More Than Meets The Mogwai

Friday, January 27, 2006

Recent Viewings

THE LIMEY (1999, Steven Soderbergh) USA

Without a doubt, this is my personal favorite of Soderbergh’s trilogy of crime films, and a film that I look at as his all-time career high (so far, anyway). THE UNDERNEATH, his take on material previously filmed by Robert Siodmak as CRISS CROSS, seems to me a bit self-conscious and undercooked; OUT OF SIGHT, with its charismatic leading man and breezy approach to Elmore Leonard’s novel, is a fine fettled film, but one bereft of the gravity of Lem Dobbs’ original screenplay.

And to speak briefly of Dobbs for a moment: he wrote the script at age nineteen for Robert Aldrich, and had sent it to Aldrich & Associates offices but never heard back. This ‘adolescent’ version was then rewritten over a decade later with Soderbergh at the helm. Dobbs has also written one of the greatest unproduced screenplays ever – Edward Ford, which concerns an aspiring actor desperately attempting to get membership with the Screen Actor’s Guild over a period of decades. The trouble is: he came to Hollywood in the early 1960s just as his favorite genre, the Cowboy picture, has dried up. There are characters based on Dobbs and even Ed Wood, long before the Tim Burton film. Dobbs takes those fans to task for celebrating the cinematic dreck of Edward D. Wood, Jr. only after his demise in a brilliant scene set at a retrospective of Wood’s work; it would have been inter-cut with flashback shots of Wood swatting flies in his underwear, drunk, and in an argument with his wife as the crowds cheer on his creations in the present day. Dobbs perfectly captures the details in this scene, even down to two men representing the Medved brothers and their “Golden Turkey” mentality, as they spiel on at the retrospective.

But, back to THE LIMEY, and its evocation of 60s counter-culture icons that have since turned to the establishment. There’s the grizzled performance from Terence Stamp as the man seeking revenge on the rich music industry producer (Peter Fonda) who may or may not be responsible for the death of his daughter. Barry Newman, best known from VANISHING POINT and FEAR IS THE KEY (which Dobbs name-checks on the audio commentary), delivers an indelible impression in his few short scenes as the producer’s ‘security consultant’. Elliptical and mellifluous in its own unique way, Soderbergh relies on clips from Ken Loach’s POOR COW to organically show us Stamp as a younger man. Luis Guzman in a Che Guvera t-shirt helps to deliver the working class vs. the filthy rich message even though Soderbergh cut out all of the material dealing with Stamp’s background as nothing more than a butler-type before his vengeful sojourn in America.

CABIN FEVER (2002, Eli Roth) USA

Hoping to have missed something after seeing HOSTEL a second time, I still find this to be a discordant mix of influences that strains itself too hard in being wacky or whimsical. There’s a bit of Wes Craven (the use of music from his LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to the leafy greenness in that film) to Sam Raimi (the isolated cabin) to David Cronenberg (the body horrors that result because of this strange fever). Giuseppe Andrews steals the show in his brief scene as the Deputy who likes to party. He seems to be a filmmaker himself, with two pictures and countless shorts having already been put out by Troma.

THE ARISTOCRATS (2005, Paul Provenza) USA
[Good+] Documentary

Expecting more from the 75 comedians who tell the obscene, vile, & unfunny joke of the title, I suddenly became aware that it’s almost a perfect metaphor for the auteur theory: the quality and amount of laughs solely depend on the style and predilections of whoever is telling the joke in the first place.

RED EYE (2005, Wes Craven) USA
[Very Good+]

A clever bit of filmmaking and a change of pace for Craven, this taut thriller slyly concern the troubles of airplane travel today through its depictions of space – either not having enough (Cillian Murphy’s apologizing for invading Rachel McAdams’ “space” before they board), or having too much (the luxurious cabin given to the family whom Murphy has targeted). It’s nice to see a villain who is out for himself in a reasonable way; there’s no great power attributed to him, and he must answer to his own higher-ups.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

John Ford's THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957)

John Ford immortalizes Frank Wilbur “Spig” Wead, a United States Navy aviator who became a screenwriter after an unfortunate spinal injury forced him to subdue his daredevil-like persona (as seen during the frenetically paced opening sequence, in which a newly enlisted Wead – played by John Wayne – checks out a biplane without permission and lands it in the middle of Fordian celebration). What’s especially touching about this portrait of Wead - and makes it different from any other biopic - is the fact that the man depicted was a personal friend of Ford, and even more, died in the arms of the director.

I jotted down some notes during the viewing, so I’ll post some observations and remarks in bullet form, a habit I’d rather like to continue here on this blog:

--Maureen O’Hara, who plays Min Wead, “Star-Spangled Spig”’s wife, crosses her arms left-to-right in a gesture not unlike the Harry Carey, Sr. tribute in those famous closing moments of THE SEARCHERS in the scene after her first baby dies of a fever. The composition, which features Wayne’s profile in darkness on the right side of the screen, as O’Hara emerges in the background of another room, is startling in its beauty, and raw emotionality.

--I’ve read elsewhere, in Peter Bogdanovich’s short interview book and Tag Gallagher’s immense, indispensable “John Ford: The Man and His Films”, that Ford didn’t belabor himself with setting the film in its correct time period (shortly before WWI and ending in the middle of WWII), and it’s easy to see. The film looks modern (1957) in its set design, clothing, and all other areas of décor. Ford also told Bogdanovich that his intent was to make it as quickly paced as possible in the beginning, and then to ease off gradually, subduing the action scenes and chaotic, but playful jocularity amongst the Navy and Army (as represented by red-haired character actor Kenneth Tobey, as Herbert Allen Hazard), and it does accomplish all of this by the first hour, before tragedy befalls Wead.

--Ford’s preoccupation with how systems and regiments work are well represented here. And these men, Wead and his fellow servicemen, are only truly at home when they’re working for Uncle Sam. Wead’s wife recognizes and reconciles with this in a powerful scene near the finale, after Pearl Harbor has been announced. Wead, through a telephone conversation, expresses his need to try to pull some strings in order to get back in and serve his country, despite finally having worked out his domestic problems. O’Hara holds her tongue, but attacks her record player after the call is finished. Note that ‘Jughead’ Carson (Dan Dailey) can’t make it in the outside world either, with his failed chicken ranch and dead-end job as a lowly cab driver forcing him to reenlist for WWII. Jughead even keeps his Navy cap on in the hospital, forever pledging his commitment to his country.

--Tarantino surely stole the “I’m gonna move that big toe” scene for KILL BILL, VOL. 1, although in a completely different context.

--The final moments made me cry. As Wead walks past all of the familiar faces on his way off the Naval ship, after having been told his time left on earth is fairly short (“either three days, three weeks, or three years”, his Doctor tells him), he’s buckled in and you can’t help but feel for him as he realizes he’s served his very last moments as a Commanding Officer.

Incidentally, I also re-watched FORT APACHE, the first in Ford’s Calvary trilogy today. But that’s for another time, maybe after taking a closer look alongside SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (my favorite) and RIO GRANDE.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

'My Name is Modesty' Capsule Review

[Very Good+]

Low-key for Spiegel, who only lets his goofball side show from time to time and limits the amount of POV shots that he’s always been so fond of (cf. INTRUDER and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2). It’s wonderful to see Spiegel reference Corman’s ROCK ALL NIGHT in the supplementary interview (with ‘Presenter’ Quentin Tarantino), as the comparisons are not so far off base: it’s almost a remake of that hostage situation but set inside a lavish casino, with the running time (76 minutes) only making it seem more apt. Miramax funded this cheapie direct-to-video in order to keep their paws on the rights to Peter O’Donnell’s comic book creation with the hopes of making it a big-budget action picture in the future. The story concerns Modesty’s past, which we see in flashbacks, as she relates her memories to her immediate enemy at hand -- a gentleman with a similar tortured back-story; they idly wait until 6:00am in order for Modesty’s co-worker to open the casino’s cash storage vault.

The DVD itself is packed: commentary with Spiegel and producer Ted Nicolau; commentary with writers Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler; the aforementioned discussion between Tarantino and Spiegel; a brief montage making-of; “A Retrospective of Modesty Blaise Comics and Artwork”, which gives plot details to all 95 of creator Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty adventures; and a fifty-odd minute interview with O’Donnell himself.