Thursday, May 25, 2006

After Hours

I have to admit, the first time I saw After Hours in 1985 I didn’t like it. I was in my mid-teens and a friend and I caught a late show of it in a now closed down theatre in Tulsa. We both didn’t quite get it. Was this a comedy? Was it supposed to be a suspense film? How could the guy who made Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (two of my favorite movies then AND now) make this oddball of a film?

Well, twenty years later and I watch After Hours a second time and realize I was evidently a moron about this film. No telling how many other teenage opinions I have about films or books or other cultural items that I completely missed the mark on.

After Hours is a great movie and I’m now of the opinion it’s one of director Martin Scorsese’s overlooked New York set films. Even though he won awards for it (best director at Cannes) and it has a cult following—you don’t really ever hear of it mentioned compared to some of his other NY set films.

That’s a shame too as it perfectly captures a series of strange moments that include all the elements of the NY that has kind of been scrubbed from most of the city’s landscape. Scorsese’s After Hours is scary unlit streets, out of control cabbies, bohemian artists, various dive bars and rock clubs (the new wave styled Club Berlin reeks of “80s” and even has Scorsese in a cameo as a guy shining a giant light on a crowd of dancers) and quirky people left and right. It almost feels like a David Lynch film to me if Lynch had grown up in New York.

Griffin Dunne plays Paul, a bored businessman who is reading Henry Miller in a coffee shop when he meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). Later that night Paul finds himself in a SoHo loft becoming entangled in a very unpredictable world he’s not used to. Events with Marcy lead to more unhinged events and the night wraps Paul in its weird spell. Anything can happen to Paul and he’s soon running for his life and trying to get back to his apartment.

After Hours is pleasingly off-kilter. A firm footing is never had by Paul or by us as viewers and the film’s rhythm is slightly off the entire journey. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t connect with it as a kid? Conversations take unexpected twists, lulls of silence break into the middle of sentences, various coincidences of fate occur and everyone is desperate and lonely in the dead of night.

Scorsese shot the film entirely at night—even the interiors—and this late night feel and atmosphere has really translated to the film. There are countless references to it being late, after hours or full moons just to remind us that New York is unpredictable enough during the day, but in the middle of the night, lookout, anything can happen.

After Hours is worth revisiting if you were like me and didn’t truly appreciate it the first time around. I don’t know what was wrong with me that night and I should apologize to one of my heroes, Martin Scorsese, for saying all these years that After Hours just isn’t up to his standards. Wrong! It’s a lively, unique, odd, wonderful little movie that I plan on watching again in a few years.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Guess Who

The most mystifying aspect of the 2005 comedy Guess Who is that it is supposedly a remake of the 1967 film Guess Whose Coming to Dinner. The films are so unalike in terms of quality that there is only two similar things between them—they start with the word “guess” and they have an interracial couple as their main backdrop in story. That’s it. There’s really no reason at all to call Guess Who a remake.

Instead of a white patriarch in Spencer Tracy, the “new” version of the film has Bernie Mac as the black patriarch who is shocked to discover that his precious daughter is bringing hope a white boyfriend named Simon (played by Ashton Kutcher). Mac rants and raves, puts on a bluster, and attempts to intimidate Simon all he can but in the end the two bond (which should come as no surprise to anyone). I’m a fan of Mac’s but even he grows tiresome by the end of the film.

By Guess Who marketing itself up as a remake of a classic film all it’s doing is setting itself up for nitpicking and failure. Guess what Guess Who—I’m going to nitpick and point out its failures now.

Sidney Poitier plays the young man coming to dinner with a white girlfriend in the original. Let’s see, Poitier Vs. Kutcher? That’s a tough one. I’ll just say that one of those two is a great actor and the other is suited to pull pranks on dimwitted celebrities. Plainly put, Kutcher is horrible. His idea of nuance and depth and comedy is to ham it up like he’s in a cheesy tv movie (which is what most of his films feel like because he’s not talented enough to be a leading man in any kind of film). He's one of these young actors I hope to never see in any movie ever again.

The biggest problem with this is that the original was made in 1967, when racial issues were still a boiling point across the country. The original addressed important issues in both comedic and serious tones. Guess Who plays like a silly teen sex farce most of the time, completely stripped of any kind of message in its story. If you aren’t going to attempt to replicate a classic film’s message—why attempt to remake it at all?

Guess Who is a below average version of the much superior 1967 film. It’s just another example of Hollywood churning out a remake that is useless, unnecessary, lifeless, not funny and uninteresting. Save yourself the time and energy and watch the original Guess Whose Coming to Dinner and you’ll be rewarded far more than this throwaway new version.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Danny Deckchair

Sometimes I just really get the urge to watch a sweet-hearted movie. Give me a-b-c formula, give me a happy ending, give me a little comedy and a little romance. Danny Deckchair (2003) is such a pleasing little movie from Australia that warms my heart from start to finish.

Danny is a dreamer. Danny thinks up oddball ideas that infuriate his social climbing girlfriend who has grown ashamed of Danny’s blue-collar ways. One day, Danny gets the bright notion to attach giant helium balloons to a lawn chair and see if he can take flight. Take flight he does, all the way into a small town, and a woman's back yard, that will change his life forever.

Danny (Rhys Ifans, who is a favorite of mine) gets to reinvent himself in this town and has a major impact on a variety of people who live there—including a cynical traffic cop whose yard he lands in (Miranda Otto). People assume Danny is something he isn’t and he never sees the point of informing them otherwise. Why should he? This "new" Danny is free and improved of the things that held the "old" Danny down.

Danny Deckchair isn’t a great film. It’s got some serious issues with its story and is as predictable as tornadoes in Oklahoma during the month of May. But, it is a sweet little movie with a great big heart, full of charming performances and, sometimes, I just love seeing something like this.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Tony Takitani

Tony Takitani (2004) is the first film ever adapted from one of my favorite writers—Haruki Murakami—and boy is it a wonderful adaptation! Murakami’s writing is filled with dreamlike, quirky moments and could make a number of interesting films, so I’m surprised this is the first adaptation, but hopefully it’s not the last.

Tony Takitani is kind of a meditation on loneliness and longing with an odd romance between an isolated illustrator and a younger woman with a love for clothes. The film is comprised of lots of quiet moments and lots of narration as the story of Tony’s life is told beginning with his father’s travails in WWII, his childhood and skipping ahead into his adult life.

Director Jun Ichikawa has fused Murakami’s prose into a short (only seventy-five minutes), beautifully crafted story full of odd turns and small moments of understated poignancy. Ichikawa has perfectly captured the tone and attitude of Murakami and what I love about his stories and it’s so surprisingly refreshing to see a film based on a story/novel I love and it works!

Maybe it’s an easier thing to accomplish in Japan, as if this was an adapted American version of the story, no clue what the various nitwits and yahoos in Hollywood would do to ruin the story. They’d probably toss in some explosions or a big joyous final scene at an airport, as one lover is about to leave but instead ends up in the “about to leave forever” lover’s arms. I love a happy ending as much as the next guy, but do we always have to have the same three or four happy endings?

Ichikawa loves these great languid tracking shots that he uses as cuts to lead us to the next scene or further along in the story. The camera moves slowly left to right (or right to left) and when it reaches out of the frame we move onto the next shot. Ichikawa would stack these tracking shots right on top of each other, one after the next, over and over. It was a wise choice, as it only added to the dreamlike nature of the film.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, another Japanese favorite of mine, composed the score, and it’s full of Sakamoto’s beautiful, minimal piano songs. Certain passages are repeatedly played and it adds to the hypnotic feel of the film.

Tony Takitani is a terrific Japanese film that can serve as a good introduction to the world of Haruki Murakami or stand on it’s own if you are familiar with his writing. Now, if someone (preferably Japanese) would have the courage to adapt his masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I’d be a happy, happy robot.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Exiles/Tony Gatlif

Exiles (2004) is the latest film from one of my favorite directors, Tony Gatlif. There are a few foreign directors who I truly love and wait and wait and wait to see their newest film and Gatlif is at the top of the list. Two others off the top of my head are Ming-liang Tsai from Taiwan and Julio Medem from Basque.

Exiles is a story of this young couple—Romain Duris and Lubna Azabal—who live in Paris but decide to head to Algeria. Both have something to find by going to Algeria as his family was from there and she’s trying to discover parts of her past that have long since been lost to her.

There are always two key elements of a Gatlif movie—gypsies and music. Gatlif is himself Roma (gypsy) and was born in Algeria and composes a great deal of the incredibly emotional and alive music in his films. These two elements, music and gypsies, are so connected in a Gatlif movie that you can’t remove one without also erasing the other.

Exiles is less about gypsies as sole subject matter, but still is full of the uprooted aspects the Roma people like the idea of wondering, of the journey and of being lost and adrift in the world. These are themes that Gatlif just keeps coming back to in various ways in every film of his I see.

The idea of movement, of travel and the collected small moments of interaction with people and locations is important to Gatlif. The tiniest moments are still important moments to him and I love that about his films. Every little moment of interaction is important to Gatlif.

In the beginning the pair just frolic and sleep on the side of the road. As the trip to Algeria progresses it begins to affect them in stronger ways. They meet gypsies, get robbed by gypsies, listen to music and musicians of various stripes, bicker and then make up, sneak onto trains and boats, take jobs when they run out of money and are befriended by people as they slowly make their way to Algeria. Gatlif can make any kind of arduous journey seem like a romantic adventure as he does in Exiles.

This was the second Gatlif film for Duris (who was in my favorite Gatlif film Gadjo Dilo—this is one of my favorite movies of all-time). Azabal was in one of my favorites from last year—Paradise Now—and I actually nominated her for an ANDROID if you recall. Duris and Azabal are both very talented young actors and they kind of throw themselves into the story with abandon.

I love Gatlif’s films because he digs into a culture in the world we never really see in movies—the Roma people—but I also respond to him because he’s an unrepentant romantic. He’s one of the most honest, human and interesting storytellers in film and it’s a shame that he’s not more widely known.

Exiles is a beautiful movie that stays with you after you’ve seen it. I didn’t want it to end. I’ve never had the opportunity to see Gatlif’s films in the 1980s but of the six I’ve seen he’s never once let me down. I highly recommend Exiles and the five others that are either out on DVD or you might have the opportunity to see: Latcho Drom (1993), Mondo (1996), Gadjo Dilo (1996), Vengo (2000) and Swing (2002).

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Outsiders

I’ve been itching and itching for months to revisit the world of 1950s Tulsa in S.E. Hinton’s classic youth novel, seen through Francis Ford Coppola, that is The Outsiders, and finally got a chance to see one of my favorites when I was a teenager.

I loved The Outsiders (1983) and anything else connected to S.E. Hinton as a kid growing up. The main reason I loved her books, and the films based on them, is they were set in Oklahoma. I truly loved seeing something, anything, set in the world and the surroundings I felt a deep familiarity at the time. Add in the fact I was a teenager reading about other teenagers only increased my enjoyment level.

Flash forward to the present and watching the newly released director’s cut (with 22 minutes of new footage added to it) of a film I haven’t seen in at least in a decade and a half. Is it still as beloved a film as I remember it being? In a word: yes!

The Outsiders moved me when I was a kid and it still does despite some negatives popping up I didn’t notice when I was a kid. One big issue is some over-acting done by some of the cast who were largely a group of unknowns or just beginners. The story does get a tad hokey and melodramatic at times, but to be completely honest, that’s part of the charm of S.E. Hinton’s books. They are not full of a lot of grays as the teenagers are full of angst and rage. They are teenagers after all.

This cast is legendary for the amount of future stars: Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell (who for part of the 1980s was as big as any of them), Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Ralph Macchio were all Greasers and Leif Garrett and Diane Lane play two Socs. Tell me that isn’t just a ridiculous cast assembled for The Outsiders.

One of the coolest things about this film is it begins and ends with shots of The Circle (with a Paul Newman picture playing) and it has some terrific Admiral Twin Drive-In footage that moves me to no end. Put a drive-in in a movie (especially one I really love and have been to since I was a kid) and I’m a happy camper.

I loved seeing parts of Tulsa that you wouldn’t normally see—the blue collar, untainted by chains Tulsa that I wish was still more prevalent. A few place in the film have gone the way of the wrecking ball. Sadly, twenty years can erase a lot of architecture as the chain ideology swallows up all hints of “locality” no matter if its Tulsa or Albuquerque. I know I’m not going out on a limb but chains are evil.

The Outsiders was a favorite of my youth and while still not as powerful, I still really love it, as it's kind of a magical picture for me no matter how old I am when I watch it. Stay gold everybody, stay gold.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Baxter

The pressure is always on when you watch a film that a friend really liked and urges you to watch. That’s the case with The Baxter (2005) as The Hidden Staircase told me last month that she liked it and I would too. So, I watched it, and I hate to say that I didn’t like it!

It was kind of a sinking feeling as I watched it when I knew that I was either going to have to tell her I didn’t like it or she’d read about it on CineRobot. I promise I tried as hard as I could to like this film. I really wanted to enjoy The Baxter so we could be in agreement but in the end I just couldn’t do it.

I liked the premise of this romantic comedy—how there are men out in the world who are “baxters.” A baxter is an oddball, a second fiddle, a male out of step with the rest of the world and the kind of guy who gets left at the alter by women and are doomed to play the role of “best friend” over and over. The film follows such a baxter as he meets and courts a lovelier, more “with it” female in the form of Elizabeth Banks.

Writer/director Michael Showalter has cast himself as the film’s lead baxter—Elliot. My biggest issue in the film was Showalter himself as the leading man. I found Showalter incredibly annoying and did not believe for one second that this nerdier than nerdy Elliot could meet and then possibly marry someone like Banks as Caroline Swann. No way.

Showalter is clearly limited as an actor in a full-length picture. At times the film feels like a bloated up short film or piece of sketch comedy (the area that Showalter and cohorts have resided in for a long time—way back to The State or recently Reno 911 or Stella). Had someone else been in this lead role I may have liked this a little more than I did.

I did enjoy elements of this—Michelle Williams (who is now a possible “Top5” candidate) was absolutely adorable as a sweet newcomer to town who secretly pines for Elliot in such a bright eyed way he’s completely ignorant of (he’s a baxter after all, cluelessness is part of the character). Michael Ian Black had some humorous bits as Elliot’s neighbor and good friend. And I did like some of the sweet little elements that were buried by my annoyance of Showalter himself.

So, I know I’m disappointing The Hidden Staircase in how I feel about a film that was recommended to me, but what can I do, you feel the way you feel. You either like it or you don’t, it’s that simple. While I didn't despise The Baxter, it was just okay despite how much I wanted it to rise above “okay” and into the category of good.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Other Hollywood book review

The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne (who also did the highly recommended oral history of New York punk rock Please Kill Me) is a seedy, sleazy and frequently riveting account of this world that has been largely underground despite the fact that porn generates billions of dollars a year in business. The book goes back to discuss the beginnings of the industry to the current.

I love oral histories when they are well done and McNeil/Osborne spend a majority of the 600+ pages looking into the early days of porn (1970s to early 1980s) when it was completely off the radar but still creating a tremendous amount of revenue, connected to the world of the mob and could get you tossed in jail for a variety of legal infractions depending on the state.

I knew little about these early days (or any of this actually) and loved reading about the unhinged 1970s films that have stamped themselves onto American culture (Deep Throat for example). Other subjects include John Holmes’ rise to fame and fall back down due to drug addiction, Traci Lords and her underage scandal, the various lifestyles of the people involved as they delve into all kinds of risky behavior (lots of sex, lots of drugs), mafia/FBI related issues, the transition from film to videos on the cheap and the affect of AIDS.

The interviews are lively, blunt and frequently on the filthy side when a performer is remembering other performers, films or how they were drawn into the business. It gets a bit repetitive by the end but for the most part this is an engaging, addictive look into the world of the porn film industry.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn

Long lay-off. I’ve been extremely busier than usual and just haven’t had the time to write anything about anything for the past couple of weeks. That’s going to change for the next month at the very least, as I plan on reviewing or discussing every single film I see (like I used to do in Kinetoscope if you remember those days). Might be long, might be short, but all will be covered.

We screened a pristine print of Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn a few nights ago at the Circle as apart of the Midnight series. I hadn’t seen it in so long, at least a decade. I was completely blown away by how fun this movie is. It’s not really that gory and violent, it’s just an explosion of kinetic energy and over the top comedy from director Sam Raimi.

It was the comedy that surprised me the most. I remember it being funny but I didn’t remember all the elements of physical comedy that Raimi employs throughout the film. And one of my long-time favorites, Bruce Campbell gets to let loose some killer lines (the “Groovy” in the woodshed being the most enjoyable) and great “b-film” acting.

Plus, I have to say seeing this at a nearly packed theatre full of Deadites cheering, laughing and hollering out encouragement to Ash to kill is the absolute perfect environment to watch Evil Dead 2. It’s one of those films made for midnight. Great, great fun.