of many different takes seamlessly woven together by the editor. Even when big action films are nominated for Best Editing, performances in those films are often acknowledged for their excellence. What was groundbreaking in editing this year is that Avatar’s editors constructed fine performances before post-production.

DC: Are there films, based on this criterion or one of your own, that you feel would be better choices than any of the ones up for the award?

MM: I was disappointed not to see Star Trek get a nomination. I also loved Broken Embraces. And, as you know, I'm a big fan of Roderick Jaynes. Everything he touches is gold so, yeah, I would like to have seen A Serious Man get an editing nomination. Editors are a pretty collegial group, so we like to see one another rewarded for good work.

DC: It has been said that an editor can measure his success by the degree of invisibility he has to his audience. In other words, if a film editor is doing her or his job well, that work will largely go unnoticed. How would you summarize the editor's job? And what about cutting that draws attention to itself-- is that not serving the editor's call, or is it simply serving a different call?

MM: Despite our own use of the term "invisible art," I don't see invisibility as a measure of success. We apply those words to what we do because, in fact, our work isn't noticed by most viewers; it's not what they pay attention to. To me, though, good editing is no more invisible than good costume design, good lighting, good hair and make-up. A good costume designer wants to engage and move the audience without distracting them from the story. The same is true for editors and editing. Why cut from one shot to another if you don't want that choice to have an emotional impact? I see editing students trip themselves up making perfect match cuts at moments seasoned editors would never cut -- at moments where there's no dramatic motivation for a change of shot. A cut like that might be invisible, but it would also be bad.

The question of cutting that draws attention to itself is tricky. I guess I have to ask, "Whose attention is drawn, and how so?" When Yo Yo Ma plays a cello concerto, the playing is so good -- it convey the emotions and colors of the music so well -- that the attentive, trained listener is aware of the virtuoso performance. So, too, with editing. The car chase in The French Connection, the helicopter scene in GoodFellas, "Twist and Shout" in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-- virtuoso set pieces cut by three of my editing heroes -- all entertain in part because of the high quality of the cutting. But they're all edited with great pace, all in ways that advance story and reveal character. Cutting that's based on use of dazzling tricks for its own sake usually doesn't hold up.

DC: So, do you think of yourself or editors in general more as artists or craftsmen?

MM: It’s a great question, and it’s hard to answer because to give a meaningful answer is a matter of defining both terms, craft and art. I think there can be craft without art, but there can’t be art without craft. And the whole question is tricky because film is so collaborative. When you get a great script and great performances and great production design and great cinematography, your craft rises to the level of art. The Godfather is an example of craft rising through collaboration. If you bring together Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo on the script, Nino Rota writing the score, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, on and on, and (production designer) Dean Tavoularis and the great Gordon Willis lighting it all, you’re making art.

DC: There are no guarantees, of course, but with that group of people, I’d say the odds are in favor of art.

MM: And it varies from case to case. Thinking about The Godfather, is it an accretion of great craft that suddenly allows the material to ascend to the level of art? The thing is, I don’t think it is. Brando could have turned playing a pitcher of water into a work of art. And that script is so rich and works on so many levels. But everyone had to apply their craft well enough that the quality wasn’t impeded, so that it could come through. I think that we’d like to consider ourselves artists, and I think by and large it’s warranted. But, you know, for example, Alan Heim got to work on some Bob Fosse films, and Network, Sidney Lumet directing a Paddy Chayefsky script—Alan edited that.

DC: So it becomes a case of recognizing that the components are there and then drawing inspiration from them to heighten your approach to the job?

MM: For me, starting out as an assistant editor, the earliest footage I got was Gordon Willis’s brilliant black-and-white images for Manhattan. How can one not be inspired? It’s arguably one of the most beautiful black-and-white films ever made. And some slouch named Zubin Mehta conducting a Gershwin score. (Laughs).

DC: There has been a lot of talk of continuity problems in Shutter Island lately-- Leo's got a ring on in one shot, and in the reverse shot the ring is missing, that kind of thing. I haven't yet seen the film, but much was also made of apparent “gaffes” in other Scorsese films edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, including The Departed and The Aviator. And I remember bizarre things in Scorsese films that went beyond Godardian jump cuts--a scene early on in The King of Comedy features De Niro and Sandra Bernhard walking down the street and there's a strange cutting back and forth between a wider tracking shot and static close-ups. Some of it is so glaring that I’ve come to assume that continuity disruption must be intentional. Have you noticed it in his films? What do you think he and Schoonmaker might be trying to get at, assuming it is intentional?

MM: The idea that a lack of literal continuity is a gaffe, I think, comes from a old Premiere magazine column (“The Gaffe Squad”), and it betrays a misunderstanding of editing. Editors spot continuity errors long before the naive viewer. Hell, those of us who still edit material shot on film spot a speck of dirt covering 1/1000 of the frame for 1/24 of a second as the film is being projected. Here's why, in my opinion, you see a lack of literal continuity in film: Editors, working with their directors, always look for the great moments -- those that must be in the film lest we short-change the audience. Often, the road from one great moment to the next (that is, a great moment in the next shot) is bumpy in terms of continuity. Depending on the size of the bump, some editors and directors compromise. The disruption caused by the mismatch outweighs, in their view, the greatness of one of the moments and an alternate take is used. My guess is that Thelma and Marty don't compromise. And I always find it invigorating and inspiring, as an editor, to watch their work. When I was a neophyte editor, I defended a cut by saying I had "cut on motion." Andrei Konchalovsky, who had challenged the cut, said in his charming Russian accent, "Don't cut on motion, cut on emotion." Thelma and Marty cut on emotion.

DC: We've both mentioned Thelma Schoonmaker. And you worked closely with Susan B. Morse early in your career. What other editors did you look to for inspiration when you began work in this field as inspirations?

MM: I've hinted at a partial answer to this question with earlier responses. My list of editing heroes at the start of my career is a long one: Paul Hirsch, Thelma Schoonmaker, Dede Allen, Jerry Greenberg, Richard Marks, Alan Heim, Barry Malkin, Ralph Rosenblum. I had the privilege of assisting Paul and Thelma. Some of the others I got to know because the New York editing community was so small. All of them worked on projects that became my "go-to movies." Other editors whose films I learned from when starting out include Tom Rolfe, Marcia Lucas, Hal Ashby, Lou Lombardo, George Tomasini, Sam O'Steen, Robert Wise and Ralph Winters. Man, I know I'm leaving out so many greats! Also, the list of editors whose work continues to inspire and teach me keeps growing: Roderick Jaynes, Sandy Morse, Chris Lebenzon, Mark Goldblatt, Steve Rivkin and many more. I believe it's important to have heroes, to remain open to being awestruck. Anyone interested in editing should seek out and watch and study films cut by the editors I just mentioned.

DC: Is there a single sequence or film you can think of that always pops to mind when you consider examples of the possibilities attainable in great film editing?

MM: I often watch Dog Day Afternoon (Dede Allen) when I'm about to edit a film. The start of the bank robbery knocks me out every time. The whole film does. Ditto JFK (Pietro Scalia). And anything of Paul Hirsch's. I also watch Fellini and Hawks, not for cutting so much, but as paradigms of pace.

DC: Let's talk about some of the films you've edited. What's your favorite experience working on a movie?

MM: That's always a tough question. Truly, one does love them all. But to steal a neologism from Alvy Singer, I "lurved" working on Raising Arizona. The material was great and the brothers Coen were hysterically funny and warm. Youth (and the fearlessness that goes with it), Hostess Twinkies, and coffee and cigarettes fueled post-production on that. I loved editing Stigmata. It was hard work, but I was stretched by it in good ways. And to a small extent, I think we stretched what you could get away with in narrative features at the time. I loved working on Anthony Hopkins'Slipstream because it was so "out there." I must say, in the past few years I have had great experiences working with writer/ directors with whom I've become close on a personal level, with whom I've developed effective working shorthand and whose work I love. (Hi, Paul, Howard, Katherine, radzy...)

DC: Is it fair to say that you taught Roderick Jaynes everything he knows?

MM: I actually met Roderick Jaynes when he edited Blood Simple, on which Skip Lievsay and I edited sound. So Roderick was already a damn good editor when we met. We had some minor disagreements about pace on that film, if memory serves. But, in fact, I've learned much from him. The board of the A.C.E. knows I think it's long past time we invited him to join our honorary society.

DC: Where can we look for your name next?

MM: My most recent film is Josh Radnor's directing debut, HappyThanYouMorePlease. It won the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and it's excellent.


(Michael R. Miller’s current editing project, a thriller entitled Confined starring Emma Caulfield and David James Elliott is in post-production and scheduled for release this year. He sincerely hopes for the biggest upset in AMPAS history with a sweep by A Serious Man in the Best Picture and Best Screenplay categories on Oscar night, Sunday, March 7.)