Skip’s Quips: Pynchon, ‘Inherent Vice’ and Sloppy Moviemaking

Blog Sketch 082813Paul Thomas Anderson is a good director. Thomas Pynchon is a good writer. But will the film based on his novel Inherent Vice be any good?

That’s what I’m wondering some days after seeing the trailer to the picture, which made the flick look like a bit of a mess. Possibly an amusing mess, but a mess all the same.

I’m not totally happy with those prospects.

I like my movies tight, not sprawling. Frankly, I’m a bit worried that “sprawling” will be a euphemistic description of this film. Other movies in this director’s canon, including Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, were sprawling in an interesting way, meandering with purpose, getting audiences to wonder what would happen next. What I’m concerned about with Inherent Vice is that it will be directionless, muddled – that we’ll be sick of predicting where it’s going by the time we get halfway through it. And that could be a cinematic problem.

Sure, it might be on a par with Anderson’s other projects, in which case I’ll be more than pleased. But I’m cautiously pessimistic here. Not sure that’ll be the case.

We’ll see.

Skip’s Quips: Sex and the Surreal Side of the ‘Tabloid’ Arena

Blog Sketch 082813I like Errol Morris’ documentaries. He’s not my favorite director, but he picks interesting subjects and films them creatively.

Tabloid is no exception. A Morris-helmed documentary about the adventures of Joyce McKinney – a supposedly all-American gal who captured the loins of the British press in the 1970s by allegedly abducting and sexifying a Mormon boyfriend whilst in the United Kingdom – the film offers an intriguing, sometimes tongue-in-cheek look at a very smart, possibly disturbed woman and the bizarre life she once led. Interviewees include McKinney and a couple of British tabloiders who worked on the story back in the day, who provide a variety of opinions and perspectives. The movie does leave things relatively ambiguous as to who is the wronged party, and it’s a credit to Morris that it does so.

A few issues: Some of the edits aren’t seamless, leaving wide swaths of black screen before jumping to the next scene. And then there is the humorous commentary, consisting of certain words blown up to immense proportions on camera, as well as old footage meant to shed light on amusing or telling situations. I think the film would’ve worked better without these bells and whistles; it would’ve seemed more impartial, allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting documentary – another strange, beguiling piece of filmmaking by a very inventive director. He’s got quite a strong portfolio right now. I’d be curious to see what he adds to it.

Skip’s Quips: ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ a Glorious Tale of Failure and Success

Blog Sketch 082813It turns out that I didn’t watch Searching for Sugar Man at dinnertime tonight, as I originally predicted.

I watched it before that, in the early afternoon.

And what a film it is. The story of the hunt for 1970s musician Sixto Rodriguez – who made a huge impression in South Africa but hardly any commercial impact in the United States – Searching for Sugar Man is a terrific documentary about failure and success … about a man who seemingly doesn’t crave glory or riches, but is content to live a generally quiet life despite his fame across the pond. This movie is directed superbly by Malik Bendjelloul and is packed with classic Rodriguez tunes, all of which I hadn’t heard before. They lend themselves well to the film, which features plenty of fascinating interviews with Rodriguez’s colleagues, fans and family, as well as the man himself.

I felt that this was a sad picture, despite the fact that it has a happy ending. But then my wife asked me why I should feel that way, and I started to think differently. So what if Rodriguez doesn’t revel in the trappings of fame and fortune, like many other celebrities? Is it a fault to live so simply, to – seemingly – want so little? Perhaps it’s just an indication of what kind of man Rodriguez is: a person who doesn’t gravitate to the same things most of us do. Does that make him a tragic figure?

I guess it doesn’t. It actually makes him triumphant. Which the film is as well. I’m happy to have seen it, heard the songs. And I’m happy there are people out there like Rodriguez. He really made this Searching worthwhile.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: The Times They Are A-Spacin’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613My father has an interesting story that he likes to tell about the original Star Wars movie.

Back in the late 1970s, after the flick came out, he went to see it in the theater. Once there, after the picture started, he fell asleep.

What? you say. Fell asleep during Star Wars?

Yea, verily, yea. Apparently, all the noise and flashing lights from those proletarian blasters combined with the dark theater put him right into slumberland.

Nowadays, that may seem bizarre, but it’s an interesting reflection of the times, I think. In those days, not everyone regarded Star Wars as the classic it’s thought of today. Even Alec Guinness, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, reportedly didn’t think much of the script when he first read it. Since then, after repeated viewings, my father has come to like the film, but it took a while for that to happen. Like a fine wine (or perhaps, more appropriately, cheese) Star Wars gets better as it gets older. And it just goes to show you: Not everything good has immediate appeal.

See? Sometimes, to decide whether you like something, you just gotta sleep on it.

Skip’s Quips: Slamming the State of Serious ’70s Sci-Fi

Blog Sketch 082813Gosh, Rollerball is a mediocre movie.

I came to this realization after giving the Norman Jewison-helmed sci-fi flick yet another chance on Turner Classic Movies last night. It confirmed all my previous assessments: that it’s pretentious, tiresome and not as introspective as it thinks it is. The blame can partly fall on the script–which documents a future society in which corporations rule the world and sanction the violent, eponymous arena game–but it also features a lethargic performance by the usually reliable James Caan, slow-paced direction by Jewison (no, shots of people turning their heads to stare at the protagonist menacingly are not a substitute for character development) and dubious social commentary … most lamentably evidenced by a scene in which a posse of doltish partygoers representing, I assume, our worst inner voices, commit arboricide with the help of a rather powerful gun.

OK, I get it. Humans are bad. We like wars and killing trees. Fine.

We also like quality filmmaking–and Rollerball doesn’t cut it. The main problem, however, is that it could’ve been so much better, like so many other serious 1970s sci-fi flicks. Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, Soylent Green … science fiction really had a lot to say in that era, but a scarce few films then aced the sniff test. I wish the folks behind them had taken the time to streamline the scripts, make the messaging less heavy-handed, kept the preaching to a minimum. Forbidden Planet‘s a benchmark. So is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Spare, concise screenplays, quick-flowing dialogue, tense direction. That’s all you want in a good sci-fi movie, and you don’t find that a lot in the “golden” age of the 1970s. Ideas are almost commonplace. Execution isn’t.

So why is that? I know that period heralded an age of cinematic risks, and many of the non-sci-fi films then exemplified that. Yet with the exception of pictures such as Fantastic Planet and A Clockwork Orange, many of these flicks don’t live up to their expectations. Yes, I know the 1970s also saw the debuts of Alien and Star Wars, but those are less like “message” movies than old-fashioned, leave-your-thinking-at-the-door entertainment.

Rollerball, at its core, is a message movie. And it doesn’t work. Does that mean sci-fi should be devoid of messages altogether–that it should stick to what it does best? (Read: lasers.)

I don’t think so. But it’s something I’ll ponder next time I watch one of these futuristic “man-must” movies. Man must do this, man must do that.

Man must make better science fiction films, methinks.