[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!]
Saturday, 2 October, 2004
Low Karbo Hydrates
The main movie reviewer for the daily paper in my hometown, the OREGONIAN, is Shawn Levy (not to be confused with the actor-director Shawn Levy). He's a nice guy, very helpful, very successful, and wends the world of movie reviewing and professional journalism with ease, while also having a brain, as versed in the business of movies as he is in the intricacies of Antonioni's complex movies. I rejoice in saying we are friends (I've leapt to thank him in books I've written), and note good naturedly that despite the fact that he has written the definitive biography of Jerry Lewis his views on comic movies, like Vincent Canby's, are usually off while always being perfectly reliable if Shawn finds it hilarious, you can depend that it's a dud. Shawn is hilarious in person, and an easy laugher himself, which is probably the foundation for this one weak link in his chain of cinematic reasoning and reaction.
I was dismayed, then, when six months ago Levy took a leave of absence to finish yet another book. His temporary replacement not only stepped into the void, but also apparently took his place as editor of the film section, making assignments and dealing with publicists and such. Her name is Karen Karbo and now that her tour of duty is over she has written a brief post mortem on her OREGONIAN tenure in another local publication called PORTLAND MONTHLY (the article is not available on line). Her views on the brief job, her generally sour view on movies in general, and her dilettante knownothingness are just as apparent in this witless and obvious diatribe as they were in the 40 or so movie reviews she wrote between late March and late September.
Karbo is a comic novelist (Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, The Diamond Lane, and Trespassers Welcome Here) who has strayed into travel journalism (OUTSIDE, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED FOR WOMEN), memoir (THE STUFF OF LIFE, about the death of her father, and GENERATION EX: TALES FROM THE SECOND WIVES CLUB, about divorcees), and ghostwriting (the autobiography of Gabrielle Reece). I was very slightly acquainted with her. We once served as judges on a writing contest; later in my capacity as an editor I hired her to review a book; I had naively thought that these occasions made us friendly, but subsequent encounters made clear that the far opposite was true. Her qualifications for reviewer hood seemed thin at best (not that they need to be thick in the unscientific world of movie punditry), though Karbo went to film school. And she was married to a filmmaker. But I don't think Levy had much to do with Karbo's coming to the paper. Instead, it was the doing of a particular editor there who whores after local novelists as "novelty" movie reviewers and whose spouse works or worked for a popular speaker's service. Portland is an incestuous place way up there at an elite and exclusionary level.
Karbo's article, called "My Awful Dream Job" (pages 40 and 41 of the November issue of Portland Monthly if you want to go look it up at your local library), begins by citing various "friends" who express envy that she will get to see free movies for a living. But soon the complaints begin. Too many teen movies. No "plush" screening rooms. Security guards wanding you at the entrance. And the hoard of moochers who dine out on the free passes to advance screenings that local radio stations and newspapers give out. Every city has them, it seems, but Portland is particularly afflicted with these white trash party crashers who arrive in groups of 40 or more, bring their own food in crinkly sacks, and hate everything they've seen, completely defeating the idea of a "word of mouth" screening as far as the publicists should be concerned. I know all about these creeps. I wrote an extensive profile of them for a local "alternative" weekly back in 1988. Karbo found that her main occupation was "pulling our [her] hair trying to find new and creative ways to say, 'This movie sucks in the way most sucky movies suck.'" If that was Karbo's goal, she failed.
After a bunch of lame jokes ("good movies are about as common as sexy accountants"), Karbo laments the fact that her reviews never inspired an "ongoing correspondence with a coterie of thoughtful movie-lovers." I'm not sure why this is a goal for a presumably busy movie reviewer and editor, unless the oft-divorced Karbo viewed the position as an elaborate dating service. Instead, Karbo complains that readers complained. Novelists tend to be insulated, never really hearing from the remaining Americans who still read novels, unless they go on a reading tour. Movie reviewers, on the other hand, tend to inspire response, if for no other reason than that in America, everyone is a movie critic. Karbo is shocked and annoyed when errors in her columns are pointed out to her, thinking the complainers are petty, and not getting the idea that consistent inaccuracies undermine the reader's confidence. Karbo sees it otherwise, as evidence of a "nation of nitpickers," unaware that newspapers live and die on the accuracy of their pages. If Karbo couldn't be bothered to get simple things right, well, maybe she was in the wrong trade.
Karbo concludes by linking herself with all the other movie reviewers in the world and presuming to speak for them: that "we" are all bored with movies and their "predictable" plots, that our authoritative voices are a fraud because we are "OD'ed on popcorn and are trying to meet impossible deadlines," that "we," like her, as she admits, frequently "savaged" movies "because I was irritated by the snack-chomping Prevert sitting in front of me." How moral and responsible of Karbo! Maybe she should have laid off the popcorn and concentrated on the movies.
When I learned that Karbo was joining the ranks of the small group of local reviewers I also heard that she was planning to write a book about her experiences, and immediately resolved to avoid her like the plague, not wanting to appear as a figura buffa in her no doubt humorless text. Maybe it turned out that after six months as a movie reviewer all she could squeeze out of the experience was a 1900 word essay in a city mag. She certainly doesn't seem to have been much interested in the movies or the business. This wasn't exactly a repetition of an intellectual like Renata Adler descending on the NEW YORK TIMES for a year. This was more like Scooby Do bleating for hamburgers.
SCOOBY-DO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED was, in fact one of the first films Karbo
reviewed. She gave it a C+ rating. Others she wrote about included THE
RECKONING, THE PRINCE AND ME, MAN ON FIRE, LAWS OF ATTRACTION, VAN HELSING,
TROY, THE STEPFORD WIVES, ANCHORMAN, THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, THE VILLAGE,
PRINCESS DIARIES 2, SHE HATE ME, ANACONDA, CELLULAR, and WIMBLEDON. Those are
the ones she didn't like. Here are some she did: INTERMISSION, HOME ON THE
RANGE, THE ALAMO, TO BE OR TO HAVE, ELLA ENCHANTED (a "Monty Python fairy
tale"), KILL BILL VOL. 2, ROBOT STORIES, MEAN GIRLS, YOUNG ADAM, SUPER SIZE ME,
SHREK 2, COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, HARRY POTTER 3, THE TERMINAL, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE,
BEFORE SUNSET, RIDING GIANTS, METALLICA, WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, VANITY
FAIR, CRIMINAL, and THE LOST BOYS OF SUDAN. But even her praise was faint. Karbo
basically viewed a movie review as a forum to rehearse some of the jokes she
might use later in a better context, like a book, or a national magazine, forums
apparently more worth her while than mere newspaper movie reviewing.
Certain themes became quickly clear in Karbo's reviews: Food (especially popcorn) and a resentment of thin women, such as Kate Beckinsale, who presume to be action figures; SUPER SIZE ME is "delicious," and COFFEE AND CIGARETTES is like "dark chocolate"; Video games and the kids who played them; surfers and surfing culture (Dennis Quaid is likened to an "aging surfer" in THE ALAMO); And making sure that kids were amused while the parents did something else, which is a trope she used often to end her reviews.
Karbo was capable of many brash and unproven statements that were certainly untrue. Of INTERMISSION she wrote knowingly that "these days, no indie artiste worth his invitation to Sundance will allow a tripod anywhere near his cameraman," which is nonsense, and anyway, shaky camerawork has been around since the early films of John Cassavetes. She calls Steve Buscemi a "lovable weirdo," which makes no sense to me. What is "weird" about Buscemi, exactly? I've never found him so. Weird seems to be an off term to use in describing the actor. Speaking of weird, she compares the documentary TO BE AND TO HAVE to the completely different LOST IN TRANSLATION because they both show "life simply being observed," a not very helpful analogy. And you just couldn't please Karbo. VAN HELSING is chastised for its non-stop action, because there were no "quit moments in which the heroes nervously lie in wait" while AFTER THE FALL is, the very same issue, punished for having "pacing as sluggish as Scottish canals."
Also, Karbo had a burdensome reliance on a minuscule number of catch phrases. She likes to liken things to Monty Python. And she likes the term "proceedings" as a synecdoche for the complex of movie plot, actors, and action. SCOOBY DO has "paint-by-number proceedings." Home on the range had "studiously zany proceedings." She also liked to use Pottery Barn for gags. ELLA ENCHANTED has a "Crockery barn." MAN ON FIRE should be called "Man In a Crock Pot." This limited repertoire reaches its orgasmic apotheosis when they share the same stage in her review of THE ALAMO, in which the Mexican army "shows up early in the proceedings" and a particular room is lit up with "Pottery Barn candles."
This isn't to say that Karbo didn't stray into the business side of things. In a Sunday "think piece" published May 16th, Karbo profiled 15 local "indie" filmmakers. That a few of them had only made one film, or had only lived in the city for a few months, or that Karbo left out a number of truly independent local filmmakers (Gil Dennis, Jim Blashfield, Chel White, Oscar winner Joan Gratz, Rose Bond, and Matt McCormick come to mind), or that Karbo allowed in at the last minute a particularly pushy, self-promoting, and mediocre filmmaker, her editors seemed not to care. In her book-length essay on bitter divorcees Karbo writes, "My relationship with my ex-spouse was nothing like this [filled with anger]. We were, and are, Monty Python-skit polite … We conduct ourselves as if we are the tetchy diplomats of warring Middle Eastern nations." This politesse must extend itself to media coverage: The third of the 15 filmmakers Karbo covered was her ex-husband, Kelley Baker.
(The OREGONIAN appears to take a rather fluid attitude to the
appearance of conflict of interest. A freelancing art critic once reviewed some
years ago a show that he was involved in. And one of the paper's other current
movie reviewers, Mock Mohan, whom I don't know, also owns a video rental store,
and thus presumably has a vested interest in the commercial success or failure
of films. Mohan is at least capable of writing negative reviews so in actual
practice the conflict between profit considerations at the expense of aesthetic
judgments is more apparent than real.)
Thankfully, Karbo's shift at the OREGONIAN was foreordained to be brief. After six months of undistinguished and lazy reviews, whose opinions were little different from every other mainstream reviewer, Karbo bid farewell with a Parthian shot in another publication that was an ill-informed distortion of the reviewing process and an insult to those who take the position of movie reviewing and movies themselves seriously. Fortunately, Levy is back, and these "proceedings" are now ended.
Wednesday, 6 October, 2004
I ♥ HUCKABEES
David O. Russell's fourth feature is getting a lot of positive reinforcement, and some pretty hard critiques, too. I went into it feeling ambivalent, because I'm not wild about Russell's films, though I have enjoyed parts of them, and I'm not sure why he wants to make movies. He doesn't seem to have a natural aptitude for film (though that is also true and worse for other prominent helmers), and his films are rarely visually distinguished. There is usually something driven and personal about his work and I daresay he might be better off writing novels.
Still, certain reviewers I admire loved the film, so instead of seeing TAXI or SAW, both also screened on Wednesday at the same time, I opted to be a responsible film reviewer and see HUCKABEES.
The film has be described as indescribable, but the plot is in fact fairly easy to summarize, as long as one keeps in mind that it is "kooky." Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman, of RUSHMORE) is an earnest and caring young man with a bad haircut who works for Open Spaces, an environmental group. He is in a bad mood because he is tortured by the coincidence of seeing the same tall Sudanese lad in three different and unlikely places. He goes to see Bernard and Vivian Jaffee (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a pair of "existential detectives" (therapists, really) who will investigate his life and find the source of his worry. Albert's obsession with the Sudanese coincidences are really a deflection from what is really bothering him, which is that Brad Stand (Jude Law in another bad hairdo), the promotions chief of a store chain about to destroy some marshlands, has usurped him from control of Open Spaces. Albert doesn't want to admit that he is both in it for the glory, and that he has a crush on Stand's girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts), the "face" of Huckabees, the chain store.
The Jaffees follow Albert around and expose some of his unadmitted concerns, mostly to do with his parents, in whose apartment building the Sudanese turns out to be the doorman. Meanwhile, they pair him up with a fireman named Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) who also has environmental concerns, specifically petroleum, which he abhors. In the end, Albert gets his job back but he doesn't get the girl: Tommy inherits Dawn from Brad.
Nor is the film all that "crazy." It's easily classified as an "existential comedy" in the tradition of RUSHMORE, MAGNOLIA, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, a tradition that goes back in fact to the ensemble films of Robert Altman and Peter Bogdanovich. In any case, I chuckled a few times and appreciated that the film was "unpredictable," but I continued to have a few problems with it, among them the use of wigs as easy classifications devices, and the fact that the movie is very lighthearted for taking on such weighty topics as the meaning of life. It's fairly lightweight, life-affirming stuff, not at all as tough or despairing as SPOTLESS MIND.
The casting was interesting but inconsistently successful. Tomlin is the kind of novelty casting Russell went in for with FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, when he used Mary Tyler Moore. Hoffman is awful. Wahlberg is amusing, Schwartzman shows potential as a leading man, Isabelle Huppert is wasted as a competing existential detective, and Watts, though always a marvel to look at, strikes me as a tad overexposed this is her ninth film in three years. But at least she does the American accent better than Law, who is utterly miscast as an aggressive and shallow American businessman and who has real trouble getting his mouth around the flat American sound. Law is overexposed too, and is approaching Michael Caine levels of annual output, including ALFIE, a remake of the film that starred Michael Caine. In any case, I'm going to continue thinking about I ♥ Huckabees and will probably have more to say about it later. One more thing though. When Hoffman pulls up in his car at one point he tries to turn off the engine and instead turns on the windshield wipers. Is that a private homage to STRAW DOGS?
Friday, 8 October, 2004
O. Henry Stories
CSI: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON
Now, after four seasons, and some 80-plus hours of drama (which means about 160 stores, since they usually have an A and a B case going on at once per ep) I think I'm finally beginning to understand the series. These are really O. Henry stories. They are "existential" tales, if you will, about people confounded by fate. In one story in the fourth season, a couple kills their infant because they think that he is going to suffer from the same disease that felled their first child. But it turns out that he was really suffering from gardening product poisoning, not the dread disease, so their horrific scheme was for not. Several of the episodes are like that, and they twist the knife in even deeper on a show that is already pretty cruel.
It remains one of the best shows on network television, and like other programs, such as SEINFELD, it is hitting its stride in its fourth season. I expect that it will be good for at least another two seasons, at minimum. Then people will start to leave; or the other CSIs will dilute the fund of plots needed to keep viewers enraptured.
Because that's what CSI excels at, plotting. Because they don't usually show you the actual crime, you are as baffled and perplexed and surprised as the criminalists, as each new piece of evidence creates an even deeper puzzle.
It continues also to be a well-acted show, with Petersen remaining one of the best thespians on the tube, as he used to be on the big screen. The episode in which he shines best is the one called "Jackpot" on the second disc. I am not going to even begin to describe it, except to say that it is probably one of the best hours of television I have ever seen. Forty-four minutes, actually. I also appreciate the fact that they keep the soap opera elements attached to the CSI team to a minimum, which was a mistake that LAW AND ORDER failed to avoid around its third or fourth season.
The transfers are as good as ever in this Paramount release of the CBS series. Every disc has at least one audio commentary track with the creator, directors, and/or writers, but the only big extra is a four part making of that follows the creation of one specific episode (called "Suckers") that is fairly informative and makes you tired just thinking about all these people working on at least three shows simultaneously. CSI: THE COMPLETE FOURTH season retails for $89.95, and hits the street on Tuesday, October 12.
From D. K. Holm:
A reader pointed out that in regards to my SHAUN OF THE DEAD review and the parallel film buried within it, the filmmakers have already addressed that issue in an interview. Edgar Wright said, "We've toyed with the idea of doing a further [comic-book story] that chronicles the story of the other gang &3151; of Yvonne's gang [of survivors, whom Shaun's gang meets mid-film]. It's unlikely that there's going to be a film sequel to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but maybe we'd do what happens to Shaun and Ed afterward as a comic, instead." Here's a link to the full interview.
I am going to write about the DVD release of REN AND STIMPY next week, but let it be known now that the reportedly reclusive creator of the show, John K., is making a personal appearance at the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 12, from 7 to 9 PM.
NEXT TIME: "Crazy lady" DVDs, Tarantino's blog, Guy Maddin's COWARDS, SAVED, EASY RIDER, VIDEODROME, several STAR TREKS and more!
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