22 June 2010

Try Harder

I’ve been pretty out-of-the-loop as to which films the kids are talkin’ about these days… but for whatever reason, one film has awkwardly wedged its way into several conversations with an alarming frequency in my social life. The film in question: The Human Centipede. Unfortunately for me, The Human Centipede happens to be one of maybe four 2010 cinema releases I’ve actually seen, thanks to a misguided recommendation (thanks, Mike!). From these conversations, I’ve gathered that most people haven’t actually wasted the hour-and-a-half I have but likely viewed the trailer or read Roger Ebert’s zero-star review of it. Yet every time I give my look of disgust at its mention, I notice the faces of the people I’m talking to morph into a look of depraved elation. “You’ve seen it?? Is it totally gross?”

Maybe I’ve officially grown out of the phase when one enjoys grotesque films, but I don’t understand how anyone–whether you’ve grown out of that phase or not–derived any amusement from The Human Centipede. If you know the premise, you’ve pretty much seen the film. The simple idea of the human centipede is enough to either nauseate or perversely excite you, and watching the film will do little to change those sensations… unless of course you were expecting anything more. The Human Centipede is an artless film, which isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it is nothing more than a simple disgusting thought turned into a humorless ninety-minute test of one’s patience. Subtext, allegory, motive and tension are all woefully absent, but so is the sort of bloodlust and iniquity that The Human Centipede’s target audience would expect.

I doubt my disgust in The Human Centipede will sway anyone in either direction. The most I can hope for, I suppose, is that the sorry individuals who will make the same mistake I did will share my sentiments and demand more from their trash cinema.

10 June 2010

For the love of Jurassic Park III

Jurassic Park III
2001
USA
Dir: Joe Johnston

When it comes to Hollywood movie franchises, there always seems to be bizarre patterns of success involved. For anything starring Jason Statham, the second incarnation always stands above the others (I know this to be true of The Transporter, but I’ve heard from various, reputable folks that this is also true of Crank). For a number of the trashy horror chronicles, the Jason Statham rule also proves true (see Final Destination or Rob Zombie’s Halloween… also, outside of the horror genre, the X-Men films), but conversely there’s also the 1 and 3 rule, which applies to two of Wes Craven’s series: the original Nightmare on Elm Streets and Screams (you can argue against Scream 3 being good, certainly, but it’s hard to say it isn’t at least somewhat of an improvement over the 2nd). After indulging for the first time in the third of its series, I would contest that the Jurassic Park series (I’d say trilogy, but I’ve heard another one is in the works) falls into the 1-3 rule, though I know neither of its sequels are held in particularly high regard.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park will always be a notoriously memorable viewing experience for me or, in other words, one that marked a special turning point in my youth. The summer movie season of 1997 will be remembered best as the summer where I first recall truly loathing films of any sort, though it seems hard now to imagine that I was ever “easy to please.” The epic disappointment of The Lost World in May was quickly followed by the colossal disgust of Batman & Robin. Hollywood, for the first time I can remember, has failed this thirteen-year-old with their embarrassing sequels to films I had thoroughly enjoyed during my childhood. Needless to say (perhaps), I decided against seeing Jurassic Park III at 17, already fully jaded, expectedly angsty and unjustifiably haughty; I do know a few of my friends got really stoned and laughed their way through it, but I think I was even “too cool” to get high at that age.

The decision to watch Jurassic Park III nine years later proved to be a fortuitous one. I don’t think that sober, snotty seventeen-year-old would have been half as amused by its ridiculousness (or by the great Téa Leoni!) as this twenty-six-year-old admirer of the low-low-brow was. Like the hilarious and peculiar consistency in which Nicolas Cage has been playing characters with money troubles, Sam Neill returns to the series as Dr. Alan Grant after skipping out on The Lost World and gets tricked into returning to the dinosaur-infested island by a couple of zeroes and a dollar sign (well, as he points out at some point in the film, it’s a neighboring island from the one in the first film, one that’s become overtaken by wild dinosaurs). He’s tricked by a bumbling pair of loons–played by William H. Macy and Téa Leoni (whose hair was clearly styled by the world’s most dedicated Chynna Phillips fan)–whose son (Trevor Morgan) has gone missing on the island after a hang-gliding disaster with the teacher who fucks Reese Witherspoon in Election, who I believe is supposed to be Leoni’s new husband but looks convincingly enough like the town pederast. That the guy from Election shows up, not to mention Laura Dern in a thankless cameo, makes sense when you see Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s names appear in the end credits as co-writers. Unlike a lot of other writer-for-hire jobs, Payne and Taylor’s involvement isn’t mysterious or lost in translation, as their contribution can be seen entirely in Macy and Leoni’s characters, who appear to have been magically transported from a very different movie about goofy, bickering exes who inevitably fall back in love with each other. (In a perfect world, Dern would have reprised her role as Ruth Stoops instead of Dr. Ellie Sattler and been cosmically transported into Jurassic Park III).

All of the big dinosaur attacks, once Neill lands on the island with his protégé Alessandro Nivola and the Macy/Leoni odd couple, resemble little of what happens in the first two films, as new director Joe Johnston (the man responsible for such gems as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, The Pagemaster, Jumanji and most recently The Wolfman) shows more of an affinity for the Turok video games than the filmmaker he’d worked under for years. As is always the case for sequels, the stakes are higher, which here translates as the black guy getting offed earlier than he usually would (it takes a little longer for Michael Jeter to bite it). Of course, Macy and Leoni’s far-fetched-in-the-real-world but sure-to-be-true-in-the-movie-land notion that their child is still alive proves true, and of course, the kid is magnetically drawn to the otherwise misanthropic Dr. Grant… and thankfully isn’t half as irritating as the two writer’s contrivances that pass as Richard Attenborough’s grandchildren in the first film (the children of neurotic parents always turn out a lot saner than usual in movies, don’t they?).

At just ninety minutes, Jurassic Park III’s climax smells like the trenchant cocktail of screenplay revisions and budget-cuts, but that’s hardly a setback. Jurassic Park III provides more entertainment than it ever should have; placing a bunch of respectable actors in the broken back half of a jet that’s being tossed around and smashed by a dinosaur has never been a bad idea in my mind, and when those actors happen to be a desperate Sam Neill, a hot Alessandro Nivola, a mustache-donning William H. Macy and Téa Leoni (no adjective needed), I’m sold.

All three Jurassic Park films are available on DVD from Universal everywhere; Blu-rays have yet to come out for any of them.

Suave

Over the past few weeks, two actors I hold quite dear to my heart passed away: Dennis Hopper and Rue McClanahan. Obviously, this isn’t news to anyone, but as I was amid a death in my own family, I wasn’t able to post anything until now. Though she appeared in over 20 films, McClanahan will always be remembered best for the small screen, as that tarty firecracker Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls. A Southern belle with a charming vanity and a healthy appetite for men, Blanche gave McClanahan the opportunity to put all of her talents to their fullest effect, after previously playing recurring characters on Maude (also with Bea Arthur) and, yes, Mama’s Family. Though less recognized than her television work, McClanahan’s film career consisted of several great oddities, including playing a biology teacher in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, Gina Gershon’s mother in a film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s short story This World, Then the Fireworks directed by Michael Oblowitz and Mervyn Nelson’s little-seen, Boys in the Band-esque Some of My Best Friends Are from 1971, which co-starred Candy Darling, Sylvia Sims, Gil Gerard, Dick O’Neill and gay porn star Calvin Culver (Score, Ginger, Boys in the Sand). My favorite little obituary for Rue was written by Michael K. at Dlisted who said, “Thank you for playing a character that showed me it’s okay to be a big ass slut with a bitchy tongue as long as you do it while wearing pastel florals.” He also posted a quote from the last remaining Golden Girl Betty White the same day.

Where does one start with Dennis Hopper? I guess everyone can choose how they’ll remember him best, and I have a feeling a lot of the people I know will be channeling his memory through his performance as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. From his screen debut in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, Hopper’s appearances onscreen were consistently unpredictable, working steadily for six decades. His outings as a director were a lot more intermittent. After achieving a cult hit with Easy Rider, his follow-up The Last Movie–which placed Hopper opposite a wild cast that included Tomas Milian, Samuel Fuller, Sylvia Miles, Peter Fonda, Kris Kristofferson, Henry Jaglom, John Phillip Law, Michelle Phillips, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and Toni Basil–is still relatively unknown to this day. Hopper had his name taken off the film Catchfire in 1990 after Vestron Pictures decided to cut his three-hour version; the film, which starred Jodie Foster and a lot of other famous actors, was later released with the title Backtrack, twenty-minutes longer but still an hour short of Hopper’s intended version. His other directing credits include Out of the Blue, the neo-noir The Hot Spot with Don Johnshon, Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly, the police drama Colors and the terrible Chasers with Tom Berenger and Erika Eleniak. I could probably spend a lot more time talking about some of his great performances throughout the years, but that could take a really long time. Some of the highlights, in my eyes: in a loincloth beside Taylor Mead in Andy Warhol’s close-to-unwatchable Tarzan and Jane Revisited… Sort of; running naked through a train in Henry Jaglom’s Tracks; playing “Tom Ripley” in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend [Der amerikanische Freund]; on incredible amounts of drugs as a photojournalist in Apocalypse Now; playing a police lieutenant in Tobe Hooper’s weird-as-fuck sequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; making a cameo as Grace Jones’ lover in Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell; giving Christopher Walken a history lesson on Sicily in True Romance; planting bombs on buses in Speed; bringing the reptilian villain King Koopa to life in the film version of the Super Mario Bros. video game; raving about the future of video as it pertains to cinema in Abel Ferrara’s The Blackout; bringing about the only moments of joy to George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead; and lending advice to Ben Kingsley about his affair with Penélope Cruz before perishing at wife Debbie Harry's side in Isabel Coixet’s Elegy. So, Dennis and Rue, as Frank Booth would say, here's to your fucks.

Notable Filmography

Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, d. Nicholas Ray
Giant, 1956, d. George Stevens
Night Tide, 1961, d. Curtis Harrington
The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys, 1964, d. Andy Warhol
Tarzan and Jane Regained… Sort of, 1964, d. Andy Warhol
The Trip, 1967, d. Roger Corman
Cool Hand Luke, 1967, d. Stuart Rosenberg
Hang ‘Em High, 1968, d. Ted Post
Head, 1968, d. Bob Rafelson
Easy Rider, 1969
True Grit, 1969, d. Henry Hathaway
The Last Movie, 1971
The Other Side of the Wind, 1972, d. Orson Welles
Mad Dog Morgan, 1976, d. Philippe Mora
Tracks, 1977, d. Henry Jaglom
Der amerikanische Freund [The American Friend], 1977, d. Wim Wenders
Les apprentis sorciers [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice], 1977, d. Edgardo Cozarinsky
Apocalypse Now, 1979, d. Francis Ford Coppola
Out of the Blue, 1980
Reborn, 1981, d. Bigas Luna
Human Highway, 1982, d. Dean Stockwell, Neil Young
Rumble Fish, 1983, d. Francis Ford Coppola
The Osterman Weekend, 1983, d. Sam Peckinpah
O.C. and Stiggs, 1985, d. Robert Altman
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, 1986, d. Tobe Hooper
River’s Edge, 1986, d. Tim Hunter
Blue Velvet, 1986, d. David Lynch
Hoosiers, 1986, d. David Anspaugh
Running Out of Luck, 1987, d. Julien Temple
Black Widow, 1987, d. Bob Rafelson
Straight to Hell, 1987, d. Alex Cox
The Pick-Up Artist, 1987, d. James Toback
Colors, 1988
Chattahoochee, 1989, d. Mick Jackson
Catchfire, 1990
The Hot Spot, 1990
Superstar: The Life & Times of Andy Warhol, 1990, d. Chuck Workman
Paris Trout, 1991, d. Stephen Gyllenhaal
The Indian Runner, 1991, d. Sean Penn
The Heart of Justice, 1992, d. Bruno Barreto
Super Mario Bros., 1993, d. Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton, Roland Joffé, Dean Semler
Red Rock West, 1993, d. John Dahl
True Romance, 1993, d. Tony Scott
Chasers, 1994
Speed, 1994, d. Jan de Bont
Witch Hunt, 1994, d. Paul Schrader
Waterworld, 1995, d. Kevin Reynolds, Kevin Costner
Carried Away, 1996, d. Bruno Barreto
Samson and Delilah, 1996, d. Nicolas Roeg
Space Truckers, 1996, d. Stuart Gordon
Basquiat, 1996, d. Julian Schnabel
The Blackout, 1997, d. Abel Ferrara
Who Is Henry Jaglom?, 1997, d. Henry Alex Rubin, Jeremy Workman
Jesus’ Son, 1999, d. Alison Maclean
Leo, 2002, d. Mehdi Norowzian
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, 2003, d. Kenneth Bowser
Tell Them Who You Are, 2004, d. Mark Wexler
Land of the Dead, 2005, d. George A. Romero
Sketches of Frank Gehry, 2005, d. Sydney Pollack
Inside Deep Throat, 2005, d. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Chelsea on the Rocks, 2008, d. Abel Ferrara
Elegy, 2008, d. Isabel Coixet
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, 2008, d. Mark Hartley
The Brothers Warner, 2008, d. Cass Warner
Palermo Shooting, 2008, d. Wim Wenders

01 June 2010

Down... on the Ground

This post was intended to analyze the similarities and differences between Up in the Air, Fish Tank and An Education, but unfortunately it proved to be a rather uninteresting exercise in surface observations and difficult prose. So I scrapped the idea, but salvaged the only thing worth taking from it: my disdain for Up in the Air. So apologies for the jumpiness and inconclusive arguments, but I thought it might be of some interest regardless. For those who haven't seen the films, I wouldn't recommend reading as this is infested with “spoilers.”

As we’re nearing the half-way point in 2010, I took a look back at what few ’09 releases I actually saw, and one trend really stood out: marital and parental escapism. In three of the notable award contenders of 2009—Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Lone Scherfig’s An Education—the very same third act revelation appears as the protagonists make an uninvited visit to the homes of their respective lovers, discovering that their romantic flames are not only frauds, but frauds with spouses and children.

For Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man whose views of romance are mirrored (of course) by his on-the-go career which keeps him in transit for the majority of his time, a hotel bar encounter with a woman like Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) leads to the most ideal of no-strings-attached affairs. Alex is a woman, seemingly, like Ryan: professional, mature, horny and uninterested in anything related to our traditional notions of maintaining a romantic relationship with someone. Through several different scenarios where Ryan is forced to interact with people whose notions of relationship stability greatly differ from his own, he undergoes a change of heart and falls for Alex in a way he’s likely never felt for anyone else.

In an attempt to compare/contrast An Education and Fish Tank, I hit a dead end, as they’re almost too similar. Both feature teenage girls as protagonists, their older love interests (Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Fassbender) are deceptively charming and both films happen to be directed by women. The only thing truly dividing them from a narrative perspective is their place in time and the issue of class. An Education’s Jenny (Carey Mulligan) comes from a typical middle class English family in the early 1960s, while Fish Tank’s Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives in the outskirts with her young, hot, single mother (Kierston Wareing) and little sister (Rebecca Griffiths). Their differences in quality, which is a steep one, can best be chalked up to the flatness and dryness of Scherfig’s images against the vividness and vibrancy of Arnold’s.

With surprising consistency, Jenny, Mia and Ryan’s worlds are all crushed through uninvited visits to their respective lovers’ homes. It was, after all, too good to be true for each of them, but the lessons aren’t all the same. For Up in the Air, Alex’s “other life” becomes just one of the film’s infuriatingly heavy-handed views of the traditional family structure. Alex is not only villainized through the revelation but all of the refreshing qualities that Ryan found in her morph into the traits of an unhappy wife and mother acting out. While it seemed relatively clear that Ryan’s young co-worker/traveling companion Natalie Keener’s (Anna Kendrick) function in the film was to give (false) validation to Ryan’s beliefs, Natalie’s purpose changes when the film places its scarlet letter upon Alex, as she starts to work as a defense for the screenwriters (and novelist, I suppose, though I haven’t read the book) in showing us that all women aren’t cruel, manipulative, heart-stomping adulteresses. It’s hard to determine whether the simple, vile justification of Alex’s away-from-home behavior or the nauseating placement of the interview footage of the real people laid off from their jobs where they all emphasize the importance of family is what ultimately destroys Up in the Air, but both elements certainly succeed in ridiculing the protagonist… or maybe we should have never trusted a filmmaker who tried to garner sympathy for a character who crushes other people’s lives as a trade.

All three films are available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK. Up in the Air and An Education are available on Blu-ray and DVD in the US, and Fish Tank will be released by Criterion later in the year.