Monday, August 31, 2009

The Legend of Lobo (1962)

Directed by James Algar by Jack Couffer. In 1962 Walt Disney made this snuff film for children, showing beautiful wild animals and then shooting them full of lead. Based on my years of film watching, I'm not really sure how certain scenes in this movie could have been made without simply chaining up animals and shooting them with guns. This may explain why the movie is long out of print, because otherwise, I have to say, it's pretty damn good.

It's the late 19th century and Lobo is a curious little wolf cub who grows up and has a number of adventures. At least one of his adventures involves cowboys shooting a cougar, in a scene that looks uncannily as if the cougar used in the scene was actually shot. In another of Lobo's adventure's the cowboys shoot his mother. While we don't actually see them shoot her, we do see her dead on the ground, and while I have never seen a dead wolf for real before, I'd be willing to bet that it looks exactly like the one shown here, which also looks exactly like the one that had been alive in the scene just beforehand. In another of Lobo's adventures, his father steps into a cast iron trap, which cuts badly into his leg. It would appear that in order to achieve just the right level of verisimilitude for this scene, they had a wolf step into a cast iron trap.

In another of Lobo's adventures -- well, you get the idea. I'm not sure how they managed to get footage of Lobo fighting with another wolf, but I'm just saying, this flick was made long before the days of any humane society rules governing filming animals and it really, really shows.

It's weird that when we didn't care how animals were treated in filming, we also wanted movies about animals getting shot and beaten. And today, when there are lots of rules governing how animals are treated on set, it's not as if we fake those sorts of things. We just don't have any interest in that sort of stuff, plot-wise either. Our real-life concerns mirror what we want to see in those movies. Animation is the way to go. If we want to see violence with animals, we should animate them. Then the sky's the limit. We could have fish get into knife fights.

Actually, there is a gap in real-life movies between what we're OK with seeing and how it needed to be filmed. "Benji." That kidnapper dude kicks Benji's girlfriend, that little shitty white dog. That 1974 scene is contemporary enough that it must have been faked with some kind of bell-bottom era Beanie Baby, but the movie was still made when a good old fashioned puppy kicking made it into theaters -- something unthinkable today.

Damn. Now I have to see "Benji." And if I'm going to see that, I might as well go ahead and finally check out its sequel -- which I've never seen -- "For the Love of Benji," which I'm sure is a masterpiece. And naturally that reminds me of Chevy Chase in "Oh, Heavenly Dog!" in which he plays a guy whose soul passes into the body of a dog. In addition to simply being a movie star whose entire career passed into a series of dogs.

Duel (1971)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. This was Steven Spielberg's first feature-length directing job, a 1971 TV-movie based on a short story by Richard Matheson. Spielberg had directed TV shows, in particular a two-hour episode of "Columbo" that's actually one of that show's best, though technically he'd never done a movie.

"Duel" launched his career in part because he did a great job but also because he had the good sense to jump on this opportunity in the first place, knowing that simplicity is what puts a director center stage. "Duel" is an absurdly simple idea. A business man (played by Dennis Weaver) tries to drive to a meeting but is taunted by the unseen driver of a run-down tanker truck. The more he tries to get away, the more enraged the trucker seems to become.

The TV-movie plays out like an extended "Twilight Zone" segment, mostly maintaining its watchability on the strength of Spielberg's direction. Lean as it is, the script is too thick, unnecessarily bulked up with Weaver's thoughts, dropped in as reverb-laden voice overs. Y'know, "Why won't he leave me alone?" Junk like that. You have to figure that when Dennis Weaver was alive he probably praised this flick up and down constantly because it was Steven Spielberg, and he was hoping to God to get cast in "Saving Private Ryan Again" or whatever, but the fact is, Dennis Weaver was a pretty goddamn good actor and didn't need a voice over to communicate to his audience that his character wondered "Why won't he leave me alone?" as a mysterious unseen stranger driving a rusty oil tanker repeatedly rear-ended him at 60 m.p.h while careening down a mountain road.

Still, it's all very exciting, or at least the first 70 or so minutes is. Then you find yourself thinking that, as long as we're clearly never going to see the truck driver -- because he represents the faceless inevitability of death, or whatever the fuck -- can we please just get to the resolution here? Either this guy is going to cheat death ("...for now.") or death will find him in the end and drive off into the distance (" look for its next victim.").

So. It just doesn't take us quite as long to figure out that those are our only two choices. I think we're supposed to be a little further out on the edges of our seats hoping to see who the truck driver is. Maybe I'm a little too jaded and familiar with film school types to enjoy this movie as much as I would have liked.

If you're into seeing this for the piece of movie/TV history it is, I highly recommend it. The opening titles, by the way are great -- it looks like Quentin Tarantino may have lifted them for "Death Proof."

Monday, August 24, 2009

American Beer (2005)

Directed by Paul Kermizian. If you know me, and why would you be reading this if you didn't, you know I've been working insane hours. I've been seriously considering changing careers. Part of this fantasy came from seeing "American Beer," a poorly shot, wonderfully satisfying documentary about a group of friends who visit 38 U.S. breweries in 40 days.

They interview microbrewers, who by the way, are all beautifully nuts. If you look at the pure numbers of the beer industry, it's nothing but corporate consolidation -- 70% of beer consumption is three brands, while craft beers consist of well under ten percent. Yet, planned and executed properly, these microbrewers are happy proprietors of successful small businesses and ecstatic customers love their products.

It reminded me a lot of the independent music business of the '90s, when (some) bands and (some) record companies figured out how to keep margins low and find a sufficiently sized enough fan base to keep a business afloat that existed completely outside of the mainstream and compromised nothing.

The real inspiration to me came at the end of the flick, when the obligatory "where are they now" moment explained that one of the guys on the road trip was so knocked out by the whole thing that he opened the Cape Ann Brewery in Gloucester, Mass., which I checked out online and found is running fine and has decent distribution. Now I want to quit my tedious desk job and open a microbrewery that has an authentic pit barbecue. It would be the only one I have ever heard of, and I can't imagine who wouldn't want to go there, since it seems like there must be absurd crossover between the groups of people who love each of those things. Somebody else open this place so that I can go there.

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. There is nothing more pathetic than a dormant blog, unless of course nobody reads it. I remember once Albert Brooks on the Howard Stern Show telling a story about doing a radio show interview for nearly two hours before the disc jockey figured out that they'd been off the air for more than an hour, and not one person had called to let the jock know. Nobody has bitched to me about not complaining about movies, though to be sure, I have always known this is more for me than anybody else.

It's not clear whether the question is to write or not write? As expression, surely it is a form of therapy. I've been working 60-hour weeks, but I haven't stopped watching movies. In between watching the Red Sox gradually throw away this season and reading a bit I have grabbed bits of movies, occasionally at 4AM when coming home from the days at the office that began at 6AM the day before. Maybe I'll eventually write about some of these:
  • The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)
  • Killer Bees (1974)
  • The Savage Bees (1976)
  • Knocked Up (2007)
  • Turistas (2006)
  • Smile (1975)
  • What About Bob? (1991)
  • One Crazy Summer (1986)
  • Roxanne (1987)
  • The Bad News Bears (1976)
  • The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)
  • Crank (2006)
  • Miss March (2009)
  • Frost/Nixon (2008)
  • We Are Marshall (2006)
  • The Wackness (2008)
  • He's Just Not That Into You (2009)
  • So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993)
  • Bee Movie (2007)
  • Fast Food Nation (2006)
  • 52 Pick Up (1986)
  • Reality Bites (1994)
  • The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
  • How to Steal a Million (1966)
  • The Double McGuffin (1979)
And speaking of "The Double McGuffin," don't get me started on the number of rare movies I've acquired in the last month or so that I haven't looked at. It's heartbreaking. I'm used to baseball season cutting into seeing movies, but work has made this silly. I'm seriously thinking of changing careers. Something big needed to happen to kick me and force me to make time to write again.

Enter Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds." I literally count down time to the release of each new Tarantino movie. I put it on the calendar and the day a new one is released I find a way to sneak out of work early to see it, if possible.

The best thing about the prospect of Tarantino making a WWII picture is destruction of the mold. A broad history of WWII flicks suggests two categories: early ones that dramatize significant historic events ("The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Where Eagles Dare") and contemporary ones that exploit the rhetorical question of how the holocaust was allowed to occur ("Schindler's List," "The Reader").

All deaths are not equal. We cry during "Schindler's List" because the genocide depicted is real and we realize just how recent it was. We do not feel as empathic toward the Nazis brutally beaten and scalped in "Inglorious Basterds" because the specific incidents and the story is fiction and we feel they have it coming. But there are major parts of history re-written here, and there is some savage violence that is effectively humanized amid the fiction. We're entertained but make no mistake; we are forced to deal head-on with our anger and realize that we don't feel the same way about all real-life deaths.

Everything here is not effective. Despite what Tarantino is saying in every talk show interview promoting this flick, I'm not so sure Brad Pitt was perfect for this. His first appearance onscreen is his most critical scene. But his furrowed brow and aimless pacing suggest more an actor struggling to remember his lines than one establishing a bond with either other characters or the audience.

That's the only big problem with this movie. Compared to Tarantino's other movies, this one is missing real chemistry between the characters onscreen. An exception is Col. Hans Landa, who is played by a German actor, Christoph Waltz, in his first American film. Anytime this Nazi character spends any amount of time onscreen, it's a powerful, tense exchange. But he's a Nazi, so it's not really a conversation, it's an interrogation. You can't blame Col. Handa for that. He's just doing his job. At 2.5 hours, while there's almost nothing but dialogue in this movie, there's precious little conversation.

All that said, "Inglorious Basterds" will end up one of the best movies of the year, and Waltz will unquestionably be nominated for an Oscar. Since Pitt is in the movie, Waltz will get only a supporting actor nomination, which is too bad, since I'm sure he has more screen time in this than Pitt, but that's the way it goes.