These are some of the films I saw last weekend at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, with the theme this year of Money.
Interesting for a while and often very enjoyable (Alec Baldwin gives his best performance since GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), but the premise ultimately leaves the film with nowhere to go. William H. Macy plays a “cooler,” a jinx hired by a casino to go to tables where someone is on a winning streak and “cool” his luck. But then his losing streak and thus his livelihood is threatened by a woman, his long-lost son and fate (the best scene is the funny montage of people winning and Macy’s puppylike distress, it’s like a not-quite-so-brilliant version of his being interrogated by Francis McDormand in FARGO). So as a result, the film thinks it can get away with any ending — if luck is so pervasive, how can one complain? Well, I can. The ending was arbitrary. Period. And there’s something just *wrong* with the notion, to which the film’s themes inevitably push you, of seeing the Rat Pack as “old money.”
FOOLISH WIVES (Erich Von Stroheim, USA, 1922, 9)
In his odd way, though Stroheim was widely considered at the time pornographic, vile and obsessed with the low, he really was a great Victorian. A conflicted one, sure, but he saw virtue and purity in the gutter like a Dickens did. He was intolerantly insistent on honor, even (especially) among thieves or the aristocrats fallen so low that they have to team up with them. But who are still aristocrats with honor. There’s also pomo jokes on textuality (in 1922?!?!), involving a book called “Foolish Wives,” written by Erich Von Stroheim, introduced into the action twice. I saw this “Europeans swindle innocent Americans abroad” story, with the musical accompaniment including a live vocalist and words, in addition to live sound effects (one of them being someone getting paged and having their named yelled out loud). I’d only seen a silent film with a word-inclusive score twice before, with the Vision of Light PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and the Giorgio Moroder METROPOLIS. I theoretically resist the notion, but frankly a great silent film really can’t be damaged by a score done in good faith, especially when the words are used as sparingly as here.
Finally saw this modern classic all the way through, and it’s a bit obvious in wearing its cinematic antecedents on its sleeves (De Palma, really?). Michelle Pfeiffer was wasted (in several senses), but Al Pacino gives one of the great operatic ham performances in recent film — “Say hello to my lee-tul friend” and all that. Though the plot as a whole, in typical De Palma fashion, is a bit obviously stitched together and episodic in a predictable way, SCARFACE overflows with great set pieces, again in typical De Palma fashion — the first meeting with the Miami crime boss, the low-key first meeting with the mother and sister, the nightclub assassination attempt on Pacino and all the buildup, the assassination bid on the Bolivian activist, sitting in the jacuzzi, immigration interrogation, and … well, practically everything in the movie.
THE ITALIAN JOB (Peter Collinson, Britain, 1969, 7)
THE ITALIAN JOB (F. Gary Gray, USA, 2003, 7)
Which film you prefer will depend entirely on what you’re looking for. If you want a suspenseful heist movie, the American film is far superior. There are two very well set-up and walked-through heist sequences at the beginning and end. Marky Mark’s inability to act for anyone but PT Anderson doesn’t destroy the film and his heist team mates are all give flavorful performances (Ed Norton and Charlize Theron in particular). But if you want a comic shaggy-dog time-capsule movie, go for the British film. I have no idea how the original could play to Americans or anyone else who didn’t live in Britain in the late 60s and early 70s (personally: born in Glasgow, 1966), but I just having a high old time listening to football supporters songs, reliving the “up your arse, ya weedy Continentals” attitude, and seeing Michael Caine and Noel Coward basically play themselves (and Benny Hill the same; though there wasn’t enough of him).
NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY (Charles Burnett, USA, 2003, 4)
Interesting enough as a historical intro to the topic (I’d never read Nat Turner’s Confessions), but quickly turns into leaden pomo nonsense. If you think it’s some mighty insight on textuality and the “universe” that people who disagree with each other disagree about a text that bears on the matters about they disagree, you will lap this up. Otherwise, another good reason not to watch PBS.
WHEN IT RAINS (Charles Burnett, USA, 1995, 4)
As a 20-minute short with a plot (“community leader” tries to help eviction-threatened woman raise the money for her rent by asking for it on the streets) it’s less ambitious than Burnett’s feature-length film, with which it played. It’s an enjoyable 20 minutes on Community when it isn’t being an obvious, schematic 20 minues on Money.
SOLDIER’S GIRL (Frank Pierson, USA, 2003, 3)
Scheduled to run on Showtime as a docudrama about the murder of a homosexual soldier, this film, which should have been titled SOLDIER BOYS DON’T CRY, was shown to the festival because Pierson was presenting DOG DAY AFTERNOON (on which he was the scriptwriter). You see the similarities here to one of the threads in AFTERNOON — the secret crossdressing gay lover. Not exactly terrible — as usual in this kind of film, the actors are quite good when not delivering Significant Speeches, which is unfortunately all Andre Braugher gets to do. It’s just entirely what you’d expect — a transparent bid for An Issue Emmy. Pvt. Barry Winchell is despised upon his arrival at his unit, for no discernible reason, and the drill sergeant is mean to him until I thought I was watching St. Sebastian in cammies. His death at the hands of a fellow soldier whom he’d bested in a fight was intercut with his boyfriend’s Annie Lennox song at a transvestite beauty pageant (maybe the two events did occur simultaneously; but it *feels* like Scriptwriter Coincidence.) One funny moment in the Q-and-A: Pierson was describing the first sex scene between the two men and said he told Troy Garity (playing Winchell) that “you’ve forgotten this person is not a woman; you’ve fallen in love with the person, and then with the body.” Take it away, David.
Breaking news on several fronts over the last few days (when I was away for a film festival) and on which I have posted here before:
First, Mel Gibson landed a distributor, Newmarket Films, and confirmed the planned release date for the newly titled THE PASSION OF CHRIST as Ash Wednesday. I’ve already made my predictions — a firestorm of anti-Semitism charges (the Lent opening will give another excuse … er … news peg to accuse the Church of anti-Semitism and assorted other bestialities), and a negative critical reception since some critics already have their leads written, and I refuse to believe this is an isolated attitude. Box office, we’ll have to wait and see, but subtitled films just don’t do well in the United States. I think only two, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL and CROUCHING TIGER, have ever even broken $50 million. (And if it’s not two, it’s no more than three.) Any good? I’ll get back to you.
Second, the screener issue was “solved,” with the MPAA agreeing to lift the ban, but only for Academy members. This solves some of the problems, but leaves critics groups, primarily those for critics working in smaller markets, out in the cold.
Third, Michael “Killer” Schiavo is starting his Public Redemption Tour facing the tough, incisive questioning of Larry King. “My girlfriend supports my stance on Terri because the kind of care I want to give her will remove Terri as an obstacle and we’ll be free to marry.” Or something like that. And of course, the Atheist Press is spinning this story as a “right-to-die” case, when curiously, the person who will die never herself asserted that right.
Finally, on the Canadian tolerance beat, theological liberals in the Episcopal Church prove their open-mindedness, Celebrate Diversity and fight the forces of inquisitorial reaction by threatening heresy trials for those who repudiate the One Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Intolerant Of Mine Approved Groups.
Mark Shea has a bee in his bonnet about an article in the City Journal. I suppose I might agree with him if the article he was responding to ever claimed that American conservatism *is* eternal. But the article is entirely about the culture we live in, not theology or soteriology, so necessarily it’s about temporal things, the things of the age, Augustine’s city of man, where virtues (albeit imperfect ones) can be found even from the Romans. We judge temporal things primarily by temporal standards, under prudence — not eternal ones, under judgment.
So considered *as cultural-political criticism,* Mr. Shea doesn’t lay a glove on the article. When he says “Try, seriously, to square the worldview of contempt which informs South Park with Catholic teaching,” he’s missing the point. The article makes it clear that South Park’s virtues are negative ones — it’s the enemy of the enemy. This is not exactly a friend, but in the world of politics, that’s close enough. In addition, you can only engage a culture (either politically or religiously) where it is, otherwise it tunes you out. Nostalgia-based condemnation of the age is not a serious stance, certainly culturally-speaking. In this ironic day and age, THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S ain’t gonna cut it. I remember as a boy hating Mickey Mouse because I thought it was too much like education and moral uplift, and there was something about Bugs Bunny’s insouciant poise that was more attractive. Mickey could have had imprimaturs out the wazoo, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me because I didn’t like him. Flannery O’Connor talked about saving your work first. One of John Paul’s greatest virtues is being the first mass-media pope, understanding that you engage people where they are, and if the world has a comic-book culture, then make a comic book out of your biography.
I’ve already written some of my own thoughts about South Park, and wish only to add that a new season of 8 episodes began last week and that there has to be good in any show where all the Gay Guys Who Dress Up The Breeder, or whatever it’s called, get killed. It’d be impossible to deny that the show has a tone of contempt, but there’s a gleeful quality to it that is equally impossible to miss and which makes the show a valuable satirical weapon for these times. I’d compare South Park to Camille Paglia — not orthodox, but friendly because it has all the right enemies to have in this day and age. I frankly wonder whether Mr. Shea, who repeatedly rails against TV as such, has seen very much of the show, of which he does not cite a single moment.
I’m also massively unconvinced by Mr. Shea’s implicit “a pox on both your houses” moral-equivalence stance toward politics. It strikes me as imprudent and makes the perfect the enemy of the good. American conservatism is definitely imperfect sub specie aeternitis, but Catholics and Christians can find much common ground and get a serious hearing without contempt for our very existence and the belief that we are the enemy as such — the “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” attitude. With conservatism, the spirit is willing, even if the flesh is sometimes weak; with liberalism, the spirit is in total league with the Enemy. *That* is what the culture war (on which Mr. Shea does brilliant service on the side of the angels) is all about; whether Christianity can inhabit the public space or whether progress is measured by how thoroughly it can be repudiated. There is an absolute difference here between the two dominant ideologies and parties, and Christians should not kid themselves about who their friends and enemies are.
If Tolkien really, truly intends “The Lord of the Rings” as some sort of global indictment of “Power,” then I feel vindicated in my aesthetic resistance to him — I was pretty tepid on the two movies and cannot comment on them as novels because I found them unreadable. It’d be good therefore to know, if that account is accurate, that they’re also pretty silly. A serious politics cannot begin with the notion that power is some evil Ring. It is all fine and good to say render unto Caesar, and that the regime doesn’t matter because the gates of hell shall not prevail, etc. But the Catholic Church has never taught political quietism, and frankly I’d rather see the Body in a friendly culture and polity than an unfriendly one, if I can affect the matter at all (and again, *that I can* is the unstated assumption of all political and cultural engagement). But maybe that’s just me. The question is not whether there shall be worldly power, but who shall wield it and for what ends — relatively good ones or relatively bad ones. Ones hostile to Christ or friendly to Him.
If I’m gonna this much space and energy slagging Mark Shea, I should note that he has made a stunning archaeological find.
Apparently, the New York Times or the Associated Press or USA Today (they’re not sure yet; still working on the translation from Old Church Aramaic) were in business 2,000 years ago and producing masterpieces of journalism like this one, which Mark has very kindly translated.
Some other people at St. Blog’s Parish are debating KILL BILL VOLUME 1, as noted here. (Thanks David).
Father Bryce Sibley is surprised to find out that KB1 isn’t as violent or as twisted as some of what is common in Japan, a relatively pacific society. I can confirm that this is so. I saw one film at Toronto this year, Takashi Miike’s GOZU, that seems to revel in showcasing the most bizarre “wouldn’t it be neat if we …” ideas Miike could come up with. In the climactic scene, a man who likes having sex with a soup ladle stuck into his anus, is interrupted. And then in the course of the fight … he tips over. And then the scene gets *more* bizarre (let’s just say there is a birth). Hard-core pornography is sold and read fairly openly in Japan, though there are strict laws against showing any pubic hair. Yakuza films are one of the most popular genres and dozens or hundreds routinely die in them. There’s also a whole genre of manga porn, which involves animated films of tentacles and basically any human orifice. There’s a French film making the art-house rounds now, DEMONLOVER, that touches on the subject. You wouldn’t think it would be possible to have Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon star in a film about industrial espionage in X-rated Web sites and Japanese manga porn — and have the result be a dull, insipid movie. But Olivier Assayas is a director of rare talents.
I disagree with Father Bryce that most films in the kung fu and samurai genre have no plot. Like with a musical, films usually scrimp on it and we sometimes accept an otherwise undistinguished film with great fight scenes or dances (ONG BAK: MUAY THAI WARRIOR is just one long set piece). And such a film with weak set pieces generally can’t win you over with its plot. But the best such films oftentimes have perfectly strong plots (DRUNKEN MASTER 2; CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; IRON MONKEY; SEVEN SAMURAI; YOJIMBO; SINGIN IN THE RAIN; THE BANDWAGON, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG).
In fact, Miike himself is the best proof of this, though he’s working more in the horror genre. He made one of the best films of recent years in AUDITION, in which the concluding torture scene is strengthened by its coming at the end of a movie where dread and hints at gore accumulate in half-understood ways, and then, in the greatest tone shift in movie history (yes, I do mean that), it all bursts forth like water tearing upon a dike. AUDITION certainly requires a strong stomach, but Miike was much gorier in GOZU and in ICHI THE KILLER, which had one scene in which boiling cooking oil was poured over a naked man suspended from ceiling meat hooks. Both these were much lesser films and not as disturbing and burning into the mind. Leaving AUDITION, I actually saw one woman yelling in the street at her date (not speaking, *YELLING*) demanding to know how could he take her to something like this.
I’ve already written my thoughts on the merits of KB1, which is very good for long stretches, but finally just gets to be boring. Ho, hum — another 100 yakuza to maim or kill. In fact, a few weeks ago David Morrison made a similar point about pornography (quoting Naomi Wolf — unclean! unclean!) — that’s its ultimate effect on souls may be less corruption than boredom and de-eroticization.
To make the same point with violence — it may be that seeing so much movie violence, rather than cause you to act violent, jades you to violence. But not always, or at least not yet. There’s nothing quite like being a packed theater for AUDITION and hear and feel the collective jump of the audience the second time you start hearing the words “kiri-kiri-kiri-kiri.” Indeed frankly, it was a tribute to both morality and AUDITION that the audiences reacted so strongly to it, even if to yell at their boyfriends about how immoral the film was — compared to their blaseness at ICHI THE KILLER, which the Toronto fest organizers camped up by handing out precautionary ‘Ichi the Killer’ souvenir barf bags as you entered the theater.
My friend David Morrison describes his meeting Pope John Paul II at a 1996 Vatican audience. There are three photos all told in this section. I find the photos kinda amusing, cause David is so clearly overwhelmed and humbled. It’s like a low-key version of Wayne and Garth saying “we’re not worthy” before Aerosmith or Alice Cooper. (Like I’d've acted any differently.)
That WAYNE’S WORLD comparison might strike some as irreverant, and obviously I *am* making a joke … somewhat. One of the amazing things about John Paul’s pontificate is that he wasn’t just (*just*) the greatest man of my lifetime, the man who brought down Communism and forcefully identified the Culture of Death in the West. He was also a *star* of the first magnitude, and by both exhortation and example made the Church fully comfortable with modern communication. He toured the world; he toured the States. He toured the world and elsewhere. And was greeted like a rock star everywhere he went, filling stadiums with chanting fans lapping up the souvenirs (some of them obviously silly; anyone else remember “Pope on a Rope” soap?).
I’ll almost certainly never talk to John Paul personally like David did, but I got some of that “rock star” charisma in my closest encounter with him. In January 1999, on a whim and a couple of days off, I drove all the previous day from South Carolina to St. Louis, where John Paul would have a one-day stopover on his way back to Rome from a visit to Mexico. I wasn’t able to get inside the TWA Dome for his morning Mass and settled for watching it on some temporary Jumbotrons outside (I might have been able to get a ticket from a scalper, but illegally buying a ticket to get into a Papal Mass is … just … no.) But he would be going to St. Louis Cathedral for an ecumenical service and would come out to speak to the crowd afterward.
So I got to the Cathedral as soon as I could and was able to grab the best spot to stand, right on the edge of the street (the curb was blocked off), front row center before the Cathedral steps. About 40 or 50 feet from the top of the steps. And there I stood, in one spot, not moving more than a few inches, for five hours. Or risk losing the best look at John Paul I’d ever get. It’s not exactly St. Antony of Egypt or the film SIMON OF THE DESERT, but it’s as close to flesh-mortifying monkdom as I’ve ever done. When John Paul came a few steps out of the cathedral to bestow a brief blessing on the crowd (no words), the whole crowd (now jam-packed for two blocks) starting chanting “John Paul Two/We love you.” It was really like a rock concert, how everyone just loved the man with a frenzy.
Those days are gone though, as his body is starting to give out (truth be told, he was already showing signs of age in 1999). But still he beatified Mother Teresa and installed another 30 cardinals. Maybe that’s his last witness to the world, refusing to give in to frail flesh — and witness against the kind of treatment of the frail and weak we see in places like Florida.
Yesterday was not a good day for the Culture of Death, losing on two fronts.
First, the Florida Legislature and governor intervened to stop Michael Schiavo’s bid to kill his brain-damaged wife Terri by removing her feeding and hydration tubes and starving her to death. This in spite of the wishes of her parents and their offer to turn over all of Terri’s assets to her husband, despite the lack of a living will or any other form of contemporaneous evidence about Terri’s wishes other than her husband’s present-day say-so, despite disputes over her precise medical diagnosis (there were doctors testifying both that she could be rehabilitated and that she couldn’t), and despite the fact that by any standard that would be applied if Terri were fully ambulatory, her husband had abandoned her (his live-in girlfriend is expecting their second child).
Last Wednesday, the “husband” had finally prevailed in court and removed Terri’s food and water tubes, but on Monday and Tuesday, the Florida legislature passed and Gov. Jeb Bush signed, a bill essentially giving the governor the power to intervene in this case and order the tubes put back in. At least the husband’s <s>ambulance …</s> er, lawyer George Felos has a sense of humor: “It is simply inhumane and barbaric to interrupt her death process. Just because Terri Schiavo is not conscious doesn’t mean she doesn’t have dignity.” (It would take a heart of stone not to laugh here.) The “husband,” hellbent on killing his wife, launched another court challenge late last night, but lost. Now those of us who’d been praying and calling and e-mailing Florida officials just hope that the five days of forced starvation haven’t wrecked Terri’s organs and made a recovery impossible, thus potentially vindicating the Death Cult through their self-fulfilling prophecy about her prospects.
This was beautiful news to happen on the same day that Congress again passed a ban on partial-birth abortion but this time was finally able to send it to a president who will sign it. And what a gift to Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to serving the inconvenient and the helpless and who denounced abortion and euthanasia at every opportunity, to have these events happen just two days after her beatification.
It might not be a miracle attributable to Mother Teresa in the fullest sense, but state legislatures just don’t ordinarily do in 1 1/2 days what the Florida lawmakers did. Susan Carr, Terri’s sister, called the vote: “a miracle, an absolute miracle.” Others in the Catholic blogosphere like Mark Shea, Amy Welborn and Father Rob Johansen (see his Sunday homily here) kicked up holy hell for weeks, much more than I did publicly. Other Catholic sites, to which I don’t have permanent links, to do yeoman work were Times Against Humanity and Envoy magazine. Christian talk radio, briefly mentioned in this fine article, and the disability movement also participated in the efforts, both political and spiritual, to save Terri — although I’m more familiar with the first group than the other two. (I was a lowly foot soldier — a half-dozen e-mails, a couple of on-hold calls, and some financial support, but the Florida Legislature’s phones and mail system shut down on the crucial day). But there was Providence too. A reader at Mark’s blog said he saw Columba Bush, the Catholic wife of Jeb, in Rome as part of the U.S. delegation to the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II’s papacy, on her knees praying before St. Peter’s bones. “I’m betting Mrs. Jeb got on the phone to her husband and had a frank exchange of views,” the writer said.
Now you might also think, given all this, that the bishop in whose diocese this is occurring would be out there picketing trying to impose his rosaries on her ovaries, or something like that. Uh-uh. This is the diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, you understand, which is led by Bishop Robert Lynch, who outlawed regular Eucharistic exposition and adoration (4th item here). For the first several days of the meltdown period (when it looked like the die had been cast and Terri would be starved, and the first few days of her being starved), he was supposedly out at a staff retreat, maybe doing stuff like this, leaving a phone message and no way for people to even leave a message to tell him that … y’know … one of his daughters was being murdered. Then, after it looked like the “husband” would win the right to starve Terri to death, the “bishop” issued this statement here. The text is as follows:
“With the news that the feeding tube has now been removed from Terri Schiavo, my own prayers and those of thousands of other people go out for Terri and for her family. May the author of all life look kindly on Terri and provide consolation and hope for those who love her.
“I continue to believe that such decisions should not be made in the court system but must be made on a case-by-case basis by families and/or other responsible parties at the clear direction of each one of us well in advance of a crisis.”
Excuse my French, but what the samhell is a bishop for if he’s just gonna issue a tepid press release indistinguishable from something that might have put out by the offices of Olympia Snowe or Blanche Lincoln. I’m not crazy about public showboating and planned arrests and whatnot, but if ever there was a time for fire and brimstone, for Jeremiah, for prophetic judgment, someone being starved to death because she’s handicapped and inconvenient is it. Why would Jesus even trouble Himself to get nailed up to some wood and rise from the dead if *this* is the kind of leadership we get in defense of the least of us from those who represent Him, and therefore them? It’s wishy-washy and bureaucratic in its language; it’s just an after-the-fact “what are you gonna do” acceptance of a fait accompli; and it’s dubious on church teaching to boot (we DON’T have a right to starve the inconvenient “on a case-by-case basis” in the privacy of our own abode, any more than we have the right to kill the unborn or ourselves). It’s the classic case of offering stones and snakes instead of loaves and fishes. Even my own bishop, Paul Loverde of far away Arlington, Va., said something far closer to what needed to be said: “The inherent worth of the life of Theresa Schiavo obligates all concerned to provide her with care and support and to reject any omission of nutrition or hydration intended to cause her death. May God continue to bless you in your work in defense of life.”
Further, a couple of people at Amy’s site surmised (not unreasonably in my view) that “bishop” Lynch had ordered his priests not to be there. Amy said she was “exceedingly puzzled by the absence of any priests beside this Monsignor in this situation.” Did no local priests show up simply from outrage or plain frickin’ curiosity? “I’m beginning to suspect that the word has come down privately from Lynch to priests and religious in his diocese to stay away,” she said. Indeed, many in the Catholic blogosphere had to plead to find a champion in Father Rob at Thrownback, who said he would go down there to Florida from Michigan (yes … Michigan) to be with the Schindlers, to help out the one priest they already had, to minister to the protesters, and to participate in civil disobedience if need be. (The oh-so-loving husband had denied Terri Communion at this point.) He immediately was inundated with offers of financial help from literally across the world. To come down from … Michigan. And to think, I actually once spent some intellectual energy and capital defending this Florida bishop in a private e-mail exchange with Rod Dreher over these blogs of his at National Review.
And consider the relative silence of Lynch and the bishops as a body, when you look at their actions on another “life issue” — capital punishment. Every time some *guilty* killer meets his reward, part of the ritual is the call for clemency from the Pope, the bishops, the local bishop. Don’t get me wrong, I’m opposed to the death penalty too and I know how slow things can go. But wasn’t *something* in order?? A search for the word “Schiavo” on the Bishops Conference Web site as I write produces no hits. About this case, the nation’s Catholic bishops have collectively seen fit to utter not Word One (much less the Word from the One). Terri might have gotten better treatment from the leaders of her Church, my Church, if she’d just shot a few liquor store owners.
But the best comment was made by blogger Peggy Rettle at Amy’s site, to the effect that the Culture of Death is now so far advanced that we seek every justification we can to make the irreversible decision to kill people, rather than giving every presumption to preserving life.
“What I find most evil, however, is the husband’s unwillingness to show mercy on his wife and her family as well as the courts unwillingness to show similar mercy and err on the side of life when there is a family dispute or uncertainty as to the true medical condition … especially one where the motives and actions of one family member are quite questionable. This is what is so frightening for our society, I think.”
I just watched the last reel of the 1933 film DINNER AT EIGHT on TCM, primarily because it has one of the best walkoff lines in Hollywood history. Ditzy blonde Jean Harlow plays a 30s-movie-euphemism for an escort or call-girl, and husky Marie Dressler a haughty 60-something high-society grande dame. They’re walking into the dining room for the titular meal at the end of the film.
Harlow: I was reading a book the other day
(Dressler gives a visible start)
Harlow: It was all about civilization or something … This guy says that machinery is gonna take the place of every profession.
Dressler: Dear — that’s something *you* need never worry about.
… it gets me giggling shamelessly every time
THE IRON CROWN (Alessandro Blasetti, Italy, 1941, 3)
I’ll admit that I saw this on TCM lying on my couch at a pretty late hour, but I can’t imagine that I would have been enthralled by it under any circumstances. It’s a fairy tale about a crown on its way to Rome that does not leave a kingdom until all has been set right in it. Although conceived as a mythological fairy tale, THE IRON CROWN is not half as much fun as any of the ROBIN HOOD movies (OK, maybe it’s as much fun as Kevin Costner’s PRINCE OF THIEVES, but no more). Massimo Girotti (I think) is very stiff and has no charm in him (at least here). People rave about how lavish and spectacular it looks, but the black-and-white photography hit me as dark and muggy, and lit in too low a key for this kind of fantasy. Too much of the film (in some places, every other shot) is taken up by exposition using fairy-tale book intertitles and the shots themselves are too quickly edited to have much impact. It’s just not a very good movie.
TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (Jacques Becker, France, 1954, 8 )
Several postwar French crime-thrillers have gotten theatrical re-releases in these past couple of years. TOUCHEZ (it means DON’T TOUCH THE LOOT) isn’t quite as good as RIFIFI, but is notably better than QUAI DES ORFEVRES and miles ahead of the one it most closely resembles, BOB LE FLAMBEUR. In fact, comparison with BOB makes clear the most obvious thing about a policier flick — you need a charismatic actor in the central role. By “charismatic,” I don’t mean in a “big, grand star” sort of way. In fact, the great Jean Gabin is notable here mostly for his underplaying, his “seen-it-all” cool, his worldliness that never shades into worldweariness, his wisdom. But Gabin has “It” to spare, while Roger Duchesne in BOB acts like someone waiting for Gabin to pass out some of “That.” There is only one big set piece in TOUCHEZ and it’s an exchange, not a heist. In fact, the film opens after the gold heist that gained the loot that is the object of contention. Instead, we get marvelous scenes of everydayness and the kind of things villains do when they’re not being villainous. My favorite sequence is one where Gabin brings his weak right-hand man to his super-secret lair and methodically lays out a spread of biscuits, pate, glasses of wine, forks, and plates. And then Becker shows the two men preparing to spend the night, getting into their pajamas, laying out their beds, brushing their teeth (no, really). The sequence doesn’t move the plot forward in any way, and it really only exists to show the everydayness that binds the two men as friends. But I wish the whole movie were this empty.
OUT OF TIME (Carl Franklin, USA, 2003, 7)
Again, here’s a crime film that succeeds primarily because a great actor (Denzel Washington in this case) whom we instinctively like inhabits (yes, “inhabits,” not “plays”) the central role. Instead of being about the good side of a criminal like TOUCHEZ, OUT OF TIME is about a good man, a police chief no less, trapped in a web of false appearances (some of them the result of his own lies and thievery) when he has to investigate the death of the married woman with whom he had been having an affair. Oh … and the lead investigator is his estranged wife. If Hitchcock could have ever gotten inside the skin of a policeman, he might have made something like this — a series of hair-breadth escapes from investigators while the flawed central character struggles to solve the crime himself. And digs himself deeper. As for Denzel, this film is a smart move after his Oscar-winning turn in TRAINING DAY. Then, as a cop rotten to the core, he played on his previous image of righteousness to lead us on. Here, while there’s never doubt about his innocence and he’s reverting to something closer to his previous attractive image, the memory of TRAINING DAY makes everything feel different, a bit more threatening. Carl Franklin has made a great movie before (1992′s ONE FALSE MOVE); OUT OF TIME has more the feeling of a vacation film (the Florida Keys locations look really nice) “just” trying to spin an entertaining yarn and make the filmmakers some money. But this is as good as ambition-free commercial American cinema gets.
DUCK, YOU SUCKER (Sergio Leone, Italy, 1971, 5)
I dunno. Maybe if I’d never seen THE WILD BUNCH. Maybe if James Coburn could play Clint Eastwood better. Maybe if Rod Steiger made a better Eli Wallach. Maybe if Leone had more of the dust, the rocks, the 5 o’clock shadow, the sweat on the faces. Maybe if Leone concentrated more on the mano-a-mano retail killing and less on dynamite, massacres in pits or bombings of trains (yes, I know that’s his point with the opening Mao quote; but it’s not what he’s good at it — again compare the insane climax of THE WILD BUNCH with the parched showdown in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, both great scenes, but indicative of completely different temperaments). Maybe if Leone’s great strength, portraying honor among lone men, fit in better with political material (the weakest scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is the one where politics intersects — the attack on the bridge). Maybe if Ennio Morricone had written one of his better scores. Maybe if I just didn’t hold a director as great as Leone to such a high standard. Maybe I’d appreciate more the tense early meeting of Coburn and Steiger. Maybe the prison rescue and the irony of the praise of Steiger would resonate deeper. Maybe I’d remember the faces of the Mexican peasants. Maybe.
# posted by Victor : 2:44 AM
MYSTIC RIVER (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2003, 6)
This had a potential to be a great film, the swansong of an aging auteur. It has a revenge-seeking story well-suited to Eastwood’s simple directorial style and to wrestling with his on-screen persona; it has a terrific cast on paper; it has a strong sense of place. But MYSTIC RIVER isn’t a great film, for two very specific problems — the acting and the script. OK, that was a cheap shot, but the two central actors and the story structure prevent the film from being what it could have been. Sean Penn plays an ex-con and neighborhood boss whose daughter is killed, and he’s competing with the cops to find out whodunnit and then — well, take something other than warrant out on them. Penn’s performance is mostly pretty good — intense, brooding (there’s a particularly fine scene where he’s looking at some guys he doesn’t like in a convenience store). *But* … there are a few moments, like the scene you might have seen in the trailers when the cops have found his daughter’s body, when he goes wildly over-the-top with the tortured-soul screaming act (for a whole movie of Penn doing what I’m talking about, see HURLYBURLY — or don’t, if you get my drift). But even if you like this style, or Penn doing it, it’s completely wrong for a film this clinical, this objective, this coldly functional in its style.
Now Penn merely makes a few missteps, but it’s just a few loogies in the punch bowl. Tim Robbins, on the other hand, is all loogie — nothing short of dreadful as Penn’s childhood friend who was sexually abused (by a Catholic priest, of course, though so little was made of that after the first scene that I suppose I should be grateful in this environment). Dreadful. Awful. Thumpingly awful. Jaw-droppingly awful. In fact, I can’t think of a more consistently and thoroughly bad performance in a high-prestige picture by an actor we know can be good or great (“Arlington Road, The Shawshank Redemption, The Hudsucker Proxy, Short Cuts, The Player, Bull Durham,” I recite like an exorcism prayer, warding off evil spirits). In MYSTIC RIVER, though, Robbins is borderline autistic. It’s like he is playing a parody of shell-shock — there’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in his every mannered gesture, every low and carefully-said word, every heave of the shoulder. It’s awful, awful, awful, and it sinks the movie every time he’s on screen.
The problems with the script I can’t go into without spoiling, so I won’t beyond saying vaguely that it was cheap of Clint in Act One to only give us the information that supports a certain solution to the crime, given what he does in Act Three. Or consider a contrary example — the great Brazilian film from earlier this year CITY OF GOD. When one of the central characters is killed late in the movie, director Fernando Mereilles immediately flashes back to about three quick moments earlier in the movie, where we’d seen the killer and his motive, but attached no significance (at the time) to his presence, which is the moral point of that character’s death. Here, it would have been impossible for Eastwood to have done this since the solution is essentially brought in from nowhere. Which might not even be a problem itself, except it sits uneasily next to part of the moral point about appearances that we’re clearly supposed to have derived from the climax. (I hope that was suitably clear to those who’ve seen the film, and vague to those who have not.)
Still, there’s a lot to like here — Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne as the cops show up the two showboating stars with their naturalistic, unhistrionic performances. They just confidently inhabit their roles, as Eastwood used to (Bacon has never been better IMHO). Marcia Gay Harden is obviously playing Harried and Worried Wife, but doesn’t overdo the tics like Robbins does (Timmy on SOUTH PARK doesn’t overdo the tics like Robbins does). You see in Harden’s eyes how she’s trying (and sometimes successfully) not to be Harried and Worried. In the great opening scene some boys play on the street until the life-defining event suddenly enters. It’s creepy, suspenseful and told with the camera unostentatiously at a suitably low child’s-eye view, looking up guiltily at the authority figures. The final moments (I will be vague again to avoid spoilers) — of Laura Linney and Penn, looking out on a parade, and she talks, and then the parade, and some other things happen, are nothing short of perfect. The coda has an eerie ambivalence, where everything means double, that you half-suspect the characters both know and not know, which is exactly how this kind of revenge film should end.
“Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
Henry Wilbourne, in the William Faulkner short story “The Wild Palms,” from “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”
“Between guilt and nothing, I will take guilt.”
Maxim as reworded to apply to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984)
I saw this film, Leone’s last before he died in 1989, for the first time on the big screen last weekend at the gorgeous American Film Institute theater, where I had already seen two of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns — THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — earlier this fall.
Though it’s obviously great to see this masterpiece in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was actually one of the earliest case studies in the virtue of home video. After playing at the Cannes Film Festival at 238 minutes, the film’s U.S. distributors chopped it by 100 minutes and completely re-edited the film to ditch its complex 50-year flashback structure (some critics have even suggested that it all takes place in the opium-filled head of the central character) in favor of straight chronology. But at approximately 2:20, it was still too long and remote to appeal to younger audiences, and the savaging it got from American critics as incomprehensible meant that it had no shot at being a succes d’estime.
But when the film was released on tapes in the late 1980s, just as home video was becoming ubiquitous, Leone’s cut was the version released in the United States. What videotapes and discs did was to provide a reliable mass market for films after theatrical release. Thus some movies could get a potential second bite at the box-office cherry, and it made potential sense to go back and revisit bad box-office decisions with specials like Director’s Cuts (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA only grossed 1/6 of what it cost to make). What was done to the film was obviously a crime, but home video enabled the amelioration of some of the damage, giving Leone’s actual film a chance later to succeed or fail, to find its audience, a chance it might not have gotten otherwise. Roger Ebert called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA “a murdered movie, brought back to life on home video.” And now, coming back full circle, some spiffed-up theatrical prints are making their way across the country, often in concert with those spaghetti Westerns that first made Leone’s name. And if you’re in a city where they’re playing — run, do not walk …
The gangster film put Leone’s talent in a new light. He lost something in having to forgo the grungy pictorialism of his landscape- and face-dominated Westerns, but gained that much back in the kind of ravishing luxury more suited to the kind of movie he was making here — an intimate, elegiac opera.
Unusually, for a film that spans 50 years and looks like an epic on first glance, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an interior psychological film, primarily about the guilt of one gangster (Noodles, played by Robert De Niro) over betraying his boyhood friends (the closest being Max, played by James Woods) to the police and having them die in the resulting shootout. The drama unfolds in three relatively short spans in the teens, early 30s and late 60s. But the chronological juggling is needed, because certain scenes have to take place in the order they do for emotional sense, not chronological sense (including the last, more anon). The film is fundamentally about what time changes and doesn’t change, and a chronological structure is too naturalistic for such a story.
The virtuoso opening sequence tells the basic plot, about Noodles’ betrayal (we don’t know why), the death of his three closest friends, his fleeing town with no money (we don’t learn the source of the money he’s picking up or why or how it disappeared) and as he sinks into a guilt-wracked opium haze, we hear loud telephone rings on the soundtrack. They continue long after we’ve gotten the point and learned that the phone is at a police desk. And that *is* the point. The telephone never stopped ringing in Noodles’ head. We flash to the late 1960s and Noodles getting a call to return to New York (he doesn’t know why), and then we mostly follow the principal characters as they grow from child delinquents into hoodlums and then gangsters (with some flashing forward to the late 1960s). Although it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the original cut “it takes real concentration to follow … (but) is compulsively and continuously watchable.”
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is full of wonderful moments, touches and grace notes — a young boy debating between flattering the neighborhood tramp with a cream cake and eating it himself, Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” a frisbee coming out of nowhere, the line “Noodles, I slipped,” Ennio Morricone’s mournful theme as played on a pan flute by Gheorghe Zamfir (yes … THAT Zamfir), the limo driver rejecting Noodles’ money and leaving him incredibly alone, Deborah closing the window curtain as the train departs, the dissolves between the Jewish neighborhood at various times … it’s all lovely and sad. When it gets to the late 1960s, we reach a revelation (SPOILER WARNING).
Noodles has been invited to New York by a “Secretary Bailey,” a Cabinet member and successful businessman who is on the verge of losing everything in a widening corruption probe (imagine Richard Nixon in June 1974). Only Bailey is actually Max, who really wasn’t killed in the shootout whose memory has consumed Noodles’ life. Instead, Max fooled Noodles into betraying him and their two friends, so Max could make a clean break, take the group’s stash, and start life anew — respectable and able to climb the greasy pole of success. Now, to avoid exposure, Bailey is offering Noodles a chance at revenge by killing him. “I took your money, I took your girl, all I left you was 35 years of grief over having killed me,” “Secretary Bailey” tells Noodles.
But Noodles doesn’t bite, refusing to look back at Sodom. Partly, he doesn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt, but also because he can’t have the 30 years back. There is no redemption or undoing the past, because the past is what has made you what you are. Throughout the scene, Noodles refers to him as Secretary Bailey, not Max, and pretends not to know any of the back story. It’s as if he would rather live as he has for the past 30 years — a guilt-ridden ex-gangster — than look back. “It’d be a shame to see a lifetime of work go to waste,” Noodles tells Max. He’s referring on the surface to “Secretary Bailey’s” achievements, but he’s also referring to himself. His last 30 years would have been a waste if he were to acknowledge having been conned by taking vengeance on “Max.” Between guilt and nothing, he’s taking guilt.
In some ways, the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME resembles the last scene reversal in MEMENTO — both have a man prefer the delusion he can live with to an empty, meaningless truth. But it’s also the opposite — in the later film, the last scene turns Guy Pearce’s character Lenny from victim to agent (even if it’s the agent of his own self-delusion); here, Noodles says agency and autonomy isn’t worth it to him. He’s turning his back on the most fundamental of Today’s Virtues — being your own man and leaving the past behind.
As a result, the last shot of the film justifies the complex, jump-around-in-time structure. It’s a full-facial closeup of a young adult Noodles smiling after retreating to an opium den, taking a hit, and rolling over under some netting, and it’s the film’s emotional punctation even though it takes place 30 years before the final dramatic scene. De Niro’s expression and all the ambiguities contained in it *are* what the film is about. In fact, I was kinda mad at Leone for only holding the shot for a few seconds before superimposing the credit crawl. That image needed to be held for an unnaturally long time (30 or 40 seconds at least, whatever is needed to call as much attention to itself as the telephone rings at the start do). And then fade to black.
CBS News has, for the last two nights, sullied its newscasts (if that were possible) with reports on child abuse among home schoolers. Yet, if you actually listen to or read the transcripts of the two-part series, available here (Day 1) and here (Day 2).
The teaser at the top of the Web site home page, next to D-n R—-r’s mug shot breathlessly blurts out: “Abusive parents sometimes hide in our unregulated home schooling system.” Well, yes, I suppose. And they also hide in our unregulated housing system. And travel on our unregulated highway system.
Now, it is certainly theoretically possible that there is a higher rate of child abuse or child murder in home-schooling families. And if there were figures suggesting or proving such a correlation, that would obviously be a legitimate news story. But you will comb these pieces of CBS “journalism” in vain for any such figures, even bogus advocacy numbers, that could even begin to suggest it. In fact, near the end of part 2, we get this: “But it’s hard to know how widespread abuse might be because the government doesn’t keep track. It doesn’t even know how many children are taught at home in this country.”
This is pure, undiluted journalism-by-anecdote and journalism-as-prejudice-stoking and audience-stroking — the liberal equivalent of conservative tales about welfare queens driving Cadillacs. It’s like Tales from the Crypt, only not as campy. See the Manhattan and Georgetown cocktail partiers scare each other (booga, booga) with dark stories on Halloween night of the “unregulated” things they hear go on in the red states, and what you can learn if you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park.
Just for fun, let’s try this method of “journalism” with … hmmm … the Springfield, Ore., school shooting. Kip Kinkel killed two classmates and wounded 25 others after murdering his parents, both schoolteachers. Would focusing on that angle (the killer’s home situation and his being raised by two schoolteachers) ever be done, well, actually … PBS did focus on this shooting in a Frontline episode here. There is even a section called “blame” section here focuses on video games, music and guns (all perfectly plausible contributing factors), but couldn’t it have centered around his family situation and how schoolteachers raise children to become killers? In fact, I’ll bet it’s hard to know how widespread children of teachers becoming killers might be because the government doesn’t keep track. It doesn’t even know how many children schoolteachers have in this country.
The ugliest part of these reports comes in part 2’s bid to blame home schooling for the Andrea Yates murders. Exqueeze me? Baking powder? Of the five children she drowned (Noah 7, John 5, Luke 3, Paul 2, and Mary, 6 months), only one was definitely school-aged, so her family’s home-schooling decision could have burdened her only slightly beyond what a woman with that many children would have if the family choose public-schooling. And how many other contributing factors *were* there in her case — post-partum depression, living in a trailer with that many children, being on powerful prescription drugs, only just out of a mental hospital. All this was widely reported at the time, and led to quite a bit of “I can see how all that would drive her to this” sympathy on her behalf (rightly or wrongly). But we’re now supposed to believe that this is an example of Home Schooling Syndrome. Puh-frickin-leez.
I carry no brief for home-schoolers — I am single with no children and am a product myself of public and Catholic schools. A few are a bit fruity in that “Protect Our Children From The Atheist ATF And Their Black Helicopters” way. But those CBS pieces were so sloppily done, such a failure measured by the basic canons of journalism, that the only way a prestigious news network could publish them would be an expression of naked prejudice. Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not persecuted.
I deliberately didn’t address the substance of the charges, the details of the cases, and the home-school regulation schemas in the states in question because all that is simply beyond my knowledge. Further, I didn’t need to know them to realize how slipshod the smear-by-anecdote story was. Well, there are now some rebuttals on the merits here and here, although you need to go down a little to get to the meat of the latter article’s details. Also near the end of this article, columnist Zan Tyler quotes a 1979 Supreme Court decision that already rejects the implicit reasoning in the CBS piece — that state regulations on all parents are justified merely on the basis that some abuse their children.
My friend Mike D’Angelo has an excellent take on the minor brouhaha (likely will need scroll down after Oct. 20) erupting over the Motion Picture Association of America’s ban on the distribution of screener tapes of movies still playing in theaters. The practice, a widespread custom in the Oscar campaigns of recent years, is perceived as giving the smaller films from boutique studios a way to make up for their narrower distribution. It’s a way for the film and its makers to get noticed and make its own case. But the MPAA has banned the practice for its member studios, citing concerns about piracy.Mike’s piece may even become obsolete in the next few days, as the backlash from within Hollywood is growing. Both Reuters and the Associated Press had articles Tuesday about a protest ad being taken out by some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Sean Penn, Keanu Reeves, Sissy Spacek and others in Wednesday’s Daily Variety and the Hollywood Report. A similar ad was taken out last week by some of American film’s most-prestigious directors, including Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. The Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild have also expressed opposition.
All this opposition could be having its effect. Daily Variety (link requires subscription) reports in Wednesday’s editions that the heads of the seven major studios behind the ban have scheduled a conference call with MPAA chief Jack Valenti. Perhaps this cockeyed ban will go down in history as the New Coke of 2003.
Nobody should intrinsically care about whether Academy members can get free tapes or discs. But, as Mike points out (and I have even less of a dog in this fight than does he, a pro critic), movie fans should know about this because Hollywood awards affect what films Hollywood makes. The less chance that small films from boutique studios like Miramax, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight et al have of getting awards, the less chance the filmmakers have of convincing financiers that they could be profitable, and thus the less chance they will be made at all. No FARGO, no THE PIANIST, no FAR FROM HEAVEN, and go on down the line through some of the best American movies of the last ten years. And *that* matters.
Pro-life blogger Emily Peterson sees a critique of abortion in MATCHSTICK MEN, something that had completely escaped me. (Warning: Spoilers coming)
My initial reaction to her note was: “I’m assuming your argument might roughly go along the lines of ‘you always wonder how the baby you killed would have turned out’ — except that in MATCHSTICK MEN, this emotion is what gets Cage’s character into trouble, no?”
Emily’s take is a bit different than that and relies on the film’s coda being considered a happy ending, something I rebelled against narrative-wise, and Cage’s wife telling him that she had miscarried their child after they split up, a detail that I now remember, but had slipped my mind. Essentially, she’s saying that he’s able to settle down and put the con man lifestyle and his psychiatric problems behind him, now that he knows what happened to his unborn child. It’s an interesting subtextual take.
Donny Osmond gives an interview to Salon, (link requires you to look at an ad … down with capitalism!!!) which had this precious quote, that I could hardly stop laughing at:
Donny: … the irony of that was that yes, that was the kind of music I was recording and that’s what was selling, but I was into so many different other styles of music. In areas like France, for instance, the Osmonds were known as a heavy metal rock ‘n’ roll band.
Salon: Get out!
Donny: Oh yeah. “Crazy Horse” was our first release over there and it was a real, hard rock ‘n’ roll song.
Can you just see four French teenagers in a Citroen, driving back from a movie by The Genius Jerry Lewis, head-banging to “Puppy Love” like Wayne and Garth to “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
Want to get into the press? Got a complaint? Want to have a complaint? Have hours of fun at this Web site.
An article here from the BBC says that Steve Martin is the frontrunner for playing the title character in a planned remake of THE PINK PANTHER. As long as they take every opportunity to insult France and show a clueless frog, I’m there. But I have my worries about this casting.
It’s possible that the filmmakers will completely reconceive the Inspector Clouseau character. But assuming that they don’t, does this strike anyone else as just a *wrong* choice? Martin is a fine comic actor and can even do very broad physical comedy well, as in the montage in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, assuming the script is good (when his script is bad, he can revert to over-the-top SNL Wild and Crazy Guy schtick).
But Martin is not a chameleon and voice virtuoso like Peter Sellers was, and had to be for all the various deliberately unconvincing (a tricky balancing act, those two words) disguise sequences in The Pink Panther movies. I don’t think Martin plays “clueless” well, or at least not in the deadpan way Sellers could — the Wild and Grazy Guys were clueless too, but were loud extroverts. The essence of Inspector Clouseau is that he’s someone who is convinced that he is brilliant, does not get that he isn’t, always wants to maintain his dignity, and has his whole being invested in the illusion of his dignified brilliance. I dunno who could play that character today, but Steve Martin doesn’t quickly come to mind.
KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003, 6)
Fanboy that I am, I rushed out on the first day to see KILL BILL, VOLUME ONE, the comeback film by Quentin Tarantino, just awake from six years in a coma. Tarantino was getting married, but the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad had other ideas, and he was the sole survivor of the massacre at the church.
OK, not really. But KB-1 feels too much like Tarantino *did* slip into a coma and left behind the talent that made him so exciting in the 1990s. Now don’t get me wrong, much of KB-1 is very good and it’s downright brilliant in flashes. The opening knife fight showdown between Uma Thurman and Vivica Fox is pure QT at his best — the juxtaposition of the candy-colored house, the school bus, the daughter and the serious ass-kicking going on. There is a moment late in the movie involving spanking (I will say no more) that had me rolling in the aisles. And there’s a demented genius to any movie that can make the line “lucky for her, he was a pedophile” work.
Most of the stylistic gambles Tarantino makes also pay off handsomely. There is a sequence entirely in Japanese anime that was quite good in itself, but it both solved the problem of how to present Lucy Liu’s backstory without an X-rating and deepened Uma’s characterization as the typical Tarantino hero — someone who conceives of life entirely in the terms he picked up from lowbrow and outre pop culture.
KB-1 is a revenge film, following Uma’s character The Bride as she hunts down the assassins who ruined her wedding. And she kicks butt. And what else, you ask? Well, frankly, not much. This sounds strange coming from me, but KB-1 is entirely too focused. For the most part, it’s basically just 100 minutes of underdeveloped characters fighting in the name of a revenge scheme of which we learn very little and have little emotional investment. It has a straight-line, mathematical quality that finally gets mechanical and repetitive, and frankly, a bit boring.
In a late scene, Uma kills or maims about 50 yakuza sidekicks, and then, just as she’s about to get to Mr. Big, a second wave of a hundred more show up. I was groaning — it was pure self-indulgence on QT’s part. The ass-kicking is often brilliantly done, no question, but it’s all just finally too much. We (or at least *I*) want more than that or at least some variance from 40 minutes of a sword-wielding Uma in a yellow cat suit slicing off limbs. And I *know* from his previous three films, and even several moments in this one that QT can give us better than an empty exercise in po-mo gawking.
What KB-1 lacks is what kicked Tarantino’s 90s output into the stratosphere — his goofily discursive comic sequences and humanizing touches. He also left behind most of his distinctive dialogue style — the postmodern-serious mix of big-talking losers, hyperviolence, pop culture banality and accidental wisdom. Take PULP FICTION — Jules and Vincent Vega were hit men, but they do stuff other than kick ass 24/7. They discuss the ethics of foot massages, go out on dates with the Boss’s wife, read (faux) biblical warnings to their victims, compare notes on European fast food. And Jules and Vincent have different fates according to how they react to the hand of God. In other words, though stylized and movie-ish, they were well-rounded creations and plunked in the middle of a universe with a lot of stuff going on.
Revenge movies or vengeance-seeking characters, focused and driven though they are, don’t have to be as one-dimensional as KB-1 or Uma’s Woman With No Name. Off the top of my head, I can think of IRREVERSIBLE and CITY OF GOD from just this year or, going farther back to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (particularly ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — which QT references, not to his credit) or even to KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. Some of these movies are made in completely different styles than KB-1, but they give you a sense of how much *else* you can get into a movie driven by a character’s desire for revenge. It needn’t be this one-note.