Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Historians have widely noted that Frank Tashlin, the late director famous for outlandish 1950s Technicolor send-ups of consumer culture, began his career in animation. This unquestionably influenced the exaggerated style of Tashlin’s features, but his contributions to the Looney Tunes saga are buried under the reputation of legendary animators like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. Tashlin himself was a principal auteur of Porky Pig.

Continue reading about Tashlin's 'toon past in the New York Press...

Friday, August 25, 2006


Cinema's zombie overlord is back, folks! No doubt George Romero's next flesh-chomping tale is sure to join the pantheon of classic undead legend, with a riotous blast of brilliant mayhem, a couple of doomed filmmakers in the woods? Um...The Blair Witch Project, anyone? OK, so the premise sounds contrived, but this is a ZOMBIE flick, not some minimalistic indie experiement. There's gonna be gore! Um...Cannibal Holocaust, anyone?

Well, that's unfair. Romero has never really disappointed anyone. Sure, Land of the Dead lacked the same sort of hopeless apocalyptic dread that imbued the earlier Dead films with an indelible intensity, but it still delivered the cannabilistic goods with the right balance of horror and good humor (with some awesome stabs at classicism), as opposed to CH's ability to push anyone limits of bad taste to the extreme with no redemptive charm. If Diary of the Dead aims to mock film student snobbery, we may be in for an authentically good time.


My buddy Stu over at The Reeler (among the essential New York film blogs) asked me to chip in with a few words of wisdom while he takes a well-earned vacation, so I've done my best. Enjoy. (And check out some of the other diverse city folk that Stu wound together!)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The Pusher Trilogy*

At first glance, the three films that comprise the Pusher trilogy would be best described as Danish Tarantino knock-offs. I always hate that sort of comparison— the distinctness of Tarantino’s panache is a slew of self-aware tributes to its cinematic precedents. Like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs before it, Nicolas Winding Refn’s films comprise a classical crime saga, and that concept predates the so-called crime genre ingenuity of the 1990s by over half a century. The first installment, released abroad in 1996, was Refn’s low budget directorial debut, while the sequels, Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death were filmed more recently with substantially larger budgets. But there is a stylistic similarity shared by all three features that keeps them together as a single body of work. Even as the story shifts from one low-end drug dealer to another before concluding the cycle by honing in on a jaded kingpin, the gritty Copenhagen streets are the real star of the show, and the central themes of corruption and desperation are timeless.

Each part opens with a short character-driven scene, followed by a sequence where each main character is introduced one after another, standing in front of a black background and staring blankly directly at the camera. The music is cheesy hard rock and technique might seem like a contrived shortcut to avoid additional exposition— but it is actually an effect that harkens all the way back to the great 1931 James Cagney vehicle The Public Enemy, and it is startlingly effective. These films have always depended on credibly portraying criminality as a lifestyle, which requires that the central characters are established with distinct individuality, rather than as mere purveyors of brute force.

Writing in the 1950s, culture critic Robert Warshow recognized the gangster as a “tragic hero” who is “doomed because he is under obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful.” The Pusher films are no exception to this cardinal rule. They focus on the fragile nature of aging and maturity as a universal process devoid of sympathy, where each day the work routine gets a little more tiresome, and the desire to settle down with a feeling of accomplishment remains just barely unattainable.

Pusher may be the bleakest of the bunch, suggesting that Refn’s own youthfulness (he was 26 when he directed it) influenced the film’s irate stars. There are few sadder protagonists in current cinema than Frank (Kim Bodnia), a dealer who endlessly bounces from one seedy transaction to another, hopelessly stuck at the bottom of an impenetrable hierarchy. That he inevitably gets himself into trouble when he owes his bosses some major cash is not surprising, but it is a fresh and moving experience to witness him take care of business and accept his mediocre career rather than pursue virtually unattainable success.

Pusher II shifts perspectives, following Frank’s ersatz friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), whose minor role in the first film as a big talker with little to say (especially after Frank “fucked him up”) expands into a full-blown timebomb of neuroses. Mikkelsen is a star performer— his character makes radical decisions and learns to embrace sentimentality without a single literal-minded monologue. Refn frames him in long takes awash in harsh reds and blues that often take on an expressionistic feel. Several scenes build on aspects of Tonny’s personality introduced in Pusher, especially his humorously exaggerated claims of extreme sexual potency. But Pusher II is superior to its predecessor because it suggests, as Tonny gradually accepts his accidental child, that transcendental contentment may have no place in professional dynamics, but could fit in with parenthood.

I’m less a fan of Pusher III, if only because an older gangster with a troubled psyche (Zlatko Buric) unavoidably reeks of Tony Soprano. There is plenty of the dark, brooding aura of the earlier films, but the general sense of frustration is almost too subdued. But given the overarching concept that life is the ultimate developing disaster, it comes as no surprise that the Pusher III ends mundanely, fading away with the universal eventuality of the modern world.

*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


"Everyone-- to your blogs!"

So sayeth one fellow audience member as the lights snaked back up at the conclusion of what could only be described as a uniquely pythonic experience, to a large degree thanks to one helluva CGI python. So here I am, reeling from shameful indulgence in the odious exploitation of reptilian slaughter, unable to honestly critically interact with this so-called film, given that my encounter with it was in no uncertain terms enchanced by the ingestation of a fair amount of intoxicating beverages and the orgiastic opiate up on screen that took hold of our crowd's inexcusable glee, a nexus of amiable superman finesse known as Samuel L. Jackson. I can't really recommend Snakes on a Plane and doubt if I could ever replicate the enjoyment that clearly permeated the sinful theater without sacrificing my own presumably well-intentioned standards for competent aesthetics. But while rencountering certain supposed juvenelia-- like, say, Looney Tunes-- might bring to light a technical artistry that my younger eyes couldn't percieve, the slithering, dithering, unabashed campiness that only a second-unit hack director like David R. Ellis could dish up taps into a childlike fascination with how easy it is to just let ourselves indulge in being dumb.

And, really, why not? Few critics have resisted the temptation to view Snakes as a backlash to the backlash against the canonization of 9/11-inflected artistry, and that says plenty about the way that culture always feels obliged to define itself by the immediacy of its shared experiences. But you don't have to read too far into the embarrasingly dense volumes of internet hype leading up to the film's release to realize that the essential appeal is way simpler. It's fine to look at the brouhaha as inextricably bound to a newly self-aware genre of flight dramas, but Snakes is way too stupid to read into that subdivision, much less critique it to any substantial degree. Instead, it allows for catharsis-- a big whooshingbreath of release that we can actually enjoy something without even the slightest impingement of ideology or group eulogizing. Then again, if early box office reports are any indication, that windy sound might just be the A/C, humming louder than most crowds in vacant Snakes theaters across the country. So maybe most people just don't care for another totally empty-headed thriller so bad that it's funny...but if history decides we're due for another cult classic that champions mob mentality humor over artistic merit, here's a solid candidate. And that's really all there is to it.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Most members of my esteemed social circuit have probably heard me wax poetic on the merits of Showtime's Huff, a show that, in its first season, totally blew my mind. Hank Azaria (as Craig Huffstodt), who must have been restraining himself in every frame from belting out "Who Needs A Quick-E-Mart," strikes this perfectly relatable tone of normalcy-- which, as you might suspect, turns out to be a particularly nasty brand of insanity. And what praise could possibly do justice to Oliver Platt's historic performance as a messy slop of legal advice shaken up with major drug problems and endless philandering? I spotted Platt outside the Tonys this past year, and although I just (barely!) missed the opportunity to speak with him, witnessing the sheer size of the guy enhanced my appreciation for his powerful physicality even more. He's born to play Orson Welles playing Falstaff, and with Russell's character, he basically is. And Blythe Danner clearly understands the satiric nature of Izzy, exuding an eerie upper class snobbiness as Huff's mother that suggests the ghost of Oscar Wilde may have lent a hand on the script. She wasn't even this scary as a serial killer.

Sadly, this past season left something to be desired. The overall tone moved from dark to bleak, and most of the cosmic humor went out the window in favor of endless attempts at profundity. Things got worse and worse for the Huffstodts, with poor Craig's marriage crumbling through the hourglass of midlife crisis, and Russell became a dad, went to jail, got fired and...let's just say it's intense. So yes, the drama drew me in, but so does Entourage. And it still makes me laugh. What gives? We'll have to wait and see. I do hope that Huff returns for a third season in good form, so that I can go back to my justifiably histrionic declerarations of its merits. But until then, there's always Weeds.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


My good buddy Lev, who shares my undying childhood fascination with the fantastical thrill that defines Raiders of the Lost Ark, tipped me off to this imaginative gem. It's a terrific way to engage with nostalgia without rehashing it, and it doesn’t require film geekiness to be appreciated. Now what I’d really like to see is what those Nazis who get incinerated by the hand of god were thinking. Man— they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore…or maybe I’m out of touch.


(Showtime, Mondays at 10 p.m.)

Showtime has shoveled plenty of literal-minded dreck in its time, but Weeds lies beyond that trend. Transplanting a widowed suburban housemother (Mary-Louise Parker, fresh from a Golden Globe win) into the unlikely role of neighborhood drug dealer could lead to campy melodrama or sophomoric Cheech and Chong bakefests, but creator Jenji Kohan wisely avoided both extremes through a host of colorful characters featuring idiosyncrasies that toy with stereotypes without embracing them. A potent vein of cynicism lingers in every scene, treating class and age boundaries as a hazy puff of smoky irrelevance.

In a departure from last season’s classic theme, each episode opens with a fresh cover of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” starting off with a terrific rendition by Elvis Costello and reaching true ironic proportions with middlebrow pop treatment from Death Cab for Cutie in episode two. The song’s lyrics are a critical apparatus that introduce the show with maddening stab at homogenization.

The new installments pick up last season’s strands— meaning both plot and botanical centerpieces— in fine form. Parker, as dubious green source Nancy, continues her show-stopping performance as a wide-eyed innocent to her increasing role at the center of an expanding criminal operation. While navigating a risky liaison with a debonair DEA agent, her professional antics now encompass stoner city councilman Doug (goofy Kevin Nealon, still stealing the show), ghetto insider Conrad (Romany Malco), and legal adviser Dean (Andy Midler)— whose aristocratically psychotic wife Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) has decided to enter politics. On the outer rim, Nancy’s live-in brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) offers his guinea pig duties when the ganja requires sampling, while college student cad Sanjay (Maulik Pancholy) continues schlepping goods at the bottom-of-the-rung. The business dynamic is excitingly uneven: While Nancy seems drawn to the operation out of financial desperation, Doug and Dean dig the free doobies.

Meanwhile, Nancy’s rebellious teenage son Silas (Hunter Parrish) plots to prevent his deaf girlfriend from leaving him to pursue college, while tween sibling Shane scores advice from his uncle on the miracles of masturbation. This bawdiness improves on the cheesy I-miss-my-dead-parent grief that hindered last season’s arc, maneuvering safely away from Full House terrain. Conversely, Andy’s attempts to embark on rabbinical training to avoid military service may worked great for a few laughs, but his current status as a full-blown Hebrew scholar with the hots for his spiritual trainer is a bit too much— the sort of contrivance that only a stoner would consider credible. So maybe it works.

Death Cab takes on Little Boxes

*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


My Country, My Country*

Laura Poitras’s documentary on the tense and often terrifying moments
leading up to the 2005 Iraqi elections credibly shows a crumbled society grasping for some semblance of individuality— and ultimately failing to achieve it. But unlike its contemporaries in cinema’s latest nonfiction trend, My Country, My Country is less focused on the questionable behavior of US troops or the American government’s belligerent democratization tactics than it is on the jaded outlook of a people resigned to a structurally inept existence. The Sunnis, who were largely (and predictably) absent from the polls on that fateful day, appear to regard the voting process as little more than a media puppet show.

Poitras focuses on the grassroots campaigning of Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni political candidate running without a leg to stand on, unless the support of his family counts. His passionate rallying against national violence never quite catches fire, unlike the bombings instigated by insurgents, which provide a fearsome backdrop. Following Riyadh as he searches for voter interest among his peers, Poitras successfully captures his inability to stir the interest of fellow Sunnis who have resigned themselves to apathy. “Extremism turns me off,” one resident explains with an eerie smile.

The members of the military who do appear in the film seem equally inefficient and absurdly extraneous. In a scene that could function as a skit on The Colbert Report, a soldier explains the mindset of a hypothetical disinterested Sunni by conjuring a fictional “Joe Iraqi.” The understated implication requires no skillful translator: Something has been drastically lost in translation.

My Country, My Country is urgently paced, packed with countless details demonstrating the Americanized voting methodology. The leisurely viewer may get overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the process, but it is no more bewildering than the war itself. Being swept up in the grim anticipation of a zero sum finale is a rare, poetic experience that deserves to be felt. The haunting theme song by Kadhum Al Sahir begs for the Iraqi people to get optimistic, but that hopefulness is contrasted with an unsettling degree of detachment.

*A version of this review appears this week in the New York Press.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


The House of Sand*

The nuanced storytelling at work in House of Sand is rooted in historical and psychological conceits; it has a brilliant design that navigates epic grandeur without falling back on overwrought rhetoric. Andrucha Waddington’s subtle direction assembles a moving multigenerational tale of stray souls destined to wander the barren Brazilian desert in hopeless search of civilization. There is lyrical profundity in nearly every frame, conveyed with broad strokes of glittering humanity.

That would be a worthless load of high-falutin praise if the film lacked humility, but Waddington uses hefty doses of restraint, even as his characters age over the better part of a century, while both World Wars, the theory of relativity and the lunar landing play prominent thematic roles. By opening boldly with a long take of a caravan inching across the hopelessly barren sand dunes of northern Brazil, Waddington turns the pale landscape into an ambiguity— save for the camels, the sparse mise-en-scene could be mistaken for the frozen seas of Antarctica. But the possibilities are narrowed down with a following cut to an immediate close-up of sweaty, exhausted faces to actualize a sense of unbearable heat.

This is the agreeable rhythm that Waddington (with assistance, presumably, from editor Sergio Mekler) uses throughout: Simple storybook imagery, gorgeously shot by cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa, is punctuated by sudden bursts of realism. The equation forms an aesthetic of subdued chaos.

The accomplished performers in House of Sand are Fernanda Torres and Fernanda Montenegro, who credibly embody different characters in varying decades with wholly distinct impressions. At the outset Torres plays Aurea (an altered form of the Portuguese word for — what else?— sand), a reserved young woman traipsing across the desert in 1910 with her fantastically-driven husband (Ruy Guerra), an older man intent on the narcissistic goal of settling with his family amid the decrepit backdrop.

To complicate things, Aurea is pregnant, her elderly mother (Montenegro) is feeble, and a few neighboring runaway slaves aren’t pleased about the unexpected company. The drama of this grim first act comes to a head at a rapid pace, as the family unit is abandoned by their accompanying caravan and Aurea’s husband takes his frustration out on their makeshift hut, at which point his ambition literally collapse onto him, with lethal results.

Aurea and her mother wander their empty world in search of an outlet for their anguish, with the possibility of starvation and dehydration serving as an ever-present threat. Their stumbling sojourn across frame after sterile frame recalls Gerry, Gus Van Sant’s quiet meditation on death in nature, but while Van Sant stretched out his parable to a full running time, House of Sand restricts these despondent visceral moments to its early chapters. Once Aurea and her mother discover an escaped slave outpost anchored by the presence of trenchant survivalist Massu (Seu Jorge, far from the over-the-top showman of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), the action is mostly restricted to a single minimalist set as the mother-daugher duo settle down and hope for rescue. Then time begins to unravel with cosmic decay.

Several complications follow, marked by a romantic sense of transience, which leads to deceitful behavior followed with the retention of balance. Aurea raises her daughter with Massu falling into the paternal position, almost dangerously so. Aurea attempts to establish an exit strategy with a traveling group of scientists, sleeping with their accompanying soldier (Enrique Diaz), then Massu makes a critical decision to hide their presence from her when they pass by. His behavior at first seems reprehensible, but after their sexual tension reaches its inevitable consummation, he is redeemed with leading man pathos, protecting himself from a life condemned to loneliness. With Aurea and Massu together, the couple dynamic is reestablished, and time is again allowed to pass.

In the latter half of the film, the older Aurea is portrayed by Montegro, while Torres plays her hedonistic teenage daughter. A technique that has been employed to varying effects by Francois Truffaut and David Lynch, this flip-flop offers more than just a compelling acting challenge. It creates a mirror effect, actualizing the continuity of human reproduction, highlighting the distinction between physical traits and personality. Aurea projects her need to escape the desert onto her offspring, but is clueless as to what such environmental uprooting could gain.

During brief contact with the outside world, Aurea receives faint updates about changing politics and scientific achievement, but with no visual reference points, she can only think with abstractions. Brilliantly restricted to a concise setting of poetic proportions, House of Sand reflects her lifelong simplicity. And there is simply nothing else in current theatrical release that achieves this degree of focused eloquence.

*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Jon Stewart is an impeccably likable persona, but that doesn’t explain his popularity among politically-savvy crowds. It’s not like they give a flip about Conan O’Brien— although I would argue that they should. But while O’Brien is seen as something of a slapstick artist, Stewart has been accepted as a mainstream satirist, with a strong vein of topical humor coursing through his program’s panache. The Daily Show creates satire with television news techniques by appropriating the medium’s methodology for delivering information. As host, Stewart uses the narrative gathered by the mainstream media and reassembles it,[1] creating a formula for comedic discourse that relies on preexisting, unaltered documentary (meaning real world) footage. On most occasions, the mechanism for the jokes is derived from topics of reportage aired on more conventional news programming. The early segments of the show implement video clips that are analyzed through a formal configuration, but the resulting sequence is fundamentally different from its structural precedent. By introducing the clip and then showing it, Stewart sets up a joke, and delivers the punchline after the clip plays. This illustrates how the show can function, as one academic has suggested, “as both entertainment and news, simultaneously pop culture and public affairs.”[2]

Continue reading VULGARITIES INACTION...

Sunday, August 06, 2006


The Front, director Martin Ritt’s 1976 semi-autobiographical chronicle of the dreaded Hollywood blacklist, veteran actor Herschel “Hecky” Brownstein becomes despondent after the government-fueled showbiz deems him an unemployable Communist sympathizer. Larger-than-life Hecky, elegantly embodied by that quintessentially heavyset theatrical powerhouse Zero Mostel, chooses to end his life with the illusion of class and dignity, encapsulated in his own hermetically constructed fantasyland that willfully ignores the totalitarian forces which deprive him of his art. Ritt and cinematographer Michael Chapman capture the final act, a lethal plunge from several stories above street level, in an eerily fluid long take that spares the gritty details without undermining its dreaded inevitability.

Alone in his primp hotel room, Hecky attempts to enjoy bourgeois pleasures before heading to certain death. He presumably falls onto the harsh Manhattan sidewalk, a collision that has its own metaphorical implications, but the camera avoids the jump itself, lingering on an adjacent mirror where Hecky has toasted his reflection and chugged down a bottle of wine before turning away for his fatal dive. The intangible notion of self-imposed elitism seems eternally sustained in the mirror—until it isn’t. After Hecky leaps away, the shot buoyantly pans to the gaping sill, covered by a billowing curtain unhindered by another death in a world devoid of miracles.

Continue reading about The Front at Reverse Shot...

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Animaniacs, Volume 1*

“We were quite aware that this was going to be a big deal,” recalls one of the voice actors on Animaniacs, Volume 1, finally released on DVD this week. That became a startlingly accurate prediction when the first episode aired on Fox in 1993 (it moved to the WB network two seasons later and lasted until 1998), bursting with epic intentions of absurdity that became quickly and painlessly realized. Animaniacs was essentially an animated variety show, which explains its ageless appeal and acerbic humor.

Anchored by the omniscient presence of dog-like Warner brothers Yakko and Wacko with accompaniment by their sister Dot, the show adhered to a loose structure loaded with inventive, winking send-ups of
Hollywood musicals and other cultural treasures. As they zipped about a semi-fictional studio lot with sugary, surrealistic energy, the Warners introduced a host of diverse regulars, highlighted in unforgettable vignettes— from the jaded recollections of classic movie star Scrappy the Squirrel to Pinky and the Brain, the lab mice with eternally flawed aspirations of global domination (whose terrific spin-off show has also just received a worthy DVD treatment). The Warners were probably not based on the studio’s founding siblings Jack and Harry (their comedic repertoire is actually derived from the Marx brothers), but the show’s creators gave them similar stature at the literal center of the WB universe.

Animaniacs only pretended to satirize narrative art, recreating instantly recognizable scenes ranging from West Side Story to The Seventh Seal while unabashedly adding to them. (When two species of birds choose to rumble in “West Side Pigeon,” the jazzy drama is palpable.) These clear-cut references were less send-ups than they were deconstructions, which was a key to the intellectual wit at work. In an early episode, a conniving, befuddled pirate asks the Warners how they manage to continually elude him, and they respond by opening up a textbook on “Acme Comedy Theory.” That wry, self-aware approach brought in a significant older audience in addition to the expected tween viewers. The memorable “Yakko’s World,” a tune from the second episode that breathlessly recited every country in verse, was a far more effective mnemonic device for geography students than any conventional classroom strategy. But even supposedly obligatory canned messages contained a subversive edge, as when the Warners spun their “Wheel of Morality” and read its pronouncement: “If at first you don’t succeed, blame it on your parents.”

It was a combination of the show’s mainstream appeal and consistently topical cynicism that resulted in a Peabody Award at the conclusion of the first season. The honor officially went to Steven Spielberg, as the show’s executive producer, one week after he cleaned up the Academy Awards with Schindler’s List. Education, as it were, comes in many forms.

*A version of this review appears this week in the New York Press.