Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Film Days I

Last week I attended the annual Malmö Film Days (Malmö filmdagar to Swedish readers), an event which is half film festival, half industry wooing; during four very busy days the various film companies pool their resources and show advance screenings of about 30 upcoming films to important (and not so important) industry folks - including distributors, theatre managers, Institute people, and critics. This was my first time there, and I understand now why it's so popular, not to mention tough to get into (invitation only, peasants!). It's a fun mix of people too, from the networking pros to the unashamed freeloaders, via stiff academics and faux bored critics who really hate being there, but unfortunately had to. There are the middle-aged women who only watch Swedish movies and love all of them, there are the competing critics strutting their stuff, there are the distributors comparing press kits, and so on.

In addition to seeing so many movies for free ahead of everyone else, the neverending supply of sugar-rush candy to gorge on between screenings, and plenty of fringe benefits like a Chronicles of Narnia-sponsored luncheon with turkey rolls and decent red wine, there is the gift bag. A couple of years ago, when the film companies organized the event without interference by the Institute, they apparently went completely over the top with gifts, showering critics and distribs with extravagant bribes - please Mr Critic Man, hype Van Helsing for us! Too bad I missed out on that. These days things are much more moderate (read: cheap), and every attendee gets but one bag filled with goodies. Jaded faces around me signalled that I really shouldn't be excited about this lame excuse for a freebie-bag, but I was thrilled. Eleven DVDs! An umbrella! A silly clock! A t-shirt! Two... books? I thought I came here to watch movies.

Anyway, I was psyched about getting home, sitting down in front of the comp and summing up the intense days with long, thoughtful posts about all the great new films I'd been watching, but then, a sluggish, strange, post-everything coma set in, and I didn't watch a single film in four days. Nor did I write a word about any of the ones I'd seen during the film fest. So sorry 'bout that, and let's get down to business.

Things kicked off Monday night with a cocktail party followed by Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (Shane Black, 2005, pro), which I didn't know a thing about, and which in hindsight was a perfect opener for this cheerful audience, greasy from the complimentary snacks and tipsy from the endless outpour of kiwi/wasabi cider as they were. It's a crowdpleasing neo-noir thriller comedy thing, definitely Hollywood all over but surprisingly witty, occasionally hilarious, and while not exactly intelligent, it has a distinct non-stupid feel to it that I found satisfying. Black has made a living writing era-defining actioners like Lethal Weapon in the past, and this is his first gig at the helm. It's a fine accomplishment, but it's obvious that his love affair is with the dialogue, which is handled in excellent fashion by the principal players, Robert Downey Jr. in particular. Downey plays a goodhearted smalltime thief from NYC who literally stumbles into an audition for a movie while running from the cops, and hey presto, it's off to Tinseltown for a movie career. Once there, he gets tangled up in a myriad of metariffic mysteries, that may or may not be interconnected. Filling out the cast is a long-lost high school sweetheart, and chubby Val Kilmer, fresh off the overweight set of Alexander, as an outrageous celebrity detective called Gay Perry.

Black obviously hasn't been out of L.A. (or worse, Hollywood) for the last fifteen years or so, which might explain his obsession to connect every plotpoint and supporting player back to the glamorous movie world, and keep them there. The film goes overboard a few times in its self-referential gab, most notably in Downey's "been there, done that" voice-over, but most of the time it's very entertaining. Joel Silver produced - I was expecting more explosions.

Next entry: day II...

Thursday, August 11, 2005


Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges, 1948) - pro-
Gets a low pro, because while it features some of the trademark Sturges wit and a rather brilliant way of letting the classical score Rex Harrison is conducting dictate his fantasies (and thus the narrative) about what he should do with his supposedly unfaithful wife, the film is marred by a silly use of sound effects and a sloppy, catch-all ending perhaps fitting for the genre but unworthy of Sturges. Harrison grows into his role, and he handles the free-flowing dialogue with authority - just witness his verbal assault on the poor tailor mistaken for a private dick. The rest of the cast is a bit disappointing, even though the reliable Rudy Vallee gets a few good scenes as Harrison's unbearable brother-in-law.


Prime Cut (Michael Ritchie, 1972) - pro
In this bizarre exploitation flick, previously near-forgotten and only recently released on DVD for the first time, Lee Marvin plays Nick, a Chicago mob guy sent out to rural Kansas to collect a debt from a shady sleaze called Mary Ann(!), played by Gene Hackman. Mary Ann is a dope dealer who fronts his operation with a meat packing factory, co-run by his brother "Weenie", but he is also a slave trader, grabbing young girls from a local orphanage and selling them to the highest bidder in twisted events resembling cattle auctions. Needless to say, Mary Ann doesn't take too kindly to Nick's presence, and the standoff between the two quickly turns into a full-blown confrontation. In the process, Nick frees one of the young orphans (a dreamy Sissy Spacek in her first credited performance) and learns all about the depths of Mary Ann's depravity.

Even for the iconoclast era of the early 70's and a director like Ritchie, whose early work include the tremendous political fake doc The Candidate and the beauty queen satire Smile, Prime Cut is decidedly an odd number. Both suspenseful and humourous, and brimming with seedy details, it is elevated above the cheapest exploitation fare thanks to the colourful characters and the suggestion of a dark rural underworld among all the corn fields and sunny country fairs, where the henchmen are blonde farmboys and the opposition literally ends up in the meat grinder. The cast is uniformly good, especially Hackman, grinning and chuckling as the outrageous Mary Ann. Hackman was on an amazing roll at the time this was made, just coming off his Oscar-winning performance in The French Connection (1971) and on his way towards his very best appearances, in Schatzberg's Scarecrow (1973) and Coppola's The Conversation (1974).

The scene where Mary Ann is enjoying a full plate of cow guts while naked and drugged-up orphan girls sit in droves in stables, waiting to be picked up and bought, is significant of the movie - it's delirious, unsettling, and funny all at once.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Preminger Binge

The other night I wrote the following about a film I had then just seen:

It's just one of those movies - the look, the feel, the setting... The decadent bourgeoisie, the riviera. Jean Seberg apparently took a beating upon the release, but I think she's fine and lovely, especially in the scenes with David Niven hinting of an incestuous relationship between the two. I could do without some of the prolonged dance/party sequences, and it dips considerably right before the powerful finale, but that's OK. Some find the material trashy and soap-operatic - maybe, but since I recently watched both Written on the Wind and Bigger Than Life, in comparison it didn't register as such. While not a revelation, I think the film delivers the message of the sometimes futile and pointless existence of these characters with accuracy and finesse.

What could I possibly have been talking about?

Bonjour tristesse (1958, pro) is one of many films directed by Otto Preminger I've seen lately. Consciously or not, it seems I've dug through a whole bunch of them in recent months - most notably his three post-Laura (1944, PRO) noirs he made under contract for Fox - Fallen Angel (1945, pro), Whirlpool (1949, pro), and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, PRO). Laura is the most famous one of these four, and justly so, but the others are not bad at all. Where the Sidewalk Ends in particular is a great film, in which we agonizingly follow the inevitable downfall of a troubled cop who accidentally kills a suspect and desperately tries to cover his tracks. It's a tense 90 minutes, filled with familiar finality and propelled by a tight script, which makes room for a typical noir voice-over that seethes with regret. It is also impeccably acted - Dana Andrews plays the lead, just like in Laura and Fallen Angel.

Whirlpool is by far the craziest of the bunch. Gene Tierney plays a wealthy psycho-analyst's wife with a dark secret - she's a cleptomaniac! When she gets caught for shoplifting in an upperscale department store, self-proclaimed therapist José Ferrer steps in from nowhere and saves her from embarrassment, promising the store management that he will treat Tierney's condition - with hypnosis. Tierney agrees, lest her husband finds out about her problem, and before you know it, Ferrer sets her up for murder. The film features an over-the-top, ridiculous climax - imagine a complex whodunnit solved with psychology exploitation tactics, and you get the general idea.

Off-the-cuff favourite Premingers:

  1. Laura (1944)
  2. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
  3. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  4. Bonjour tristesse (1958)
  5. Fallen Angel (1945)
  6. Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
  7. Whirlpool (1949)
  8. Advise & Consent (1962)
  9. Skidoo (1968)

Skidoo is almost impossible to rank, at least in the same breath as the others. It really has to be seen to be believed.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Wild Style

Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960) - con+
What to make of this preachy drama? It centers around a government official (Montgomery Clift) who oversees the building of dams in an area of Tennessee heavily affected by floods. The small population that's left there is to be relocated so the job can get under way, but lo and behold it's not as easy as to simply buy them out. It's not all "evil government vs the small man", because staying in the rural area of the banks of the river is a safety hazard for both the people and their homes, and for the most part, the film's sympathies lies with the evictors, not the evictees.

However, as Clift gets to know the locals, including grumpy matriarch Jo Van Fleet and lonely widow Lee Remick, all the familiar themes of convention vs progress, and countryside vs civilization overwhelms whatever good intention Kazan had in the first place. Clift becomes a beacon of reason and rationale, while the dumb locals prove to be just about the most stubborn and ignorant bunch you'd ever find. Kazan crams it all in - racism, good ole boys, forbidden relations, etc - and it's just too much; most of the time he even handles it pretty heavy-handedly. Clift is adequately restrained as the struggling official with a heart, but most of the bit parts are as poorly performed as they are lazily written.


The Savage Innocents (Nicholas Ray, 1959) - con
Anthony Quinn adds "eskimo" to his long list of realized celluloid ethnic characters in this flawed culture-clash film by auteurist favourite Nick Ray. This was Ray's first film with European backing, after fleeing Hollywood just a few years after the success of Rebel Without a Pause (and subsequent flops, including the interesting Party Girl and the outrageous near-masterpiece Bigger Than Life, which I also watched recently). The result is an ambitious but ultimately disappointing character study, shot in glorious 'scope, mixing outdoor locations with unconvincing studio sets. Quinn plays a naïve hunter who accidentally kills a white man and has to run from the law - represented by, among others, a young, crudely dubbed (and therefore by own request uncredited) Peter O'Toole. Of all the Ray films I've seen, this is the first real dud.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Surely you're not suggesting I'm jotting down a few lines about the latest entry in The Big Book of Contemporary Cinematic Euro-Trash, Ma mère (Christophe Honoré, 2004), just so I can put that profane title at the top of the page? Surely not. In any case, the film, with its lush sunlit villas, oft-used pools, absents fathers and slutty mothers, is not really worth seeing. Isabelle Huppert is the mom of the title, and the mother-whore-cocktease to her bewildered teenage son. When pop turns in, the mother-son relationship becomes even more complicated. Explicit sex, La Pianiste-style S&M, and the usual mind games. Fancy that!


Monday, August 01, 2005

The Daily Fix

Sometime in May, my Daily Show fix fizzled, when all the big TV-oriented torrent sites like Shun TV got shut down by the Man. Without access to Canal+, which carries the show here, or CNN, which airs the global edition once a week, I was suddenly stranded without my weekly dose of this phenomenon of a show. For a Jon Stewart completist like myself, it was absolute terror. I re-watched previous shows, longed for the InDecision 2004 DVD that was just around the corner, and chuckled along to the mp3 version of America, the gang's best-selling book from last year. But it wasn't the same.

Now, about two months later, I've finally caught up with the flow, found some new sites, and I'm back on track, having subjected myself to a Daily Show binge the last week or so. New studio, same great stories, but you can tell that The Daily Show of '05 is an important show - people want to be guests there. Stewart played softball with Rick Santorum the other night, which was a bit unexpected, but he doesn't suck up to his guests in the way that other hosts do - although he's kinder now. If you can, look up his absolute thrashing of Jennifer Love Hewitt, who was on the show last summer to promote the Garfield movie. I actually felt sorry for her, even though she in a way got what she deserved. Best episode as of late: the one with Will Ferrell. Packed with hilarious comments, shot segments, and a great interview with Ferrell.

Anyhow, the show is still good, but what will happen when Stephen Colbert leaves? He's certainly the best correspondent they have, and has put a distinct imprint on the show. Good thing he's not going far - I was pleasantly surprised that Comedy Central actually picked up The Colbert Report, a spoof on talk shows like The O'Reilly Factor that the Daily Show crew made up for a laugh, with a fake preview and everything. Tagline: The Colbert Report - It's French, Bitch! Can't wait.

Speaking of things to come, I am now officially excited about The Aristocrats. Not only because it features a whole range of comedians who talk about, and perform, one of the most notorious - and secret - jokes in show-biz history, but because it opens up discussions about highs and lows in comedy, free speech, and authorship among comedians - as a friend said, it should be very interesting from an auteurist perspective to see all these comedians tell more or less the same joke, but with their own twist on it. Thus far, I've only seen the South Park boys' version of the joke. Looking forward to the rest.

More about TV and other upcoming movies later this week.