Wednesday, May 21, 2008

THE SHORT AND UNEVENTFUL LIFE OF CELLULOID HUT

It turned out that a film blog was beyond my capabilities, and, to be fair, my interests. I love watching film but – as I found out – don’t truly have enough to say about it in a regular fashion to justify burning 0’s and 1’s on a blog. The infrequent postings on this site are due to the fact that I’m more passionate about music (so please go check out Detailed Twang) and, uh, beer (so please explore Hedonist Beer Jive) than about film – and I consume the former two far more often than I do the latter one. So I’m gonna retire this thing and not keep up the fa├žade any longer. Thanks for checking it out, those of you who did – and here are a few Celluloid Hut awards that I leave you with:

Favorite All-Time Film: 3 WOMEN
Favorite All-Time Director: INGMAR BERGMAN
Favorite All-Time Actor: ROBERT DeNIRO (70s version)
Favorite All-Time Actress: LIV ULLMANN
Best Film of the 60s: PERSONA
Best Film of the 70s: 3 WOMEN
Best Film of the 80s: DAS BOOT
Best Film of the 90s: RESERVOIR DOGS
Best Film of the 00s: MEMENTO

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

PETER, CYBILL, AND ANOTHER RUN THROUGH “THE LAST PICTURE SHOW”

The event I’m about to discuss happened well, well over a month ago, but so it goes with Celluloid Hut. I’m talking about a screening of Peter Bogdonavich ’s 1971 classic “THE LAST PICTURE SHOW” at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, with not only Bogdonovich present, but one of the film’s stars, Cybill Shephard as well. This was a packed event on a Friday night, a prelude into an entire weekend of Bogdonovich films shown at the theater – yes, including the ones everyone hated, like “They All Laughed” and "At Long Last Love" (I had a friend who went and saw the former, and he said it was mocked and vilified with good reason). Anyway, I’ve seen “Last Picture Show” a good four times now, and I still love it, despite the common consensus that it could’ve used about a 15-minute haircut. It’s the film that made Bogdonovich & Shephard’s names, as well as built the reputations of Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Randy Quaid (absolutely classic in the 2 or 3 scenes he’s in) and Ben Johnson. It’s a cinematographic masterpiece, and it’s not easy to call up the beginning & ending images of the windswept 1950s Texas town whenever the film enters my mind. They’re beautiful, and say as much in a few minutes of visuals than all the dialogue in between.

Bogdonovich took to the stage before the film to give it an intro, and he was charming, self-deprecating and had a few good yarns to spin, about this and his other films. One concerned star Ben Johnson and his complete reluctance to take on this role, having in past films been a mostly silent, chaw-chewing western star. Bogdonovich cajoled him into the role through all sorts of trickery and half-truths, and obviously the film was the better for it. The moderator for our evening, Jesse Ficks, was unfortunately not quite up to the task at hand, despite his best intentions. When Shephard came out afterward (in dark glasses, at 11pm in a crowded theater!) and sat in directors’ chairs with Bogdonovich, Ficks' questions were less than probing, and seemed relatively unplanned – so the result was a total anticlimax. Having not really prepared any witty repartee, the two stars seemed somewhat uncomfortable with Ficks and the lack of good questions, so they actually ended up singing an impromptu song together from "At Long Last Love" and then self-canceled the (at most) 10-minute interview. Considering that most patrons paid for their appearance, and had already seen the film, it was sort of a bummer to say the least. Next time I recommend bringing in a heavyweight interviewer to match the heavyweight interviewees, as this could have been something a lot better than it was. That said – “Picture Show”. Totally holds up. Celluloid Hut says check it out.

Friday, March 28, 2008

“MARGOT AT THE WEDDING”

Not really sure where I fall on this one, the second film from Noah Baumbach of “THE SQUID AND THE WHALE” fame. I was really enjoying it at the time – it has that unhinged-female-character-study aspect to it that’s been the pillar of so many of my favorite films, from “Persona” to “Repulsion” to “A Woman Under The Influence”, and the acting is exceptional. Say what you will about Nicole Kidman, I think she’s a hell of an actress. Sometimes you’ll find folks denigrating particular actors of actresses because of their (good) looks, sort of the opposite of diamond-in-the-rough syndrome, and probably why Kidman or, say, Matt Damon don’t win as many critical plaudits from the more edgy film critics. Anyway, she’s great in this, but the film runs aground a bit in the believability department, something I had to be convinced of by my better half after the viewing.
Yeah, I suppose the dialogue was a little over the top, and I guess Kidman’s teenage son would be a little more of a mess than he actually was if his mother and his aunt were truly the messes they were portrayed to be. I actually liked how Baumbach didn’t make the teenage characters into younger versions of their screwed-up moms, and had them as sort of the only anchors these poor women (Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Kidman) had. The film plays out much like a 1970s Bergman film would, with much more talking & action than Bergman’s pained silences. The frailty of humankind and the continued juvenility of many adults is on constant display here, and ever character save for the kids has a lot of growing up to do. Of course all self-medicate with alcohol and pills, the way so many adults in struggle with themselves must. I don’t know, “MARGOT AT THE WEDDING” wasn’t exactly an uplifting 90 minutes in front of the DVD player, and probably not as good as “THE SQUID AND THE WHALE”, but I think it held its own despite a bit of overreach.

What did you think?

Celluloid Hut Rating: B

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

“PROTAGONIST”

This 2007 documentary from director Jessica Yu follows an unusual yet enthralling path: the stories of 4 men whose lives in their teens and early 30s played out like a ancient Greek tragedy, and who, in the course of being interviewed by Yu, have their stories slotted accordingly: “catharsis”, “redemption” etc. None of the 4 men have anything to do with each other. One was a German left-wing terrorist in the 70s who hid from the government during the Baader-Meinhof days; another is a gay man who lived a large chunk of his life as an “ex-gay” evangelist; a third is China expert Mark Bowden, who became over-obsessed with martial arts as a teen; and the fourth (and best) story concerns a bank robber/bad-ass who learned redemption after years of suffering for his own father’s sins. Here’s what EW’s Lisa Schwartzbaum (a great underrated film critic) had to say about it:
A former German terrorist once in cahoots with Carlos the Jackal, a gay Christian evangelical who, during his avowedly ''ex-gay'' period, preaches that Jesus has cured his ''homosexual problem,'' a bank robber, and a martial-arts devotee don't walk into a bar in Protagonist. They do, however, form the four male pillars of Jessica Yu's intricate, novel, and altogether fascinating art-piece documentary. The filmmaker incorporates ancient components of drama — including the universal appeal of puppetry — to explore the shaping of character in the crucible of fanaticism. And she relates her subjects' odysseys to principles of Greek tragedy, pausing to explain such concepts as ''provocation'' and ''catharsis.'' (Those puppets? They form a Greek chorus.)

If all this sounds awfully classroom-bound, it isn't — far from it. Each man's story as he tells it is riveting, truly stranger than fiction, and awesome, too, in the way of unfathomable humans. And Yu (who made In the Realms of the Unreal, about ''outsider'' artist Henry Darger) fits her inventive artistic choices to a rigorous, well-thought-out thesis about the tragedy of the extremist — and what makes a man a man.

Truly, this is a very male-oriented film, all the more remarkable having been made by a woman. I personally liked the intertwining of Greek Tragedy themes and the quick pacing of the documentary, though honestly, just when each story got riveting, Yu cuts to those puppets again – almost every 7-8 minutes. That got to be more than a little annoying. That said, “PROTAGONIST” is an inventive and thrilling take on the nature of male personal growth, and I recommend it highly, agreeing with Schwartzbaum’s take of B+.

Celluloid Hut Rating: B+

Monday, March 17, 2008

“FUNNY GAMES” & ME

I don’t think I’m going to go see Michael Haneke’s new film, a scene-for-scene American recut of his 1997 French film "FUNNY GAMES". After an article about its remaking in the NY TIMES MAGAZINE last year, I was excited to see it – particularly because I enjoyed squirming my way through two of Haneke’s other recent films, “The Piano Teacher” and “Cache”. Then the poster you see here came out, and it’s one of the best movie posters I’ve ever seen. Something about the ravishing Naomi Watts' beautiful face streaked by tears makes for a truly disturbing – yet compelling - image. Then the reviews came out. The words “torture porn” started getting thrown around. And the more I looked into the plot, the more pissed off I got about what I was expecting to see. Brutal (if off-camera) violence, enacted in a slow, torture-heavy manner, against a family of innocents. A “highbrow ‘Hostel’”, they started calling it. I wish I could believe otherwise, but there’s nothing highbrow about the systematic butchery of innocents in gruesome detail, no matter how much of a statement the director is trying to make about our “complicity” while we watch it. How about not watching it? That’s my radical solution to not being complicit.

Anyone out there seen this film, or the original?

Monday, March 10, 2008

CELLULOID HUT’S FAVE MUSIC DOCUMENTARIES

1. GIMME SHELTER – The standard-bearer for now and forever; a fantastic, trippy film in its own right, to say nothing of the circumstances under which it was made.
2. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION – A life-changing film for me, along with #3 – not only did it introduce me into the world of crazed, uber-energized LA punk rock that I love to this day, it was a well-told overview of some of the stranger and sensational corners of that scene and that era.
3. URGH: A MUSIC WAR – All it was was a series of clips from a bunch of early 80s new wave & post-punk bands, and yet it’s a beautiful string of performances by great bands like THE CRAMPS, AU PAIRS, X, PERE UBU and other heroes.
4. DIG!See my review here.
5. BE HERE TO LOVE ME: A FILM ABOUT TOWNES VAN ZANDTSee my review here.
6. BOB DYLAN – DON’T LOOK BACK – I’m not a huge Dylan fan, but I almost became one after watching the snarky, snotty young Bob go electric and piss off his fans.
7. NICO ICON – Well-done look at the enigmatic Nico, the muse of Warhol, Fellini and the Velvet Underground – and then a drugged-out, influential musical ice princess in her own right. Great stuff.
8. WE JAM ECONOSee my review here.
9. THE MC5: A TRUE TESTIMONIALSee my review here.
10. THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY – An entire film about a musical instrument, one that I found totally riveting and quite funny in parts.

Surely I’ve forgotten one of your favorites, no? Let me know in the comments section!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

“ATONEMENT”

‘Twas a strange Academy Awards for me and the missus this time, as we’d actually seen 4 of the 5 nominated Best Pictures in the theaters, with only “Michael Clayton” going unwatched (as it likely will during DVD season as well). Normally I might have seen one of the nominated films, given as they often are to extravaganzas like “Chicago”, “Titanic” and the like.
“ATONEMENT”, which ended up not winning the hallowed statuette this year, was one of the films where when I’d ask folks about it, they’d always say, “I read the book”. Friggin’ EVERYONE read that book. Not me. I knew there was some WWII stuff going on, as well as some mistake of some kind, for which there would be some atonement. That’s all I knew – oh that, and the fact that a lot of these book-readers said the film wasn’t “all that”. That’s what I had to work with, people.

“ATONEMENT”
, the film, was actually a pretty good yarn. The acting was excellent across the board – especially all 3 women who played Briony (one of whom, Vanessa Redgrave, only shows up in the last 5-10 minutes of the film, and is still fantastic). As you book readers well know, the story concerns a pre-teen named Briony Talis who witnesses adult sexuality between a man she knows well, and that she herself lusts for, and her own sister. In her confusion and heartbreak, she decides to make up a story about the man that has devastating, lifelong consequences for all parties concerned. Taking place at the dawn of World War II, which intrudes upon these upper-class countryside Brits in a big way, “Atonement” then shifts forward to how each character survived the war and its aftermath. All was great up to that point, but I felt the scene on the beach, with the defeated British army evacuating at Dunkirk, fell really flat for me. The chaos was at once both totally believable, and yet way overdone & hokey. I liked it much better when the twentysomething Briony (played wonderfully by Romola Garai)visited the wounded soldiers in the makeshift hospital, and later visited her sister and Robbie to try and make amends. Those scenes were outstanding, and quite moving as well, as these things go. I know others saw them as kinda sappy, but what can I say, I’m kind of a sap.

The film is a textbook sort of film for “good filmmaking” on a grand scale, and I’m sure a lot of what drives it headlong is the book upon which is was based. It wasn’t as good as the other biggies this year – I’m talking of course of “THERE WILL BE BLOOD” and “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – not by a mile, but I think it’s something you’re probably going to want to see if you like movies, which I reckon you do.

Celluloid Hut Rating: B

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

GREAT LOST FILMS OF THE 21ST CENTURY: “JUDY BERLIN”

This is the first in an occasional feature highlighting some “produced and abandoned” or otherwise overlooked gems from the past eight years, at least the ones I can remember. You know, this one’s actually from 1999, but I saw it in 2000 – so whatever. “JUDY BERLIN” was my first exposure to future Soprano Edie Falco, and this small independent film has resonated with me for years afterward. Set in a fictional suburban town called Babylon, New York, and filmed entirely in stunning, high-contrast black & white, the film centers on the titular character (played by Falco) getting ready to leave this Long Island town for Los Angeles. Naturally, she’s leaving to become an actress, despite minimal training nor experience. Her last day in town is a somewhat aimless sojourn through the streets of a place that you get the sense she’s been for a long, long time – and it happens to also be the day that a very rare solar eclipse is taking place (of course, this only heightens the great black & white contrast of the film).

“JUDY BERLIN” is populated with odd characters, including a mildly unhinged Madeline Kahn in what would be her last role. Thankfully these aren’t necessarily “lovable, odd” characters; they’re the sort of “real, odd” oddballs you’d truly expect to find in any suburban locale, full of mild eccentricities the way folks from your own family likely are. These suburbs are also not savaged the way they are in so many Hollywood films (think “American Beauty”, also from around the same time), but infused with equal doses of hope and the requisite ennui. The solar eclipse casts a strange spell on the town, and the film sort of jumps from neurosis to neurosis, without really showing anyone caving in or going under as they reflect on their lives and how they got to where they currently are. You obviously root for Judy throughout the film – she’s radiant and good and full of life, and she appreciates the world around her, almost to a fault. When she inevitably fails in LA (though who knows?), she’ll probably keep her balance and her bearings, and come right back to Babylon to start again. The film leaves you with the same sort of strange optimism that Judy herself has, and I’d love to do my part in helping you to see and rent it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"2 DAYS IN PARIS"

Julie Delpy is a French actress with whom I’ve been smitten ever since I saw her in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “WHITE” in 1994 and in “KILLING ZOE” the same year. I believe the nature of my admiration was as critical as it was “animal”, but, um, one can never be sure with these things. Anyway, Ms, Delpy made her first film last year, an indie comedy/romance called “2 DAYS IN PARIS”, and I gave the DVD a good college try last week. It’s not a bad film, it’s just a bit of a “trifle”, if you will. Delpy stars as a self-obsessed, sneaky and evasive Frenchwoman who now lives in the US with her boyfriend (Jack, played by Adam Goldberg) of two years. He’s neurotic and confused about the status of their relationship, especially when they pass through her hometown of Paris to spend 2 days on the way home from Venice, and continually runs into ex-boyfriends of hers. She finds as many ways of changing the subject as she can, but a combination of events (along with her crazy ex-hippie/radical family) snowballs into more neurosis and ultimately a “relationship crisis” for both. In some ways the whole thing is a bit of a snore, with too many cutesy, indie-by-the-numbers moments and loads of dialogue that seems wholly unrealistic. That said, I soldiered on for the whole movie & found it kinda charming and laugh-out-loud funny in parts. One of those “rental only” films, best viewed in the company of a spouse or female partner, and not with the bowling league nor Rotary Club gang.

Celluloid Hut Rating – C+

Saturday, February 16, 2008

“THERE WILL BE BLOOD”

Finally went and saw this one in a theater a few weeks ago, and if you haven’t yourself yet done so, I strongly urge you do so at once. “THERE WILL BE BLOOD” deserves just about every drop of hype gushed upon it, and just narrowly misses out on being the best film I’ve seen this year (that would be the equally-hyped “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – for once in my life my personal favorites match up with those of “The Academy”). I read that “There Will Be Blood” cost a paltry $25 million to make, and yet it’s a movie that absolutely screams to be seen on the big screen. As you've no doubt heard, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance is as outsized as his character, and as a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson's films (especially "Punch-Drunk Love"), I'm satisfied that this is his best one yet. It's at least likely to be the one he's remembered for at the grave. More reflection on this film makes me that much more rapturous over it, so I guess I'm glad I'm finally putting ink to paper now.

"THERE WILL BE BLOOD" is an epic broadside to both entrepreneurial capitalism and to evangelical Christianity. I'm not sure which gets off worse, but I'd probably go with religion, even though most folks will look at the Daniel Fairview character (Day-Lewis) & conclude that, because he's on screen for 99% of the film, his chosen profession of money-making is what's on trial here. Fairview is quite a complex character, not a total monster but certainly bordering on obsessive psychopathy. To the outside world, outside of his desire to drain California of oil, he's a total blank slate. He lies, he ignores questions, he reveals nothing, and masters every encounter with either charm or a nasty threat. He looks dangerous every second of the film, even when he’s showing a sliver of tenderness toward his son. One of the great nuances of his character is that he is so proactive and loving at times of this son - who (and I don't think it's a spoiler to day this, since it happens at the very start of the film) as it turns out isn't even his son (!). I think the Day-Lewis performance resonates so strongly with people because you know the man is capable of totally exploding at any time, and yet, until the last 30 minutes or so of this long film, he really doesn't. It has been very hard for me to get two phrases from this film out of my head: "I Drink Your Milkshake!" (already becoming a worldwide catchphrase) and "A bastard in a basket!!". Once you see the film, you'll know why.

His nemesis - perhaps the only one he's ever been truly threatened by, is a holy-roller preacher named Eli Sunday (played extremely well by Paul Dano). What might be the single best part of this entire great film is Daniel Plainview's churchhouse "conversion" by Sunday (which you can actually watch right here!), a step he takes solely to be allowed to drill more oil and to get even more filthy rich. It's possibly the one lone time in the man's adult life he's ever been humiliated, and it's absolutely excruciating for him to go through. It sets in motion the film's violent end. At the end, when Plainview truly is finished vanquishing his final foe, he exclaims, "I'm finished", and with that, so is the film. Total black comedy in an weirdly funny, very disturbing film that I half thought was going to be one long anti-oilman trip. I think I'm going to pay real cash money to see it in a theater again.

Celluloid Hut Rating: A

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

“THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS”

One might have never known that competitive Donkey Kong could be so full of intrigue, backbiting and petty rivalry, but then, one would think you could only dream up the character of Billy Mitchell, one of the two real-life rivals for the glory of “Donkey Kong high score”. The 2007 documentary “THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS” portrays the Sisyphean struggle of one Steve Weibe, a great geek in his own right, to beat Mitchell’s world high score on 80s arcade game Donkey Kong, and in the process achieve triumphs that he’s been unable to obtain in quote-unquote real life. Standing in his path is Mitchell himself, and the entire competitive video game establishment, which is portrayed in the film as being totally monolithic, but in actuality is about a dozen geeks and a couple guys working for official scoring agency “Twin Galaxies”.

Mitchell is the real story here, a guy so hilarious in both look and in attitude that he almost seems made up. Back when he was 18 he started setting and breaking high score records on a number of arcade video games like “Pac Man”, “Donkey Kong Jr.” and of course, “Donkey Kong”. He wears an awesome mustache-and-mullet combination that goes way beyond “hockey hair”, and would instantly provoke laughter in virtually any major or minor metropolis. Mitchell is given to wearing American-flag and Statue-of-Liberty neckties, runs a successful hot sauce business, has a wife with some fantastic breast implants, and carries with him a chip on his shoulder like you wouldn’t believe. HE alone will be the King of Kong. Any challengers to his record must be vanquished. The film lets him run his mouth and incriminate himself ad nauseum. I have to admit, some of it does seem a little staged, but then again, the filmmakers could just be outstanding at editing & arranging clips. “The King Of Kong” is very fast-paced for a documentary, and we get to meet some pretty great characters beyond Mitchell, all involved in this tiny netherworld of trying to beat previous high scores on archaic 80s video games.

I enjoyed the pace and the well-done contrast between Mitchell and Weibe. Weibe even cries at one point, and you just know that given his compulsion to “be #1 in something”, those tears are real. I think the filmmakers might’ve been able to mine the whole sad crew for laughs a little more than they did, and again, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mitchell was a little bit “coached”. But overall, this was a solid 1:19 of quality entertainment, and a rental I’ll heartily recommend.

Celluloid Hut Rating: B

Monday, February 11, 2008

“BLAME IT ON FIDEL”

I’ve noticed that Europeans are just as swoony and starry-eyed over the politically radicalized late 60s and 70s as Americans are, and in a recent spate of films, there have been a number of ham-handed attempts to “come to terms” with the We Decade and start of the Me Decade. For whatever reason, when these European films portray newly-radicalized individuals, they fall all over themselves painting the era’s left and right wings into the worst possible caricatures. Take this recent (2006) French film “Blame It On Fidel” from director Julie Gavras. I’m going to say right up front that I could only stomach about half the film before leaving the comforting confines of the living room couch, so I guess it kinda rubbed me the wrong way. My wife, whose taste in film is generally stellar, stuck with it & said it was pretty good. But when you have bearded, newly-indoctrinated left-wingers frantically making pamphlets and mooning about “Allende’s revolution in Chile”, and the right-wingers screaming at children about “communist rats”, all nuance and character development take a total backseat to slapping paint on the era with the broadest possible brush.

This, and other recent backward-looking Euro films like “The Best Of Youth” and “What To Do In Case of Fire” (which was otherwise not too bad), feel the need to show a European left totally in harmony with oppressed peoples across the globe, to the point of renouncing their families, their religions, and their friends, before – poof – waking up from the era and coming to grips with their foolishness. “It was all a silly folly of youth”. Now I didn’t see the end of “Blame It On Fidel” but I saw where it was headed and it make my head ache. Trite, boring and already said many, many times. The little girl made some cool little girl pouting faces, though.

Celluloid Hut Rating for first half of film = D

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

“KILLER OF SHEEP”

Charles Burnett made this stark, semi-disjointed, black & white “urban meditation” as a UCLA film student in 1977. As I understand it, it was recently saved from slow obliteration and was released for the first time officially (!) last year, making it to DVD just within the past two months. Without music rights to the songs in the soundtrack from Dinah Washington, Earth Wind & Fire and others, the film essentially sat in canisters all this time. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the entertainment industry insists on eating its own.

“Killer of Sheep” is a film with no plot, no developmental arcs, and essentially no characters to develop with and truly latch onto – and yet it’s visually stunning, and worthy of contemplation long after its end. Burnett, working with $10,000 and a collection of non-actors, depicts urban Los Angeles (Watts) in its worst days of the mid-70s: littered with rubble, devoid of much conventional employment, and populated with gangs of bored, overhyper kids and teens. There are images that will be hard to let go of, more similar to photographs from a Walker Evans or a Dorthea Lange than one typically expects from a film. The dancing scene in which the frustrated “main character” Stan and his wife dance, and which Stan then pulls away from as his wife quite literally crawls the walls with her own frustration, is priceless. The agitated children leaping from building to building, as the camera shoots them from directly below, is quite an effect. And even the real scenes within the slaughterhouse where Stan works – the blank-eyed expressions of the sheep, and their monotonous willingness to be led to their deaths – are, shall we say, “metaphoric”.

Yet Burnett’s ultimate aim appeared to be to redeem the American black working class in the face of the odds stacked against it at the time. Stan and his wife, in their limited speaking parts, give voice to a desire for something better, something more responsible and hopeful. A collection of downbeat images and scenes still contains flashes of hope, however fleeting. You wonder what became of the kids in the film, and if they got out of Watts or became the gang members of the 1980. The usage of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” is just perfect as the film closes, with the lyrics, written decades before, capturing perfectly the feel of the film. “Killer Of Sheep” reveals its rewards slowly and somewhat depressingly, but after 90 minutes it’s fairly obvious you’ve just witnessed something special.

Celluloid Hut Rating: A-

Monday, January 21, 2008

“ZODIAC”

You might have noticed a resurgence of good ink for last year’s film “ZODIAC” (David Fincher) amid the flurry of year-end lists and pre-Oscar baiting. Was this film, one that got such mediocre reviews upon its release, one of those rare gems that needed a little critical marinating or a DVD release before its true genius could be seen? I decided to rent the DVD and find out. Now I grew up near the San Francisco Bay Area during the time the case of the Zodiac killer was on the front pages, though I “missed” the initial wave of killings in 1969, being 2 years old at the time. I remember the taunting letters to the police, Herb Caen writing about it in his daily San Francisco Chronicle column, and of course that ultra-cool target symbol that the maniac behind the murders punctuated all his letters with. I had read that this film focused more on how the cops bungled the case, and that’s pretty much true, along with a large focus on a third-party SF Chronicle cartoonist’s obsessive, played by the boyish (and strangely unaged over 12 years) Jake Gyllenhaal, desire to solve the case himself. Could be the makings of a good film, no? Too bad it wasn’t.

My complaints with the film are broad but few. First, each character is rushed so thoroughly into development that one barely has a chance to know or understand them – this despite a Herculean running length much closer to 3 hours than 2. Gyllenhaal, who looks like he should be playing a high school quarterback rather than a grizzled father of two, is an obsessive Type-A, OK, got it – but why? And how could – and why would - someone keep up that manic weirdo energy throughout an entire life, let alone a single film? Totally unbelievable, as it the greatly overrated Robert Downey, Jr.’s alcoholic newspaper reporter, the guy who initially covers (and owns) the Zodiac beat as the ghastly crimes are unfolding. Second, and I admit that Danny Plotnick gave me this observation in person as I was complaining to him about the film – one at times gets caught up in the history of the Zodiac killings, and in the filmmaker’s excited postulation as to who the killer really was, and yet it’s all delivered so ham-handedly and quickly that Fincher might well have used his energies to make a kick-ass documentary rather than a barely mediocre drama. It’s as if a documentary was what he really wanted to make all along, but his past Hollywood success (“Fight Club”, anyone?) prevented him from doing so, so an all-star cast was signed up and fragments of what could have been a great movie were stitched together to ill effect.

Finally, as a San Francisco resident, I’m lightly appalled at the poor use of my city’s scenery and topography as a key plot device. If this was filmed in Vancouver, Toronto or on an LA soundstage, I’d be none the wiser, and yet these killings – in fact the whole craziness of the 1970s – are so inextricably tied to San Francisco and Northern California (think Patty Hearst and the SLA, the Weather Underground, both attempts on President Ford’s life, the Zebra killer, the George Moscone/Harvey Milk murders, People’s Temple etc etc.). Why couldn’t the city – outside of mock-ups of 1970s-era Chronicle typefaces – have figured more prominently? A tale of the berzerkness of 1970s San Francisco and how it fed the way the Zodiac murders were reacted to and pursued could have made for a great film. I guess we’ll have to wait for that documentary, hunh?

Celluloid Hut Rating: C-.

Friday, January 18, 2008

PS - TAIL BETWEEN MY LEGS DEPT.

....my old blog DETAILED TWANG, which has a little film commentary on it yet was primarily a music-based endeavor, has been revived. It is and will likely remain my nature to continually shuffle the deck of life, but apologies for any proclamations that said that blog was a done deal. From now on I’ll just vanish when I need to go away for a while – OK? (smiley face, followed by “LOL”).

"PAYDAY" - YOUR NEXT RENTAL

Just learned this morning that "PAYDAY", a fantastic 1972 country-music themed tale of personal destruction, just came out on DVD this month. I plum forgot about this film when making my "best of the 1970s" list a few weeks ago (sorry for the extended absence from this site, by the way) - and I guess since it has been so long since I've seen it, I'm not really sure where I'd put it - probably Top 20, though. Anyway, it got me rememberin' that I already wrote a review of this film fifteen years ago in my fanzine Superdope - so here's a scan of that very review. Some call this movie a vastly superior film to the more-celebrated "Nashville", and there's a part of me that doesn't want to argue.

Friday, January 4, 2008

25 FACES OF THE SEVENTIES

The 1970s was when my love of film commenced, and I’ve slowly been ticking off and seeing or renting every critical favorite that I didn’t see the first time around. We had this awesome cable channel called “The G Channel” which was a poor man’s Z CHANNEL, and every night at 8pm it would show one current film, several of which are represented on the list below. They might be monster movies like “Humanoids From The Deep” or “The Swarm”, or slightly heavier fare like “Taxi Driver” or “Badlands”. In any event, I think the 70s have it over every decade in terms of amazing film. If you want to get in the spirit of the 70s, there’s three ways I suggest you get started: 1.) Rent the DVD “A Decade Under The Influence” and watch it tonight; 2.) Rent the DVD of the documentary “The Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” (I’ll write more about that one another time), and 3.) Absorb my list of the top 25 films of the seventies (which is nearly my Top 25 films in total), and make sure you watch them all by sundown, January 10th, 2008:

(Note: list updated on 1/6 thanks to comments below; I plum forgot about "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", which I love, and misdated "The King of Comedy", which I thought was a '79 film).

1. 3 Women
2. Apocalypse Now
3. Scenes From A Marriage
4. A Woman Under The Influence
5. Nashville
6. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls
7. Chinatown
8. The Last Picture Show
9. Midnight Cowboy
10. Fat City
11. Marathon Man

12. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
13. Carnal Knowledge
14. The Exorcist
15. Taxi Driver
16. The Godfather
17. The Panic In Needle Park
18. The Conversation
19. Five Easy Pieces
20. Dog Day Afternoon
21. Badlands
22. Klute
23. Cries and Whispers
24. Opening Night
25. Duel

Hey, did I miss anything?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

“NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”

My thing with the Coen Brothers is like a lot of folks’ thing with the Coen Brothers. I recognize and admire their craft, not so much most of their films. When they nail it – “Blood Simple”, “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo” – they’re fantastic, and I leave the theater a total believer in the mythos that’s grown up around them. When they flail, or make overrated films – “The Big Lebowski”, “Barton Fink”, and all others I wouldn’t stoop to see because they looked so mediocre – I wonder if they’re more of a brand than they are a cohesive, functioning, consistent filmmaking team. In any event, as I’m sure you’re aware, the hype level on their latest, “No Country For Old Men” has been off the charts, but it took the frothing recommendations of two friends before I’d consent to seeing it in a theater. Like most people, “I’m glad I did”. This film might be the best non-documentary I’ve seen in a year or two, and I could swear my heart stopped cold at least three times whilst watching it.

“No Country For Old Men” takes a pretty familiar noir boilerplate – good guy finds some money from a heist/deal-gone-bad, good guy takes money in a moment of weakness, guy is mercilessly stalked by the bad guys to whom the money is owed. At a deeper level, it’s a dream-like pondering about how the United States circa 1980 came to be so violent, so quickly remade in the course of a generation, so given to the hotheaded and the crazed. “No country for old men” indeed. It follows the languid rhythms of Cormac McCarthy’s original book, or so I am told, but “languid” is the last word I’d use to describe a film that is wound so tight with tension and explosive violence. One barely rests the entire film, as every second seems to portend the appearance of yet another bullet, air gun to the head, car crash or strangling. Javier Bardem’s creeped-out homicidal maniac – well, believe the hype. He’s fantastic, and perhaps the best (and most “honorable”, if that makes any sense) big-screen killer in years. Unlike “Fargo”, this film offer little-to-no comic relief to temper the violence, and I’ve heard people say that that’s what brings this one down a notch for them. Not for me – the pacing of “No Country For Old Men” doesn’t need any leavening with humor, even though the Coens are pretty good at mixing their bleakness with black comedy. The sense of dread and foreboding is both micro (I hope the good guy and his wife don’t get killed) and macro (what the hell is happening in this supposed land of law & order, when lunatics roam the plains murdering people with air guns?). At the end of the day, the fate of virtually every character is determined by the chance results of a coin flip, whether literally or figuratively.

There’s barely a bum note in the entire film, even when Woody Harrelson appears. When it ends in a soliloquy from one of the aforementioned old men, I sat in the theater wide-eyed with one of those “what the f***” feelings going through my head. Just drained, totally drained.

Celluloid Hut Rating: A

Friday, December 28, 2007

“FOLLOWING SEAN”

Documentaries celebrating the counterculture of the late 1960s have never been in short supply, even more so now that we’re bumping up against some crucial forty-year anniversaries, as well as impending (or imagined) mortality for the baby boom generation. Archaic footage of footloose-n-free Haight Ashbury, circa 1967-69, is a recurring staple of TV documentaries on the era, and this footage of freewheeling freaks was downright scandalous to middle America when it was first shown. One particular film that struck a deep chord at the time was Ralph Arlyck’s “SEAN”, from 1969, which followed a 4-year-old boy who happened to be Arlyck’s neighbor around the neighborhood. Born to hippie parents and living in a communal house near the corner of Haight & Cole streets, the 4-year-old Sean talked to Arlyck about smoking pot, speed freaks sleeping on his floor, and why he hated the cops. Sean was a streetwise, smart-alecky kid with a cool hippie haircut. He was hard not to like, and yet his young life seemed far more scattered & wild than most adults could stomach, then or now. It caused a stir and was shown at film festivals around the world; a few years later Arlyck, himself disillusioned a bit with the Haight and ready to grow up & move on, moved to rural New York and started a family.

In the mid 1990s Arlyck decided to revisit Sean in San Francisco and in the process revisit the “hippie ideals” he once had. 2005’s “FOLLOWING SEAN” picks up with a single, idealistic 31-year-old Sean and leaves him at 40, in the process of divorcing & raising his son, yet generally upbeat about his life and his life choices. Sean, as it turns out, turned out just fine. “FOLLOWING SEAN” is at times a powerful and gripping look into the nature of work and responsibility, and the generational differences between the hippie-era baby boomers and their progeny. Sean himself is an open-minded yet healthily cynical grown-up, who loves and respects his parents but mocks their bohemian pretensions & lack of responsibility just the same. The first 30 minutes of the film are outstanding, as good as documentary filmmaking gets. It reminded me a lot of “51 BIRCH STREET”, another great documentary from the past year that comes to grips with the decisions of one’s own parents. Alas, Arlyck doesn’t know how to elegantly extract himself from the story and keep himself from becoming the center of the film, so in addition to Sean, in the second half of the film you also get way too much of Arlyck’s naval-gazing look at his own choices, which aren’t particularly interesting. There are far too many irrelevant asides about the filmmaker’s wife, or father, or kids, asides that seemed like straining to me (or padding to make a 90-minute run length and to get it into theaters). This film, excellent as it is, could be much more powerful with about 20 more minutes of Sean reflecting on his life & his generation, and about 15 less minutes of Arlyck doing the same. A great rental for sure, or catch it on PBS like we did.

Celluloid Hut Rating: B.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

THE CELLULOID HUT IS OPEN

This CELLULOID HUT blog will be the fourth such blog I’ve helmed, each devoted to some obsessive corner of my psyche, each documenting new discoveries and old favorites, all the while aiming to convert any readers I might have into consumers of ephemera that I deem worthy of consumption. This one will be devoted to film. I currently pen another blog called HEDONIST BEER JIVE about craft beer, a passion that only snowballed once I started writing about it. Two previous blogs were devoted to underground music, primarily rock: AGONY SHORTHAND (which lasted well over three years) and DETAILED TWANG (which barely cleared a year). In the case of those two, I actually brought a little bit of previous knowledge to bear upon the subject, and was able to speak with marginal intelligence about what I was writing about. When it comes to film, I’m a mere speck buried within the teeming masses.

Who doesn’t love goin’ to the picture show? Who doesn’t have an opinion to share about every film they’ve seen? Me, I’ve watched a lot of movies in my day, and I don’t show any signs of stopping. I watch critics, friends, frenemies and enemies handing out letter grades to films with some negligible commentary, and sometimes I say, “I can do that too”. Thanks to the world wide internet and the $0 cost of entry, I WILL do that too. I’ll first tell you why I’m NOT “qualified” to write about the subject of film, and then perhaps reel you back in with a few words on why I might have something to add to the chorus.

First, I’ve never taken a film class of any kind. I’ve maybe read five or six books in my life about film in total, and that includes “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia” and Re/Search’s “Incredibly Strange Films”. I’ve never subscribed to a film magazine, save for 1 year of “Cineaste”, which I never read. I have never seen “On The Waterfront”, “Jean De Florette”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “The Apartment” nor a single Werner Herzog film. I more often than not fall dead asleep during pre-1960 black & white films, even in a crowded theater, and especially at home. I lack virtually all of the critical vocabulary needed to talk about film intelligently. I once asked my wife after a viewing of “The Third Man”, during which I (of course) fell asleep, whom the third man was. I even fell asleep during “Wild Strawberries”, and I love Bergman. Sometimes I dig romantic comedies. Chick flicks. Those Jane Austen adaptations – can’t get enough of ‘em. I can barely grasp the differences between the various players on a film, and can only speak in vague generalities about cinematography, production, direction and sound engineering. I frequently forget names and entire plots of films I’ve recently seen, and only researching them on the web brings back the dim flicker of memory. In short, I’m a terribly unreliable and uninformed guide to film and film criticism, and you’re almost certainly better off spending five minutes of your week reading someone else’s blog or site.

I might still have some game, though. I came of age in the mid-1970s, and my parents were very early subscribers to cable TV. My late childhood and early teen years, when not spent immersed in music, were spent glued to 1970s masterpieces like “Chinatown”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Annie Hall” and “Five Easy Pieces”. After going through the barren 1980s without watching movies much at all – but thankfully retaining my childhood tastes – I came out into the 90s and got way deep into lost classics of the 70s, Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes, early Robert Altman, Krzystof Kieslowski and into documentary film in general. A little Russ Meyer too. I’m actually able to talk about certain directors with a fair bit of intelligence. I once “acted” in a real live film made by a real live film director – it’s called SWINGERS' SERENADE, and it’s a blast. The 90s, with its bounty of foreign film and American independents, got me almost as hooked onto the moviegoing experience as I was in the seventies, and here we are just about in 2008, and I probably watch a film or three every week. Sure, I’m not alone in that sense by any means, but I like to think I’m watching the good ones, and doing a lot of catching up on the many, many classics that I’ve missed. I live in San Francisco, and thankfully have access to incredible yearly film festivals like “Berlin & Beyond”, “DocFest” and the San Francisco International Film Fest itself. When I talk about movies I’ve seen to folks I work with, I often get the “dude, you’re weird” look. That alone makes me think I might still have some game.

CELLULOID HUT will undoubtedly work like the other blogs I’ve helmed – it will feed the obsession. I’ll probably rent better films, I’ll go to more festivals and I’ll want to write about film more than I ever have. If you’re paying attention, you might even notice some sharpened critical faculties a year or two from now, provided that I stick with it. I do like to quit my blogs when the going gets tough - just ask the dozen or so stranded Agony Shorthand and Detailed Twang readers. Right now I’m sticking to my story that I’ll only post here when I have something worth saying, which could be only once a week or month, but you know how that goes. The first sign that someone is reading it, and I’ll then feel the tug of obligation to post more often. I’ll write like crazy. Then I’ll in turn get frustrated at this heavy burden I’ve put upon myself, I’ll flame out and cancel the blog, and then in a few months I’ll come out with my cooking blog, my weightlifting blog or my hockey blog or something. You’ll see. Until then – please bookmark CELLULOID HUT and tell your friends! We have a whole lotta movies to talk about, you and me!

Coming next: Some lists! Lists of films! Good ones!