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Archive for July, 2010

Harvey Kurtzman knew funny. As a cartoonist he keenly deployed slapstick, parody and satire in ways that were not only hilarious, but groundbreaking as well. In addition, he was a gifted ringleader, someone who could harness the best talent from the grindhouse that was the comics industry at the time. With fellow artists, Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Jaffe, Wally Wood and Arnold Roth. Kurtzman created some of the most innovative humor magazines of the last century: Mad, Humbug, Trump and Help! These artists were his bullpen, the cartoonists he went to again and again for various assignments over many years. Although, all of the latter magazines failed (except, of course, Mad) they were bold experiments indeed, their influence still felt today. Would there be a National Lampoon without Help!? Probably not.

Kurtzman also help “discover” countless other talented individuals, many of whom worked with him on his numerous publications over the years; Robert Crumb, Terry Gilliam and Gloria Steinem to name a few. Before they made a name for themselves they all worked under the tutelage of Kurtzman’s expert editorship. And there were still others, comedians and the like, who starred in his series of Fumentti stories for Help!; Woody Allen, John Cleese, Jackie Gleason and Henny Youngman.

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Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is a nasty gem of a film. Obsessive, provocative, disturbing, deeply sad—Peeping Tom is all of these things and more. This year marks the 50 year anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but it also marks 50 years of Powell’s Peeping Tom, another film about a homicidal maniac, that was released just three months prior to Psycho. While Psycho was a success out of the gate, Peeping Tom became a career killer for Powell (he continued making films for years after, but it was difficult to get studio backing and much less box office attention was paid to the unfairly maligned director). The British press abhorred it, and the dark subject matter was met with a sharp sting of controversy across Britain. It was Powell’s first film after breaking with longtime co-director, Emeric Pressburger, and as a solo effort it had a decidedly singular vision. Written by Leo Marks, Peeping Tom is the culmination of Powell’s obsession with obsession; its destructive power can be seen thematically through many of his films, but here, it is all-consuming, an idea brought to a most devastating conclusion. 

Mark Lewis (Carl Bohem) is a lonely, tightly-wound cameraman (specifically a focus-puller) working at film studio. In his off-hours he shoots pin-up photos of women which he sells for a tidy little profit to a newsagent on his block and labors over an ongoing personal project: documenting the moment of fear before someone is killed. A young Anna Massey plays his naive neighbor, Helen who has a serious crush on Lewis. Massey is wonderful in this role, playing the mousey woman to its full potential; Helen is simultaneously frightened, repulsed and excited by Lewis and his hobbies. Only Helen’s blind mother, played by Maxine Audley, suspects that there is something truly sinister about Lewis.

In many ways, Peeping Tom is much more unsettling than Psycho, its sadistic nature more overt. Powell’s character study is certainly more layered. Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates could, at times, be ah-shucks charming, but Carl Bohem’s Mark Lewis is downright creepy, a filmmaker with a troubled past and a present that is getting decidedly worse. Bates is a sociopath, it is clear, and, as Hitchcock alludes to, this probably had something to do with the relationship with his mother. Powell on the other hand is far more forthcoming with his character; experiments into fear conducted by Lewis’ father no doubt lead to the killer’s anti-social behavior. Lewis’ father is an even greater monster than he, which complicates matters. Many critics have said that Powell draws a sympathetic character with Lewis; I’m not sure how sympathetic he is, but the origin of his sickness is something that the audience is hard pressed to dismiss. And where Psycho’s voyeurism was a metaphor for the relationship between the audience and cinema, Peeping Tom’s voyeurism is all about the voyeuristic nature of the cinema itself, and of filmmaking. Powell is not beating around any metaphorical bushes with this film, and perhaps this is what shocked so many people at the time: the very implication that the sadistic filmmaker and the audience are so inexorably tied together.

Like all of Powell’s films, Peeping Tom is gorgeous to look at. His love of red is everywhere, the color drawing even more meaning with this film in particular. There are also shocking blues and greens, golds that do more than just shimmer; they intensify the very scenes they are in. Powell used the process of Technicolor better than most directors, taking advantage of its inherent un-naturalism to give his color films an other-worldliness. (The vivid color and lighting of Peeping Tom often reminds one of the early color films of Mario Bava, like Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1963); it would be interesting indeed if Peeping Tom had some influence on Bava’s approach). The color palette Powell uses is sumptuous and vivid, it’s so inviting that you find yourself falling easily into this world, which is all the more unsettling.

Had Peeping Tom been made in the United States, it might not have met with such rancor. Directors like William Castle made a career out of films with this sort of subject matter (of course, Powell was not necessarily operating on the level of exploitation or b-movie horror). In sharp contrast, by the beginning of the sixties, Alfred Hitchcock had been making films for years within the American studio system, and had become, essentially, an “American” director, his much more mannered English films far behind him. Powell was very much an Englishman, but his approach to films could be decidedly, un-British; politeness, restraint, these were not ideas he practiced. He often delved into the darkness of humanity in operatic ways (especially with films like The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947) ) and frequently undermined the domestic realism that was the cornerstone of British cinema.

Peeping Tom and Psycho seemed to be forever linked, as much for their close release dates, as for their similar subject matter. Both are films that have withstood the test of time to be sure, their shock value still firmly intact, but with Peeping Tom, Psycho’s demented cousin from across the pond, the horrors  run deeper, often nightmarishly so.

 

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Over on the formidable movie blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, writer Dennis Cozzalio has posted a long, and articulate article about the Christopher Nolan blockbuster, Inception, just released on July 16,  and the mass of pre-critical buzz associated with the film and with Nolan’s previous movie, The Dark Knight. Mr.Cozzalio argues that in the case of The Dark Knight, all of the build up from fans, bloggers and pre-release reviews from critics created a backlash against those who wrote in dissent of the film.

This article got me thinking about the role of film critics in shaping the success of a movie and what responsibilities they have, if any, to the general public. More often than not, initial buzz initiated by the studio marketing department, fans etc, creates unreasonable expectations, expectations that may or may not be in line with film itself. Granted this all comes down to opinion, to taste, but I think the argument is also valid that all of this goodwill may be undeserved and simply camouflages the obvious flaws of a film. And in a world where You Tube, blogging and viral videos have made this sort of unstoppable, 24-hour hype machine a given, where does the hyperbole end and the movie begin?

Now, it would seem that the same controversy is brewing once again with Inception, and Mr.Cozzalio uses a recent article by Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick Goldstein lambasting New York Magazine’s David Edelstein—who wrote a  negative review of the film— to frame his argument. Here is a quote from Goldstein in his article regarding Edelstien’s review:

I give Edelstein points for lively writing, but in an era where critics have enough credibility issues as it is, the last thing we need is a critic thrashing a film because, in part, he’s chagrined to see it get so much open adulation. If you want to write that after the movie has opened, fair enough. But it’s the wrong stance to take before people have even had a chance to make up their own minds.

This is a ridiculous statement for many reasons, least of which is that Goldstien argues that the only reason Edelstien gave Inception a negative review is because it has received some much attention and good press, and foremost he claims that giving it a negative review is “the wrong stance” to take because the movie is not even out yet, and this could very well cloud the public’s judgment of the film. But isn’t the same true for a positive review before the movie has come out, specifically Peter Traver’s glowing review that is highlighted in the TV ad campaign for Inception, a campaign which has been running constantly for the last several weeks (more on that later)? You certainly can’t have it both ways and this, it seems, it what is most troubling to Mr.Cozzalio, as well as myself. Everyone wants to be right, no one wants to be wrong, and the very value of film criticism is undermined because everything seems to boil down to what will help or hinder a movie’s chances raking in gobs of money. David Edelstein is clearly not interested in whether or not Inception with do well money-wise, that is not his job. His job is to give his own assessment of the film’s ultimate value, which, according to Edelstein, is questionable. Yes, he can be rather snarky, which sometimes undermines his position, but it is clearly his writing style, and his past insights into other films have been thoughtful and well-reasoned albeit with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Edelstein closes the review by saying this:

For the record, I wanted to surrender to this dream; I didn’t want to be out in the cold, alone. 

Cleary he went in wanting to like the film but, in the end,  gave his unbiased opinion, about the actual picture. And ultimately this is what Patrick Goldstein finds fault with. But what is most disturbing is Goldstien’s unabashed defense of the film, especially since he’s a reporter. Even an industry reporter, as he is called, should be neutral, but Goldstien is operating as if he has something at stake if this is not the most beloved movie of all time. I would say that it is Goldstien’s entire stance that is suspect, and negates any true debate over the merits of a particular film. And really, isn’t this the kind of ridiculous debate that the studio would want anyhow? What’s going to grab the public’s attention even more than uniformly glowing reviews? Maybe a reporter creating needless controversy around a dissenting review? Again, it’s an assertion as pointless and stupid as the entire “controversy” itself. Of course all this posturing might be a moot point anyhow; as the film has just opened, public opinion is still out, at least for another few weeks.

So, again, the question becomes where do movie critics fit into all of this? It’s a sticky proposition at best, one that can be perilous to navigate these days. Ideally film criticism should argue, with distinct clarity, for or against a certain film, all the while illuminating the movie’s virtues or transgressions. Criticism should provide a new view into the picture at hand. Group think, should be abandoned. There is no room for the writer that simply follows the views of other writers in the field. The film critics I have always admired, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, David Bordwell—while I have not always agreed with them—have always given me something to think about. They have provided me with a method of looking a film anew, and have never shied away from controversial remarks about how terrible a film may actually be. Yes these are lofty goals, I did say ideally, but in an age where lines are becoming blurred between what is actual film criticism and what is simply bullshit—a quote emerging from a traveling press junket and  used heavily in an TV ad for a film, for example—it becomes easier to wade in with everyone else rather than be he lone voice against a film, especially when there seems to be so much positive criticism surrounding it (particularly when it comes from someone as well-respected as Peter Travers). When is a positive review simply a positive review? I’m sure many of the critics that have seen Inception really enjoyed the film, and found it be a nice change from the usual mindless summer blockbuster, hence all of the stellar reviews. Memento was a taut, well-made thriller and, I can’t believe I’m still saying this, but I really enjoyed The Dark Knight*, so when I began seeing trailers for Inception I have to admit I was not put off by how grandiose it all seemed, in fact, given Nolan’s track record, I am actually very interested in seeing it. But as a Kubrick fan, I bristle at quick comparisons, even when attached to a competent director such as Nolan. Take for instance this review from Anne Thompson, with the title, Inception Early Review: Nolan Delivers Kubrickian Masterpiece with Heart:

As intricate as the script is—Nolan worked on it for a decade—the movie is not just a feat of cinematic wizardry, even though it comes close to the level of technological derring-do carried off by the likes of Stanley Kubrick. (Indeed Nolan works in repeated homages to the late great auteur beyond the obvious use of moving sets on gimbles to allow athletic Gordon-Levitt to bounce weightless and walk on walls and ceilings.) The movie also has heart. So that even if you do get confused (as I did in the James Bond snow section, filmed in the Canadian Rockies), the emotional through-line pulls you along. It’s as simple as The Wizard of Oz: The Extractor wants to go home.

Now, not having seen the movie, I can’t really say otherwise, and it may not really be hyperbole in Thompson’s view to compare Nolan to Kubrick. But if you ask me, comparing a film, not even out of the gate, to be on par with the cannon of Stanley Kubrick is not only incredibly premature, but unduly persuades a moving going public, and hardcore film buffs, more so than a negative review ever could. Much of the reason that directors like Stanley Kubrick are highly regarded is that enough time has gone by, enough writing has been done, and enough clarity has evolved to permit that sort reverence. Some of Kubrick’s films, which are now seen as masterpieces, to use a buzz-word, were first released to luke-warm reviews, and or out-right controversy and hatred, as in the case of A Clockwork Orange. In fact, Pauline Kael bestowed a scathing review upon the film, denouncing its extreme violence, concerned that it would have a de-sensitizing effect upon audiences . It is an articulate, well-reasoned review, which, written by someone as highly regarded as Kael could have been disastrous for the film( in addition to being branded with an X-rating when it was first released in the United States). Of course, it has become a cult favorite, and considered one of Kubrick’s best. Make no mistake that A Clockwork Orange is a difficult film to watch, and it is not a film that can be well-received by everyone because the material itself is so aggressive. Pauline Kael did her job as a film critic and gave her honest impression of the film without regard to its box office or its future place in film history. And I this is the ideal situation I spoke of earlier. One without regard for ridiculous Rotten Tomatoes ratings and they’re impact on box-office, or what the denizens of some fan sites might say.

It is worth noting that there has always been a disconnect between what critics enjoy and what the public at large likes. Film critics often get a bad rap for hating everything mainstream and only liking “arty films” (outside of film critics, historians and film students, I have been hard-pressed to find someone who would count Citizen Kane among their favorite films). While there may be some truth to this, as a whole, I think film critics are really film lovers first, writers and critics second and third, and probably, for the most part, want to go in liking a film. After all, if it is your job to write about films wouldn’t you rather write about what works in a movie rather than what doesn’t? (OK, maybe some critics really enjoy writing scathing reviews) So when public and critical opinion actually converge with unanimous admiration of a film, should it be that any reaction against be met with skepticism or at worst some sort hateful backlash?

In the end debate is good, it is always good, and in this case, with film criticism, it is necessary, and even helpful in the ultimate enjoyment of a film. Everything released can’t be a masterpiece, it can’t be directed by the next Kubrick, because, in reality, those sorts of films, and directors are ultimately few and far between. Just think about how many movies are released every year, in the United States alone (and I mean everything from straight to DVD to festival circuit fare), and of the really good ones, can they truly be called masterpieces? We all know hyperbole is what get’s asses in seats, for lack of a better, and studios use it all the time, so why not bloggers and critics? It becomes a problem when there’s no room for a second opinion, when that opinion is dismissed as simply disliking anything that may have a whiff of mass appeal. This, I would say, is the downside to the internet (one of many). With so many voices trumpeting so many opinions, often with such rancor, truly good film criticism becomes few and far between, trying to etch out a place amongst the din of mediocrity.

 

*OK, OK, I know how bad that sounds, but given my utter disdain for blockbusters in general, The Dark Knight was a bit of a revelation.  I liked The Dark Knight; I liked it a lot, more than I wanted to. In fact I went in not wanting to like it, as my exceptions were incredibly low given the track record of the movie franchise (I went to a free screening, and even with that as an incentive, I almost didn’t go). There are problems to be sure with the film; a throwaway, hammy monologue by Gary Oldman in the final scene of the film served to end the picture on a bad note; Heath Ledger’s performance, mostly riveting, sometimes teetered on the edge of the ridiculous, in way that could have undone the entire character; and yes, had there been another absurd scenario that followed the people-on-a-boat-with-a-bomb plot device, the movie would have collapsed under the sheer weight of itself. However, the film in general, was thrilling to watch, in way that only pure entertainment can be, thrilling because blockbusters usually remind me of the ridiculous plotlines they’re trying to camouflage, and The Dark Knight didn’t. With a different director at the helm, one with not as much obvious confidence in the source material as Nolan, The Dark Knight’s endless plotlines and characters, and it’s three-four movies shoved into one, would have surely failed. But Nolan makes it work for the most part because he is able to maintain the momentum; the tension is omnipresent and by the end of the film it feels as if you’ve run a marathon, but in a good way I suppose. The Dark Knight is nowhere near a perfect film as some would believe, but it finally did the character justice. The film, in many ways, emulated Frank Miller’s dark vision of the character, which is perhaps one of the most compelling in the comic book’s history.  Nolan’s first stab at Batman, Batman Begins, while not the worst movie version of the comic book (that goes to the Joel Schumacher atrocities) was a ho-hum start, it was an origin story, it went through the paces, but did nothing to really elevate the character. With The Dark Knight, Nolan turned a corner to be sure. He was more assured with his vision for the franchise, and finally, finally a movie version of Batman appeared that wasn’t campy, that wasn’t throwaway, that wasn’t completely forgettable. I would hate to think that I’m a part of anything labeled, “group think”, but there you are, a blockbuster that’s likeable, that’s entertaining, that at the very least gives you your money’s worth. 

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AmnesiaJane

I am usually working on various story ideas, often several at a time. Some start from descriptions of characters, or are simply would-be paragraphs looking for a larger space to exist within. This idea, shown above in illustrated form, started out as a quick outline:

A woman wakes up one day to discover she has lost her memory. She is also thought to be dead by those who have attempted to kill her. What does this all mean and why is she in possession of a large suitcase of money? Time is slipping away from her, just as her very identity continues to.

Very often these are the only scraps I have to go from; bits of ideas and plot devices that may or may not evolve into something later. I fill pages and pages of word documents with bits and pieces just like the latter.  I liked this one enough to come up with a mock comic panel of the main character, the Jane Doe of the story. For now I’m calling the story, Amnesia Jane. It’s kind of got this JG Ballard and Philip K Dick ring to it. Futuristic Film Noir? Comic or short story? Who knows?

Of course, it could simply be that I like drawing women smoking that have question marks tattooed on their shoulders.

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Wonderful photos of Brigitte Bardot in Italy…

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Supergirl1961

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Escape From New York (1981) 

Director: John Carpenter

The movie-going experience can often afford us a specific kind of nostalgia. Like a song or an album, it can remind us of time in our life, good or bad, evoking all kinds of memories. I cannot recall the exact theater that I saw Superman (1978) and Star Wars (1977) in, or if I was with both my mother and father, but I remember the feeling, the overall impression that those two movies made upon me. I grew up on comic books and these films fed directly into my world, one which revolved around pouring over brightly-colored newsprinted-panels.

Admittedly I have a soft spot for movies of a B to Z grade from the 80s, having been in my teens. During these formative years I consumed a lot of bad horror, sci-fi and adventure movies (the first R-rated movie I snuck into was Gymkata (1985), which speaks volumes I suppose). The Cannon Group, the action-oriented low-budget studio, was king, and I especially had a penchant for the Missing In Action Series. Supertrash classics like Don’t Answer Phone (1980) and Xtro (1982), clawed their way into my viewing habits, often based solely on their lurid packaging. VHS and Beta cassette cases sported truly tasteless and outlandish art on the front, and provocative stills from the movies themselves on the back.  This anything but savvy marketing ploy was often enough to get my attention. 

Of course, nostalgia also has a way of manipulating our memories. We sometimes forget how truly terrible many of these movies really were. Case in point: Heavy Metal (1981). I was enthralled with this movie when I was a kid, probably because it seemed so wrong; an animated film with sex and violence. For years I remembered this as an amazing film until I saw it again a few years ago and was completely appalled at my reverence for this movie. The animation was terrible, the character design atrocious and the plot beyond juvenile, often a shallow vehicle for the off-handed nudity and ridiculous soundtrack (Journey and Devo on the same soundtrack? In what universe is this a good combination?)

John Carpenter’s films represent a particular space in that bit of nostalgia, especially his movies from the 70s and 80s. As I’ve gotten older my tastes have changed, as have my sensibilities about movies. I approach the whole endeavor of viewing films a bit differently, and, admittedly, don’t consume anything and everything like I once did. I’m often more selective in what I choose to watch.  But Carpenter’s films always stand the test of time for me, no matter how many years have passed. I still love Big Trouble in Little China (1986) as much as I did when it came out in theaters; Halloween (1978),  The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982), They Live (1988), even parts of Christine (1983) always manage to recapture my attention (the scene where Christine, the red Plymouth Fury, on fire, barrels down a darkened road with Carpenter’s unmistakable synth score running underneath, is alone worth the price of admission of an otherwise pedestrain horror film). John Carpenter clearly loves movies, especially old horror movies and it is apparent in every frame of his films.

This run of amazing productions from the late 70s to the mid-80s was highlighted by a movie that was a hybrid of various genres: action/adventure, sci-fi, horror and the prison escape movie. Escape From New York is probably my favorite of Carpenter’s films because it is able to weave all of the latter elements together into a nightmare future version of the world that, like all of his filmography, is  extremely entertaining.

During the early eighties, New York City was portrayed by the press as dangerous and crime-ridden, the subways and side streets populated with gangs and criminals. No doubt Escape From New York like The Warriors (1979) and the Death Wish movies, played directly into this perception, capitalizing on the fear and paranoia of the time.

Kurt Russell seems to relish the role of Snake Plissken, Carpenter’s anti-hero, an ex-soldier and fugitive, bringing what could have been a flat, cartoonish character to life (after playing a string of milquetoast characters in Disney live action movies, this must have been an utter change of pace) . Plissken is a snarling, tattooed menace of a man. He is less broadly drawn than Jack Burton, the characters that Russell played in another Carpenter movie, Big Trouble in Little China. Plissken evokes various Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western characters: a man of few words, whose moral code is hazy at best. Indeed, it is the character of Plissken that makes Escape From New York especially worth watching. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle developed an elaborate back-story for Snake Plissken, as well as the Manhattan-turned-giant-prison scenario (which is explained in a now-cheesy computer-generated simulation). He is a former Special Forces soldier who has been apprehended after robbing the Federal Reserve Depository (the actual bank robbery did not make the final cut of the film). Is thought by many in the criminal underworld that Plissken was killed during the robbery, which results in the reoccurring line, “I thought you were dead”.  It is this elaborate set-up which helps buoy the actual plot.

It’s 1997 and Air Force One is hijacked by a member of a terrorist group which is at war with the government. The lone terrorist crashes the plane into New York City with the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) abandoning the plane in an escape pod, a briefcase containing top-secret information strapped to his hand. It is soon learned that inmates of the maximum-security prison of Manhattan Island led by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) have found the President and taken him prisoner. They cut off a finger and send it to the government, a symbol of their desperate intentions.

The newly apprehended Plissken is given a deal by Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef): rescue the President and the top-secret plans and he will receive a full pardon. This rescue mission must be accomplished in, wait for it—24 hours. If this weren’t enough, the reluctant Plissken has explosives injected into his neck that will detonate in 24 hours, Hauk’s insurance policy that Snake will not attempt his own escape. It’s an absurd set-up to be sure, piling ridiculous premise upon ridiculous premise, but it all works under Carpenter’s direction. This is before the advent of the Hollywood Blockbuster, and, although Escape From New York has all of the hallmarks of one, Carpenter remembers his roots, his admiration for the classic films that he pays homage to. Most interestingly of all is that Escape From New York is an inversion of the classic prison break films like The Great Escape; Plissken is trying to break into the massive prison. Even though he is a known as criminal, he is being forced back to his roots—a soldier of the government.

Soon, Plissken enters Manhattan by flying a glider into the sprawling prison, landing atop the World Trade Center. The film unfolds rapidly, introducing a series of quirky characters led by a great cast: Cabbie (Earnest Borgnine), Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) are a few of the great character actors that Plissken encounters. The only misstep in casting is that of Donald Pleasence as the President. While he was perfectly cast in Carpenter’s Halloween, here he is completely out-of-place as the leader of the free world.

Escape From New York, like the rest of Carpenter’s early run of films, is exemplified by his admiration of classic directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, shot through his singular vision. There is no mistaking a John Carpenter movie. His films are low-budget, and more often than not use b-movie actors, but manage to avoid the pitfalls of other b-movies; they are well-executed, and tightly honed. They boast an intentional economy that is absent in most genre films. His camera framing and compositions are typified by static cameras, using all of the advantages of shooting on widescreen. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation that he projects upon his main characters, composing shots where individuals exist in large, empty spaces. Plissken is often framed moving down long, clean, futuristic interiors, and shadowed back alleys. He is loner, a mythic figure that, again, harkens back to the characters in Clint Eastwood’s early westerns.

Escape From New York is one of those films that I enjoy seeing every few years, if for nothing else but to remind me of why I fell in love with movies in the first place. Granted, it is a bit of a guilty pleasure, and not a movie I would list among my favorite films, but it is a wonderful bit of nostalgia, something that never gets old, never gets tired.

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