Moriarty's Rumblings From The Labs #17: Re: RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, CHASING THE PARTY, ROGER RABBIT dvd, FIGHT CLUB & more
Well, as conciousness slowly begins to fade... I must leave you with this... the latest of rumblings from beneath the very feet of those that create and destroy in the city of angels and the land of Holly. Here's the old man himself.... Moriarty....
Hey, Head Geek...
Slowly but surely, the henchmen are emerging from their hiding spots, returning to their posts, and getting back to the basic business of the Moriarty Labs. That's not to say I'm over FIGHT CLUB. Far from it. The film keeps sinking in. I expect that my thoughts on the film will develop even more after I see it this Friday night at the Cinerama Dome. I don't get to go to that theater nearly often enough thanks to their almost insanely bad booking policy, so it gives me almost limitless joy to picture seeing the film there with an opening night audience.
One of the most fascinating things about the movie for me is the fact that it's almost a litmus test in film form. What you take away from FIGHT CLUB will depend in large part on what you take into FIGHT CLUB. I have noticed a generational shift going on in the basic power structure of Hollywood lately, one that is reflected in other industries as well, and I saw that concept played as dark satire in the film. Harry walked away viewing the film as a piece about society's emasculation of a certain age group and the efforts of those men to reclaim their birthright, an idea I think is fairly central to him based on his own accelerated adulthood. I've heard the film called both pro- and anti-violence, and I can see how either side could be argued. I think it's okay to be scared silly by the film, and I believe it's also okay to be exhilarated by it, to let it pump you up. In the end, it is undigested art, something that demands that you participate. As much as I loved AMERICAN BEAUTY or THREE KINGS, neither one of those films leaves much room for you, the viewer, to interpret the characters or react to the story. FIGHT CLUB, on the other hand, refuses to give you the answers. It demands that you think for yourself. It is challenging in all the right ways.
I want to also speak specifically to the issue of violence in the film, since it's one of the things I didn't cover in my review. Part of that is because it's a complex issue here. There is a fair amount of violence in the film, but this is one of the most responsible depictions of it I've ever seen in a movie. Anyone who protests the film based on its violent content simply doesn't understand what they're looking at. They are unable to process the images and take meaning from them. All they're reacting to is the surface, and that's a shame. Like SE7EN, this is a film of deeply-seeded moral convictions, and it's one that should be studied by sociology classes just as much as film classes.
Unlike some of my favorite action/adventure movies (T2, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE ROAD WARRIOR), there is no violence in this movie that is meant to titillate or thrill in a conventional sense. There's nothing heroic or glamorous about a single punch thrown in the film. Instead, Fincher and his technical collaborators have worked very hard to make sure that every single punch is felt on a human level. When someone is beaten to a pulp or choked into unconsciousness or even, god forbid, shot, it matters. We are shown the effects. We are forced to confront it and we are able to project ourselves into it. The violence is not pretty, and it's not fun. Instead, it's a wake-up call, something that reconnects these characters with life. They are forced to feel, and that seems to be what Fincher is after as well. There is a gunshot late in the film that is literally mixed so loud that I thought my ears were ringing afterwards. It took two viewings before I realized that Fincher had laid the ringing onto the actual soundtrack, creating something more realistic than any gunfire in any Joel Silver movie. Guns are treated as weapons of destruction in this film, and not just a penis extension for an impotent hero. They are awful things, used only when nothing else works. Tyler Durden isn't a murderer in the film. He wants to destroy a society that he sees as draining the life from the best men of his generation, but he's not willing to crawl across broken, dead bodies to get there.
When I say in my review that I feel the film is dangerous, it's because of the concepts hidden within it. It's because it dares you to think about things that our consumer society doesn't want you to think about. Have you ever wondered why your TV is cluttered with so much garbage? Those endless sitcoms and game shows and gripping real life dramas and infomercials and music videos and reruns and wrestling and sports and cartoons are all just there to placate, to keep you tuned in. If you never turned your TV off, if you just let wave after wave of commercial into your head, then you are playing the game the way it is built to be played. All you're supposed to do is go to work, go out for a little safe, corporate-approved fun, come home, watch your TV, and sleep. There's not meant to be room for you to go on any journeys of self-discovery. The emphasis on beauty over brains in our culture sends the clear message that bettering your mind is not worth your time. It will get you nowhere. You can't get laid because you're smart, or at least that's what advertisers would want you to believe. Sculpted abs are the path to happiness. Tune in, shut up, sit down.
And the film laughs at all of that. It stands resolutely outside that paradigm, despite the fact that it cost over $70 million. It attacks those ideas despite being released by an international media conglomerate. It refuses that world even though it stars one of the prettiest men alive. It is a paradox, and it is well aware of that.
One of my favorite little throwaway lines in the movie comes when Ed Norton and Brad Pitt are talking about which historical figures they'd most want to fight. Norton immediately shoots back with "Gandhi," a line that gets a massive laugh. It's an inherently funny thought, but it stuck with me in some ways, especially as I sat down tonight to view a special little documentary called IN SEARCH OF KUNDUN WITH MARTIN SCORSESE. The film, created by documentarian Michael Henry Wilson, serves not only as a look behind the scenes of one of Scorsese's best films, but also as a further investigation of some of that picture's primary concerns. After all, Martin Scorsese has been known throughout his career as the creator of some of the most striking, iconic moments of screen violence. Who can be exposed to his work without having Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta permanently burned onto their own personal hard drives? It's not possible to talk about MEAN STREETS or GOODFELLAS or CASINO without also discussing the violence within those films. How, then, did this filmmaker come to make a movie about the 14th Dalai Lama, a man whose entire life stands as a monumental and moving testament to the tenets of non violence as a practical and possible solution?
Well, that's the film. It's wonderful, featuring in-depth interviews with Scorsese himself as well as his screenwriter on the picture Melissa Mathison, his gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins, and production designer Dante Spinotti. More importantly, there are interviews with the Tibetan cast of the film, all of whom offer a unique insight to their culture and the importance of not only His Holiness, but the way he is depicted. One gets a sense as the documentary unfolds that it's more than just a film to them. This is their history, and it is still alive, still unfolding. Rare archival footage of Tibet during the time that KUNDUN covered also offers a fascinating look at how well the filmmakers did in their efforts to recreate the events and the culture.
More than ever, I see this film as a companion piece to Scorsese's wonderous LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, a film that managed to put a human face on the historical Christ without ever once losing sight of the divine side of his nature. IN SEARCH OF KUNDUN gives us a glimpse of the real Dalai Lama, and it suggests that Scorsese really managed to capture him. Both films feel like religious offerings, but to totally different religions. For one filmmaker to be responsible for both pictures is truly amazing. If you're like most people and missed KUNDUN during its initial release, then do yourself the favor of catching this wonderful documentary when it opens at the Lammle Monica on October 15, this Friday. If you'd like to see it with the director and producer Dale Ann Stieber, you can try to make the special presentation tonight at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. They'll also be showing it there on Wednesday and Thursday, and it will be playing soon at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the San Rafael Film Center in Mill Valley. There is an impending video release of the film for those of you who won't get the chance to catch it on the bigscreen, and you can find out the details of that release at Hollywoodnt.com.
Another very special, very strange little film that is getting only limited theatrical exposure before rushing to video is the Palm Pictures/Manga Entertainment release PERFECT BLUE. This is the kind of genre-bending anime that could help redefine what people in this country think of as "Japanimation." It's a smart, sophisticated psycho-thriller that plays like the best, most feverish dreams of Brian De Palma or Dario Argento. There's no monsters raping schoolgirls with their tentacles here. Instead, we're taken on a harrowing journey with Mima, a Japanese pop idol who tries to walk away from stardom to pursue a career as an actress, only to find herself stalked. Or at least, she believes she's being stalked. Whether she's right or not is one of the film's central questions, and it plays with levels of reality in a way that surprised me in its complexity. It's hard to summarize the film without killing much of what makes it work, but it's definitely worth seeing theatrically if possible. I wish I'd had a chance to warn people about its Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or Seattle engagements early, but that time has unfortunately passed. It's going to finish playing in Los Angeles this Thursday, at the Laemmle Monica I mentioned earlier, and I'd advise all hardcore anime fans to rush out if they can. For those of you in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, San Rafael, Cleveland, Austin, Portland, Kansas City, Sacramento, and Anchorage (!!), there's still a chance for you to see it if you keep your eyes open in the coming weeks. For everyone else, write the title down -- PERFECT BLUE -- and start bugging your local video store about it now. This is the kind of film we need to support if we ever want to break the stranglehold of homogenized animation on the American market.
Speaking of edgy animation, I don't suppose there's any AICN fans who happened to make an NTSC recording of Saturday night's MONTY PYTHON 30th anniversary show on BBC1, are there? I'm a raving Python fan. Have been since Craig Carver showed me MONTY PYTHON & THE HOLY GRAIL back in the 5th grade. I'd love to see the special, even if I hadn't heard about the special contribution of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Seems they are the first people to be allowed to adapt and reinterpret any Python material since the '70s, when Python sued ABC and the BBC to claim ownership of all their sketches. Parker and Stone were allowed to rewrite the famous "Dead Parrot Sketch" into the soon to be infamous "Dead Friend Sketch," with Cartman playing the John Cleese role, Kyle playing Michael Palin's part, and the one and only Kenny as the titular "Dead Friend." I would love to see how they've twisted the material, although I suspect they stuck pretty close to the original. In a prepared statement I've seen quoted in several articles now, Parker and Stone said, "We would do anything for the Pythons. We would kill ourselves for them, but we hope this small piece of animation will suffice."
On the opposite end of the scale from edgy sits the impending release of FANTASIA 2000. I just read the trailer comments by Big Tex in his article today, and I'm jealous of him for getting to see the images projected like that. You can call me Veruca Salt if you want. Even after all the things I see early and all the people I meet, I still want more. Thankfully, I do have one thing that prevents me from turing bright green right now, and that's the knowledge that I've already seen big chunks of the film. I haven't seen it sequenced properly or with everything complete, so I'm not about to call this a review, but I will offer a few quick thoughts.
Earlier in the column, I mentioned the Cinerama Dome, one of my favorite places to see a film. When FANTASIA was restored and rereleased at the start of this decade, I was lucky enough to see it at the Dome. Disney, a co-owner of the theater with Pacific, went in and put a special sound system into the theater, creating an astonishing sound field that reproduced the actual placement of the orchestra instruments. It was a beautiful presentation of the movie, and it really made me fall in love with something that I'd only ever seen in bits and pieces before that. I suspect the overall impact of FANTASIA 2000 will depend on presentation, but the bits and pieces themselves offer a good deal of promise. In particular, I thought the "Pomp and Circumstance" segment was a dazzler, both funny and beautiful. I was worried that the whole Donald Duck/Noah's Ark concept wouldn't work, but it's done with such confidence and heart that it erased all thoughts of how badly Disney's handled their core characters over the last 20 years. The "Firebird Suite" sequence was breathtaking even in early storyboard form, and I found myself really impressed by "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," especially in terms of the 3D modeling involved. I only got a glimpse of "Pines of Rome," and I saw nothing whatsoever from "Rhapsody In Blue," but I have high hopes for both. "Rhapsody" is one of my very favorite pieces of music, and I can't imagine there's any way to lessen its impact. If the quality of the other segments is any indication of what to expect, they may actually enhance the piece's overall quality. And those flying whales... well, even a brief glimpse was enough to send a shock of wonder through my system. When this thing opens, it's me you're going to be fighting for tickets. Consider this a warning.
In a final brief Disney note, I want to strongly encourage all of you to pass on purchasing the new DVD edition of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? It's one of my favorite films of the '80s, featuring truly groundbreaking work by genius Richard Williams, but I'll be damned if I'll have it in my house. I am disgusted by the idea of altering films just to satisfy some misguided sense of protecting kids. This isn't a frame of a naked woman hidden in THE RESCUERS we're talking about. This is a PG-rated comedy that played to both children and adults in equal measure. For those of you who don't know what was changed, it's a brief moment near the start of the film, immediately following Baby Herman's angry outburst. As he storms off the set, he walks between the legs of a woman, reaching up under her dress for a moment with his finger extended as he grins lasciviously and says, "Hiya, toots." It's a funny, crazy little moment, and it immediately sets the tone for the picture. They may be adorable cartoons in front of the camera, but when cut is called, these 'Toons are just like anyone else, flaws and all. Disney's defense for their actions is that they just found the image when they were able to see it on CAV laserdisc, and they had never noticed it before.
Hogwash. I noticed it the first time I saw the film, as did all my friends. It's impossible to miss, as a matter of fact. I suspect they think this will all blow over, and if people buy the film, it will. Unfortunately, it sends a clear message to the industry that it's okay to rethink films and alter them on a whim years after their initial release. When I first brought this issue up a couple of months ago, hoping to head off the changes, I asked here if Robert Zemeckis knew about these changes, and I got several letters from people close to him that said he was not aware of the plans. Those letters would suggest that he had been made aware, but the alteration happened anyway. Did he allow them? Was he contractually forced to accept them? Considering the high esteem I have for Zemeckis, both as a filmmaker and as a person, I have to confess that I am shocked by these events, and I hope to see some sort of correction made to future editions of the film.
Hey... I was just looking at the release schedule for this weekend. Is SCREAM IF YOU KNOW WHAT I DID LAST HALLOWEEN really coming out nationwide? Did they even bother advertising it once? I mean, MUSIC OF THE HEART seems to be sneaking out compared to the nearly deafening hype for Universal's STORY OF US and Fox's FIGHT CLUB, but at least there's an MTV tie-in video for that film and a theatrical trailer I've seen at least once. As far as SIYKWIDLH is concerned, it's almost like they're ashamed to be throwing it up there on screens. Not that I think the film's got the potential to be anything but an absolute disaster, but how does Miramax expect to reap any return if they haven't even made the effort?
I read a really funny development listing tonight for a film called CHASING THE PARTY, or HOW HUGH HEFNER CHANGED MY LIFE. It's being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and it's the story of two guys who are determined to crash a party at the Playboy Mansion, even as they come to grips with their friendship and their relationships with their girlfriends. The film's being touted as a BILL & TED style comedy, and sounds like it could be light fun. The thing that really got my attention, though, was that the script was written by Scott Caan, who's starring in the film along with his father, James Caan. Well, no wonder they're going to get to use the Mansion in the film. If I could be anyone at any point in their lives, I'd opt to be James Caan in the '70s, when he managed to land some ridiculous number of Playmates of the Month in a row over a period of several years. As much as Hefner in his pajamas, the image of James Caan defines the PLAYBOY allure for me. He was always the prototypical PLAYBOY guy, tough as nails, ready to fight or fuck at the drop of a hat, and cool even when controversial. I'd love to see how Scott Caan creates the atmosphere of the Mansion, since his technical advisor on the film is in such great position to make it authentic. I have a feeling the film will be worth seeing for that, if for nothing else.
As regular readers of this column know, I think music videos can be works of film art all on their own, and I never hold their three minute lengths against them. Sure, the vast majority of MTV these days is filled up with identical boy bands or teenage divas, but the good stuff sneaks through from time to time. This past week, I've seen two new videos I thought were worth mentioning. The first is the latest effort from the Foo Fighters, one of the best late-'90s video bands. Dave Grohl and his various directors always manage to mix the silly and the sincere, much like the band's music does. After hearing the soundtrack for Paul Schrader's TOUCH and seeing how well Grohl's videos all work, I'm surprised he hasn't done more composition for film. This time out, with "Learn To Fly," director Jesse Peretz has created a wild live-action cartoon featuring Grohl and his bandmates in multiple roles as well as a cameo by the awesome Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Gass for the uninitiated). It's a laugh-out-loud funny video, the direct opposite of Tori Amos' haunting "1000 Oceans," directed to great effect by Erick Hergant. You'll remember the video if you see it. Amos spends the whole video sealed in a large plexiglass cube on a city sidewalk as the world goes by outside. It's beautiful, ghostly, and it's also one of the best songs Amos has released as a single since "God." In particular, I find myself recalling the slow motion riot and the one protestor pressed flat against the glass, face to face with Tori.
What's the opposite of blacksploitation? That's the question I keep returning to whenever the commercials for THE BEST MAN flash by. Harry Lime and I were discussing the other day that the whole gimmick of films like THE WOOD and THE BEST MAN seems to be that there's absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about them. Look, they seem to scream. Look at how normal we all are. No guns here. No drugs here. I admire and support African-American filmmakers in their drive to make films that aren't immediately labeled as "urban films" or "black films," but don't we get enough bland, safe romantic comedies as it is? I'd much rather see films that don't depend on any one culture or color for their inspiration than see material like this. As much as I avoided RUNAWAY BRIDE, I intend to avoid THE BEST MAN.
This brings me to my final item of the week, a review of a new film that features a spectacular supporting performance from one of my favorite underrated actors, Jeffrey Wright. Ang Lee made my favorite film of 1997, the mostly-overlooked THE ICE STORM, and he's been a filmmaker of uncommon intelligence from his very earliest work. Like a Chinese Howard Hawks, he hops effortlessly from genre to genre, from culture to culture. SENSE & SENSIBILITY, THE ICE STORM, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, and RIDE WITH THE DEVIL couldn't be more different thematically, but they all display a keen intelligence, a subtle lyrical visual sense, and a powerful rapport with actors.
We've been getting reviews of RIDE WITH THE DEVIL here at AICN for well over a year now, and they've ranged from very good to indifferent, meaning I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to see a finished print of the picture last week. I knew that it was a drama set against the backdrop of the Civil War, and I knew it had something to do with the Bushwhackers and the infamous Lawrence Massacre. Beyond that, I walked in a blank, and I'm glad. RIDE WITH THE DEVIL is not the kind of defining cinematic experience that it would have to be to make it to the top of my list in this highly competitive year, but that's not a problem. The film is modest by design, a small story set against a sprawling backdrop. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) are friends who have grown up in Missouri, and who find themselves pressed into a guerilla campaign against encroaching Northern forces after Jack Bull's father is brutally murdered one night. The first third of the film is exhilarating, featuring one astounding action sequence that left me breathless. Jake, Jack Bull, and their fellow Bushwhackers are trapped in a farmhouse by Yankee soldiers, and they are forced to shoot their way out and run for it. It's shot in a style that puts you right in harm's way, reminiscent of the opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN without being derivative. As technology in filmmaking advances, battle scenes grow more realistic and harrowing, and their effect becomes greater. If anything, the sequence is too good. There's no other action scene like it in the film, and it left me feeling like the picture was partially unbalanced.
The story takes a radical right turn when Jake, Jack Bull, George Clyde (Simon Baker) and his "nigger" Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) all hole up for the winter in a hillside shelter they dig and disguise. Now, before you start e-mailing me about my use of that word, it is a crucial part of the film. George Clyde is presented as a gentleman, a genuinely good person who views Holt as his friend. Despite that, he allows everyone to refer to Holt as his "nigger," thinking it will force people to treat Holt with some degree of respect. After all, he's with Clyde.
This stretch of the movie also introduces Jewel in her role as Sue Lee, a young widow who brings food and provisions to the men as they hide. There's some initial tension between Jake and Jack Bull, but it's clear that she is drawn to the charismatic Jack Bull. In time, they even manage to forge a budding romance that is cut short by the intrusion of the war.
When Jake, George Clyde, and Holt return to the front lines of the conflict, they find themselves part of a unit that is headed by Black John, played with intensity by Jim Caviezel, and which also includes the truly menacing Pitt Mackeson. As Mackeson, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is excellent. The reunited Bushwhackers are spurred by nothing as noble as duty or honor, though, and when they ride on Lawrence, Kansas, one of the most brutal massacres of the entire war unfolds. This sequence marks, in my opinion, the only truly mishandled material in the film. I understood the horror of the sequence intellectually, but it never hit me where I live. As a result, audiences may be able to shake it off, let it just roll over them, and that can't be what Lee intended.
The final third of the film is beautiful and moving, however, as Jake and Holt walk away from the war and find themselves crossing paths with many of the figures from their past again. This is the stretch of film where Jeffrey Wright more than earns his Best Supporting Actor nomination. I saw him in ANGELS IN AMERICA years ago, and aside from BASQUIAT, I have yet to see him used to proper effect in film. Finally, as he struggles to give voice and dignity to Daniel Holt, we are given an opportunity to appreciate this astounding actor's gifts. It's a tricky role, and the wrong actor could have made it treacly, unwatchable. Instead, you ache for Holt, and you can't help but wish for one friend with half the integrity of this man. It's subtle, strong work, and I hope it is remembered by all when awards season hits.
Overall, this is a film of simple pleasures. It's at its best when it focuses on the intimate story, the moments between these people, and when it turns its gaze away from the grand canvass of the war. There's a lot of telling details that Lee has textured into his film, and I appreciate that work. It is another fine effort from a gifted filmmaker, and I hope its quiet, confident voice is not drowned out by the big ticket releases crowded around it this holiday season.
I have to get moving now, Harry. I'm working on a really fun project for the end of the month, one that has something to do with a film I'll be reviewing later this week. Keep your eyes peeled, as I think it'll be both entertaining and insane. Until then...
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Oct. 15, 1999, 5:06 p.m. CST
So, is anyone else out there as excited as I am over the new Fantasia. I think the original was the most important, stirring movie I saw in my youth. And then came Star Wars...maybe Disney will get to a whole new generation the same way.
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