The Spellout

Art, Culture & Unavoidable Spite

Category: Film (page 1 of 28)

Hail, Caesar, Where Art Thou Ranked?

Earlier this week I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s new comedy Hail, Caesar! at a critic’s screening and loved it. It was funny, fleet on its feet, and composed of so many references to Hollywood’s Golden Age that I imagine Karina Longworth will need at least one entire podcast to unpack them all. (It’s also a rare Coen Brothers film, in that it directly references another of their works: The film studio of Hail, Caesar! is Capitol Pictures, where Barton Fink met his destiny.)

I haven’t written a review for Hail, Caesar! yet, and I may not, seeing as the film was screened for critics after my print deadline. (Sadly, that’s an all-too-common occurrence in the nation’s 40th-largest television market, 41st-largest radio market and 61st-largest newspaper market; there’s simply not enough media professionals in town for the studios to justify earlier, solely media-targeted screenings. Instead, critics are lumped in with radio contest winners.) But I was curious to know how the film was being received, so I did something I almost never do before the review is written: I Googled up Hail, Caesar! to get an idea of its critical consensus.

What I saw surprised me: The first few reviews weren’t reviews, but ordered critical lists of all 17 of the Coen Brothers’ films, with Hail, Caesar! ranked within. (Yahoo! ranked the film at number 15; Vulture put it at number 11;  The Wrap placed it at number 9; and The Atlantic ranked it at number 8, as did The Washington Post.)  For the life of me, I can’t think of another filmmaker who’s received such treatment so soon after they’ve released a new film—not Scorsese, not Spielberg, not even Michael Bay. I’ve seen it done for animation studios, like Pixar; critics have no problem making that call when a Cars 2 comes out, because to their minds animation isn’t true auteur filmmaking; in their heart-of-hearts, it is product, nothing more. Sometimes it’s good product, they’ll say. But if it comes down to a Beauty and the Beast vs. a JFK, there’s just no contest; JFK deserves more critical weight and respect, they’ll say, because it was made by and stars actual people.

I’d like to attribute the rash of Coen Brothers rankings to critics’ unmasked enthusiasm for their films; even their one flat-out failure (The Ladykillers) is fun to watch. But here’s the thing: Ranking a filmmaker’s latest film within their catalog three days before general release is fucking stupid. Especially so for the Coens, who have seen several of their films—The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There come to mind—grow in stature over the years. One of these days, amuse yourself by going back and reading the contemporaneous reviews of The Big Lebowski. (Roger Ebert gave Lebowski three stars in 1998, calling it “genial, shambling comedy.” In 2010, he named it one of his “Great Movies,” and bumped it up to four stars. Such critical reappraisals have been fairly common with Lebowski.)

But here’s the thing: I don’t blame the critics, who at this point are blessedly lucky to still have jobs. Nor do I blame websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, which reduce a movie’s worth to crowdsourced numbers. I blame us, because the first question we’re inclined to ask about an auteur’s new work is how it rates in comparison to their other shit. Such comparisons used to be exclusive to our conversations with friends, but we have been encouraged, via websites like Rotten Tomatoes—wow, I guess I do blame them!—to seek out these comparisons at the media level. That’s fine for something like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which most of you probably would have seen even if I told you the film ended with a real-life punch to the kidneys.

But for artists like the Coens, whose films are so different from each other that a Lebowski fan could conceivably have despised No Country For Old Men, a numbered list is dangerous. Their commercial clout isn’t such that they can open whatever the hell they want and expect to work with the same studio twice. The Coens still need the help of their critics. They still need people at the door saying, “No, seriously, come in. If you liked that other one, you’ll like this one.” The last thing they need is for their every moved to be measured against their changing selves, and our ever-changing perception of who they are. Who does need anything like that, come to think of it?


The Jim Henson Company Rises from the Oubliette

Look, you shouldn’t hate on The Jim Henson Company too much for its ill-timed decision to reboot/remake Labyrinth. Not that I blame you if you do; judging by the timing of this announcement, Sony/Henson have obviously misunderstood the enduring appeal of the original 1986 film. It wasn’t the late Jim Henson’s direction, Terry Jones’ story or the breakout performance of Jennifer Connolly, though all those things deserve recognition.

No, what keeps Labyrinth alive is that bulge in David Bowie’s tights. Pow. Millions of preteens discovered their sexuality in that particular topographical feature. It was Generation X’s leaning-over-the-washing-machine-on-spin-cycle moment. And oh yeah, Bowie’s songs were pretty good, too.

The announcement hasn’t gone over well.

The timing truly is awful. But the idea might not be so bad, if you’re  interested in the Henson Company existing as a creative force.  Of the properties Henson still owns outright—which include LabyrinthFraggle Rock, Mirrormask, The Dark Crystal and Farscape, near as I can determine—Labyrinth has the greatest potential to put Henson back in the game alongside Blue Sky, Laika and Pixar. Even though puppeteering is an entirely different medium than animation, it’s obvious that those studios have the audience that Henson wants, meaning everybody, beginning with those parents who were raised on Labyrinth but didn’t bother taking their kids to a single Muppet movie after Toy Story reset the horizon.

I had the good fortune of visiting Henson’s Los Angeles studio earlier this month to preview Henson Alternative’s new stage show Puppet Up: Uncensored in advance of its Las Vegas debut. (I’ll write about the show itself in Vegas Seven next month.) I wish you could have been there, not just because the studio is charming and historic—it used to belong to Charlie Chaplin—but so you could see how much pent-up creative energy is flat-out languishing behind those gates. By Brian Henson’s own admission, the Henson Company is kind of limited in its scope these days; all they do are puppets for preschool shows and adult productions like Puppet Up. They can’t even call their characters Muppets anymore; Disney owns that name, and all its associated characters. (The Sesame Street characters are wholly owned by Sesame Workshop, though Henson continues to build and maintain their characters, which can be called “Muppets” through a licensing agreement with Disney.)

So what you’ve got is a studio that still has stories to tell, still has brilliant young talents flocking to its banner. But they’ve no good way to get a toehold in a marketplace that views puppeteering as quaint, obsolete. (J.J. Abrams talked a good game about the practical effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but when it came time to make a new Yoda-like character, he used CGI.) They can’t use the Muppet name to reinforce what they do, which leaves them to go with what is arguably the second-best known propert in their possession.

The Labyrinth reboot has been in the making for some time. Brian Henson spoke about it at the Puppet Up media summit, weeks before David Bowie’s death. Even then, I thought that the chances of Bowie reprising his role were virtually nil, but the idea didn’t seem like a horrible one. A well-made Labyrinth film, one with ties to the original story but with a new, engaging story of its own, could lead new viewers to the original film, just as the Star Wars prequels primed a new generation for The Force Awakens. And any kind of Labyrinth film Henson makes now could be so elegiac in tone that older viewers would be churlish to find fault with it.

I can’t imagine what form a new Labyrinth might take, and that’s kind of exciting. If it’s got a good story to tell (and with Guardians of the Galaxy co-writer Nicole Perlman writing the script, it could well have), and if the Henson crew innovates as they did in  1986, the new Labyrinth could restore the Henson Company’s name as a creator of unique visual storytelling. Then they’ll be free to create even more new stories to fill out their portfolio, and the next thing you know, Disney could sell back the original Muppets to the only people who fully understand what makes them work.

But holy shit, is the timing ever bad. No denying it. I know that Sony needs to announce the deal while Bowie and Labyrinth is fresh in everyone’s mind, to leverage this outpouring of passion and sentimentality. Still, ugh. The world only just fell down.

UPDATE, JANUARY 25: It’s not happening, says screenwriter Nicole Perlman on Twitter: “No one is remaking Labyrinth. That movie is perfect as-is.”  Although, as AV Club points out, the door is open for a sequel to Labyrinth, and I still think that might not be the worst idea. And that begs the question: What is Perlman writing for Henson?

Two One-Eyed Fat Men

One of the great pleasures of YouTube is that it allows me to revisit scenes from my favorite movies without having to sit through the movie itself, which is a jim-dandy thing for those times when you’re trying to avoid doing the job you’re being paid to do. And sometimes, I even get to play consumer advocate and do an apples-to-apples comparison like this one: Rooster Cogburn, as played by John Wayne and Jeff Bridges some decades apart.

The Duke. Indelibly great stuff, if you can ignore the shitty acting of Glen Campbell and Kim Darby, which I can’t. Still, there’s no denying that this is one of John Wayne’s best roles.

The Dude. I much prefer the Coen Brothers version of this story, but Bridges makes some weird acting choices in it, perhaps because he doesn’t want to step on The Dukes’ toes. (He even changes the eyepatch from the left eye to the right.) The most notable of those choices is in this scene, when he all but swallows Cogburn’s best line of the film. Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch! Still, the Carter Burwell score is magnificent, Barry Pepper’s Lucky Ned improves on Robert Duvall’s, and there’s nary a Kim Darby to be found.

My 10 Favorite Cinematic Confidence Artists

Todd Mecklem and Pam Grier
Pam Grier takes a break from the filming of Jackie Brown to pose with fan Todd Mecklem. PHOTO BY SUSAN MECKLEM/FLICKR

My movie heroes have always been crooks. Confidence artists and thieves are abundant in the real world, and nearly of them are despicable human beings … but in movies, these crooks display an ability I often wish I had: They talk their way into, or out of, virtually anything, from a safe full of money to federal confinement, using only their gift as storytellers. All the stable explosives and kicky kung-fu in the world won’t avail you if a confidence artist reaches the mark before you do. Storytelling beats kung-fu every time.

With such a rich cinematic tradition of bullshitters to consider, choosing ten great confidence artists is pretty easy. Given time, I know I could easily come up with five times that number — and I’m kind of ashamed that that there are only two women on the list, but at least one of them is Pam Grier, who’s worth at least a dozen scrubs. But these are enough liars to get us started. These are my superheroes — better than Batman and Godzilla rolled together. Any one of these characters could take on Batzilla and get away with his wallet and hubcaps.

Henry Gondorff of The Sting, played by Paul Newman.
I don’t think anyone has played a confidence man with more of that namesake ingredient than Paul Newman poured into playing Henry Gondorff. He keeps us guessing from the beginning, when we meet Gondorff as a washed-up drunk, to the film’s closing minutes, when he shoots a friend in the back. Admittedly, Newman’s piercing blue eyes do much of the work for him: They pry the truth out of his reckless, evasive young partner Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), and they glint with shameless gleewhen Gondorff puts the screws to crooked businessman Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) during a crooked poker game. And Gondorff utters one of my favorite greetings in film: “Pleasure to meet ya, kid. You’re a real horse’s ass.”

Jackie Brown of Jackie Brown, played by Pam Grier. Quentin Tarantino adapted Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch with his usual flourishes — mismatched fonts, profanity-laden dialogue, a visual jukebox of references to the popular culture of 1970s. But in changing the book’s white protagonist Jackie Burke to the black Jackie Brown and casting blaxploitation legend Pam Grier in the role, Tarantino managed to make his last truly great film. Nearly all the credit for Jackie Brown’s success belongs to Grier, who plays Brown as a fast-thinking, sexy dynamo who’s not above roping her bail bondsman (Robert Forster) into a scam — and not below falling for him. There are other good performances in the film, including Robert DeNiro as a burned-out hood and Samuel L. Jackson as a double-crossing gun runner, but Grier owns the picture. She cons Tarantino right out of it.

Jack Foley of Out of Sight, played by George Clooney. Or “pretty much every other part George Clooney has played.” There’s something about Clooney’s smooth, glib movie-star persona that naturally lends itself to confidence work, and a good number of the characters he’s played — including, but not limited to, Danny Ocean, Michael Clayton, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox — are built on the skeletons of confidence men. None of them have had the swagger of the Elmore Leonard-written Foley, though. Within the first five minutes of Out of Sight, Foley manages to rob a bank with little more than a slight grin, a good head of hair and some friendly bullshit. He’s not carrying a gun, or even wearing a tie.

Simon Dermott of How to Steal a Million, played by Peter O’Toole. Even the title of this 1966 film is a con: Peter O’Toole’s Simon Dermott and Audrey Hepburn’s Nicole Bonnet don’t steal a million dollars, or a million pounds, or a million of anything. They boost a forged sculpture which only has value to the daughter of the man who forged it, and to the clueless patsy who bought it; I don’t want to give too much more away. Suffice it to say that the only thing that Dermott really steals is the affections of young Nicole, which O’Toole handily does in his usual ways: with the soft-spoken elegance and impish smile that’s felled everyone from Katharine Hepburn to the Ottoman Empire. The long con Dermott plays isn’t the one Bonnet thinks he’s playing.

Jimmy Dell of The Spanish Prisoner, played by Steve Martin. “Good people, bad people, they generally look like what they are,” says Jimmy Dell, a “problem solver with a heart of gold” whose motives are so ambiguous that even he doesn’t seem certain what they are.  David Mamet, the director and playwright responsible for a veritable host of con-artist classics (including House of Games, American Buffalo and Heist), took that “heart of gold” to heart in casting Steve Martin as Dell; the comedian and actor can look like both good and bad people, depending on how the light catches him. Martin is never anything less than likable, even as he ensnares hapless businessman Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) in a more-or-less inescapably fatal web of deceit.

Peter Joshua of Charade, played by Cary Grant. Another crook compelled to go legit by Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant’s Peter Joshua is the traffic cop of Charade. While others may be driving the action, Grant re-directs them down different streets virtually every time he shows up on screen. He’s an inveterate liar; even his name changes several times over the course of the film. And in the moments that count, you’re not at all sure whose side he’s on. No wonder Audrey falls for him.

Janet Colgate of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, played by Glenne Headly. This Frank Oz farce is itself a con: For an hour and forty minutes we watch as sophisticated confidence artist Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) and crude hustler Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) devour the scenery and each other in their desperation to con doe-eyed innocent Janet Colgate, a wonderful Glenne Headly, out of her inheritance. Then, with minutes to spare, Colgate reveals herself as legendary con artist The Jackal, leaving Jamieson, Benson and the audience completely gobsmacked. Headly’s soft-spoken performance is a marvel: Even if you know she’s the real con artist from the beginning of the picture, you’ll have forgotten by the end.

Frank Abagnale Jr. of Catch Me if You Can, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Frank Abagnale Jr. is real. The onetime confidence artist and counterfeiter passed $2.5 million dollars’ worth of bad checks in the 1960s, beginning when he was just 16. Steven Spielberg, one of the few directors to make proper use of Leonardo DiCaprio (even Martin Scorcese has guessed wrong sometimes), makes some embellishments to Abagnale’s story — for example, in the continuing relationship between Abagnale and his father (Christopher Walken). By and large, though, most of the things pictured in the film actually happened. Abagnale really did write all those bad checks; he posed as an airline pilot, lawyer and doctor; and he stole an ostentatious lifestyle primarily to meet girls.

Dortmunder of The Hot Rock, played by Robert Redford. Someone with Robert Redford’s good looks has no choice but to play a few good liars, and Redford has played some of the best: The Sting’s Johnny Hooker, Spy Game’s Nathan Muir and Sneakers’ Marty Bishop, among others. But Dortmunder is a different kind of thief and con man: He has little faith in his abilities as a liar or thief, believing himself cursed. (At one point, he even gets robbed himself.) But when Dortmunder needs to come up with a good tale to save the plan (or his own skin), he does just that, time and again. And in every single instance, he looks surprised that it actually worked.

Harry Powell of Night of the Hunter, played by Robert Mitchum. Have I ever told you the story of left-hand, right-hand? The murderous phony “minister” Harry Powell, played with great relish by Robert Mitchum, has “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles, and while he’s quick to show you the “love” hand, that’s only so you won’t see the Hate Express rollin’ in. A handsome, effortless charmer, Powell seduces recently-widowed women with his piety and rich, buttery voice, then takes their money and kills them — but he doesn’t believe himself a demon; he actually thinks he’s doing God’s work. A man this bent deserves to get taken down by an elderly woman with a shotgun and a pair of meddling kids.

In the Realm of Rocky Horror

Rocky horror lips!

Recently I was talking cinema with an out-of-town friend who asked me, “Hey, do they do midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show up there in Seattle? I haven’t been to one of those in years.”

I told him, truthfully, that I had no idea. (I’ve seen screenings of “Rocky Horror” listed  at the Grand Illusion and the Egyptian, but it’s not a recurring thing.) Somewhat less than truthfully I added, “If they did, I’d probably go. I haven’t done the Rocky Horror thing since ’85 or ’86.”

Okay, it wasn’t a complete lie. While I own the Rocky Horror DVD, I don’t think I’ve ever watched it all the way through; I just wanted to have it. And I took in a midnight screening of the movie in Vegas in 1992 or 1993, but my parents were there and the whole night was kinda weird. No, the real Rocky Horror experience, as I came to know it, is something of my distant past — something from a long, long time ago, when God said “Let there be lips.” And there were. And they were good.

My friends and I saw Rocky Horror at the historic Balboa Theater, a silent-era movie palace in Newport Beach, CA. It no longer exists in its original form; a fire took it in the early 1990s, and locals are trying to rebuild it as a cultural center. We knew it as a moldy, haunted firetrap, with an ornate balcony that was forever closed and a floor so layered with sticky concessions that it had acquired a kind of stratum. If you were to dig past the layers of calcified Dr. Pepper and Lemonheads, you’d find the black gold of the Good & Plenty layer, ready to be strip-mined for tomorrow’s energy needs. Every weekend we would add a toilet-paper layer and a rice layer to that hardened concentration of foodstuffs — the Balboa being one of those rare theaters that allowed Transylvanians to deploy “Rocky’s” full arsenal of interactive props.

(A quick aside for the uninitiated, or as we Transylvanians call them, “anyone born after 1985”: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the flop 1975 film version of a successful stage musical by one Richard O’Brien. It stars Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and O’Brien himself. The story of a transvestite mad scientist whose greatest creation ultimately destroys him (based on actual events!), Rocky has inspired a cult following that interacts with the film in a wholly unique way: People dress up like Rocky’s characters and mimic their actions, shout responses to the film’s more inane bits of dialogue, sing along with the film’s songs, and throw rice and rolls of toilet paper at appropriate moments. I’d tell you more, virgin, but then I’d have to stick you in the freezer with the Meat Loaf.)

The Balboa’s copy of Rocky Horror had two trailers attached to the reel, both of which were greeted with the rapt response we accorded to the feature. The first trailer was for the Talking Heads’ groundbreaking concert film Stop Making Sense, and we answered its probing questions (“WHY? A? BIG? SUIT!?”) with full-voiced gusto. The second trailer promoted Shock Treatment, O’Brien’s sort-of sequel to Rocky Horror, and since it featured most of the movie’s title track (the only good song in the entire movie, we later discovered) and a good portion of Rocky’s cast, we considered it a part of the experience and we danced to it almost as madly as we danced to The Time Warp later in the evening.

When the movie finally began, I thought I could feel the audience slowly building its strength. It was as if we were loading ourselves into a rubber band-powered catapult, slowly drawing back to get the lift we needed to launch ourselves, Wile E. Coyote-like, across the Grand Canyon and into a cliff wall. And then came the impact: Rocky’s first act, from “Science Fiction/Double Feature” to “The Time Warp,” a roughly twenty-minute stretch during which we would scream ourselves hoarse.

There’s a kind of teenaged ecstasy laced into in Rocky’s opening salvo. For the full duration of that that twenty minutes you are dancing, jumping, laughing, screaming obscenities and perverse double entendre, talking over the actors … in other words, doing some 50% percent of the the things teenagers love to do but rarely get the chance to do without getting rebuked. It’s no wonder that Rocky Horror has endured as a teenage rite-of-passage. Even today, in the wake of its release on Blu-Ray — truly the most gentrified of home entertainment options — Rocky still wears those rebellious high heels.

That’s part of the reason why I haven’t seen Rocky Horror all the way through since the Clinton years. I’m 44 now, and while I vividly remember my teens, I have no Lester Burnham-like urges to relive the past. Rocky is a great movie, but I think you have to be young, dumb and full of uncooked rice to perceive it as an awfully great one. Even if I were to dig up all my friends from back in the day — Kaire, who dressed as Magenta and drove us all to Balboa in the first place; Eric, who was tall and lanky like Riff-Raff; Geof, whose improvised shout-outs often bested Rocky’s established audience “script” — and drove the lot of us to a rebuilt Balboa Theater, I wouldn’t feel the giddiness I used to feel between the end of the Shock Treatment trailer and the beginning of Rocky. Those feelings belong in the past, in the custody of my 18 year-old self. I’m sure that handsome motherfucker is making the most of them.

Still, y’know, I wonder sometimes. Do the kids still do the Transylvanian thing at Rocky Horror screenings? Will I ever again get that jumping-the-canyon feel from a movie? And why the big lips?

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