Thursday, July 30, 2009

Counting Down the Zeroes 2004: Undertow

This will be appearing in Film For the Soul's Counting Down the Zeroes project Saturday, August 1st. Enjoy.

When I think of the great opening scenes in film history I think of Argento’s Suspiria, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and of course, the greatest of them all, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. In addition to those masterpiece openings, I would add the more modern addition of David Gordon Green’s opening to his brilliant 2004 thriller Undertow. In six minutes Green gives us a narrator introducing the story in typical oral mythology fashion (“this is their story, as it was told to me”); his usual in-the-moment, painfully real dialogue ( We see two teenagers presumably in the middle of a tryst as the boy says: “We should disappear. Go someplace where we can see everything” And the girl replies: “Let me see your knife…can I carve my name in your face?”); and pretty much every editing trick in the Final Cut Pro bag of tricks. All while being accompanied by Philip Glass’ eerie score that sets the perfect mood for the rest of the picture. It’s a perfect way for Green to begin his film: he wants Undertow to be a myth, he sets us up the way a master storyteller would, and visually he gives us one of the best pieces of character development I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredibly entertaining, beautifully edited and orchestrated first six minutes, and it’s one of the best openings to a movie that I’ve ever seen (clip is supplied below).

The film plays as a myth, more specifically a myth about the Munn family and some gold coins that act as the catalyst for, what else, murder. Here Green’s Southern Gothic look is a perfect fit for the type of story he’s set out to make; his film exists in this fable (to borrow a word used to describe the film by the brilliant Ed Howard) world, and the allusions to Laughton’s Night of the Hunter are just as obvious as his allusions to the fables where children must set out on an odyssey of discovery, growing up too fast and alluding danger along the way.

Why are these kids growing up too fast and on the road? Because their estranged (and strange) Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas who plays the role with maniacal glee) is in town visiting their dad John (played by Dermot Mulroney) inquiring about a job on the new Munn family farm (Chris and Tim are the kids, and they hate the farm, but their dad insists on them remaining alienated from city life). We come to find out the history of the Munn family – a certain affliction that bothers Tim, the death of their mother, and we get some insights into why John prefers giving it a go at farming when it seems that he’s never done it before – but more specifically we begin to see the history between Deel and John, and why there is such bitterness between them. This all eventually boils over and leads to an intense, and ultimately deadly, confrontation about some gold coins that may or may not be hidden in the house. From that point on the film is an eerie thriller. It’s an unconventional one, too, especially in the way that Green stages most of the chases and scare moments in daylight, creating an unsettling feeling akin to what John Carpenter did in his boogeyman masterpiece Halloween.


The film is not just a thriller, there’s a lot lurking beneath the surface – the film is also about the Munn kids (Chris and his odd little brother Tim) and their journey, but more specifically Undertow is about forgotten kids. In their great series The Conversations, Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy talk extensively about this theme of kids just "wandering around" in Undertow. This gets at the larger theme in the film which is that kids need a home, and more specifically the displacement, and the fractures lives/journey of the Munn kids. When Chris and Tim construct their house in the junkyard Chris places a mug that reads “Home Sweet Home” on the dash of the car they’re sleeping in. Sadly, at that moment, that seems to be the most suitable house they'll find (they'll find themselves in other houses, too, along their journey). The junkyard, though, acts as a perfect Gothic setting for the film, it also acts as a nice metaphor, showing how displaced these kids are, seen as nothing more than bits to be sent to a scrap heap. This is later made even more obvious by Green when the Munn kids find brief refuge and friendship at a hideaway inhabited by other displaced kids.

The junkyard also acts as a metaphor for how “chopped-up”, or fragmented, their lives have become, and the affect that can have on two kids. The junkyard is just as compartmentalized as their lives, and made me think about the Munn kids and the stages of their life that is shown to the audience, or talked about by the characters. Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim used to live in the city when their mom was still alive (one stage of their life), their mother dies (second), dad moves them to a farm (third), Deel comes into Chris’ life and reveals that his mom was actually his girlfriend first…hinting at the fact that Deel is probably Chris’ biological father (fourth), their dad dies (fifth), they go on the run and find a home at the junkyard…a momentary safe haven (sixth), they come upon a compound where other displaced kids live (seventh), their chase ends with Deel and Chris involved in an intense fight where Deel eventually is stabbed and left to die on the bank of the river (eighth), and the film ends with the both of them being rescued by their grandparents (ninth stage). My own arbitrary organizing there shows that they go through nine significant changes in their young lives.

Their journey is broken up into stages, or continuing with the myth idea, chapters of the story. So it’s apt that they take refuge midway through their journey at a place that is the epitome of compartmentalization. The ending is befitting of a myth, too, as Green ends his film with a deus ex machina, but we accept that as a viewer because we’re always aware that what we’re watching is myth. The stages of the film and the set piece of the junkyard also act as a reminder that Green’s film is a pastiche of some of the films that have certainly inspired him: Badlands, Days of Heaven, and the aforementioned Night of the Hunter. Green is above simple thievery, though, as each allusion helps punctuate his own ideas, making Undertow the best films of 2004.

Green’s pretty comfortable, as I mentioned earlier, at throwing every trick in the book in that opening six minuets, but he allows the film to pretty much play out without barely any camera trickery at all. He still adds in some nice editing touches, but nothing as overt as the opening. He also continues to showcase those great scenes he's known for where the viewer happens upon a conversation in medias res, and we hear all kinds of interesting things that real people would say; however, Green isn’t going for the affect his George Washington or All the Real Girls went for, he’s content keeping Undertow within the boundaries of the thriller and myth. Whether or not that hurts his film is an interesting debate as I think this is Green’s best film, and is his most underrated (or overlooked), and I think too often, and unfairly, people omit Undertow when talking about Green’s triumphs as a director.

It’s no surprise Terrence Malick produced this film. His influences are just as evident here as the influence of Night of the Hunter, and it’s refreshing to see another filmmaker, who like Malick, doesn’t just film something beautiful for beauty’s sake. There is a purpose to cinematographer Tim Orr’s shots, and even though they are beautifully framed and conceived, they aren’t showy, blow-away shots that exist only to draw attention to how good the filmmakers are. These are shots that are designed to evoke mood – visually-poetic conceits that conjure up the danger and horrors found in the original Brothers Grimm stories – shots that always tell us something about the narrative, and help move the story along.

Undertow sits comfortably at the top of my list for best films of 2004. It’s a refreshing thriller that embraces the ethereal qualities found in myths or fables, giving the viewer great locations (the opening six minuets of the film, the junkyard where Chris and his brothers seek refuge) that are feasts for the eyes, and scenes of surprising warmth (the scene where Chris finds out that two waifish girls have tried to steal his coins, and instead of lunging at them in anger, he looks upon them with empathy as if to say: “we come from the same place”.) that showcase Green’s narrative skills in addition to his extremely creative and poetic eye. Undertow is David Gordon Green’s masterpiece, and the best film of 2004.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, an Introduction

Hallelujah! The top 10 is near!

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta) Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)
The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
October Sky (Joe Johnston)
Election (Alexander Payne)

So, here we are. Finally we’re at the end of this long journey. Yeah, it’s been long, but so worth it. I’ve really enjoyed revisiting these titles from 1999 (I did re-watch all but a few of them that weren’t available on DVD), and this project has only cemented the fact that I think 1999 is the best year for film that I’ve ever experienced. Almost all of these movies I got to see in the theater, and whenever you have a year where movies by the likes of Sydney Pollack (Random Hearts), David Fincher (Fight Club), and Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut) range from terrible to forgettable, then that’s a strong year. Now I know I’m in the minority on the Kubrick, but my hope is that you’ll share your lists for the best films of 1999 in the comments section. I am obviously inspired here by my good friends Sam Juliano and his partner in crime Allan Fish of the phenomenal blog Wonders in the Dark, and Ric Burke who also has had great success compiling lists from fellow bloggers with his wonderfully entertaining Counting Down the Zeroes project. So…see what’s on my mind after the jump…

I’m curious what your list is for the ten best films of 1999, and what you think of this particular year in film in general. Just go ahead and post your lists in the comments section, and go tell all your friends to participate too…it should be a lot of fun.

Here’s where things get tricky as they tend to be with any year-end list…I’m talking about release dates. Go by whatever criteria you go by. I tend to think of masterpieces like The Thin Red Line, Rushmore and Gods and Monsters, which are sometimes thought of as 1999 films, as 1998 films. Other great films associated with 1999 like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and The Virgin Suicides I consider 2000 films. So, my list may look a lot different than yours, but that could also be due to the fact that I live in a rather small city, so we don’t get smaller films until they’re well into their theatrical runs.

I’ve explained already why this year resonates so much with me, but I think it’s more than just the amount of quality films that were released…this is the year I attribute to me becoming a really serious filmgoer…a cinephile if you will. This is where the seeds were planted and my passion for film has been growing ever since. I’m always learning something new, and when I re-watch these films for the second or third, or sometimes tenth, time in the next month I am sure that I will look back with great fondness, because the films that occupy my top 10 list are the perfect metaphor for the beginning stages of my cinephilia.

1999 saw fresh young faces in Hollywood, young directors like: David O. Russell (Three Kings), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich); faces that weren’t necessarily fresh, but were relatively new like Steven Soderbergh (The Limey) and the Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta); and old masters like Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead), Paul Schrader (Affliction), Michael Mann (The Insider), and Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley); and finally Chris Smith (American Movie), who made one of the most memorable documentaries about the passion needed to accomplish your dreams.

All of these filmmakers are the perfect metaphor for what I’m talking about…and what do I mean by that? Well, the young filmmakers were offering up something different, something Hollywood hasn’t seen since the glory days in the 60’s and 70’s when directors were given creative control. Hollywood's output had become banal (with exception of some of the older names on this list like Scorsese, Schrader, and Mann), and people were seeking the Indies to give them what they wanted; however, in 1999 filmmakers like David Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson were all working within the studio system, infiltrating that system with the Indie mentality, and by doing so were creating some of the most innovative and memorable films that I’ve ever seen.

I had just started becoming a cinephile, and as a senior in high school it only seemed apt that my new found passion for studying film – I mean really looking at what film says and how it can make us look at our world differently – coincided with this resurgence in Hollywood. That is why I look back at 1999 so fondly – not just because there are insane amounts of brilliant films, but for nostalgic reasons too – for reasons that are totally subjective, and thus make my whole journey here selfish. I just hope that you’ve enjoyed these reviews and re-thinking about some of these films as much as I have. Now the hard part begins…

This is where the whole ranking thing becomes so arbitrary…I mean how in the hell do I justify placing Magnolia, a film that speaks to my soul like few films have, over Bringing Out the Dead, a misunderstood masterpiece from a master of American cinema? How do I place one of the best films from one of my favorite filmmakers, The Insider, over the Palm d’Or winning Rosetta?

I could go on with example after example from this incredible year in film. It’s impossible to justify any of these choices being above the others, so just know that I would gladly take these ten with me to a desert island. Forget the numbers, in fact, and focus on the sheer amount of Quality found in each of these films, and stop and think and see if you conjure up another year in cinema within the last 20 years that compares to 1999. Also, all of these films hold such a special place in my heart – it’s almost impossible to think that I could pick one as being better than another.

But so it is with list-making…yes, it’s an arbitrary exercise, but a fun one. So what will follow starting at the end of August will be the same formula that I used for the “forgotten films” project. Every Monday I will post a new entry in my top 10. I am really excited about re-watching these films, and I hope you’ll share my excitement as perhaps a film I highlight here will prompt you to revisit some of these modern classics.

Here’s a list of other films that I liked from 1999 that I haven’t yet mentioned in this project: All About My Mother, The Big Kahuna, In Dreams, The Matrix, Office Space, Run Lola Run, Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, The Straight Story, The Thirteenth Floor, Topsy-Turvy, The Winslow Boy.

In case you didn’t notice, I strategically named 10 films (plus one for fun which was Burton’s Sleepy Hollow) as the “Forgotten Gems”. These are ten films I would consider a worthy addendum to the list I’m about unveil over the next couple of months: Beyond the Mat, Bowfinger, Cookie’s Fortune, Election, Galaxy Quest, The Iron Giant, Mumford, October Sky, Sunshine, The War Zone.

So...Starting August 24th I will post the first entry for my top 10…I hope you all stop by for that. As for now…what are your thoughts on the year 1999? What are your top 10 films for 1999?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Question of the Day: Brian DePalma, innovative auteur or lazy aper?

I've always struggled with DePalma's films. I can probably count on one hand the films of his I really, really enjoy -- and the funny thing is I only enjoy them because I count myself lucky enough to understand his references. I've always wrestled with DePalma's place in the pantheon of filmmakers. On one hand I like that his allusions are for cinephiles, filmgoers who will feel like part of a special club for "getting" the reference. It's kind of like how I feel when I see a Judd Apatow film. Sure, the scene may be funny, but I know why it's funny. And so it is with DePalma...yes the scene is beautiful, but to fully enjoy it must you know why it's beautiful? Do you need to know where that scene came from and what films DePalma is constantly paying homage to? More thoughts after the jump...

And then there's the flip side to that coin...Ryan Kelly of the wonderful Medfly Quarantine and I had a brief discussion in one of his blog threads a while ago about the merit of DePalma. Sometimes I feel like he uses his famous line "the camera lies 24 frames a second" as a crutch, a means to just simply ripping off better directors than himself, and Ryan elequently defended the polarizing director. However, no matter how many valid opinions I hear from respected sources I think I will always wonder if DePalma has an original thought in his brain? But then I watch a film like Femme Fatale or Body Double and my mouth is agog at how brilliantly this guy can direct a scene.

It's a constant dilemma that I don't see being resolved anytime soon (at least in my own brain) then I leave it up to those of you smarter than DePalma an original, an auteur; or is he just really good at taking other people's ideas and making them look good in his own way? (Obviously there's a middle ground in there somewhere, but I figured I would set up the two extremes to see which side people stand on.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Top 10: 2003

It’s time to submit your top 10 for Film for the Soul’s Counting Down the Zeroes project. So head on over to Film for the Soul and submit your list in the comments section here. Then Ibetolis (the blog’s author and organizer of this massively impressive project) will place the lists on the Counting Down the Zeroes blog, which acts as an archive for all of the reviews and lists associated with this fun project. My list comes after the jump...

This list wraps-up the year 2003 and looking back on the releases from that year, I have to say that I quite shocked by how many quality action films there were. I count four (Open Range, Kill Bill, Master and Commander, Lord of the Rings) in my top ten.

Three foreign language films find their way into the top 10 this year – one was two of the best filmmakers working today (The Son), and the others were by two old pros (The Man on the Train and Saraband) one of those masters, Ingmar Bergman, is the greatest filmmaker of all time in my humble opinion, and sadly 2003 would mark the final time he would release a movie – and another three foreign films find their way onto the honorable mention list.

Two really good horror films (May, Oldboy) were released in 2003, but couldn’t quite make the cut. I think this marks the first year I don’t have a slot open for a comedy…although Christopher Guest’s lovely A Mighty Wind, and the very warm and funny (not to mention manic) Jack Black vehicle School of Rock, came awfully close to cracking the top ten.

One of the most wonderfully bizarre film experiences I’ve ever had was watching the Polish Brothers’ Twin Falls Idaho upon its release in the late 90’s – and their
2003 follow up, Northfork, was one of the most beautifully photographed films of the year. Another indie darling, David Gordon Green, made quite possibly his "worst" film in 2003 (All the Real Girls), and that’s not a knock on the film, because it’s a beautiful film…it’s just proof how high the bar has been set by the North Carolina director. From indie darlings to an old master: Peter Weir proved once again why he’s one of the best filmmakers we have working today (Master and Commander)…I just wish he would release more stuff.

Billy Ray made a phenomenal debut with the extremely tense and always interesting biopic about “journalist” Stephen Glass (Shattered Glass). Sofia Coppola followed up her 2000 masterpiece The Virgin Suicides with a wonderfully genuine and sweet, unconventional comedy (wisely removing the romance) starring Bill Murray in a career performance (Lost in Translation).

The best film of the year was a film that elevated my soul to new heights…a film that had me thinking about it long after I walked out of the theater. I still remember the day I first saw it, and the many subsequent viewings haven’t lessened the power of the Dardenne’s film. The Son is a rare film that, as Roger Ebert so eloquently said in his review, “needs no insight or explanation. It sees everything and explains all. It is as assured and flawless a telling of sadness and joy as I have ever seen.” The Dardenne’s are a treasure, and in 2003 you will find their most prized jewel in The Son.

On with the list…

Honorable mention (AKA “the other ten”): All the Real Girls, American Splendor, The Dreamers, Elephant, House of Sand and Fog, May, A Mighty Wind, Oldboy, School of Rock, Whale Rider

10. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
9. The Man on the Train
(Patrice Leconte)
8. Open Range (Kevin Costner)
7. Northfork (The Polish Brothers)
6. Saraband (Ingmar Bergman)
5. Master and Commander (Peter Weir)
4. Shattered Glass (Billy Ray)
3. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
2. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
1. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Question of the Day: How Do You Define Quality?

Yesterdays post got me thinking about Quality. Yes, "capital q" Quality. For those of you that don't know me, I enjoy my philosophy from time to time, and one of the best books I've been re-introduced to over the last year is Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There is a section in that book (and really the whole book is a mediation on the Quality) that got me thinking about yesterdays question about assigning star ratings/grades to films. Troy mentioned in the comments yesterday that he liked the letter grade system, but the hardest part for him was deciding on a system where the grade or ranking meant something to him. More thoughts after the jump...

This is interesting because it gets me thinking about how each of us define quality, or as Pirsig refers to it: Quality. Allow me to take detour into the field of education for a moment: As a teacher (getting my masters in teaching right now, but I'm technically already a teacher) I seek to rid the classroom of rankings -- of invented letter grades and hierarchical structures that do nothing but make the students think that if they get an A, they must be "getting" the material. An "A" doesn't always prove that they are turning in quality work -- their work may not have any Quality at all -- it may just mean that they are fulfilling the requirements to get an A grade. Of course, a lot of this falls on the teacher and how they can get their students to think outside of grades and more in line with what they are learning instead of what they need to do in order to get the A.

Quality, and what it does or does not entail, is an interesting thing. In the passage I'm about to share with you Pirsig is talking about a teacher named Phaedrus who taught in the ancient hills that Pirsig and his son have just passed through on their motorcycle journey. He speaks of Phaedrus’ two distinctions of quality: the first being a more organic, creative phase that could not be defined. This was, to no surprise, the most fun and enjoyable idea of Quality because there was no rigid attempt at defining the term. The second idea of Quality is more due to rigid critical thinking, and because of this Phaedrus created a hierarchical listing of Quality. But I want to return to what Pirsig pontificates in the chapter prior to this…his musings on the topic of Quality are precisely the type of thinking that seems relevant to what some critics try to pin down as "quality films" with star ratings or letter grades. Pirsig writes:

Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others…but what’s the “betterness”?...So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?

Well...what the hell is Quality? What elements help you identify what a Quality film is? When we watch a film how is that we know what we're watching is Quality?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Question of the Day: Assigning Films Stars/Grades, Good or Bad?

In lieu of movie reviews for the next month I am going to throw random crap at the wall and see what sticks in regards to piquing people's interest. I was thinking today about just how to review movies, and it got me thinking: I have never really put stars or grades at the end of my reviews, despite the fact that I inventory all of the films I see every year with a grading system, organizing each film on a spreadsheet in order of "A" films to "F" films. So, my question to you is this: Do you prefer reviews that ditch the rating system, or do you like it when critics assign a film stars or a grade?

Follow up questions: Do you find that you are more likely to skim reviews if you see stars or a grade at the top of the review, as opposed to say a film critic who doesn't adhere to any kind of ranking system, and just writes what they feel about the film? Is one way inherently better than the other? Do stars/grades have their place as a quick reference guide (I still have my little pocket book of four-star Ebert reviews that I used to take with me to the local video store)? Discuss...if you feel like it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Election (Alexander Payne)

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta)Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)
The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
October Sky (Joe Johnston)

Alexander Payne’s Election is proof that 1999 was one of the strongest years in film history. Here is a film that falls outside of my top 10 for the year, but in any other year would easily sit in the top 5. It’s a brilliant satire that takes shots at everyone, and no easy shots, either. Here is a satire that feels authentic in what it is satirizing; everything from the settings (a high school) to the characters (over achieving student, jocks, aloof teachers) to the situations (affairs, student elections) are all elements that even the casual filmgoer can relate to. Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor are more interested in satirizing from the middle (much like Payne’s film before this Citizen Ruth, which refused to take a stand on either the pro-life or anti-abortion issue), refusing to take sides, and the result is a scathing satire that doesn’t attack from a specific side or feel mean spirited, and rarely misses a beat.

The film takes place in a high school that seems immediately recognizable: banners on the wall, dreary colors and lockers that line the halls, teachers in short sleeve shirts with ties, etc. The film opens as we’re introduced to the two primary characters Jim McAllister (played wonderfully by Matthew Broderick) and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon’s best performance of her career). We’ve all met someone like Tracy (and Mr. McAllister, too, the teacher who is obviously trying to be liked by his students), an overachiever who always has their hand raised for every question; the type of person who doesn’t understand why someone would challenge what they say, or, as one scene shows, somebody who tells people who are helping her hang a banner “you can’t put tape on the outside of the poster…take it down and redo it”. This is what Tracy is like. She’s running for school president, and understands that it’s just a popularity contest, but seeks to bring dignity to the position, or, in true political fashion, her idea of dignity; and despite it being a popularity contest, though, she uses fear as a way of getting votes, and sadly misconstrues people being afraid of her with people liking her “policies” and her “vision”.

Payne showcases the school election as a way of making a nifty satire on how real politicians are nothing more than immature teenagers making false accusations, petty insults, and empty promises that really have no merit outside of the halls of the school (and even then the stale, monotonous administrators, hilariously portrayed by Phil Reeves as principal Hendricks, are really the ones making the decisions so that they don’t disrupt the “order” of the school district too much). What Payne also does is show how Tracy isn’t the only monster in the film worth taking shots at. Jim’s former colleague and friend Dave (Mark Harelik) had a sexual relationship with Tracy a year prior to when we are introduced to the characters. Here Payne hilariously shows how some of these teachers are more like predators than educators, and in one fell swoop Dave has lost his job, his friends, and his family – he’s left looking like the most pathetic character in the film (we get a shot of him at the end of the film as Tracy, who misses Dave, opines via narration "I wonder if Dave finished his book" and then Payne smash cuts to Dave pricing cans of food at a local grocery store). But then Payne lets us look deeper into the life of Jim, and what we see is a man, who like his old pal Dave, is forced to work along side Tracy (Jim is head of the election committee) thus seeing the allure that his friend fell for. To combat this urge, he enlists the aide of Paul Metzler (at-the-time real life high schooler Chris Klein), the star football player who has just broken his leg and won’t be able to play his senior season. Jim thinks it would be a great idea for him to take on Tracy in the election, perhaps as revenge for what she did to his friend Dave, or perhaps, as a way of deflecting Tracy’s siren song.

What ultimately happens is that Jim becomes so wary of Tracy’s shenanigans and guerrilla political tactics (there’s a great scene where Tracy, in an attempt to re-hang her own poster tears down all the opposing candidates posters) – and Tracy popping up in his sexual fantasies as he has sex with his wife – that he rigs the election so that Tracy will lose and Paul will win. Because oafish no-nothings like Paul (who are dubbed “genuine”) are better than well-articulated, know-it-all overachievers (who are dubbed as “insincere”). Wow, I don’t think Payne even knew how prophetic his film would be.

The plot is pretty standard stuff (the result of the election and Jim’s attempts at having an affair run parallel with each other rather smoothly), but the story by Payne and Taylor (who also collaborated together on About Schmidt and Sideways) adapted from the hilarious novel by Tom Perrotta (who also wrote the wonderful Little Children) is everything but standard satire. As I mentioned earlier Payne is not interested in just taking shots at Tracy and people of her ilk. The teachers take just as much heat, as do the cliques that high schools across America have (the jocks, the nerds, and so forth), the by-the-numbers school administrators that create up tight, ready-to-explode teachers like Jim, and the parents who push their kids too hard (Tracy’s mom). I like that Payne isn’t interested in petty humor, and I like that he lets us look deeply into the lives of these losers.

I think we’ve all had a teacher like Mr. McAllister: someone who does their job well year after year, but as one scene shows us at the beginning, teaches the same lesson plan year after year. This is a sure-fire way to burn out as a teacher, and it’s understandable why he begins to devolve at the end of the film. In fact one of the funniest things about the film is how Broderick plays McAllister as a man so hapless that when he tries to meet his lover for a tryst all he gets out of it is a bee sting to the eye. There’s another great scene where McAllister is trying to explain to Paul the need for democracy – he uses the example of what would happen if people only had one fruit to choose from (he uses oranges as an example), and then one day there’s an apple, and all of a sudden people have a choice. His hope is to get Paul to see why he should run for class president, to inspire some passion into Paul…instead Paul just says: “I also like bananas”.

Payne’s camera also astutely observes the inner workings of a public high school. The principal’s lexicon is indebted to clichés we have all heard our principals say over the years. Payne may take his shots at these characters, especially Tracy, but we are given a few scenes that show just why Tracy may be the way she is. One scene in particular shows Tracy, after learning that she lost the election, crying in her room. Her mom enters and consoles her by telling her “here, take one of mommy’s pills.” As she shushes her to sleep she says: “maybe you needed more posters, honey; or, if you’d just taken my suggestions about your speech…”. I like what Payne does here in getting the viewer to empathize just for a moment with Tracy Flick. We see that these types of overachieving students are just marionettes, and the parents are gladly pulling the strings as they vicariously live through their children.

The performances are all top notch: the aforementioned Phil Reeves as the principal; Jessica Campbell as Paul’s younger sister Tammy who also gets involved with the election; and yes, even Chris Klein finds all the right notes as the oafish football player (who is just as much a marionette as Tracy is). Broderick’s McAllister is nice enough guy in the classroom, but Payne sees him as a man just going through the motions, and students like Tracy challenge and disrupt that repetition. His downward spiral, and the scenes that showcase this (his manic rush to give a test and prepare a room for his tryst with Dave’s ex-wife is edited perfectly and hilariously executed), are some of the best parts about the films final act.

Witherspoon was still finding her bearings as an actress before this role, and with Tracy Flick she was given a character to showcase her acting chops. Sure, most everyone in the world thinks of her a Elle Fields or June Carter, but Tracy Flick is easily her best performance. She’s always been a good actress (see The Man in the Moon and Freeway as proof), but in Election she ping-pongs from evoking hatred and empathy (I mean we feel sorry for her because we feel like she’s not living a “normal” teenage life, and there’s the scenes too where she is being taken advantage of by adults like Dave and her mom) effortlessly, and creates one of the most memorable characters in all of 90’s cinema.

Election still stands as my favorite Alexander Payne film. His Sideways was a brilliant film, too, but more serious than satire, and I personally prefer the satirical side of Payne. His film is a perfect satire because it knows that great satire doesn’t vilify, it doesn’t take cheap shots; rather, it stands in the middle and attack from all sides, and makes a very astute observation that most of the politicians we vote for now were at one time (or still are) Tracy Flick’s. We’re choosing from a group of hopeful politicians who have been playing the same game, and running the same campaigns since high school. Election is easily one of the best films of 1999, and proves just how strong the films in the top 10 are since Payne’s film finds itself on the outside looking in. It’s truly a forgotten gem as most of the conversations I have with people about Payne’s films usually revolve around Sideways or About Schmidt. People should give Election a shot, and then do yourself a favor and watch his other hilariously dark satire Citizen Ruth. They’re both perfect examples of how to do satire correctly.

This brings us to the end of the “Forgotten Gems” feature in my quest to revisit the films of 1999. It’s been so much fun and so incredibly rewarding to revisit some of these forgotten gems. I hope they gave you some good ideas for DVD rentals, or helped you remember how good these movies are. Up next, the top 10…an intro to the top 10 and an explanation as to why some films weren’t included (release date confusion and all that stuff) will be up next week. I will be most likely taking a sabbatical from the blog after that, sprinkling in easy, no-nonsense posts here and there, but I will officially begin the top 10 in late August (when I get back from my honeymoon).

Extra Stills:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Your Summer Quiz is Due at SLIFR

Another brilliant quiz has been constructed by Dennis Cozzalio of the brilliant movie blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Head here to the take the quiz. My answers come after the jump...

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

The length of films – it’s both good and bad. It’ good because in this hyperkinetic, ADD society we live in I find it interesting that some of the most popular movies every year are 140+ minutes long (with a lot of comedies clocking in at 120-30+ minutes). It’s bad because a lot of those films don’t need that much time to tell their story. What ever happened to the art of making the 90-minute action or comedy film? I mean Passenger 57 was only 81 minutes long…

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?

Bronco Billy

4) Best Film of 1949.

The obvious answer is The Third Man, but I’ll go with the noir masterpiece Force of Evil by Abraham Polanski.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?

In action movies, yes. Quantum of Solace would have been a lot better had they decided to film the action scenes by keeping the camera on some medium shots for more than half a second. However, the shaky-cam can still be an affective tool a la a Dardenne Brothers or Michael Mann film.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?

John Woo’s The Killer

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).

Army of Shadows

10) Favorite animal movie star.

The Mogwai from Gremlins

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.

Michael Bay – not for his directing, but for producing the horrid remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which kick started the barrage of god-awful “re-imaginings” of classic horror films.

12) Best Film of 1969.

I don’t want to repeat myself (because Army of Shadows is already mentioned here), so I’ll say The Bird with the Crystal Plumage by Dario Argento.

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.

Theatrically: Public Enemies
DVD: The Son

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

3 Women

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?

Every blog I have listed under “what I read”.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

Mona. Not even close.

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.

Some Came Running. I agree with Scorsese that it remains one of the most brilliant and expressive uses of Cinemascope.

Click here to watch video

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.

Miami Vice.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.

Hmmm. I could just answer with my favorite film 8 ½, but I think I’ll go with a movie I just talked about on my blog: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

21) Best Film of 1979.

Good year for movies (Alien, Breaking Away, Manhatten), but I’ll go with the obvious (and deserving) selection: Apocalypse Now.

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.

Wow. Great question. Can I cheat? I’ll assume you said yes…anything by David Gordon Green, October Sky, American Movie, and Breaking Away.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).

Freddy Kreuger. But only when he was a serious boogeyman, not the sardonic caricature he became in the films sandwiched between the original Nightmare film and New Nightmare.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.

Jack…I kid, I kid…The Godfather.

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.

The Talented Mr. Ripley. I know there have been other adaptations of the Highsmith books about Tom Ripley, but I think it would have been amazing to see Matt Damon and the late, brilliant director Anthony Minghella continue telling their version of Ripley.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

The homage to Argento in The Untouchables where the viewer gets the POV of the black-gloved killer made famous by Argento’s gialli films. Here it is:

Click here to watch video

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.

I like Jamie’s answer of anything from Argento’s Suspiria, but I don’t want to copy him. So, I’ll go with the scene on the lake in Leave Her to Heaven where Gene Tierney’s femme fatale watches her fiancé’s paraplegic brother, one of the last people to stand between her and her future husband, drown. The scene is incredibly eerie and off-putting because we don’t expect these noir moments to occur in beautiful, vibrant thee-strip Technicolor. Video below (go to about the 5:20 mark):

Click here to watch video

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)

Let’s Get Harry -- written by Samuel Fuller; starring Gary Busey, Mark Harmon, Ben Johnson, Rick Rossovich, and Robert Duvall.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

No question about it: the wisdom of Crash Davis.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.

Deconstructing Harry

31) Best Film of 1999.

This question is quite relevant to what I’ve been doing the last few months on my blog.

Anyway the best film of 1999 is The Talented Mr. Ripley.

32) Favorite movie tag line.

"Does for rock and roll what "The Sound of Music" did for hills." This is Spinal Tap.

33) Favorite B-movie western.

What a convenient question as I was just talking about this movie: The Last Hard Men.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.

Stephen King

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Susan Vance. I fall in love with her every time I watch Hawkes’ masterpiece.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?


38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)

(In no particular order): Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Cary Grant, Roger Ebert, and Keira Knightley of course…

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Blog Pimpin': Decisions at Sundown (Created by Joseph 'Jon' Lanthier)

There's a new blog I'd like to promote, and not just because I'll be contributing to it every now and then. Two of the best bloggers in the 'sphere, Ed Howard of Only the Cinema and Joseph 'Jon' Lanthier of The Powerstrip, are also writing (no doubt better pieces than I could hope to produce) for the blog. What kind of blog you ask? Well, Jon created a blog called Decisions at Sundown (great Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott movie by the way), a blog dedicated entirely to the Western. I realize that I haven't spent a lot of time talking about this particular genre here on the blog, but the Western is actually my second favorite genre behind Italian contributing to a blog about Westerns seems like a natural fit -- plus it will force me to become more adamant about watching Westerns, as I haven't made the effort of adding them to my rotation of DVD viewing in quite some time.

So anywho...mosey on over to Decisions at Sundown. Jon already has up a handful of great reviews on some of Anthony Mann's best work. Check it out.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Directors Were So Much Cooler Back in the Day...

Just look at how awesome Nicholas Ray and Fritz Lang are. Directors really need to start rocking the eye patch/monocle look...or, like Lang, the eye patch under the monocle!

Oh, and what they say is pretty interesting, too.

The following clips are taken from the brilliant documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scrosese Through American Movies. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What the Bloody Hell, Part 2

Last month I said "what the bloody hell" to the fact that The Descent 2 was set to be released later this year. Now, thanks to my brother Troy's blog, I've see there's going to be an American version of Let the Right One In coming out. Argh. Troy pretty much says everything that needs to be said with his post here. All I can say is that I totally agree with Troy -- this seemed inevitable as the Twilight craze was bound to suck this brilliant, ambiguous Swedish horror film up into the vacuum of sucktitude that is American Remakes of Foreign Horror Films.

Oh well...I won't be seeing it. (And seriously, the guy that directed Colverfield? What a perfect choice to direct a film based on a quiet, understated horror film. Bleh.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lazy Blogger Repost: Investigating the Detective Novel through a Postmodern Lens

This is another post titled "lazy blogger repost" because as I mentioned in my last repost I have a lot of stuff going on right now, and really it won't be until late August where I will be able to post new material on a semi-daily basis. I'll still be doing the Revisiting 1999 project (I have one "forgotten film" left to do) and I'll post my submissions for Counting Down the Zeroes on here, but the mix of wedding preparation, work, and grad school are making it really hard to go see new movies. Also, this is an excuse to get a post about books on here. I had a different blog awhile back that dealt with music and book reviews, but it was too much trying to keep up with two blogs (I'm lazy I know) so I figured I would start writing about books on here again. The blog will still be primarily movie related, but every now and then I'll throw some posts up about what I've been reading, authors I like, things I want to see adapted into movies, etc. Basically there's going to be more book talk on here...since, you know, I was a lit major and all.

In both Graham Swift and Martin Amis we have two of the premier postmodern writers. In the 1980's each wrote a seminal postmodern novel that influenced authors such as: Don Dellilo, Dave Eggars, Chuck Palahniuk, Nicola Barker, and countless others who are indebted to the postmodern movement. Swift's meta-narrative (a novel that deconstructs, and then seeks to reconstruct, what Jean-Francois Lyotard called “the grand narrative”) Waterland deals with family and history (both personal and world), and how both of those things create horror, and bubble up traumas and bruised memories. Amis' brilliant Money deals with John Self, one of the most hilariously pathetic characters of 1980's postmodern literature. Amis writes debauchery and un-PC humor like no other. Self's journey from London to New York is hilarious, filled with many great one-liners and clever quips; Amisisms if you will. Years later both would tackle something completely generic: the detective novel. In 1997 Amis wrote the police procedural Night Train, and in 2003 Graham Swift wrote the private detective novel The Light of Day. Both were met with a collective critical, "meh." I wanted to see for myself, though. I wanted to see how two of my favorite authors tackled the crime novel; how they put their distinct postmodern twists on the already-established literary tropes of the detective novel.

Martin Amis has cited the crime novelist Elmore Leonard as an idol, and it shows in Night Train; a short breezy work compared to some of Amis' heavier themed novels like Money and London Fields, and his latest success House of Meetings. The novel is more or less about the murder (or is it suicide...that is the mystery) of a police captain's beautiful daughter. The narrator (unreliable, of course) is Det. Mike Hoolihan. Who helpfully points out within the first pages of the novel not to let the name fool you -- she is named Mike, but she is a she.

And from there we're off and running. Amis doesn't throw in the same messes he did with his other novels about suicide and murder. In Money John Self hilariously botches a suicide, and in London Fields, the 'heroine' Nicola Six knows when and where she will be murdered. That novel is not so much about the murder itself, but about how we face such grim certainties.

And that is what makes Night Train so easily consumable. Amis doesn't mess around with heavy themes or pages upon pages of character development (like he usually does, as does Leonard), and even though it doesn't even come close to one of his best novels (it was his ninth at the time), it's never a boring read.

The detective genre in general lends itself to some of Amis' favorite themes. Hoolihan is as unreliable a narrator as there is as she states right from the onset: "And I guess I apologize for the outcome." Look at the word choice and the structure of that sentence; so much is found in something so small. You can see the detectives detachment from the beginning; her reluctance to investigate the murder of the daughter of her superior. She tells us that her notes are going to change; that information may be wrong -- how do we know what we are reading is what really happened?

I think this is the theme that Amis has the most fun with -- turning the crime novel on its ear and playing with its most famous convention: the omniscient narrator. Through Hoolihan's eyes we are taken through 175 pages of police procedural that seem familiar, but upon further investigation you see a metaphor for not just suicide ("suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness..."), but you see a stale and blank vision of what it means to investigate murders. In one of my favorite sections Hoolihan talks about how there are certain expectations a cop must live up to or must de-mystify and that they really aren't investigators; they are just cogs in the bureaucratic machine: "Police really are like footsoldiers in this respect at least. Ours not to reason why. Give us the how, then give us the who, we say. But fuck the why."

It's a question Amis hints at delving deeper into, but really he sticks to his conventions and keeps the reader on the surface. The very idea of suicide gets people to ask "why?" But then suicide, as Hoolihan states, "robs us of the why." For a novel seeking motive and explanations there is a shocking amount of nothing in this novel -- staying true to his form I suppose -- Amis crafts a wonderful pulpy surface level entertainment with hints of something deeper beneath the surface. I suppose that's just like how Hoolihan views police work in general:

Motive, motive. 'Motive': That which moves, that which impels. But with homicide, now, we don't care about motive. We never give it a seconds thought. We don't care about the why. We say: Fuck the why. Motive might have been worth considering, might have been in okay shape half a century ago. But now it's all up in the fucking air. With the TV.

I like what Amis does here with a classic postmodern convention: repetition. The sing-songy nature of his sentences and the repeating of key phrases or “passwords” (which also reminds me of the brilliant Jeanette Winterson) is something you often see in these types of novels, and it’s something that makes a whole lot of sense in regards to a detective story – just as a detective will continuously look at a clue, or mull over a certain scenario countless times, so too does Amis return to key phrases that aide the reader into better understanding this not-so-black-and-white police procedural.

The last line “with the TV” is another interesting element Amis brings into his detective story. Hoolihan seems to be suggesting that, as a cop, there’s nothing she can really do in regards to her job to appease the public. The public has their own ideas of who cops are and what they should be doing, and those ideas are formed by what they see on cop shows like “Law and Order”, “Homicide”, and “CSI”. A cop can’t simply act like a cop and investigate because there are all these false ideas of what a cop actually does, and really, they probably feel like they are playing a role more than they want to. There’s something very performance-based and artificial about the way Hoolihan goes about her investigation, and I think that Amis has a lot of fun writing her that way.

So, TV is really to blame; giving those in need a false sense of the detective as some kind knight coming to ease the nerves of a community. So it is with Amis and his detective Hoolihan; their vision of the police procedural is one that is predicated on false realities created by television. Hoolihan investigates the suicide of the young girl, but she already knows what she is going to tell her superior long before the investigation is over (and some interesting truths are revealed). So it is too with Graham Swift and his narrator private Detective George Webb, a man who is more concerned with his own personal investigation and personal crossing of thresholds than Hoolihan is, but both share the same weariness and burden of maintaining the old (and non-sufficient) classic police/investigator archetype in a postmodern world.


Graham Swift is one of my favorite authors -- much like Amis -- he has never really written an uninteresting book. Some of his material feels a little repetitive (a theme he likes to explore with his characters and their family histories) and even though he seems to always be trying to rehash the success of his masterwork Waterland, (his newest novel Tomorrow is an example) his novels are almost always poignant and heartbreaking works of fiction.

Swift loves to write about characters reminiscing on their past -- whether that past is deeply scarred or fully happy memories -- who must "cross a line" as the main character, George Webb P.I., reminds the reader throughout Swift's novel The Light of Day. Where Amis was concerned with the police procedural, Swift is more interested with the inward dialogue Webb has with himself about his clients. It's a novel that is all about thresholds as Swift uses some of his patented repetition (much like Amis does – again to evoke that investigative practice of dissecting and re-dissecting clues) to remind us that we all must "cross a line."

Swift, as stated before, is in love with the idea of the past coming into play and affecting the future. Most of Swift's characters learn much about the present (usually amidst a swirl of uncertainty and personal reflection) through a further explication of their past; usually bubbling-up moments of bruised and scarred histories. The Light of Day is just as simple a story as Amis' Night Train (again, I think they were both really trying to strip down their usual multi-layer, meta-narrative structures), but seeks to delve a little deeper since it is more about the personal than about the gathering of information.

George Webb is a good private detective, and Swift sets him up with an office and an assistant that seem right out of a Raymond Chandler story. What's unique about Swift's detective is that every case (usually following cheating husbands) leads him to dwell more on his own failed marriage, and in particular one case that changed the rest of his life.

That case is fleshed out mostly through flashback as we learn about a woman who, two years earlier, asked George to do a job for her. A romance between the woman and George is brews and we are told simultaneous stories of the affair between George and his client (and the things he’ll do for her), and another story about George's past as a police officer where an incident occurred that forced him to quit and become a private detective. We also get glimpses into George's adolescence when he was a caddy and the correlation Swift draws between caddying and private investigation – you carry things (burdens) around for other people – is brilliant. I also like the glimpse Swift gives us into Webb's personal life as he connects with his daughter over weekly dinners...the idea of the private investigator as a cook (cooking things up, making the ingredients work as a whole...) is another small, but brilliant touch. These are perfect examples of the capabilities of Swift’s genius; however, it's just too bad the whole novel isn't as good as its parts.

The story doesn't flow as well as Amis', but it is clear that Swift is more interested in detours. Where these kind of personal and epiphianic detours would derail Night Train's strict procedural focus, The Light of Day lingers (albeit a tad too long) on some of the quieter moments of a detective tailing a suspect. These moments of reflection give the novel a different feel, even though Swift never strays from the conventions of a private detective novel, you get the sense as the reader that you can learn something from this character and this novel...whereas Amis is simply going through the motions in an exercise of the genre. A perfect example of this kind of poignant detour is when George is in the airport tailing a suspect; he stops and observes:

In airports there are channels and slots and filters like being in a production line. A great grinding system that takes away aura or -- by the same token -- makes it stand out. So many departures, so many arrivals: you can't tell the simple goodbyes from the agonies, the lovers from the friends. People get excited, they hug, they cling, they kiss. What do those wet eyes mean? See you next Saturday? I'll never see you again? All this intimacy in public. But here it's not unusual, it's almost the done thing.

Such beautiful writing here by Swift, and it is these little moments of thinking about human behavior that elevate The Light of Day from mere genre novel to something much deeper and meaningful. Amidst the postmodern absurdity ("you play cards, you shuffle the deck") of it all, Webb is able to find something deeply existential to dwell on. It’s something that makes him better understand the human race -- not just the disgruntled employees and spurned wives that he is destined to follow through the seedy backstreets filled with adultery and betrayal, or though the normalcy of domesticated homes and airports -- but through the people he encounters everyday: his assistant whom he loves, his daughter, and ex-wife -- the people that define who he is outside of work; those lights that greet the new day.


Both novels are flawed but are tremendous examples of postmodern authors putting their spin on a done-to-death genre. Something that is evident in both novels is the repetition of the job of the investigator. Like Swift's Webb explains at the end of The Light of Day, the job of the private investigator is all about taking jobs that are "exact replica[s]" (conjuring up thoughts of the great postmodern author Jean Baudrillard who coined the phrase “simulacrum” in his seminal postmodern work Simulations) and begin in the "same spot." The job is not something that is glamorous, like Hoolihan says in Amis' novel; this is not something that is as fun or easy as it looks on television. Hollywood's portrayal of police officers, and the police procedural in general, has perverted and skewed the very monotony the job entails (Hoolihan makes one thing clear: being a police office is not sexy).

Swift and Amis must have been attracted to the detective novel for two reasons: one is that it is so easy to write, needing very little, if any, character development. Second the genre lends itself to some of postmodernisms favorite quandaries: how do we seek answers in this absurd world, and how do we go about getting the "why" when it seems that, as Hoolihan puts it, we live in a world that says "Fuck the why?"

This is where postmodern literature gets a bad reputation. Most people unfamiliar with the genre would say that these authors are only interested in riffing off the ambiguity and chaos of a postmodern society. That is true, as some authors are fascinated by the magical realism and trickster themes postmodern literature lends itself to (Rushdie and Winterson come to mind), but these authors also seek to take this absurdity and try to deconstruct it, to put it under the microscope, and by looking closely at the past and our own histories (or by looking through the cold hard facts and information like Hoolihan does) we can learn something about the present, and perhaps, even the future. Swift’s detective novel seems to be trying to do this more than Amis’, who just seems to be having fun working in the crime genre…and maybe that’s why Swift’s failings seem more noticeable, because he’s going for something bigger. Regardless of their shortcomings, if you’re a fan of the detective novel you’ll find enough familiarity here that will pique your interest, but hopefully you’ll give these two novels a try as they offer fresh, postmodern takes on a familiar genre.

Edited to add: There is a film version of Night Train set to be released in 2010 starring Sigourney Weaver, Nick Nolte, and Michael Madsen; and directed by the great Nicolas Roeg. I'm definitely intrigued.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- October Sky (Joe Johnston)

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta)Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)
The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)

Oh how I soft spot in my heart for October Sky. It’s the kind of film where I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with its detractors who tend to call it a manipulative, run-of-the-mill drama; but, I don’t care because I love love love this movie. I get teary eyed every time I watch this movie. It’s a film about high school kids (who, gasp, look like high school kids) who break through what is “expected” of their “kind” in a small mining town. It’s a film about hope, and it has simple, yet deep, values that resonate with me. It’s a beautifully constructed film, forgotten (or perhaps unrecognized) surely because of its muted aesthetic. It’s one of my very favorite films of 1999, and honestly, if it weren’t for this particular year having so many strong films, Joe Johnston’s film probably finds its way into the top 10. But such rankings are arbitrary anyway, for now let’s celebrate October Sky, a film that is certainly my favorite among 1999’s forgotten gems.

The film, based on the book Rocket Boys, is set in a small West Virginia coal mining town just after the Russians have launched Sputnik into space, and the story is primarily about Homer Hickam (a young Jake Gyllenhaal) a high school student who dreams of breaking out of his coal mining town in hopes that he can help America get back in the race to space. It’s a lot harder than it sounds too seeing how Hickam’s father John (the always wonderful Chris Cooper) runs the mine and is a local hero, and strongly disapproves of Homer’s “ridiculous” dreams. Homer is not interested in working in the mines (and doesn’t understand why his father can’t see his side of things), but he does admire his dad for what he does: save peoples lives, rough up a drunk step-father who is beating one of Homer’s friends, and the deep respect that he gets from his employees). Despite the silent admiration of his father Homer continues to ignore his disapproval as he enlists the aid of some friends in order to help him build a rocket. What sounds like your basic made-for-TV movie about kids rising above the odds and achieving their dreams is actually a subtlety powerful family drama about a son who doesn’t want to do what most surely seems pre-destined for him.

There are plenty of montages of rockets being built and tested, and all of the other usual stuff that is in play with these kinds of films, but that’s not where Johnston’s film is interesting. Almost everyone will recognize the story arc for this kind of film, so there’s really no point in going over plot details. Yes, Homer struggles to achieve his dream, but are there really any doubts that he will achieve his dream? Are there any doubts that he’ll gain his fathers respect? These questions are answered easily enough, but the predictably is offset by the subtlety of this film. Director Johnston is not interested in clichés, but focuses a lot of the attention on quiet observations and characters simply looking at each other. Johnston sneaks in all the necessary elements of true story drama like this one (the kids meet and try to build a rocket, they fail, they try again, they fail, they’re met with disapproval from adults, they give up, they get re-inspired, they succeed, everyone is happy), but it really is the strong acting, the dichotomy between Homer’s aspirations and his dad’s acceptance of the way things are, and the specific sense of place that makes this film one of my favorites from 1999.

What I really liked about the film is that it takes the viewer to a very specific time and place. The opening credit sequence is brilliant, even though it may not seem like much; it is a powerful and beautiful way to establish the setting for the film. The camera sweeps through different areas of the small town: the mine shaft, the school, main street, the local store, barbershops, etc. with simple pans and fade-in/fade-out effects, all accompanied by Mark Isham’s beautiful musical score (which is one of the highlights of the film).

The authenticity of the film is really what makes the viewer more empathetic to Homer’s struggle to “get out” as we can see a brilliant mind trying to stave off being trapped and stunted by the traditions of the town. This is a town where the school administration disapproves of Homer’s teacher (Laura Dern) giving the children books to help them in building a rocket. The principal sees this as filling their heads with “false hopes” as they are supposed to be giving them an education, and then it’s down to the mines for most every boy in the town (unless your lucky enough to leave on a football scholarship). However, Miss Riley believes in the “unlucky” one’s who don’t excel at football and encourages them to make science their meal ticket out of the small mining town.

Johnston’s cinematographer Fred Murphy (who shot my favorite film from 2002, Auto Focus) paints the town in a smoky blue, nicely juxtaposing the mine-dominated parts of the town with the brighter scenes of the movie: the school and the testing ground where Homer and his friends shoot off their rockets. He also constructs some masterful (again though, quite subtle) shots in the mines and shots that excel at evoking that small town feel. One of my favorite shots in all of 1999 is one of Murphy’s from this film. There is a great scene where Homer, defeated and accepting his role as a miner for life, reluctantly walks into his hellish future that awaits him. Murphy and Johnston (along with Gyllenhaal’s fine acting and Isham’s poignant score) construct the scene to visually showcase the dichotomy of Homer’s dreams and his father’s reality. Homer enters the mining shaft and as he looks up in the clear sky and sees a satellite floating by in space, the elevator begins to take him on his descent, pulling him down further and further away from his dream. Instead of being in the sky, Homer is underground. It seems obvious enough, but it’s a simple shot that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself – and it wonderfully encompasses the entire struggle between Homer and his father.

This was a different kind of film for Johnston to make. He came from the George Lucas school of filmmaking (he created the final look for Yoda and other Star Wars characters), and made pulpy kids films like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and The Pagemaster. After October Sky he returned to those classic adventure/pulp stories that he no doubt feels more comfortable with when he helmed Jurassic Park III and Hidalgo (he just wrapped on a new Wolf Man movie and is doing the new Captain America film); however, this film showcases Johnston’s ability to make a subtle, yet powerful, family drama. It’s a film that always sneaks up on me when I re-watch it, thinking “oh yeah, that was this movie!” And no matter how hard I try to fight back the tears, it always proves to be a difficult task with this movie. Some movies just affect us a certain way, and this is definitely one of those movies for me.

October Sky was a breath of fresh air from all the ugly, mean spirited films about teens that were being released in 1999 (American Pie, She’s All That, Jawbreaker, etc.). Sure it’s not the most original dramatic film, but it’s simple and honest and has truthful moments that show a son who may not understand his father, but he certainly admires him. Yup, it’s one of my very favorite films from 1999.

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