Sunday, May 28, 2006

And danced along a colored wind

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Gravel-throated troubador and my personal favorite living musician Tom Waits listed his top 20 favorite albums recently in the UK paper The Observer. A lot of interesting choices there - he's got some awfully sweet things to say about Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk, and Captain Beefheart, and I was much delighted to see The Pogues' brilliant Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash at number eight. And speaking of Mr. Waits, when the heck is Big Time going to be released on DVD?

In other news, Dave and I went to see X-Men: The Last Stand Thursday night at midnight, on a humungous IMAX screen in Lincoln Square. I had a blast - while it isn't quite as good as X2, it's more or less on par with the first movie - and if you decide to see it, be sure you watch to the very end of the credits. You won't regret it.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

We're millionaires, boys!

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I see a lot of movies, but rarely do I ever have a filmgoing experience that makes me actually believe in magic. But such an experience occurred last night in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, at Pothole Pictures' screening of the original King Kong.

My first encounter with the story of the tragic monarch of Skull Island came from a book in the Hackney Public Library about apes. They had a chapter regarding famous ape movies in the back, and I remember being moved close to tears by the story. I later saw Willis O'Brien's 18-inch tall puppet at the London Museum of Moving Image - placed atop a model of the Empire State Building, with most of the hair fallen off of his body, but didn't actually see the movie until I bought a used VHS tape in my early teens.

I saw the movie several times on my video (and recently, the pristine new Warner DVD) and last night, I rode to Shelburne Falls with Jessica, Andrew, and another friend Doug to see it on the big screen for the first time. As we walked into Shelburne Falls Memorial Hall - a beautiful, century-old former vaudeville house - a country/bluegrass band played in the corner as the young and old alike found their seats. The stout, bispectacled backup singer gazed lovingly at the guitarist as he belted out a handful of New England styled hee-haw melodies. Then the lights went down and the movie began.

What passed by were 104 minutes of magic. 104 minutes of adventure, joy, sadness, and belief in dinosaurs and giant gorillas. When the lights went on again, I knew not only why great films survive and continue to thrill, but why movies exist to begin with. I felt a kinship with those who saw the movie for the first time during the Great Depression. I understood why they would put off being able to eat in order to buy a movie ticket - to escape to another place, forget about their troubles, and to open their minds and hearts to be filled by mythmakers. To gain access to that place in the imagination where giant gorillas and prehistoric beasts are found. In their place, wouldn't you?

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Popcorn Bucket, Vol. 4

- This is old news to most, now, but I’ll regurgitate it here anyway: in September, the original theatrical editions of the Star Wars trilogy will be available on DVD, in a six-disc pack which also includes the 2005 bastardized versions. This allows for a revolutionary practice for movie fans: the ability to customize their Star Wars trilogy experience. For example, you could watch the first half of the ’77 Star Wars – Han shoots first, no Jabba, and no CG dinosaurs – then take a peepee break and switch to the Special Edition to see that rad Death Star attack. Then, put in the Special Edition of Empire, because, eh, the Wampa and the big windows on Cloud City are pretty harmless. Then do the original cut of Jedi, because everything that they changed about that movie, from the Sarlacc to the singing aliens to Hayden Christiansen’s leering mug in the place of Sebastian Shaw, was totally wrong. A customizable Star Wars experience. I’m not saying that I personally would do anything quite that dorky, I’m just saying...if you wanted could.

- Checked out Terry Zwigoff’s new film Art School Confidential the other day at the movies. Starts off hilarious and brilliant (Ethan Suplee’s fat, loud, angry film student character got more guffaws out of me than any character in recent memory) in the vein of Ghost World but begins to lose steam when the second half goes in a weird and befuddling direction. Still worth seeing, though.

- I forgot to mention this in my previous post, but last night there was an film independent film crew shooting outside of the Film Forum just as we were going out. Didn’t catch the title of the movie they were making, but it stars Parker Posey, and from what Jeff told me there was apparently some controversy over the fact that they changed the previous day's marquee for In A Lonely Place to Black Sunday and The Glass Web, and had to change it back again. So look for that one sometime at a theater near you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Edward G. Robinson is alive and well at Film Forum

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From New York City: I took a break from my job-and-apartment hunting yesterday to go and see a couple of movies at the Film Forum's B Noir festival, and was sure glad that I did. Both films starred the legendary stout, bulldog-like actor Edward G. Robinson (Little Ceaser, Double Indemnity). The festival focuses on both underrated, lesser-known noirs and pulpy, dime store crime flicks, most of which aren't available yet on video or DVD. Black Tuesday, the first film of the evening, was one of the latter.

Robinson and Peter Graves (Night of the Hunter) are Vincent "King" Canelli and Peter Manning, a couple of criminals in prison awaitng their deaths in the electric chair. Manning was jailed for stealing $500,000 and is offered a ten-day extention of his sentence if he tells where he hid the money. He doesn't budge, though, because, as Canelli says; "yer gonna burn anyway!"

Secretly, however, Canelli's associates are hatching a plan to break them out just minutes before their execution and use the money Manning stole to get out of the country. Canelli's moll Hatti (Jean Parker) kidnaps the daughter of a prison guard to force him into helping, and a goon disguised as a newspaper reporter attends the execution too to help hold back the guards. After a violent breakout, the motley crew and their assortment of hostages hold up in an abandoned warehouse, biding their time until they can make a break out of the country.

While much of the plot is fairly ludicrous, and none of the supporting actors would ever be confused with Alec Guiness or Laurence Olivier, but the film was massively enjoyable nonetheless, mostly due to the sheer awesomeness of Robinson's performance as Vincent Canelli. Here are a few examples of how great he is:

- As the warden and police officers try to concince Manning to reveal the locaction of the stolen loot, Canelli hurls glee-filled taunts from the cell next to them. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, he says, "Headliner can't open the show, Manning! You gotta have acrobats or somethin' go out first, get 'em warmed up a little before the big climax!"

- While riding in a stolen armored car with the other escapees from the prison, Canelli orders the vehicle to stop and kicks the other prisoners out. When one of them protests, saying, "We ain't got a chance out their, Vince", Canelli removes three bullets from his revolver, hands the gun to him and throws the bullets out onto the ground. Then he says, "There, there's three chances."

- In the warehouse, the captured prison priest tries to talk some sense and morality to Canelli, who ignores him as he fiddles around with the contents of a crate filled with toys. He then winds up a toy tank and runs over a couple of stuffed Disney character dolls, with a gleeful shout of "Lookout, Donald!"

The second film of the evening, The Glass Web, was in contrast a much more polished and sophistiated noir which really should be a lot more well-known than it is. Directed by Jack Arnold (The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space) It deals with a TV show called "Crime of the Week", which dramatizes homicides and murders on a weekly basis. Robinson is Henry Hayes, the details-obsessed head of research for the show, and John Forsythe (the actor best known as the voice of Charlie on "Charlie's Angels") is Don Newell, the scriptwriter. Kathleen Huges is Paula Reiner, a struggling actress and cold-hearted, manipulative femme fatale who is having an affair with both men to try to try and land a big role and part them from their money.

Paula seems to have Don wrapped around her little finger, especially when she threatens to blackmail him to the tune of $25,000 with a pair of Don's pyjamas with the nametag stitched in. Unfortunatley for her, her impatience with Henry's inability to land her a role winds up to be her undoing, as she flies of the handle and unleashes a string of insults upon him, causing Henry, in his shocked and wounded state, to strangle her to death.

With Paula dead and her blackmail on his conscience, Don is terrifed that he may be the biggest suspect. Matters only complicate more when Henry up and decides to use the Paula Reiner murder as the basis for their final show of the season! It's a paranoid, tense, and grim situation; everything that a great noir should be. Forsythe is terrific as the honest man in over his head, and Robinson, while not as balls-to-the-wall badass as he is in Black Tuesday, is equally great here as narrowly-veiled "true evil" of the story. Interestingly, the film was shot in 3D (Arnold's second film to be shot as such) but due to test audience responses was released in 2D. It's understandable, since most of the movie is fairly stagey and doesn't have what I'd think of as great 3D-worthy visuals, except for one scene where Don wanders down the street, paranoid and oblivious to his surroundings. He is narrowly missed by a pickup truck with ladders on the top, a man with a hose, and rocks falling down a chute, all of which come right toward the camera like they're coming out at you. Incidentally, I found several pictures from The Glass Web on a John Forsythe tribute page, so check them out.

Kudos to Film Forum for picking out these two great films from obscurity and showing them to the the cineastes of New York City. The best thing about seeing these kinds of movies in the theater is the sheer immortality that cinema provides for its great ones. Edward G. Robinson was alive last night. He was a living, breathing human being up there on the screen before us, and he, and others like him will continue to live forever as long as people still watch their films.

Friday, May 12, 2006

It is all an illusion.

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Occasionally, I have been known to venture away from the Homefront to take the odd film course at other universities. One such course was David Lynch 101, at the Sargent & Bemis Center for the Cinematic Arts (aka, Jess and Andrew's house), a mind-opening and thoroughly amazing (and hopefully continuing) exploration into the films of one of contemporary cinema's brilliant beat-of-his-own-drummer dancers. I don't know what it is about David Lynch's movies that were so uncomfortable and offputting to me at first, but I think it is that same thing now that draws me right into them to drown inside their strangeness. As the fifth film I've seen by the mysterious director, Mulholland Drive is truly something to behold - a film unlike any other.

The story begins with a Rita (Laura Elena Harring) young woman traveling in the back of a limo which stops mysteriously before being crashed into and wreaked by drunken joyriders. Stumbling from the wreakage, and struck with amnesia, she makes her way down through the thicket by the side of the road and sneaks into a fancy apartment complex, where she until morning. The next day, we are introduced to betty (Naomi Watts), a golden-haired gal from Ontario with dreams of being a movie star, who is so bright and smiley and naive she makes Laura Dern's character Sandy in Blue Velvet look like a world-weary cynic in comparison. Upon discovering her amnesia-struck companion in the bathroom shower, she allows the young woman to continue to stay with her, trying her hand at various pieces of detective work to try and get her to remember something.

The first half of Mulholland Drive certainly resembles Blue Velvet in more ways than one. The elements of dark and light are personified once again; Betty seems to be a combination of Laura Dern's Sandy and Kyle McLaghlan's detective and/or pervert Jeffrey Beaumont, and beautiful, dark-haired, frightened Rita appears to be a cousin of Isabella Rosellini's Dorothey Valens. There is a similar descent into the dark underbelly of a community and the human mind through mostly-innocent curiosity, but there is no night at the end of the tunnel here in the same way there is with Lynch's 1986 film. The plot film gets progressively weirder, juxtoposed with vingettes involving a hitman who kills three people in order to obtain an address book and a man who sees the devil behind a wall outside of a Winkie's restaurant, and an entire subplot about a movie director (Justin Theroux) who is being pressured by some mysterious gangsters to recast a young woman named Camilla Rhodes in his film.

When the two seperate plots seem like they are about to finally come together, we are thrown a curveball that turns everything completely on its head, in every concieveable fashion. The same actresses show up again playing different people, in a different, but parallel universe. If the experience of watching Mulholland Drive from beginning to end can be likened to anything, it would be that of falling asleep halfway through a film and dreaming the rest, then waking up and only remembering bits and pieces of that dream. It blurs the lines between reality, dreams, and cinema to a beautiful and mind-boggling extent, creating a world we've never seen before, and doubtfully will again. A modern masterpiece.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Goodbye, sweet friend.

They say you cannot choose your family, but it was not so for her. After the loss of our Toby, she, a two-time fugitive from the Readsboro dogcatcher, jumped gleefully into the bed of my father's grey pickup truck, then wiggled through the rear window onto the passenger seat. She sat there looking at him, panting happily, as if to say, "let's go home now." Half shepherd, half labrador, with a silver-haired dolphin snout that could nuzzle its way into Fort Knox, and the biggest, brownest eyes that ever existed in this world. After nine full and happy years of walks in the woods, adventures, well-meant mischief and glorious pink and gold Vermont sunsets, she resides now in a hole we dug in the backyard, encircled by stones and lined with forget-me-not buds and purple trillians. One of the happiest dogs I ever knew . . . farewell, sweet friend.