Saturday, June 18, 2011


"A king, realizing his incompetence, can either delegate or abdicate his duties. A father can do neither. If only sons could see the paradox, they would understand the dilemma."
- Marlene Dietrich

"My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic."
- Spike Milligan

One of the central rifts in the new movie Super 8 (about which I will have more to say coming very soon) is the one separating a father and a son in the wake of a senseless accident that claims the life of the man’s wife, the son’s beloved mother. The relationship between the two is set in relief during a conversation we see that takes place four months after the tragedy. The father has taken the son to dinner, and while they sit at the counter rather than a table, pointedly not facing each other, the father presents the son with a pamphlet for a summer baseball camp which he would like him to attend. The son objects, telling his dad that he has to stay in town during the summer and help a friend finish making a horror movie they’ve been shooting on Super 8 film. The dad replies with a sentiment that will sound very familiar to the specific generation of movie geeks targeted by J.J. Abrams’ movie: “Don’t get me wrong. I like your friends, but I just think it’d be good for you to spend some time with kids who didn’t only care about movies and monsters.” For those of us who grew up in the ‘70s (my time was about five years or so before the kids depicted in Super 8) it’s the kind of refrain that repeated itself often among dads who didn’t understand their kids’ creepy obsessions and eventually found its way into the work of young monster fanatics like Stephen King and Joe Dante and others when they started producing their own creations. (The Horror Dads talked about this stripe of father/son conflict in detail during our discussion of Salem’s Lot.)

One thing I’ve come to understand from my own adventures in fatherhood is that each generation will find a way to come up with something to define themselves as set apart from the previous one, whether its rock and roll, drugs, hip-hop or an unhealthy appetite for Famous Monsters of Filmland. My own daughters, who are bright beyond my wildest hopes and dreams and hardly the rebellious type (not yet anyway) are obsessed with the slam-bang cacophony of anime and manga, a borderline incoherent universe to these eyes and ears. I’m trying not to be that guy and reject the obsession outright—after all, it has sparked their creativity in drawing** and imagining their own worlds on paper and brought them an excess of joy, even if that joy often seems to me only of the sugar-rush variety. I’m happy that I don’t feel the intense need to overwhelm them with my own interests, that I have been so far fairly successful in just letting them be themselves. But I also have to recognize that I am luckier than some dads who never felt the specific kind of happiness that comes when your own enthusiasms intersect with those of your kids.

My own dad never knew that specific kind of happiness, and I spent my childhood before college in a constant state of awareness that because I was never interested in hunting or fishing or sports, the very things that defined his own happy childhood as well as his personality, he and I would never be very close. There would always be a wedge between him and me, defined by a smarting disappointment that he wasn’t blessed with the sort of son he really wanted, one who would share his enthusiasms, one who he could share with his friends and his friends’ sons. Eventually I did end up embracing some of those interests—I crave the opportunity to go fishing, for example, but too late to do much of it with him. He was excessively proud of my involvement in Animal House, which I took as some kind of personal triumph. And we’ve bonded considerably in my adult life over a mutual appreciation of baseball. He still doesn’t indulge in movies much, though in his retirement he has now become part of the home theater revolution and is fully DVD/flat screen HDTV compliant, a fact that tickles me to no end given the amount of shit he flung my way back in 1982 when I brought home my first Betamax, the mighty SL-5000. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve been able to find some mutual ground on which to stand that has allowed life to proceed in a civil, respectful and even loving way. Would I have done as well as I seem to have with fatherhood (so far) if I’d faced a similar challenge early on? Maybe not.

Although I think I would have handled the situation better than does our old friend Chucky. One of the things that marks Seed of Chucky as an underrated horror comedy/satire is the way it takes on this very schism between the expectation of the father, unreasonable or otherwise, and the inalienable right of the son to forge his own path outside the interests, or in this case the notoriety of his old man. The satirical sensibility of Don Mancini’s terrific movie* is rooted in parody of a certain stripe of touchy-feely family dramas (think Ordinary People and its overly earnest ilk, like the unwatchable Tribute), but it hits its high notes by not only stripping the formula of its pretenses but also, within the subversive framework of his serial killer family dynamic, fulfilling the requirements of the very genre being parodied in a perversely satisfying way.

Every mewling TV movie about estranged fathers and sons bridging the gap of decades of misunderstanding and ignorance is echoed, skewered and refashioned in Chucky’s hostile takeover bid for son Glen’s personality. He naturally wants to school the kid in the fine art of dismemberment and disemboweling, but Glen has other ideas. He’s a sensitive doll, separated from his mom and dad and traveling Europe as part of a sleazy ventriloquist act, and he can’t figure out why he keeps having violent nightmares. He sees Chucky and his homicidal bride Tiffany being interviewed on an Entertainment Tonight type show, promoting the movie being made of their bloody past, and makes his way to Hollywood for what he hopes will be a happy reunion. But when he gets there he finds himself torn and confused by Chucky’s overtures for him to participate in another rash of gory killings, Tiffany’s halfhearted attempts to steer her son clear of his father’s murderous influences, and some internal gender confusion that serves to tear the family further asunder. Mancini cleverly fashions the situation to function on the level of standard father-son conflict, but with Glen (or Glenda) locating his resistance to slaughter in that gender confusion, the tale becomes a potent reflection of the fear and intolerance fathers have often expressed when faced with sons asserting their emerging homosexuality. Seed of Chucky has plenty to say about the way we try to mold our children into Mini-Mes in order for us to better see our own reflection in them, and what might happen to a father who can’t accept when that reflection gets splintered in unexpected ways. Only with anatomically correct (or confused) dolls.

Chucky is just one of many great examples of fatherhood in the horror genre, and this Father’s Day the Horror Dads have gathered together at TCM’s Movie Morlocks site (which has, by the way, become one of the best movie blogs out there, period) to celebrate the phenomenon of the horror movie father in a unique way. Richard Harland Smith, headmaster of the Horror Dads introduces our tribute to Father’s Day thusly:

“Instead of our customary roundtable discussion, Jeff Allard, Dennis Cozzalio, Paul Gaita, Greg Ferrara, Nicholas McCarthy and I will take the stage one by one to discuss a particular horror movie father. This isn’t meant to be listing of superlatives – we’re not here to tout the best or the worst horror fathers, the bravest or the most tragic, and we’re squeezing into the discourse father figures who may or may not be biologically liable for their (invariably) heinous progeny but rather a collection of chiller dads who just, er… pop for us for one reason or another.

Jeff Allard has contributed a superb piece in consideration of the fatherly traits (or lack thereof) of one Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck), U.S. ambassador and stepdad to the son of Satan, aka Damien Thorne, in the original version of The Omen (1976). I could be wrong, but this may be the first piece of writing to deal with that character in any serious way, at least in my experience; I love the way it takes the character seriously from Jeff’s own perspective as a father. Richard’s own lively and insightful piece on Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), a.k.a. The Last Man on Earth (1962), sees the character’s loss of family in terms of how they define him as an existential film noir hero plopped down into a science fiction nightmare. Greg Ferrara vigorously empathizes with John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), the ill-fated father who would do anything to preserve (or resurrect) his shattered family in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The vivid recounting of the character of the mad (or is he just misguided?) Dr. Génessier of Eyes Without a Face (1959) that Nicholas McCarthy artfully offers up in his piece has made me hunger to see the movie again, as only the best writing can. McCarthy understands Génessier as a peculiar species of overprotective father who only “wishes to beat this chaos of family into submission, using the tools of science.” And Paul Gaita offers up yet another brilliant piece on a father figure who, like Robert Thorne, has probably never been considered seriously from a critical standpoint, Jim Seidow’s Cook, who presides over the uber-dysfunction at the heart of the hearth in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Personally, I was torn between a couple of choices, so I chose to vent my observations vis-à-vis Chucky here and save another warped vision of fatherhood for the Horror Dads gathering. I’ve offered up my thoughts on Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn), the homicidal would-be patriarch of The Stepfather (1986) whose ideals of family and order are constantly undercut by persistent and inconvenient reality, with bloody results, as my contribution to the Horror Dads’ Tribute to Father’s Day, and I am honored to be able to contribute to what I consider a truly excellent collection of writing on a subject that is very near and dear to us and to many of you as well. I fret that my own piece won’t live up to the high standard set by the others but am simultaneously comforted by the notion of quality by association, which I hope will work in my favor here. Please check the post out over at Movie Morlocks and let us know what you think. And do have a happy Father’s Day too, be ye father or child.


* Full disclosure for readers of this blog who might have somehow missed this factoid: Don and I have been good friends for about six years now, ever since I published a **½ review of Seed of Chucky which recognized the monumental accomplishment of Jennifer Tilly but mischaracterized the movie as a whole as a mediocrity. Since then I have come to my senses and recommend it not only as the best of the Chucky series so far but as a unique achievement in the history of horror movies as a delivery system for hilarious and incisive social commentary. I value my friendship with Don immensely, but I believe I would have eventually reached the same conclusion even if I didn’t know him to be a very smart guy and a terrific writer even outside the realm of killer dolls.

** My daughter Emma recently interpreted Chucky's dysfunctional family through her own anime-manga-influenced eyes and came up with this wonderful portrait, which has ranked the enthusiastic approval of none other than Chucky's dad, my friend Don. Now, what father wouldn't be proud of that?!


Wednesday, June 08, 2011


This is just too good to keep only for Facebook. The Alamo Drafthouse should be endlessly commended for really getting the word out in the funniest way possible about the mounting antisocial problem of texting, cell phone usage and general moronic bad behavior in movie theaters. Have we really become so bored and restless as a society that we can’t stand to sever our connection with the outside world (the same one that, as David Edelstein observed in his own post saluting this hilarious trailer, we’ve presumably come to a darkened theater to escape from) for the amount of time it takes to watch a movie? Hell, many serial phone junkies can’t even get out of the previews before lighting up their devices. If your need to stay connected is that strong, then maybe you should have just stayed at home?

I’ve already told the story of the father-daughter tag-team of ninnies who sat next to me during the none-too-cheap Arclight screening of Midnight in Paris my wife and I attended last Saturday night, but in case you missed it: The young woman (I’d guess she was 22 or so) was out with Dad (55-ish) and before the movie they could be overheard discussing her prospects for an acting career. The Arclight “cast member” came out and performed the standard welcome spiel for the theater, introducing the movie as having been written and directed by Woody Allen. At this point the woman gasped, turned to me and said, “I didn’t know this was a Woody Allen movie!” Inexplicable, but not particularly annoying—the movie had, after all, not yet begun. But as soon as it did, so did their chatter, and it wasn’t long before I had to shush them. They both seemed a little embarrassed and gave me an apologetic chuckle, and Dad actually said, “Whoops, I forgot we weren’t at home!” Whew. But then, incredibly, it wasn’t more than five minutes later that the woman whips out her trusty iPhone and starts checking her messages! I asked her to please shut it down, she did, and there was no further interruption for the rest of the movie. But why should anyone have to work that hard just to get people to behave in a manner that suggests they are aware that their behavior affects those around them?

These folks didn’t seem to be quite as dense as the resident of the “Magnited” States of America on the Drafthouse’s message machine who makes the idiotic assumption that because her phone isn’t making any noise that it can’t possibly be bothering anyone. But still, what has gone so wrong with the idea of giving yourself over to the possibility of being absorbed in a movie, one which you probably paid a lot of money to see, and assuming that others want to do the same thing? Cell phone usage is in its way more insidious even than old-fashioned gabbing out loud, because unless that gabbing is of the really hostile and/or aggressive variety it might be a simple case, as with Dad and Daughter, of the violators simply forgetting themselves and where they are. But whipping out your phone and talking on it during a movie seems to me indicative of a much more narcissistic and even sociopathic tendency in people who seem to believe that the world shouldn’t hesitate to tolerate or adapt to whatever their desires are at the moment, the inconvenience of others be damned. I think of the testimony of a friend who was besieged by the light of an open flip phone at a crucial moment while watching the decidedly nontechnological Meek’s Cutoff and having the movie’s spell, which was already for him tenuous, broken altogether. The movie theater is a sanctuary, where the outside world should be allowed admittance only through the images and sounds on screen and the way they resonate in the privacy of one’s own mind. I hope that the Alamo’s Drafthouse’s ingenious campaign spreads like wildfire and other theaters adopt its aggressive stance against this kind of immature nonsense. On behalf of all the “regliar” moviegoers in the audience who cherish the communal movie theater experience as it was in the days before we all felt the intense need to be interconnected 24/7, I salute you, Alamo Drafthouse!


Friday, June 03, 2011


Keep the shiny side up and the dirty side down this weekend, especially when out shopping for designer-label merchandise and other signature trinkets of capitalistic decadence and excess...

I haven’t indulged this kind of exercise in a while, but since it’s the start of the summer and there is a new quiz now in circulation, the time seems to be right to resurrect something I used to do here with far more regularity. That is, compiling a list of links for some handy weekend reading/viewing, on the off chance that you don’t already have a thousand options lined up and at the ready to keep busy during your downtime. What follows is a brief, thoroughly unscientific survey of some of the pieces and posts I’ve run across over the last week or so that have grabbed me with their arguments, their analyses or their compulsive readability.

I’ll start with the curious notion of the jokeless comedy, which got some play in a couple of good pieces in the wake of the recent release of, and box-office hijacking at the hands of The Hangover Part II. David Edelstein’s take was brief but typically wise and made me awfully glad I stayed away from the sequel to the movie I labeled the worst movie of 2009:

“(The Hangover Part II) has all the same sick, misogynistic, puerile ingredients with none of the laughs to soften the ugliness. You can accept it as a skeazy horror flick about male bonding (and male-bonding movies) and marvel at the artistic bankruptcy and corruption. Who needs good jokes?... (M)y eyes kept drifting to Ed Helms. He plays Stu as a man so stricken by how low he has sunk that he doesn't appear to know he's in a comedy. He might have drifted in from a night of dismembering women in the latest Hostel picture.”

This on top of an entire think piece in the New York Times on the jokeless comedy, the phenomenon of which writer Adam Sternburgh lays squarely at the feet of Hangover auteur Todd Phillips and, of course, Judd Apatow, whose movies loom large on the landscape of modern American movie comedy and whose name cannot not be mentioned in any discussion of its anatomy:

“What these auteurs truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros. (Also: ritual humiliation. Humiliation is a big part of it, too)… Surely there must be at least one indelible gag, line, or scene from just one of these films? If there is, I can’t identify it, and don’t call me Shirley.”

It all adds up to what Sternbergh labels “joke genocide,” and while I’m not at all sure I miss the kinds of movies into which beauties like Blazing Saddles, Airplane! and Top Secret! eventually devolved (Scary or Epic or Date Movie, anyone?), I often do find myself missing the strain of joke and character-oriented comedy that Sternbergh suggests Apatow and Phillips have helped obliterate. For mind-cleansing belly laughs, I’ll take the adventures of Black Bart and the racist denizens of Rock Ridge over those of the 40-Year-Old Virgin any day. That said, I’m surprised that Sternbergh doesn’t mention the one purely caustic example of the jokeless comedy that I would call a near-masterpiece of discomfort, Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad. There is no squirm squirmy enough to relieve the ghastly tension that this comedy of paternal impotence produces, quite separate from its refusal to access the blessed release of laughter. In World’s Greatest Dad, my mind was telling me what I was seeing was funny, but my clenched jaw told another story. No bromantic hijinks here, just the wail of a man (Robin Williams), neutered by parenthood and his own inability to express himself, trapped in a deception of his own making and, thankfully, finding a most unexpected way out. Sounds hilarious, huh? And no jokes!

And just to make sure we had something to talk about on Facebook today, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott tag-team a response to critic Dan Kois’ admission that eating his cultural vegetables has become a more daunting and difficult prospect as he gets older. In their double-duty piece entitled ”In Defense of the Slow and Boring” (headed by a lovely still from Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, my pick for best of 2011 so far), they pick a pretty good fight with Kois’ apparent guilt-plagued resistance to movies that choose to do things differently than the ways of most conventionally mounted cinema. Dargis attempts to define boring and decides that her answer is not the same as the one Kois offers:

The Hangover Part II, which I find boring, raked in $137.4 million over the five-day Memorial Day weekend. It’s the kind of boring that makes money, partly because it’s the boring that many people like, want to like, insist on liking or are just used to, and partly because it’s the sort of aggressively packaged boring you can’t escape… This is the boring that Andy Warhol, who liked boring, found, well, boring.”

And then, having brought Warhol into the discussion, Dargis continues:

“Warhol’s own films are almost always called boring usually by people who have never seen or sampled one, including minimalist epics like Empire, eight hours of the Empire State Building that subverts the definition of what a film is (entertaining, for one). Long movies — among my favorites is Béla Tarr’s seven-hour Sátántangó — take time away even as they restore a sense of duration, of time and life passing, that most movies try to obscure through continuity editing. Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”

The argument, which I think is a pretty sound one, reminds me of a film professor I once had who found himself countering protests in a class discussion of Jean-Marie Straub’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. The movie was dull and, yes, boring, protested the miffed student, who claimed he battled the tedium by allowing his mind to wander toward matters such as what he was going to have for lunch. “What’s wrong with thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch?!” the professor countered. His point was that though such considerations probably weren’t foremost in Straub’s specific intent, maybe part of what’s valuable about a film like this is that it clears one’s mind so that one can access things both trivial and perhaps even important in a meditative way, meditation being a method to which the average Hollywood movie remains allergic.

I find the argument about what constitutes boredom compelling and I agree with what Dargis and Scott seem to be saying for the most part. But there is an element amongst cinephiles who would insist (I’ve seen the evidence of their indignant tweets) that disapproval of a meditative movie like The Tree of Life (which, in full disclosure, I have not yet seen) is automatically reactionary and narrow-minded, even if the viewer has entered the theater completely open to Malick's vision. One tweet I saw expressed exasperation with knee-jerk negative reactions to the film, locating the dissenter somewhere in the back of the peanut gallery, as if instant acceptance of the film as a masterpiece was any less a knee-jerk move. Of course, if one’s reaction is genuinely less than enthusiastic, it would be nice if one could manage to articulate why, beyond "That sucked!" or even some of the more generalized negative comments attributed to Richard Schickel in Scott’s section of the article. At the very least, perhaps embracing of one’s ambivalent reaction would produce a more probing thought process in the writing about any such film, which theoretically would then produce more solid intellectual reasoning for whatever conclusion about it was eventually reached. As far as stretching the limits of what most audiences would find tedious is concerned, Dargis’ precise and evocative impressions of Jeanne Dielman making meatloaf effortlessly lend credence to the notion that even the most mundane activity can be expressive, given the right circumstances and the confidence that somewhere there’s an audience for what the average Transformers opening-night audience might find boring.

UPDATE: Farran Smith Nehme, always a good read and the furthest thing thing from boring, has some choice words for the blogger's favorite critic Richard Schickel re Malick and The Tree of Life over at Self-Styled Siren.

UPDATE DEUX: And here's the fine writer Tony Dayoub, who has seen The Tree of Life. He thinks pretty highly of it, and I gather he was not bored.


Having just revisited Mitchell Zuckoff’s Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, it was a real treat to dive into the magnificent and exhaustive five-part analysis of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson found at The Seventh Art. A box-office bomb that cost Altman the plum job of directing the movie adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Buffalo Bill is Altman’s sarcastic bicentennial gift to American moviegoers who, as it turned out, weren’t the slightest bit interested in the director’s grand, haunted rumination on the limits and horrors of a self-created mythology. Buffalo Bill Cody’s assumed identity as a Wild West conqueror and pioneering spirit is, of course, meant to reflect the self-mythologizing grandeur that America had wrapped itself in at the time the movie was released in 1976, but there wasn’t much room for Altman’s scalding chorus among the endless patriotic celebrations that marked that bicentennial year. Even some of Altman’s most ardent admirers have proved resistant to the allusive power and rich period ambience of this movie, which has grown on me immeasurably in the near 40 years since I first saw it. If you love this movie as I do, The Seventh Art’s finely mounted consideration will be a real joy to read, a rare piece of analytical writing about a movie that deserves far more respect and thought than it has ever actually inspired. The piece can be accessed by clicking on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.


The British film journal Sight and Sound has a piece up entitled ”Forgotten Pleasures of the Multiplex” that could, I suppose, serve as a rejoinder to those who would bemoan the Hollywood sensibility, but as I haven’t jumped into it myself I’ll refrain from speculating just how it fits into the general boring/not boring argument. The piece looks like one of those amusing “How Could You Leave X or Y Out?” kind of pieces, though hopefully a little more highbrow coming from S&S than what you might expect from, say, Entertainment Weekly. At least the reasons for the multiplex-style love should be better articulated. And the piece is also valuable for some of the links that come at its tail end, including S&S’s terrific essay on ”The Lost Art of the Double Bill”, a subject that holds endless fascination for a geek like me.


Care to let your mind wander and imagine what film history would be like if Samuel Fuller had played Hyman Roth, longtime associate of Vito Corleone and central hub of insinuating villainy in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, instead of Lee Strasberg? Well, speculate no longer. The good folks at Trailers from Hell have unearthed Sam Fuller’s audition for that very role. I’m not saying another word. Just watch it for yourself and then imagine Fuller sitting in that unassuming Florida house with Michael Corleone, football game on the TV, discussing Cuba and the future…


Just another reminder from me about Ned Merrill’s absolutely essential and wonderful site Obscure One-Sheet, the pleasures of which are contained in that very expressive, hard-boiled moniker. Right now Ned is pimping the multicolored glories of the one-sheet for Jack Cardiff’s magnificent action epic Dark of the Sun and waving the flag for that long-unseen picture’s impending DVD premiere through the auspices of the Warner Archives. It’s a welcome celebration that also dovetails quite nicely with the appearance in theaters (it opens in Los Angeles today) of Craig McCall’s documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, whose impact as a cinematographer for such indifferently-lit films* as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The African Queen far outstripped his none-too-shabby work as a director (Dark of the Sun, Web of Evidence). (*This is intended as ironic comment not to be taken seriously. Careful with that ax, Eugene!)

The trailer for Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


The Spielberg park would almost have to feature a Ferris wheel that goes off its axle, right?...

And finally, if you’ve ever considered what sort of carnival ride would best befit a director like Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick or Quentin Tarantino, ruminate no further. Or you could continue to ruminate and add your own ideas to Julie’s excellent collection of Auteurist Amusement Parks at her corker of a blog entitled Misfortune Cookie. One of my favorite auteurist amusement parks is the one dedicated to Federico Fellini which features the 8½ Rollercoaster. Julie encourages us to indulge thusly: “Enjoy the delightful Nino Rota music in the background and pay no attention to the fact that they're building the coaster as you ride it.” The author is perhaps less prolific than we might like her to be, but she has an impish sensibility that often results in crafty and smart observations and clever pieces like this one. Keep up the Misfortune, Julie! And have a great weekend, everybody!



Sean Marlon Newcombe’s Scenes from a Campaign, a savvy political chamber drama with a cynic’s edge and a optimist’s persistence, wastes no time plunging its audience into its deceptively straight ahead premise. (And at a 20-minute running time, this fleet-of-foot short has none to fritter away.) There’s a rift brewing in the offices of Congresswoman Lusi Lion (Sarah Genevieve Green, who nails the politician’s survivalist facility with matching the proper face and words with their intended audience), one that threatens to divide her campaign to be elected mayor of Lenape, New York along philosophical and perhaps even gender lines in the final days before the votes are cast. Joan Quinn (Janine Pibal), one of the congresswoman’s closest advisors, has happened upon some damning material that could possibly be used against Lion’s incumbent opponent, but Quinn resists both the old-style backroom-style pressure tactics of Lion’s veteran advisor Vince Romani (Mike Gilbert) and the unctuous persuasion of senior campaign manager Joseph Fitzpatrick (Paul Reilly) to come clean on exactly what she’s got. Romani embodies impatient contempt for ethics in general, specifically those, like Quinn’s, that don’t fit into his hard-knocks view of the political machine. On the other hand, Fitzpatrick is not above exploiting his old-country Irish charm as a tool of whiskey-smooth ingratiation, which turns into intimidation with barely a ripple in his welcoming brogue.

Writer-director Newcombe sharply fragments the central conflict into a narrative that contrasts, with wily clarity, the faces each of these professional manipulators puts on for the public alongside their own slippery machinations, profane confrontations and harsh decision-making, acts marking the last desperate, ethically challenged hours of a campaign that, despite its relatively small scale, serves as a microcosm of the inevitable tensions at the heart of every such effort to secure precious votes. The movie sets up its central conflict in gender terms—Are women tough enough to survive the cutthroat world of political chicanery? But it does so with the kind of guileless surface passion that finds its match in Lion’s rather homey and vague campaign rhetoric-- she’s big on controversial political notions like community and fairness and honesty and integrity in the mayor’s office, but it's implied that even though she may believe these notions at heart, she’s not above using them as a protective patina to avoid delving into too many nasty details. Similarly, the movie may appear to be about the differences between men and women on the democratic front lines, but Scenes from a Campaign shakes out with more conviction as drama when it confronts the question of how far one needs to go, regardless of gender, to preserve and promote the likelihood of winning, and whether that’s a question to which gender is even an applicable standard.

Newcombe’s ambitions as a storyteller exceed those of his facility as a director of actors and choreographer with a camera, and considering this is his first film that’s actually a good thing. So many young filmmakers come at their craft having mastered the technology from the get-go, only to find that they have no burning passion for telling a story, or no experience from which to craft one. Newcombe’s focus on story here is compelling and sophisticated, and it demands attention, but it also signals that his heart is in the right place from the standpoint of how to approach the very act of personal filmmaking. His effort to turn the conflicts of his characters into a cogent and compelling film represents good, sensitive work. But it’s also work that does not attempt to dazzle the viewer with technique beyond his capability. Instead, Newcombe encourages the audience to believe that the technical craft will come, and if Scenes from a Campaign is any true indicator, there will be ample reason to employ that technique when the filmmaker has finally mastered it.

The cast is largely capable and well-chosen—Reilly and Gilbert both excel at making believable the craftiest and nastiest aspects of their characters’ personalities, and Green tempers our most cynical assessments of what Lion’s real commitment might be with hints of darker currents that suggest even her own staff hasn’t fully and accurately assessed her political skill. Only Pibal disappoints, and it’s largely because she has an open face that seemingly has no place to hide whatever Machiavellian intent she might harbor. In a movie about tiny shock waves underneath the political surface, an actress who can’t suggest she has her own secrets, dirty or otherwise, and use that tension for dramatic power in her scenes with the more obviously dominant men, is at a disadvantage the movie cannot find a way to artfully exploit.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can give Scenes from a Campaign, which has garnered its writer-director a nomination for Best New Filmmaker at the upcoming Staten Island Film Festival in Staten Island, New York (June 6-10), is that it feels authentic to its atmosphere and its subject, even when those seams in the story and the budget show. At times I felt like I was getting a glimpse into the inner workings of a chap-assed populist campaign the likes of which might’ve been run by Hal Phillip Walker, his man-of-the-people bonhomie and no-nonsense bromides providing a paper-thin separation between the voter and God really knows what. And the distillation of political sincerity and inevitable angst that fuels Scenes from a Campaign plays with the kind of believability that allows it to stand in such fine company as Kristian Fraga’s Anytown U.S.A. or Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight, which documents in exhilarating, exhaustive and often vicious detail the kinds of roadblocks that characterize a very similar hotly contested mayoral campaign in Newark, New Jersey in 2002. The central dilemma arrived at in Scenes actually even finds itself playing out in real life in Curry’s film, as political up-and-comer Cory Booker has to decide just how dirty dirty really is and how far he’s willing to go in the final days of his too-close-to-call contest with possibly corrupt incumbent mayor Sharpe James. That Newcombe’s film holds up at all to its real-life reflection is testament aplenty; Scenes from a Campaign has all the signposts of a first film, but it also has the power and passion of authentic political inquiry and the juice to make us wonder with hope what Newcombe will do for an encore.


Wednesday, June 01, 2011


Well, kids, it’s been a long time since the staff at SLIFR University has failed to come up with a quarterly film quiz, but this past spring break that’s exactly what happened. The reason, however, is far from mundane. You see, the department heads all decided to go on break together, figuring that they would leave the assembly of the quiz for after the vacation period, as a sort-of-welcome-back-to-the-grueling-reality-of-academia present to the student body. Well, all was well and good for these kind and gentle educators as they enjoyed what was intended to be a relaxing getaway under the warm skies and amid the gentle breezes of Lake Havasu, Arizona. They fished. They swam. They (shhh!) drank beer. Some of them even jet-skied. (Mr. Hand, you are irrepressible and forever young!) But on the day before they were to return, the lake’s big spring break going-away party turned into a nightmare straight out of some B-grade horror picture when something got into the water and, unfortunately, most of the SLIFR staff did not get out of the water in time.

So, after a suitable period of mourning (and mop-up), we surviving staff members decided that cancellation of the proposed post-spring break film quiz was the only appropriate course of action. (Besides, we suspect that the notepad with all the questions on it went down in a dark-red whirlpool along with the lifeless carcass of student favorite Professor Gabe Kotter.)

However, with apologies to Emilio Estevez (and whoever it was that wrote the book), that was then and this, by golly, is now, so on we march. Memorial Day has passed, and we find ourselves, students and teachers alike, on the precipice of a bright, sunny new summer day. And with that in mind, we now present the newest SLIFR movie quiz, this one in memory of our fallen colleagues who dedicated their lives to the betterment of our society through knowledge and who gave their lives so that a pack of mutant piranha would go hungry not a day longer.

Time now for introductions. The young professor who will preside over the administration of this latest quiz is one who, were it not for a pre-existing medical condition, might well have joined that ill-fated group of frolicking faculty in gruesome death on the shores and beneath the waves of Lake Havasu. But he stayed behind, as he was not feeling at all well, and received treatment, which, he assures us, has righted his ship smartly and put him back on the productive road of service to his fellow man. Professor Ed Avery, head of the American History department here at SLIFR, is a hard-working chap who has great love for his students, even if he does seem a bit impatient at times. But faced with willful resistance or (let’s just say it) stupidity, Prof. Avery is not one to let his views go unheard. In fact, since his return from a brief hospitalization, there have been a couple of incidents involving confrontations with parents who, according to Avery and a few witnesses, “didn’t care to hear the truth about their little Susie being a moral midget, the victim of childhood, a congenital disease for which education is the only cure.” Now admittedly, this is a pretty big pill to swallow, and should you have any questions Professor Avery has assured us that since the adoption of his new pharmaceutical regimen he is much calmer, more even, more able to see life as it really is, and he promises that the new outlook will prevent any further such eruptions.

Therefore, we are pleased to present the following exam composed by our highlighted educator, Professor Ed Avery’s Cortizone-Fueled, Bigger-Than-Life, Super Big-Gulp-Sized Summer Movie Quiz! We feel quite confident that you will enjoy it as much or more than any of the previous editions, even if you should be haunted by the images of those who used to tread these hallowed halls, books and papers in hand, whose mangled skeletons lay silent at the bottom of an Arizona lake, stripped of flesh and unrecognizable as the respected members of academia they once were.

As always, we ask that you copy and paste the questions into your word processing program of choice and attach your answers to the questions so casual readers won’t have difficulty processing which witty reply goes with which witty query. We ask that you compose your answers in a word processing program rather than in the comments field underneath the post because of the annoying limit on characters (somewhere around 4,100 per post) that has been imposed by Blogger on lengthy responses.

Other than that, there are no restrictions or limits to your answers. As we here at SLIFR strictly believe, the longer the response, the better and more entertaining. So have at it. And don’t fear if Professor Avery yells at you once or twice. Just encourage him to take another pill and all will eventually be fresh roses and white picket fences once again. (And thanks to the students who have polished Professor Avery’s apple and provided additional questions to be included in this new quiz. Your names have been included below next to your contribution and extra credit points will be added.)


1) Depending on your mood, your favorite or least-loved movie cliché

2) Regardless of whether or not you eventually caught up with it, which film classic have you lied about seeing in the past?

3) Roland Young or Edward Everett Horton?

4) Second favorite Frank Tashlin movie

5) Clockwork Orange-- yes or no?

6) Best/favorite use of gender dysphoria in a horror film
(Ariel Schudson)

7) Melanie Laurent or Blake Lively?

8) Best movie of 2011 (so far…)

9) Favorite screen performer with a noticeable facial deformity
(Peg Aloi)

10) Lars von Trier: shithead or misunderstood comic savant? (Dean Treadway)

11) Timothy Carey or Henry Silva?

12) Low-profile writer who deserves more attention from critics and /or audiences

13) Movie most recently viewed theatrically, and on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming

14) Favorite film noir villain

15) Best thing about streaming movies?

16) Fay Spain or France Nuyen?
(Peter Nellhaus)

17) Favorite Kirk Douglas movie that isn’t called Spartacus (Peter Nellhaus)

18) Favorite movie about cars

19) Audrey Totter or Marie Windsor?

20) Existing Stephen King movie adaptation that could use an remake/reboot/overhaul

21) Low-profile director who deserves more attention from critics and/or audiences

22) What actor that you previously enjoyed has become distracting or a self-parody?
(Adam Ross)

23) Best place in the world to see a movie

24) Charles McGraw or Sterling Hayden?

25) Second favorite Yasujiro Ozu film

26) Most memorable horror movie father figure

27) Name a non-action-oriented movie that would be fun to see in Sensurround

28) Chris Evans or Ryan Reynolds?

29) Favorite relatively unknown supporting player, from either or both the classic and the modern era

30) Real-life movie location you most recently visited or saw

31) Second favorite Budd Boetticher movie

32) Mara Corday or Julie Adams?

33) Favorite Universal-International western

34) What's the biggest "gimmick" that's drawn you out to see a movie?
(Sal Gomez)

35) Favorite actress of the silent era

36) Best Eugene Pallette performance
(Larry Aydlette)

37) Best/worst remake of the 21st century so far? (Dan Aloi)

38) What could multiplex owners do right now to improve the theatrical viewing experience for moviegoers? What could moviegoers do?



And now, a letter from the editor:

Wow. Never has this blog seen such a dry spell as the one that just (hopefully) passed during the previous month. Six whole posts, an all-time low. To paraphrase Slim Pickens’ Taggart, I am depressed. This past month has been a low point in a lot of departments for this writer, one which was highlighted by a brief visit from a dear friend that was just the sort of Deus ex machina delight the doctor ordered. (The other Deus ex machina scheduled for the month failed to occur on schedule.) But largely it’s been a struggle, the details of which I’ll spare you, the results of which have been an alarming lack of time and energy to devote to the business and pleasure of writing. The upside of the work I do for a living is that when times are slow (which they often are, given the cyclical nature of the business) they are excruciating, especially financially, but there is often time to do a lot of writing, which offsets the psychological burdens of the other situations being slow at work creates. But when business is doing well, as it is now, the downside is that there’s so much work that the things I do to sustain myself creatively and intellectually get shoved into the ditch rather brusquely, and it’s a hell of a job dragging them back up onto the road. To those who expect more from this blog and this writer than I was able to give last month (and really, since the year began), I offer my apologies and my promise to get back on track. It’s not an obligation (though one obligation, near finished, remains outstanding), but a love, and in those times when I’d rather slump in a chair it’d be good to remember that. Getting paid for writing wouldn’t make me any more energetic; it’s only the desire to write something that can’t wait to get out which does that.

So thank you all for your patience and not abandoning the ship in the way I seem to have over the past month. These times have not been good, for me or for others under my roof, but I feel I have no choice but to now sincerely operate under the blind optimistic assumption that by this time next year, if not sooner, some of the most trying obstacles life has to offer will have either fallen away or become less distinct and foreboding on the landscape. And if they don’t, well, at least maybe I’ll have the motivation to write about them. It’ll be nice if you’re there to read those posts too. Last but not least, thanks to all my friends, virtual as well as in 3D, all of whom have been sources of inspiration, pleasure and downright amusement for me since the going has been rough. I am grateful for each and every one of you and hope I can be as good a friend to you all as you have been to me.