Thursday, May 29, 2008

HARVEY KORMAN 1927 - 2008

"Now go do/that voodoo/that you do/so we-e-e-e-e-e-ell!"

According to the Associated Press, comic actor Harvey Korman has died at UCLA Medical Center after suffering complications from the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm four months ago. This report comes from a statement released by the hospital from his family.

For people of my generation and older, Korman will probably be best remembered as part of the comic troupe that graced, and sometimes barely made through attacks of on-stage laughter on The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978). But for me Korman will always be Hedley Lamarr, the oily, corrupt businessman who masterminds the destruction of the town of Rock Ridge by installing a black sheriff, in Mel Brooks’ lunatic TNT blast to the western genre, Blazing Saddles.

Some great moments from Hedy (“That’s Hedley!”) Lamarr as he begins hatching his nefarious plan:

Lamarr: “All right, I'm through being Mr. Goodbar, the time has come to act and act quickly!”
Taggart (Slim Pickens): What do you want me to do, sir?
Lamarr: I want you to round up every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the west. Take this down.
[Taggart scrambles for a pen and paper.]
Lamarr (increasing in intensity): I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers… and Methodists!
Taggart (finding pen and paper): Could you repeat that, sir?

To the motley band of troops assembled to rape and pillage the town at the movie's climax: “You will be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for the Best Supporting Actor.”

Lamarr's tongue (used purtier than that of a $20 whore) at work: “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives!”

And who could forget this exchange Black Bart (Cleavon Little), masquerading as a Klansman and describing his qualifications for villainy:

Lamarr: Crime?
Bart: Stampeding cattle.
Lamarr: That's not much of a crime.
Bart: Through the Vatican?
Lamarr: Kinky! Sign here.

Thanks, Mr. Korman, for this great comic creation and all the other laughs you gave us over your 40-year career in movies and TV.

(And thanks to Ray Pride for the YouTube tip.)


"I like to watch..."

As the great David Hudson would say, have I got an online viewing tip for you…

Jonathan Lapper of Cinema Styles has created a fine new montage film entitled Frames of Reference and it’s available for viewing now. Here’s Jonathan on what he’s up to with it:

“No sound from the films themselves, all done to one piece of music instead of the usual multiple snatches of music in montages (the music being Complex City, composed and conducted by Oliver Nelson, a piece so extraordinary with so many different tempos and breaks it cries out for film use) and with the idea being no chronological order, no genre order or preference, simply the language of film referencing itself. The opening section is purposely slow and methodical as is the music. Then it builds until at the 5:40 mark everything ramps up for the minute long finale.”

It’s an excellent way to take a seven-minute coffee break at work and revisit some great moments in the movies and think about the language of film that ties them all together in our memories and our being. Nice work, Jonathan. (And thanks for including Powell & Pressburger. My obsession continues!)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


There were good eats, good friends, and some might even say a good movie-- Sunday night during Memorial Day weekend the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society kicked off the summer movie season by gathering together under some ominous-looking clouds and even a few patches of starlight for a tailgater screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at our flagship drive-in, the Mission Tiki in Montclair, California.

The gatherings of the SoCal DIMS faithful have evolved since the inaugural meeting back in the summer of 2005 from informal get-togethers at favorite ozoner locations to share stories, pictures and ideas for further events, to taking new memberships and interacting with customers in Southern California drive-in snack bars, to helping coordinate special events. And now the latest wrinkle in the celebration, the SoCal DIMS tailgate party, is kicking off its second summer of family-oriented fun for drive-in movie fanatics and casual moviegoers looking for a fresh take of the summer movie season.

Though it was a mite cool by Memorial Day weekend standards, there were still plenty of cars congregated near the front of the screen at 6:00 p.m., early admission time for SoCal DIMS members and friends who get the pick of the lot with plenty of time to spare for socializing, unpacking and packing in plenty of homemade chow before the movie starts. Of course we always leave room to visit the snack bar as well, and the Mission Tiki’s, done up in beautiful retro tiki style, is not to be missed. (In July, the group will be visiting the newly renovated Van Buren Drive-in which boasts the best snack bar of any Southern California drive-in, built as it is around the nucleus of a giant grill on which fresh carne asada is always sizzling.)

Spend a few minutes at the drive-in with the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society...

The Mission Tiki’s veteran projectionist nonpareil, Jeff Thurman, even made time for a gracious and typically witty tour through the drive-in’s projection booth, which was a fascinating look at what makes a technically superior drive-in like the Mission Tiki tick. The tour, along with some of the pre-game festivities, has been documented by SoCal DIMS cofounder Sal Gomez in the embedded video here. If the drive-in tailgater looks like something you’d like to get in on, there are four more scheduled tailgate parties for the summer of 2008, as well as a special Monsterama all-night film festival at the Mission Tiki coming in October. So mark your calendar, and check out all the good stuff Sal has for your enjoyment at the SoCal DIMS web site, where you can keep up with the latest news, check out some great photo galleries, keep up with some great blogs and links, and much more.


Screengrab courtesy of Jim Emerson

It’s never a total disappointment being at the drive-in even when the movie doesn’t measure up, because the experience itself is so much fun. Unfortunately, the movie this time around, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while not a complete flop, definitely had many of us craning our necks to sneak peeks at the Iron Man/Speed Racer double bill on the neighboring screen. The kinetically charged visual energy Spielberg brings to almost every project, evidence of the true cinematic storyteller abiding in his heart and bones, is something I’ve always counted on in his great movies, and speaking as someone left largely seduced and abandoned by the Indiana Jones series as a whole, that energy is never more important to me than it is in these tales, for it is about the only thing there is to enjoy in them. (Mike Gilbert might say the new movie continues Indiana’s essential brownness.)

There are the incidental pleasures in the first three episodes—Karen Allen’s introduction in Raiders, Indy’s encounter with Hitler at a Nazi book burning in The Last Crusade, and for me the high point of the entire series, the opening “Anything Goes” musical number, in Cantonese, and subsequent scramble for diamonds that leads off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (This sequence is so good that I’m inspired to revisit the entire movie again in the hope that, like I did with 1941, I might discover a brilliant movie underneath the insistent memory of all my initial bad reactions. At this point it’s almost a truism that any movie Spielberg feels he has to apologize for is probably better than its reputation.) However, Crystal Skull, like no other movie in the series, feels rote and uninspired, both in its perfunctory, muddled story and its indifferent direction, Spielberg’s most disinterested since the first half of Jurassic Park-- the self-referential in-jokes inserted to tweak the nostalgia of the series’ fan base are little compensation for a narrative that simply never gathers steam in the manner of even the least of the previous films.

The movie’s traditional dissolve, a bliss-out of graphic continuity, from the peak of the Paramount logo to an actual mountain, or in the inspired instance of Temple of Doom, a gong embossed with the representation of one, an image which carries its own wonderful raft of associations, is turned into a joke here, one which ends up at the expense of the movie itself. Is it reactionary of me that my spider-sense went all tingly upon seeing the Paramount logo give way to… a gopher mound? Neither the mound nor the CGI gophers that surround it (sigh) ever amount to anything, ever resonate with the action. (Now, if it had been an ant hill…) Is this Spielberg’s way of telling us to lower our expectations? Even if not, the juxtaposition still comes off as an inconsequential joke, hardly a harbinger of heights of action and adventure soon to be scaled. Even the movie’s look, grounded as it is in the buffed, CGI-tinged realism of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s images, disappoints— there is no single moment in Skull to match the glowing hallucinatory beauty that Douglas Slocombe brought to the first three films, where the jungles themselves seemed alive, ready to pounce, and the movies, especially Temple of Doom, virtually popped off the screen.

The opening sequence, which introduces us to Indy’s new nemeses, the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, a sculpted-in-evil Soviet scientist (and apparent psychic), promises a workout for Indy and our adrenaline glands. But the movie surprisingly sets aside the frisson of unease generated by Indy’s discovery, under threat of Spalko’s insistence, of alien remains in a mysterious warehouse in favor of the meat of the subsequent adventure, upon which those remains bear no apparent connection-- the appearance of a motorcycle-riding young tough named Mutt (Shia LeBouf by way of Brando), who recruits Indy to rescue his mother, a captive along with Indy’s old colleague (John Hurt) who knows something about the titular see-through cranium. Indy butts heads with the headstrong youngster, and you can practically hear the gears of the picture start to grind. The audience is consistently two steps ahead of Indy as to the true identity of Mutt and his mom (What other rationale would there be for the return of Karen Allen?), and the testy exchanges between old icon and duck-tailed youth are nostalgic in a bad way—they remind you that the dialogue in these pictures was rarely better than musty. The scrapes they get into, punctuated by those repeated close encounters with Spalko and friends (“We meet again… and again…. and again, Dr, Jones”), are Indiana Jones lite—there’s literally nothing at stake during a three-stage plunge down a waterfall when, after the first dive no one gets anything more than wet, or during a nifty run-in with savage red ants in which one villain gets devoured head-first. (At least the snakes and spiders and bugs from the previous movies were real snakes and spiders and bugs).

But most disappointing is that crystal skull itself and what it means, about which there is much awestruck gaping and speculating, none of which translates into a compelling narrative and about which to say more would be in violation of the Spoiler Act of 2008, in effect for the 42 Americans who have still not seen the new movie. Suffice it to say that Spielberg and George Lucas, in attempting to fuse Indiana Jones with the sensibility more akin to the representative ‘50s sci-fi that defined the genre during the time of their story, offer a resolution that sputters like a wet fuse, neither exploiting the fear of invading aliens that the entire movie has been pointing toward (the warehouse in which the movie’s opening action takes place in painted with the hard-to-miss legend “Area 51”), nor fulfilling the thread uniting the previous three films, the archaeological pursuit of God. (Erik von Daniken might disagree, I suppose…)

For the most part, the cast is game—it is good to see Allen on screen again, even though she’s given nothing as memorable as that drinking match from Raiders to do here; John Hurt convinces us (once again) of the enormity and hallucinogenic logic of the images he must be staring at inside his own head; and I even dug Blanchett’s heavily accented Soviet dominatrix moves, Natasha Fatale-by-way-of-Charlotte Rampling—she gets at the would-be spirit of the proceedings and is only marginally less frightening than she was in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. But Ray Winstone is wasted as Indy’s double-triple agent compadre. And Harrison Ford, like Spielberg, just seems tired of the whole show—he’s there because, like the director, it wouldn’t be an Indiana Jones movie without him, the truism of which young LeBouf, primed as he is to become the inheritor of the Jones mantle of scholastically inspired derring-do, may soon discover. After enjoying him in Holes, Disturbia and Transformers, the young actor wears out his welcome here—it may be just as dangerous to enter a movie dressed like The Wild One as it is to equate your movie with a pile of gopher dirt.

Those predisposed to welcome another installment of the Indiana Jones series may be far more forgiving of the movie’s lack of pizzazz—there may even be an implicit defense of it in the unavoidable theme of an aging icon of cinematic heroics. Yet Indy, despite his copious stunt doubles and his director’s attempt to not seem hopelessly analog in a digitally converted world of action cinema, seems creaky and outdated here, the movie only a faint echo of the level of excitement we know Spielberg can bring to an adventure picture when he’s firing on all cylinders. The mission statement of the original movies was in part to resurrect the breakneck narrative of ‘30s serials and refashion them in the technology-infused cinematic grammar of the ‘80s. How ironic, then, that Lucas and Spielberg, in no longer reaching back to the ‘30s, or even the ‘50s, but instead to the template of the ‘80s movie that changed blockbuster action movies forever, should appear so winded and wheezy in their modernity. Forget the crystal skull—in 2008 it’s Indiana Jones that’s the museum piece.

(Drive-in photos courtesy of Sal Gomez, Kathy Beyers and the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society)

Thursday, May 22, 2008


All right, students, you’ve had the entire first half of 2008 to study up, so sharpen those number twos, straighten up your posture, keep your eyes on your papers and get ready. After what seems like a good long time (since the Christmas holiday, actually), the SLIFR University has once again swung open the doors to its hallowed halls, where “Knowledge Is Good” and movie passion is better, not to mention the doors of its main lecture hall, where it is time once again for another faculty-approved head-scratcher. I had hoped that a certain bullwhip-cracking professor of archaeology might grace us with his presence for this go-round. But it turns out he’s busy off on a series of endless junkets promoting some travelogue of his that opens in a couple of dusty markets today, so he couldn’t be bothered.

So we turn instead to another esteemed thinker for this Memorial Day quiz, one whose expertise lies more in the realm of video, Professor Brian O’Blivion. We weren’t sure just how well he would adapt to the rigors of a movie-oriented test, but as it turned out that strange glob metastasizing inside his cathode-ray-decomposed brain was more than up to the task. (When informed of this observation, the professor was overheard to mutter, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television.”) Other than a random TV-themed question or two, the good Professor O’Blivion has shown an admirable ferocity for thinking outside the idiot box, and therefore you have the rather epic quiz you see now before you. The professor apologizes if it is a little longer than the usual SLIFR professorial fare, but he offered in defense of the quiz’s lengthiness only this cryptic comment: “I believe that the growth in my head-this head-- this one right here. I think that it is not really a tumor... not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling pot of flesh... but that it is in fact a new organ... a new part of the brain.” Okay…

So without further delay, it is our pleasure and privilege to present to you the latest time-consuming distraction from the SLIFR curricula, Professor Brian O’Blivion’s All-New Flesh for Memorial Day Quiz. As always, when formatting your answers for the comments section, please remember to cut and paste the questions so that we can all more easily reference what questions you are answering! Good luck! As is customary, the last word belongs to our esteemed faculty member: “After a while, I started hallucinating, and developed a tumor. I believe the visions caused the tumor, and not the other way around.”

Um, could someone get the professor a shot of Patron and a TV dinner, please?

And begin…

1) Best transition from movies to TV (actor, actress, producer/director, movie/show)

2) Living film director you most missing seeing on the cultural landscape regularly

3) Eugene Pallette or Charles Coburn

4) Fill in the blank: “I pray that no one ever turns _____________ into a movie.”

5) Jane Greer or Veronica Lake

6) What was the last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD? And why?

7) Name an actor you think should be a star

8) Foxy Brown or Coffy

9) Favorite TV show still without its own DVD box set

10) Jack Elam or Neville Brand

11) What movies would top your list of movies you need to revisit, for whatever reason?

12) Zodiac or All the President’s Men

13) Using our best reviewer-speak, what is an “important” film comedy? And what is to you the most important film comedy of the last 35 years?

14) Describe the ideal environment for watching a movie.

15) Michelle Williams or Eva Mendes

16) What’s the worst movie title of all time?

17) Best movie about teaching and/or learning

18) Dracula (1931) or Horror of Dracula (1958)

19) Why do you blog? Or if you don’t, why do you read blogs? (Thanks, Girish)

20) Most memorable/disturbing death scene

21) Jason Robards or Robert Shaw

22) A good candidate for Most Blasphemous Movie Ever

23) Rio Bravo or Red River

24) Werner Herzog is remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage—that’s reality. Try to outdo reality by concocting a match-up of director and title for a really strange imaginary remake.

25) Bulle Ogier or Charlotte Rampling

26) In the Realm of the Senses— yes or no?

27) Name a movie you think of as your own (Thanks, Jim!)

28) Winged Migration or Microcosmos

29) Your favorite football game featured in a movie

30) Wendy Hiller or Deborah Kerr

31) Dirtiest secret you have that is related to the movies

32) Name a favorite film and describe how it is illuminated and enriched by another favorite film.

33) It’s a Gift or Horsefeathers

34) Your best story about seeing a movie at a drive-in

35) Victor Mature or Tyrone Power

36) What does film criticism mean to you? Where do you think it’s headed?


That's it! Happy Memorial Day to you and yours, and even happier quizzin'!



By the time you read this, Georgiana Riedel’s directorial debut How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer will likely have been swept off of the few screens it is currently occupying (here in Los Angeles and, I’m presuming, elsewhere) on a tide of theatrical manifest destiny spearheaded by Harrison Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker. (And those few screens have been flickering to largely empty houses, if my Sunday evening screening, one which I was the sole patron, is any indication.) You are more likely to catch this 2005 Sundance entry, currently in a very limited release from Maya Entertainment, when it eventually makes its DVD premiere. Which is a bit of a shame, because it turns out that Riedel brings an oddly skewed visual sensibility to the Panavision frame she uses to linger over her story of three generations of females in a Mexican-American family discovering, or rediscovering, their sexuality during a sweltering Arizona summer. There are times when I was reminded of the unpredictable rhythms and candid observational perspective of as unlikely a kindred spirit as Takeshi Kitano, particularly the distinctly off-kilter visual diagrams of Sonatine. Now you can see why Garcia Girls took me somewhat by surprise. Riedel has talent and promise as a director; she is unafraid to let the camera drink in the details of the unassuming locales made fascinating by her curious eye. She is less successful with modulating the movie’ pace, and she could use a more ruthless editor; the movie’s pace is too unvaried, and that absorption in detail allowed by the lack of concern for swift exposition which at first is a virtue soon becomes a mite tedious (at two hours and eight minutes long, I started to understand the restlessness of the film’s characters).

But I was never made restless by the presence of Elizabeth Pena, who in Garcia Girls has a role worthy of her sweetly discombobulated comic timing and sharp-tongued intelligence. I have long been in love with Pena as an actress and it is a rare opportunity I couldn’t have justified missing to see her on the big screen in a movie designed to let her flower at her own pace; as the mother of a daughter (America Ferrara) flirting with sexual awakening, and the daughter of a somewhat rigid mother (Lucy Gallardo) whose purchase of a beat-up used car both sets the “plot” in motion and defines the director’s visual motif of vehicles as metaphors for the characters’ forward movement and as expressions of their interior lives, Pena draws us into the world of a lonely divorcee without the usual sentimental pleas for empathy. Her Lolita (an ironic moniker that seems less heavy-handed because we’re not conscious of it until late in the film) is a lovely woman confused by her loneliness, her sexual frustration and how much she values the opportunity that loneliness affords her in term of connecting with her daughter. She is utterly convincing, in the least showy way, as a woman pulled in several different directions by the people in her small orbit. Pena makes ostentation a dirty word, so natural an actress is she, and it’s a real treat to see her here in a turn as unlikely to garner Oscar attention as it is deserving of it. Her credits as listed on IMDb since making Garcia Girls some three or four years ago indicate that she is staying busy, and there are a couple of high-profile roles that appear to be coming up. One just hopes that she’s soon able to find another role as well suited to her talents, one that takes such full advantage of her comic and dramatic instincts, as this one does.

If you are as much in love with Elizabeth Pena as I am, then you must join me in genuflecting at the feet of Michael Guillen, proprietor extraordinaire of The Evening Class. I am here to report, not without some major envy, that Michael has recently posted a engaging and wonderful interview with Ms. Pena that is a complete delight to read. She talks about Garcia Girls, her long and varied career, and how she went up several notches in her child’s estimation by her participation in The Incredibles (she was the voice of Mirage). If you missed Garcia Girls, this interview will whet your appetite not only for the upcoming DVD, but for everything else you can round up (start with Lone Star, La Bamba and Shannon’s Deal) that can be said to be graced with the Pena presence.


Speaking of interviews, it’s about a week old, but Film In Focus’s excellent ”Behind the Blog” conversation with Kimberly Lindbergs, creator of one of the best blogs out there, Cinebeats, should not be missed. Cinebeats chronicles “one woman’s love affair with ‘60s and ‘70s cinema.” If you’re like me that’s a come-on that just can’t be resisted, and given the site’s popularity I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that way. Here’s Kimberly on controversy Cinebeats-style:

“The most controversial post I've written was probably my brief appreciation of the Italian actress Edwige Fenech. In that post I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing Eli Roth's film Hostel Part II, which she appeared in. The discussion that started on my blog was carried over to other blogs and I still occasionally get nasty emails or backhanded comments from people who seem to loathe Eli Roth and his Hostel films. I personally don't understand the negative response to Roth's Hostel films since I've been a horror film fan my entire life and there's nothing new in Roth's Hostel films that I haven't seen before and executed in a much more graphic fashion.”

And Kimberly on blogging as a get-rich-quick scheme:

“In my experience fame and fortune are usually the result of your family name, who you know, how many asses you've kissed and pure luck. I'm sure there are probably bloggers that currently are or will become famous and wealthy, but at the moment I'm not one of them.”

Get the feeling that she doesn’t care to mince words? Me too. Check out the entire interview and discover, if you haven’t already, why Cinebeats is a blog-happening-a-go-go (and it ain’t just because of Kimberly’s boots!)


Neither is The Self Styled Siren one to water down her multifaceted considerations of classic Hollywood with a lot of hemming and hawing. The instantly accessible eloquence she provides her loyal readers is a constant delight. But she’s really tapped a vein with one of her latest posts (check out that epic comments stream if you don’t believe me), a doozy of a visual and textual presentation entitled ”I Do Not Like Them, Sam I Am” in which she flies in the face of her usual appreciative tenor and takes on a passel of Hollywood talent that doesn’t pass the muster of the siren song. You will be caught up in her witty takedowns as well as the ensuing conversation (give yourself a couple of hours to really enjoy it), yet one more reason why Self Styled Siren and its eloquent and erudite hostess, the incomparable Campaspe, is a daily read of which I hope never to be deprived.


Finally, Dan Callahan heads up the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal with a comprehensive and compelling essay on one of my all-time favorite actresses in a piece entitled “Fatal Instincts: The Dangerous Pout of Gloria Grahame”:

“Grahame lives on the edges of most of her films, too disturbing an image, too turbulent a consciousness to ever really play a lead role. She could look severe, even plain, when she wasn't overly made up for gaudy seduction. Almost always, she played tramps of some sort, but she was enough of an actress to make them very different kinds of tramps, and her filmography offers a sort of strumpet cornucopia. She is capable of turning up in anything, even It's a Wonderful Life (1946), where she's the flip side of the film's Donna Reed sweetheart: Violet Bick (how's that for a mean/sexy name?), boy crazy in a black satin dress, doing the Charleston with older men at a dance. Grahame gives Violet a comic sort of speed and cluelessness, but when we see what would have happened if Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey had never been born, we catch a glimpse of Violet as a wrecked, angry whore being dragged to a paddy wagon, screaming that she knows important people. It's possible to imagine a whole film about Violet Bick, but it wouldn't have been made in 1946, and it might make even today's sexually jaded art film audience flinch.”

This is a spectacular critical assessment of Grahame’s career that I am very grateful to be able to read. Anyone who holds dear Grahame’s performances in The Big Heat, In A Lonely Place, The Man Who Never Was, Human Desire and Odds Against Tomorrow, among many others, will want to get familiar with Callahan’s fine work right away.



As you undoubtedly know, there’s been an awful lot of speculation about the dark days of film criticism and film blogging going on lately. Mike D’Angelo is the latest to contemplate the end times, while Bill Gibron calls for a show of hands as to just who’s serious about this whole online film criticism thing and what to do about it. It should come as no surprise that one who has some well grounded observations about the whole situation is David Bordwell, whose consideration of the state of criticism, online or otherwise, is well worth indulging. But no assessment of the current atmosphere of uncertainty in the blogosphere is as trenchant, funny and inspired as Adam Ross’ noir-inflected “The Blog Sleep” (with no apologies whatsoever, as far as I could tell to either Chandler, Faulkner or Hawks). I recommend Adam’s keen piece because it’s well-observed and seriously obsessed, and not because of my own hard-boiled cameo. Honest. Adam takes us on a journey down the dark rain-soaked streets of an evaporating blogosphere (or does it just seem that way?) in search of a beloved blogger gone missing, only to discover that, just like that pesky Terminator, he’s back!

(If you didn’t know that Larry has returned, well, it still won’t spoil Adam’s tale. And speaking of my favorite ex-roundheaded shamus, he’s got a review of the latest book to make it to my must-read list, David Gilmour’s The Film Club, at the mothership site of The Palm Beach Post. Welcome back, L.A.!)


(For my girls, completely enthralled as they are by the cluttered worlds of George Lucas— even they thought this was funny!)


Historic 2018Blockbuster2019 Store Offers Glimpse Of How Movies Were Rented In The Past

(Thanks, Kim, for the tip and the headline too!)


Look closely... (Image courtesy of Ambrose Heron)

Film writer Ambrose Heron of the British web site Film Detail has put together a very impressive list of “The Most Useful Movie Websites”. It is a great long, not entirely exhaustive list (what list could be?), and it includes some wonderful places that will be familiar to readers of this blog, as well as a ton of locales that I am anticipating becoming acquainted with in the near future. And as you may have noticed from the picture above, this very blog is one of the sites highlighted under the “Blogs” category, and the company SLIFR is keeping in this section alone is near fatally blush-inducing to say the very least. Here’s Ambrose’s succinct assessment of the appeal of SLIFR:

“As a devoted Leone fan, the title of this blog had me hooked from day one. But the great thing about the site - written by Dennis Cozzalio - is it’s unique voice and passion for cinema.

What can I say except thank you, Ambrose, both for the list, a great jumping-off point for anyone who is interested in an excellent cross-section of Internet film writing, and for finding this site worthy of inclusion on it.

Monday, May 19, 2008


As my recent immersion in the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger continues, I finally got around to seeing I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), thanks in part to the extreme indulgence of my local public library, which has not yet set the collection agencies on me for having the disc now for over a month. Each new Powell/Pressburger experience makes me want to immediately cement the movie in question permanently in my top 100—it has been so for my first encounters with A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and even, Laurence Olivier’s out-rrrrageous French-Canadian accent notwithstanding, 49th Parallel. And now so it is with I Know Where I’m Going!, a film of such magic and romanticism and humor and feel for the texture of life on the Scottish isles that even Local Hero, upon which it surely was an influence, must finally take a small step to the side in my heart. (Up next: Black Narcissus.)

Young Joan Tucker (played with a lilting mixture of wistful longing and cheerful entitlement by Wendy Hiller) has always known what she’s wanted in life, and we meet her as she sets off on to fulfill yet another ambition—to be married to a rich industrialist on in a remote island castle off the Scottish coast. Arriving in a seaside town where the island of Kiloran, her destination, is close enough to be glimpsed through the coastal evening fog, she ends up stranded because of inclement weather and forced to wait out the time until she can make the journey across the water in the company of the British naval officer (played with his customary lightness and unwavering charm by Roger Livesey) on whose property her wedding is to take place. As each day passes, and the strange beauty of the Scottish countryside, its abandoned castles hiding legends and curses within their walls, continues to cast its spell, Joan must face the realization that for the first time she may not have a strong notion of where she intends life to take her. She becomes swept up, helpless, like a boat in a dangerous squall, cast about toward a destiny that may hold love and its attendant magic in a completely unexpected place.

The Powell and Pressburger touch is feather-light here, which may lead some to feel the movie hasn’t the gravity of Blimp, or as successful an engagement with the curious mysticism of the folktale as did Canterbury. I Know Where I’m Going! was shot on the Isle of Mull, and yet given the natural opportunity to exploit the surrounding beauty of the location, the movie never so much as threatens to succumb to the vagaries of the picture-postcard tourist travelogue. Instead, Powell and Pressburger infuse it with a gorgeous unaffected beauty through their sensitivity to the ethnographic beauty and mystery of the setting. The film becomes a transcendent mystery of local color and romantic longing powered by directorial details so slight as to seem inconsequential, yet so cumulatively powerful as to be undeniable. At one point as Joan lies on her bed, prayerfully begging God to cease the gale that prevents her from making the trip to Kiloran, she reflects on a local woman’s advice to count the beams on her bedroom ceiling so as to ensure a positive answer to her petition. As she looks up, Powell and Pressburger give us a beautiful pattern of lamplight cast on the ceiling as if to suggest the parting of the clouds and the coming of the sun, and then just a beat longer to realize that the ceiling has no beams. And once Joan, in the company of that naval officer and a young local boy, finally does set out for Kiloran, the directors evoke the terrifying immediacy of the ill-advised journey by amplifying its disorienting possibilities within hoary and well-familiar rear-projection techniques to spectacular, nauseating effect.

A great romance that helped to create the sturdy template that modern movies have repeatedly bastardized and trivialized, I Know Where I’m Going! has, 63 years after its release, the capacity to thrill a modern audience jaded by overexposure to the likes of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConnaughey. Hiller and Livesey (fast emerging as one of my favorite screen presences, despite his superficial resemblance to Craig Kilborn) bring blithe good humor and layers of meaning to the simplest gestures-- like the exchange of a cigarette or a glance across a crowded dinner table-- that would likely drive most actors into fits of envy. And directors Powell and Pressburger create for them a landscape charged with historical and emotional resonance that is fully worthy to frame and reflect the earthbound, yet splendidly flushed power of their story.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Back in the summer of 1990, 18 years ago, I had nothing better to do, so I went to see Days of Thunder, a Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer vanity production in service to the vanity of its producers, its director (Tony Scott) and its star, Tom Cruise. It was the reunion of Scott and Cruise with Simpson and Bruckheimer, all still basking in the afterglow of Top Gun, which was a huge box-office hit five years previous—an eternity when speaking of Hollywood short-term memory. The movie was loud, motored by cliché, and relentless in its campaign to make a case for the uber-masculinity of Cruise, whose character was named Cole Trickle (I’m not making this up; blame this seminal joke on Robert Towne, the movie’s screenwriter, who wrote the movie with Cruise), and at the time it seemed there wasn’t so much as an insignificant piece of glimmering chrome that director Scott (also responsible for the soft-focus goth fantasy The Hunger) wouldn’t fetishize and aestheticize to within an inch of its wide-screen life. I endured the movie for about a half an hour in before the whole fast-cutting-revving-engines-long-lens-shimmering-heat-of-the-track aesthetic drove me to the exit. (I think I must have also had an irrational fear that Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” was going to suddenly pop up on the soundtrack of this loud machine too, in the same way it propelled those screaming jet engines in Top Gun.)

Audiences didn’t turn out for Days of Thunder in the way they did for Top Gun, however. And a lot of water has passed over the dam in the ensuing 18 years, in terms of the evolution of action cinema and the desensitized visual paranoia that has come to characterize Tony Scott’s career as a director. Michael Bay took the Bruckheimer sensibility (now sans the deceased Simpson) to the logical apex of its manic, visually splintered origins, with epics like Con Air, Armageddon and the Bad Boys movies, none of which ever settled for four angles on a single piece of action when 10 could be crammed into the same short burst of time. Coming out of a Bay movie, especially Armageddon, one felt like one had been staring two inches away and directly into a strobe light for 150 minutes while sitting on a crowded airport tarmac. The success of those movies must have driven Scott nuts. In the years since Crimson Tide (1995), his movies have become increasingly jarring and incoherent, applying the multiple film stocks and shattered glass editing of Oliver Stone to an action film sensibility than hasn’t the patience for anything resembling storytelling coherence—Scott is too busy trying to prove his filmmaking chops to recognize that, in movies like Domino, Deja Vu and Man On Fire, they’ve virtually disappeared in visual chaos. (The prospect of his upcoming remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 does not warm my cockles.)

What’s surprising is how kind time has been to Days of Thunder. In the shadow of a movie like Domino, hyperstylized to near oblivion, Thunder, with its relative long takes (some last over 15 seconds, and there are recognizable master shots in the movie’s visual plan) and its willingness to make room for some very good actors (Robert Duvall and Michael Rooker chief among them) to marinate and percolate among the fuel-injected silliness of the plot, comes off looking like a piece of classical Hollywood moviemaking by comparison. When I saw Days of Thunder again recently, I had a hard time remembering, beyond that looming specter of Kenny Loggins, why I originally felt the need to flee. Maybe it was because the movie was expected to be another formula (Formula) summer smash, and I didn’t relish taking part in making that Paramount dream come true. Maybe it was because I was on vacation in the mountains and decided I’d rather take a walk in the evening air. But as I watched it in my living room a few weeks ago, it went down easy enough, the glimmers of intelligence in the performances, and even in Scott’s eye for making those stock cars shimmer and take on a bit of their own life, were enough for an amusing evening at the races.

I wonder how Speed Racer will look to audiences 18 years from now. So far the reviews have been near universally dismissive, inspiring some of our best (as well as some of our not-so-best) film writers to come up with new and clever ways to evoke the flashy spatial disorientation that the movie serves up as its high-tech bread-and-butter, which is a far cry from the smash-and-grab antics of Scott and Bay. But you'd never know it from those reviews. A glance through the excerpts of pieces corralled at Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie is holding on to its none-too-impressive 35% overall rating, will inform you that the movie is “headache inducing,” “incoherent,” “ugly, “brutal,” “pathetic” and, in my favorite bit of overreaching cleverness, “(an) orgy of pixels writhing around like the special effects equivalent of a bukkake film.” Okay…

There are some enthusiastic notices to mention: Richard Corliss wrote a glowing piece about Speed Racer in Time magazine, and bloggers Rob Humanick and Matthew Kiernan exercise evenhanded intelligence in their reviews. Why, even Moriarty has some cogent things to say about the movie. But there’s no denying that the mixed-to-negative reviews are the mainstream when it comes to the Wachowski brothers’ movie.

David Edelstein acknowledges that “Speed Racer has moments of bliss,” but contends that they are cancelled out by the feeling that the film is “a nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids.”

Stephanie Zacharek is far less kind in her elaborate metaphor conjuring: “Speed Racer is so arrogant about its so-called stylishness and energy that it feels like punishment, the equivalent of being trapped at a dinner party between two guys who feel compelled to inform you, in long-winded detail, how great they are.” Zacharek fails to meet the critical standard for tying her metaphor into a technological phenomenon, like Edelstein’s arcade reference, but she’s not finished: “This isn’t a picture filled with wonder and a sense of fun; it’s so jaded and crass that I almost wonder if it’s a highly scientific experiment to gauge how little audiences will settle for these days.” After finishing this review, any reader who may have appreciated Speed Racer can at least rest easy in the knowledge of his or her irredeemably low standards.

Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times wrote the review that perplexes me most. Chocano comes at the movie from the perspective I think many reviewers did, one not lacking in preconceived notions but instead waiting to confirm the received wisdom about the movie built on poor reactions to the trailer and other specious, Internet-generated buzz. And like several reviews I read, she can’t seem to decide what the movie could possibly do right, so she docks it for both the “vast swaths of dialogue” that “take the place of blocks of dramatic action in which things happen, once called scenes,” and for being “a movie about speed and forward momentum (which) provides very little of either, though it does explode into spurts of frenetic, confusing and hard-to-follow action.” Chocano is a critic who has consistently surprised me with her wit and intelligence, but her point of view here seems contradictory and confused.

Armond White’s lavish diatribe, however, is about par for the course for a critic fast approaching terminal self-parody: “Speed Racer kills cinema with its over-reliance on the latest special effects, flattening drama and comedy into stiff dialogue and blurry action sequences.” (Stay tuned for Armond’s rave for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull coming up right on schedule in two weeks.) Disappointingly, it takes the pugnacious New York Press critic five whole paragraphs before he makes a direct comparison of Speed Racer to Torque, a far superior absurdity directed by Joseph Kahn that is so good only Armond can appreciate it. He does, however, remind us in paragraph three that Speed Racer should not be confused with 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Conformist or McCabe and Mrs. Miller (“If today’s filmgoers even know those landmarks…”)

And God bless Walter Chaw for making sure we feel his pain: “After enduring the Cool World live-action version of Speed Racer, I confess I’ve sort of lost the will to live.” Those heartless Wachowskis! Chaw’s dizzying grumpfest of a review is summarized by this excerpt:

“I guess it looks cool, like Dr. Seuss sicking up all over a Twister board--cool in an eye-stabbing, brain-deadening way that lowers the collective IQ whilst inspiring some to believe that this razzle-dazzle will be cutting-edge for longer than the duration it takes for the film to tick through the projector. Good actors are asked to say things dubbed onto the round-mouth movements of Japanese avatars, and what's left is probably wondrous for the hardcore, diehard, pathetic-loser contingent. Free of that, the picture is incoherent at the very instant it's simplistic. The action is hard yet easy to follow, the simplistic drama is easy to understand and impossible to feel, and while the strain of not saying the obvious (that it's not about anything) must be showing, the point is that it's not even about imitation.”

Whew. Forget for a moment whether Speed Racer is any good or not. Is this good writing? I wun’t know, cuz my kollektive IQ has done been lowered so much, end I’m stll believin’ wut I saw wuz cuttingedge in that pitchershowe there…

Leave it to Jim Emerson, along with Edelstein and Zacharek one of my favorite film critics, to turn in probably the most evenhanded pan of the film I’ve read so far. Here’s a taste:

Speed Racer is not a feature film in any conventional sense-- although there is nothing so conventional in today's marketplace as a corporate product based on a campy vintage TV show that is developed for extremely brief exhibition in multiplexes on its way to more appropriate platforms such as DVD and video games, which provide the principal justification for its manufacture in the first place.

Neither is
Speed Racer a commercial avant-garde film (though fans of the Wachowski brothers may wish to make such claims), unless you still consider Laserium shows of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to be cutting edge. (Lights! Shapes! Colors! Motion! Money!) And there's nothing terribly adventurous these days about Eisensteinian montage treated as if it were William S. Burroughs' "cut up" technique -- with digital clips randomly scrambled like pixilated confetti.

Nor is it some kind of subversive commodity, unless the outré strategy of pandering to a low-brow, retro-nostalgic crowd can be considered anything but business as usual in 2008. The faux naiveté on display here -- right down to the imitation-fruit-flavored FDA-food-dye coloring -- is both shamelessly quaint and shamelessly cynical.

What Speed Racer is, according to Jim, is “a manufactured widget, a packaged commodity that capitalizes on an anthropomorphized cartoon of Capitalist Evil in order to sell itself and its ancillary products.” And what’s more, “Whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain during Speed Racer is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization. Like the animated TV series that inspired this movie, you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn't matter.”

Yet despite the copious evidence of the arguments presented here, some more cogently than others, I’d like to testify that in the matter of Speed Racer I’m siding with the desensitized philistines, cynically manipulated and fleeced each and every one by this apparently soulless, and perhaps evil corporate ejaculation masquerading as entertainment. The movie I saw, in the company of my two daughters (ages 8 and 5), was a viscerally and aesthetically thrilling piece of action entertainment, a kaleidoscopic digital explosion of light and design in which primary tones of color, and of emotion, are rendered in complex patterns to simple and intense effect. The Wachowskis have not settled for rote duplication of the rudimentary pleasures of the Speed Racer TV series, about which there is some debate over their general merit, depending on how nostalgically inclined you are going in. (I wasn’t.) What’s amusing is, if they had gone the way of simply recreating the show, or camping up the proceedings with a wink and a nudge to the “low-brow, retro–nostalgic crowd” who know how stupid it all is, the Wachowskis would probably be getting even worse reviews than they are right now for creating this technically radical, emotionally direct, giddy, dizzying and heartfelt movie that eschews easy irony and uses all the high-tech paints and brushes at their disposal to create something unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen.

Three minutes from the beginning of Speed Racer

I think Jim mischaracterizes the aesthetic design and achievement of Speed Racer when he knocks it, by extension, for having avant-garde pretensions—the description is offered as one “fans of the Wachowski brothers” may want to take to heart, as though no one else would possibly entertain the notion, but also one that has no credibility. In fact, Glenn Kenny finds reason to mention the A-G word in his review, and even used Godard as a reference point for Speed Racer’s anime-inspired approach to action and visual language, even if he backs away far enough to conclude that the movie’s attempt to radicalize technique “yields heretofore un-dreamed of levels of narrative incoherence.” Avant-garde for the Pink Floyd-Laserium crowd or not, it’s this charge of incoherence, one that almost every negative review has claimed, that looks to be Speed Racer’s primary albatross, its aesthetic cross to bear. I know that Jim knows from incoherence (he’s seen as many Alan Parker movies as I have), but I wonder if these charges of incoherence hounding the film aren’t grounded as much in impatience for the relentless style of the movie, a virtual throwing up of one’s hands, as much as any evidence of an enfeebled awareness of conventional narrative. (And here I must say that, that Laserium crack notwithstanding, Jim’s review is a model of expressing his personal view of the movie while avoiding making those of us who disagree out to be misguided chumps for doing so.)

I ask about these charges simply because, far from finding Speed Racer incoherent, I instead discovered it to be a whooshing marvel which challenged me to see a simple story with fresh, often incredulous eyes, one that doesn’t exploit easy nostalgia but instead takes an elastic approach to the familiar tropes of the cartoon, creating an experience of film merged with digital effects that folds back on itself in exhilarating new ways. I’m not saying that the Wachowskis’ movie isn’t occasionally disorienting. It’s intended to be; what use for the wild, hyperkinetic, vertiginous designs of those race tracks, or the race cars that quite literally spin (and elevate and rotate) down them, if not to take away the stomachs of sensitive moviegoers? But the filmmakers never leave us adrift; the pace of the movie ensures that some new delight will come along quickly enough to ground or otherwise tickle even the most confused viewer.

In this same light, I have to take issue with Jim’s assertion that the movie is assembled with a Burroughsian attitude toward narrative structure, “with digital clips scrambled like pixilated confetti.” This comment implies that the movie has been slapped together with no attention to details like pace, connective tissue or graphic continuity, when in fact the Wachowskis, particularly in the movie’s lightning-fast first 20 minutes, use a instinctual approach to refashioning the language of visual storytelling to deftly scramble the movie’s different levels of back story with a present-day race that shows us everything we need to know about Speed’s relationship to the brother he lost, and the seriousness with which he approaches racing. The movie weaves between the race and the two flashback threads—an attention-deficit Speed in third-grade math class losing himself in a fantasia of forward motion (animated both as a flip-book drawing and a child’s crayon rendering of stock-car cinema with a flesh-and-blood Speed seated behind the 2-D wheel), and the story of how Speed’s older brother Rex lost his life in a racing accident—with an ease that belies the actual complexity of how the story is being told and the way the filmmakers make it seem like an organic exercise. If there is anything organic in Speed Racer it’s this sequence, from which the movie’s entire visual plan springs whole—we glide and hurtle from narrative strand to narrative strand along the movie’s liquid lines, which at times seem to connect the pieces of the puzzle by melting at the edges like a multicolored Popsicle. Other than some funny shock cuts from Speed at his desk to a conference between a teacher and Speed’s mom that, yes, did put me in mind of Godard, there is hardly anything about the first 20 minutes that couldn’t be described as fluid. And the rest of the movie, though it barely stops for breath, is exhilarating, not exhausting, and filled with the kind of hilarious invention that moviegoers hope for but with which they are rarely rewarded-- a structurally simple sequence of two drivers communicating by two-way radio, realized not with cutaways, but by a whooshing series of alternating close-ups that build on the escalating tension of the race, had me gasping with delight.

Jim knocks Speed Racer for conveying narrative information through “optical design, and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization.” Though I think this is an oversimplification designed to make a point, I don’t necessarily disagree with it. Speed Racer does convey a lot of information about character and narrative through its sleek futuristic design and restructuring of the way scenes click and snap together. But it’s disingenuous to imply that the performances and the dialogue are perfunctory or otherwise bereft of thought, in service to ciphers that might as well be animated themselves. Emile Hirsch has a slightly recessive quality as an actor, and he doesn’t pop off the screen like most of the rest of his cast mates do. But he has just the right touch of a brooding, interior quality that suggests the pain as well as the passion that compels Speed toward racing greatness. This is not, by the way, the same as saying that his performance has an interior landscape of exceptional interest; but the glint in his eyes provides enough of a hint, and he rolls with the movie’s general tone of avoiding irony, providing a solid center around which the rest of the movie can gyrate.

John Goodman embodies Pops Racer with physical acuity and, yes, grace, and an integrity that most actors couldn’t resist italicizing with a smirk. Roger Allam conjures delicious venality to the task of accessing the dark heart of corporate villain Arnold Royalton, who attempts to seduce Speed into abandoning his homespun loyalty to Pops Racer Racing. Twisting his chops like a purple-clad Tim Curry, Allam doesn’t reinvent scenery chewing, he just reminds you of its pleasures. Even young Paulie Litt surprises as Speed’s pudgy, pugnacious little brother Spritle, in the constant company of his manic chimp buddy Chim-Chim. Together, these two comprise an interspecies comedy team that punctuates the movie with genuine laughs and demonstrates that not all of Speed Racer’s charms are of the digital variety. So too does Christina Ricci as Speed’s chaste, incredibly cute girlfriend Trixie, who knows her way around a purple-and-pink helicopter and is no slouch behind the wheel either. Ricci now seems born, with those saucer-sized eyes, angular Louise Brooks haircut and feline eye liner, to be inserted into a live-action anime, and she has the most striking graphic presence of anyone in the cast. In a perfect world, the Wachowskis would build the sequel around her. Ricci’s gorgeous peepers outdo even those of Susan Sarandon as Speed’s ever-patient Mom who has less to do than anyone else, but still manages to create an appropriately warm place for the movie to occasionally retreat. (And she grills an awesome pancake).

Finally, Matthew Fox, as the mysterious Racer X, Speed’s sometime adversary, sometime partner in pedal-to-the-metal fun and games, displays a sly sense of humor about essentially being cast as a walking phallus. He brings just the right glancing touch to the homoerotic undercurrent in his scenes, which Zacharek found so annoying, and he handles the mystery of Racer X with aplomb too. Like Hirsch and Speed, he’s no cipher; he’s just based on one.

It’s hard for me to imagine getting up enough steam to be too bothered by the apparent contradiction of making an anti-corporate movie that’s funded by a major conglomerate like Time Warner. It’s like saying there’s hypocrisy inherent in any work of art that doesn’t ascribe credence or endorsement to the views of the big boys who laid out the money to make it. Of course the Wachowskis wouldn’t be able to create this universe without the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars obtained from snakes only slightly less oily (and far more conniving) than Arnold Royalton. But I’m not sure that’s in and of itself incontrovertible evidence that they’re hypocrites for building their movie around a critique of capitalist extremity, especially if there’s evidence, however debatable, that they’re in the pursuit or art and not just blind commerce. (Let me count the ways in which the Wachowskis, through the realization of the vision behind this movie, have sabotaged their commercial prospects with a mass audience that is primed to expect exactly the kind of toothless corporate product exemplified by movies like the Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.) Nor do I imagine that Speed Racer is the first movie, big budget or not, to bite the hand that feeds it. The Player comes to mind, and though it got by on the imprimatur of Robert Altman, the ultimate outsider, the movie itself was funded in part by Aaron Spelling and distributed by Fine Line Features, a tributary of Time Warner, which also released Speed Racer. One look at the promiscuous degree of cameo appearances in Altman’s film reveals its satire as the unmistakable product of an inside job. And there’s the movie Kenny brings up-- Bertolucci’s not-so-friendly-to-capitalism 1900, distributed on these shores by Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount at the time.

Another of the movie’s apparent crimes is its sincerity. Swirling around among the breathless inventiveness of the races, the narrative fluidity and ingenuity, the comic hi-jinks of Spritle and Chim-Chim, and the cacophonous beauty of the movie’s design, is the glue that holds the whole enterprise together-- the honest emotional trajectory of the story of a boy obsessed with racing (who stands in ably for an artist who choreographs the movement of his car like a internally combustive dance) and grounded by familial love. A friend of mine and I spent the day Monday exchanging breathless e-mails about how much we loved Speed Racer and making our plans to see it again as soon as possible (preferably in IMAX, he said, fully aware of the instant spike in his Geek-O-Meter rating). I love what he said about the movie:

“The movie struck me as something rather akin to De Palma: stylistics (camera movement, color, design, music) all choreographed in an expressionistic synthesis which, at its best, dovetails with the emotions in the story -- however simplistic or generic -- and fuses into something I find incredibly moving, and uniquely cinematic.”

There’s an attitude here in my friend’s comments that cuts through the condescending attitude of many of the reviews that characterize the movie’s technology as being in service to narrative banality. But it’s that punching through to the genuine emotion despite the story’s apparent lack of complexity that is significant here. And I think he’s right to invoke De Palma as well, a groundbreaking storyteller who fuses technique and social terror to create often grandiose, bitterly funny and enthralling visions typically pockmarked with the kind of narrative flaws that are diminished, and sometimes redeemed, by the sheer audacity of his style. What’s authentically awesome about Speed Racer is the way it nimbly accesses the emotions buried within a blockbuster package and uses the digital medium not only to excite the senses but to come to an understanding, in the rush of excitement in our brain waves and in our follicles as the goose bumps rise, of why we should be reacting at all. This is, to me the mark of a work of pop art. The CGI technology which by now has become so mundane and deadly in other filmmaking contexts is invigorated, made as masterful as Speed Racer himself hurling down the track, spinning and doing gravity-defying loops. Speed’s mom waxes rhapsodic about her son’s ability as a driver and tells him, “It’s inspiring and beautiful, everything art should be.” Dare I say the same about Speed Racer? I dare. It's the movie of the year for me so far.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Wednesday, May 07, 2008


As the merry month of May begins, some of you may have noticed I’ve been giving myself a bit of a break around the blog. The fingers have been a bit taxed these days as my schooling enters the final phase. I spent a goodly portion of last week preparing to write two papers, one of which topped out at 25 pages (about 6,700 words) and the other at a relatively lean eight or so (around 1,800 words). Needless to say, writing about subjects other than movies comes a little less naturally to me, so when I finished at dawn on Saturday morning, I was feeling somewhat spent. So if it seems like I’ve taken a back seat of late, well, I have.

But in case it’s crossed anyone’s mind, I’m not gearing down and getting ready to say good-bye to blogging, as two of my esteemed colleagues decided to do recently. That isn’t to say that I haven’t thought about it, and not just since Matt and Ray climbed off the merry-go-round. But if I accept that I can no longer keep up the pace of prolific posting as if I was getting paid for it—a pace that seems to inevitably lead to either exhaustion or possibly madness—then I suspect that, as someone said in commenting about the retirement of the two aforementioned excellent writers, the blog will being to stop running me and I will once again begin to run the blog. I’ve never had any illusions about wide-ranging readership; that this blog has a readership at all still amazes me. Yet it is a wide-ranging readership, as far as it goes, and it came from not trying to be an all-encompassing site where readers can catch up on all the latest film news, or where they could indulge in a lot of deep-dish thinking about movies. This blog came from my desire to write about what I found fascinating, and never mind the sell-by date on the product. I have only hoped that those who would be interested in what I’m interested in would find their way here, and that seems to have happened. So I’ll continue in the same vein and hope that you, Dear Reader, will find continuing reason to stay with me, even though it might be four or five days, sometimes more, in between posts. Just know that if it takes longer than that, I’m still around and will soon return. When it’s time for me to go, you, my friends, will be the first to know.

Speaking of which, I want to spend just a brief moment, much more than he did himself, acknowledging the exit of yet another fine writer from the blogging scene. My good friend Larry Aydlette, the whip-smart, good-natured force behind Welcome to L.A., has, like Matt and Ray, called it a day. Larry, as most of you probably know by now, is the entertainment features editor of the Palm Beach Post, and will not suffer for an outlet for his writing by any means by exiting from his corner of cyberspace. In true hard-boiled journalist fashion, Larry issued not a long interview-style announcement of his intentions, nor a mysterious one-line kiss-off to the form; he simply flipped the switch, the room went dark and he walked away. Larry has never been one for looking back—he never even archived the material that made his blog such an addiction over the last couple of years. (His original incarnations, That Little Roundheaded Boy and The Shamus, have long been consigned to memories of ones and zeroes, as well as all the great pieces that gave them life.)

I don’t remember the exact circumstances of how we met—Larry seems to have traced it to my linking to his blog, and his subsequent comment on my piece on Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. That sounds about right. But however it started, our friendship would have never come about had one of the two of us not got in on this blogging adventure. (We have still never met in the flesh, but that minor formality doesn't make me treasure the friendship any less.) He has been a constant source of encouragement to me, and he’s never less than willing to say what’s on his mind, even if we don’t always jibe in our thoughts. He promises that his departure is not a departure from writing—he does have that newspaper gig, after all, and he will still be lurking and commenting as usual, here and on the many other blogs he has come to love over the past two years. As Mac Davis once sagely advised, Larry is simply taking advantage of the chance to more frequently stop and smell the roses, which means spending more of the increasingly dwindling amount of free time there is to go around with his beloved family. As much as I’ll miss his blog, I would never begrudge anyone, least of all him, the chance to do that.


In the absence of any actual writing of my own to peddle and promote at the moment, I do want to point your way to a few things that I’ve really enjoyed in the rare moments I seem to have these days when I can read someone else’s blog. I don’t flit around quite as promiscuously as I used to, but some places, well, some places I just can’t not go.

Jim Emerson’s Scanners is one of those places. And right now Jim is engaged ina really fascinating two-part discussion about the movie on my list to see right now, Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which dissects the Abu Ghraib photographs and examines the implications and suggestions behind the photographs, becoming a consideration of the hidden meaning of even the most seemingly clear-cut imagery. Here’s Jim:

“The image is the world's only remaining superpower. Understanding their power of images -- not just what's in the pictures themselves, but what they signify -- is the key to understanding the world and our place within it. It's also, recently, the source of the most deadly and dismal failures in American history. From the attacks of 9/11 through the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Americans' inability to comprehend what they were seeing -- or even to recognize the primacy of the image itself as the representation of events -- has had catastrophic consequences.”

A friend and I were discussing just today Pasolini’s Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, and we began thinking about how relevant that movie might be today, especially in the light of Abu Ghraib and Morris’ documentary. What can we deduce from the way Pasolini immerses us in his graphic metaphor for the effects of enduring the grim existence under Fascism? Do the images he conjures suggest, as Morris contends the images of Abu Ghraib seem to suggest, only part of the story captured in any individual frame? Can we draw parallels between what Pasolini was doing in Salo in depicting these dramatized horrors and what Morris is trying to do in SOP? I can’t answer the question because I haven’t seen Morris’ movie yet. I wonder what Jim would think.

Also: check out Jim’s fascinating discussion of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, surely Schrader’s finest hour and one of the best films of the ‘80s.

Then there’s Dave Fear’s deliberately, delightfully provocative list of unclassics, movies that should be kicked out of the good graces of any respectable pantheon of genuine classics. Or so says Fear. You’ll enjoy nodding your head in approval and shaking your head in disgust as you make your way down his list. And keep some choices of your own reserved for the next SLIFR quiz; I have it on good authority that one question will shamelessly lift Dave’s premise and ask for further additions (or subtractions, I suppose) from the limelight of movie nostalgia.

Old friend Kim Morgan has been chin deep in film noir lately. Last month she took the stage at the American Cinematheque to interview Eddie Muller and Marsha Hunt, and on any given day it’s likely she’s seen at least one great film noir to get her excited. Right now Kim’s taking on six great Barbara Stanwyck performances, and as anyone who knows her stuff is already aware, Kim on Barbara or any subject related to film noir is to be savored. So get to savorin’! Also, Kim reissues her superbad piece on great car movies, with a tip on the latest mag to feature her red-line writing (plus some neat pics!) If we’re lucky, it’s still on a well-stocked newsstand near us.

Finally, speaking of cars, for those of you who have a stake in such matters (and in this I include myself), the reviews on the Wachowski Brothers’ upcoming Speed Racer have been pretty devastating—Rotten Tomatoes reports, at this writing, a wilting 30% rating. But if you’ve taken your Dramamine, you may want to consider the movie based on the intriguing review posted a few days ago by Glenn Kenny. Here’s a taste:

“One of the most genuinely confounding films to come along in years, the Wachowski Brothers' follow-up to The Matrix trilogy is, if viewed from one angle, the most headache inducing kid's movie of them all; if viewed from another, it's the most expensive avant-garde film ever made…

The bright, candy-colored universe the Wachowskis fashion out of digital and green screen wizardry is often psychedelic in the extreme. I've read some internet effects mavens complaining about the cheez-whizziness of the look, pointing out repetitions of figures in digital crowd renderings. I think all of that is precisely the point. The picture opens by attempting to digitally radicalize cinematic language, with multiple storylines — young Speed Racer's car obsession, relationship with older brother Rex Racer, Rex's tragic fall from grace, and death, and a "here and now" race in which Speed has the opportunity to break a record set by his older brother, and doesn't take it — coming at you in a big bright space-time ball, with no cuts but rather central figures from each story horizontally "wiping" the screen to create transition. Alas, this radicalization of film language, while certainly impressive to behold, yields heretofore un-dreamed of levels of narrative incoherence, but hey, not every experiment succeeds...

The various characters strike, and freeze, in heroic poses. The camera revolves around them, and they look totally, like, awesome and iconic and, well, heroic. Then there's a sound effect, or a bunch of sound effects, and maybe a depiction of a single blow or shot… To have a series of poses effectively substitute for battle in a live-action summer blockbuster film in this way is to... well, it's to take Godardian notions to places where even Godard might never have dreamed of taking them.”

I was riding a train back home from downtown Los Angeles last night, and as we entered full-speed into a tunnel just before my stop, I heard several audible gasps. I looked up from my book and glanced outside the window, where I saw brilliant flashing animation from video screens (possibly hundreds of them) mounted on the tunnel wall and timed to flash out a sequence from Speed Racer that would maintain visual coherence-- that was most likely only granted visual coherence—by our seeing it while high-speed traveling on the train and the acceptance of it through our accelerated eye-to-brain coordination. It was a weird moment, a perfect modern form of advertising that took advantage of the recipient’s environment of forward motion and capitalized on it in a form that would be impossible to recreate in a stationary situation. If there’s anything as surprising, as momentarily eye-boggling and mind-warping, as the sudden appearance of that animated ad in a train tunnel in the actual movie, there may be something yet to write about this weekend.