Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I talked to Mr. Beaks today, and even though it was hard to make out all the words because of the shotgun in his mouth and the hysterical sobbing (I’ve had computer problems... I know how he feels), he did tell me that he’s got a lot of great material he’s working on right now. Please... give him some encouragement in the Talkback. It was really hard for me to transcribe this from the tear-soaked bar napkins he dropped off in my mailbox this evening, and I think he could use some cheering up. Then again, he is in a good enough mood to make a Tubes joke, so...
THIS COLUMN HAS NO NAME, ELECTRIC VERSION (Singapore Title: THIS COLUMN HAS NO MALE REPRODUCTIVE ORGANS AND IS A SOURCE OF GREAT SHAME AND PUZZLEMENT FOR ITS FAMILY, VOL.6)
Remember when I unveiled my new “weekly” column? I wasn’t serious.
To my two or three devoted readers, I’m sorry. Might I recommend, as an alternative, Karl Urban’s blog, where he is in the midst of a seven part discussion with novelist and noted intellectual Umberto Eco on the essence of stolidity (sponsored by the Oatmeal Producers of America)? Though it sometimes bogs down in unsustainable philosophical inquest, it’s nonetheless a thrilling discourse, if only because the two men so clearly hate each other’s guts. I lost the url, but you can Google it.
Other worthwhile destinations of sardonica (hear me, OED!) include Bill Simmons’s column at ESPN.com, and the gut-bustingly hysterical left-wing parody site, www.townhall.com.
Historically (that is, if the past two months qualify as a period significant enough to occasion such terminology), I have used the preamble to share with you, dear Reader(s), the colorful emails I receive daily, often from celebrities, but more often, from crackpots who’d like to be celebrities. This one falls somewhere delightfully in between:
Dear Mr. Beaks,
I had a neighbor who drank himself to death one summer sitting alone in his basement, eating Smarties at a rate the coroner estimated was one “fun pack” every four minutes, while listening repeatedly to Jethro Tull’s AQUALUNG at so elevated a volume, it echoed deep into the thick, adjacent wood, mingling sanguine with the rank humidity and hatching mosquito larvae.
How ‘bout that Mandy Moore?
Thank you for the reminiscence, Fee. It was vivid and languid and Ted and Alice. As for Mandy Moore, what else can I say… she’s a beauty!
THE LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL IS NOW!!!
As the only Hollywood-based AICN writer capable of running a 4.6 forty, it has fallen to me to cover the Los Angeles Film Festival, which opens tonight at the Arclight Cinerama Dome with the buzzed about (and, to date, unseen by me) GARDEN STATE. Thanks to two weeks worth of pre-fest press screenings, I’ve been able to get a head start on this year’s offerings, and I can happily report that there is a good deal worth seeing. I’ll be checking back in over the next two weeks sharing my thoughts, hopefully, about Xan Cassavetes’s Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, Guy Maddin’s COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, Raoul Ruiz’s A TASTE OF MURDER and lots more. In the meantime, here are some capsule reviews for noteworthy films that will be screening over the weekend.
GOODBYE, DRAGON INN (w. & d. Tsai Ming-liang)
Further cementing his status as one of the world’s elite working filmmakers, Tsai Ming-liang’s GOODBYE, DRAGON INN, his follow-up to the brilliant WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?, feels like an in-between picture, but stands on its own as a masterfully controlled requiem for the moviegoing experience (particularly endangered in the director’s bootleg ridden homeland). Decidedly less resonant than his previous picture (owing largely to its subject matter and limited emotional scope), Ming-liang still manages numerous heartbreaking observations on loneliness and growing old (or obsolete), but the general tenor of the piece is surprisingly buoyant. With droll comedic beats suggesting a crossbreeding of Chaplin and Tati, there’s little doubt that this is Ming-liang’s funniest and most entertaining work. It’s so enjoyable that it often feels as if, of all the critical darlings renowned for indulging in lengthy takes – e.g. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Haneke – Ming-liang might possibly emerge as a filmmaker of some accessibility (if only marginally), meaning that this could be his first film to receive distribution outside of the United States’s major cultural centers.
And yet this seems unlikely due to GOODBYE, DRAGON INN’s inexplicably dismissive reception last year at Venice and Toronto (it also played at the increasingly unassuming New York Film Festival, where Ming-liang enthusiast Kent Jones likely lobbied on its behalf). This is especially distressing considering the films that *did* manage to catch on at those crucial, buzz-building congregations (has anyone tried watching SCHOOL OF ROCK or LOST IN TRANSLATION more than once?) Perhaps the director’s daunting reputation preceded him, but once one acclimates themselves to his stately aesthetic, there are countless pleasures to be found. This isn’t pedantry on the level of Godard, nor is it empty auteur posturing in the mold of the overvalued Kiarostami. This is seductively accomplished filmmaking more thrilling in its flawless execution than any of the summer spectacles currently cluttering the nation’s multiplexes, and it’s being ignored by (or denied to) those who are most equipped to enjoy it.
The film’s title is in reference to King Hu’s DRAGON INN, a martial arts classic that has been chosen as the valedictory offering for a grand, old, soon-to-be-shuttered movie house, which, it seems, is populated solely by cruising homosexual men and a few elderly patrons (one of which is Miao Tian, the father from WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?). As the feature presentation unspools, Ming-liang principally follows two characters, a young man haplessly looking to hook-up, and the club-footed female ticket taker (Chen Shiang-chyi) charged, in a casual bit of cruelty, with wandering the mammoth theater’s endless corridors. The first half of the picture belongs to the young man, who is often at the center of Ming-liang’s most Tati-esque set pieces, the best of which takes place in a men’s room with an unresponsive potential paramour standing at a urinal and methodically smoking a cigarette. But once Ming-liang raises the expected possibility that the theater is haunted, the picture shifts effortlessly to a gently mournful tone, at which point the crippled ticket-taker’s plight takes on an added poignancy.
The reason that Ming-liang’s work continues to outpace that of his formalist brethren is because he is so unapologetically in love with the possibilities of filmmaking. Though his aesthetic remains unchanged over the last several films (the only real departure is the relative lack of Lee Kang-sheng, who appears infrequently as a projectionist), Ming-liang continues to find fascinating ways to fill a frame, and, by extension, to tell a story. His is a startling economy capable of summing up a troubled relationship in a single shot (e.g. Shiang-chyi sitting next to an abandoned cigarette in the projectionist’s booth), and one excitedly awaits each carefully composed, painstakingly staged shot, waiting to see how the director will next subvert expectations.
Ming-liang is in such command of his craft that, if this really is the warm up for his next full-blooded effort, it’s scarily impossible to imagine how he’ll top himself. With THE RIVER, THE HOLE, WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? and GOODBYE, DRAGON INN, he’s slowly and quietly compiling an artistic winning streak that is currently unrivaled. Not since Coppola split up his GODFATHER saga with THE CONVERSATION has a supposedly minor work been so worthy of major consideration. It’s time for the critical community to stop denying Ming-liang his due just because he’s anathema to most major American foreign distributors, and doesn’t have an ingratiatingly aggressive publicist.
(GOODBYE, DRAGON INN screens Friday, June 18th, 7:15 PM at the Laemmle Sunset 5)
Like a bold first novel imbued with a remarkably polished voice, one watches Jonathan Caouette’s TARNATION knocked out by its originality, intoxicated by its audaciousness, and suspicious of its greatness. This is not to question the validity of Caouette’s achievement, as there’s simply no way something this horrific and transcendent could exist had the hell it depicts not been lived. But there’s something about this autobiography (“documentary”, particularly with its conventional, non-Moore connotations, just won’t suffice here) that’s so unrepentantly narcissistic and confessional, one worries that Caouette completely blew his load. Is this his FIRST LOVE AND OTHER SORROWS or INVISIBLE MAN?
Having videotaped himself since the age of eleven, Caouette has, whether he recognized it or not, been building to this moment of digital exorcism his whole life. Not so happily, life obliged by giving him a bipolar mother scarred by childhood shock treatment, an absent father, and a healthy dollop of mental, physical and sexual abuse that drove him to early drug use, which resulted in an acid-tinged mishap that left him permanently afflicted with depersonalization disorder. The first videotaped glimpse of Caouette at eleven is the film’s most startling moment, as this preternaturally mature adolescent assumes the role of a battered housewife and rattles off an (improvised?) monologue with unsettling verisimilitude. It’s as raw and unforgettable as the familial squabbles in CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS.
And one wishes there was more of this, but, rather than illuminate, Caouette drags the polluted river of his life with a disquieting eye for sensationalism and occasional tendency toward self-pity. Most alarming is the relentlessness with which he videotapes his mother. After one painfully prolonged sequence, which finds the woman singing and giggling almost involuntarily, Caouette chases her up a stairwell after it seems fairly clear that she doesn’t want to have a camera pointed at her.
Finally, TARNATION works best as a pop culture-infused collage of a tortured youth (I’ll never hear Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” the same way again), but winds up being self-absorbed to a fault, or, worse, self-satisfied. It’s hard to tell with an artist as unquestionably skilled as Caouette. Either way, it’s still an emotional mugging.
(TARNATION screens Saturday, June 19th, 7:30 PM and Monday, June 21st, 5:00 PM at the Laemmle Sunset 5)
UP FOR GRABS
The non-existent purity of baseball got another grand sullying three years ago thanks to Alex Popov and Patrick Hayashi, two opportunists who turned up at Pac Bell Park to snag Barry Bonds’s historic final home run during his record breaking charge of 2001. Their upside: a potential multi-million dollar windfall once the ball got to auction. Their downside: that they’d both claim rightful, sole possession of the ball, take each other to court, and run up astronomical legal fees that would dwarf the unexpectedly low winning bid.
Thus, self-interest reigns supreme in Mike Wranovics’s very funny UP FOR GRABS, an all-too-familiar American saga of greed, fame, and the resulting stupidity that, if nothing else, is the stuff of entertaining documentaries. Though the story itself is rife with compellingly imbecilic hubris, Wranovics gets an unexpected and quite crucial boost from Popov, a publicity craving media animal with a profound absence of personal pride. Claiming that Hayashi wound up with the ball only after participating in a savage melee to pry the ball from his possession, Popov suddenly finds himself in a modest media maelstrom through which he gains a measure of dubious celebrity that he uses for all it’s worth (he at least winds up with a leggy girlfriend who craves for “normalicy” to be restored to their world). Meanwhile, Popov and his lawyers set about demonizing Hayashi as little more than a rabid animal who represents the absolute nadir of humanity.
It’s most enjoyable watching Popov slowly transform through a series of hilarious reveals from a man wronged to a jackass who gets his well-deserved comeuppance. But the surrounding circus turns up all manner of human debris, and, in the end, no one walks away with their dignity intact. If Wranovics’s film has a failing, it’s that, when dealing with such demonstrative fools, the audience is afforded a safe distance, allowing for scant introspection. Alex Popovs don’t exist in a vacuum; surely, there’s a little bit of the guy in all of us, but, despite his snippy about face after the ball sells, the guy never seems human. Still, watching his televised tailspin is enormously guilty fun.
(UP FOR GRABS screens Friday, June 18th, 5:15 PM and Sunday, June 20th, 9:30 PM at the Laemmle Sunset 5)
HOUSEKEEPING AND A HASTY RETREAT
There’s so much more coming (reviews of FARENHEIT 9/11, THE LIFE AQUATIC, SPIDER-MAN 2 and the astoundingly awful KING ARTHUR) that my liver fails at the thought of all the whiskey I’ll drain to get it all written up. There are also lots more LAFF reviews on the way, news from THE NOTEBOOK junket (Rachel McAdams is up for Sue Storm?), and looming coverage of the highly anticipated BEFORE SUNSET.
P.S. My internet is down (has been for a week), so I can’t guarantee lightning fast responses to emails.
I appreciate the effort, man, and can’t wait to see the other pieces you mentioned. Sounds like they’ll be worth the delay.