Saturday, June 13, 2009

In Theaters: "The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)"

Well, the first thing that we have to decide, in approaching Tony Scott’s new remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, is that the 1974 original was what it was, and no reimagining is going to touch it. It was, first and foremost, of its time and place—it captured the gritty, trashy, dangerous hellhole of 1970s New York in much the same manner as The French Connection and Klute and Born to Win before it, Dog Day Afternoon and The Warriors and (to the nth degree) Taxi Driver after. It looks and feels and even (thanks to David Shire’s brassy, pounding score) sounds like The City, right then. But it was also way ahead of its time; fourteen years before Die Hard, here was the story of a brilliant, accented baddie who took hostages in a public place and whose plans to exchange them for a large sum of cash is thwarted by a dogged, determined public servant. After Die Hard made a mint and we saw its various riffs (Die Hard on a boat, on a plane, on a bus, etc.), no one bothered to make Die Hard on a subway, because it had been done a decade and a half earlier.

Pelham was first remade as a limp TV movie in 1998; it has now been updated and thoroughly reimagined by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (whose name appears on about as many good films—L.A. Confidential, Mystic River —as bad ones—The Postman, Assassins) and director Scott, a filmmaker whose stylistic flourishes have irritated others more than me. I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for that sort of thing—for my money, the only time he’s really gone too far with his tics and affectations was Domino, which was pretty much a lousy movie any way you sliced it (so his flair felt like overcompensation). However, my stomach turned a bit as his Pelham began. The opening credit sequence utilizes blurry photography, slow and fast motion editing, and jittery camerawork—anything, it would seem, to keep us from seeing exactly what the hell is going on. Nothing terrifies Tony Scott more than a static frame. Would this finally be the movie where he went too far, even for me?

Thankfully, no. He settles down once the story gets into motion; his practice of shooting conversations like they’re action scenes can get a little wearying, and sometimes you wish he’d just stop moving the damned camera and hold a shot for more than a second and a half. But he does show some restraint in the film’s quiet, more contemplative moments, even if he can’t resist (at the big climax) shooting a conversation from a chopper.

Say what you will about his extravagancies, but once this thing gets going, it pulls us in—the storytelling is tight, the cuts are surgically precise, and it hums right along. Walter Matthau’s transit cop has been transformed into Denzel Washington’s Walter Garber (first name changed in tribute to the role’s originator), an MTA upper-management type who has been busted down to dispatcher while he’s under investigation for taking a bribe. His day at the microphone is disrupted when a group of armed thugs, led by “Ryder” (John Travolta) take over a 6 train; they move it deep into the tunnels and disconnect the front car, while Ryder tells Garber that the city has 60 minutes to come up with $10 million, or they start popping hostages.

That ticking clock—and Ryder’s clear lack of hesitation to carry out his threat—gives the picture a tremendous momentum; it spins like a top, propelling breathlessly forward and giving us a snazzy freeze-frame and on-screen text when we need a reminder of how close we are to that deadline. New York viewers will also appreciate how many of the details they get right; early in the film, when Garber is barking out an on-the-fly re-routing, the stops and trains make sense (even if on-train wi-fi access in the early scenes is still a bit of a pipe dream).

The primary divergence between Scott and Helgeland’s take and the 1974 original is in the backstories of the two main characters and the relationship forged between them. Matthau and Robert Shaw were given fairly simple characterizations (hard-working cop and bitter ex-military), and their radio communications were mostly centered on the transaction at hand. An actor who so effortlessly projects Washington’s strength and intelligence wouldn’t quite work in the Matthau role, as originally conceived; in a fine example of tailoring the role to the actor, Washington’s Garber has some flaws and real complexities. His falling-star wants to prove himself worthy here (watch the way he tentatively walks out of the command center after he’s been dismissed), and creating a situation where his character has something on the line is an ingenious way of raising the stakes.

Travolta, coming off a long line of tepid projects, is clearly having a great time playing a pulpy lowlife, though he’s just a wee bit over the top here—he’s frequently hyper-active and bug-eyed, and he’s not helped much by the fact that much of his dialogue appears to have been re-written by Bobb’e J. Thompson’s character in Role Models. But is it meant to be a tough-guy “act”? How meta is this guy supposed to be? Travolta’s got some good moments here, so I hesitate to call it a bad performance, per se—I don’t know what the hell it is, exactly. What is certain is that Washington brings out the best in him; the scenes where they level with each other, and speak plainly, have the same kind of motivational pull as that terrific first act of Man on Fire.

The expansion of their relationship comes at the cost of the distinctive characterizations for Travolta’s accomplices. The only one with any presence is Luis Guzman, and he mostly brings that with him; I’ll maintain that there is no film that can’t be made better by the introduction of Guzman in a supporting role, and I would say the same about co-star John Turturro, but even he couldn’t help Transformers. Point is, we don’t even know these guys’ names (the original film gave them color coded names—Mr. Grey, Mr. Blue, etc.—but Tarantino already recycled that in Reservoir Dogs). On the other hand, the original film’s thin characterization of the NYC mayor as sniveling, sick-bedded weakling is one of its weaker elements; Helgeland’s more active mayor is clearly modeled on Bloomberg (down to the subway riding and one dollar annual salary), and James Gandolfini is quietly terrific in the role.

Like so many popcorn directors, Scott lets his film go a good twenty minutes too long—once the clock has ticked out, he can’t maintain that energy, and the picture loses steam once it comes up out of the subway. A car chase is cut too jaggedly, to a degree that there’s no spatial relationships established and therefore no suspense. And while the final confrontation is pretty damned good, it can’t hold a candle to the gotcha brilliance of the original’s closing line. But again, I could make disparaging comparisons all day. In and of itself, as a representative of its particular genre (big studio summer action film) in its specific time and place (post-Giulliani, post-9/11, Disneyfied New York), The Taking of Pelham 123 delivers; it’s slick and fast and loud and fun to watch, and some summer nights, that’s good enough.

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is currently in theaters.

Friday, June 12, 2009

On DVD: "B.B. King: Live at Montreaux 1993"

B.B. King is something of a mainstay of the world-famous Montreaux Jazz Festival; he first played there in 1979 and has since appeared nearly 20 times at the music fest on the shores of Lake Geneva. The new Blu-ray B.B King Live: Live at Montreaux 1993 captures King, his guitar Lucille, and his excellent band as they perform a marvelous 99-minute set at the 1993 festival.

After decades of performance, the man knows how to make an entrance—the first couple of numbers are nicely up-tempo mood-setters, in which his fine band takes turns soloing in preparation for the headliner. When he comes in, there’s a funny speed bump when he starts to play before they’ve plugged Lucille in (he takes it in stride); once he’s plugged in, off he goes.

I’ve seen a number of music DVDs that would work just as well without the image; it’s a kick to hear a talented performer live, but the visual often doesn’t add much. That’s not the case here. Not only is the concert noticeably well-shot and rhythmically cut, there is a real joy in watching B.B. perform—the way he talks with his guitar, how he screws up his face, squeezing his eyes shut before popping them wide open on a particularly hot riff. Resplendent in a patterned, powder-blue tuxedo jacket, he knows how to work his crowd; in the midst of “Let The Good Times Roll,” when he barks out, “B.B. King’s in town!”, they go bananas.

As well they should—this is a terrific set. His performance of “When It All Comes Down (I’ll Still Be Around)” is soulful and crisp, while “Caldonia” is as high-spirited as all-get-out; the horns swing, B.B. grooves along, and it’s big fun. So is the juke joint jumper “Playing With My Friends,” while “Ain’t Nobody Home” is a fun little throwaway with a mellow solo in which he takes Lucille for a little walk across the stage (and speaking of his famous guitar, there’s a great moment of effortless stage management, pictured above, where he fixes a broken string during his vocal performance of “Chains of Love”). He also performs a rich, bravura guitar solo on “All Over Again,” and has fun playing to the fabulous horn section in “Why I Sing The Blues.”

His vocal highlight may very well be his take on “Since I Met You Baby”—he sings it full-out, to the walls, loaded with emotion, and all I could think was, “This is the blues.” The vocals on “Please Accept My Love” are awfully good as well; he smoothly sings the verse, almost in a croon, before letting his voice rip on the chorus. The interlude where, in preface to “Blues Man,” his pulls up a stool and talks about his 42 years (to that time) in show business is charming and intimate. And he has the good sense to close the show with an extended rave-up rendition of “The Thrill Is Gone,” complete with band intros and a fine play-off. It’s a stellar closing to a splendid concert.

B.B King Live: Live at Montreaux 1993 is a smooth, slick, professional blues program, featuring one of our true modern masters. It never quite catches fire the way some of the best in-concert films do, but the decades-sewn craftsmanship and honest-to-goodness soul and emotion of King and his crew make for a thoroughly entertaining, tremendously enjoyable package.

"B.B King Live: Live at Montreaux 1993" is currently avaiable on DVD and Blu-ray.

Today's New In Theaters: 6/12/09

The Taking of Pelham 123: I remain casually, quietly hopeful about Tony Scott's remake of one of my favorite 1970s pictures; reviews are ranging from marginally hostile to mediocre to mildly positive. We shall see. I'm checking it out late tonight.

Moon: I just can't say enough good things about Duncan Jones' sci-fi head trip; if you're in one of the few cities where it's playing, see it early and see it often.

Imagine That: Well, we've covered this one, but in a nutshell: more bullshit from the once-king of comedy.

Tetro: I really need to get out and check out the latest from Francis Ford Coppola; sure, he hasn't done anything really mind-blowing in quite some time (though The Rainmaker has its pleasures), but the reviews and trailers are genuinely intriguing.

On DVD: "My Breakfast with Blassie (Commemorative Edition)"

“The life of a part-time wrestler is no laughing matter.” These are the first lines of Andy Kaufman’s peculiar hour-long 1983 film My Breakfast with Blassie, an oddball send-up of My Dinner with Andre in which he meets up with retired wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie at a Sambo’s restaurant in Los Angeles (yep, there was still one left) for breakfast and awkward conversation. The new “commemorative edition” DVD is being released, according to the box copy, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Kaufman’s “(supposed) death,” though it also lines up with Criterion’s June DVD release of My Dinner with Andre. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way it goes, it’s a nice bit of symmetry.

The film itself, a low-budget, shot-on-video affair, was conceived and directed by rockabilly musician/filmmaker/wrestling manger Johnny Legend and Linda Lautrec. While all of the dialogue was improvised (and sounds like it), certain encounters were set up in advanced and staged for the camera (although Blassie appears to be in the dark about them). Kaufman was in the midst of the strange period in which he reimagined himself as a wrestling supervillain, taking on women (and only women) for wrestling bouts during his act and pronouncing himself “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World.” This led to an extended faux-feud with pro wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, and the famous Letterman appearance, and the pile-driving—well, look, I’ll assume that if you’re reading this review, you’re familiar with all this background (and if not, see Man on the Moon).

In Breakfast, Kaufman (still wearing his reportedly unnecessary neck brace) and wrestling legend Blassie discuss breakfast food (Blassie recommends turkey), autographs, germs, and herpes (when they’re distracted, Kaufman brings the conversation back with the priceless rejoinder, “Yeah, what about herpes?”). They discuss Kaufman’s wrestling, his broken neck, and the Shah of Iran. Blassie reminisces about his career and his friendship with Kaufman’s idol Elvis Presley (“I don’t believe all those things they say about his drug habit,” Blassie insists. “They’ll never convince me about that”).

Kaufman takes on a deferential tone with Blassie, who is certainly an interesting presence—growling, grouchy, and occasionally ugly. His tender tone with their pregnant Asian waitress gives way to a cringe-worthy comment about her child going on welfare. When Kaufman begins to taunt a nearby table of female autograph-seekers, he begins spewing sexist rhetoric; it’s part of the wrestling persona, but Blassie eats it up and cheers him on. In those moments, the film resembles an early prototype for the Sasha Baron Cohen faux-docs; they place Blassie into a situation in which his ugliness is allowed and encouraged. Or was he in on the joke?

The encounters with the other diners are also awkward and uncomfortable—again, we know (now, at least) that some of this is set up, but how much? And how far will Kaufman push it? We know from the films and books about him that this was the place he liked to go to—the comedy of discomfort, in which conventional notions of professionalism and likability are beaten to a pulp. As “Latka” on Taxi, Kaufman was lovable and charismatic; he had to puncture that image, first with the downright strangeness of his nightclub act (featuring his horrifying lounge-act alter ego, Tony Clifton) and other television appearances, and then with the turn to outright hostility that he both presented and brought out of his audience with the female wrestling.

So Breakfast with Blassie is interesting as a social experiment and as part of the broad psychological portrait of its star. But does it work, on any level, as entertainment? Not really. It is intriguing to watch the first, on-camera meeting of Kaufman and future girlfriend Lynn Marguiles (played by Courtney Love in Man on the Moon); she’s billed as “Lynn Elaine” in the credits, since she’s billed under her real name as a production assistant and co-editor. And there are funny lines here and there. But when the encounter with Marguiles and the other women escalates, it degenerates (as improvisations often do) into clumsy messiness and unintelligible overlapping dialogue (everyone’s trying to get in on the action); by the time Kaufman’s partner-in-crime Bob Zmuda shows up, playing a repugnant fan, it turns to gross-out humor and just plain runs out of gas. There’s something strangely fascinating about My Breakfast with Blassie, but it’s ultimately an oddity, a novelty, and little more.

I’m a Kaufman enthusiast, and am glad that I finally had the chance to see My Breakfast with Blassie. But it’s more a film that you experience than one that you actively engage in. The box copy for calls it “a classic piece of performance art.” I’m not enough of an expert on the form to speak to the accuracy of that statement. But what I can say is that like most performance art, even that which draws you in or works on its own specific level, it’s nothing that you’ll probably want to sit through more than once.

"My Breakfast with Blassie (Commemorative Edition)" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 16th.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Here's a lousy picture of Betty White at this premiere.

Nice lady.

UPDATE: Here's a better one. That's me on the far right, taking the lousy picture.

On DVD: "Generation Kill"

How do you top one of the greatest series in television history? If you’re David Simon and Ed Burns, you apparently get right back to work. Less than four months after HBO aired the final episode of their epic American crime series The Wire, the network debuted Generation Kill, a seven-part mini-series that the duo wrote with Rolling Stone scribe Evan Wright. The series was based on Wright’s book, which chronicled his time embedded with the First Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corp during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Wright’s up-close-and-personal narrative proved an ideal vehicle for Simon and Burns’ straightforward writing; their scripts for Generation Kill are in much the same no-nonsense style as their previous show. The first episode features little preparation and no proper introductions—we get to know the characters throughout the series, and our impressions of them come from observation of their actions instead of signposting dialogue. What little exposition we get comes through Wright himself, who is a character in the show (the Marines sneer at his RS credentials, but are duly impressed when they find out he used to write for Hustler). And as in The Wire, the characters speak in their own language of lingo and jargon, which viewers are trusted to piece together on their own, from context and repeated usage.

The show’s seven episodes follow the Battalion’s Bravo Company from their preparations for the invasion to their movement through the country and finally to their daily patrols in Baghdad. The series doesn’t take an official or obvious position on the war; as with The Wire, there is an admirable absense of soapboxing or solutions. That isn’t to say that opinions aren’t offered; these are real people with something at stake in this conflict. But what you don’t have are a lot of big, grandstanding speeches and come-to-Jesus moments; we piece things together through off-hand comments and behavior, and everyone doesn’t feel the exact same way, or express themselves admirably. There is much more rage in the show toward military bureaucracy, frustration at a chain of command that is mostly disconnected and often downright wrong.

Simon, Burns, and Wright (and the show’s British directors, Susanna White and and Simon Cellan Jones) juggle a huge ensemble cast. There are more than two dozen important speaking roles, and the resulting product has an undeniably Altmanesque feeling to it; as in a kaleidoscope like Nashville or Short Cuts, it’s possible to get lost in the opening sections, to lose track of who’s who. But the writing and direction are confident and assured, and the acting is natural and unshowy. Two of the primary characters stand out: Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard, so good as creepy “Eric” on HBO’s True Blood) is a thoughtful, intelligent corpsman with a clear sense of right and wrong and no patience for bullshit, while Corporal Ray Person (James Ranson, memorable as “Ziggy” Sobotka on The Wire’s second season), driving the Humvee in his wraparound Elvis sunglasses, provides a constant stream of funny, quotable, cynical dialogue (my favorite was his response to a comment from the reporter, late in the show: “I knew you were a gay ass fucking liberal. You tried to pretend by invading Iraq with us, but I knew!”) without ever seeming to be anything as jive and simple as “comic relief.” That pair, and the equally excellent Lee Tergesen as Wright’s on-screen alter ego, get the lion’s share of the screen time, but the rest of the cast (many of them real-life members of the Corps) are seen more in fleshed-out, fully realized moments. Several of them (Stark Sands’ bright but frustrated Lt. Fick, Billy Lush’s deceptively simple Lance Cpl. Trombley, Eric Nenninger’s out-of-control Cpt. Dave “Captain America” McGraw, and especially Chance Kelly’s hard-ass Lt. Col. Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando) make incredible impressions with a limited amount of camera time.

But the writing and directing really are the stars here; White and Jones’ filmmaking is smooth but never predictable, and their scenes propel forward with force and genuine momentum. And the scripts are marvels of efficiency and low-key realism—everything, from the broad strokes of military hierarchy to the tiny details of desperate mission preparation (“When the Army goes to war, they get it all… but the Marines, we make do”), feels authentic and inhabited and imbued with a fully realized notion of that particular time, place, and mood. This is excellent, riveting television.

“So what’d you see, reporter?” asks “Godfather” towards the end of the final episode. It’s a hell of a question. What the viewers of Generation Kill see, through the eyes of Evan Wright and his protagonists, is a ground-level view of the Iraq conflict that is neither romanticized nor didactic; it is direct, unvarnished, and feels as honest and real as anything this side of documentary. Kudos to Burns and Simon, for again expanding the conventional wisdom of what television can be, and what it can do.

"Generation Kill" is currently available on DVD; it hits Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 16th.

Trailer: Scorsese's "Shutter Island"

Hoe. Lee. Shit.

In Theaters: "Moon"

The opening sequence of Ducan Jones’ Moon sucks you right in; this is how you start a movie. The exposition is handled, quickly and efficiently, with a slick commercial for “Lunar Industries,” which has solved the energy crisis by harvesting an energy resource from the moon. We then go to their lunar base, manned by a single astronaut: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is at the tail-end of a three-year contract and counting the days. This opening is stylishly shot and powered by an intense, driving Clint Mansell score; I was all but bouncing in my seat with giddy enthusiasm.

Thankfully, the film lives up to its promise. Moon is a rare sci-fi flick with a brain and a heart, and while some of it is clearly inspired by other material, director Jones spins this yarn into something unique and fresh and new and exhilarating. You give yourself over to it as it hurls intriguingly from one scene to the next, occasionally recondite but never detached.

Sam is assisted in the day-to-day operations of the base by the on-deck computer, called GERTY and voiced (perfectly) by Kevin Spacey. One day, while Sam is in his lunar rover, checking out a problem with one of the harvesters, he crashes. He wakes up a little disoriented, but basically fine—until a few days later, when he finds the rover and finds a man inside who appears to be… well, himself.

Moon works as the best sci-fi does—by using technology and special effects and cool sets to compliment a genuine, thought-provoking, human narrative. Throughout Sam’s story (of which I’ll reveal no more), he is faced with questions about life and death and memory and the difficulties of his own personality; he sees things in himself that he doesn’t like.

What’s most refreshing about the picture is that it’s got its head in the right place. To a degree, it apes the look and feel of a 2001, but without all that deadly solemnity. Moon is a film with a sense of humor; part of that is in the script, part of that is in the ingenious casting of Rockwell (an actor who can turn on a dime from good-natured goofball to morose manic-depressive), part of that is in the screenplay and direction, which are full of little throwaway asides—like the various icons used on GERTY’s display screen and the “kick me” post-it on the back of the unit—that give the film a lived-in, grimy feel. The once-sparkly white uniforms are discolored and a little dirty; so is Rockwell’s brilliant performance. The scenes he doesn’t play against a computerized voice, he’s playing off himself (thanks to seamless double work)—and he masterfully creates two distinct personalities (Jones also creates clever visual cues to help us determine which one is which).

Jones takes on some weighty issues, but his touch is light and he’s not afraid to let his film show a little bit of heart (though a couple of jerks around me chuckled smugly when it went to those places). His direction is alarmingly assured (particularly for a first-time director), whether dealing with special effects—the model work and overall design are stunning—or tone. A sense of dread permeates the picture as it edges towards its climax (complete with a well-executed ticking clock); the more Sam finds out, the more nervous the audience gets, because this is clearly a film where damn near any nutso thing could happen next.

Some will complain that its tonal shifts could be smoother, that too much of the material is familiar from other films, or that the philosophical and psychological elements of the story are skimmed but not explored. Strangely, I was aware of those problems, but not bothered by them. Good films do that to you—things that might drive you mad in a film that isn’t working are forgivable, perhaps even enjoyable, in a film that does. I, for example, didn’t mind the cribbing from 2001 and Solaris and Outland and Alien—it’s a picture that knows its roots and knows our expectations, and sometimes (in the case of the HAL-ccenteric GERTY), Nathan Parker’s screenplay slyly subverts those assumptions. That’s good, smart storytelling, and Moon—involving, hypnotic, and altogether spellbinding—announces the arrival of a major new talent.

"Moon" opens in limited release on Friday, June 12th.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

We're doomed.

This is a real thing. This is a real show that's going to be on
television. It's not an "SNL" digital short. It's not a YouTube parody
video. This is actually going to be on television.

Yep. We're all fucking doomed.

On DVD: "Fracture"

Viewing Fracture is a little bit like going down to Spring Training—it’s fun to watch your favorite players getting into shape, but no one’s mistaking those scrimmages for big games. Fracture squares off one our most esteemed actors (Anthony Hopkins) against one of our most exciting young talents (Ryan Gosling), and while no one’s going to get too worked up over the result, it sure is fun to watch these guys work.

The film is directed, in the style of a slick mid-90s Michael Douglas thriller (down to its generic title), by Gregory Hoblit, who helmed the terrific Primal Fear over a decade ago and not much of note since. Like that film, Fracture is promoted as a courtroom thriller, but it is more of a character study; they also throw in some hospital maneuvering for good measure.

Hopkins plays Ted Crawford, a rich engineer who shoots his cheating wife in the opening sequence, coldly and efficiently. The shooting seems straightforward enough, but he then meticulously rearranges the scene, burns his clothes, washes himself up, and stages a hostage situation so that his wife’s cop lover can discover her barely-alive body. He’s taken into custody and charged with attempted murder. Meanwhile, Willy Beachum (Gosling) is a talented young D.A. on his way into the private sector; he starts a cushy, high-paying job in a couple of weeks, but he gets pulled in on Crawford’s arraignment, presumed to be open-and-shut thanks to his verbal and signed confession. But Crawford has got some tricks up his sleeve.

This reviewer was mostly concerned that this was going to be another of Hopkins’ sleepwalking-through-a-proto-Lecter turns (Instinct, anyone?), but he’s really on his game here, flawlessly portraying a ruthless millionaire as the perpetual cool customer. Watching his studied, precise, stripped-down performance, and comparing it with the loose, free-wheeling, seemingly off-the-cuff work by Gosling (who’s constantly having fun with food props and his down-home accent) is like taking a master class in acting—two approaches, both entirely effective. As soon as they put these two in a room together, the movie really starts—their initial shared scene (Hopkins’ arraignment) is sharp, witty, sly, and perfectly played. (The sprung humor of the sequence promises something fresh—a kind of legal screwball comedy—that the rest of the movie doesn’t bother to deliver.)

These two leads truly bring out the best in each other—it’s almost like you can see the actors sensing a worthy partner (as their characters do), and stepping up their game accordingly. Indeed, the scenes they share with each other are notably stronger than those with the rest of the fairly weak supporting cast (David Straithairn notwithstanding, of course).

Billy Burke is dull as toast in the key male supporting role, and poor Rosamund Pike (as Gosling’s new boss and love interest) can’t do a damned thing with her poorly written character and its entirely unnecessary romantic entanglements. The talented Cliff Curtis does his best with his bland role, but Bob Gunton (the warden in Shawshank) shares a memorable moment with Gosling and Zoe Kazan (yep, Elia’s granddaughter) is so memorable in her brief role as Gosling’s assistant that I went looking for her name in the credits when I first saw the picture; she’s since popped up in In The Valley of Elah and Revolutionary Road.

The music, by Jeff and Mychael Danna, is pretty awful; it wails and screeches and pounds and is too melodramatic by a half. Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers’ screenplay has some fairly clever turns, though it gets pretty ridiculous by the time it reaches its hospital elevator climax. That being said, it certainly doesn’t go anywhere predictable in its third act.

Fracture is an entertaining film and worth a look, but make no mistake—without the skill of its tremendously gifted leads, there is just no movie there. So take it for what it is: an enjoyable thriller and, primarily, an actor’s showcase.

"Fracture" is currently available on DVD; it hits Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 16th.

This is the thing I'm at today.

Media event for holiday gift guide items. Forgot to make/bring cards.

Kael of the Week: Fear of Movies

"Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art--of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we've been getting a new cultural puritanism--people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety... This is, of course, a rejection of the particular greatness of movies: their power to affect us on so many sensory levels that we become emotionally accessible, in spite of our thinking selves. Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that's what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies--and they don't even have to be first-rate, much less great--can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper--to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they've been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they're not showing higher, more refined taste; they're just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you're afraid of movies that excite your senses, you're afraid of movies."

-From "Fear of Movies", The New Yorker

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 6/9/09

Here's some of the notable titles hitting DVD and Blu today:

Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood's latest has its moments, but there's all kinds of problems (with the script and the tone) that its admirers are glossing right over. It's worth a rental, but a highly overrated picture.

The International: The new thriller from Tom Tykwer (who did Run Lola Run in '99 and not much since) is a little dry and takes its silly plot too seriously, but it's got Clive Owen and Naomi Watts and a really good shoot-out at the Guggenheim.

Woodstock- 40th Anniversary Edition: I pre-ordered my copy of the Blu-ray restoration several weeks ago and can't wait to see it; Woodstock is one of my favorite docs and favorite music films, and I'm anxious to check out the new features and the A/V presentation. DVD Talk's Chris Neilson gives it mostly high marks.

The Jack Lemmon Film Collection: Some early, slightly obscure Lemmon pictures in a value-priced set. DVD Savant recommends it, with some reservations.

Indecent Proposal: Hey, remember this trashy thing from back in the day? Where Robert Redford pays Woody Harrelson a million bucks to fuck Demi Moore? I can't imagine it's aged well, but it's out on Blu-ray if you want to be sure.

On DVD: "Rifftrax: Swing Parade"

Swing Parade (originally titled Swing Parade of 1946) is a fairly obscure poverty-row musical comedy, remembered today only for the appearance of the Three Stooges, who pop up in supporting roles. It was produced under the auspices of Monogram Pictures, and like many low-budget pictures of the era, it fell into the public domain; it can now be picked up on various cheapie discs at dollar stores. It was also restored and colorized by Legend Films and released a couple of years back; as with many of their titles, it has now been taken on by their subsidiary, Rifftrax, the movie-mocking venture of Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett. (For a more detailed examination of the progression from MST to Rifftrax to the 10 stand-alone Rifftrax DVDs being released this month, see my Reefer Madness review.)

The trio adds some big laughs (and a few good groans) to the minor musical-comedy, but it doesn’t provide the same kind of fertile comic fodder as true stinkers like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 From Outer Space. This has been a conundrum of their website recently; while they’ve taken on modern clunkers like Twilight and Transformers, they’re also riffing respected movies like Jaws, Star Wars, and even Casablanca. Swing Parade isn’t nearly up to those standards, but it’s no The Happening, either; it’s a semi-charming backstage musical, and (most damagingly to the Riffers), it doesn’t take itself all that seriously.

Its primary offense, according to Mike, Kevin, and Bill, appears to be that there is, in fact, no swing parade in it; the moment the credits end, they snap “Where the hell’s the swing parade?!” and “Stop wasting my time!” The story is featherweight fluff, telling the tale of Carol Lawrence (Gale Storm, TV’s “My Little Margie”), a struggling young singer who dreams only of stardom. She can’t get an audition and is a month late (a whole fifty dollars!) on the rent, so she takes a secretary job that somehow hinges on her ability to deliver a cease-and-desist notice to the owner of a new night club where she couldn’t get an audition because, ha ha, they thought she was a process server. At any rate, this time she gets that audition, and of course she wows them (Mike quips, “As legend has it, this is exactly how it all started for Larry the Cable Guy”), and falls for Danny, the owner (a dull-as-toast Phil Regan), but of course her original intentions become known, and no points for guessing if everything works itself out in the end.

Larry, Moe, and Curly appear as waiter/plumber/dishwashers for the club, as well as (in fine Marx Brothers form) matchmakers for the romantic leads (“If you are planning on holding a swing parade,” Mike notes, “please make sure you invite a minimum of two stooges”). There is so surprisingly little of their trademark roughhouse slapstick—Curly had recently suffered from a series of minor strokes, so there’s a few hits and pokes (“Ah, there’s no circumstance that can’t be made better by hitting Curly in the face”) and a mildly funny scene with the pipes below the club (lifted somewhat from their 1940 short A Plumbing We Will Go), but most of their scenes are comparatively restrained.

The Rifftrax guys get off their best lines at the expense of the (often goofy) songs and dance numbers. The great Louis Jordan does a nonsensical song advising the listener not to worry about his or her mule; they get some mileage out of that one. When a number begins with a ridiculously wide shot of the entire stage (and much of the club), Kevin notes, “I guess the cameraman got the last available seat in the house.” One singer is uproariously referred to as “the 1940s version of Crispin Glover,” while the somewhat elaborate costuming and staging of the nightclub numbers prompts a very funny running joke about the number of drinks they’d have to sell to cover the floor show. That floor show pretty much takes over the third act (“Swing parade? Any time now?”), and that’s where the biggest laughs come here—a contrast to some of the weaker Rifftrax, which frequently start strong but sputter towards the finish.

Swing Parade isn’t as strong as some of the other new Rifftrax DVDs because, quite simply, the movie being targeted isn’t all that bad—again, it’s no masterpiece, but it has its moments and the Stooges add some flavor. That complaint aside, the Rifftrax guys land some witty lines, and their commentary provides a nice compliment to the feature presentation.

"Swing Parade," and several other Rifftrax DVDs, hit shelves on Tuesday, June 16th.

On DVD: "Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2"

“They're not meant to be artistic at all. And if they are, they almost always fail. They're really sort of there to drive home a lesson or a purpose, so they're really screwed down and very intent in that. And sometimes they try to scare you into doing something better, and sometimes they try to teach you a moral lesson, and they always seem a little bit oppressive. And so you really get that delightful feeling of sitting in the back of the classroom and making fun of the movie that the teacher put on and then she went out and had a smoke while, you know, the kids in the back of the room are making fun of the movie. That's how it feels to me. It oddly enough takes me back to about fourth grade, when I used to actually watch some of these things, and snicker with my friends in the back of the room.” -Kevin Murphy, on why educational shorts work so well for Rifftrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000

That sense of bad kids laughing and lobbing verbal balloons from the back of the classroom permeates the educational films assembled on Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2. The nine shorts (totaling nearly two hours) run the gambit of expected topics, from safety to hygiene to manners to social interaction, and they represent some of the strongest material that the Mystery Science Theater alums have yet produced; while some of the Rifftrax commentaries have been hit and miss, these shorts hold their own (along with some of their better features, like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 From Outer Space) against the best episodes of MST3K. (For a more detailed examination of the progression from MST to Rifftrax to the 10 stand-alone Rifftrax DVDs being released this month, see my Reefer Madness review.)

The collection gets off to a strong (if peculiar) start with “One Got Fat,” a truly strange bicycle safety short where a group of kids, made up with creepy ape faces and tails (“a bicycle safety film where apes evolve from man?”) , take a bike trip for a picnic and are, well, presumably killed along the way for various infractions of bicycling rules. The riffing is strong in this weird, weird, weird short; Bill Corbett refers to the goofy narrator as “fractured fairy tale guy,” there’s a good running joke about Kevin’s insistence on multiple poo-throwing jokes, and when the film arrives at its morbid conclusion, Mike (correctly) sums it ups with the thesis, “Remember, safe bicycling leads to morbid obesity.”

The next film (from Coronet’s “Beginning Responsibility” series) is “Lunchroom Manners,” in which a group of school kids view a Punch-and-Judy-style puppet show and allow its vulgarian villain, “Mr. Bungle,” to make them thoroughly paranoid about their hygiene and behavior at lunchtime. The stifling conformity encouraged by these kinds of shorts always provides fertile comedic fodder for the crew, and this short provides many instances of what Murphy described to me as shorts being “the perfect straight men,” because their narrators will solemnly intone their points and then leave long pauses for the guys to crack wise. That same kind of rhythm is present in the next film, “Every Child Is Different”—at one point, the narrator notes, “Dad knows his son has trouble reading,” and their response is, “His co-workers remind him every day.” This short, presumably geared towards teachers (it’s hard to tell) is an epic (over 15 minutes) tale of five kids in a classroom and the (mostly depressing) lives that they lead outside of school. Favorite riff here: “Ruth’s classmates voted her Most Likely to Inspire the Book Carrie.”

The befuddling “Why Doesn’t Cathy Eat Breakfast?” has been a favorite of mine since its appearance on one of those "Educational Archives” DVDs; they get some good one-liners off (some by giving voice to young Cathy), and can’t make any more sense out of its non-conclusion than I could (Mike protests, “No Country for Old Men had better closure!”). “Cathy” is paired with the equally perplexing “Petaluma Chicken,” a film so strange (“I see they’re following David Lynch’s omlet recipe”) and ineptly assembled (the chunky sound cuts cause them to surmise that it was “edited by Rosemary Woods”), so odd and nonsensical, that it becomes one of their funniest achievements.

In “Act Your Age (Emotional Maturity),” a young man commits the unpardonable sin of carving his initials into his desk (“Sorry, son, we’re going to have to hang you”); the short then explores the idea of shaming young people into maturity. Some good throwaway laughs here (Narrator: “You’ve seen the girl who always has to win an argument…” Bill: “Tucker Carlson?”), though it does highlight the crew’s occasional tendency to ride a weak joke too hard (there’s way too many lines about the principal’s mustache). Without question, the goofiest short of the bunch is “Safety: Harm Hides At Home,” in which a crossing guard/“free-lance architect” (kudos for the Art Vandelay reference) is made into a lame, Mylar-suited superhero (“Guardiana, the Safety Woman”) by aliens. Yes, you read that right. Enjoy the odd editing (“Did you enjoy the poster I beamed into your mind, Miss Kingsley?”), the strange writing, and the peculiar characterizations (“She’s like a browbeating, joyless Santa Claus”).

“Coffee House Rendezvous” is some kind of a low-budget documentary about coffee-house culture, which provides the opportunity for merciless send-ups from the guys; they mock the bad musicians and square sixties look of the groups (dubbing one The Charles Grodin Trio), while coming to the conclusion that “If this is what coffee does to people, I’m glad this generation discovered acid.” Shorts that advise the youth on how to interact with each other are always a hoot, and “Are You Popular?” is no exception; of the title, Mike notes, “The answer, if you’re watching this film, is no.” As with many of these films, the teens are played by hopelessly over-aged actors (“I’m 47, I’ve pretty much done it all”); the best part comes at the end, as they provide play-by-play for the film’s dramatization of a particularly goofy date. The final short, “Good Health Practices,” is a particularly detailed health and hygiene short. I might complain about the amount of gross-out humor in this one, but the short brings it on itself; in addition to “good eating practices,” “good cleaning practices,” and “good rest practices,” the jive narration includes multiple references to, God help us, “good toilet practices.” So all bets are off at that point.

Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2 offers plenty of big laughs and the chance to watch Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett doing what they do best—unsparing mocking of really terrible films, replete with smart-ass humor and countless pop culture references. The uneven quality of the video transfer is disappointing, but that blemish is minor when weighed against the pleasures to be found here.

"Rifftrax Shorts Volume 2," and several other Rifftrax DVDs, hit shelves on Tuesday, June 16th.

On DVD: "Rifftrax: Reefer Madness"

Our journey to Rifftrax: Reefer Madness is a long and storied one. It begins with a little show called Mystery Science Theater 3000, which ran lo those many years ago on Comedy Central and then on Sci-Fi (or as it's stupidly known now, SyFy), and a guy and two robots watched movies and made fun of them (or, in the jargon, "riffed" them), and many of us laughed, but it was one of those "cult sensations," which means it was eventually cancelled. But then old episodes were released on DVD, and because most MST fans are obsessive collectors, they sold well.

Here's where Legend Films came in. The San Diego-based company's primary focus, via its "Off-Color Films" imprint, is colorization (and, thankfully, pre-process restoration) of black and white films, but some of their early DVD releases included an MST3K-style commentary track by that show's head writer and latter-seasons star, Michael J. Nelson. Nelson's commentaries weren't promoted to look like much more than an afterthought for those releases, which were almost entirely films in the public domain (Carnival of Souls, The House on Haunted Hill, Plan 9 From Outer Space), but Legend soon found that his participation was a big selling point.

Soon after, with a direct-to-video MST-style project called The Film Crew in limbo, Nelson began a new collaboration with Legend: Rifftrax, a project in which he records .mp3 audio commentary riffs for popular films available on DVD, which viewers can then sync up and watch with the movie. The original Rifftrax were usually done by Nelson solo, with occasional guest riffers; he then started working in his MST and Film Crew co-stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, and the trio now front most of the site's new releases.

Here's where it gets complicated: Nelson's solo commentaries for the Legend Films DVDs were among the first batch of Rifftrax downloads made available. Later, those film's were "re-riffed" in "three riffer editions" with Murphy and Corbett, which could be downloaded as either .mp3 files or (since the films were all in the public domain) in video-on-demand format. Why was this done, since there are so many bad movies that Rifftrax hasn't touched yet? I'm presuming the reason is money; they can make a lot more of it on the VOD versions, and there's no additional overhead, since the video content is free.

And now, as if to convolute matters even further, Legend Films is releasing DVDs of the three-riffer versions of those PD films (perhaps with an eye on the brisk sales of the "Cinematic Titanic" discs being rapidly released by Nelson and crew's fellow MST3K alumni). Some fans will undoubtedly feel like they're being taken to the cleaners; personally, I bought the Reefer Madness Mike-only disc, and then bought the three-riffer .mp3 from the site, so springing for this DVD amounts to a triple-dip. But for folks who have held out on taking the Rifftrax plunge (perhaps due to the semi-complicated logistics of watching a movie with the downloaded commentary), this disc is a great place to start.

For my money, the three-riffer version of Reefer Madness is one of the best Rifftrax out there; it's the kind of target that these guys take on most successfully. Lately, they're been in a strange stretch where they're riffing good movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Dark Knight, and while there are scattered laughs in those, the films just aren't very fertile soil for mockery. Their tracks for modern stinkers are noticeably sharper and funnier--dreck like The Happening and The Fantastic Four are kind of asking for it.

But hearing them destroy a vintage turkey like Reefer Madness gives me a special joy; it could just be that it feels like an MST3K episode, but I'm more inclined to believe that there was a purity to the bad movies of old. They're goofier in their badness, more affable in their sloppy storytelling and creaky craftsmanship, as opposed to a slick piece of shit like Transformers, where the stupidity is just depressing.

But in a movie like Reefer Madness, they're clearly having a ball; the movie is so over-the-top and incompetent, half the work is done for them. Made in 1936 with the financing of a church group and intended as a serious morality tale (its original title was Tell Your Children), the film begins with an endless crawl explaining the dangers of this "new drug menace," "marihuana" ("This was ten years before the invention of the letter J," notes Mike). It then takes us to a PTA meeting in which a bespectacled doctor lectures a group of parents, at length, about the evil of "this scourge." He then tells them the story "of something that happened right here in our city."

We next meet Mae and Jack, drug dealers who argue constantly about Jack's interest in selling dope to "kids"--played by some suspiciously middle-aged amateur thespians ("Not a real actor!" quips Kevin after one horrifying line reading). After the sickeningly sweet set-up of Bill and Mary, an annoying young couple ("Here's proof that dweebs haven't really changed much in 71 years"), we follow Bill and Mary's brother Jimmy to Mae and Jack's apartment, where they're soon sucked in to the dangerous reefer scene. The apartment is a hotbed of bad music, insane dancing, and illicit sex; these scenes, in which one puff of the demon weed turns the smoker into a deranged lunatic, are among the funniest in the film (particularly for smokers in the audience).

Jimmy finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, driving Jack on a weed run when they run over a pedestrian. It's the first of many unfortunate turns for these poor "kids," punctuated by more lecturing, including an uproarious visit by the bespectacled doctor to the "Federal Offices Bureau of Investigation" ("Yay, he's back," Bill muses unenthusiastically). Throughout, the Rifftrax crew tears the film to shreads, handily mocking its clunky transitions ("and... scene. Brilliant!"), terrible writing ("Whoah, a little slang overload there"), laughable performances ("Scared? Sad? Bored? Gassy? It's hard to tell with old Bill here"), awkward staging ("Must we see her mix the drink? Show her holding the mixed drink, and I'll infer that she mixed it earlier"), and incurable whiteness ("The mood is somewhat lightened by the fact that he's wearing pants up to just below his nipples"). The riffs fly fast and furious, with a continuing stream of laugh-out-loud punch lines and well-aimed mockery of a highly deserving target.

Those, like me, who sprung for Legend's previous DVD release of Reefer Madness will want to think twice before ponying up another ten-spot for this newer release; the $4 download on the Rifftrax site is probably a smarter investment. But taken as its own release, it's well worth the coin; this is one of the great bad movies of all time, and the addition of an uproarious Rifftrax commentary makes it even funnier.

"Reefer Madness," and several other Rifftrax DVDs, hit shelves on Tuesday, June 16th.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On DVD: "John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Live in Toronto '69"

The concert film John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band: Live in Toronto ’69 (originally titled Sweet Toronto —still seen in the opening titles of the film proper) had a bit of a checkered history on its way to home video. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back), it captures John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and their Plastic Ono Band (a label they applied throughout the 70s to whatever group of musicians they were appearing with) at their first on-stage appearance, as part of the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival show.

That September 13, 1969 show was a one-day festival spotlighting rock legends of the fifties (including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis) and the modern acts they had influenced (including The Doors and Alice Cooper). The show’s organizers reportedly asked the Beatles to join—a Hail Mary at best, as the group hadn’t appeared in concert for three years. John, however, was intrigued, and when the band (well-splintered by this time) declined, he decided (at varying degrees of the last minute, based on whose reporting you believe) to throw a band together and go do the gig—partially for fun, partially to see his idols and introduce Yoko to their music.

The group he put together never had a formal rehearsal—they worked out a set list and went over a couple of standards on the plane from London—but it was a solid combination of talents: drummer Alan White, bassist Klaus Voormann, and, on lead guitar, Eric Clapton (whose one-album supergroup Blind Faith had recently disbanded). Pennebaker’s brief film focuses primarily on Lennon’s set, with only a single number each for Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley (and half of his performance of “Bo Diddley” is incongruously used as accompaniment for the Lennon entourage’s arrival in Toronto and shuttling to the show). However, they all sound terrific, and at least they all got one more song than poor Chuck Berry, who is merely glimpsed standing around backstage. (For a full, and fascinating, account of the on-the-fly making of the film, check out Bob Christgau’s piece here.)

The show was in important one for Lennon; his appearance on-stage with a new group was yet another clue that the Fab Four were on the way out, and the performance proved a bit of a roadmap for the kind of music we’d be hearing from him for the next several years (for better or worse). Though the band’s performance was released as an album in December of that year, various unofficial deals and Lennon’s unhappiness with his physical appearance in the footage caused the film to sit the Pennebaker vaults until the late 1980s, when it was finally seen on Showtime and released on VHS with a brief prologue interviewing Ono at a 1988 Lennon art exhibition in London.

“Okay,” Lennon announces at the top of the set, “we’re just gonna do numbers that we know, because we’ve never played together before.” And with that, the quartet launches into a scorching series of rock and roll standards. Lennon looks a little nervous at first, but the band’s cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” is rougly passionate and gives Clapton his first opportunity to rip up a solo. Their bristling, heavy cover of “Money” is darkly effective, and the set’s highlight is “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” which finds Lennon in terrific voice and is augmented by another wickedly satisfying Clapton solo.

So far, so good. The problem, at risk of sounding like every other Beatles fan ever, is Yoko Ono. During the first three numbers, Ono is only present long enough to disappear into what appears to be a large, white, cloth bag—odd, but hey, it’s Yoko. Then she emerges for the group’s performance of Lennon’s gritty barn-burner “Yer Blues” (from the White album), and starts screeching along with the song, and you immediately wish she’d go back into the goddamned bag. She does similar damage to Lennon’s just-recorded “Cold Turkey,” which he introduces by noting, “We’ve never done this number before, so best of luck”; the version performed here has a smoother, more streamlined instrumentation, missing the record’s distinctive main guitar riff. Yoko screams along, John has to reference the lyrics from Yoko’s notes, on the whole thing kind of breaks down at the end.

Her vocals aren’t as intrusive on “Give Peace A Chance,” due primarily to the sing-along nature of the song, but when that number concludes and John announces, “Now Yoko’s gonna do her thing,” do whatever it takes to find the remote and shut the disc down. We’re subjected to a five-minute version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow,” and it’s downright cringe-worthy; as the quartet plays along with her horrifying caterwauling, about the only entertainment to be found is reading Clapton’s expressions (he clearly sees that the set is going down the tubes). At least they’re playing, though—the show closer, “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace),” is twelve minutes of Ono squawking, chirping, and yodeling over guitar feedback. It is endless, and it is unlistenable; I finally had to turn it down to a barely-audible volume because it was freaking out my cats.

The camerawork through the film is a little slipshod (we watch an entire verse of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” with the top half of Lennon’s face just out of frame), but they do capture one amazing moment. About halfway through the interminable final number, the cameraman pushes in on Lennon’s face, which is strangely vacant and unreadable in light of how completely the performance has gone into the toilet. What was he thinking? Did he actually think this was good? Or was he so in love with Yoko that he didn’t care—she was going to perform for twenty minutes, audience be damned? When it finally comes to an end, he leaves his guitar against the amp, continuing the feedback hum; as the musicians leave the stage, if there’s any applause at all, you sure can’t hear it. The viewer is left with an odd feeling as the closing credits roll—what started as a rip-roaring rock show ends as a peculiar psychological puzzle.

It’s hard to cast a definitive vote on a package as uneven as this one; the first half of the program (the performances by the fifties legends and the Plastic Ono Band covering the rock classics) is five-star, must-have stuff, but as Ono is inexplicably allowed to take over the set, it gets progressively worse and worse, and the last twenty or so minutes are unremitting. So I’m on the middle with this one; it’s worth watching, particularly for fans of Lennon and classic rock, but when Yoko pops out of the bag, the good parts are done.

"John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Live in Toronto '69" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 23rd.

On DVD: "Waltz with Bashir"

The Israeli film Waltz with Bashir is a breathtakingly original hybrid of documentary and narrative, fused together with the help of stylish, eye-catching animation. It is a serious film with some horrifying images, a reflection of a troubling time and an indictment of the evils of war, but it is also exhilarating cinema, infused with the energy and enthusiasm of a filmmaker who has found a new and remarkable way to tell a story.

Writer/director Ari Folman doesn’t futz around with preliminaries. The opening sequence is a real grabber: drooling, angry dogs running through the streets, leaving destruction and cowering passerby in their wake, accompanied by furious growls and pulsing music. We then discover that this nightmare vision is, in fact, a nightmare; it is being described to Folman by his friend Boaz (voiced by Mickey Leon) and is connected to his memories of the 1982 Lebanon War, in which both men fought. Folman has blocked out his recollections of the conflict, but he later has a detailed vision related to the notorious Sabra and Shatlia massacre; however, he’s not even sure if this is a genuine memory of a moment he has placed himself inside of. Over the course of the film, Folman talks with friends and fellow soldiers, a reporter, and a psychologist to unlock his own experiences—and determine why he has suppressed those memories.

The style of the piece is genuinely fascinating; the interviews are shot and edited like conversation scenes in a fictional narrative (albeit with names superimposed, documentary-style), but animated; then, as the subjects talk, their memories are seen. These sequences are basically reenactments, but the beauty and distinctive quality of the animation makes them far more involving and effective than they would have been in live action. The depth and dimension of the frames are remarkable, and the distinctive texture of the animation style (which they call “cut-out animation,” a far more difficult and painstaking process than rotoscoping, which it somewhat resembles) allows Forman and his artists to take advantage of the aesthetic opportunities that animation affords; the transitions, the freedom of movement, the vivid compositions, and the occasional use of hallucinogenic and dream imagery.

There are moments here that are visually jaw-dropping: a taxi ride that turns into a journey through the jungle, a slo-mo shot of an RPG taking down a tank, a soldier’s mad dance in the middle of a street that gives the film its title. Folman and his animators also change up the look of the film throughout, occasionally allowing one color (a golden yellow or deep blue, for example) to take over the palate for a scene or sequence, to great effect. The sound design also enriches the environment and frequently augments the narrative, from the startling battle sequences to a dreamlike airport scene with scattered, echoed announcements. The score and music choices also greatly enhance the soundscape, though a couple of composer Max Richter’s cues are too clearly Philip Glass-influenced.

But Waltz with Bashir isn’t just empty style. The storytelling is urgent and terse without being pedantic; the natural rhythms of the interviews, for example, feel like well-written dialogue, while the stories they tell are absorbing and often horrifying. This is never more true than in its third act, which explains and dramatizes the Sabra and Shatila massacres via confidently crosscut interviews that hurtle us towards the film’s heartbreaking conclusion. Folman’s final aesthetic choice knocks the wind out of the viewer, removing our distance and making a real story of terror that much more palpable. If a complaint can be lodged against the powerful ending, it’s that it somehow leaves the viewer wanting more—and that’s not a charge I can level against most films these days.

With the inordinate number of remakes and reboots and sequels and sequels to remakes glutting the marketplace these days, it’s a real rarity to view a film that we haven’t seen before. But Waltz with Bashir is genuinely fresh and unique, and in spite of its somber subject matter, it is thrilling to watch—it’s a picture intoxicated by its own originality, and that joy is infectious.

"Waltz with Bashir" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 23rd.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A summer movie viewing list

Okay, so this post is a little self-indulgent (what, like most of them aren't?) But I have this excellent brother-in-law, Alex, who graduated from college last month. As a grad gift for his upcoming summer, my wife suggested we give him some movies he might not have seen. We did just that, along with these notes about them, to serve as a "guide" for his summer viewing. Try it at home!

Hey Al-

Happy Graduation! Rebekah asked me to put together some movies that you might enjoy watching over the summer. I decided to write up a quick explanation of what they are and why I thought you’d like them; you’re certainly under no obligation to watch them in this order, but if you don’t, well, I take no responsibility.

I figure you’ll wanna start off easy and light, so the first disc is Rifftrax’s destruction of Reefer Madness. Rifftrax is the new venture by Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, who were the Sci-Fi Channel-era hosts of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and this disc is one I reviewed for DVD Talk—I think it’s their finest one to date. Reefer Madness is just a terrible, awful movie (a hilariously inaccurate 1930s warning of the dangers of “marihuana”), and they take it to pieces.

While you’re in the laughing mood, no summer would be complete (for me, anyway) without at least one Marx Brothers movie. My current favorite (having grown a little tired of obvious choices like Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera) is Monkey Business, which is one of the purest, all-laughs movies—Groucho does some great stuff with a clichĂ©-spouting movie gangster (and his moll, played by the ridiculously sexy Thelma Todd), Chico and Harpo have some great two-man scenes, and it’s got the usual tiresome romantic subplot, but the leading man is fourth brother Zeppo (who seems to have a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing), so it’s not that bad. Favorite scene: Groucho and the gangster’s wife on the veranda at the party.

The Brothers Marx aren’t usually listed among Steven Soderbergh’s influences, but I think there’s definitely a Marxist spirit floating through his little-known, no-budget effort Schizopolis. He made this film in the mid-90s when his career was in the dumper (his first film, sex, lies, and videotape, was a sensation, but he couldn’t buy a hit after that); it rejoiced his creative batteries and within a couple of years he directed Out of Sight and he was hot again. It’s a strange, almost sketch-comedy revue sort of thing, but there’s some inspired weirdness and some real laughs; the Criterion DVD is especially good because of the commentary track. Soderbergh usually does commentaries with his screenwriters, but since he wrote this film himself, he interviews himself on the commentary (and the “director” version of himself is an insufferable, pretentious boor); that track is nearly as funny as the movie.

Jean-Luc Godard’s films are a clear influence on Soderbergh (and particularly on Schizopolis), so I’ve included by favorite Godard film, Band of Outsiders. It’s a thrillingly clever, off-the-cuff little crime movie with a love triangle at the center. This is one of Tarantino’s favorite films—he named his production company, A Band Apart, after his phonetic pronunciation of the film’s original French title (Bande a part), and the scene where the trio dance in a cafĂ© clearly inspired a famous scene in Pulp Fiction.

Another Tarantino favorite is your next disc: the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. This 1974 movie was way the fuck ahead of its time; it tells the story of a subway car full of hostages held for a big ransom—the kind of construct that made Die Hard and all of its imitators work years later. QT clearly like the idea naming the gang after colors; he swiped it for Reservoir Dogs. There’s a big-budget remake of it coming out this summer, and while it looks pretty good, I can’t imagine it’ll stand up to this original, or to Walter Matthau’s terrific (and bad-ass) work in the lead.

Matthau also stars in your next film, Hopscotch, a wonderful spy comedy from the early 80s. His loopy, hangdog charm and matter-of-fact air makes him totally believable as a CIA field agent who has been pushed into a desk job and is not the least bit happy about it. I saw this movie on network TV when I was a kid (and the network TV audio, replacing Ned Beatty’s inventive profanities with even stranger substitutions, is offered on an alternate audio track) and have loved it ever since.

From a spy comedy to a spy drama: Notorious is one of Hitchock’s lesser-known masterpieces—Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo tend to get more love these days. But this one is just wonderful, with beautifully understated performances by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and one of my all-time favorite Hitch shots (a crane shot that moves from a high angle wide of a fancy party in to a close-up of a key in Bergman’s hand). And the black-and-white photography is gorgeous.

Same goes for Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which is also has my second-favorite Orson Welles performance (after Citizen Kane). He comes about an hour into the movie, following one of the best-prepared entrances in movie history; shortly thereafter, he delivers one of my favorite speeches ever (it’s the one about the cukoo clocks).

There’s no easy thread to get us from The Third Man to Robert Altman’s Nashville, except that they’re both great. This is the quintessential Altman movie—20 or 30 important, fully drawn characters, bouncing off of each other over the course of a long weekend in the country music capital. It’s a long movie (nearly 3 hours), but do yourself the favor of watching it all at once.

After the heavy ending of that movie, it’s time to lighten up. You’ve got to have a Buster Keaton in there, so I’ve copied The General for you; a flop at the time of its release, it has since been acclaimed as not only his best film, but one of the best movies ever made. It has a terrific momentum and some amazing gags, and always keep in mind when watching his movies that Buster did all of his own stunts.

I prefer Keaton to Chaplin, but just barely; City Lights is my favorite Chaplin movie. Chaplin can get a little maudlin at times (part of the reason Keaton has aged better than he has), but there are some terrific comic sequences here (especially the boxing match and the opening with the statue), and the full-throated emotion of the ending is something else (it gets me every time).

Finally, back to where we began, with a Rifftrax. Rebekah tells me that you love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and so do we, and so does Neil Patrick Harris, who sits in with Mike Nelson for this very funny commentary.

So there’s those, buddy; hope you enjoy them, have a great summer, and can’t wait to see you soon!