The House


Movie Theater

One of my favorite bits in the movie Slacker comes near the very end, after a barkeep rushes some patrons out of a bar so that he can close it down and go home. He gets in his car to leave, starts the engine, and then with a nod of his head he signals to an attractive female standing outside to get in, presumably to hook up for a one-night-stand. She obliges, and next we cut to the couple in bed at early dawn. The guy is still crashed out, but the girl is already awake and sitting up. She slips her bare, comely legs into a pair of cowboy boots and walks out into the morning like some vagabond spirit. As she's leaving the house (here is the part I like) she passes by a guy crouched over a small television set, intently watching an old movie, smiling and rocking back and forth. We don't know for sure, but I like to think that he has been up all night and is watching his third or fourth movie. I recognize this guy because, well, that's me, or rather, I used to be him because I haven't been that guy for a long time now. I used to stay up all night alone, smoke cigarettes, and watch old movies with a private enjoyment. I'd rock back and forth and watch early Wild Bill Wellman movies, or Eddie Cantor making whoopee, or just whatever came on Turner Classic Movies. This was back when I had cable and worked the night shift, before the wife and family I have now, before I grew out of my twenties and realized that, yes, I do indeed require sleep.

Nowadays, I hardly ever sit through an entire movie alone. At home, I find myself walking away from a movie at every opportunity, and I rarely travel away from home to a movie theater. Of late, I mainly use movies as a sleeping aid. To be more specific, I use the DVD commentary tracks that are (thankfully) so common now. Back when I had cable television, C-Span was my preferred dozing agent. Give me a boring Senate committee hearing, or some panel of reporters and editors at a navel-gazing journalism and ethics symposium and, man, I was out like a baby. But now, audio commentaries do the trick, and I often put them on, close my eyes, and drift away listening without ever watching the movie. To get me through a movie these days, I need an audience of people. I need my friends. A while back, there was an excellent post here at the House about horror movies and violence. The ensuing comments thread was of a very high quality. I was a little awestruck, and I couldn't say much. It was all very interesting, but I hadn't seen the recent films they were talking about. I felt like Henry Hill in Goodfellas.

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TAGS: airport 75, attack, eddie can'tor, goodfellas, hellraiser iii, last house on the left, predator, the big knife, the rocky horror picture show, the texas chainsaw massacre, the towering inferno, walter reade theater, wild bill wellman


Dirty Harry

D.A. to Callahan: "Where the hell does it say you got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects? Deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must've heard of the fourth amendment!"

Back in school, my friends and I routinely joked about making compilation videos of certain formulaic scenes that appear in movies, so you would have, for instance, a four hour video of episodes where the good guy cop visits the captain's office to get his orders or a (new) partner or an ass chewing. That's more or less where this 5 for the day topic starts: the relationship between an authority and its subordinates - police chief and beat cop, captain and sailor, lord and vassal - there are infinite manifestations of this relationship expressed in countless genres beyond cop thrillers. Each picture has something a little different to say about authority and the people below it—though invariably, when discord between the authority and the individual develops, sympathy goes to the the individual, never the authority.

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TAGS: 5 for the day, a christmas carol, clear and present danger, dirty harry, in the line of fire, james cagney, kenji mizoguchi, mister roberts, paths of glory, stanley kubrick, the 47 ronin, the gauntlet, the lord of the rings, the lord of the rings: the fellowship of the ring, the lord of the rings: the two towers


The Addiction

I've been an Abel Ferrara junkie ever since a friend showed me Ms. 45 at NYU, so the idea of contributing to the Ferrara Blog-a-Thon felt like a duty to one of our greatest unsung directors, but as I told Girish and Aaron Hillis before a press screening of Quinceañera at this year's New Directors/New Films series, "I don't do cliques." Ferrara might approve—fans of his films are familiar with his thou-shalt-not-conform ethos—but then I got an annoying email from Quinceañera co-director Wash Westmoreland that worked to change my mind. Westmoreland objected to my review of his film on the grounds that I was insulting him and his directing partner when I wrote that they were inserting themselves into their movie by way of the story's lascivious white gay couple. I told Westmoreland: "Lili Taylor is Abel Ferrara's proxy in The Addiction, doesn't mean I think Ferrara has tits or likes to suck blood."

Having used one of Ferrara's films as mace, something had clicked: the Ferrara film as a weapon of choice. Together, the man's films suggest a set of steak knives—sharp and serrated, they leave behind wounds that are not easily healed or forgotten. I've tried them all with the exception of Mary and Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy, and while it isn't my favorite one to handle (the heady and dissonant Snake Eyes, the elegiac The Funeral, and the bonkers Ms. 45 are tops), The Addiction provides the cleanest cut. It is somewhat of an anomaly for the Bronx-born director, sheathed as it is in a black-and-white, expressionistic cloak, but it's thrown at you with the same moral, guttersnipe effrontery as Bad Lieutenant and Fear City. Ferrara has always been cool like dat and The Addiction is a very diggable piece of horror sautéed in a beatnik sauce of Lower East Side philosophizing at once spunky and chill.

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TAGS: abel ferrara, annabella sciorra, blog-a-thon, edie falco, lili taylor, the addiction


Lost

For a show the features polar bears in the jungle, the walking dead, malevolent trails of "living" black smoke and a landlocked slave ship, it's some kind of an accomplishment that anything can really throw you for a loop at this point. But damn, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that giant four-toed foot.

Short on concrete answers, but positively bursting with tantalizing new questions and out and out weirdness, Wednesday's two hour finale "Live Together, Die Alone" (written by show-runner Damon Lindelof and regular contributor Carlton Cuse) represents everything that makes Lost one of the boldest yet most frustrating shows on television. Setting about closing the door on some of the show's long-standing mysteries, the show goes about this by throwing everything including the kitchen-sink (as well as a washer and dryer set) at us poor overwhelmed viewers.

Like I said a couple weeks back, the show's writers read our griping, and they once again responded: Have fun making heads or tails of this for the next five months.

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TAGS: carlton cuse, charles dickens, Clancy Brown, Cynthia Watros, damon lindelof, lost, our mutual friend, recap


The Sopranos

Can't you feel it all starting to crumble around them?

It was another joyless week in Jersey, as this week's episode, "Cold Stones," set the stage for a mob war with Phil Leotardo's New York crew in the same bleak, muffled tones we've come to expect from this season. Even the inevitable whacking of Vito Spatafore was a muted affair, occurring mostly beyond the frame-line and devoid of the show's signature graphic violence. (On this morning's Howard Stern Show, actor Joseph Gannascoli explained that not only was this one of four "endings" filmed for his character, but what aired was also a shorter and more discreet edit of the scene they originally shot.)

After spending the past ten weeks watching our characters try on different personas and alternate lives, it looks like everybody's about to start slipping back into their old, now ill-fitting skins with a sigh of weary resignation. Vito's attempt to buy his way back into The Life was half-hearted at best, complete with hollow-sounding re-assurances to his wife that he was on the verge of making things right with Tony.

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TAGS: acdc, alan sepinwall, back in black, edie falco, hbo, joseph gannascoli, lynyrd skynyrd, recap, ron howard, simple man, steve van zandt, the howard stern show, the sopranos, the star-ledger, Tim Van Patten


One, Two, ThreeWhile accepting the Foreign Film Oscar for Belle Epoque, director Fernando Trueba said "I would like to believe in God in order to thank Him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder, so thank you, Mr. Wilder." Legend has it that, to request a screening of Epoque, Wilder called Trueba and greeted him by saying "Hello, Fernando? This is God."

I've thanked De Lawd plenty of times, but somehow never got around to thanking my favorite director. Today's Five for The Day attempts to reconcile that grievous error. Yet rather than listing five Wilder films (which you are welcome to do), our five for the day goes the thematic route, opting to cite five themes consistently found in Wilder's work. This is not a scholarly lecture nor is it a reach-around and post-coital foot massage for auteur theorists. I'm doing it this way solely so I can cheat. I'm greedy, and asking me to talk about only five Wilder movies is like asking Matt to disregard The New World.

The cynic in Mr. Wilder would be proud. After all, his movies are full of greedy characters out for themselves no matter what the cost. Herewith, the Wilder Side of the Odienator:

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TAGS: 5 for the day, ace in the hole, avanti, barbara stanwyck, billy wilder, charles brackett, d.m. marshman jr., double indemnity, edward g. robinson, felicia farr, fred macmurray, gloria swanson, i.a.l. diamond, irma la douce, jack lemmon, james cagney, kim novak, kiss me stupid, ninotchka, one two three, preston sturges, ray milland, ray walston, raymond chandler, shirley maclaine, sunset boulevard, the apartment, the fortune cookie, the lost weekend, the major and the minor


Lost

"Previously on Lost..." Not just a nifty way to recap the events leading up to last night's episode, but also an apt one of describing the actual show itself. At times walking a fine-line between a new episode and one of those annoying, "Destination: Lost" clip-shows they get Peter Coyote to narrate and stick on TV in the dead of April, the Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz penned "Three Minutes" showed us exactly what happened when Michael ran off into the jungle in search of his kidnapped son Walt (the long absent Malcolm David Kelley) only to return weeks later a cold-blooded killer.

And it kind of looked a lot like the episode "Hunting Party" which aired back in January.

Feeling like a lull between the fireworks of the last couple of shows and the ones sure to come next week, the episode goes about setting up the odd circumstances that will require Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Hurley to follow Michael into the jungle armed to the teeth to raid the Others' camp and get Walt back, while attempting to humanize Michael's betrayal as an act of fatherly devotion. We probably didn't require Eko's story about a young boy killing a dog that bit his sister to understand where Michael's head is at, but it certainly underlined the issue: nothing matters more than reuniting his family, no matter what the cost.

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TAGS: adam horowitz, April Grace, edward kitsis, fargo, j.j. abrams, lost, M.C. Gainey, mad max 2: the road warrior, magnolia, malcolm david kelley, peter coyote, recap, Tania Raymonde, william h. macy


Walter ChawAs newsprint-based dailies and weeklies get the squeeze in terms of word count and content, one increasingly has to look to the World Wide Web for no-holds barred criticism. If Film Freak Central film critic Walter Chaw feels uncomfortable with the "Web critic" label, it might be because the medium throws amateurs and professionals onto the same playing field, and studios and publicists fail to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. But when you find an online critic with writing chops as strong as Chaw's, you don't want to keep him to yourself. Where many Internet-based reviewers mimic the acerbic aspects of Pauline Kael, Chaw takes his caustic, occasionally hostile wit so far that one sometimes wonders if the Paulettes might ask him to tone it down a little. Barbed language aside, though, Chaw's approach owes less to the obvious film critic models than to satirist, science fiction author and cultural pundit Harlan Ellison, who famously said, "Not everyone is entitled to an opinion. They are only entitled to an informed opinion."

In that spirit, Chaw often references artistic sources that predate cinema's brief history. Praising Martin Scorsese's The Aviator as an "ode to needing to make movies—and needing to watch them," Chaw invoked William Blake's "idea of gods created in the breast of man [being] transmuted into the cult of personality and the patina of nostalgia for the titans of the silver screen's golden age. This is a shrine to individualism and a critique of the dreadful cost of individuality." In his review of Harmony Korine's second film, Chaw said that Puccini's 'O Mio Babino Caro' aria from 'Gianni Schicci,' a plaintive appeal for the acceptance of a lover, finds itself scattered throughout 'julien donkey-boy' to further underscore these themes of alienation, sexuality, and a frustrated desire for familial harmony." Chaw clearly expects his readership to keep up or get out of the way.

He shows an affinity for art house fare, singing the praises of Claire Denis's astonishing and frequently misunderstood masterpiece Trouble Every Day as "the most insightful film about sex and gender that has perhaps ever been made." But he's equally quick to assault the pretentiousness of Sundance favorites like Primer, writing, "I suspect that a lot of people are afraid to admit they don't understand what's happening in the film, which talks too much in too stultifying a fashion, obscuring its heart of glass with blizzards of expositive candy." He is frequently accused, at least by those who write in to Film Freak Central, of being an elitist and a snob.

But those readers might be surprised learn how many mainstream Hollywood films Chaw has championed over the years. He has given four-star reviews to V For Vendetta, King Kong, and Spider-Man 2, which he said "takes chances with its story that lesser films would not, affirming, along with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that big budgets don't just by the fact of them quash unique, distinctive, ambitious voices."

Chaw rages against the Hollywood machine's depictions of class, gender and race, puncturing political correctness, but assailing films that still think it's okay to use xenophobic or chauvinistic stereotypes. His jihad against dumbed-down content is so wide-ranging that I've occasionally wondered if he needed to take a break. He's incinerated movies that were paper-thin in the first place: Bringing Down the HouseThe Dukes of HazzardBulletproof MonkxXx: State of the UnionLast Holiday. Maybe he justifies his vitriol on the grounds that he watches this junk so we don't have to.

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TAGS: andrew sarris, bill chambers, failure to launch, film freak central, harlan ellison, harmony korine, john donne, online film critics society, pauline kael, primer, roger ebert, t.s. eliot, trouble every day, walter chaw, william blake, william faulkner


The Sopranos

How many amazing James Gandolfini reaction shots can you squeeze into one hour?

The hulking bear of an actor might have the most expressive eyebrows since John Belushi, and they certainly got a workout in this week's episode, "Moe 'n' Joe." Of course, there's never a shortage of great Tony faces when Janice is around—and Aida Turturro's hilariously monolithic self-absorption was cranked up to eleven this week, reminding us all how much her shrill, anarchic presence has been missed since she's been relegated to background status this year.

Last week I wrote of expecting "fireworks to come" in this year's final three episodes, but I've begun to back off on that prediction. (It figures—whenever I think I can guess what's going to happen on this program, I'm inevitably proven wrong.) As our friend Alan Sepinwall noted in the comments thread, this batch of episodes seems headed more towards an implosion than an explosion. "Moe 'n' Joe" continued in the same muted tone of the past several weeks, and while several important plot turns occurred, the execution was again low-key, almost lifeless. Rewatching these past few episodes I'm noticing a very deliberate slackening in the drama—this is how their world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

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TAGS: alan sepinwall, hbo, james gandolfini, recap, the sopranos, vince curatola


My Name Is Julia Ross

The Dark Past (Rudolph Maté, 1948) and My Name Is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis, 1945). It's not the obsession with Freud that's the problem with Rudolph Maté's The Dark Past but its lecture-hall hauteur. There's a hilarious scene in the movie in which a psychologist-teacher played by Lee J. Cobb explains to an escaped con (William Holden) the difference between the conscious and unconscious mind before striking a comparison between these two parts of the mind and the upper and lower parts of an iceberg. A feeling of déjà vu during this scene led me (consciously) to Manny Farber's Negative Space and—voila!—this excerpt from "The Gimp": "Well, icebergs of a sort, one-tenth image, action, plot, nine-tenths submerged 'insights' à la Freud or Jung, Marx or Lerner, Sartre or Saroyan, Frost, Dewey, Auden, Mann, or whomever else the producer's been reading." I quote Farber here because it's comforting to know that there were people like him who felt equally condescend to by these gloppy Freud-obsessed productions when they first premiered. In short, a film that doesn't arouse the senses—less a movie than a trip to the psychologist's couch. I experienced more déjà vu during Joseph H. Lewis's My Name Is Julia Ross, which stars Dark Past's Nina Foch as a woman who is hired as a secretary by a rich biddy (Dame May Whitty) and her son as part of a murder-covering suicide scheme. Lewis gets you rooting quickly and fiercely for Foch, who is just amazing here. The film is loads of fun but isn't as viscerally exciting as other films in the Jane Eyre School of Gothic Melo-Noir like Fritz Lang's little-seen, Suspiria-inspiring The Secret Beyond the Door.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: b noir, dame may whitty, joseph h. lewis, lee j. cobb, my name is julia ross, nina foch, rudolph mate, the dark past, william holden







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