Skip’s Quips: My Feelings About Cronenberg, Yuckiness and ‘Maps to the Stars’

Blog Sketch 082813David Cronenberg’s movies will rub you one way or another, there’s no doubt about that. I think his latest opus, Maps to the Stars, will be in that category, too.

The question is, will it be as strong as his previous efforts, from Scanners to Eastern Promises? I’m not so sure. In general, this director has been one of the strongest (and in my opinion, one of the most underrated) in the industry, with a talent for generating oodles of interesting plots amid creatively yucky violence, biological horror and strong performances. It’s hard to say whether he has been a favorite of mine, but his body of work is unique, and his talent is always apparent. Plus, he’s quite consistent, even when working with subpar material; you can generally find some kind of inspiration there, no matter what.

So why am I so skeptical about Maps to the Stars?

I guess the main reason is because it has one of my least-favorite actors in it: John Cusack. That, to me, is not a lure; I generally don’t care for Cusack’s performances and find most of the vehicles I’ve seen him in to be maudlin. Though his presence in the movie isn’t a deal-breaker, it doesn’t bode well for the picture. It’s not the type of casting that’ll make me want to see it.

Still, Cronenberg’s direction brings with it the possibility of surmounting any obstacles, and it’s possible that Maps to the Stars could offer quite a bit. If it’s anything like the filmmaker’s vintage movies, that would be a triumph.

Hopefully, that’ll be the case.

Skip’s Quips: Why the Heck Isn’t ‘Stolen Kisses’ Better Known?

Blog Sketch 082813There are famous movies, and then there are infamous movies.

There are also movies by famous directors that kind of slip under the radar, like François Truffaut’s terrific 1968 film Stolen Kisses. I’m not sure why this great picture, one of the most romantic I’ve seen, isn’t up there with The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim in the count of the director’s masterpieces. Once upon a time, it got criticized for not being political enough in an era when riots and protests were filling the streets, but I think with Stolen Kisses, that’s beside the point. It’s only political in its accurate, carefree depiction of relationships, which is, in my humble opinion, revolutionary. I’ve never seen anything else like it.

Everything in this glittering piece of celluloid is superb: the cinematography, the editing (catch the quick, multiple cuts in the scene where Antoine Doinel enters someone’s hotel room and discovers adultery in action), the performances, the script. This is a movie where the filmmaker is in complete control. Nothing is wasted.

I wish I could say that for the host of lackluster movies that appeared in 2014.

But I don’t think we’re going to get a flick like Stolen Kisses again. Perhaps that’s for the better; you can’t repeat such unique magnificence. I would, however, like this film to be upon critics’ lips more often. It sure deserves to be, and I’ll continue to talk about it in the hopes that my wish for it will come true. Certainly, it’s an under-seen movie. Ideally, that’ll change.

Skip’s Quips: ‘Nebraska,’ Montana, Ooh, I’m Gonna Pan Ya

Blog Sketch 082813Actually, I’m not, because I actually liked Alexander Payne’s intimate black-and-white film Nebraska. I just wanted to write a silly headline.

But seriously, folks. This was a pretty good movie. Bruce Dern as the aging, oft-confused, alcoholic father of electronics salesman Will Forte. June Squibb as Forte’s bitter mom. Stacy Keach (!) as Dern’s nemesis and onetime business partner. And they’re all part of a plot to recover a million bucks in winnings that Dern’s character thinks is owed him because he got a “You’ve just won $1 million” notice in the mail.

I think the movie should’ve been a lot more depressing, but Payne keeps the dialogue spare and the direction light. The action actually had movement, a place to go. And yes, there is an arc. So nice job. I’m not a fan of all of Payne’s flicks (I thought Election was particularly mean-spirited), but he’s definitely a filmmaker with destinations in mind and the ability to get there with economy. And although I don’t feel Nebraska is a masterpiece, it’s a smart, small film with a good tale to tell. It works. And it makes for a worthy evening.

On to the next movie.

From Skip and Setter’s Creator: My Next Opus on CURNBLOG … This Time With Susan Seidelman

Blog Sketch of Me 092213Hi, folks! My new interview on CURNBLOG is up, and it’s a good one: I talk to Susan Seidelman, director of films such as Desperately Seeking Susan, about balancing comedy and drama, Hollywood’s treatment of female talent, and her own cinematic influences. You can read more here:

I hope you like it.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Coming to Bury Rather Than Praise

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Are we allowed nowadays to express how little we’ve learned from Pauline Kael’s film reviews?

Or is that speaking ill of the dead? Because the last thing I’d want to do is speak ill of the dead … though, as I recall, Kael often spoke ill of the living, so that’s fine, right?

For instance: There was that completely non-judgmental review of Dances with Wolves, remember, where she suggests that director Kevin Costner has “feathers in his head”? That’s OK to say, isn’t it? I mean, levying personal insults at the filmmaker rather than criticizing the film is copacetic, no?

No. It sure ain’t. And I don’t think it makes sense to do that—no matter how bad the director’s films are.

Saying a flick’s poor in some way is, to my mind, much more fair. One of the reasons I never found Kael’s reviews enlightening is that they tended to include content, like the feather-festooned phrase cited above, that directly attacked those involved in the movies’ creation, for some reason, and that’s not valid criticism. Blast the film, not the maker. If the director’s a bad person, that’s one thing, but it also may be irrelevant. The picture is the thing when composing a movie review, and it should focus on that while describing what isn’t to like about the director’s techniques rather than the individual as a person. Keep the nastiness to the work.

I’ve never subscribed to the Cult of Kael, and although this is a big reason why, it isn’t the only one. I disagreed with her many a time on her perspectives, though once in a while I concurred. Yet her insistence on personal insults kept me from admiring her work overall. There are plenty of good critics in this world who maintain honesty without succumbing to such practices. Too bad Kael couldn’t do the latter. Frankly, I couldn’t praise that if I tried.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Sympathy for the Movies’ Devils

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613To lift (and thoroughly mangle) a line from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of an irredeemable movie villain or one with nuance and definition.

On the one hand, I believe a great portrayal of a vile, two-dimensionally loathsome evildoer can make a film–Dirty Harry is one example, with Andy Robinson’s sinister “Scorpio” killer giving viewers every reason to boo him. But then you have pictures such as M and Precious,  whose ghastly, repellent villains both get speeches at the end that aim to suggest they remain human … despite their horrific acts.

Not surprisingly, those last two films are a lot harder to watch than Dirty Harry–or, for that matter, any other flick with baddies you love to hate. And I think it’s because making a choice about a character is much more difficult than having one already made for you.

There’s definitely a time and place for movies with clear-cut antagonists. Sometimes, these films can be masterpieces: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King offers evidence of this. Yet the main evildoer, Sauron, is hardly well defined. He’s just … evil. Even Darth Vader from Star Wars shows more love than mean old Sauron. You can blame the great actor James Earl Jones for infusing Vader’s voice with character.

Giving a frightening villain more than one shade doesn’t always work, and it’s not right for every movie. But good directors can make unwieldy things fit while asking questions you don’t want to answer. Alfred Hitchcock did just that in Strangers on a Train and Frenzy, both of which have scenes where the killers frantically try to retrieve misplaced pieces of evidence. Hitch makes us almost feel for these creeps as he forces us to watch their travails. That’s manipulative, folks–manipulative to the nth degree. But it’s something only a great artist can do.

Ultimately, characters with multiple dimensions–whether they’re good or evil–add heft to a movie. It may not be a heft you enjoy, but it’s solid nonetheless and often points to a film’s quality. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to watch them over and over to see if the villain gets his or her due, but it suggests that there’s something more about the picture than providing “you-must-pay-the-rent” thrills.

That’s risk in my book, and filmmakers who take it for art’s sake deserve a hand.

Skip’s Quips: Cinema of the Irritating

Blog Sketch 082813A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (well, Manhattan), I was told by an otherwise rational budding critic that Jean-Luc Godard was the real French New Wave director–not François Truffaut.

In the words of Michael Caine’s character Peachy Carnehan in The Man Who Would Be King: “Pardon me while I fall down laughing.”

Yes, this was told to me in all seriousness, with the utmost authority. I guess if you make movies that are too enjoyable, it’s trendy to discount them in favor of more “experimental” cinema.

Frankly, I like to be entertained. And in general, Truffaut’s body of work is light-years more entertaining than Godard’s–Breathless aside.

You’re right: The critic’s point was that Godard was more of a New Wave exponent than Truffaut … not necessarily a better filmmaker (although I think that was implied). Yet I’ll have to disagree with this, too. Truffaut’s edgy cuts, intimate camera, and use of tricks ranging from irises to freeze-frames invigorated the cinema, bringing it close to an accessible, pertinent ideal. That his films are greater, in general, than Godard’s is just gravy. It’s François I think of when I think of La Nouvelle Vague, not Jean-Luc.

Do I consider Breathless a hallmark of world cinema? Of course. But I consider it a Truffaut film, anyway. Sans François, Godard’s films aren’t as good–and often veer on the irritating.

To be a “real” artist in any medium, one must excel in the field. That’s why I also prefer Alban Berg’s compositions to Arnold Schoenberg’s–despite the latter’s involvement in the development of 12-tone music. And I like Picasso’s art more than Braque’s, though they both had a hand in Cubism. The greater creator is the real one, the one whose works you’d rather absorb.

At least, that’s my reality. Is it everyone’s?

Ha. In my dreams.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Musings on Herzog, ‘Aguirre’ and General Zaniness

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I don’t love all of Werner Herzog’s movies, but I have to tell ya: He’s cut in a truly original mold.

A recent viewing of Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe on Turner Classic Movies got me thinking about the oft-brilliant, sometimes-obsessive and frequently zany director and his oeuvre, which includes one of my favorite films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It’s a movie that defines him in a sense–a superbly shot, hauntingly scored (the dreamlike, pulsating music was crafted by Popul Vuh) picture about megalomania and how it can carry, and ultimately destroy, human endeavors. The megalomaniac in question is Aguirre himself, a crazed, based-on-a-real-person conquistador played with frightening abandon by Klaus Kinski, who teeters, glowers and broods throughout the flick as he carries out a mutiny of a 16th-century Spanish expedition to find gold amid the Amazonian jungle. As I remembered the great moments that characterized this adventure, I wondered if only a person as mad as Aguirre himself could make it, capturing hallucinogenic images such as a line of soldiers and their retinue struggling to climb down a verdant, mist-covered mountain, a head continuing to count numbers even after its owner has been decapitated, and the final scenes in which Aguirre, his doomed raft overrun by monkeys, talks to no one about his plans for global domination…no one, because everyone in his party is dead, a fact revealed memorably by the famous, swooping shot at the end.

But Herzog isn’t mad. I think he’s quite sane, though I wonder if he likes the thought that people may think he’s mad. Really, he’s an old-fashioned showman with magnificent obsessions and a talent for promoting idea-rich films made on low budgets. And I value this image he’s cultivated, because we don’t see a lot of it. It’s a mix of Hitchcock’s talent for marketing with Kurosawa’s quest for perfection, and the stories Herzog tells about his exploits rival the great ones in the cinematic lexicon–including the one about Kurosawa ordering the set of Throne of Blood to be rebuilt because he saw a nail that wouldn’t have been there during the period in which the movie takes place.

That’s not madness, folks. It’s art, and it suggests a commitment to its creation that only the most dedicated craftsmen have.

I wish there were more filmmakers like Herzog around these days, filmmakers who take risks and know how to advertise themselves. Yet there’s only one Herzog, and I think we have to be content with that. I’m certainly pleased that he gave us Aguirre, though I realize that if there’s anything that defines its creator, it’s not madness but determination and a need to produce art.

Thank you, then, Werner Herzog.

Skip’s Quips: Of Titles and Trollope

Blog Sketch 082813Back in the day–and I mean back, at a time when I thought Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings was the definitive version–I perused my parents’ bookshelves frequently in search of tomes with curious titles. A particular favorite: Is He Popenjoy?, an Anthony Trollope novel that, as a child, I couldn’t fathom reading but nevertheless intrigued me as I wondered if the character was indeed, well, Popenjoy.

Years later, I realized what had struck me about the title. It’s pressing, insistent. combining an unusual name with a terse question–making you want to find the answer.

I think a lot of filmmakers today could learn from old Trollope.

All right–bad titles aren’t necessarily a modern malady. They’ve existed even before They Knew What They Wanted debuted in 1940. But I think there’s a relatively recent tendency to drop the intrigue in movie monikers and take the easy way out. Just look at the past decade’s slate of Meet the [Silly/Generic Surname Here] flicks. Danger, Will Robinson. Dreary trend ahead.

I guess it’s a positive that filmmakers have eased up on putting exclamation points in their movie titles or experimenting with the excruciatingly wacky names that were so prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s. Yet we still get stuff like Fled and We’re the Millers, where the labels are either awkward (the former) or obvious (guess) while lacking any hook. True, that may not matter when it comes to popularity–Millers is evidence of that–but when it comes to quality cinema, don’t we want a title that can grab us? Shouldn’t it give us an idea of why we’d want to see the movie it’s tied to…without telling us too much?

I don’t think a film will necessarily be lousy if it doesn’t have an interesting title. But it’s hard for me not to judge a DVD by its case. Today, as I recall my times examining volumes on my parents’ bookshelf, I wonder if Trollope would agree with me on the importance of naming movies–adaptations of his works included.

Somehow, I don’t think Meet Popenjoy would fly.

Setter’s ‘Spective: When Filmmakers Lose Their Zip

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Willie Mays and Alfred Hitchcock had a lot in common.

“Huh?” you say. “Stop kidding me.”

But it’s true. Both started inauspiciously: Hitch with silent films, Mays on the baseball diamond. Neither hit their stride until a few years into their careers, and then they produced brilliantly season after season until declining in their later days.

And no, I don’t think Family Plot holds a candle to the master’s greatest works. Same with Mays’ Mets experience. You got flashes of their old selves, but they couldn’t bring back everything. Ultimately, what you retained was nostalgia.

And that’s what I’m thinking about many other talented filmmakers. They often peak like athletes, then may lose their inspiration, as a pitcher loses his fastball or a hitter loses his bat speed. This happened, I feel, to Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut. And I think it’s happening to Martin Scorsese.

I’m concerned that this terrific American director has already given us his masterpieces–that we’ll have to be content with flicks like Shutter Island and Gangs of New York: flawed, intermittently enjoyable movies that lack the risks taken in his greatest works (Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellas are three examples). You still see that fluid camerawork in his movies, those crisp cuts, but the cohesiveness and definition that marked his earlier films aren’t there.

I’m sad about this, but I understand. I think it’s quite natural. You rarely find a director or an athlete who produces through the end of his or her career. Luis Buñuel, I think was one, as was Ted Williams. But they don’t appear often. Most humans ultimately decline.

I’m not saying Scorsese should stop making movies or that his career is over. Far from it. Frankly, I hope he crafts hit after hit after hit. But it’ll be hard for him to match the quality of his output from the 1970s to the mid-1990s.

You may tell me it isn’t fair to expect that–that he’s evolved as a filmmaker. I’ll agree. It isn’t fair.

Yet you always expect a home run from your hero, right?

Me, I always do.