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Movies You Haven’t Seen But Should: “Grace”

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The Bride and I were discussing feminist horror the other day (doesn’t every couple), spurred by the DVD cover of the “I Spit On Your Grave” remake. The remake’s cover offers a variation on the original’s poster, and while both are essentially offering up a combo of sex and violence, each movie comes down to being revenge fantasies about a woman taking out her rapists. The original is notable for a gut-wrenching rape sequence years before “Irreversible” gained notoriety of a similiar sequence, while the remake apparently pulls back on that somewhat and focuses more on the revenge aspect of things.

There’s an attempt by the filmmakers of both the original and the remake to call them “feminist horror,” since ultimately they both tell the story of women delivering a deserved come-uppance onto groups of men. It’s the same attempt that Eli Roth put out with “Hostel 2” that it had a feminist overtone because (SPOILER ALERT), in the end, the woman with money had more power than the poor and thusly emasculated man.(END SPOILER) 

The Bride’s contention, and I tend to agree, is that castrating a man does not feminist horror make. You have to go deeper than that, and a movie like Paul Solet’s vastly underrated  “Grace” does just that thing. It’s a movie I’ve debated on writing about for months, that I had to chew on for weeks afterwards, one that has kept popping up into conversations with the Bride . “Grace” is, and I say this with the deepest of sincerity, one righteously effed-up movie.

By rights, I shouldn’t like “Grace.” The director, Solet, was unknown to me, and the star, Jordan Ladd, was not exactly someone who had impressed me at any point with anything she’d been in. But I remembered the boys over at CHUD discussing it following Sundance back in ’09, and Devin’s open letter to the film’s eventual home, Anchor Bay, imploring for a theatrical release for the movie. Eventually it landed on DVD and it lived in our Netflix Instant Streaming queue for a while before we decided to kill part of a Saturday afternoon with it.

“Kill” is the key word there.

I won’t go into the plot, because plot isn’t really what makes “Grace” an unsettling and effective movie. The gist of the story is about Ladd’s Madeline, a pregnant woman who seems stuck in a marriage she’s not entirely pleased with. She and her husband are involved in a car accident that kills the husband and forced to deliver the baby, the titular Grace. What proceeds to happen from this point on is best experienced, preferably with the lights dimmed and the baby monitor turned off.

Most horror directors don’t understand tone. They don’t understand that oftentimes it is what is left out that is more important than what is left in. Solet, in his first feature, nails tone. He creates an incredibly disturbing tone from almost frame one, with a painful dinner conversation between Madeline, her husband, and her in-laws. Everything is painted in small, strong strokes, with off-putting glances and clipped dialogue. He continues the contrast with Madeline, a vegan, watching PETA-esque videos of animal cruelty.

Solet never lays it all out on the table the way many directors would have. When characters appear, their motives may appear clear, but their motivations less so. What drives Madeline, unhappy in her marriage (Ladd conveys a world of hurt and disinterest in a sex scene with the husband) and possibly having a baby only because that’s what society expects of a young married woman, to care for the “baby” speaks volumes about societal pressures and the very concept of motherhood and protecting your brood without ever once trying to answer any of those questions, knowing that there are no easy answers.

Solet does seem to acknowledge, however, the tacit power which lies in motherhood and, by proxy, womanhood. The mother-in-law, played by Canadian actress Gabrielle Rose, is a woman who is past childbearing years, and instead she clings to the fragile power of lording over her son and cuckolding her husband. Her attempts to take Grace from her daughter-in-law reflect her own fear of aging and how deeply connected the power of conception and birth are to our own ideas of youth. Meanwhile, Madeline’s midwife Patricia (Samantha Ferris) struggles to get control over her feelings about Madeline following a hinted-upon relationship. (Sollet’s script is brilliant in never explicitedly telling you anything, and respectfully thinking you might just be able to piece things together on your own).

“Grace” is a film about women struggling for control and for power. Don’t go into it expecting strong men; every male character is essentially neutered, from Madeline’s husband, who is still connected to his mother by apron strings, to the OB/GYN (Malcolm Stewart), who is a cretin of the highest (or lowest) caliber. But the women are shrews, they aren’t harpies, they aren’t witches and nags. What they are are women battling generations and millennia of expectations from men and society, looking for some way to exert their own power, and it is soon evident that it is in motherhood that they find their greatest strength.

And yes, “Grace” will scare the hell out of you too. It manages to succeed where a movie like Lucky McKee’s “May” was only partially successful, in building a complex portrait of a woman and then imbuing her with massive reserves of strength (“May” has a stunning first hour and then falls apart, sadly; that said, I’m looking forward to McKee’s “The Woman,” which massively divided audiences at Sundance this year, and actually drove people out of the theater). “Grace” builds and builds with dread, where a simple fly becames a harbinger of death, and once that is surprisingly unviolent until one sudden, shocking act turns everything on its ear and it almost becomes a Greek tragedy.

The ending on “Grace” may not be perfect, but it feels almost inevitable. Ladd taps into depths that nothing she’s been in prior even hints at, and shows that with the right director and script, she could easily move to the next level of film. Sollet is a name to watch from this point on, because he’s made a movie that will upset you, disturb you, and make you think long after the final credits.

Peter Jackson, “The Hobbit” and why maybe this whole thing isn’t such a hot idea

October 18, 2010 1 comment

The Lovely Bones

The Bride and I caught “The Lovely Bones” on cable over the weekend, and it’s certainly not the disaster so many critics claimed it to be. Sure, it’s deeply imperfect, with a great deal of tonal unevenness, flashy special effects where subtlty would have worked better, and a performance by Susan Sarandon that feels so completely off from the rest of the proceedings I think she was acting off of a different script.

It’s merits are many, though, not the least of which being Stanley Tucci getting an all-too-rare showcase role as the murderer who sets the story into play, as well as Jackson showing off several solid set pieces of pure suspense and a showstopper sequence of Susie, the murdered girl, discovers all of her murderer’s previous victims. But it never reaches that level of pure filmmaking thrill Peter Jackson’s always enfused his films with. The argument could be made the subject matter didn’t exactly lend itself to such treatment, but Jackson has handled similiarly touchy material before, with the beautiful and chilling “Heavenly Creatures.”

Where all of this is going is the announcement of Jackson directing the “Hobbit” films. I wish I were enthused about this news on any level, but I’m not, because Jackson already made that trip to the shire with the “Lord of the Ring” trilogy, and I can’t help but feel that he’s going back to this well because it’s comfortable and not because he’s so compelled to tell the story. Jackson’s films since winning three Oscars for “Return of the King” (“King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones”) have been interesting if not entirely successful ventures. “Bones” we’ve already discussed, and “King Kong” felt like the work of a director so driven to entertain you, throwing thing after thing at you, you almost wanted to pay an extra buck or two when you left the theater.

Peter Jackson

But Jackson’s decision to direct “The Hobbit” after a myriad of delays forced Guillermo del Toro to drop out feels more like a financial vision than an artistic one. Jackson is someone who made his name in DIY features in New Zealand, a director unafraid of gore, emotion, or scale, and I hoped “Bones” to be a step to steer him toward more personal projects (“LOTR” does count as that in my book). For the same reason I was thrilled to see del Toro leave “The Hobbit” I’m sad to see Jackson pick it up. It’s not that either man couldn’t create a good movie; it’s just that the depths of their imaginations are such, you hate to see them continually play in the sandboxes of others. del Toro infused even his “Hellboy” adaptations with his own flavors (Catholicism, mysticism, Lovecraftian themes, a deeply romantic sense of yearning), and his works based off his own scripts are truly films that could never have been done by another director.

Guillermo del Toro

Jackson’s well of imagination is immense, too; view his early New Zealand flicks like “Meet the Feebles” and “Dead Alive” to see that, or even “The Frighteners,” a massively underappreciated little piece of pop horror, maybe too Hollywood-ized (it was produced by Robert Zemeckis and was originally going to be a “Tales from the Crypt” movie), but with nicely twisted bits (does anyone do batshit crazy better than Jeffrey Combs?) and a third act that’s genuinely just plain works. I don’t know that another Tolkien adaptation is the best way to utilize that creative energy, though. I’d be far more interested in Jackson’s take on an original script, maybe even a return to horror a la Raimi and “Drag Me to Hell” (and why Raimi didn’t need to make a fourth “Spider-Man” movie). As Jackson gets ready to turn 50 next year, he needs to look at what he wants to leave behind in his next 10 to 15 years, which could be incredible fruitful and production years. Consider Spielberg and Eastwood, both directors who have sharpened as they’ve aged and occasionally taken challenges they might have otherwise in their respective youths.

No, directing “The Hobbit” is what a director like Jackson does when his previous two films are seen as underperforming (ignore that “King Kong” made a ton of money; it also cost a fortune to make and market). The financial success of “The Hobbit” films will probably give Jackson leeway on whatever he opts to do immediately afterwards, though at the cost of being able to do something more interesting now. There’s little that will detract from what Jackson achieved with the “LOTR” films. However, there’s also little that Jackson can contribute to this particular mythos that he hasn’t already. I’ll probably end up seeing the “Hobbit” movies, but that raw joy from experiencing the “LOTR” films won’t be there. Nothing can recreate that sort of magic, not even with the same magician trying again.


Categories: Movies

October. 7, 2010

October 8, 2010 1 comment

Here’s my daily update on the progress on “Christchurch Bells,” my novel about a writer dying of a brain tumor, his ex-wife’s ghost, a dead cheerleader, the destruction of a town’s movie theater, and a raven singing “Babe” by Styx.

PROJECT: Christchurch Bells

DEADLINE: January 15, 2011

PRESENT WORD COUNT: 7,063

GOAL: 100,000

Bits & Pieces:

  • I like the idea of Sandra Bullock for the lead in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” After a year that’s balanced between winning an Oscar followed by the exposure of her personal life and scandal, this is precisely the sort of post-Oscar win project as actress like Bullock needs. Her Best Actress win in “The Blind Side” was for a movie many saw as relatively lightweight, so working with Cuaron, a director unafraid of challenge, is just the right move to show the win wasn’t a fluke or a mistake on the Academy’s part. Bullock’s likability both on screen and in general has never been in question (her good-natured acceptance of her Razzie for “All About Steve” the day before her Oscar win shows that), but she’s generally maintained a limited range with comedy and light drama. Efforts to step out of that have ranged from promising (she was praised for her role as Harper Lee in “Infamous,” the same role that earned Catherine Kenner a Best Supporting Actress nod a year prior in “Capote”) to abysmal (the less said about  “Premonition” or “In Love or War,” the better), but “The Blind Side” and occasionally interesting choices like “28 Days” or her small role in “Crash” hit at a greater range than she’s offered. Cuaron’s plans for “Gravity” are ambitious, to say the least, and Bullock is a far less likely or traditional choice for a sci-fi epic than earlier options such as Angelina Jolie or Natalie Portman, both who were in negotiations for the role, but in this blog’s opinion that makes her the far more interesting choice. Cuaron will push Bullock harder in this role than she’s ever been pushed, and with fingers crossed may show Bullock has far more actor-ly chops than we’ve suspected.
  • DC Comics’ decision to drop prices back to $3.99 from $2.99 is the smart move in a time where not only is everyone’s wallet a little lighter, but monthly comic book sales have been consistently on the decline. While this blog appreciates what DC was doing, reintroducing backup features, something that was long a staple of comic books, nearly four bucks is a lot when you consider some of us remember when the price went from 35 cents to 50 cents. So many comics fans now wait for the trade paperbacks, but nothing really beats that trip into the store on a Wednesday and picking up on the story where you left off last month.
  • The Bride and I are fans of urban fantasy and that’s been what we’ve been utilizing as nightly bedtime reading. We just started the third in Patricia Briggs‘ “Mercy Thompson” series, and anyone who’s read the Sookie Stackhouse novels would do well to check these out. Briggs’ Mercy, a walker who can change into a coyote, must navigate the politics of vampires and wolf packs much the same way as Sookie, but the emphasis here in on the organization of the werewolves and werewolves as the resident heartthrobs, while vampires are portrayed in a most rote and unromantic way. Ohm and there’s gremlins too. Well worth the read.

Writerly ambitions

October 7, 2010 7 comments

The L.A. Times piece on Aaron Sorkin comparing great TV to movies is an interestingly compelling bit on just how mainstream cinema has moved from good writing to mainlining spectacle. Sorkin, surely one of the great TV dramatists of the past 20 years, has been praised for his script for “The Social Network” in its mix of trademark Sorkin traits: compelling characters, smart dialogue, and compelling moral dilemmas. In short, really what you’d watch a good TV show for. These are characteristics that seem to be missing more and more from contemporary cinema, and Sorkin brings an interesting point about great screenwriters of the past:

“If Herman Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Budd Schulberg were alive today, they’d be writing on TV. As a writer, you love immediacy, of being able to weigh in on something that’s on everyone’s mind. And with rare exception, you only get to do that with TV. With a movie, even if everything goes perfectly, I can write a joke today and have to wait two years to hear the laughter.”

The article goes on to look at the current state of some acclaimed screenwriters, and their notable lack of produced credits lately. Frank Darabont, maybe the best classical American director to debut in the 1990s and a three-time Oscar nominee, hasn’t made a film since “The Mist” in 2007 and has only directed four films since the past 17 years (compare that to uberhack Michael Bay, who’s shooting his ninth feature since 1995). Darabont finally made the move to television, where he’s running the show for “The Walking Dead” over on AMC.

Its initally difficult to think that Sorkin is right until you go back and look at the filmmakers mentioned. Mankiewicz  wrote or co-wrote “Citizen Kane,” “Pride of the Yankees” and “Dinner at Eight.” Wilder fielded an amazing body of work, ranging from “Double Indemnity” to “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment.” Sturges (“Sullivan’s Travels,” “Hail the Conquering Hero”) was the first writer who really directed his own scripts. Schulberg’s scripts for “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd” are some of the most honest writing of that period.

Transpose that to modern times. Is there room in the 12-screen multiplex for complex narratives, complicated characters, real emotion, true pathos? Rarely, it seems. Those that attempt it seem to fall between the cracks if they can’t be attached to a certain genre. Consider Ben Affleck’s recent feature “The Town,” which has been raised for its sharp characterization, strong dialogue, and a realistic evocation of south Boston. Of course, it’s all wrapped around an easy-to-accept genre, the heist flick. If you stripped out that aspect and really made it into a Paddy Cheyevsky-esque “kitchen sink” drama, would it have opened at number one in its opening weekend? Doubtful.

Alan Ball won an Oscar for his “American Beauty” script and promptly went on to create “Six Feet Under” and adapt “True Blood” for HBO, both the great critical and public success. The L.A. Times article talks a bit about how Ball’s ascerbic view of American suburbia isn’t a natural match for Hollywood, but the bitter humor is perfect for cable television, where characters get hours and weeks to live out lives that would otherwise be condensed into two hours in a movie (I’d have been fascinated to see “American Beauty” play out over the course of several seasons, seeing how Ball and a crew of writers would have developed the lives and choices of Lester Burnam and his family and associations.)

Stephen Gaghan, an Oscar winner for “Traffic,” hasn’t had a feature produced since 2005, though he set a TV deal into place last year that, regretfully, has yet to bear any fruit. Meanwhile, his spiritual older twin brother David E. Kelley continues to create new series, including an upcoming “Wonder Woman” adaptation. Kelley began his career with the feature “From the Hip” and has only had three other films produced from his scripts, none of them worth a second look. Why? Because Kelley, like Sorkin, specializes in Big Issues, forcing his characters to deal with the weight of the world, and TV allows someone like Kelley to pound out a script about the moral dilemma of the week (gun control, public education, gays in the military, the war on terror) and have that script shot and on TV in a month’s time, whereas film takes YEARS, rendering the issue almost moot.

David E. Kelley
Stephen Gaghan

Think of those great James Spader monologues from “Boston Legal,” these beautifully eloquent pieces of writing, angry and funny and poetic, that would run for four or five minutes uninterrupted. (The clip quality isn’t much, but it’s a good example of Kelley and Spader at work.)

And then there’s the underappreciated genius of Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” which managed to use sports as a sounding board for anything that crossed Sorkin’s mind. I also love the back and forth between Josh Charles and Peter Krause towards the end, as well as the music playing over. (In a true and just world, “Sports Night” would have lasted at least three more seasons and Felicity Huffman would have won her Emmy for that show and not “Desperate Housewives,” but that’s another blog entirely.)

You’ll rarely find writing of this intelligence in most options you have at the local multiplex, sadly, where characters actually have opinions, on real issues, on things that matter, and are not just trying to save the President from the sleeper agent, or have to accept that yes, they’re in love with the rogueish Bad Boy (hi, Josh Duhamel). And I know that the argument is made on shows like this that the characters are nothing more than mouthpieces for the opinions of their creators, to which I say “So?” You want to have create a show that just sounds off on your opinions? Go write it yourself, then.

(Kelley and Sorkin also specialize in writing their shows themselves; both men hire writing staffs for their series, but its well known that those staffs basically serve as sounding boards for ideas for either men, and then Kelley or Sorkin goes off and writes the episode himself. Check out the credits on almost any series either man has produced, and you’ll see their names following that “Written By” credit moreso than anyone else.)

The lowest common denominator rule which seems to rule Hollywood production schedules (reboot of existing franchise/inane romantic comedy/overpriced tentpole franchise starter) has effectively dumbed down most movies to the point that I think great screenwriters will move more and more to televison, and most likely to cable, where the writer is going to be given greater creative leeway and a sense that their creation won’t be yanked after four episodes a la the four major networks.

It’s probably for this reason that most of the great TV dramatists stick to television. David Simon could never have created such a rich narrative with “The Wire” as a film than as a TV show. On film there would have been an action scene every 20 minutes, including a 15 minute guns-a-blazin’ finale, and wrap everything up in a smidge more than two hours; on TV he crafted 60 hours that felt more novelistic than anything, painting a real portrait of a city and a society that sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. Furthermore, Simon’s made no bones about his opinions on numerous issues, including the state of television itself; he is the auteur of his creations, not a director. That is his heart and soul he’s putting up there every week, and no one elses, and he is not willing to dumb it down for anyone. (There’s a reason he won that MacArthur “genius” grant.)

Therein lies the great difference between film and TV: it’s a writer’s medium.  The film “The Hurt Locker” is a Kathryn Bigelow film, despite the fact Mark Boal wrote the screenplay. But the series “Sons of Anarchy” is Kurt Sutter, plain and simple, and he isn’t shy about the fact, nor should he be. And certainly the director plays a huge role in the creation of any film or TV show; Sorkin himself admits David Fincher’s style on “The Social Network” helps power a movie that is mostly people sitting around talking. Television shows with distinct visual style like “House” or “CSI” have those because an interesting director came in for the pilot, but odds are that director will move on to another show almost immediately. Directors in television tend to be journeymen, moving from show to show, network to network, multiple times over the course of a season (though most shows have a director as an EP to help maintain a consistant visual style). But that show creator and writing staff is there, day in and day out, creating their series and waiting for the next director to arrive. It is the difference between the architect and the carpenter; you can’t build the house if you don’t know what you’re building first.

Hollywood’s approach, however, is to always focus on the carpenter and then bring in whatever architects it takes to make the carpenter happy, constantly redesigning the house as you move along, until oftentimes what you’ve built doesn’t much resemble what you started on. Since most big-budget Hollywood films employ multiple screenwriters over time, doing script doctoring or on-set rewrites, whatever vision the original screenwriter had is lost over time. And yes, there are those incredibly discouraging stories by showrunners of have to filter their work through corporate eyes (Mitchell Hurwitz deserves better) or even leave their shows before they’ve aired, but odds seem to run high that television oftens a greater chance for a writer to be able to effectively translate from script to screen.

Certainly networks and cable want shows to be successful, but success can be gauged in different ways. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” barely break two million viewers a week, but AMC supports them because of critical plaudits and the buzz both shows bring to the channel. Two million tickets over a weekend may equal a $14-20 million opening, certainly respectable but nothing to shout from the rafters. But television can specialize. USA has its “blue sky” shows, AMC is trafficking in edgier dramas, FX chronicles the plight of the alpha male, Showtime focuses on risky comedies, and HBO … well, HBO anymore is just slinging shows at the wall and looking to see what sticks.

Sorkin sums it up well:

“If you polled all 300 million Americans on the least objectionable way to prepare beef, when you tallied up the results, the winner would be a McDonald’s hamburger. And that’s pretty much what you have to be when you’re making a movie that has to earn $200 million at the box office to be a success. But in TV, things are different now. If you’re a writer, TV isn’t the B team anymore. It’s filled the void with stories that have largely been abandoned by the movies.”

So let Americans have their Big Macs, but let us be grateful that some of us are looking for something more satisfying.

Return of the Mack

October 6, 2010 Leave a comment

This blog has laid dormant for a while, because, well, initially I had to heal from almost cutting my finger off. After debate on where to go with this thing and for the few who read it (love you, Bride!), I said “Oh hell, why not?” and decided to jump back in.

Because I’m  actually working on being a real writer (I’m getting published and everything … more on that as it gets closer), this will become more of a chronicle on my writing process, with updates on how it’s going, as well as random comments on whatever crap is getting on my nerves that day. Of course I will have the occasional rant on something, and my goal is to both establish some regular features and trick IMDB.com into putting me back in its news feed.

I’ll be updating on progress in “Christchurch Bells,” a novel I’ve been working on in various forms and incarnations for more than 15 years. The goal is 1,000 a day, with a Jan. 15, 2011 completion on the first draft. It’s the touching story of a writer dying of a brain tumor, his ex-wife’s ghost, a dead cheerleader, the destruction of a town’s movie theater, and a raven singing “Babe” by Styx.

All of this is with apologies to Cherie Priest, who I’m ripping off copiously, but that’s OK because she’s already published 10 novels and was nominated for a Hugo, whereas I’m just trying to finish the damn thing.

PROJECT: Christchurch Bells

DEADLINE: January 15, 2011

PRESENT WORD COUNT: 6,033

GOAL: 100,000

Bits & Pieces:

  • The biggest geek news is, of course, Zack Snyder directing the new “Superman” movie. I worry less about Snyder, who’s accused of being all style and no substance but who I think has effectively brought it in all of his movies (it would be impossible to truly translate “Watchmen” to film, but his version is the closest we could probably hope for), and more about the script by David Goyer, whose scripts tend to be erratic messes and typically need strong directors to guide them (Guillermo del Toro with “Blade II,” Christopher Nolan with both Batman films). With Nolan producing, it’s an easy bet that another writer will come in to smooth over Goyer’s script, and since Nolan’s brother Jonathan is already listed as a co-writer, so attention should be turned to getting Snyder to draw back on his visual style (enough CGI and slo-mo) and casting Superman himself (I think they could actually go with Snyder himself; dude’s got some guns).
  • The Bride and I caught part of “Minority Report” on cable the other night, and we both pondered why this movie wasn’t a bigger hit, or why it doesn’t have a cult following? Sure, it was popular enough, and it more than made back production and advertising costs, as well as selling a boatload of DVDs, but it’s such a rich and interesting movie it’s forgotten in the Spielberg shuffle. It’s got Tom Cruise at the height of his popularity, Steven Spielberg at his most visually daring, a smart Scott Frank script, exciting action, some truly oddball humor, and Colin Ferrell before we started looking at him like a drug-addled alcoholic douche bag. Maybe the film’s never caught on because Cruise’s Jon Anderton isn’t the most likable of characters (a drug-addicted father mourning the kidnapping and presumed death of his son), or because the humor is so off the wall, especially for a Spielberg joint (the scene where Anderton crashes into the yoga classes always cracks me up). The movie is considered part of Spielberg’s “running man” trilogy, alongside “A.I.” and “Catch Me If You Can,” and together the three represent an interesting point in Spielberg’s post-“Saving Private Ryan” career where I think he took what could be conceived as big risks (no special efforts to fall back on in “Catch Me If You Can”; surprising dark narratives in “A.I.” and “Minority Report”; the very character-driven comedy of “The Terminal,” which followed “Minority Report”). “War of the Worlds” might be seen as a mix of risk and the familiar, and for many it’s a mixed success, though I think there are moments of brilliance in it, such as the Tim Robbins basement sequence, and “Munich” put Spielberg back into “Ryan”-esque territory. Though I’m blase about his upcoming Tintin adaptation, I hope he decides again to do something risky. Eastwood is a great example of an older director who’s still willing to push out of his comfort zone (“Hereafter” looks like nothing else he’s ever done), and maybe Spielberg, who produced “Hereafter,” might be inspired.
  • Ronald Moore may be updating “The Wild, Wild West,” performing the same duties as he did on the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica.” I’m willing to go with Moore where ever he opts to go, and I think he could really spend the rest of his career updating old shows; may I recommend “Automan,” “Manimal” and “Holmes & Yoyo.”

Very little wild, hell of a lot less wonderful

August 17, 2010 4 comments

So I’ve been kicking around a documentary idea. I’d like to find an African-American family in the inner city, a couple of generations living close to one another, with a dubious reputation. It’d be best if a couple of them are crackheads, and the rest can just be alcoholics. Maybe the patriarch can have some marginal talent, like being a third-rate rapper, but because he’s basically bat-shit crazy he’s disproportionally famous within a tight little group.

And I’d like to make it a comedy. Really yuck it up when they get arrested, they get high, they throw yet another self-constructed monkey wrench into their lives, they get into whatever sort of mayhem or trouble they get into. Sure, it SEEMS like it would be tragic, and I’ll toss in a moment or two of poignancy, maybe even some regret, but ultimately it’s just going to be funny. Why? Because it’s not us. See, we can laugh at them because secretly we know we’re better than them. We have jobs and college degrees and they’re nothing but trash, so we can laugh at them.

Wait? I can’t make a movie like this? Why? Oh, it’d be racist?

So then will someone explain to me why in the HELL making something like “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” is OK? Why do we seem so insistant on continuing to make Jesco White and his ragged band of ne’er-do-wells new levels of family?

Because as The Bride has pointed out to me, it’s never about race; truly it’s about class. The Whites are no different, sadly, than any number of families of any race all across America. They are mired in institutionalized poverty, stuck at the end of dead-end existances where little light shines, and they opt to drown themselves in a stew of pharmaceuticals and try to ignore the hopelessness that both fate and individual choices has created for them.

Ebert said back in his review of “Far and Away” that the Irish are the last socially-acceptable minority to stereotype; we can officially add Appalachians to the list. Replace the Whites with an African-American family living in Bedford Stuy, but keep in all of the Whites’ actions. Show them to be addicts and users and abusers and partiers and then tell us we’re expected to laugh at all of this and picture the uproar that would roll across the nation. There’d be discussions on CNN and NPR about the roll of race in America. But because the Whites are poor white trash in southern West Virginia, it’s OK to laugh at their shenanigans and try to remember to get the DVD back to Redbox before you get charged an extra night’s rental.

Our culture continues its gradual decline to a gutteral existance every time we give the Whites and their ilk another 15 seconds of fame. Why aren’t we having discussions about ending the cyle of poverty in Appalachia? Why isn’t there any discussion about Appalachian culture, the legacy of coal mining, or even the hard-scrabble struggle for Appalachians to make livings in a state where all of the wealth (i.e. coal and natural gas) are owned by out-of-state companies? Because no one involved at any point in this misbegotten pile of excrement cares about anything other than giggles and guffaws.

Hell, why are we talking about our apparent need to make celebrities out of people who have neither the need to be famous nor the capacity to handle it? What differentiates the Whites from the fame whores from “Jersey Shore” and practically every show on E? Damn little, except the Whites aren’t playing for the camera. They’re not some custom-built reality show situation, a dozen pretty faces playing make believe for the cameras. They are a genuinely troubled family who will just keep on destroying their lives and hurting those around them long after we’ve stopped laughing at them.

Particularly galling is the fact that other West Virginians helped perpetrate this thing. As a culture Appalachians aren’t much on “outsiders” (i.e. anyone not from their holler), so the producers found film students willing to take a few pieces of silver and further condemn not just the Whites but the rest of West Virginia into the already-deep well of stereotypes. No, let’s not show anyone successful or intelligent from West Virginia; we’re just here for the bottom feeders. Laugh it up, Los Angeles!

I don’t know the Whites. I’ve never met any of them, and I don’t have a desire to meet them either. I don’t feel sorry for them, either; even if I did, I don’t think they’d care. Truth be told, I don’t think much about them at all in any way. They are individuals who have made their choices and are living the lives based from them. That’s great for them. None of that means we need to watch it for 90 minutes. We don’t have to glorify the Whites. We don’t have to pity them or villify them or ANYTHING them. We can let them keep on living the lives they chose and keeping Boone County law enforcement employed in perpetuity. We can be better than the society that says it’s OK to laugh at the misfortune of others regardless of race, class or creed. We can show that we don’t have to meet the lowered expectations of others. We can scream “WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS!” by not this or any other piece of crap more than happy to exploit the real-life suffering of others. Think anyone’s ever going to make a “funny” documentary about 9/11 widows? Haitian refugees? Eastern European ethnic cleansing? Not likely.

I’d like to think the people involved in this thing are ashamed of themselves but I doubt shame is anything they care much about. They should, though. They should.

The indie film is dead. Long live the indie film.

The sale of Miramax by Disney to an investment conglomerate would probably mean more if it were 2003 and we could still look at Miramax as “The Scrappy Little Indie That Could” (though even then they were owned by the House of Mouse, but still …)

No, sadly, the best days of Miramax are long behind them. Look through a list of their 90s flicks, particularly the 1990-1995, and you’ll see some of the finest films the decade had to offer. Miramax was the engine of change for the explosion of indie films in the early 1990s, a direct response to the bloated excess of the 1980s. The studio managed to release some of the edgiest films, ranging from the neo-noir “The Grifters” (1990) to Tim Robbins’ brilliant slaughter of the American political system “Bob Roberts” (1992) to the haunting “The Piano” (1993).

And there was 1994. Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” (one of his last good movies). “Clerks,” which introduced a foul-mouthed new voice in Kevin Smith (who sadly hasn’t quite paid off on that investment in years). The stunning “The Crow,” a hint of what Brandon Lee might have been. Egoyan’s masterful “Exotica.”

And “Pulp Fiction.” Yes, “Pulp Fiction.” The premier film of the 1990s, probably the single most important movie of the decade, the one that revolutionized almost every movie made after it, the one obnoxious college kids quoted ad infinitum and film school hacks slavishly devoted themselves to imitating. The film that lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Forrest Gump.” Sigh.

That was the beginning of the end, though, really for Miramax as an independent film studio. Purchased by Disney in 1993, the studio’s slate of releases still ran the razor’s edge, ranging from “Trainspotting” (1996) to “Good Will Hunting” (1997) to “Princess Monoake” (1999). (They also dumped “Shakespeare in Love” on us, which NEVER should have won Best Picture over “Saving Private Ryan,” but that’s another screed entirely).

 Through it all, the Brothers Weinstein remained a contentious force to be reckoned with, never afraid to battle with the higher-ups while also never afraid to go toe-to-toe with their filmmakers, occasionally reeking their revenge through a piss-poor release pattern and no promotion. That said, they remained a righteous force for years, putting artistically daring and different movies into theaters not always accustomed to playing such films. The success of Miramax led to other major studios developing their own independent arms, the dawn of the “major mini.”

The dawn of the 00s didn’t serve Miramax well, however, though there were flashes of brilliance in “Amelia” (2001) and the vastly underrated “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” But by 2005 when the Brothers Weinstein left Miramax over conflicts with Disney chiefs, the studio was essentially nothing more than a name to slap on before opening credits. Their best films in the past five years have been co-productions with other studios.

The sale of Miramax marks the final nail in the coffin of the major mini, pointing toward the obvious time where movies will become little more than vehicles to market merchandise (cut me some slack and let me dream that it’s not happened already). Disney’s focus on Pixar and Marvel, both hugely profitable branches of the studio, says nothing more than the House of Mouse is looking to maximize profits, as movies become easier to pirate and the real money is to be made not in ticket sales but merchandising. None of this will come as any big shock to anyone who follows these things, but it does point toward a dispairing future for film, where risk and innovation won’t be rewarded in movie theaters, but perhaps, like “Ink,” it will find its audience in a new way.

The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

The indie film is dead. Long live the indie film.

Categories: Movies, Pop Culture Tags: , ,