Friday, December 31, 2010

All apologies on this NY-Eve from a Star Wars Fan

So... just finished up the episode 3 review from the Red Letter Media guy, aka Harry Plinkett, aka (real guy) Mike Stoklasa.  Mike/Harry's been at this for the past year, dropping his Phantom Menace review back in December of 99, and giving all of us Star Wars fans a reason to.... reassess.... or just be reminded how fucking awful the movie is.  Or, well... maybe not awful is the world, just 'flawed'.  You know.  The way that they say that Manos: The Hands of Fate is in the Mystery Science Theater episode on the movie.

Harry Plinkett: "Oh..."

I have to admit it.  This is the mea culpa time, and maybe it's too late or way past the time for forgiveness.  I used to like these movies.  Nay, I did enjoy the first two just as being hyped up into the theaters.  Fuck, I even saw them multiple times (for the first one, to age myself, I was 15, and the second one 18 and mostly stoned most of the time, what else was I gonna do, read a book?)  I was already a fan going in, having loved the original trilogy (I was one of those bastards, actually parodied by Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry, who had a Star Wars themed Bar Mitzvah for Yahweh sake).  I was excited to see what Lucas would do.

Why did I like these movies?  Want the proof, hell with it, here, here, and here are my original reviews written years ago on the IMDb, unaltered and filled with the bullshit that nightmares are made of.  How into it was I at the time?  Just to make sure I knew what I needed, I even sat down and watched the movies on DVD with commentary.  Hrm.

More hell with everything, up until a year ago I still maintained that Revenge of the Sith was a great movie, nevermind a good one, going as far as to put it in my top 50 of the decade (albeit at the bottom number but in there), had a lot of resonance, was what the prequel series was building up to and delivered with fantastic action, real emotional connection, a dark palette that called back to Faust, and even featured some awesome Ron Fricke photography in the background of the rest of that CGI lavastorm.  I might still hold on to the DVD to check it out from time to time just for some individual scenes and shots.   But... I do a double take now.... and a triple take... and I realize as a filmmaker and an audience member, so much of the film, and the other two of course, are filled with lazy filmmaking decisions, tired troped, repeated themes and other bullshit.  Damn.

Going to Plinkett's reviews, however, was not necessarily seeing the light, but seeing with clear, critical-cum-constructive criticism, that these movies had a lot of bad things going on.  Stupid things.  Things that didn't connect with the audience, or were full of shit (one such thing, for example, being Lucas' "admittance" that these movies are really just for children.... sure, just say something that is meant to cheapen the effect of the original 77-83 series while also coyly looking over the fact that these prequels include things like trade federation talks, decapitations, dismemberments, killing of children, lots of other dark shit... loh yeah, good times away from Pooh bear).

Why should I be angry about this now?  When I think back to the movies on their own there are lines, moments, shots, even scenes that I do remember, and kind of fondly.  And then other times... I just shrug and wonder a big WTF, like Zach Galifianakis finding the tiger in the bathroom in The Hangover.  I try and think back to the time and suddenly it's like a blur.  Did I write these fucking reviews?  Did I even *see* these movies?  I'm reminded of the line from Tom Servo from a MST3K episode: "I have a theory the director shot this without having watched it."  That's on my end.  I know Lucas watched it.  Without.. energy... hrm.

He's a Frog-Man, Jerry, a FROG-MAN!
Am I going to sound like another of these idiots who suddenly do an about-face and say "oh, yeah, the Star Wars prequels, I knew they were bad all along".  No.  The truth is I'm like that guy in the parable at the end of Raging Bull.  "All I know is, I once was blind, now I see."  As a teenager, and into the age of 21 and for a few years on, I put on blinders (not completely, but somewhat) that these movies were really entertaining and awesome blockbusters.  Just look at those reviews.  Jebuz crisp.

I'm almost surprised you're still here and not shaking your head at how I was in my youth.  I'm almost surprised at myself myself that I still would want to hold on to episode 3 after the clear and insightful analysis, going down to the language-of-cinema and character building and storytelling that Stoklasa lays bare... I have to try and think back again, what did I see in these movies, or at least in Revenge of the Sith that so impressed me?  The action?  Perhaps.  Some of the special effects?  Maybe.  That opening shot?  ... Damnit, I might still find that kind of cool, but in a way that is completely a guilty pleasure kind of opening shot (I could disagree that the chaos of the action there *is* part of the whole point of it, but... no, maybe it's best to let that go).

It was clear even during the times the prequels came out and in the interveneing years that the Lucas of the 70's and the Lucas of the present was different.  It is telling, and accurate and so wonderful, to see the comparison to Citizen Kane with the Revenge of the Sith.  I might go a step further than Plinkett and find that that third film, if not the whole prequels, are still very personal films to Lucas.  I wonder if Lucas sees himself in both Anakin Skywalker and Palpatine: one has fallen from grace, and the other has  risen to a point of power that is truly Machiavellian and he pulls all of the strings of all of his underlings who seem to be at his every whim and never challenge him.  That sounds about right.

It's like poetry, it rhymes.  Shrug.

But does it being an independent film and the work of an auteur who has a personal connection make it a great film?  I don't think so.  Not anymore.   Fuck.  Why was it even a great film for me to start with?  Will it ever be a *good* film again after seeing this review?  I keep asking this- maybe in some part as I'm drunken on this New Years Eve and rolling around the subject in my brain- because of some disappointment levied at the prequels compared to the original ones.  In a way Plinkett's reviews in their critical analysis are like the movie-review form of psychotherapy, looking over again at things that seemed good at the time but were not.  It's similar to a family member getting hypnosis and just 'realizing' that they treated their respective family member like crap years before and didn't really connect with it at the time.  It's eye-opening.

Do I apologize to myself?  To you, you reader in your comfy chair or reading in your car (don't do that!) Do I try and ease the pain by trying and defending my previous assessments in any way?  Do I bring up the one think Plinkett didn't bring up in the reviews: John Williams musical scores, which were still, despite everything, as beautiful as they could be given, uh, how the movies were?

Maybe it's just something about growing up and realizing what was childish... or droolish, stupid things of youth, are there and for there really.  The Star Wars prequels were beefed up technologically-saavy pieces of product in the guise of a character study.  As a Star Wars fan, they are messes, but at the time they were fun.... and, hell, here I go again (don't I sound like one of those guys who says "Well, I know I shouldn't have enjoyed getting drunk and driving at 100 MPH alongside a screaming bus of children, but, well, it was fun at the time."

Or... it was the hype of the moment... a new SW movie... lots of lightsabers... Yoda fighting... growl... Palpatine has unlimited power... Order 66 (btw, it's pretty clear Lucas is just trying to be cute there- 6 is too obscure, but 666 is too obvious and would incur the frightful, powerful wrath of IRON MAIDEN, so... yeah 66).  Or maybe it's just because of being a kid and liking those older movies, and making excuses like for the alcohol comparison I mentioned earlier.

So... in short... I'm Jack Gattanella, and I'm a recovering Star Wars prequel fan.  And I haven't had a drink in... I don't remember, but not for a while (that is, not having watched the movies outside of the reviews).

But what about the reviews by Plinkett?  Oh, they are completely and wholly works of critical-art, the likes of which I would like to hold and cherish like the previous generation held up Pauline Kael's reviews as works of art.  That doesn't mean every moment is perfect, but it's genuine, entertaining, eye-opening, incisive, insightful, and totally deranged which I really love.  Nothing can really quite match the awe and surprise of that first Phantom Menace review, particular as most of us (certainly not me) had seen one of this man's reviews before and known his methods of pizza-roll delicacy and a penchant for grinding hookers into bone in his Teaneck, New Jersey basement... oh yeah... (::Howdy neighbor!!::)

But not just that, Skoklloosssssoo, (sorry, misspelling) does one better: he actually puts his own story around the critical framework.  It would seem to my understanding like his own subtle challenge to Lucas: "not only will I take apart your movies, see why they are so flawed in their inception to the little bits like green-screen and static reverse-shots (the likes of which are making Steven Soderbergh RETIRE for Dogsakes), but I will put a story in there, as B-level as it is with a hooker escaping my grasp and getting revenge and what-not, that WILL connect with the audience on some level, and has engaging shot compositions, mood-perfect lighting, and even some nice music and swell acting.  He's branching into a new form of internet-movie criticism where the videos become movies onto their own realm.  He's riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave of his own making.

So I salute this guy and his pizza rolls and his hookers and merkins and cat fucking and pizza rolls and his in-depth take on the prequels.  They've reduced me to a blathering lot of apology and reassessment.

What do I think of these movies now?  Should I give them another look see?  Would it be like revisiting an old would-be friend like in Interview with the Vampire where Brad Pitt goes back to the old homestead to see the burnt remains of Tom Cruise sitting in that chair?

Maybe... maybe not...


THANK YOU FOR THE MENTION OF THE CEDAR LANE CINEMAS IN TEANECK NEW JERSEY!! (coincidentally where I saw Revenge of the Sith... on one of my multiple viewings of the film in the summer of 05)

So... Happy New Year!

Sylvain Chomet's THE ILLUSIONIST @ Film-Forward

aka L'illusionniste, one of the best animated films of the year:

so there.

Rockin' & Rollin' with Keith Richards (Exile & Chuck Berry)

My whim with movies and other odds and ends of popular culture can be taken along based on a number of things, like if I hear a song or I step in the wrong puddle or if I eat a burger that gives me just the kind of gas that has an image akin to a movie that I once thought of.  So in the past month as I on one side got very weirdly interested in seeking out Andy Warhol's films that are (somewhat) available at a (not really) reasonable export price just based on listening to Velvet Underground songs, on the other side I fell back in with some of my favorite rock and roll dudes, the Rolling Stones, specifically Keith Richards (or 'Keef' for short).

It's from reading his memoir, all very simply but accurately titled Life, that I tried to seek out movie-related artifacts that had to do with the man/myth/open-tuning-guitar-legend/pirate.  Unfortunately, unlike his brother-in-arms Mick Jagger, he's not much in the way of acting.  So it was really up to the documentary Gods to deliver some material on Richards.  One of which was a re-watch, one of my favorite things with the Stones- maybe the best and most invigorating in their later years- Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light concert-doc.  That made for a good night of (somewhat) watching while I multitasked with the very nerdy interest of cataloging all of my movie ticket-stubs (someday I'll post pictures... and then proceed to be beaten up on the playground for such pronounced nerdiness - but hey, it ain't a collection of nametags and hairnets ;)

But the other two movies were new ones, and so I shall give some over-view here.  Neither one entirely focuses on Richards, and yet they wouldn't exist without him.

Taylor Hackford's tribute to the other man/myth/legend/Goddamn God-Man Chuck Berry, who influenced an entire generation of rock and rollers if not single-handedly then with a much bigger hand than others around him, is very good.  It probably lacks a reach of greatness due to it being just a bit too... referential might be the word?  And I don't mean that it can't be praiseworthy, especially to, you know, someone who made rock and roll the Name of the Game for so many musicians in the second half of the twentieth century.

No, of course, his music is revolutionary, to some extent.  'Some' in that he was first and foremost a songwriter-singer, which set him apart after what was the norm for so long: singers were singers, writers were writers.  If not for Chuck Berry it's likely Lennon and McCartney wouldn't have had the gumption to set to task to scribble down their own love songs (or, at the least, we wouldn't have their cover of the Berry classic 'Roll Over Beethoven').  And he had a very specific set of songs in mind to present to people: songs about school, cars, and love, and the details in the song (as Bruce Springsteen describes it) is what made them so special.  "A 'coffee-colored Catilac', I would know it if I saw one."  Don't we all, if they're around.

But what is a little distracting is Berry's own sense of himself and how he presents himself at times- not all the times, in a lot of his interview bits he's charming and understanding of how it could be rough for black musicians at the time (usually reminded by his conpatriots also interviewed, Bo Diddley and the ever-colorful Little Richard, wooo!)  Maybe this is more on the end of Hackford.  The way he shoots the movie is not like a lot of other music documentaries.  Not necessarily with the concert footage, that's something else, what I mean are those scenes where he'll be following Berry into somewhere like the old building where he first really got his chops playing in front of people, or when he shows off his cars and their history in the 70's.  I can understand that first part, but the cars?  And the way it's shot, while professional, is almost too slick for a documentary.  It's more like a fictional-narrative with its dolly-tracking and precise cutting from one shot to the next (EXT to INT for you screenwriters out there).

This is not a very major criticsm levied at the movie, more of an observation at how the movie is, in a way, like a refurbished old car.  It's like a wonderful relic of a former era, and we have Keith Richards to thank for it as he's really the musical "director" of the piece (or, as he says, more of a 'getting-people-together' director; in his memoir it was he who took the time and effort to track down Johnnie Johnson the piano player, one of Berry's 50's regulars, to give the Berry Band the kick it so desperately desired after years of hack road bands).  He also plays live in the concert, and while mostly in the background blending so delicately into the sound of the rest of it all he does show off some good solo-work on a lot of the classics like "Riding Along in my Automobile."

Oh, and yeah, it's a concert movie in very large part (I'd say 70% concert, 30% doc), and when Hackford cuts back to that it's a lot of fun.  Berry's a natural entertainer here, at least in the extraordinary setting of his 60th birthday concert with lots of special guests ranging from Etta James to Julian Lennon.  No guest is really wasted however, and James especially brings an unexpected, awesome down-ol' blues feel to her number.  But it's also just fantastic to hear the same, or maybe better with Richards and Johnson, energy and swagger that Berry likely had back in the day with all of the hit numbers, and some I hadn't heard before (shamefully) like 'Sweet Little Sixteen'.  The band is a cracking good ensemble, tight but having fun, and led by a charismatic figure.

Maybe what would have made it great is if Berry had been just a little more open in some parts, not trying to sound like he was talking to the camera.  He's better when Hackford is asking him questions, or has him with his actual mother and father telling stories.  When he speaks to the camera, I'm worried he might break out and try and sell me the latest refurbished hit collection.  Nevertheless for real rock fans it's a must, and you know who you are, the likes of whom would want to dance like Travolta and Thurman in Pulp Fiction to 'Never Can Tell' (which, by the way, is sadly missing from the film).

Stones in Exile, which is decidedly much more about Richards but also about the group of the Stones at large, is perhaps just a little too short.  It runs at a very brisk 60 minutes, which might be fine if one is looking for just the basic scoop ala-TV-documentary time.  And maybe that is what it was meant for and is okay at.  But this is a grand, epic story that got just the right amount of coverage in the books that have been released on that fateful summer of 1971 where the Stones left to France after England kicked their asses with over-taxes.  You think it's tough here in the States, try getting an 83% tax rate!

Maybe it's cause it's a book versus a movie, or maybe there isn't enough that the Stones, all of whom including retired members like Bill Wyman and ex-lovers like Anita Pallenberg, agreed to let out due to being interviewed.  Hell, even Richards's oldest son Marlon, who got a good deal of mention in Richards' memoir, gives some scoop on what little he could remember of the period.  Or maybe it's more of a specific stylistic choice that is a little irksome in the doc: there is precious little actual interview footage shown of the Stones- we do see Jagger and Charlie Watts wandering around the old grounds of the basement recording studio at Nellcote- as it's mostly just voice-over and narration over still images and some limited rehearsal footage.

There are a few talking heads- Martin Scorsese, Jack White, Benicio Del-Toro (?!)- but they're book-ended at the start and finish.  I guess the one complaint is that it's not enough of a good thing, like a quarter of a filet mignon instead of the whole fucking slab of meat.  And yet what is thrown to us is just fine, and if you have absolutely no knowledge of how the album was made (that is a novice Stones fan or maybe a curious visitor to their catalog) it is a good primer.  We get to see some of the process, the long laboring to make just one song that could take days, and the peculiar and sometimes frustrating set-up at the Nellcote mansion of setting up musicians in a kitchen or a closet or bathroom just to get a particular sound.  And, of course, other hassles like the distance-gap for Charlie Watts (a 6-7 hour drive round trip from his place to Richards' mansion!) and Mick Jagger's hyped marriage.

Oh, and Richards' heroin addiction, which is given some mention but not to the extent that one could see in some of the books, certainly by Richards' own admission (after the summer he actually had to go to a special rehab in Switzerland just to get one of his many future cold turkeys).  But it is a fun process to watch in the documentary, filled naturally and thankfully with every song from the album (save maybe for "Let it Loose" if I'm not mistaken).  It's a tale of exiles making a record that is filled with great sounds and experimentation, and it gets better on every listen as its little idiosyncrasies and mix of hard-rock and blues and western and even gospel ("Just Wanna See His Face") make it so eclectic as to be one-of-a-kind.  As for the documentary... not so much.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Do You Know (when a filmmaker's lost)

(Ye be spoilers ahead, if you must know...)

I wanted to root for How Do You Know going in.  With all of the negative buzz, that it was a misguided and dumb-headed and, maybe the most accurate word I could surmise 'dopey', romantic comedy without the right shine of romance or the good shot of comedy for a James L. (As Good as It Gets, Broadcast News) Brooks film, I still didn't want to shoot it down too fast.  The cast looked promising: with Reese Witherspoon, adorable-as-a-button as ever in her first live-action feature in a while, Paul Rudd in another good-guy role, Owen Wilson in another (sorry to use again) dopey shaggy-haired would-be surfer-dude, Jack Nicholson as... Jack, I could figure.

And Paul Rudd will make the drinks!  I loved him in Halloween 6!
And hey, Janusz Kaminski doing the cinematography!  And it looked to be a cute love-trio set-up with people a little mixed-up in their lives.  What could go wrong?  Simple to put it, Brooks has lost his way as a storyteller, and writer of dialog.  The voice is there but it's off-key, like a musician who is trying to recreate old rhythms and ending up with a bad pot of stew.

It might be mostly on his end that the movie has fault.  It's not at all a bad thing for a writer in a romantic-comedy genre to have characters who are a bit mixed up in their lives; in this case it's a 30 year old Lisa (Witherspoon) who has just been dumped by her team, in a tenuous if amicable relationship with a self-absorbed (also) ball player, Matty (Wilson), but also courted almost by accident by a fellow in-trouble person, this being a corporate white-collar guy George (Rudd) with a much-more corrupt and blustering corporate father (Nicholson).  So Brooks has his pieces set, and the set-up could make for something that involves us these characters who have brains and possibly know how to use them... maybe.

Indeed having Nicholson in a supporting role might not be an accident; perhaps Brooks might look at him as his wild card as he's been in Terms of Endearment and smaller role in Broadcast News (the latter of which this film might hearken back to is tale of two guys and a lady, one super-cocky but nice, another a little more goofy and sincere, and the girl neurotic and not totally sure of herself).  Suffice to say, before I get to other aspects of the film, Nicholson is mis-used here.

(on phone with agent): Wait, that script?  What is this crap... oh... two Oscars, right, right.

I won't quite say mis-cast as I could see why Brooks would want him, but it's a kind of thankless role, a corporate creep who acts like Rudd's character's only-friend-in-the-world when it comes to this FBI investigation into his affairs (of which we are kept completely out of the loop, maybe for the best as it doesn't seem like Brooks knows it outside of a plot/character device).  Usually there's something likable in Nicholson's devilish ways (hence the eyebrows).  But here he just blusters and uses the same one tone and hand gesture and with a few moments of exception isn't very funny.  I don't know whether it's him or the script, but for the several minutes he's in the film, it's a let-down.

But then, so is a lot of the rest of the film.  Where is the heart here?  And, on top of that, where is the logic?  This isn't meant to be presented like one of those intolerable 'rom-coms' that we get force-fed in the studio mill in the early part of the year, say, with Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Lopez or another Jennifer I might be forgetting.  Brooks wants us to like these guys and gal, or at least see them as human.  We might see their faults, but when we're meant to look at them more realistically then we would in, say, an Aniston vehicle or one of those intolerably unlikable movies like, uh, (what came out this year I'd rather forget), Leap Year.  And yet the characters don't act in ways that would endear us to them, or would make us want to see their faults early on and maybe see how they grow and progress.

"One thing we can agree on: You, Me & Dupree was a mistake." "Wait, you were in that?"  
The characters start out a certain way and pretty much end up the same as they came at the start, only with some minor revelations with Matty being revealed to be a slightly bigger jerk than we thought of him before (not a total jerk, just enough to have to move on to the more obvious choice).  So what comes of it?  It's just... dull, really.  I didn't care about a lot of these people as one- Lisa- brings along two guys thinking they could be in for the long-term, maybe, hopefully- and another, George, is the kind of super-nice-guy who is almost painfully nice.  And why are they attracted to her?  I dunno, she's the star, I guess.  And why she to them?  At least George seems like he could be fun after a while, or under a few drinks.  With Matty it seems more like convenience, or another part of his life that is set and not too unmovable (it would almost be charming how clueless Matty really is, such as saying "this is my apartment" after asking, pleading for Lisa to move in).

And sure, there are some one-liners that do connect (at one point Rudd calls Nicholson a 'something-something' after a big revelation that brought the house-down as they say).  Others in the cast are left more with their arms flailing in the wind for their brief moments like Kathryn Hahn as George's very pregnant underling (and you know, such wacky things happen with hormones!) and an oddly moving scene between her character and her estranged significant other in a hospital room.

The script just feels confused, and maybe Brooks as well, like he thought he had enough time with the material but didn't put it through another draft, or two, or ten maybe.  One might think the cast themselves would be enough to care for the characters, but it really isn't.  You need good dynamics, good relationships, reasons that there could be change and stuff to care.  One saw this in spades, with real affecting heart and spirit, in Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, which also happened to have the grace of being about other things than just the character-relationships.  Here it's just... kind of lumpy.

Wait... I lost my mantra.  
I should also add, since I mentioned it earlier in this review, of Janusz Kaminsi's cinematography.  That... is not really worth going too deep into here, except to say it's very workmanlike and glossy and shiny, and could be mistaken for someone else's work entirely - such as, well, any other hack DP working in the business (that there are some shots that seem oddly framed could be put more on Brooks end than Kaminski, however he is the buffer here stylistically).  Without much reason to care overall, How Do You Know loses its way not all at once; the initial promise, and indeed almost self-homage to Broadcast News' opening with the children in their early form before becoming adults, could speak to something better, but where that grew out with intelligence, this just... I don't know.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The R.I.P. Train (Lightning Round): Blake Edwards' DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

(Blake Edwards has been considered one of the prestigious directors of film comedy, mostly through the Pink Panther series and a few others that more or less fared well like Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Party and 10, but I thought it would be more intriguing to check out one of his non-comedies, indeed a dark-and-dirty drama from the early 60's.  And here it is.  Smile, and drink up, Shriners!)

Sometimes the toughest thing is not to say 'no', but to get someone else to say 'no' with you.  Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend looked at one man's crippling, hallucinatory nightmare into alcohol abuse, but the strength morally for the characters in Blake Edwards' film in 1962, Days of Wine and Roses, and what makes it hold up for the most part today, is on two drinkers, a man and a wife, and how their love for booze is in stiff competition with the love for each other.

It's also a doomed pairing practically from the start as Lemmon's Joe Clay gives the impressionable and lovely Kirsten (Lee Remick) her first drink, brought on by her love for chocolate but her distaste for things alcoholic.  If you've ever wondered what it might be like to get your honey on the sauce, this movie will steer you clear, by Dog!

It's power dramatically is looking at these two characters, who by all accounts should be a happy couple of people but are in reality rather miserable in what they do- he a PR man pushed around by his superiors, and she a simple secretary putting herself through her own self-made college by reading the entire encyclopedia-dictionary-whatever- and the drink brings out the euphoria they eventually need to get by the day.  It would be one thing if just Joe was fighting the addiction, and eventually after a couple of missteps he conquers it, but it's his love for his wife and her lack to fight it that makes the story loaded with a tragic dimension.  We want to see these two be at least amicable in their daily affairs, to be able to take care of their child and have some "sober" happiness.  But can it happen when three- the third being alcohol- is a crowd?

Edwards' skills as a director of actors has often been in setting up a solid situation for his players to go to work in in the comedies.  In drama it's just as strong, and with a script by J.P. Miller that provides a lot of great one-on-one tension when sobered and harrowing escapism in the drunken state it seems more mature and grounded in a realism that one might expect in the period.  The one aspect that feels dated, by proxy of it being almost fifty years ago, is how it shows what happens to a major addict of booze as Joe Clay gets all but electro-shocked in a loony bin, straight-jacket and all, and freaks out to a rather insane degree in a couple of key scenes (one of which, involving a look-see through a greenhouse for a bottle he hid in a potted plant does gain great momentum by the wildness of the search, almost like everything has to be destroyed in true self-destruction).

Aside from that, Edwards gets a lot of really wonderful scenes and moments between his two leads, early on with a kind of absurd comedic touch when Joe tries to pursue Kirsten with an up-and-down-up-and-down slow chase in elevators, and then in an awkward first meeting with Kirsten's father in the middle of the night, which happens on a whim and is anchored by the rugged, no-bullshit face and mannerism of Charles Bickford as Mr. Arnesen.

This helps to give some breathing room early on to prepare for the heavier dramatic scenes later, but it should be known that this is a drama when one is watching early on; if there is a, not false but misleading, impression it's that this might be a light romance film.  Stick with it, and it'll reveal its true self in little moments, the great scene where Joe and Kirsten reveal their wants and problems in life by the water-side at night is one such (the lighting here is also especially good, not too heavy, just enough to give the scene a glow of bittersweet hope and terror, if that makes sense).

If nothing else, even if the idea of watching what sounds to be a preachy-don't-drink-go-to-AA movie doesn't sound to liking, the acting turns it around as something of a milestone for both actors.  It's not just their acting either, but Edwards' camera on them.  Late in the film as Joe has tried to sober up and has stuck with it for a while he loses Kirsten as she plunges deeper into alcoholic disarray, and he tracks her down to a motel.

The two have a confrontation, nothing that's loud but very emotional, draining on both sides, as she can't understand why Joe won't stay and drink with her, and Joe can't reconcile how to leave one or the other as they're intertwined.  It was said that Edwards hypnotized Remick to give the performance in that scene.  Fine, whatever.  It's still harrowing work, emphasized by how haunted everything is around her, the lights in the room kept off but light from outside pouring on to bedraggled face and teary, lost eyes.  It's the kind of scene that should be shown in any acting class to beginners, but also to lighting-for-actors as well.

Oh, and Lemmon: here is where one sees what is so special about him in latching on to another performer in the same scene, whether its the fun-leading-to-dark side of Remick, or the more workmanlike acting from Jack Klugman.  He's a receptive and generous actor, able to give so much in a scene and given the tough nature of this character- often drunk, and if not drunk a little on edge half the time- he has to look real even under some extraordinary personal circumstances.

He's able to be subtle but full of expression, like when he comes back to a dinner table after hearing on the phone that his wife set the apartment on fire.  How does a man react to something like that?  A quasi-smirk, just a few glances, another drink, a mix of bewilderment and sorrow, does just fine.  It has to rank with some of his best work, and Remick doesn't follow too far behind in a role that dives deeper into tragedy.


Bottoms up on a smashing-good drama!   Oh, and Henry Mancini's score, as the kids say, is made of WIN! (not too jazzy, but full of soul and remorse and high-tension and pain)

Sunday, December 26, 2010



So, who was Valerie Solanas?  Attention-monger?  Determined revolutionary (she did make a "Manifesto" after all in total squalor)?  How about just a mixed-up broad... sorry, chick, babe, whatever us "Men" call women.  She was certainly not one thing, which was stupid.  And as well she wasn't full of shit either.  This leaves off the last point on the George Carlin 'Some People Are..." meter: fucking nuts.  She had a bad childhood, the flirtation of a career in psychology on the horizon with a degree, and then a play called "Up Your Ass", which she tried to get produced in New York City by Andy Warhol's Factory.  In the end, she put a slug in his torso, nearly killing him, and wound up in squalor after a stint in the loony bin.  Her fifteen minutes, or, to quote the *other* Warhol line, another famous person made every fifteen minutes "made" by him.  Fame, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

Waaah, I was controlled by a fey man in a grey wig waah.
Mary Harron's film is tough and fiery in its spirit.  It captures the loose, too-cool-for-school attitude of the people at Warhol's clique-ish factory, which really looks more and more like a clique the more Valerie hangs around there.  She's like a refugee from a John Cassavetes movie (it was hard for me not to think of Gena Rowlands pestering people on the street in A Woman Under the Influence when Valerie does the same here, with that tough, blue-collar street-tough accent).  And like a character in a Cassavetes movie we almost take it for granted, at first, that she's a little crazy.  Valerie's on the fringes by an entirely existential reason: she could have a regular life and job and career.  Fat chance of that.  Work for the man - shit, *a* man?  She'll go down on them, or screw them for money, but connect with one?  Better yet are the drag queens, whom she can somewhat relate to.

Yes, that's Stephen Dorff.  Now move along.
The movie charts with a growing sense of agonizing dread that she won't get her work published - that is since she can't get her Euro-trash publisher's seemingly questionable contract out of her head - and that Warhol, who a) doesn't know how to put on a play and b) takes the advice of one of his 'factory girls' and decides not to go with it.  Warhol is a fascinating cat almost by his lack of character, a decided move (like the drag queen, he is "playing" a character almost all the time, Andy Warhol created by Andrew Warhola), and by being one of the ultimate passive-aggressives (more so former than latter).  He's played with an icy precision and detachment by Jared Harris.  He gets that this guy has an innocence to him, somewhere, but it's hidden behind an also too-cool-for-school put-on.  But hey, it's the 60's.  What can you do except, you know, make soup cans and try and be a Superstar and drag all of the hanger-ons with you, good and bad.

"Oh, wow, that's so amazing.  I'l just leech off you like a fungus until I'm through and need another wig."
Valerie, on the other hand, is such a curious, strange person because of how frank she is, and how troubling she becomes.  We want to feel sympathy for her, in some great part due to Lili Taylor's portrayal of her fractured mental state.  She might be drawn to being a 'Superstar' like Warhol would want, except that she doesn't fit into the mold of the usual "Superstar" that others in the Factory would want as she's not beautiful or a junkie or whatever.  And she doesn't fit in with the other revolutionaries, or rather doesn't tap into it; there's a painful if somewhat funny scene where she sees on TV a bunch of feminist protesters burning their bras and using sheep for symbolism.  "Why aren't I there, why am I not on TV?" she asks.  She finds this out the hard way when she does get on it, first by a trap she falls into by a snidely talk-show host, and secondly when she gets her fifteen minutes from shooting Warhol.

The other position that Harron takes with Solanas, one that had me respect the film very much, was not giving an easy point of view with her protagonist's worldview.  What she says about female repression by men, and how they've fucked up everything that's come about in the world, is not wrong, and that women have been put into a position for what seems like forever of expected roles, those that she thinks need to be broken.  Harron is more than sympathetic to tenets of her feminist ideology.  But she's also in way over her head, one step away (if not just) one of those bums on the street rambling on or, of course, panhandling, and Harron doesn't sugarcoat how messed up she really was.  There comes a point right before the film enters its third act that Solanas could have things going more her way.  The self-destructive edge, as happens to a lot of so-called or actual revolutionaries, gets in the way.

As a character study it really rocks, for lack of a better description, and as a feat of stylistic integrity its very solid as Harron naturally-cleverly mixes around realism with a fantastic sense of the Factory, of its decadence and overblown self-importance (that is she doesn't make it look it, her point of view reveals how shallow and stupid it could be as an overrated hang-out for The Pop Artist), and then with black and white images of Solanas giving her manifesto words to the camera.  In a sense I Shot Andy Warhol is the much darker and less satirical version of The King of Comedy, where a nobody tries to reach out to a somebody, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Revengeance with the Coens! TRUE GRIT

"You can't stop what's coming." - No Country for Old Men

Would the Coen brothers, Joel/Ethan (aka the "Two-Headed Director"), be the first people on my mind to remake True Grit, the John Wayne vehicle from 1969?  Perhaps, and perhaps not.  Until I heard the announcement of their being assigned to direct it I didn't think of it either way.  But upon further inspection- that is to say, the film itself in complete form- I can see why they would tackle this seemingly straightforward story of a headstrong and highly intelligent fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hallie Steinfeld)) getting a drunken Marshall Cogburn (Jeff "The Dude" Bridges) and a straight-laced Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) together to hunt down her father's killer (Josh Brolin).

The Dude Abides with a pocket full of shells.  
If one is to take Charles Portis' novel (unread by me but compared to the likes of Mark Twain for its panoramic view of America with wit and grace), and to update it, it might as well be the two guys in Hollywood who can make something highly stylized but grounded in a realistic template at the same time.  True Grit also has a distinction for me as one of those remakes where I haven't bothered, somewhat by choice and somewhat by laziness or lack of time, to see the original 1969 film (also directed by Henry Hathaway).

By accounts that film was purely a showcase for The Duke - which is fine if you're a big fan of said Duke, of which I am not - and had its own problems.  I have to wonder if the Coens were fans of that either; from other accounts (such as other critics or the likes of fellow Creatively-Stumped Podcaster Matt) its much truer to the nature of its own material.  Rather, it takes a look at a West that is rough, violent, turbulent and unexpected in its brutality and witticisms.  The Coens are actually just right for this material, having previous neo-Western experience on No Country for Old Men.

Yeah, that's right, I'm lightin' that pipe, right outta Texas.
However if one is looking for distinctive trademarks of their Auteurism, it's not really as out there as in something like last year's A Serious Man.  This time they're smugglers in the genre, bringing their stylized sense of dialog into the framework of Portis' text.  As someone who hasn't read the book nor seen the original film, I have to try my best (by choice and just at the present moment of analyzation) to take it on its own terms.  It's a full-blooded genre film, and yet there are moments and flickers of their distinct personality, or odd touches, coming through.  One wonders if, for example, when Marshall Cogburn and Mattie Ross are in the woods and realize they're being followed and wait for the tracker, and it happens to be a hermit with a big-bad beard and a bear covering his head to body, that if this isn't the Coens pulling one of their eccentric little moments.

But maybe it's also just the tenor of the dialog, the way characters have a rhythm to their step.  The Coens are some of the best in the filmmaking world at making dialog flow like the flow of music, put to the beats of emotion of a scene more than the usual points of plot and story, though it's there as well due to their adoration for genre.  So when Mattie Ross early on goes to get the money due after her father's passing from a shifty-weasel of a clerk-man and is able to talk him into giving her all of money due (whether it's what's totally fair is besides the point, it's what *she* thinks is the only way to go), the dialog is snappy but not so much so that we are distracted.  I wouldn't be surprised even if the dialog is right out of Portis' novel, staying faithful as they did to McCarthy in No Country.  And yet there's that flavor, slipped in like a thief in the night - or like a partner in bed.

The visual approach of True Grit is masterful seemingly with a sense of ease.  It's like the Coens have been waiting their whole career for a chance at a Western like this, practicing in little spurts and starts in other films, and finally giving chance for Roger Deakins to do his wonderful work (watch that courtroom scene where Cogburn is on the stand giving his portion of the story of a shoot-out and look how it's lit - it all looks so natural, yet it's painstakingly prepared to look just so, a light touch that is hard to really make).

Compositions are full of the scope and vistas of a Western setting in the plains and fields, woods and snow, innards of a cottage made of logs or in a cave full of snakes, or of course in the good ol' Western town like the one Mattie Ross goes to find herself some vengeance-helpers.  It's so startling that I wasn't even aware how detailed the cinematography and direction was; a second viewing may give, as has been the case with almost all of the other Coen films, further illumination to their vision, such as when Cogburn heroically rushes along with Mattie day-through-night to get her home.  To put it another way, snow has rarely looked this startling and beautiful - those are the only words I can note for now.

And what about the characters, and the actors, the ones who always give the Coen movies that memorable appeal?  Hallie Steinfeld imbues Mattie Ross as one helluva tough female protagonist - and yes, she is the lead, NOT a supporting actor despite what the Awards people will put it (if she is a supporting player, than so was Frances McDormand's character in Fargo) - a character who, nevermind even sex, is just damn smart and sharp in the face of ignorance or swindlers or those who are headstrong themselves like LaBouef.  At first Mattie Ross may look persistent, on the verge of being pushy, but it's just straight-on determinism to do what has to be done and what's right, and the natural ability to talk to people in such a way as to let them know she means business.  She may be a fourteen year-old girl, but verbally she can wipe the floor with any varmint in the county.

And Steinfeld is up to the challenge.  You almost forget, here and there, that she is as young as she is.  It's such a tough character to pull off (indeed, from what I've read and heard, the actress in the 1969 film was far from up to snuff), and one needs both confidence and maturity, and at the same time, if not all the time, a little bit of innocence tucked away underneath.  It's possible that an underlying emotion is over-compensation; she's lost her father, vengeance must be paid out in due proper.  But Steinfeld makes Mattie complex in her emotional reach.  As the somewhat-secret star of the film, at least if one were to look at the poster, she commands attention and never over-plays anything even up against potential hammy acting or character-player wildness like in Barry Pepper's criminal Lucky Ned.

Staring contest.... you lose, at life.  
And everyone else?  One can't count out Bridges in any performance, and it's a joy to see him do something different than what another actor might have done.  I could see someone else just trying to imitate John Wayne's version of Cogburn, but this would be wrong.  Instead it has to be a closer approximation to the Cogburn from the book (in that sense it's akin to Chris Pine's Kirk from last year's Star Trek, less Shatner than just Kirk).  At first it does look like Bridges could fall over into caricature, and if so, then why carp anyway?  He's a gruffy old bastard who is fun to watch, and commands his own level of respect just by the whip of a gun.  Simultaneously there's a bit of an air of self-deprecation, either on Bridges end or via the Coens' direction.  Rooster Cogburn is a bad-ass, but sometimes laughable in his bumbling way.  He's a very human hero.

Damon, too, is fun to watch, in a different way as he goes under mustache and Texas-accent and cowboy-spurs, only giving in unintentionally to some morbid humor when he gets in a jam with his own bit tongue.  And  as for Josh Brolin, all I can say is he's forgiven for Jonah Hex earlier this year.  His performance is smaller than others in the film, mostly confined to the third act, but he is removed from the Brolin we've seen him play in recent memory.  And what a joy to see a villain who is not some epic monster, but a pathetic kind of creature, more under the whim of the other more bad-ass gunslinger Lucky Ned (also, Pepper, where did he come from with this?)  He creates a character that feels raw and mean and as natural in his own skin as Cogburn is in his.

"I did not regret W!"
The Coens never shy away from the brutality that could come about in the West.  Life and death are more tentative things when it comes to outlaws and Marshalls and Rangers and other such people.  Early on we see three people being hung in the town square, as two of the men get a chance to say their final words and the third, an Indian, is silenced by the black bag before he can come to peace.  Another hanged-man appears again in the woods, and it's a mysterious, crude sight.  It's a West that on the surface should be conventional, but the layers of fine-protection that were in films fifty years and so on past are stripped away.  And at the end, death still comes about anyway, but at least, for a little while, people can do something about it, either to keep life going on or to end it with a swift and mighty hand.  Usually on a trigger, repeatedly.

It's a violent, surprising film that gets better as it goes along, soon revealing itself as one of the finest Hollywood productions of the year.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Last Tango in Paramus with the Cineplex Blues

You might notice, if your eyes glance up to the picture at the top of this blog, a movie theater.  Or, rather if you have to call it so (which it is), a cineplex.   At one time it was technically owned by the chain Cineplex Odeon (a company that also released movies too, like The Last Temptation of Christ among others - later, mostly in the years I went there circa 1994 to 2007, it transferred technically to become a Loews, albeit still with the Cineplex Odeon moniker outside).  It was a place that meant so much to me for a number of crucial years in my adolescence.  It might still be memorable if it had only been the place I had seen the somewhat bastardized re-release of the 1977 Star Wars in January of 1997, or gone with friends for a 13th birthday night-out to Liar, Liar.  Or when we sneaked in ever so gently via the back-doors to see Half Baked, most of us (though, sadly, not me, stoned out of our minds) in a packed screening room with the movie mysteriously starting half an hour late, us clamoring away for the show to start.

Original theater circa... many eons ago, before the dawn of history.

There are memories like that, and more.  But the theater gained most of its significance in my life in 1998 and then even more-so into 1999, 2000, and 2001, and even somewhat into 2002.  There was another cineplex in closer proximity, the Loews (now AMC) Ridgefield Park 12-plex, but that theater usually didn't grab my fancy, despite that being the hollowed ground where I saw many of the formative films of my youth (Batman, Aladdin, The Lion King, uh, Batman Forever, Starship Troopers, I could go on and on and bore you to tears).  Maybe it was the facet of not being able to drive and taking the bus points towards Paramus instead; at the time buses still went to the Bergen Mall, in very close walking distance to the theater.  And then there were buses that gave equal time to the less-prestigious but still conveniently located rt.17 movie theater in very close proximity with the Garden State Plaza (though not connected with it) with three screens.  And in walking distance as well right in the middle of these two theaters distance-wise (if somewhat hazardous due to the nature of walking along frakking route 4 west) was the Paramus Picture Show, the one-screen art-house.

I hearken back to this particular Cineplex Odeon for two reasons: first that it is, as mentioned, one of the hollowed places where, on a big-screen, I got much of my cinematic education, all brought on by my slightly insane and decidedly anti-social way of being a loner in those goddamn years of fourteen to seventeen, where one's body and mind via hormones turned into wretched hives of scum and villainy, usually of the slightly mopey and melodramatic nature and occasionally veering on would-be criminal.  Ah, such dreaded years are ones that might as well be a blackout, and for some might be rather pleasant.  The vast majority can relate to them being accursed years indeed, both physically and mentally, but mostly physically.

Secondly, I started reading this book last night by Kevin Murphy, one of the MST3K-cum-Rifftrax guys, My Year at the Movies: One Man's Film-Going Odyssey.  Murphy, without a job after the cancellation of his days as Tom Servo, went on to see a movie a day, or at least to average a movie a day, for the entire year of 2001.  He didn't just go to Cineplexes: small indie theaters, the Smallest Theater in the World(TM), Cannes, Sundance, a movie with seven dates at once, bars, and an igloo.  He saw old movies, new movies, crap, indies, ventured into the heart of darkness and got through Corky Romano with his fellow-riffer Mike J. Nelson.  He's a man after my own heart.  By that he may also be a man who eats large blood-muscles, but that's neither here nor there.

Bad-Ass Inc.
But reading the book, at least as far as I have gotten through (just a few chapters, but it's substantial writing for each small chapter), Murphy brings up a point visa-vi the experience at the Cineplex, as something symptomatic of something deeper, uglier about what's been going on with American movie-going, and which I can relate on a bittersweet level:

"Some people will argue that beyond a good print, good sound, and comfortable seats, a theater might as well be a black box.  These people are simply wrong.  They're wrong because the films are being designed to fit the market, and that's us, the poor bleating ewes who show up at the googolplex, and order a film like a Number Three combo, Biggie Sized.... if you told me when I was ten that I'd be going to an eighteen-screen theater to have my choice of pretty much every current Hollywood release, I would've thought you were crazy, and I also would've thought it sounded really cool... What have we gained?  A consistent level of product, delivered with a dependable level of convenience, to a consumer base that wants their money's worth every time and gets it.  And what have we lost in the process?  Only passion, risk, and community - in short, the things that make a public art like cinema both public and art."

Murphy is not wrong on his points, and at this point as a 20-something movie-junkie who now dreads certain experiences at the Cine(or 'googol')plexes I can sympathize with him.  Of course a theater should be more than a black box, though there are also times when I want the rest of the world blocked out for just a simple theater with four walls, a roof, and a solid projection system (and, as one has already proclaimed in this blog this month, no yapping).

But at the same time I feel mixed about what it meant to me, initially, when I was still impressionable and just wanting a cinematic fix whenever and however I could on a big screen.  To be sure I often had better experiences when I traipsed over to the Paramus Picture Show in the little mini-mall right before the Garden State Plaza cross-nexus.  That was a "real" theater, made up with a big mural on the wall of images painted of characters from Pulp Fiction, 314-give-or-take seats wonderfully laid out, and always with a sense of community when a group of people were there en mass.  I'll get back to this theater in a moment.

Original size, but not of Paramus Picture Show, sadly.  
But the Loews/Cineplex Odeon rt 4 theater.  Yes, it was a big-corporate-sized type of place.  And yet there could also be a sense of community there as well, when one was waiting on the long lines to get tickets outside, and sometimes inside the place for a specific theater-screen, or, depending on the movie playing at a particular night with the right crowd keyed into the movie but not obnoxious about it.  It became like living in a big mansion some days, and I got intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of every screening room (well, not *that* intimate, though as a puberty-plagued teenager the temptation to jerk the gherkin in a hot R-rated erotic movie with no one else there crossed my mind I must admit, never did though..... sorry for the tangent, back to focus).

Each theater had its own kind of character.  A few of the theaters were specifically stadium-sized, or small-stadium-like.  The theater #1 was the big one, and was indeed the one that used to host big 65mm screenings in the days when I was a twinkle in my father's eye (it opened in 1965 and didn't expand to being a 10-plex until the 1980's).  Other screens were smaller; there were screens 2 and 3, where the smaller or more-maligned (or slightly "smaller" movies were screened like Life Aquatic and Match Point, and even in #2 The Wizard of Oz).  There were what I would call "skinny" theater-screens, # 8 and 9, usually playing mid-level movies or ones that would come back around on re-release.  And of course good ol' theater 7, which gave me the Half-Baked story.  And in my time of being a sneaky 15-16-17 year old scamp, I got used to knowing how to sneak around the joint.

One other such memory still sticks in my mind as a happy one, even with it being almost embarrassing to tell, but it's my blog, I can go into the shameful and strange (just look at the near-masturbation admittance two paragraphs ago).  In 1999 I went to see a very forgettable if not totally horrible sci-fi actioneer based on a video game in the days before Uwe Boll called Wing Commander with Matthew Lillard and Freddie Prinze Jr (ok, laughed enough, welcome back).  The significance of the movie though in most history would be that it was the first movie, being released in March of 1999, to have a full trailer for Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (the previous teaser was with A Bug's Life so no one could say they didn't see that).

So many kids and teenagers would sneak into Wing Commander just to see the trailer for TPM (that, I should add, also gave me an un-ironic happy memory at the same theater when it came out opening night with a full-load of Star Wars fans two months later, before it was full realized how flawed it was, but I digress).  I was in the theater not for the trailer, albeit a nice bonus, but for the movie itself.  A theater employee came in and sat down next to me, not really saying anything for a minute during the movie, then asked me why I was still there.  "I"m here to see the movie," I said.  "... Really?" the theater geek asked.  I nodded.  He saw my sincerity.  And slowly backed away...

Why was I there for that movie?  The same reason I was there for practically every movie that came out in theaters between 1999 and the early part of 2002 before I entered into college as an undergrad.  It was my own self-made education.  I was, in all likelihood like Murphy suggests, one of those 'poor bleating ewes.'  At least, maybe, at first.  There was a time when I was simply interested in going to the movies for just stupid entertainment time.  But then there was a period of a few years, starting when I got obsessive with The Lion King and hand-wrote out the entire screenplay as I saw it happening as I watched the movie (this is before I knew even fully what the fuck a screenplay was), when I realized movies were more than what they seemed.  And by the time fourteen rolled around - and lost a few friends, by choice and/or by their deciding to move on - I found a lot of free time...

Approximation of theater-size

(... other time was spent by being a bad little bastard; as another personal aside after years of hesitating to cut classes in middle school, I became a fiend for it - not always to go to the movies as the timing didn't always work, the Cineplex didn't open until 1 most days so other times it was to that dreaded but safe bastian of the Mall(s) as Paramus has three of them technically - aided in large part to a stack of blue absence slips and a carefully modulated knack for forging a teacher's signature.  Not proud of it, but, to be honest, not too ashamed of it either.  It was what it was, and if I could take it back I would in some part, depending on the class and teacher really.  It was high school, and it was miserable many times, and only got better in Junior and Senior years...)

In some part it was a time when I was more susceptible for the Hollywood-crap machine.  This was a time period when, for example, I genuinely loved Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and I genuinely enjoyed Phantom Menace until my critical faculties got sharper.  At the same time seeing so much shit helped to refine my sense of what was the bullshit was out there.  And I became a self-made expert on spotting conventions and cliches and formulas in movies (both the mainstream and foreign/independent ones too).  And  I found a lot of surprises as well; one day I would go to see three, even four movies in a day (perhaps the epitome of being able to see so much in a theater offering the current crop of movies - not *all* of them, most of them), and the first two would be more or less in quality (good: High Fidelity, so-so: Rules of Engagement)... and then American Psycho would come out of nowhere and blow my mind, once again in a theater packed of people not knowing what they were getting into.  A case that, perhaps for Murphy, might be an exception, a community-feeling for a Cineplex "offering" that was more like an art-house flick.

Some of my affection for that route 4 ten-plex is nostalgia for a time that was spent like another home away from home, or another school away from school.  Sometimes it was also with other company, friends with dumb comedies (sometimes one or both of us totally drunk), a brother for a movie or two, my mother during a tough personal time for the movie Traffic.  And on the lower-wrung of the scale the rt-17 plex, not as good in quality (a once first-run theater that became run down and got the movies weeks after they played at the regular-plexes), but with its own subtle and dark charms, especially in the really large old movie-room.

And of course that Paramus Picture Show, where I got my first real dose of late 90's and early 00's indie and art-house and foreign films.  Memento, Mulholland Drive (that was a good one, with a GREAT Lynch-fan crowd), Bowling for Columbine, Run Lola RunBeing John Malkovich, obscurer work like The Sunshine State, The Widow of Saint-Pierre.  The dichotomy of cinematic experience in those years of the pre-driver's license, and then into the realm of the license where I could and did expand to other theaters, was crucial for me.  I got the best and worst and middle of both worlds, with a certain gritty appeal even with the cineplex if only for its age and stamina as an establishment

Then it's also, in retrospect, what has been replaced today.  What Murphy saw in 2001, in theaters that were ungainly 'googolplexes' with 15+ screens, was brought out in full in Paramus in 2007.  After the close of the Paramus Picture show in 2004 and the rt 17 3-plex in 2005, the 10-plex closed its doors somewhat suddenly.  'Somewhat' in that it was an eventuality that couldn't be dismissed as a large portion of the parking lot at the big ol' Garden State Plaza was torn apart and new land was made up for at gigantic AMC multiplex with 16 screens, including 3D access and eventually (shoot me now) an "IMAX screen" that is really one of those regular theaters given the awful would-be IMAX treatment of taking a few seats out of the front to make the screen bigger.

My love for this movie theater, measured in length if not width...
A movie theater attached to a mall; before it was only at the Palisades Center in West Nyack I could, if I so desired, see that with a whopping 21 screens and an actual IMAX.  Now it was (and is) in a mere ten minute drive, maybe shorter or longer, from my house.  And with that, how could a measly little 10-plex with old-school film projection compete?  Why go all the way out there- albeit in immediate proximity to a Toys R Us, and nearby the "small" mall (or what Chris Rock would call the "Other Mall") at the Bergen Towne  Center- when one could go to the food court, go to Hot Topic, go to whatever awful hipster store, and then walk on over to see Transformers on four screens?

In comparison to this monstrosity that is the Garden State AMC 16-Googolplex, the Loews Cineplex Odeon was a gift to humanity.  Aside from the sneaky incentive of easy access in that theater- if one is so inclined the sneak-ability rate at the mall-plex is easy as pie- it has drawbacks like jacked-up prices, super-long lines, a bigger cadre of annoying citizens washed up from the dregs of VANS and Abercrombie and whatever douchebag hipster-of-the-week store is opened.  It is, indeed, comparable to what Murphy also describes in the same chapter: the "Walmart experience" of the movies.  Consumer in, consumer out.  There is the occasional odd-room for an indie movie, but even that is given a white-wash for the sense of oddness placed at a theater like that.

Enough cholesterol/fat to choke a horse, but there's free refills on large orders!  
I know, it's kind of odd to be praising a theater that was also in the heart of consumer-land, which is what route 4 is in Paramus, NJ (maybe not as much as route 17, but it's close enough).  But it's not just simply nostalgia.  Perhaps I was too young or not well-versed enough, or just too stupid at the time, to see what Murphy fully saw and that I've known for a while, certainly since I've been friends with ex-workers at cineplexes.  At the same time I always prefer a good art-house/indie theater like a Picture Show or the also dearly-departed Rialto in Ridgefield Park to a behemoth place with screens large and small in a big-ass building.  And, again, at the same time it's where I've been raised.  Maybe I would have better perspective if I were born years before, or lived in an area with a deficiency in art-houses, if it was all I knew like some poor plebian stuck with Burger King and Walmart and Jesus for the bulk of his/her life.

But it's what I knew that takes me back, and makes me ever-so excited to see what Murphy has in store with his international-adventures in movie going past the realm of the googolplex world.  It's an obsession that fermented over a set period of years, spent in a haze of punk rock and South Park, Opie & Anthony and a personal life scrambled up with limited friends, hundreds of dollars spent on local bus fare, and boatloads of marijuana (that would be for another post altogether).   I look back with delight and with some regret, for perhaps not going further or venturing out to other pastures in the years before the license and car.  I look back knowing the Cineplex wasn't always a "good" thing.  But it was what it was, and in the face of further monopolization and the cut-backs on single-screen movie-houses like a Rialto or PPP it's sadder still.  And I wouldn't take back barely a moment spent there.  Not even, yes indeed, the final film seen at the Route 4 theater: Spider-Man 3, which is still enjoyable despite what you've heard.

So there.

(forgive the lackluster music in this video, but it's the only video I could find of footage of this olde theater):

A Christmas wish from Sergeant Hartman!

Do you maggots understand that?


Silent Night, Deadly Night is respectably trashy.  It knows that it has to just live up a little bit to its title.  Nay, it has to just try and live up a little to its tagline.  It's also a kind of cultural artifact of a time in the 1980's where there were "themed" horror-slasher movies (i.e. Mother's Day, My Bloody Valentine), later parodied in the Grindhouse trailer by Eli Roth, Thanksgiving.  Does it really matter too much how the mythology begins for each one?  There's a psychopath on the loose and he'll gut a bunch of teenagers- or some older people too, but no, no children, heavens no not the children- and then maybe (or maybe not?) get it at the end.

This time around with the 'Christmas' theme it all begins when a little boy, little Billy, goes with his family to visit Grandpa.  Grandpa hasn't moved or talked for years... but then he's left alone with little Billy, and becomes animated - by that I mean he's creepy as fuck and tells the kid that if he's been naughty, even once in the past year, Santa will get him!  And then on the way home, coincidentally, the family (parents and little baby) get caught off guard by a Santa Claus stick-up guy who sticks a gun at them and fires away till the car screeches to a halt.  The father gets shot, the mother gets (almost) raped and throat slit, all in eye-shot of Billy hiding in the bushes.

Cut to a few years later, Billy is a basket-case - that is when it comes to Christmas time and Santa is there.  Hey, when you see one killer Santa, all of them are Killer Santas.    Then the movie cuts ahead again to current-day 1984 as Billy gets a job at a toy store, nice but on the edge of insanity (cause, you know, if you see a Santa killing your parents then you're screwed for life, I guess, since all Santas are the same).  He also has a thing with sex.  Ooh, naughty, naughty sex, those people must be punished!  It's after seeing two co-workers going at it, the woman resisting and being raped by the Guido-creep (not to be racist, he fulfills the stereotype by the nature of the acting and writing), and then Billy *click* snaps.  Killing spree!

Perhaps there's that one point in the movie's favor: you don't need to wonder much about the identity of the killer.  He's right in front center, doing to children he comes across what Santa originally did to him: traumatizing with lots of BLOOD!  It becomes a laugh riot to see Billy go off on anyone and anything he comes across; only one he comes up against is spared, though the pay-off of this is even funnier than you might expect.  In terms of the 80's slasher-mythology, people get it all over the place in some semi-creative ways, the women usually without any shirts on (cause hey, when you go out to let the cat out, don't put a shirt on, just little short-shorts will do), and the guys maybe have a shirt on, depending on their physique.

Naughty children get punishment.... or orgasms, maybe orgasms.
Most of the killings are overly gruesome and stupid, and one of them especially, maybe the most memorable, is the most random as Billy goes out to a sledding hill at night to ambush a couple of stupid teens doing a sledding competition.  The pay-off for that scene is one of those deaths that gets people talking after the movie ends (maybe not as bad as what happens to one girl and a stuffed deer head, but you do what you can here).  But maybe most interesting is how the movie takes a position on the traumatizing of little Billy.  Sure, he could've gotten the help he needed, but where's the fun in that?  Better to have nuns like the Mother Superior at the orphanage whip the crap out of him until he... continues to be pathologically afraid of Santa and have images of his parents' slaughter replay in his head.  Punishment... urge to kill rising... that's basically Billy's mantra here.

All of this adds up to really idiotic entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless.  I think a certain attitude has to be taken here, as an antidote for all of that usual Christmas-bullshit cheer, and as another in a long series of slasher movies with a killer loaded with blood.  It should be forgettable, just by the nature of it not having anyone particularly memorable in the cast, or its director.  But due to a series of sequels (one of which directed by, I shit you not, Monte Hellman! oh how the mighty fall), it is memorable, and something of a minor Christmas classic for exploitation freaks out there.  Certainly fills a sleazy-quota of the night, and maybe with an eggnog and gingerbread cookies and chestnuts by the roasted fire, it'll do just the trick.  And you may wonder if Jack Skellington is around to kick some ass and take names and so on.