#0010 - SIDEWALK SURFING - I'm a small fry reviewer, so I don't have a lot of space to work with when I review a film like Dogtown and Z-Boys which, I think, deserves more than the 250-word "go see it!" treatment. Like almost anyone who isn't Anthony Lane or Stanley Kauffmann, I'd love to have 1500 words to devote to a single review, to go off on tangents, to feel no particular obligation to recap the film and garnish it with a few superlatives. Maybe this is my chance.
I didn't heap any praise on Sean Penn's narration, mostly because it was the least impressive thing about the film. It wasn't bad as much as it was conventional, and in a film about the kind of hair-up-the-arse misfits who pioneered the early skateboard scene, conventional doesn't stand out. What I wish I had the space to get into was the suspicion that Penn did the film as a kind of payback to Jeff Spicoli, the surf stoner who launched his career in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a character that was obviously based on Santa Monica Z-Boys like Jay Adams.
One thing that did stand out was a brief moment where Penn's narration faltered and he was clearly heard clearing his throat on the soundtrack, a mistake clearly left in the film, at least on the time-coded screener cassette I was watching. I'd like to think that it was left in on purpose, a bit of sloppiness to acknowledge that nothing is perfect; a punk rock kind of gesture. I'm that kind of romantic.
As I get older, I'm treated to more frequent repackagings of my own past, something that I never thought would happen when I was living through the time that's now become "period", in need of careful researching since, after all, there are plenty of people like myself around to complain when they get something wrong. The really pleasing thing when someone like Dogtown director Stacey Peralta doesn't get things wrong is that sense of evocation, the closest thing to a time machine I'll ever know.
I was never a skateboarder. My neighbourhood, while hundreds of miles away from any ocean, eerily resembled the rundown Santa Monica "beachfront slum" that became known as Dogtown. While there weren't any empty swimming pools at hand to practice skateboard acrobatics, there was no shortage of asphalt-paved schoolyards, or steep hills. I certainly knew my share of nervy, no-hope kids seething with the same competitive energy. In the absence of something like skateboarding, they channelled it into their bikes and, when they could afford it, cars and motorcycles; more conventional pasttimes that had no shortage of richer, even professional cliques. The Dogtown skaters were in that rare place, alone with their enthusiasm, at the perfect junction of influence, youth and virtuosity.
What I didn't know until I saw the film was how essential the early skateboard scene was to the hardcore punk subculture that I'd come to love in the 80s. By then, skateboarding had become a sort of mainstream in teenage culture, but years earlier, people like Henry Rollins and Ian McKaye saw an attractive model for rebellion in skate culture. I've been a Beach Boys fan for as long as I can remember, so it was a real lapse of cultural intuition that made me ignore the California connection threading its way from the beach through hardcore, again, the way it had in the 60s.
Back when I was listening to Black Flag and Hüsker Dü with my neighbourhood pal Rock and Roll Dave, we talked about our "celebrated summer, a nod to a Hüsker Dü song, and an unwitting acknowledgment that hot, long days and clear skies were the natural environment for our chosen brand of juvenile nihilism. It was probably odd that summer was only half over when we'd already named it, a carefully couched admission that it would end, sooner than later, and that there was a life on the other side. In Dogtown and Z-Boys, the end comes fast, the Zephyr Skate Team disbanding within months of making the Z-Boys famous, the surf shop that gave them their start closing not long after. Z-Boys like Peralta and Tony Alva went from inner-city delinquency to enterpreneurship in their early twenties, deciding that corporate sponsorship was nowhere near as lucrative as owning their own brand. It's a side of punk that almost never gets addressed - the fierce business sense that launched record labels, magazines and clothing labels, letting punks become old punks, living in an endless summer. (posted 11:08pm EST | 06.06.02)
#0009 - RECALL. WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE. - Courtesy Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, a hilarious parody of Apocalypse Now set in the apparently out of control Tennessee state political scene. A sample bit of dialogue from Governor Sundquist as Kurtz:
"I remember when I was with Congress ... Seems a thousand centuries ago ... We went into a town to educate the children. We left some schoolbooks for them to read and gave them money for more books and for some free school lunches to eat, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there and they had come and rounded up every book that said anything about evolution. There they were in a pile ... a pile of little books, set on fire. And the money we left them for books and lunches, they used it to hire new administrators and give themselves pay raises, and then raised taxes on the villagers to buy books and lunches."
Up here in Labbatslavia, both my hometown municipal government and the federal administration in the capital have been sweated by corruption scandals, so I can sympathize. I've also seen Apocalypse about two dozen times, most of the first dozen while under the influence. It is, as we all know, that kind of film. (posted 08:35pm EST | 06.06.02)
#0008 GENERAL RIPPER MAY HAVE EXCEEDED HIS AUTHORITY - Purchase of a cheap DVD player a month or so ago has prompted a mild buying spree, and I've been picking up old favorites every week at a record store near the office that has the best prices in the city. Picked up Dr. Strangelove this week, and the crystal clear freeze frames you get with a DVD have given me a chance to pick Kubrick's film apart looking for little visual gags I've missed in the dozen or so previous viewings of the film.
I never failed to crack up at the first shot of George C. Scott's Gen. "Buck" Turgidson in the war room; the title on the spine of the binder in front of him - "World Targets in Megadeaths" - is one of the bleak but believable details that make it such a fantastic satire. The billboard at Burpelson Air Force Base, visible behind the skirmishing soldiers fighting their way to Gen. Jack D. Ripper's office, is another sure cue for a belly laugh: "Peace is Our Profession", the Strategic Air Command motto chosen by Gen. Curtis LeMay, the apparent basis for Scott's Gen. Turgidson.
The names of Kubrick and Terry Southern's cast of characters are vintage 50s Mad magazine: Jack D. Ripper, Gen. Turgidson, Burpelson, President Merkin Muffley, Lothar Zogg, Col. "Bat" Guano, Major Kong, Premier Kissoff. It wasn't until my second last viewing of the film that I noticed that the Playboy centerfold being appreciated by one of Slim Pickens' B-52 crew had a copy of the Council on Foreign Relations' house journal, Foreign Affairs, draped strategically across her derriere. I wonder just how many people find that as gut-bustingly hilarious as I do?
What I didn't know until I watched the "making of" featurette included with the limited edition DVD of Strangelove was that the centerfold model was Tracy Reed, who plays Scott's comely, bikini-clad secretary in the film, and that her refusal to pose completely nude was the reason a copy of Foreign Affairs ended up covering her tush. (I wonder now if it was a carefully chosen prop, or if it just happened to be Kubrick's reading material that day?) Reed is also the daughter of Sir Carol Reed, director of The Third Man and Odd Man Out, and her perfectly flat, slightly nasal American accent indicates more talent than her meagre role previously suggested. A brilliant film in every way. (posted 08:21pm EST | 06.05.02)
#0007 CURSE OF THE JADED AUDIENCE - Definite signs of wit at the N.Y. Times, if you go by the title of this devastating account of Woody Allen's lawsuit against his former producer, Jean Doumanian, and her partner Jaqui Safra. I haven't heard anything nice about Allen's latest film and, thankfully, I wasn't sent to review it. Friends who paid to see Hollywood Ending complained about a wasted evening and $25 they'll never see again. According to the Times, Woody's long Manhattan moment might be over, if you go by the sorry attendance for his latest film, reduced after one month to a discount theatre in Times Square.
Down at the courthouse, Allen was getting laughs, but not intentionally, as he's humiliatingly zinged by a lawyer who sounds like he's seen a few of Allen's "earlier, funny films":
"In a crescendo of questions, Mr. Parcher asked Mr. Allen how he could plan his lawsuit against his two friends, all the while socializing with them: going to New York Knicks games, taking Mr. Safra's private jet to Europe and dining at Manhattan restaurants like Le Cirque and Elaine's. Mr. Parcher asked Mr. Allen if he planned to inform them of the suit just before ordering wine. As Mr. Allen's lawyers objected and the courtroom erupted in laughter, Mr. Allen told Mr. Parcher that he resented the 'snide inference.'"
Allen, it seems, has become yet another insulated movie biz hermit who, like Peter Bogdonavich and Ronald Reagan, has been rendered unable to discern between movies and real life. He explained that he had tried to file as "gentle" and "mild" a lawsuit as he could, add that he "intended that he and Ms. Doumanian would remain friends and actually enjoy the lawsuit, like playful adversaries in a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film. He said he thought that she would find the suit "amusing" and that they would be "having dinner at night at Le Cirque and facing each other by day."
I love Adam's Rib as much as Allen, probably, but it's been a long time since I mourned the fact that life isn't shot in lovingly lit black and white, scored to music by Cole Porter and Miklos Rosza, with dialogue scripted by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and direction by George Cukor. I've even gotten over the sad fact that every woman on the street after six p.m. isn't dressed in Gowns by Adrian. Allen obviously hasn't, probably because, unlike most of us, he gets to actually make the movie he imagines he's living in.
In Manhattan, though, a celebrity is still a celebrity, no matter how faded, and one of the seats in the sparsely-filled courtroom is filled by a young lawyer who explains that "he would rather see Mr. Allen on the stand than sit through one of his films." Ouch. (posted 07:43pm EST | 06.05.02)
#0006 MERCHANT SLIPPING - I was disappointed by Ismail Merchant's film version of V.S. Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur. For a man with forty years of filmmaking experience, and films like The Remains of the Day behind him, I was amazed at how slipshod it felt, how poorly paced and aimless. The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann gets to the heart of it in his review, observing that "often we feel that a shot has been included because Merchant has just remembered, 'Oh, yes, I must put in a bit of that.'" More than that, he gets to the heart of the film's flaws, diagnosing them as "an unalterable formal difference between fiction and film."
"The dialogue sounds cute," Kauffmann observes, "almost as if the people were being patronized." Living in Toronto, I've had more than enough opportunity to hear Trinidadian patois, and while I'd call it charming, even elegant, I'd never call it cute. It's too sly and careful for that, and it was the thing that bothered me most about Merchant's film. I've never read Naipaul's book, so I'll have to take Kauffmann's word that the dialogue is "fixed ... with a jeweler's precision," while the surrounding narration is "expressed in fluent prose ... we are continually reminded of the maturity and complexity of the patois-speakers." The amazing thing is that the screenplay was written by Caryl Phillips, a novelist with roots in the Caribbean, so what went wrong?
Simply, a movie isn't a novel, and vice versa. An elementary enough rule, but one that even terribly intelligent people - even those with decades of filmmaking experience - are too often obliviously unaware. There's a profound collective will to imagine that a film can be as nuanced or as complex as a novel, and it will always be thwarted by the fact that movies are temperamentally more like comic books. Apparently, even a veteran of book-to-movie adaptations can allow himself to be fooled. (posted 06.04.02 | 10:42pm EST)
#0005 SUMMING UP - Trawling through the reviews of The Sum Of All Fears doesn't net too many surprises. The Time review is blander than it should be, Richard Schickel rather lamely trying to invoke the "new New York" - skittish, suspicious, unsettled by recent grief - as a context for finding the film lacking in relevance. It's not an entirely convincing argument. I'm always amazed at how lifeless Time can be; even more than the N.Y. Times, reading America's newsweekly is often too much like feasting on a regurgitated menu of warmed-over facts and perspectives, the amelioration über alles legacy of Henry Luce apparently having worked its way into the very bones and marrow of the magazine.
The Christian Science Monitor's Gloria Goodale has a more considered take on the film. (The CSM has a considerable reputation as a paper that, amazingly, it actually deserves. I'm not sure if eschewing medicine or surgery is a prerequisite for working there, but the calibre of writers on staff is anything to go by, more newspaper staff should live on the edge.) Like almost every other reviewer, Goodale writes about the film blithely intent on ignoring the fact that it was completed before 9/11, a stance that's only slightly ridiculous, but justified mainly by the intervening months that executives and editors have had to tailor the product to the market's mood, and by the even more potent fact that we're seeing the film now, and not last summer.
Goodale takes issue with the film's ending, a montage of the film's villains being covertly but bloodily rubbed out by the combined efforts of American and Russian secret services, set wordlessly to Puccini's "Nessun Dorma". She recalls a similar sequence in two of the Godfather films, where mob executions are similarly scored, and wonders if this doesn't signal an unfortunate change in political morality:
"Not too long ago, Western culture accepted the idea that it was a sign of the highest moral strength that our heroes had the self-restraint to make even our most heinous villains face the rule of law. It was thought to be bad for heroes to play both judge and executioner."
A climax in the court at the Hague probably wouldn't have been as satisfying, I expect, and Puccini would likely be less appropriate than, say, Kraftwerk's "Showroom Dummies". Movies - war movies especially, and war movies made during wars in particular - are revenge fantasies as much as they're anything else, since where else can you make good triumph utterly and unequivocably over evil? Goodale is right, though - it's a mitigated kind of heroism, the kind that Sergio Leone brought to his westerns, making an American genre more European in the process. Perhaps it's a long overdue stage in the evolution of American mythos; it would be more welcome, though, if it was accompanied with a sense of shame, of something lost. We'll see.
Finally, the L.A. Times has some great reader's reviews of the film. D. Thomson from Champaign, IL wonders why Tom Clancy let the filmmakers change so many details of his book. "Where were you when all of these changes were being made? How could you think that this ridiculously lame and unbelievable script was acceptable?" I can answer that one, D. - "the bank" and "the money".
J. Shiau from San Mateo, CA wasn't impressed either. "The plot was laughable at best and highly implausible. I know because I spent 8 years in the AF as a nuclear missile launch officer. The scenario presented in the movie would never happen." Charles Berry Shan from San Francisco is even more skeptical: "Our undriven and incompetent civil workers would not have assisted someone they did not know, namely Jack Ryan, in sending messages to Russia." Sometimes I get the feeling that the audience might know a bit more about the real world than the people making movies. Haven't they heard of "suspension of disbelief"? (posted 06.04.02 | 10:15pm EST)
#0004 IF AT FIRST YOU SUCCEED - Thanks to the miracle of TiVo, James Lileks gets to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom again, years after a first viewing left him with a bad taste in his mouth. It doesn't fare any better today:
"It wasn't the quantity of violence, but the nature of it - at some point you stop fearing for Indy and start fearing for Spielberg, because something must have gone wrong in his head when he put this one together."
The 80s were a lost decade for a lot of things, but I'm always at a loss to remember even one film from that decade that I crave to see again. There were a few good ones, actually - Repo Man comes to mind, and the second Alien film, but to be frank, James Cameron's contribution to the Alien franchise isn't nearly as satisfying as the first one, or as ambitious as the third, but at least it isn't as laboured as the fourth. It's still a fantastic property, though, and probably the only film series that managed to overcome the almost inevitable paralysis of imagination endemic to sequels.
The Indiana Jones series never charmed me, though. Using old adventure serials like Nyoka and the Tiger Men as inspiration was already suspicious in the wake of Star Wars, but casting Harrison Ford was the tip-off; Spielberg had seen his friend George Lucas reap riches from recycling a vintage movie hack concept - the space opera - and he wanted some. It's a mark of the creative exhaustion of the 80s that it worked, even if the Indy films, built on a rickety foundation of movie clichés, strove to get by on velocity. When that failed, you get the whole awful middle of The Temple of Doom, an endless and dispiriting string of pointless brutality that Lileks catalogues with dismay.
And now they want to make a new one, with Frank Darabont apparently already set as writer, which guarantees that it'll be as mawkish and treacly as Temple of Doom was brutish and nasty. The 80s, it seems, aren't over yet. (posted 06.03.02 | 10:03pm EST)
#0003 WHAT WE THINK OF WHEN WE THINK ABOUT THE BOMB - Baltimore gets nuked in The Sum Of All Fears. The nuking of an American city is, I assume, meant to be the sum of all fears. Movies have fantasized about it before - Fail Safe, Planet of the Apes, Independence Day - but it's only now that a palpable threat has coincided with the technical capacity to re-create it on film. It's a shame that the movie itself is so utterly unable to imagine the nuking of an American city as anything more than a plot twist.
The explosion itself is well done, but I wouldn't expect anything less. The central "event" - the detonation itself - isn't shown, but the blast waves are, as is the mushroom cloud, a churning gray column already blooming into the clouds when Ben Affleck finally looks up. It looked familiar to me.
I'm a bit of a connoisseur of nuclear footage, so I got out my DVD of Peter Kuran's Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie to look for the blast. There were a couple of similar mushroom clouds in the film - a smokey gray pillar leaning from left to right - but the closest match was Shot Annie of Operation Upshot-Knothole on May 17th, 1953, a 16 kiloton test of a tactical nuke included as part of the bonus material, a complete, unedited record of a detonation.
It was a good match - the explosion in The Sum Of All Fears is supposed to be small, producing a crater only a hundred or so feet wide, produced by a weapon concealed in a cigarette machine in the basement under PSInet stadium. Like almost every nuclear blast, it's an awesome sight, and it would have been sensible if Affleck had paused to ponder it for a second, instead of hurrying off into the dog's breakfast of rote thriller machinery that ensues. A nuke used as a weapon for the first time in over fifty years is a profound event, but it's been a long time since any movie has tried to seriously contemplate such a thing. Sum Of All Fears is definitely not that film. (posted 06.03.02 | 01.12pm EST)
#0002 MY COLD WAR GONE, I MISS IT SO - Charles Taylor on Tom Clancy's The Sum Of All Fears in Salon, recalling Clancy's appearance on CNN on Sept. 11th:
"Clancy spent his time assuring (CNN's Judy) Woodruff that what we were seeing was due to the gutting of American intelligence because of the reporting of the liberal media. What was offensive wasn't his position that, whatever the cause, American intelligence wasn't doing its job. It was the smugness with which Clancy delivered the message. He was beyond such human emotions as shock or outrage or devastation. The dead weren't even cold and he was converting them into political capital, proof that he was right. What linked Clancy's response to later responses to Sept. 11th by his political opposites, like Susan Sontag of Noam Chomsky, was the absolute conviction that they could have foreseen this all along, that nothing in it demanded a new way or responding or any rethinking of assumptions."
It's a ridiculous movie, with an inadequte cipher (Ben Affleck) at its center, and a colossal wimp-out inherent in the studio's decision to make the villains neo-nazis. Clancy, though, is the Ian Fleming of our day, the major difference being that his prose is only about a quarter as readable as the creator of James Bond. Like Fleming, though, it would be a mistake to take Clancy too seriously - he is, like the WW1 generals, always fighting the last war, and nowhere near as amusingly as Fleming, if it comes to that.
We must have been pretty shellshocked to turn to Clancy for explanations in the aftermath of 9/11. As Taylor asks,
"What was Clancy even doing there? Well, Woodruff explained, he'd written a novel envisioning this scenario. (So did every other espionage writer, from the first-rate ones to the hacks. Would CNN have welcomed the writers of DC comics to discuss whether Superman could have prevented the attacks?)"
Clancy has this strangely enhanced reputation, though, much as Len Deighton has as a "resource" on WW2. The gag, though, is that Clancy was an executive producer on The Sum Of All Fears, and therefore approved changing his terrorist villains from a more relevant group that included a muslim extremist, to a conventional and politically absurd cabal of slick Eurofascists. Clearly, Clancy's own powers of foresight - not to mention his integrity - aren't immune to the blandly ameliorating prerogatives of Hollywood producers. At least Fleming never let Cubby Broccolli change S.M.E.R.S.H. into bundists. (posted 06.03.02 | 09.37am EST)
#0001 INTRODUCING - I'm a small-fry movie reviewer in Toronto, and this is clearly busy work. I thought it would be nice, though, to collect some of the smarter things I read about films in one spot. Movies come first; There are plenty of other people who can handle the gossip and rubbish end of things.
I'm not well-connected. I actually think movies are an over-rated art form, a product of deadly compromise and mediocre business sense. I've never been to Cannes. I have no interest in movie stars. I hate the industry with a passion. I just like films, probably despite myself.
If I read something interesting, or hear some news, or write something myself, I'll post it here. This is a blog, but it isn't a Blogger site, so I'll be updating by hand, and FTPing it to my site when I have the time. Check in every day, if you like, but not every hour - it'll be a waste of your time.
I'll write about ad campaigns, movie journalism, opening weekends, DVD reissues, critics and the axes they grind. Mostly, though, I'll write about films, using some of the smarter bits of criticism I read as inspiration. I'm doing this because I want to; I'll stop when it's no longer any fun. Feel free to write, but be polite, please. (posted 06.03.02 | 08.45am EST)