Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

For a few movies more

It would be an incredible leap of hubris to sincerely believe that The New York Times was deliberating trying to vex me personally. But it is a tempting prospect anyway.

Actually, it isn’t the Times in toto that seems to want to vex me. It is specifically someone named Mike Hale. First, last Thursday he wrote an article about all the weird movies he had been seeing at the Tribeca Film Festival. Specifically, he was writing about the festival strand previously called Midnight but now called Cinemania. Many if not most if not all film festivals seem to have a strand like this. It is all the weird, strange, off-putting, non-mainstream, lurid and potentially offensive movies that many people would say are not fit for the tasteful audiences who presumably go to the cinema in the hours before midnight. Hale’s report was promising, mentioning such titles as Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives (about blade-wielding transgender persons, of course), Spork (about a teenage hermaphrodite), Clash (“over-the-top martial-arts crime thriller”), Blood and Rain (cryptic thriller set in Bogotá, Colombia) and The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel).

But Hale singles out one of the films, saying it “deserves wider attention.” And what is this masterpiece lurking in the ghetto of not-ready-for-primetime cinema? It is none other than John and Kieran Carney’s Zonad. Now it is fairly rare that I would get to post a review of a movie before it gets discussed by The New York Times, but this is one of those cases. I saw Zonad at the Galway Film Fleadh last summer, and I was underwhelmed. Maybe that was because the Fleadh screened it at 10:30 in the evening instead of at midnight. Seriously, I would have looked it a whole different way if it had been screened as “a midnight movie.” It certainly had its moments, but it was essentially a one- or two-joke movie. It’s a certain kind of movie that annoys me because it appears to have been much more fun to make than to watch—and that seems a bit selfish to me. I hesitate to summarize its plot because its publicity tries to be cagey about the fact whether the title character is or is not an extraterrestrial. I would hate to spoil that surprise (such as it is), but suffice it to say that the story involves a man in a red vinyl jumpsuit who may or may not be from outer space. The movie is really an extended skit and you will either find it funny or you won’t. But, personally, I think Hale is way too kind when he says to “imagine that John Waters had been flown in to consult on a quaint rural farce.”

Now, it didn’t even occur to me to take it personally that Hale’s reaction to Zonad differed so much from mine. While this sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time (I sometimes worry that my taste doesn’t differ enough from critics who actually get paid), it’s not unheard of either. So I was more than ready to let it go. But the very next day Hale struck again and this time I became convinced that he was deliberately trying to annoy me. In a brief review of Kim Jee-woo’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird, he proclaimed that the film’s director “hits a new low” and describes the flick as “a hyper-violent action movie that takes the form of an Asian western.” In the course of a mere four paragraphs, he went on to critique the movie as if it were a standard action movie.

Now four paragraphs do not amount to much space to work with, and I presume the brevity reflects editorial cuts for space or merely the editorial hole that was available. But still it astounds me that any serious film watcher could write about this movie without once using any of the following words: spaghetti, Sergio and Leone. I mean, it is like writing a review of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill without once typing the name Hitchcock. Personally, I think The Good, the Bad and the Weird (admittedly not a great title but it does cement my point) would be a rollicking and entertaining adventure yarn in its own right, but the pleasure of watching the movie is enhanced by appreciating it as some kind of ritual offering to the late Italian master. There are so many references to Leone, in particular and quite obviously to Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo., aka The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (Coincidentally, Furio Scarpelli, who co-wrote that movie along with Leone, Luciano Vincenzoni and Agenore Incrocci, died just yesterday at the age of 90.) Using the word western is the closest that Hale comes to making this point.

Readers on the Times web site had a more positive view of the movie than the paper’s critic. Sixteen readers gave the movie an average of four out of five, uh, circles or dots or whatever it is that the web page uses instead of stars. Of the five people who left comments, one had agreed with Hale (“not so great latest from Kim”), but three praised the movie, two while taking the reviewer to task (“Good film, weirdly bad review”; “Exciting film ruined by a lazy review”). This is hardly a scientific sampling, but I will take vindication wherever and however I can get it.

As it happens, The Good, the Bad and the Weird is one of those movies I keep adding to a virtual list. That would be my list of movies that I really need to see again just because I want to and also because I am curious about whether I will like it as much the second time. As it happens, I saw it at a midnight screening (in Cork) and that may have had some bearing on my enjoyment of it. Hale doesn’t mention whether he saw it at midnight, but it appears that he didn’t since it seems to be having a regular commercial engagement in New York. Perhaps he saw it at 10 in the morning at a press screening. I suspect that a lot of movie reviews in newspapers are written based on seeing 10 a.m. press screenings, which would go a long way to explaining why movie reviews in newspapers generally tend to be so negative. If press screenings were always held at midnight, I bet the reviews would tend a lot more positive. And if cocktails were handed out during the screenings, well, the rating system would probably have to have a few stars added just to accommodate the overall increase in favorable write-ups.

But back to that list I keep compiling in my head. It is closely related to another list I keep going which is of movies that, in hindsight, I feel I rated too low and maybe should revise upwards. This list includes most of the movies made by Wes Anderson. Maybe not Bottle Rocket, but then maybe I should give that another look just to be sure. But it definitely includes Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (I actually did give three out of four stars to The Royal Tenenbaums.) Those are films that didn’t seem particularly exceptional at the time I watched them but then refused to get out of my head. The fact that you can’t get a movie out of your head (especially if it is not for bad reasons) to me is a sign of a good movie.

I have often had the opposite experience of thinking a movie was great when I watched it and then not being able to remember it a week later. That kind of movie, I suppose would be the cinematic equivalent of Chinese food. (According to the old gag line, an hour later you’re hungry again.) Well, one thing I’m sure of is that The Good, the Bad and the Weird (a Korean film set in China) is not cinematic Chinese food. I’ve been remembering it fondly for more than a year now. And I will definitely watch it again. The five-euro DVD I picked up on an impulse one day while shopping at Tesco is sitting on my shelf, beckoning me—like a pistol in a three-man standoff in the dry, barren desert.

* * *

Someone very clever at Galway’s Eye Cinema must have amused themselves a great deal by hanging these three huge movie posters in row from a balcony.

Movie posters at the Eye Cinema

As you can see, they are all nearly the same poster, each with a photogenic couple cuddling/snuggling/nose-touching. They are, of course, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in Dear John, Liam Hemsworth and Miley Cyrus in The Last Song and Robert Pattinson and Emilie de Ravin in Remember Me. Do you think the industrious cinema staffer was trying to tell us that these were all basically the same movie?

-S.L., 29 April 2010

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