LOG: A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)

Having recently taken in a fascinating, rare showing of Powell's Bluebeard's Castle, and having only "The Red Shoes" under my belt of his films otherwise, I figured now would be a good time to start digging in. This, with Emeric Pressburger, among the few still unavailable on Reg. 1 DVD, was a nice starting point, I think. I am fascinated by the bizarre, unruliness of Powell/Pressburger that I have seen so far. Who else would or could make this film in 1946? No one, I'm sure. Imaginative and melancholy, beautiful and hopeful. No wonder people love these films. Looking forward to continuing on. Next up.. The Tales of Hoffmann? (Think I'll start at the end & work backwards.)

On a side note, I paid $1 to rent this for one week from the Naperville Library. WTF?! This town is a joke.


Rescue Dawn

I remember when I first started hearing the hushed online mutterings concerning "new Herzog movie," perhaps my three favorite words in the English language. From the start, I had low expectations. He was reworking "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," his documentary about Dieter Dengler, a German born American POW who was shot down in his fighter plane during the Vietnam war, into a live-action feature. OK, fine. Herzog obviously had been enamored with Mr. Dengler when he made his original film, but right from the start the redundancy of the project seemed insurmountable. Partly as an attempt to convince myself of the film's possible merit, I wrote of my doubts (in Idiot Ego) that "at 64, Herzog has earned the right to be trusted to try." So I stuck to that gun, even as the horizon for "Rescue Dawn" (ugh.. the title) grew ever darker. Steve Zahn is in it. Elton Brand is the producer. Shit. What?! A little piece of the Great God Herzog died in me every time another tidbit on the film was dolled out. It finally opened in limited release on the Fourth of July (ugh ugh ugh,) going up against "Transformers." That hideous one-two punch was, for me, the final straw.

I still didn't get it. Why would Werner Herzog, who even in recent years never seemed to lack a suitably interesting and "Herzogian" concept for a film, now choose to make a dramatic feature with quasi-hollywood money about a man whose story he had already told? Only one way to find out; I caught one of the last screenings of the film in September. The film is a patriotic, celebratory tale of perserverence, with Dengler (as he did in real life) escaping his captors by fighting and clawing through the dense jungles of Laos. It's as true to life as Herzog's original film was, which is to say, not completely. Disinterest in hard facts is nothing new for the director, so, putting that aside, we move on to more pressing questions; how do we judge this as part of Herzog's greater output? Unfortunately, we have to pick it apart, and it doesn't take a machete to reveal a bit of the film's underlying dry rot.

It is easy to draw fast parallels from Herzog to Dengler, in that in both men are German-born men who share a love for their adopted country, America. The film makes no direct judgments of America as a whole, but implies nobleness and virtue in Dengler's selfless execution of duty. Is that type of flag-waving appropriate, suitable, or excusable as entertainment currently, in this time of war not unlike the war the film depicts? That is a larger question, and one the film wisely does not attempt to answer. Perhaps it is suitable at least to marvel at the childlike, casual heroism of this man, with his unabashed love of America worn loudly and proudly for all to see. That there are so few men like this in America today might give us pause, but it is not difficult to accept the character of Dengler a great American, misguided or not.

Conversely, knowing that Herzog freely embellishes the details of this story fatally damages it's effectiveness as an exercise in hero worship. By seeking his "ecstatic truth." thereby co-opting and altering the actual events, doesn't this fail to then enoble his subject? If Herzog is so desperate to pay homage to Dieter Dengler, why not just tell it how it really was? Why is that not sufficient? Herzog would no doubt tell you that the truths which his fictions attempt to convey are greater than the factual truth, and more valuable, but in this case they are not. Ultimately, what Herzog again serves us is a semi-fake story about a semi-real great american. In this age of conflict and fear, it seems to amount to only a semi-believable story, born out of a semi-great country.

In his DVD commentary, Herzog downplays the upscale budget of the film. It is fair to grant him some leeway here, but not completely. He also doesn't think it's a war movie, but of course it is, just as much as any other film which depicts POWs but does not depict actual combat. We must not forget that Herzog is now 65 years old. By virtue of his casting a huge movie star, he has been granted access to an enormous (by his previous standards) budget. Whether he likes it or not, he has made a what will be referred to as a "Hollywood" movie. This is a personal adventure for Herzog, a dalliance, and it seems clear that Herzog is enjoying playing with his new toys, immersed for the first time in a world of mainstream movie mainstays, such as shoot-out scenes and plane crashes. That said, the commentary track is uncharacteristically uninspired. He does not seem to exude the creative joy that he often has in other projects. For those of us who have followed the rhetoric of Herzog, his defenses seem more and more like the party line. He calls it a "triumph of cinema. Not of accountants," and we have heard this before. In this case, the repository of creative principles which Herzog has so convincingly and consistently espoused as the the moralistic backbone of his work begins to feel more like an inescapable thematic crutch.

Unquestionably, "Rescue Dawn" is about more than just Werner Herzog, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge the very good performance by Christian Bale as Dieter. The actor once again does his weight loss trick, and we are left to wonder if Herzog short-listed Bale for this ability when casting the role. Tired as the transformation is (after the hullabaloo over "The Machinist,") it does force a stroke of realism on the film that it might not otherwise have achieved. I must also admit that Steve Zahn, as Dieter's cowardly, timid partner in escape, is actually a laser-precise piece of what might be called stunt casting, the perfect counterweight to Bale's cocky, brave Dengler.

"Rescue Dawn," though it stands apart from it's predecessor, is no more the inspiring true story of Dieter Dengler than was "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." So again we ask: What is Herzog's agenda? Maybe we should allow him not to have one, other than to leave his tiny stamp on the world of the American war film. The film is a memorably forgettable exercise, likely to rate unfavorably along side a similar dalliance from Herzog's past, "Where the Green Ants Dream," a film which Herzog himself has often lamented. What "Rescue Dawn" has that "Ants" did not is focus, and for that it is easily the better film. But much like "Ants," when we reach for Herzog, we will not reach for this. When reaching for Bale, however, this would be a fine choice.

There are, once again, online muttering concerning the "new Herzog." His next adventure has found him traversing and documenting the landscapes and inhabitants of Antarctica, both human and otherwise. It is called "Encounters at the End of the World." It features the same director of photography and editor of "Rescue Dawn," both of whom have been with Herzog since "Little Dieter" in 1997. It also features Werner Herzog. It does not feature an NBA star as it's producer, an A-list actor, or a screenplay.

My hopes are high.


Never Judge a Flick by it's Trailer: Leatherheads

(part one in a continuing series)

John Krasinski could have so easily been Tobey McGuire (or worse,) and that would have killed my interest almost completely. Also, Clooney is easily one of my favorite actors, and may actually be one of my favorite directors as well (even with only 2 films.) The man has talent, folks. Also the writers seem to have a sports background, which should keep it honest. And God bless them for being OK with the least flashy trailer I have seen in eons. It's like a trailer you would see at the beginning of an old VHS of "Hoosiers." This seems too old-school to be true. Straight-forward meat and potatoes, no gimmicks, like "Bull Durham" minus forty years.

Maybe too sentimental or too slapstick, but I doubt it. Betting on excellent.

RELEASE DATE: 4/8/2008


LOG: School of Rock

(LOG entries= a screening log of stuff I have recently watched. I can't write a full review for everything, folks.)

Everybody loves to play Guitar Hero. The game is fucking brilliant. School of Rock works at least partly for the same reason; because it plays on the secret dream of everyone (yes, even YOU) to be a rockstar. Jack Black takes all the raunch out of his Tenacious D antics, playing up his sweet, adorable side, and I fall for it every time. He's hilarious, like a living cartoon. ("I got a headache, and the RUNS...")

Behind it all is Richard Linklater, that Texas angel. A director to admire if only for his excellent (probably unparalleled in his generation) track record of being consistently different and nearly always excellent. He threw in a little punk-rock cursing and a "trip to the van," ostensibly as an attempt to teach kids about the pitfalls of the rock 'n roll lifestyle. A noble effort, but it earned him a PG-13. The little ones need to see this anyway. Joan Cusack is bizarre as ever (what the hell is her deal!?) as the school principal and Sarah Silverman shows up to do not much except be the bitchy girlfriend. He teaches a bunch of kids to play rock music! It's empowering! Lots of grown-up (and childlike) life lessons. Watch it when you hate your being an adult.

Also, I think I need to rent "The Bad News Bears.."



ARCHIVE: from Idiot Ego Issue 3
(reprinted without permission)

If you know who David Lynch is, good for you. He's pretty famous these days. Among other things, David Lynch makes movies. His most famous are Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. INLAND EMPIRE is his newest project, but whether or not it's a "movie" is kind-of up to you. Lots of people have very specific definitions of what a "movie" is or should be. Mainstream Hollywood has made a bazillion-dollar industry out of giving people straight, uncomplicated conflicts with easy and complete resolutions so they can go home and go to bed feeling good. But Lynch is here to remind us that movies can and should have lots of different functions, and most of his best work deliberately subverts the traditional conflict/resolution narrative structure. INLAND EMPIRE takes you on a terrifying and incomparable journey, no question, but whether or not you'll go home feeling satisfied is debatable.

It's much more fun simply to think about "INLAND EMPIRE" (the title is to appear in all caps, per David Lynch) than it is to try to review it. I say "try" deliberately, because by virtue of it's lack of narrative, the film is basically review-proof. So, if Lynch isn't trying to tell us a story, what's he trying to do? You're welcome to ask him, but he'll probably only answer you with more questions. I was lucky enough to attend a screening where Mr. Lynch gave a Q & A after the film (at the Music Box Theater in Chicago) and his responses were interesting, but not necessarily "helpful." He was careful to be evasive. He wants you to figure it out for yourself.

What little storyline there is revolves around an aging Hollywood actress named Nikki, given a renewed chance at importance with a role in a new high-profile production called "On High in Blue Tomorrows." But that thread is dangled only for about 30 minutes or so, until Lynch pulls the drain plug, and things quickly get dark as we start circling the drain. This is a tough one to crack, and arguably Lynch's toughest yet. Where INLAND EMPIRE succeeds completely is as a culmination of all things Lynch, stretched out, on display, and amplified into some kind of hellish frenzy. But I can understand the argument that Lynch has let his creative fetishes get the best of him. The result of this uncompromised vision is a 3 hour movie with very little resolution, and one man's ultimate artistic achievement is another man's pretentious bullshit. Thus, INLAND EMPIRE will undoubtedly play better for most on DVD than it did the theater (It's unquestionably a lot to digest in one sitting, and I look forward to taking my future repeat viewings on the installment plan.)

The main mistake people make with Lynch's films is getting too hung up on "what it all means." INLAND EMPIRE is like an unsolvable Rubik's cube that you can twist and turn endlessly in your head, but never get right. If you don't get it, or you don't like it, I don't blame you. All I ask is that you watch it and think about it. That's what it's for. And remember, there are no stupid questions. Except maybe "what is it about??" But, if you really have to ask that one, just remember that every answer is right.

DOUBLE FEATURE - Fast Food Nation / Idiocracy

ARCHIVE: from Idiot Ego Issue 3
(reprinted without permission)

Fast Food Nation was released in theaters last November, and it was gone faster than I can suck down a triple-thick milkshake. This is understandable. It's a tough sell: a fictionalized expose of the behind-the-scenes of the fast food industry, based on a real expose (the book by Eric Schlosser of the same name.) But Fast Food Nation is really more about the nation than it is about the fast food. It's about a nation choking on it's own corporations, the people who live in that nation, and the ways in which those people are (or aren't) involved. From the immigrant workers at the meat plant, to the kids at the registers and on the grills, up to their managers, all the way to the big shots in the conference rooms who market it, and a lot of people in between. It's Mickey's Hamburgers as a metaphor for the broken American dream.

The film meanders a lot (Linklater has an affinity and talent for the "vignette" style,) and it get's a little cameo crazy (Ethan Hawke, Bruce Willis, and Avril Lavigne (?) turn up in supporting roles,) but the stories are told successfully and movingly. It's bleak, it's human, and it's probably more true than we know, but it's never preachy. Fast Food Nation doesn't tell you what to think, and it doesn't try to lay a guilt trip on you. It's every bit as interesting, thought-provoking and worthwhile as Linklater's popular Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly, but unfortunately, without the trippy animation style that helped those films pull in viewers, it will most likely remain comparatively underseen.

Now, lets flash-forward 500 years..

Idiocracy is one of the most improbable movies you will ever see. How improbable? Well, I'll tell you. The year is 2505. The world has hilariously and horrifyingly gone to shit. The water fountains all pump an energy drink called Brawndo (The Thirst Mutilator!), the top rated show on TV is called "Ow! My Balls!" and the president is a former pro wrestler and pornstar who carries a machine gun. Joe Bauers is there (Luke Wilson,) but he's from our present day. Never mind how he got there. In 2005 he was just an average, innocently likeable loser. But by 2505 standards, he's a fucking genius.

If this movie doesn't sound condescending and borderline assholish yet, I promise you it is. The title alone practically screams of self-importance and superiority. Idiocracy takes the corporate greed and lazy American complacency of Fast Food Nation and exploits it all the way to it's furthest comedic end. The movie is by Mike Judge, who made Office Space seven years ago, and has done little since except quietly sit back and watch that film mutate from a box office flop, to a hit on video, to the classic of American comedy that it is today. Idiocracy is co-written by Etan Cohen, Judge's cohort from the Beavis and Butthead days, and it shows. It often feels like an unnatural hybrid of that shows crudeness and the comparitively sophisticated humor of Office Space.

The result of this hybrid is way weird, and like I said, improbable. The direction is heavy handed, and the constant voice over is annoying and completely unnecessary. But somehow the end result is likeable, fun, and at times extremely funny. This is a movie worth seeing, and supporting. A popcorn movie for all us pseudo-intellectuals, Idiocracy lets you laugh at the shameful ignorance of this future world, while it not-so-subtly suggests that we may not be very far from it right now. Luke Wilson again demonstrates the scrutiny in choosing projects that his brother Owen lacks (see You, Me and Dupree, Night at the Museum) and Judge rewards him with an unchallenging role that he probably could have played in his sleep.

Still though, a nagging question remains: can you make a dumbed-down movie about the dumbing down of America which asks it's audience to laugh at the same dumbed-down humor that it seemingly chastises? Apparently you can, but it takes balls. From the film maker, from the viewer, and from the studio. Judge held up his end, but Fox bailed on him. The movie got shelved for almost two years, until it was finally released to a whopping 125 theaters nationwide, with no promotion and in an obviously studio-edited version (a fate all too similar to the theatrical release of Office Space, also produced by Fox.) The DVD does not include any additional footage, and Judge is conspicuously absent from the already skimpy bonus features. Thus, it's easy to see what happened here. You can only get kicked in the balls by the same people so many times before it's time to turn away from them for good. Stay away from those damned studios, Mr. Judge. They're no good for you. But keep making movies that tell us how stupid we are. Otherwise, apparently, the world is doomed.

Marie Antoinette

ARCHIVE: from Idiot Ego Issue 3
(reprinted without permission)

Montages. 80's music. Gay hairdressers. Champagne. Rip Torn gettin' on Asia Argento. Drinking. Gambling. Need I say more? If you ever thought you knew what a "period piece" was, Sofia Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation is here to tell you that you don't. The movie is not unlike the real Marie Antionette herself: indulgent, reckless, regal, unpretentious and somewhat immature. I didn't know much about the real story of Marie Antionette before I watched it, and I wasn't really much closer when it ended (I needed a quick brush-up on Wikipedia to set me straight.) The movie is definitely a paint-by-numbers version of her life, and it casually omits certain aspects while glossing over others.

Over the years, a lot of guys have tried to tell me that Kirsten Dunst is not hot. I beg to differ, gentlemen. There is something quite alluring about a woman in a classical French dress. The beautiful sets and costumes are really the main attraction of Marie Antionette, so much so that I wished I had seen it on the big screen. The movie was also filmed in France, in many cases in the actual palaces and gardens that once belonged to Maire Antionette. Jason Schwartzman, as Antionette's limp-dicked husband King Louie XVI, is my favorite piece of casting in a long time. I almost feel bad for him that he's so perfect in the role.

In the end, the story of Marie Antionette is a tale of vicious propaganda, basically the 18th century version of "bad publicity." Coppola's film reworks it all into terms that young people can understand and enjoy, while somehow managing to keep things believable. It's a breath of fresh air from the way a story like this would usually be filmed, and it's a gutsy and surprisingly successful experiment in putting a stylish, modern spin on a stiff old story.

Lady in the Water

ARCHIVE: from Idiot Ego Issue 3
(reprinted without permission)

I am a sucker for an M. Night Shamalan movie. Yeah, I even liked "The Village." But lately I am noticing some alarming trends, and he's starting to worry me. "Lady in the Water" is pretty much a complete failure. I liked the look of it, and the music too, but not much else. You won't find too many fans of this film.

That said, part of me wants to defend this movie. I can't help but feel that the studio system is the reason for Shamalan's declining popularity. Hollywood doesn't know how to promote a new Shamalan movie other than as a summer thrillride (Unbreakable being the only exception among his 5 films.) There is a deliberately misleading disconnect between the way that his films are advertised and what they actually are. Lady in the Water is no thrillride. It's a kid's movie, at best. With better execution, it might have found a place among classics like The Dark Crystal and The Witches as a scary/fun kids movie that adults could enjoy too. Instead, it winds up like a cross between The Neverending Story and some really lame episode of "Are You Afraid of the Dark."

I stayed away from this for a long time, and went into it once the backlash had died, content to accept it as the family oriented "bedtime story" I had heard it described as in reviews. But in viewing the film, it became evident exactly how troubling Lady in the Water is. Shamalan is trusting himself way too much, and it's hurting him. Once again he casts himself, this time in a larger role as a writer who's ideas "will change the world." He even allows a moment in the film to literally kill off a sniveling film critic character. The rest of the film is a slap-dash combination of stereotypes and bad ideas, masquerading as playful novelty.

It is also somewhat troubling the way that Shamalan chooses to shoot his female lead Bryce Dallas Howard. It's all very sensual. She's supposed to be a force for good in the movie, and I found myself wishing that Shamalan would cut away from Paul Giamatti as a voyeur, trying not to look when "Story," this other-worldly young Narf, whom he observes as being "just a kid" (Howard is 25, but still..) naively slips off her clothes in his apartment. Too many lingering shots of wet and naked appendages.

If Shamalan wants to be Hitchcock so bad, he needs to think of himself more as a craftsman and less as an autuer. He needs to stop giving into these terrible impulses. Maybe start working with smaller budgets. Maybe direct a script or two that he didn't write. Maybe stay behind the camera. I don't blame him for not wanting to make the same movie over and over again, but there are better ways of experimenting than just throwing things at the wall, seeing what sticks, and then dumping it into theaters. He has produced two major box office failures in a row, and I don't think he has any more second chances to play with. I still have a shitload of faith in Shamalan as a film maker. His skills and his influences are on the right place. His heart is too, but he lets it get the best of him. This is his weakest effort. Lady in the Water is completely fucking ridiculous. He's young, guys. He'll learn.. I hope.