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Monthly Archives: March 2013

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You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger –  If anymore of Allen’s movies come across as piss poor and unbearable as this one I will have to call this project off.  This lowly, grating embarrassment has Allen exploring relationships in various states of decay.  You’d think the subject matter would lead to a dark comedy or something introspective and insightful but instead we wind up with a tale of nothing but a pack of bickering idiots.  This is a story where you are not only not surprised that these people are breaking up, you’re surprised they didn’t kill each other with chainsaws ages ago.

Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin are a married couple on the verge of destruction.  He’s a struggling writer, she has a thankless job in a museum.  She wants to ditch her husband for her boss (Antonia Banderas), have a baby and open an art gallery of her own.  So you know, she’s a totally reasonable person.  He wants a successful book and the hot Indian woman in the apartment across the way.  He’s clearly just as reasonable.  Watts parents have also just divorced.  Both are morons and someone should have euthanized them before they reproduced.  Anthony Hopkins is the dad.  Realizing his life has more days behind than ahead, he has a late life freak out, ditches the annoying wife and quickly marries a call girl who’s out to mooch off his supposed fortune.  Speaking of the annoying wife, she is an insufferable construct of emotional ineptitude.  Unable to deal with life in any way daughter Watts sends her to a bogus spiritual medium for support.  In her total lack of confidence or sense of purpose she becomes enraptured in the medium’s wishy washy predictions.  Then after each sessions she barges into Brolin and Watts apartment and proceeds to prattle on like someone just aching to be shot dead.  Everyone spends the remainder of the story running around each other in a state of grating emotional upheaval.  By the end of the story the flake Mother is the only one happy because she lives in a blissful state of spiritual nonsense.  Everyone else is apparently fucked but it’s impossible to know.  Allen doesn’t bother to write endings to any of their stories.  It doesn’t matter.  Just assume they all went for a drive together and drove off a cliff.

The movie’s detached narrator tells the audience this well remembered line of dialogue about life from Macbeth: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Well, in this case Allen is the idiot, his movie is full of sound and fury and it signifies nothing.  Bravo Woody.

Woody Allen has an unwavering work schedule of one movie per year, no ifs, ands or buts.  He hasn’t gone a year without releasing a movie since 1981.  That’s the cinematic equivalent of not calling in sick for 32 years.  You kind of feel like a heel for calling in sick last week when you had that hangover now don’t you?  This year’s release, Blue Jasmine, will be his 41st movie.  Diligent though he may be this clockwork like schedule has lead to the iconic director creating an entire library of forgotten efforts no one expends effort worrying over.  So I will.  There’s nothing playing in theaters right now so why not?  For every Match Point or Midnight in Paris there are 4 other films which come and go like a neurotic waft of air floating on the wind.  Over the next few weeks I will partake of several of Allen’s lesser efforts, mostly recent, and attempt to find some merit in the minor works of the icon that Europeans love and American’s long became indifferent to.

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Cassandra’s Dream (2007) – Long story short, Allen took a stab at a Greek tragedy with contemporary trappings and wound up with his most avoided movie in 20 years.  How avoided?  It made less than $1 million bucks.  Long known being humorously morbid at times, Woody does not often wonder over to the truly dark side of life.  When he does find himself in the territory it has produced some of his finest work.  Crimes and Misdemeanors and it’s pseudo remake Match Point are fantastic morality plays.  Each demonstrating the flexible and elastic nature of what we consider good and evil.  In each story we watch an everyday man dispatch his extra marital lover for the sake of saving his respectable, straight-laced life.  In each story the man gets away with it, and is left to deal with the consequences, of which in the long run there are few.  Not something our black and white morality codes really appreciate, both stories thrive on this contradiction of punishment, or lack there of.  Cassandra attempts to observe these themes again from the other side, focusing again on the lack of punishment for murder but this time including a raging case of guilt that takes its place.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play a couple of brothers each trying to break through their prospective glass ceiling in life.  McGregor works for his father helping to keep a restaurant on its feet while Farrell is a grease monkey who gambles too much.  Both keep reaching a cusp of success only to see it slip away time and again.  When Farrell loses a fortune in a poker game and McGregor needs backing for a major investment opportunity, they turn to their rich uncle, played by Tom Wilkenson.  A family savior of sorts who always comes up with dough when times are tough, this time the uncle wants more than simple gratitude for the trouble.  He wants a man who intends to send him to jail dead.  He’ll fix up both brothers, but only if they dispatch his problem.  You can probably see where this is going and that’s the snag.  Cassandra quickly establishes a feeling of being dramatically transparent, overly melodramatic and way too much of a forgone conclusion.

Every scene of Cassandra is made up of pointed, on the nose dialogue which foreshadows everything about to happen from miles away.  The heavy handed script smacks of being a first, or at best second, draft effort that needed more than a little polishing to smooth out it’s jagged edges.  An effort the elder statesman writer/director probably doesn’t indulge in at this late stage of the movie making game.  If I were 77 I doubt I’d re-write a grocery list much less a screenplay, but I’m not asking people to pay $10 to read my grocery list. Circumstances are stretched beyond the breaking point and the ripe potential for tragedy goes unfulfilled because we know immediately that these two fools are screwed.  Every little gesture, snippet of dialogue and character beat in the movie is boldly pointing the way towards Hell and all of us can see it, except them.  If it ever felt for one second like Farrell and McGregor’s brothers weren’t totally f’ed from the get go, something richer may have developed.  But like I said, the is Allen doing Greek Tragedy.  Maybe the clear, unavoidable oblivion lying at stories end was what he wanted.  

Despite the crippling screenplay issues with Cassandra’s Dream it does benefit from a sense of swiftness. It’s hurried pace and rapid dialogue keep some of its more brazen deficiencies from stinging all that harshly.  It has determined performances from McGregor and Farrell and one wishes that the material had matched their zeal.  Though I’m sure he’s cut all the slack in the world at this point Allen doesn’t dwell on what isn’t necessary or waste time with subplots or lollygagging.  As a director he’s still fleet of foot and clearly hates wasted cinematic space.  It’s his overly hasty, thick fingered screenplay that fumble the effort.

Overall Cassandra is still a somewhat passable movie and not hard to watch despite being a bit of a clunker, but it’s not hard to see why Allen’s audience didn’t bother to show.  The fact that no one materialized is a little extreme.  How could the faces of McGregor, Farrell and Wilkinson not get a single butt in a seat anywhere?  There are worse fates than being stuck with it on the tube for two hours but really, just watch Crimes and Misdemeanors instead.  It’s a vastly superior variation on the same thing.

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Next up: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Fascinating + Stupid = Holy Motors.  (Fascistupid?)

10, 9, 10, 2, 1, 10, 9, 10, 1, 1, 2, 9, 10…..Look up Holy Motors on IMDB and these are the audience responses you will find.  In one corner you have adoring fans who find the movie’s quixotic nature a joy to behold.  They see an enigmatic treasure of groundbreaking cinema to be studied over and watched again and again, looking for answers in its warped pseudo narrative.  The other side says these people are full of crap and that Holy Motors is just mumbo jumbo nonsense elevated by French pretension and that director Leo Carax has done nothing more than assemble a collection of self-indulgent, art movie bullshit posing as high minded cinema.  So which side is right?  Both.

Motors starts in a movie theater full of people looking at the screen.  From there we go into a bedroom where we find Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant), the transforming man we will follow for the duration.  Oscar wakes up and unlocks a wall with a key that’s a physical extension of his finger.  He winds up in the theater with the audience along with a large dog.  We then find Oscar in a modern home with family and bodyguards leaving for the morning and getting into a limo.  In the limo he talks money matters on the phone and as he hangs up the real day begins.  Oscar receives dossiers and starts creating new personas through costume and makeup which he will play through out the day.  A short, bald, stringy looking older fellow, Oscar will become a hunchbacked elderly woman, a motion capture subject covered in dots indulging in simulated lust, a voracious and dangerous, green suited vagrant who consumes flowers and fingers.  He’ll be a gangster, a judgmental, unforgiving father, a man about to die and he’ll even have a musical interlude made up of dozens of guitars and accordion players.  So this movie is about what actually?

That’s where most people either loose patience with or become entranced by Holy Motors.  Do not we as movie goers spend our entire movie going life watching one person become numerous people?  Is Motors about the nature of performance and how the audience responds to the watching of one person become numerous people?  Is it strictly an avant-garde interpretation of the performers life?  Does an actor who plays so many identities have any identity of their own?  Maybe Motors is more literal than that, though I doubt it.  It is inferred in one scene that an audience of some sort is watching Oscar and the various roles he inhabits.  We also learn that Oscar is not the only one running around in a limo going from one scene to the next.  An entire fleet of limos is shuttling people like Oscar from one place to the next for unknowable reasons.  But Oscar also kills a banker not involved in his ‘performances’ and is subsequently shot and killed in the process.  But once taken back to the limo by his trusty driver he’s fine.  So there goes a literal explanation.

To the chagrin and annoyance of many no easy answer is lying out there for you to grab.  You can infer your own solutions or lay ideas over the movie but solid answers are not here to be seen and its innate Frenchieness is also at the heart of those who feel antagonized and annoyed while they’re watching.  There are moments peppered through out Holy Motors which high minded art film fans will label as comically surreal.  Some others of us will call these scenes moronic and stupid.  As Oscar winds down for the day, arriving at his last destination, he takes on the guise of an average working man.  Does Oscar go into a suburban home with a wife and kid and wind down with dinner and a glass of wine?  No, he lives with two monkeys.  After his insane vagrant persona kidnaps model Eva Mendes from a photo shoot, biting off the fingers of a photo assistant in the process, he does what with her?  He takes her into a cave, repurposes her high fashion garments into Arabic garb while stripping naked and sporting a boner.  He then cuddles up next to her and goes to sleep.  You figure it out.  It’s these asinine moments that tip Motors out of the realm of spontaneous, kinetic fun and into head scratching buffoonery.  It’s as if we’re watching someone create a film based on stream of conscience imagination through, strange uncharted waters who subsequently dives over the waterfall of unorthodox possibilities.  And as they make that incredible leap, they moon you and fart as they go over the edge.

The constant unknowable is what makes Motors such a massively divisive experience among viewers.  Reading through reviews for the film it’s clear you have to have a PHD in French cinema and previous Carax movies to get all the references being bandied about.  Its intent is a guessing game of possibilities and its execution runs the gamut from brilliant and ballsy to brazenly stupid.  The people who give into its strange nature can make sound arguments for it’s existence and those who reject it outright can make equally compelling arguments.  I tend to think both explanations have pros and cons.  I have to admire a film as open to interpretation and so free of traditional narrative traps.  Neck deep in the age of tepid, corporate filmmaking finding a true example of the free and spontaneous is rare.  At the same time when the limos start talking to each other about their day I feel a crushing experience of stupidity hit me square in the face and it kind of annoys the shit out of me.

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Ten Word or Less Review – Worst movie ever isn’t worst movie ever.

Hollywood is a perpetually pregnant animal.  A mother that produces an endless supply of pups for the world to gawk at, admire and make goo goo noises over.  Like most mothers it loves its pups and gives varying amounts of affection to each.  Some pups get more love than others but she generally wants them all to grow up, do well and make bank.  But every once in a while a bastard pup is born, and the Hollywood mother hates it.  For reasons varied and far the mother shuns this bad pup, kicking it in the face and away from the rest of the litter so that the jackals of the press can devour the abomination and keep whatever contaminates it away from the rest of the pack.  This happened as recently as last year with the maligned John Carter.  Mother Disney allowed the press to speculate the film straight into the cinematic grave as a misguided disaster no one should ever attempt to repeat.  Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was another example of a film being attacked by the dogs of entertainment reporting before anyone had seen frame one.  Why?

What these films share in common are typically runaway budgets and out of control egos.  Their makers have gone rogue, abandoned the chain of command and indulge in every whim no matter how far fetched.  The most storied example of this in the modern era is Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s epic anti-western which was conceived to be nothing less than the greatest movie ever made and became the poster child for a cinematic age at deaths door.  Upon winning Oscars for his classic The Deer Hunter, Cimino was given the means, the money and the discretion to make Heaven’s Gate in any manner he saw fit.  What was supposed to be a star studded,  award winning, $20 million epic masterpiece became a career killing monstrosity with a budget that topped out at $44 million.  To spend that much money in 1980, on an effects free western no less, was a recipe not for just disaster, but the apocalypse.  To provide some perspective, the effects laden adventure classic The Empire Strikes Back came out the same year with a cost $32 million.  With that very high budget it created an entire galaxy far, far away.  Spaceships, monsters and entire worlds were created.  For the $44 million Cimino recklessly spent he gave the studio lots of wooden sets rebuilt again and again, actors riding around on horses and lots of cocaine.

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With the dye cast and the infamy of Heaven’s Gate already secured, the movie was eventually delivered to an icy reception of cynical, voracious critics whose knives were sharpened to a fine point.  Cimino’s endeavor came in at a run time of just over 3 1/2 hours, pared down from his original length of over 5.  Half way through the screening when intermission hit it was clear to many that Gate would not be spared.  This limping animal of a movie would not escape the wrath which had been built up against it.  The screening was a disaster, reviewers were scathing and catty and the film ran for just a week.  It was pulled from distribution and re-edited down to a more manageable 2 1/2 hour length.  This did nothing to save it.  When the jackals were done with the carcass of Heaven’s Gate it had earned less than $4 million and was loudly lambasted as the worst film ever made.  It was held up as an example why the director driven age of the 70’s had to end.  Directorial indulgence had run amok and produced this massive waste of time and money which could never be allowed to happen again.  The age of corporate filmmaking was on its way.

For years Heaven’s Gate sat there, a poster boy for wretched excess and ego gone insane.  It’s reputation fermenting like bad cheese until a funny thing happened.  People started looking at Heaven’s Gate again, divorced from of all the baggage and cynicism and thought to themselves, this isn’t that bad.  Some revisionist have even gone so far as to rip the label of disaster of its maligned brow and relabel it a masterpiece.  It’s reached a level of stature at this point that Criterion, long the savior of foreign film glories and obscure masterpieces, has gone so far to release a shiny new Blu-Ray remastering of this long hated epic.  And after years of procrastinating, I finally sat down with this storied disaster.  What I found isn’t the worst movie ever made, nor the best.  As is the case when too many people are making too many declarative statements in an attempt to have themselves heard, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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The plot built into this nefarious movie is a simple one.  Using the events of the Johnson County War as a reference for fiction, Cimino constructs what sounds like a fairly standard western.  It’s 1890, America is expanding west and the wealthy fat cats of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association decide it’s their right to take the land belonging to the largely Russian/German/Slavic immigrants of Johnson County.  Painting the immigrants as anarchists and thieves, the Association gets government approval to create a death list of 125 people, essentially all the men in Johnson County, who are targeted for assassination by a band of hired mercenaries.  In the middle of all this is Jim, (Kris Kristorferson) the town Marshall with old ties to the money men plotting the downfall of his town and little way to stop the impending slaughter.  Jim routinely shacks up with Ella (Isabelle Huppert), the bordello madam he comes to learn is also on the death list.  Also involved is Nate (Christoper Walken), a hired hand of the Association who kills for money, and also shacks up with Ella when Jim isn’t around.  It’a all very ripe fodder for a melodramatic western and on paper it looks and sounds promising, but Cimino isn’t terribly interested in this story and he takes eternities to slowly dole the narrative out.

Gate is indulgent and bloated and much too long.  It has almost no narrative tension and could easily have been a straight ahead romance flavored western that a more traditional storyteller could have delivered without so much fuss.  Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann could have churned out a classic with this idea easily.  To demonstrate the prolonged nature of everything, the romantic triangle that holds up the plot isn’t even fully known to the audience until the movie is half over.  But despite the endlessly prolonged story, Gate is an immaculate film to simply look at and admire for the craft on display.

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Taken apart from the whole, there are sequences which dazzle the eye and the spirit.  You could lift these moments out of the film, show them to an audience and arouse no end of curiosity for the rest of the picture.  The opening Harvard graduate sequence is amazing.  The massive hordes of people Cimino moves through his fake towns are impressive.  A sequence set in Heaven’s Gate, the title a reference to the town hall of Johnson County, involving a roller skating fiddle player could be watched effortlessly, again and again.  The movie’s downfall is simply Cimino’s inability to see the forest through the trees, and the blow.  He seems so adamant to make each sequence a full, living, breathing work of art that he all but forgets that he has a narrative he should be tending to.  The first 110 minutes of Gate, its entire gorgeous first half, is little more than a first act.  It’s 30-40 minutes of story, if that, padded out with voluptuous cinematography and editorial razzmatazz.  This endless feeling of procrastinating no doubt led to so many venomous responses in 1980.

Cimino’s obsession with everything but the story extends into his cast and screenplay as well.  No one member of the cast can be pointed at or singled out for being particularly great or terrible, they’re all a mild shade of grey, playing implied characters and half formed parts.  It feels like an attempt to transcend the good guy/bad guy dynamic but the screenplay doesn’t get very far with it.  The sheer size of the movie overwhelms the characters and were left with a population of people we’re vaguely interested in, but not concerned about.  Aside from Krisofferson, Huppert and Walken, Cimino fills his movie with a whose who of known character actors, old and new at the time.  John Hurt, Brad Douriff, Sam Waterson, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke and Joseph Cotton all show up to be swallowed by the scenery.  These supporting characters too often feel superfluous and malformed as characters.  A better screenplay should have been written to better utilize the massive amount of talent walking around.  Instead we get John Hurt playing regretful and drunken in every scene, Mickey Rourke covered in grime, a look he adopted for real later in life, Sam Waterson being two dimensionally evil and Jeff Bridges just kind of there.

This may all sound arduous to some and overly dull, maybe it is, but terrible it’s not.  Gate establishes some sense of momentum in it’s back half and you can see Cimino always striving to make something truly astounding.  It’s obvious he wants his film mentioned in the same breath as Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven or Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  And by shooting over 1 million feet of film he purposefully surpassed the madness that was Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  But the filmmaker and his movie are a victim of unchecked arrogance, ambition and unforgiving circumstance.  The wrecklessness he displayed, the lack of discipline and contempt for structure all clearly helped court the disaster which fell upon him.  The God’s of Hollywood will tolerate much, but the epic wasting of money because of unchecked ego is the fastest way to find yourself under a bus, where Cimino quickly found himself.  He would direct just four more films, all failures, over the next 16 years.

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Under few conditions would a film like Heaven’s Gate ever have been successful.  To languorous, not enough happening.  But things were compounded to the level of epic fail by a press that smelled blood and a studio that was furious.  The world outside had radically changed as well.  The quiet and observed age of 70’s age filmmaking was quickly passing into history as blockbuster mentality quickly took hold.  Once the studios learned they could make hundreds of millions of dollars instead of tens of millions, all bets were off.  There was no audience for this type of movie anymore, they were all being swept into a galaxy far, far away.

Free of lingering resentment and biased opinions, Heaven’s Gate is now free to exist as simply a movie.  It will always carry it’s sordid history with it but no one should hold that against it at this far removed juncture.  It’s an immaculately designed piece of movie making which has few rivals in regards to appearance and presentation.  It’s hamstrung by stodgy plotting and a run time which is grossly overlong, but such sins seem minor compared to the routine wrecks modern audiences willingly submit themselves to.  Calling Heaven’s Gate the worst film ever is folly because in comparison there have been scores of movies released in just the last two months which far exceed it in terms of negligence and decrepitude.  I think a far more suitable label for it would be ‘The Most Talked About Boring Movie Ever Made.”

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Ten Word or Less Review – The book was better.  A lot better.

Cult film fan favorite Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) looked like a dead on directorial candidate to adapt David Wong’s sprawling comedy/horror novel John Dies at the End.  With it’s extremely bent ‘two idiots vs the dark side’ story laced with wiry, grim and unpredictable sense of humor, the man who gave the world Bruce Campbell as Elvis fighting a mummy in an old folks home probably struck someone as a masterstroke of directing choice.  Sadly no one gave the guy the $100 million and four hour run time he’d have needed to do this adaptation any justice.  It looks like he was handed $500 and a pat on the back for luck.  No Hollywood studio is apparently eager to dump that kind of money or time into a film based on a book where people routinely explode, a hero is force fed a spider monster and a battle takes place between mercenaries and a lobster gorilla monster.  Sam Raimi, where the fuck where you when we needed you?

This is a curious case where the film in question was such a unique let down that I sought out the source material as soon as it ended.  I picked up Wong’s novel and found something far greater than what was transported to digital celluloid.  Coscarelli’s adaptation strikes the right tone at times and induces hearty giggles peppered through out.  It’s probably destined for midnight showings with the Alamo Drafthouse crew, complete with fans wearing meat monster costumes and all.  But as an adaptation of Wong’s novel it’s reminiscent of David Lynch’s Dune.  Like that blundered, fascinating, sci-fi monstrosity, John Dies is a curious, confusing, baffling effort hamstrung by run time, lack of money and thick fingered execution.

This is paragraph where I would usually describe the plot.  That would take too long.  There are monsters and this stuff called soy sauce that makes you see spooky shit and a Rastafarian whose levitates and metaphysical humor and lots of other stuff.  Go look it up yourself.  I’ll even give you a cheat.  Click here ———>  X.  Okay.  Welcome back.

Coscarelli and original novelist David Wong have written a movie that freely admits its inability to tell the story as originally put forward.  The movie encompasses the first and last 75 or so pages of the novel, all but abandoning the 200 pages in between in which lots of things happened that sounded really expensive to put on screen.  One is simply left to wonder whether they slaved over it for weeks and eventually said fuck it then drank a lot or started off knowing they were going to hack apart Wong’s book like a butcher over a slab of meat.  And while I’d be the first to suggest that Wong’s novel needs some pruning, the resulting film comes across as slapdash and incoherent, getting by on the strength of a few choice scenes, there’s that meat monster, decent casting, and some choice bits of quirky dialogue lifted straight from the book.  How they left out that passage about Fred Durst I’ll never know or forgive.  So giving it some credit is due but that missing 200 pages accounts for a lot.

The legitimately grim and regretful tone running through much of the book is completely absent.  Wong’s novel is incredibly funny in places but it’s also a work of horror and nothing like straight horror is really at play here.  The movie is very tongue in cheek kind of stuff that no one could take seriously.  And I have to hold a grudge for not including the flying dog that explodes or that lobster gorilla monster I mentioned earlier.  I respect trying and failing far more than not trying at all.  What’s left over contains some funny which is sure to amuse genre film fans, but the lingering aroma of something greater hangs heavy on it.

If the unorthodox and silly tickle you then John Dies at the End seems destined to entertain.   Or at least confound.  If you’ve read the book you’re going to be left wondering where the Hell the story went, but if you can not let that nag you, or that the bastards completely waste Clancy Brown, there’s some fun to be had here.  Maybe not so much fun you’ll want to make your very own meat costume, but I doubt you’ll forget the experience whether you like it or not.

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