What I'm Watching

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What I'm Watching: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Posted By on Sat, Oct 25, 2014 at 9:00 AM

When a film's closing credits provide its best, and most watchable, moment, you have a problem. - MGM PICTURES
  • MGM Pictures
  • When a film's closing credits provide its best, and most watchable, moment, you have a problem.
What makes a film a cult film?

I struggled with this question when I wrote a short book on the film This Is Spinal Tap, because that movie didn't seem to jibe with any of the prevailing theories about the nature of film cultishness. It isn't beloved by only a small, devoted audience; it doesn't contain esoterica graspable only by those "in the know"; it is certainly not "so bad, it's good"; it does not court controversy; it is not a "lost treasure," rediscovered by fans after failing to receive its due in its original release. But I think few film lovers would deny that This Is Spinal Tap is indeed a cult film.

Ultimately, I concluded, rather plainly, that a cult film is simply one that, for any number of reasons, attracts a devoted following. Furthermore, the term "cult" implies no particular scale: A film's cult may be small (like that of, say, the oddball semi-satire The Wizard of Speed and Time) or large (I see no reason why we can't call films in the Star Wars series "cult films"; same for The Lord of the Rings movies, and even for beloved classics like Casablanca). All of these films have inspired devotion in a certain segment of their audiences in ways that movies such as, say, 27 Dresses and Shooter do not. Cult films, it seems to me, can achieve that status in any number of ways. If they strike the right note with their audiences, they're in the club.
  • MGM Pictures
A few weeks ago, I saw, for the first time since approximately 1990, one of the definitive cult films of the 1980s: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. This film, in a word, sucks. I thought so when I was in high school and I still think so now. That is not, in itself, a problem for its cult status, as there are lots of sucky films that have achieved that mantle: the oft-trotted-out Plan 9 from Outer Space, the MST3K-bolstered Manos: The Hands of Fate, the marvelously daft Troll 2. The weird thing about the cult of Buckaroo Banzai is that the members of that cult seem to me to have granted the film cult status for all the wrong reasons.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

What I'm Watching: The Telegraph Trail

Posted By on Sat, Oct 18, 2014 at 9:04 AM

  • Warner Bros. Pictures
For a dollar or two at a recent library sale, I picked up a DVD that contains not one, not two, but three feature-length (well, sort of) John Wayne films from 1933: The Man from Monterey, Somewhere in Sonora (both directed by Mack V. Wright) and The Telegraph Trail (directed by Tenny Wright, who may or may not have been related to Mack V.). I knew that these would be resolutely average, run-of-the-mill westerns, and that's why I purchased the disc. You can learn a lot from exceedingly average movies.

My viewing of The Telegraph Trail confirmed my expectations: It was solidly average, with few if any outstanding features. Which is why I liked it. The film is one of the 11 (!) movies that John Wayne made in 1933, back before he graduated to "A" pictures. These three films are most assuredly "B" westerns of the type made in great number from the 1910s through the 1960s, and are entirely typical of that form. By which I mean: They are all in the neighborhood of 60 minutes in running time (just barely feature-length); they were directed by workmanlike filmmakers with little, if any, personal style; they abide by — and indeed define — the typical narrative patterns of the genre; and they were made for relatively small budgets.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

What I'm Watching: Dial M for Murder

Posted By on Sat, Oct 11, 2014 at 8:24 PM

Alfred Hitchcock WANTS YOU!
  • Alfred Hitchcock WANTS YOU!
The unfortunate result of a long and nasty series of surgical procedures is that my mother has lost sight in her right eye. She's taking it rather well, and is even relearning how to drive a car without depending on binocular vision. (Apparently this is legal.) In a recent discussion about her loss, I joked, "No more 3-D movies for you, Mom!" As it turns out, she couldn't care less, and I understand why; 3-D movies interest me even less, and I can still see with both eyes. 

My disdain for 3-D isn't particularly novel: It's gimmicky, it gives me a headache, the glasses dim the image and are uncomfortable. And I'm certainly unwilling to pay extra for this "feature" — given the choice of a film in 3-D or "flat," I'll always choose the latter.

One of my main arguments against 3-D is this: "Do you remember the film in 3-D?" The answer is always no, for the simple reason that our brains don't work that way. Our visual memories unfold in two dimensions, almost as if they were — yup — unfolding on a movie screen.

I'll admit that the question might be unfair, since our memories of the films we see are highly intangible and fluid. And it's likely that our memories of a film are less important to us than are the two hours we spend watching it. Usually, the pleasure we derive from a film is experiential — we enjoy the act of watching, and enjoy experiencing the film as it unfolds in real time.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

What I'm Watching: Torque

Posted By on Sat, Oct 4, 2014 at 9:07 AM

The clever opening shot of Torque. - WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Warner Bros. Pictures
  • The clever opening shot of Torque.

Joseph Kahn is one of the many filmmakers who moved into feature filmmaking after cutting their teeth on music videos. It used to be a bit of a punchline to say something like "Looks like this guy should have stuck to making music videos," but I don't think that really applies anymore. Big, Important Directors like David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry started in music videos, as did less beloved but still talented directors like Michael Bay, Gore Verbinksi, Antoine Fuqua, Dominic Sena, F. Gary Gray and Alex Proyas (all of whom, in my opinion, have made some excellent films).

Maybe it's still commonplace to mock music videos for being "all style, no substance," but I don't subscribe to such a notion. The more stylishly you can do anything cinematic, the better, I believe. And it's no surprise that so many music-video directors have found success in making big-budget genre films in Hollywood. By definition, genre filmmaking traffics in narratives that are, in at least a general way, predictable; they thereby provide directors with narrative frameworks that viewers understand "already." In other words, genre films are perfect vehicles for stylistic experimentation, since their general narrative familiarity won't be compromised by experiments with film form. Indeed, in many cases (I would argue), genre films are importantly enhanced when they're directed with stylistic flair.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Movies You Missed & More: Detention

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 3:05 PM

"You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that every one of us is the entire history of teen movies." - SAMUEL GOLDWYN
  • Samuel Goldwyn
  • "You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that every one of us is the entire history of teen movies."
This week in movies you missed: WTF did I just watch, and can I watch it again?

Director Joseph Kahn's little-seen 2011 horror comedy is the film Easy A should have been. Namely, a self-referential high school flick that takes the genre to the limit and drops it off a cliff, then stands and watches gleefully as it explodes into candy-colored smithereens.

What You Missed

The resident queen bee of Grizzly Lake High (Alison Woods) rises from her bed and lectures the camera on the art of being popular, Ferris Bueller-style. No sooner has she explained the day's fashion statement ("The '90s are the new '80s") than a knife-wielding maniac dressed like the villain of the Cinderhella film series appears and puts a merciful (for us) end to her existence.

Meanwhile, in another bedroom, misfit Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) is considering suicide. Her former BFF (Spencer Locke) has morphed into an evil cheerleader and stolen her secret crush (Josh Hutcherson, who got a huge career boost from The Hunger Games shortly after this was released). The school's resident geek (Aaron David Johnson) won't stop propositioning Riley; and the only person less cool than she is is the girl who committed an unspeakable act on the school's resident stuffed grizzly bear in 1992.

I've just described the film's first 10 minutes, tops. The plot spins out of control as we meet more dramatis personae: the vengeful nerd principal (Dane Cook); the pissed-off quarterback (Parker Bagley), who hides a dark secret; a goth girl; a geek named Toshiba; Ione's cougar mom; the guy (Walter Perez) who's been in detention for literally decades; and, of course, the killer hiding behind Cinderhella's bloody prom dress.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

What I'm Watching: RoboCop

Posted By on Sat, Sep 27, 2014 at 8:43 AM

  • MGM Pictures
One of the reasons I return again and again to Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi satire RoboCop is that the film masterfully balances bleak satire, ultraviolence and goofball humor — three flavors that, if mixed by less talented hands, might not have combined quite so well. I've seen this movie (the 1987 original; I have little truck with its sequels, and have not seen the 2014 remake) many times, but that's never stopped me from revisiting it, which I did last week.

RoboCop just looks more and more prescient every year: Its bitter commentary on the militarization of urban police forces couldn't help but evoke recent events in Ferguson, Mo. Good satire endures, and RoboCop, to my eyes, remains entirely fresh. I didn't understand in 1987, and don't understand now, how some viewers can fail to take note of the film's social satire, but evidently this misapprehension persists. It's not hard to track down reviewers who take high-and-mighty moral stances about the film's famously over-the-top violence, and therefore condemn the film as a whole. Context, people. Context.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

What I'm Watching: Don't Look Now

Posted By on Mon, Sep 22, 2014 at 12:03 PM

The answers aren't up there. - PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • Paramount Pictures
  • The answers aren't up there.
My wife had never seen Nicolas Roeg's wonderful, unsettling 1973 film Don't Look Now, so we watched it recently — she for the first time, me for the 10th or so, though it had been several years since I'd last seen it. It impressed me as much as, or more than, it ever has. It's such a sinister, unpredictable, downright strange film, and it still manages to instill in me a sense of foreboding and mystery. Nothing will ever convince me of the existence of extrasensory phenomena like ESP and clairvoyance — the latter of which is a central theme of the film — but Don't Look Now comes closer than anything else, so compelling is its vision of otherworldliness.

As odd as Don't Look Now is — and if you haven't seen it, I urge you to check it out (it's streaming on Netflix) before continuing, as here there be spoilers — it stars major actors of the time (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), and was released on a wide scale by a major studio, Paramount Pictures. It still sometimes astonishes me that 1970s cinema audiences could see such challenging fare as Don't Look Now simply by going to their local theater. It's been said many times, but the 1970s really was a remarkable time for filmmaking. 

This time around, I really focused on the ways that the title creates and emphasizes various meanings in the film. As someone who has trouble coming up with headlines for his articles, I'm impressed at titles that perfectly, and complexly, inform the cinematic experience. I would argue that Don't Look Now has such a title.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

What I'm Watching: Wake in Fright

Posted By on Sat, Sep 13, 2014 at 9:15 AM

The great Donald Pleasence, coinèd eyes a-gleam - DRAFTHOUSE FILMS
  • Drafthouse Films
  • The great Donald Pleasence, coinèd eyes a-gleam

One of the most exciting cinematic rediscoveries of the last few years is now available to anyone with a Netflix streaming account, thanks to the splintered nature of modern film distribution. I'm referring to the unearthing of Ted Kotcheff's 1971 film Wake in Fright, an Australian-American coproduction that is surely among the bleakest films I've ever seen. And I've seen Salò, Grave of the Fireflies and Nil by Mouth.

The story of Wake in Fright is very simple. At the end of the school year, John Grant, a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse in the Australian outback, leaves the remote town in which he's stationed and does his best to get back to Sydney. He gets waylaid, though, in the even more remote (and fictional) town of Bundanyabba, where he soon falls into alcohol- and violence-fueled dissolution. He loses all sense of propriety, all his morals and all hope of ever getting home.

I won't reveal the ending (though it's more than 40 years old, this still somewhat obscure film has been reintroduced into circulation only within the last two years). But suffice it to say that even Grant's last-ditch attempt to escape his own personal hell is unsuccessful.

The "train station" in Tiboonda - DRAFTHOUSE FILMS
  • Drafthouse Films
  • The "train station" in Tiboonda

The story of Wake in Fright's rediscovery and rerelease is far more complex. Made with a small budget for United Artists, the film was released (in some locations under the title Outback) to generally favorable reviews. Even some critics prone to moralizing viewed the film positively, despite its harrowing depictions of violence and vicious alcoholism. Wake in Fright achieved little success in the U.S., UK and Australia, but it was greeted more warmly in France. It vanished quickly from most theaters.

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

What I'm Watching: The Core

Posted By on Sat, Sep 6, 2014 at 10:17 AM

This ray gun powered by science! - PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • Paramount Pictures
  • This ray gun powered by science!
For some reason, I had the urge last weekend to revisit one of the most gloriously, gleefully preposterous films that I've ever seen: The 2003 sci-fi/disaster film The Core. I am happy to report that it does not disappoint — by which I mean that it remains profoundly silly. This is a quality I admire immensely.

Very little about The Core is not profoundly silly. Its premise, after all, is that a proverbial ragtag crew of mismatched oddballs can "restart" the flow of the molten metal at the center of the Earth. That molten metal has stopped moving, you see, quite possibly as a result of nefarious, government-funded experiments by one of the crew, the egotistical scientist Dr. Conrad Zimsky.

Under the guidance of another crackpot scientist who just happens to have figured out how to blast through solid rock with a beam of light, government forces construct, in just a couple of months, a subway-like vehicle that can withstand the intense heat and pressure at the Earth's core. This is because the vehicle is shielded by "unobtainium," a recently synthesized material that conveniently becomes stronger as the temperature to which it is subjected climbs. 

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

What I'm Watching: Das Boot

Posted By on Sat, Aug 30, 2014 at 9:09 AM

Listening closely in Das Boot - SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT
  • Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
  • Listening closely in Das Boot
I've always been drawn to films that impose limits on themselves, either stylistically or narratively. Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is so exhilarating precisely because it has no edits at all. Part of the great success of Die Hard rests on the fact that it's mostly confined to a single location. (Upon visiting a friend in Los Angeles some 15 years ago, he took me right from the airport to a seemingly anonymous building in Century City, which turned out to be the Nakatomi Plaza, aka the corporate offices of Die Hard's studio, 20th Century Fox. I've seen Die Hard probably 30 times, so this was quite the thrill.)

I recently rewatched another film that benefits from the same kinds of limits that Die Hard uses. Wolfgang Petersen's 1981 film Das Boot (The Boat) is set chiefly in a physical space far smaller than that of the many-storied Nakatomi Plaza: a submarine. I'm not saying anything new in remarking that the intensely claustrophobic atmosphere of this film is its most noteworthy attribute. But I was pleased at how intense the 30-year-old film remains 10 years after I saw it.

Not long ago, I happened to take a tour of a World War II-era submarine in Groton, Conn., that had been turned into a museum exhibit. After proceeding down the central hallway, I naïvely asked my stepfather, "OK, where's the door to the other hallway? I want to see the other side, too." Nope, he informed me: This was it. One underwater tube, one hallway, and unavoidable, intense claustrophobia. These are seriously confined vessels.

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