Sunday, December 30, 2007

Todd and the Future of Tim

this is my favorite picture of him

I hadn't realized that Sweeney Todd was rated 'R' until after I saw it, and it comes as little surprise considering the copious bloodshed. This is Tim Burton's second r-rated picture since Ed Wood, which only received that classification through Bela Lugosi's foul mouth and possibly some socially conservative jitters about cross-dressing. This is also Tim Burton's first GREAT movie since Wood. Though the uneven Mars Attacks! has many fine moments, the reluctant studio-approved auteur's output over the past 10 years has been mediocre at best. I've theorized a few reasons for this:

1) Burton's influence in bringing an animator's reality-bending sensibility to his material has been so strong that virtually every film uses "Burtonesque" art direction or cartoon physics, thanks to the ease of CGI...

2) Burton's influence in bridging the gap between what's considered kiddie or adult material - ie, Pee-Wee and Batman - helped paved the way for the perpetual adolescence of Hollywood today, with all it's wizards and superheroes...

3) The financial failure of Mars Attacks! might have scared Burton into choosing "bankable" material, like a Planet of the Apes or Willy Wonka remake, or another stop-motion film like Corpse Bride, or a Forrest Gump retread like Big Fish...these have all been pretty uninspiring, and create the impression that he's been content to work simply as a hired hand, coating the Tim Burton Touch superficially upon whatever licensed property calls for it...

In the case of Sweeney Todd, Burton has proven my third theory wrong insofar as bringing in his aesthetic (which now practically includes Johnny Depp as a given lead) and making something truly compelling. I'll admit I had the advantage of experiencing the Sweeney musical for the first time with this film, bringing no expectations to judge it against. Ordinarily I hate the type of talking/singing musical style used throughout, but it makes a world of difference with a skilled author like Stephen Sondheim behind it, and not, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Depp's performance is also something of a relief. After the zaniness of three Pirates of the Carribbean movies and the dull obviousness of his crazy take on Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd is nearly catatonic by comparison, only coming out of his shell in moments of bloodlust and vengeance. Like the character, the film itself could have been substantially camped up and thereby more family-friendly in the hands of a Ron Howard or a Joel Schumacher or any other mediocre stylist-for-hire, the type Burton was in danger of becoming.

It may be the case of a stopped watch being right twice a day, but the threshold Burton has crossed is that into truly adult material, something he began with Ed Wood and then put on hold until now. Having perfected the modern all-ages fantasy film in the first phase of his career, he ended it with Wood, a biopic based upon real persons and events, and without surreal stylization. The second phase has essentially been a regressive repetition of the first, doing fantasy material that can't possibly stand out from the glut of similar Hollywood stuff he helped promulgate. Should Burton choose to embrace the darkness that he has been unfairly accused of since the beginning of his career, and make more films dealing in the truly macabre and diabolical the way Sweeney does (not the cutesy variety seen in Corpse Bride) he could re-establish himself as an important and exciting figure in the American film scene.

On the other hand, IMDB says his next film is a feature length version of his 1984 short film Frankenweenie, so perhaps not just yet. One can hope.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Shock Treatment Assessment

The elusive follow-up to Rocky Horror. Richard O'Brien, the author of the original and crazy bald doctor in this trailer, compared the use of a new Brad and Janet without any other character holdovers (but some cast) from Rocky Horror to Gulliver's Travels and the misconception that Jonathan Swift's story ended in the land of the Lilliputians. The truth is that what began as a direct sequel to Rocky Horror had most of the songs rewritten into a new story when Tim Curry didn't want to encourage his own typecasting.

Interestingly the final iteration came when because of an actor's strike in Hollywood making location filming in Texas impossible, the story was confined to a giant soundstage in England. Since the original story concerned Brad and Janet's marital manipulation by the shadowy president of a local TV studio (and fast food empire) and his demented staff of fake doctors, game show hosts and bimbos, the story was now rewritten to take place entirely in the TV studio itself.

This results in a good premise which is disappointingly half-there and begrudgingly so, since it was unplanned. There's two small but effective details to suggest the dystopic nature of things, first the fact that the TV studio audience simply sleeps in their seats at night, and second, the way Janet and her parents seem to live on a set somewhere inside the studio building. I remember a lot of plot descriptions saying that Brad and Janet "returned" to their town of Denton "to discover it's become a giant TV studio," and that townspeople "run from their seats to the stage," as if to take turns being the audience, and the performers. Both those ideas could've helped the scattershot satire coalesce.

The basic aesthetics do the conceptual side justice. The cinematography employs lots of video-within-film, cheesy TV angles, sitcom imagery and a fake gameshow, but it never feels more compelling than the mall scene from David Byrne's True Stories, which come to think of it is one of those rare "music movies" and not a "musical."

This one certainly is, and half the songs are winners. What diminishes them all in impact tends to be their arbitrary and the story. Joe Bob Briggs pointed out the difference between "plot" and "story" when he'd quip his dismissal, "Too much plot getting in the way of the story." Musicals don't really ever have plots, even the bad ones, so the equivalent of a bad musical plot is a schizo split between what's happening to the characters, and why they sing.

For all this, however, it simply never congeals into anything but the sum of it's parts. Dame Edna has a really annoying, non-singing (thank god) but prominent role as a game show host, and the disorganized nature of everything (even by Rocky Horror's 3rd act standards) seriously impedes the ability to enjoy the whole thing start to finish. It has it's moments, and they're probably best seen separately on YouTube.

Let's just say I can see why people didn't show up in their underwear for this one.

Here's the best song, with visuals very similar to "Love For Sale" in True Stories. All the songs have the vague twinge of post-punk, which is fun. Singing about kitchen appliances is pretty damn Devo.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bat-Mania update

The last post in this series, I threw down the gauntlet that Heath Ledger as the Joker might warrant further comment. He does, mainly to prove that for all the discussion of Batman as a "realistic" and serious character, the batnerd establishment is not clamoring for the next absurdly expository story about Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne. All the hype has still been about the Joker.

As an aside, let me point something out: no one cares about these movies now but the nerd establishments, and we are all nerds now. CGI fantasy films are the only films that make MONEY, and since it's infantile material to begin with and the whole family can go, they do extremely well. Cartoonist Peter Bagge illustrated the point beautifully in this Reason Magazine cartoon

The first 7 minutes of what they used to call the first reel in days when this material was relegated to the drive-in is online now. As is the official trailer.

David Goyer's stiff and lame dialogue aside, wasn't it a far more influential time for Hollywood when Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson were cast? Their casting was mainstream movie news, as opposed to today, when Christian Bale and Heath Ledger are supposed to seamlessly blend into their hermetic, nerd genuflecting world.

These are the most generic performances and dialogue imaginable. It's tailor made for an undiscriminating fan base who demand reverence to an ideal portrayal that's constantly changing. If any ac-TOR were to stand out too much, it would offend their delicate sensibilities. Hence the revisionist complaint that Jack Nicholson was too much like Jack Nicholson, and not The Joker.


Get a load of that dialogue, too:

- "So why do they call him The Joker?"

- "I hear he wears makeup"

- "Makeup?"

- "Yeah, to scare people!"

"Obviously we don't want you doin' anything with your hands, other than hanging on for dear life!"

"I guess The Joker's as crazy as they say!"

..............You know, when cornball dialogue happens in a totally artificial fantasy world, it's one thing. But when it happens in a pseudo-realistic world, that's creative self-sabotage on a deep and abiding level.

Who'd have thought THIS exchange:

"It's Japanese"

"How do you know that?"

"'Cause I bought it in Japan"

...Would come off as deft compared to the non-exchanges of Goyer (and judging from those first 7 minutes, the brothers Nolan) who makes every character say exactly what they're thinking and doing at all moments, like overlong cartoon dialogue balloons?

Who'd have thought Sam Hamm and Warren Skarren were Herman Mankiewicz and Preston Sturges by comparison?

The fact Hollywood matters less to the rest of American pop culture now as it's own entity gives pause as to why all it's most profitable ventures are recycled material from books (Lord Of The Rings, comic book movies) and children's movies, in that order. Original material is at an all-time sparseness point, since the other half of Hollywood movies now are remakes, the death of a thousand cuts for lifelong movie fans.

Keaton and Nicholson had resonance in Burton's hands for the reason he cast them to utilize their abilities as actors. Nicholson as the Joker was a straightforwardly logic casting choice of a longtime genuine talent. Keaton was Burton's choice because Michael Keaton "has that fucked-up look" (Burton) and is a great physical performer as evidenced by Beetlejuice. He and Christian Bale's approaches and 180 degrees apart. Keaton's performance is almost that of a silent film actor's whereas Christian Bale and Heath Ledger are possibly going to be growling at each other through the whole stupid thing with a lot of contrived dark-and-heavy dialogue.

Anticipation level: Low.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Funny Thing About Funny Games

I saw No Country For Old Men a few nights ago at the Lammle theater in Santa Monica. This is an excellent film which recurs the word "nihilist" in people's reviews. Bleak, yes, but nihilist, no. One could argue all noir and neo-noir is nihilist, but one would be wrong. Even Double Indemnity has a moral center in Edward G. Robinson's character - it's just that the center is off to the side.

Nihilism in films is not the dearth of likable characters or lack of a happy ending but the deliberate absence of a moral standard from the filmmakers themselves: the unashamed depiction of evil for entertainment in of itself. Even a film like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer takes pause to reflect Henry's evil, on an innocent girl who has fallen in love with him, and on himself, when he stares long and hard into his own reflection. What does he see? The truly nihilist approach doesn't bother with questions, it takes evil at superficial face value and as unironic entertainment.

Imagine my surprise when the trailer for Michael Haneke's American remake of his own Funny Games came up before the feature presentation.

Seemingly a shot for shot and word for word recreation of the original from 11 years ago. I caught it on video around that time, and was gripped by the post-modernism (not evident in this trailer) which the film finds it's center in. Without giving too much away, we eventually come to realize early on that the bad guys are aware of their existence as bad guys in a thriller film.

The satire of the film is directed outward at the audience: why did you choose to watch a film such as this? Do you hope the family lives, or dies? Is this entertainment? The film's title and it's villains self-referentialism are cleverly deconstructionist to these matters. The film is nihilist, but the plot is a Macguffin and the subject matter is really nihilism itself in films.

Well, maybe it's a little guiltier of sincere sadism than I remember.

What struck me was that Haneke's original movie preceded Saw and Hostel, sincerely nihilist horror franchises in which there are no good guys, every "victim" is capable of equally sadistic villainy, and the aesthetic function is to linger on viscera for as long as possible. The original Games cannot be classified as "torture porn" since it contains no gore or protracted violence, only paced outbursts of the latter. The rest is genuine suspense, and satirizing the anticipation of violence is the meat of the content.

I didn't realize the film was so prescient, because the M.O. of the two killers whose raison d'être is the same as the audience has more or less gone mainstream through the recent "torture porn" bubble. However many more Saw sequels they make is our best indication for how much cruder people's tastes will become before hitting rock bottom.

Then again, I've got a friend who thinks Roman-style gladiator fights and live lion feedings are going to come back in a big way.

The funny thing is, the trailer went over pretty bad with the crowd that night. One guy actually booed. Maybe seeing a child in sadistic danger is what pushes most people's final button.

Funny Games satirized a coming trend. The trailer of remake is now indistinguishable from that trend. I can understand why Haneke wanted to do it again.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Head: The Money's In, We're Made Of Tin, We're Here To Give You MORE



the clock in the sky in pounding away

there's so much to say

Last night I saw Head at The New Beverly theater, the second part of a double bill featuring Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and hosted by Edgar Wright. I'm no fan of Shaun Of The Dead and I haven't seen Hot Fuzz, but he was a perfectly amiable bloke. The REAL treat was a pre-film introduction and post-film Q&A by my favorite Monkee, Mickey Dolenz, who still looks like a kewpie doll all these years later. Snappy dresser, too.

I've seen the film before, but just as when you are high, seeing a film in a theater with an audience is the only way to see a film again for the first time. Rhino, Inc did the good service of striking up a new print. The colors were vivid and the strobe effects in the "Daddy's Song" sequence work well in a way that video can't quite capture:

God, what a beautiful film. The New Beverly played a couple trailers from other band-vehicle films of the time, all seeking to cash in on the success of A Hard Day's Night - a really wretched looking Sonny & Cher vehicle whose name escapes me, and The Beatles' own Help!. What's funny is how both of those contain imagery which appear in Head, namely a roving tank in Help! and the placement of Sonny Bono in numerous archetypical Old Hollywood scenarios - as the private eye or the gunslinger or Tarzan.

Almost half of Head depicts The Monkees running around an anonymous Hollywood studio from soundstage to soundstage, which Dolenz said was inspired by the "real" Monkees' entry into Hollywoodland, and the general lack of respect given to them by the old guard - hence scenes like the one where the bit players rush out the lunchroom when they arrive and then the lunchlady berates them.

There's also a scene where a 500 foot Victor Mature nearly crushes them beneath his feet. You know, Old Hollywood. Just like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson were dealing with. Hey! Did you know Jack Nicholson wrote Head, and that Rafelson directed it? Did you know all three of those guys can be seen onscreen, and that the money made from The Monkees TV show helped fund Easy Rider a year later?

Dolenz explained a LOT for a film which is so deliberately obtuse. For instance, the scenes of The Monkees stuck inside a black box came from their discussions of the "black boxes" of their lives - the tiny black box of the recording studio, the tiny black box of the hotel room, the tiny black box of the pre-show dressing room - all of which you can't go outside from or you're be mobbed by fans - it's just one black box to the next.

The broadest and most helpful explanation was the dichotomy between "The Monkees" of the TV show and The Monkees of Head. Whereas the TV show was a show about a fictional band, the movie was about the real performers, in caricature, but still The Monkees. The deconstruction of their image in the film isn't necessarily mean spirited, but a consideration of who they were at their time and in their milieu.

Speaking of which, the occasional shock intercutting of Vietnam footage, including that famously horrifying Viet Cong point-blank execution on the street, is nearly impossible to reconcile with the film's 'G' rating. One can only assume the newly-created MPAA didn't even bother watching the film, they just figured "Hey, it's a Monkees movie," and didn't waste their time with it. The double standards never go away, they only devolve...

Other weird bits, like the exploding Coke machine in the desert or the backwards credits, were written off by Dolenz as Jack Nicholson's stoned sense of humor. He also confirmed that the movie's ideas were collaborated upon by all of the band, and under the influence. Shockola!

I raised my hand to ask where this footage came from...

But he didn't know if it had been created for the film or found someplace else. The funniest bit of trivia he shared was that the film's title was suggested in part so that if there were a sequel, the poster could read "From the people that gave you Head." The other, more sensible explanation is that the film's episodic, looping and plotless structure lends itself to be watched at any point in time, and still be a complete experience. As in, the "HEAD" frame of a film strip. In fact, the 1968 premiere occurred at a psychadelic dance hall in which multiple moviolas were stationed to run a reel of film each, and patrons could simply wander from one to another, taking it in a bit at a time.

Dolenz, in regard to famous fans of the film over time:

"Tom Cruise doesn't like me to name-drop."

Heck, why else would "The Porpoise Song" be used in Vanilla Sky?

Eli Roth was in attendance and I think he asked that very question. That makes it the second time I've been in a room with the man, after my Troma internship a couple years back.

If you haven't seen Head, what the fuck are you waiting for? This is the most enthralling music movie (an odd non-"musical" subgenre of musical film I might dissect later) of the 60s after Hard Day's Night. It's possibly the better film, I don't know. But it's overdue for rediscovery, and if last night's crowd was any indication, it still has so much to say.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Somebody Watched Somebody's Watching Me! ME!!

Perusing Netflix, I was delighted to find that one of Carpenter's late-70s TV movies "Somebody's Watching Me!" was finally available, and I dialed that shit up post haste.

The cool Saul Bass style title sequence, and the callback payoff at the climax

1978 was a real turning point for Carpenter, and this movie came right smack dab in the center of the milieu. He hadn't yet directed Halloween, and Somebody has a TON of stylistic flourishes that precede it slightly. In the same year he'd direct another film for television, Elvis, the bio-pic that began his long and fruitful collaboration with Kurt Russell. I'm not sure if that came before or after Halloween...By the (low) standards of television movies, this is a work of genius. By the standard standards of thrillers, it's still a pretty good one. The hook is cheesy, the plot is by the numbers, and Carpenter never misses a beat. Commercial breaks would've actually IMPROVED the experience, like Steve Spielberg's TV debut Duel...which I had the PRIVILEGE of seeing for the first time in the format it was meant for: Joe Bob Briggs' Monstervision on TNT.

Somebody stars Lauren Hutton, a famously gap-toothed 70s model-turned-actress who, I swear to god, I only knew prior from the 1987 short film Gap-Toothed Women. Ironically, the gap isn't her one unattractive feature - that would be her manly lantern jaw. Co-starring is Carpenter's future wife and new member of his short-lived reparatory company, Adrienne Barbeau. She plays a lesbian, and it's treated about as undramatically as you can imagine, which fits my bill as progressive. Others would complain she doesn't have an on-screen girlfriend, and therefore Carpenter is a tool of the patriarchy, but fuck 'em, he was sensitive enough to let her light Lauren's cig.

Coming from an old school dude like Carpenter who still champions the coolness of smoking (his second-to-last Masters Of Horror was called Cigarette Burns, after all) there's no more sincere gesture of approval. Anyways, I'm making it seem like a bigger deal than it is. If anything, Adrienne's lesbianism is a plot device to emphasize Hutton's isolation in her new LA surroundings. Being a new resident to LA myself, I emphasized plenty.

Highly recommended to any Carpenter fan. Now, if they'd just release Elvis!!

And oh yeah, that shot of Hutton out the window? That's not an optical illusion, they ACTUALLY STUCK HER OUT THE WINDOW. Ho-lee-shit.