I don't know what else I can say about Butt-Numb-A-Thon that I haven't said before. This is the star of my calendar, the carrot that drives the horse for me all year. Since I started working for Harry, I'll admit that it feels a bit diluted this year, especially in light of other events like Fantastic Fest and SXSW. It's not the fault of the programming; it's me. I'm getting older. And honestly? BNAT, physically, gets more difficult. I want to pay absolute attention to every film I see. I savor them, and I want every moment of BNAT to last forever. But I'm also 44 years old. I started coming to BNAT in 2000, when I was 31. In the 13 years since, I've only missed one, and that was due to events beyond my control. It left a hole in my life that year, let me tell you.
It's not just the movies, of course. It's the friendships and camaraderie, the relationships that were created through this crazy, insane, glorious event. I defend Ain't It Cool because it has changed my life in a significant way. It's made me a better writer, a better appreciator of film, and it's made me a better person. Harry gave me an opportunity that no one else has, and I'll always love him for that. So, every year, as BNAT gets closer, my anticipation reaches fever pitch, but there's also a little dread in there as well. Is this the year that breaks me physically? Every year experienced BNATers post advice columns on how to take care of yourself during the event and I read them religiously. The sleepiness isn't even the worst thing; it's the early morning heartburn that wrecks me and makes me feel miserable. And... just being older. I don't bounce back like I used to. It happens to everyone. So I make sure to take precautions.
This year didn't wreck me. Yeah, I nodded off during a few moments - mostly during POPEYE, which I've seen many times. I've also seen THE HAUNTED PALACE, but not since I was a kid, and Roger Corman's atmospheric film threatened to soothe me like a lullaby, but I stuck it through until the last 15 minutes, where I finally succumbed. I'm not ready to throw out a Danny Gloveresque "I'm too old for this shit" proclamation quite yet, though. I'll keep going as long as Harry keeps letting me.
Harry's always programmed BNAT like a master conductor. That's not hyperbole. He programs each film to inform both the one before it and the one after, and then he gives the whole event a grand theme that, when you step back and look at all the titles, isn't immediately obvious, but it makes complete sense once you wade into it. This year's theme, to me, was about how an artist or a creator makes something that outlives and outlasts them, and how art becomes something more once the world experiences it. It is taken out of the artist's hands, and changes in ways the artist could not anticipate, or even want. I can't imagine how hard it is to gather movies that fit each other like that. I'd love to program a festival like this some day. I'd also like to put in a request (Harry doesn't really take requests, but it couldn't hurt): I really would love to see an Akira Kurosawa film play BNAT.
Knowing Harry, it would likely be a deep cut Kurosawa, and that's fine. I just love that filmmaker and would love to see one of his movies at a BNAT, with these people. This year, my badge had a photo of my dad and me when I was a child, and that more than anything else, made me feel home. It was like my dad was with me. Because BNAT, to me, is family, and that more than anything is why I keep coming.
Oh yeah, and the movies are great. Let's get to them!
This, flat out, is one of the best movies to have ever played a BNAT. I can't review it at length right now due to embargo, but I will later. Because I can't wait to talk about this goddamn fucking masterpiece. And it is. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is Martin Scorsese at his very best - I'm talking GOODFELLAS and RAGING BULL levels of excellence here. If that doesn't give you a movie hard-on, I don't know what can. It fits right in there with Scorsese's great crime movies. I really, really wish Paramount had screened this earlier in critics award consideration season, because I think this one would have topped all of them. If you care about that sort of thing.
Did I mention how fucking funny this movie is? It's easily Scorsese's funniest film. The screenplay is so full of wit (and more drug humor than anything Kevin Smith has ever done - hell, the last movie that had this much drug humor was probably a Cheech and Chong) and charm that you root for these guys, even as you realize that they are utterly fucking our entire economic way of life. Leonardo DiCaprio is a goddamn revelation in this movie. His physical comedy alone should get him serious awards consideration - one scene where DiCaprio simply tries to get into his car is pure sliced gold - but he fills Jordan Belfort with such vitriol and douchebaggery that we by all rights should be hunting him down like an angry mob straight out of FRANKENSTEIN. But you you want him to win, because THE WOLF OF WALL STREET asks us what we would do in the same spot. Jonah Hill is incredible in this movie as well, and if anyone wondered what kind of an actor Hill is before, wait until you see him in this. He is no dabbler - he IS Donnie Azoff, a once nice young man who gleefully throws all his morals to the side once the money starts coming in.
Scorsese shows the real empty glamour of this lifestyle, and tempts us all like a snake with the apple. And the way the decadence of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is presented, I don't know a single person in today's America who could turn that down. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET isn't an indictment of capitalism - it's simply a mirror. What we see in that mirror is on us. It's one of Martin Scorsese's very best films. You cannot have a conversation about the best films of 2013 without THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. It's that simple.
The first odd duck movie of the event was Australia's HARLEQUIN (otherwise known as DARK FORCES), a riff off the legend of Rasputin and starring Robert Powell as a magician who enters a family's life and changes them in powerful ways. Powell's role was once offered to David Bowie, if that gives you any idea of the places Powell takes his Gregory Wolfe. At one point Wolfe comes in with a glam outfit so outrageous you expect him to go into "Power Of The Babe."
It's the kind of 1980s fun off-the-wall movie that should probably get some kind of cult status, except not enough people know about it. The actors make odd choices and the dialogue doesn't help, especially during one scene where an offer to play strip poker comes at a very awkward, inopportune moment. Simon Wincer went on to direct some terrific movies (and the best miniseries of all time, LONESOME DOVE) and HARLEQUIN was his feature film debut, so he's a much better director now. It's still an interesting (but not very good, to be honest) movie.
I don't think I should be reviewing these movies anymore. I'm still undecided. Look, THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG has a ton of problems. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is practically a supporting character in his own freaking story. I don't understand how the Gandalf of THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, a wizard who isn't showy and who is unobtrusive (until he becomes Gandalf the White), throws spells around like a 20th level D&D magic user played by a first-time player. Having Legolas (Orlando Bloom) show up is nice fan service, but his character doesn't have a very apparent arc, except to look after Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character I actually quite liked even though she's not a J. R. R. Tolkien creation. The final hour is pure XBox. I normally have no issue with CGI, as long as it's done well. And having only seen THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG in 2D 24FPS at this point, perhaps the high frame rate 3D makes it look better. I have to believe it does, because the CGI here is everywhere. Everywhere.
And yet. And yet. I loved this movie. I can't justify why critically. I can't. Perhaps it's the ride. Perhaps it's the experience of seeing it for the first time at BNAT, which has premiered all of Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth films, and have always been the first place I see these movies. I loved Smaug (although as dragons go, Smaug doesn't come close to the power of Vermithrax Pejorative). One action sequence as the Dwarves escape the Greenwood Elves in barrels on a river is so fun and intense that it shows Jackson still has great action cinematography. I liked that Bilbo was more proactive this time around (even if, as I said, he's not onscreen nearly as much as he should be). I loved the scope of the story; as more characters come into play, and tensions between the races grow, I'm very interested to see what Jackson has in mind for the Battle of Five Armies. There are larger forces moving in Middle-Earth, and the way Jackson sets up the stakes for not only the next film but THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies is interesting, even if a bit clunky.
The only conclusion I can come up with, why I intend to see this movie many times in the theater and to buy the Extended Blu-Ray, is that Peter Jackson and his crew at WETA have created such an immersive, complete cinematic world in Middle-Earth that for me, to enter this world again is like, to paraphrase James Earl Jones's character in FIELD OF DREAMS, being "dipped into magic waters." I love Middle-Earth. These books changed me, and were warm, calming influences on me during a very difficult time in my life; I escaped into THE LORD OF THE RINGS when my dad suffered and succumbed to cancer, and these books, these stories, mean so very much to me because of that. I really want to see this in 3D to see if the effects work improves with HFR 3D, because, and I'm not trying to be mean, a lot of it is really bad. Okay, maybe bad isn't the right word, but it's EVERYWHERE and very noticeable when it didn't need to be. There's nothing like that in THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, even as WETA upped its game as the films progressed.
THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG ends with a great cliffhanger, but if you've read the book, you know how things will go. If you don't, you'll have to wait until next Christmas. I'll likely be there right along with you. As for now, you'll decide what you think this weekend.
When Harry announced that he'd procured a 70MM film to play at BNAT, speculation ran rampant. I really loved a lot of theories; my favorite was Rian Johnson's suggestion that Harry had gotten Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM, which, I imagine, looks amazing in 70MM. Whe Carol Reed's THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY was announced, I was joyous; I'd never seen it before, and you can't ask for a better way to see a bonafide classic film than BNAT. It played exactly as expected. Reed's film, about the power of art to transcend the artist, was prevalent throughout BNAT, and once this played I suspected I knew the final film to play BNAT (and I was right). It reminded me quite a bit of one of my favorite movies of all time, BECKET.
Charleton Heston and Rex Harrison are magnificent. As Harrison's Pope Julius II asks, cajoles, and threatens Heston's Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, their relationship and collaboration deepens. Through that, some of the greatest art ever made is created, and in 70MM it's probably the closest I'll ever come to experiencing the glory of the Sistine Chapel without actually going there. This was a recently struck 70MM print, and I can't imagine how much longer that's even going to be possible. I like High Frame Rate... but 70MM looks like pure cinema to me in a way that High Frame Rate doesn't. I'm so happy I got to experience this great movie at BNAT.
The next film was a secret title; although the filmmaker himself tweeted about it on his feed I don't feel comfortable talking about it here. Before the Talkbackers get all up-in-arms, it's a very esoteric but funny film by a filmmaker you probably know, but it's in no way a "big" release next year, so you'll see it soon enough.
I've seen Robert Altman's POPEYE many times, in the theater as well as on cable in my youth, so I took this opportunity to get some rest. It's a terrific movie and I love how Altman uses his signature style to basically make a kids movie. It feels very much like the cartoons of old, and I still think Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl is just amazing. It's a wel-loved movie by me. But I knew that there might be great things coming, so I used this time to recharge up for later. Again, this is a movie I can't be very critical about - Altman's dialogue style doesn't really work; Harry Nilsson's songs are terrific but Altman seems to undercut the performances with a lack of polish. But I still adore POPEYE. Also, I learned later that there may have been a reel or two missing as there were a couple of songs that weren't in this print.
This was one of Tim League's choices from the American Genre Film Archive and one of the many fake Bruce Lee movies that proliferated after his unfortunate death to chase that Lee-crazy American dollar. I had a blast with this movie; the only 1970s characters that were missing were the STAR WARS characters and the Bandit, and that's probably because the film was released a few months before. Bruce Lee (Bruce Leong) enters the afterlife and fights a greedy king, with the help of Clint Eastwood, James Bond, Popeye, and many over iconic characters, all played by Chinese actors.
The dubbed dialogue is hilarious, and the plot is gloriously insane - The Exorcist, Emmanuelle, Zatoichi, The Godfather (!) and different iterations of Bruce Lee himself show up throughout the film and confuse things even more. Considering the time of night this movie played, this was like some sort of fever dream of 1970s cinema. It was kinda fucking awesome, and I'm still having difficulty believing I actually saw this thing. I have no idea how available this movie will be later; considering the Mount Everest of copyright violations this movie has, I'm surprised this still exists at all.
Harry programmed this movie because Linda Darnell is a distant relation, apparently, but it also fit into the theme of the artist and how their art grows beyond them. THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE is about how Poe (played by John Shepperd) begins his career as a poet, and the women in his life who broke his heart and turned him into the tragic man he became.
The film is a bit melodramatic, but it's interesting, especially when Poe creates "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee", informed by those relationships. However, it's also a difficult film to play so late in BNAT, and I caught myself nodding off a couple of times. It's a quiet film, but the performances work, especially Darnell as Virginia Clemm, the inspiration of "Annabel Lee", and Shepperd's Poe.
Director Adam Green is no stranger to BNAT - his FROZEN premiered here in 2009 - and while this movie was made below the radar, he wanted to play it for this crowd. His collaboration with artist Alex Pardee has created DIGGING UP THE MARROW, a "documentary" about monsters and how they influence us. I can't review the film in any specific detail because it's not finished, and there are surprises in it that are best revealed in front of audiences. I will say that actor Ray Wise is in it and he's really good as a man who contacts Green and insists that monsters really exist, and that's really all I can say about the plot.
I have a few issues with the film, but because it's not finished I don't feel like it's my place to comment until I see the finished work. But I really loved the mood and the set-up that Green and Pardee create here. If you've seen NIGHTBREED, or even some episodes of FUTURAMA, you may have some indication of what's going on, but Pardee's work here is amazing considering the budget, and the movie feels like an introduction to a much larger universe. It's a universe that I'd like to see explored more deeply, especially if Green and Pardee get a bigger budget to play with. Much of DIGGING UP THE MARROW is tease, but it's good tease. I think they can't quite stick the landing at the end, but again, it's unfinished and I'm confident the filmmakers will be able to make a finished film that will be compelling and something that horror fans will really dig.
Roger Corman and Vincent Price equals classic horror awesomeness. This actually isn't really a Poe story - merely inspired by his poem "The Haunted Palace," this is actually a fairly close adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Strange Case Of Charles Dexter Ward", with Price playing Ward as a man slowly being taken by dark forces in the town of Arkham. It's all there - the Necronomicon, Arkham, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth - and it very much fits Lovecraft's style of storytelling. When it comes to gothic horror, you can't go wrong with Roger Corman, who has his hand on the pulse of these kinds of movies better than anybody. Price is his usual great self, changing his personality in subtle but fascinating ways. Plus Price and Lon Chaney together is something beautiful.
In fact, this shouldn't be called THE HAUNTED PALACE at all, to be frank, and Harry advocated for a title change to THE STRANGE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD and for the film to be given proper credit to Lovecraft. I agree. It's a pretty pure adaptation, and it's high time Lovecraft gets the respect he deserves out there as one of the great horror writers of the age. Sure, we horror fans know who he is, but not the everyday moviegoer (and yes, Lovecraft's life is... controversial to say the least, but he still deserves recognition). Again, this is about the artist creating something larger than themselves, the theme of the night, and THE HAUNTED PALACE fits perfectly in that. A very good horror film by Roger Corman.
I saw approximately 36 seconds of this movie. I'll explain. Tim League brought another film from the American Genre Film Archive that he prefaced with two trailers - the trailer for the movie BIG, and then a trailer for a 1970s porn film called HAPPY DAYS about young teens exploring their sexuality. Together, they made a perfect introduction for THE FRUIT IS SWELLING (a loose translation), a film about an 8-year-old girl who apparently gets transformed into an 18-year-old and then proceeds to have tons and tons of sex, including (and I'm only being told this, because I didn't see it) her gym teacher and her sister.
Look, I'm a dad. I have a line. And I was in no way going to sit in a theater for an hour-and-a-half and see a movie like that. I won't watch A SERBIAN FILM either. Call me a coward. I don't give a shit. I'm sure it was a funny movie for the BNAT audience, and I'm not offended that it played. If I got offended at BNAT, I would have stopped going a long time ago, and there are definitely movies that played that skirt the line of decency for me. I'm not angry, and I think it's actually hilarious that Tim played it. It's just not for me.
However, I would like to use this opportunity to talk about why a movie like BIG is okay and this movie isn't. Sure, BIG doesn't actually show the sex, but it's undeniable that 12-year-old Josh Baskin (in Tom Hanks' body) has sex with Elizabeth Perkin's character. What makes it okay for BIG and not for THE FRUIT IS SWELLING? Is it because it's not graphic? That's a good reason, but thematically, it's still the same thing. How does something like that change these characters? What if Josh Baskin grew up to be a total douchebag, or worse, a rapist? After all, he had sex before he was ready too. And what about Susan (Perkins)? How would it affect her to know that she had sex with a young boy, unintentionally? Would that wreck her too?
I realize that we're playing with fantasy here - none of this is real. But it is worth talking about why a movie like BIG is okay but THE FRUIT IS SWELLING is not. But it won't be me talking about it in relation to this particular movie, because, again, I only saw 36 seconds. Make of that what you will.
UPDATE! Apparently she actually doesn't have sex with anyone in the movie until the end when she turns 18 legitimately. She just watches a lot of sex, kisses her sister and swim teacher, and is almost raped but her sister stops it from happening. These are things I would have known if I'd seen the entire movie... but I chickened out. This is both hilarious and sad. Since I won't see the movie, judge me as you will.
If I had known THE WIND RISES would be the closer to Butt-Numb-A-Thon 15 I might have waited to see it, and not on an awards screener. Contrary to what some people believe, Harry doesn't tell me what's playing beforehand, and I like it that way. If you want to read my review of THE WIND RISES, you can click here and check it out. Still, when the screener showed up at the house, I couldn't help myself. I adore Hayao Miyazaki, and I was so happy to see it that I couldn't wait until Geek Christmas to see it. Also, I'm a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and I would have been able to vote on it had I waited until BNAT, as our awards considerations had already closed.
Having seen it again, I still feel the same way as my review. I think it's a masterpiece. But some critics have taken issue with the subject matter of the movie (for those who do not know, the movie is a film about Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Japanese Zero, the planes that helped devastate Pearl Harbor and the American naval forces during World War II), and I think it's a discussion worth having. THE WIND RISES portrays Jiro very sympathetically, and while Miyazaki has said that it's a completely fictional retelling of Horikoshi's life story, the fact that Miyazaki picked this man to tell this story undeniably will cause difficulties with audiences who see the movie.
In THE WIND RISES, Horikoshi is aware of the larger picture, that these planes will be used to kill many people, but he continues to push forward into their creation. He's told in the film, "Japan will blow up," and he even agrees with it. But for Horikoshi, the final product is the goal, and it is also undeniable that Horikoshi's designs helped bring modern aviation to where it is today. Would Horikoshi have been able to design these planes had it not been for the Japanese war government? Absolutely not. Is Horikoshi to blame for all that death that his creations caused? That isn't so clear, morally, especially as it's portrayed in the film. Perhaps Miyazaki picked the wrong vessel to invest his themes of art and creation that THE WIND RISES raises. It certainly makes it more difficult to talk about, because the reality of what happened is out there for everyone to see, and Miyazaki willfully ignores that reality to tell the story that he wants to tell.
I couldn't help thinking, watching it a second time, if I were Japanese and watching a fanciful film made by Steven Spielberg about the designer of the Enola Gay. Would I be upset? I don't know. I imagine that I would be. And yet... because Miyazaki is talking about the act of creation, and how as creators we cannot be fully responsible for our creations once they are released ot the world, I understood the thematic point. Michelangelo could only paint his perspective of what he thought God was when he was painting the Sistine Chapel, and he had no idea how people would examine and understand his work centuries later. There's a famous quote by Jiro Horikoshi, that inspired Miyazaki to tell this story: "I just wanted to create something beautiful." What THE WIND RISES suggests may be uncomfortable subject matter for intelligent audiences. It isn't an easy discussion. But it's a discussion worth having. As for myself, I still think the film is amazing, and deeply emotional. But I also see what other critics are talking about, and this adds to the continuous debate about war, and art, and creation, that should continue long after we are all gone.
These people are my other family, and I love every moment I spend with them. One day, you may come to a BNAT, and you'll be welcomed with open arms. That's just how amazing these people are. Another year, another great moment in my life.
This year was amazing. I'm so happy to have been a part of it. Thanks to this article go to Harry Knowles, Eric Vespe, Roland DeNoie, Jay Knowles, Steve Prokopy, Tim League, Kristen Bell, Devin Faraci, Meredith Borders, Moises Chiullan, Kevin Biegel, Paul Alvarado-Dykstra,C. Robert Cargill, Jessica Cargill, Jeremy Stomberg, Amy Stomberg, Windy Bowlsby, Holly Blain, Rian Johnson, Noah Segan, Adam Green, Alex Pardee, Doug Benson, Peter Sciretta, Heidi Zarse, Melissa Kaercher, Barbara Kennedy, and my lovely wife Tami Cerny, with whom all things are possible. I'm sure I've forgotten other people, but know that I love you all. Thanks.