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Monday, Aug 27, 2007

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver continues to be one of the best character studies films ever. With Paul Schrader’s great writing and a fantastic cast (Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepard, Peter Boyle, and Albert Brooks), it is hard to resist such a movie. It has won the prestigious Palme d’Or and is #52 on the AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” list. Recently, Sony released Taxi Driver: Collector’s Edition, a DVD with an array of extra features to complement one of the greatest films of all time.


Part of a documentary on Taxi Driver:


 


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Sunday, Aug 26, 2007


Roger Ebert is a legitimate American icon. He’s the undeniably great gold standard for old school film criticism. He’s a name so well known, so intriguingly intertwined with the medium he covers, that it’s almost impossible to consider cinema without him. His recent trials and health issues have galvanized a readership reliant on his weekly movie views, while simultaneously earning begrudging press from people who find his throwback style of journalism antithetical to the whole blog-nation dynamic. As the last acknowledged carrier of the torch transferred from previous bearers such as Pauline Kael and friend Gene Siskel, he remains a figure of prominence in a realm consistently marginalized by the current ‘anyone can do it’ market mentality. Oddly enough, he’s also the man who more or less destroyed his own revered reportage.


For those of us old enough to remember the original Sneak Previews (initially, a local Chicago PBS production done more out of respect for the two native names than any desire to change the legitimate critical landscape), said broadcast breath of fresh air provided by the onscreen pairing of the Sun-Times and Tribune beat poets was powerful. It was weekly must see TV in an era where access to films outside the local mainstream movie theater was practically non-existent. In these pre-VCR days when films were expertly managed in order to maximize their box office sustainability, the joy in hearing Siskel and Ebert dissect this competing aesthetic (art vs. artifice) was like an entertainment epiphany. Granted, it was just two guys, sitting around, talking, but their back and forth, as well as their notoriously knotty disagreements, made for brilliant small screen theater. All that was needed was a last act bit of commercial cake icing, and the deal was sealed.


Enter “the thumbs”, the benefactor – and bane – of the post modern film world. Originally conceived as a shorthanded guide (not a significant summary) for the general reaction to a work, it was a throwaway gesture, a Roman reminder of the days when the leaders of empires proclaimed their approval, or disgust, with a single, symbolic digit. Neither Siskel nor Ebert saw themselves as Nero, fiddling away on the latest Steven Spielberg opus as the rest of the motion picture domain burned. In fact, it was formulated for completely different reasons. Just as stars, popcorn kernels, film reels, and clapboards were employed (usually in a numerical grouping from zero to five), the thumbs gave those with limited time or attention spans a quick overview, relegating the rest of the review for another time, another preemptive place.


Two things changed all that. First was the arrival of recordable magnetic tape. The Beta/VHS phenomenon did something significant to the movie business – it provided an alternative means to get their product to the masses. At first, they really didn’t see it that way. Loud complaints of piracy and copyright infringement became the industry mantra, with an unreal emphasis on charging customers comparative value. Initially, blank video tapes were excessively pricey, with actual copies of first run films running into the hundreds of dollars. Yet the interest spurred in the medium by this tantalizing technological advance helped validate Siskel and Ebert’s ideals. Film could now be studied, torn apart and put back together via almost unlimited viewings. And as luck would have it, the duo already had a way of indicating to consumers what available titles were worth their time (thumbs up) and more or less invalid (thumbs down).


The second significant change to the cinematic landscape was the mounting implication of a big opening weekend at the box office. Stars saw their salaries attached to same, while mega-agencies like CAA built their entire business rep on producing titanic three day totals. Within the span of less than a decade, the blockbuster, in combination with the changing multinational face of the studios, created a new signature of success. Getting those ticket buyers to pony up during that first Friday-through-Sunday was seen as a validation of both creativity and commerciality. In fairness, it was really the prize pig purchased by enormous marketing dollars – and the recognizable thumbs of Siskel and Ebert were always placed prominently during blurb time. Even when their show moved from public television to first run syndication (and changed its name to At the Movies), the brand name take on current releases remained.


Then the duo did a decidedly smart thing. They trademarked the ‘up/down’ digits. This meant something significant. Not only were other shows prevented from pirating their simplistic signaling, but it guaranteed that, as long as the legal right remained, the increasingly popular critics could control their standing. Should a studio misquote or de-contextualize a comment from their review, the advertising albatross of “pulling the thumbs” became a well-heeded threat. For men as perceivably powerful as they, this meant a lot. No matter if it was true or not, Hollywood considered Siskel and Ebert to be very influential and widely listened to voices. In a tiger rock kind of way, the studios sought a clear commercial connection between the critics’ blessing and rentals/returns. Having convinced themselves such an uneasy alliance was necessary, the pair became opinionated superstars. Not only was their weekly show a date night directive, they traveled the talk show circuit like a classic comedy team, playing Abbot and Costello over Antonioni and Coppola.


The next phase in this discussion is a little more ambiguous. It’s clear that, at some point, the duo began to believe their own hype. They moved from mere reviewing to championing specific causes (anti-colorization, pro-new ‘adults only’ rating), and frequently used their televisual forum for lengthy discussions on such sour subjects as violence against women and the lagging support of world cinema. As they became more and more esoteric, and less and less combative (their well known antagonism was now mellowing into a calm, considered clash), the ratings began to suffer. Eventually, a little invention called the Internet would arrive, giving voice to a rising contingency of wise-ass wet blankets. For these long silenced savants, know-it-alls just waiting for an audience to appreciate their retarded rationalization, the enemy was anything mainstream. And though they long supported the obscure, the unusual, and the highly independent, Siskel and Ebert were now the Establishment.


During this slow, substantive switch, Disney had come along and purchased the show from Tribune Entertainment. It was 1986, and initially, the House of Mouse was happy to maintain the status quo. After all, they had a feather in their fleeting Buena Vista syndication cap, and a perceived inroad into the often contentious Hollywood vs. the Critical Community dynamic. Of course, the pair advocated loudly for their independence and ethics, but it seemed strange that a studio system addicted to the ‘yahs’ of various print/public prognosticators would actually underwrite individuals who were determining their product’s viability. As time became money became careers, Uncle Walt’s legacy began to, subtlety reconfigure the show. Gone was the demonstrative “Dog/Skunk of the Week”, in were VHS recommendations and, later, DVD picks. Clips began to take up more and more airtime, with partnership reduced to a couple of minutes of over generalization before rendering their ‘handy’ determinations.


The final blow came when Gene Siskel succumbed to cancer in 1999. He had been physically absent from the show for nearly a year, though he occasionally commented on films from the treatment center in the hospital. When he did die, many believed that the program was finally finished. It had been an amazing 24 year run, and with it, the coming and going of other potential partnerships (Jeffery Lyons and Neil Gabler/Michael Medved, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, etc.) and pretenders to their throne. Apparently, it was a tough decision for Ebert to continue on. He missed his longtime friend and fellow film lover, and recognized that he would never again find the chemistry that he had with his across town newspaper rival. But Disney was determined to keep the “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach intact. It didn’t want to see what was by now an accepted and expected part of the marketing machine to be lost – or even worse, usurped by some other company.


And this is the most important facet of Siskel and Ebert’s - eventually Ebert and Roeper’s - fate. Because of the continual marginalizing of the film critic’s role, thanks in large part to the “anyone can do it” availability of the web, nobody really cared what Roger and Richard had to say anymore. Instead, they wanted to cut to the decisive chase – what did the thumbs say? Two up – film must be good. Two down – a certifiable flop. One up and one down? Depends, who gave what? Oh, Ebert? He’s usually right. Roeper? God, what a shallow shill. Don’t believe what he says. As more and more showcase stunts and ancillary elements were tossed into the series, draining away the last vestiges of the considered film conversation concept, Buena Vista saw its opportunity. They fired several senior staff members, switched studios to save money, and in perhaps the most sickening ploy, used Ebert’s own battle with a terminal illness as the framework for downsizing and de-emphasizing the show’s syndication potential.


The final straw arrived last week, with Disney’s announcement that the newest season of Ebert and Roeper (with Roger still away recuperating, and Richard side saddled with a whole new crop of guest balcony warmers) would be presented sans thumbs. That’s right, after over 30 years of using the digit as a means of marking a film’s value and legitimacy, the show was going symbol-less. The reason was quite simple – remember that old trademark the original hosts secured back a couple of decades before. Contract negotiations for its use were ongoing between the studio and the series, with the House of Mouse lowballing everybody and everyone. They could see the weakening writing on the wall – Roeper, no matter who he’s paired with, was merely a placeholder. Without Ebert (who didn’t appear physically ready to return anytime soon) the premise was without purpose. Along with the continued fracturing of the fanbase, the dismissal of many print critics from the nation’s papers, and a growing wire presence throughout the media, it was obviously an end of some era.


So Ebert played his last trump card. He withheld authorization to use ‘the thumbs’. At least, that’s how Disney sees it, and what they intimated in their press release. The truth is a little more telling. The rights, still held by himself and the estate of Siskel, would no longer be part of the program - not without a new contract. Negotiations are ongoing. If - and it’s a big “if”, considering that most pundits are predicting the eventual cancellation of the series if a contract cannot be negotiated – the show returns, Roeper and his rash of interchangeable guests will be denied the right to provide an opposable ‘pass/fail’ to the movies they mention. It may seem petty, and so ingrained in the spirit of the show that it’s practically perfunctory, but Ebert is standing his ground. Frankly, at this point in his twilighting career, he has every damn right to. His Pulitzer Prize for criticism may be a tad tarnished from all the brash commercialization of his craft, and a legion of illegitimate naysayers trade on his talents every day while dismissing his importance to the profession, but as the creator of this filmic Frankenstein, he’s entitled to euthanize it any way he wants, if that’s what he wants.


It appears its now time to appreciate what we had, eulogize what we’re losing, and wonder where all this leaves the state of serious film analysis. Ebert still writes, and has turned www.atthemovies.com into a destination storehouse for every Siskel and Ebert episode ever created. Ever cognizant of his lingering legacy, he has tried to maintain a public façade while battling a crippling and energy draining disease. With or without television, with or without thumbs, as long as there are words, there will be a Roger Ebert. Few in the wildly overvalued podcast paradigm can claim as much. Sure, he may have started the downward spiral of his occupation into a slammed and sullied source of fanboy rejection, but without him, critics in general would still be seen as stuffed shirts sadly out of touch with a normal movie going crowd. Roger Ebert brought the arthouse to the Cineplex, introducing many to the luxuriant language of film. Though he rarely did it to a review in place, the inventor of ‘the thumbs’ has every right to remove them. In fact, he never really needed them in the first place.


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Sunday, Aug 26, 2007

With the proliferation of New Media in politics it has become abundantly clear that in the 21st Century no President, pundit or policy wonk is immune to the intense scrutiny of their own statements—whether made 13 days or 13 years ago. This became all too clear, once again, when Vice President Dick Cheney’s unusually prescient outtake on the “quagmire” in Iraq became ubiquitous on YouTube and Google video, providing fodder for anti-war bloggers and mainstream “traditional” media types. The video, taken from an interview from April 15th, 1994, shows the former Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush explaining why invading Iraq after America’s victorious Operation Desert Storm would have been a terrible idea. Of course, we all have a right to change our minds, but what’s so striking about this clip is how every prediction Cheney makes is on the money (destabilizing factors contributed to Iranian and Syrian influence; Kurdish aspirations for autonomy; American casualties; power vacuum after Saddam’s fall). The Republican response to these self-incriminating statement by Cheney has been pretty much the Republican response to just about everything over the six years—9/11. According to the Republican Party the attacks of Sept. 11th changed everything and, therefore, justifies every single Republican policy disaster made from here to eternity (wiretapping, preemptive war, suspension of habeas corpus). Of course, there was one other minor detail in Cheney resume between 1994 and present which may have contributed to his change-of-heart: his controversial tenure as CEO for energy behemoth and military contractor Halliburton. Of course, Cheney denies any ties to the corporation who once paid him $20 million just to retire, but is there any reason why we should believe anything this guy says anymore. 


Vice President Dick Cheney on Iraq



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Sunday, Aug 26, 2007


We’re in New York now—well, Nyu Yawk as they say over here—but I’m still in the midst of reporting how that happened, so, here’s more o’ dat . . .


 



JetBlue—how we arrived—is a stripped down affair. No frills. Do everything on line – reservations, seat assignments, baggage check. Even so, we couldn’t get the carrier to pair the four of us into 2 equal groups. The reason (aside from the fact that we reserved too late) was apparently that the kids were deemed by the computer to be kids (!) Try telling that to the son of mine whose response to “you need a haircut” is “do not” and the rejoinder to “Zander, your hair is too long” is “is not”. Now, in the face of a will like that, how can anyone say that that belongs to a kid?


But try explaining that to a machine. And since that machine deemed my kids to be kids, they were not allowed to occupy the 2 seats currently open alongside the exit. As such—and since we wanted two sets of twos—we had to finalize that reservation by phone. This involved more than a simple reservations clerk (wouldn’t you guess); it required the intervention of a manager countermanding the system and instructing the clerk.


So much for stripped down service. Humans still requisite cogs in any bureaucratic machine.


 


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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie STUDIOS manage in a lifetime. Lynch is a largely lamented figure in post-modern cinema, an individual noted as being purposefully obtuse and painfully non-commercial. In fact, his last few films – Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. , and now this – have been castigated as being indirect, indulgent, and purposefully arcane. In truth, such screeds are probably badges of honor for the 61 year old provocateur.


None of these contradictory conceits make INLAND EMPIRE any less fascinating. It’s a narrative built on feeling, a storyline set inside a wildly evolving world of sound and images. Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who actually takes the language of this artform on its literal face value. For him, no movie can be too loud. In his world, no visual violates the mandate of plot continuity. Began as a series of scene sketches – experiments with his newfound camcorder – Lynch lucked into Laura Dern while in France. Soon, the two were collaborating, traveling around the world, working out sequences and suggestions, sometimes on the fly. Once the material began to speak to its inventor, an idea was born. As he points out as part of a mesmerizing 20 minute interview on the two disc DVD release of this title (new from Rhino), you can never tell when such inspiration strikes – and you can never tell where it’s going to take you. In either case, he was compelled to hop on.


To describe the storyline here would be like trying to explain color, or telling how one hears the yearnings of the human heart. This is by far the most bizarre narrative Lynch has ever come up with, and this is the guy who turned Bill Pullman into Balthazar Getty as part of a psychogenic fugue. We begin with a prostitute facing an abusive John. Within minutes, she is sitting in a dingy room, crying. On TV, a surreal sitcom starring humanoid rabbits unfolds. Suddenly, we’re in Los Angeles, at the home of struggling actress Nikki Grace. Hoping to land a new role, she is visited by a strange Slavic woman who predicts she will get the part. She also hints that there will be “murder” in this new movie. After accepting the lead, Nikki meets her costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Together, they are informed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) that the shoot may be cursed. Apparently, a previous production tried to helm this seedy storyline about an adulterous couple. Right before the final scenes were filmed, the performers were killed.


Things go along swimmingly at first. The history is forgotten as Nikki and Devon dive into their work. With his history of womanizing, our leading man is warned about staying away from his costar. Her husband will kill you, and then her, they state. Soon, fate steps in and it appears the pair is involved. During some late night pillow talk, however, Nikki begins to crack up. She starts seeing visions – of the film set, of her husband, of another quite different life. Running away from the pain, she is propelled into a parallel plotline. Now in Poland, Nikki is a nameless hooker hoping to hire someone to off her abusive spouse. As she spills the story to a sleazy hood, we see the entire enterprise unfold. As part of a group of girls (for sale? as strippers? as pay for love whores?), she is jaded by the lack of respect she’s given. Even worse, there’s a man called the Phantom who may or may not be hurting these wanton women. Eventually, our pained prostitute is betrayed, and revenge seems the only way to settle the score – or is it all just part of Nikki’s new movie.


Since narrative is not the most important aspect of INLAND EMPIRE, deciphering what everything means seems pointless. For those requiring a more intellectualized approach, there are two ways to interpret what happens here. Either the callgirl we see at the start of the movie is fantasizing about a life outside her flesh peddling profession (including a career as an actress which morphs into a vigilante-like pimp killer) or Laura Dern’s actress loses herself so completely in her part that the material she is using as internalized motivation (brutalized trollop, unhappy mistress) starts manifesting itself in her waking life. Anyway you look at it, we are standing firmly in standard Lynch land. Long a filmmaker who favored the feminine point of view in his films, we get a terrific tour de force performance from Dern, who’s obviously in sync with what her director is doing. Taking a production credit and appearing in almost every scene, we witness the kind of layered, dense characterization that makes this heralded actress one of the best still working in the business.


In fact, the rest of the cast is almost ancillary. Theroux, who excelled in Mulholland Dr. , is so distant he’s almost indistinct here. He’s playing aloof and lost, and said psychological suggestions come across loud and clear. Jeremy Irons, as Kingsley, is lovely in what can best be described as ‘on a lark’ mode. His interactions with sidekick Harry Dean Stanton are fantastic. Other Lynch notables include Grace Zabriskie as the sinister soothsayer, and Diane Ladd as a dirt dishing tabloid TV reporter (her single scene is marvelous). More intriguing are blink and you’ll miss them moments with William H. Macy, Julia Ormond, and an amazing turn by Mary Steenburgen. As a cast completely capable of infusing their scenes with the many moods Lynch requires, the players involved are absolutely flawless – and that includes the many participants from Poland. Having to translate his dialogue into their native tongue before they could contribute, they are seamlessly incorporated into the Tinsel Town talent pool – sometimes, even stealing scenes from them.


This results in a kind of motion picture mesmerism. Even without completely understanding everything that’s going on, INLAND EMPIRE sucks you in and holds every fiber of your being. Lynch is such a complete filmmaker – focusing on every aspect of production, from design and lightning to editing and scoring – that he provides maximum enjoyment out of a minimum of cinematic standards. We get caught up in the mystery, though we readily recognize that there will be more confusion than clues. When individuals speak in the standard Lynchian riddles, we sit back and soak in every non-sequitor. There are moments of mean spirited menace here, as well as segments of sly social commentary and justifiable gender politics. A sequence where the white slaves dance to Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” is as startling for how it arrives as for how abruptly it ends. Similarly, the big picture storyline suggests that all women are heroes, villains, whores, saints, lovers, adulterers, mothers and mistresses. While that may seem like a critical overreach, an in-depth dissection of INLAND EMPIRE’s many sequences surely backs up this appraisal.


Those hoping for insight via this new DVD will be rightly disappointed. Lynch is notoriously gun shy about clarifying his films, wanted them to be experienced, not explained. There is a wealth of deleted scenes – or as they are referred to here, “More Things That Happened”, and the aforementioned Q&A (entitled “Stories”) revolve around the production and his perspective on art. Heck, about the only solid thing we learn is that Lynch HATES most home video (watching any film on a phone or a computer is “sickening”, in his mind) and that he really enjoys a good batch of Quinoa. Other added features include a nine minute ballerina montage, a collection of trailers, a wealth of publicity and behind the scenes stills, and something referred to as “Lynch 2”. This humorous piece appears to be a backstage glimpse of the man in action, and let’s just say, he’s an ornery cuss at times.


Frankly, he has a right to be. All David Lynch really wants to do is make movies his way. He doesn’t want interference from bottom line loving studio suits, and doesn’t need to conform to the succinct scheduling a Tinsel Town supported effort would require. For him, the digital domain is the futuristic wave he’s been waiting to ride – and it has to be said, this is one amazing non-celluloid effort. Michael Mann may be the perceived reigning prince of this new motherboard medium, but INLAND EMPIRE puts the cinematography in Collateral/Miami Vice to shame. And since he can work at his own speed, spending less money while getting more “movie” in the process, this may mark a kind of renaissance for the mostly marginalized director. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how fascinating his oeuvre remains, even though he seems to take forever in between projects. Part of the problem is clearly financial. No one likes to throw dollars after indefinable art. They want sellable product, that’s all. David Lynch will always weigh the creative higher than the commercial. INLAND EMPIRE is a pristine example of these principles in action.



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