Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The King of the Retro-Fit, or:
Why I Hate George Lucas

I don't actively hate George Lucas. I don't even dislike him. But he gives me that "God, I hate that guy!" feeling enough times that I think subtitling a piece, "Why I Hate George Lucas" is perfectly acceptable. And right now I have that "God, I hate that guy!" feeling all over again. See, George is going to convert all six Star Wars films to 3-D for theatrical re-release starting in 2012. Maybe the world does end then, after all. And I'm not pissed because he's taking an overly expensive, screen-darkening trendy fad and giving it unneeded and unwarranted extra life, although that's bad enough. I'm pissed because movies, particularly popular effects movies, are being lost as artifacts of their time. Let me explain.

I love science fiction movies, primarily older science fiction movies from the fifties. I love Forbidden Planet and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. I love The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invaders from Mars. I love The Incredible Shrinking Man, Them!, War of the Worlds and every other great or not so great sci-fi flick of the fifties and sixties and I even love At the Earth's Core and Logan's Run from the seventies too. And a part of why I love them is their lack of seamless perfection. I don't ever, EVER, want to see Doug McClure and Peter Cushing in a CGI-enhanced Earth Core drilling machine thingy. I want to always see them in that glorious throwback of a machine created for the original 1976 movie. I don't ever want the ants in Them! to look like honest-to-goodness real live ants, I want them to look like those big furry props that grab a hold of James Whitmore and don't let go. And, dammit, I want (and really would have fucking loved, George!) to have the original Star Wars Trilogy look the same from when I first saw them.

"But wait," you say, "Didn't they release (for a limited time) the original, unaltered films on DVD as part of a boxed set?"

Yes, they did and no, I didn't buy it because I cannot invest that kind of money in a box set. And it's not really what I mean anyway. What I mean is, despite being technically available, the original unaltered trilogy will never, ever be shown on cable or television again. All anyone is ever going to grow up seeing are the altered versions and that's a shame and a real loss. I understand the arguments for updating it to keep it going from generation to generation and keep the profits rolling in. I understand, I just don't care. I think it's important for people, film fans whether casual or hardcore, to enjoy a film for its place in history as well as for its technical specifications. When Gus Van Sant remade Psycho shot for shot in 1998, he proved, whether unwittingly or not, that a film does not just rise or fall dependent upon it's exacting technical content but upon when that content was originally done as well.

A film is a time-capsule and an archaeological object as well as a work of art. It is a piece of frozen time whose importance is, in the end, a lot more tied to historical significance than its bottom line. Watching an older movie takes me to another time in history and watching a movie I love takes me to the time in my life when I fell in love with it. Increasingly, all I see when I watch Star Wars (which, for these purposes is rhetorical because I don't watch it much these days) is a product that keeps getting a "New and Improved" sticker slapped on it. I'd love to say I've seen the trilogy and that's that but I know I haven't. I know that it will continue to be changed, most likely long after George Lucas' death, as he has probably already laid out in his will that the trilogy should be technologically updated in perpetuity with the requisite re-release for each new retro-fit. I wouldn't even be surprised if, eventually, it doesn't star Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford but rather whoever the big new stars are of the day, digitally inserted to keep the next generation interested.

My advice to everyone who wants to pass on the magic of Star Wars to their kids: Show them something else. Show them the great sci-fi of the fifties, sixties and seventies and the cheesy ones too. Show them Forbidden Planet and Planet of the Apes and Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green and even Lucas' THX1138 and make sure you give them a healthy dose of Amicus while you're at it. Because it's those films that represent the true feel and time of the original trilogy, not that fleeting, ephemeral thing that's out there now that changes so much it's become impossible to ever actually see the final product. It's like Star Wars doesn't even exist anymore. It's a spirit, a phantom, but not necessarily a menace. More just a waste of time.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Out of Movie Experiences

As I watch horror movies this month, and most of next month, in an effort to make sure I have plenty to write about for October, I find Cinema Styles sitting idle while it waits for October to arrive. I don't like it sitting idle but there it is. Of course, I'm rarely not thinking of movies so there's always something to write about, and yesterday, while watching Bob Roberts, I started thinking about things that take me out of a movie. Bob Roberts is a Tim Robbins mockumentary from 1992 about a populist candidate running for the senate in Pennsylvania who spouts the same nonsense populists always have and always will. That might make for an interesting discussion somewhere in the blogosphere but it doesn't really interest me. No, what really struck me was this: Every time Giancarlo Esposito was onscreen I was officially taken out of the movie. You see, Esposito does the impossible; he overacts in a mockumentary (or overacts in a way that's not as entertaining as Fred Willard). Everyone else in the movie talks and acts like a real person in front of a documentary crew but Esposito takes his Character Ticks and Mannerisms Machine and amps it up to around a million. I mean, it's off the fucking scale. As such, every time he showed up my suspension of disbelief ended and I started thinking things like, "I wonder if Robbins was pleased with this performance or hated it and kept struggling with Esposito to tone it down."

All of this then led me to wonder what else takes me out of movie. Not all, or possibly any of these, would take someone else out of a movie but for me, it happens every time.

1. The price of anything being stated. The exception to this is a period film where the price being stated is there to flesh out the place and time. Now, understand that, for whatever reason, I can watch a movie with 1950's cars and suits and designs and will nonetheless convince myself that it takes place in the present. So when I'm watching North by Northwest and Cary Grant's character is disputing a drunk driving charge and his mother, sick of him arguing about it, says, "Oh pay the two dollar fine," I'm like, "What?! Two dollars!!" Suddenly, the movie feels dated even though I already knew it took place in the "present" of 1959.

2. The year being stated. Again, the exception being a period piece where the exact year being stated is done so to set the scene. But again, for me, all other movies take place in the present, the present of that particular movie. A movie made in 1972 takes place in the present. A movie made now that takes place in 1972 is a period piece. Confused? So am I. So anyway, when I'm watching Vertigo (more Hitchcock) and I hear Kim Novak say she got her license in 1955 I'm surprised, momentarily. "That's like, 55 years ago!"

3. Mentioning another movie in your movie. Especially if I'm watching a crappy or average film and they start talking about a better film I just think how much better it would be to watch that other movie instead. Exceptions to this rule are Woody Allen mentioning the cast of The Godfather to Diane Keaton, a member of the cast of The Godfather, in Annie Hall, a great movie anyway so it doesn't matter. Also, Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley doubled over in laughter as they exit Platoon in The Naked Gun.

4. Celebrity Cameos, especially sports stars. They're usually so bad (see Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris in That Touch of Mink) that it serves as a tonic to the wrongheaded notion that actors who "just play themselves" aren't really acting. Oh, yes they are!

5. Saying the title of the movie in big, bold letters. I understand if the title of the movie is someone's name, like Patton or Gloria but when the title's more elaborate I just know it's going to pop up at a poignant moment. It's why, for all its great qualities, They Shoot Horses, Don't They loses me right at the end, just when they really need me to stay connected. But I can't, you see, because I know and you know and everyone ever seeing the movie knows that when they ask Michael Sarrazin why he shot Jane Fonda, he's going to say... oh, you know what he's going to say, and that's the point. Had they titled the film, "Marathon" or "Dance, Dance, Dance" or anything else, then Sarrazin's final line would have immeasurable power but it doesn't because it's right there in the title (Actually, I just watched another movie that does both this and mentions another far superior film but I'm discussing it for a roundtable so I can't bring it up here just yet).

Well, that's it for now. I have plenty more little nit-picky things but won't waste your time listing them all. I'm sure you have several too, things that bother you but no one else. Obviously continuity problems take everyone out of a movie, or anachronisms, but I'm not talking about mistakes (like a plane being spotted in a movie set in 1743) I'm talking about a normal technique, like saying the date or having a cameo or saying the title, that in and of itself isn't wrong or intended to take you out of the movie but does. If you have any, let me know, but don't mention any other, better posts from other blogs that would take you out of this one, because that would just be rude. And all too easy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Coming Home To Tango

One thing that becomes apparent as you age is how differently you view events and art and relationships with the advance of each new year. What's thrilling to a five-year-old is dull to a fifteen-year-old. What's cool to a fifteen-year-old is idiotic to a 25-year-old. What's fascinating to a 25-year-old is old hat to a 35-year-old, and so on, with each additional decade changing and shaping our perception of the world around us. I, and perhaps many of you, have noticed this with movies, especially, in my case, in the last few years as I entered middle age.

Recently I watched Coming Home again for the first time since my teens. I was just barely entering my teens when it was released in 1978 and saw it in my still early teens a year or two later on cable. I have used that childhood viewing as my measuring stick for the film ever since and my negative, condescending dismissal of it was based on the views of a budding cinephile barely into his teens.

Another film I watched again recently was Last Tango in Paris. This was another film I first saw in my early teens and then, later, around 1988, had the pleasure to see it on the big screen at the AFI, which was, at that time, still headquartered in the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I loved it and thought it not only immensely entertaining but deep, dark and profound.

I watched both of these films again recently by happenstance, scrolling, as I was, through the selections on Netflix Instant. As it turns out, both films deal directly with mid-life crises, one, an American widower living in Paris who has just lost his wife and the other, a military wife coping with being alone as her husband goes off to war. Paul (Marlon Brando), the character in Last Tango, finds a woman (Maria Schneider) he can fuck and frolic with in a neutral apartment under the condition that neither one ever finds out anything about the other one, including their names. Sally (Jane Fonda), the character in Coming Home, finds a paralyzed veteran, Luke (Jon Voight), with whom she connects on a personal level, the whole relationship being entirely dependant upon each one knowing everything about the other.

In watching the two back to back, several things struck me:

One, Coming Home, while no cinematic masterwork, is pretty damn good and no one should ever pass off any opinion as valid that they came to while anywhere in the vicinity of puberty. I shrivelled thinking of my smug kiss-off of this film at such a young age, a film dealing with a subject with which I had no sense of connection and that lack of connection, I arrogantly thought, didn't matter. I was under the impression, you see, at the wise old age of fourteen, that movies were objective beasts and could be judged according to a matrix of acting, directing, cinematography and writing that could be cut, divided and assigned numerical value. How stupid I was.

Two, Last Tango in Paris felt more juvenile than ever, mid-life crisis as seen through the eyes of a teenager. I realize neither Bernardo Bertalucci nor Marlon Brando were teenagers, but the film still has that feel. And that's precisely why I found it so good, so goddamn cool, as a teenager! Watching it now, at close to the same age as the Brando character, I found his behavior quite unintentionally funny, silly and stupid. His wife cheated on him and then up and died and what's he do? Find some Parisian girl and talks about reaching into the ass of death while she sticks her fingers up his ass. And, oh yeah, he also mentions a pig simultaneously fucking her and vomiting on her while she's doing this. Deep, deep stuff. Real heady, that there shit. And it's a load of shit I ate up in my teens and twenties.

Meanwhile, Sally and Luke connect sexually in a way so meaningful that I found it one of the most emotionally powerful sex scenes I've ever witnessed in a film. Coming Home chooses a different path than Tango, I realize that. It deals with the lost wandering of Sally by having her seek out, and find, an emotional connection with a fellow traveller and Tango has Paul seek out anonymity as escape from the problems of his life. One is a female character, the other is male. I understand both are going for vastly different things but my point is this: It's the handling of Coming Home's plot and characters that makes it feel real and grown-up, and the handling of Tango's plot that makes it feel phony and juvenile. Tango, with the exact same plot could have felt real and mature and Coming Home could have felt forced and childish. It's not the plot, it's how the writer, director and actors all chose to handle it. Brando's mumblings about butter and pig vomit make him sound like a kid doing his best to impersonate middle age angst while Fonda and Voight feel like the real thing.

In the end, it may just be the directorial approach. Bertolucci darts back and forth in his story from Schneider's tryst with Brando to her movie making adventure with her boyfriend, from Brando at the funeral parlor yelling at his dead wife to the apartment building he runs to commiserate with one of her lovers. It goes here, there and everywhere and Brando says a lot of funny, clever things along the way but none of it ever really adds up to anything. With Coming Home, on the other hand, Hal Ashby keeps the focus tightly on Fonda and Voight at the Veteran's Hospital where she volunteers to help paralyzed vets like Voight. There are other elements present but Ashby never lets them take over.

Since I know the tempting response will be one of disbelief ("You think Coming Home's better than Last Tango?! You're crazy!") I should reiterate that I'm not writing this piece in praise of Coming Home as a great film nor am I necessarily saying Last Tango is not. Just that, in dealing with a middle-aged adult's life in turmoil, one chose a path that felt real to me while the other did not. And that's a difference I never noticed, or could have noticed, until reaching a certain point in my own life. And so the obvious proves true once again: movie aren't objective beasts after all. Our perception of them changes and warps and distorts through time. But then, we already knew that didn't we?

As a final note, I'd be curious, if anyone cares to spill, what movies anyone else thought were bad or good, cool or dull, thrilling or indifferent at one age and then felt practically the opposite way at another.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Boogie Nights: The Art of Dumbing Down

Over at Moon in the Gutter, Jeremy Richey is hosting a Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon. With only five films to his credit, the choice for me was easy: Boogie Nights. I watched it again this weekend and found it as entertaining as ever, realizing even more how much it leans towards comedy over drama. The key to the comedy is not only the performances, especially John C. Reilly, whose Reed Rothchild might easily be outwitted by a billy goat, but the writing of dialogue so banal that it is somehow fitting and at the same time, earnest.

I put together this short video to highlight some of the dialogue and acting and would point you, in particular, to the final clip between Buck (Don Cheadle) and Jessie (Melora Walters). Their conversation is as innocuous as humanly possible and yet, they make an honest connection and both actors treat their characters as sweet and gentle people just trying to get by. We may laugh at how vapid their discussion is but to them, they're meeting a soulmate. It's a nice feat that Anderson manages to flesh out the characters of Boogie Nights with such extremely limited dialogue, but he does, impressively. Here's the video, but due to language, it's definitely NSFW. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Claude Chabrol: Gone but Never Forgotten

The brilliant film maker Claude Chabrol has died at the age of 80 and, like practically every other cinephile on the internet, my thoughts of whom to turn to for the obituary went straight to Ray Young, host of Flickhead. I don't mean a formal obituary, he may not even write one. I mean that Ray Young probably introduced more cinephiles and movie fans alike to Claude Chabrol than any other person and I can think of no better tribute to the great Chabrol than to direct you to Flickhead's Ten Day's Wonder Blogathon celebrating the works of the French master. Go there and you will discover all you need to know of this great artist. Below, I have also reposted the review I did for that blogathon, The Bridesmaid (follow this link to the original review complete with comments). I recommend the movie, strongly, as well as just about any other Chabrol film you can find.

Claude Chabrol, 1930 - 2010. Rest in peace.

Watch the Great Illusion Drown

This is a reposting of a review I wrote for the Claude Chabrol blogathon hosted by Ray Young of Flickhead in June of 2009.

It is tempting when writing about a film called The Bridesmaid to go with the easy post title of "Always a Bridesmaid" or "Never a Bride" or some other quick and easy take on that old saying. But when reviewing a film by Claude Chabrol why go with the obvious? In a piece on Chabrol in The New Yorker Terrence Rafferty accurately wrote (specifically of The Bridesmaid but it could apply to any number of his films) that Chabrol's film doesn't thrill but instead prefers "to unsettle, to disorient, to unnerve and to create the sort of apprehension that cannot finally be resolved." The Bridesmaid isn't a roller coaster ride. It doesn't hurtle down the tracks to a foregone conclusion. It creeps and crawls and finally surrenders to the impulses of madness.

It is also tempting to provide a plot summary for The Bridesmaid, to pull the reader into the twist and turns of the plot without revealing the ending, but then, what would that do? In a film that fools the viewer into believing it is a thriller before revealing itself to be an examination of two shared madnesses, one psychotic and the other obsessive, the plot summary would fool the reader as well. It would lead the reader down the path of misdirection in an attempt to lure them into watching it knowing that a film that does not provide the traditional payoff sometimes needs misdirection to gain an audience. But Chabrol doesn't care about that so why should I?

The characters of Phillipe and Senta, man and woman, lovers and neurotics, are both mad, it is true, but only one appears to be to the outside world. Phillipe hides his madness behind a veneer of societal responsibility, a responsibility to his job and his family. Underneath that veneer is a burning passion for an ideal woman, a woman that only exists in the stony form of a bust of a goddess named Flora, intended for display in a garden. Senta's madness is visible. She's "odd" and "a bit weird" and quite possibly lies any chance she gets. She believes taking someone's life for someone you love is the same as writing a poem for them. She has no veneer and doesn't see any reasons for one. Senta has no illusions propped up and on display for the world around her. She may tell lies but she presents herself as is, openly and without reservation.

It is this sense of the visible and invisible, of two shared madnesses coalescing as one that Chabrol observes with patience and reserve, building dread until the story reaches a point where both characters must reveal the full scope of their madness to the other, and accept it. The audience may want more but the attentive viewer will realize that's all there is to show. A climactic showdown or chase or confrontation between the law and the lovers, between society and the fringe, would be too obvious, too rote, too expected. Chabrol gives us instead a declaration of love that could or could not mean something else altogether. The Bridesmaid asks the viewer to study madness in the guise of a thriller. Some of the same cliches are there (the ominous questioning by the police, the final walk through the old abandoned house - or at least the upstairs portion of it) but in the end Chabrol doesn't want to thrill his viewer but to engage him in something richer, more full of life. As the credits roll and Flora gazes back on us, unquestioning and unblinking, we wonder, did we just watch a love story or a psychodrama? And then we laugh and realize, "What's the difference?"


This review of The Bridesmaid is a part of Ten Days Wonder, the Claude Chabrol Blogathon hosted by Flickhead.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I forgot what I was going to write...

... so here's this crappy post instead.

It's been busy, very busy, in fact, settling into a new job and moving our daughter 500 miles to get her college career rolling. As a result, I haven't had the time I'd like to sit down and compose a decent post. But that's not the real problem. The real problem is that, in between the moving about from state to state and job to job (which makes me sound a bit like Andy Travis, in case, baby, you've ever wondered) I've come up with many a tantalizing prospect for a post, only to forget it when it comes time to sit down and flesh it out. "Ah now," I'll say to myself as I stroke my chin, "I was going to write a piece on..." And then? Nothing.

All I can gather at this point is that Flickhead wrote something about some movie or actress or thing out there and I thought, "Hey, yeah, I can expand on that!" And then, right after that, because my mind is trying to process multiple life-changing adjustments at once, I thought, "I wonder if Flickhead's written anything lately." Because, see, I forgot I even had an idea from a Flickhead post, or comment, or Facebook status update or comment on one of my Facebook status updates. Shit, I don't know. Seriously, I don't know.

And then I'm almost positive Bill did something funny or stupid or vile and I thought "cool" or "yeah" or "fuck him!" I can't remember. Or maybe that was Arbogast. I don't know. I do know the other day, yesterday I think, I saw that Rod or Marilyn, or maybe both, reviewed The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and I immediately got an idea for a Fassbinder piece. No, really, I'm not just making this up for a joke. This whole post is real, however comical my mental misfortune may be. I had an idea and I swear to you on Fritz Lang's monocle, I don't know what in the hell it was. All I can come up with is "Frische birnen!" That's all I got and I know it was better than that. But still, there it is in my head. "Frische birnen! Frische birnen!" That's not a post!

On the 500 mile drive back from college this weekend, at night(!), my wife and I discussed all kind of cool stuff but nothing I could really make a post out of at this point. We talked about No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian and Cormac McCarthy's world outlook and it was all great but I don't think I can accurately, or even very enthusiastically, regurgitate all of it here. It's one of those things where the conversation is so great you feel spent afterwards and don't have a desire to start the whole thing up again because you covered all the bases.

And so here I am, writing away about not having any idea what to write about and doing it all with not a shred of ironic intention. I'm not trying to make this into some clever 8 1/2 movie blogger post, I'm trying to apologize for being so flaky and sporadic on the post front. I swear, I'm going to remember one of the ideas I had soon and write it up. Or maybe I'll just write up some October stuff early (it's all I can remember at this point but I'm trying to save it all up - just watch, by October, I'll forget all of it). Either way, that's the story here, for now. Just thought I'd keep you updated. Until next time,

Frische birnen! Frische birnen!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Happy Labor Day (early)

Cinema Styles shall return after the weekend. Hope everyone who truly does labor to make things work in this world gets to have the day off to relax.

Happy Labor Day!