Saturday, May 28, 2016

HUDSON HAWK AT 25

If there is a reliable truism that can coexist alongside the American film industry’s dance of death with economically insane budgets that now routinely soar north of $200 million, it is that (most) critics and potential ticket-buyers can be counted on to review bad buzz and publicized woes of dollars and production instead of the actual movie once it finally finds its way to a screen. And it may in fact be true that the drama behind the scenes often outstrips the quality of the wide-screen finished product, though certainly this is not always the case. The reception of big-budget box-office flops like John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Jupiter Ascending and Oliver Stone’s Alexander are but some late examples of our number-crunching obsession with pop culture minutiae and the fascination of a behemoth’s preordained fall. Most who trudged out to see any of these films during their theatrical runs probably knew more about their troubled histories and the swirl of negative word-of-mouth (generated before a single ticket was sold) than they did, in the case of John Carter, about Edgar Rice Burroughs, upon whose once-popular novels that movie was based; the well-publicized rumors of discontent at Disney which preceded that movie’s release ended up serving as the real text to which audiences referred when they finally saw the film.

So what’s new? Stories of studio publicity departments dodging bad press and creating their own legends about the rocky road traveled to the silver screen are a movie history tradition, and the stories they peddled were more often than not vivid, unstable and as combustible as if they’d been printed on nitrate film stock. The brouhaha over Michael Cimino's Heaven’s Gate, including Steven Bach’s compulsively readable account of its out-of-control production in Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists pushed behind-the-scenes battles into the public arena like never before, not only helping to put a gravestone on the age of the unfettered auteur in American filmmaking, but also ushering in the current entertainment reportage obsession with catching a glimpse of Oz behind the curtain, an era in which no aspect of a movie or TV show’s creative birth goes undocumented or unexamined.


But movies whose names become synonymous with the wretched excess and folly of the movie business are fairly rare. Heaven’s Gate is one. So is my beloved 1941John Carter and The Lone Ranger may prove to be others. (Titanic was all ready to join the crowd, but it turned out Fate had something else in store for James Cameron’s potentially checkbook-boggling shipwreck.) Twenty-five years ago this week, Hudson Hawk, directed by the team who made previously made the cult hit Heathers, director Michael Lehmann and screenwriter Daniel Waters, also arrived in theaters under a ripe thundercloud of bad press, originating from its own studio as well as entertainment media watchdogs. That cloud further accumulated a shower of disdain for its popular star, Bruce Willis, whose screen persona made plenty of room for smug self-regard and who was perceived, after the success of Moonlighting, Die Hard and its first sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, as somehow needing a good old-fashioned Hollywood spanking to bring him back down to earth. (Willis managed to not be held significantly responsible for appearing in another apocalypse the previous year, Brian De Palma’s ill-fated The Bonfire of the Vanities.)

The reviews for Hudson Hawk weren’t any too kind either, most echoing hyperbolic sentiments typified by Peter Travers (“A movie this unspeakably awful can make an audience a little crazy. You want to throw things, yell at the actors, beg them to stop.”) or Mick La Salle, who wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that “There is probably not one interrupted 60-second stretch in which a line of dialogue doesn't clunk, an action doesn't ring false or an irritating plot turn doesn't present itself.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman at least sensed a pulse— “This may be the only would-be blockbuster that's a sprawling, dissociated mess on purpose. It's a perverse landmark: the first postmodern Hollywood disaster.”


It’s valuable to be reminded, however, that not all the notices at the time were scathing. In his indifferent capsule review, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was quick to remind his readers of Hudson Hawk’s roots in ‘60s genre spoofs like Our Man Flint and Modesty Blaise and noted that “at least the filmmakers keep it moving with lots of screwball stunts.” And the notoriously cranky Richard Schickel was feeling downright generous, dispensing a bit of wisdom that would prove prescient regarding believing the hype: “If you can see past the thicket of dollar signs surrounding Hudson Hawk,” Schickel wrote, “you may discern quite a funny movie-- sort of an Indiana Jones send-up with a hip undertone all its own.”

I saw Hudson Hawk on its opening night, May 24, 1991, at the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and by the time I took my seat that two-word title had already become industry code for what producer Tri-Star chairman Mike Medavoy, in recounting the making of the movie in his memoir You’re Only As Good As Your Next One, termed “a total fucking disaster.” What I saw on screen that night didn’t rank in my eyes as a moral or aesthetic crime, but I was none too taken with it either; I remember reacting against what felt like the ultimate loud, incoherent inside joke, one which the performers obviously thought was a riot (it certainly sounded like one) but whose humor thoroughly escaped me. I also freely admit I was in the Spank Bruce Willis camp-- and the Spank Joel Silver camp too, for that matter. (Though for being the bull in the china shop that ushered the Wachowski Brothers’ vision of Speed Racer to the screen, Silver gets an eternal pass from me.) To my eye, Hudson Hawk at the time was crass and disposable, a symptom of a system of making movies that was totally, fatally out of whack, and I had little trouble spending the next 21 years in almost total disregard of this latest Hollywood flame-out.


So why was I laughing my helpless ass off at Hudson Hawk when it saw again in 2012, on a thoroughly enjoyable double feature with Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles? I’ll admit a certain attraction to the disreputable, a perverse desire to find something in a beat-up, bedraggled movie that others just don’t see. But recent re-encounters with movies as diverse as John Frankenheimer’s 99 and 44/100% Dead, Ridley Scott's Legend, Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and  (to name but a very few) have proven that sometimes a rotten egg is just a rotten egg. My reaction to Hudson Hawk might also have something to do with my own recent voracious appetite for laughter. Those who bestow awards don't give much of a crap about comedies, but so often they are the movies I'm most happy to see, the ones I feel like I need more than others, and I feel like I’m often more likely to respond to the sometimes desperate impulse underlying comedy than others might, or seem willing to. I am, after all, a huge fan of the Farrelly Brothers’ The Three Stooges, another movie that was crucified on the Internet solely on the basis of its idea and its trailer. (Does this make me the ideal demographic for this summer’s Ghostbusters reboot?)

But of course “funny ha-ha” is probably the most subjective and elusive response that a movie can go fishing for—it’s not as reliable or quantifiable as the tears or the swelling of pride or fear that movies in other genres can more easily access, which is probably why laughs, which may seem more fleeting, don’t get as much in the way of award respect. The kind of hi-jinks on display in Hudson Hawk can be infectious, or they can be, when echoing off the walls of an empty auditorium as they did when I saw the movie 21 years ago, off-putting, a sign of the movie’s insular disregard for anything beyond the pleasure of the folks who made it.

Hudson Hawk is big, cluttered, and dingy-looking, all qualities that I associate, rationally or irrationally, with the type of sausage usually spit out by Tri-Star and other companies in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The cinematography, credited to Dante Spinotti (Manhunter, Heat, The Last of the Mohicans) but also presumably including contributions by Jost Vacano (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Das Boot), who was fired six weeks into shooting, is inconsistent, flatly lit and composed one moment, particularly in the dank-looking interiors, then incandescent and receptive to the natural beauty of the Italian locales the next. And it’s filled with actors who either travel from scene to scene unsure of what kind of movie they’re in (Exhibit A, Andie MacDowell, though she gets major points for her drug-induced dolphin impersonation) or who seize on the raucous, over-the-top sensibility rooted in Daniel Waters’ irreverent rewrite of Steven De Souza’s more straightforward caper script and turn the knob all the way up to 11 (Exhibit B, everyone else in the cast).


Willis clearly overestimated his appeal as a smirking, self-assured hipster with this role, but the performance works because it's in conflict with his status as a newly emergent action icon. The tension between the two approaches provides much of the movie’s comic juice, especially when he so willingly dives in the silly pool and bumps up against performers who are clearly from another world. The presence of James Coburn, Flint himself, is of course a major clue as to the intent of director Michael Lehmann and the other filmmakers in regard to tone and pop culture touchstones. But the very notion of casting Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant as the super-villainous Mayflowers, who force Willis’ master thief into stealing rare Da Vinci treasures that will somehow pave the way for their ascendance to World Dominator status certainly puts the movie’s cult sensibility at odds with the prospect of reaching the level of mass appeal needed to justify a multimillion-dollar budget. (These actors don’t project to the rafters, they threaten to grab them in their powerful jaws and masticate them into dust.) Bernhard, Grant, Coburn and a host of other game participants, including Frank Stallone, Lorraine Toussaint, Leonardo Cimino and a pre-CSI David Caruso, add a lot to the movie beyond an elevated level of cacophony. They underline the movie’s goggle-eyed, giddy celebration of its own incoherence.

Inconsistency, or at least the harboring of warring impulses of storytelling “rules” and anything-for-a-laugh energy within the same genre peapod, is the game Hudson Hawk is playing right up front, and it’s a game that usually doesn’t result in this many points prejudicially subtracted when the context is wacky comedy. This is probably where the movie ran into trouble with viewers and reviewers back in 1991—no one (Rosenbaum and Schickel excepted, I suppose) had much of an idea what the movie had on its mind; certainly not mass audiences who were conditioned, after Die Hard, to come to a Bruce Willis picture with a set of expectations and prided themselves on being able to detect (with some culturally pervasive help) the scent of a stinker.


But it seems to me even the movie’s idea of a good joke is a risky one. Waters’ notion of a couple of cat burglars (Willis and an eager Danny Aiello) so in love with the hep cat culture of The Rat Pack that they’ve memorized the length of the tunes just so they can use them to gauge the timing of their capers-- in sing-along musical sequences that really helped to alienate the cognoscenti back in 1991, no less-- will either make you giggle or gag. (I giggled when I saw the movie four years ago, and then some.) And Willis caught between the push of the megalomaniacal Mayflowers and a deadly band of rogue C.I.A. assassins named after candy bars results in some patently bizarre action-comedy sequences which make the sensation of having no idea what will come down the pipe next a gleefully pleasurable one. You laughs at what you laughs at, and if the movie’s wicked, cynical, absurd vibe hits you just right-- it helps to be surrounded by an audience that is also similarly tickled— it is entirely possible to have a much better time watching Hudson Hawk than its tarnished reputation would ever suggest.

There’s little use in denying that the movie is something of a major train wreck in terms of conventional structure, logic, temperament and escalating ludicrous plot development. But what’s on screen also suggests that the creative forces behind the movie, embittered and otherwise drawn-and-quartered as they may have been, were also aware that the chaotic energy of the production could be used in the movie’s favor. It was a genuine pleasure to finally enjoy Hudson Hawk when I saw it that night four years ago at the New Beverly, after having spent 21 years secure in the belief that it was a piece of shit. The imminently self-deprecating Daniel Waters was also in attendance, and his comments to the near sold-out crowd suggested that although elements of the movie’s tortured history and its reception in the marketplace might still be sore spots there was also the feeling that he’s at peace with it, fully aware of the value of his contribution and understanding that a movie this crazy has no chance of pleasing everyone.

As it turned out, my daughter Emma and I sat in the seats directly in front of the screenwriter, and I loved her vocal enjoyment of the movie as much for her sake as for Waters’—the movie definitely appealed to her emerging sense of the absurd and her appreciation of slapstick violence. But the roaring of that New Beverly audience wasn’t entirely for Daniel Waters’ benefit-- they seemed to genuinely enjoy their time with Hudson Hawk, a movie that the teeming, contradictory, fractured, multitasking sensibility of American pop culture may finally have caught up with. As Waters himself characterized it, on the Island of Misfit Toys that comprises his singular sensibility as a screenwriter and director, Hudson Hawk might most aptly be seen as the cinematic equivalent of the squirt gun that shoots jelly. Of course there are those who want their squirt guns to do what squirt guns always do. But there are also folks who have a pretty soft spot reserved for a toy that does something unexpected, even if it makes a mess. For those, I would guiltlessly recommend another (perhaps a first?) viewing of Hudson Hawk.

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For those interested, I direct you to Joe Valdez’s solid account of Hudson Hawk’s beleaguered production history that can be found on the blog This Distracted Globe.



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Saturday, May 21, 2016

PEEKABOO! THE MOVIES OF 2016 AT HALFTIME



Nearing the halfway mark of the movie year and teetering, as we all are, on the edge of another summer movie abyss which holds only the thinnest promise of providing strong reason to tread amongst the mall-igentsia in search of air-conditioned escape, I find myself feeling far less regret than usual over the movies I’ve missed so far in 2016. Usually by this point I’m bemoaning having had to sideline 20 or 30 interesting pictures because I couldn’t get out to a theater. This year I’ve whiffed on about the same number of movies of interest, but only nine or 10 of those misses have anything like real regret attached to them. It does actively annoy me that I will have to catch up with the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, the foodie doc City of Gold, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, Jason Bateman’s The Family Fang, Lorene Scafaria’s The Meddler and Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert on VOD as the year slouches on. I’m counting on my favorite North Hollywood and Pasadena second-run houses, the Valley Plaza and the Academy, to provide me ample opportunity over the summer to catch up with The Jungle Book and Key and Peele’s Keanu at very reasonable prices. On the other hand, the lingering specter of seeing Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups seems with each passing day less like a privilege and more like an obligation I feel dwindling urgency to fulfill.    

As for that summer movie season we’re currently staring down, amongst the reheated thrills of X-Men: Apocalypse and Warcraft and Alice Through the Looking Glass and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and The Conjuring 2: The Endfield Experiment and Independence Day: Resurgence (just the titles on those last three—jeez…) there are several reasons to suspect that all won’t be entirely lost by the time Oscar Bait Season rolls around. This weekend the reviews for Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising have been surprisingly strong, enough that my curiosity has been piqued even though I thought less of the first installment than most everyone else did. Scott Mendelson, writing in Forbes magazine, seems to think the new Seth Rogen-Rose Byrne-Zac Efron-Chloe Grace Moretz comedy has, aside from copious and memorable gross-out laughs, some actual ideas regarding gender and identity politics worth chewing on along with your popcorn; he even calls it “a revelation… one of the best movies of the year and one of the all-time great comedy sequels.” What do you know!


My own personal hopes for a high-quality hoot-and-a-holler, however, are more heavily invested in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, which recasts the writer-director’s familiar buddy cop action comedy formula (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Bang Bang) as a nasty ‘70s-period L.A. romp with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling essaying disreputable, downtrodden PIs who investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star, only to peel back reeking layers of smog-choked corruption in the process. (Calling Thom Andersen! Los Angeles does not always play itself here—the movie was shot partially in Atlanta.) And it is a strange day indeed when one can check the listing for your local AMC Cineplex and see the latest from Dogtooth’s Yorgos Lathimos playing right there alongside Captain America: Civil War and The Angry Birds Movie. But there it is: the director’s deadpan dystopian romantic dramedy The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, looks to be one of the most tempting lures to get me out of the house this weekend. If you are similarly inclined, then we’d both be well advised to lunge for it before those multiplexes kick The Lobster to the curb next Thursday to make room for the new X-Men and that faux Tim Burton-Lewis Carroll movie.


The bulk of the summer menu may lean heavily on tepid recycling and go light on genuine inspiration, but there does look to be some potential among the more obvious dreck. Despite my better instincts, I find myself not dreading either the DC Comics villain-fest Suicide Squad or the CGI-intensive jungle antics of The Legend of Tarzan, though I admit that the presence of Margot Robbie in both pictures, as, respectively, the deliciously freaky Harley Quinn and the legendary vine-swinger’s Jane, may be fueling my prejudice ever so slightly. I will further admit a perverse, perhaps not entirely defensible interest in seeing Blake Lively taunted by a shark for the entirety of The Shallows, though I suspect she might have better luck in the company of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart navigating the calms of Woody Allen’s comparatively sophisticated Café Society which, unlike the legendary director’s last 268 movies, actually looks like it might be good.


Eschewing sophistication, if Andy Shamberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer’s satire of celebrity desperation, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, is only half as funny as Samberg’s recent tennis parody Seven Days in Hell, it’ll be worth seeing. And the chance to see Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick go deep, dark and psycho on Zac Efron and Adam DeVine’s clueless party bros in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (directed by Seven Days in Hell’s Jake Szymanski) looks to be an irresistible festival of raunchy humiliation. Perhaps sketchiest of all, the bizarre CGI-animated shenanigans of Sausage Party sets a refrigerator full of suggestively shaped lunchmeats (voiced by the likes of Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, James Franco and Kristen Wigg et al.) in search of the meaning of their existence. Sausage Party is unlikely to be a kosher experience, though it’s virtually guaranteed to be free of the nitrates packed into that Oscar Meyer dog you could be wolfing down while watching it.


I will say I am a tiny bit trepidatious, however, about Ghostbusters-- perhaps writer-director Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids and The Heat and whose last outing, the Melissa McCarthy-Bond sendup Spy, was flat-out hilarious, will reveal within the context of the movie itself all the funny that seems to be eluding audiences in those low-wattage trailers. Funny or not, and despite the vaguely and sometimes blatantly misogynistic online howling heard incessantly since those trailers debuted, it must be said that no one’s rich cultural heritage is being raped and pillaged by a female-centric reboot of an Ivan Reitman film. And if there has to be a new Ghostbusters in town, I’d rather accommodate a new wrinkle like this one than get slimed for a third time while Bill Murray yawns his way to another paycheck.

There is no such ambivalence on my part over the prospect of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel The BFG—this movie, featuring recent Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as the titular big, friendly giant, looks to these weary eyes to be as much of a sure thing as anything on the summertime roster. The only thing that strikes me odd about The BFG is how little in the way of buzzy anticipation there seems to be for a new picture by one of the movies’ most accomplished storytellers. Does Spielberg really have to threaten yet another Indiana Jones pictures to get the connoisseurs of the Internet all aflutter?


And yet another big, friendly giant looms on the horizon in the personage of a Disney live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon, whose 1977 incarnation was half live-action already (and the less said about that the better). Disney hopes their springtime success with the digitized rehash of The Jungle Book will be replicated here, though Pete’s prospects seem far less preordained. The original version is, I suspect, a classic only for the most nostalgically narcotized, which makes me wonder if the hoped-for box-office crush might be a classic act of corporate overestimation. Yet if any of the potential summer blockbusters has the opportunity to genuinely upend expectations, particularly from an artistic perspective, it’s this one—the new Pete’s Dragon has been directed by David Lowery, whose ephemeral features St. Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints seem like odd and unlikely training ground for birthing a Disney behemoth. (Lowery also edited Shane Carruth’s supremely impressionistic Upstream Color.) The tension between this young director’s previously displayed ambitions and the possibility of said ambitions being sublimated into a Hollywood mediocrity makes Pete’s Dragon one of the summer’s most intriguing high-wire acts.


None of the big summer treats described above holds as much promise for me, however, as a trio of nonfiction features making their bow (at least here in Los Angeles) during the month of June. The advance word on both Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma and Thorsten Schutte’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words has been tantalizingly enthusiastic, and the prospect of seeing exhaustive but, considering their subjects, presumably far from exhausted documentaries focused on two of my personal artistic heroes is singlehandedly keeping my desire for summer movies alive. Three-plus hours spent at the movies than listening to the premier visual stylist of his generation and the most brilliant and iconoclastic musician/composer of his generation holding forth on what they do better than just about anyone when they’re really cooking? How can these movies possibly miss? And then there’s Tickled, an acclaimed doc, which starts out as a “quirky” investigation into a bizarre "competitive endurance tickling" underground and turns into a harrowing... something else. The movie’s trailer hints of disturbing depths the exact nature of which I hope can remain completely unspoiled until I actually see the film.

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So much for hopes, high, low and otherwise. What about what I have seen so far in 2016? In my humble estimation, the best movie of the year to this point, is most certainly writer-director Robert Egger’s debut feature The Witch, subtitled “A New-England Folk Tale,” which made its debut on VOD and Blu-ray this week. That subtitle should be taken seriously, especially in light of the acclaim that greeted the movie at Sundance and during its theatrical release as one of the best and scariest horror movies to come along in a couple of decades. Because The Witch actually lives up to both that level of hyperbole and its own modest descriptor, and on its own precisely committed and near-obsessive terms, which says a lot not only about what Eggers has achieved but also about what audiences have come to expect from a modern horror movie, and why those expectations are most often greeted by one disappointment after another.

The movie does indeed feel closer to the telling of a folk tale-- perhaps a cautionary one spun by other New England Puritans from the 1600s of this movie’s period—or to the compact, elliptical shorthand of a masterful short story, than to what audiences might start salivating for when they start hearing claims of “best” and “scariest.” A farmer and his family are exiled from a fortified Puritan church community for an unspecified offense and set off on their own to claim a modest expanse of land at the edge of a forbidding wood upon which to build a new farm, a new life. One day the farmer’s eldest daughter, played with fetching guilelessness by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, tends to her infant brother, playing with him a game of peek-a-boo. Three times she hides then reveals her eyes, to the baby’s delight. The fourth time she uncovers them, only to find that the baby has disappeared. Has the baby been spirited away by a witch of the wood? Or as her family comes to believe, spurred on by tragedy and hunger borne of failing crops, is she herself the witch?


Despite the opportunity, Eggers is not in the business of using his superior modernity to deride his characters for their beliefs. Yes, these are people for whom tangible, sober reality does not preclude the satanically inspired existence of broom-riding hags who delight in grinding the flesh and bones of children to make paste for heathen sacrifices. But they are also twice exiled, from their community of believers, but also from their home across the ocean, longing for the relative comfort of home that the harsh wilderness refuse to provide. Eggers portrays their struggles with empathy and respect, taking pains, through period authenticity of sets, costume, and of language, to establish the humble, unforgiving reality of life in a new world (reflecting, of course, the silent and unforgiving nature of a loving God) that could as easily consume as fulfill those who would harvest and tame it.  

The Witch operates on such a level of visual and tonal confidence that I often wondered if maybe it wasn’t Eggers who was possessed. Outside of a tendency (mostly near the beginning) to rely overly on the atonal crescendos of the score to build, and then momentarily dissipate dread, the movie barely makes a misstep. According to the writer-director, the sort of arcane yet lyrical dialogue with which the movie luxuriates—“Thou shalt be home by candle-time tomorrow”-- was derived almost entirely from period court transcripts and historical accounts of alleged witchery. As righteous as that sort of pursuit of authenticity might be, it’s the mingling of it with the director’s desire to stir an ambiguous response in his audience, to unnerve viewers who may be atheistically convinced of the folly of religious conviction with the possibility of supernatural influence, which fuels the movie’s most profoundly frightening impulses.


Eggers routinely toys with horror conventions, often deriving chills from his own refusal to capitalize on shocks that seem to be coming yet never arrive—a dream visitation from the dead does not end up with the CGI-infused punch line in which a more typical horror movie might have lazily indulged. And The Witch is full of unostentatious, lyrically unsettling imagery—a woman cackling hysterically as a raven pecks at her breast, all the while dreaming of blissfully breastfeeding a baby; and later, in the sudden freedom of a calm epilogue after horrific violence, a young woman, her head looming in the frame and out of focus, stares out at a grave, behind which looms the wood where her apparent destiny will be fulfilled.

The movie is at times overwhelming, but it’s full of moments like these that sneak up on you, and others which take you down harder and justify The Witch’s burgeoning reputation as a great new horror movie-- I’m thinking of the death of one character which so alchemically intertwines religious ecstasy and existential horror that almost four months after having first seen it I don’t think I’ve fully escaped its effects. When I first saw The Witch in February there was a man sitting in front of me who obviously didn’t cotton to the way the movie refused to conform to the rules of the schlock-shock playbook, and when the movie made its final cut to all-consuming blackness he wasn’t shy about blurting out his dissatisfaction and confusion: “What the fuck was that?!” Others may find the ambiguities that Eggers carries through to the movie’s end more fascinating. The Witch is a movie that had me marveling at the mysteries of its darkness, not cursing at them.

Nine Other Movies I’ve Liked A Lot So Far in 2016:


Barbershop: The Next Cut


Captain America: Civil War


Deadpool


Everybody Wants Some!!


Eye in the Sky


Hail, Caesar!


Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro)


Triple 9


Zootopia

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Saturday, May 07, 2016

10 THINGS I LEARNED AT TCMFF 2016



Well, another year spent in the company of classic cinema curated by the TCM Classic Film Festival has come and gone, leaving me with several great experiences watching favorite films and ones I’d never before seen, some already cherished memories, and the usual weary bag of bones for a body in the aftermath. (I usually come down with something when I decompress post-festival and get back to the working week, and this year has been no exception.)

There have now been seven TCMFFs since its inaugural run in 2010. I’ve been lucky enough to attend them all, and this time around I saw more movies than I ever have before—18 features zipping from auditorium to queue and back to auditorium like a gerbil in a tube maze. In order to make sure I got in to see everything I wanted to see, I had to make sure I was in line as close to an hour ahead of the posted screening time as possible, and given how tightly the films had been packed together this year, accomplishing that proved to be one of the biggest challenges for festival attendees, seemingly more so than ever. I learned that there’s no time for hanging out after the lights come up. It’s on to the next queue to get your number—there will always be someone to talk to in line or to hold your place while you join the between-movie stampede to the restroom.

Actually, I learned several things while attending TCMFF this year, some of which surprised me and some of which confirmed beliefs or festival strategies I already had, all of which contributed, mostly positively, to my TCMFF 2016 experience. I came away thinking this might have been one of my favorite of the seven TCMFFs I’ve attended, and maybe this quick remembrance will give you some indication of why that seems to be true, ten things I learned while attending this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival.

1) TO SEE THE MOST MOVIES, MINIMIZE THE DISTANCE BETWEEN VENUES This has always been my strategy for constructing my scheduled weekend at TCMFF, and this year I was stricter than ever with this policy. I only left the main Chinese multiplex hub twice this year, for the relatively quick jaunt over to the Big Chinese to see The Conversation and Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. If a movie I wanted to see was scheduled at the Egyptian, like The Long Goodbye or Repeat Performance or The Passion of Joan of Arc, or even further away at the Cinerama Dome, like the Smell-o-Vision presentation of Scent of Mystery, I swallowed hard and skipped it. Most of the temptations being dangled at the Egyptian were ones I’d seen before; I’d even already seen Joan projected with a live score. And heading to the Dome would have meant missing the opportunity to see two rare films I’d never seen before, one of which, Edward L. Cahn’s early Universal western Law and Order (1932) turned out to be one of the best, and certainly most revelatory movies I’d see all weekend. By sticking close to the multiplex, I was able to maximize the amount of films I could see and still ensure that most of them would be first-time experiences.

2) IF YOU LIKE 35mm, STAY CLOSE TO THEATER FOUR The amount of 35mm being shown at TCMFF 2016 was down to only 33% of its offerings, most of those comprised of prints of lesser-known films that rarely make it out of the vaults. Which is why you’ll usually see these films only in the festival’s smallest venue, theater #4, the only auditorium in the Chinese complex that can still show 35mm. Movies like Double Harness (1933) caught early buzz this year and were tough to get into because the theater only seats 177 people, and they rarely get scheduled into a big venue like the Egyptian (which has 35mm projection capability) because it’s much more difficult to anticipate the level of audience interest in them. The rarity of the films shown in this auditorium makes them catnip to festivalgoers like me, who program their weekend around what they haven’t seen or even heard of, so much so that TCM programmer Millie De Chirico, who often hosts the good stuff in this auditorium, has started talking about a Theater Four Club (#Theater4Club) for us perennial stalwarts.

3) FESTIVALGOERS CAN BE A WHINY LOT Double Harness sold out quickly on Friday morning, and even though it was showing in the #4, where I’d just been to see Ida Lupino’s directorial debut Never Fear (1949), by the time that film let out the line to go back in for Double Harness was already beginning its long loop around the expanse of the outdoor food court. Grumble, grumble, grumble, many could be overheard grumbling, already grumpy over alleged “disorganization” of the festival. I knew, however, that such an overwhelming crush of people to see this picture would guarantee it being programmed into one of the festival’s Sunday “To Be Determined” slots, reserved for the smaller movies that garner the most unexpected response measured simply in how many people are turned away from its initial screening. Sure enough, Double Harness was scheduled for a second screening Sunday morning, so I made sure I was there in line at 8:00 a.m. for the 9:15 a.m. screening… and I was still number 76 in line! I knew I would get in, but as the line grew ever longer behind me, populated by people straggling in a half hour or more later expecting easy entry, the grumbling grew louder and the haranguing of exceedingly patient TCMFF volunteer staffers (like Lillian pictured here, who I ran into frequently and who never had anything but a smile on her face) began in earnest. There are few things more distasteful to witness in this environment than the righteous and entitled fury of festivalgoers who can’t figure out that being in line at least an hour early for the sure sell-out of a movie which has already proved difficult to get into is an absolute requirement. If you pay as much as you must for a pass to the TCMFF, it might be a good idea to process such fundamental business ahead of time so you won’t end up bullying a festival volunteer just because you couldn’t drag your ass out of bed in time to see a movie.

4) HOW TO DO THE TCMFF ON $6.50 Speaking of payment, unless you have a media credential like mine, you’ve already spent as much as two or three thousand dollars on passes and, if you’re coming in from out of town, food and accommodations before you ever set foot on Hollywood Boulevard. But since I’m sponsored by a magazine to write about the festival, my only expenses, provided I avoid the copious opportunities to drop coin on overpriced swag at the TCM Boutique, are incurred in transporting myself from Glendale to the Hollywood & Highland complex where the festival takes place and in answering the occasional rumbling of my prodigious belly. Well, this year I was determined to be as frugal as possible. I popped my own popcorn and packed a variety of snacks (apples, PayDay candy bars) and a load of homemade sandwiches (PB&J, ham and Swiss on rye) in my bag each day. My one extraneous expense was a large Diet Coke purchased at the Chinese multiplex snack bar. I kept hold of that cup from Friday through Sunday, amassing something like four or five free refills, and the $6.50 I spent on it was the only money I parted ways with all weekend long at the festival. Viva filmy frugality!



5) GINA LOLLOBRIGIDA IS A FINE COMIC ACTRESS I’d never seen Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell before, so my impressions of Gina Lollobrigida were essentially confined to Beat the Devil and her reputation as a va-va-va-voom Italian sexpot. Before she stepped on stage with Ben Mankiewicz  for an interview preceding Buona Sera, TCMFF ran a promotional film spotlighting her career not only in movies, but as an acclaimed photographer and then, in a really unexpected third act, as a sculptor. These were all aspects of Lollobrigida’s career of which I was ignorant. And seeing Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell made me realizing that I was also ignorant of her prodigious talents as a comic actress. She’s the glue that holds this emotionally resonant farce together (it’s the unacknowledged inspiration for the stage hit Mamma Mia!), which can often mean playing the sober center of a universe where the orbiting satellites get to have all the wacky fun. But as Mrs. Campbell, suddenly besieged by the return of three American soldiers to her Italian village, one of whom fathered her daughter but all three of whom believe that they are the dad, she orchestrates exasperation, panic, joy, and of course boundless sex appeal, with the ease of a true maestra. It’s wonderful that she had such a fulfilling life after the movies, but a performance like this one can only make the tapering off of her movie career after this picture feel like a missed opportunity.


6) FOLLOW MICHAEL SCHLESINGER WHEREVER HE GOES If you’ve been to TCMFF more than once, chances are you’ve been to a screening presented by producer, preservationist and film historian Michael Schlesinger. He introduced one of my first experiences at TCMFF at 2010, the hilarious comedy Murder, He Says, as “a parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made 30 years before that picture even existed.” He was right, and I’ve made sure to see at least one movie Schlesinger has introduced every year since, which means I’ve had the opportunity to see projected glories like the Abbott and Costello comedy Who Done It?, a thrilling restoration of Johnny Guitar and my own holy grail, Billy Wilder’s One Two Three with very appreciative audiences. Last year Schlesinger didn’t get to share anything, so in 2016 TCMFF gave him two showcases—Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the ultra-rare Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934) which was indeed, as Schlesinger insisted, “The best movie you’ve never seen!” If you make it to a TCMFF in the future, do as I do—make sure you see whatever it is Michael Schlesinger brings to the party. I’ve never regretted doing so, and neither will you.


7) IT IS POSSIBLE TO WATCH AN ENTIRE MOVIE WITH YOUR MOUTH HANGING OPEN I stumbled into a midnight screening of Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) at the end of my first long day of movies at TCMFF 2016, but there would be no dozing off. In this notorious movie, Marshall and his real-life family, including Tippi Hedren and Melanie Griffith, act out a very thin story of peril among a menagerie of untrained and unpredictable lions, tigers, and panthers, was without doubt king of this urban festival jungle in the realm of unbridled disbelief. I'm pretty sure I've never watched an entire film with my mouth hanging open in shock before this one. Roar isn't exactly a Disney True-Life Adventure snuff film (nobody dies), but the absolute knowledge that people could have been killed, and at the very least will be seriously mauled on screen, lends it a sort of tension that's hopefully unique in movie history. The message the film desperately wants to send—regarding the preservation and the majesty of wildlife, particularly African cats of all shapes and sizes—keeps getting blurred by the insanity of the situations into which dedicated animal preservationists Marshall and Hedren put themselves and their family. The gore in this movie is real, the disregard for human safety is lunatic and irresponsible, and its motivations are strangely muddled, but I've never seen anything like it. A classic? No. But I was riveted. As noted film historian Richard Harland Smith suggests in his excellent article in the TCMFF program, the best comment on the well-intentioned, if bizarre hubris behind Roar would be to program it on a double bill with Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.

8) DIRECTOR EDWARD L. CAHN WOULD BE AN EXCELLENT SUBJECT FOR FURTHER RESEARCH I’ve known and loved director Edward L. Cahn (here seen directing Judy Bamber in Dragstrip Girl) mostly for the late-career string of mediocrities he cranked out in the ‘50s and ‘60s, long after the promise of his early career had been winked out. Pictures like Creature with the Atom Brain, Girls in Prison, The She-Creature, Runaway Daughters, Zombies of Mora Tau, Voodoo Woman, Girls, Guns and Gangsters and Oklahoma Territory are all lean, no-frills time-killers that are maybe more fun than they have any right to be. And Cahn also directed one of my favorite ‘50s sci-fi classics, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, a movie to which Alien owes more than just passing acknowledgement. But I knew little of Cahn’s early career other than that he was a top-drawer editor for Universal before landing in the director’s chair for a series of inexpensive programmers for the studio, all before becoming a fixture cranking out shorts for MGM from 1935 to 1949. One of those movies, Law and Order (1932), screened this year at TCMFF and made me think there might have been more to Cahn than has ever met my eye before. The movie is essentially the Gunfight at the OK Corral with the names changed (to protect the mythological?), starring Walter Huston as notorious gunslinger-turned-marshal Frame “Saint” Johnson, née Wyatt Earp. Cahn lends Law and Order a somber, elegiac and entirely unexpected attitude toward death. The numerous killings here have a gravitas absent from the average horse opera of the day, and the film's final shootout set piece has been choreographed and edited with a surprising degree of poetry that made me think of Sam Peckinpah more than once. I’m now more inclined than ever to seek out the eight other pictures he directed before migrating to MGM in the hope that Law and Order wasn’t just some sort of aberration. And even if it was, I’ll still have Girls, Guns and Gangsters and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.


9) FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA MEANS MORE TO ME THAN I REALIZED I knew I couldn’t miss being part of the audience to see The Conversation at the Big Chinese on Friday afternoon; given that it wasn’t a big hit, the TCMFF audience would likely be the biggest one assembled to watch the movie since its premiere at Cannes in 1974. However, most of us were there not only to see the movie, but to see it in the presence of its director, Francis Ford Coppola. I passed on seeing Coppola get his hand and footprints memorialized in cement earlier in the day; this was the big ticket. And when Coppola came out on stage before the film, introduced by the ubiquitous Ben Mankiewicz, something unexpected happened: I started to get choked up and dropped a couple of tears in the process. Here was the director of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, two films which have meant so much to me in my development as a movie fan and as one who appreciates them perhaps more seriously, sitting down to talk about his movie and his process, and I was there to see him. I’ve never been an across-the-board Coppola apologist, but the emotion of this moment so surprised me that I came away thinking that it was time to look again at films like Rumble Fish and One from the Heart and Youth Without Youth and see if I might have missed something the first time around.


10) PICK THE RIGHT FILM WITH WHICH TO SAY GOOD-BYE Over my seven years at TCMFF I’ve had pretty good luck ending my TCMFF experiences in style. My string of closing films has included Metropolis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Haskell Wexler in attendance), Dial M for Murder (in glorious 3D) and Psycho. Even lower-wattage closers, like Robert Evans introducing Black Sunday and a screening of Alan Ladd as The Great Gatsby (1949), had appeal, even if they didn’t hit hard like those first four did. This year I had intended to finish off with Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. But I started to get weary on Sunday afternoon, and I started to miss my wife and my girls, whom I hadn’t seen much of over the course of the festival’s three days and four nights. So I decided to wrap things up with the glorious Technicolor of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a perfect movie with which to end it all, as it has about three or four endings just in itself. And it was indeed a perfect salutary to my TCMFF 2016, leaving me with just the right mixture of soaring emotion and appreciation for the experience of seeing such a grand Hollywood picture in the biggest and brightest presentation ever. My fondness for this festival is anchored in being privileged to witness screenings like this one, and one week later the afterglow of ending on Ford and Wayne’s thrilling, big-hearted adventure has yet to dissipate. That afterglow is one I expect I’ll still be feeling when it comes time to gear up for next year.

A complete list of what I saw over the course of three days and four nights would look a little something like this:

One Potato, Two Potato (1964)
Los Tallos Amargos (1956)
Never Fear (1949)
The Conversation (1974)
Private Property (1960)
Six Hours to Live (1932)
My Sister Eileen (1955)
Roar (1981)
A House Divided (1931)
Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934)
Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968)
The Endless Summer (1966)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Gog (1954)
Double Harness (1933)
Law and Order (1932)
Horse Feathers (1932)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)


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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

"CLASSIQUE = MODERNE": TCMFF 2016



Here's a heads-up that the coverage of my experience at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, which concluded this past Sunday, is now up and running at Slate magazine's blog The House Next Door.

The official theme of this year's festival was "Moving Pictures" which, according to the festival Web site, meant the festival would be dedicated to exploring films “that bring us to tears, rouse us to action, inspire us, even project us to a higher plane…the big-time emotions of big screen stories, from coming-of-age pictures to terminal tearjerkers, from powerful sports dramas we feel in our bones to religious epics that elevate our spirits.”


That theme always seemed a little too amorphously defined to promise much in the way of creative curation, but as I dug into the movies I'd scheduled for myself a theme of my own spelunking began to emerge, spurred on by a Saturday night screening of Band of Outsiders:

"Early on, our heroes sit for an English class in which their teacher, readying them for a lesson in Romeo and Juliet, emphasizes T.S. Eliot's observation that 'Everything that is new is thereby automatically traditional' as a way of softening her students' resistance to material that might seem musty or forbidding in any language. The quote suggests not only the teacher's belief that new texts can reorganize tradition, but also ways in which classic texts can achieve modernity, not just through themselves, but through constant recontextualization over time. Always one to recognize a movie convention, Godard uses the classroom scene to establish his modus operandi in much the same way as hundreds of films before and since have done. The teacher even spells it out on the chalkboard: to be classic is to be modern."

Read more of my account of the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival now playing at The House Next Door.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH TCMFF-STYLE



    As TCMFF 2016 approaches, I've taken it upon myself to initiate some meticulously gauged scientific research. As you can see from the previous post, I've blocked out a schedule which, if I manage to get into everything I'm hoping to see, will allow me to consume 21 movies from Thursday evening to Sunday evening. 

    How is this possible? Well, only four of those 21 boasts running times over 100 minutes, and none of them reach a full two hours. The rest range from the lean and not-at-all-mean Horse Feathers, by one minute the shortest at 68 minutes, to the relatively robust 95 minutes of Band of Outsiders and The Endless Summer. 

    So the average run time of my TCMFF selections this year turns out to be 87 minutes, which is great news for my butt, my bladder and my gluttonous ambitions for this coming weekend. Wish me luck!  #TCMFF

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