Saturday, April 30, 2011


Those four days of bleary-eyed movie fan bliss known as the TCM Classic Movie Festival are upon us again, and once again I have been lucky enough, under the aegis and good graces of Keith Uhlich, Ed Gonzalez, Slant magazine and The House Next Door, Slant’s official blog, to be turned loose upon the general area of Hollywood and Highland to experience it and cover it. (My extensive coverage of last year’s festival can be read here. Readers up for another go at similar reportage can expect something new for 2011 and in the same vein sometime in the next couple of weeks.)

Fears of not enough support for a second festival were put to rest quickly when Turner Classic Movies reported a better-than-doubling of sales for passes for the festival from last year’s sales figures. And just like last year, a major part of the fun of the festival is in the fascinating and entertaining conversations struck up between strangers, seatmates on a journey through a shared appreciation for film history. I’ve met someone new at every film I’ve attended, and spent a grand time with old friends as well.

As for the movies themselves, this year’s lineup of films is nothing if not as eclectic as the selection from the first year—my only complaint so far is that Theme 2011, Music and the Movies, while it has yielded worthy focus on Bernard Herrmann and great movie musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Royal Wedding, Pennies from Heaven and Cabin in the Sky, has also yielded a closing Sunday night lineup across the festival schedule that is less inspiring-- Fantasia doesn’t stir the blood like Metropolis did last year and, the appearance of George Chakiris notwithstanding, screenings of West Side Story and Manhattan (a tribute to George Gershwin in films) are just too commonplace for such climactic positioning. As the Sunday slots left open for rescheduling popular films from earlier in the festival get filled in, perhaps Sunday will start looking brighter. But for right now, in lieu of the more detailed commentary to come later, here’s a brief look at what I’ve been able to take in on day 1.5 (Thursday evening, all day Friday). To sum up in the briefest, broadest possible way, of the first six films I’ve seen five have been comprised of or featured moments, images or actors of surpassing beauty. (And one featured one of our most caricatured actors in perhaps his finest performance.) Not bad for really just the first day. Saturday comes quickly, in just a few hours. Sleep awaits and with it dreams of the flights of beauty, violence, agony and transcendence to come. Here are some of the things I dreamt on the big screen on Day 1.5…

Streamers, scrims, nets, patterns of latticework, iron gates, one upon another and another and another... The most thickly atmospheric, claustrophobically beautiful (and last) of Josef Von Sternberg's Marlene Dietrich cycle, The Devil is a Woman (1935).

Cagney, all elbows and fists, in Taxi (1932; Roy Del Ruth), a quintessential pre-Code Warner Brothers (First National) melodrama with enough electricity to light the Eastern Seaboard...

...and who knew Loretta Young, Cagney's rip-snorting costar, was ever this beautiful? (Okay, maybe you did, but I sure didn't.)

"It ain't right to kill a man and let a rat live!"-- Edward G. Robinson, devastating in Mervyn LeRoy's Two Seconds (1932)

Kathryn Grant is Princess Parisa, who inspires Kerwin Matthews in more ways than one, completely beautiful in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958; Nathan Juran)

Another kind of beauty, courtesy of Ray Harryhausen from the same film...

Miriam Hopkins, incandescent in Ernst Lubitsch's maligned and underseen, but perfectly wonderful Design for Living (1933)...

with unlikely and breezy comic support offered by Fredric March and Gary Cooper.

Bodies in motion in the completely entrancing, almost totally geographically artificial Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954; Stanley Donen). (The screening was marred only by a pitifully sub-par print).

Billed as Julie "Newmeyer," the Catwoman emerges as Dorcas, the loveliest (and certainly most Amazonian) of the Seven Brides.

Jane Powell, sprightly and beautiful at age 82, spoke with Leonard Maltin on stage before the movie and described the appeal of her movie star personality as being essentially consistent with her own: "I just showed up and changed my clothes a lot."

Up Next: Day 2.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011


By now you’ve probably seen a tentative list of all the treats the big studios have in store for your summer movie-going calendar. Sure, there are some interesting items snuck into the cracks and crevices of that schedule, but you could be forgiven if your overriding impression is that of a Hollywood-fed menu comprised primarily of the usual crop of increasingly desperate-seeming sequels, second-tier comic book adaptations and even a slew of earnest and obvious-sounding indie comedy-drama-dramedies. What’s a grownup to do when the appetite for superheroes, tired genres and other presold titles becomes sated? (Hard to imagine it could happen, I know, but anything is possible.) One answer is, of course, to look a little closer at that slate. If you don’t give much more than a cursory glance, and then only at features like that IMDB list, you could easily walk away with the notion that comic books rule the landscape, and the truth is they just might. But IMDb’s list is incomplete; it concentrates only on the big-ticket items, most of which you’ve already heard of. For every weekend which a list like the one on IMDb makes seem limited to the usual blockbuster, sequel, crass comedy or some combination of all of the above, there may be as many as three or four other smaller-budgeted films, perhaps just as worthy or unworthy as the Hollywood titles of your attention, only minus the gargantuan advertising budget that gets them top billing on a sexy site like IMDb. In attempting to schedule my drive-in trips and other movie indulgences of the summer I was a bit let-down while perusing the upcoming roster of hot-weather treats. But an examination of what might be playing at smaller venues and art-house alternatives cheered me up a little, if only because the choices suddenly became much broader and not everything seemed tied to computer-generated explosions and groups of supposedly lovable bastards getting lost in foreign countries full of funny-looking people ready-made to be laughed at.

So what are the titles that bubble up from the bog, or at least from the impressions of the upcoming movies as dictated by our responses to the barrage of advertising we’ve been subjected to so far? Stephanie Zacharek, in acknowledging that she is as susceptible to the “siren song of the summer movie trailer” as anyone, also handily points out that reviewing one’s hopes and dreams based on a swift-moving preview is hardly the same as reviewing the movie itself; a return to her column, or this blog, over the summer will undoubtedly reveal the gorge-sized gap between anticipation and bitter reality. Even so, I’m willing to go out on a shaky limb and proclaim, as Stephanie did, my desire to see a certain number of summer films based on what little I know of them so far. The list of upcoming summer releases made available at Movie Insider has been far more valuable and complete than the IMDb list in putting my list together, so hopefully there will be a title or two among the following that you may not have heard of or otherwise been hammered on incessantly about. (“Buzz dating back to February says that The Hangover Part II is HILARIOUS, but let’s all act like it’s a real sleeper just like we did when the furiously promoted first chapter came around a couple years ago, okay??!!”) Here then is my list, which I have arbitrarily limited to 10. There may be 11 or 13 movies I’m willing to admit looking forward to, but I’m only going to tell you about 10-- less mess to clean up afterward that way. (And yeah, I’ll probably see Thor and Cars 2 and Harry Potter 7.5 just like you will—but not The Hangover Part II-- please— or Transformers: Dark of the Moon, thank you.) And just for the fun of daydreaming, my number 11 is a cartoon adaptation that doesn’t actually exist, but the prospect of it looks so loony and subversive and genuinely demented that I really wish it did— may the actual dog days be chased away by a real release that has a fraction of the inspiration of the two-minute faux trailer attached to this one.


Hard to believe that I’m looking forward to a movie directed by Lars Von Trier. But his Antichrist was a brilliant act of sustained disorientation and unbearable sadness; it’s the first film of his I’ve ever responded to with anything other than disgust. In that spirit, anything goes, and if Melancholia approaches anything close to a degree of Antichrist’s power, well, let’s just say our Memorial Day weekend is likely to have a much different echo to it once the fireworks have subsided.


Directed by Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks) from a script co-written by Kristen Wiig, who stars with Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne and Jon Hamm, this one (based on the trailer) looks like a potential belly buster. It’ll be nice to see Kristen Wiig take center stage after so many years of virtual walk-ons and support for talent often not nearly as incandescent as her own. The movie promises character-based comedy with that post-Farrelly Brothers raunch factored in, and it’ll be interesting to see how the rare Apatow production centering on the XX chromosome set plays out, for the characters on screen and the audience. I’m betting big.


Michelle Yeoh is featured in another big summer movie—she’s a voice in Kung Fu Panda 2-- but this martial arts thriller, directed by legendary fight coordinator Woo-ping Yuen, is her first appearance on U.S. screens since the less-than-auspicious The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Any chance to see Yeoh on the big screen should be seized, especially in this milieu, but True Legend also features Asian stars Man Cheuk-Chiu, Xun Zhou, Andy On and the late David Carradine in one of his last screen appearances. Truth be told, I’d see it on the strength of that ‘70s-inspired poster alone, but my anticipation is also based on what I hope will be a good movie to go along with that great design.


The cinephile’s must-see movie of the summer. It’s hard to pass up any opportunity to see a visually resplendent Malick picture on a big screen, but this movie being positioned as a big Memorial Day ticket appeals to my sense of the perverse as well. It’ll feel good saying “One for The Tree of Life instead of one for The Hangover Part II.”

SUPER 8 June 10

The trailer stirs up lots of mixed feelings for me, running the gamut from intrigue at the mysterious premise to a shudder of recognition at perhaps one too many awestricken actors gazing into a blinding bright light, one presumably interstellar in origin. Scratch Mission Impossible III and Abrams' track record is a pretty good one, so there’s reason to hold out hope here, all reservations being tied to hopes that the Spielberg echoed here has more to do with Close Encounters of the Third Kind or A.I. than with War of the Worlds.


I would love to be able to take my 11-year-old daughter, who is half-Japanese and fascinated by all aspects of Asian culture, to see this picture, which marks the return of director Wayne Wang and is based on Lisa See’s lovely novel about two young Chinese women who develop a secret code as a way of dealing with the often brutal realities of the society’s attitudes and norms imposed upon women. Co-scripted by Ronald Bass (who wrote Wang’s adaptation of The Joy Luck Club), the movie could turn out to be, based on evidence of the trailer, either splendidly moving or a soggy period retread of Joy Luck’s broadest sentimental indulgences.


I’m a big proponent of Joe Johnston’s clean-cut classical style in pictures like October Sky and Hidalgo and the snap-crackle-pop he brings to big, brash entertainments like Jumanji and Jurassic Park III. His involvement alone makes this potential Marvel tent pole the #1 superhero movie attraction for me this summer. Even better, Captain America’s gee-whiz period sincerity (it’s set during a comic-book World War II, when the only thing worse than a Nazi is a zombie Nazi) harkens back to Johnston’s successful navigation down a similar path in 1988’s The Rocketeer. With any luck, this could be the summer’s happiest surprise.


If one is compelled to play the game, then it seems to me adding a chapter to the convoluted saga of the Apes series which ruled the box office and the imaginations of many a teenage sci-fi geek in the ‘70s is a far better prospect than simply “rebooting” the series most beloved entry, the way Tim Burton did several summers ago. Just the retro look of the logo of this sixth part (fifth sequel) is enough to give those grown-up sci-fi geeks (among which I of course include myself) a shiver of delight. The possible pitfalls are plentiful, but I would dearly love to see another real Apes movie thunder across a summer movie screen, echoing the legacy of Pierre Boulle, Franklin J. Schaffner, Charlton Heston, Roddy MacDowell and Kim Hunter in silly triumph all the way.


This remake of the chilling 1973 TV movie which starred Kim Darby has mighty memories to fill, as well as the legacy of a Movie of the Week nearly on par with The Night Stalker. The new version is being shepherded by Guillermo Del Toro, so the things that go bump in the night under the stairs in this version should be guaranteed ghastly. Katie Holmes fills Darby’s shoes, a less daunting task than the one faced by Haillee Steinfeld during the Christmas holiday, but Holmes has yet to prove the potential she often showed in the pre-Cruise days. All that said, this R-rated horror movie probably stands the best chance of being the summer’s top creepshow attraction.

AMIGO August 20

Director-writer John Sayles returns to the epic political canvas of Lone Star and Matewan in this tale of a culture clash between Filipino citizenry and American soldiers in 1900. This kind of chewy social drama is right up the alley of the famously independent filmmaker, but he’s just as often been undone by the gap between the quality of his material and his ability to find the most cinematic manner in which to express it. But his track record promises at least an honorable alternative to the other, shall we say, um, flashier manifestations of war and cultural schisms offered by the typical CGI-driven fare of the season.

And now number 11, the movie I truly wish was coming out this summer. But maybe it’s already in its finest form right here: Rose McGowan is BOOP



If you’re not Swedish or some other variety of European ancestry, chances are you’ve probably never heard of Brita Borg. I’d certainly hadn’t before last week, when fellow Horror Dad Paul Gaita introduced her to me in an e-mail. Borg was a Swedish singer, actress and variety show performer, a fixture in Swedish pop culture on radio, eventually on television and even in a few movies. Her variety show career spanned from 1943 until the early 1970s, but by the end of the 1960s her singing career, a highlight of which was her representation of Sweden in the 1959 Eurovision Song Contest in Cannes, was virtually over. She won another song contest in 1943 which led to her joining a Soldermalm-based variety group called Our Gang (Vårat gäng) and by 1947 her long collaboration with yet another Swedish variety performer and writer Povel Ramel, who had his own radio program on which Borg sang and acted from 1952 to 1962, was under way.

Among her most famous numbers were “Fat Mammy Brown,” in which she portrayed an African-American jazz singer in full blackface and padding, and “Ulliga krulliga gubbar,” a Dixieland parody all about how having a beard represented the ultimate in modern living. In 1962 she reached the peak of her variety show career with “Die Borg,” a tune which playfully parodied a currently popular wave of Swedish singers who made their living by catering to the tastes of German audiences. Borg played out the remainder of her career in musical theater revivals such as Annie Get Your Gun, Fiddler on the Roof and Threepenny Opera and even staged a Vårat gäng comeback in the 1980s, where she dubbed herself, with no lack of irony and good humor, "En något överårig tonårsidol" (" A teen idol somewhat past her prime").

But in 1957 she was just hitting her stride, the Eurovision Song Contest still a couple of years down the road, when she recorded her own modern pop novelty hit "Frankenstein Rock”. This sassy tune, which doesn’t sound like it would be out of place on one of Borg’s radio revues, predates Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” by five years, but is both musically and, as it turns out, lyrically very much of a piece with the later American hit. Essentially a tribute to the stable of Universal monster icons which were popular in Sweden in much the same way they were in the States, Borg’s tune tells the tale of going to see a scary movie with her boyfriend complete with implications as to what might happen if the boyfriend can adequately protect Borg from the on-screen terrors (“I’ll try and be nice/And you can be my knight”). “Frankenstein Rock” is a much more straight-ahead rock and roll number than is Pickett’s, and far less playful with the imagery of the great horror film creations, but it’s still a lot of fun and full of affection for the genre, even if you don’t speak Swedish.

And if you don’t, Jonas Sjogren, a colleague of mine well versed in the Swedish language, as well as the tricky job of translating it, has listened to the Swedish lyrics and provided a nifty guide of what Borg is warbling about in English. So by all means, press play and crank it up, with or without the translation. And thanks, Paul, for sending that e-mail last week and opening up of the world of “Frankenstein Rock” and Brita Borg to these virgin ears.

I know where we should go
If we're gonna go somewhere

Let's go and see a horror film
It'll raise our hair

'Cause I always feel terrified
And strange when

I'm sitting in a theater
And it all begins again

Let's do the Frankenstein Rock
Let's do the Frankenstein Rock

'Cause I'll be freezing and shivering
And trembling out of fright

So for the next few hours
You'll get to hold me tight

Frankenstein is creepy
And has quite a funny gait

And he meets a werewolf
In the vestibule of his estate

They arrange a party
In a creepy château

While Dracula commits
A few crimes below

Let's do the Frankenstein Rock
Let's do the Frankenstein Rock

'Cause I'll be freezing and shivering
And trembling out of fright

So for the next few hours
You'll get to hold me tight

I'm going to take you to
Someplace for us to see

Something really creepy
And scary tonight

I'll try and be nice
And you can be my knight

A strange professor
With a ray machine

That the robot
Has filled with nitroglycerin

They'll destroy the world
Before five o'clock

I get scared and kiss you
When home we walk

Let's do the Frankenstein Rock
Let's do the Frankenstein Rock

'Cause I'll be freezing and shivering
And trembling out of fright

So for the next few hours
You'll get to hold me tight

Let's do the Frankenstein Rock
Let's do the Frankenstein Rock

'Cause I'll be freezing and shivering
And trembling out of fright

So for the next few hours
You'll get to hold me tight

Oh, it's you.


(The Wikipedia article on Brita Borg was used as a major resource for this post.)


Friday, April 15, 2011


Thanks to my friend Andy, who in addition to being the smartest person I know also openly worships at the altar of Claudia Cardinale. Andy pointed out to me that, rather than thinking of this date and its bone-chilling financial associations for American taxpayers, we should really be taking note of the date's more joyful meaning, and that is Ms. Cardinale's birthday. The actress, always beautiful beyond compare and still quite lovely, turns 73 years old today and this site would be remiss into infinity if it did not mark the occasion. Make some time, and I intend to tonight, to visit one of La Cardinale's memorable appearances in great movies like Once Upon a Time in the West or The Leopard or , or even in lesser movies that are elevated by her mere presence, like Fitzcarraldo (that one's gonna get me in trouble, I know-- send your nasty cards and letters to...), The Pink Panther, Sandra, Circus World, The Professionals or Conversation Piece. To fill the dance card out even further, and just in time to mark the day, Warner Archives DVD has made available a fun little trifle, Don't Make Waves, which finds Claudia romping with Tony Curtis, Sharon Tate, Robert Webber and Dub Taylor (??!!) in sunny (and way swinging) Southern California circa 1967.

Claudia Cardinale may be an actress of limited range, but that doesn't mean she isn't a good actress. She is also one of unlimited appeal and beauty, and it's a thrill to be able to look back on her career and behold the spectrum of films she made, the filmmakers she worked with, and appreciate how lucky we were and are to be able to marvel at her sexy intelligence and presence then and now, to be able to watch her shine like the very definition of a movie star. Buon compleanno, bella Claudia! Vi sono molti di più splendide giornate e momenti grande nel movies! SLIFR ti ama!


Tuesday, April 12, 2011


An abandoned movie theater located in Pioche, Nevada

This past weekend my daughter and I rode in CicLAvia 2011, a urban bicycling event here in Los Angeles in which 12 miles of city streets, stretching from Hollywood through downtown and ending in Hollenbeck Park south of the city, were opened up to all manner of human-powered vehicles. It was a perfect day weather-wise (65 degrees, a slight breeze and only a puffy cloud here and there), a great opportunity not only to get some exercise but to see the city from an entirely different perspective and pace, outside the bubbled protective environment of the automobile.

As we crossed through MacArthur Park and into downtown, my daughter and I began playing a game in which we tried to spot all the buildings which had once been movie theaters and had since been converted into churches, swap markets or some other kind of non-cinematic functionality. Crossing Alvarado to our left (east), we could see the previously grand façade of the Westlake Theater, topped by the giant electrical sign that still holds sway over the street even though the theater itself is long gone. There were many others we could spot in between Alvarado and Spring Street downtown. And of course we crossed Broadway, where many old movie theater facades, and movie theaters whole, still could be easily seen. It was an interesting, bittersweet history lesson as my daughter became aware of a city she had never seen before, one where single-screen movie theaters of unparalleled neon beauty and art deco grandeur once stood as the norm, here in Los Angeles and in almost every city in the country, signaling an entirely different way of consuming and digesting movies on a community and cultural level than that of the high-rise redevelopment-oriented multiplexes of the modern movie-going experience.

I thought of our bicycling trip, and of how much I miss these movie palaces of old, while I was paging through Matt Stopera's stunning heartache of a visual essay entitled ”75 Abandoned Theaters from Around the USA” featured currently on Each picture connects up with a rural and urban America of movie-watching separated in time and sensibility from instant Internet analysis and social media marketing, when roadshow attractions meant that movies rolled out across the country in waves, not in 4,000-theater tsunamis, when a movie might play on a single screen in large and small markets for several weeks, even months before its audience was tapped out and ready for a new experience. The 75 pictures are split pretty evenly between the expected views of dilapidated frontage signaling echoes of the last picture show, and even more haunting, devastating and often moving shots of the interiors of some of these theaters, empty seats beckoning, slightly askew in the aisles, giant halls overrun with rust and dust and mold and every other manifestation of ruin. Some look like dusty halls of horror, some like the abandoned innards of grand governmental institutions, and some, like photo #11 taken inside an old auditorium somewhere in Latham, New York, like the eerie domed control center of a spaceship sitting in dock somewhere in another galaxy.

These pictures will invite a touch of sorrow for a world long past in the hearts of those of us who remember them, or places dear to us just like them. But I was also grateful that such a gallery exists because it made me remember with greater clarity all the places of my youth, some of which still exist, some of which sit in disrepair like these, and some which have been consigned to fleeting memory, where the movies once came alive for me. It’s hard to imagine the giant multiplexes conspiring with the imagination of worlds beyond their walls shown to us by the movies to inspire us in quite the same way. Movies have changed certainly as much as the places that show them have, and certainly how we see them. But for all the convenience of what Manohla Dargis recently called the 24-hour movie, nothing can really replace the experience of sitting with an audience whose patience and respect hadn’t yet been eroded by the sense of entitlement spawned by home theater luxury in one of these movie palaces, when they looked and sounded their best, when they teemed with the excitement of people who couldn’t wait to see a movie.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011


Tonight and tomorrow night mark the end of the run for Quentin Tarantino’s very special presentation of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair at the New Beverly Cinema. Every show since the brief engagement began on March 27 has been sold out well in advance, but tonight and tomorrow night no advance tickets will be sold. If you haven’t seen it during this run yet (or if you’ve never seen it period), this could be your last chance to gorge yourself on this epically entertaining, outrageous pop culture mash-up in its original form. Tarantino originally intended for the film to be released in a single 247-minute bite (not counting the built-in intermission), but Harvey Weinstein got nervous and it was decided that the films would be released almost exactly six months apart, in 2003 and 2004, forever bifurcating a sprawling movie that already had the feeling of a giant mosaic shattered into thousands of unexpected angles and reflections upon reflections.

But if you go to the New Beverly tonight or tomorrow night (and again, you really should), you will settle in for precisely the same experience that the first audience who ever saw Kill Bill had. The showcase print of this engagement is the very same print that ran at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003—not only have the two pieces of the Bride’s blood-spattered journey been united for their first run together anywhere other than the French Riviera, but the print itself sports the official Cannes Film Festival intro bumper and even the obligatory French subtitles created for the benefit of Gallic attendees of this international gathering who might find Tarantino’s colloquial linguistic stew a bit much to digest. (The intermission comes right where it should, attendant shivers of anticipation included, and it’s a lot more fun to sit through than the six months it originally took Americans and everyone else to get to Vol. 2.)

It was surprising for me to discover just how much fun it would be to see the films—scratch that: the film-- on the big screen again, the volume turned up loud to emphasize the crunch of every bone, the blast of every perversely appropriate musical cue, the eerie ring of vibrating steel as a freshly unsheathed blade waits amongst the hush just before battle, ready for action. But seeing The Whole Bloody Affair didn’t much alter my memory of the movies. Other than some incidental additions which themselves involve serious subtractions—of limbs—and the red, red krovvy which flows and sprays like orgasmic geysers of death, the chronological jumble of Tarantino’s story remains unaltered. The experience really boils down to the removal of that emotional disconnect caused by the separation of the two halves and the realization that the movie’s international cinematic influences are not as neatly divided as you might remember. Vol. 1 is not the martial arts half and Vol. 2 is not the spaghetti western half, as was often claimed by lazy reviewers looking for an angle. Tarantino’s vision is far too fluid, the variation and multitude of his influences far too permeated into the material to support such false demarcations.

Vol. 1 is, despite the real Ennio Morricone and the incredibly effective false Ennio Morricone (a.k.a. Zamfir) on the soundtrack, clearly more weighted toward the influence of martial arts and anime, it being the section of the film devoted to the story of O-Ren Ishii and the creation of the Bride’s sword by the legendary Hattori Hanzo. But the shift in location in Vol. 2 to the American Southwest and finally Mexico does not mean that the Asian influence disappears. Budd and Elle’s obsession with obtaining that Hattori Hanzo special, along with the large section of time devoted to the Bride’s training at the hands of Master Pai Mei, and even the homicidal serenity of the final encounter between the Bride and Bill, are explicitly extended from the first half’s obsession with Asia, even as the landscapes and iconography more often signal Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci. (Those beautiful Morricone cues, among others, remain too.) Part of the point of the entire four hour and seven minute enterprise is how neatly these different worlds have seeped into each other on an apparently genetic level. Yet rather than a melting pot producing a tidy sort of fondue of homogenous energy and perspective, Tarantino’s intention is pitched more toward creating the greatest movie salad ever made whose ingredients interact and coalesce and aspire to a one-of-a-kind taste yet still remain individually distinguishable and important on their own. Kill Bill truly sees the pop culture world (and, I think, the world at large) through eyes very similar to those of the current generation who have been raised to believe that the boundaries between cultures are less important than the ways in which we can interact and be enhanced by the presence of a different, perhaps contrary influence. In this regard, despite its hyper-violent subject matter and the absence of the usual “We Are the World”-style trappings, Kill Bill might just be the first great multicultural movie event.

Kill Bill is still capable of surprising audiences (or at least this single member) in other ways too. Those myriad influences fly by at apparent light-speed; I can’t imagine anyone other than Tarantino being able to catch them all. Yet they manage to coalesce into a canvas that serves to enrich character here as much as the viewer’s breadth of cinematic trivia. A good current corollary to the game Kill Bill plays is, strangely enough, Rango, and not just because that brilliant animated feature is playing with cards—the ones marked “spaghetti western”-- that are in some ways very similar to the ones dealt by Tarantino. Rango doesn’t use library music cues in the way Tarantino does to signal mood (or upend it). Rather, Hans Zimmer has woven a beautifully funny score out of the echoes of all those haunting Morricone moments, some of which have been filtered through Hugo Montenegro as well—everything from the opening credits of A Fistful of Dollars to “Jill’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in the West is referenced, but to enhance emotion and stake its own place as an actual movie, not just to encourage the audience to pat itself on the back for getting the joke.

No doubt the movie references in Rango are legion. The difference here, as in Tarantino, is that they seem to leap whole from the identity-hobbled psyche of its lead character, a delusional lizard (voiced by Johnny Depp, in the year’s best performance so far) whose defensive flights of imagination lead to a desperate journey of self-discovery when he becomes lost in the desert of the Southwest. The lizard, who has a penchant for creating absurd scenarios involving inanimate “friends” to keep himself from losing his tiny little mind, is essential an actor, and when he discovers a dusty Western-style town called Dirt which affords him the free range (sorry) to concoct an entire persona cobbled out of the juiciest of familiar genre clichés and tropes, he leaps at it. When the lizard walks into the town saloon and the entire gallery of liquored customers—a hilariously gruesome assortment of desert-weathered creatures—falls silent, the moment will make every Western fan smile with recognition. But those who know Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West will also appreciate the squeaky turn of the ceiling fan, which underlines Rango’s entrance into the sudden silence while reminding us of a certain rather insistent windmill. It’s here that the lizard becomes “Rango” by appropriating even more layers of self-created mythology (all based on the most outrageous gun-slinging lies), and it becomes more astonishing by the minute how the film subtly implies that the illusions Rango spins, not to mention the very environment upon which he stumbles, may be the result of a Castaneda-esque desert-fever dream shared by the audience. The literary and cinematic references that make Rango such a rich comic experience are not devised like a game of Trivial Pursuit—it would be as impossible to catalog them all as it would be to do so in Tarantino’s movie. That lucid dream state becomes a corollary to the way we’re processing the references themselves.

The important thing is the ambience and the depth of character that the references add up to and finally strengthen. It’s an organic approach that is shared by Kill Bill, the difference between enriched homage and straight parody, the difference between Rango’s introductory saloon scene and, say, the moment in the genial but less-inspired Paul, in which our heroes walk into a roadside bar and the cowboy band is playing the cantina music from Star Wars. The John Williams cue is there because there are a thousand other nods set up to be caught by sci-fi geeks of every stripe, but they don’t add up to much other than a round of self-congratulation at having seen and loved the same set of movies as the writers. (Paul also lacks Edgar Wright’s innate cinematic sensibility and way with visual jokes, a more significant absence than might initially have been guessed.)

I’m running out of time, but I just wanted to register a few other brief thoughts that came up while soaking in Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair

Secret Weapon #1: The movie’s curiously moving take on motherhood. Images related to the subject tumble right from the beginning— “Bill, it’s your ba—" followed by one of cinemas’ loudest, most disturbing gunshots. But then Tarantino serves up two separate, horrific reversals of the primal scene in which daughters witness the death of their own mothers. The first, in which Vernita’s daughter stumbles upon her mother and the Bride engaged in a vicious knife fight and then is revealed looking upon the scene as the Bride takes Vernita down, is played both for a bitter laugh and a shiver. But the scene is deepened by the Bride’s sober promise to the girl that she understands her confusion and anger, and should she never be able to shake the horror of what she has seen as she grows up the Bride will be waiting for her when she arrives to exact her revenge.

The second comes during the staggeringly brutal anime sequence that illustrates the events that led to O-Ren Ishii’s ascendance to the position of elite assassin, posited on her firsthand witness to the assassination of her mother and father, and her subsequent revenge on the pedophile gang lord who committed the crime. But the Bride’s journey from pregnant bride to anguished survivor, through a literal rebirth from being buried alive (and having to access the most crucial elements of her training to avoid certain death) and the eventual reunion with a daughter thought long lost, is where the movie’s core of emotional truth is located. That journey is about revenge for a stolen life, of course, but it’s also all about the Bride’s profound feelings of motherhood, which are no longer supported by reality-- the deep sense of vengeance that propels her is borne out of being denied the one role she now holds more dearly than even her skills as a martial arts assassin. The scene in the hospital near the beginning of Vol.1 when the Bride awakens from a long coma and realizes she’s no longer pregnant is surely one of Uma Thurman’s shining moments as an actress and perhaps the most moving moment in the entirety of Tarantino’s career thus far. It’s where this great pop reverie reaches into the audience’s collective chest and squeezes, hard.

Secret Weapon #2: Gordon Lau, as the leader of the Crazy 88’s in Vol.1, but more importantly his spot-on perfect performance as Pai Mei in Vol. 2, spirited in directly from the oeuvre of King Wu and every other lesser directorial talent in the history of martial arts filmmaking. No one has ever adjusted a beard like Lau does in these sequences.

Secret Weapon #3: Sonny Chiba. Who would have guessed that the Streetfighter himself, using his real, undubbed voice for perhaps the first time in a movie, would be a gifted comedian? He has the gravitas to deliver one of the best lines in the entire four hours—presenting his greatest sword to the Bride before she departs to visit O-Ren at the House of Blue Leaves, he intones, “If on your journey you should encounter God, God will be cut!” But he’s also loose and funny as hell with Thurman at the sushi bar during the first of their scenes together. (“Warm sake??!! Very good!”) See for yourself…

Secret Weapon #4: Julie Dreyfus. The multilingual Tokyo casting director for Kill Bill actually read for the part of the Bride before being cast as the ill-fated Sofie Fatale (who loses an extra limb in this Cannes version).

Dreyfus is regally beautiful (she bears a pleasant resemblance to Monica Bellucci), and her appearance as Goebbels’ lover in Inglourious Basterds makes me hope that Tarantino will figure out a way to get her in his upcoming spaghetti western as well. She’s got a great movie face, a great movie carriage and presence, and it’d be nice if she one day got a part that would make her into a great movie star.

Secret Weapon #5: Bleeping out the Bride’s actual name. That gives me a shiver every time.

Secret Weapon #6: The end credits. I knew it was coming, but sitting in the New Beverly Cinema seeing Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair as it was unveiled at Cannes, watching the credit “Thanks to Sherman Torgan and the New Beverly Cinema” roll past actually brought me to tears—tears for a great legacy recognized eight years ago and one that is perpetuated by Tarantino through his films, certainly, but also through his good graces directed at the theater itself. Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair is ultimately a tribute to many things, not least of which is the spirit that still fiercely pulses through the veins of programmers like Michael Torgan, Sherman’s son, who is dedicated to making sure the legacy of cinema is not surrendered to the mockers and the parodists. Each week the rich ground in which referential movies like Kill Bill are planted is there on the big screen in all of its various forms and genres to be enjoyed in venues like the New Beverly. The biggest secret weapon of all turns out to be how seeing this movie at this theater becomes a unique opportunity to engage in movie love of an even more rarified nature. Don’t miss it.


(A reminder: Tickets are on sale at the box office only, so anyone realistically expecting to be admitted should be looking at getting into what will undoubtedly be a very long line sometime during the 6:00 hour. The performance on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights begins at 8:00 p.m.)

(And Jen Yamato details the gory differences between the American release and the Cannes version for Movieline.)


Saturday, April 02, 2011


Strange as it seems to reflect upon, I seem to have come of age right alongside the directing career of Alan Parker, or Sir Alan Parker as he is apparently known these days. Growing up and learning how to watch and to see films, I’ve managed to miss only his first movie, the relatively lighthearted (but by some accounts strangely perverse) Bugsy Malone (1976) and his more recent, unavoidably somber adaptation of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1999). In the case of the latter, I had no wish to subject myself to more hyper-aestheticized misery—based on a true story!—at the hands of the man for whom the routine miseries of life in a Turkish prison were somehow improved, made more truthful by upping the ante on sadomasochistic fears of imprisonment in a foreign (read barbaric) land. The “Sir” seems appropriate given that his reputation as a filmmaker seems to have been gilded by a certain patina of respect from individuals and award-bearing institutions that really ought to know better. Parker was nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar (for his two worst films) and has been nominated and won awards from BAFTA and at Cannes and other festivals. Yet he has been called an aesthetic fascist by some, another appellation that seems appropriate given the slick gloss with which even his most gritty subject matter seems to be coated. For me, only The Commitments survives the booby-trap tendencies of the rest of the Parker oeuvre, and that may have to do with the fact that his source material is stronger than usual—Roddy Doyle is, for my money, certainly a cut above William Wharton, Roger Waters, Billy Hayes or Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Commitments and its working-class sensibility also has more to do with the kitchen-sink-and-clothesline “realism” of British comedy-dramas like Brassed Off, Billy Elliot and The Full Monty (themselves rooted in the tradition of films like Ken Loach’s Kes) than Parker’s previous attempts to buff up standard exploitation tropes into art-house acceptability.

After years of mounting dumb junk like Fame, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Angel Heart and the remotely rendered anguish of Shoot the Moon, Parker finally broke through to a whole new level of insensitivity with Mississippi Burning, scripted by Chris Gerolmo. The movie was a big hit and snared Parker his second Oscar nomination, and it also shocked many who were braced for an XXL helping of racially tinged violence but perhaps unprepared for the movie’s arrogant disregard for historical veracity and the sober intensity with which it grafted the events of the greatest nonviolent resistance to racial oppression in this country’s history to the base satisfactions of a B-grade revenge programmer. Adding insult to numerous injuries, Parker and Gerolmo cast the FBI (which in real life took steps to hamper the investigation) as white (!) knights riding to the rescue, with head agent Gene Hackman finally losing his cool and going after the baddies with fictitious methods of torturous interrogation only after the white wife of a local deputy, whom Hackman favors, starts getting her clock cleaned by her hubby. When Hackman’s bookish partner, Willem Dafoe, questions Hackman’s motivation and raises objections to these methods, Hackman shouts him down and puts him in his place-- the ineffectual pussy! The movie teems with the usual Parker-approved grotesqueries—lots of lovingly shot lynchings and shootings and beatings to linger over, all in the name of peace, love and understanding; slobbering redneck villains with bad teeth (the easier to tell they’re bad, my dear); saintly Negro victims (no African-American is given so much as a full minute to live and breathe as a character), and the total disregard for anything like consistency or believability of character that doesn’t add up to an immediate, bludgeoning effect. As I wrote about the movie back in 2006, Mississippi Burning purports to be about the evil results of hate, and the result was that I ended up hating Alan Parker.

That hate was strong enough that I didn’t care if I ever saw another of his movies ever again. Even so, The Commitments was a completely unexpected and genial surprise, while Come See the Paradise, a noble stab at depicting the tensions and oppressions surrounding interred Japanese-Americans during World War II, ultimately dissolved into the usual liberal platitudes surrounding an interracial romance that for some reason again ended up being more about the white half of the partnership. The Road to Wellville was at least pointedly scatological. But were it not for professional obligations I would have missed Evita-- I didn’t, and I wished I had. As I’ve already admitted, I’ve so far succeeded in deliberately missing Angela’s Ashes. But I must also admit the scathing reviews of Parker’s most recent film, The Life of David Gale (2003), initially piqued my interest. Would there be any satisfaction in seeing this self-righteously brutal and emotionally puerile filmmaker fail on a grand stage without the pomp and circumstance of Oscars and other official cultural adoration to prop up his signature ugliness? For eight years I lived a full life without having that question answered. But now, thanks to the good graces and randomness of the White Elephant Blogathon, my chance has finally come.

(The following discussion of The Life of David Gale reveals spoilers in a plot so absurd that you will be grateful to read them rather than wasting 130 minutes of your life discovering them for yourself.)

The Life of David Gale is, it would seem, familiar stomping ground for Parker. The movie swirls around a hot-button social issue—this time, the death penalty-- upon which he can attach fashionably dressed-up, politically correct attitudes to his usual disdain for civility, proclivity toward ghastly cultural stereotypes and indulgence in grotesque, clinically detached violence. David Gale is a flawed but saintly philosophy professor and anti-capital punishment advocate (played by Kevin Spacey in his placid, heavy-lidded mode) who ends up on Death Row for the brutal rape and murder of his colleague in activism, Constance (Laura Linney). Three days before his own execution, he calls in breathlessly smug reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet, and no, I’m not kidding about that name) whom he hopes he will be able to manipulate into publishing the truth about what really happened to get him on the hot seat. In the lugubrious telling of this tale it becomes clear early on that if Parker has slowed down some, if anything he has also become even more ham-fisted with age. No cliché goes unmined— Bitsey’s rental car, chugging unreliably through the picture, sports a conveniently faulty cooling system which God and Screenwriting 101 mandates will fail at the worst possible time; Bitsey’s high-flying professional self-righteousness, which exists only to be brought shattered to earth in a theatrical burst of gasping sobs; the mysterious cowboy in a pickup truck (nothing like generic rural iconography to generate Parkeresque chills) following at a none-too-distant distance whose identity remains a mystery to our crackerjack investigator long after the audience has figured it out; and that old chestnut, the scene in which the professor maps out the movie’s theme in the form of a point-by-point classroom lecture.

Gale’s lecture lets us in on the movie lecture to come, something about the realization of fantasy neutralizing man’s desire and motivation, and though Gale’s desire certainly gets him into hot water with his wife (and lays the groundwork for suspicion about his apparent capacity for rape), all that turns out to be a red herring, a none-too-clever scrim behind which the movie’s actual theme is soon revealed, and in equally thudding terms. Gale and Constance are constantly debating, with each other, with anyone who will listen, and at about 97.2 miles per hour, about the likelihood of multiple instances of innocent lives being swallowed up and snuffed out by the system of capital punishment—not an unreasonable stance. But of course the entire movie is a set-up in which Gale becomes the guinea pig that proves that horrible exception of justice. We are meant to accept then question Gale’s innocence and finally, when the final layer of that scrim is pulled back, marvel at the ghastly cleverness of the truth.

The only problem (well, not the only problem, but the biggest one) is that this revelation is perhaps the baldest bunch of muddleheaded nonsense Parker (aided and abetted by yet another clunky screenplay, this time supplied by Charles Randolph) has ever attempted to palm off on an all-too-gullible public. Parker surprises his most vocal critics here by avoiding his usual detached wallow in perverse, emotionally exploitative violence—at no point does David Gale knock anyone down on the floor of his prison cell, bite out their tongue and spit it out in an atavistic slow-mo expression of righteous fury. But in trading off shocking gore and other forms of transgressive behavior, Parker has come up all soporific and flat; The Life of David Gale is blessedly free of the usual Parker abominations, but their absence only underlines his basic deficiencies as a storyteller incapable of sustaining the pace or rhythm of a satisfying thriller. He even passes up the opportunity to stage Gale’s moment of execution, either through disinterest or a sudden and unlikely awareness of the exploitative hypocrisy of doing so. Here an overriding gloom is the principal achievement, and it’s a tellingly self-important gloom at that; it’s meant to telegraph the kind of self-seriousness a filmmaker bestows upon himself for the mere decision to bang heads with the issue of the death penalty, regardless of what unfortunate offspring issues from that banging. The movie is so overall dull that by the time Gale begins the long walk (and after he’s ordered his last meal, which will gag you on its sugar content as well as its saccharine qualities as a story point), an insistent musical thrumming is laid onto the soundtrack and for a brief moment I began to thrill to the faint echoes of the kind of tension once accompanied by the looping, pounding synthesized beats of the maestro Giorgio Moroder. How could I have possibly been worn down to such a degree that I became momentarily nostalgic for Midnight Express?

Even the protracted insanity of Pink Floyd: The Wall or the caged-bird metaphors (and grisly tooth-pulling) of Birdy will likely make more sense than the “Gotcha!” conclusion of David Gale’s martyred life. Yes, martyred. For it is eventually revealed that Constance, racked and weakened by leukemia, has conspired with that mysterious cowboy to stage her own suicide on camera and make it look, through implication by evidence of semen (the aftermath of what she terms “a pity fuck”) and (self-imposed?) bruises, as though Gale is guilty of the crime. Why? To create an innocent martyr for death penalty advocacy, of course, one who, when the videotape is sent to Bitsey after the execution, will be exonerated in the eyes of the public and held up as a crippling rejoinder to the Texas government’s certainty of the death penalty’s effectiveness. Farfetched enough for you yet? It gets worse. Of course the videotape which is eventually revealed has been truncated, but Bitsey gets to see the unexpurgated version at the very end of the film, where Gale is visible on camera participating in the staged suicide. So he’s innocent and he’s guilty, see?! How’s that for bitter irony? How’s that for terminally irrational storytelling?

Perhaps the worst crime perpetrated here is how Parker sacrifices the talents of a very good cast on the altar of this outrageous nonsense. Spacey, it has been revealed since, has the capacity for smug detachment, which he cultivates here to terminal ends in his placid determination to manipulate Bitsey’s sympathies. And the usually reliable Linney is humiliated, made to seem so shrill and strident that while one would never wish upon her the horrors the videotape apparently reveals, one never mourns her absence from the film either. Worst of all, Winslet is brought to a career low in this movie, never once reconciling her supposed reputation as a reporter with her inability to see the writing on the heavily barbed-wire enforced prison walls in front of her. The moment when she first sees the content of the (partially) unexpurgated tape is an embarrassment, a rare instance in which Winslet’s usually reliable intelligence as an actress is reduced to equal Bitsey’s investigative acumen. The audience cannot share her shock or cushion the rough edges of her emotional explosion; we’re too busy shaking our heads at the completely asinine behavior and motives of everyone involved and wondering why it matters so much to Bitsey that she can’t do the same and just walk away.

In looking back on some of the reviews visited upon David Gale back in 2003 I was especially gratified to read what David Edelstein had to say about the movie. In addition to being similarly put off by Parker’s filmmaking over the course of his career, and in this movie specifically, he ended his review thusly:

“I don't like seeing the wonderful Kate Winslet look stupid, or the wonderful Laura Linney abase herself. And I was depressed to realize, once again, that the greatest danger to liberalism isn't the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Andrew Sullivan, but blowhards like Alan Parker and Michael Moore—the thugs of humanism. Given the way in which it's administered, I don't support the death penalty for people. But I emphatically support it for certain careers.”

And Parker’s certainly seems to have been euthanized by this picture; he hasn’t made a movie in the eight years since its release. I certainly wish this knighted director a long and happy life, free of the grim luck and circumstances that have so often plagued the protagonists of his films. But really, if he never made another movie it would be strangely appropriate to end his filmmaking career on the ignominious, muddled and largely ignored notes that compose The Life of David Gale, not to mention the tremendous relief I personally would feel to never again be subjected to an Alan Parker film.