House of Flying Huckabees
Brian Abrams, Aaron Aradillas, and Phil Dellio talk movies, part 3

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From: Aaron
Date: January 7, 2005, 10:11 PM

Hey guys,

Put your whistle away, Brian. It's not needed.

Phil, I didn't mean any offense with my Film Comment remark, although the quality of the writing has fallen off this century. (The writings of Amy Taubin and the occasional piece by Howard Hampton being exceptions.)

I do have a couple of questions, though. Do you dislike Reiner so much that you're willing to disregard his contributions to Spinal Tap? It was his responsibility to keep Shearer, McKean, and Guest on track. (You should try to get your hands on the out-of-print Criterion edition of Spinal Tap to hear Reiner's enlightening commentary.)

Do you really think an Oscar-wining director is going to turn into a money-for-hire hack and spend a year of his life on an underbudgeted period slave epic? You should at least attempt to see the film before passing judgment.

I'm not a big fan of the auteur theory either. While there are personal "touches" throughout The Aviator this is not the main reason why I think it is the best film of the year. What is exhilarating about the film is seeing the way Scorsese applies his overcaffeinated visual style to various genres, whether it be a remake of a B movie, an urban period piece or a Hollywood romantic-adventure. Beyond all the visual gymnastics, Scorsese, along with Michael Mann, is one of the best American directors exploring the divided natures within a man's masculinity. Think of the cruelty and touching patriotism of Bill the Butcher. Or, the way Hughes' freewheeling energy seems to be at war with, and cut off from, his passions.

How 'bout we agree to disagree?

Anyone want to talk about the pros and cons of Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles? Like most critics I also feel that Raimi's sequel had more humor, heart, excitement, and all around smart-ass charm than the original. But my problem with the original still exists in the sequel and I don't think it'll be fixed anytime soon. The problem is Tobey Maguire. For all the second-guessing of DiCaprio's ability to play "mature," has anyone bother to notice that Maguire has yet to develop any distinguishing features? In early roles in The Ice Storm and the first half of Pleasantville Maguire displayed a naughty-boy playfulness that was quite winning. Then, as if someone told him no one was taking him seriously, he let his face go blank and has yet to stop gawking. The only liveliness in his performance as Peter Parker came during the extended sequence where he decided to turn his back on his responsibilities. For a moment, he seemed almost grown.

This is why I nominate The Incredibles as the best superhero movie of the year. Brad Bird's eye-popping comic-adventure story showed how the ordinary could be extraordinary. The action scene of the year: Dash Parr's extended chase through the island forest topped any web-slinging, skyscraper-leaping chase in either Spider-Man movie. And who can forget the side-splitting creation of Edna Mode, the costume-maker-for-heroes, who delivers an impassioned speech on why capes are bad? Anyone care to debate the incredibleness of the The Incredibles?

Was anyone else blown away by The Bourne Supremacy? Matt Damon's muscular performance showed, once again, that he is one of the most physically-imposing actors working today. Critics who complained about Paul Greengrass' ADD-style of editing seemed unwilling to appreciate jaggedly fluid layering of images, as if we were plugged in to Jason Bourne's fractured memory. And, it had the most kick-ass car chase in years.



P.S. Phil, you should really think about renting The Paper. Not only does it contain Michael Keaton's best live-wire performance, but it also has Randy Quaid's best work since The Last Detail. Besides, any movie with Spalding Gray can't be all bad.

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From: Brian
Date: January 9, 2005, 2:30 PM

Okay, no more slamming on Aaron. In fact, this go round I have a compliment. (Can you believe it, Aaron?) While I've bullied on the majority of your ten best-ers, I have to say that your selections have a way more comprehensive pulse on Cinema 2004 than Phil's.

Too easy, right? Comparing a guy who's seen, what appears to be, nearly 100 of this year's movies to another who's seen, I believe Phil confessed, 30 or 35? Poppycock. Look at my list: it's full of self-indulging, critic-friendly (oxymoron), snooty titles (Mean Creek, Crimson Gold, Red Lights, you get the picture). And, no, I didn't just hit the Angelika over the past twelve months; AMC got my money too. I think I saw close to 70 or so films. Still, I ended up hailing the smaller, sneeze-and-you-miss-em-type movies.

Of course, this must say something about the year in film--in comparison to years past anyway. The holiday platter wasn't all that interesting: The Year of The Biopic is all too obvious, don't ya think? Subsequently, my list is chock-full of shoestring arthouse esoterica: a sexy and haunting $100,000 budget shark tale, a brazen $200 self-exposé, and even a movie about a movie budget. (Filmmaker Magazine reported Baadasssss! itself was shot in 19 days with a million dollar budget.) Maybe I didn't conform to the holiday movie frenzy this year because, well, it just didn't look that various...or interesting.

Case in point, 2003 had a way more expansive melange of Oscar bait. Cold Mountain, House of Sand and Fog, and Mystic River all took a B-line to the Academy, a pretty obvious campaign no less, and--lucky for us--all three were well worth their self-proclaimed merit.

Of course, there were plenty other arthouse-fancy films that year, too, that dominated my list. Not, I don't think, to the degree that 2004 Cinema has allowed. Granted, Sideways is Oscar bait, but it's not so obvious and straightforward in its campaigning as, say, a hopped-up Jamie Foxx swiveling his head back and forth in a jazz club. Instead, Alexander Payne's Napa Valley knee slapper (which I'm now thinking twice about giving my #1 spot, due to recent viewings of Fahrenheit) has such rich characters, characters we can identify with on multiple levels.


I'll speak for all of us in saying that we can understand (reluctantly) Miles' backing off from Maya's "tastes so fucking good" sexual invitation on the porch. I'll speak for myself in saying I can relate to Jack's sexaholic "plight," his very own "darkside," ignoring all common rationale in order to take Cammi (geez) to the nearest set of bedsheets. I'm sure a couch would have been fine, too. Those two small moments alone spoke to me more than any number of scenes from Kinsey or--god I wish I could just lie and say The Aviator and Ray. Alas, I'll have to break down and see the damn things already.

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From: Phil
Date: January 9, 2005, 9:21 PM

Aaron and Brian:

Good--we're back on track.

Let me comment on a few of my picks, some of which overlap with yours. I've got to start by issuing the same disclaimer I did in my year-end a couple of years ago: I've got a very faulty memory when it comes to movies, even ones I like a lot. I think some people who know me are under the complete opposite impression, based on the fact that I can rhyme off dialogue from The Godfather and Sweet Smell of Success. Not difficult with things you've seen 10 or 15 times (or more--a friend recently asked me how many times I'd seen the first two Godfathers, and the best estimate I could come up with was "some percentage of my life"). But when it comes to something I've seen once, as soon as a few days have passed, forget it--specifics start to blur into overall impressions. Even with the Lila Lipscomb scene from Fahrenheit, I had to e-mail three friends to check that my memory of Moore hugging her was correct (none of whom was 100% sure, so I hope I didn't invent that scene).

Mayor of the Sunset Strip: I really didn't know a lot about Rodney Bingenheimer before seeing this, even though he comes out of a world I know very well. I've had his Rodney on the ROQ compilation for years, which is mostly pretty useless from what I remember. (I'm looking at it right now: the Crowd, David Microwave, the Simpletones, the Vidiots, the Wigglers...who are these people?) Other than that, he's always been first and foremost the guy who the Angry Samoans vilified in their great "Get Off the Air": "Glitter rock and Bowie's cock/Are his idea of new-wave rock!" (The Samoans' Mike Saunders, an occasional contributor to Radio On, still ridicules Bingenheimer every chance he gets.) So I had Bingenheimer fixed to a specific moment in time, and was completely unaware of his rather amazing Rupert Pupkin/Zelig-like presence through three decades of pop history. I didn't like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind nearly as much as you guys or everybody else, in part because I find Charlie Kaufman's weirdness a little forced. I don't think Kaufman could ever come up with a more bizarre concept than Bingenheimer's entry-point into show business: he served as Davy Jones's double in "The Monkees," which is kind of like signing on to play the shadow of a shadow. (Later on in the film, Kato Kaelin turns up--it's a movie filled with Zeligs.)

rodney bingenheimer, standing in for richard nixon, and the king of rock'n'roll, elvis presley

The sequence where Bingenheimer starts popping up in the background of all these iconic '60s clips, singled out by a little superimposed arrow each time, was the funniest, most inexplicably sublime thing I saw all year. I loved the music throughout, and (the trickier part) loved how director George Hickenlooper made use of the songs he chose. The last 10 minutes was somewhat pat--Bingenheimer travels to England to spread his mother's ashes--but his mom's centrality to the kind of person he was had been established earlier, so I thought the sequence was justified. I wouldn't say I came away from the film exactly liking Bingenheimer, but neither did I find him sad or creepy. I'm not sure what I think of him, which is not a bad place for a documentary to leave you.

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry: George Butler, Going Upriver's director, was upfront about the fact that he's a longtime friend of Kerry's, so between that relationship and the timing of the film's release in the months leading up to the election, there's no getting around the fact that this is partly a 90-minute campaign commercial. But only partly, because the footage is there and speaks for itself, some of which made me wonder how any American, given a chance to see this film, could come to the conclusion that you'd feel better about your country (and therefore, I believe, about yourself to a certain extent) knowing that George Bush was installed in the White House rather than Kerry. To single out one example from many, when Kerry testifies before Congress in 1971, he achieves a level of eloquence and thoughtfulness that's almost unimaginable for guy in his 20s in that setting. You saw a little of that in the debates, enough that Bush not surprisingly looked small by comparison, but the young man of Going Upriver seemed a lot wiser and a lot more sure of himself than the presidential candidate. Another moment of no consequence whatsoever sticks out in my mind. As Kerry stands on the steps of Congress and addresses the Vietnam Vets Against the War (I saw Going Upriver with Scott and his wife Jackie), Scott and I looked over at each other simultaneously: there in the upper left-hand corner of the frame, taking pictures of the proceedings, you can clearly spot John Denver!

Sideways: I liked this so much, let me start with a few things I didn't like. Paul Giamatti's occasional hair-trigger transformations into Charles Bukowski (e.g., scampering down the hill with the wine bottle) didn't seem very convincing to me, or at least didn't fit the character; pouring the wine bucket over his head seemed especially movie-ish. I thought the transition between the night that Giamatti and Virginia Madsen almost sleep together (awkward pauses, missed signals) and the night that they do (Giamatti a picture of serene confidence) was clumsy; unless I missed something, there was no real explanation as to why he suddenly felt so much more comfortable around her. The ending, as usual, was too easy. And to get really nit-picky, I didn't think Thomas Haden Church's character would be familiar with A Confederacy of Dunces. Otherwise I loved it, related to it, and, a real rarity for me the last couple of years, actually cared how it was all going to sort itself out. I liked Giamatti, Madsen, and Sandra Oh fine, and I couldn't get enough of Haden Church; it might be a foolproof role that could be played by any number of actors, but he made me laugh almost every time he was onscreen. And I didn't think his character was just living a life of blissful oblivion; the part where he explains to Giamatti that he understands Giamatti's plight perfectly (I was going to put plight in quotation marks, but Brian beat me to it), but Giamatti doesn't appreciate his, resonated. Finally, the wine stuff was just so unexpectedly interesting, like getting a mini-documentary thrown in for free. I knew nothing about wine going into Sideways, other than that I get a bottle of Merlot from at least one parent every Christmas. I'll be sure to sneer next time.

My Architect: A Son's Journey: I remember thinking "excellent" after I saw this, but the truth is I've forgotten a lot of it almost a year later. I recall that all the old black-and-white footage of Louis Kahn--secretive, distant, imposing--reminded me, of all things, of Nicholson's stricken father in Five Easy Pieces: the scene where Nicholson tries to explain his life to the old man, who seems to will a kind of serene half-smile from somewhere deep inside his stroke, that's the effect that Kahn had on me. Kahn's son Nathaniel shapes his film as a cathartic coming-to-terms-with-the-past project, but I thought he seemed quite well-adjusted from start to finish, so I didn't necessarily accept that as a framework. (There was a big emotional scene on a yacht that seemed awkward.) But generally he keeps just the right amount of distance from a difficult subject that obviously couldn't be any closer to him, and he navigates his way through the pieces-of-a-puzzle side of his father's life very well. Strange bit of synchronicity: in both this and Bukowski: Born Into This, acute acne at an early age plays a part in shaping the course of an entire life.

End of the Century: Dee Dee is clownish but likeable, Joey's mostly absent, and Johnny is fascinating--the scene where he explains why he didn't visit Joey in the hospital, or, more specifically, why he wouldn't have wanted Joey to visit him if the situation had been reserved (which it would have been, had Joey lived), is as honest and as intelligent as Kerry's best moments in Going Upriver. Great archival clips, of course--the only footage I've ever seen of the Dolls is the same bit from Don Kirshner's Rock Concert that's always turning up, but directors Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia manage to unearth something different. I would liked to have seen a critic or two besides Legs McNeil interviewed (Bangs, if anything relevant exists; Marcus, definitely, explaining his ambivalence about the Ramones), and, by necessity, the musical side of the story undergoes simplification--Pleasant Dreams and Subterranean Jungle are good records. Truthfully, I had gotten pretty tired of the Ramones towards the end. It felt like they spent three or four years on the same ongoing farewell tour, Joey was always giving the same interview about how bad music had gotten except for whatever bands were wearing Ramones T-shirts at the time, and overall they just seemed kind of lost--prophets without honour, maybe, but lost nonetheless. I was surprised at how alive their story again seemed in End of the Century. That all three of the main participants are now dead obviously has a lot to do with that, but Fields and Gramaglia do a great job of wading through a lot of stuff and putting that story together.

A League of Ordinary Gentlemen: A perfect triangle: Walter Ray Williams, Jr., the unflappable square who does nothing of interest except win (anyone who watched the PBA in the '70s will remember Earl Anthony; that's Walter Ray); Pete Weber, the mercurial flake who doesn't seem unnerved by anything, except Walter Ray; and Wayne Webb, the sad-sack introspective who's barely hanging on. Bill James once wrote something about flaky baseball players--Joe Charboneau, Joaquin Andujar--that I won't even try to find, but essentially he said that flakes are fun for a while, and then they're gone; flakes don't end up in the Hall of Fame. Well, Weber's in the PBA Hall of Fame, with almost as many tour wins throughout his career as Williams, but when he gets the one thing he's been dying for, a shot at Walter Ray in the newly created "PBA World Championship," James's theory flashed across my mind and I felt like I knew exactly how it would all turn out. The five minutes of film that provided the answer was the most exciting thing I saw all year.

Before Sunset: I would have had this ranked higher soon after I saw it; it's flawless in its way, but a few months removed, its perfection seems limited. Michael Atkinson recently complained in the Voice's year-end about Sideways' conceit of pairing up Giamatti's schlub with glamorous Virginia Madsen. As I indicated above, I had problems with some of the same things, but I noticed Before Sunset on Atkinson's Top 10, which is surely a film that's one big conceit from start to finish. It's the conversation everyone dreams of (while walking around Paris, no less): no awkward pauses, no one says anything stupid or anything that isn't greeted by the other with anything less than wide-eyed interest, no jokes fall flat, and there's a perfect balance throughout between playful flirtation and deeper seriousness. Both participants are movie stars, and both of them look like it. Fine--it is what it is, and Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy pull it all off really well. But the idea that Before Sunset is a penetratingly honest film, and Sideways is just an entertaining road movie that might just as well star Hope & Crosby--an undercurrent I detect in some of the year-end stuff I've read, though maybe I'm just being protective of the film I prefer--strikes me as silly. I also think some of my feelings about Before Sunset were initially jumbled up with my feelings about the person I saw it with. (And there you have all the demonstration you need of why I liked Sideways better--43 years old, and I'm still passing notes in class.) Memorable: the song Delpy sings to Hawke (not the Nina Simone, but the one she strums on her guitar), which reminded me of Adam Sandler's breakup song in The Wedding Singer.

Word Wars: Anyone who reviewed this treated it as Spellbound for maladjusted adults, and that describes it pretty well. I'm only going to write a little here, because otherwise I'd need to write 10,000 words. It's loosely based on Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak, which starts by following around a handful of circuit Scrabble players from tournament to tournament, and quickly shifts to Fatsis himself becoming enmeshed in this world, a severe addict with a borderline-expert rating. Amazing book. You'd think I would have paid heed to Fatsis's cautionary message, but soon after reading it, I stumbled onto the Internet Scrabble Club (where some of the same people who figure prominently in both book and film can be found playing), and within a matter of weeks I developed a consuming addiction of my own. And I do mean addiction in the fullest sense of the word--Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses, Lou Reed in "Waiting for My Man," the whole nine yards. I'd sit in front of the computer at work till the custodians kicked me out at 11:00 p.m., then I'd stop at an internet café on the way home. After buying a computer last summer (I'd been without for a couple of years), I began the school year by playing till 4:30 in the morning, getting an hour of sleep, then heading off to work. (Ten hours later, I'd periodically drift off for a second or two driving home--scary). The hook was the rating; I got up near 1400 at one point, far from expert (1800-2000) but still good. I was able to stop when everything got so out of hand, I started embarrassing myself--berating and arguing with other players, resigning if I didn't like the way somebody played, demanding rematches over and over till I was able to beat someone who was beating me. (Losing is the best thing that can happen to you when you start to think you've got anything of a competitive nature figured out.) It was a bizarre six-month episode in my life that I still can't fully explain. Happily, I've forgotten a lot of the words that became second-nature to me during that time. "Atonies"--I seemed to lay that one every other game for 50+ points, so there's one I remember. The film...Word Wars gets at some of what I've just described, but it's too genial to go as deep as Word Freak does. Marlon Hill steals the movie; if you can reimagine Malcolm X as a world-class Scrabble player, you've got a good idea of Marlon.


Baadasssss!: I wish this had been funnier--Mario Van Peebles seemed unnecessarily grim as his father; even if accurate, I think a little more humour would have underscored what a crazy time this documents--but it held my attention the whole way, there's a pretty good feel for the period, and the recreation of scenes from Sweetback (which I've never seen), and their integration into the main body of the film, was seamless. (Hope I'm remembering correctly--the Sweetback scenes were reshot, right?) In any case, any film with Seinfeld's Uncle Leo ("Hello, Jerry!") has to be good; any film with Uncle Leo in a double-role is automatic Top 10.

Some quick commentary on three I left out.

Kill Bill was a big disappointment for me, but by round two I was resigned to more of the same. I love Reservoir Dogs, love the first third of Pulp Fiction, and thought Jackie Brown was a gratifying and unexpected step forward--everything that was great about its predecessors recast as an adult love story, with Sam Jackson going even farther than he did as Pulp Fiction's Jules (I recite his AK-47 speech all the time). After Jackie Brown, I thought Tarantino was capable of anything. Seven years later he's back at the video store, 19 years old again and rummaging through the $2.99 bin.

I Heart Huckabees (aka The Chronicles of Huckabee, aka The Life Aquatic With Huckabee Heart) I hated and admired at the same time. David O. Russell is really trying to get at something, and now and again there'd be a line or a moment where I thought, mistakenly, that he might start to pull everything together. Most of the time it's an ungodly mess. There was a certain kind of absurdist film in the late '60s and early '70s that Huckabees seems to come out of: Brewster McCloud, Head, Candy, Alex in Wonderland, Myra Breckenridge, Where's Poppa. Some I've seen, some I haven't. They were all ridiculed mercilessly in their day--it's surprising to see Huckabees get such generally good notices.

i heart huckabee

I liked Garden State--it lost the coin-toss for 10th spot on my list--but I can probably anticipate at least a couple of the things Brian hated about it. It's much too precious, which is a mood that breaks both ways for me--sometimes I respond to films that are seemingly held together by gossamer, as with Rushmore, sometimes not. Natalie Portman's chattering misfit is hard to take at first (she's basically reprising Liza Minnelli's role in The Sterile Cuckoo), but eventually she settles down. Overall, it's a film that ambles along without great distinction, but there are nice moments scattered throughout, and I'd agree with what seems to be the general consensus that Peter Sarsgaard is the best supporting player around right now.

I mentioned at the beginning that my list was provisional. You can count it as final, though I still hope to catch up with all of the following: Kinsey, We Don't Live Here Anymore, Primer, Collateral, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Shaun of the Dead, Anchorman, Star Spangled to Death, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Tarnation and The Eternal Huckabee of Steve Zissou.


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From: Brian
Date: January 9, 2005, 11:09 PM

I wish I could have been more enthused about doing this. Lots of work and binge drinking sort of got in the way, and I'm not sure I'm proud of either of those things. Maybe next year, if invited back, it'll be a smoother ride for ol' Brian.

Okay, three things:

1) I watched Fahrenheit twice in the past couple days and I do not recall Mikey hugging Lila Lipscomb.

2) I don't think it's unusual for Jack to reference John Kennedy Toole. Yeah, he's the proverbial punch-drunk high school quarterback, but let's give him benefit of the doubt: a) He went to college, and b) Miles was his roommate. I'd like to think that--no matter how big a meathead you are--if you're rooming with such an intellectually obsessed person, I'm sure you'd pick up a few names of authors and paintings and what not.

3) Phil, if you like Garden State, you're not my friend anymore. Kidding. No, not really. You dismiss it as "precious" and that's true. But can you also say "painful" and "full of shit"? I'd believe Carradine's whole "five touch hearts explode" second grader masturbation trick before actually falling for this guy (Garden State's lead) having "problems." Pfft, I wish my problems were to cruise around aimlessly and whimsically in a nazi bike with Natalie Portman in my side car drinking coffee and beer to cool music while wearing a nifty t shirt. Makes me want to vomit more than the "Tiny Dancer" scene in Almost Famous.

Okay, now I'm rambling and I apologize. I really meant for this to be a quick little hello/goodbye email, but now I think I'm going to throw this to everyone else.


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From: Aaron
Date: January 15, 2005, 1:11 AM

Hey guys,

So, what have we--or I--learned from these e-mails?

I learned Phil has extremely high standards when it comes to competency. That Brian is a zombies-should-never-run kind of guy. And that, while audiences for movies are shrinking, the quality of movies might be increasing. Actually, there have always been good movies to go around. It's just when overpriced F/X blow-outs flop they make the loudest noise.

Reality TV is partly to blame. But so is the moviegoing audience. In the era of infotainment, every aspect of pop culture seems to be a mouse click away. No one seems to want to wait. When every little detail of the making of a movie is "leaked" to the press you almost feel as if you've already seen the movie by the time of its Friday night premiere. No wonder when a Sixth Sense, School of Rock, or a Sideways hits you can literally feel a rumble in the culture. What is missing from the movies is the element of surprise. (Good writing and directing are also missing, but that is a rant for another day.)

So, is there any hope for the movies? Yes, but the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the moviegoing public. Audiences have been burned by so many crummy endings and crummier CGI landscapes, that they've become defensive, even hostile, when entering the dark. This is only natural since no one wants to keep getting their heart broken by an art form they love. But I feel in order for the movies to achieve greatness audiences must be willing to give themselves over to them. They must engage and be willing to be challenged by ideas and emotions that don't necessarily match up with their world views. To seek out the lesser-known movie that doesn't open on 1200 screens on Friday night is to possibly discover a buried treasure. The moment moviegoers let their defenses down and embrace different kinds of movies is the moment they'll be happily surprised.

Back to part 1 of Brian, Aaron, and Phil...