Saturday, October 2, 2010

Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)

Originally written 26 November 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

Following the 2005 release of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, there was some excitement over the possibility that more high-profile gay-themed movies would follow, a development that didn’t really pan out. Now, three years later, Hollywood has once again decided to tackle gay-friendly subject matter, this time the life of slain San Francisco politician and activist Harvey Milk- directed by the openly gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant, no less. But while the film has attained a certain amount of contemporary relevance with its parallels to California’s recently-passed Proposition 8, Milk biggest breakthrough may be the idea that the lives of gay heroes can be boiled down to the Hollywood biopic formula just as easily as their straight counterparts.

Think I’m kidding? Let’s go to the tape: middle-aged Milk (Sean Penn), fed up with his life, moves to San Francisco with his new boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco). Appalled at the treatment of homosexuals even in the most gay-friendly neighborhood of the most gay-friendly metropolis in America, he’s spurred on to community activism, which ends up leading to politics. After three unsuccessful runs for public office, he finally wins a seat on city’s Board of Supervisors. There, he spearheads a number of major social reforms, including an effort to shoot down the hateful Briggs Initiative in 1978, before being gunned down by a disgruntled formal colleague. Take out the homosexual material and a few of the other details and we could just as easily be talking about any number of civil rights leaders. Hell, there’s even a frightened wheelchair-bound gay boy who inadvertently inspires Milk during his time of doubt, and Smith essentially plays the role of the requisite concerned wife who wrings his hands and tells Harvey that he’s not devoting enough time to the person who loves him most.

Material this hackneyed (courtesy of Big Love writer Dustin Lance Black) would not seem to suit the recent career trajectory of Van Sant, who has lately made a series of highly experimental meditations on death. However, Milk finds Van Sant largely on autopilot, telling his story in a straightforward style that’s virtually indistinguishable than that of most Oscar-bait dramas. Gone are the spare, largely experiential narratives of his other recent films, in favor of a conventional mode of storytelling, with plenty of stock footage and montages to establish the film’s historical context. And while there’s plenty of first-rate cinematography from Van Sant favorite Harris Savides, Van Sant keeps his trademark expressionistic soundscapes to a minimum. Practically the only scenes in the film that feel unmistakably Van Santian are those involving Milk’s fellow supervisor and eventual killer Dan White, played, in yet another in a string of vivid character performances, by Josh Brolin.

If there’s one thing that’s especially distinguished about Milk, it’s the acting. Not only is Brolin perfectly cast as White, but so are Franco, Diego Luna as Milk’s ill-fated rebound lover, Alison Pill as the butch, no-nonsense campaign manager, Denis O’Hara as the hateful Briggs, and so on. Best of all is Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, a former hustler who under Milk’s mentorship is reborn as an activist. And Van Sant wisely lets Anita Bryant play herself in stock footage, letting the smiling, singing anti-gay gorgon serve as a distant, but very real enemy to the beliefs espoused by Milk and his followers. That Bryant would quickly turn from a political force to a punchline in Airplane! in a scant two years is one of history’s more humorous small miracles.

But if the film works- and on balance, I’d say it mostly does- it’s because of Penn, who gives his best performance since… Sweet and Lowdown? Dead Man Walking? Carlito’s Way? Suffice it to say that he’s pretty great here, infusing the wit and intensity that has marked his best performances with a warmth that I’ve never seen from him before. Penn’s Milk is a natural leader because he cares and brings out the best in those around him, but Penn also doesn’t shy away from the thornier aspects of the character. Unfortunately, the film itself isn’t nearly as well-equipped to deal with the contradictions of a man who advocated coming out of the closet yet remained closeted himself for over forty years, who was both an impassioned advocate for social change and a canny politician and self-promoter. At one point, Milk mentions that three of his lovers have attempted suicide, and it comes as a shock because the film so completely paints him as a caring partner and companion. And this, more than anything else, is what keeps Milk from being the cinematic landmark that it so clearly aches to be- that it’s so eager to give the audience Harvey Milk the secular saint that it ultimately forgets about Harvey Milk the man.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974, Jorge Grau)

Originally written 5 November 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

One of the first thoughts that occurred to me after watching Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was how small of a role the undead actually play in the story. Sure, there are some choice zombie attacks, rendered in loving, graphic detail by Grau and his makeup team. But strangely, the zombies seem almost incidental to the storyline. What initially seems to be the story of a battle between the living and the undead becomes something else entirely, which makes the movie more intriguing than a regular zombie thriller.

The story begins fairly unassumingly, as these stories often do, with George (Ray Lovelock) making a weekend trip out to the country. At a filling station, a car backs into his motorcycle, ruining the front wheel, so he gets a ride from Edna (Christine Galbo), the woman driving the car. It’s the beginning of a disastrous day together for the pair- each person has people waiting on him, and at least one of them won’t make it on time. Certainly, George has been inconvenienced by the mishap, but he also seems to take advantage of the accident to get his way. Eventually, they get lost and pull over to ask for directions. That’s when the first zombie shows up, a zombie who we soon see attack Edna’s sister and kill her husband.

After the killing, the movie’s third major character arrives on the scene, a local police inspector played by Arthur Kennedy. From the outset, he makes no bones of his dislike for George and Edna, who he sees as a pair of big-city longhairs. Soon, George and Edna find themselves stuck in a little town awaiting further questioning in the murders. As they wait, they begin investigating the killings themselves, but their poking around arouses the suspicions of the police, especially when more people turn up dead.

Of course, there’s no doubt that the zombies are to blame for the killings. We see the first zombie infect other corpses, who proceed to attack the living all over the countryside. George and Edna’s investigations lead them to a small cemetery, where they are cornered by a trio of the undead. Eventually, they escape with help from a police officer, but the zombies kill and eat the officer and tear apart the cemetery before George sets them on fire. Having been raised on zombie movies that almost invariably follow the Romero rule of removing the head or destroying the brain to stop zombies, it’s interesting to see a movie that was made before this method was universally acknowledged.

But then, what is Let Sleeping Corpses Lie but a movie that was made before the zombie mythos had been fully formed? Understandably, the characters in the film are reluctant to believe that the dead can not only be brought back to some semblance of life, but are actually compelled to kill and eat their victims. This leads to the central conflict of the movie, between George and Edna and the Inspector, whose antipathy towards these outsiders only worsens when he sees the situation on the cemetery. Observing the overturned graves, charred bodies, and half-eaten remains of his officer, the inspector assumes that they’re Satanists and cannibals.

It’s this friction, this constant misunderstanding that takes place between the protagonists of the film and the inspector, that makes Let Sleeping Corpses Lie very much a product of its time. At every turn, the inspector questions the motives of the pair of big-city twentysomethings. At one point, he even tells George, “You're all the same the lot of you, with your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex, every sort of filth!” He seems to devote more energy to monitoring them than to actually solving the case, having quickly jumped to the conclusion that the two actions are one and the same. And when he finally thinks he’s closed the case, he confidently states that he’ll be treated as a hero. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out that way.

Yet all the while, the real culprit hides within plain sight- a snazzy experimental machine that kills insect with “ultrasonic radiation,” within a five-mile radius, but has the unwelcome side effect of raising the dead within that same range. George catches on to this fairly quickly, but his protestations go unheeded by the people who would blindly defend the establishment rather than keep an open mind about a potential solution. And therein can be found the most timely and despairing aspect of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie- the acknowledgement that the generations might solve their problems if they would only listen to each other instead of pointing fingers. Pretty heavy stuff from a movie in which a woman gets her breast chewed off by a zombie, I’m sure you’ll agree.

King of New York (1990, Abel Ferrara)

Originally written 28 May 2009 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

One of Christopher Walken’s greatest assets as an actor is his unpredictability. Watching Walken onscreen, it’s hard to tell how he’s going to deliver even the most mundane bit of dialogue, much less predict how his characters will behave under pressure. But while Walken’s off-kilter presence has garnered him a sizable cult following, it’s easy to overlook what a fascinating actor he can be in more complex roles. In many of his character roles, Walken has fun with his image, but he’s not afraid to play it straight when the part calls for it. Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of those parts, and consequently one of his best performances.

Frank White, the crime lord Walken plays in King of New York, is one of the most frightening criminals I’ve ever seen in a movie, due in large part to the unpredictability that Walken brings to the role. From the first time we meet Frank, he seems to be capable of anything, which gives him an edge in his criminal endeavors. Most of his competition sticks to hard and fast traditions, the most important being that the bigwigs keep their hands clean while the foot soldiers fight the wars. Frank has no use for such traditions- when he needs someone killed, he’d just as soon do it himself. There are many possibilities as to why Frank would do this, but I think it’s because he wants people to think he’s the baddest, scariest man in New York. And when he follows the killing of a rival gang leader by inviting his underlings to join his gang, it sends a very specific message- if you’re crazy enough to follow a guy who does this, I want you on my side.

Consequently, many of Frank’s foot soldiers are as volatile as he is- and some even share his flair for the theatrical, as when one storms into a hotel room shootout screaming, “room service, motherfuckers!” In addition, Frank’s gang could be called “post-racial”- whereas Frank’s rivals generally adhere to ethnic boundaries, such concerns are beneath Frank. Most of his underlings are African-American- two of his most prominent foot soldiers are played by Laurence (then Larry) Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito- but Steve Buscemi also turns up as Frank’s in-house drug tester. And Frank’s own ethnicity- just look at his name- allows him an entry in legitimate society that would be more limited to other criminals of his stature.

It’s this air of near-legitimacy that rankles the NYPD, especially a trio of cops played by David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, and Victor Argo. Whereas the power of the city’s other top criminals is relatively contained to the underworld, Frank hobnobs with New York’s elite, turning up at black-tie parties and charity events. “He’s a movie star,” says Caruso, who bemoans the fact that Frank is running roughshod over the city while he and his partners are only bringing in a modest policeman’s salary. But how to stop him? Caruso and Snipes determine that in order to catch Frank, they need to be as crazy as he is. It isn’t until it’s too late (when Frank crashes one cop’s funeral to kill another one) that that discover that crazy isn’t enough- one must also be lucky.

Argo’s Roy Bishop is the one exception to the film’s cycle of brutality- the one “good cop” who sticks to his principles and hopes to bring Frank in not by sneaking around but by nuts-and-bolts police work. We see him sitting at home in front of his computer, sifting through police files in an attempt to make a case. Throughout the film, Ferrara contrasts Roy’s steadfast adherence to old-fashioned morality with Frank’s more slippery kind of ethics, and Frank understandably sees Roy as his biggest threat. I found it interesting to see Argo, who usually played wiseguys, playing the closest thing this film has to a steady moral compass.

King of New York is one of the bleakest crime movies I’ve ever seen, with one scene of unsparing violence after another. But it’s stylish enough that it’s anything but a slog- like GoodFellas and Scarface before it, it’s amassed a considerable cult, even serving as an inspiration for the late Notorious B.I.G. I’ve only seen a handful of Ferrara films to date, but one thing that’s impressed me about them is how stylish his films can be despite their budgetary limitations. In King of New York, Ferrara uses the low budget to his advantage, setting scenes in scruffy back-alleys and abandoned buildings to give the film a grittier feel than most movies of its kind. I also liked that Frank’s home isn’t an expansive estate but a suite at the Plaza, which combines a location in the heart of New York (perfect for shots of him overlooking the city) with a kind of rented luxury that says everything about the mystique Frank wants to create for himself.

At the center of it all is the enigma of Frank White. Throughout the film Ferrara and Walken invite us to ask the question, what drives this man? Late in the film, he confronts Roy in his apartment and tells him that he considers himself a businessman rather than a criminal, and states that “I never killed anybody that didn’t deserve it.” But how to reconcile that with the charge he seems to get from his power? Or for that matter, what of his efforts to save a children’s hospital in a poor neighborhood? One thing’s for sure- he’s hooked on his sense of power. When he says he wants to run for mayor, everyone laughs until Frank tells them he’s serious. Is he? Who are we to question him?

Juliet of the Spirits (1965, Federico Fellini)

Originally written 29 April 2009 on The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

The “late period” films of Federico Fellini are one of the major blind spots in my moviewatching history. I’ve seen nearly all of his earlier works, up to and including the “transitional” work 8 ½, which remains my favorite of his films. However, the only Fellini films I’ve seen after this are Amarcord (which I love) and Satyricon (which I don’t), but I was certainly familiar with these films’ critical reputations, which tend to echo the sentiments expressed by the loudmouthed intellectual in the movie line in Annie Hall.

Having just seen Juliet of the Spirits for the first time, I can’t argue with the opinion that it’s an “indulgent” film, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, since it reveals aspects of their maker that his more disciplined films could not. Supposedly, Fellini intended Juliet of the Spirits to be a tribute to his wife and frequent leading lady, Giulietta Masina. If this is the case, it’s a funny sort of tribute. Yes, Juliet (played by Masina) sticks to her principles when her husband cheats on her, and eventually finds escape from their marriage. But for most of the film, she is portrayed as a hapless victim, carried along by the whims of the film- and those of her husband.

Consider the way that she is portrayed visually. Juliet never seems to fit in no matter where she is. From the beginning of the film, when her husband (played by Mario Pisu) hosts an impromptu dinner party, the guests are garishly dressed and glamorous, while Juliet wears a simple dress and a matronly brown wig. This will be a trend throughout the film, as Juliet clashes with her more decadent surroundings. Likewise, throughout the film Fellini accentuates the Masina’s petiteness, often showing her amidst people (even her own mother) who tower over her. In other hands, Juliet’s inability to fit into the film’s world would be a defiant statement, but Fellini’s feelings about it seem to be more complicated than that. One can see that he feels affection for his wife, but he can’t resist being drawn toward the decadence that had become such an integral element of both his life and his work.

And what is one supposed to make of the way Juliet is treated by the film after discovering her husband’s infidelity? A more conventional film might have taken the husband to task for his cheating, but not Fellini, who kept mistresses throughout much of his adult life. Instead, one character after another tells Juliet that in order to win her husband back, she needs to embrace her sexual side- to be more like, say, her buxom, sexually liberated neighbor Suzy, played by Sandra Milo, who by her own admission put in time as one of Fellini’s mistresses. Needless to say, Juliet has some trouble with this advice, especially as it relates to her own Roman Catholic upbringing.

The worldview we see in Juliet of the Spirits is a decidedly pre-feminist one, and one that’s a little hard to stomach. But at the same time, one needs not agree with what a film is saying to appreciate the film itself, and Fellini uses the framework of this story to lay bare his own ideas about marriage, sexuality, and the female gender in general. Because these ideas run so contrary to more “enlightened” points of view that have found their way into most contemporary works of art, Juliet of the Spirits is more thought-provoking than a more politically correct film might have been.

And even if you’re not down with Fellini’s worldview in Juliet of the Spirits, it’s hard to argue with the sheer visual splendor of the film, Fellini’s first in color. Many of world cinema’s greatest filmmakers first made the transition to color during the 1960s- Bergman and Antonioni had already made the switch, with Buñuel and Kurosawa still to come. What these filmmakers had in common is that they didn’t simply make the change for commercial reasons, but treated color as another filmmaking tool to be used wisely.

In Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini uses color to create images that would not have had the same impact in black and white, as when he painted the walls red to create unease during a scene in which Juliet visits a mysterious healer. Also striking is the full spectrum of colors found in Suzy’s cavernous home (reminiscent of a fantasy version of a brothel), which contrasts with Juliet’s memories of her Catholic upbringing, which are full of solid shades of red and grey, with innocent white on the children and the almost impossibly dark violet (not black) of the nuns’ robes. Juliet of the Spirits is a feast for the eyes- and, with Nino Rota’s mindbending score, for the ears as well.

In doing research for this review- which must no doubt seem as rambling as the film itself- I came across the following quote from Fellini:

“We don't really know who woman is. She remains in that precise place within man where darkness begins. Talking about women means talking about the darkest part of ourselves, the undeveloped part, the true mystery within… [The] problem for man is to reunite himself with the other half of his being, to find the woman who is right for him-right be she is simply a projection, a mirror of himself. A man can't become whole or free until he has set woman free-his woman. It's his responsibility, not hers. He can't be complete, truly alive until he makes her his sexual companion, and not a slave of libidinous acts or a saint with a halo.”

Perhaps this quotation is the key to what Fellini was attempting with Juliet of the Spirits- not simply translating these ideas into cinematic form, but also struggling to reconcile them with his own weaknesses and deeply-ingrained ideas of what women meant to him in his life. Of course, it’s hard to say what Masina really thought of all this, but that’s part of what makes the movie so darn fascinating, isn’t it?

Home Alone (1990, Chris Columbus)

Originally written 13 December 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

The 1990 holiday movie slate boasted a number of sure-fire hits from many of Hollywood’s most bankable names. Arnold Schwarzenegger was getting pushed around by a classroom full of kids, Sylvester Stallone was revisiting his most iconic character once again, Tim Burton was debuting his first project after Batman made him Hollywood’s hottest young director, and Kevin Costner premiered his debut behind the camera, an epic Western that went on to win several Oscars. Heck, there was even a new Godfather movie. Yet none of these movies went on to become the year’s top grossing blockbuster. No, the reigning king of 1990’s box office boasted little more than a precocious child star, a kid-friendly concept, and a memorable scream.

That movie, of course, was Home Alone, directed by Chris Columbus. Sold to moviegoers with the tagline, “a family comedy… without the family,” the movie’s premise encompassed every kid’s dream- having the run of the house with no adult supervision- and many parents’ nightmare- accidentally leaving their child behind when they leave on vacation. At the center of the action was Kevin, played by Macaulay Culkin, for whom producer/screenwriter John Hughes specifically wrote the role after previously working with him on the previous year’s Uncle Buck. Expectations for Home Alone were relatively low, but good word of mouth about the film and its young star made it the runaway hit of the season, and its overwhelming success led to two sequels.

Alas, Home Alone doesn’t hold up very well, in part because of the mountain of contrivances the movie asks us to accept in order to make the storyline work. To begin with, although I’m sure that children have been accidentally left behind by their parents, it’s hard to believe that it would happen the way it does in the movie- surely one of the adults in the house was an early riser, no? Likewise, a repeated gag involving characters being fooled into thinking that a violent-sounding movie scene is really happening in the house is kind of a forehead-slapper- like any reasonably intelligent adult couldn’t tell the difference between real gunshots to those playing on a television?

But then, intelligence seems to be in short supply among the characters. One of my cinematic pet peeves is when a movie requires that its characters be idiots and Home Alone has some real doozies. Chief among the movie’s morons are Harry and Marv, a pair of bumbling burglars played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Here’s a pair so thickheaded that they get all manner of indignities vested upon them by a little kid, yet never think that, hey, maybe it’d be best to just cut their losses and run rather than risk incurring still more pain and suffering. Of course, it helps that Kevin is preternaturally at jerry-rigging booby traps all over the house with relatively little preparation, and placing them just where the crooks will strike.

This is indicative of the movie’s biggest problem, then Kevin is almost never convincing as a real kid. Oh sure, Culkin bugs his eyes out real cute and delivers the wiseassed one-liners almost like he means them. But it’s just hard to believe that Kevin would be capable of most of what he does or says, whether he’s delivering a monologue in the bathroom mirror or faking out the baddies. Part of the blame must fall on Culkin himself. Like most child actors, Culkin has self-assurance in spades but can’t sell the dialogue as his own, especially not when he’s given lines like “Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.” Culkin was the biggest child star of his day, making $8 million a movie at the peak of his popularity, but it’s easy to see why he hasn’t been able to make the leap to grown-up roles with the same success that contemporaries like Elijah Wood have.

Time and again, I’ve bemoaned the tendency of many adults to forgive family movies their faults and manipulations on the grounds that they’re “just for kids.” While I realize that children aren’t particularly discerning movie watchers, it doesn’t seem right to use this as an excuse to foist subpar entertainment upon them. Home Alone might have been a hit in its day, but it’s also manipulative and often stupid, and making children watch movies like this is practically an insult to their budding intelligence. With all the high-quality family movies now available on DVD, there’s really no reason to show your kids Home Alone.

Great Expectations (1946, David Lean)

Originally written 9 April 2009 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

With more than 270 adaptations of his work listed on the Internet Movie Database, Charles Dickens is one of the most-adapted authors in movie history. It’s not hard to see why- unlike many literary giants whose greatness lies primarily in their style, Dickens was first and foremost a gifted storyteller, famous for telling vivid tales full of memorable characters. Even in novel form today Dickens is both compulsively readable and easily adaptable to movies and television. Many adaptations of his work have a nuts-and-bolts Masterpiece Theatre quality, while others have re-imagined the stories in a different setting. But a few Dickens adaptations- the best ones, really- have managed to honor the author while simultaneously making his work wholly cinematic.

David Lean’s version of Great Expectations fits into this final category. It’s the kind of movie that reminds us not only of what made Dickens’ work special, but also of the pleasures of a particularly well-done big-screen literary adaptation. In run-of-the-mill cinematic adaptations, the filmmakers dutifully step from one storytelling beat to the next like an actor hitting his marks, and their films feel like homework. But in Great Expectations, the novel is the starting point rather than the destination, and Lean spins the yarn as if it were his own. Where most of its counterparts are pale shadows of the works that inspired them- the Cahiers du Cinema critics of yore disparagingly referred to these films as “tradition of quality”- Lean’s Great Expectations is a great entertainment in its own right, perhaps because he understands that Dickens was himself an entertainer.

To see this at work, look no further than the film’s opening scene in the graveyard, in which Pip (played as a boy by Tony Wager and John Mills as an adult) first meets the escaped convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie). A lesser filmmaker would have made this scene feel like exposition, a plot occurrence in which the hero meets one of the story’s key supporting players. Instead, Lean’s direction is reminiscent of an atmospheric horror film, with deep shadows and heavy fog, and a great unease as the fearsome Magwitch threatens this harmless young boy. In making the scene cinematic, Lean shows trust for both Dickens’ story and for the audience’s ability to keep up without having to have everything explained the way it was (out of necessity) in the novel.

Lean’s instinctive feeling for Dickens comes through again and again in Great Expectations, which allows him to wonderfully bring the world of the novel to the big screen- the cobwebbed mansion of Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), Joe Gargery’s (Bernard Miles) blacksmith’s shop, the flat Pip shares in London with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness, in his first onscreen speaking role), all of it. Working with cinematographer Guy Green, production designer John Bryan, and costume designer Sophie Devine, Lean turns Great Expectations into a feast for the eyes, but the visual trappings of the film are more than just eye candy. Look at the way Pip’s gradual metamorphosis into a gentleman is reflected by his clothing- when he first arrives in London, he wears a garish suit that looks like one of Chris Elliott’s “fancy lad” outfits in Cabin Boy. Later on, when the kindly Joe arrives for a visit in a similar outfit, Pip scoffs at his poor taste, only to realize that his experiences have made him a snob.

The film’s version of Great Expectations is above all a story of kindness in a cruel world, and the far-reaching effects that this kindness can have. In the opening third of the movie, Pip is mistreated by nearly everyone he meets- his sister “Mrs. Joe” beats him and berates him for his curiosity, his more well-to-do relatives condescend to him because of his humble origins, and Miss Havisham uses him as a pawn in her revenge scheme against men. But there is goodness in Pip’s life as well, both in the form of the gentle Joe and in the favors Magwitch does Pip for his kindness- a small one at first, then a far greater one later. Because of the charity shown to Pip, he too becomes a charitable person in the end, in a story in which goodness is rewarded in kind.

Perhaps this push-pull relationship between cruelty and kindness is the reason why I found Estella (Jean Simmons as a teenager, Valerie Hobson as an adult) to be the film’s most compelling character. In her early scenes, she shows contempt for Pip, addressing him as “Boy” and bossing him around. But eventually we discover that, even more than Pip, she’s being manipulated by Miss Havisham, practically losing her soul as a result. Hobson’s performance as the adult Estella is particularly fascinating- years of living with Miss Havisham have caused her to ignore and distrust her emotions, so when she finds herself warming to the kind and forthright Pip, she has to hide it under good manners and forced politeness lest she be overwhelmed. When she finally sets aside her guardian’s teachings and gives herself over to her heart, it’s a lovely moment, because the movie has earned it.

Flesh Gordon (1974, Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm)

Originally posted 1 April 2009 on The Screengrab for the 2009 White Elephant Blogathon. Reprinted by permission.

It’s been said that the two cinematic qualities that one can’t be objective about are comedy and eroticism. Every person has different things that make him laugh or turn him on, and if that doesn’t happen for someone, you can’t explain it and make it work. And combining funny with sexy is an even riskier proposition, since the filmmakers have to work out the proper balance of humor and sex to elicit the natural responses to both without one overwhelming the other. Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm’s Flesh Gordon doesn’t come close to achieving this balance. It’s not funny, it certainly isn’t sexy, and it’s just kind of a waste of time. It’s hard to imagine what motivated the directors to make it.

Well, maybe it’s not that hard (heh-heh, I just said "hard"). I imagine Benveniste and Ziehm, struggling for a movie idea, sitting around one day looking at old Flash Gordon comics- perhaps while high, this being the early seventies. Suddenly, one of them starts chuckling even more than one normally would while stoned, and calls the other over. “Ever notice how much a space ship looks like a penis?” he asks. And the other one would respond, “yeah, and check out Dr. Zarkov! That sounds kinda like jerk-off!” The pot-addled ideas keep coming, and soon they’ve got their new project. Now, I’m not saying that good movies can’t spring from unlikely circumstances- after all, To Have and Have Not was made on a bet between Hemingway and Howard Hawks, and that led to one of Hawks’ best movies, as well as the romance between Bogey and Bacall. But in this case, the key difference between Hawks’ classic and Flesh Gordon is that the Hawks film was fully thought out, while Flesh is nothing more than a series of lame jokes and halfhearted softcore scenes in search of a coherent movie.

I’m actually sort of reluctant to use the word “jokes” to describe the comedy in Flesh Gordon, since that word implies a setup and a punchline. Not a single would-be laugh in the movie transcends basic gag status- the filmmakers seem to believe that naughty imagery is a joke in itself, so they don’t do anything to make it actually funny. Consider the ship, which as I’ve already mentioned looks like a penis. But why stop there? Why not make the dick-ship pass through a nebula in the shape of a birth canal on the way to its destination? Why not have make its final destination a vagina-shaped port, only it has trouble clearing the doors so that it has to thrust a few times in order to enter? Sure, these ideas aren’t exactly sophisticated, but at least they use the already-established sight gags in order to form honest-to-goodness (albeit tasteless) jokes. Flesh Gordon can’t be bothered to do this. It’s the kind of movie that assumes that phallic objects alone are hilarious. And if you’re in agreement with that, you’re probably late for your shift at Burger World, Beavis.

What’s more, the movie isn’t remotely sexy. There are acres of (mostly female) skin on display in Flesh Gordon, but as with the comedy, nothing interesting is done with it, so it fades into the background. In researching this review, I discovered that the film originally contained hardcore scenes, but the filmmakers were ordered to cut them and shoot less explicit footage. However, eroticism doesn’t necessarily mean pornography. It does, however, imply more than perfunctory shots of nudity and fleeting glimpses of couples making love. In my experience, the most erotic moments in movies require some patience on the part of the filmmakers in order to let the scenes unfold at an unhurried pace, without letting the plot or the filmmaking get in the way. But the makers of Flesh Gordon don’t care about this- not when they’ve got more dick jokes up their sleeves!

The result is a movie with a strangely juvenile attitude toward sex. With such elements as a monster called Penisaurus, the nefarious villain Wang the Perverted, and his much-feared SeX-Ray, the humor of Flesh Gordon appeals only to those who think naughty words are funny in and of themselves. When it comes to actual sexuality, the movie becomes skittish, turning on the wacky music and turning it into a joke, which takes away the eroticism in the service of a cheap gag. I believe it was Roger Ebert who once reviewed a movie by writing, “if you’re old enough to see this, you’ve already outgrown it.” I can’t think of a better response to Flesh Gordon.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971, Norman Jewison)

Originally written 28 April 2009 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

In some ways, it isn’t hard to determine why Norman Jewison’s big-screen adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof was a hit. From the time sound was introduced to the cinema, musicals were one of Hollywood’s most popular and enduring genres. But while most musicals of the 1930s and 1940s were frothy entertainments, the fifties saw an increase in musicals that tackled more serious material. And the record-breaking initial Broadway run of Fiddler on the Roof made a film version inevitable, and its status as the top-grossing movie of 1971 was practically pre-ordained.

While the reasons for the long-run popularity of Fiddler on the Roof seem obvious, its initial success is somewhat trickier to pin down. For one thing, the story’s subject matter doesn’t appear to lend itself to the musical treatment. What’s more, a community of Russian Jews around the turn of the century wasn’t the sort of setting to which most sixties-era audiences were normally expected to relate. And quite frankly, even in the post West Side Story-era, the storyline of Fiddler on the Roof was something of a downer. After all, Fiddler was about a man who loses most of what he holds dear- his three eldest daughters and finally his home- before the end of the story, and its treated these losses not as a tragedy (which might’ve allowed for some cathartic tears at the end), but with a sense of resignation.

Yet Fiddler on the Roof made a real connection with audiences of the day for numerous reasons. There was the music of course- Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s catchy, Jewish-inflected song score produced half a dozen songs that quickly became musical theatre standards. Likewise, the movie’s deeper themes- particularly the conflict between forward-thinking youth and their tradition-minded elders- had a great deal of resonance in uneasy sixties. And while Fiddler doesn’t soft-pedal its Jewishness by any means, the characters’ concerns were common enough to many difficult cultures that it came across less as a Jewish story than a universal one.

But most of all, audience members fell in love with Tevye, who quickly became one of musical theatre’s most enduring characters. Tevye is not a larger-than-life hero, but a poor milkman who has been “cursed” with five daughters and no sons, and despairs of finding them husbands. Tevye believes above all in the need to uphold tradition, and it’s the clash between this need and his daughters’ need to forge their own paths in life (especially when it comes to finding husbands) that drives the story. Throughout the story, Tevye struggles with how flexible his love for his daughters will allow him to be, until he finally reaches a point where he must throw up his hands and say, “if I bend any more, I will break.” And all the while, Tevye carries on a conversation with God- so much, indeed, that he must speak to God more than he does to any flesh-and-blood character.

Before MGM brought Fiddler to the big screen, the role of Tevye was most commonly associated with the great Zero Mostel, who originated the character on Broadway. Because of this, there was some controversy when Jewison decided to fill the role not with Mostel, but the lesser-known Topol, who starred in the West End production. In the end, however, Jewison made the right choice for the film. With his outsized style of acting, Mostel was the perfect stage Tevye, able to pitch his performance to the rafters. But for the more naturalistic big-screen production, Topol’s more human-sized turn proved to be ideal. Whereas Mostel’s over-the-top bluster would have overwhelmed everything else, Topol’s never does, and he’s a sensitive enough performer to pull off the smaller character moments, as in the quiet musical number in which he asks his wife of twenty-five years, “Do You Love Me?”

One of director Norman Jewison’s key filmmaking decisions at the outset was to go for a more realistic feel which would make the musical transcend its stage origins. However, this gambit doesn’t always pay off, and occasionally this commitment to realism makes it feel almost like Jewison was uneasy about making a big-budget musical. In some ways, it’s probably good that Jewison limited the dancing to social scenes such as the barroom and Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding. But on the other hand (as Tevye is so prone to saying), Jewison undermines several potentially powerful scenes by having the songs sung in voiceover rather than actually voiced by the characters onscreen.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “Chavaleh (Little Bird)” number, in which Tevye ponders the loss of his third daughter, who has eloped with a non-Jew. Had Jewison allowed Topol to perform the song onscreen, it might have made for one of the most emotional moments in the film, with Tevye realizing how his need to uphold tradition has lost him a beloved daughter. But instead, Jewison has Topol sing the song in voiceover, shooting him gazing into the distance while imagining his daughters dancing away from him. The number turns into what Roger Ebert calls a “Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude”, and like most scenes of this type, it’s pretty laughable- a far cry from the powerful moment it should rightly have been.

But overall, Fiddler on the Roof does right by its original inspiration, and the elements that people loved in the stage production translated quite nicely to the silver screen. It’s not one of the greatest movie musicals by a long shot, but it’s a worthy adaptation, certainly better than most of the post-Golden Age adaptations of long-running musicals, which all too often get shoddy treatments a la The Phantom of the Opera and A Chorus Line. Perhaps the most definitive testament to the worth of the Fiddler movie is that, nearly four decades after the film’s release, Topol is currently starring in what has been called his “Farewell Tour.” That just goes to show you that while Zero might have originated the role of Tevye, he hardly owns it anymore.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977, George Barry)

Originally written 26 March 2009 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

Like many people, my introduction to George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats came through the stand-up comedy of Patton Oswalt. In this routine, Oswalt complains about the difficult process of bringing a big-screen project to fruition- writing a script, selling it to a studio, enduring the clueless questions and comments from studio functionaries, and so on. In Oswalt’s mind, Death Bed is forever mocking him- a movie that, despite its lame-brained premise and Z-grade production values, actually got made. Oswalt’s Death Bed bit- like nearly everything he’s done- is hilarious, but it’s also the best advertising Barry could’ve hoped for, turning a long-buried exploitation movie into something of a cult favorite.

The premise of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is so simple that the title scarcely needs the phrase after the colon to sum it up. Simply put, there’s this bed, and it eats damn near anything that’s unlucky enough to sit, or lie down, or be set down, upon it. Of course, there’s more to the movie than a series of bed-related murders. There’s a backstory involving the bed’s origins- the demon who tried to seduce a young woman years ago, and the somewhat ill-defined curse that befell the bed when she rebuffed the demon’s advances. There’s also the spirit of an artist who was consumed by the bed who is now trapped behind one of his paintings, and who observes the killings and takes care of all the exposition in voiceover.

But really, this is basically a movie about a bed that eats people, which should be enough to tell you whether you’ll like it or not. In my experience, people are either down with cheeseball exploitation movies or they’re not, and never the twain shall meet. My pal Steve C., who originally recommended this to me, is something of a connoisseur of the cinema du fromage, and he found Death Bed to be just his cup of tea. On the other hand, my girlfriend, bless her heart, found it pretty insufferable. A few hearty laughs aside, she pretty much hated it, and when it was over, she sarcastically remarked about how much watching the movie had enriched her life. Thanks for trying anyway, honey.

As for me, I’m in the middle. I’m no aficionado of the form, but I’ve seen and enjoyed more than enough to know that Death Bed is no better or worse than most no-budget exploitation fare of the day. There are a handful of classic moments, but writer/director/producer George Barry just doesn’t have the filmmaking chops to make the movie work for more than a minute or so at a time. The editing is choppy, the camerawork barely functional, the storytelling fragmented, the ending completely arbitrary. What’s more, the movie also lacks the kind of fully committed insanity of which exploitation classics are made. Barry lacks the courage of his convictions, and he fails to fully exploit the wacked-out possibilities that his premise presents.

That’s not to say that there aren’t inspired bits in the film. I had high hopes during the film’s first few minutes, beginning with Barry opening the film with a pitch black screen under which we hear only the chomping of the titular bed. He then progresses to the first killing scene (following a title card that reads “Breakfast”), in which we see the bed eat an apple and a bucket of chicken and drink a bottle of wine, leaving the core, picked-over bones, and empty bottle behind. Pretty impressive trick, especially when you consider that the bed has feet but no hands. How the bed consumes its victims is never explained in detail- it seems to have a solid mattress, but it absorbs its prey with a sort of foam, and once it begins eating Barry cuts to shots of the food/victims submerged in a pool of bubbling liquid, as though they’re drowning in corrosive Alka-Seltzer. But then, one doesn’t watch a movie called Death Bed expecting exhaustive detail on the physiology of man-eating sleep implements (hoping perhaps, but hardly expecting). Also, the bed tends to wait for its prey to come to it, although it’s prone to manipulating the house that surrounds it to trap its victims, and at one point it even uses a sheet to lasso a victim who tries to escape.

Watching this scene, I couldn’t help but notice that while the Death Bed generally quick work of its previous (white) victims, it took its time with this African-American woman, eating away at the skin on her legs before she escaped, then allowing her to crawl slowly across the floor to help the bed draw in more victims before roping her in for the kill. But while this initially seemed like dodgy racial politics, subsequent scenes revealed a different reality- that she was the only one in the cast who could convincingly act like she was actually suffering. The rest of the cast consists of the kind of blank-faced nobodies who populated most exploitation movies, like the guy who reacts to the skin on his hands being eaten away with an expression that suggests that someone nearby has recently passed gas. Death Bed isn’t as bad as its premise would suggest, but in a way that makes it all the more disappointing, because Barry includes enough entertaining moments (the Pepto-Bismol!) that it makes one wish the whole movie was on that same level.

Chelsea Girls (1966, Andy Warhol)

Originally written 9 November 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

If one reads enough movie reviews and articles, eventually the expression “critic-proof” will emerge. Normally, this is used to describe big-budget, lunkheaded Hollywood blockbusters that are virtually guaranteed to be massive hits no matter how much the critics dump on them. However, I think the phrase could just as appropriately be applied to Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which I recently saw for the first time as part of the Wexner Center’s exhibition
Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms. Like many movies that are labeled “underground films,” Chelsea Girls stands outside the accepted rules of mainstream narrative cinema. The film, loosely structured as a series of vignettes featuring a number of Warhol Factory “superstars,” is a rebuke to traditional notions of “good” and “bad.”

Adding to the confusion is the film’s nontraditional method of exhibition. Warhol intended the film to be projected on two screens, with two different scenes playing next to each other. He also gave projectionists permission to choose which scene’s soundtracks they wished to turn on. Consequently, no two viewings of the film were the same, and because of this, there is no definitive integral version of Chelsea Girls, although I can imagine it being a prime candidate for a special “interactive” DVD cut that allows viewers to choose their preferred soundtracks or the synchronization of the images.

Because of its unconventional nature, I found the questions I normally ask when evaluating a film to be mostly useless. Instead, I approached Chelsea Girls like I would a modernist painting, asking myself, “how do I respond to this?” As it turns out, I dug it, as audience members might have said during the film’s original release. Parts of Chelsea Girls are confounding and almost tedious, like promising bits that go on far too long in order to fill the predetermined 33-minute scene duration mandated by Warhol’s 16mm camera equipment. But most of the time, the film is fascinating to behold, with Warhol’s experimentation sometimes yielding magical results.

As befits Warhol’s background as a visual artist, Chelsea Girls is often beautiful to watch, full of striking imagery both black and white and in color. Nowhere is this more evident than in two scenes involving Nico that bookend the film, the first a black-and-white domestic scene involving the singer/actress doing her hair while her son plays nearby, the other a closeup of her crying while brightly-colored lights play over her face. In addition, Warhol deploys a vast arsenal of camera tricks, including insistent unmotivated zooms, fiddling with the focus and depth of field, and even employing what I like to call “typewriter pans”- basically, sweeping the camera slowly over a scene from left to right before whipping it back to the left and starting again.

The two-screen effect also pays off, resulting (during my viewing, anyway) in some interesting pairings and juxtapositions. The most obvious example for me was the pairing of Eric Emerson’s extended monologue and a crowd scene involving many of Warhol’s “superstars”. Emerson’s monologue is of an intimate nature, as he discusses details of his life and his sexuality before doing a slow strip tease. Yet the lighting Warhol uses for him- mostly red and blue- is almost the same as the lighting on the other screen, giving the impression that Emerson is delivering his speech for an audience. Which, I suppose he is. Other pairings are more mundane, like Mary Woronov in one frame looking like she’s listening to herself in the other.

But while some scenes in the film come close to working as drama- especially one in which “mother” Marie Menken berates “son” Gerard Malanga- more often the scenes don’t so much build as simply exist, giving off a loose, hanging-out vibe. And while this has proven frustrating to those in search of the thrills associated with narrative cinema, it’s an essential and endlessly compelling bit of cultural anthropology, a portrait of the Factory era as seen by some of its most important figures. Many Factory favorites are represented here- Ondine presiding as a foul-mouthed pope hopped up on amphetamines, Brigid Berlin as a surly drug dealer, Mario Montez turning up briefly for a song, Nico of course, and most memorably Mary Woronov, berating Ingrid Superstar and International Velvet before going into her extended, uproarious version of a Hanoi Hannah radio broadcast (one of only two segments of the film that wasn’t completely improvised).

Warhol called them his Superstars, but in their “natural” habitat of the Chelsea (with its bohemian mien and Spartan décor) they feel much more like a pack of strays that Warhol took in off the streets. Perhaps that’s why they were so widely embraced by so many young people of the time, including John Waters, who has spoken fondly of the times he drove up to New York from Baltimore to catch the latest Warhol film. These weren’t big-screen gods and goddesses living in mansions in California, but people they could relate to, people who were trying to make their way in New York City before Warhol turned them into his own kind of movie stars. As Eric Emerson says in the film, “I can see me. Looks pretty good.”

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990, Brian DePalma)

Originally written 11 November 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

Of all the prestige projects of the 1990 awards season, few had more potential than The Bonfire of the Vanities. To begin with, it was based on Tom Wolfe’s first fiction book, which had been widely read in serialized form in Rolling Stone before becoming a bestseller upon its publication as a novel. The director was Brian DePalma, who made his reputation with a series of kinky, Hitchcock-inspired thrillers during the seventies before branching out into more mainstream fare such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Casualties of War. With a wildly popular novel and an A-list director, Warner Bros. had visions of Oscars dancing in their heads, and they consequently filled the cast with big names, from recent Oscar nominees Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Morgan Freeman to newly anointed action superstar Bruce Willis, and backed them with plenty of first-rate character actors.

Ideally, The Bonfire of the Vanities should have been one of the biggest movie events of 1990. But then, if it had been, I would be writing about it in my Yesterday’s Hits column instead of When Good Directors Go Bad. As it stands, the big-screen adaptation remains one of the most notorious fiascos in Hollywood history, earning back a mere $15 million of its then-extravagant $50 million budget, and receiving mostly savage reviews. And while, as a DePalma fan of long standing- I’m the guy who liked The Black Dahlia, after all- I’d like to say that the film was merely misunderstood, I have to admit that it’s a failure.

Part of the problem is the casting of the principal roles, from the top on down. If you were casting the role of an ambitious commodities trader and self-anointed “Master of the Universe”, whose name would come to mind? Michael Douglas? Tom Cruise, perhaps? But after Warner Bros. deemed the character too unsympathetic on the page, they decided to cast Tom Hanks in the role, which is sort of like casting Jimmy Stewart as Gordon Gekko. Also problematic was the casting of Willis. The character of journalist Peter Fallow was written as a dissolute Brit (the role was originally offered to John Cleese), but Willis ended up being cast for marquee value, and gave one of his laziest performances, smirking his way through the role and pissing off most of the people involved with the production with his ego.

Worst of all is Griffith. During the eighties, Griffith’s dumb-blonde persona proved to be surprisingly adaptable to a number of filmmakers’ visions, from the tart-with-a-heart of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild to the streetwise porn star of DePalma’s own Body Double. However, the role of Maria Ruskin was far beyond her limited talent. On the page, Maria may be the trickiest character in the novel, a wily manipulator whose ditzy façade hides a pitch-black heart. But Griffith can only manage the ditzy part, so when the character begins to reveal her shameless nature after Sherman’s life begins to go down the tubes we never believe it. The two halves of her personality- sexy and cunning- never mesh convincingly, so rather than lacing her manipulations with an erotic charge, her dark side makes the sexy stuff creepy, which surely wasn’t what the film was aiming for.

But while the casting issues might have been out of DePalma’s hands, he’s far from blameless. Admittedly, Wolfe’s novel is something of a tough nut to crack, simultaneously a cross-section of New York City life, a morality tale, and a savage takedown of the craven greed and ambition that fueled the eighties. However, it fails on all three counts. Much of its power as a snapshot of the Big Apple’s social strata is lost because its characters are sketchy and one-dimensional, a problem that might have been partially alleviated by spot-on casting, but not entirely. Likewise, the film places its morality tale aspects on the back burner for most of its running time, only to have judge/voice of reason Morgan Freeman bust out an extended monologue about decency in the film’s final five minutes, at which point it comes off as a tacked-on moral rather than a natural outgrowth of the story.

This leaves only the exposé aspect of the story. In nearly 700 pages, Wolfe was able to lay bare the motivations of nearly all of the major players in the story, from Sherman, Maria and Peter, to the lawyers, politicians and community leaders who opportunistically seized upon his case for their own personal gain. Without the time to do this onscreen, DePalma instead focuses on the circus (political and media-driven) that ensues. But while a more assured comic filmmaker might have been able to spin even an abbreviated Bonfire into a bitter little pill (imagine what an Ace in the Hole-era Billy Wilder might have done with this material), DePalma brings almost nothing to the material aside from the liberal use of unflattering wide-angle close-ups to underline the grotesqueness of the characters. Sure, there are a handful of cool camera tricks, but they don’t really work in the context of the story, and mostly just call attention to themselves. I hate to use a criticism that DePalma’s detractors are wont to levy at him, but in this case, they’re right.

In the end, the biggest failing of The Bonfire of the Vanities is one of tone. The scathing satire of the original novel was replaced by a more hamfisted style that was both broad and shrill. A few of the jabs hit (I love how Andre Gregory’s poet is introduced: “he’s on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. He has AIDS.”), but most of the time they whiff. Scenes like the one where Maria’s cuckold husband (Alan King) suddenly dies in mid-conversation or the famous “crumbs” monologue by Sherman’s wife might have worked on the page, but they flounder and die onscreen, the former because it’s not inherently funny to see a minor character kick the bucket, the latter because Kim Cattrall plays the character as such a high-strung harpy that it’s hard to focus on anything she says.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Ebert was right when he wrote that The Bonfire of the Vanities might be enjoyable to those who are unfamiliar with the book. But I wouldn’t bet on it. DePalma and the studio took a powerful and lacerating story and adapted it in the most pedestrian way possible, and replaced the prickly citizens of Wolfe’s New York City with characters who are both cartoonish and, worse, uninteresting. If anything good came out of my watching Bonfire again, it’s that I’ve been inspired to re-read the book, to immerse myself in Wolfe’s language and marvel at the world he created. By now, it’s become a cliché that people are generally better off reading the book, but in this case that’s the only way to go.

Birth of a Nation (1915, D.W. Griffith)

Originally written on 20 May 2009 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

When I first hit upon the idea for Yesterday’s Hits about a year and a half ago, the idea was to look at movies that were extremely popular when they were first released, but which might not have maintained this popularity to the present day. In looking at movies that haven’t necessarily stood the test of time, I hoped to gain some anthropological insight into what audiences of the past responded to, both stylistically and ideologically. And while some of the movies I’ve selected have held up pretty well (and some even better than that), some of the more interesting cases have been the ones that haven’t, for various reasons. In some cases, the popularity of these films have been due to their employing some then-impressive technical breakthrough, while others were very much of their time, featherweight entertainments that simply weren’t built to last.

But ever since I first conceived of this column, one movie has remained at the back of my mind- D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Generally acknowledged as the first blockbuster in movie history, Birth of a Nation was the film that cemented the commercial viability of the feature-length release, grossing more than $10 million in 1915 dollars, which translates to roughly $200 million today. In addition, the techniques employed by Griffith and his crew were groundbreaking in their day, and exerted a profound influence on cinema that continues even today. Yet despite its influence in film history, Birth is usually condemned for its borderline hateful views on African-Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s this combination of the film’s runaway popularity and its troubling, dated ideology that makes it an ideal subject for a Yesterday’s Hits column.

So what was it about Birth of a Nation that so excited audiences back in the teens? Based on a recent viewing of the film, I’m tempted to say that many audience members simply hadn’t seen a movie this big before. In the first few decades of cinema, the dominant mode of filmmaking was in short subjects, which dramatized small-scale stories over the course of twenty minutes or so. By contrast, Birth of a Nation ran upwards of three hours long. In addition, the scale of its story was big enough to encompass the Civil War (both the Union and Confederate sides), the assassination of President Lincoln, and difficult process of Reconstruction. In 1915, this was a story that was still fresh in the minds of many Americans, and they were no doubt eager to see it “brought to life” on the screen.

Today, after nearly a century of advances in filmmaking technology, the expansiveness of Birth of a Nation is no longer impressive. Yet it’s interesting to observe many of the conventions of contemporary Hollywood cinema in their embryonic form here. The most obvious example of this is Griffith’s use of cross-cutting between different storylines that run concurrently. Today, cross-cutting can be found in the vast majority of films both big and small, but at the time it was practically revolutionary, and it’s sort of amazing to see how closely Griffith’s version of the technique resembles its current form. Birth of a Nation should be taught in every film program as a textbook example of how to use cross-cutting to not only keep several plotlines going simultaneously but also to play them off each other to increase the audience’s level of excitement.

And I have no doubt that it would be if not for the film’s much-ballyhooed reputation of racism, which I must report is completely justified. For much of the film’s first half, this isn’t an issue, as Griffith concentrates primarily on the Civil War, and of the two families- the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons- whose fates are inextricably linked throughout the story. But once the North wins the war all hell breaks loose, as the newly re-United States is very nearly reduced to a shambles by the Reconstruction process. In the film’s view (and presumably, that of Thomas Dixon’s novel as well), Reconstruction was a period in which opportunistic northern politicians who wanted to punish the south for seceding, and the newly-freed slaves who wanted to stick it to their former masters, nearly ruined this country. And the only thing that prevented them from doing so were the righteous members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Now, there’s a forgiving part of me that wants to believe that the audiences of the day were so bowled over by Griffith’s filmmaking that they could scarcely be expected to pay attention to the odious racism that runs through the story. But the hard truth is that racism didn’t magically disappear with the passage of amendments thirteen through fifteen, and was still prevalent at the time of Birth of a Nation’s release. What makes the film’s imagery especially alarming is the way it fans the flames of hatred towards African-Americans. Throughout the film, Griffith shows us African-Americans who are stupid, lazy, gluttonous, underhanded, sneaky, and violent- in short, “sub-human”. One of the many glaring examples of this is in the scene depicting the South Carolina Senate, full of freed slaves who prop their bare feet up on the desks, gobble down food in the middle of giving speeches, and use their newly-acquired to enact a law permitting interracial marriage. The most hateful ones of all in Griffith’s eyes are the “mulattos,” who combine the intelligence and cunning of whites with the craziness of “blacks.”

The first half of the film is riveting (it could play as a great Civil War melodrama on its own), while the bald-faced racism of the film’s second half is jaw-dropping But what the two halves have in common is Griffith’s filmmaking sense, even in the wrongheaded later sequences. This makes these scenes all the more disturbing, as the ideas are so mind-boggling yet sold so well, that it’s little wonder that Birth was banned in a number of areas for fear of inciting race-related violence- or that KKK membership increased dramatically in the years following the film’s release.

There’s a famous, possibly apocryphal story that after seeing Birth of a Nation, President Woodrow Wilson declared that, “it’s like writing history with lightning.” This is something of a two-pronged statement, simultaneously praising the power of Griffith’s images and expressing fear at the influence that these particularly images might have over audiences. Today, the majority of Americans no longer hold the same kind of racism that informs Birth of a Nation, but it’s illustrative to remember that nearly a century has passed since its release, and to consider how few of today’s blockbusters will be able to withstand this same level of scrutiny a century from now. If nothing else, to consider Birth of a Nation today is to reflect on, in the words of Haven Hamilton, “how far we’ve come along ‘til now/ how far we’ve got to go.”

Bigger Stronger Faster (2008, Chris Bell)

Originally written 17 December 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

Watching Chris Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (*The Side Effects of Being American), the first thing that I noticed was that Bell didn’t look like the typical documentarian. Of course, there really isn’t a mold for what a nonfiction filmmaker ought to look like, but normally documentary filmmakers tend to look either like intellectuals (Errol Morris, Fred Wiseman) or self-styled man-of-the-people types (Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock). By contrast, Bell is a good-looking thirtysomething, broad-shouldered and well-muscled, in keeping with his life as a former bodybuilder. But in making this, his first feature, Bell obeyed the first rule of writing- when in doubt, write what you know. Or in Bell’s case, film it.

On one level, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is about steroids. However, considering Bell’s experiences in the world of competitive lifting and bodybuilding, the movie is hardly an anti-steroid screed. Bell knows this world too well to come out against chemical enhancement. For one thing, while he’s against taking steroids himself, his brothers Mike (aka “Mad Dog”) and Mark (“Smelly”) have no such qualms. Mad Dog still harbors his childhood dreams of pro wrestling stardom, while Smelly continues to compete in power-lifting competitions, at one point bench pressing more than 700 pounds. Meanwhile, Chris is working at Gold’s Gym selling gym memberships, and is smaller than both his older and younger brother. Did the drugs make the difference?

For years, health experts have warned athletes about the dangers that steroids can wreak on one’s body. But Bigger, Stronger, Faster presents a dissenting opinion, calmly and surprisingly convincingly. According to the scientists and doctors Bell interviews for the film, the health risks that come from taking steroids are relatively minor, and are generally temporary. But while another director might have taken these findings as evidence in favor of steroid use, Bell is up to something altogether different. He’s dispelling the overblown health-related myths of steroids in order to approach the issue on ethical and sociological grounds.

In Bell’s mind, the use of steroids among athletes is symptomatic of a deep-seated desire not only to succeed, but to come out on top. From a young age, Bell remembers idolizing men (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan) whose success came, according to them, as the result both of their muscular physiques and their hard work. Children are taught that if they dream big and follow their dreams, they can be anything they want to be and escape their humdrum lives. And if it takes chemical enhancement to get the edge one needs to prevail, so be it. Besides, asks the film, if fighter pilots are required to take amphetamines, and teenagers are prescribed Adderall to get the edge at school, why shouldn’t athletes be allowed to use steroids?

Bigger, Stronger, Faster isn’t an especially distinguished documentary- it’s fairly nuts and bolts from a directing standpoint, and Bell is occasionally prone to digressions that don’t really go anywhere. He occasionally includes a surprising scene such as the one where he interviews Donald Hooten, who famously spoke out against steroids after his steroid-using son killed himself. But he also includes such unnecessary sequences as the one where he decides to make his own energy supplement, hiring a couple of migrant workers to help him prepare the supplement and even staging an ad campaign. More often than not, however, Bell’s points hit home.

One of the key points he addresses is the paradox of modern professional sports- that on one hand we demand our athletes win, while on the other we need them to play fair. During the film, Bell remembers the incident when the hated wrestler The Iron Sheik was arrested for doing drugs with fellow wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan, and Bell recalls being shocked less by their actions as he was by the idea that the two were supposed to be mortal enemies. Perhaps this explains much of the outrage stirred up by the Congressional hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball- that deep down, we still want our sports heroes to be to us what they were when we were young. In a world that’s complicated and difficult to figure out, we need a place where success is easily measured, everything is governed by rules, and there are clear-cut winners and losers. Above all, we need to believe that our dreams are attainable. In one of the last scenes of Bigger, Stronger, Faster, we see Mad Dog, now thirty-six years old and married, putting on a unitard and making an audition video for the WWE. Of course, his chances of making it in professional wrestling are long gone, but he forges on. After all, it’s easier and more comforting than reality.

Angel Heart (1987, Alan Parker)

Originally written 11 May 2009 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

The conventional wisdom regarding cinematic plot twists is that they be unexpected. This means that either the audience shouldn’t see that a twist is coming, or that they shouldn’t anticipate the particular twist that the movie has in store. So what to make of a movie like Angel Heart? Here is a movie that more or less announces from the beginning that nothing is what it seems, and the film is filled with clues that are somewhat less than subtle. Yet at the same time, it’s entertaining and stylish enough that it entertained me even as I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I more or less guessed where it was headed, but I had a good time getting there.

Consider an early scene in the film, in which the detective protagonist Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) meets his mysterious retainer Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to discuss the case Harry has been investigating. In most detective movies, Cyphre would be portrayed in a way that makes him seem slightly off, but wouldn’t hint at his dark secrets. But rather than trying to hide Cyphre’s true nature, director Alan Parker almost dares us to guess, as he tempts Harry by offering him $5,000 to take the case (a pretty good sum for a fifties-era gumshoe), then uses his elegant long nails to peel one of the hard-boiled eggs on his plate. Angel knows something is afoot, but he’s so anxious (both by Cyphre and the eggs, since he’s “got a thing about chickens”), and in thrall to the money being offered that he doesn’t even try to guess what. But it becomes pretty clear to the audience who Cyphre really is by the time he mentions that eggs are seen by some cultures as symbols of the soul then takes a big bite from one of his eggs, a sinister glare in his eye. It’s almost like… Parker wants us to guess.

Really, the whole movie is like this. And while as a mystery Angel Heart leaves something to be desired, it’s much more successful as an exercise in lurid style. Parker, who first worked as a commercial director, has always been more comfortable with visuals than with substantial narratives, which torpedoed serious efforts like Angela’s Ashes and The Life of David Gale, but was well-suited to more stylized and less plot-driven fare like Pink Floyd: The Wall (Evita straddled the line, making mincemeat of plot and character development but providing thrilling, almost Riefenstahl-esque lighting and choreography for the production numbers). Angel Heart fits into the second category, which goes a long way toward explaining why this is one of the director’s more interesting films.

If Parker doesn’t seem especially interested in making a whodunit, that’s because they’re largely a setup for the story’s seamier trappings- the dingy home of a morphine-addicted doctor, the shadowy back alleys of old New Orleans, the ornate choreography of a late-night pagan ritual. Likewise, Parker’s use of blood makes the movie feel almost like an old-school giallo in parts, complete with leering closeups of freshly disembodied corpses and the various organs that were removed in the process. And the notorious sex scene between Rourke and Lisa Bonet is one of the more memorable of Parker’s career, so frenzied and over the top that it must be seen to be believed. That the scene in its current form was actually edited down so that the film was get an R rating just goes to show how far Parker was willing to go to get his effects.

However, the movie would be nothing more than empty style without the assured lead performance by Rourke. Even prior to his nineties career meltdown, Rourke excelled at playing down-and-out guys who thought they were smarter and more charming than they actually were, and the role of Harry Angel was a perfect fit. While many actors would have turned Harry into a retro-cool archetype, Rourke’s performance is eccentric (look at the way he reacts whenever he spies a chicken) and emphasizes his deep-seated anxieties and preoccupations. Rourke isn’t afraid to highlight Harry’s less capable side- for a detective he can sometimes be pretty slow to pick up on things, and he occasionally makes some pretty big mistakes out of carelessness. Yet he’s so engaging in his rumpled, careworn way that it’s hard not to like the guy, and to feel sorry for him once the story has painted him into a corner.

In the climactic scene of Angel Heart, Rourke faces off against DeNiro for the final time, as Harry finds out not only Louis Cyphre’s secret but also his own. DeNiro was still in the full flower of his talent at the time, not yet having become a bloated parody of himself. But it’s Rourke who shines in this scene, as he cries out “I know who I am!” again and again. As the scene continues, Rourke wrings one emotion after another from this line- first defiant, then pathetic, then resigned- and it’s a reminder of what a fine actor he was back before we nearly lost him to his own self-destructive impulses. When I saw The Wrestler this past winter, I knew that it was designed to be Rourke’s comeback vehicle, but I had only a limited exposure to the early years of his career. Now that I’ve seen Angel Heart, I’m eager to see more.

A Life Less Ordinary (1997, Danny Boyle)

Originally written 12 December 2008 for The Screengrab. Reposted by permission.

Since its premiere on the fall festival circuit, Danny Boyle’s new film Slumdog Millionaire has ridden a wave of ecstatic buzz, one which many believe the film will ride to numerous Oscar nominations. With his crowd-pleasing arthouse hit, it seems that Boyle has finally arrived for real in Hollywood, a full dozen years after his breakthrough films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. However, it wasn’t supposed to take this long. In the wake of Trainspotting’s international success, Boyle was tapped by Fox to bring his directorial sensibility to America with his subsequent project A Life Less Ordinary, which paired Boyle’s favored leading man Ewan McGregor with hot Hollywood starlet Cameron Diaz. Life was the director’s take on the romantic comedy, and Boyle’s goal was to infuse the warm fuzzy genre with a liberal amount of mid-nineties indie edge while also indulging the audience’s romantic sides.

Under the right circumstances, A Life Less Ordinary might have been a zeitgeist-ready hit, particularly at the twentysomethings at whom it was aimed. However, it wasn’t to be. What’s more, the disappointing box office returns for the film were, for once, a reflection of its quality. It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to blame his intended audience for not “getting” the movie when it flops, but if the movie in question isn’t very good, the filmmaker doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on.

Part of the problem was that the convoluted storyline, in which so much business is happening at once that very little actually makes an impact. The setup: God, disturbed by the lack of love in the world, begins dispatching angels to Earth to bring people together. Two of the angels, O’Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo) are assigned to the case of Robert (McGregor), a down-and-out wannabe writer, and Celine (Diaz), a bitchy heiress. And how do they meet, you ask? Why, when Robert storms into Celine’s father’s (Ian Holm) office and somehow ends up kidnapping her. How else were they supposed to meet? From there, it’s off to the races, as Robert finds himself an inept kidnapper, Celine decides to help him in order to get a cut of the ransom for herself, and the heavenly duo (masquerading as bounty hunters) relentlessly pursue the mismatched couple. With all this going on, it’s a wonder they ever find time to fall in love, then out of love, then finally back in love again, precisely on cue.

But then, most romantic comedies depend on contrivances, just as long as we’re rooting for the romantic leads to turn out OK. However, in order for this to happen we’d actually have to care about them, and these two hardly seem to be worth the effort it takes to bring them together. McGregor is fairly likable as Robert, a pretty nice guy who is easily overwhelmed and somewhat over-eager to apologize for himself. However, Diaz is another matter entirely. On the page, Celine is a tricky character- a rich girl who lets herself be kidnapped in order to escape her life. But while the role might have worked if Diaz had made her a slightly daffy thrill seeker, instead she plays Celine as a harpy and a nag for most of the movie, until the plot suddenly demands that she fall in love with Robert. As the movie progresses, we’re rooting for Robert all right- rooting for him to get as far away from her as possible.

With a romantic vacuum at its center, the story becomes little more than a parade of quirky characters and situations, flailing about onscreen in search of a reason to exist. Where to begin? There’s a dentist (Stanley Tucci) who Celine shoots in the frontal lobe while playing William Tell, only to return to work mere days later. There’s also the crazy backwoodsman (Maury Chaykin) who encounters Robert and Celine shortly after the kidnapping, and his even crazier friend who barks instead of speaking. And then there’s the ever-dogged O’Reilly and Jackson forever in pursuit, with O’Reilly brandishing a machine gun and hanging off the hood of Robert and Celine’s car- not at the same time, of course. How is all this supposed to make the central duo fall in love? Your guess is as good as mine.

Late in the film, after their funds have been depleted, Robert and Celine decide to rob a bank. When Celine holds up a teller, she asks to make a withdrawal, to which Robert responds, “I thought we agreed there’d be no clichés.” Boyle and writer John Hodge seemed to have used this line as their philosophy when making A Life Less Ordinary. However, it’s not enough to avoid clichés- one must replace them with other, more interesting ideas, and this is the failure of the film. A Life Less Ordinary is a film that tries to liven up its genre, but it never manages to do so, primarily because it fails to be romantic or funny. When Robert and Celine end up together, it feels not so much like a logical conclusion to this story as a cue for the lights to go up and the credits to roll. I suppose A Life Less Ordinary isn’t exactly ordinary, but it’s pretty lifeless.

Double Review: Thunderball (1965) and Moonraker (1979)

Originally written 20 November 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

Quantum of Solace may have opened already, but I’m still jonesing for that old Bond feeling. Perhaps it was the decidedly un-007-like style of the latest movie in the series, but I for one found myself missing some of the reliable, even cheesy, touches of the old installments. So for this week’s column, I decided to look back at two of the biggest hits of the series to date, one starring Sean Connery (Thunderball), and one starring Roger Moore (Moonraker), thereby making this my first Yesterday’s Hits double feature to date.

At first glance, the two movies wouldn’t seem to go that well together, but a closer look finds a number of similarities beyond the usual Bond clichés. For one thing, both films were the top-grossing Bond titles for their respective stars. In addition, each was the fourth film in which they appeared. Both movies were a great deal more expensive than the films that preceded them. And by some strange coincidence, both movies build to action scenes in which dozens of characters are seen floating- in Thunderball’s case, the scene is underwater, whereas in Moonraker, they’re in space. But perhaps most importantly, neither film is especially well-regarded by devotees of the series. In last week’s list of the best and worst Bond movies of all time, Moonraker was voted the second-worst of the series, while Thunderball was the only “official” Connery title that didn’t get mentioned as one of the best.

Following the smash international success of Goldfinger, it was clear that moviegoing audiences couldn’t get enough of Ian Fleming’s super-spy. So production was quickly begun on the biggest Bond adventure yet, a $9 million spectacular called Thunderball that would once again star the suave, wry Scot Sean Connery. With the Bond formula more or less established from the previous three adventures, it was more or less guaranteed that Thunderball would be an even bigger hit than its predecessor. However, it ended up doing so well at the box-office that it remained the highest-grossing Bond adventure for nearly fifteen years.

The movie that would eventually dethrone it was, of course, Moonraker. Released only two years after Star Wars changed the face of blockbusters, the film was EON Productions’ attempt to cash in on the space opera craze- after all, what locale is more exotic than space? Moore was no Connery, but by 1979 he’d been accepted as Connery’s successor, and placing him against the backdrop of the so-called final frontier was a winning proposition. Despite mostly negative reviews, Moonraker raked in the money, the already tempting deal sweetened by the return of fan-favorite Jaws, played by the one and only Richard Kiel. Moonraker had the highest gross of any Bond movie until Pierce Brosnan assumed the role.

So, do they still work? As it turns out, Thunderball holds up pretty darn well, Moonraker… eh, not so much.

Coming so soon after two nearly perfect examples of the Bond formula done right, Thunderball’s flaws must have seemed especially glaring to fans of the series. Much of the supporting cast is bland and forgettable, with the most egregious offender being Claudine Auger as the principal Bond girl, Domino. In addition, a good deal of the wit that distinguished the previous entries in the series was cast aside here in favor of expensive action sequences. But with action sequences as good as the ones in Thunderball, it seems churlish to complain. Especially great is the extended underwater fight/shootout that comes at the end of the film, in which Bond and dozens of agents take on Largo (Adolfo Celi) and his henchmen for minutes on end, without a shred of dialogue. This scene remains a high-water mark of the series- no pun intended, of course.

And then, there was Connery, still the overwhelming favorite of 007 fans everywhere. By now firmly established in the role, Connery was able to inhabit the character with an easy authority, so much that his successors have all been measured against him. What’s surprising here is that he was actually able to find some new wrinkles to the character even after three previous performances in the role. By this point in the series, Bond has begun to show a little more self-awareness about the demands of his job. There’s an early scene in which Bond has to leave on his mission, and one of his conquests runs after him and asks him to write to her, and all he does is give a stiff little smile and say to himself, “another time, another place.” He also had room for ambiguous gestures, as in the scene where Largo’s agent Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi) gets shot. Does Bond intentionally use her as a shield to save himself, or does it just happen that way? Connery never lets on one way or the other, and the character is more fascinating as a result.

By contrast, there was no room for ambiguity in Roger Moore’s conception of Bond. Moore’s version of 007 was less a hard-nosed secret agent who got his hands dirty than the archetypal “gentleman spy” as a straight-up hero. As a result, his performances were entertaining enough, but didn’t make the character particularly interesting. Also uninteresting here is Lois Chiles as Dr. Holly Goodhead (yeah, I know), another in a line of interchangeable pretty faces who were uneasily shoehorned into doctor roles in Bond movies. With two uncompelling leads, my attention quickly shifted to the villainous Drax, played by the great Michael Lonsdale with the perpetually annoyed bearing of a man who’d prefer not to trifle in the affairs of lesser intellects. With better material, Lonsdale could have made for one of the series’ best baddies, but he’s still pretty darn good.

And then there’s Jaws. I’ve always been a fan of the Jaws character, both in concept and execution. After all, here’s someone who has a limited number of job prospects- for an indestructible giant with metallic teeth, I’m guessing “hired killer” pays quite a bit better than “nightclub bouncer,” and the travel benefits are better. But in spite of this, he seems to legitimately enjoy his work, and it’s hard to hate the guy even when he’s beating the hell from Bond. Plus Kiel, with hardly a line of spoken dialogue, gives Jaws personality to spare, and it’s nice to see him finally get his own little romantic subplot in the story, even if it’s marred by a cheeseball music cue.

But all in all, Moonraker is pretty shoddy goods. James Bond travels from one exotic locale to another trying to save the world, but there’s no urgency to it, and the formula had become so comfortable that the filmmakers didn’t dare diverge from it (Quantum of Solace has exactly the opposite issue- it breaks out of the formula so much it barely feels like Bond). Consequently, it comes off less as a thriller than an inconsequential romp, with such silly scenes as Bond’s Venetian gondola turning into a hovercraft, complete with a bird doing a double-take. Even the once-ballyhooed outer-space scenes look dated and cheesy nowadays. Moonraker might have gone over well with the audiences of the time, but it just doesn’t work today. Thunderball, on the other hand, is still pretty great.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Yesterday's Hits

Titanic (James Cameron)
Love Story (Arthur Hiller)
The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick)
Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson)
Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham)
The Bells of St. Mary's (Leo McCarey)
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer)
Every Which Way But Loose (James Fargo)
9 to 5 (Colin Higgins)
Billy Jack (T.C. Frank)
The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin)
Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg)
The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack)
The Robe (Henry Koster)
The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan)
Top Gun (Tony Scott)
Independence Day (Roland Emmerich)
Summer of '42 (Robert Mulligan)
Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman)
Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis)
Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Anderson)
Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli)
The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland)
The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson)
The Longest Day (Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernard Wicki)
Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)
City Slickers (Ron Underwood)
The Carpetbaggers (Edward Dmytryk)
Exodus (Otto Preminger)
The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds)
Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
The Exorcist (William Friedkin)
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
Thunderball AND Moonraker (Terence Young/Lewis Gilbert)
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Irving Reis)
The Santa Clause (John Pasquin)
Home Alone (Chris Columbus)

When Good Directors Go Bad

Ready to Wear (Robert Altman)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman) [written by Faisal A. Qureshi]
1941 (Steven Spielberg)
The Serpent's Egg (Ingmar Bergman)
Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff)
New York, New York (Martin Scorsese)
The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola)
The Doors (Oliver Stone)
Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Exterminating Angels (Jean-Claude Brisseau)
Stardust Memories (Woody Allen) [not what you'd think]
I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
Dreamcatcher (Lawrence Kasdan)
The Wicker Man (Neil LaBute)
The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel Coen) [?]
1492: Conquest of Paradise (Ridley Scott)
Regarding Henry (Mike Nichols)
Ishtar (Elaine May)
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (Joe Berlinger)
The Brothers Grimm (Terry Gilliam)
She Hate Me (Spike Lee)
Texasville (Peter Bogdanovich)
The Dark Wind (Errol Morris)
Year of the Horse (Jim Jarmusch)
For Love of the Game (Sam Raimi)
The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)
Rising Sun (Philip Kaufman)
Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe) [?]
Hulk (Ang Lee)
The Frighteners (Peter Jackson) [?]
Goya's Ghosts (Milos Forman)
Ryan's Daughter (David Lean)
Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton)
Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis)
Insomnia (Christopher Nolan) [?]
The Road Home (Zhang Yimou)
Cruising (William Friedkin)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Clint Eastwood)
Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron) [?]
The Bonfire of the Vanities (Brian DePalma)
Waterloo (Sergei Bondarchuk)
A Life Less Ordinary (Danny Boyle)