MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The engrossing, surprising SOUTHLAND returns

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The engrossing, surprising SOUTHLAND returns

nullWatching TNT’s cop series Southland (Tuesday 10 pm/9 c) puts knots in my stomach, and I mean that as praise. It’s the most engrossing cop series since season one of NBC’s Homicide, and maybe the most raggedy and real. Chaos erupts out of nowhere, zooming in from off-screen, and then escalates into horror or takes a right turn into absurdity. There are several moments in the premiere that illustrate what I’m talking about. In one of them, Sgt. Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who has just returned to active duty after last season’s personal disasters, and his new partner, Officer Jessica Tang (new castmember Lucy Liu), pull over a young black man for running a red light. The ingrained resentments assert themselves; the driver talks trash to the cops and refuses to get out of the car, Cooper threatens him with violence, the whole situation verges on hysteria, and then suddenly there’s a roar of gunning engines from off-screen. A black sport utility vehicle cuts across several lanes of traffic and screeches to a halt right in front of the pulled-over car, the terrified officers draw their guns …  and out jumps the young man’s mother. She just happened to be driving by and saw her son’s car pulled over by police. She dresses her son down for texting behind the wheel and disrespecting police officers and tells him he’ll never drive that car again. “It’s gonna take Jesus and two more white folks to keep me from kicking your ass!” she shouts.

You can read the rest of Matt's review here at New York Magazine. 

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.

VIDEO SLIDE SHOW: The Muppets’ greatest hits

VIDEO SLIDE SHOW: The Muppets’ greatest hits

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After Jim Henson’s death, the Muppet troupe spent a couple of decades wandering the pop culture wilderness, trying but mostly failing to get in touch with the magic that once fueled their popularity. They got a big step closer two winters ago, when “Muppet Bohemian Rhapsody,” their first hit viral video, debuted on YouTube. This week they’ve got their first big-screen hit in almost three decades, The Muppets, written by and co-starring comic actor and Henson obsessive Jason Segel. “It bumbles along episodically from one thing to the next — hey-ho! — and captures the spirit of Henson’s Muppet Show admirably,” writes my colleague Andrew O’Hehir.

The key to their success is the same one that fueled the success of the classic Warner Bros. characters and Matt Groening’s The Simpsons: the ability to appeal to several age groups at once. Kids laugh at the pratfalls and silly voices. Adults chuckle at the literary references, pop culture in-jokes, puns and innuendo coded just cleverly enough to go over children’s heads.

You can read the rest of Matt's piece here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is TV critic for Salon and publisher of Press Play.

SLIDE SHOW: Woody Allen’s greatest films

Slide Show: Woody Allen’s greatest films

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Woody Allen, whose career will be celebrated next week by PBS’ documentary series American Masters, has been making films for so long that it’s a wonder the program didn’t profile him sooner. With 47 directing credits, 68 screenwriting credits, and let’s-not-even-start-totaling his Oscar wins and nominations, he’s a gray-haired machine who gets more done in a decade than most artists accomplish in a lifetime.

When I decided to pick my favorite Allen films for a slide show, I thought it would be easy. After all, he tells “American Masters” that he’s pursued a quantity-over-quality strategy, making as many pictures as he can and hoping his batting average stays solid over time. Filtering out the really horrible titles wasn’t tough — so long, “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” Celebrity and Hollywood Ending.

But picking the best took longer than I expected, because while most filmmakers are lucky to have one career phase, Allen has had at least five. There was the “earlier, funny phase,” the late-’70s American urban artiste phase, the 1980s chameleon entertainer phase, the post-Soon-Yi-scandal 1990s phase in which his scripts got a lot angrier and more profane, and most recently a European phase — one that delivered his top-grossing feature, 2011′s Midnight in Paris. And in between phases he’s had slumps so dispiriting that some people figured he was done.

You can view Matt's slide show here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for Salon and publisher of Press Play.

In a kingdom of dicks and d-bags, the one-eyed Ratner is king

In a kingdom of dicks and d-bags, the one-eyed Ratner is king

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Brett Ratner is the dumbest muhfucka on the face of the earth! He’s also the worst director on the face of the earth, but let’s delve into the dumb-muhfucka stuff first.

You’d think that after making a movie where he’s received some of the most favorable reviews of his career, along with getting a gig producing the most prestigious awards show out there, Ratner would work his ass off not trying to sound like his usual dickish self and try to maintain some sort of respectful, professional image. But, no, this is Brett “I Lost My Virginity to a Paraplegic” Ratner. When have you ever known this guy to be respectful or professional?

It started late last week when he appeared for an interview on "Attack of the Show," that tech/T-and-A variety show on cable network G4, to promote his new movie, "Tower Heist." When host Kevin Pereira asked Ratner whether or not he is the unnamed, oft-rumored director former Attack host Olivia Munn had a regretful dalliance with (and whom she later slammed in her book Suck It, Wonder Woman), Ratner responded in the classiest of fashions:
      

“I used to date Olivia Munn, I'll be honest with everyone here. But when she was 'Lisa.' She wasn't Asian back then. She was hanging out on my set of "After the Sunset," I banged her a few times, but I forgot her. Because she changed her name. I didn't know it was the same person and so when she auditioned for me for a TV show, I forgot her, she got pissed off, and so she made up all these stories about me eating shrimp and masturbating in my trailer. And she talked about my shortcomings.”

See what I mean when I say “classy”?
     
It’s hard to believe that a guy can go on a TV show, say that a possibly bitter ex made up all these stories about him beating off and eating shrimp and still end up looking like the douchey loser in this whole affair. Was it really necessary for Ratner to be all spiteful and mention that the still-half-Asian Munn “wasn’t Asian back then”? What the hell does that have to do with anything? And, seriously, “bang”? Who the hell does he think he is — one of the guys from "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia"?

Ratner could’ve handled that whole thing with dignity and tact, perhaps even coming out of it looking like the better man for not attempting to stoop to Munn’s level. But, sadly, this is Ratner we’re talking about, and he felt that not only does he have to stoop to her level, he has to go even lower.

But it turns out none of what Ratner said about Munn was true, as he admitted on Howard Stern’s Sirius XM show on Friday. (He did admit to having some sort of sexual encounter with that in-and-out jailbird Lindsay Lohan.) But the shit didn’t hit the fan until later that evening when he screened Tower Heist at the Arclight Hollywood multiplex and took part in a Q & A afterwards. When asked about whether he rehearses scenes with his actors, he simply responded by saying, “Rehearsal? What’s that? Rehearsal’s for fags!”

If there is anything the Isaiah Washington scandal has taught us, it’s that if you work in the film and television industry, you don’t use the F-word — under any circumstance, even if you aren’t actually referring to homosexuals. Jesus, this is Hollywood – you don’t say that shit! You never know who is within earshot! And who does say that shit? “Rehearsal’s for fags” – for real? I’m shocked Ratner hasn’t received a flaming pile of dogshit on his doorstep from William Hurt yet.

Of course, he went on an apologizing tear the following Monday, telling Hollywood news blog The Wrap that he doesn’t have “a prejudiced bone” in his body and making sure AMPAS president Tom Sherak wasn’t appalled by his words. However, by the next day, as bloggers began demanding that Ratner be fired from his producer duties for the upcoming Oscar telecast, he sent out an open letter to the entertainment industry announcing his resignation. It was a letter filled with Ratner apologizing profusely and declaring, “Having love in your heart doesn’t count for much if what comes out of your mouth is ugly and bigoted.” (I’m shocked Ratner didn’t confirm his tolerance for the LGBT crowd by bringing up how he unknowingly got his first hummer from a transvestite, an anecdote he recalled when people complained of homophobic scenes in Rush Hour 3.)

Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with this dude? It seems like, in just these past few days, Ratner has been on a self-destructive mission to become Hollywood’s most prolific asshole, a man able to offend legions of people with just one, short soundbyte.

And it appears now that once Ratner ignorantly shoots his mouth off, we all end up suffering. The day after he resigned, "Heist" star Eddie Murphy, whom Ratner handpicked to host the Oscars, dropped out of hosting. So, thanks to Ratner, we'll probably have yet ahnother boring-ass, four-hour Oscar telecast coming our way.

It’s a shame Ratner still prefers to keep his d-bag persona alive and kicking; after finding myself actually entertained by what I saw in "Heist," I began to have some grudging respect for the man. There hasn’t been a Hollywood filmmaker whose filmography I’ve loathed more than Ratner – and yes, I’m counting Michael Bay. Just like Bay, Ratner became another in a long line of slick-ass music-video directors who graduated to helming slick-ass feature films. But unlike video visionaries turned challenging auteurs David Fincher and Spike Jonze, Ratner became a director who trafficked in crass crowd-pleasers. His comedies are usually crude and offensive, his dramas are bland and lifeless and his action blockbusters are just a whole bunch of noise.

His first movie, "Money Talks," was just a loud, nonsensical vehicle for its star, the equally loud and nonsensical Chris Tucker. Ratner and Tucker would reunite for all three "Rush Hour" movies with Jackie Chan, a franchise that may have been lucrative but more and more mediocre with each volume. His all-star, overblown version of Thomas Harris’s "Red Dragon," complete with Anthony Hopkins hamming it up as Hannibal Lecter, just made me appreciate the moody subtlety Michael Mann embedded in the same material when he made it into "Manhunter." And when he took over for Bryan Singer and directed "X-Men: The Last Stand," it was so gotdamn tedious, me and a comic book-loving friend of mine who accompanied me to the screening immediately went to a bar and got shitfaced while we tried to decipher what the hell was that all about.

So, color me slightly surprised when I left "Tower Heist" quite satisfied. As several of my colleagues who didn’t like the movie have reminded me, it’s a routine story. And while the movie makes some wrong moves narrative-wise, I still found myself getting into it. With "Heist," you get a sense that Ratner has finally understood that when you hire skilled, decent actors to star in your movie, the main thing to do is get out of their damn way and come in when you’re needed, like when it comes time to stage the convincingly death-defying climax.

But when Ratner started saying all this other stuff, the respect I was trying to have for the man quickly became nonexistent. I mean, here is a man who I’m sure has made a lot of money making mediocre movies, considers Warren Beatty and Robert Evans close friends and has had Rebecca Gayheart, Naomi Campbell and Serena Williams as ex-girlfriends. And here he is, acting like he’s still living in the gotdamn frat house! What’s interesting is that Ratner spent most of a 2007 Vanity Fair profile convincing readers he is a credible, competent director. “I eat, sleep and breathe movies,” Ratner said. “I’ve been dreaming about this every day since I was eight years old! I’m not what people think I am – I’m a filmmaker!

Really, Brett? You’re a filmmaker? This is what you’ve wanted to do since you were a kid? Then, for Chrissakes, act like a fuckin’ filmmaker and stop saying dumb shit in public! Jesus Christ, man, you’re 42! You’re officially too old for this shit! A man who is responsible for a slew of hit movies should carry himself with a lot more decorum, especially if he does want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker.

In short, Brett Ratner, stop being an asshole and start being a man. There’s already one John Mayer on this planet. There shouldn’t be two.

Craig D. Lindsey used to have a job, as the film critic and pop-culture columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Now, he's back out there hustling, writing about whatever for Nashville Scene, the Greensboro News & Record, Philadelphia Weekly, the Independent Weekly and other publications. He has a Tumblr blog now (unclecrizzle.tumblr.com). You can also hit him up on Twitter (twitter.com/unclecrizzle).

 

Pauline Kael: A conversation

Pauline Kael: A conversation


As two new Kael books arrive, two Salon critics debate the legacy of the influential New Yorker movie writer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael retired from print 20 years ago and died 10 years after. But if you read film criticism online, it’s as if she’s still with us. She is the subject of a new biography by Brian Kellow, “A Life in the Dark.” Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz got together this week to talk about Kael’s impact on film, criticism and their own sensibilities. Laurels are tossed, darts thrown. Excerpts follow.

By Matt Zoller Seitz and Andrew O’Hehir
Salon staff writers

Matt: Is there any other critic, dead or alive, who’s as ubiquitous as Pauline Kael?

Andrew: Absolutely not. As we’ll see, I have very mixed feelings about Kael and her legacy, but no other film critic has ever been remotely as popular or as influential. (One could argue that less famous writers like James Agee or Manny Farber are more “important,” in some sense, but that’s a different matter.) Kael’s influence is so pervasive it’s almost unconscious. When I was a younger critic and someone accused me of writing like Kael, I was enraged and responded that I’d never read her, which was almost literally true. When I did read her, I had to admit the guy had a point: I had absorbed some elements of her style and outlook without realizing it, as if through osmosis, because they were so ubiquitous in film criticism.

Matt: I’ve actually struggled with this myself. That prose style is so engaging — so powerful and seductive in some ways because it’s like a heightened version of everyday conversation with a really smart person — that it does sink into your mind, whether you’re a regular filmgoer of somebody who writes criticism for a living. Anybody who’s so inclined can actually track my own shifting feelings about Kael’s influence by looking at my past writing about her. I reviewed her 1994 compilation “For Keeps” for the Dallas Observer, my first employer, and it was pretty much a mash note. Seven years later, I wrote an obituary for her that was a lot tougher — respectful, ultimately, but skeptical of some of the very qualities I praised a few years earlier. This was probably because by that point I’d been living in New York for six years, a much richer moviegoing town with a lot more varied types of film criticism available in print, and I started to figure out that even though Kael was the most prominent and maybe influential voice in criticism, there was more than one way to write about movies. And television. And everything!

You can read the rest of Matt’s piece here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz and Andrew O’Hehir are TV critic and film critic for Salon, respectively.

VIDEO ESSAY: PARENTS, directed by Bob Balaban

VIDEO ESSAY: PARENTS, directed by Bob Balaban

Parents – Nightmares of Childhood from John Keefer on Vimeo.

[Editor's note: Press Play is pleased to welcome filmmaker John Keefer to our roster of contibutors.]

Parents is a film with an intimate and acute knowledge of what it feels like to be a frightened child, citing the source of those fears as a growing awareness of the carnality of adults.

The film was not a success critically or commercially on its first release in 1989. Reviews complained of a mixed tone — that it didn't know if it wanted to be a horror or a comedy. But the film works best if taken from the point of view of a child. A tipoff comes from the opening image; it suggests a boy's point of view, or perhaps a Missing Child photo from the side of a carton of milk. What the boy sees is what we all see at one point or another: the strange behaviors and bizarre rituals of adults glimpsed through banisters from upstairs.

I blame the accusations of a mixed tone on the fact that there were two listed Directors of Photography. Taken from the p.o.v. of the boy, the tone is perfectly consistent: bright, perfect days dissolving into nightmares and monsters under the bed. In this sense, the film's '50s setting isn't so much indicting the hypocrisy of the time as much as using the period to suggest the archetypes of the father, the mother, and the confusion we all share as the child.

I haven't mentioned the plot: Michael realizes his parents are cannibals and the leftovers they keep trying to get him to eat are actually people. He doesn't spend the film trying to convince police or school officials that his Parents are dangerous and need to be stopped. We just see him being affected by it. Which is just right.

I can't say if this is a great film, but it's one I saw at the perfect time. I was around ten or eleven when it played on cable, and it was just a little over my head, which is probably why it's stuck with me for the past eighteen years. It's a film about the moment before the last moment of childhood, a time when nightmares were very real.

John Keefer is a writer/director of short films working out of Phoenixville, PA. You can view his work here. You can follow him on twitter here.

AARON ARADILLAS: FOOTLOOSE, a tale of two soundtracks

AARON ARADILLAS: FOOTLOOSE, a tale of two soundtracks

By Aaron Aradillas
Press Play Contributor

Movie soundtracks are one of two things. Most of them are souvenirs, a way of re-watching the movie through music. (Back in 1983, there were reports of moviegoers leaving Adrian Lyne’s soft-core ballet workout Flashdance and going straight to the nearest record store and picking up the soundtrack album.) Others are artifacts, a collection of songs that would seem to indicate what was “in” at that precise moment. (The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack all but came to define mainstream disco music.) Then there are those rare soundtracks that are both. Soundtracks as diverse as A Hard Day’s Night, Less Than Zero, Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting resonate long after their initial release and become a part of the pop landscape.

Then there are the soundtracks to the two versions of Footloose, the white-boy’s-gotta-dance drama that’s become almost a rite of passage for any young person. Footloose is not a pop classic, exactly. (That phrase gets thrown around so often you wonder if it still has any meaning.) With its rudimentary structure, simple storyline and aping of music video editing, Footloose is now part of every young person’s movie-watching experience. Its story of big-city kid Ren MacCormack moving to a small Southern town and fighting the town fathers for his right to dance stands in for the universal desire of wanting to break free from authority. The success of the original Footloose was aided in no small part by the then recent launch of MTV. Veteran choreographer-director Herbert Ross (Funny Lady, The Turning Point, Pennies From Heaven) approached the directing of the film like an old-time pro curious to see what the next generation of dancers and entertainers were up to. He married his skill and wisdom as an old-school Broadway choreographer with the new editing and music stylings of 1980s pop. It worked. Director Craig Brewer, who came of age watching and loving the original version, infuses 2011’s Footloose with his own personal blend of Southern rock and country, and a dash of crunk for good measure. (Brewer is responsible for two legitimate pop classics, Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.) The soundtracks to both films might say less about the state of mainstream pop music than what Hollywood thinks will make a hit. Taken together, the soundtracks to the two Footloose movies provide a blurry snapshot of the pop world at their respective moment in time.

Consider the title track from the film. The original Kenny Loggins-Dean Pitchford composition is engineered to stick in your head; with its one-two party beat, white-boy guitar riff and sporadic synthesizer squeals, “Footloose” is undeniably catchy, a mainstay of any Happy Hour/Girls’ Night Out playlist. The new version by Blake Shelton feels calculated to be a hit. (If you wanted a hit in 1984, having Kenny Loggins sing your lead single was not the obvious way to go.) Shelton’s version is energetic but uninspired. (You wonder why he hadn’t already made it a part of his encore set list.) By turning the song into an up-tempo countrified number, you realize some of the original’s weaknesses. Like a lot of country music, the emphasis on lyrics trumps the music, which is a mistake with “Footloose.” Part of the fun of the original was not exactly being able to make out the lyrics. The song was more about tempo and catchiness. Shelton’s version overcorrects and you realize that lyrically, “Footloose” is kind of embarrassing. (A better cover of “Footloose” is done by The JaneDear Girls, a female duo whose playful take on the song is not weighed down with the burden of “covering a classic.” Unfortunately their version is only available on the iTunes exclusive “Cut Loose Deluxe Edition” of the soundtrack.)

The original Footloose’s idea of what constituted hard rock is telling. Sammy Hagar’s The Girl Gets Around” is a typical piece of tailgate rock. Hagar, who has always possessed one of party rock’s most underrated voices, positions the song as signaling the transition from ’70s hard rock to ’80s hair metal. The song is used as the theme to wannabe bad girl Ariel (Lori Singer) as she performs a reckless highway stunt. The equivalent in the new Footloose is “Suicide Eyes” by A Thousand Horses, a swaggering piece of New South rock that Kings of Leon could only dream of. The heaviest piece of rock on the original soundtrack is Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head,” off the first heavy metal album ever to reach number one on Billboard. With its refrain of “Metal Health will drive you mad,” the song represented parents’ biggest fear at the time: the cheerful embrace of the Devil-invented-rock attitude of heavy metal. The song had a getting-ready-in-the-morning-for-school snottiness that was just plain fun to listen to. Its inclusion in the new version reveals it for what it always was: a great pop rock anthem. (I realize that is blasphemous to any true hard rock and heavy metal believer, but there it is.) The QR track was used in the original as Ren arrives for his first day of school. In the new version he’s blasting Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a thumping piece of team-spirit hip-hop. (Alas, neither “Bang Your Head” nor “Black and Yellow” are included on the new Footloose soundtrack.)

The absence of black music from the original Footloose is the biggest corrective in the new version. Along with the Wiz Khalifa track, Brewer also highlights Three 6 Mafia with the inclusion of “Get Your Feet Off the Ground.” There’s even a contribution by current pop deconstructionist Cee Lo Green, who channels Muddy Waters on the greasy piece of blues “Walkin’ Blues”. (The song is given something extra by Kenny Wayne Shepherd doing his best Robert Johnson/Ry Cooder impersonation.) But the new Footloose explicitly acknowledges the dethroning of hard rock by hip-hop with the crunk offering “Dance The Night Away,” David Banner’s re-imagining of “Dancing In The Sheets.” The song has a body-popping beat that trumps anything on the Shalamar original.

The one song that casts the greatest shadow over anything in the new film is The White Stripes’ “Catch Hell Blues.” Off their towering Icky Thump record, “Catch Hell Blues” is a grinding workout that is fittingly used as the song Ren does his “angry dance” routine to. When Jack White hollers “If you’re testing God lying to His face/You’re gonna catch hell,” it’s as if the Devil was admitting defeat. It easily tops the equivalent track from the original Footlose, Moving Pictures’ “Never.” A piece of synth-pop dance music, “Never” is a perfectly decent song that was dated about six months after its release. Its a classic case of visuals of Kevin Bacon’s dancing blotting out the ordinariness of a song. “Never” also makes a good case that a synthesizer and a saxophone should never appear on the same track.

The more fascinating song from the original soundtrack is Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” Written by Pitchford and Jim Steinman, it is a prime example of ’80s pop bombast (a Steinman specialty). Tyler, an American Idol winner before her time, performs every song at full throttle. Lyrically the song is a teenage girl’s yearning for the perfect man set to an aerobics workout beat. (“Where have all the good men gone/And where are all the gods?/Where’s the streetwise Hercules/To fight the rising odds?” With lyrics like that, you can understand why the song is a karaoke staple.) The song’s rototoms-and-piano instrumental break is just terrible. (In fact, edit it out the instrumental break and you have a terrific guilty pleasure.) The unintended comic highpoint is when the gospel-like backing chorus repeats the refrain “fire in my blood” until you all but have to raise both fists in the air. The song’s endearing popularity is owed completely to its use during the tractor chicken-race sequence. The music-video editing allows the viewer to look past the song’s obvious shortcomings. (It doesn’t hold a candle to Tyler’s powerful “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” another Steinman composition.) Like most of Steinman’s songs, it’s a song made for the movies. (He did more interesting work on the soundtrack to the 1984 future-shock rock & roll fable Streets of Fire.) The new stripped-down acoustic version by 15-year-old Ella Mae Brown is absolutely startling as it reveals the song’s angst-filled beauty. The purplish lyrics feel natural and right coming from the mouth of a teenager. It’s the best song Taylor Swift never recorded.

(The one flat-out dud on the new soundtrack is the paint-by-numbers cover of “Almost Paradise” by Victoria Justice and Hunter Hayes. There’s just no topping the senior-prom majesty of the Nancy Wilson and Mike Reno original.)

But the best songs on the soundtracks represent the best pop music has to offer. For the original it’s Deniece Williams’ R&B dance confection “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.” With its synth bass line, clap-along beat and Williams’ caressing vocals, the song is pop perfection that sounds as joyous today as it did in 1984. (Tellingly, it is the Williams version, not the fine Jana Kramer country-dance cover, that is used in the new film’s take on the crowd-pleasing dance sequence of Miles Teller’s good ol’ boy Willard learning to dance.) The best song on the new soundtrack is Big & Rich’s “Fake ID.” This makes sense, seeing how country music is now officially the new pop. I must make it clear that a pop song with a fiddle solo does not a country song make. The Big & Rich track is different, though. (There’s no fiddle solo, for starters.) It’s a giddy-up foot stomper that testifies to the lengths one must go to (including breaking the law) in order to have a good time. (“Hey mister won’t you sell me a fake ID/There’s a band in the bar that I’m dyin’ to see.”) There’s even an unnecessary but welcome late-in-the-song appearance by Gretchen Wilson. (Her appearance is equivalent to a hip-hop artist popping up on a remix to provide a brief rap solo. She gives the song an added flavor.) The legacy of both versions of Footloose (the movies and the soundtracks) is that their best moments make the case of giving yourself over to the pleasures of pop without the burden of guilt.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Michael Tolkin’s THE RAPTURE is a bloody pearl

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Michael Tolkin’s THE RAPTURE is a bloody pearl

By Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play contributor

[Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a review that originally ran in in the Nov. 14, 1991 issue of Dallas Observer, a period that predates the newspaper’s web archives. It appears online here for the first time as a supplement to Press Play contributor Steven Santos’ video essay on The Rapture, which you can watch here.]

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that The Rapture is bankrolled by New Line Cinema, the folks who gave us the Nightmare on Elm Street series with its sharp-fingered antihero, Freddy Krueger. This unnerving film by writer-director Michael Tolkin, about a fallen woman who gives herself over to a fundamentalist cult, is a horror movie that wraps itself in the ominous robes of such supernatural epics as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Its hard to tell if its a cautionary piece about how cults fill up hollow lives with mindless obedience and insanity (it has what may be the ultimate unhappy ending) or if it’s an incredibly crafty Jesus-gonna-getcha recruiting film. In any case, it works on the viewer with an almost subconscious power. Seeing it may make even the staunchest nonbelievers want to go to church.

Our guide through this story is Sharon (Mimi Rogers), a telephone information operator who escapes the overpowering dullness of her life through group sex with strangers. Her cruising partner is a slick Brit named Vic (Patrick Bauchau). They’re disaffected intellectual drifters. When Sharon gets visited by a couple of door-to-door Bible thumpers and one of them tries to establish a bond with her by saying, “I was like you once,” Sharon smiles wearily, as if her own transgressions were so colossal that admitting them might make her a kind of celebrity of sin. Sharon and Vic have no pursuits besides hedonism; their rejection of all beliefs is their belief system. Their pleasure is an end unto itself, and to hell with tomorrow.

Tomorrow is the main concern of some of Sharon’s coworkers, who whisper in the company break room about a mysterious “pearl.” They dream about it, and seem to intuitively agree on what it means. But they’re protective about their secret; when they catch Sharon eavesdropping on them, they clam up. Sharon is hooked on their furtiveness, their bland confidence that they’re onto something she isn’t. When she tires of the cruising routine, she approaches them by the photocopier and says she’s had the dream, too. “What dream?” one asks. “The pearl,” she says. “I dreamed about the pearl.” “You can’t fake it,” another tells her. “Either you have the dream or you don’t.”

In exchanges like these, Tolkin captures the essence of what makes fundamentalists, or any other kind of completely absorbed believers, so intimidating to anyone who rejects the spiritual life. They’re often polite, even pleasant. That’s because they know that their embrace of faith is a positive value, and what nonbelievers have is negative: nonbelievers simply don’t believe. And here’s the trick: In order to formally reject the concept of God, you first have to admit there is something to reject — a being, an energy field, a mythological concept, something. That’s a troubling thing. It can gnaw at you. It gnaws at Sharon. When she presses her coworkers about the dream, their replies are infuriatingly either/or: either you believe or you don’t, they tell her. If you don’t believe, you’ll never be able to understand why we’re so happy and complete; deciding to believe makes everything else in life take care of itself. This “leap of faith” notion makes Sharon’s sudden decision to purge her life of Vic and all other evidence of sin believable. She has built her life the rejection of societal mores. She feels hollow. The dream of the pearl fills her up.

Tolkin never explains what the pearl symbolizes, but we see it hovering in the skies of Sharon’s dreams like the watchful eye of God. The fundamentalist splinter group that interprets the pearl dream’s meaning is headed by a nine-year old black prophet of the apocalypse. As Sharon gets deeper in to Bible readings, scripture discussions, prophecies and dreams, her newfound spirituality possesses her. She becomes perpetually pleasant and addresses people with the glassy-eyed politeness of a Stepford Wife. But Tolkin never caricatures her. It’s clear that he understands her desperation and respects her newfound love for religion — her conviction that faith can plaster the cracks in her soul and give her life meaning. (Rogers is a revelation here. Early in the film, she projects earthy, bemused sensuality. Later, her face shows the ravaged lines of late-’60s Jeanne Moreau; when she says she’s seen hard times, you believe it.)

I won’t divulge the rest of the plot because it takes some startling turns. Suffice it to say that no, Sharon doesn’t get deprogrammed; in fact, she rarely expresses doubts about the healthiness of what she’s gotten herself into. Tolkin doesn’t stage Sharon’s predicament as a nightmare voyage into cultdom, but he doesn’t make it a slam against fundamentalism, either. He sends Sharon on what can only be characterized as a spiritual journey. Along the way, she is tested, argued with, even pleaded with by friends, but Tolkin doesn’t skewer nonbelievers, in the way that secular filmmakers often turn street-corner preachers and hellfire prophets into bellowing, pink-faced ogres. He lends believers and doubters nearly equal weight, which leaves you uncertain as to where he stands — even at the climax, even when the film climbs to heights of horror that seem to verify everything the pearl cult’s child prophet has been warning us about.

What makes The Rapture so frightening is that it takes the Bible literally. It gives certain lines, images, and ideas from the New Testament blatantly concrete form. Like Ingmar Bergman, who gave us a Grim Reaper who was basically a tall guy in a black hooded robe and pancake makeup, Tolkin conceives apocalyptic images that are literal to the point of banality. That’s why they’re so frightening: anybody who takes Revelations at face value will probably agree with Tolkin’s script that when Revelations mentions Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s talking about four big guys on horseback who can do you some serious damage. Tolkin’s juxtaposition of Biblical apparitions and the threat of a wrathful God against the concrete highways and shining skyscrapers of our fallen world is spooky enough to chill even agnostics to the marrow. He’s a steady, controlled deployer of images: he takes everyone’s ideas seriously, and envisions them with take-it-or-leave-it forcefulness.

Tolkin’s God is as inscrutable as the featureless face of the pearl in Sharon’s dreams. He’s up there somewhere, stewing the universe around according to a grand plan that he steadfastly refuses to explain. Every now and then he leaks something to privileged handful on earth. They’re the people who knock on your door and ask you if you’re saved. They’re the people at anti-abortion rallies who sweetly hand you pamphlets inscribed with gory photos and threats of damnation. They’re human, too. And you’ll be able to spot them coming out of this movie: they’ll be the ones be talking about what a great documentary they’ve just seen.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: All Things Shining: The Films of Terrence Malick, Chapter 5: THE TREE OF LIFE

VIDEO ESSAY: All Things Shining: The Films of Terrence Malick, Chapter 5: THE TREE OF LIFE

http://www.movingimagesource.us/flash/mediaplayer.swf?id=169/985

http://www.movingimagesource.us/flash/mediaplayer.swf?id=170/985


By Serena Bramble and Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play contributors

Still the most divisive major studio release of 2011, Terrence Malick's fifth feature The Tree of Life is a dream film, a special effects extravaganza, an experimental movie, a rueful reflection on love and pain, and a memoir of small-town Texas life in the 1960s. Since Malick's movie has a deliberately open-ended, perhaps unfinished, quality, I've conceived this two-part video essay along similar lines. It does not purport to be a definitive or even comprehensive take on the movie, but more of a loose personal reaction to it, one that could very well be revised or revisited in the future. It is intended as Chapter 5 in the Moving Image Source series All Things Shining: The Films of Terrence Malick, which ran earlier this year.

The first half of this chapter concentrates on the "creation" sequence of the film, paying special attention to the work of effect master Douglas Trumbull (2001), the influence of experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, and the connection between the cosmic vistas and the more intimate human drama. The second half delves into the subjective and free-associative nature of the storytelling, the film's portraits of the mother, father and narrator characters, and the possible meaning of the film's much-debated final sequence.

I wrote and narrated the piece and Serena Bramble, a regular contributor to Press Play, edited. To view the piece in its original context at Moving Image Source, or to view other chapters in the series, click here.


Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor and publisher of the blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind. Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and the founder of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: ON THE GO, PART 3: TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

VIDEO ESSAY: ON THE GO, PART 3: TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

By Aaron Aradillas, Richard Seitz and Matt Zoller Seitz

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This post contains the third chapter of Aaron Aradillas and Richard Seitz's On the Go, a series of video essays about the golden age of the car chase, 1968-85. Part 1 can be viewed here. Part 2 can be viewed here. This entry is devoted solely to the car chase in 1985's To Live and Die in L.A.. After some initial scene-setting, the video essay lets the chase play out in its entirety, with sparse voice-over narration at significant points. As accompaniment to the videos, we're running Matt Zoller Seitz's piece on To Live and Die in L.A., which was originally published in The B-List, the National Society of Film Critics' 2008 anthology of writing about disreputable classics. To order the paperback or Kindle version of The B-List, click here.

William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. includes several closeups of men getting shot point-blank in the face. Friedkin has been painting actors’ faces crimson since his breakthrough hit, the notoriously ruthless policier The French Connection, which included a just-for-the-hell of it close-up of a cou- ple of disfigured accident victims who had no apparent connection to the film’s main plot. In most cases, these images are a visual definition of the word “gratuitous.” But in L.A., Friedkin’s horrific close-ups are integral aspects of the picture’s down-and-dirty aesthetic and a rebuke to an especially irritating cliché: the movie character who sustains what would surely be a mortal wound in real life, only to show up a couple of scenes later with a cast on his arm. In Friedkin’s Los Angeles, when characters die, they’re dead, and Friedkin puts the camera right up in their freshly pulped faces so you know it’s adios muchacho.

Friedkin’s viciously blunt direction of the film—which he cowrote with cops-and- robbers novelist Gerald Petievich, from Petievich’s best seller—mirrors the obsessive quest of its protagonist, U.S. Treasury agent Richard Chance (William Petersen), a surly jerk hell-bent on punishing his partner’s killer, the suave counterfeiter and would-be painter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). Chance flouts rules and procedures in the name of justice and ego; Friedkin startles the audience by flagrantly disregarding conventions that encrusted so many Hollywood movies in the 1980s. That decade saw the rebel antiheroes of the Johnson-through-Ford eras supplanted by macho narcissists played by the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas, and later, Bruce Willis; alpha males who walked all over everybody, yet still earned a slow clap at the end of the story. In the scenes of Chance drawing his more straitlaced new partner, John Vuckovich (John Pankow), deeper into his payback fantasy, the film puts an ironic spin on the arguments that other ’80s action heroes used to justify their quasi-fascist hijinks. “I’m gonna bag Masters, and I don’t give a shit how I do it,” Chance declares. He sounds like Mickey Rourke’s Stanley White in the Oliver Stone-scripted, Michael Cimino-directed Year of the Dragon, which came out the same year as Friedkin’s movie (White’s signature line: “How can anybody care too much?”). But there’s a crucial difference: not for a moment does Friedkin’s film encourage us to believe that Chance represents anyone’s interests but his own.

There’s a disquieting sense that Chance’s fury originates not just in his resentment of lawbreakers and his grief over his partner’s death but also in an overpowering feeling of emasculation. He prides himself on getting close to death—even courting it—without being affected by it. The film’s prologue finds Chance interrupting an assassination attempt on the president by a Middle Eastern suicide bomber who exclaims, “God is great!” before leaping off a hotel rooftop and blowing himself up. The next time we see Chance, he’s bungee-jumping off a bridge on the day of his partner’s retirement—a sequence whose opening shots are deliberately framed to suggest a suicide attempt. Masters’s menace is personal; his treachery rattled Chance, and the fact that the system won’t let Chance exact revenge with deliberate speed amps up his restlessness and egomania and ultimately leads to his demise.

The movie is attuned to the decade’s Me First culture; it’s borderline nihilistic in a way that’s true to its gutter milieu and the self-interested, often loathsome humanoids that scamper through it. At its heart, L.A. is a cautionary tale about a man who is denied instant gratification and then seeks it in his own way, destroying careers, property, and lives in the process. In a DVD supplement, Friedkin describes L.A. as a story of “counterfeit lives” in which every major character is pretending to be something he’s not. On a superficial level, that’s accurate. (Chance and Vukovich go undercover as criminals, and Masters is a frustrated, mediocre painter who lives an art-world hero’s life, financed with money from his counterfeiting operation.) But the description implies a sense of delusion that doesn’t really jibe with the characters’ single-mindedness. They know what they are, they have primal drives, and they do what they need to do to satisfy them.

Except for a few moments of macho banter, there’s little warmth onscreen, and there’s nothing resembling a traditional movie “love interest.” Chance’s relationship with Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Fluegel), a parolee and single mom, is bereft of hearts and flowers. Chance and Ruth seem to need each other physically, and they betray a guarded vulnerability when they’re together, but the relationship is based on mutual exploitation, and the cop has the upper hand. He wants tips that he can use to nail Masters; she wants to stay out of prison and needs money to supplant her gig as a ticket taker at a strip joint. “How much do I get for the information I gave you on Waxman?” Ruth asks Chance in an early scene. “No arrest, no money,” he replies. “It’s my fault he’s dead?” she counters. “It took me six months to get next to him. I got expenses, you know.” “Guess what?” Chance snarls, “Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker.”

Chance’s platonic seduction of Vukovich is far subtler. Chance uses his he-man flamboyance (hectoring righteousness, snotty asides, bow-legged gunfighter’s strut) as an intoxicant. He gets Vukovich high on bad-boy swagger and loosens his standards one concession at a time, like a high-school stud taking all night to unbutton his prom date’s gown. By the film’s midpoint, Chance and Vukovich are cutting legal and procedural corners; by the end—after posing as potential customers of Masters and then being denied the down payment required to make a deal with him and bust him—they rob an unrelated drug courier who turns out to be an FBI agent, accidentally get him killed (repeating a twist from The French Connection), then flee from the money’s heavily armed presumptive owners.

The film’s final stretch is a turbocharged black comedy—a Keystone Cops chase going the wrong way on an LA freeway while Wang Chung’s synthesized score chug-chugs like a cokehead’s dance-floor heartbeat. The chase doesn’t just build on Popeye Doyle’s deranged pursuit of the El train in The French Connection; it improves on it by serving up a spectacular metaphor for the characters’ progress through—and effect upon—their world. Tear-assing across Southern California while drug goons strafe them with rifle fire and oncoming cars and trucks swerve to avoid hitting them head-on, the treasury agents threaten the very society that their improvisations are meant to protect.

Friedkin is a deeply untrustworthy director; if you don’t believe it, seek out his have-it-both-ways defenses of the audience-jazzing ugliness in The French Connection, the blasphemous mayhem in The Exorcist, the sinister homophobia of Cruising, and the pro– and anti–capital punishment pandering woven throughout Rampage. But in L.A., his coldly observant eye—that of a robber casing a bank—suits the subject matter, and the production’s glorified underground aesthetic cranks up its energy and intensifies its themes. At the time, Friedkin was reeling from a string of box-office disappointments. He shot L.A. outside the studio system with a nonunion crew, on a relatively modest $14 million budget, with a cast comprised mainly of unknown or barely known actors (including John Turturro as a busted courier whom Masters believes is going to turn state’s witness). Friedkin’s biggest name was Dean Stockwell, a supporting player who has a few effective scenes as Masters’s sleazy sellout of a lawyer. Except for the complex action sequences, most of the film’s scenes play out from one, two, or at most three camera angles. Friedkin often printed first takes. In a few instances he told the actors they were just rehearsing, secretly rolled film, then called “Cut” and moved on. The result feels like what it is: a work of furious urgency. The director depicts the movie’s amoral crooks and corner-cutting feds as animals fighting for survival and dominance: sharks that must keep moving or die.–Matt Zoller Seitz

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. Video editor Richard Seitz has worked for 20 years as a sound designer, audio engineer, composer, and dialogue editor for video games, television, short films and theatrical trailers. Game titles include The Hulk 2, Battlestar Galactica, Van Helsing, The Hobbit, Predator and Diablo 2. Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play.