The House


Orson Welles

When District 9 came out, I was geeked to see it opening weekend. My older daughters wanted to go but my wife was busy. So, finding a babysitter for my ten-year-old twins remained the only obstacle. Unsuccessful, I would not to be deterred. Why not just take them with me? Because of its "R" rating I was nervous that it might be too intense. Of course, they balked at any such notion. After some due diligence (don't judge me), I determined that D9 earned its rating based on violent content. I (correctly, it turns out) assumed that the carnage was of the sci-fi/video game variety as opposed to the more visceral gore (pun intended) presented in the Hostel/Saw genre. Nonetheless, as the movie unfolded, I kept a close watch on their reaction (like I said, don't judge me). Every fifteen minutes I'd ask if they were "doing okay." Each time, they assured me that they were. After my fifth such inquiry, one of the twins looked up a bit irritated and whispered, "Aliens aren't scary dad...sheesh."

And they really weren't scared. People and "prawns" were getting blasted right and left. Yet my youngest kids were unmoved (my oldest too, for that matter). My guess is that the subject matter seemed so far removed from their own reality that it didn't have the desired effect. That got me to thinking about what scared me as a child. As laid out in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the horror icons of my youth in the late '60s and early '70s were represented by Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman (both Lon Chaney Jr AND Oliver Reed) or the creature from the Black Lagoon. In their day, I suppose they had scared a lot of adults. But as a ten-year-old they left me unfazed. In fact, I thought they were kinda cool. As it turns out, MY kids think that the title character in Ridley Scott's Alien is kinda cool too.

So WHAT did frighten me as a kid? Here's a list of "scary" moments that stayed with me for a LONG time. The employment of a naturalistic approach seems to be a common thread running through all of these examples and may illuminate my child's comment.

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TAGS: 5 for the day, night of the living dead, rosemary's baby, the birds, the exorcist, the war of the worlds


[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]

Trouble Every Day

Ed Howard: Claire Denis has always been a fascinating and elusive director, making strange, ambiguous movies where meanings are inscribed between the lines, in images and charged silences rather than in the minimal dialogue. Trouble Every Day is quite possibly her most challenging and unsettling film, both utterly typical of her approach—quiet, patiently paced, enigmatic in its characterization and plotting—and yet also a true outlier in her career. For one thing, in terms of genre it's a horror film, and one of the reasons I was interested in talking about it with you, Jason, is that you've previously expressed a general disinterest in horror as a genre. Of course, this is not a genre that one would have intuitively attributed to Denis based on the films she made before (1999's Billy Budd parable Beau travail) and after (2002's poetic ode to a one-night stand, Vendredi soir). And her approach to horror is very unusual and idiosyncratic, even though she does eventually deliver enough gore and viscera to sate even the most jaded Saw franchise junkie.

As Andrew O'Hehir described it, "Watching Trouble Every Day, at least if you don't know what's coming, is like biting into what looks like a juicy, delicious plum on a hot summer day and coming away with your mouth full of rotten pulp and living worms." That's a lurid image, and an appropriate one for a movie whose own most potent, unforgettable images are also gustatory. That Salon review was from the film's original US release in 2002, and it's possible that anyone seeing the film for the first time now has more of an idea about what's coming. So before rewatching the film for this conversation, I had wondered if some of the impact of Denis' film came from the element of surprise, from being taken unaware by the film's bloody sexual horror.

However, upon revisiting it I found myself as entranced as ever by its haunting imagery and slow build-up, and as repulsed and affected by its shocking outbursts of violence. I'm curious, though, since you hadn't seen the film before, both how much you knew about it beforehand and what your initial (visceral) reaction was.

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TAGS: béatrice dalle, claire denis, the conversations, trouble every day, vincent gallo


The Lieberman Problem

The Lieberman Problem

"I don't think we need it now," a prominent U.S. senator said in a statement yesterday regarding a public health care option, and it wasn't a Republican. Once again, "Democrat" Joe Lieberman has gone rogue. Shortly after the 2008 election, I posited a scenario under which Lieberman, who failed at almost every turn to use his chairmanship on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to hold the Bush administration accountable, would become a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. Democrats, led by the new president, refused to strip Lieberman of his title or his seat in the Democratic caucus after the Connecticut senator not only campaigned against his own party during the presidential election, but did so rather unscrupulously.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid said then that he trusted Lieberman, but this new development in the seesawing life of the so-called public option should come as no surprise: Lieberman went on record as being against a filibuster-proof majority months ago, and he's fought against his own party on key issues for years. Until now, it's been his position on foreign policy that has been most troubling (it's disturbing, if not downright dangerous, to have a politician who pals around with a hatemonger like John Hagee simply because—even though Hagee's position on Israel is based on his belief that the preservation of the Jews is integral to the coming Rapture—he supports his Zionist agenda to chair a national security congressional committee), but Lieberman's maverick-y impulses are now poised to kill what could potentially be a transformative piece of domestic legislation. According to Firedoglake, if Lieberman votes against cloture, the process by which Democrats can prevent a filibuster by Republicans, it will be the first time in American history that a member of a super-majority has joined the opposition to filibuster a bill.

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TAGS: health care, joe lieberman


Talking Back to Documentaries

In the spring of 1972 I was teaching a course in the history of motion pictures at Los Angeles City College. Rick Stanton, the head of the Cinema Division, asked me to write a proposal for a course on the history of documentary film, which he hoped to add to the curriculum. I did, putting the entire sum of my knowledge of documentary film into it. The course was approved and, two days before the course began in the fall of 1972, I was hired to teach it. One slight problem. That proposal, with the entire sum of my knowledge of documentary film, was one page long.

Obviously, I was not going to be able to lecture a lot. Just as well, since the varying lengths of documentary film made standard one-hour lectures impossible. So I decided to let the students tell me what they thought of the films. I would give a little introductory material about the film, show it and then we would discuss it. It turned out to be the way to teach the course. Now, 37 years later and knowing a lot more about documentaries, I still teach it the same way—although a few years back I had students complain that I let other people talk too much. Imagine that: students wanted the teacher to talk more. I started talking more, but the focus of the class is still on what the students have to say. What all these years have given me is a front row seat on how people respond to documentaries. Not what I think about the films, or what historians and critics think about the films, but what a wide variety of people think and feel about them.

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TAGS: antonia: a portrait of a woman, black history: lost stolen or strayed, documentary, gimme shelter, harlan county u.s.a., hospital, hotel terminus: the life and times of klaus barbie, hunger in america, let there be light, nanook of the north, night and fog, night mail, nightmare in red, olympia, primary, racetrack, san pietro, song of ceylon, the negro soldier, the river, triumph of the will, why we fight


5 for the Day: Childhood

Where the Wild Things Are

By the time in Where the Wild Things Are when Alexander the Goat (voiced, appropriately, by Paul Dano) asks Max if he can make the sadness go away and I nearly shouted, "Dear God, I hope so!", my patience had been pretty much exhausted. I didn't hate the movie. I came away respecting its effort and ambition (as well as its eloquent defenders, who are welcome to argue otherwise here); I just didn't feel the kind of pleasure watching it that I've felt while watching my favorite films about childhood. Where the Wild Things Are doesn't condescend to its protagonist; but it does seem to regard his universe with a distinctly adult sense of ennui. My selections below, on the other hand, evoke for me what it's like to be a kid. All five movies—even at their saddest and scariest moments—give their young characters complete ownership of their respective worlds.

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TAGS: 5 for the day, a little princess, e.t. the extra-terrestrial, hope and glory, king of the hill, the secret garden


Coming Up In This Column: Jennifer's Body, Paris, Art & Copy, We're Not Married!, The Good Wife, Community, The First Week of the 2009-2010 Television Season, but first...

Jennifer's Body

Fan Mail: I need to catch up on comments not only from US#33 but a couple from US#32 as well.

In 32, Jamie suggested I try The Last Temptation of Christ again since I never watched the whole thing. Thanks for the suggestion Jamie, but when you get to be my age, you can tell pretty quickly that a picture is not going to work for you, so I think in my remaining years I will probably not get to Last Temptation. Jason Bellamy raised several problems he had with the script for District 9. I can see his points (and that's the kind of comments and discussions I love), but with that film I found myself in a common situation: the writers had so hooked me in that I was willing to overlook the flaws. If the picture is working for you, you won't be bothered by the flaws. A classic example: has anybody ever hated Jaws because the weather in every shot in the last half-hour is completely different from the previous shot?

In 33, Matt Zoller Seitz thought it was "great to see some love for Ghost Town." That's one of the reasons I don't just write about new movies. Sometimes we pick up on earlier films that we missed, or are seeing again, and find something new in them. "Female geek" liked the Masterpiece Theatre version of Sense & Sensibility more than I did, although mostly for location, art direction, and acting reasons. Hey, we all like movies for a lot of reasons. "dfantico" wondered if given my comment about Amreeka "not being as good as it could have been" what my take was on Law Abiding Citizen. He thought the idea sounded interesting and wondered what went wrong. As with Last Temptation, I am pretty sure I am going to give this one a miss, so the following is just a guess. Most artists are delusional, which is what makes them interesting. Sometimes those delusions tell us stuff in entertaining ways and those delusions become our delusions. Sometimes the artists' delusions are so unconnected to ours they don't work for us. I gather from some interviews I have read with the makers of Law Abiding Citizen that they thought they were making a more serious film than viewers thought it was. The filmmakers apparently did not get far enough beyond the revenge elements of the story for at least the critics. Anyway, that's my guess, and now on to movies I have seen.

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TAGS: accidentally on purpose, art & copy, bored to death, castle, cougar town, csi, eastwick, how i met your mother, jennifer's body, modern family, paris, the good wife, two and a half men, understanding screenwriting, we're not married


Review: Saw VI

Saw VI

Of all the reprehensibly corralled lump of films that most know as "torture porn," the Saw franchise is the one with the longest legs. But what was once the cause of the moral crisis de jour is now laughed at because of its success. All you need to do to get a rise out of someone is tell them that you're watching the sixth entry in the Saw series. Stifled guffaws are guaranteed. After all, these films have been around for a while—almost a decade!—and the fact that they will be back for at least two more entries is, I must admit, funny in a manic-depressive kind of way. Unfortunately, this means that critics are less likely to give Saw VI the drubbing it and the dunderheaded series that spawned it deserve.

Satisfying as they may be, knee-jerk reactions to the film are not sufficient, especially when the most common remark you can find regarding the franchise's last entry on, say, Metacritic, is about how convoluted the series' flashbacks are. Really? That's the worst thing that can be said about these films? Somebody's got to take one for the team and risk looking like a nerd for the sake of taking the film to task for its stupidity. Modestly, I have elected myself. Spoilers ahead, this is going to get ugly.

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TAGS: Betsy Russell, Costas Mandylor, saw vi, Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell


Antichrist

If you're a fan of cinema with a capital 'C,' you're surely aware of the buzz surrounding Antichrist, the latest from Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier (he of the Dogme 95 manifesto, that phobic and depressive auteur rumored to have driven Björk to eat her own sweater during the making of Dancer in the Dark). The film garnered a Best Actress prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival for its leading lady, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was upstaged only by her director proclaiming to be the Holy Father himself. Gainsbourg plays "She" to Willem Dafoe's "He"—they're a couple whose toddler crawls right out an open window while they're engaged in some hot, slo-mo, B&W-shot sex. Unable to come to terms with her child's death, She spends an unproductive month drugged out in a hospital before He, a therapist by trade, decides the only cure is to whisk her away to a cabin in the woods called Eden for some intense fear facing. Of course, since this is a von Trier film, things can only get devilishly nasty.

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TAGS: antichrist, charlotte gainsbourg, lars von trier, willem dafoe


Mad Men

By Mad Men standards, this week's episode, "The Color Blue," written by Kater Gordon and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, gives viewers a couple surprisingly major plot developments. In the first, new information is revealed to the audience, as we learn that Sterling Cooper is for sale again, seemingly setting up a season-ending conclusion to the "British" storyline that roughly mirrors Duck Phillips' (Mark Moses) arc in season two.

The second, decidedly more major, development involves information known by the audience since season one, and which has loomed over the series ever since as its biggest we-know-it's-coming-eventually moment (larger even than the Kennedy assassination, which continues to cast its (fore)shadow over each episode of season three). Betty Draper (January Jones) opening Don's (Jon Hamm) secret drawer and discovering the box that contains both divorce papers from Anna Draper and the pictures and fragments of his past as Dick Whitman is one of the very few explicitly plotted Mad Men moments we've all known is coming; in Mad Men's own hushed sort of way, it's on the level of the Galactica crew discovering the final cylon, or the audience finding out what put John Locke into his wheelchair.

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TAGS: Abigail Spencer, deborah lacey, elisabeth moss, january jones, jared harris, Jay Paulson, john hamm, mad men, mark moses, Marshall Allman, Michael Gladis, recap, robert morse, rosemarie dewitt, Ryan Cartwright, the color blue


The Confusion of Husbands

Husbands On September 21, 1970, television viewers beheld Dick Cavett welcoming John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara to the set of his show. Cavett initially describes them as "three animals" and before long their behavior supports his claim. They were there to promote Husbands (1970), a film directed by the notoriously unorthodox Cassavetes and starring all three of them. Cavett's questions about the film failed to penetrate the barrier of their rowdiness and the show quickly transformed into farce. A cigar-chomping Gazzara dances absurdly, Cassavetes lifts Falk over his head, Gazzara kisses Cavett, everyone screams over one another, the three guests wrestle as their amused host disappears from the set, and every so often this spectacle is interrupted by commercials whose constrained insincerity contrasts sharply with the trio's vitality.

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TAGS: ben gazzara, husbands, john cassavetes, peter falk






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