Tuesday, January 29, 2008


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


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


....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”).


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


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


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