Rapid Response: Ed Wood

Ed Wood is considered the worst director who ever lived. He held this title for so long, and it wasn’t until recently that my generation has established new cult heroes of awful cinema such as Tommy Wisseau and Uwe Boll and seem to have forgotten Wood somewhat. Beyond that, there is a belief that “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is actually not the worst film ever made but one of the BEST films ever made, that it’s awful sets, performances and effects and complete disregard for continuity was all brilliantly intentional and ironic. Only in the 21st century would such a mindset develop.

It doesn’t help that Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” despite being released in his heyday of the ’90s, despite being one of his most critically acclaimed films and despite starring his eternal frontman Johnny Depp, is one of his least known films amongst the many Burton fanboys still agreeing how great “Alice in Wonderland” was (it’s not).

In this film, Burton doesn’t necessarily vindicate Wood as a genius, but he is sympathetic to him, and he recognizes a certain level of genius (albeit one that doesn’t indicate something “good”) in him absent from most other directors of all time. Depp infuses Wood with a sheer level of optimism and grinning credulity for everything around him, and such was the way Wood directed his movies, in love with every shot and every line of dialogue as a work of art. It’s not that he was blind to his own failure as well as other’s greatness. In his mind, everyone was great.

The film is hilarious, one of my favorite lines being, “Aren’t you a fag? What? No, I’m just a transvestite.” Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, who starred in numerous Wood films, is terrific, as is Bill Murray as an arguably odd and unnecessary character, Bunny Breckenridge. The black and white cinematography has that great ’50s B-Movie vibe, and the scenes in which they recreate “Plan 9 from Outer Space” are priceless in their precision to the film (which I’ve seen, and yes, it is terrible in an amazing way).

I’m not sure on the accuracy of the film historically, but it’s great fun and actually one of Burton’s best.

Campus MovieFest directors should find their voice

Student filmmaking is as indie as the movies get.

I would imagine there are some telecom students shooting with multiple HD cameras or in 3-D that would disagree with me, but the work done this past Sunday at the Campus MovieFest says differently.

I watched a number of films that lacked substance but were made up for in style, some that had strong concepts but called out for a larger budget and some that were impressive in both aspects but were still complex in their execution.

CMF provides equipment for the filmmakers to shoot their projects, but only a handful of the 16 finalists were clearly shot on the handheld camera given to everyone. But even those few demanded a lot from their actors, their screenwriters and their cinematographers to make a remotely decent film.

After the screening, a friend of mine who had made a very well shot, told and acted short and was selected as one of the nominees for Best Comedy, expressed his disappointment at his loss. He explained that in all of his precise cinematography and cooperating with the actor and screenwriter to achieve a convincing story, he might have left out his own voice. Continue reading “Campus MovieFest directors should find their voice”

Rapid Response: The Verdict

In honor of the late great Sidney Lumet, I watched “The Verdict” one of the four films for which he was nominated for Best Director. It’s a courtroom drama starring Paul Newman and written by David Mamet, both of whom were nominated for Oscars as well in 1982.

What sets it apart instantly is how we follow Newman as Frank Galvin, a struggling drunk of an attorney with a reputation for being an ambulance chaser after a divorce, a disbarment hearing and the loss of four cases in the last three years of his career. The movie starts on a note that other films might climax on, showing him trashing his office before his first case in months shows up at his doorstep. It’s a simple malpractice case intended to be settled out of court. He would make a clean $70,000 and the plaintiffs would go away happy too, and although he starts out as a lying dirt bag, putting on performances to explain to his client why he was late and making up pseudonyms and stories to get into funerals and hospitals, he instantly gains a change of heart when he sees his client, a girl in a coma whose life has been taken away by negligent doctors.

As a craggy old man, it’s a bit of a reversal of the norms. Usually the down in the dumps guy is always fighting for social justice and has his morals compromised or vice versa. It was refreshing to see Newman in a weak, old man role rather than his young, good looking self. He was in his early 50s at the time, but he plays a character looking to be in his 60s at least. It’s a stark contrast to even his role reprisal in “The Color of Money,” where his character is old but his spirit is not.

The performances are all great and the dialogue is well written, but I sometimes take exception to courtroom dramas that have flaws in their case proceedings. That’s the point of “The Verdict,” I know, that the system is broken and the poor are powerless, but this movie had a judge out to get Galvin and actually opening his mouth to ask questions to the witness, and later a key testimony is stricken from the record on a technicality. There’s also a big twist that comes later, but it and the character’s other purpose both seemed tacked on.

I did enjoy it, if specifically for Newman’s work and Lumet’s ability to keep the camera hidden and let the characters speak for themselves. But the AFI lists it as the 4th best courtroom drama of all time, and that may be pushing it.

Lawrence of Arabia

I can think of a handful of movies the average moviegoer will never get around to seeing, no matter how good or critically acclaimed they are: “Schindler’s List,” “Shoah,” “The Decalogue,” “Birth of a Nation,” certain Kurosawa epics, and “Lawrence of Arabia.” All of those titles have length in common, but “Lawrence of Arabia” is a curious inclusion, because at no point is that film difficult to watch.

However, I can think of reasons why certain people may avoid it, however misguided they may be. The film is pushing four hours in length, has no women in its cast, very little “action,” a peculiar male lead that hints at homosexuality and every critic who praises it agrees that the only proper way to actually see it is to see it projected in 70mm film.

I have seen the film twice now, once on TCM, and at time of writing, I’ve now seen it projected on 70mm film as is recommended. The film is a masterpiece no matter how you see it, but seeing it on the big screen will certainly make the film much more tolerable or manageable to watch for the average viewer.

And it is the way to see it. People come out of “Lawrence of Arabia” having been to the desert and back, but only if you’ve actually “felt the desert” first. There are brilliantly desolate scenes in this movie where the image is nothing more than pristine sand and a perfectly crystal clear horizon in every direction.

And despite being inspired by John Ford’s “The Searchers” and similar images in Monument Valley, Lean had the nerve to go to the deserts of Jordan and back, where no one had ever shot anything like this before, to capture what only he imagined could be great. Continue reading “Lawrence of Arabia”

The Damned United


Tom Hooper just won Best Director and Best Picture for “The King’s Speech” at the Oscars. The expansive cinematography in that film revealed the gravity of King George VI’s every word. In “The Damned United,” which he made in 2009, the cinematography needs to be so wide open just to keep Brian Clough’s ego inside.

Michael Sheen plays Brian Clough in such a way that he becomes one of those characters you can only refer to by his full name. Clough has one of the most winning records in the history of the Premier League of British football, and yet Clough’s name has become synonymous with “The 44 Days,” or the immensely brief time he was manager of Leeds United and led them to their worst season opening in the history of the club.

“The Damned United” is a “sports movie” but avoids any of the usual clichés or even common themes of the genre. Here is a movie in which the loser becomes the legend.

Clough began his career as the manager of Derby County, which in the mid ‘60s was a struggling team near the bottom of the 2nd Division of the league. As part of the European Cup, Derby got to play the top seeded Leeds. Derby got trounced, but Clough was embarrassed not just for his team but also personally after the Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) refused to shake his hand and blew him off for an after game drink.

Fast forward to 1974, and Revie has been appointed the manager of the national team after a disappointing run in the World Cup. Leeds’s replacement is Brian Clough, and he told the team that every award they ever won should be thrown “in the bin because they were not won fairly.” He hated the team, he hated the players and he hated Revie, and the film becomes a character study into Clough’s reasons why.

What Sheen brings to the performance is simply an immersed, headstrong attitude. He is not humble, and yet not overly rude, boastful, sarcastic or tough. He does swear and get in some witty jabs, but Clough is merely utterly confident of himself, and Sheen’s glowing personality and constantly brimming façade gives that exact impression.

He makes good choices and is even inspiring. His knowledge of the sport and even experience as a player ultimately allowed him to lead his team to the national championships. But in all of his motivating speeches and victories, we see no one but him. Most sports movies usually individualize a member of the team, providing the screenplay with someone for the coach to relate to, but this film is all about Clough.

That feeling of singularity in the story is thanks in part to Hooper’s direction. Hooper delicately paces Clough’s rise and fall, including mostly stock footage of matches, no “big games” and particularly minimal camera movement. There’s a scene early on where Clough is on the phone with his partner Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) as he’s just tracked down a new player for the team. The camera moves in on Clough so subtly and slowly, but we get the sensation that his head and ego are just growing with potential.

Hooper then puts Clough’s ego to the test with the Leeds squad, a group of players all dressed in bright purple, their names always starkly visible on their jerseys and identified above any other player on the Derby squad. It’s almost as if by just standing on the pitch with their backs to the camera they are challenging Clough’s ego and authority.

“The Damned United” is richly directed, photographed and acted. With Sheen, Timothy Spall and even Jim Broadbent in the cast, Hooper has assembled just about the three most underrated British actors working today, and they’re all doing wonderful screen acting.

“The King’s Speech” won the Oscar because it is so inspirational and moving. “The Damned United” is hardly an inspirational story of victory, but somehow it still seems like a win.

The Triplets of Belleville

Dark, disgusting humor can come in all shapes and sizes. So ideally, what better way to illustrate a sense of melancholy than with a form that gives you the most freedom of expression: animation. “The Triplets of Belleville” has drawn comparisons from Luis Bunuel and Jacques Tati, but I find this to be not as imaginative as their work, but instead simply gratuitous.

Sylvain Chomet removes the dialogue from his film along with the wit and charm (although many critics have somehow found the film darkly charming). He opens on a trio of 50s singers, the Triplets of Belleville. Their song makes for a swinging anthem to the film, but it’s starkly contrasted with the appearance of a young boy and his grandmother watching the Triplets on TV. The boy is depressed, and the grandmother gets him a dog, then a bicycle, to make him happy.

Years later, the boy is a world-class cyclist in the Tour De France. His grandmother trains him vigorously with an incessant whistle that speaks wonders of emotion but simply drove me mad. She vacuums his calves, cracks his back with a lawnmower and makes him eat a disgusting meal all while their fat and hungry dog barks at every passing train.

Despite all this, he’s not exactly wearing the maillot jaune. As he passes out on a mountain climb, two gangsters who intend to use him in an underground gambling ring kidnap him. The grandmother follows them, and it’s up to her and the now cragged and old Triplets of Belleville to rescue him. Continue reading “The Triplets of Belleville”

Rapid Response: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I won’t pretend I had any idea what was going on throughout “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The film is based on Hunter S. Thompson’s famous novel of the same name, and with Terry Gilliam’s psychedelic drug trip filmmaking and Johnny Depp’s off the wall Thompson imitation, the film has become a cult classic.

For two hours, the film is a hodgepodge of hallucinogenic madness created by all the many drugs Thompson himself was addicted to back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Gilliam’s camera wavers and wobbles as much as the completely doped up characters played by Depp and Benicio Del Toro, and his striking canted angles create for arguably the closest thing to recreating a bad drug trip on film. A good number of critics cited this mess of a movie as an aimless, pointless, repetitive and meaningless disaster, and although I can find just as little of a purpose to it all, the film does cast a considerable spell.

The film is remarkably well made, and performed. For all the Tim Burton fans who marvel at how quirky and weird Johnny Depp’s performances consistently are, they have not seen him here in what is his strangest performance next to Ed Wood. Depp’s mastery of the props like the cigarette holder he’s constantly biting on and simply over his body itself is astounding. A strangely comical moment comes when Depp is whacked out on ether and he loses control over his spinal column. He owns the scene.

I also noted how many other known actors and performers can be found in this 1998 film, including Cameron Diaz, Cristina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Lyle Lovett, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin and by far in the weirdest role of his career, a young but not entirely different looking Jon Hamm as an uncredited hotel clerk.

There’s a cute College Humor video that’s been pulled from their site called “Rango and Loathing in Las Vegas,” in which lines from the “Fear and Loathing” trailer were dubbed over scenes from “Rango,” Johnny Depp’s new animated trip fest, although watching the movie now, the two are hardly comparable.

Rapid Response: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I chose to watch “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” because of Elizabeth Taylor’s recent death, but I probably would have given any reason to watch a Paul Newman movie. Newman is one of my favorite actors, and he along with Taylor give some of the first great performances of their career in this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play.

The story follows the Pollitt family throughout the one day of Big Daddy Pollitt’s (Burl Ives) birthday party. He’s arriving home on his 65th birthday from the doctor, who did tests to find if Big Daddy has cancer. The doctor lied and told him he would be fine, but he confides in secret to Big Daddy’s son Brick (Newman) that he will in fact die, and soon. Brick has become an alcoholic and he’s fallen out of love with his wife Maggie (Taylor) following the death of his best friend. Brick’s brother and sister-in-law have five annoying children, who Maggie constantly refers to as “No-Neck Monsters,” and they are trying to secure their proper inheritance.

The film is a stirring family drama that considers from each character their love of the others. Brick has grown annoyed with Maggie, Big Daddy seems to have never loved anyone, and the sister-in-law Mae seems only interested in earning her family fortune. The news of Big Daddy’s illness shakes this family from head to toe, and we truly see these characters grow and change over the course of the day.

The dialogue feels authentic and the performances are rich throughout. Only Newman and Taylor were nominated for Oscars, but the entire supporting cast is just as strong. The film was also nominated for best color cinematography, and while it’s not exactly a visually striking film, there’s something about the way the color camera can reveal Liz Taylor’s remarkable beauty.

Rapid Response: Leaving Las Vegas

There are lots of movies about alcoholics and about prostitutes with a heart of gold. There are even more love stories, and there are many that take place in Las Vegas. “Leaving Las Vegas” is a film about so much more, and it is so devastating and shockingly unreal, it becomes really one of the most moving and heartbreaking tragic romances ever made.

The film follows Nicolas Cage in his Oscar winning performance as Ben Sanderson, a notorious drunkard unlike any ever seen on camera. Cage’s work even within the first 10 minutes of the film before the title credits roll defines him as the epitome of all drunk performances. He is so preposterously absent minded and immersed in his performance that every time he’s on screen we are in awe of this monstrosity, sometimes to comic effect.

After losing his job, he uproots his life and escapes to Las Vegas where he intends to “drink himself to death.” When he meets Sera, played equally brilliantly by Elisabeth Shue, he imagines her to be his angel, someone with whom he wants to do nothing more but be with. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Leaving Las Vegas”

Rapid Response: My Neighbor Totoro

After doing an article on animation in the art world and popular culture for my student publication the IDS WEEKEND, I gained a real appreciation for how impossibly difficult animation is. Hand drawn cel animation demands a level of mastery amongst its animators, and it becomes such a shame when the film put in front of it is so ordinary and drab. “My Neighbor Totoro” is by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, and many consider this film to be his masterpiece.

Thousands have seen this film from 1988 following Disney’s re-release of the film in America with English dubbed voices done by Dakota and Elle Fanning, and they’ve responded so highly because it is a charming family film where everything is beautiful, happy and perfectly imperfect, no one is evil and everything is rich with color, imagination and joy.

Watching it, I found myself with a grin from cheek to cheek throughout its 86 minute run, and while it is rich with a carefree comedy, it’s also wonderfully bright and detailed in its animation of the surrounding world.

For those who have seen a Miyazaki film (and those that have often revere him with cult status) know his admiration for the fantastical and the appreciation for the environmental. “My Neighbor Totoro” does have supernatural elements, but it does not immerse you in them immediately the way “Spirited Away,” his other masterpiece, does, and nor does it hammer home with the green message the way it does in “Princess Mononoke,” also a brilliant film.

It makes “My Neighbor Totoro” the perfect film to show when introducing them to anime, to Miyazaki and possibly even to film itself.