A Prairie Home Companion

A Prairie Home Companion (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 07/30/07

Part two of my Lindsay Lohan arrest double feature actually took me nearly a week to get around to seeing.  This film isn’t so much a “Lindsay Lohan” flick as it is a typical Robert Altman ensemble cast in which screen time is pretty equally distributed.  This is, of course, Altman’s swan song, the last film he completed before passing away last November.  While Altman certainly had a number of excellent films to his credit, including Thieves Like Us (1974) & McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), A Prairie Home Companion, a strange narrative set against the pretended final performance of the long-running radio show, is almost criminally boring, clunky, and, while not devoid of charm or moments, feels like a pretty big waste of time and effort.

No real discredit to Garrison Keillor or any of his strange, laconic amusing creations, which I have never been particularly partial to myself, but can appreciate from afar, but the biggest problem is probably the rambling, boring script, featuring the most tepid of narratives about the show and theater getting bought by some bloodless Texas firm simply to shut it down contrasted against the charm and talents of the performers and the traditions that they have carried on and parodied throughout the years.

The most oddball part of it, the ghost/”Dangerous Woman”/Azrael character played by Virginia Madsen doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  Again, this is maybe due to the weakness of the script.  The film is largely about death.  Madsen comes as the angel of death to take away an aging singer, there is the death of the show, the death of tradition, Lohan’s feebly suicide-obsessed poetry…  There is an aura of death, for sure.  But frankly, I don’t know what the whole point is.  It’s not really a meditation or anything clear, and the film keeps cutting back and forth between performances and the back-stage story so much that it’s hard to figure out what’s supposed to be important.

Kevin Kline is amusing in his delivery and slap-stick moments, but it seems like he is supposed to be in some other film.  No one else acts like him in it.

Lohan, as Lola, a character so named by Keillor after the great song “Whatever Lola Wants” since apparently Lohan got herself into the film when there wasn’t even a role for her, is barely different from anything else she’s been in.  Less flat-out comical, I guess, but still just a teenager.  Whatever.  I still want to see I Know Who Killed Me (2007), especially because of the bad reviews.

And as for Altman, this is not an embarrassment, just lame.  He’ll be remembered for a lot of things, a lot of films, but hopefully not this one.


Transformers (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Michael Bay
viewed: 07/26/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

Big summer movies and Michael Bay go right hand in hand.  He makes those big action pictures that all seem to have their soundtracks recorded at that Spinal Tap 11 volume level, and he resurrects the blazing guitar solos of the hair metal years to pump up that soundtrack and action.  Things go boom.  A lot.

Actually, as I’ve admitted here many times, I like to go to the summer movies when the spectacles of special effects and sound and noise and action make the frenzy of popular Hollywood all fun and games each year.  Of course, the films are frequently let-downs.  This has been a pretty poor year for the summer movies, too.  The ones that I have seen, Live Free or Die Hard (2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and especially Spider-Man 3 (2007) have all been pretty mediocre, though Die Hard certainly was the best of the bunch.  But there haven’t been any that I’ve really been all that overboard about seeing.  When it comes down to it, Transformers wasn’t exactly the most tantalizing of prospects.  I mean, based on a late-1980’s television/toy line that was only moderately cool but also part of the toy-ification of entertainment.

That said, Transformers had the best trailer that I’d seen for the summer action flicks.  Bay seems to love these slo-mo shots of these giant robots twisting through the air as rockets stream and people leap for safety.  These shots do kind of work, but they get a bit silly after several in a row.

The film doesn’t take itself seriously, thank goodness.  I mean, it’s a seriously ridiculous premise.  And the names of the robots…they are so hilariously implausible.  Even the first line in the movie, “In the beginning,…there was the cube…” like some bizarre Rubik’s-inspired take on Genesis.

The movie has its fair share of humor and laughs and it’s reasonably entertaining.  The stars aren’t particularly engaging, though some of the minor characters are actually pretty fun.  Particularly, Shia LaBeouf’s parents.  They get the best material.  The dialogue for the most part is just so plainly silly that one might think that they wrote it over a lunch at McDonalds or something.

What does one expect?  What should one expect?  Will the powers that be in Hollywood ever get out of this rut of remakes and sequels and films “inspired” by toys, rides, and video games?  Is marketing something new so frickin’ difficult?

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Sara Sugarman
viewed: 07/25/07

Ah, Lindsay Lohan.  But only two years ago, I’d only heard her name, knew naught of her.  I saw Mean Girls (2004).  And somewhere along the way, I have become a celebrity news junky.  So, now I’m more up on things that I just shouldn’t know and really don’t care about, but anyways…  So, this will seem amusing now, this very moment, but in the future, this notable fact will seem silly and trite and seriously out of date, but in honor of her second DUI and drug arrest, just two weeks out of rehab, wearing an alcohol-monitoring anklet…it seemed like a good time for a Lindsay double feature.  Sadly, her new movie I Know Who Killed Me (2007) is due out in a couple days and actually looks more interesting than anything else that she’s been in.  It didn’t make the cut.  I chose this film for the title.

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen is a bad teen film.  Interestingly, it isn’t one that makes her look particularly likeable.  The story is about Lola, a self-involved teenager who is moved to the New Jersey suburbs with her mother from New York City, her striving for popularity, celebrity, and coolness.  With the snarky voiceover, the audience is intended to be amused by her cleverness and her individuality, funkiness, in contrast with the staid and middling suburban high school scene and the pretty, bitchy counterpart, played as the “mean girl”.

Of course, Lola is as self-involved and selfish as her nemesis, to a point that one might think that their characters are interchangeable.  Lola’s buddy, the mousy, clean-cut Ella, on the other hand, is likable, but too boring to hold the spotlight, I guess.

They have a crazy adventure, going to New York City for a concert and to meet their much adored favorite rock stars.  It’s charmless, mostly.

But the point of great irony here is when she confronts her idol, the rock star, and tells him that he’s just “a drunk”, which according to the templates of these shallow pop confections of movies convinces him to get help and become sober.  He enters treatment.  Ah, Lindsay, you need to have that effect on yourself, apparently.

As far as these types of movies go, this isn’t a particularly good one.  Mean Girls is better.  I don’t know what will become of her or her career, small or lots more drama, cleaned up or with lots more mess, but she really is a lot more famous for being famous because her filmic history is pretty lame so far.  Maybe the next one will be better.

Top Hat

Top Hat (1935) movie poster

(1935) dir. Mark Sandrich
viewed: 07/16/07

You know the old cliche, “They don’t make ’em like they used to”, a cliche that I invoke from time to time in different contexts, myself.  Well, this is one of the times that this old cliche can be used in its perhaps most straightforward intent.  That is because they do not make movies like Top Hat, maybe they never did except once.  Okay, they used to make a lot of musicals with dancing.  In fact, this film was one of a series of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, considered to be the “tops” of the group.  They made quite a few of these things in the classic Hollywood era, but it can be said for certain that not many turned out quiet so well as Top Hat and also as certainly, one can never imagine a film like this to ever be made again.

It is such a product of its era, with the definitively debonair Mr. Astaire and his giddy graceful non-stop tapping and charm just simply emanating from him like some magical aura.  The Art Deco sets, huge and sprawling and gorgeous, are not retro…this is the kind of thing that is easy to forget in this our post-post-modern era or wherever we live these days.  This is of the real time when the style was in vogue, the peak of the era, and the music and the decor just simply jibe.

Ah, the music.  Irving Berlin, with “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek”, instant classics.  It’s amazing stuff.  And it must be said that the patter, the double-takes, and dialogue are all immensely amusing and well-delivered too.  The cast is brilliant.  Beyond Astaire and Rogers, Edward Everett Horton is absolutely hilarious.  It took me a minute to place his voice as the narrator of “Fractured Fairy Tales” from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  He was awesome.  He must have done about 30-40 double-takes as his character was slow enough on the uptake to have to react when someone said something unexpected or ironic.

Astaire does almost make you want to dance, just watching him tapping, bopping around, whether soft-shoe-ing Ginger Rogers to sleep from the floor above or uncontrollably just popping around, in big numbers or small.  I can only imagine the influence this could have on the young.  Take it from me, I only dance when highly intoxicated…and then only rarely.  This is saying something from me.

This film was recommended by a friend, a dancer and dance aficionado who delivered a delightful encapsulation of a scene from the film with such obvious charm and allure, I had to borrow it.  It’s pretty much a pure joy.


Beggars of Life

Beggars of Life (1928) movie poster

(1928) dir. William A. Wellman
viewed: 07/14/07 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Screened at the Castro Theatre as part of San Francisco’s annual Silent Film Festival, director William A. Wellman’s 1928 feature about two a homeless hobo couple on the road, trying to make it to Canada and facing many of the hardships of the period is a striking and very appealing film.  The film’s biggest selling points are the starring role of Louise Brooks in what is considered the best of her American films and the very effective location shooting that adds to the verity and realism of the film.

I am one of the many who believe Brooks to be among the most beautiful women to have ever graced the Silver Screen, yet I have actually seen very few of her films.  Wellman is one of those directors, as well, who may not reside in the ultimate pantheon of American film, but certainly was a strong and effective filmmaker, who I also have less familiarity with than perhaps I should.

I did really admire this film and really appreciated the experience of seeing on the big screen, but am strangely at a loss for more to say on this film as a whole.  So I’ll leave it at that.

Man with a Movie Camera

Man with a Movie Camera (1929) movie poster

(1929) dir. Dziga Vertov
viewed: 07/11/07

Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is one of the greatest films ever made.  It’s a radical documentary film that utilizes a myriad of techniques and editing to construct a complex and multi-faceted image of Russia in the late 1920’s.  But it is so much more.  The film is exuberant, playful, and utterly replete with imagery and juxtapositions, commentary and depictions.  There is way more going on in 30 seconds of this film than I can begin to look at here in this entry.

I’d seen about half of the Man with a Movie Camera in a film class back more than 10 years ago and had been wanting to see the entire film for ages.  Vertov’s film addresses so much: life, birth, death, vision, cinema, Russian character, technology, industry…it’s a mad, hectic construct of images of a day in the life of Russia, with shots from a multitude of cities including Odessa and Moscow, shots from contrived images of the filmmaker transposed on top of the world and stop-motion animations, to close-up glimpses of everyday Russian people doing all kinds of things from waking, dressing, birthing, laboring, playing.

“This film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents, deploys or develops, such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, animations, and a self-reflexive style (at one point it features a split screen tracking shot; the sides have opposite Dutch angles).” — Wikipedia.

Actually, that little blurb from Wikipedia really captures what I would like to have stated myself, and it’s easier to capture it in a quote than to try to reiterate it myself.  The activity in the film, the hyper-usage of techniques that bring about fascinating, sometimes complimentary, sometimes contrasting juxtapositions is a real attempt at using film as a language, using images and movement to create new information, new expressions, wordless, yet clear and profound.  And sometimes outright hilarious.

The film is as radical today as it was in 1929.  Okay, that’s probably impossible, but it’s hard to overstate its power, its verve, its cleverness, inventiveness, and downright genius.  Absolutely, without a doubt, this is one of the greatest films ever made, so replete with ideas, visions, images that I can not say enough about it.  It’s brilliant.

Bangkok Dangerous

Bangkok Dangerous (1999) movie poster
(1999) dir. Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang
viewed: 07/09/07

I’d actually rented this movie five years ago but it wouldn’t play in my DVD player at the time.  I queued it up, and a few DVD players later, I rented it again, particularly after noticing that there is going to be some Hollywood remake of it with Nicolas Cage coming out later this year.  I’d seen The Eye (2002) by the “Pang Brothers” as they are actually listed in the film credits, and it was a decent little flick.  Apparently it’s made several sequels and even a Hollywood remake, too, which is also due out this year.  These guys are cashing in.

Bangkok Dangerous is a stylish story of a deaf-mute hit-man, Kong, his hits, his friends, and his love affair with a beautiful pharmacy clerk.  There is a lot going on with sound and color, playing out Kong’s isolation from the world, from feeling, a benumbed almost surreal life that is only jarred into comprehension of the world by his interaction with Kon, the pretty clerk.  She witnesses his violence and is repulsed by it and as things fall apart, he understands the badness of his life and what he has wrought.

Kong is a very sympathetic character, and while this story can sound pretty unimaginative in some ways, it is actually executed with style and a unique tone, created by the visual treatments and approach.  There is something unique here.  It’s a good film, not a great film, but certainly better than a whole lot of stuff out there.

We’ll see how they integrate into Hollywood.


After Dark, My Sweet

(1990) director James Foley
viewed: 07/01/10

After watching Michael Winterbottom’s recent adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (2010), decided to go on a mini-venture of other Jim Thompson films, which led me to a little double feature of two films from 1990 which are arguably the best of the adaptations of his work, director James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters.  I’d seen both of these films before, and I’ve read both of the novels, now quite some time ago, and I’d remembered them both as being good, solid adaptations each, though I remembered The Grifters as a the better of the two films and remembered it better in general.  I have to say, these films make a good double feature.

After Dark, My Sweet is one of Thompson’s slimmest novels, but one of his great novels.  It’s features one of his most sympathetic protagonists, a mentally-challenge and potentially psychotic ex-boxer, Kevin “Kid” Collins, played in the film with a shambling gait and near stutter by Jason Patric.  He’s essentially a homeless person, wandering from place to place, until he meets up with Fay Anderson (played by Rachel Ward in the film), a beautiful, alcoholic widow, who semi-seduces him into her life and a scheme to kidnap the child of a wealthy family, to raise a ransom, and make it big.  She is partnered with “Uncle Bud”, a shifty character, who is played by the terrific Bruce Dern in the film, the mastermind behind the plan.

As in many of Thompson’s stories, told in the first person, the narrator is unreliable, or unreliable enough to himself.  Is he paranoid? Or is her really being set up to be murdered, used as a chump by these people?  Does the flawed and fluctuating Fay love him or is she just playing him?  He doesn’t know.  And we only know what he tells us, though the beauty of Thompson’s stories are how the reader has to see the story as failing to be certain.

As I recall, the novel is moderately straight-forward for Thompson, written in the first person.  The film mimics that sensibility with voice-over narration by Patric.

The film is not flashy or overly stylized, but uses its southern California semi-desert setting to great effect.  Fay’s house is on the desert reaches of the town, and has rows of overgrown palm trees that had been imported to be farmed and sold, but are over-grown and somewhat derelict.  Her house is an open bungalow, with a pool blackened with algae.  Her life, though we know little of it before her husband passed away, is one of disrepair and slowly moldering in the dry California sun.  And while the locations and setting are contemporary to the film, not made “retro” to the setting of the novel’s 1955 present, as in The Killer Inside Me, the transposition in time works well and feels quite right.

Dern and Patric are both quite good.  It’s funny about a movie that you haven’t seen in close to 20 years as to what you remember about it, but Patric’s near-Parkinson’s-like shifting gives that effect to his character, who has perhaps taken too many punches to the head or elsewhere, and that kind of stuck with me.  Dern’s performance is more straight-forward: he’s a middle-aged dude with dodgy written all over him, but dodgy, still trying to make the score, and not necessarily evil.  Much like Collins’ inability to make a read on “Uncle Bud” and Fay, we’re never sure how willing Uncle Bud is to kill to get what he wants.

The film doesn’t quite excel to a level of greatness, but it’s a rock-solid effort.  It’s one of those kinds of films that you can see people glomming onto, savoring and liking, because there is a lot there to like, despite never quite achieving a level of power.  For me, this is how I feel about Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), though a lot of people think that it was better than Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1990) (though I think I disagree).

It’s anomalous in that having a tragic hero whose goodness wins out over evil, this is one of Thompson’s rare stories where human goodness eclipses badness in the end, though still with a sublimating and nihilistic tonality.  There is great bleakness in the characters, in their world.  Even the little abducted boy, who nearly dies due to his diabetes while in their care, receives greater care and kindness from the broken people that are his kidnappers than he did in his well-to-do home.  It’s a story with great sadness, but also of redemption.  And frankly, a pretty darn good flick.

Basket Case

Basket Case (1982) movie poster

(1982) dir. Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 07/06/07

I do take a great deal of pride in the broad range of films that I see.  It’s one of the reasons that this diary is so utterly specific.  I mean, I have gone to see a couple of the big summer movies and do often rent new releases on DVD, but I will range from seeing silents, foreign films, animation, and total low-brow trash/cult cinema, like Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.  I mean, I do have a strong affinity for weird cult films, but I also do not purely watch them.

I’ve been into Henenlotter since I saw Frankenhooker (1990) five years ago and was recently reminded about him when seeing him in the documentary, Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001).  Henenlotter is like a much less prolific Larry Cohen or something.  There is a goofy, mad genius to this film, to everything that he seems to have worked on.

Basket Case, I thought I’d seen this before, but I am pretty sure that I hadn’t.  The story, oddly touching, about a boy with a twisted monster Siamese twin, and the revenge they seek for the doctors who detached Belial and left him in a dumpster for dead.

Shot on location in New York City in the early 1980’s, there are many glimpses of a lost era of the city, with a Times Square crawling with pornography, strip clubs, and drugs (really reminds me of the San Francisco’s present-day Tenderloin without all the neon).  And a cityscape include the famously demised twin towers.  It’s also a film of a very different era, made with humor, camp, but also made to be blood bath.  It’s period-ness is absolutely one of its charms.

Heavily peppered with bit characters with wonderfully delivered loopy lines and asides, the film has a sassy, wacky off-kilter charm from the very get-go.  And the special effects are pretty wonderful, too.  Moving between some rubbery body, face lump, the twin, Belial, is bizarrely but amusingly designed, and when he gets to move into stop-motion animation, you know this movie is the stuff.

I have to hand it to Henenlotter.  The man is an unsung genius.

City Lights

City Lights (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Charles Chaplin
viewed: 07/06/07 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I am not sure exactly when it started, but I have been increasingly been enjoying silent films and have started to dedicate more of my rental queue to them.  Though, it must be said, this hasn’t been reflected yet so much in my viewing, but it is to come.  I have tickets to a couple of exhibitions at the upcoming Silent Film Festival and I know that there will be more here shortly.

Charlie Chaplin, as iconic a figure as he is, I have to wonder how much he’s really seen these days.  City Lights is considered by many his masterpiece work, completed and exhibited in the sound era, with a recorded musical track, has some touching pathos and real beauty to it.  In many ways, the humor sequences aren’t among the best, but the story does have an amusing ride, particularly his relationship with the drunken millionaire who loves him to death when he’s loaded, but doesn’t remember any of it when he sobers up.

The final scene of the film, when he meets up with his formerly blind flower-selling love again after getting out of jail for “stealing” (he didn’t really steal the money) the money that he gave her for the operation to bring her sight back…  It is touching, and in some ways, it manages to redeem the film beyond it’s basics, transcendentally charming and I’d say it could warm even some pretty well-hardened hearts.

All in all, I was a tad disappointed.  I’ve only in recent years seen one other of Chaplin’s films, Modern Times (1936) which was a bit more imaginative.  I recognize that I am on the outside of being well-aware of the silent era’s peaks and lows, but I am eager to start on more, and more will come.