Friday, July 28, 2006

The Bridge Drive-In

Every town has one: an ice-cream stand that opens in the spring and attracts a crowd. The fare is anywhere from average to above-average, but people don't really show up for the food -- they show up for the romance. Your father bought his sweetheart a milkshake here, way back when. You did the same. Now you're taking the kids. They don't know it yet, but the light they see tonight will eventually take on a nostalgic hue.

Winnipeg is a decidedly quirky town, and it has dozens of such spots. But it has only one Bridge Drive-In.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Greetings From Winnipeg

Two days of driving; one "incident" (the oldest finally threw up); the most expensive tank of gas yet ... and we're here. I took this while attending my godson's baseball game.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Westward, ho!

We're off to the Wild West. I'll try to post pix by Tuesday.

Any comments? Anyone? Bueller?

Darko has already lamented the absence of Jim Jarmusch from my Fifteen Favourite Films. Who else did I overlook?

Film Fave #1: Save The Tiger

The call woke me up early Satuday morning. Things had been going badly between my friend and his wife. Now he was phoning from a downtown hotel.

I cabbed over. It was a predictably sad business – I was fond of them both, and they were good parents to their kids. But the trajectory their marriage was on had been obvious for some time. There weren't any real surprises, except for the astonishing depth of heartbreak.

When I got to the hotel room, I took a chair while he tidied up a bit. We talked. I asked a few questions, and mostly listened.

Room service came with a Thermos of coffee and some breakfast. The conversation had run its course, so we ate in silence. My friend turned on the TV, and flipped through the channels. One of the movie stations was showing an old Jack Lemmon picture. We stayed put, and watched a few minutes.

Those minutes stretched into the full two hours. When it was over, our mutual silence seemed to have reached a greater depth.

I don't think Save The Tiger sits on any of the “official” Great Movie lists, but today it tops mine. It isn't perfect – Harry Stoner is easily Lemmon's best performance, but he still has moments when he's projecting to the cheap seats; some of the plot contrivances are a little rough around the edges – but even the imperfections bring character to the overall work. It's an unselfconscious time capsule of the early 70s, an era when movie makers didn't mind following a person to work. In Stoner's fashion mill, ironically named after an Italian respite where he recovered from war wounds, Stoner's character is peeled back and exposed to us one layer at a time. He may slouch through most of the movie, but at work his inner steel surfaces, and we see the cunning and ferocity that kept him alive when he was a soldier.

From time to time, he mentions lost ideals, but the only nostalgia that plays convincingly is his nostalgia for big band music and baseball. Stoner isn't trying to negotiate with ideals so much as he's trying to reconnect with his pre-war state of innocence. It is an intensely lonely struggle – Stoner can't invite others to help him with it, because when he does it only magnifies the gap between two solitudes.

The film is bracketed with casualty reports, from Viet Nam, at the beginning, to the injured firemen at film's end. The film makers are sympathetic to Harry's plight, and convincingly communicate why so many business people become antagonistic toward government – it's just one more predator out there, contributing not just to their frustrations, but their demise. “Creative solutions” are a soft-headed indulgence. People are going to get hurt.

This movie is unlikely to stay my number one pick for much longer, but it still belongs there for now. Every life inflicts casualties of its own, and any story, song or movie that takes care to shine a light on the survivor's soul is a welcome work of art. Save The Tiger does, and is, exactly that.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Film Fave #2: This Is Spinal Tap

Good grief -- where do I even start? For one thing, This Is Spinal Tap miraculously prolongs one's appreciation of Heavy Metal as an artform. I first saw it -- January 1984, with a Bible School buddy -- in a tiny movie-plex theatre, filled with lads wearing Iron Maiden shirts and Pink Floyd caps. Everyone was laughing and cheering. Spinal Tap wasn't deflating Rock & Roll Mythology -- it was contributing to it.

Christopher Guest has done some incredibly funny movies since then, but Waiting For Guffman doesn't inspire me to join the community theatre, and Best In Show hasn't prompted me to go out and buy a dog. But this "Rockumentary" is different: even as these used-up geezers slip further into a well-deserved obscurity ("Puppet Show! And Spinal Tap"), the urge to actually start a band and take it on the road becomes nearly irresistable. To be so singularly confused and earnest and self-indulgent has to be fun!

Until now, I've avoided talking about DVD bonuses -- I usually equate "extras" with "extra waste of my time" -- but this disc has been packed to the ribs with incredibly entertaining goodies. For one thing, the "audio commentary" is provided by the three surviving Tap members, who take the opportunity to set viewers straight on director Marti DeBergi's "hatchet job". There are also deleted scenes and videos for "Gimme Some Money" "(Listen To The) Flower Children" "Hell Hole" and "Big Bottom" -- all very funny stuff.

I was never one to memorize Monty Python sketches and recite them for the assumed amusement of friends and family, but this movie has brought me as close to that brink as anything done by the Flying Circus. Fortunately, I can resort to timely short-hand: "Take it to eleven!" ("when we need that extra push over the cliff") or "That's just nitpicking, isn't it?" (in response to withering criticism), etc. The surest sign of a replayable movie is its infiltration into the viewer's daily goings-on. And with its ability to straddle that fine line between clever and stupid, This Is Spinal Tap invades with aplomb.

Film Fave #1

Film Fave #3: Raising Arizona

Number three is a particularly difficult choice for me – I could do a top ten Coen Brothers Films list (hmm – note to self...). In a list like that, I'm not sure which would come out on top. Since I have room for only one Coen Brothers title, I'll go with the first movie of theirs that I saw on the big screen: Raising Arizona.

Nicholas Cage's performance as loveable sad-sack H.I. McDunnough (a convenience store hold-up artist who locks his keys in the car) is a comic tour de force. Newcomer Holly Hunter's face switches in an instant from withering scorn, to unshakeable despair. The entire cast is blessed with a script that delivers funny lines to everyone who shows up on set.

And in a film concerned with family and giving birth, the Coens crack their knuckles and roll out one cinematic pun after another. How nasty is it when two brothers deliver themselves from the muddy ground, like demon-spawn? And how pathetic is it when they chose to return on their own accord? And you just know the baddest guy is the biker who carries his own bronzed baby-shoes, and sports a tattoo that reads, “Momma didn't love me.”

It's a funny, dopey movie, and yet when the McDunnoughs finally return the baby to Nathan Arizona and he delivers his cornball consolation speech ("I sure hate to think of Florence leaving me. I do love her so.") I always get choked up. Of course, then he asks the couple to leave the way they came in: by the window.

I was going to include a few juicy quotes that always get me giggling, but there are too many. You can read a few here, or just resign yourself: get the movie off the shelf, drop it in the player, and enjoy.

Film Fave #2

Film Fave #4: Kiki's Delivery Service

When a young witch turns 13, it is customary for her to hop aboard her broom, leave home and set herself up in a strange city. On a sunny day, while lying in the tall grass and listening to her transister radio, Kiki decides tonight is the night.

So begins my favourite Hayao Miyazaki movie, Kiki's Delivery Service. Thirteen might seem a little young for a girl to strike out on her own, but as with any Miyazaki movie, there is an innate sense to the proceedings that coheres quite naturally for the viewer. It helps that the world Kiki inhabits has none of the dire threats ours does. And it helps that she's a witch.

It's a little unclear just what a witch's powers amount to, other than broom-flying. Kiki's mother runs a sort of apothecary, and the first snooty witch Kiki encounters claims to be a fortune-teller, before brushing off Kiki and her cat Jiji like so much dandruff. Kiki's chief challenges, it seems, will be social.

Miyazaki's Kiki is the embodiment of youthful energy. Watching her, I reconnect with all the joyous uncertainty that came with leaving my home town. The trick to negotiating these changes is in maintaining confidence in your spirit, and Kiki is one of those blessed youths who doesn't have too many doubts in this regard.

The inevitable does eventually occur: through a series of events, Kiki loses touch with her magic, and her source of confidence. Her spirit seems to reside under a wet blanket; she no longer flies through her life, but walks through it, one miserable step at a time. How she gets back in touch with her magic is a scene that is more momentous and exciting than any of the cliffhanger conclusions we've seen in the last 20 years, because it is deeply emotional and stirringly personal.

I love Miyazaki's work. As with most Japanese anime, Kiki's world is a melange of visual influences. Miyazaki distills a European storybook aesthetic that is at once recognizable and strange. Ivy covers the walls of tall, gabled stone houses, the streets are narrow, trains cut through the countryside and a zeppelin flight is heralded as a big event. All wonderful, but the charm of these images resides in Miyazaki's attention to detail – how many animated movies open with the wind blowing through long grass?

But Miyazaki's originality also lies in his ability to observe and identify so closely with his heroines. I can think of no other living film-maker who cares as deeply about his girl protagonists. Novelist Shusaku Endo has said the Japanese revere their mothers because they exist in sharp counterpoint to their fathers, who are expected to be stern and emotionally distant. Miyazaki seems to follow his muse most closely when he paints the emotional development and dawning maturity of young girls.

Now that I think of it, Miyazaki's characters are almost always in the business of nurturing, though not always in the manner that one expects. But if emotional development comes through encounters with the strange in Castle In The Sky and Spirit World, with Kiki's Delivery Service it comes through finally recognizing what has been there all along.

Film Fave #3

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Film Fave #5: The Limey

There are some directors I’d like to hate, but don’t. Steven Spielberg, for instance – the guy reaches for sentiment whenever an honest conflict of emotion proves too difficult for him to frame. He panders to the crowd, but I usually leave the theatre (or return the DVD) feeling like I got my money’s worth with him. Hey – at least he pandered to me.

Then there are directors I’d love to love, but have trouble doing so. Steven Soderbergh, for instance. The way he takes chances – let’s do a three-hour drama about the drug problem in North America; that book by Stanislaw Lem that Tarkovsky kinda-sorta filmed … any reason why that couldn’t be a smart summer blockbuster?; etc. – is the sort of behavior I naturally tip my hat to. And yet I usually finish a movie feeling as if my patience got tested once too often.

Out of Sight is a good example. Critics were generally impressed with it, and it seemed to signify Soderbergh’s newfound willingness to work with sexy actors and a tight script to deliver a straightforward thriller that should be a hit with audiences. The script was based on an Elmore Leonard novel, and Leonard’s “hip” quotient was growing among Gen X – Soderbergh’s (and my) demographic. So I took my seat and looked forward to a smart guy delivering the sort of smart film that Hollywood habitually dumbed down.

When it was over, I felt residually satisfied, but mostly let down. The story was smart enough, but by the end my interest in its characters had waned. I blamed the actors: George Clooney was still too slick to be taken seriously as a bumbling charmer, and J-Lo was J-Lo (always will be, I'm sure). The gorgeous jaw-dropper falls hard for the gorgeous jaw. Zzzzz.

But, man, did I ever love that opening scene when Clooney storms out of the office, yanks off his necktie and is caught in a mid-throw freeze-frame. That scene had an infectious energy to it, but the freeze-frame was the capper – a quick wink at the audience, to let us know there’d be just enough self-consciousness present to keep this show fun. I sure could stand to see a movie that maintained that stylistic panache right to the film’s conclusion.

The Limey is that movie. Seen laid out on paper, the movie looks like it should be a director’s bloated indulgence: Soderbergh assembles a cast of 60s actors who have since slipped out of the mainstream (Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman, Joe Dallesandro), gets them to sink their teeth into every 60s cliché and hangover you could name, puts them through their paces in a revenge thriller, then skips off to the editing room where he playfully splices up its perspective in a 60s art film style.

Well, it is an indulgence, but it’s one of the leanest and most tightly controlled indulgences I can think of. Take Soderbergh's “art film” splicing: it's a little jarring at first, but it quickly becomes a reliable tone-setter for successive scenes. The first time I saw the film, I thought Soderbergh's narrative play was less intrusive and considerably more effective than Tarantino's had been in Pulp Fiction. With successive viewings each little fragment gains significance, but never in an earth-shaking “So that's what he meant!” way.

As for the acting, it's some of the best you'll see from these veterans of stage and screen. I suspect Soderbergh is an “actor's director”, a guy who gives a few scant instructions, but is mostly inclined to stay out of the way. That would explain why Julia Roberts in a Steven Soderbergh movie is such bad, bad news: she will take over a film, just as surely as Barabara Streisand would. With the exception of Peter Fonda, who was experiencing a bit of a big-screen resurgence at the time, The Limey is cast with actors whose brightest moments have come and gone. They aren't trying to keep their star in the ether; they're trying to do good work. They approach their characters with attention to detail, and project with care.

There is some incredibly satisfying violence, but this is not a graphic film. The script is peppered with snarky asides that reduce me to fits of giggles every time I watch it, but it is surprisingly serious film. The veteran actors all play off roles they became famous for, yet none of it plays self-consciously.

I want to keep gassing on like this, but the plainest truth about this film is its revelations are finally gentle ones – the sort that keep me coming back again and again, because they do not rely so singularly on astonishment and brutal surprise for their impact.

It's a fabulous film that has earned Steven Soderbergh a great deal of cache with me – enough for me to really want to enjoy myself with his next film (if only it weren't Oceans 13!).

Film Fave #4

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Film Fave #6: Heat

Sure, it's high concept. Sure the dialogue can get a bit stilted, particularly between the sexes. And as with most Michael Mann films, the finale has zero emotional punch because it was set in stone in the first act, and heralded with trumpets throughout the rest. But Michael Mann directing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro is a match made in testosterone heaven, and I can watch this movie again and again because despite it all, Mann proves himself capable of genuine emotional depth.

Mann, never one to settle for a ten when he can take it to eleven, frames these two raging bulls with several football teams worth of nostril-flaring masculinity -- as if Pacino and De Niro weren't enough, we get secondary and character actors like Tom Sizemore, John Voight, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Trejo, Wes Studi and even tattooed motor-mouth Henry Rollins filling up the screen with their own brand of violent innuendo. And yes, Val Kilmer is in there, too, supplying a little adolescent surliness. Happily, he gets beat up pretty badly by film's end.

One of the film's pleasures is that just about everyone who comes on-screen gets theirs by film's end. It's a suburban morality play that's writ larger than Gidget: when Pacino finally connects with De Niro (and let's face it: their characters' names don't matter. This is the WWE, here: we paid admission to watch these two guys face off against each other) Pacino's cop asks De Niro's criminal, "So you never wanted a regular type life?" De Niro fires back, "What the fuck is that? Barbecues and ballgames?"

Yes, exactly. And when things finally explode, the first casualty to get blown to bits by machine-gun fire is a line of barbecues on display outside a grocery store. Boys, boys, boys -- you wanna play, you gonna pay. In fact, these men all do claim to want something akin to barbecues and ballgames. But their scenes with women play falsely: the couples laugh at shallow jokes, or they hug and sway together on the dance floor, or they even make love and whisper "Do you love me"-type lines, but it feels too deliberate. It's stagey, people are acting. It's only when the men hold up a bank that this feeling of artifice disappears. These boys enjoy the heat too much to give it up, so they get burned.

The strangest element in this morality play is Natalie Portman's character, an adolescent step-daughter to Pacino's cop. I think Portman's presence brings more emotional power than Mann quite knows how to handle. The other women in these guys' lives are all old enough to know better, so the viewer (and Mann) can keep them at emotional arms' length. But Portman's suicidal character sits on the other side of this morality play as the only true victim among all these firing guns. Her presence threatens to turn the morality play into a tragedy, and the way I see it, the film's emotional climax occurs when Pacino leaves the hospital vigil to finish his pursuit of De Niro.
I'm so glad she's there. Without her, the entire enterprise would be no more memorable than a particularly grim James Bond movie -- a heist gets pulled, shots are exchanged, people die. Heat could have been that sort of movie -- in fact Collateral was that sort of movie, and I certainly enjoyed that. But Heat is the more compelling and rewarding movie, thanks to its emotional core: a messed-up adolescent girl who flits in and out of all this flexing and posturing and shooting, serving as a spectral reminder of what's really being sacrificed in the spectacle, the noise and the heat.

Film Fave #5

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Film Fave #7: From Russia With Love

Shortly before we moved the b&w TV set to the kitchen, we had it next to my mother's sewing table. A local TV station was broadcasting a week's worth of James Bond movies, and since I was an adolescent and peer discussion was important to me, I asked my parents if I could watch this night's 007 offering. I don't know if my father smirked and gave my mother a broad wink, but he might as well have. "Sure," he said. "Why not?"

My mother's sewing machine was busy that night. I crept closer to the TV, hoping to catch the scurrilous bits between the barrage of electronic interference she threw my way. You would think my quest was a futile business, but no. Somewhere between the zig-zags I caught: a woman in a bikini cuddled next to the titular hero; two gypsy belly-dancers, scratching it out for our hero's affections; a girl in the buff rushing to a hotel bed and slipping between the sheets; our hero with the girl on a train, playing at being husband and wife; our hero, delivering a vicious slap to the girl's jaw ... I dunno. There was some fighting and somesuch in there, too.

It's 30 years later, and I can't get over From Russia With Love. To my mind, this is the Bond movie by which the others are measured, and nearly all of them slip well below the standard -- which is curious, because the movie wears its flaws as if they were badges of honour. The special effects are dodgy (you can spot the string holding up the exploding helicopter), the hero couldn't possibly be more sexist (well ... the early Goldfinger scene in which he gives a massage-girl named "Dink" a swat on the fanny is a bit of a topper), the gypsies come straight from central casting (and do a lousy job of fighting). The knife-in-the-shoe is pretty cool, though, and gets a lot of dramatic mileage.

Connery is called the "dangerous" Bond, and in the early films there's no doubt about it. His character straddles a line between irresistable charm and genuine repugnance. He's like a character from a James Salter story: the cad who crashes the party drunk, helps himself to the cognac, and gives the hostess a pinch. He's appalling, but the hostess can't stop thinking about him. Of course the villains are cold and ruthless; worse still, they have impeccable manners.

Bond struts around these stiffs, the embodiment of loose-limbed, hands-in-the-pockets insouciance. And he flips from adolescent id to parental condescension -- usually after there's been a nasty, protracted fight with a Bond Girl's safety at stake. It's irredeemably bad behaviour, with not a trace of reality to be found.

Enlightened men shouldn't enjoy this stuff -- but some of us do. Consider it our Pretty Woman.

Film Fave #6

Monday, July 17, 2006

Film Fave #8: Big Night

At the time of its release, there was criticism levelled at Big Night's high-falutin' Continentalism: two idealistic Italian brothers seek only to bring their enlightened Continental cuisine to Americans and make a business of it, but the Yanks just want-a the meatball. I can't see it. To my eyes, this movie is an essentially American story about vision and compromise.

It's easy to get idealistic about what goes on in the kitchen, and Primo (Tony Shaloub) is a supreme food snob. But he is not just a perfectionist -- he is an artist, a proposition we have to take in faith in the early moments of the film.

His younger brother, Secondo (Stanley Tucci) is a businessman with ideals of his own. Unfortunately for his long-suffering girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver) they show up in the bedroom. It seems Secondo has something of a virgin/whore complex: he doesn't mind sleeping with the competition's wife (Isabella Rossellini), but can't quite muster up the wherewithall when it comes to his American beauty. Phyllis doesn't yet understand just what she represents to this sleek-suited dude. He wants marriage, he wants a nice house, he wants a Cadillac -- he does not want to settle for love in the back seat of a beat-up Oldsmobile.

Just around the corner is their competition -- a hopping, happening place where spectacle takes precedence over the culinary quality. Ian Holm's "Pascal" roars into the picture with an off-putting bluster and fury, a ridiculously comic Alpha male who takes command of every scene he's in. Secondo approaches him with hat in hand, looking for a loan, a favour, anything. Pascal promises him an evening with Louis Prima -- the only Italian who could possibly upstage Pascal.

I am not normally a fan of "food" movies -- and I don't much like cooking shows, either. It's all a form of Playboy entertainment: one person stands up and presents an airbrushed ideal that in fact requires the co-operation and talents of dozens of people to manufacture. Without a little mischief and humour, these scenarios very quickly get dreary. Fortunately the feast in Big Night plays itself like an extended joke, waiting for the mischevous punchline.

The audience knows what the punchline is, long before the brothers recognize it. This night is finally going to be their undoing.

I find the closing 40 minutes of the film incredibly satisfying. If the film's architecture has been a little studied in its set-up, the conclusion's stark simplicity has an emotional sumptuousness that speaks directly to the heart. Pascal's bombast dissipates like fog, finally revealing the cool menace beneath it. The two brothers fight on the beach the way two brothers who love each other fight -- they want to kill each other, but they can't bring themselves to actual blows. The final scene -- a long, unbroken take of Secondo preparing eggs for his brother and their hungover waiter -- is rightly heralded for its poetic tension. Scrambled eggs, for two brothers who couldn't quite pilot their ship to the glorious New World.

No words are spoken during this scene; the viewer is free to project whatever value he'd like. This simple act of care and provision ... is it enough to renew a modest, wiser sense of possibility in these two brothers?

Film Fave #7

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Film Fave #9: Monsters, Inc.

I belong to a group of cobbers who gather at an old cottage every fall. We slurp single malts, cook outrageously rich dishes for breakfast, lunch and supper, fire up a cigar or two and generally fill the air with our gassy opinions on the state of things. It's been 15 years of this, and the day we switch to an all-vegetable menu is quickly coming down.

Fifteen years -- eef. There is video footage of our original get-together. Incredibly embarrassing stuff. One guy in particular complained about the conversation: "I wish you guys would supply the footnotes to what you're saying." We were an incorrigible bunch -- most of us still in University, over half of us doing Graduate work.

I'm happy to report that fifteen years have taken a pleasant toll on our group level of testosterone and smart-assedness. However, the same guy -- still single, still straight, still childless -- said, "For years I didn't know what half of you were talking about. I still don't know, but at least now all I have to do is visit my four-year-old nephew and watch a few of his movies."

It's true: we've gone from aping Woody Allen and (oog) meta-referencing Lacan, Auerbach and Schweitzer (tsk -- old obnoxious habits do die hard. Shameful) to quoting Mike Wazowski.

Ah, but Pixar's Monsters, Inc. is a movie lovingly crafted to call to the tiny, darkened corners of our hearts. It's a buddy movie writ large -- the hulking, muscular "Sully" (voiced by the hulking John Goodman) allows himself to play straightman to the vertically challenged and too-clever-by-half smartmouth "Mike Wazowski" (Billy Crystal). Mike's love-interest is the Medusa-coiffed "Celia", and even though she is an odd thing to behold, a guy can't help but get a little itchy and scratchy when her voice has that busty-breathy Jennifer Tilly quality.

Hollywood's natural impulse would be to put Celia at the stress-point of a potential love-interest triangle, but nope: Sully's fine with Mike's latest affaire du coeur. The actual source of conflict is over a three-year-old girl, who lives on the other side of the closet door.

The beauty of Monsters, Inc. is in its patient, elaborate set-up. You have monsters who live in a parallel universe, powered by the screams of children. You want meta-referencing? MI has it in spades -- including nerdy references to Chuck Jones and Ray Harryhausen, with a host of Pixar in-house visual gags. Wielded by less competent hands, these gags would have all the subtlety and delight of a Nixon-era bumper-sticker. But John Lasseter and his Pixar crew have woven together a layered, fantastical world that is recognizable in its nuance and breath-takingly other in its scope -- the MI universe, in fact, becomes a loving homage to one of Lasseter's most revered influences, Hayao Miyazaki. (One of my cinema regrets is being layed low by the stomach flu when my family went to see MI on the big screen -- encountering the closet-door warehouse on that enormous scale must have been incredible.)

As meticulously rendered as this universe is, Miyazaki's greatest influence is seen Sully's increasing protective instincts toward the three-year-old girl, "Boo" -- which is, I suspect, the deepest pull for me and my buddies. Mike's desire for Celia is garden-variety romance -- the smart-ass runt can never quite believe this beautiful creature is actually falling for him, and he'll do everything in his power to keep the magic alive. But discovering a heart-felt concern for the safety and well-being of these tiny, alien creatures that seemingly jump into your life unbidden (explain it to me again: where do babies come from? You're kidding -- right?) ... well, that catches every father off-guard. It gobsmacks him, knocks him out, turns everything inside out in a way he could never anticipate, until what finally becomes truly alien are the things he once thought were the most important.

You don't get that without recognizing what a shallow, self-centered twit you generally prefer to be. And who better to give voice to this urge than a short, one-eyed monster named Mike Wazowski?

Film Fave #8

Friday, July 14, 2006

Film Fave #10:

I'm afraid you won't get any profound analysis in this entry. I most enjoy watching Fellini's on a late night, when I can't sleep. It serves as my dream-life, I suppose.

Film Fave #9

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Full-Geek Smack-Down

He posts so rarely, I just about missed this: my brother takes on Ruby On Rails. You geeks out there -- listen up!

Film Fave #11: Boogie Nights

There are new friends, and endless parties by the pool. Deep emotional bonds get made; kids who were losers now have a circle of soulmates who recognize their true worth -- a replacement family, an ideal family. Boundaries are crossed (or, more accurately, a sense of what is appropriate was never established to begin with). Of course there's the sex and the drugs, unhappy moments that generate desperate forays into petty crime. And all of this is overseen by an impressario of limited vision who deep down just wants to be an artist.

Kinda sounds like the church youth group, doesn't it?

P.T. Anderson's break-out movie about the 70s-era porn industry is, in many ways, his roughest work, but it's the one I return to with the most frequency. He's working with a dream cast, who clearly relish what they're doing. Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, John C. Riley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Mark Wahlburg -- each of these people has to persuade the camera that it's their absurd sense of the innocent that leads them down the garden path. Even Burt Reynolds, (who, rumour has it, sacked his agent out of pique midway through the shoot) proves himself up to the task -- a one-time-only performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.* And Heather Graham's presence doesn't hurt things any, either.

The soundtrack is spot-on, Anderson's use of colour is spectacular -- starting with mundane earth-tones, then erupting in garish splendour, only to sink into deep shadows by film's end. Anderson's pacing owes a great deal to Scorsese, but it never feels like he's aping the master. In fact there's a world of influence to be discovered, and this DVD possesses one of the few director's commentaries worth the viewer's time.

And as grim as the story-arc gets, Anderson's sense of the comic stays with him, suggesting that this is what best carries a person through life. It's certainly what makes the film re-watchable.

*Thanks to Anonymous for the gentle correction.

Film Fave #10

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Film Fave #12: Das Boot

"I was trying to create an action picture, a picture where you didn't care about what side they were on." Wolfgang Peterson

Mennonite fellas sure do love their war movies -- I'd be curious to see just how many families have a copy of Saving Private Ryan in their DVD library (a Father's Day gift for the Mennonite dad if ever there was one). And while SPR certainly rates as engaging, even thought-provoking entertainment, there's something about it that really bugs me. It seemed the more I thought about it, the less there was to consider. Spielberg can put together an incomparable set-piece, but he can't flesh out an idea.

Das Boot's set-piece -- the German U-Boat -- is deceptively constraining. Yet by staying inside that crummy metal tube, Peterson and his crew deliver the whole nihilistic emotional package of men at war. And despite Peterson's disingenuous claim, he manages to communicate some pretty hefty ideas, too -- because no-one knows better than a German just how important "what side they were on" really is.

Film Fave #11

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Film Fave #13: Gidget

I was 21, and had just returned from my second trip to California, in which I'd visited all the wrong places and done all the wrong things. The trip had been like an incredibly rotten first date -- a bad idea at a bad time, the lamentable result of an underfed imagination -- and I retreated to my parents' basement to lick my wounds and sneer at midnight television.

Gidget was one such offering. I tuned in about 10 minutes after it had started. Frances / "Gidget" / Sandra Dee (and really, which one of these monikers signified the real deal?) pined for her own surf-board, while her gray-haired, pipe-smoking father rolled his eyes and tried to pacify his hysterical wife. Everything had that bright primary color look of early "Technicolor" films, and when I saw this California Candy Store laid out before me, I belted out a cynical "bwa-HAW!", and readied myself to pounce all over it the way one's grandfather pounces all over a car advertisement 20 years after he traded in that lemon for a reliable Buick.

There was just one problem: I got hooked. Sandra Dee, for one thing, was impossibly cute -- even at her dizziest, she was incredibly desirable. She projected that precise killer combo of innocent wonder and adventurous "let's see what happens when I do this" attitude that summons and commands every iota of the Alpha Male inside the depths of any hetero male within eyesight and earshot -- even a bookish nerd who already resembled her pipe-smoking father (yours truly).

Still, I had come on board for the cheese -- and I was not disappointed. The "best before" date on those nicknames ("Moondoggie" "Big Kahuna") didn't exceed the 60s, providing instant irony. The beach bums jump, howl and hoot like typical 60s Hollywood hep-cats. They surf on swells that don't reach higher than their armpits. They wear tight, high-waisted trunks, and sing to the primly single-suited heroine while the unseen orchestra swells in the background. And during the final end-of-summer luau, there are bongos galore and electric guitars plugged into nothing.

The luau sets itself up as bacchanalia "lite", with bonfires and beer drinkers, and everyone in their bathing suits chasing each other in the sand and behind the bushes, like some Sergio Aragonés cartoon between the frames of MAD Magazine. But despite this clothed-yet-utterly-without-nuance setting -- or, more likely because of it -- the scene is an effectively horny set-piece for Gidget to play out her Shakespearean hi-jinx: persuading Moondoggie to kiss her in the pretense of raising Kahuna's jealousy, then turning tables to further stoke Moondoggie's desire. It backfires terribly, of course, and Gidget finds herself in a nasty state of anxiety and expectation, awaiting (in a white dress on a red couch, fer cryin' out loud!) the older, jaded Kahuna's liquored-up attention.

The movie plays like a 50s paean to middle-class values: you are to the suburbs born, and shall pursue the affections of a potential mate within the same income-bracket. When seen on that level alone, the movie's happy ending -- a defeated Gidget finally agreeing to meet the son of her parents' friends, only to discover this young up-and-comer is her beloved Moondoggie -- is pretty dreary.

But couldn't it also suggest something deeper? Think of those heady, crazy days when the two of you were so insanely in love, you were convinced you weren't just beating the odds but breaking the law. This, too, must pass, but for the truly fortunate, there comes another state, where you no longer see the other as just your gorgeous outlaw, but as your lover and incomparable friend. The enterprise of your conjoined hearts settles, and it becomes something every loving parent wants for their child. And if your kids roll their eyes at your nicknames for each other, well -- you can only hope their time is gonna come.

Film Fave #12

Monday, July 10, 2006

Film Fave #14: The Filth & The Fury

If you had asked me, in the early spring of 2000, whether I was a happy guy, I would have flashed you my brightest Gavin Macleod smile and assured you, yes, I'm a happy guy. If you asked me the same question later that same summer, I would have given you the same smile and told you, no -- in fact I'm quite pissed off. If pressed for my reasons, I might have pulled together a few of the usual suspects (the gummint, blah de blah), but the reality was I had seen The Filth & The Fury: A Sex Pistols Film, and the experience had been so immersive I couldn't help but feel incredibly pissed off.

I wasn't originally a Sex Pistols fan -- I thought, back in the day, that The Clash had more musicality, more smarts and (despite Lester Bangs' articulate disappointment) considerably more charm than the Pistols ever did. I couldn't have named more than two or three of the Pistols' songs, tops. In later years I thought "Anarchy In The U.K." had a piquant Black Sabbath shock value to it, but from my perspective as a paperboy in small-town Canada "God Save The Queen" seemed kind of juvenile. "She ain't no human bean"?! Where's Pogo when you need him?

Watching this film some 20-plus years after the fact brought a little splenetic perspective to the whole Sex Pistols' phenomenon. Julien Temple splices old doc footage of the London garbage strike, union protests, race riots and spices it up with Lawrence Olivier's hammy turn at Richard III, and a montage of Merry British Slapstick artists. This MTV approach gives the rancorous British Punk Movement a jolly gloss it may or may not have actually had at the time. But whether or not this "movement" had the venomous bliss we're presented becomes, after a while, a bit beside the point. The camera lens might be showered with loogies, but the audience is safe as houses -- it's 20 years later, and though the filth is at a pleasant remove, the fury still has heat.

I rented the movie a year later, and watched it several times in the span of a week. It's clear from the interview footage that no-one in the band is too sure what they were all about. John Lydon has tremendous force of personality, and even an ideology of sorts, so he invariably supplies the strongest narrative arc. But even he seems at a loss to explain why the Pistols caught the American public's imagination. The Pistols toured the United States out of boredom and desperation, because they'd been effectively shut down in the U.K. When they did their shows in cowboy bars, they clearly had no idea what to do with their audience; audience members returned the favour. Throw in the band's escalating frustration with manager Malcolm McLaren (and the fact that none of these people, particularly the heroin addict, had pleasant personalities) and it's a wonder they made it as far as their final one-song concert in San Francisco.

So why does this film have any power at all? Well, it helps that just about everybody interviewed is funny. The archival footage is loaded with all sorts of telling little details -- you see pretty quickly the hopeless tedium that spread through England in the 70s, especially among the poor kids from families on the dole. And Temple edits it all at a snappy pace so that the moment the band strikes their first fuzzy chord and Rotten opens his mangled mouth, the brilliant Big Exit seems to finally materialize for them all. It looks better and even sounds better than it ever was (I'm particularly fond of Temple's fiddling with "Road Runner" -- Olivier barking, "Deformed! Unfinished!" is note-perfect).

In the film's intro, Johnny Rotten declares with considerable pride, "We managed to offend everyone we were fed up with." That's never been my goal, but I have to admit it's still a heap of fun living vicariously through a band of tossers who pulled this off on a near-global scale.

Film Fave #13

Friday, July 07, 2006

Film Fave #15: Star Wars

"You've taken your first step into a larger world." Obi-Wan Kenobi

There were people in our village who did not go to the movies -- and as a six-year-old, neither did I. The reasoning I frequently heard was, "If the Lord were to return, would you want Him to find you in a theatre?" My parents never used that line, but it was common enough to fall on my ears. I figured the chances of the Lord returning and finding me in a theatre were considerably slimmer than finding me on the toilet (which I considered the more embarrassing situation). Besides, I was told He saw me no matter where I was, so what was the dif?

And so the tiny cinema in the middle of our village represented forbidden fruit. Like Miriam Toews' Nomi, I too asked if I could go see The Swiss Family Robinson with my friends. My mother denied my request, along with enough of my following entreaties for me to get the picture: I wasn't going to see any movies in the town theatre.

Six years later, I stood in front of my father and asked the question again. This time we were in Denver, where my father was working on his doctorate. A friend in the apartment below ours was going to see Star Wars with his father, and I was asked if I wanted to tag along. I didn't know what Star Wars was, but if it was anything like Star Trek, I was in. All I had to do was persuade my father.

He hesitated. I cajoled. He told me to stifle. I did, and slunk off to my bedroom. In the morning, I again broached the subject. He said he'd prayed about it, and felt alright about giving me permission.

I'm slow to hit "post" on this scenario -- who wants to be the holopschi-eating peasant to whom the moving picture show is verboten? Furthermore, my silent justification wasn't nearly so straight-forward or nuanced: I wanted to see the movie, and I wasn't beyond employing a little manipulative sophistry when I had to. In hindsight, as I watch my daughters approach puberty, my father's hesitation doesn't seem altogether absurd. In my case, I'm not as concerned about movie content as I am about internet access. This is how a father worries.

Just before I stepped into my friend's car, my father took me aside and said, "Sometimes, just before the movie starts, the theatre shows an advertisement for another movie in another theatre. If they start showing anything that bothers you, don't worry about it. If you have to, you can just close your eyes and wait for it to be over."

The preview was for A Bridge Too Far. The movie took two years to make, and starred a hundred big names I didn't recognize. Soldiers, jeeps and explosions. It looked incredible.

And then the 20th Century Fox anthem played.

Spectacle aside, what did we get? A kid who lives with his uncle and farms sand. Doesn't do anything cool, just wants to get the hell out of Dodge. Gets told his father was a legendary warrior, then embarks on a crazy rescue mission with a swashbuckling pirate and a giant ape. He rescues the princess, blows up the evil fortress and saves the day.

And there was no "spectacle aside". These were special effects nobody -- nobody -- had seen before. Do you think my 12-year-old male adolescent small-town holopschi-eating Mennonite head didn't split open like a freakin' walnut?

"That's no moon -- that's a space station."

So, no: I don't tire of this movie. And there have been stretches in my generally trial-free life when this movie has been, next to the Bible and the one single subject common to the thoughts of all men, the subject I've spent the most time mulling over. I'm not in that headspace anymore, mind you. Five movies later, the verdict is in -- it's the Grade Nine burn-out's attempt at The Lord Of The Rings. The series as a whole is so hobbled with flaws that questions are legitimately raised about the quality of the movie that kicked it into motion.

And that's fine -- that there were only two movies worth watching in the entire series doesn't much bother me. This is the movie that stood on the other side of the threshold and welcomed me into a larger world. And its playful sense of perspective was one of its deepest charms. Luke, Han, Chewy and Leia can sprint all over the Death Star -- this is business as usual. But when they finally come back to their spaceship, they're at a precipice that looks down onto it. This seemingly casual attention to detail brought an unusual depth and dimension to Space Opera, and created precisely the sort of persuasive world a 12-year-old boy could get very excited about.

And when my kids are watching it, I'm usually beside them.

Synchronicitous update: Drawn! links to Ralph McQuarrie's new site (McQ being the guy who deserves the most credit for "inventing" Star Wars).

Film Fave #14

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Whisky Prajer's Fifteen Favourite Films

"It's never the same film twice, maaaan!"
Thanks to a throw-away comment I made regarding Big Night, I set myself up to publishing another list. And with Darko's assurance that I'm a shoo-in for the Associated Society of Schmucks, I do believe I'm up to the challenge of enumerating (and elucidating upon) my fifteen favourite films.

My only criteria for these fifteen is their watchability factor -- in other words, these will be movies I don't hesitate to turn on and watch yet again. Consequently, there aren't likely to be too many downers in the bunch (i.e., no Schindler's List -- which I don't think is a Great Movie, either). Forewarned is forearmed: I'll be getting the obvious one (Star Wars) out of the way first, so if you don't feel like dropping by for a visit tomorrow, I'll understand.

I'll admit right now that I'm not 100% confident of the list's inclusions. Tastes do change over time, and movies I once thought I'd never tire of have in fact worn out their welcome. Apocalypse: Now is one such, thanks in no small part to my peculiar history with the film. My first exposure to it was on our family's b&w TV, propped on (what else?) a TV tray in a corner of our kitchen. I can't remember which of the networks broadcast the film on a Sunday night, but my parents made arrangements to keep my younger brother and sister out of the room for the full four hours while I watched the movie (and commercials).

I was decidedly underwhelmed when I finally shut off the set and went to bed, but over the next few years I did give the movie a couple of spins on a friend's VCR and colour TV, and it gradually accrued some of the gravitas the critics had accorded it. In the late 80s, Coppola re-released the film to theatres, and I went with some friends to the newest, largest cinema in Winnipeg to see this masterpiece.

The lights dimmed, The Doors began their ominous, mystical strumming, and the helicopters did their slow-mo swooshing. My heart beat faster. Finally -- the movie as it was meant to be experienced! The napalm flared, and Morrison's majestic baritone rose and sounded ... well, it didn't sound quite so majestic. It sounded a little high. And a little ... fast. Ten minutes later, my group reached consensus: the projector speeds were off. This was Apocalypse: Now as rendered by Alvin & The Chipmunks.

A dispiriting experience, but Coppola got into the habit of re-releasing this film every 10 years, and finally, in a Toronto theatre, I saw the film the way it was meant to be seen. This time there were no screw-ups, and the film was indeed a powerful experience -- powerful enough for me to agree to a "midnight matinee" just two years later.

This time my group of friends was all-male. At 11:45 we left the pub and staggered to the theatre in question, joining a short queue that was also all-male -- with one beautiful, blonde and visibly nervous exception. The fella next to her kept his hand on the small of her back and made all sorts of cooing and soothing noises -- "I'm serious: this is the best movie. Ever." -- but her shoulders were hiked up to her ears and her arms were folded tightly across her chest. Any fool could see she knew exactly what she'd been rooked into -- a Dick Flick -- and those of us who followed the doomed couple down the escalator hiked a thumb in their direction and sniggered.

Three pints of beer just before the stroke of midnight is not the best preparation to undertake for a three-hour movie. I was snoring in minutes, only to awaken during the feverish shrieking of The Ride of the Valkyries. It was just as well: my bladder could bear no more, and I executed a guffaw-inducing stumble-sprint as I desperately negotiated the wickedly steep aisle for the washroom. Once relieved, I returned to my seat and dozed off for the remainder of the movie. Then all the lights flashed on, and the lone usher walked up and down the aisle, clapping his hands and shooing us out. The blonde was nowhere to be seen.

In a reasonable world, that would have been my final exposure to Apocalypse: Now. This being anything but a reasonable world, Coppola went and released Apocalypse: Now - Redux. I was originally dubious about its merits and figured I'd just take a pass. But then The Globe & Mail gave three sheets of paper to novelist Michael Ondaatje's unceasing praise for this "director's cut". Another ten dollars left my pocket, another three-plus hours ticked off my life. And it became official: I had watched Apocalypse: Now for the last time.
But not so these next 15 -- stay tuned to glory in my taste, or to despair in the lack thereof!

Film Fave #15

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Roger Ebert

I've enjoyed the recent "Whither The Movie Critic?" chatter (here and here), so reading the recent news that Roger Ebert is in serious condition after emergency surgery seems almost off-puttingly personal.

Roger Ebert means something to me, as he does to most North Americans. In my case, it was in fact his writing that turned me on. In 1982 was a kid who perused the shelves at the local library. I hadn't seen his show with Gene Siskel, but I could recognize the man thanks to a SCTV send-up I had committed to memory. And there he was, on the cover of A Kiss Is Still A Kiss. I figured if he was on TV (PBS, at the time) that was probably worth something, so I took the book home. A week later I went back to the library and took out his Movie Handbook. I read every word of that, too. Roger Ebert was my first movie critic.

Right from the start, Ebert developed the habit of including other critics in the conversation. Thanks to him, I discovered Pauline Kael. After that, it's a game of Six Degrees of Roger Ebert. Thanks to Kael, David Edelstein is in the business of good movie writing. Edelstein frequently reminds me of what Jay Scott did so well. When Jay Scott passed away, Geoff Pevere became the only Canadian movie critic worth reading. And though Pevere has participated in some grand books, none of them, alas, are devoted to the movies. For my money David Thompson's Biographical Dictionary of Film sets the standard as ideal summer reading -- for this, or any summer. And of course, there's always the Ebert canon: The Great Movies, Great Movies II and Ebert's Book of Film.

Precious few film reviewers bother the reader with anything more confidential than, "I didn't like this movie because it was too stupid for me." Movie goers might not be the cleverest people in the world, but if you're writing for publication I hope you believe your readers are. And readers know when a writer is on the hunt of something grand -- a larger sense of why identity and the ability to deal with life is dependent on what one sees on the silver screen. When a writer has that perspective, what they say has the right to be taken seriously. Otherwise, it's just one schmuck's opinion against another's -- and you can go to the blogosphere for that.

Farewell, My Lovely Novelization

Some weeks back, I came home after a day of "fetch" chores. I put the groceries away, then took a peek at the computer to check for mail. Propped against the monitor was a copy of Star Wars -- the novelization, written by "George Lucas". A sharp little birthday gift from a friend and neighbor.

A timely gift -- in more ways than one if this person's take on novelizations (and their fate) is accurate. I read Star Wars dozens of times, just because that was the only available way to experience the story. My copy of the Del Rey paperback was in tatters by the time I no longer had need of it, and I'm sure that ghost writer Alan Dean Foster's prose bears no small responsibility for the juggernaut that the Star Wars franchise became. He tucked in a number of tantalizing allusions, little timebombs of detail hinting that this epic story was considerably better conceived than it finally proved itself to be.

My other novelization experiences were entirely predictable. After watching the first three Star Trek movies, I pored through the novelizations hoping they answered some of the troubling questions raised by what I'd seen. And now that I think of it, I also received the novelization of Schwarzenegger's second Conan movie as a bonus with my popcorn. Talk about value!

The last novelization I glanced at was a true curiosity: Big Night, a sumptuous movie (one of my top 15, actually) which underwent a risible printed-word makeover by setting the narration in the brothers' pidgin English: "My brother say he no make-a the pasta!" After giggling over a few pages, I couldn't bring myself to try any of the recipes. Yep: I no make-a the pasta, either.

Ah, how the novelization becomes the blogger's Madeleine! Maud Newton remembers the effect The Rose had on her as a young adolescent, here. Any others out there?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Box-Office is a Cruel Mistress

I like a good horse-race as much as the next guy, and Box Office Mojo is a nifty site tracking the box-office successes of various films. According to this, Superman is doing poorly by just about any standard you'd like to track (including Batman Begins, my favourite summer movie last year). And this page is charting Pixar's Cars against earlier Pixar offerings.

I haven't yet seen Cars -- an anomaly, since I've managed to catch most of the other Pixar films on their respective opening weekends. My kids have been in the right demographic since Monsters, Inc., and, thanks to a cadre of geek friends, I've been in the right demographic since the original Toy Story. But this time, when opening weekend struck, my kids voted to see Over The Hedge -- the weekend's decidedly non-Pixar CGI offering. There's a simple reason for this, chaps: my kids are girls, and a movie populated by talking Dinky Toys held zero appeal.

So it surprises me to see that Cars has done as well as it has (making a very tidy profit and just trailing The Incredibles by a few paltry millions). So much for establishing a universal standard out my personal experience. But the real kick-in-the-pants revelation on this board is how incredibly poorly Toy Story 2 did. For my money, it's still the most emotionally compelling movie Pixar has done, and the best movie sequel to hit the big screen since The Godfather II. I'm sure I've seen the movie a dozen times already, and yet Sarah McLachlan's plaintive delivery of "When She Loved Me" (which finally scored a long overdue Academy Award for Randy Newman) never fails to get me blubbering into my shirt-collar, invoking as it does the disappearance of a child's happy and unswerving love for their parent.

If you follow some of the other links on this site, you'll come across "readers rate Pixar". TS2 falls in second-last as a reader favourite (just ahead of the slight charms of A Bug's Life). I'm usually among the first to sing the tedious "They were cool before they became popular" tune, but even so, the horse-racer in me is very much gratified when the money falls in with my aesthetic opinion. "Vindication", they call it -- an experience I've enjoyed only as precious exception. I guess that's just how the chips will fall this time, as well. Toy Story 2 is Pixar's best film to date, and I'm the only one who knows it.