Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Saturday, March 28, 2009


A Review by Brian Holcomb

For the first time since 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, a new Bond film begins pretty much where the last one left off: With the superspy going after the men who killed the woman he loved. This time, though, it's probably only about 5 minutes after the closing frames of Casino Royale which finds 007 (Daniel Craig) racing his Aston-Martin around the dangerous curves of a Monte Carlo mountain road while being pursued by 2,4 or 6 other reckless vehicles. I cannot actually be sure since the editing is so choppy in this Nouvelle Bourne Again style that pretty soon it looks as though we'll be seeing Craig drive the car right off the sprocket holes a'la Daffy Duck.

Marc Forster Is Going To Kick Your Ass

Out of his usual indie drama element, it's obvious that director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) wants to prove his action movie mettle by starting the show off with a bang and he definitely gets the heart racing. But he also begins to seriously tax the very persistence of vision which allows cinema to operate by editing the scene beyond all possible coherence. NOTE TO FUTURE BOND DIRECTORS (and Paul Greengrasshole): A flurry of abstract motion will NEVER equal the excitement of an action scene where the audience can see the geography and clearly understand the stakes facing the hero. An action film is only interesting when it engages the audience in the hero's problems. Look at Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and Bullitt for two examples of character driven action. We want to see STEVE get away with it. Not some random stuntman. Look at the classics of action cinema and you'll see that CONFUSION is never the desired result. But I guess it's just easier to set up 137 cameras to film the action from every conceivable angle and hope for the best in the cutting room. C'mon, only the lame refuse to PRE-VISUALIZE. Here ends the action film soapbox which needs to be opened every time someone makes an action film these days.

No matter-Bond gets away from his pursuers by editing himself subliminally between the frames and after an awfully dissonant Jack Black-Alicia Keys number, the film never looks back. Someone at the Broccoli 007 Factory (AKA Universal Imports, Inc.) must've gotten the notes from ADD sufferers that Casino Royale was lacking in the action department because this entry makes up for it by lathering on the set pieces without regard to any kind of storytelling. The problem is that this film has more plot than 10 Bonds put together and a script that was obviously written around action scenes that were shot before the script was done. They are all clumsily motivated and inserted into this collage editing project.

The plot has something or other to do with a US backed villain (Mathieu Amalric as Roman Polanski) who poses as a liberal environmentalist named Dominic GREENE of all things (this has to be the work of the very literal minded Paul Haggis) but who really plans on stealing the water supply of an entire nation in order to control it's financial "flow". It's like Chinatown in the Middle East and that may be why the whole thing plays as a big yawn. What works in an adult detective story is too much for the comic book world of James Bond no matter how much it wants to ape the Bourne films.

Any gains made by shaking up the Bond formula in the excellent Royale are quickly tossed aside as Quantum returns the series to it's bread and butter and even redesigns SPECTRE for the 21rst century. That, I completely understand. A Bond movie in the real world would take the absurd and make it outlandish. No one wants to watch Bond chase after Osama Bin Laden and switch off his dialysis machine with a bad one liner. On second thought, maybe that would be great? In any case, the new and improved SPECTRE is called QUANTUM and this is easily the best idea for the series as a whole since Bond will have to spend film after film working his way up the ladder to find the man behind the man as it were (I'm sure it'll end up being Woody Allen). This leads to the best sequence in the film, by the way, as Bond forces a series of QUANTUM members to out themselves while attending the opera in their establishment disguises. Forster ALMOSTS gets this scene right, before he trips over his own erect penis while masturbating for deeper meanings. (Forster is no John Boorman, that's for sure, and this isn't Point Blank even when it is...)

There's a lot of stuff that seems to come from the mouth of Paul Haggis here and there. Stuff about the CIA being a-holes dealing with other other a-holes abroad and breaking deals without any moral code. A world lifted form multiple viewings of Syriana and positioning Bond as an enemy of the United States and its corrupt business interests. But since this Bond seems to be beyond morality himself, this isn't exactly a strong theme. Putting a Chandler-esque hero WITH a strong sense of right and wrong among the denizens of the underworld IS a strong story and would allow for stronger thematic points to be made without resorting to editorializing dialogue.

Oh, there are some girls in it, by the way. We're back with the Bond Bimbo formula in which GIRL#1 sleeps with Bond and then ends up as a sacrificial lamb for Bond to get angry about. As though Bond isn't already PISSED OFF beyond repair in the beginning of this film. He gets even more PISSED when he finds the naive Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) having been killed by someone who probably saw Goldfinger once.

GIRL#2 (Olga Kurylenko) is the REVENGE GIRL archetype. She's a mirror to Bond's desire for vengeance if you want to give the screenplay this kind of credit. Bond doesn't get to sleep with her and maybe that's why she survives.

There's a lot of action in this movie. Boat action, car action, gun action, bedroom action. But it's all been reduced to the level of porn in that the audience is given nothing human to engage with between the action. The audience I saw the film with began immediately to text and talk to their friends whenever the action let up and didn't stop until the action picked up again. Now, this could be seen as the phillistine youth showing their true colors. But I don't think so. I've seen many films in which audiences of similar ages were totally spellbound by a gripping story or situation. I think they saw through the film's BS and realized that this wasn't a complete movie but rather a series of DVD chapter stops. They were merely skipping the boring parts.

But you know, a lot of this griping is just silly, right? It's a Bond film and Bond films have their own scale. This one is definitely better than The Man with the Golden Gun but not nearly as good as Goldeneye to keep it within the gold scale. Daniel Craig is a great Bond. He is the best Bond since Sean Connery. (Actually, he may even be better than Connery but since he arrived late he will have to wait in line.) He's clearly come to chew gum and kick some ass and he's all out of gum (©John Carpenter ,1988). He looks tough in the fight scenes and cool as hell in a tux. Craig, alone, holds the movie together whenever it threatens to completely self-destruct. I just wish Forster let us see more of him.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


It has become somewhat fashionable to confuse nihilism with realism and to credit shallow filmmakers with depth merely because their themes are resoundingly negative. It's a cynical conceit which equates hope with naivete. Jonathan Demme has often been attacked as naive for the supposed la-la land of liberalness he depicts onscreen. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, Gays, Straights, Bush, Obama; everyone is invited to his Starship Enterprise with open arms. The truth lies less in Demme's perceived naivete than in the childish cynicism of his critics. It's cynical to believe that people can never see the humanity in others beyond their social or cultural differences. Demme has never made a film in which these differences were ignored, in fact, they are most often celebrated. Not since the great Jean Renoir has there been a filmmaker more inclined to allow everyone to "have their reasons." In Demme's cinematic world, there are no heroes, no villains, no simple right or wrong and there is nothing naive about that. Amidst the worst of human impulses and self destructiveness, Demme always portrays life as hopeful - not some Capra-esque nirvana of love and redemption but as a tough world full of complex choices and always with the unshakeable conviction that life does, indeed, go on. Even Hannibal Lector at the end of Demme's The Silence of the Lambs is allowed to have an old friend for dinner and the hope of a new life somewhere far from the grip of the FBI.

Rachel Getting Married, Demme's latest film, is like a digest for everything he has stood for as a filmmaker since 1974's women-in-prison classic Caged Heat. In truth, the film often seems less like an actual narrative than a kind of Demme art happening. His sweeping and very democratic visual style seems to have been fused with the ideas behind the Danish Dogme movement and the all inclusive collaborative cinematic murals of Robert Altman. The story is simplicity itself: On a weekend pass from a rehab facility, recovering addict Kym (Anne Hathaway) comes home to attend her sister Rachel's (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding and is very much aware that all eyes are on her from the instant she's picked up. Her father Paul (Bill Irwin) is way too overprotective, while her sister Rachel seems to want her to vanish, having picked her best friend Emma (Anisa George) over her as maid of honor. But neither of them is a match for her mother, Abby (Debra Winger) whose distance from her children is rivaled only by that of Mary-Tyler Moore in Ordinary People...

To read the rest of this review click HERE

Saturday, March 21, 2009


A DVD Review by Brian Holcomb

Spain isn't exactly the first country to come to mind when discussing the classics of European horror. England probably comes first with Hammer Films and directors like Terence Fisher and Michael Reeves, followed very quickly by Italy with genre auteurs like Mario Bava, Ricardo Freda, and Dario Argento. Joining the English gothic and the Italian giallo, we could even add the "Krimi" to the list and toss Germany into the mix before Spain. After all, Germany was where the genre really began, in the 1920s with masterpieces like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari both providing inspiration for decades of American horror films. But this categorization doesn't account for Spain's own contributions to the genre, no less fascinating for not being more influential. Most of this is due to the fact that the Spanish horror genre is largely eclectic, resulting in no clearly defined waves like the giallo in Italy. From the dreamy loopiness and sometimes simply loopy films of cult favorite Jesus Franco to Paul Naschy's more classical tales of tragic werewolf Waldermar Daninsky, Spanish horror is defined by being ill defined and sometimes generically spliced.

From Amando De Ossorio's Blind Dead series and Jorge Grau'sThe Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue which were designed to cash in on the wave of Romero's Night of the Living Dead to Alejandro Amenabar's Tesis with it's slick American thriller style, Spanish horror filmmakers have often had an eye on the international market. Which brings us to the series of films under review here, six films by six distinctive filmmakers from Spain's past, present, and future of genre filmmaking. As Spain's answer to the American Masters of Horror series, Six Films to Keep You Awake is yet another attempt to sell a series of modestly budgeted genre films to the international market . Produced for Spanish TV, the series is an update of a classic '60s program also called "Films to Keep You Awake".

Taken as a whole, the series of films are a fascinating look at the state of contemporary Spanish horror. Individually, however, the films fall victim to much of the same problems as their Masters of Horror brethren in that the near feature length is both too long and too short to be effective dramatically. The best of the bunch is director Alex de la Iglesia's ( El Crimen Perfecto) The Baby's Room. If you rent or buy this DVD set-start with this one.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Last night the Sundance Channel ran the fascinating documentary by Jon Ronson, Stanley Kubrick's Boxes which was a fine, though far too brief, look at the many thousands of boxes Mr. K kept in storage at his home in England. These boxes contained vast amounts of material, all carefully catalogued and organized, pertaining to all facets of the man's career and life.

It's strange that this private man of whom so much gossip ranged regarding his lunacy and hermitage can be seen so nakedly through his calculated filing. The image one gets is not one of a man OBSESSED but of a man of great intellectual curiosity and method. An obsessed man would merely seem eccentric and quirky in his desire to control the world around him. Kubrick went round that bend and into something far closer to a scientist of the physical universe. This was a man who questioned everything from the font on a movie poster, to the size of his newspaper ads, to the kind of ink best used for writing and the construction of these archive boxes themselves. It appears Mr. K was frustrated with the way the tops of the boxes worked and was intent on finding a design that would allow the lids to sit securely but loose enough to slide off easily. It's most telling that the company constructing the boxes left a random note regarding the box construction that supposedly read, "Fussy customer".

Kubrick didn't think wanting things to work the right way to be fussy and this is the same attention to detail that went into all of his films and which makes them so very unique to this day. He believed that either you care or you don't, there's no in between. That kind of pride and dedication to one's work is something I must say I admire greatly.

I thought that Ronson made a fascinating film, particularly when he played detective and hunted down some of the people who sent Kubrick letters which the director filed as "crank" letters.

If you missed it, here it is:

Or you can find the entire thing on google video:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


If you head over to MYSTERY MAN ON FILM you'll be in for a real treat. Well, that's kind of an understatement. This may be one of the true Holy Grails for those of us who are fascinated by the creative process. There's a link to a PDF available for download there, a 126 page transcript of the original story conferences for Raiders of the Lost Ark! From January 23, 1978 thru January 27, 1978, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan spent 9 hours a day for 5 days hashing out the story and characters for their new film and it's all here. I have NO idea how this was allowed to escape and I sincerely doubt that the very controlling Lucas and Spielberg approve of it. But since it's available we now can observe the process with which each idea is suggested, tested, spun over and either developed or thrown away.

It's interesting to see how much of it is dominated by Lucas and how quickly he shifts his roles from Writer to Producer when he dictates that one of Spielberg's ideas is going to "cost another million dollars" and should be dropped. They are confused for a while as to what kind of heroine to put in the picture until Kasdan suggests that Indy had an affair with his mentor's daughter years ago and now she's grown up. They are way too excited to make her very underage and initially they want her to be as young as 10 or 12! But Lucas quickly becomes more conservative on this issue and says that they should make her 15, because at 16 or 17 it's no longer interesting. Lucas seems very concerned with keeping Indy cool but still a role model for children. I am sure he was thinking about his future deals with Kenner for the toys.

There is a constant discussion and argument over budget versus production value. Lots of talk about Hong Kong mogul Run Run Shaw and the use of stock footage. Spielberg seems to want crowds even if he has to steal the shots in Bombay. Lucas is more interested in making great stunts over the spectacle and thinks the money is best spent this way. It's interesting to see how Lucas, whose dime this was to be made on, is watching over the shop while Spielberg who had just come off a lot of bad press for budget overruns on the mega-bomb 1941 is more than happy to spend whatever necessary to make a great movie. I really think that the tug of war between these two, balanced by the story smarts of Kasdan really clicked, at least this one time.

It is fascinating to see how much Lucas seemed to understand the basics of storytelling at the time, basics which he seems to have lost today in the deserts of Tunisia. Here's a sample form the opening pages of the transcript which show just how much he seems to have understood about storytelling: (G=George Lucas, S=Steven Spielberg, L=Lawrence Kasdan)

G — We'll just talk general ideas, what the concept of
it was. Then I'll get down to going specifically through
the story. Then we will actually get to where we can
start talking down scenes, in the end I want to end up
with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is
I figure a code, a general measuring stick perameter.
I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes
depending on which scale you, want to work on. A thirty
scene thing means that each scene is going to be around
four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is
going to run twenty pages long. (?) It depends on, part
of it is the... (short gap in the tape) knock some of
these out, and this doesn't work out the way we thought
it would. You can move things around, but it generally
gives you an idea, assuming that what we really want at
the end of all this is a hundred and twenty page script,
or less. But that's where we really want to go. Then
we figure out vaguely what the pace of, how fast it's
going to move and how we're going to do it. I have a
tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff.
I found it easier and it does lay things out. Especially
a thing like this. The basic premise is that it's sort
of a serialesque kind of movie. Meaning that there are
certain things that have to continue to happen. It's
also basically an action piece, for the most part. We
want to keep things interspaced and at the same time
build it. As I build this up, you'll see it's done
vaguely by the numbers.

Generally, the concept is a serial idea. Done like the
Republic serials. As a thirties serial. Which is where
a lot of stuff comes from anyway. One of the main ideas
was to have, depending on whether it would be every ten
minutes or every twenty minutes, a sort of a cliffhanger
situation that we get our hero into. If it's every ten
minutes we do it twelve times. I think that may be a
little much. Six times is plenty.

S — And each cliffhanger is better than the one before.

G — That is the progression we have to do. It's hard
to come up with. The trouble with cliff hangers is, you
get somebody into something, you sort have to get them
out in a plausible way. A believable way, anyway.
That's another important concept of the movie — that it
be totally believable. It's a spaghetti western, only
it takes place in the thirties. Or it's James Bond and
it takes place in the thirties. Except James Bond tends
to get a little outrageous at times. We're going to take
the.unrealistic side of it off. and make it more like the
Clint Eastwood westerns.

G — The thing with this is, we want to make a very
believable character. We want him to be extremely good
at what he does, as is the Clint Eastwood character
or the James Bond character. James Bond and the man
with no name were very good at what they did. They
were very, fast with a gun. they were very slick, they
were very:professional. They were Supermen.

S — Like Mifune.

G — Yes, like Mifune. He's a real professional. He's
really good. And that is the key to the whole thing.
That's something you don't see that much anymore.

S — And one of the things that really helped Mifune in
all the Kurosawa movies is that he was always surrounded
by really inept characters, real silly buffoons, which
made him so much more majestic. If there are occasions
where he comes up against, not the arch-villian, but
the people around him shouldn't be the smartest...

G — Well, they shouldn't be buffoons. The one thing
we're going to do is make a very good period piece,
that is realistic and believable. A thirties movie in
the, even in the Sam Spade genre. Even in the Maltese
Falcon there were some pretty goofy characters, but
they were all pretty real in their own bizarre way.

S — Elijah Cook.

G-Elisha Cook might~not have"been-the brightest person"
in the world. In a way he was the buffoon of the piece,
but at the same time he was very dangerous and he was
very... They were strong characters. If we keep it
that mode of believability...

S — It's just like you don't put Lee Van Cleef as an
accomplice to... (garbled)

G — No, you put Eli Wallich.- Did you see "The Good, The
Bad And the Ugly"? The Eli Wallich character is a goofy
character, but at the same time he's very dangerous and
he's very funny and he's ... We can have that kind of
thing. The main thing is for him to be a super hero in
the best sense of the word, which is John Wayne, Clint
Eastwood, Sean Connery tradition of a man who we can all
look up to and say, "Now there's somebody who really
knows his job. He's really good at what he does and he's
a very dangerous person. But at the same time we're
putting him in the kind of Bogart mold, like "Treasure of
Sierra Madre" or ...

S — Or even the Clark Gable thing we talked about.

G — Yeah, the Clark Gable mold. The fact that he is slightly
scruffy. You don't know it until it happens.

Now, several aspects that we've discussed before: The image
of him which is the strongest image is the "Treasure Of
Sierra Madre" outfit, which is the khaki pants, he's
got the leather jacket, that sort of felt hat, and the
pistol and holster with a World War One sort of flap over
it. He's going into the jtingle carrying his gun. The
other thing we've added to him, which may be fun, is a
bull whip. That's really his trade mark. That's really
what he's good at. He has a pistol, and he's probably
very good at that, but at the same time he happens to be
very good with a bull whip. It's really more of a hobby
than anything else. Maybe he came from Montana, someplace,
and he... There are freaks who love bull whips. They just
do it all the time. It's a device that hasn't been used
in a long time.

S — You can knock somebody' s belt off and the guys pants
fall down.

Tellingly, Lucas doesn't seem to like this idea too much as it seems more broad than the rough and tumble adventure he has in mind(Which is exactly why I think RAIDERS stands tall above its more splatstickey sequels .) Flashforward to last summer and Crystal Skull is filled with this garbage (seemingly very much approved by the new Jar Jar mad Lucas), like Shia Lebouf swinging on vines a'la Tarzan following a horde of monkeys. Ugh.