Second week of September and my Criterion month is still going strong. Granted, I didn't really delve deep into the foreign classics like my initial plan, but what do you expect when you start your dorkery with Michael Bay's The Rock. I'm still flummoxed that such a seemingly mindless Blockbuster resides in The Criterion Collection, but I guess I see it as a lure to drag mainstream bros into the eclectic artistry of the auteur theory. Heck, I know that's how I first found myself craving spine numbers. The first Criterion I ever purchased was The Silence of the Lambs (Spine # 13), and from there I found John Woo's Hard Boiled (Spine # 9), Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (Spine # 37), and Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (Spine # 19). And Shock Corridor is the film responsible for my Criterion obsession. Looking at this Top 250 Films list from Sight & Sound, I discovered that I still have a long journey ahead of me, but I am more determined than ever to fill those classic cinematic gaps. If you have that same desire then Criterion is the place to be - just watch your addictive personality.
But let's not forget my fanboy origins. My absolute favorite film of the week (not including Sweet Smell of Success, a Top 10er for me) was the recent Dark Knight Returns animated film. After so much crying and whining from the comic book community, we finally have the film we've all wanted to see on the big screen and I'm not hearing enough love from the internet. This is a masterpiece, and the most fun I've had watching an animated film in years. Adult entertainment. No kiddie stuff here. This is the potential of the medium fully realized. If you don't trust the blind buy than give it a Netflix. You won't be sorry. Parts 1 & 2 are widely available everywhere, but The Complete Cut can now be purchased exclusively in store at Best Buy.
The Rock (Criterion Spine # 108): So much has changed since 1996. Remember when the world was Nicholas Cage's oyster, after he jumped from his Oscar darling Leaving Las Vegas to this successful summer smash? That one-two punch launched the man down a blockbuster gauntlet that would eventually implode with the equally powerful rope-a-dope combo of The Wicker Man & Ghost Rider. Welcome to the land of Direct-To-DVD, Nic. Sigh. Michael Bay, the heir apparent of Tony Scott, reaches deep into his bag of tricks - we get gratuitous car chases, plenty of unnecessary patriotism, random wheelchairs, and heaps of oddball character quirks. Cage's G-Man chemist not only obsesses over The Beatles, but kills lumbering thugs with the musical might of Elton John! What the hell? But it's kind of amazing. The Rock is a bombastic weird mess of an actioner, but its wandering behemoth narrative doesn't feel as tired or as rote as it would become in the Transformers trilogy...or soon to be quadrilogy.
On The Waterfront (Criterion Spine # 647): "Ain't nobody tough anymore." I recognize that for many, On The Waterfront was the birth of a new era in performance, but Brando feels completely apart from the other actors in the film. His punch drunk stoolie bumbles through the scene, fidgeting props, mumbling dialog, and generally steals the show from the others that dare occupy the frame. Revolutionary? Yeah, okay, maybe. It's hard for me in 2013 to appreciate what was obviously a shock to the audience in 1954, but hindsight being what it is, On The Waterfront has an awkward show-off quality. It's a film populated with classically earnest performances by Lee J Cobb, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Steiger but there's a xonomorph hiding amongst them - Brando, God's Gift to Acting.
Secret Honor (Criterion Spine # 257): But without Brando do we have this tyrannical terror of performance? For 90 minutes, Phillip Baker Hall as Richard Milhous Nixon rants and raves to the walls of his study as he records his confessional memoir armed with a bottle of scotch and an automatic pistol. It's a horror show. Filmed over the course of seven days, and comprised mostly of Robert Altman's University of Michigan students, Secret Honor is an angry declaration against the 37th President that might attempt to highlight some humanity, but really just revels in Nixon's futile attempts to justify his actions. And I'm 100% cool with that. Seriously, who doesn't want to see this man put a gun to his head? At the very least Phillip Baker Hall is easily the most entertaining on-screen Nixon; even confined to four walls, Hall races circles around other impersonators like Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella.
Star Trek Into Darkness: "I thought we were explorers?" Sigh. Man oh man, I really wish JJ Abrams listened to that painful bit of truth uttered by Scotty halfway through the film. Of course, the Star Trek films haven't been about exploring since 1979, and look how popular that was? As you may or may not have figured out by now, we ITMODers are none too happy with this latest Trek. That being said, I bought the damn movie. Yep, I'm one of those hypocritical blogger jerkwads that bitches & moans about a film, but still succumbs to the temptation of high definition. Doesn't that mean that I like Into Darkness on some level? Maybe. But it's more indicative of my completist fanboy problem. I own (and will own) every Star Trek film that has ever hit disc. Heck, I have far worse Treks than Into Darkness - those being Generations & Nemesis. So, my goal this week was to pick out all the little bits I actually enjoyed about Star Trek The Reboot Part II. Uhurah's helmet kiss for Spock, The Nibiru sand drawing disolve, Kirk bedding two cat chicks, Pike chastising Kirk leading to another motivational barroom chat, those spherical ice cubes, Klingon helmets, Scotty's disco nightlife collar, Cumberbatch's crying, and the tumbling gravitational malfunction. But those superficial "LIKES" are nothing when paired with the stupidity on display within the narrative. Why does Admiral Marcus unfreeze Khan? We're told for his savagery...uh okay, let me go get Napoleon to build me a Nuclear Warhead. Nonsense.
Traffic (Criterion Spine # 151): The one-two punch of Erin Brockovich & Traffic marks the end of Steven Soderbergh's first wave of filmmaking - goodbye Sex, Lies & Videotape, hello Ocean's 11. The director graduates from slick indie crime dramas to this Oscar Bait cavalcade of Hollywood Smiles, with show-me filter fun and a serious after school message. Drugs are bad, ok. And the War on Drugs is a joke. When I saw this in 2000, I was in love. Cynicism + big top performances = college class catnip. Benicio Del Toro & Don Cheadle are excellent as two cops on two sides of the border pointlessly battling with the cartels. But Michael Douglas's junkie kids story is dull and annoying, and Catherine Zeta-Jones' mama kingpin routine a bore. I love early Soderbergh (Sex, Limey, Out of Sight) and modern Soderbergh (Informant, Haywire, Side Effects), but the middle era (Traffic, Oceans, & The Good German) holds little interest these days.
Breaking Bad - Season 2: As the fifth and final season bears down upon us, I find myself inundated at work with Breaking Bad enthusiasm. I'm sick and tired of not being a part of the water cooler. I meandered my way through the first season a while back, but didn't experience the MUST SEE TV effect that others seem to have fallen into. Watching the second season, I can't say that I'm in love in the same fashion as The Wire or even Justified, but by the last episode I was certainly hooked. BOOM! John De Lancie. Yikes. Walter White started this series as a family man struggling to provide before he shuffles off, and by the end of Season 2 we see a man doomed by his choices. It's been impossible to avoid all the spoilers running free on Twitter & Facebook, so I have some idea what villainy the man will eventually achieve...it's kinda depressing. Not a lot of people to root for in this show, maybe Hank, or the kid...maybe.
Sweet Smell of Success (Criterion Spine # 555): "You're a liar, Sidney." This is a mean movie. And I love mean movies. Tony Curtis is a weasel of a man, a press agent scamming his way through a slew of clients, desperate to land a juicy line in Burt Lancaster's prized gossip column. Lancaster, the lord of the New York nightlife, reigns over politicians and cigarette girls alike and has no qualms bartering wordcount for sibling affection. This demigod charges Tony Curtis with the task of manipulating a jazz musician out of the arms of his younger sister, a trail of bile and hate nearly topples the city...or at least it feels like it should. Honestly, I cannot think of another movie in which people inject such heated venom into each other simply with words. I'd take a crack on the head any day over one biting word from Lancaster. And I'm no cookie filled with arsenic.
The Red Shoes (Criterion Spine # 44): One year after they concocted their religious psychomelodrama Black Narcissus, Michael Powell & Emric Pressburger return with an even more punishing saga. The Red Shoes follows the budding relationship between Moira Shearer's dancer and Marius Goring's composer; their romance could be grande if it didn't attract the jealousy of Anton Walbrook's despotic impresario. I'm not sure how they do it, but as masters of manipulation Powell & Pressburger have crafted a nightmare around ballet that's as captivating and heart pounding as Lawrence of Arabia's war torn deserts or Ridley Scott's space trucking Alien. Of course, you cannot dismiss Jack Cardiff's technicolor majesty or Robert Helpmann's choreography as their technical brilliance during The Red Shoes fantasy sequence alone makes this essential viewing for all film nuts.
The Small Press Expo 2013: This was a great year for mini-comics. Three of my friendly neighborhood comic shopketeers had tables with books as varied as Zodiac Starforce, Gang War, and The Secret Origin of John Elway. Weird, wild stuff. Alex Fine's Il Brutto chapbook was certainly a highlight with its Charles Bronson What Ifs, and Trevor Henderson's House print (see below) inspired the course of this Week in Dork. But my absolute favorite was Thomas Scioli's trilogy of Satan's Soldier comics. Imagine Superman as an agent of evil with a chubby brood of Super Babies to drown. Really horrible and demented irreverence that you will never see from the big two publishers. That's the charm of basement pressed comics.
The Dark Knight Returns - The Complete Cut: "I'm not finished yet." Similar to my Watchmen experience, this cinematic adaption brought a new found appreciation for the source material. Everyone in the comic book kingdom recognizes Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns as a masterpiece of sequential art, but since I entered the medium years after the initial release, I never quite saw the shine of its revered crown. Is The Dark Knight Returns as good as Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween or Grant Morrison's Batman Inc? Well, actually, after watching this DC Entertainment I'm pretty sure The Dark Knight Returns is the greatest Batman Story period. I'll certainly need to revisit the graphic novel soon, but I am deeply in love with this interpretation. Peter Weller's dogged and beaten dark knight detective is a savage warrior refusing to back into retirement even when good sense and big brother demand otherwise. Forget fantasies of a cowled Clint Eastwood, Weller is The Dark Knight we've always wanted to see on screen. The man carries so much regret and anger in his voice; it's impossible to think of anyone else uttering "This isn't a mudhole...it's an operating table. And I'm the surgeon." A ridiculous line of of 80s machismo that totally plays thanks to Weller's commitment. The film contains the book's four act structure: Two-Face, Mutant Leader, Joker, Superman. This sputtering screenplay might feel awkward to the uninitiated, but as the foils ratchet towards the Reagan Stooge showdown the narrative tightens around the viewer. When Batman finally gets his hands around Superman's throat I felt a tremendous sense of triumph. Screw that boy scout. If Zach Snyder's Man of Steel sequel can only capture a tenth of that feeling then Batman vs Superman will be a rip roaring success. And in the dark year that is 2013, The Dark Knight Returns is one of this year's very best films.
House (Criterion Spine # 539): The punchy quote provided on the back of the box says "An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava." Close but not quite right. House certainly has a zany cartoon vibe and features whacky geysers of red reminiscent of various Italian splatter artists, but the hijinks are injected with that Japanese French New Wave obsession. House rubs shoulders with Tokyo Drifter. You know, plus school girl munching pianos, dancing chopped up corpses, and spectral blood vomiting kitty cats. Brooding giallo? No. But it's certainly a genre mixing bowl that spawned Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and at least a thirty or forty of Takashi Miike's mondo movies.