Monday, June 27, 2011

MASTER LIST #22: The 50 Best Animated Features

I'm not a huge animation fan but, dang it, I know what's good. And I was livid after seeing Richard Corliss's woeful list of the top 25 animated films for the pages of Time Magazine. Happy Feet? Horton Hears A Who? And The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie at #3? That was just a collection of shorts hastily cobbled together! Corliss' sloppy arrangement of the titles, and the list's lack of diversity seem pandering and short-sighted (11 out of the 25 came from the 2000s, and the classic Disney era was given criminal short shrift, with neither Bambi, The Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, Fantasia nor 101 Dalmatians making the list; also, animated films from countries OTHER than the USA were virtually ignored). This all made me so mad, I had to put my own list together. A word of warning: you may be similarly made angry by my snubbing of titles like The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and The Little Mermaid, but I'm sorry--I was left cold by them; also WALL-E just misses hitting my list because it falls apart so badly in its second half. I should also note that there's a whole lot of Japanese product I have yet to see (mainly because I have a bias against their preferred low-frame-rate animation; it's an acquired taste). But I hope you'll note some more obscure but well-considered titles here and search them out. Anyway, it's better than Corliss' list, this is for certain. So, in order according to (1) overall quality, (2) animation quality, and (3) influence, here are my favorites:

1) Bambi (David Hand, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright, Walt Disney, 42)
2) Toy Story (John Lasseter, 95)
3) Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich, 99)
4) Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, 2015)
5) Fantasia (James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norm Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, Walt Disney, 40)
6) The Tale of the Fox (Wladislaw and Irene Starewicz, 30)
7) Lady and the Tramp (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, W. Disney, 55)
8) The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 99)
9) Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen, Walt Disney, 37)
10) Yellow Submarine (George Dunning and Al Brodax, 68)
11) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)
12) Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 91)
13) Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 88)
14) Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, Walt Disney, 59)
15) Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, Sam Armstrong, Norm Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Walt Disney, 41)
16) Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
17) Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen, Norm Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Walt Disney, 41)
18) It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Herzfeldt, 2012)
19) The Triplets of Bellville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
20) Wallace & Grommit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park, Steve Box, 2005)
21) 101 Dalmatians (Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, Disney, 61)
22) The Secret of NIMH (Don Bluth, 82)
23) Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter, David Silverman, Lee Unkrich, 2001)
24) South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (Trey Parker, 99)
25) My Dog Tulip (Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, 2009)
26) The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (Karel Zeman, 58)
27) Gulliver's Travels (Dave Fleischer, 39)
28) The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
29) The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman, Walt Disney, 67)
30) Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
31) Akira (Katsuhiro Ohtomo, 88)
32) American Pop (Ralph Bakshi, 81)
33) Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, W. Disney, 51)
34) Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
35) Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
36) Charlotte's Web (Charles A. Nichols and Iwao Takamoto, 73)
37) Mary and Max (Adam Elliott, 2009)
38) Alice (Jan Svankmajer, 88)
39) Anomalisa (US, Charles Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015)
40) A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, 2009)
41) When The Wind Blows (Jimmy T. Murakami, 86)
42) Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)
43) A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Bill Melendez, 69)
44) Allegro Non Troppo (Bruno Bozzetto, 76)
45) Watership Down (Martin Rosen, 78)
46) Chicken Run (Nick Park and Peter Lord, 2000)
47) The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
48) I Married A Strange Person (Bill Plympton, 97)
49) Fantastic Planet (René Laloux, 73)
50) Twice Upon A Time (John Korty and Charles Swenson, 83)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

R.I.P. Peter Falk (1927-2011)

What a great actor. I don't think I knew how much I loved him until now. I cannot say any more. I'm too choked up. Really, I am. So I'm letting the clips speak for me.

From A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. His role was seemingly lesser against the searing Gena Rowlands, but it was nonetheless challenging; in fact, it was the heart of the movie. (John Cassevetes, 74).

As the husband in desperate, unfailing love with an unbalanced lady in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (John Cassevetes, 74).

From THE IN-LAWS, with Alan Arkin. With one film, the two became one of cinema's most memorable buddy couples; personally, this is my deep-down favorite of all of Falk's performances. It always makes me smile (especially when he's talking about the tsete flies). SERPENTINE, SHEL! SERPENTINE! (Arthur Hiller, 79).

From MURDER, INC. Falk garnered his first Supporting Actor Oscar nomination here opposite Stuart Whitman. In fact, here mark's the birth of a star. Sit through the musical interlude and you'll see GOODFELLAS, THE SOPRANOS and everything else. (Stuart Rosenberg, 60).

Opposite the pleading Dolores Delmar in an unrentingingly brilliant movie called HUSBANDS. (John Cassevetes, 70).

The director called him an angel walking the earth. WINGS OF DESIRE. (Wim Wenders, 87)

As "Sam Diamond" in the landmark Neil Simon comedy MURDER BY DEATH (Robert Moore, 76).

Falk's intro to the much-loved THE PRINCESS BRIDE, with Fred Savage (Rob Reiner, 87).

From the little-seen THE BRINK'S JOB (William Friedkin, 78).

As the manager of a female wrestling team in ALL THE MARBLES (Robert Aldrich, 81).

As a passionate WWII grunt in a notable director's debut film, called CASTLE KEEP. (Sydney Pollock, 69)

In his signature TV role as Lt. COLUMBO, opposite his closest friend, John Cassevetes, circa 1973.

Falk as a top comedian in the underrated THE CHEAP DETECTIVE. (Robert Moore, 78).

Discussing death with Cassevetes in the energetic MIKEY AND NICKY (Elaine May, 76).

With the late Jill Clayburgh in the devastating TV movie GRIFFIN AND PHOENIX: A LOVE STORY (Daryl Duke, 76).

Paying tribute to Frank Capra, who cast him in the director's final film, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, which won Falk his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and might as well have launched his career into the ionosphere.

There were SO many way to have loved Peter Falk. I only hope I have convinced you as such here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Forgotten Movie Songs #20: "Car Wash" from CAR WASH

Michael Schultz's 1976 film Car Wash is one of those lovely, plotless comedies that arrived in the wake of 1973's American Graffiti. Covering one single day at an L.A. outfit, it ambles very ably in and out of a series of workaday pranks and dramas that engulf the title spot's workers. Schultz and his screenwriter, future blockbuster director Joel Schumacher, make everything look rather effortless, but it's the sort of film that can crumble into a mess if it's not controlled correctly. Luckily, the script and the direction hit all the right notes.

It's the creative casting that helps the movie achieve its heights. In its own way, the cast of Car Wash rivals that pure energy that the cast of American Graffiti empowered; there's a juggernaut collection of pro character actors and comedians in this picture, too. Here's a cast photo gallery:

Henry Kingi, Ivan Dixon and Bill Duke as the militant Abdullah.

George Carlin and the great Clarence Muse

Antonio Fargas as the flaming Lindy

Clarence Muse gives a shoeshine to Big Daddy Rich, played by Richard Pryor.

Garrett Morris

Pepe Serna and Ray Vitte

Leonard Jackson and Professor Irwin Corey

Darryl Igus and DeWayne Jessie (aka Otis Day)

A pre-thirtysomething (and pre-nose job) Melanie Mayron

Tim Thomerson in a hilarious one-scene performance as an inebriated lothario

Michael Finnell as the obnoxious skateboarder Calvin

70s character actor mainstay Jack Kehoe

Franklin Ajaye as the slick T.C.

Another great 70s character actor: Sully Boyar as the car wash's owner and manager

A rare film appearance by The Pointer Sisters, as Big Daddy Rich's singing entourage

The film's cast is unbelievably rich. And while cinematographer Frank Stanley's photography is always suitably grimy, it absolutely transports us to this very specific place and time. I love how slyly Schumacher's script fits in social commentary amongst a lot of broad, even slapstick, laughs; in fact, Car Wash delivers some powerful scenes in its final 20 minutes that underline primarily the differences, and levels of understanding, that'll always be present between management and workers. But it never is preachy or pedantic; it's always fair and truthful to each one of its diverse characters. It's really a wonderful, fun, intelligent movie.

And, of course, Norman Whitfield's soundtrack rocks. Whitfield was a house songwriter and producer for Motown, and that quality shines through in his work for Car Wash. I was originally going to put up his sweet ballad "I Wanna Get Next To You" as my entry into the Forgotten Movie Songs sweepstakes, but I think it gets a little lost in the film (even though it's also well-used). Still, I'd be remiss to not mention it.

No, instead, I think I'll choose the movie's masterfully arranged title song, which is given a scene all by itself. Sung by Rose Royce, the song was a #1 hit, but somehow got forgotten by the Oscar nominating committee (they were total squares back then). "Car Wash" is still played on the radio these days, but I think a lot of people have forgotten about the movie from which it sprang, so I'm tubthumbing for it now.   

Ooh ooh
You might not ever get rich
But let me tell ya it's better that diggin' a ditch.
There ain't no tellin' who ya might meet.
A movie star or may be even an Indian Chief.

At the car wash.
Workin' at the car wash, yeah!
Come on and sing it with me
Car wash.
Sing it with the feelin' y'all
Car wash, yeah.

Come summer the work gets kinda hard
This ain't no place to be if ya planned on being a star.
Let me tell you it's always cool
And the boss don't mind sometimes if ya act a fool.

At the car wash (whoa whoa whoa whoa)
Talkin' about the car wash, yeah!
Come on and sing it for me
Car wash.
Car wash yeah!

(Work and work) Well, those cars never seem to stop comin'.
(Work and work) Keep those rags and machines hummin'
(Work and work) my fingers to the bone
(Work) at five I can't wait 'til it's time to go home

Hey, get your car washed today.
Fill up and you don't have to pay.
Come on and give us a play.
Get a wash right away.

Car wash.
Workin' at the car wash, yeah!
Come on and sing it with me
Car wash.
Sing it with feelin' y'all
Car wash, yeah.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Major changes as far as the Academy Awards go:

The MPMAS shook things up, of course, a few years ago. They returned to a ten-tentpoled Best Picture roundup. Now, they're having second thoughts. Things are getting confusing here. Here's the press release:

June 14, 2011
Academy Builds Surprise Into Best Picture Rules

Beverly Hills, CA –
The governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted on Tuesday (6/14) to add a new twist to the 2011 Best Picture competition, and a new element of surprise to its annual nominations announcement. The Board voted to institute a system that will now produce anywhere between five and 10 nominees in the category. That number won’t be announced until the Best Picture nominees themselves are revealed at the January nominations announcement.

“With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we’ve been looking not just at what happened over the past two years, but at what would have happened if we had been selecting 10 nominees for the past 10 years,” explained Academy President Tom Sherak, who noted that it was retiring Academy executive director Bruce Davis who recommended the change first to Sherak and incoming CEO Dawn Hudson and then to the governors.

During the period studied, the average percentage of first place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5. After much analysis by Academy officials, it was determined that 5% of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from five to 10 movies.

“In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies,” said Davis. “A Best Picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.”

If this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 nominees.

The final round of voting for Best Picture will continue to employ the preferential system, regardless of the number of nominees, to ensure that the winning picture has the endorsement of more than half of the voters.

Other rules changes approved by the Board include:

In the animated feature film category, the need for the Board to vote to “activate” the category each year was eliminated, though a minimum number of eligible releases – eight – is still required for a competitive category. Additionally, the short films and feature animation branch recommended, and the Board approved, refinements to the number of possible nominees in the Animated Feature category. In any year in which eight to 12 animated features are released, either two or three of them may be nominated. When 13 to 15 films are released, a maximum of four may be nominated, and when 16 or more animated features are released, a maximum of five may be nominated.

In the visual effects category, the “bakeoff” at which the nominees are determined will expand from seven to 10 contenders. The increase in the number of participants is related to a change made last year in which the number of films nominated in the visual effects category was increased from three to five.

Previously, the Board approved changes to the documentary feature and documentary short category rules that now put those categories’ eligibility periods in line with the calendar year and thus with most other awards categories. The change means that for the 84th Awards cycle only, the eligibility period is more than 12 months; it is from September 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011.

Other modifications of the 84th Academy Awards rules include normal date changes and minor “housekeeping” changes.

Rules are reviewed annually by individual branch and category committees. The Awards Rules Committee then reviews all proposed changes before presenting its recommendations to the Academy’s Board of Governors for approval.

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Tuesday, January 24, 2012, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Academy Awards for outstanding film achievements of 2011 will be presented on Sunday, February 26, 2012, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center®, and televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 200 countries worldwide.

IS IT JUST ME, OR SHOULD MY HEAD BE SPINNING?????? Just go BACK to five nominees for all categories, willya please????

ADDENDUM: It looks like they corrected at least one aspect of the Documentary Feature category, in making the eligibility year match that of narrative films. The Academy also made adjustments to the Special Effects and Animated Feature slots (good job there). But some rejiggering still need to be made to the Best Song and Foreign-Language Film categories.

Film #145: Blue Velvet

This is a reprint of my first NYC-published review. It was first printed in a long-dead 1986 NYU film school magazine, right after I had seen Lynch's movie with a disbelieving audience partially comprised of unsuspecting 1986 film students. My fellow NYU film production cadets and I watched the film together at an East 28th street NYC theater upon its release (I, personally, had been looking forward to this event with great anticipation; I, in fact, FORCED all these people to come see this movie with me, as I was a longtime Eraserhead and Elephant Man fan; and thus my cohorts were scarred forever--none of them had any idea who David Lynch was at that time, and they all looked at me quite differently afterwards, I believe).

I am reprinting my review now in full, with many corrections; still, the original spirit, and structure, and most of the writing, is contained. The minor changes to my initial article have occurred after a recent big-screen revisiting of the film, with fellow 20-something viewers who'd never seen the movie (this made me feel really old; still, it made me feel great that these new 2011 viewers exited the showing just like my 1986 NYU buddies did). I've tried mightily to retain the essence of seeing Blue Velvet for the first time in this review; there're no mentions of Lynch's subsequent works here, though for a truly full post-1990 review, such mentions would be necessary. That said, I think Blue Velvet will always remain the quintessential David Lynch movie, even though I think he's made better films since (read: Mulholland Dr.). Anyway, here's my review, quite largely written in 1986 innocence, with only four subsequent David Lynch features to follow:

What, exactly, is a David Lynch film?

Well, maybe it would be simpler to ask what it is NOT first. It is, for instance, not a textbook for most of the carefully computed formulas of other Hollywood products. Yet it always condones and concludes with that most traditional of Hollywood devices: the happy ending (even though the delicate and syrupy denouements Lynch imposes on his films usually--and purposefully--go to show us how fatally stupid most happy endings are).

A David Lynch film, also, never belongs to either its actors or the crew that worked on it. These artists certainly help the pictures along their surreal tracks. But the end result belongs to Lynch and Lynch alone. Never one to be chintzy with his visuals, this 38-year-old's background as a painter is startlingly obvious when one examines the lush shades and tones contained in his two black-and-white masterpieces, Eraserhead and The Elephant Man--two films that are injected with more ocular vibrancy than most color efforts. Even Lynch's first color film (how many times, since the 1960s, has THIS phrase been written in film criticism?), the gigantically-scoped but still fatally hamstrung 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel Dune was still an energetically-hued jolt to the senses.

Above all, though, a David Lynch movie is never, EVER easy to take. With their bitter compare-and-contrast ironies, their fetidly twisted yet tender characters and unshakable images of ugliness that accompanies them, a David Lynch production is certainly not for the squeamish, shallow, or hopelessly average.

With all of this in mind, then, Blue Velvet begs to be considered as the quintessential David Lynch movie. It is, at once, exhilarating and exhausting. When the final credits are being superimposed upon a dynamic curtain made of the title fabric, the viewer feels resolutely steamrollered. This is what it feels like to put yourself in the control of a filmmaker who delights in every aspect of moviemaking. All of art is about the battle of control: control of its technical aspects, while its key artist is out of control of the forces that binds him or her; and as for the audience, there is the relinquishment of all control. All of life is a similar tightrope walk; lose your balance and you are finished. Lynch seems to have beat the system. He walks the rope.

Some people cannot take what goes on in Blue Velvet. They are hooked by the film's ambling first 30 minutes, but when the change comes (and, boy, does it come), they cannot brave it. Inevitably, when Dennis Hopper's stunning Frank Booth enters the scene, there are walkouts. Some viewers--more specifically, ones not familiar with the director's past works--consider putting their eyes in the grips of a director of this ilk to be an act of madness. But David Lynch is such a magnificent director that the more thoughtful moviegoers would have to look hard to find true fault with what he gets on celluloid, no matter how dangerously unbalanced it may be.

On its surface, Blue Velvet appears to be the kinkiest movie mystery ever made--which, of course, it is. Beyond all that, though, it's about what goes on UNDERNEATH surface appearances; we learn this early on, when an average man falls victim to an threatening internal struggle while, outside, another struggle for survival takes place beneath his well-watered lawn. This man's grass might be keen on the surface, but there are gnawing black beetles chomping away at those roots.

Blue Velvet takes Shakespeare's timeworn moral "All that glisters is not gold" (from The Merchant of Venice) and twists it to improbable shapes. With this first scene, scored with Bobby Vinton's lilting 1963 version of Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris' 1950 standard, David Lynch plunges us into the seedy underbelly of an outwardly serene lumber town named, appropriately enough, Lumberton. And so, the writer/director contorts one of the Bard's favorite iambic lessons like it's never been contorted before. Absolutely nothing in Lumberton is as it seems: not the rosy, white-fenced gardens, nor the store-lined main streets serving as beards for bizarre crime rings, nor the model nuclear families bearing through tragedies of grotesque proportions, and neither the quaint little sharp-gabled homes that, with their obligatory skeletons, standing as monuments to the emaciated American Dream. Even here, in the most scrubbed and naive God-fearing communities, moral and sexual decay cannot be staved off (or can it?).

Jeffrey Beaumont (expertly underplayed by Kyle MacLachlan) has just come back from visiting his hospitalized, desperately enfeebled father (looking very much like Kenneth McMillan's horrible Baron Harkkonen from Dune, minus the pus-filled facial warts). On the way back home, Jeffrey returns to a field, throwing rocks at an old green bottle, when he discovers an ant-infested, messily hacked-off human ear. Searching for something to engage him in this quiet city, he nonchalantly retrieves the ear and plops it in a brown paper bag (I think his discovery of the ear visually matches his discovery of future vaginas). Jeffrey delivers the ear to his neighbor, Detective Williams (an unnerving George Dickerson), at his downtown office. "Yes, that's a human ear alright," he says, looking into the bag suspiciously. (There's a lot of smart-aleck dialogue in the first part of Blue Velvet; it's meant to put you in a place of upheaval later on.) After having his men search the field, Williams--sensing that Jeffery is a wannabe detective as he once was--insists that Jeffrey not get involved in the investigation. "Once the case is all sewn up, we'll call you in" Williams says, in the first of many of the script's hilarious word-plays.

What Williams has not counted on, however, is the involvement of his daughter, Sandy (a gorgeous Laura Dern). After Jeffrey's visit to the Williams household, Sandy emerges from the darkness, in her pink sweater and feathered blonde hair, asking "Are you the one that found the ear?" She protests throughout, but she's just as hungry as Jeffrey is for some excitement in Lumberton. Clearly in the throes of a crush, she approaches Jeffrey and tells him of the "bits and pieces" she's "heard" about "the ear." For example, a name she says keeps popping up in her father's conversations belongs to the Slow Club (is this a reference to how "slow" the film is in its first half-hour?). The main attraction there is a singer named Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini), who's more popularly known as The Blue Lady. (I need to mention now the film's contributions by sound designer Alan Splet, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, production designer Patricia Norris, editor Duwayne Dunham, the sublime sound designer Alan Splet, and the fantastic score's composer Angelo Badalamenti, who collaborated with lyricist David Lynch on the film's one original song, "Mysteries of Love;" I have to also note the film's magnificent source music score that includes Ketty Lester's "Love Letters," William Doggett's "Honky Tonk (Part I)," and and most importantly, Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," lip-synched unforgettably in a powerful one-scene performance by a powder-puffed, mascarared Dean Stockwell).

Jeffrey goads Sandy--who has a football player boyfriend--into attending the Slow Club with him, after enticing her with the unknown quantities of this town-wide mystery. She sees the danger, but is excited by it. They have an uncomfortable conversation about the beers they order--Heineken (which is LATER answered by one of the most powerful brand-name retorts ever: "FUCK THAT SHIT. PABST BLUE RIBBON!"). And then Dorothy appears onstage. Backed with brightly blue and red lighting, she delivers the movie's signature tune, "Blue Velvet" in her own inimitable, slightly stiff way. Hearing her voice, Jeffery is immediately intrigued; aroused, even. The day after, he meets with Sandy and concocts a scheme to sneak into the singer's apartment in order to get more clues about this severed ear.

Naturally, this is either a grave mistake or a stroke of luck. From here on--and no more will be said about the plot of Blue Velvet--Jeffrey is subjected to the harsh discourtesy of Frank Booth (the incredible Dennis Hopper), who's a drug-crazed, foul-mouthed Freudian nightmare with a fetish for snooky nitrous oxide and (what else?) blue velvet. From this point on, Jeffrey and Snady are thrust into the black heart of everything that is evil--rape, kidnapping, assault, joyriding, drug addiction and, finally, murder.

With all the intricate plotting at the center of Blue Velvet, is it too innocent a notion to dismiss the contrast between Lumberton's sunny daytimes and sinister nights as just a more vivid way of reiterating Shakespeare's aforementioned maxim? Probably so. Blue Velvet is too vivacious a film to be limited to just that. Like each of David Lynch's movies, almost anything--depending on the personality of the viewer--can be read into the story. The movie could be seen as a criticism aimed at the clash between the passive, TV-blitzed 1950s America (notice, in the opening scene, Jeffrey's mother as she watches a spooky, gun-toting film noir movie on her television) and the liberated, degenerated, yet socially-aware USA of the 1960s and 70s.

Lynch's film could also be an examination of a people who have no conscious, but many unconscious, desires to examine their sexual undercurrents (this describes the straitlaced Jeffrey perfectly; he blanches at every mention of Sandy's sexual unavailability, but has the slightest resistance to Dorothy's learned perversions, even though his participation in them leads him to nightmares and devastating crying jags; likewise, Sandy has many detailed desires of her own). Blue Velvet is surely, in the end, a harsh indictment of every counterculture our society has had to house over our past century--yet its also a celebration of such outbursts; it's the perfect mirror of the seemingly, astoundingly square visage of David Lynch, a man who marks only cigarettes and coffee as his vices, yet who clearly purveys a potpourri of glazed insanity.

Taking into account his entirely mindblowing 1978 film Eraserhead, and his radically different (but still similar) 1980 bio-pic The Elephant Man, as well as his inevitably failed 1984 adaptation of Dune, we still have to count David Lynch as a card-carrying member of the modern rebellion. However, we cannot ignore the fact that, while audiences may laugh uncomfortably and disparagingly at the sweet, myopic one-sidedness of Sandy's devoted monologue about the hopeful robins and their simultaneous brightness of love (surely one of the more inspired scenes in Lynch's film, even if it's not visually glossy), we choke in pure, nervous terror at the more electric, presently-oriented scenes with the terrifying Frank Booth and his chosen victim, Dorothy Valens. At last, Lynch seems to be asking us: "Wouldn't we all rather be saddled with blinders, as the Williams and the Beaumont families are, than be caught up with the looser but ultimately more debilitating and depressing non-conformities that belong to Frank and Dorothy?" In other words, be thankful for what you have got, because the grass is NOT always greener. This is a dazzling thing to learn from any movie.

This final theory seems a bit more weighty when examining the casting choices Lynch made regarding his available roles in Blue Velvet. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern, as notable screen newcomers, stand as personalities primed for corruption. Meanwhile, we have an ineffably superb Dennis Hopper--a villain if ever there was one--playing Frank Booth. Hopper has been a counterculture figure since the mid-1950s. He was one of the hoods pitted against James Dean in Nicholas Ray's 1954 film Rebel Without a Cause. He opposed his Texan father (Rock Hudson) by wanting to marry a Mexican woman in George Stevens' 1956 film Giant. He was the isolated, mermaid-loving hero in Curtis Harrington's 1961 indie film Night Tide. He was a vocal admirer of Paul Newman's defiant Cool Hand Luke, in Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 movie. And he was, we all know, the star, co-writer, and director of 1969's Easy Rider, a story about two outsiders trying to rediscover America. Hopper has been associated with EVERY discontented youth movement to see the ink of national headlines. Who in the world could be more suited to play one of the most extreme sensation-seekers ever to be committed to film? Meanwhile, Isabella Rossellini was the very human product of mother Ingrid Bergman's then-scandalous 1950s love affair with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini (an avowed agent of worldwide change himself). She plays Dorothy, yet another innocent person jammed in the middle of what is seen by outsiders as pure peccadillo. She's been labelled by her parents' "sin," even if its not of her own making. While this is so, she's resplendent in every shot, even when bruised and beaten. (Laura Dern's unrelenting mask of dejection, upon the apex of the worst date ever filmed, smacks up cinema's most horrible nude scene, and makes it sublimely memorable; who has a face like Laura Dern's?)

Regardless, with all of this evidence--and forgive me if I appear to be shooting down my own theory--there is a strong possibility that Lynch means to convey to his audience an embrace of solid happiness, even in the face of cultural criticism. There's a great significance in the presence of the joyous (perhaps TOO joyous) outcome for the Beaumont and Willams' families following their momentary trifling with the murderous Frank Booth. The film concludes with the most knowingly corny of happy endings--just as did Lynch's Eraserhead. The robins return--with the evil black beetles in their beak---while Jeffrey's father is cured, the weather is once again beautiful, and lunch is on the table. Sandy and her beau appear to be in a state of bliss. Who knows what's next?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Yet again, five MORE great new trailers

It's a shame that all the good looking movies are loaded to the back end of the year. But, then again, that's how it always is, no? I think each one of these movies look terrific, to varying degrees.

TABLOID (Errol Morris, 2011) (His movies are always eventful!)

THE FUTURE (Miranda July, 2011) (Love that cat as a narrator, and we get to see Ms. July dancing, too.)

CRAZY STUPID LOVE (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011) (The script could go south, but, whoa! That cast! I love all those people!)

ANOTHER EARTH (Mike Cahill, 2011) (More cinematic grapplings with an apocalypse.)

THE TRIP (Michael Winterbottom, 2011) (Coogan and Brydon--and Winterbottom, who gave us Tristram Shandy--are a classic comedy team; their dueling Michael Caines will be one of the best scenes of the year.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Film #144: The Tree of Life

The most special special effect in Terrence Malick's ultimate, unrelenting, devoutly cinematic achievement occurs at its outset: a valuable jewel-like dalliance of light and dark, color and blackness. It lingers, morphs, disappears and then returns to us at key moments.

I cannot help but open this piece by considering these apparitions. They happen so importantly. Why are they there? Why do these extremely experimental seconds, in an EXTREMELY experimental film, impose themselves on us so insistently? 

These ghostly apparitions of Malick's are, in my opinion, what we see when we close our eyes: the sparks of memory first and imagination second. Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, concerns itself partially with these twin subjects. What is memory? How true is it? Is it something we've fashioned out of wholecloth? And, regardless of where it comes from, what does it do to us? How does it affect us, forever and ever? How do those who help us create these images in our brains face up to their responsibilities? Where to we come from? Where are we going? What do we wonder life was like before we got here? And what do we imagine it'll be like after we're gone?  (This is, possibly, the subject of The Tree of Life's last, longing, beachside moments, though I think, really, those scenes are the portrayal of our peacemaking with the past.)  How do we deal with our brains'--our hearts'--own imperfections? Or are they imperfections at all? Malick continually asks questions like these. He is cinema's premier, bald-faced philosopher--not a new moniker, for him--and his freshest movie, with its 30-year conception, is the proof.

The picture is told in insistent whispers--in the utterings of its main character's mother (Jessica Chastain, who wisely imparts "Unless you love, your life will flash by"). They are also told with the murmurs of her first son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), who confesses "Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will." And The Tree of Life reaches fruition in the recollections of that son's grown self, played in a brief appearance by Sean Penn, who concedes to a higher power with "Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door" (and I think the door here belongs to the father).  Unlike Malick's previous two works, the inestimable The Thin Red Line and The New World, the narration is almost wholly limited to these three characters. The main dramatic character, Mr. O'Brien (played impeccably by Brad Pitt), is given few narrative points. He says what he thinks, when he thinks it. He suffers because of this. Whispers, and confessions, are rarely his style (though if you listen closely enough--the film rewards extra attention--you'll find he does have something secret to divulge); still, confrontation and aggression are primarily his trade. And, in this life, he's not going to own up to anyone about any sort of shortcomings he might have, except in one special instance (the film's TRUE, shattering climax, which comes equipped with one of the most moving hugs in cinematic history).

I hear many things being bandied about regarding The Tree of Life's resemblance to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm sure this comes from the stellar sequence, 30 minutes into the film, that maps out the entire history of life on this globe we inhabit, backed mostly by only a low rumble (one way in which this film diverges from 2001 is that, in these scenes, the constructs of man, musical or otherwise, are vague). These are unspeakably extravagant segments, sampled more from Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi than anything else, though still solely the product of Malick's inquiring brain. His filmic thoughts are, however, resolutely unlike anything mainstream audiences of narrative cinematic storytelling have been treated to since Kubrick's 1968 film. I'd guarantee 99% of the audience watching the film with you when you see The Tree of Life have never experienced anything like it. That includes you, and me, too, really. Most viewers will be angry at the ultimate conclusion to Malick's film, because it doesn't conform to a paying customer's plotline/revelation payoff. But these disappointed ones will be regretful, or perhaps doubly angry, with their reactions or with the film itself 20 years down the line. So the comparisons to the similarly singular, divisive, fantastic 2001 are just. This is a movie for the ages. It's rare to see such a work, but here it is, in front of our eyes, and I'm sorry if you cannot see it.

The Tree of Life's much-talked-about dinosaurs do indeed make an appearance ("The movie has DINOSAURS in it?" the internet collectively queried). It's brief, but a lot of genuinely human emotion is punched into this mirage. One lizard's careful, empathetic gestures has an integral impact on another, whose life depends upon this fellow creature's next move. The scene takes place at a riverside that certainly, with higher waters flowing over once polished rocks, matches a riverside we see millions of years later, as McCracken delivers a stolen piece of female nightware down a rushing river tide. The scene--one that shakes Jack to his center--delineates how small our most significant concerns are to the universe at large. By the way, the scene with the dinosaurs is later mirrored in a scene with the two brothers, where the elder takes pity on the younger.

In fact, the film is also partially about our smallness as a species. To reduce The Tree of Life to a pat thesis statement seems rather conservative, but the film certainly still dallies with how insignificant we all are in the scheme of things; the stunning shots of 50s-era children playfully romping amongst the clouds of poisonous DDT are tremendously ebullient, even though we now know those chemicals are lethal. But so what? This, too, shall pass. There's a moment in the film's first hour in which I could feel it breaking me--breaking my addiction to plot and dialogue. It'll break you, too, unless you're too addicted to give it all up. Still, there's such a monumental lack of direct discourse in The Tree of Life's first hour that it makes us happy--when the exchanges finally come between Pitt's father and his sons--that humans have any impact at all on the Earth. Or that the Earth has any impact at all on humans.

There are more joyful moments in Malick's the scene where the toddler Jack first meets his baby brother, R.L. The boy's startled, fascinated reaction to his new sibling rings resolutely truthful, as does his angry outburst at being his mother's new second best (there's a third brother that barely gets noticed, as third children often do). The closest I ever came to weeping in absolute ecstasy like I did at the Wagner-scored end (and beginning) of The New World--something I cannot expect EVERY film to achieve--came when a beautiful piece by Bedřich Smetana (Má Vlast Moldau (Vltava)) swells and the kids finally get to run about in wild abandon while their father is away on business. This rapturous scene made me realize acutely what joy these boys felt they'd been missing out on all along (though I suspect Jack still desired to see his father--with that determined, lip-pursed look on his face--playing Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on a gorgeously wooden-keyed pipe organ). I also like how the young Jack makes amends after constantly testing and besting his younger brother (Laramie Eppler, who looks remarkably like a baby Brad Pitt). Eppler's uncanny resemblance to his screen father transmits an important, gentle signal as to what Jack imagines their pop must have been like as a boy, and this has a powerful effect on how he decides to treat him from then on.

But I have to wonder: not seeing what happened to the third child, and knowing what happened to the second (he dies early in the film, at age 19, possibly as a result of the Vietnam War, though nothing is ever mentioned of this; likewise, very little is mentioned of the "yes, sir" father's military-peppered past)...given all of this, I wonder: did the father's strict upbringing insure Jack's success in a solidly cold, impermeable, steel-and-glass world? Did it likewise insure an even gentler R.L.s death by his own or by another person's hand? (The early telegram that devastates the mother clues me in that R.L.s death occurred in combat; the military informed families of combat deaths by letter or telegram up until the first years of the Vietnam conflict.) Or is it the mother's forgiving, nature-loving freedom that led to her children's inability to deal with the planet's harshness? Regardless of who's responsible, is it Jack's very success among the unfeeling skyscrapers that chaperones him into reveries about the origins of the world, and to thereby question what kind of man he's become? A sign that Jack's turning into his father: He's clearly incommunicable with his wife/girlfriend, who's briefly seen bedside, early in the picture, wondering what the hell's going on with him. (I find it moving that this woman bears a strong resemblance to a girl the young Jack is seen following home from school in the wake of his first romantic feelings; this lass stares into the camera at one point, way into the film's running time, as if to say "Remember me?")

I cannot, now, deconstruct the film's unreliable maze of memory, the impossible fragmenting of Earth life, the searing splats of emotion, and the kaleidoscopic sparks of hazy inspiration. And then there's all the water and window imagery (this seems to connote a flow of feeling and thought--and the final shot of the film is of a bridge OVER water, which tells us much).  At any rate, these are features that should be left for future conjecture, after the movie can be seen again and again as it deserves to be (I have seen it three times now, and have noticed many fascinating details that weren't evident the first time around). It should be enough to say that, while this is a difficult picture to ponder for an audience who cannot possibly be expecting anything like it, The Tree of Life is necessary viewing for all those who love movies at a soul level. And isn't it absolutely divine, in a summer filled with films that can't nearly compete with such subject matter, that more thoughtful moviegoers can be left with something on screen that challenges us so? The mere thought of The Tree of Life's magnanimous grandeur makes me glad I still live on such a friendly but unsympathetic planet. Personally, the struggle to live drives me crazy, more often than not. But this film makes life itself easier to bear. I hope, but do not expect, that you will feel the same upon seeing it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Film #143: Dead Ringers

There was a time, in the '70s and very early '80s, in which David Cronenberg was one of cinema's lurid if talented filmmakers. It wasn't that his films were poor; they were often elegant to look at and were always memorable. But the images I took from them left some with a sour taste: Marilyn Chambers frothing at the mouth in Rabid, the slimy slugs from They Came From Within; the famed exploding heads in Scanners; the guts-packed TVs in Videodrome, and, most horribly, Samantha Eggar biting into her external birth sac and licking her embryo of rage clean in The Brood. a lot of this stuff made Cronenberg famous, but delayed his entry into "respectability."

But, starting with 1983's The Dead Zone, Cronenberg decided to go a little lighter on us. This didn't diminish his films' power one bit; they just made it easier to eat our dinner after the movie. Yes, he still gave us The Fly in 1986, which had more than its share of gross-outs, and the buggy assholed typewriter in 1991's Naked Lunch. But movies like M. Butterfly, Crash, Spider, eXistenZ, Eastern Promises, and A History of Violence belong to a section of Cronenberg ouvre that's still interested in the biopsy of body and mind, but which is less (but not un-) interested in seeing how queasy it can make its audience feel. His 1988 film Dead Ringers is perhaps my favorite of this bunch.

The film was based on the sad exploits of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin brothers who ran a gynecology clinic in '60s/'70s New York City. I first read about the Marcus twins in Linda Wolfe's excellent 1986 true crime anthology The Professor and the Prostitute. In the Marcus-oriented chapter of her book, she detailed the standoffish, snooty twins' rise through the ranks of the gynecological field after the publishing of their landmark textbook on the subject. However, their shared belief that they held some sort of supernatural twin powers resulted in an inability to connect to a world of singletons, and it led them down a dark path that ended in disaster. Having developed a strong addiction to uppers and downers, the twins began to abuse their colleagues and, most shockingly, their female patients, for whom they could not hide their sexual contempt (they often demeaned their pregnant patients for getting themselves "in trouble", and even damaged one woman physically in an examination). This led to their resolute dismissal from their hospital residency and directly into an extended period of isolation and intense drug use. When they were both found dead in their Upper East side apartment in 1975, the place was littered with trash, rotted food, empty prescription bottles, and feces (including an armchair used as a toilet when they were too incapacitated by drugs to reach the commode). Theirs was a sobering, mysterious fall from the heights of industry acclaim to the depths of deformity.

So when Dead Ringers came out two years after I read Wolfe's book, I was pumped up for it. The story of the Marcus twins was perhaps the most notable yarn in a book filled with bat-shit shocking tales of madness. And, even though the film diverted crazily from their story, the basics were certainly there. In Dead Ringers, Jeremy Irons played both Mantle twins, introverted Beverly and man-of-the-world Elliott. The two share everything: their education, achievements, medical discoveries, bylines, medical practice, meals, fancy apartment, and even their women (often synonymous with "their patients").

As attached as the two are ("Whatever goes through my bloodstream," the domineering Elliott says, "goes through his, too"), there's dissention afoot when famed actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) intervenes. Visiting the twins' OB/GYN practice while on a movie location, Claire falls in love with the aggressive Elliott without ever realizing that he's routinely switching himself off with the shaky, nervous Beverly, whom Elliott prods into participating in the deadly pranks which he thinks will HELP his brother connect more with the outside world. Claire continues on with the affair, thinking she's in love with a he. But really she's in love with a them. She begins to suspect that her new lover is a schizophrenic, and when she decides to terminate the relationship, the first great schism between the Mantle twins manifests itself in terrible ways. A devastated Beverly (with his obviously more feminine name) decides he's in love for the first time in his life, and decides on a trial separation from his brother. But neither can function well without their second half. What happens should not be repeated, but rest assured, it ain't the picture postcard of the month.

Dead Ringers is the medically-minded Cronenberg's only film with actual doctors as lead characters (that is, until his newest movie, A Dangerous Method, arrives later this year, with Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as his professional and romantic rival, Carl Jung). As such, the 1988 movie finally took the director's fascination with body horror--infection, disease, surgery, parasites and genetic mutation--and reconciled it with a peculiar type of mainstream cinema (there IS a dream sequence in Dead Ringers that revisits vividly Cronenberg's more dismally visceral concerns). With Dead Ringers and its core subject matter regarding the womb and what happens in it, and what it can produce, Cronenberg gets deeper into his obsession with mapping the contents of the human body. He has his Mantle twins exploring it, poking at it (sexually and surgically) and, ultimately, desiring to once again seek a long-abandoned refuge in it once again. There's a superb prologue in the film, where we see the twins as kids. It contains this marvelous, chilling bit of dialogue, which I've never forgotten for its logic and creepiness; it's written by Cronenberg and his co-scripter Norman Snider:

Elliot, Age 9: You've heard about sex...

Beverly, Age 9:
Sure I have.

Elliot, Age 9:
Well I've discovered why sex is.

Beverly, Age 9:
You have? Fantastic!

Elliott, Age 9:
It's because humans don't live under water.

Beverly, Age 9:
I don't get it.

Elliot, Age 9: Well, fish don't need sex because they just lay the eggs and fertilize them in the water. Humans can't do that because they don't live in the water. They have to...
internalize the water. Therefore we have sex.

Beverly, Age 9: So you mean humans wouldn't have sex if they lived in the water?

Elliot, Age 9:
Well, they'd have a kind of sex. The kind where you wouldn't have to touch each other.

Beverly, Age 9: I
like that idea. Have you heard of scuba diving? It's just new.

Elliot, Age 9:
Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Beverly, Age 9:

Elliot, Age 9 [noticing a girl on a porch, Raffaella]: Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Beverly, Age 9:
Yeah. You ask her. [they approach Raffaella]

Elliot, Age 9: Raffaella, will you have sex with us in our bathtub? It's an experiment.

Are you kidding? Fuck off, you freaks. I'm telling my father you talk dirty. Besides, I know for a fact you don't even know what fuck is. [she retreats into her house]

Elliot, Age 9 [to Beverly, walking away]: They're so different from us. And all because we don't live under water.

Of course, in the previous scene, the more shy Beverly has his more forward brother ask the girl for sex; in a world where we only needed water to procrate, the game and dance wouldn't be necessary, and thus the risk would be minimal--unless EMOTIONS came into play. This lesson is one of the things I truly adore about Dead Ringers; the film can often seem like a class on sociobiology. Adorned with Carol Spier's cold production design--with lots of glass, halogen light, and steely blue surfaces (which are perfect to illustrate underwater doings)--the Canadian Cronenberg absolutely reveals his DNA. Dead Ringers is clearly a Canadian production; it screams "Toronto!" In that way, it diverges from the story of New York City's Marcus twins considerably (and suitably; Toronto seems to me to be a much haughtier town). And the melodrama with Bujold, who's extraordinary here in one of her best roles, is really only a way to illustrate how these two boys, fearful of where they came from, ultimately find women to be inscrutable, over-emotional mutants. Given this, I wonder if telling the real story of the Marcus twins was something Cronenberg thought he couldn't slave his audience to; even HE had his limits, and the studio execs wouldn't brook that kind of story. It just wouldn't make money.

With all the chilly blues in Dead Ringers, one sequence is really supposed to stand out: the surgery scene, with doctors donned in blood red robes, trying out the twin's newest inventions: a terrifying array of Cronenbergian appliances (the director makes a masked cameo in the scene). The appliances are designed for the application against "female mutants" (crafted after the twins discover that Bujold's character, ironically, sports twin vaginas). This sequence stands as the film's centerpiece, in horror and in color. Its tension is amped up further by Peter Suschitsky's extra-sharp cinematography and Howard Shore's ominous score--one of many that he's composed for Cronenberg, and also for the likes of David Fincher's Seven and Tarsem Singh's The Cell. Lastly, the instruments themselves are pure Cronenberg, through and through.

But, finally, it is Jeremy Irons who is the film's MVP. Often times, it's more difficult to tell Irons apart from the Mantle twins than it is the tell the Mantle twins apart from each other. He handles what could have been a tired and cliched pair of roles with breathtaking aplomb. Though the makeup, costuming, hairstyling, subtle special effects (seamless and groundbreaking even for this heavily digital age), and cinematography help his characterizations to the tee, it's Irons' grappling with the marrows of each brother that makes the film succeed. Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie has the sickened Beverly being administered to by the still vital Elliott, who's still not willing to let his brother go his own way. Notice how Irons has Beverly deliver his lines here in a loopy, singsong voice that underlines both his greater humanity and his utter disconnect from reality. I also love, in this scene, how Cronenberg has his characters fittingly struggle over the separation of the famed "Siamese" twins Chang and Eng Bunker; it perfectly illustrates the illusion that the Marcus twins had with their perceived superiority over the majority of us who are not "connected," and how they couldn't envision living apart from one another:

Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor--but not in 1988. He had to wait one year later to win for his portrayal of another insane doctor, Claus Von Bulow, in Barbet Schroeder's respectable but much-less-compelling 1989 film Reversal of Fortune. When he was up on the stage receiving his Oscar, Irons rightfully gave a shout-out to David Cronenberg, whom he probably believed was the REAL reason he'd won (he was probably right; the Academy didn't even nominate Irons in 1988, even though his lead performance was surely the top among the five best of that year). Often, Cronenberg's strongest films seem to be acute collaborations with his lead actors: Eggar in The Brood, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, Peter Weller in Naked Lunch, Ralph Fiennes in Spider, and most especially Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone. I still think his work with Irons remains the film collaboration closest to each other artist's hearts. Without either the writer/director's acute, exacting words and visuals, or Irons' hearty twin performances, Dead Ringers might have had all the effectiveness of the average episode of The Patty Duke Show. Instead, it still remains an gripping wince of a thriller, laced with downbeat biopic undertones.