December 20, 2005

Monkey Love


Like having a 40 foot silverback gorilla in the room but not saying a word about the primate smell, the first comments one must make for purely the sake of obviousness about Peter Jackson's King Kong is that it's 3 freakin' hours long. Usually Cinecultist gets cranky at anything that's billed as action adventure and over 90 minutes but one gets the feeling that Petey J couldn't find a solitary shot from the proceedings to cut. But the spectacle which is packed into his 187 minutes is so spectacular and yet so human and moving, we can hardly chastise him for our sore butt. It's all too too much. Yet it's difficult to get upset when the excess offers so much art.

In case you've missed all the internerd hubbub about this production, the 1933 version of KK is the reason Jackson first wanted to become a filmmaker and he's always wanted to remake it. It's his Ur-text. After the success of his Rings trilogy, it seems the studio was willing to write Jackson practically a blank check and he's taken full advantage. There's barely a scene that's not CGI'd or lavish set pieced within an inch of it's life. However, this film is not purely about surface effect. It's also about love. Love between an out-of-work, blonde vaudeville hoofer and a giant petulant monkey.

Naomi Watts does some really nice, though also completely over the top work here as Ann Darrow. She's fragile, yet strong. Timid but also brave. She's a girl who prides herself on being funny, not necessarily pretty though she's totally gorgeous. These are the kind of women we don't often see in the movies, or at least not enough of them. Ann's vaudeville theater has just been closed but fortunately for her, the hack filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) is in need of a leading lady for his flagging film project. Denham convinces Ann, as well as the the cast and crew of his film, including a kidnapped screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), to set sail in a dirty scow for the uncharted Skull Island. On this island the natives are particularly scary and everything is giant, not the least of them this monkey, Kong whose faces are acted by the brilliant Andy Serkis (Gollum from LOTR).

While the film has the usual sparky comic flirtation between the geeky writer Jack and lovely Ann, the really compelling romance here is between Ann and Kong. These are the moments where Watts really has the opportunity to shine. If you caught her earlier this year in the tiny indie Ellie Parker as the titular actress, you know Watts can turn on and off her emotive face like a switch. This talent makes her perfect for a green screen movie like King Kong. Her tentative friendship and then empathy for the monkey is palpable. When the rescue party of sailors and crew "save" her on Skull Island, it's as though we're seeing a teenage girl bodily separated from her rebel boyfriend with the noisy motorcycle. She knows she should go with dad but she really loves Johnny and his bad, bad ways.

The final act follows the time-worn plot points and as Kong tears into the Manhattan skyline, then climbing to the top of the Empire State like we know and love, it's difficult to know really who to root for. But whether your sympathies lie with the monkey or the bomber pilots, there's something very now about the touch of glee from watching a little destruction tempered with some tears. In mining this old cinema story, Jackson has uncovered something utterly modern.

Posted by karen at 9:01 AM |

December 19, 2005

Too Cute, Too Funny

We never ever link to this kind of stuff but hell. If you've got a blog, you're contractually obligated to link to odd things you love on the Internets, no? Thus, Cute Overload. Go there. Die of cuteness -- it was one of the best parts of our very cold Monday in mid-December.

Posted by karen at 10:25 PM |

Eating The Fat Man At The Holidays


When it gets to be the holidays, we'd imagine Cinecultist's friends don't have to think too hard about what to get us. Anything film related always goes over well. Case in point, this cookie pictured above from our friend and fellow cinephiliac Kristi*. How cool is that? Hitchcock on a spice cookie! We never thought we'd actually type the phrase, "Mmmm Hitch, you taste so good." But we did.

This also seems as good a time as any to point out that episodes of the classic television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents are available for purchase on iTunes. Robin Wood, eat your heart out.

*Full disclosure: Kristi gave us this cookie while we watching the Film Bloggers panel last Friday at the Apple Store and our first words were, "Oh my god, this is so great. Can we go home and blog about it?" Yes, Cinecultist is a really big geek.

Posted by karen at 9:05 AM |

December 12, 2005

Match Point Screening This Week


Is there anything more exciting than the release of a new Woody Allen movie? Okay, scratch that. Is there anything more thrilling than the release of a new Woody Allen movie that's actually supposed to be good? No siree, says the Cinecultist. Hurrah for Match Point! And we saw Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda in the theaters, so we know of what we speak.

The good people at DreamWorks know CC loves the WA and so do our readers, so we have the happy news of tickets to an advance screening this week and posters to give away. The film will be this Thursday, Dec. 15 on the Upper East Side and we have 10 admit 2 plus 20 posters up for grabs.

For the tix, please e-mail CC the answer to the following:

The least likely Woody Allen and hot, young ingénue pairing in one of his films was? And why.

Brevity is the soul of wit, here people -- no graduate school essays necessary. Send all answers to karen [at] cinecultist dot com. Winners will be notified Wednesday morning via e-mail. Good luck neurotics and hypochondriacs alike!

Posted by karen at 11:13 PM |

December 11, 2005

RIP Richard Pryor


Sigh. Without him, we wouldn't know the brilliance of observational cultural humor of the kind Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and Bernie Mac practice. Thanks Richard Pryor for making us think and laugh about the world in new ways. We'll miss you.

And if you've never seen Brewster's Millions, the 1985 film where Pryor plays a minor league baseball player who has to waste $30 million in 30 days in order to inherit $300 million, you really should rent it. It's the first movie CC remembers being allowed to watch as a kid that had swearing in it. It's hilarious.

Posted by karen at 12:26 PM |

December 8, 2005

Harold Pinter: Curmudgeon of the World

Reading this article today in the New York Times about Harold Pinter's acceptance speech of his Nobel Prize, Cinecultist couldn't help but be pleased by his politically-aware, old man routine. Give ‘em hell, HP! So articulate and yet so crusty, it sounds like a very uncomfortable or exhilarating moment, depending on your leanings. [HP’s entire speech is available in video form.]

CC loves two particular HP and movies moments: his brilliant adaptation of one of the most unadaptable novels ever, The French Lieutenant’s Woman starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and Pinter's performance as Sir Thomas Bertram in the 1999 Frances O'Conner starring Mansfield Park. He's so bracingly English and ostentatiously opinionated. It's like the splash of cold sea water on your face -- refreshing but a little painful.

We salute you, good sir on your well deserved win of such a covetable (and lucrative - $1.3 mil. no less) award. Kudos!

Posted by karen at 8:39 AM |

December 7, 2005

Interview With Author Ron Hogan

082125751X.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpgRecently, Cinecultist conducted a brief IMversation with film historian and blogger, Ron Hogan to discuss his new book about '70s cinema, The Stewardess Is Flying The Plane! Quite the compendium of themes, stills and production details from that much lauded decade of American moviemaking, Hogan's book is a great resource for people with both a passing interest and a deep love for the era. Here we discuss the joys of movie research, Karen Black and why film blogging won't be overtaking tradition film criticism. Not yet, anyway.

cc: Maybe we should start with what led you to want to write a book like this, particularly about the '70s. Hasn’t American cinema of the '70s got enough mystique as it is?

rh: Well, it has mystique, but very few people have actually done anything to explore that mystique. And when they do, they usually tackle a very small portion of the movie scene, whether it's Peter Biskind's treatment of a handful of "maverick" directors or recent documentaries that focus strictly on blaxplotiation or indie film. I really wanted to write about the WHOLE spectrum of what was going on in Hollywood during that decade--not just what the people who were setting the new pace were doing, but what the people who were following in their wake did.

cc: That's a pretty ambitious undertaking to start out with. Did you ever feel daunted by the scope of your project?

rh: Not really, but that might have something to do with the fact that my editor and I came up with the book's outline and most of the movie list with the help of a steady supply of vodka martinis. It's amazing how big a project you're willing to take on when you feel no pain! And then, after that, well, the research phase basically entailed watching a ton of movies. Which I'd probably do anyway, given my druthers, so if I can get somebody to PAY me to do it, I'm all set!

cc: But you must of done quite a bit of reading as well, since you seem so well versed in the history of the era, as well as the individuals films and their productions. Are their any particular other historians of the era that you found helpful or inspiring? Or frustrating?

rh: Oh, sure, there was definitely a lot of reading, and listening to the commentary tracks on DVDs. I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but David Frum's How We Got Hereis a pretty good start on the subject of the 1970s as the fulfillment of the '60s revolution.

cc: Is there a movie that you rediscovered while doing this project that you'd forgotten about but really think holds up? Also, maybe a movie that you think is completely over rated as a '70s classic?

rh: That second question's a lot easier: I don't get Last Tango In Paris, although I'm willing to concede that may simply be a matter of what was shocking for the early '70s being fairly conventional by today's standards. Another, more blatant example is Don’t Look Now, which I consider to be a perfect example of why art-film directors shouldn't do drive-in movies. But for the first question... I'm not so sure that there were movies that I rediscovered, but there were plenty of films that I discovered for the first time. Like Space Is The Place, an absolutely mind blowing film starring jazz musician Sun Ra.

cc: I have to say I find Last Tango over rated as well. Butter in a sex scene? Is this supposed to be hot?

What about '70s stars, I was struck by seeing so many familiar faces only younger in the pictures from your book...A least favorite? Anyone you think really hasn't aged well or fulfilled the promise of their early work?

rh: Well, I wouldn't presume to pick anybody who screwed up their career, but there are SOME actors who for whatever reasons weren't able to follow through on the promise of their '70s career: my cover girl, Karen Black, being a prime example. In her case, that might just be the result of Hollywood's fetishization of young women. And there should be more Jim Kelly action films than there are, dammit. Black Belt Jones, Three the Hard Way, Enter The Dragon...there was more to be done there, I'm sure of it. (Oh, I know he DID more, but I find his drop-off in the early '80s totally uncalled for. There's no reason he shouldn't have had the kind of longevity Chuck Norris has had.)

cc: My familiarity with your writing before seeing the book was obviously from, which is about the literary scene, but I know you call yourself a film historian. How did you get into that niche and do you find it at all hard to reconcile your interest in books with movies?

rh: My original academic training was in film studies, and I have a master's. I got into the book world--well, I've always been a reader, but I specifically got involved with the book scene when I went to work in a bookstore after grad school. That and freelance writing went hand in hand, eventually I became a book review editor for Amazon, and certainly Beatrice has always been a good outlet for me to write about books and writers... But I don't see anything to reconcile, really. I like books, I like movies, and I've spent enough time delving into each field to (hopefully) be able to sound off on them and appear to know what I'm talking about. I could do it with comic books, too. But I know my limitations!

cc: I guess for me, sometimes I find my English major background exponentially geeking out my Film Studies stuff -- getting into issues of adaptation and literary theory and then you start throwing around the Bakhtin and it all goes pear shaped. But seriously, I think lots of people are surprised when someone has strong interests in more than one area and can carry on complex discussions in them all. So I guess good for you, you smartie pants.

rh: *blush* Oh, thanks -- and as it happens, this book is miles apart from the sort of stuff I was writing in film school, which was all about biopics as a manifestation of cultural canon formation... *grin*

cc: And as for the ultimate geek activity: Any thoughts on the influence of blogging on film criticism? Is every film blogger trying to be the next Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott? Or Peter Bogdanovich even?

rh: Hmmm. I'm sure some of them are--we used to joke about that in grad school, actually, about how hard it would be if we seriously thought about trying to get film critic gigs, because those really do seem like positions that most critics leave only when they're taken out on a stretcher... I don't know that I see anybody trying to be a historian in the Bogdanovich mold, necessarily, but it wouldn't surprise me if a couple bloggers have David Thomson or Greil Marcus as role models. As for the influence of blogs on criticism... I don't know what it's like in the film crit world, but my experience writing about literary criticism is that the mainstream critics do know about the more prominent blogs, and some of them do seriously consider what we say. More, though, seem to think that it's cute that the kids are acting like grownups.

cc: I'm not sure if I have anything else. I think the book looks great. It's the kind of thing you should have open while adding to your Netflix queue just to spice up the average DVD watching experience. Throw in a few copies of Airport or Harold and Maude or The Brood (because I love David Cronenberg) into the mix of all those Arrested Development dvds.

rh: Absolutely! I would love it if people keep cracking this book open in their living rooms, trying to figure out what they haven't seen in thirty years -- or EVER, if they're our age -- and should add to their queues. I think that's a sign that a film book has really done its job... when it makes you want to see the films it talks about.

cc: Me too. More eclectic movie watching the better.

Posted by karen at 9:01 AM |

December 6, 2005

Directors Aren't Pin Ups

Cinecultist hates to seem bitchy about it, but have you also been noticing the incredible fluctuating waist lines of the directors Jon Favreau and Peter Jackson? The sucky thing for those behind the lens is that usually you can take a photo in your anorak and baseball cap (ala Ron Howard) on the set and be done with it. Except for at the premiere. Then you've gotta be all gussied up and standing next to your svelte actors. It's enough to give us a complex just thinking about it.

Do you think perhaps the two of them are just swapping their fat in some secret auteur mind meld? Nah. Though our current theory on Jackson's recent transformation from card carrying geek boy with the looks of the Video Store clerk from the Simpsons to his current, more Hobbit-esque incarnation: the Zone. As for Favreau, as far as we're concerned eat all the cake you want dude. Go for it!
Evidence from their two recent red carpets: Favreau at left from Zathura and Jackson at right last night in New York at the King Kong premiere. He's positively mini now!

Posted by karen at 8:52 AM |

December 5, 2005

In China, When Things Were Golden

On Friday night, Cinecultist dragged our tired butt* up town to the Museum of Modern Art to see the opening screening in a series of Chinese films to celebrate the centenary of Chinese cinema, Bright Lights, Big City. We also had a ulterior personal motivation for attending, as well as of course our love for movies from China, our dear friend William who works for Asian Cinevision curated the series along with our former NYU professor Zhang Zhen and a curator from MoMA Jytte Jensen. It may seem sort of odd to attend a film to cheer on the programmer but that’s the rarified and super film geeky world the Cinecultist lives in.

Anyhow, Wild Rose the film that kicked of the series is from 1932 and is a part of this group of “golden age” films from Chinese cinema, before the advent of sound in their industry but when acting, composition and theme were really flowering. Like American movies from the ‘20s and early ‘30s, the Chinese had their own star system and movies grouped around particular stars’ personas except they also throw in either good Socialist values or good Confucian values into the plot. In other words, just when you think the movie is going to be about the love relationship between the country girl who fell in love with the bourgeois painter boy, it’s actually about the painter boy’s awakening to his duty for his country and its poor people. Except for our slight cultural disconnect on what made for a happy ending to this movie (seeing our protagonist march with the people is supposed to put a lump in our throat, right?), it was actually a fun little rom com. There’s banter (as much as you can banter via Chinese intertitles) and slapstick (the country girl took off her shoes at the fancy party and then knocked over the tea cart), it was a good time. Also, MoMA has employed an accompanist for the films so what you may think of as “silent film” isn’t really quite so quiet.

The series runs through Dec. 22 so if you get a chance to head uptown you really ought to catch some of this group, they all look really interesting. In particular, we’d recommend catching The Goddess this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 4:30 pm or Monday, Dec. 19 at 6 pm. If you’ve seen Maggie Cheung’s brilliant performance in Center Stage, Stanley Kwan’s paean to the silent star Ruan Lingyu who killed herself at the age of 25, this is one of the roles Maggie reenacts to such great affect. In this one Ruan Lingyu plays a prostitute driven to murder for the sake of her son and we’ve heard it’s a really five hanky affair. Isn’t women’s melodrama grand?

*Which is our excuse for that very brief, 10 minute nap in the middle. That the Cinecultist -- trying to get a nap in at every major reperatory screening space in the five boroughs.

Posted by karen at 9:04 AM |