By D.K. Holm
May 24, 2006
[nota bene: The following column, by necessity, contains some spoilers! If you don't want to know the ending of the movies mentioned, don't read on.]
There are three conversational gambits that never fail to irritate me. One is someone saying, "Why do they have to put all those extras on DVDs? Don't they spoil the movie by telling you how it's made?" A second one is people asking me what I think of a movie and then not listening because they are about to tell me what they think. But worst of all are people who don't like Mystery Science Theater 3000: Collection Volume (Rhino Home Video, 375+ minutes, color and black and white, NR, full frame, DD 5.1 and Surround in English, animated musical menu with 20-chapter scene selection, folding digi-pak in keep case, four single sided discs, $59.95, released on Tuesday, May 16, 2006) because the little talking silhouettes "get in the way. I want to see the movie," they always claim.
Yeah, well, then go watch the fuckin' lousy movie sometime. And leave me here to revel in the comedic brilliance of Joel, Mike and the rest of the gang as they tear to ribbons some utterly Z-grade sci-fi film with Zorro-like verbal ripostes that prove that the pen is mightier than the sword.
The genius of MST3K is that it took a common practice among stoner youth and turned it into an art form. How many times have you sat in front of the tube with a bunch of friends and mocked a bad movie to death, talking back to the screen as if they filmmakers could hear you. Such mockery is the modern form of throwing tomatoes.
In this ninth volume of MST3K ribbings, the boys and 'bots take on Women of the Prehistoric Planet, Wild Rebels, The Sinister Urge, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, for a long time the Grail of MST3K writers, and the four episodes come from the four "eras" of the show.
One thing that usually goes unstated in encomiums to the glories of MST3K are the actual jokes. What do they say a reader unfamiliar with the show might wonder. Well, take their take on The Incredibly Strange Creatures . In the middle of the movie the narrative stops so that director Ray Dennis Steckler can show a succession of truly terrible performers, dancers and singers who must have been friends of Steckler's. MST3K's writers are especially witty about a dreary dance number, and the solo singer who follows them. Here are some of the cracks that Mike and the 'bots make:
[Noting the similarity of the dance number's tune to a Christmas carol, they all sing:] "Pa rum pa pum."
[Noting the ill-dressed woman in the front row of the audience]: "Cleaning ladies love this show."
[Crow, in exultant voice, back on the Xmas theme:] "The Feliz Natividad dancers!"
[Mike, commenting on the black and white stripped dancers' costumes:] "The girl's costumes were designed by long time NFL referee Jerry Arfbright.
[As the mundane dancing carries on:] "Hair trigger precision. they are like the Blue Angels of dancing."
[Tom, in announcer voice:] "River Dance: The Strip show!"
[Crow, in the voice of a dancer:] "That did go over well at San Quentin."
[Crow, as the dancers break up into smaller configurations:] "You know, oddly enough Andrea Dworkin choreographed this."
[Mike, leeringly as the dancers throb:]: You know what I'm looking at right now?
That exit sign.
[Tom:] "That Bebe Neuwirth she's so multitalented."
[Mike, wonderingly as the dance number ends:] "So how is this a tribute to Madeleine Albright?"
[Mike, as a stripper comes out:] "Noam Chomsky better pick better warm up acts."
[Tom, as the stripper points a gloved hand at the audience:] "Uncle Stripper wants you!"
[Crow, as a solo singer starts:] "Ladies and gentlemen, Leslie Bore."
[Mike, noting her small square mike:] "She's singing into a Lady Remington."
[Crow, on the singer's style:] "She's tapped into the rebellious sprit of data entry people everywhere."
[Mike, on the song itself:] "The Mobius strip of music: it leads nowhere and comes from no where."
[Crow:] "She could use a couple of Supremes or a Pip or something."
[Mike, like an announcer:] "Cindy 'room clearer' Carson!"
[Mike, as the singer finishes up her number]: "I dedicate this song to Sylvia Plath."
I doubt this reads well. But heard in tandem with the film itself it is brilliant, idealized, endlessly swift thinking example of what real people do to a TV screen filled with excrescence. What's most important about the show is that, like only a few other TV programs, such as The Simpsons, it's bright. The filmmakers aren't afraid to cite everything from Chomsky to Outsider Art to Queen Lativah's hat.
The shows enjoy excellent transfers (of the original broadcast), and for supplements contains two color video introductions, by actress Irene Tsu to Women of the Prehistoric Planet and by the hammy Conrad Brook to Ed Wood's The Sinister Urge.
In the latest of a series of coincidences between politics and film, the extended cut of Enemy of the State comes out on DVD the same week that the NSA is revealed to have both listened in on the public without warrants and tried to track down anonymous sources or leakers used by journalists (another one is the Homeland Security guy being arrested just as Hard Candy came out). Was no one paying attention way back in 1998 when the film came out? 'Cause it's all there. The film goes into great detail about the capabilities of the spying industries.
Enemy of the State is one of three big action films released all at once in fuller, extended versions, adding about two to four minutes to the running time. All three are produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (one with his late partner, Don Simpson), and, given Bruckheimer's influence on the big screen and on television, invite the notion of Bruckheimer Studies as a viable branch of scholarship, both theoretical and practical.
It's probably easy to parody but not so easy to actually create a Bruckheimer film. For one thing, they are expensive. They are star driven, with huge set pieces that stop the plot in order to dazzle the viewer. Underlying them is a modest acceptance of order, of authority, from which the narrative at hand has been a deviation that must be righted by the protagonists. Enemy of the State is interesting because it shows almost nothing but distrust for government.
To see how a Bruckheimer film truly works it's helpful to view a failure. That would be Crimson Tide: Unrated Extended Edition (Hollywood, 1995, 123 minutes [versus 116 minute release length], color, NR, 2.35:1 enhanced, DD 5.1 and Surround in English with English subtitles, static musical menu with 10-chapter scene selection, one-sheet insert with chapter titles, keep case and slip case, one disc, $19.95, released on Tuesday, May 16, 2006 [superseding a disc from February 1998]). This is one of that small group of submarine movies, such as K-19: The Widowmaker, in which the plot hinges on something that doesn't happen, in this case world war three. The audience is revving for disaster, and the film is trying to cool its jets.
Crimson Tide (what does that title mean, anyway?) has all the usual Bruckheimer features. The big cast (Hackman and Washington in the big parts, Mortensen and Gandolfini in supporting parts), the elaborate set, the non-stop business of the thing, and a rather wretched script (credited to Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick) in which people talk like bragging competitive frat boys instead of people (director Tony Scott called upon his pal Tarantino to spruce up the dialogue with some trivial contest chatter).
Scott can't do much with this nonsense except spend a lot of time figuring out how to shoot a movie in a confined space. He found that cutting a lot and using two-tone images helped. But ultimately, the film is a weak unofficial remake of the Caine Mutiny, sand ice cream and marbles.
I couldn't tell what was new in this longer edition, but still the film includes three deleted scenes (an extended version of "Movie Trivia On The Bus," and a longer version of the "Sara Interviews Radchenko" scene, both at the start of the film, and "Awaiting The Naval Hearing"), plus two conventional makings ofs, "All Access: On The Set of Crimson Tide and "The Making of Crimson Tide," the making of being a key adjunct to the Bruckheimerian vision. You can also "Register Your DVD," and watch trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Chronicles of Narnia, Remember The Titan - Director's Cut, Glory Road, and Eight Below.
But when the Bruckheimer formula works, it really works. Con Air: Unrated Extended Edition (Touchstone, 1997, 122 minutes [versus 115 minute release length], color, NR, 2.35:1 enhanced, DD 5.1 in English with English subtitles, static musical menu with 18-chapter scene selection, one-page insert with chapter titles, keep case and slip case, one disc, $19.95, released on Tuesday, May 16, 2006 [superseding one from March 1998]) is a most enjoyable film, an underrated gem, and it must be because, unlike most of the films Bruckheimer produces, there is a real sardonic wit to this one (it's directed by Simon West, although the optimum Bruckheimer director is, or was, Michael Bay).
It's got all the other elements: the almost monosyllabic label of a title, the high concept premise (a plane seized in a drug bust and now used for prisoner transport, is hijacked by the convicts), a great cast, from Cage and Cusack to Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo, and over the top action sequences that seemingly never end. The sardonic black humor is found in the subplot concerning Steve Buscemi as the Lectoresqe Garland 'The Marietta Mangler' Greene. He's a child molester but gets away, which is a black spot of Goth morbidity in the otherwise film soleil action.
Though the best of the three films, this disc is the most bare bones, its only extras a passel of trailers: Enemy of the State [Special Edition], Crimson Tide [Extended Edition], Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest,Annapolis, Glory Road, and Grey's Anatomy: Season One. I assume that the extended element is more love scene and more language and bits of violence.
Tony Scott, however, is the only director who appears to be able to maintain his own independent identity as a director in the sphere of Bruckheimer. In fact, Scott has done something rather remarkable. From Enemy of the State: Unrated Extended Edition (Touchstone, 1998, 140 minutes [versus 131 minute release length], color, NR, 2.35:1 enhanced, static musical menu with 10-chapter scene selection, one-page insert with chapter titles, keep case and slip case, one disc, $19.95, released on Tuesday, May 16, 2006 [superseding one from June 1999]) on, Scott has embraced a fragmented visual style that not unlike Oliver Stone's in JFK. It's the cinematic equivalent of what James Ellroy has done in his novels, which is to speak in a form of shorthand that speaks volumes, provides a unique voice, and erases irrelevancies. In Scott the style is confused with embracing the music video or TV commercial aesthetic. In any case, Enemy of the State blends a great style, a great cast, and a political cogent premise into a superb, satisfying entertainment.
Supplements are minimal, including two deleted scenes ("Jones Gets Bitten," "Confrontation at the Limousine Service"), plus two docs, "The Making of Enemy of the State, and "All Access: The Showdown," plus you can "Register Your DVD," and see trailers for itself, as well as Con Air, Crimson Tide [Extended Edition], Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Annapolis, Glory Road, and Grey's Anatomy: Season One. This is the longest version of the three films on disc, but I couldn't tell what was new. I hate to abrogate the responsibility but I'll await a website whose writers have the time to compare and contrast the subtle differences between the versions of all these films.
By its second season, the influential crime show Hill Street Blues: Season Two (Fox, 1981 - 1982, 850 minutes, color, NR, full frame, English (Dolby Digital 1.0), Spanish (Dolby Digital 1.0), French (Dolby Digital 1.0), with English and Spanish subtitles, static musical menu with 5-chapter scene selection, slim cases in slip case, three double sided dual layered discs, $39.95, released on Tuesday, May 16, 2006) was probably at its peak, and remained so through most of its third season when Michael Conrad died. Something in the show died with him, but like The Sopranos and so many other shows who lost a main cast member, it staggered on (one could argue that The Sopranos lost its very premise, its raison d'etre, with the death of Nancy Marchand, who played Tony's mother, since the show was about a man torn among his wife, mother, and shrink). The second season of most shows is the best, with a slow decline as actors and writers leave, and stories are attenuated over time.
The thing is that the show was really never all that popular. The masses didn't watch it all that much, but it was popular within a narrow demographic of what were then called yuppies. It's influence the hand held camera, the ongoing story lines, the ensemble casting only later had its impact on shows the public did watch. But it won a lot of prizes and NBC kept it alive.
With its second season (which started in January 1981), a strain of sentimentality infused the comedy and violence, found mostly in the character of Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), who hid a sympathy for the underdog and a lonely heart under the guise of a gruff exterior and animalistic behavior (in the third season he was to get a girlfriend, a fellow cop played by Lisa Sutton, and also acquire a tragic gay hanger on). His character became the true heart of the show, especially after the death of Conrad. Here, he gets mixed up with a crazy vigilante who goes by the name Captain Freedom.
Understanding that, the organizers of this second season of shows invite Weitz to participate in (edited) audio commentaries on the Freedom episodes (there are only two commentaries in the set, though I actually couldn't find one of them for some reason). There is also another making of, "The Hill Street Blues Story," plus a profile of Weitz and his character in "Belker Unleashed," in which he goes out of his way to praise the writers of the show, and "Confessions of Captain Freedom," which features an interview with the actor who played Captain Freedom, Dennis Dugan, and "A Cowboy on the Hill," about Charles Haid and his character.
Media Notes From All Over
If, like me, you couldn't afford nor were invited to go to the Cannes film festival this year, you can still experience the hubbub in the virtual world, thanks to IFC's Cannes Cam. Set up overlooking the red carpeted steps of the festival's premiere venue for screenings, the Cannes Cam captures the flood of well garbed and shod audience members and elites trekking past photographers to the sounds of loud house music on their way into the theater for about 30 minutes twice a day; the rest of the time the Cam shows various people wandering by, cleaning up, or standing watch.
It's especially fun to watch the camera's images at 3:30, when you can hear the sound of the ocean, the roar of nearby traffic (with the occasional motorcycle), and various drunk stragglers staggering by. Unfortunately, the viewer needs Windows Media Player to see it steadily; I've been able to get it on my iMac with Safari, but it comes and goes. When it gets busy, occasionally the camera zooms in to capture celebrities taking pictures of each other, or Ken Loach arriving to see his own film. In my head, I'm trying to work out a formula for catching key events (listed below the camera's image on the page). If I calculate right, at 12 am Pacific Standard Time on Friday, you might catch Richard Linklater walking in to see "Fast Foot Nation," as it is printed on the website. The show time in France is 10:30 PM.
There is an interesting discussing going on over at Dave Kehr's blog that started off as a comment on the firing of Jami Bernard and Kevin Thomas and turned into a dirge to the end of a time when one can get detailed, responsible, essayistic movie reviews in a newspaper. I posted my own contributed to this forum, but what I want to quote here is the fascinating remarks of someone named Larry Kart. For the full context, please visit Kehr's blog: "Actually, I found Dave’s lament about Jamie Bernard et al. to be, as they say, highly disingenuous. Dave IMO and AFAIK is in a class by himself as a film critic, almost certainly so if we limit the field to those who have written or conceivably could write for a daily newspaper. Yes, Michael Wilmington does know his film, but I edited the guy regularly and a) he can’t write, and b) in response to the stress, actual and imagined, of his job at the Trib, he wrote too often like a dishonest coward, trying his damnedest, when he felt the pressure or saw his chance, to praise some mass-market turd that he thought might be wildly successful — this in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his bosses. And here he almost always had a tin ear; the turd films he found some way to say he liked seldom turned out to be the big commercial successes he thought they were going to be. Ebert’s instincts in this line are at once more subtle and accurate, but he’s more or less a liar in this regard too. By contrast, when Dave wrote a paen to “Titanic,” he really meant it; he has those tastes, while Wilmington and most other would-be film scholar types who’ve it made into the daily press are people whose tastes were shaped by the art house products and favorites of the ’50s and ’60s and haven’t really changed. I’m fairly sure that Wilmington’s favorite film is “Bicycle Thief.” As it happens, the guy at the Trib now who Dave mentions or alludes to, Michael Phillips, is a theater critic who moved over, and a not very good writer of a different sort (way too cute and would-be flashy), but because he “doesn’t know film” is not why Phillips is no good. That is, “knowing film” is, in practice in my experience, no guarantee of anything. Dave isn’t Dave because he “knows film,” though of course he does (how given who he is could he not), but there are lots of people out there who “know film” and aren’t and never will be anything like Dave. I’m not a big fan of A.O. Scott, who certainly didn’t “know film” when he was hired (as I recall Ebert tried to raise a big stink about that hire on those grounds, then backed down when he saw that the man he was attacking had a fancy education and high-placed friends), but again, Scott plus lots more film knowledge of any and every sort would give you only a very slightly different A.O. Scott._BTW, I liked how Dave linked Ozu to Albert Brooks in the Times this week and would say that no amount of film knowledge/scholarship could lead a person to that insight; it’s a function of simple (or not so simple) intelligence, sensitivity, and humanity, and, I guess, a willingness to see that in this medium in particular there are forms of life that live below and beyond the obvious labels."
But speaking of great film writing that is detailed, unpredictable, and knowledgeable, I can turn the reader to this essay by Erich Kuersten over at Bright Lights. In "Aural Drag," Kuersten's subject is the new male sensitivity in films about "artistic, misunderstood young male loners, or the bitter old codgers they're afraid of growing into. They're made by sensitive guys like Wes Anderson, Zach Braff, and Cameron Crowe. And the stories in these films seem to exist purely as an excuse to stage emotional tableaux to the director’s favorite headphones late-at-night-cry-in-their-chamomile music." This is a must read essay, very witty and dead on.
The essay makes a fine companion to Andy Selsberg's "'They Want Us to Look,': Through The Lens of the Teen Sex Comedies of the Early 1980s," in the current issue of The Believer. It's a wonderful essay, a sympathetic though not uncritical look an authentic genre with its own plot contrivences, idendification benchmarks, and auteurs (the only other critic to appraise these films seriously has been Robin Wood, in CineACTION!, the essay later reprinted in one of his books). Selsberg writes with authority and a intensely focused passion, and a witty prose style; you could define him as a James Wolcott without the slapstick. Each paragraph has at least three finely turned phrases or new ideas. Among the points he makes are that that teen sex comedies find their true medium in VHS tapes, and Selsberg carefully distinguishes between initial teen comedies such as Porky's and later, softer tales of the John Hughes shift in the genre.
And dedicated to critics from the past, a website I've only recently been told about (and which I don't fully understand yet) seems to specialize in unearthing public recordings of venerated figures such as Pauline Kael. Called of the two-part recording here.
In the interests of tireless self-promotion, I interviewed myself for Green Cine Daily, on the subject of my film soleil book. Of course, the interview ended up ranging far more widely than that.
D. K. Holm's 2006 Film Diary (Otherwise Known as a Blog)
Monday, 15 May, 2006
After blubbering through the wake of the last ever West Wing the previous night, I gear up to view the antepenultimate 24 of the season, and suddenly realize that all season like the two shows have offered contrasting views of the presidency. West Wing's Bartlett and incoming Santos are noble, while 24's Charles Logan (Gregory Itzen) is a sweaty nervous Nixonian weasel who has sold out the country to radical patriots between prayer sessions in his office with his Cheney-clone cabinet member. It's funny that it is the presumably conservative Fox network that highlights the evil president or politicians, both here and in Prison Break, but that must be because either because its conservatism is at root of the anti-government kind or because after such hits as The X-Files the network is more inclined to tap into political paranoia. But one has to appreciate the non-stop action of 24 with Jack Bauer supported only by a bag of tricks out of Felix. Also, the show does something interesting. It's the Sopranos imperative. All the attractive characters are fat and bald, while the villains are thin.
I have to say I didn't like the last scene with C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney). She comes out of the White House for the last time and a tourist and his daughter stop her to ask if she works inside. Instead of saying, "Well, I did, but today is my last day, and yes, it is an incredible job," she pulls a passive aggressive stance and denies working there (apparently the tourist didn't recognize her from Nightline). I know what the filmmakers were trying to achieve, a sense of Cregg's liberation from the job, but to me it came across like an elite looking down on the little people.
And incidentally, if you are interested in KILL BILL, you might find my new book, KILL BILL: AN UNOFFICIAL CASEBOOK useful. It is now available in fine bookstores everywhere, or from Amazon.
Not only that, I've got a new book out on an aspect of film noir I call film soleil, titled simply FILM SOLEIL. It is sure to alter film criticism as we know it to its very core. Order it now!
In addition, I've got a new book coming out later this year from Pocket Essentials, this one on Independent Cinema. It covers the history of this much cited modern film "style," with special focus on the careers of Jill and Karen Sprecher, Guy Maddin, and James Mangold, among others. Order it now!
And if you are interested in what I sound like, I can be heard on KBOO radio (90.7 FM) the second and the fourth Wednesday of the month, at 9 AM in the morning (Pacific Standard Time) on Ed Goldberg's show MOVIE TALK along with Dawn Taylor. It's available via streaming audio (in 20 Kbps Stereo). The next broadcast is Wednesday, May 24.
COMING SOON: Oscar winners on DVD, Louis Malle, Val Lewton, a package of Hitchcock movies and TV shows, REMINGTON STEEL and other TV mystery shows, many STAR TREKS, the third annual DVD Tray of Horror part 2, and more!
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