Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Dead Like Me"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). This week I'm bending the rules a little, and doing a TV show. What a rebel.

You’ve got to feel a little bit bad for Bryan Fuller. Over the last decade or so, he’s created three quirky, unique television shows (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies), only to see them met by small (though loyal) audiences and cancellation from impatient networks. His latest series, Pushing Daisies, looked to be his first big hit; but its audience somehow disappeared after a longer-than-average hiatus due to the writer’s strike. Fox only aired four episodes of Wonderfalls in 2004 (though the entire 13 were subsequently released on DVD). His first series, Dead Like Me, is his longest-running to date—Showtime aired two seasons, totaling 29 episodes, before its untimely cancellation. Five years later, after much speculation, a direct-to-DVD follow-up movie has been released; all of them are now collected in the nine-disc Dead Like Me: The Complete Collection.

Friday, September 24, 2010

New on Blu: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"

Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers has proven one of the most fruitful pieces of modern literature for screen adaptations, with no less than four film versions (so far): Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake under the same title, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers, and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 version, The Invasion. (The title variations now appear to have been exhausted.) Siegel’s original was reportedly hamstrung by studio interference; the humor was mostly stripped out and the downbeat ending was amended with a more hopeful coda. Kaufman sought to rectify both of those issues with his take, which is a high-spirited, giggly, scary-movie kick, capped off with a sucker-punch of an ending.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Theaters: "Enter the Void"

If there’s a word that leaps to mind when thinking of Gaspar Noé, it’s probably “uncompromising.” Though a filmmaker since the mid-1980s, he became an international cause célèbre when his 2002 film Irreversible prompted mass walkouts at Cannes (and around the world) for its graphic, brutal scenes of rape and violence. That film may not have been pleasant, but he went all the way with it—it didn’t mine its violence or sex for the kicky thrill, but put our faces right up in them and dared us to watch. His new film Enter the Void only has a couple of fleeting moments that got the same kind of wincing, sickened reaction out of this viewer; this time, he is uncompromising in his narrative ambitions (or lack thereof). It is a lengthy, contemplative picture with broadly avant-garde overtones, and make no mistake, there is much in it to admire. But it’s too damn much—too long, too repetitive, too indulgent. It demands more patience than most viewers will be willing to give (although those who like this kind of thing are really gonna like this one, if you catch my drift).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Kael of the Week: On Sam Peckinpah

“There’s no way to make sense of what has been going on in Peckinpah’s recent films if one looks only at their surface stories. Whether consciously or, as I think, part unconsciously, he’s been destroying the surface content. In this new film, there aren’t any of the ordinary kinds of introductions to the characters, and the events aren’t prepared for. The political purposes of the double-crosses are shrouded in a dark fog, and the company itself makes no economic sense. There are remnants of a plot involving a political leader from Taiwan (he sounds off about democratic principles in the manner of Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo in Casablanca), but that fog covers all the specific plot points. Peckinpah can explain this disintegration to himself terms of how contemptible the material actually is—the fragmented story indicates how he feels about what the bosses buy and what they degrade him with. He agrees to do these properties, to be “a good whore,” and then he can’t help turning them into revenge fantasies. His whole way of making movies has become a revenge fantasy: he screws the bosses, he screws the picture, he screws himself.”

-From "Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah--The Killer Elite"
The New Yorker, January 12, 1976

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Theaters: "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"

We have a tendency as filmgoers to take Woody Allen for granted. The fact that he is still chugging away, knocking out a film a year at 74 years old, is indeed impressive, and one frequently marvels at not only the consistent quality of his work, but the relative indifference when he hits pay dirt—i.e., if some young up-and-comer had knocked out a Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Match Point, he or she’d have been hailed as the Second Coming, but when it’s Woody, we just chalk it up as an expectation, rate it on a comparative scale to his previous masterworks, and move on. It’s not fair to him, or to the work.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On DVD: "Robin Hood (2010)"

There is exactly one swordfight in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood; it comes in the last scene, and it’s a brief, perfunctory number. There’s exactly one scene in which Robin Hood robs from the rich to give to the poor, and it’s done quickly and forgotten, as if an obligation. Scott is an undeniably skilled filmmaker, but he’s all wrong to tell the tale of Robin Hood—at this point in his career, he couldn’t make a swashbuckler if his very life depended on it. But when he so steadfastly ignores what we expect when we go to see a movie called Robin Hood, it seems as though he had no interest in making a Robin Hood movie at all; based on what he came up with, he wanted to do a warmed-over retread of other films he’d made (Gladiator , Kingdom of Heaven) or wishes he’d made (Braveheart)—a grim bruiser in chainmail, and nothing more.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

On DVD: "The Experiment"

You’ve heard the story: In 1971, a couple dozen men were involved in a two-week prison simulation, as part of a psychological experiment conducted by Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo. A handful of the men were chosen at random to serve as “guards”; the other men were their “prisoners.” Almost immediately, the groups clashed, with several of the “guards” exhibiting disturbingly sadistic behaviors, and the plug was pulled on the experiment only six days into its intended 14. The “Stanford prison experiment” has inspired documentaries, television (including episodes of Veronica Mars and Life), and books—including the novel Black Box, which was made into a German film called Das Experiment (unseen by me), which has now been remade into an American film titled, simply, The Experiment, adapted and directed by Paul Scheuring.