Enter the Zone

Ever since I spent a few months in Glasgow in 2000 and fell in love with the Glasgow Film Theatre, I’ve been hoping that a good repertory cinema would open a bit closer to home. Last autumn, that wish came true, when a local cinema that before had mostly shown B movies along the lines of The Core and The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen was refurnished and turned into a cinematic time capsule. They show some current arthouse fare at the Kino Rex Bern, but mostly they show classics, whether American, European or otherwise, and organise series on particular themes or filmmakers.

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Fool me once…

… and the award for Best April’s Fools Joke goes to – The Criterion Collection, who advertised that this masterpiece of modern cinema would soon join their ranks of superb DVD and Blu-ray editions:

And yes, they went the whole hog. Check out their synopsis of Reitman’s often underrated gem:

Historically, the policier and the family comedy were two distinct categories. Then, in 1990, Kindergarten Cop gave us all a lesson in genre revisionism. With muscular sensitivity, Hollywood’s last action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger embodies detective John Kimble, who is compelled to go undercover as a teacher of five-year-olds in order to catch a ponytailed drug dealer. Though it’s distinguished by pulse-pounding suspense, a Crayola-bright palette by cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver), and trenchant observations about education in the Bush I era, the film’s emotional center is Schwarzenegger’s gruff yet good-tempered interaction with a class full of precocious scamps, including a tumor-forewarning death-obsessive and a genitalia expert. By leavening a children’s film with enough violence to please even the most cold-hearted bastard, director Ivan Reitman shows that he refuses to color inside the lines.

Which is only topped by some of the extras:

  • New high-definition digital restoration of the 1990 director’s cut, presented in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition
  • New audio commentary featuring Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, author of It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Can Teach Us
  • Excerpts from the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps: “Ivan Reitman”
  • Kindergarten Cops Today, a new hour-long documentary featuring former New York City police detectives Frank Serpico and Robert Leuci, former San Francisco police inspector Dave Toschi, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg
  • From “Fingers” to Finger-Painting, an interview with cinematographer Michael Chapman
  • Archival video of Schwarzenegger’s acceptance speeches for the Favorite Movie Actor award at the 1989 and 1991 Kids’ Choice Awards
  • The Kids Aren’t All Right, an analysis of all the cuts made to ensure a PG-13 rating
  • More than six hundred minutes of rare behind-the-scenes and archival footage
  • Seven theatrical trailers
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by former police reporter and creator of The Wire David Simon and a reprint of James Agee’s original review of the film

I would so buy that in a heartbeat – even before checking out the Criterion “Three Reasons” video:

 

Whatever happened to Steven Spielberg?

Yes, I’m a pretentious film geek who salivates at the sound of “Criterion Collection”. I like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (a little known Swedish children’s movie about a boy and a seal at the local circus – it’s basically Free Ølåf) and Fellini’s La Strada – but I love the great popcorn movies. For me, there are two almost perfect representatives of that hallowed group of films: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws.

What happened to the man who made those films, though? Spielberg is still one of the best craftsmen in Hollywood, but the thing that was exhilarating about his early films was their sheer energy. There was a joy to the filmmaking, a childlike sense of fun, that made Spielberg unique. It’s there in the two films mentioned, and it’s also there in E.T. (mixed with a generous dollop of sentimentality) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but the biggest failure of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was that it was tired and felt forced. There was little of the exhilaration of the earlier films in the series, especially of the first. Obviously this could be attributed to Indy having aged himself, but that’s a disappointingly humdrum explanation that pretty much begs the question: why have a fourth Indy movie in the first place?

More than that though, rewatching Jaws over the weekend I was made aware of how Spielberg in his early days was much more ruthless. He didn’t have qualms about having a young boy be chomped by a shark, he didn’t think twice about having a number of pretty gruesome deaths in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t the childish sadism of Temple of Doom, but it basically meant, “Yes, horrible things can happen. Anyone can get it in the teeth.” And as a result the films were more exciting. If even a kid can be eaten by a shark, well, then nobody’s safe. (Compare Jurassic Park, where the kids and the heroes are never really in jeopardy – it’s pretty much nobodies and evil lawyers that get eaten. It’s amazing that a cheesy, bad film such as Deep Blue Sea gets this better by making it clear from the first that anyone can die – even Samuel L. “Badass” Jackson.)

The much-ridiculed CGI retouching of E.T., replacing guns with walkie-talkies is symptomatic of this fretful, overly squeamish Spielberg. The BMX chase in the original version of E.T. is exciting, and the moment when they get out the guns, we know: Uh oh. Something bad could happen. Compare the same moment in the ‘remastered’ version, where the impression we get is that the worst that could happen is, they might be caught by the grown-ups and given a severe talking-to. Where’s the danger? Where’s the sense of actual risk? If you take that away, characters that we care about become invincible video game characters with the god mode turned on.

I’m in a minority in that I quite liked much of War of the Worlds, but it’s a prime example of a film that suffers from Spielberg’s “playing it safe” doctrine. It’s pretty clear, in every single scene, that he wouldn’t kill off Dakota Fanning – and while her brother puts himself in a situation where he’s almost sure to die, we get an unbelievable, corny deus ex ending that many filmmakers who are much less skilled than Spielberg would have scoffed at.

Obviously Spielberg isn’t the young man he was when he made Jaws or Raiders. He’s older now, so it’s only to be expected… but did he have to become so damn po-faced? Where’s the glee? Reduce Spielberg to his (considerable) skill while taking away his sense of joy and adventure, and you get Zombie Spielberg.

And everyone knows that only Godzilla Lucas can fight Zombie Spielberg.