Friday, September 28, 2012


There's not much I can say about Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master.  Not to sound dismissive; in fact, I think it may be a genuinely great, profound work.  Still, it's so deeply personal--for Anderson, and for the viewer--that to try to think of something to say, to cast it into words...well, it feels inadequate and somehow disrespectful.

Others, of course, may disagree.  :Aren't you proud of me?" the middle-aged lady in the back row asked her companion literally the second the credits began to roll, her voice so loud the whole auditorium couldn't help but hear.  "I actually managed to stay awake through that stupid thing."  After a moment of silence, and apparently in case her opinion hadn't been made properly known, she continued: "What the hell was that even about?"

The two of them had arrived about ten minutes into the movie, but considering the parade of trailers ahead of time, close to a half hour after the posted start time.  More accurately, the quieter of the two arrived ten minutes in.  His loud-mouthed companion showed up a few minutes after that, large drink and popcorn in hand, which she proceeded to slurp and munch for some time afterward.

I realize my description of the distaff member of the duo might be a bit cruel, and might make me seem somewhat snobbish.  But honestly, her behavior invited ridicule.  As they worked their way down the aisle after the show, she continued her tirade, asking a complete stranger, "Do you even know what that was about?"

An odd question to ask, since The Master has more on its mind than almost any American film this year.  But an odd question, too, because even a rough description of the plot--what it's "about"--already reveals that it's not going to be a popcorn-munchin' movie.  Google's plot description reads thusly: "A psychologically troubled drifter returns from the war and meets the charismatic leader of a new religion."

Just from that, and from the trailers, which do a fairly good job of representing its elliptical style, I can't help but wonder why this person even showed up for this particular movie.  It wasn't for her, which is fine, but even a cursory amount of research would have told her that ahead of time.  I'm not saying she's an idiot because she didn't like it.

I'm saying she's an idiot for going to a movie she clearly knew nothing about, then expecting everyone else to agree with her snap judgement.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Happened to be flipping channels this morning and caught the opening of the 1969 Oscar-bait extravaganza Anne Of The Thousand Days, with Richard Burton in full-out Master Thespian mode, and immediately thought of this great SCTV bit.

A few notes:

1) Dave Thomas' Richard Harris impression is one of the greatest things in the history of the world.

2) If anything, John Candy's plummy Richard Burton doesn't go far enough.  Was Burton ever a particularly good actor?  On stage, maybe, but we have no record of that.  As far as his work on film goes, I'll give you The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?...and that's about it.  Everything else I've ever seen is unbearably hammy, projecting to the balcony without realizing there is no balcony on a film set.  Hey Dick, you've got a close-up--tone it down.

3) On the other hand, Joe Flaherty's Peter O'Toole, while technically accurate, is a little unfair.  Unlike Harris and Burton, O'Toole seemed to master film acting right from the start.  Even while giving overwrought performances in overproduced stage adaptations (as in The Lion In Winter, one of the obvious inspirations for this sketch), he at least made some attempt to portray the character beneath the high-flown speechifying.

4) Obviously, I found this clip on YouTube.  A commenter at that site smugly dismissed this entire sketch.  Why?  It was so overacted!

I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but this person is unbelievably stupid.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Earlier this week I wrote about the closing of my hometown movie theater.  One could romanticize such things and say the decline and eventual disappearance of small town cinemas is in itself the story of how movies went from being a shared, communal dream to just another time killer, how we went from palaces to multiplexes.  That would, however, completely overlook another step in the process, the type of auditorium mostly gone and never mourned: The mall theater.

Movie theaters had been built into shopping centers since the mid-sixties, but the trend didn't begin en masse until the seventies, when mall construction was ramped up under the delusion that these graceless bunkers could be "lifestyle emporiums", offering everything we could ever want--shopping, sure, but also food and entertainment.

Thus, with the same resemblance the offerings at Orange Julius or One Potato Two have to food, mall theaters had almost nothing in common with the grand cinemas that could still be found in most major cities: Two, three, maybe four crackerbox auditoriums, all with small screens, most with poor sightlines; small staffs, made up almost entirely of bored, surly teenagers with little idea how to run and maintain the projection equipment; and worst of all, a dark, dreary ambiance.

Here in Des Moines, showcase theaters still existed throughout the seventies and even into the early eighties.  The mighty River Hills and Riviera were reserved for the biggest of blockbusters--Earthquake, Star Wars, Superman and the like.  The Capri was for prestige offerings and Oscar bait, as was the Sierra.

The mall theaters were the Valley 3, the Southridge 3 and the Forum 4--or, to honor its neo-Roman logo, the Forvm IV.  They mostly showed the types of things people went to see--action, comedy, romance, Burt Reynolds pictures or Chevy Chase vehicles.  People may have enjoyed themselves, but the vibe was different.  They were no longer going out to the movies--they were going to the mall, and seeing a movie was something they did while they were there, in between swinging by The Gap and stopping at the food court.

Since most of the retail space in malls were targeted to young people, so too were most of the movies.  By the mid-eighties, the biggest blockbusters no longer played exclusively in the larger venues.  Sure, you could drive all the way downtown to see Top Gun at the River Hills, but why bother, since the Valley was closer, and you could shop at Foot Locker afterwards.  The more screens a movie played on, the easier it was to see it--no more lines, no more people being turned away.  Consequently, a hit wouldn't play all summer long, like Jaws or Grease.  It would have one, maybe two killer weekends, then head for video.

With the rise of disposable hits, theaters expanded, from six and seven screens to the googleplexes we have today.  The modern suburban multiplexes dealt a death blow to the mall theaters of old: more screens, bigger auditoriums, stadium seating, digital sound and projection.  Those out-of-focus, slightly misframed viewings of Pale Rider at the Valley 3 would officially be consigned to the past.

Miserable as they were, though, these theaters are still where I spent most of my movie-going life.  Maybe they didn't produce fond memories of the venues themselves, but they allowed me to see everything from Monty Python And The Holy Grail and Animal House to The Warriors and The Howling.  In that sense, they mattered.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


It's like watching a loved one waste away from some terrible disease.  Bit by bit, the person you used to know disappears, and when they are finally gone, you have no tears.  Your grief has already been spent.

So it is with the announcement that dire financial circumstances forced the oddly-named Big Time Theaters to shutter three of its Iowa properties, including the 3-screen auditorium in my former hometown of Perry.  I'm completely indifferent.  I shouldn't be.

Much of my life has been lived in movie theaters.  I have regarded them with nearly sacred awe, within their walls I found the first stirrings of lust, have had my consciousness expanded, have been challenged and delighted, have been made to believe that magic is a real and tangible thing.  And it all started in Perry.

I was five, and the movie was the heavily-advertised nature documentary Cougar Country.  (Even then, I loved cats!)  I'd never been in a theater, and I remember all the details--the cheap yellow-with-red letters marquee, the glass-encased posters for Coming Attractions (including a reissue of The Wizard Of Oz), the almost overwhelming smell of popcorn in the small lobby, the cranky old guy tearing the tickets, the pop machine outside the auditorium (which struck me even then as odd, since they obviously sold pop at the concession stand), the hand-cranked paper towel dispensers in the men's room.  And the auditorium itself.

Oh, the auditorium.  The walls resplendent with huge WPA-era murals depicting the glories of rural life, as enacted by mostly faceless, godlike figures rendered in the style of Soviet poster art.  Beige curtains down in front, a small stage (never used) before the screen.  It was almost overwhelming to me, so elegant and unlike anything I had ever experienced, and when the movie started--Such a huge screen!  And filled with big cats!--I knew something in my life had changed.  Cougar Country itself faded from my memory almost as soon as it ended, but this experience lingered.  I wanted more.

Obviously, this theater holds a special place in my heart.  But this theater hadn't existed for years.  In the early eighties, it was gutted into a remarkably nondescript two-screener, the stage and the murals gone forever.  Later still, ambitious owner Robert Fridley overhauled it completely, two tiny screens and one would-be showcase auditorium, with curtains and busts of famous composers ringing the screen and stars on the ceiling.  Then it closed for awhile, reopened, changed hands.  And now it's closed again, most likely permanently.

Through all the renovations, it devolved from a shrine to cinema to just another place to see the latest blockbuster.  (The last thing I saw there was The Matrix Reloaded, a deeply unnecessary follow-up to a very well-regarded original, and something that could probably be teased into a metaphor for the moviegoing experience if I tried hard enough.)  Film-going habits have changed over the years, and the small town movie theater is no longer a vital part of the community.  From what I've heard, it hadn't been kept in very good shape, and with the changeover to digital projection, its days were numbered.

No need to mourn, then.  It had a good run, and that's more than enough.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Non-acclaimed director Joe Carnahan--or, as he insisted on calling himself a few years ago, "Smokin' Joe" Carnahan--the auteur behind such fine films as Smokin' Aces and, uh, Smokin' Aces 2, is planning to make a new movie about a relatively mild-mannered sort who takes to the streets as a vigilante after his wife is brutally murdered.  The title of this project?  Death Wish.

"Oh," you're quite sensibly thinking.  "A remake of the old Charles Bronson movie."

But you're wrong, according to Smokin' Joe, who is actually throwing a kind of hissy fit over the fact that you would even think such a thing.  To clarify, he recently Tweeted this easily-mocked message:

Guys, for the record and so I don't have to answer this question a billion goddamn times.  'DEATH WISH' is NOT a remake.  At all, in ANY way.

Well, that certainly clarifies that.'s based on the same novel as the Bronson movie, it has the same basic premise and, oh yeah, IT'S CALLED DEATH WISH!

Carnahan's defensiveness is understandable.  Hollywood has gotten a lot of flack lately for increasingly unimaginative production slates, which seem to be filled with nothing but rehashes, reboots and remakes.  And most of these are incredibly pointless: How did a redo of Total Recall seem like a good idea to anybody?

Thing is, though, remakes in and of themselves aren't a bad thing.  Plenty of movies have intriguing premises poorly executed, and despite its somewhat iconic status, Death Wish is a very bad movie.  It's well-cast, and features great footage of New York City in its mid-seventies hell-on-earth prime, but the famously maladroit touch of director Michael Winner renders the whole thing pretty much unwatchable.  His pacing and staging are downright inept, and though Bronson is quite good, other fine actors like Vincent Gardenia and Stuart Margolin stumble through in confusion.

All that, plus a source novel that is much better and more morally complex, make Death Wish a perfectly good candidate for a remake.  And it's okay to admit it, Smokin' Joe--it is a remake.  And however it turns out, it won't be the worst thing you've ever done.  After all, you directed The A-Team.  Of course, that wasn't a remake, either, was it, Smokin' Joe?  I believe the term you used back then was "reimagining"...

Friday, September 07, 2012


I first expressed this opinion when they were new, but now that I have a dog as well as cats, it's more obvious than ever: Aside from being two of the greatest animated films ever made, Up and Coraline are remarkably species-centric, and your opinion of cats or dogs is likely to color your opinion of either movie.

Consider Up.  It's...I was going to say "sentimental", but that's not quite true.  But certainly, it wears its outsized emotions on its sleeve, and encourages the audience to respond.  Most people cite the opening ten minutes, which quickly illuminate protagonist Carl Fredericksen's wonderful, heartbreaking life, as an emotional highlight, but to me, it's this scene, these lines, that caused me to blubber uncontrollably right there in the theater.

I should mention that this scene is carefully set up, with Carl's discovery that his late wife wanted him to continue to live his life in her absence, so his sudden acceptance of Dug, who'd been begging for his love for the entire movie, is absolutely cathartic.

More than that, though, it's just a dog thing--"I hid under your porch because I love you!"  Who wouldn't want to hug that dog?  And what dog isn't that devoted to its master?  It's why people love dogs.  They're awesome.

As are cats, but in wildly different ways.  There's something about them that is mysterious, unknowable.  Maybe even creepy, as perfectly illustrated by this scene from Coraline.  The terrifying final shot in this sequence is something I've wakened to pretty much every day of my life.

Unlike Dug, who simply wants his master's love, the cat--unnamed, because, as he explains, he knows who he is--is waking Coraline for a specific purpose.  He needs her, and in that sense respects her, but actual affection?  That doesn't really enter into it.

As a movie, Coraline seems to take its cue from the cat.  It's breathtakingly beautiful to behold, and is infinitely wise, but emotionally, it's a little remote.  It's so confident in its sense of purpose that it doesn't seem to care whether the audience follows it or not.  As a piece of filmmaking, it seems to me unquestionably better than Up.  But I don't enjoy it as much.

Whatever other entertainment they provide, the most important lessons we learn from these movies is that dogs are sweet and loveable (even bad dogs can be rehabilitated) and that cats are genuinely otherworldly and do indeed know everything.  That seems about right.