Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Whip It: with TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls! (Sep 21)

Whip It

2009, 111 min.
Directed by Drew Barrymore

Well, well, well. Look who's back? That didn't take too long, did it?

Although not a part of a film series, I was invited back by The Paramount to attend a special film event. As part of their Hometown Hollywood promotion, 20th Century Fox is bringing some of its films back to the big screen in cities that made them famous. There are 14 such screenings across North America, and Austin had one of them.

The film? Whip It, the directoral debut of Drew Barrymore and starring current "it girl" Ellen Page.

As an added bonus, before the screening was a meet-and-greet with Texas Roller Derby Lonestar rollergirls. But not just any girls. Oh no no no. Tonight's party was with "The Cherry Bombs," a team that had just won the league finals on Saturday night. That's right. They are the champions, my friends. Rowdy girls and a "new-to-me" film (I had missed it in theaters last year) promised to be a fun time.

Walking back into The Paramount was like greeting an old friend. Ahhhh. What had it been, about two weeks? Ok, so I hadn't had time to be properly nostalgic, but it was comforting all the same. First stop, drinks!

I see there's a special beverage commemorating tonight's event. It's called "the cherry bomb" (natch), and is a cherry vodka sour. Sounds tasty. I'll have to get one later; time to go forth and document. The rollergirls were upstairs at the meet-and-greet and signing one-sheets for the moviegoers. I think the gals were just as excited and thrilled to be at the event as the patrons. It really was an amusing time for everyone present.

After all the autographs were done, The Cherry Bombs (the ladies, not the drinks) made their way onstage before the film (ok, maybe some drinks did also). There they were introduced to the crowd as they held aloft the Calvello Cup, a custom made trophy created annually for the championship team. As the ladies were introduced, we learned that a few of them were also stunt doubles featured in Whip It, making the night's feature even more appropriate.

Naturally, I took some photos.

The Cherry Bombs came down and sat in the audience with us, and then the movie began.

Whip It is a sports comedy/coming-of-age story that is infused with heavy doses of girl power. Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a small-town dreamer, stuck in the mud of tiny Bodeen, Texas. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is a domineering sort who forces her and her younger sister into an endless series of beauty pageants, and her father (Daniel Stern) is content as long as he has access to University of Texas Longhorn football. From the opening frames, it is clear Bliss has no desire for the pageant lifestyle, but also has no sense of direction. Along with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), they spends listless days in high school and at work, a restaurant called "Oink Joint."

During a trip to nearby Austin, Bliss spies some tough gals and is handed a flyer for their roller derby league games. After watching a game, she's recruited to come and try out. Unlike the old adage, ignorance is not Bliss... but curiosity sure is. Before long, Bliss discovers she has a talent for skating, and begins to shuffle her involvement in the league with her other responsibilities. And all the while, she's hiding all this roller derby stuff from her parents. Hmmm, it looks like she will have more than bumps and scrapes to worry about. Her biggest concern may be the bruised egos and hurt feelings as her allegiances shift to her new endeavor.

Personally, what I think deserves the biggest slam is the movie's script. It's just not very imaginative, and is wrought with a fair share of clich├ęs. The main thing holding Whip It from greatness is that it's spinning too many plates in an effort to be the ultimate female coming-of-age story. I could have done without the subplots of the bitchy classmate or the dejected restaurant manager, and the romantic story was lacking. But despite the paltry list of ingredients, Barrymore has nonetheless cooked up a spicy and delicious cinematic meal for the audience to devour.

A combination of Drew's direction and impressive casting makes the characters much more lively and interesting than they should be. Again, the list of teammates reads like a list of stereotypes: the bitchy one, the single-mom, the crazy sisters (shades of Hanson brothers from Slap Shot), the ambiguous lesbian, etc. Yet I couldn't help but smile as I started recognizing the actresses. Hey, that's Kristin Wiig! Is that Eve? Holy crap, it's Zoe Bell! In fact, I was pleased with each of the roller girls' performances except one. Juliette Lewis is a bit disappointing s a one-note villainess. I mean, come on. She was Mallory Knox once upon a time, an actual natural born killer, not some catty and bitter chick in her late thirties.

I'd like to add that a big part of the fun during this screening was due to The Cherry Bombs themselves. The film had an "interactive audience" vibe to it, part commentary and part Mystery Science Theater. Whenever a sequence approached that had any of these Austin rollers on screen, they would whoop and holler. After a while, many more joined in the revelry.

Viewing Whip It that night was a unique experience, equal parts quirk and fun (probably mixed much like that vodka sour I forgot to sample). What elevated the event was how much of Austin was shown in the movie. Barrymore dug deep into her inner Richard Linklater here. Just as I recognized actresses as they surprisingly popped up in the film, I was also pleased to see familiar landmarks up on the screen. Hey, I know where that is! Hey, it's
SoCo (South Congress)! Hey, there's Home Slice Pizza! And so forth. There were many goofy grins on my face as I watched Whip It, and I'm sure many others in the crowd did through our Austin-tinted goggles.

Since fun is the name of the game, I have to give Barrymore credit for crafting such a jolly flick about chicks. For starters, the soundtrack was really, really good. Perfect in setting the rough and tumble tone with a hint of silliness. And as much as I think the love story is a big waste of time (for such an obvious payoff), I was hypnotized with the love scene (set
underwater in a swimming pool). There was a real sense of serenity and beauty in that sequence that almost made the rest of that subplot worthwhile. This, when combined with the performances she evoked (especially from harden and Stern) led me to ask if Drew has the right touch for directing? My magic eight ball says, "signs point to yes." I'm curious to see what she does next.

Yes, Whip It is a bit messy at times, but for the most part is a solid and cute little movie with a unique charm. The film doesn't just give Austin a peck on the cheek, it tattoos the love on its arm. While clearly most enjoyable to those who reside in the Texan capital, the movie's spunkiness is universally appealing. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by how good Whip It turned out to be. As a life lesson, the movie can be a little wobbly (kind of like
me on roller skates), but when focusing on the fun, it really hits its stride. In a world of princesses and beauty queens, it's refreshing to see that smart girls can give a rebel yell too. Drew and the girls indeed know how to whip it. Whip it good.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Au Revoir, Summer Film Series.

Movies and events and digging. Oh my!

Wait. Is this really over?

Am I really done with the wonderful routine? With the comfort of a mezzanine seat, popcorn, and an ice-cold Dr. Pepper?
Yeah. It is over, but it was a heck of an experience. I made it to 72 films at The Paramount Theatre this summer. That's right, seventy-two.
Regarding the 11 films I missed, I fully intend to see them as soon as I can. Well, maybe not The White Whale. Not yet, at least. I'm saving that one for next year.

Hey, I need motive for the sequel, right? Hopefully I can do it again next summer.

I wrote about each and every film, and tried to document every event the best I could. And not just the movies. The parties, the dancing, the crowds, the excitement, the emergencies, and even the campaign for "This Place Matters" competition (which they
won, thank you very much). Armed with my camera in my trusty black messenger bag, I took photographs as often as I possibly could. Here are 80 images I captured that I think captured the spirit and frivolity of the summer for me. If you were there at any of these screenings or events, consider these our mementoes...

In spite of the programs, posters, and memorabilia I acquired along the way, I know my memories will outweigh any souvenirs. For those that couldn't make it, I hope my words and photos brought you along for the ride.
What were some of my favorite moments from the summer, you ask? Well, here it goes.

Most renewed appreciation for an actor/actress?
My initial reaction would be to say John Wayne, considering I never thought of him as a "real" actor before I saw The Searchers. But I've been even more impressed with Sally Field. As I've stated before, I never cared for her much before, but now I can see why she's received such acclaim. Her performances in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart are more than solid. They anchor each of those powerful movies. Dare I say it? I like her. I really like her.

Film series I'm most eager to complete now that I've seen at least one here?
This one is easier, after seeing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, I must see the first part of Jacques Demy's "trilogy," Lola. Although currently unavailable in a home video format, I must track it down.

Most solid new entry into my list of all-time favorite films?
There's easily a dozen that could jockey for position in my list of greatest of all time, so picking one is impossible. But if my arm was being twisted, I'll pick The Red Shoes. That one is going to stay with me for decades to come.

Director I am now most interested in?
Elia Kazan, who I knew by reputation before this summer, is now the one whose filmography I'm most interested in viewing. I haven't been this riveted by a director's storytelling style since I first discovered Martin Scorsese.

Best foreign film?
I'll try to keep things fresh and not cheat and repeat my praise for Demy's films. Therefore, I'll have to say Ran. It blew me away. Kurosawa was a real genius; but we already knew that, right?

Film with the best audience?
The matinee "playing hooky" screening of Ferris Bueller was so much fun. The crowd had so much fun, and we were all John Hughes fans that day. The sunlight outside had no chance of matching the sunny attitude inside the theatre.

Best new discovery?
There were only about a handful I had not heard of before, but of those few... I was most impressed by Sunrise. That was such an emotional and beautiful film.

Best event?
Well, the most fun I'd say was The Majestic Party. Everyone there was so friggin happy and friendly. Simply a darn good time by all. Don't believe me? See for yourself.

Most beautiful presentation?
Each of the 70mm films melted my eyeballs with their beauty, but I have to say Lawrence of Arabia was a seminal experience to behold on that screen. The clarity and depth of field in the images was nothing short of amazing. The best cinematic environment I've ever seen. Who needs 3D? You can keep Pandora, James Cameron. I'd rather go to the desert.

Overall favorite moment?
These tough decisions are killing me, but only one had the feel of a once-in-a-lifetime moment. That was the screening of Wings with Graham Reynold's live score. First, it was a one-night only affair. Second, it's not available on home video at all. Third, no other presentation of that film will ever be accompanied by that score
ever again. As a result, I find myself incredibly spoiled. I don't think I'd want to see it again if I can't hear that score. That's the night I feel grateful for above all others this year.

You know I could go on and on about the caliber of these films. But you know what? I already did. Feel free to browse my thoughts by clicking on the archives over here on the right side -->

Whatever I haven't completed is on its way. Seventy-two films take time to write about, especially when life gets in the way. The films often came fast and furious, and I'm still swimming neck-deep in notes I took for each screening. They will be complete soon enough. That I can assure you.

As you can see, the entire experience was infectious to my movie-going habits. In many ways, The Summer Series is like the introduction of a virus, and now that these classic titles are in my blood they course through my veins and will make me watch even more classics... exponentially for the rest of my life. May I never find a cure for this cinema madness.

What more can I possibly say? Oh, it's all been so amazing. Thanks to all the new friends I've made this summer. And a big thanks to The Paramount for allowing me to take this journey. For a couple of hours at a time, they took me to new places and showed me new sights. These few months zipped by in the blink of an eye. On the bright side, it's only nine months until I can hopefully see this view again.

I can. not. wait.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Final Film: Gone With The Wind (Sep 11)

Gone With The Wind

1939, 237 min.
Directed by Victor Fleming

No way in hell was I going to be late for this one.

Tonight I was finally going to see it, the most famous movie in the world. You see, Gone With The Wind has always been the glaring hole in my cinematic resume. It's my white whale or sorts. I've had many opportunities to watch it, but never have (for one reason or another). All I've ever seen of it is in the form of trailers and short clips on television. Heck, I even own the DVD (somewhere), still sitting untouched on a shelf. The reverence associated with this spectacle of a film has dictated that I see it properly when I finally decide to see it. The Summer Film Series gave me the perfect reason for delaying my viewing. I can see it on the big screen!

It was originally to be the date night capper for the summer. My lady had expressed a keen interest in this all summer, and as the date had approached we had gotten more and more excited. A trip early in the Summer to the "Making Movies" exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center at UT kicked our enthusiasm into a higher gear. There we found pre-production art and costumes (including the famous Curtain dress), adding to the aura of Gone With The Wind. It was no mere movie, it in itself was

Unfortunately, as the summer progressed the number of screenings for Gone With The Wind shrank from three screenings over two days to one lone screening. Due to a performance by comic Margaret Cho on Sunday, those days screenings were canceled. That left Saturday night's showing to be the only opportunity for anyone to partake of the film.

Alas, a date night was not to be. Schedules got rearranged and she would be unable to join me. A little sad at the prospect of watching this majestic film on my own, I nevertheless set out for the final film of the Summer Series. The movie was at 7:00 pm, and I left our home at 6:23. Over a half hour. Plenty of time.

Downtown Austin on a Saturday evening is not an easy venture, particularly if you need to go anywhere near 6th street. The Paramount is on Congress between 7th and 8th, so I knew parking was going to be a challenge. Coming east down 5th from Mopac, I don't see anything out of the ordinary as I hit Congress. I begin circling a couple of blocks to find a parking spot.

Catching way too many red lights because of hold ups. Not by the metro buses, mind you, but by horses. Yes, horses. Two potential spots are lost within a few minutes because a carriage is blocking my path and another vehicle whips around them to snag the space. Grrr. Stupid horses.

I'm running out of time and getting nervous. I absolutely do not want to miss a single frame of this movie. Going north, I finally pass in front of the Theatre. I literally do a double-take. They are letting people in the doors, but this line of patrons streams past The State Theatre next door and snakes down 8th. Hoooooly crap. That's a LOT of folks. On the plus side, my mind tells me that this buys me several more minutes. There's no way they can seat everyone and get the movie started by 7.

Okay, time to concede to paid parking. I turn and make my way towards Littlefield Mall just off 6th street. I've parked over there before and they're reasonable, and- oh, dammit. I don't think I have cash. Checking my wallet at a red light confirms it. Ugh. I'd stop at a nearby ATM to get cash, but that would... you know. Require parking. Oh, the irony.

This is ridiculous. I expanded the perimeter and still nada. There's still a small line outside, but I need to find something fast.

Outlook bleak. Not even a hint of a car leaving to free up a space. Line has disappeared inside.

Dude. I'm so tired of this Eminem/Rhianna song. Three times on two radio stations in a little less than an hour. Yes, yes. You love the way he lies. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Click.

Ugh. I'm sure the movie's starting now.

I'll circle one more time. Maybe I won't have missed much.

Like a flat-lining patient, I have to call it. My effort is dead. The show is likely well into the second reel. Sigh. Guess it wasn't meant to be. Reluctantly, I turn the car back south on Congress and head home.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed. What a bummer of an ending for me to the great Summer Film Series. After all my efforts to make it to as many films as humanly possible, I get shut out of the last film. Curse you, white whale.

Trying to fight back the bitter taste in my mouth, I'm more upset that there was only one screening of the grand finale. Why, Margaret Cho? Why did you deny us more Gone with the Wind? Shouldn't you be working out and practicing for "Dancing with the Stars"?

As I drove south on Congress in the direction of my home, thoughts percolated in my head. I shouldn't be too distraught. At least now I can see Gone with the Wind with my lady, as was intended. We'll get to it someday. I've gone this long, what's a little bit longer? With luck, maybe I'll see it proper next year at The Paramount. Or maybe I'll finally dig up my copy and watch it at home.

Through all my indignant thoughts, a beam of sunlight began to part the stormy clouds in my head. Maybe, a movie this grand is meant to be seen in certain circumstances, but not necessarily on the big screen. Maybe, I'm just supposed to share a moment like that with the woman I love, whether at The Paramount or on the living room TV. Yeah, that's how I'm going to look at this. And you know why? Because that's what feels right to me. Yes, I had the opportunity, but there's always next time. As I've heard somewhere before...

...after all, tomorrow is another day.

Oh, and best of luck to you, Margaret Cho. You had better win it all now.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Films # 71 & 72: Nora Ephron Double Feature (Sep 8)

Sleepless in Seattle
1993, 104 min.
Directed by Nora Ephron

When Harry Met Sally
1989, 95 min.
Directed by Rob Reiner

Hmmm. Am I an old man because I think it's too soon to be nostalgic about the 1990s? Case in point: I recently heard someone complaining about the quality of romantic comedies lately (in truth, I believe it was just a rant against the likes of Katherine Heigl).

After some pressing, I discovered that what they were missing were (as they called it) "those Meg Ryan type" of movies. Ohhhh.
Those movies. Oddly, I knew what they were referring to. I'm no romantic comedy connoisseur, but there was definitely a certain style to these movies popular in the 90s. Starting with When Harry Met Sally in 1989 and pretty much ending in 1998's You've Got Mail, it seemed there was a genre of romantic comedies that had a distinct flavor. They weren't echoes of Annie Hall and didn't feature Julia Roberts as their lead. Nora Ephron broke ground with her screenplay for When Harry..., and then every one of the major players involved in its success tried to catch that lightning in a bottle again.

These were really the only ones that worked to some degree. By the time 2000 came around, all we got were half-hearted efforts like America's Sweethearts, Alex & Emma, Kate & Leopold, and Bewitched. Yuck. From the ashes of these romantic comedies came the new breeds, written by Richard Curtis and later by Judd Apatow. Whether that's progress is in the eye of the beholder.

Tonight's viewing at The Paramount would've made the Heigl-hater proud. It was a twin-bill of two Nora Ephron scripted rom-coms. I had seen them many years ago, and both had made very different impressions on me. The night's screenings only served to reinforce my initial opinions.

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More Postcards! (A Paramount Vacation: 2010)

Summer is about to end, and while I am rather exhausted from writing about The Summer Film Series, I had a blast. So many stories experienced and so many locations visited, so much popcorn ingested.

Around the Fourth of July weekend, I displayed the first set of postcards that chronicled the places these movies have taken me. And what follows are my postcards from the second half of The Summer Film series. Behold, and feel free to click on them to read my original write ups on the films. Enjoy!

Friends, this is how I've spent the rest of my summer vacation.

To everyone who went to see movies at The Paramount this summer with me, I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Three more movies left, and then the Summer escapism will be over. Adventures, stories, and traveling will be mine own. Not that I'm complaining about going back to real life, mind you... but let's face it. Life is better with lots and lots of popcorn.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Film # 70: The Big Lebowski (Sep 5) with Scavenger Hunt!

The Big Lebowski

1998, 117 min.
Directed by Joel Coen

This afternoon's screening of The Big Lebowski looked to be perhaps the most fun event of them all, yet I was unable to uncover any details in advance. Seriously. All I knew was that it was to be a scavenger hunt by Red Diversions, and that they had a similar event last year. Oh, I thought, if they had a hunt last year I can do research and find out what to expect. Yeah... That didn't happen. Google searches yielded no clues, and people I asked didn't have any new information either. Now, I wasn't planning on competing, but I wanted to know what was going on so I could document the adventure for you, my dear readers. Looks like I was going to have to wing it. My first curveball arrived as soon as I got there. I entered and was ushered to a table where the Red Diversions staff was greeting everyone. A pleasant young lady started to give me a wristband.

"Is your team already here?" she asked while fastening it around my wrist.
"Uh.. well. I don't have a team. I was just coming on my own."
"Oh. The instructions are about to begin in the auditorium. You can find a team inside," she assured me. "Just ask a group if you can join them."
"Eh, well, actually... I- uh, (exhales) okay."

Deciding against engaging in a debate and holding up the line, I sauntered into the auditorium where rules were being explained to the teams. Sitting off to the side by myself, I was getting kind of getting excited as I was listening. Next year I'm going to have to field a team so I can participate. It was all very Midnight Madness, except.. you know, it was daytime (and there was no Michael J. Fox present). The teams were given an envelope with a clue that would lead to a nearby location. There they check in with a Red Diversions rep (receiving points for every station the arrive at) and get the next clue. Opportunities exist for bonus points in the form of trivia, tasks (like physical challenges from the show "Double Dare"), and from a scavenger hunt list. After the teams get to the final checkpoint, the one with the most points wins! Sounds pretty neat, huh? It was.

With a proclamation of "go!" the teams made off like a dash. Not wanting to be left behind in my own pursuit, I acted quickly. I tracked down the remaining members of the hosts at the theatre, I explained my role to the Red Diversions team. They, however, were initially reluctant to provide this loner with any assistance. It was understandable. Heck, for all they knew I could have been an impostor passing along info to some team via text message (note to self: see if The Paramount can provide me with some ID or lanyard badge for future instances like this). After convincing them that I would maintain the integrity of the game, they agreed to send me to the first location (which happened to be just across the street).

Once there, I was assisted by another Red Diversions member. I was lucky enough to glance at a clue after most players had moved on. From that point, I was just following whomever I could. I basically had to pick and choose players to follow in my effort to keep pace with packs in my efforts to document the chase. I did pretty well, making it to location 3 and then 4 (which ended up at the Capitol). The huffing and jogging was starting to take its toll, since I wasn't dressed appropriately. If I knew I was going to be running in this heat I would have not worn jeans and an oxford shirt. Yet I continued, because it was my self-appointed duty.

But fate had other ideas in mind. After seeing many mill around the Capitol, I spotted a couple out of the corner of my eye that were heading back south on Congress with a determined pace. A ha! These people are clearly on to the next station. I followed briskly, but kept my distance. No need to look like some stalker. Although now that I think about it, that is the correct verb for what I was doing. By the way, it's difficult to inconspicuously follow someone while power walking and sweating profusely.

I followed them for a few blocks, and then they stopped. Yikes! Did I spook them? I kept my distance and noticed they kept looking at their envelope and clues. All of a sudden, they cross Congress and double back. Well, [BEEP]. I glanced back towards the Capitol, but I didn't see much of the other squads. That's my luck. I followed the one group that went the wrong way. My enthusiasm deflated like a balloon. Too late to find another team, I lowered my head and walked dejectedly (Charlie Brown-style) back to The Paramount.

Below is photographic evidence of my attempts at following intrepid gamers who were evidently impervious to the heat. included at the end are also some shots of the winners.

Despite losing the trail, I was grateful for a recovery period in the air conditioned building. I was also grateful for a cold beer. Making my way upstairs, I settled in, relaxed (Dude-style) and waited for the movie to begin.

Before I begin talking about the film, I need to clarify something. Although I've been a fan of movies my whole life, I've never been one to throw the term "cult classic" around. Why, you ask? Frankly, it's because most of the movies I hear that label attached to aren't very good. While many would categorize these as the "so bad, they're good" kind of films, I do not. Sometimes, they are just "sooo bad." Off the top of my head, examples of this sort are: Plan 9 from Outer Space, Showgirls, The Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest, and Pink Flamingos. All of these movies I consider to be completely freaking awful, by the way.
The granddaddy of them all is, in my experience, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (a movie that I guess has some remotely fun songs but is, in itself, absolutely terrible). I'm not big on corporeal punishment, but if these films were people, I'd beat the hell out of them for being so bad. No wire hangers, indeed.

For those movies, I guess the appeal is to be hip about its awfulness. Let's be real. No fan of those movies, no matter who ardent, will ever claim that any of those movies deserved more acclaim or even an Oscar. Even cult classics that are genuinely very good movies, like Office Space, Brazil, and Night of the Living Dead (the original Romero one, thank you very much) have some detractors, believe it or not. But there exists one cult classic that I truly believes stands above all others. That is The Big Lebowski, the 1998 comedy by The Coen brothers. Made with the same high quality that marks most of their films, it was woefully underrated when first released (and Jeff Bridges is so good in this. Seriously). But in its current cult status, it is worthy of the rabid fanbase. The only criticism I've ever heard about the movie is in regards to the vulgarity of its language. Nevertheless, it is one of funniest [BEEP]-ing movies I've ever seen.

Joel and Ethan Coen have proven to be some of the elite American film makers over the past quarter century. Their unique brand of cinema have an absurdist view of the world, and are largely populated by idiots. But oh, what a lovely bunch of coconuts they often are, and Lebowski is possibly one of the most crazy and quotable comedies of all time.

Come to think of it, comedy is too limited a label for this genre-less movie. There's intrigue, mystery, crime, sorrow, sex, and a tiny splash of drama. The Big Lebowski starts as a case of mistaken identity, and evolves into a tale of zaniness and unpredictability that only the Coens can create.

Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is an unemployed stoner who prefers to be called "The Dude" and is so Zen that he gravitates far into a state of perpetual laziness. When two thugs break in and vandalize his rug because they mistake him for someone with the same name, he goes to this other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) and seeks restitution. The "Big" Lebowski is a millionaire philanthropist with a sycophantic assistant (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a nympho trophy wife (Tara Reid), and a hardened conservative attitude. Lebowski chastises The Dude and dismisses the idea of compensation. Shortly, thereafter, he calls on The Dude to aid him when his wife is kidnapped and held for ransom. That's the setup, and what follows is nothing short of complete mayhem.

Walls start crashing around The Dude and his calm little corner of the world. Aided only by his friend Walter (John Goodman), they dig themselves deeper and deeper into a plot that involves pornographers, nihilists, pederasts, artists, private investigators, marmots and bowlers. All The Dude wants is his rug back and some quality bowling time. But as far as handling the situations that he becomes entangled with, let's just say he rolls way more gutters than strikes.

The choice of making such a bizarre comedy threw many people for a loop, considering it was the Coen brothers' next film after the critically lauded Fargo. In retrospect, it seems just about right. They have a penchant for throwing audiences for a loop, and have historically always done an outright comedy after a critical dramatic success. After their debut Blood Simple, they came back with Raising Arizona. And more recently, after No Country for Old Men (which won them Oscar gold), they made Burn After Reading. They are intent on not following any rules or conventions; the cardinal sin for them is settling into a routine. The Big Lebowski is eclectic in every sense of the word. The soundtrack is catchy, the characters are all bizarre, the situations are even more screwy, and the humor displays the flippant attitude that the Coens are known for.

Since the theater was filled with fans, it was a great experience. The laughs came loud and hard, and certain lines brought the audience to cheers. I even heard some someone singing along with the soundtrack. The Dude may hate The Eagles' music, but not whoever was sitting a few rows behind me.

More than just a celebration of dunces, the film does have themes to consider. But, by design, they can remain vague at best, so there is no wrong way to enjoy the movie. In fact, trying to figure out the deeper meaning is a pointless exercise here. If one wants to try a political slant, there is evidence that the film makes fun of the neo-conservative culture, as evidenced by the references to the first Gulf War, Walter's right-wing rantings and The Big Lebowski's abrasive attitude. It's a riff on both the right and left, while also pointing out that maintaining balance is pretty much impossible. As said in the movie, "sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you." Ultimately, it's meaningless, but not nihilistic; since the Coens made sure to poke fun at that tenet also. The Big Lebowski remains as elusive as it is aloof, while maintaining a level of cleverness (and self-awareness). Even the narrator, played by the sonorous Sam Elliott, starts waxing philosophical until he catches himself:

"I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time until- aw, look at me, I'm ramblin' again."

It's best to enjoy it as it is, Joel and Ethan's funniest film. Often odd, mostly hilarious, and never boring, The Big Lebowski is- if nothing else, one hell of a trip. Just enjoy the wild ride, and roll with the punches. If The Dude can abide, we all can.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some bowling to do.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Film # 69: Vertigo: 70 mm (Sept 3)


1958, 128 min.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Friday marked the closing party for The Summer Film Series, even though there are still four more films left. It was the beginning of the bittersweet conclusion to my summer at The Paramount. I gotta be honest, I don't want this to end.

There was a private party for Film Fan Members, and we got there early so that we could enjoy all that it had to offer. And what a fun time it was! There were artists drawing profiles of guests, Hitchcock-style. I contemplated getting one done myself, but I didn't need a reminder of the ol' double chin. There were also complementary drinks and, for once, I took advantage. I had a drink with vanilla vodka, and my girlfriend had some peach schnapps thing. Tasty!

After a few drinks and some socializing, I decided to go have a look around at the crowds. Glancing around, I found it exciting that there were so many people in attendance. Even upstairs, chairs were hard to come by. Yay for people with good taste in movies. Hmmm. It's filling up in here pretty quick. Looks like it's time to go find our seats.

I was surprised that I recognized so many people in the audience. Lots of familiar faces from the entire summer. It was like the end of Pee Wee's Big Adventure when all the characters showed up at the movie screening. I used my acquired knowledge of fellow patrons to determine the proper place to sit for Vertigo.

"Don't sit here. There's that kid and his dad that talked all the way through Prizzi's Honor."
"Let's keep moving. That's the gal that annoyed me with her blind date during Psycho."

After a few warnings of that sort, we found near perfect seats. Before the film began, Ken Stein came out and thanked everyone for another Summer Series Season. After giving a warm shout out to the film fans upstairs, he provided an update on the tunneling beneath the lobby and reminded us that every little bit helps maintain this old but beautiful theatre. Ken also asked us to keep voting for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "This Place Matters" campaign. He then drew a winner from the people who had filled out their votes already. The prize was two tickets to a show, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, performing at The Paramount in April. Well, as luck would have it, the winner was sitting right next to us. No joke! I snapped a photo of the joyous film fan member, which is included at the end of the following slideshow chronicling the night's events.

After a hearty round of applause for the winner and for Ken, he exited the stage and the film began. Vertigo, in restored 70 mm and DTS sound. Ahhhh.

I've seen Vertigo countless times, and my appreciation for this classic film grows with every viewing. I'll admit that it actually kind of bored me the first time I saw it, but it's because I couldn't understand any of the nuances or the more mature subject matter. In my defense, I was about 8 when I first saw it, so I guess I shouldn't have been able to comprehend what was going on. As the years went on, and I learned more and more about the complexities of the choices we make and the obsessions that drive us irrational, the movie became more textured, more rich, more artistic, more genius.

Vertigo is a ghost story about, wait- check that. It is a story about hauntings. Yet there are no phantoms, no poltergeists, no Bill Murray yucking it up or Bruce Willis talking with Haley Joel Osment. It's about ghosts purely in the sense that we can succumb to nostalgia. About how all the mechanisms for our hauntings are internal, and can escalate our flaws into a spiraling tower of obsession.

The plot is a winding road. John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) is a retired detective dealing with his acrophobia (fear of heights). His condition resulted in the death of a colleague during a rooftop chase, which resulted in his sudden resignation. He's contacted by an old college friend Gavin Elster, who hires him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). She has been behaving oddly, and as Ferguson follows her, he begins to piece together a far-fetched scenario where she is possessed by the spirit of her late great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes (complete with suicidal tendencies). When Mrs. Elster flings herself into the bay below the Golden Gate Bridge, Ferguson dives after her and saves her life. That sparks the beginning of a romance between the two that ends tragically.

Distraught by his loss, John sinks into a deep funk and haunts the locations where he had initially followed her around San Francisco. Things get increasingly bleak (and surreal) for him until he happens upon a young lady (also played by Novak) who reminds him strongly of Mrs. Elster. He begins a relationship with her that progresses from slightly unnerving into a full-on creepshow of obsession. Himself haunted by the memory of Madeleine, John descends deeper and deeper into a madness all his own, trying to recreate the young woman into the image of his ideal... his beloved... his Madeleine. Surely I needn't tell you this will not end well.

The characters of Vertigo are an interesting bunch, each with obvious and overt neuroses tethered to their lives. The three major characters all give outstanding performances. Kim Novak does a great job in her dual roles, keeping the audience just as discombobulated as she does John. Also of note is Barbara Bel Geddes as Ferguson's best friend, Midge. More than just comic relief, she's accessible for audiences in a way that relieves much of the tension and weight of the heavier scenes. Yet she's also harboring issues of her own, hinting at character depth with a mere glance or a posture shift. Over the years, Midge has become one of my favorite characters in all of the Hitchcockian universe, and her story (particularly her hinted past with John) is the one I wish I could learn more about.

For me (and probably most audiences), the revelation in acting is likely to be Jimmy Stewart's performance as Ferguson. Most are probably most familiar with his "sunnier" performances in Frank Capra movies and several Westerns. Even at age 8, my image of Stewart was from It's A Wonderful Life, a movie the family watched every holiday season. While a darker brand of Christmas story, nothing ever hinted at the type of character he would portray in Vertigo. To put in bluntly, Ferguson is a sick, sick man. Oddly, he's a very structured man, with a belief that adaptive behavior can curb his maladies. But as the story progresses, we begin to see the truth. Far from the model of mental health, John is consumed by his inner demons.

Although I realize a great deal of credit must be given to the film's restoration team, I now find Vertigo to be one of the more visually striking films of Hitchcock's career. Since I am used to his films being mostly black and white, I am surprised by his thematic use of the color palette.

One of the more striking elements is his use of the color green in this movie. In this film where warm hues are prevalent, the appearance of green (particularly the emerald shade used) pops out in its vibrancy. Bear in mind that when "green" is used in this movie, it's not to evoke the same feeling it does today. Hitchcock wasn't trying to sell us reusable bags, after all. Long ago, I recall reading an article (or perhaps I heard a DVD commentary) where green was discussed as the color of evil. Later research reinforced this claim, underlining the pigment as the color of poison and illness. With that in mind, it becomes apparent when watching the film that green is the hue-based equivalent of a stop sign, indicating malicious intents or actions. Once this mindset is established, Vertigo becomes a haunting beautiful movie where the appearance of this color underlines the decay of one's mental health. See? This is why the film is such a masterpiece! It operates on so many different levels, and the magnitude of its greatness varies with each moviegoer and what they perceive. That, my friends, is geeeeeenius. Pure genius.

After the film, my girlfriend and I exchanged most of these points as I walked back to the car. Every time we see it, the topics of discussion focus uncover something new. We had last seen the movie on TCM about a year ago, and were astonished to notice that night's experience seemed a little different than we remember. Perhaps it was due to the audience, but I'm sure the venue had an effect also. The combination of the 70 mm print and the big screen seemed to amplify everything in the film. Drama was more intense, the surreal was even more bizarre, and the moments of levity were more effective in this psychological thriller. Once again, I couldn't help but think that the venue often makes a world of difference. A movie palace is the best place to enjoy a movie like this, and for those who saw it for the first time that evening... I couldn't help but be green with envy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Course in Geography by The Coen Brothers

I've often said that I've learned a lot from movies, and that's actually quite true. Now don't freak out. I've had a proper education and a college degree and all that. I'm not saying that film would be an adequate substitute for an education, but it can be a nice supplement. Many different kinds of life lessons can be attained (like those of John Hughes) from watching movies. But more importantly, film has the power to transport viewers to an infinite list of locations and situations.

Being exposed to different landscapes, cultures, and people can help broaden our minds a bit. Introduction to new ideas and trains of thought are equally beneficial. A melting pot of ideas, stories and dreams. That's what draws me to film. Hmmm. Melting pot, huh? Sound familiar?

The celebration and success of diversity is one of the things that make our country so great. It's also one of my favorite aspects of going to the movies. In short, it's why I named this blog "Cinemerica." And the best films are capable of taking you anywhere.

Two of the most renown American directors working today are The Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan have set their stories all across this great land, exposing their audiences to a variety of different subcultures and eras in our nation's history.

Their cinema is like a tour of the United States, depicting many different people and customs. Each film has a distinctive stamp, colored by the Coens' signature elements. The deft use of offbeat dialogue, beautiful photography and especially their darker wit and sense of humor help give a new perspective to our land.

Usually silly, sometimes cynical, often upbeat, and always amusing, their films are so impactive that they could possibly shape a perception of a particular region. Seeing the idiosyncrasies that populate their movies, it would be fun to imagine what a state's demographic information would look like if based solely on some of their cinematic works.

What an interesting geography lesson that would be. Curious? Well then, keep reading. I think it would look something like this...

And now, with tongue firmly in cheek, I present "Geography by Joel and Ethan Coen." A look at seven of our United States.

Film: Raising Arizona (1987)
Industries: Kidnapping babies. Robbing hayseed banks.
Model Citizens:
- Herbert "H.I." McDunnough: Repeat offender trying to live the straight life
- Edwina "Ed" McDunnough: Policewoman. Wife to H.I.
Bad Apple: Leonard Smalls (The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse)
Famous Brand: Unpainted Arizona. A furniture store.
Arts/Culture: Yodeling, Telling Polish jokes, Balloons in funny shapes (if you think round is funny)
State Motto: "Well... it ain't 'Ozzie and Harriet.'"
Final Thoughts: They sure know how to survive out there in the desert. When there's no meat, they eat fowl. When there's no fowl, they eat crawdad. And when there's no crawdad, they eat sand. Ok, so maybe it's not the best place to raise a baby, and dreams of large families are ambiguous at best. As H.I. said, "I don't know. Maybe it was Utah."

Film: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Era: 1930s
Industries: Singing into a can. Selling one's soul to the devil. Shooting cattle.
Model Citizen: Ulysses Everett McGill. Escaped convict trying to prove he's bona fide.
Bad Apples: Big Dan Teague (Bible salesman). Gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes.
Famous Brand: Dapper Dan, a hair pomade.
Arts/Culture: Old Timey Music, particularly those "Soggy Bottom Boys."
State Motto: "Well, ain't this place a geographical oddity. Two weeks from everywhere!"
Final Thoughts: Even the Great Depression looks marvelous in sepia-toned color correction. Looks like they have one heck of a governor's race going on. Oh, also be sure to watch out for "them syreens." They'll love you up and turn you into a horny toad. You know those things give you warts?

Film: Fargo (1996)
Era: 1987
Industries: Crooked car dealerships. Kidnapping one's own wife (and hiring morons to do so).
Model Citizen: Police Chief Marge Gunderson of Brainerd, Minnesota. Pregnant and savvy.
Bad Apple: Jerry Lundegaard, a car dealer (isn't that enough of a reason?)
Arts/Culture: Ice fishing. Watching ice hockey. Making duck paintings. Eating Arby's. Going to see Jose Feliciano.
State Motto: "The heck do ya mean? "
Final Thoughts: Oh heck, aren't they all a bunch of nice people there in Minnesota, donchaknow? But ya better stay away from them wood chippers, yah? Yah. You betcha.

Also, if you wish to learn about the Jewish lifestyle of Minnesota, try A Serious Man (2009).

Film: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Era: 1958
Industries: Anything by Hudsucker Industries. Talk about your corporate monsters!
Model Citizen: Norville Barnes, a mailroom clerk.
Bad Apple: Sidney J. Mussburger, Board of Directors: Hudsucker Industries.
Famous Brand: Again, anything by Hudsucker.
Arts/Culture: Reading The Manhattan Argus, a local newspaper. Talking fast. Chain-smoking.
State Motto: "You know, for kids."
Final Thoughts: This is the Coen take on the capitalistic side of our society. It deals with Big Business, the American dream, rags to riches (to rags, again), the role of media influence, economics, and hula-hoops.

Film: Burn After Reading (2008)
Industries: Getting in bed with everyone (literally). Writing memoirs. Selling secrets.
Model Citizen: This is tough... Um, no one?
Bad Apples: I dunno. How about... everyone?
Famous Brand: Hardbodies, a local gym.
Arts/Culture: Cruising the internet. Working out. Extortion. Lying. Saving up for plastic surgery.
State Motto: "Appearances can be... deceptive."
Final Thoughts: While most of their films are populated by morons and idiots, this one has much more bite than most. The characters are a bit foolish and unlikable, but don't fret, residents of the District of Columbia (there are people like that everywhere). To sum up their take on the seat of power in America, the Coens have one clear message: Central Intelligence is anything but.

Film: No Country for Old Men (2007)
Era: 1980s
Industries: Well, nothing pays as well as finding the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad near the Mexican border.
Model Citizen: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Possibly Llewelyn Moss (who made off with drug money).
Bad Apples: Anton Chigurh (A verrrrry scary hitman). Possibly Llewelyn Moss (who's endangered his loved ones by making off with the drug money).
Arts/Culture: Lamenting how crazy the world is now. Hotel room hopping. If you're a lunatic hitman, then having a Dutchboy haircut seems to be alright (no one's gonna tell you that you look ridiculous when you're pointing a shotgun with a silencer at them).
State Motto: "Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."
Final Thoughts: Dios mio. No matter how big the state is, there's no place to hide. Between this and 1984's Blood Simple, it seems the Lone Star State is a prime location for murder. I'd take exception with that, but I was taught to Remember the Alamo. And we all know how that turned out.

Film: The Big Lebowski (1998)
Era: 1991
Industries: Holding trophy wives for ransom. Making avant-garde art. Drinking White Russians.
Model Citizen: Jeff Lebowski, The Dude.
Bad Apples: Nihilists. Jesus Quintana, a pederast.
Big Fish: Jackie Treehorn, porn mogul. Jeffrey Lebowski, the "Big" Lebowski.
Arts/Culture: "Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback."
State Motto: "The Dude abides."
Final Thoughts: The Coens have made two films about Minnesota (their home state), and four set in this state (where they live in now). Clearly, they feel this is the most absurd state in our union. For example, Barton Fink shows the absurdity of Hollywood and Intolerable Cruelty illustrates the vanity and facetious nature of the area. And Lebowski? Well, it condemns the absurd and the lazy. But don't take my word for it. Here's a portion of the opening narration.

"Now this here story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early '90s - just about the time of our conflict with Sad'm and the I-raqis. I only mention it because sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he's a lazy man - and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man."

On the plus side, no matter how crazy things get... The Dude abides.

Like America itself, Joel and Ethan have had peaks and valleys. Good times and bad, including artistic recessions (The Ladykillers, anyone?). It's doubtful they will complete movies on the remaining 40+ states, but luckily for us we have a solid collection of their films to enjoy for decades to come. Contrary to what many may say, these two are not just making movies to poke fun at Americans. If anything, they show that we can all become players in a theater of the most preposterous circumstances. Maybe we can all learn something from these portrayals.

Or heck, just watch them for the inherent silliness. I'm sure they won't mind.

The Big Lebowski will screen on Sunday, Sept. 5th at The Paramount Theatere in Austin, TX.
At 2pm, join us for a film-themed scavenger hunt before the 3 pm screening.