what i watched last week

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003). This film was my introduction to the Zatoichi franchise, although it’s a reworking of the long-running saga, and I can’t be sure how closely it matches what came before. It’s also only the second Takeshi Kitano movie I’ve seen (the other being Sonatine, which I liked very much). Many have compared this to the Kill Bill movies, and it’s easy to see why, but to my eye, Tarantino’s usual use of pop culture references makes those movies much different than Zatoichi (I may have missed any such references in the Japanese film, of course). Zatoichi is funny at times ... the color of the blood is one reason. Kitano has said that he purposely made the blood look unreal, because otherwise the bloody scenes would be too hard to bear. While I wouldn’t call it a musical, Zatoichi does include several sequences that make use of syncopation. Even better is the ending, which plays as if the cast from a traveling production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers turned up on the set of High Plains Drifter and performed a number from their show for the camera. It is completely unexpected, it apparently has nothing to do with the rest of the movie ... it should be a frustrating irritant, and I’m sure for some people, that is exactly its impact. I found it to be one of the most delightful things I’ve seen on screen for a long time. #845 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014). Marion Cotillard as a woman begging to keep her job. The Dardennes have such a good reputation that Cotillard wanted to work with them, signing up without even reading the script. Cotillard has such a good reputation that the Dardennes wanted to work with her, even though their casts are almost 100% Belgian, and they had never had a big-name star in one of their movies. I’d like to say that the result was a happy one. But Two Days, One Night is repetitive ... the woman goes from one co-worker to another, asking them to support her attempt to go back to work, gets one of two answers (no, or maybe yes), and goes to the next workmate. At one point, she can’t take it any more, and she ends up in the hospital ... she suffers from depression that pre-dates her potential layoff ... it initially feels real, but then she gets herself released almost immediately, and it’s as if she never went there at all. Cotillard is good, with none of the movie-star glamour that might upset the tone of the film. But she can’t overcome the overall dreariness. #303 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 6/10.

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012). Give Wright credit for trying something new. His version of the classic was filled with stylistic decisions, like making the action seem like it was taking place on a stage. It reminded me of movies like Moulin Rouge! and Marie Antoinette, although Wright didn’t use anachronistic music. There was so much showing off that Anna Karenina was overwhelmed. Around the midway point, things stopped for some real emotion, but that didn’t last. #763 on the 21st-century list. 6/10.

The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003). Stirring and emotional (are those the same things?). Ken Watanabe is great, Tom Cruise tries hard and mostly succeeds in the lead role, and the film is largely successful. But the socio-historic point-of-view is muddled, always teetering on the edge of the Great White Man Saves the Others scenario. And Zwick’s attempt to make us feel badly about the passing of the samurai ways is effective, but as soon as the movie ended, I found myself questioning that stance. The samurais are treated as symbols more than they are as actual people. #997 on the 21st-century list. 7/10.

anthologies and me

With the publication of Talking About Pauline Kael: Critics, Filmmakers, and Scholars Remember an Icon, I have returned to the world of anthologies. I was once asked why I had never written a book, and my reply was truthful, if also a bit smart-ass: I’m too lazy and unambitious to write a book. Now, to take just one example, the combined posts on film this blog has featured over the past 12+ years would fill a couple of books. It’s not the writing that drags me down. But doing anything with that writing beyond posting it here ... I’d just as soon give it away for free.

I’ve answered a few calls-for-papers ... that’s how I ended up in the Kael book. But I’ve also been handed some assignments without my even looking. If I remember correctly, I had two such opportunities in 2005. I could be wrong (insert obligatory comment about the varying reliability of memories), but I think Nick Rombes contacted me first about participating in a book on punk cinema, having seen something or other I’d written. That ended up being one of my favorite essays, “Making It Real”, which started off quoting The Adverts and ended with Sid and Nancy. My author’s bio for that one read, “Steven Rubio is a former steelworker who left the factory and picked up a doctorate in English from the University of California, Berkeley. A film major in his long-ago youth, he saw the last Sex Pistols concert to include Sid Vicious, and has waited ever since for someone to ask him to write about punk and movies in the same essay.” (The key, I suppose, is the part where I was waiting to be asked ... no wonder I never wrote a book.)

Also in 2005, I got an email from the folks at BenBella Books, who were publishing an anthology on NYPD Blue and had read something I’d written on that topic. That led to a fruitful period when I wrote six pieces for them in three years, covering NYPD Blue, King Kong, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica, House, and 24. Some were better than others ... I particularly liked the one on BSG, and both the Kong and Bond essays took on their subjects through the side door (for the King Kong book, I wrote about the mid-70s remake, and for the 007 book, my topic was the best Bond villain and I chose Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo in the “non-canonical” Never Say Never Again).

I was also proud to be in The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, edited by the great Michael Bérubé. That was arguably the best academic-style essay I ever wrote, covering Bugs Bunny, Picasso, The Proms, and more.

It was in the BenBella period that I experienced a variety of editors. One, Leah Wilson, was among the finest editors I have ever worked with. But on a couple of occasions, they used “star” editors. So Say We All: Collected Thoughts and Opinions on Battlestar Galactica was “edited” by actor Richard Hatch. The oddest one, though, was Jack Bauer for President: Terrorism and Politics in 24. The general idea was that we should avoid being too polarizing in our essays ... you might recall that in its day, 24 elicited a lot of heat, both pro and con. My piece was called “Can a Leftist Love 24?” Late in the project it was announced that the guest editor would be Richard Miniter, whose most recent books included Shadow War: The Untold Story of How America is Winning the War on Terror and Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. I joked to one of the actual BenBella editors, “This project has come a long way, from not wanting to be polarizing, to signing up Richard Miniter!” I had been told that he was “extremely enthusiastic about the project”, and now I was informed that “he really seemed to like your essay”. Hearing that, I just asked that no one told my friends in Berkeley. (My author’s bio for that one began, “Steven Rubio has never been cornered by a mountain lion.”)

If I made an anthology of my writing, a “Best of Steven” if you will, I imagine there would be a connected feel to it, primarily because “I” is an important part of all my writing. What is interesting about being in an anthology, though, is that you aren’t connected to yourself, you are connected to others through a common topic. In the spirit of this realization, I decided to read Talking About Pauline Kael from start to finish, hoping among other things to see how I “fit”. (Until the book arrived, I had no idea who the other writers were.) My essay comes late in the book (the 20th essay of 22), so I figured by the time I got around to re-reading what I’d written, I’d have a sense of the context into which I’d been inserted.

The first two sections of the book, “Friends, Neighbors, Confidantes” and “Knowing Pauline: At Home and at the Movies,” are written by people who had a personal connection to Kael. Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill were introduced to each other by Pauline (they later married). Frost’s essay is the first in the book, and it begins, “Pauline Kael liked to dial up her friends at all hours, engaging in long conversations.” I like that the book starts with a personal anecdote, because even those of us who didn’t know Kael felt that we “knew” her, and the inspired subjectivity of her writing encouraged that kind of relationship. Frost’s thesis, echoed in the title of her essay (“Performing Pauline”), reminds us, from the perspective of someone who really knew her, that “Pauline Kael” was not the same as Pauline Kael (a point I make in my own essay). “I suspect that one of the reasons Ray and I, and a few others, became as close to Pauline as we did was that, even during her peak years, we understood that there was a distinction between the public and private Pauline Kael.... She’d created one of the great characters of our age and had given one of the era’s great performances”. Frost finishes her essay with this sentence: “Pauline taught me that in the end it’s all in how you play yourself.”

Ray Sawhill reiterates this in his piece, the longest in the book. “She trusted us, and a few others ... I think this was mainly because we let her be herself – not the “Pauline Kael” of legend, but the quirky person who’d created and put over that larger-than-life character.” (Sandwiched between the Frost and Sawhill essays is a reprinted column by Roy Blount Jr. which seems placed there because he was Kael’s neighbor.)

The next essays follow up on the “we knew her” theme, as witnessed by the titles: “Conversations, 1968-2001”, “Knowing Pauline”, and “Encounters with Kael, 1975”. And the following section, “Objects of Her Affection: Critics, Journalists, and Movie Makers”, continues this from a different angle. David Denby (a “Paulette”), writer/director “Paul Schrader” (whose essay is called “My Family Drama: Pauline Kael, 1919-2001”), writer Joan Tewksbury (who tells an anecdote about Kael on the set of Thieves Like Us), all accompanied by a couple of “What I Learned from Pauline Even Though I Never Met Her” pieces. This section also includes a reprint of Sanford Schwartz’s introduction to the Library of America anthology of Kael’s work, and it is here that we get the first evaluation of her writing that comes from a place other than the personal.

Finally, halfway through the book, we come to “Stop Making Sense: Academics Consider Pauline Kael”. I say “finally” because my impression, from the Call for Papers to my interactions with editor Wayne Stengel (a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, and a pleasure to work with) to the way I approached my essay (which isn’t quite filled with academese, but I did include notes), was that this would be an “academic” book (I was thinking of the potential audience, but I suppose another way to separate “academic” from “non-academic” writing is that I didn’t get paid for this book, unlike, say, my work for BenBella). I’d say it’s the best kind of book, a blend of the academic and the ... I don’t really have a word for the opposite. Nonetheless, this section, featuring two professors, two graduate students, and Stengel himself, is pretty clearly marked off from what has come before. It is in many ways the most interesting section of the book, for Kael was well-known for her anti-academic stance (note that this was not the same as anti-intellectual ... she was never the latter, despite being accused of it on more than one occasion).

Steve Vineberg actually talks about her writing (I call him a professor, but his essay is a reprint from 1992 ... he might not have been teaching yet). Susie Linfield compares Kael to Siegfried Kracauer, which is fascinating in part because of the oddness of the subject. (She starts, “To discuss Pauline Kael and Siegfried Kracauer in the same essay seems, at first glance, exceedingly odd. And not just first glance.”) In “The Ghost of Pauline Kael,” Amanda Shubert asks for a moratorium of sorts on a certain kind of critique of Kael: “Pauline Kael lingers in a half-life in the cultural imaginary, unjustly pigeonholed and damned by derision and faint praise. It would be a grace finally to allow her to die. How else can we give her work a rebirth?” (Shubert also states, “My own frequent conversations with Pauline Kael have taken place solely in my head. There’s a good reason for that. I was only thirteen years old when she died in 2001.” Those “conversations in my head”, which resonate with people like me, remind me of the relationship between Six and Baltar in Battlestar Galactica.) Jason Kelly Roberts, like Linfield, takes on a topic that has been curiously ignored, Kael’s early essay “Movies on Television”. This piece benefits greatly from the focus Roberts can place on a single text. Finally, Wayne Stengel discusses “Performance Art and the Siren Songs of Pauline Kael”, where he claims that Kael “cultivated the most distinctive, jarring, and sexualized performance voice of any culture critic America has produced.” We’ve come full circle from Frost’s notion that Kael created “Kael” to Stengel’s recognition that Kael gave us a performance.

And then, at last, we come to the section that includes me, “Unraveling Pauline: Origins and Influences”. Maureen Karagueuzian offers an analysis of the now-legendary Berkeley Cinema Guild (in my bio for this book, I wrote that I “once lived half a block from the building where Pauline Kael had run the Berkeley Cinema Guild”), and Lisa Levy notes the importance of R.P. Blackmur on Kael’s approach to criticism. Which leads to my piece ... I’ve gotten to that point where I know what has come before, and can apply context to what I wrote for the book.

I’m trying to explain myself to myself.

My essay is called “Kael’s Influence: Expansive Subjectivity”. I don’t remember who came up with the title, but Wayne Stengel was quite taken with my concept of “expansive subjectivity”, so I suppose it was bound to be in the title somewhere. That phrase may turn out to be the one thing that lasts from my piece ... if you ever see anyone using that term, I did it first (at least, to the best of my knowledge). I used it as a counterpart to what Kael called “saphead objectivity”. The subjective part is obvious ... it’s also the easiest to emulate. Any writer who wants to attach themselves to whatever prestige comes with the Kael name can cite her whenever they offer a completely subjective response to a work. (I’m of the opinion that all criticism is subjective, but it’s kind of like fiction writers who want to write like Kerouac, or rock critics who want to write like Lester Bangs ... they copy the easy stuff, don’t understand the complicated stuff, and end up producing writing that borrows the worst from their idols.) It is crucial, I think, to understand how Kael’s subjectivity was expansive:

Kael demonstrated the freedom a critic could have to be subjective, but to this quality she added her understanding of the humanities in general. ... Kael didn’t confine her review [of The Bostonians] to the film adaptation; she also discussed in detail James’s novel and James’s life, and considered the effectiveness of the movie as a vision of the writer. Yes, her approach was subjective, but it was expansively subjective. For Kael, the movies did not exist solely for her opinions about them; she was no solipsist.

The way I honor her influence on me (and I hope I do more than emulate) shows itself in multiple ways. My first paragraph is about the Kael section at the Rockcritics.com website, as a way of showing how her influence reached beyond film. I talked about the “progressive passing along of influence”. I wrote about this many years ago, after Kael and another personal influence, political science professor Michael Rogin, died.

Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself.

I argue that the whole notion of “Paulettes” who followed Kael in lockstep was nonsense. “For the critic who truly wanted to follow in Kael’s footsteps, subjectivity would necessarily be crucial, and that subjectivity would ensure that the critic wasn’t merely parroting Kael.”

I addressed the idea that she was anti-intellectual by separating it from her very real rejection of “respectable tradition”. “[S]he never tried to hide her intelligence nor her range of reference in making connections between high culture and bastard, hybrid, but equally valid artistic impulses. She loved the pedigreed and the cur with equal ardor.” (That last sentence is a sign that my essay was carefully edited. It wasn’t in my original, and I don’t know that it “sounds” like me. But when I read it, I wished I’d written it.)

I finish with my oft-told anecdote about publically claiming that Kael was the most influential woman in my life. As always, there’s some hyperbole involved ... as I note, the real person for that role is my wife. But I was offering “some existential intention”. Perhaps it was this conclusion that led Stengel to call my essay “charming” in his introduction.

The final section of the book contains pieces by Kael’s biographer, and the editor of a book of Kael interviews.

So, where do I fit? I didn’t sense any great drop off when my essay came up. If the writing overall isn’t as idiosyncratic as my usual, well, that often happens to me in anthologies. The idea of giving your work over to someone else for improvements is perhaps essential to anthologies, and in general over the years, I’ve been happy with the results. It’s not as if I submitted a book of my own writings and it was accepted without edits ... every published book involves an editor (or it should ... I guess with the easy access to vanity-press self-publishing in the Internet age, more unedited material is out there, starting with blogs like this.)

What makes me happiest is that I am finally part of a group of statements about Pauline Kael. It’s good company ... can’t go wrong with the likes of Joan Tewksbury. But it remains odd to see my thoughts contextualized by the thoughts of others. It’s the furthest thing possible from a blog post. But now, when someone asks what I think of Kael, I have a place I can point them to.

what i watched last week

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011). I really liked Alfredson’s earlier Let the Right One In, but that didn’t give me any preconceptions since I only realized this film came from the same director after I’d watched it. It’s definitely on the list of Movies That Aren’t for Me ... I have a hard time following the plots of complicated spy thrillers. But I’m not sure it was all my fault this time. It’s based on a novel by John le Carré which was once turned into a miniseries that ran for more than five hours. This movie is just a hair over two hours, which means an already byzantine plot is condensed beyond comprehension for someone like me who hadn’t read the book. This left me grasping for something to connect with, the obvious place being Gary Oldman’s performance, which was nominated for an Oscar. There were two problems here. First, at times, Oldman seemed to be doing a voice impersonation of Alec Guinness, who had played the role in the mini-series. Second, Oldman did a great job of capturing the quiet, almost matter-of-fact manner of George Smiley, the “anti-Bond”. But since I was already having difficulty maintaining interest in the film, Oldman’s performance, good as it was, merely added to my general sleepiness. A plot I couldn’t follow, a performance guaranteed to go mostly unappreciated by me ... like I say, a Movie Not for Me. (Oldman lost the Oscar to Jean Dujardin.)  #309 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 6/10. For a “based on le Carré” movie I liked, try The Constant Gardener.

Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933). 8/10.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005). 7/10.

film fatales #5: me and you and everyone we know (miranda july, 2005)

(Suggested by The Film Fatales)

My favorite anecdote about this film comes from Roger Ebert, who gave the movie his highest rating. Ebert is writing about the character Robby, a seven-year-old played by Brandon Ratcliff. Ratcliff “read my review from Sundance and wrote me a polite and helpful letter in which he assured me he's as smart as an 11-year-old.”

This may make more sense if you’ve seen the movie.

While the central characters are the adults played by Miranda July and John Hawkes, there are several kids in the cast, many of whom have scenes and plot lines concerning sex. I suppose if you objected to a movie where a 7-year-old participates on an online sex chat board, you wouldn’t feel any better if the child actor was “smart as an 11-year-old”. But it’s a sign of how July manages to make creepy things less creepy. The IMDB’s Parents Guide includes, besides its usual section on “Sex & Nudity”, the following comments under “Frightening/Intense Scenes”:

The entire film deals with sexual politics and finding love. Some characters to [sic] that in disturbing ways. Others do it in somewhat more conventional ways. Many will find the majority of the film fairly offensive. Elements of pedophilia, masturbation, oral sex, and general sexual material (especially involving children) are prevalent throughout the whole film.

I don’t want to fill this post with spoilers, so I’ll just note that the above description is fairly accurate, and your appreciation of the movie will vary depending on whether you think it is possible to make a gentle comedy that eases you over those scenes, or if you think the gentle nature of the film merely makes it more disturbing. In truth, there is less than meets the eye. Much of the “offensive” material involves teenagers doing what teenagers do. The 7-year-old has no idea what is going on in the sex chats, and when the other party figures out their online mate is a little kid, the “relationship” ends immediately. Mostly, these scenes exist to show some of the secrets behind the lives of a few adult characters.

I’ve spent so much time on this aspect of the film that I’ve neglected the movie itself, which is not obsessed with childhood sex. It’s about the two adults (July and Hawkes), both of whom are different from similar characters you have seen. Hawkes’ dad, Richard, newly separated from his wife, is a bit clueless about why he was a poor husband, and he’s not exactly the best dad ever. But neither is he just a man who can’t grow up. Oftentimes, the guy will be an eternal kid, but that’s not what we see. Instead, Richard just doesn’t quite fit into normal society. He’s not quite on the Asperger’s level, and he’s not a bad fellow ... he’s just distant. July’s Christine is even more of an oddball, a video artist who has a day job working for a cab company that specializes in driving seniors. She does a better job of dealing with people, and she’s the one who tries to get a relationship going with the soon-to-be divorced dad, but she is also an artist, which in this movie means she is creative (a good thing) but her work is undiscovered (not a good thing).

Me and You and Everyone We Know has the framework of a rom-com, only there’s not much com and even less rom. It relies on quirkiness ... you can imagine Greta Gerwig in July’s role. It is almost aggressive about avoiding overt meanings, enough so that you would be forgiven for wondering if the movie is actually about anything at all. Hawkes is always good, and he’s a welcome presence here. July throws herself entirely into Christine, and it’s an impressive job. It’s her movie ... she wrote it and directed it and starred in it. So if Christine has a tendency to be annoying, July must intend that to come across. The movie is filled with awkward interplay between the characters, enough so viewers might squirm on occasion.

Me and You and Everyone We Know has a lot going for it. It’s an encouraging directorial debut for July, and it has its own tone ... it’s different from other movies, just as Christine and Richard are different. It’s refreshing to see a new voice on the screen. But I think it’s more promising than it is great. #366 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

My top films from 2005 (9/10 ratings), in no particular order:


blu-ray series #24: design for living (ernst lubitsch, 1933)

I occasionally make reference to films that are praised for what they are not. A suspense thriller breaks some of the rules, and it gets overrated because it isn’t quite like its predecessors. A brash comedy relies more on wit than on vulgarity, and it gets overrated because it’s not as sophomoric as its predecessors.

Design for Living is based on a play by Noel Coward. Coward is one of the shining lights of wit in English history. So of course, Lubitsch took the basic scenario from the play (and one line of dialogue), and hired Ben Hecht to write the screenplay. While lovers of Coward were apparently appalled, one reason for the praise the film still receives is the audacious way that Lubitsch does a Noel Coward play without any Noel Coward.

Design for Living also benefits, in our time, from its pre-Code status. It came right at the end of that era ... in fact, when it was re-released the following year, it was denied the certificate it had been given just a year earlier. The “benefits” for modern viewers comes from seeing what was possible before the Code became solidified. Design for Living is praised for not being overly hindered by the Code.

The truth is, even in 2015, it’s hard to imagine a film like Design for Living being made in the U.S. Jules and Jim comes to mind, but 1) it was French, and 2) it was made in 1962. There is no shortage of films about threesomes, but Design for Living manages to avoid the leering smarminess that would likely accompany a 2015 version. This is not to say the film is chaste ... the first time we hear the word “sex”, it is startling, in part because there is no intended double entendre. It is just part of the “gentlemen’s agreement” between the characters played by Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March. As Hopkins’ Gilda says, “Boys, it's the only thing we can do. Let's forget sex.” The idea of an MMF friendship based on equality in relations and an agreed-upon step back from sex was impressive in 1933 (and today). And, of course, these characters are humans, and they can’t deny their basic desires ... as Gilda says in perhaps the film’s most-quoted line, as she prepares to have actual sex with one of the men, “It's true we had a gentleman's agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”

Eventually Gilda has sex with both men (although not with her husband, played by Edward Everett Horton). The lesson they (and we) learn is that friendship is the most important thing. As the three ride in the back of a cab in the final scene, Gilda kisses first one, then the other, and they make plans to return to the way it was. First, though, they shake once again on that “gentleman’s agreement”.

So I’m not quite right to say Design for Living makes its reputation based on what it isn’t, for what it is stands quite nicely on its own. Witty despite the almost complete absence of Coward. Sexy despite the gentlemen’s agreement. Satisfying in its construction. Not everything works ... it keeps threatening to turn into a screwball comedy, but Cooper and March aren’t screwy enough. It falls a bit short of Lubitsch’s best work (for me, Trouble in Paradise), but I’ve liked every one of his movies that I’ve seen, and this is no exception. 8/10.

what i watched last week

Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson, 1990). This epic story of two Englishmen searching for the source of the Nile River comes from what seems to be an unlikely talent in Bob Rafelson. Rafelson first made a public name as co-creator of The Monkees. He went on to be the director and co-writer of Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, placing him in the middle of that great period of American film making. Mountains of the Moon came almost two decades after those early classics, and its epic structure is very different from something like Five Easy Pieces. It was supposedly a much-fancied project for Rafelson, although I wonder if he wanted all of his life to make it ... the novel on which it is based only came out in 1982. It looks beautiful ... cinematographer Roger Deakins has received 12 Oscar nominations over the years. Patrick Bergin is charismatic as one of the leads, and if Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) is less so, that’s appropriate considering how their characters are written. Fiona Shaw is wasted (it’s mostly a guy movie). But the depiction of African natives is often troublesome. Delroy Lindo turns up in one of his first movie roles, and he is clearly meant to be a “good” native (he plays a former slave who talks to spirits), but he makes less of an impression than the King of a local tribe, who treats the white men sadistically. The movie doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle of the "white man saves primitive black man" genre, but it comes too close for comfort. 6/10.

World War Z (Mark Forster, 2013). 6/10.

by request: world war z (mark forster, 2013)

This was recommended by a new member of the request club, our new housemate Jen. As is often the case, it was less a request than a recommendation ... I think we were talking about zombie movies, and she mentioned that the zombies in World War Z didn’t move slow. I said I was thinking of watching it, and the next thing you know, I put it on my request list.

Should World War Z be compared to other big special effects extravaganzas (it was an enormous box office success)? Should it be compared to other zombie movies, or even to The Walking Dead, the current work that most impacts popular thinking about zombies? I’d say the latter. It brings a big budget to a small-budget genre, a bit like Terminator 2 after the cheapie Terminator. That budget brings potential added scope to the movie, but as with T2, the added budget doesn’t necessarily guarantee an improvement over the cheap originals like George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. Director Mark Forster had shown the ability to work with small budgets (Monster’s Ball, $4 million) and large budgets (Quantum of Solace, $200 million). World War Z is definitely in the large budget range (another $200 million).

There are some things that the money makes possible. Brad Pitt, for one ... he’s fine in the heroic lead role. On the other hand, he isn’t notably better than the stars of the cheaper films, like, say, Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead ($6 million). (The movie also wastes Mireille Enos, burying her with the Wife Who Waits Back Home role.) The thing that Jen mentioned (the speed that the zombies move) is v.cool, but not innovative (see 28 Days Later, one of the first movies to have fast zombies). I want to say that a bigger budget allows for scenes like this film’s finest, when the zombie hordes build a mountain of bodies as they try (and eventually succeed) to scale an enormous wall. It’s quite impressive, perhaps the one jaw-dropping moment in the entire movie. But it’s also clearly CGI-driven, which is a technology available to film makers with lesser budgets.

World War Z has the feel and structure of an epic. But, as some critics have pointed out, the most suspenseful moments in the film come at the end, when the setting is confined, the number of zombies is limited, and we’re left with a simple scene that is far from epic, and all the better for it.

Speaking of the actual end of the film, it's a huge letdown.

You could point to the box office returns for World War Z ($540 million) and argue it is a very successful zombie movie. The truth is, though, that there are many zombie movies I’d show before World War Z, if I was having a zombie film festival. Depending on your definition of a zombie movie, that festival would include Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the Evil Dead series, Re-Animator, 28 Days/Weeks Later, and more. 6/10.

a nightmare on elm street (wes craven, 1984)

It’s a sign of my feelings about this movie that I forgot to include it in yesterday’s “what I watched” post. On a whim, I had decided to watch a Wes Craven movie after he died, and I had never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street, so that’s what I watched.

My history with Wes Craven is probably more interesting than whatever I have to say about Nightmare, so I’ll get down to it, with apologies for everyone who has heard these stories a thousand times. Heck, I’ve written most of this before, so I’ll cut and paste from a 2010 post:

The Last House on the Left. Almost 40 years after I saw this at a drive-in during its initial release, I revisit this cult classic. I’ve told the story many times, about how the truck next to us was parked backwards so they could sit in the back and drink a thousand beers while they watched. When the guy in the movie got his dick bitten off, one of the guys in the truck leaned over the side and puked really loud. Ever since, I’ve thought of that guy as the perfect critic for what I found to be a worthless film. The difference between now and then is that I’ve had to address the movie as an academic might (one of the members of my dissertation committee was Carol J. Clover, whose landmark book Men, Women and Chainsaws turned the horror community on its head). So now I know that the movie was based on Bergman’s Virgin Spring, that Wes Craven had a masters degree in philosophy which he has relied on throughout his career as a director, that while the film was a cheap exploitation feature, it was intended to be something more. Many intelligent people have dug deeply into the film, and come up with interesting, relevant analyses. Watching it again, I can see that Craven’s direction was more effective than I realized at the time. And finally, I can see both why the movie is so bothersome (it’s really good at expressing the powerlessness of the victim, as personified in the never-to-be-forgotten “piss your pants” scene) and cathartic (the revenge angle in the film’s final scenes, which are too standard and not nearly transgressive enough, despite the painful fellatio). So I was wrong to consider The Last House on the Left a piece of junk. But I don’t care if it’s another 38 years before I see it again. 6/10.

My wife used to tell me that The Hills Have Eyes was a good one, and I wrote about way back in 2003. Might as well cut and paste again, since it will relieve me of the pressure of having to say something about Nightmare.

I liked it when I watched it with Robin the other day. The acting is adequate for the genre (cheap drive-in fodder from the 70s), and it's always fun to see Dee "E.T.'s step-mother" Wallace in one of her earliest performances. The movie is indeed completely competent ... I wouldn't say it shows great directorial skill the way something like Night of the Living Dead does, but it's not hard to imagine Scream coming from this director down the road.

Ultimately, the only reason anyone still talks about this movie, though, the only explanation for why it gets a 2-disc DVD extravaganza, is that, unlike most similar genre exercises, where academics have to insert socio-cultural explanations after the fact, The Hills Have Eyes inserts that stuff for you. In this, Wes Craven does indeed give away his academic background. There's no question Craven knows what he's up to with this study of American family life. There's a classic construction to the film, with the middle-class nuclear family pitted against the inbred monsters, the "normal" Americans becoming increasingly animalistic as the movie progresses. Watching The Hills Have Eyes, you recognize an intelligence behind the camera, and I think that's something we respond to. It's as if one of "us" made a horror movie ... We congratulate ourselves for being smart enough to recognize smartness, pat ourselves on the back as if we were Wes Craven.

Which doesn't mean The Hills Have Eyes is a bad movie, or that it's not scary (although I was probably more scared when I watched Arachnophobia a few days later). Nor does it mean that the smart stuff isn't in there: it is. The Hills Have Eyes is competent, intelligent, scary, and fun ... what more could we ask for?

I liked Swamp Thing more than I should have. I saw it when it came out, in the “yes, you can see Adrienne Barbeau’s boobs” version, and I remember thinking Swamp Thing was such a tragic figure, because he saw Barbeau naked and he couldn’t do anything about it because, well, he was a swamp thing.

In my piece on The Hills Have Eyes, I also addressed the Scream movies:

I like the Scream movies, myself. But then, that's why they exist, so people like me will like them. There are few movie series so self-congratulatory as the Scream trilogy, nor have there been many films that allow the audience so many moments of self-congratulation. When you watch Scream ... take your pick, it doesn't really matter which one (but beware #3, because Courteney Cox is so emaciated in that one, it's scarier than anything else in the films) ... when you watch them, you are being congratulated for getting all the references, and then you get to congratulate yourself for getting congratulated, and it's a bottomless pit of self-orgy. And this self-congratulation, I would argue, is there, in budding form, all the way back with The Hills Have Eyes. ... I think many of Craven's movies are fun and smart. But I am suspicious of the relentless audience manipulation that goes on in his films, not the traditional manipulation of the horror genre, where we halfway hide our eyes in expectant glee, knowing "something awful" is about to happen, but the much more clever and, yes, post-modern manipulation where we participate knowingly in the manipulative process ... and, of course, get to congratulate ourselves afterwards for the knowingness. Whereas before, we might say, in the post-mortem of a horror film, "oh, I wasn't really scared, it's just a silly movie," with Wes Craven, we say "I was scared, because I knew I was going to be scared, because I'm smart and so is Wes Craven, and I allowed myself to be scared." I'm not sure this is progress.

Oh yeah, A Nightmare on Elm Street. It didn’t make any sense, but there are lots of horror films that don’t make sense, and that doesn’t stop me from liking some of them. The acting was mediocre ... god bless Ronee Blakley for Nashville, but based on this movie she’s a better singer than actor. To be self-referential, I wasn’t scared, even though I thought I would be scared, perhaps because I no longer allow myself to be scared by Wes Craven.

I guess I think The Hills Have Eyes is the best Wes Craven film I’ve seen. And A Nightmare on Elm Street is the most disappointing. 5/10.

what i watched last week

A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014). OK spy story based on a le Carré novel, which isn’t exactly unique. This one will be remembered as the one where Philip Seymour Hoffman died a week after its release, giving the entire enterprise an extra dose of the elegiac. Hoffman is the main reason to see this movie. One reason he rarely appeared in a bad movie is because his presence raised the quality of the film. (For me, the only stinker I’ve seen is Synecdoche, New York. And I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for his Lester Bangs in Almost Famous.) Funny thing is, I watched this because someone else was in it: Daniel Brühl, who was featured on the Criticker website. But Brühl has little to do in this movie. Ultimately, A Most Wanted Man is a run-of-the-mill le Carré movie, lifted, of course, by the presence of Hoffman. 6/10.

Fear (Roberto Rossellini, 1954). The last of six films Ingrid Bergman made with Rossellini before their divorce. Some would say that the movie’s plot, about the ramifications when a woman cheats on her husband, reflects on real-life turmoil between the couple, but I’m not so sure ... it’s not exactly In a Lonely Place or Lady from Shanghai. It’s interesting that those are both examples of film noir, for Fear draws on some of the genre’s tropes. It often looks like a noir, and the plot certainly fits. The biggest difference, I suppose, is that Ingrid Bergman is not a femme fatale. Her character is the closest thing in the movie to a sympathetic character ... perhaps too sympathetic, she doesn’t seem to fully be a part of the noir universe. The plot twists are not predictable (or they wouldn’t be twists), but they clearly exist only to liven up the screenplay. There are some interesting things going on ... you could put together a ten-minute video essay noting those efforts ... but the film feels long even at just over 80 minutes, and the happy ending is neither deserved nor satisfying. 6/10.

throwback thursday: 25th hour

I posted this twelve years ago today, and thought I'd make use of Throwback Thursday to revisit an old post. A couple of notes. I don't think Neal would still say 25th Hour was Lee's best movie (I asked him, and he mentioned Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and He Got Game). As for me, since I wrote this back in 2003, there are a couple of Spike Lee movies I'd add to the Best of Spike list. Do the Right Thing is still #1, but his two-part documentary on New Orleans and Katrina is very good, as is Inside Man. (One added item: I think 25th Hour is the first time we heard Isiah Whitlock Jr. give his inimitable take on the word "shit".)


Neal was talking to me about Spike Lee the other day, and one point he made stuck with me. Spike Lee, he said, was a filmmaker of his generation ... in fact, he may be THE filmmaker of Neal's generation. Most of the directors Neal admires emerged in that great period of American film between 1967 and 1975, but Spike is a more recent participant, and Neal likes having someone that came along during his own formative years. I feel the same way about Bruce Springsteen ... I was too young for Elvis and the Beatles, but I wanted someone who could matter to me on that level, and then Bruce came along.

Anyway, Neal thinks 25th Hour is perhaps Spike Lee's best film, and I can't say I agree, but I think I understand why someone might think it was a great movie. Lee will likely never make a perfect film, because he's got too much to say in every movie he makes, and he's unafraid to go after bigness of spirit and emotion, so there's often a messiness in his movies. 25th Hour is less messy than most Lee joints, even though it's dealing with very messy lives ... the film is withdrawn into its post-9/11 moment, and the shrinkage works well. As always in a Spike Lee movie, there are set pieces of undeniable brilliance (the nightclub scene sounds REALLY GREAT in surround sound, BTW), and the film's conclusion offers a quirky version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" that is touching and funny. The problem lies with the central character, Monty, well-played by Edward Norton. There are hints of Camus' Meursault in Monty, but, as Norton says in a making-of documentary included on the DVD, Monty represents the perils of an unreflective life, and this is unlike Meursault, who spends a lot of time reflecting. Monty, on the other hand, is less a character than a stance: Unreflective Guy. We make very few connections with Monty, whose fate (he is spending his last free day before starting a seven-year prison sentence) is presented in an unfortunately simplistic fashion: Monty knows his good looks will result in gang rape once he enters prison, and that scares him. As a starting point for a character, it's a good one, but that's about all we ever learn about Monty, fear of rape (and, oh yeah, he's nice to dogs). Meursault is a murderer who is also Everyman, but Monty is, in the end, just a drug dealer who got caught, and that isn't enough around which to build a movie.

Another, lesser, problem is with the main female character, played by Rosario Dawson. The character isn't particularly interesting, and Dawson is mostly boring. Spike Lee hasn't always had the best success with his women characters, and 25th Hour doesn't add much to his reputation in that regard.

Still, I can believe Spike Lee is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, at least among American directors. I've seen ten of his movies, myself, and while I don't think 25th Hour is up to his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, or his most ambitious film, Malcolm X, it's an impressive work nonetheless. 7/10.