Movies

 

February 12, 2009

Mindfuck Movies

At The Morning News today I quantify and enumerate my favorite brand of film: movies during which you have no freakin' idea what the hell is going on.

Pretty much any list of this sort is going to provoke violent "this list is worthless without ______?!" reactions. (Ha! Halfway through writing that sentence someone IM'd me the link to this Metafilter thread). The last minute addition of Donnie Darko to the list was an acknowledgment of this fact, but I had to draw the line somewhere.

I decided early to not include more than one film per director. Scanners and eXistenZ and absent because Videodrome is there; Mulholland Dr. precluded Eraserhead and Lost Highway; and so forth.

There were a fair number of other movies that I skipped because of the "premillennium problem"--that is, the huge spate of remarkably similar films released just prior to the year 2000 (e.g., The Thirteenth Floor) Given that, you may wonder how The Game got on there. Well, first of all, it perfectly fit the criteria I set out in the introduction, so it wins on a technicality. And I quite enjoyed it. It's also significant because it sort of forecasts the rise of ARGs, but I somehow neglected to mention that in my review.

Here's some others I considered adding to the article ... and that you should consider adding to your Netflix queue:

Also, if you haven't watched the 1967 BBC series The Prisoner ... yeah. You should do that.

Thanks to this site for cluing me into La Jetée, and Fipi Lele who provided a ton of great suggestions.

Feel free to mention your favorites in the comments.

August 22, 2008

Movies: Tropic Thunder

Let's begin this review by demolishing any credibility I may have accrued over the years: I like Ben Stiller. Maybe not all the films he's done--well, maybe only a few of the films he's done, on reflection--but I think he's a genuinely funny guy, and the projects he personally helms tend to make me laugh. And although he can really only do two characters--lovable loser and Zoolander--they're not bad, as characters go.

Combine that with my recently-developed Robert Downey Jr. man-crush and my seeing Tropic Thunder was a foregone conclusion.

Plus, the film is getting remarkably high scores on Metacritic. That, honestly, was something I instantly regretted seeing, certain that my only hope of truly enjoying the movie was to go in with expectations as low as possible.

My prescience proved correct, in this case. If I'd gone in expecting a run-of-the-mill Stiller flick, it would have been a revelation. Instead, I found it a very funny but often disjointed movie that, while well worth seeing, fell short of the gutbuster promised by some reviews.

Downey Jr. was amaaaaaaaazing; Stiller (as writer and directory) wisely opted to give most of the funniest material to his costars and play the straightman; Jack Black's character came in a distant third in terms of interestingness (as Flickr calls it), and was often eclipsed by that of Brandon T. Jackson, whose banter with Downey Jr. composes the funniest scenes in the whole caboodle.

You never really feel like the four men are a cohesive group, but that is sort of the point: each is a self-absorbed actor, obsessed with himself and largely indifferent to others. Still, the lack of chemistry (aside from the Downey Jr. / Jackson friction), and the preponderance of action sequences as overblown as those they are presumably spoofing, sometimes make the film feel like a collection of comedy sketches

Also, the movie is awful. Unforgivably terrible and a blot on the film industry. Get your self to believe that before seeing Tropic Thunder and you'll have a blast.

Now, let's talk about the Simple Jack controversy for a moment. For those unawares, some folks have been demonstrating outside of theaters showing Tropic Thunder because, in the film, Ben Stiller plays a developmentally disabled character, and there are many usages of what the protesters refer to as "the r-word" (and then follow up with "meaning 'retard'", since otherwise you'd be going "which r-word? Republican?")

I appreciate where these folks are coming from but, man, they are totally off the mark on this one. In context there is absolutely no ambiguity about who iTropic Thunder is making fun of: that is, actors who seek our roles in films such as Rain Man and i am sam in the explicit hopes of garnering an Oscar, rather than the disabled people they portray. In fact, it's not even accurate to say that Stiller "plays a developmentally disabled character" in the movie--Stiller plays an actor who plays a developmentally disabled character, and is soundly mocked for that decision throughout.

Advocate Patricia E. Bauer acknowledges as much in this Washington Post editorial condemning the movie, but says "the studio was careful to build nuance and subtlety into the film's racial humor ... but there's no on-screen presence countering the Simple Jack portrayal." What she has failed to grasp is that the "never go full retard" scene, on which most of the criticism has been heaped, is exactly the on-screen denouncement she demands, with Downey Jr. exposing Stiller's (and, by extension, Hollywood's) shallowness for all the audience to see.

The controversy over Tropic Thunder is very reminiscent of that over The Last Temptation of Christ 20 years ago. In the latter instance, many religious folks were outraged that the film depicted Christ living a normal life--avoiding crucifixion, marrying, having children, growing old. Such a portrayal, they argued, denied Jesus his divinity. Yes, it did! That was the point! In the film (um, spoilers here, if you care), Satan temps Jesus with that life--everything we see of it is essentially a proposal put forth by the devil. But Jesus overcomes this last temptation and dies on the cross. By seizing on these scenes, and ignoring the rejection of them, protesters basically turned the meaning of the film on it's head and then groused about its message.

So too with this movie. The Simple Jack scenes are offensive, but that's a feature, not a bug. Indeed, much of Tropic Thunder is devoted to deconstructing just how offensive they are. And, as someone who has previously railed about the portrayal of developmentally disabled people on film, I am thrilled that Tropic Thunder pretty much guarantees that we won't see another The Other Sister for a decade or more. Regardless of how you feel about "the r-word", I think that's something we can all applaud.

June 16, 2008

Movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

No film in recent memory has received as divergent reviews from my friends as Indiana Jones and the [inhale] Kingdom of the Crystal [inhale] Skull, having been declared AWESOME or AWFUL, but rarely anything in between. And so, while I hadn't intended on seeing it, it clearly fell to me to make a Definitive Ruling on the quality of the film.

Thus, having viewed and contemplated the film, I am ready to render judgment: Indiana Jones and the etc. etc. Skull is ... AWESOME! Mostly. Except for the five minutes of every 20 that were apparently set aside for AWFUL.

I could recap the plot, but what's the point? If you guessed that the film would contain ancient artifacts of purportedly mystic power, a multi-stage globe-spanning quest, boatloads of nazis russkies, guns that fire an inexhaustible supply of bullets that never strike the protagonists, a big red line zig-zagging across a gargantuan map, a John Williams score, and lots and lots of leaping and punching and dodging and whipping and driving and running and wisecracking--well, then, nice guessing there, Tex.

Unfortunately, Crystal Skull also contains something that the previous films did not--scenes so beyond the realm of believability that they jar you completely out of the narrative flow. And I'm talking scenes that are incredible even by the standards of an Indiana Jones film, events that abuse your willing suspension of disbelief. A third of the way into the movie it is essentially established that Indiana Jones is invulnerable; two-thirds in it's implied that his companions are likewise impervious to harm. By raising the dramatic stakes in these scenes (and then letting the characters walk away without adverse effect), Lucas robs subsequent events of their tension. You're, like, "well, if he didn't even sprain an ankle before, he sure as hell ain't gonna die now ..."

And while the Indiana Jones franchise has always been a homage to the Saturday morning serials, they go overboard in trying to honor them here. By throwing in elements from pretty much every adventure subgenre--from armpit slicks to war to science-fiction to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs--the Crystal Skull sometimes feels like the "Scary Movie" of pulp, filching recognizable scenes from earlier works instead of minting new ones. (Lucas even manages to sneak in a fair amount of American Graffiti.)

So what's good about the movie? Pretty much everything else--including, to my surprise, Shia LaBeouf as Indy's protege. Lucas has a terrible track record of picking young actors (as the Star Wars prequels attest), but I quite enjoyed LaBeouf's performance, and wouldn't mind seeing him in future films as well.

And oh yes, there will be more installments in the series, a fact the film makes clear. Curiously, this has generated no end of grousing from the fanboys on Teh NetarWebs. The same people who popped a boner two years ago when Indiana Jones 4 was announced and held it until they attended the special 12:01 AM showing on opening day are the same ones bellyaching about the possibility of sequels--go figure. Apparently it is best to leave those films we enjoyed as children as pleasant memories rather than to mine them for OH SHIT DID YOU SAY GREMLINS III DUDE I AM SO THERE!!!!

May 02, 2008

Movies: Iron Man

Spoiler disclaimer: This post does not contain specific details about the Iron Man movie beyond those available in the trailer. It does kinda ruin the ending to Elf, though.

I was never an Iron Man fan--even 20 years ago when my appetite for superheroes was voracious. To my mind, the whole concept behind the character was like an extended issue of What If?: what if Batman was a big pussy who needed a suit of armor every time he fought crime?! (I was pretty passionate about stuff like this, back in the day.) Plus, Tony Stark was always battling alcoholism or depression, and what fun was that? I wanted heroes who fought HIVE or ULTIMATUM, not the DSM.

But I'd heard good things about the film, and it was playing at the Cinerama, so what could I do? My 15 year-old-self would have traveled forward in time and kicked my ass if I missed the opportunity to see it. (Come to think of it, though, I still owe that kid a beatdown for The Phantom Menace.)

Iron Man wastes no time getting to the origin story. After opening with a few moments of Tony Stark wisecrackery (all of which was featured in the trailer), the industrialist is taken hostage by a gang of terrorists, confined to a cave, and given to understand that his days are numbered. "Wow, what a rip," though I, sitting in the theater. Even someone with as scant knowledge of the Iron Man mythos as I understood that giving Robert Downey Jr. the role of Tony Stark was a bit of superhero-movie-casting genius unrivaled since Nicholson portrayed The Joker; and yet here we were, 10 minutes into the film, and already Stark had had his Pivotal Moment, having transformed from hedonistic sybarite to somber hero.

We'll, I needn't have worried. The next set of scenes are set 36 hours earlier, and show Stark in all of his bad-boy glory. Robert Downey Jr. is truly a joy to watch, and the audience in my theater was in stitches throughout the extended exposition. And though Stark is Irrevocably Changed For The Better by his experience with the terrorists, Downey continues to play his part with a rakish charm throughout.

Indeed, watching Tony Stark is so enjoyable that, when the third act arrives--devoted almost exclusively to the modern day Iron Man--it's something of a disappointment, like a headliner who fails to live up to the opening act. "But Iron Man is Tony Stark," you might argue. Well, yes, that's true--according to narrative. But the Iron Man suit covers Stark completely, and, thanks to the miracle of CGI, is digitally rendered in most scenes. So, to me at least, there was no real sense of Robert Downey Jr. being "in" the suit. It was as if, after spending 90 minutes with one character as the protagonist, they abruptly decided to switch the focus to a different character entirely for the finale. In fact, I found myself improbably comparing Iron Man to Elf, the 2003 comedy that devotes itself to the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell) until the last 20 minutes, when suddenly it's all about Santa Claus. (Only later did I discover that Iron Man and Elf have the same director, Jon Favreau.)

Which isn't to say that the climax of Iron Man is bad (though it did evoke two of my Superhero Movie pet peeves, which I will detail in another post to keep this review spoiler-free). It's perfectly serviceable, but something of a letdown given all that had come before. I guess they couldn't have just omitted the eponymous superhero from his own movie, but if they make a prequel called Stark and just let Downey Jr. do his playboy act for two straight hours, I will be the first in line.

April 21, 2008

Reflections On My Netflix Queue

Black Sheep & The Host

So I'm out on one of my woefully infrequent nights of carousing, and at some point a buddy of mine opines that I would like the movie Black Sheep, and also, while we're on the topic, this other film called The Host. And somehow I write these titles down, which is fairly amazing since it required (a) paper, and (b) a working pen, and (c) the presence of mind to actually record the names of recommended movies for future references, three things I very rarely possess simultaneously. Anyway, as soon as I start writing, my buddy goes, "well, uh, I should probably warn you ..." and I am all like "Silence! It is too late to deter me, for my commitment to watching these so-called 'motion pictures' is already ironclad. Let us speak of them no more!"

Anyway, long story short, a week later both discs arrived from Netflix on the same day, and I was all like whuuuh?, and it took me a while to recollect the above (and possibly paraphrased) conversation. (I was never able to remember actually adding the movies to the top of my queue ... ah, late night inebriated Netflix queue adjustments ...) So The Queen and I watched them, and: hahahaha! Yes, you should see these films! And learn nothing of them in advance, as I did. (I will, however, forward the one disclaimer than my friend insisted in divulging: "When renting Black Sheep you want the 2006 film ... not the one with Chris Farley!")


Downfall

Maybe you've seen the various Hitler gets banned from a computer game videos and wondered what film the footage was drawn from. *** spoilers! *** it's 2004's Downfall. An absolutely fascinating film that shows a side of Hitler and his regime that you rarely see on screen: as a bunch of losers. (Not losers in the "sitting around in their boxer shorts at 11:45 in the morning eating chips and watching To Catch a Predator on TiVo" sense, obviously, but as the side that lost the war they initiated.) It's a testament to the skill of director Oliver Hirschbiegel that this portrayal of the "bad guy's point of view" manages to evoke neither sympathy for their plight nor revulsion at the horrible acts you know they have committed, and instead makes you feel like the proverbial "fly on the wall," watching the drama unfold with a dispassionate eye (or "dispassionate compound eye" I guess, to extend the Dipterian metaphor). And here, I'll spare you the trouble of pausing the film halfway through to visit Wikipedia: the exact cause of Hitler's tremors is unknown, though syphilis or Parkinson's disease (or both) are suspected.


51 Birch Street

At first I though this documentary Doug Block made about his own parents was just so much self-indulgent navel gazing. Then he began hinting at their Dark, Hidden Secrets and I got all intrigued. Then said secrets were revealed and I was back, to, "dude, did you just trick me into watching your home movies?" Perhaps I would have been as enthusiastic about this film as the critics if I hadn't felt suckerpunched. Or whatever the opposite of a suckerpunch is. Like when some guy says "I'm going to punch you in the gut!" and then he just gives you a friendly slug to the shoulder and you're all like "wtf man I was all tightening my abdominal muscles and preparing to die like Houdini, lame." Like that.


Juno

Aww, why the hate? Yes, it was aggressively quirky, but I still liked it twice as much as Little Miss Sunshine, to which it was often compared. I mean, at least this film was about a real issue (teen pregnancy), instead of a bunch of dilemmas as zanyfied as the characters themselves (I can't be a pilot because I'm color-blind, waaa!). I guess this is one of these deals where hipsters liked it when it was largely unknown, but then when it got popular and started winning things they decided it must actually suck (see also: Barak Obama).


There Will Be Blood

How sad is it that, during the climatic end scene, I'm sitting there on my couch thinking, "I'd bet a hundred bazillion dollars that someone has already mixed this monologue with that abominable Kelis Milkshake song and posted the resultant video to youtube." And then, after the film was over, I checked youtube and found it. And the topmost comment on the file was "i knew someone wuld make this!!!!!!"

January 24, 2008

AFI 100: King Kong

I'm only and hour into the 100 minute King Kong, but I'm so bored that I figured I may as well start typing. According to the AFI, this film is one of cinema's "greatest," but, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I do not think that word means what they think it means. I'm guessing that, in this case, the ol' double-k got the nod for being one of the most influential films of all time, but lord knows that 's not the same as greatness. Needless to say the special effects are outmoded, but I don't hold that against the film. After all, the quality of a movie shouldn't be judged by the caliber of its effects--which is exactly the point: strip them away from King Kong and you're not left with much. The acting ranges from workaday to wretched, and while the plot is moderately interesting, the middle third, which serves only to showcase the Amazing Stopmotion Animation!!!, is interminable if you don't find the f/x breathtaking. I will give the film props for lethality, though: I assumed that all death in this film would take place off camera, if at all, but, no, kong fucks up half a battalion of folks with extreme prejudice. The subtext of the film--that the real monsters are the humans, while Kong just wants to live in peace--is intriguing; too bad the filmmaker doesn't do much with it. Maybe Peter Jackson utilizes the material better in his 2005 remake. 5/10.

Yeah, chickened out of watching Sophie's Choice this week. I will try to work up the nerve to do so next.

January 18, 2008

AFI 100: Bringing Up Baby & City Lights

It was Ye Olde Tymey Romantick Comedy night in the Baldwin household this evening.

Bringing Up Baby: Knowing nothing about this film beyond the title, I assumed it was just the "oh no, we're pregnant!" film of its era, a 1938 version of Knocked Up minus the lingering shots of Seth Rogen's ass. As it turns out, "Baby," in this case, is a leopard, which the brother of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) has sent from Brazil to Connecticut as a gift to -- ahh, you know what? The leopard doesn't really matter. It's really just one of this screwball comedy's endless MacGuffins designed to throw Vance and Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) into a succession of zany situations. Lots of funny scenes (this restaurant bit, particularly from 5:37 on, is particularly inspired) and great lines ("Susan, you've got to get out of this apartment!" Huxley exclaims when he discovers the leopard in her room. "I can't," Vance explains, "I've got a lease."), but very little plot to tie it all together. Hypothetically the narrative is Huxley and Vance falling in love, but as Vance loves Huxley at first sight and Huxley is never given a reason to want to spend another moment, much less the rest of his life, in the company of Vance (aside from the fact that she's Katharine Freakin' Hepburn, obviously), this framing device is paper thin. Thus, the film feels less like a long, funny story and more like a standup comedy routine, a series of setup-straightline-punchline scenes just gummed together with a resolution tacked onto the end for the sake of closure. Which is fine, but wears thin at around the 45 minute mark--about half this film's running time. 6.5/10

City Lights: I was prepared to stoically endure this Charlie Chaplin "comedy" for the sake of checking it off my list, but holy smokes, I can't remember the last film that made me laugh this hard. Chaplin is so masterful that the gags succeed even when you see them coming a mile away--you know what the joke is going to be, but nothing can prepare you for Chaplin's sublime execution (e.g., the "Spaghetti Scene", which starts at 2:10 in this clip). Slapstick usually leaves me cold (I've never understood the appeal of the Three Stooges, for instance), but Chaplin imbues each pratfall with so much humanity that you feel like watching a close friend fall through an open manhole--now that's funny! I could level the same charge against City Lights that I did against Bringing Up Baby--it's more of a collection of sketches than a cohesive narrative--but the central premise, Chaplin falling for a blind flower girl, is so bittersweet that it pervaded every shot, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, the final scene is amazing. 8/10

The next film in the AFI 100 Project will be ... oh, god. Sophie's Choice. If I'm going to break this resolution, I guess now's the time to do it.

December 14, 2007

Movies: I Am Legend

I Am Legend--the new film with Will Smith and the first I've seen in a theater for maybe a year--starts out as pure Hollywood blockbuster schlock, with Smith barreling around the empty streets of New York in a sports car. He flushes herds of deer out from the jumble of abandoned automobiles, drives alongside the fleeing beasts at, like, 80 miles per hour (these being, apparently, post-apocalyptic turbo-charged deer), and takes potshots at them out the window with a high powered rifle, presumably in an effort to rustle up some grub. Like much of the movie, it is exciting, and cool, and scary ... so long as you don't accidentally think about the situation. Then you are, like, "why doesn't he just park the car, walk a block, and shoot one of the many deer that are just standing around Time's Square?" The inescapable conclusion is that Smith doesn't do so because it wouldn't take $85 million dollars to film such a scene, and the producers of Legend seem intent of squeezing as much cash into this film as they can (though another thirty bucks toward making the CGI look smoother woulda been nice).

So I set my phasers to "dumb" and settle in for some mindless entertainment--just as the film becomes surprisingly ponderous. Alternating between footage of Smith and his faithful dog battling monsters and loneliness in the present, and flashbacks showing how the world came to be depopulated, the second act of Legend is a philosophical, big-budget amalgamation of 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and Children of Men. Which is to say that there is little new here, plot-wise (even though the source material, Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, predates all the aforementioned movies about half a century), it is at least well done. And, of course, Smith is a fine actor, able to hold his own even when his only co-stars are German Shepherds, mannequins, and mutants.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through the film, there is what appears to be a three minute commercial for Shrek, a scene involving the animated DVD that just goes on and on. I assumed this was just another product placement (such as the Apple products that Smith routinely depends on), albeit a particularly long, blatantly, and egregious one. A little Googling after I got home from the movie found no evidence of this, though: the two films were made by different studios, and there were no reports of money changing hands so that Shrek would get plugged in Smith's new film. But, really, that makes the scene even more unforgivable. And least product placement, evil though it might be, justified such a bizarre and jarring detour.

And the film never really recovers after that. Having lost its stride, it just sort of stumbles on for the remaining 30 minutes before collapsing over the finish line. Here again, as in the opening, the movie's worst enemy is thought on the part of the audience, a moment of which reveals that Legend's finale doesn't make a whit of sense. Too bad. Taken with the many other films that have told this same story recently, and you're left with a film that would have been more aptly titled I Am Forgettable.

Warning: I discuss the end of the film in the comments.

October 19, 2007

Reflections On My Netflix Queue

Primer: I'm a total sucker for movies that break open your head and punch you in the brain, so Primer was right up my alley. Friends accidentally invent a time machine; their relationship--and chronology itself--rapidly becomes complicated. It's one of those films, like Memento and Mulholland Dr., that pretty much necessitates repeated viewing. I watched it one night, spent about an hour the next morning studying this diagram, and then watched it a second time the following evening. I'd probably watch it again right now if I hadn't already returned it. It's not a fantastic film, but compelling as all get-out. Warning: aforementioned diagram gives away the entire plot of the film. You won't understand it, but I feel obligated to include a spoiler warning nonetheless.


The Illusionist: Conversation with The Queen, the day after I watched this film.

The Queen: Do you want to watch that movie tonight?

Me: Which one?

Q: The magician one.

M: Uhh, actually I watched it last night and sent it back to Netflix this morning.

Q: What? I wanted to see that!

M: You didn't, trust me.

Q: I was totally looking forward to it.

M: Maybe so, but you would have hated it. It pretended to be about magicians, and turn-of-the-century Vienna, and blah and blah and blah, but it was really just a very conventional romance gussied up like a thriller, full of twists you see coming 20 minutes before they arrive on screen.

Q: Even so, where do you get off deciding what movies I do and don't get to see from out queue? I at least wanted to compare it to the book.

M: I'm pretty sure you didn't read the book.

Q: I did! We both did!

M: Oh. Um, you're thinking of The Prestige. And you did see it. We watched it together, like, four days ago.

{Pause}

Q: Oh, that's right. Never mind.

Deadwood: Season 1: I'm not a much of a fan of westerns, but that's okay because Deadwood isn't must of a western. Set in a small South Dakotian gold mining camp in the 1870's, it certainly has all the trappings of a Western, what with the guns and poker and whiskey and breeches and tormented sheriffs and diabolical saloon owners and robots. But after the obligatory shoot-out in the pilot, it settles down to be a fairly conventional ensemble drama. One thing I love about the show is the short seasons: each only has 12 episodes. So instead of six episodes of plot, 12 episodes of mid-season-stalling-for-time, and then six episodes of wrap-up (as you would get with a standard, 24 episode serial--think LOST), every installment of Deadwood moves the story forward fairly significantly. A little too much, actually, given that major characters drop like flies, and plot twists to which other shows would have devoted an entire season (e.g., the coming of smallpox) and dealt with here in three episodes and forgotten. Still, highly recommended--doubly so if you enjoy hearing the word "cocksucker" spoken 304 times an hour. I was lying about the robots.

Off The Black: One of those films that I added to my queue back in the day and somehow percolated to the top without my ever noticing. Nick Nolte is fairly astonishing in his role as a drunken umpire rapidly coming apart at the seams, but everything else about this film hews pretty closely to the standard "indie" film formula: a buncha quirky misfits who form unlikely bonds as they navigate the extraordinary and banality of everyday life. Off The Black reminded me quite a bit of The Station Agent--which was too bad, because it didn't come close to stacking up.

Casino Royale: Great film. And actor Daniel Craig is easy on the eyes--or so The Queen felt compelled to mention about two dozen times during the movie.

September 13, 2007

Book And Movie: The Prestige

Some people like books about cats that solve mysteries. Some people like books about rugged individuals wandering post-apocalyptic America. Me, I like books about magicians, escape artists, and mediums, set in eras when such professions were respectable. Thus my fondness for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Carter Beats the Devil, Girl in the Glass (and why I will presumably love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, if I can ever overcome my crippling fear of its sheer enormity and actually attempt to read it).

So picking up The Prestige was a no-brainer. Feuding magicians in the late nineteenth century, each desperate to discover the secret of his rival's greatest illusion? What's not to like?

After a brief introduction set in modern times, the novel is epistolary, supposedly the journals of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, illusionists who plied their trade in turn-of-the-(last)-century London. An altercation between the two men in their youth snowballs into lifelong tit-for-tatism, each oscillating between desire to see the other ruined and remorse over how prolonged and petty the grudgematch has become. Each man has a signature trick that involves teleportation: in The New Transported Man, Bordon steps into one cabinet and instantly emerges from another across the stage; during In A Flash, Angier disappears in a surge of electricity and re-enters the theater moments later, from the back of the galley. Though the tricks are nearly identical, their central mechanism are starkly different; the crux of the book is that each man is ignorant of how the other does his version of the illusion, and is haunted by the knowledge that his opponent might have a "superior" method.

Having quite enjoyed the novel, I picked up the DVD for the 2006 film and prepared for disappointment. Surprisingly, the movie was as good as the book, as the screenwriter and director chose to adapt the story for the screen, rather than slavishly adhere to the source material. The framing device for the book (a man in contemporary time who is given the journals to read) is jettisoned entirely, and some aspects of the relationship between Borden and Angier and changed as well. I wouldn't say that the film's revisions were necessarily better, but they are certainly more cinematic. Thus, neither pales in comparison to the other, as both are sufficiently distinct to stand on their own.

Still, despite their difference, both the novel and the film tackle the same central question: what will a man do to be the best in his profession? In the case of Borden and Angier, it's not only a question of what they will sacrifice to perfect their own illusions, but to what lengths they will go to destroy their rivals. Like master magicians adept in misdirection, both author Christopher Priest and director Christopher Nolan have crafted thrillers that keep you so engaged that you don't even realize the profundity of the questions they explore, until you find yourself ruminating about the story in the days and weeks to follow.

August 24, 2007

Movies: Rocky Balboa

When it was released to theaters last year, Rocky Balboa received generally favorable reviews, but even the kindest critic said it was pretty much a film for completists. If you've seen Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky V (yes, there was a Rocky V), they said, you may as well go whole hog and see this one too.

Up until two years ago, I'd never seen any of the Rocky films. But I'd always been perplexed by the fact that the first had won the "Best Picture" academy award. Seriously? Rocky? It's just a dumb guy boxing, right? As far as I knew, it was the stereotypical (or perhaps prototypical) "sports film"--lovable underdog with a lot of heart works really hard, experiences setbacks, overcomes obstacles, and, against all odds, wins in the end. Plus, it was written by Sylvester Stallone--how good could it possibly be?

The answer, I discovered when my curiosity got the better of me and I finally rented the thing, was: pretty goddamned good! It was not the slick and generic sports films I'd expected, based on what little I'd seen of Rocky III and IV. Instead, it was melancholy, gritty, and authentic through and through, as much about the means streets of Philadelphia as about the titular character.

Enjoying Rocky did not increase my desire to see the sequels. If anything, it encouraged me to steer clear. I had no desire to see the Hollywood Blockbuster I'd expected the first to be.

Flash-forward to last week when, for some inexplicable reason, I added Rocky Balboa to my Netflix queue and sent it to position #1. Frankly, I was just interested to see what convoluted rationale they'd use to justify a 60-year-old Stallone re-entry to the ring.

Imagine my incredulity when, for the second time, the Rocky film I'd been prepared to mock turned out to be not bad.

Rocky Balboa is written like a direct sequel to the original film, not as the sixth in a series. The events of Rocky II-V happened, but are mentioned only in passing. All you know (or need to know) is that, at some point after the events of the first film, Rocky won the title of Heavyweight Champion, held it for some time, and has long since retired from the ring. Though Rocky's home is much larger than the amazingly tiny apartment he lived in for the first film, he is still a humble and modest guy, still resides in Philly, and still has Paulie as a best friend. Furthermore, the cinematography of the film is much closer to the rough-hewn Rocky than that of its polished predecessors.

Which isn't to say that Balboa clears the high bar set by Rocky. There's a lot of speechifying in this film, which mainly consists of characters shoring up one another's sagging morale with rousing motivational speeches. The film occasional wanders over the line separating "paying homage to" and "just remaking" scenes from the original film--and routinely barrels across the line between "sentimental" and "schmaltz". And Rocky's son simply doesn't work: the actor's not that great, the character is ill-defined, and he comes across as little more than a plot element Stallone felt obliged to include since he'd existed in some of the prior movies. (Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Rocky essentially adopts a new son a third of the way into the film. And a dog.)

Still, watching Rocky and Rocky Balboa as I did, with a few years separating the screenings, was very satisfying. I bet it would be even more so if you saw Rocky back in the 70's or 80's, and didn't bother with any of the sequels. It reminded me of the Before Sunrise / Before Sunset duology, with thirty years elapsing between the two films instead of 10, and the romance between a boxer and the Heavyweight championship title. (Cinephiles who bristle at the comparison are probably forgetting that the original Rocky had at least as much indie cred as Linklater's film--perhaps more, as at least Ethan Hawke was a bankable star at the time of Sunrise's release).

I wouldn't recommend Rocky Balboa to everyone. But if you enjoyed the first, and were always more interested in the Rocky the character than in Rocky the franchise, you'll probably be as pleasantly surprised by the final chapter as I was.

July 17, 2007

Reflections On My Netflix Queue

Warning: minor spoilers for all of the movies and shows mentioned, below; possibility of major spoilers in the comments.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand: Based on some excoriating reviews I read of X3 around the time of its release, I was expecting this to be, like, Daredevil bad. Well, it's kind of a mess, and contains a big, Brian Singer-shaped hole at its center, but doesn't do too bad of a job of wrapping up the trilogy (especially since it makes it clear that the trilogy is, in fact, at an end). Plus, there's worse ways to waste two hours than lookin' at Famke Janssen.

The Station Agent: I promised to review this film back in 2003, and never did. Now I've seen it again on DVD, and ... well, I guess I'm still not. But see it! It's great. And, if you've already seen it, hell, see it again--it's only 89 minutes. Worth it for Bobby Cannavale alone, who gives a such-a-good-actor-it-doesn't-even-seem-like-he's-acting caliber performance. The fact that everything else about the film is top notch is just gravy.

The Professional: WTF, did everyone who recommended this film to me see it when they were 11 and sugar high? Admittedly, if I had seen it in 1994 when it was in the theaters, and never again, it would almost certainly be in my personal pantheon of OMG GREATEST FILMS EVER!! But these days it just seems like the whole Hooker Hitman With a Heart of Gold thing is played out. Maybe I've been reading too much Thuglit.

Lost: Season 2: Yeah, I gotta admit--I thought this series had come off the rails, a few episodes into season 2. Bad enough that I found the hatch completely uncompelling, but it just seemed like they were going to keep launching new mysteries without ever resolving any of the old ones (kind of like (starting a bunch of parenthetical statements (without ever closing any (of the prior ones (this is driving you nuts, isn't it? I vented some of my frustration with this, about halfway through the season. But then things started looking up, when they started focusing more on the "people" mysteries (The Others) instead of the Thing mysteries (the hatch). By the finale, I was totally hooked again. ALRIGHT YOU STUPID EPIDODIC TELEVISION PROGRAM, I'LL GIVE YOU ONE MORE YEAR.

After Innocence: A documentary about people having their entire lives ruined when they are unfairly locked into a prision, and later freed after being exonerated by DNA evidence.

Jesus Camp: Actually, pretty much the same documentary as After Innocence, with religious dogma taking the place of jail. And without the part about them ever getting free.

The Descent: Horror movie about a bunch of hott spelunkers who get trapped in a cave and then have to fight off fast-moving subterannian flesh-eating mutants. Ya gotta keep an vigilant eye on your Netflix queue, lest stuff like this percolate to the top. You know the obligatory Scary Movie scene where a girl is walking around the house in her underwear and the music is super tense and then, suddenly, her cat jumps out of nowhere, yowling? Imagine that scene looped for 90 minutes and you don't have to see this. Basis for the hit TV sit-com: "The Smeagols."

P.S. )))))

June 04, 2007

Movies: Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz was not the movie I'd hoped it would be.

And then, suddenly, it was.

The premise sounded great: Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), a gritty supercop from the mean streets of London, is reassigned to a quaint countryside village. Based on this, I expected something along the lines of Shaun of the Dead. In that, writer / director Edgar Wright pulled off the neat trick of both faithfully recreating and parodying the typical American zombie movie simultaneously. I figured Hot Fuzz would be similarly over-the-top.

Instead, the film quickly settles into a city-mouse-country-mouse comedy of manners, more Fawlty Towers than Dirty Harry. Angel wiles away his days collaring underage drinkers, eating ice cream cones with his big-boned partner (Nick Frost), and cursing the local paper for repeatedly misspelling his name as "Angle." When someone actually dies in the idyllic burg, Angel leaps into action, seeking clues and questioning suspects. But the townsfolk pooh-pooh his efforts, and insist that the death was nothing more than an accident. And although Angel is committed to solving the crime, he seems determined, alas, to do so via detective work and deductive reasoning, rather than to let his guns do the talking. One of Angel's colleagues even dismisses him as "Miss Marple." At this point, the comparison seemed apt: the film felt like a satire of PBS's Mystery.

Which was okay, I guess. But I knew going in that Hot Fuzz was 120 minutes long. At about the 75 minute mark, I could feel my enthusiasm waning. In fact, I was a little mystified about all the good reviews the film had received.

And then, hoo-boy. Things changed gears, and how.

In some ways, Hot Fuzz reminds me of the Half His Heads Was an Orange joke, or any shaggydog story where much of the humor is derived from the overly-long punchline. And, in this case, the setup is pretty funny too--so long as you know it's not going to occupy the full two hour running time. It doesn't quite reach the heights of inspired insanity on display in Shaun, but it demonstrated that Wright's first film was no fluke--and has me looking forward to whatever he and Frost pair up in next.

February 20, 2007

Reflections On My Netflix Queue

Comments on my recent rental history. Spoilers ahoy for all titles herein.

The Legend

I wonder if this film gets any better after the first four minutes. Alas, I shall never know.


Brokeback Mountain

Watching this film, I couldn't help but think that this was going to be the go-to movie for a whole generation of gay, in-the-closet teens, much as my formative years were spent surreptitiously fast-forwarding through Meatballs 3 in search of the topless scenes.

Then I remembered that, since my youth, this zany thing called Teh Internet up and got invented, which means that all the good Brokeback scenes are probably available online, possibly as animated gifs. They may even have their own Facebooks pages, who knows?

Still, as a public service to any of you kids out there want to do it old school, get your mitts on the DVD and refer to this cheat sheet:

TimeScene
27:20Drunken wrasslin'.
31:04Jake Gyllenhaal wearing nothing but boots.
33:10This is the scene you are looking for.
1:03:25Some serious making-out
1:05:16Shirtless, post-coitus (or whatevertus) cigarettes.
1:09.28Naked Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger jumping off a cliff into a lake. If you watch the scene at 1/32 speed, you can make out three or four pixels of wang.

And just in case any heterosexual males inadvertently stumble upon this page: Anne Hathaway's knockers, 57:55.

Good movie. I expected it to mostly be a gimmick film (Gay cowboys!), but it was solid and well-made, far exceeding the controversial premise. And while some people had told me that it was boring, I found it pensive (where "pensive" is defined as "enjoyably boring").


Little Miss Sunshine

Studio exec: All right, you've got thirty seconds. Go.

Michael Arndt: What do Americans love? I'll tell you what Americans love: dysfunctional families. The Simpsons. The Sopranos. Supernanny. People love 'em.

S.E.: Okay.

M.A.: So, how about a movie ... about a family ... where everyone is really, really dysfunctional?

S.E.: Seems like it's been done.

M.A.: No, but we're gonna make 'em really, really, really dysfunctional. Like, the brother is suicidal. And the son won't talk. And the grandfather is addicted to heroin. And the little girl likes porn.

S.E.: The little girl likes porn? I don't know ...

M.A.: Well, okay, so the grandfather also likes porn. Doesn't matter, we'll hammer out the details later. Take home message: really dysfunctional. You with me so far?

S.E.: So far.

M.A.: Okay. So, what if we took this family, the whole family, and put them all in a VW bus. And made them travel across country. Huh? Think of it! Hijinks!

S.E.: Where are they going?

M.A.: Doesn't matter. To some dysfunctional thing, doesn't matter. The important thing is that they are all together, in a VW bus, for a long, long time. And totally--totally--dysfunctional. Do you smell sleeper hit? Because I smell something that smells like sleeper hit to me.

S.E.: How does it end?

M.A.: Oh, you know, whatever. We'll just tack the end of Napoleon Dynamite on there, people seemed to like that.

I mean, I liked it. But, still.


Arrested Development: Season 3

I didn't watch A.D. when it was originally airing, so I wasn't one of those people who was crushed when it got canceled. And, to be honest, three seasons seems like the perfect amount to watch on DVD.

Not that I don't love the show. But how many programs managed to demote themselves from "great" to "just okay" by virtue of running too long? Twin Peaks, for sure. The X-Files. And now, to hear my friends tell it, Lost. With only 53 episodes, Arrested Development avoids this fate-worse-than-cancellation, and actually gets funnier as it goes.

By season three they must have known they were on borrowed time, because they pull out all the stops. The show becomes so self-referential that only the devoted fan could hope to catch all the references to previous jokes, and it gets exponentially dirtier. (Michael's three second pause after the line "Who'd want to go into that musty old clap-trap" made me laugh until my stomach hurt.)

If you've only seen a few A.D. episodes here and there, rent season one and watch them in order. Though the second year doesn't live up to the first, plow your way through it so you can watch the third -- you won't regret it.


Superman Returns

Cripes, where to start with this mess? Let's just take it in order:

  • Tip to aspiring filmmakers: make sure your audience can figure out what the hell is going on during the first 10 minutes.
  • So let me get this straight: astronomers thought they saw the planet Krypton, so Superman spent five years flying all the way out there (in a spaceship?), only to discover that, nope, they were wrong, it's still a-blowd up. Um, jeeze astronomers: this seems like it would have been one of those "measure twice, cut once" situations, seeing as how you deprived the world of Superman for half a decade. What, smudge on the telescope?
  • The airplane saving bit was really exciting! A shame, almost, in that you can't help but unfavorably compare the remainder of the film to that single, engrossing scene.
  • Man, when did Clark Kent get to be such a cad? Using his x-ray vision to stalk Lois, trying to mack on another guy's girl, etc. Not to mention that he's a deadbeat dad. He's gone from defender of the American Way from Guy You Wouldn't Want To Sit Next To On The Bus
  • I'm sorry, but this is the stupidest evil plot I've ever seen. Lex is going to destroy a perfectly good continent to make a pointy, unlivable one? And he'll get to be king of the new landmass because he was on it first? Yeah, that worked out great for the Native Americans.
  • Superman is now flying around carrying a literal mountain of kryptonite? I think we're done here.


An Inconvenient Truth

Dear Al Gore: please run for President and select Obama as your running mate so I can vote for you the end.

December 20, 2006

Movies: Stranger Than Fiction

A friend of mine was fond of calling Coldplay "Radiohead for stupid people."

I wouldn't go so far as to call Stranger Than Fiction "Charlie Kaufman for stupid people," but it would be fair to label the film "Adaptation for the strip-mall cineplex."

(And like all Kaufman and Kaufman-esque movies, the film is best if you go in knowing nothing about it. So stop reading now if you have any intention of seeing it.)

Kaufman, you'll recall, is the screenwriter of such brilliantly recursive films as Being John Malcovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Adaptation was his 2002 picture, which jumped back and forth between a struggling author and the characters he was writing. So similar is the premise of Stranger Than Fiction that comparisons to Adaptation are inevitable, though the two films tackle the subject matter from opposite angles: the focus in Adaptation is on the screenwriter, while Stranger Than Fiction adopts the protagonist of the in-movie story as its own.

Harold Crick is a thoroughly uninteresting man, one who brushes his teeth a set number of seconds every morning, and squanders his days as an auditor for the IRS. He is also, as he soon realizes, the main character of a work-in-progress being written by Kay Eiffel, a novelist with a penchants for snuffing her protagonists in the end. When Crick discovers that he (somehow) occupies the same world as his creator, he sets off to confront Eiffel, hoping to procure a "happy ending" for himself.

If Stranger Than Fiction were a Kaufman film, all of this would be explained: why Crick suddenly starts hearing Eiffel's "narration" in his head, how the two can inhabit the same universe, the extent of Crick's free-will, and so forth. Kaufman's great strength is his ability to create complex, meticulous, and extraordinarily well thought-out worlds; unfortunately, this can also be his weakness, and his films sometimes sag under the tonnage of clever.

Fiction, meanwhile, uses its high-concept conceit as little more than a framing device for a straight-forward romantic comedy. To that end, it wastes little time justifying the more bizarre aspects of its premise. On the one hand, that's a good thing, as torturous explanation as to how things "work" would certainly bog the film down; on the other, Fiction's failure to establish any ground rules for what is and isn't possible puts the movie in the realm of the Bugs Bunny cartoon, where anvils fall from the sky and characters routinely bounce back from death.

Will Ferrel is a good fit for Crick. As with Steve Martin before him, Ferrel has mastered the role of hilarious straightman, who elicits laughter via deadpan delivery and blinking befuddlement. Maggie Gyllenhaal is cute as a button as Ana Pascal, Crick's eventual lover, but their romance is the most unbelievable aspect of a film packed full of plot-twists that strain credibility. He works for the government, she's an anarchist, and they get together ... why? Crick doesn't even woo Pascal -- he just pines for her until she obligingly signs up as his girlfriend.

(Actually, I take that back. The most unbelievable aspect of the movie is the idea that Kay Eiffel, Harold Crick's author, is one of the finest writers alive. Throughout the film we hear prose from Eiffel's novel as voiceover, and, man, it sounds like nothing so much as a Hollywood screenwriter trying to impersonate "the finest writer alive." Seriously, couldn't they have cut a check to Marilynne Robinson and asked her to anonymously rewrite those passages?)

I like Coldplay, though I prefer Radiohead. And I enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction, even while recognizing it as, essentially, one broken story (the romance) packed inside another (the protagonist - author relationship). There's no real need to see this one in the theater, but it would be a worthy DVD rental on an evening when you want something that manages to be both slightly unusual and thoroughly conventional.

August 11, 2006

Movies: A Scanner Darkly

I don't get out to the cinema often these days. But there are certain classes of film that I will always make an effort to see in the theater, among them:

  • Movies based on the work of Phillip K. Dick
  • Animated movies aimed at an adult audience
  • Movies written and directed by Richard Linklater
As A Scanner Darkly falls into all three categories, I was pretty much obligated to see it.

On the debits side of the ledger, we have this: the film stars Keanu Reeves. I don't really mind Reeves, but as the Matrix trilogy has a very heavy Phillip K. Dick influence, I was a little worried that this would just become the fourth in the series. Fortunately, Reeves spends much of the film looking and acting befuddled (the one type of dramatic role he invariably excels at), a far cry from the demigod of Neo. And the performances of his colleagues -- Woody Harlson, Mitch Baker, and Robert Downey Jr. in particular -- more than compensate for Reeves' limited range.

The film is set in a near future where a drug called Substance-D is destroying America. Reeves' character Bob Arctor, for instance, is hooked on the stuff, and it's slowly eroding his ability to tell reality from fantasy. He spends half of his time lollygagging around his pad with other addicts, and the other half working for law enforcement, where he has been assigned to spy on ... himself. One of the perks of working as a uncover narc in the future, it seems, is that you get to wear a "scramble suit," which conceals your identity from everyone -- even your superiors, who may inadvertently charge you with monitoring your drug-addled alter ego.

Scanner uses a technique called "rotoscoping, in which live-action footage is traced over and converted to animation. It is particularly well-suited to this tale, as it falls in animation's uncanny valley: it looks artificial enough to be perceived as animation, but realistic enough to put the audience on edge. In short, it makes the viewer feel like he, like the protagonists, has recently ingested a sizable quantity of illicit substances. It's hard to even criticize the technique, as even its deficiencies work in the context of Scanner. One thing that bothered me was how components of large objects would sometimes appear to move independent of the thing they were attached to -- the headlights of cars, for instance. And yet, these irksome details just served to heighten my feeling of hazyheadedness, the exact effect I assume Linklater was shooting for when he choose rotoscoping in the first place.

Unlike most films inspired by the work of Dick, A Scanner Darkly is based on a full length novel and is a faithful adaptation of the source material. Or so I'm told. I read A Scanner Darkly a number of years ago, but couldn't really remember anything about it. Seeing the film didn't so much remind me of how the novel went as remind me why I found it so difficult to recall.

Both the book and the film fall under the rubric of "complete mindfuck." That is, most of the time you're not sure what's going on, and, even when you do, you're not sure whether the events are real. As a result, you tend to sequester everything you see into a a little mental cubbyhole marked "Conditional," ready to purge it if a subsequent revelation reveals this particular scene to be false, or take it out and stamp it "authentic" if it is later verified as real. Unfortunately, you never really get any confirmation one way or the other in Scanner, so you walk out of the film with a head full of loose puzzle pieces instead of a complete picture. And we all know what happens to loose pieces over time: you lose them, one by one. I saw the film last week and already can only remember half of it.

I met up with some friends after seeing the film, and they asked me what I thought. "I don't know," I told them, "I need to think it over for a day." That was last Saturday, and I still haven't made up my mind. I liked it, I guess, but film and the animation style were so self-referential that I kind of felt like they all added up to nothing, like a snake that swallows its own tail and vanishes from sight. Admittedly, that analogy doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But, then again, the same may be true of the film. I have no idea.

March 14, 2006

Corleone? Corleone? Corleone?

I watched a DVD over the weekend. First time I'd ever seen this film. Obscure little flick, you've probably never heard of it. What was it called, again? Oh God! Book II or Grandma's Boy or something?

Oh, that's right: The Godfather. Little known fact: the movie stars Marlon Brando, before he hit the big time by appearing in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

So, yeah: my first time seeing it. And I'm pleased to report that it holds up just fine, even after 30 years of imitation mob movies and television shows. In fact, I'd call it one of my favorites ... were it not for one niggling little detail that worried away at the back of my mind for the duration of the film. You see, I'd never really seen young Al Pacino or young James Caan before. And, regrettable, I could not get over how similar they looked to Matthew Broderick and Will Ferrell.

I spent the entire film trying to reconcile the fact that New York's most ruthless and bloodthirsty Mafia family was being run by Ferris Bueller and Buddy the Elf.

January 31, 2006

The Do-It-Yourself Oscar Pool Page ...

... will be up by Friday.

[ link | Movies]


December 20, 2005

How To Watch Revenge Of The Sith

(See also: How To Watch The Phantom Menace, How To Watch Attack of the Clones.)

Long, long ago, in a childhood far, far away, I was a child obsessed with Star Wars. By the age of twelve I already had every available piece of Star Wars trivia crammed into my head (diameter of the Death Star? 120 kilometers), including the knowledge that there would be nine films in total. Once, after gushing about the series to my grandmother (who couldn't have cared less), I was struck by a sudden, sorrowful realization, and blurted out "it's too bad you won't be alive to see them all."

Well, Grammy got the last laugh: Lucus truncated his series to a meager six films and the matriarch is still around. But if the thought that grandma would not live to see all of the Star Wars films was a major bummer to me at the time, the truth would have been devastating: That, by the time the final film rolled around, I would be so disinterested in the whole franchise that I wouldn't even bother to see it in a theater.

I tried to psyche myself up Revenge of the Sith by rewatching the first two films in the trilogy -- and, as an aide to readers who wanted to do likewise, I even gave tips on how to fast-forward through the boring and stupid parts. (See: How To Watch The Phantom Menace and How To Watch Attack Of The Clones.) And it actually worked -- for a few days, there, I was vaguely fired up to see Episode III, especially since everyone kept raving about how it was "the best in the series since The Empire Strikes Back" (pretty faint praise, when you think about it). But when The Queen and I found ourselves with an evening free we had to choose between Revenge Of The Sith and Batman Begins, and we opted for the latter. I like to think that my twelve year-old self would have taken some comfort in the fact that we still saw a movie about an awesomely cool awesome guy in a black cape and mask, albeit one unable to choke people to death with his mind.

Anyway, last weekend I finally watched Revenge of the Sith. And yes, it was quite a bit better than the other two, although that's akin to saying "Moe was the funniest Stooge."

My two previous "How To Watch" guides were so people could cram in anticipation of Sith without having to endure the full 4+ hours of Episodes I & II, so doing breakdown of this film might be pointless. On the other hand, I'm sure there's someone out there who, like me, wants to watch Episode III just to get the whole thing over, and wouldn't mind being steered away from the superfluous stuff. And so, here we go again: How To Watch Revenge Of The Sith:

Start FF timeEnd FF timeElapsed TimeWhat you're missingWhy you might want to watch it
9:1611:222:06How many times have we seen this in the prequels? Heroes need to get from point A to point B, but Lucus can't just have them exit stage left and then arrive at their destination a moment later, noooooo. Instead there has to be a "travel" scene, full of sound and fury and signifying absolutely nothing in the overall narrative. If these films were resumes, this is what we would call "padding." In this instance, Anikan and Obi Wan need to get from the hanger of a Federation Cruiser to another floor, and en route there's an extended sequence of assorted elevator trouble, which includes this scintillating exchange:
Obi Wan: Did you press the stop button?

Anikan: No, did you?

Obi wan: No.

Who says Lucas can't do dialog?
At one point we learn that R2-D2 has tenacle-like prehensile appendages that he can use like hands to catch and minipulate things. In Clones, you'll recall, it was revealed that R2-DT could MOTHERFUCKING FLY! So you might want to watch this sequence and then fantasize about what Episodes IV-VI would have been like if they had continued to give R2-D2 Astounding New Abilities in each film. Return Of The Jedi probably would have ended with R2-D2 killing young Anikan with his hitherto unrevealed time-travelling lasers.
15:2323:368:13Another "travelling" scene with more elevator zaniness (memo to Lucus: Please. Stop); the Federation Cruiser crash lands on the surface of Coruscant.If you want to watch any of the later General Grievous scenes, you'll need watch this one to see his escape. Personally, I found Grievous to be an unsatisfying and ultimately unneeded character, and wouldn't have minded if he'd just died here. With Count Dooku dead, Lucus basically needs a stopgap Bad Guy until Anakin's conversion to the Dark Side (sorry -- total spoiler, there!) so that he can intersperse the plot with fight scenes.
29:1030:281:18People told me that Lucus had mercifully kept the romance stuff to a minimum in Sith; they didn't warn me that he accomplishes this by condensing all the cheese from Attack of the Clones into this single, one minute scene. When Lucus goes back and re-edits Sith (because you know he's going to be tinkering with these things until the moment he dies), let's hope he takes the opportunity to delete this sequence entirely and replace it some shots of teens doing some totally radical skateboard tricks or something.If the action scenes have you worried that you might die from testosterone poisoning, this will serve as a perfect antidote.
42:1742:370:20By this point it's clear that even Lucus knows that the audience is sick of his "romantic" "dialogue," because he now apparently feels the need to suckerpunch the viewer with it. This scene starts out as a fairly interesting political discussion between Anakin and Padme, but then, just when you let your guard down: bam! "Hold me," Padme blurts out, while you scramble to raise your defensive shields. "Like you did on Naboo." Lucus, you sneaky little bastard.It's the most mock-worthy scene in the film.
46:2346:400:17One of the goal of these fast-forwards guides has been to rid the prequels of any and all mention of midichlorians. I was kind of taking a gamble in doing this in the first two guides, since it was still remotely possible that Lucus might shed enough light on them in episode III to make them retroactively not-stupid. But I'm here to tell you now (and will explicate further in "Analysis," below), that he does not. So if you want to skip the only mention of them in Sith, you'll need to lose these 17 seconds.Unlike most edits, this falls right in the middle of a scene. But it's a small sacrifice to make for a midichlorians-free film.
45:431:00:5114:08This is the first half of the climatic Obi Wan Kanobi v. General Grevious showdown, which involves (of course), a lightsaber duel. As I mentioned above, I think Grevious should have been junked in the first half an hour, and this scene does nothing to change my mind. I mean, seriously: how many lightsaber battles have we seen now over the course of the six films? And you already know there's going to be at least one more at the end of this one. Lucus tries to keep them interesting by continually upping the ante -- Darth Maul had a double-ended lightsaber, Clones ended with Yoda going all Spider-Man on Count Dooku's ass, and now Grevious employs four -- count 'em, four! -- lightsabers at once. But the whole thing is starting to remind me of the "number of blades in the disposable razor" arms race.The fight is actually pretty cool, unnecessary thought it may be.
1:05:211:07:362:15Second half of Kanobi v. Grevious showdownSee above.
1:09:021:10:36DON'T CUT THIS SCENE! In fact, watch it twice. It involves Anakin and Padme, in different parts of the galaxy, each looking out windows and presumably thinking about each other. It's the only segment in all three prequels that actually works as far of the romance goes -- presumably because (a) neither actor opens their mouth and ruins things by emoting, and (b) Christensen and Portman aren't in close proximity, so their astounding lack of chemistry isn't glaringly obvious.Because against all odds, it's good.
1:19:421:20:230:41If you're ditching the General Grevious tangent, you'll need to cut out the first 40 seconds of this scene to have a clean subplot-ectomy.Again: not bad, just superfluous.
2:13:392:20:006:21End Credits.You want to savor the fact that, at long last, the Star Wars saga is over. Sweet, sweet closure.

Total time saved: 35:39.

Analysis: Yeah, not bad. It would be considered a fairly mediocre movie if it didn't have the whole Star Wars cachet going for it, but it certainly hurdles over the bar that was set so low with Phantom Menace.

Many people told me that Sith was all action, with little plot. I didn't find this to be the case. There was plenty of story in there, but, unlike Phantom and Clones, it all served to move things forward (instead of, as was often the case in the prior two films, plot being introduced via infodump, where one character halts the action and launches into a soliloquy wherein he explains some long and convoluted aspect of galactic history or politics).

The midichlorians ultimately amounted to nothing. It seemed as if Lucus introduced them in Episode I to explain something that didn't need explaining (The Force), but wound up generating more questions than he answered. So Anakin didn't have a father? And he was maybeconceived by the midichlorians, somehow? And Darth Sidious' former master may or may not have had something to do with that? I did a little poking around on the web to see if maybe all this stuff was addressed in the novelization or something, but, alas, no. Thanks to the midichlorians these prequels have more loose ends than a yarn store, and Lucus makes no attempt to tie them up.

But while I was researching the midichlorians, I looked up a couple of other questions I had about the story. Here are the answers.

Why, of all the Jedi, did only Obi Wan and Yoda disappear when they died? I got my Revenge of the Sith DVD from NetFlix, which means it came sans bonus disc. If I had all the extra goodies, though, apparently I could have watched a deleted scene that made sense of this. You know how, at the end of the film, Yoda tells Obi Wan about "one who has returned from the netherworld of the Force to train me, your old Master, Qui-Gon Jinn"? Well, there was a scene before that where Yoda explains that Qui-Gon Jinn had contacted him from Beyond, and revealed, among other things, that he had learned how to become so attuned with the Force that one could actually merge with it upon his death. This imformation is imparted to Yoda and, somewhere between episode II and IV, on to Obi Wan as well. That seems like a fairly significant plot point to omit, if you ask me.

What was the "Prophecy" again, and why didn't Anakin fulfill it? The Prophecy is mentioned often in the prequels, but nobody ever tells us exactly what it says. The closest we get is this exchange:

OBI-WAN: With all due respect, Master, is [Anakin] not the Chosen One? Is he not to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force?

MACE: So the prophecy says.

YODA: A prophecy . . . that misread could have been.

Later, after defeating Anakin in combat, Obi Wan shouts "You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would, destroy the Sith, not join them!"

My interpretation was that Anakin does fulfill the prophecy -- three films later when he kills the Emperor and himself in the process, thereby reducing the number of card-carrying Sith in the universe to zero. But in searching USENET for other people's opinions, I found many arguing that Anakin fulfilled the "balance to the Force" part of the prophecy in Sith by setting into motion the events which left an equal number of Sith (Vader and Sidious) and Jedi (Obi Wan and Yoda) alive.

The problem is that The Prophecy is never clearly stated anywhere -- not in the films, not in the novelizations, not in the voluminous additional Star Wars material that exists, and not in any interviews with Lucus. And the two things we know about The Prophecy -- that the Sith get destroyed and the Force gets balanced -- seem contradictory (how is the Force "balanced" if all the Dark Side guys are dead?) My conclusion: The Prophecy is just a plot device, and only a fool would waste any time trying to figure it out. WISH I'D KNOWN THAT 15 MINUTES AGO!!

Jumpin' jehosephat, are those actually Hayden Christensen abs?! At at 31:08, Anakin saunters out of his bedroom shirtless adorned with abs rarely seen outside of a Captain America comic book. Frankly they looked a little too perfect to be true, and I couldn't help but wonder if maybe Lucus had added a little computer-generated definition. Unfortunately, this proved rather difficult to research, as searching Google for "Hayden Christensen shirtless" returned about 218,000 websites aimed at teenage girls and gay men. Switching to Google Images verified that Christensen is a pretty buff guy, though. One thing id for certain: if he had devoted the time he spent doing sit-ups to acting classes, these last two films woulda been a lot more bearable.

Okay, these movies weren't so great, but did get me marginally excited about Star Wars again. Are there any good books in the series? I trolled through a bunch of Amazon reviews and lists, and consensus seems to be that the creme de la Star Wars creme is: The Thrawn Trilogy (Heir To The Throne, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command), set five years after Return of the Jedi (and the very first non-novelizations Star Wars books ever written); the Han Solo Trilogy (The Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit, and Rebel Dawn), set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope; and Shatterpoint, a Mace Windu novel set during the Clone Wars.

November 21, 2005

Movies: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

On the presupposition that everyone who's interested in seeing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has already read the book, I'm a little more liberal with the spoilers in this review than I am in most.

First, a disclaimer: I am not now, nor ever have been, afflicted with Pottermania. I liked the first novel okay and thought the third was pretty good, but have been less than enamored with the more recent entries in the series. I am not one to reflexively dismiss something as "kid's stuff" (one of my all time favorite movies is The Iron Giant, after all), but I haven't found Harry Potter to be especially engaging, either.

So in evaluating Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I am only interested in how it works as a film, and not in how faithfully it follows the book. Indeed, given that I disliked the corresponding novel (it was my least favorite in the series), the more the movie deviated from the text the better, in my opinion.

The good news is that it is evident, right from the get-go, that the screenplay is a considerable abridgement of the source material. The first 100 pages of the novel -- devoted to the Quidditch World Cup, including lengthy descriptions of how the children travel to the site and an entire chapter on play-by-play commentary of the event -- is packed into the first 20 minutes of the film. Unlike Rowling, screenwriter Steven Kloves seems intent on shuffling the kids off to school as quickly as possible: the Dursley's don't even make an appearance, and Dobby (along with the entire Elf Liberation subplot) is given the axe. By the time we arrive at Hogwarts, it seems like the filmmakers, against all odds, have figured out how streamline the 650 page book into a 150 minute movie.

The bad news is that Goblet of Fire (the book) contains so much superfluous material that, even after losing a huge chunk of it, Goblet of Fire (the film) feels too crowded by half. At one point they introduce a major character (Barty Crouch Junior) only to interrupt themselves halfway through to introduce a second major character (Mad Eye Moody), and then return to the original introduction once that is complete. Much of the first half of the film feels this way, with new people, spells, and concepts being revealed at a dizzying pace. At times it reminded me of those disclaimers tacked on to the end of a radio ads for contests, where they have digitally edited out all the spaces and left a monolith of information. Some characters (notably Cho Chang and Rita Skeeter) are given such a small amount of screen time that they serve only as reminders about the substantially larger roles they played in the book.

Once the Triwizard Tournament gets underway, though, the film not only finds its focus, but also takes a turn for the grim. When Radiohead made a surprise appearance halfway through I thought it odd to see them in a "kids movie," but that was before I realized that the final hour pretty much plays out like a typical radiohead song: dark, brooding, and at times downright ponderous. Indeed, between the horror elements and the introduction of sexuality to the franchise (we're treated to French schoolgirls in short skirts and a shirtless Daniel Radcliffe cavorting in a sauna with a voyeuristic female ghost), Goblet of Fire isn't really a kids movie at all. The age range for the audience seems to be shifting right along with the age range of the protagonists. The final film in the series may well be NC-17.

I was pretty ambivalent about Goblet of Fire. On the one hand, I like the darker elements (the introduction of Azkaban in the third book is why it was my favorite), but I came away from the film feeling much the same way as I did from the book, that Rowling is exceptionally skilled at coming up with clever ideas (or at least at lifting them from other works and reworking them until they seem passibly original), but isn't so good at cobbling them together into a coherent storyline. So much of the Triwizard Tournament doesn't makes sense (even in a world where magic is real and dragons are imported from Romania), and it makes even less so in a film where so much exposition had to be abbreviated to keep the running time under a fortnight. Still, Goblet of Fire is certainly the best of the Harry Potter movies, so if you've liked the series so far and you can suspend your disbelief a little more than I was able, you'll probably find it to be right up your alley, Diagon or otherwise.

September 20, 2005

Movies: Grizzly Man

This review contains mild spoilers.

Several weeks ago Some Random Guy From The Internet sent me email to recommend the film Grizzly Man. Well, you know me: I'll do anything I'm told to do over email, which is why I am forever purchasing penny stocks, verifying my Wells Fargo bank account, and watching you and your sister on your new webcam. So I saw it.

And hey, S.R.G.F.T.I: thanks! It was great.

Of course I was predisposed to like it, because Grizzly Man is a documentary and I loves me some documentaries. (I suspect I may have mentioned this here before, which is what earned me the aforementioned email in the first place.) That said, enough sets this film apart from most documentaries to prevent my liking it a sure thing. For one, the filmmaker, Werner Herzog, inserts himself into the narrative, doing the voiceover and occasionally even offering his own opinions on the events depicted. For another, most of the movie was not filmed by Herzog, but is, instead, literally found footage. How this footage came to be taken, and why it ultimately required a finding, is the story told.

Timothy Treadwell spent over a dozen summers living in the Katmai National Park & Preserve, frolicking with the grizzlies therein. You may think I am being glib but, no, the man actually frolicked -- talking to the bears in sing-songy voices, invading their personal space, and occasionally even touching them (invariably to their annoyance). One of many people interviewed in the film says that Treadwell "wanted to be a bear," and, at times, this seems like the literal truth.

For the last five of his annual visits Treadwell brought along a video camera. Because he didn't really do that much beyond hanging out with the bears, much of the footage is of Treadwell giving monologues about his life in the Preserve, with particular emphasis on the danger he faces.

Treadwell often referred to himself as the bears' protector, though it's unclear what protection he envisioned himself as offering. At any rate, Treadwell is the one who could have eventually used some protection: at the end of his thirteenth summer amongst the grizzlies, he and his his female companion were killed and eaten by one of his ursine "friends."

Now, I know is seems like I just ruined the end of the film for you, but they reveal this fact within the first five minutes, honest. And foreknowledge of Treadwell's fate is essential to fully appreciate the bizarre quality of his on-air soliloquies. Even while he reminds the hypothetical viewer about the dangers of grizzly fraternization, he seems naively unaware of it himself. Treadwell's ultimate goal -- both in living with the bears, and in filming his exploits -- seems to be the casting of himself as the protagonist in a Jack London short story or a novel serialized in Boy's Life. At times he seems less like a man living amongst bears as a man in the middle of a "Living Amongst Bears: The Roleplaying Game" campaign.

Herzog editorializes quite a bit in this film -- something I had been warned about in advanced and thought I'd hate, but actually didn't mind. A few times he even goes so far as to say "Here I disagree with Treadwell" and offers his own opinion in the voiceover, and I did feel that these rare instances did cross the line. But as one of my companions remarked, "all documentarians have bias -- better that they state them openly than pretend they are objective," and I agree with her sentiment.

One thing that Herzog does exceptionally well in Grizzly Man is keep the character of Treadwell (and he does seem to be a character, albeit one of Treadwell's own making) from becoming stagnant. Several times in the film I thought, "well, I think I've seen all there is to see of this guy" moments before Herzog unveiled some new fact, included an interview, or spliced in a piece of footage that gave Treadwell a whole new dimension. Even as you're walking out of the theater, you're still not quite sure what to make of the guy.

Grizzly Man is one of the best documentaries I've seen; and, as I stated before, I like documentaries a lot, so that's saying something. And just a quick postscript for people who are hesitant to see this film because of the killing. There is no video footage of Treadwell's death, so you won't see it. There is an audiotape (Treadwell turned his camera on just before the attack but didn't have time to remove the lens cap), but Herzog declines to play that, either. At one point a coroner describes the audiotape, but he does so in a fairly clinical manner. There is one emotional scene in regards to the audiotape, but Treadwell's death is treated mostly as an ironic twist to his life, and is not, in itself, the focus of the film.

August 05, 2005

Movies: Batman Begins

My opinions of the last four Batman movies -- Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin -- were, respectively, "so-so," "wretched," "good, but only in comparison to the others," and "it's stuff like this that makes me wish the Neanderthals had clubbed homo sapient into extinction back on the savannah." And after each and every one, even the ones I kinda liked, I walked out of the theater thinking the same question. Why, when scores of excellent Batman comic books have been written, does Hollywood feel the need to hire some screenwriter with zero comic book experience to come in and make up the entire mythos from scratch? And I'm not just talking about the big stuff, like "The Joker killed Bruce Wayne's parents?" and "Catwoman gains superpowers after being licked by cats??!" but even the minutia, like making Batgirl Alfred's niece. You could argue that things like Batgirl's identity don't really matter, but that's my point: if they don't matter, what's the point of changing them?

What I really wanted was for someone who wrote Batman comic books (or read a few, at least) to take a crack at the script. Who woulda guessed that Christopher Nolan-- the genius behind one of my all-time favorite movies, Memento -- was that guy? And the co-writer, David S. Goyer, is not only an honest-to-goodness comic book writer (he pens Justice League of America), but has worked on such films as The Crow, Blade, and the forthcoming film The Flash -- not to mention the sublime Dark City. Put 'em together and you get a Batman movie that (mostly) feels right.

Batman Begins at the beginning, even before the death of Bruce Wayne's parents (which is not at the hands of The Joker, thank God -- signaling that this new series is completely divorced from the earlier claptrap). In fact, we don't even get to see the familiar cape and cowl until the midpoint of the film, as the story focuses on the events and training that shaped Bruce Wayne into the legendary crimefighter.

Right from the gate it's apparent that Nolan's approach to the material is radically different from Tim Burton's, as he strives to make the narrative as realistic as possible. Burton created a fantastic, comic book universe for his Batman movies; Nolan grounds the hero in our own. In fact, my one gripe with Batman Begins stems from this fact. Nolan does such a good job of making the back-story believable that that Bruce Wayne's transition from "angry guy who's really good at martial arts" to "angry guy running around in a cape" is a bit jarring, taxing the audience's suspension of disbelief to the limit.

But, in my opinion, two things make up for all of this movie's other deficiencies: Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner (sory, "Captain") Gordon. As the mythos of Batman has evolved in the comic books it has become clear that these two men are more than just supporting characters, they are every bit as integral to the success of The Batman as Bruce Wayne himself. Batman Begins treats them as such. As far as I'm concerned, this alone shows that Nolan (and Goyer) understand the story of Batman better than any of the previous screenwriters did.

Batman Begins is not perfect, and there's a few scenes and lines that ring false. But it's a quantum leap better than the older ones, and, as superhero movies go, on par with the X-Man series and Spiderman II.

A waited a month and a half after Batman Begins' release to see it, and then only because it was getting rave reviews. I assumed that no good Batman movie would ever be made. But when the sequel debuts -- and assuming Nolan is still behind the helm -- I may well be there on opening night.

June 17, 2005

How To Watch Attack Of The Clones

(See also: How To Watch The Phantom Menace, How To Watch Revenge of the Sith.)

The general consensus is that Attack of the Clones, while not great, is much better than The Phantom Menace, though I've heard a few people express the opposite opinion. I think it basically comes down to one question: what do you find more excruciatingly unwatchable, Jar-Jar's slapstick or the Anakin / Amidala romance?

Me, I found the latter much more forgivable, thanks to something a reviewer once wrote about Titanic: while he conceded that the romantic dialogue in Titanic was atrocious, he pointed out that it was also a fairly accurate depiction of how young people in love actually talk, i.e., maudlin, dramatic, and as cliched as all get-out. I don't think for a moment that Lucas wrote lines like "you are in my very soul, tormenting me" because he was trying to emulate what 16 year-olds say when they are trying to convey the sentiment "holy shit, being a virgin sucks!" but if you pretend like that was Lucas' intent the film is much more bearable.

That said, skipping all the love scenes detracts not at all from the movie -- we didn't need to see the nitty-gritty of Han and Leia falling in love to know it was happening -- so feel free to do so.

Here, then, is the cheat-sheet for fast-forwarding through Attack of the Clones. As with the previous guide, this is intended for folks who have already seen the film and are only interested in refreshing their memories about the plot in anticipation of Revenge of the Sith. Again, my goal was to get the film down to about 90 minutes and to axe anything that wasn't integral to the story. I've also included tips on removing much of the love story, for those who can't abide it.

Start FF timeEnd FF timeElapsed TimeWhat you're missingWhy you might want to watch it
14:2524:4610:21Following the formula that worked oh so well in Phantom Menace, Lucas grinds his film to a halt 15 minutes in for an interminable sequence that does absolutely nothing to advance the plot. This time we have Obi Wan and Anakin racing around in a jetcar as they chase down the assassin who attempted to kill Amidala, confronting the assassin in a bar, and then dragging the out to a back alley, only to see her killed by a dart from the gun of Jango Fett before she can reveal any useful information.The bar scene is marginally interesting so you could stop fast-forwarding at 21:46, but I suggest you just lose the assassin entirely, since she in completely unnecessary. Just imagine that Jango himself was the one who tried to kill Amidala and Obi Wan found the dart on the scene.
34:5036:031:13Love scene: The first of many.Anakin gives a little background on the Jedi and mentions that they discourage "attachments" (i.e., "nookie").
44:0045:481:48Love scene: Good gravy, this one is really dreadful. AVOID.To see Anakin and Amidala first kiss.
47:4750:172:30Love scene: Anakin and Amidala talk politicsThe scene contains this exchange which is actually kinda important:

Amidala: The trouble is that people don't always agree

Anakin: But then they should be made to.

Amidala: Sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.

Anakin: Well? If it works ...

53:0056:413:41Love scene: Anakin and Amidala discuss the assorted reasons why their relationship is forbidden.If you've ever wondered what Romeo and Juliet would have sounded like had it had been written by a 12 year-old girl.
1:37:171:42:385:21Anaki and Amidala wander into a droid factory; the subsequent scenes are as exhilarating as sitting on your couch and watching your roommate play Tomb Raider. This whole sequence looks so much like a video game that I expected the Master Control Program to be awaiting them at the end. Skipping this scene is also essential if you want to avoid entry #3 in the litany of Wrongheaded Star Wars Revisionism; namely R2-D2 CAN FLY WTF DON'T YOU THINK THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN USEFUL IN EPISODES 4-6??!!There's no good reason for this scene, and it doesn't even make sense according to the movie's own (tenuous) internal logic. All you need to know is that Amidala and Anakin are captured by Dooku's forces.
1:42:381:49:326:54Dooku tosses Anakin and Amidala into a arena along with the previously captured Obi Wan, and the three have to fight off a multitude of crappily-rendered CGI beasties.Astute readers will notice that the start time for this segment is the same as the end time for the last. Why didn't I just lump them together into one fast-forward, then? Because you need to see the conclusion to the arena battle -- my recommended fast-forward ends as the heroes are surrounded by battle droids -- so you may just want to watch the whole thing. But I still advise against it.
2:15:472:22:207:07End CreditsYou want to check for the thirtieth time to see if that's really Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Mace Windu, so you can marvel at Lucus' uncanny ability to coax subpar performances out of even great actors (see also: Natalie Portman).

Total time saved: 41:21

Analysis: I so loathed Phantom Menace that I swore I wouldn't see Clones in the theater, but when my in-laws hornswoggled me into going I was surprised by how much I liked it. It's mediocre to be sure, but mediocre is still one infinity better than Episode I (though I realize that "better than The Phantom Menace" is damning with the faintest of praise, like saying "more delicious than echinacea!"). Watching it again on DVD gave me a glimmer of hope that Revenge of the Sith may be as good as some are claiming.

Some have claimed that the Star Wars movies should be judged lightly because they are, after all, kids films. I agree, insofar as the original trilogy goes goes. But Episode I was about taxation, fercrissakes. And in Episode II you have a clone army fighting alongside the Jedi but was secretly commissioned by the Sith to make the Republic more powerful so that they can subvert it. That's a little more involved than "The bad guys have a Death Star; the Death Star blows up planets; the good guys need to destroy the Death Star." The problem isn't that Lucas is making space operas for kids or that he's making political thrillers for adults, but that he's trying to make both at once, and that's how you wind up with Jar-Jar fart jokes in one scene and lengthy discussions of the Republic Senate's legislative procedures in the next.

But the big big problem with this whole trilogy is that I don't give a rat's ass about any of the protagonists. The Jedi -- Obi Wan, Qui-Gon, Yoda -- are too noble to be endearing; Anakin is a rageaholic jerk; Amidala isn't even much of a character, just the obligatory catalyst for Anakin's lovelorn dramatics. Furthermore, these first two movies aren't even about these people -- they are about Darth Sidious and his subtle machinations to seize power. This is in sharp contrast to episodes 4-6, which really were about the heroes: Luke, Han, Leia -- even Chewbacca felt like your buddy by the end of it all. I wouldn't want to go for beers and pinball with anyone in Phantom or Clones, except for Anakin's mom who was kinda hot until the Tusken Raiders got to her.

Lastly, I'd just like to say that Ewan McGregor's impersonation of Sir Alec Guinness is just shy of miraculous, and almost makes up for the fact that all the other acting sucks.

Plot Points For The People Too Smart To Rewatch This: Again, a complete summary of the film can be found at sf-worlds.com. But for those who just want the highlights:

  • After several assassination attempts on Amidala's life, Anakin is assigned to protect her. This is the first time they've been reunited in 10 years, and Anakin reveals that he's been pining for her all the while. Though the Jedi Order forbids (? perhaps just "discourages") attachments, the two fall in love and are secretly married.

  • A separatist movement, headed up by former Jedi Count Dooku, has begun waging war against the Republic with an army of droids. Worried about being overrun, the Republic Senate grants Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers to use a clone army, which, curiously, has already been created, having been requested ten years prior by another Jedi.

  • The Jedi Council's mastery of the Force is fading, and they sense that the Dark Lord of the Sith is controlling much of the Republic's Senate. The council is unable to divine the Dark Lord's identity or goals, though, as the Dark Side clouds their vision.

  • Anakin is chafing under the yoke of Jedi training, feeling like his exceptional abilities are being stifled. Though he often refers to Obi Wan as his "father," he also seems extremely resentful of him. When Anakin discovers that a Tusken Raider tribe has killed his mother, he slaughters them all, every man, woman and child.

Random Revelation: Hmm, an angst-ridden young man learning to cope with his extraordinary powers and being tempted by the Dark Side? The novelization of this movie should be called Harry Potter And The Order of the Jedi.

June 09, 2005

How To Watch The Phantom Menace

(See also: How To Watch Attack of the Clones, How To Watch Revenge of the Sith.)

No, I haven't seen Revenge Of The Sith yet. Stop asking.

I had never intended to see it soon after it's opening, although I have resigned myself to the inevitability of seeing it in the theater eventually. Actually, I was kind of excited about it for a little while, but my enthusiasm seems to have peaked about a week ago, and my interest in the film has been dwindling ever since.

So in an effort to rekindle the Star Wars flame -- or possibly snuff it out entirely -- I decided to rewatch The Phantom Menace. I wanted to reacquaint myself with the story, and this seemed the best way to do it -- even though, truth be told, I was dreading the screening. I'd seen The Phantom Menace twice before, and pretty much hated it both times.

What I really wanted was an abridged version of the film, with just the plot and the cool scenes but none of the crap. Such a version is rumored to exist in the form of The Phantom Edit, but I had no idea how to secure a copy. The next best thing would have been a knowledgeable friend sitting next to me as I watched the DVD, telling me what stuff I should fast-forward through.

Well, I'm that knowledeable friend now. If you foolishly decide to watch The Phantom Menace yourself, here's all the skippable stuff.

I started compiling these fast-forwards with two objectives: to get the film under 90 minutes, and to eliminate as much Jar-Jar Binks as possible; halfway through the film I spontaneously added a third: to omit all the midichlorian flummery. (This might be a bad idea -- it's possible they play a role in Revenge of the Sith, though I'm guessing that, like Jar-Jar, Lucas is going to pretend like he'd never introduced them.)

Start FF timeEnd FF timeElapsed TimeWhat you're missingWhy you might want to watch it
10:5518:407:45Qui-Gon and Obi Wan flee Trade Federation ship and literally run into Jar-Jar; he takes them to the Gungan city, where they are given a ship to travel through the planet's core to reach the main Naboo city. Many gratuitous special effects and much Jar-Jar bufoonery ensues.If you can't remember the exact moment in The Phantom Menace when you realized the movie was going to suck Tauntaun balls, you could remind yourself by watching this eight-minute scene, jam-packed with Jar-Jar and jar-jarringly bad dialog.
19:1920:391:20Underwater voyage concluded; Qui-Gon, Obi Wan and Jar-Jar arrive at Naboo cityIf you watched the previous sequence and really, really liked that part where the giant marine monster attacked their ship, only to then be eaten by an even larger creature, you could watch this segment and see that exact scene a second time.
28:5329:300:37Padme meets Jar-Jar; Jar-Jar recaps the last 15 minutes of the movie in unintelligible gibberishNone. Seriously, this scene serves no function whatsoever.
30:1331:381:25Padme, Qui-Gon and Jar-Jar walk into a Tatooine town. Padme insists on accompanying them. Once in town, the look for somewhere to buy parts for their broken spaceshipsQui-Gon gives little background on Tatooine, but doesn't say anything you didn't know from A New Hope. The presence of Jar-Jar (stepping in dewback droppings no less -- hah hah!) negates the usefulness of the exposition.
35:1637:101:54Jar-Jar's slapstick in a Tatooine market gets him in trouble; Anakin intercedes on his behalf.This is arguably the most important scene in the entire film, as it's when Anakin meets his first Jedi in the form of Qui-Gon. Padme and Jar-Jar met Anakin in an earlier scene, though, so all you need to know is that Anakin recognizes the Gungan and joins the party as they wander around the market.
47:1351:083:55Oh man, there's a lot of bad stuff in just four minutes. First: Anakin has no father, and was the product of immaculate conception: WHAT. THE. FUCK. LUCAS????!!!!! Then we get Anakin working on his pod racer with a generous side of intolerable Jar-Jar slapstick. And then, as if you aren't already trying to figure out a way to go back in time and kill Lucas's great-grandfather, we get "midichlorians" sprung-on us, the ridiculous "mastery of the force has a biological component" claptrap that is second only to "Greedo shot first" in the litany of Wrongeheaded Star Wars Revisionism.Anakin is teased by some local kids while working in on his pod racer in a scene that proves the unprovable: there exist worse child actors than Jake Llyod. (His last name is spelled with two l's -- you know, like "unwatchablle".)
55:241:10:0114:25The pod race. Yes, in its entirely. If you're bridling at the suggestion that you omit what was often cited as the best sequence in the whole movie (after the final light saber battle), then you clearly don't remember how unfathomably boring it was. It may have been worth watching for the state-of-the-art special effects when Phantom was first released, but now it looks like the obsolete video game it essentially is. Just skip it. Anakin wins, that's all you need to know.If you are a big fan of The Wacky Racers but wish the races were twice as long and half as interesting.
1:25:071:25:1600:09This is the briefest fast-forward in this entire guide, but essential if you want to steer clear of the midichlorians.Like Transformers combining into a single, giant robot, here Lucas manages to takes the two dumbest conceits of the film -- Anakin's immaculate conceptions and the midichlorians -- and weave them into a revelation that is stupider than the sum of its parts: Anakin may have been sired by the midichlorians. Gah!
1:35:311:36:210:50MIDICHLORIANS I AM NOT LISTENING LA LA LA LA LA!!!Lucas's clumsy attempt to show off what little he remembered of "mitochondria" from his eighth-grade biology class wonderfully illustrates the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
1:48:181:50:031:45As in Return of the Jedi, the climax of Phantom Menace cuts back and forth between two separate battles. In this case, it's the Gungans trying hold back the droid invasion of Naboo, while Qui-Gon, Obi Wan, and Anakin attempt to disable the robots by destroying the spaceship that controls them. Unfortunately, only the latter is interesting. The skirmish between the droids and the Gungans looks like shit now that you've seen computer-generated mass-battles done right in Lord of the Rings, Jar-Jar zaniness infests every scene, and the whole thing is completely lacking in tension. Better to just skip it and stick to the other plotline.If you haven't seen a movie featuring computer animation in the last few years, you may still be impressed by the special effects showcased here. But, then again, maybe not: I remember thinking the whole thing looked fakey even in 2001.
1:53:051:53:350:30More Gungan v. droids.If you've skipped all the scenes I've suggested above, you could watch this one to remind yourself how Jar-Jar almost singlehandedly ruined the Star Wars franchise.
1:54:321:55:190:47One of the stupidest escape sequences ever committed to celluloid.Actually, this one is so awful it's almost worth watching.
1:56:401:58:101:30More Gungan v. DroidsYou know, trying to find positive things to say about this movie is wearying.
2:09:452:16:006:15End creditsYou're dying to know who the gaffer was.

Total time saved: 42:42 (although I'll admit that including the end credits in the time is kinda cheating).

Conclusion: Rather to my surprise, The Phantom Menace was every bit as bad as I remembered. I thought that perhaps it had gotten worse in my memory, but, nope: it's full-on travesty. The saddest thing is that the first 10 minutes of the film are very promising, making minutes 11-138 all the more tragic, like spotting a $100 bill on the sidewalk, bending over to pick it up, and having a piano dropped on you.

"Unlike you I am not an idiot and have no intention to rewatching Phantom Menace, so why don't you sum up?": You can find a very thorough summary here. In a nutshell, though, there are three main points:

  • Senator Palpatine, in the guise of Darth Sidious, engineers the invasion of Naboo, knowing that the Republic's Chancellor will be unable to deal with it. When his prediction proves true, Palpatine arranges for a vote of no-confidence in the current leadership, and, in its aftermath, is voted into the position of Chancellor -- his true aim all along.
  • Qui-Gon and Obi Wan, two Jedis, encounter a boy named Anakin Skywalker, who has more innate ability with the Force than anyone they have ever met. Anakin is taken to the Jedi Council where he proves his aptitude with the Force. The Council refuses to train him, however, saying that he is too old and full of fear. Qui-Gon defiantly decides to train Anakin himself, and the Council grudgingly agrees. When Qui-Gon later dies, he makes Obi Wan promise to continue Anakin's training.
  • Qui-Gon and Obi Wan are attacked by Darth Maul, a member of a group called the Sith that was thought long extinct. The Jedi Council considers the reemergence of the Sith be be worrisome in the extreme.
Random revelation: I have long assumed that the title of the final movie in the series, Return of the Jedi, refers to Luke Skywalker. At some point in watching Phantom Menace, though, it occurred to me that the titular Jedi could be Darth Vader -- when Luke is on the verge of being killed, the Jedi in Anakin returns and intervenes.

May 24, 2005

Movies: Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Don't panic, it's pretty good. Or, more to the point, it's not too bad.

"Bad" is certainly what I was anticipating from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy movie. My low expectations were the result of two things: (a) a scathing pre-release review written by MJ Simpson, Douglas Adams' biographer, who blasted the makers of the film for, in his word, "leaving out all the jokes"; and (2) my personal opinion that Hitchhiker's is fundamentally unsuited for the big screen. Yes, I know it's already been made into a radio play and few television shows and a text adventure game and, for all I know, a breakfast cereal. But of all the forms of media, film is the least kind toward absurdity, and Hitchhiker's is a profoundly absurd work.

Both of my concerns proved to be true: The silliness in Hitchhiker's didn't translate well, and they took out most of the jokes. Fortunately, the second ameliorates the first, and the whole thing turns out about as good as this particular adaptation could possibly be.

Here's an example that Simpson, in his review, cites as proof that the material was given a joke-ectomy:

Book

"I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the Display Department."

"With a torch."

"The lights had probably gone."

"So had the stairs."

"But you found the plans, didn't you?"

"Oh yes, they were 'on display' in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the leopard.'"

Movie:

"I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"But you found the plans, didn't you?"

I remembered reading this when the line "I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them" cropped up in the film. But instead of thinking "They've ruined a classic!' I found myself musing, "well, yeah -- the other way probably would have been too long." Blasphemy I know*.

Which isn't to say that Hitchhiker's trademark silliness is completely missing -- it's there, but watered down and spread out. The movie intersperses bits from the book -- scenes lifted directly from the novel, guide entries, etc. -- with traditional motion picture fare like action sequences and muted bits of exposition. It's as if they decided to just split the difference between Hitchhiker's outlandishness and Hollywood's reluctance to think outside the proverbial box. Granted, Hollywood gets the upper hand in the end, but up until that point it works pretty well.

Martin Freeman makes for a pretty good Authur Dent; Dent isn't the complete loser he was in the books, but he's still pretty useless. Mos Def does an okay Ford Prefect (though his performance is so sedated that he makes Ford seems like a secondary character) and I liked Sam Rockwell's Zaphod quite a bit. And Zooey Deschanel is very pleasant to look at, though the character of Trillian was considerably altered in the adaptation (she's a lot nicer in the film).

Truth be told, I agree with almost everything MJ Simpson says in his review -- the film isn't terribly funny, the plot is now full of "convenience and unexplained happenings," Marvin is all but superfluous -- but I don't agree with his conclusion that the film is "vastly, staggeringly, jaw-droppingly bad" and "the script is amazingly, mindbogglingly awful." More to the point, I think that the movie would have been worse if they had been more faithful to the book, and I'm a bit surprised they managed to make it even halfway decent. Not exactly a rave review, but better than the one I'd expected to write.

* That said, the omission of "Mostly Harmless" is unforgivable.
May 02, 2005

I Find Your Lack Of Banjo Disturbing

Word on the street is that Revenge of the Sith is dark -- like really, really dark, darker even than The Empire Strikes Back. That's too bad. I'm sure I speak for all Star Wars fans everywhere when I say that the comic hijinks of C3PO, Jar-Jar, and those loveable Ewoks have been our favorite parts of the series.

Fortunately the film doesn't come out for another week, so it's not too late for George Lucus to turn that frown upside-down. And I have a great idea as to how he could do it. I think he should reveal that the grill on the front of Darth Vader's mask is, in fact, a built-in harmonica, and during those lonely moments when Darth is by himself -- eating a microwave dinner at home or waiting for a bus or whatever -- he will sometimes breath out a few verses of "Oh, Susanna" to keep his spirits up.

Maybe the helmet's technology could even allow him to sing along while playing:

Oh I come from planet Tatooine,
The weather, it was dry.
Was a Jedi knight, but now I'm bad
Oh Padmé don't you cry.

Amidala
Oh don't you cry for me,
Cuz I'm happy on the dark side with
My master Palpatine ...

April 13, 2005

Movies: Sin City

I like comic book movies, even when I don't particularly care for the comic books they are based on. Hellboy, Blade, The Crow -- even The X-Men is an example of a film I enjoyed way more than the source material.

I've read a couple of the Sin City trade paperbacks, and found them largely uninteresting. The characters, action, and dialogue all seemed lifted from Mickey Spillane novels and back issues of The Punisher. Plus, I'm no fan of Miller's art -- where others see a distinctive style, I see a guy who can't draw a straight line. And if I wanted my story in black & white, I'd just read a novel.

But black & white motion pictures I like. And as I said, I'll go see pretty much any comic book movie, regardless of my opinion of the book. So I caught of late show of Sin City last Friday. Based on the trailer my expectations for the film were moderately high, and they were exceeded by a considerable amount.

Sin City contains three stories which, while distinct, share a few overlapping characters, settings, and elements. They are told in a noir style that's so hyperbolic as to border on parody: all the women are buxom, all the men can take a bullet and shrug it off as a flesh wound, all the villains have a distinct look and a distinct method for dispatching their victims. Bruce Willis stars in the first chapter, and essentially reprises his world-weary tough-guy role from Pulp Fiction and Unbreakable. (That's a good thing -- he's really good at that role*.) His portrayal of a good cop beaten down by the unrelenting corruption of his force sets the stage for all the subsequent tales, each of which features a few of Basin City's rare noble citizens struggling for justice in a town where everyday life is akin to that of a maximum security prison.

Frank Miller is cited as the film's co-director (he's even given top billing over Robert Rodriguez) and his presence is noticeable. The movie has just the right amount of "comic book physics" -- cars go over hills and catch 10 seconds of air, strongmen shatter wooden doors with a single punch -- but still feels tethered, if just barely, to the real world. That the scenes look just like something out of a graphic novel is not my subjective opinion -- check out these side-by-side comparisons of panels from the books and stills from the movie and marvel at the exactitude. It's as if the Sin City graphic novels were the storyboards for the film.

And, in fact, I think that's why I didn't like them. I went back and reread The Big Fat Kill after seeing the movie, and it doesn't seem like a finished product; it seemed like the rough draft for something great. And that something great is now showing at a theater near you.

* So good at this role that I has me thinking the unthinkable: Bruce Willis as Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Somebody make it quick, before I come to my senses.
March 29, 2005

Me And The Queen, At The Movies

Capsule reviews for the last three films we've seen on DVD:

Sky Captain And the World Of Tomorrow:

M: As a long-time fan of "1950's science-fiction," I was prepared to love this Sky Captain despite its lukewarm critical reception. And the first hour of exposition lived up to my expectations. But as it became increasingly clear that exposition was all the film had to offer -- plot clearly having come as an afterthought -- my interest waned considerably. Like Chicago, Sky Captain is an interesting attempt at reviving a cinematic style of yesteryear. But unlike Chicago, this one doesn't succeed.

Q: Pretty boring.

I ♥ Huckabees
M: Though isolated scenes in Huckabees made me laugh out loud, it seemed to lack a consistent narrative to string them together into a cohesive whole. With a shorter run time and a bit more focus (though the former would probably beget the latter) this could have been a favorite of mine; in its current state it was simply too scattershot for my tastes.

Q: Really boring.

Mr. 3000:
M: A very conventional Sports Movie, but with enough tweaks to set it apart from most. Despite starring Bernie Mac and incorporating plenty of humor, Mr. 3000 is not an out-and-out comedy, and instead walks a tightrope between The Natural and Major League with no small amount of skill. And it even manages to integrates its product placements well. Recommended to aficionados of the "Sports Movie" genre, or anyone in the mood for a guaranteed-good-but-by-no-means-great rental.

Q: It wasn't completely terrible. But it was pretty boring.

February 28, 2005

Movies: Million Dollar Baby

For a guy who has absolutely no interest in the sport of boxing, I sure loves me some boxing movies. Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, Southpaw. I saw Rocky for the first time a few weeks ago and thought it was fantastic.

So I was predisposed to like Million Dollar Baby -- the "boxing movie" element of it, at any rate. At the same time, I didn't have the highest of expectations for the film. I had been completely underwhelmed by Eastwood's last film, Mystic River. Even while the critics raved, I couldn't help but think that it was just a pastiche of scenes and characters from other, better mob movies, that, when paired with an over-long run time, made for a mediocre movie at best.

That's pretty much all I knew about the movie when I entered the theater last week. And if that all you know about it now, do yourself a favor and skip the rest of this review and just go see it. But I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone can not know more, now that the film has up and won the Best Picture Oscar. So the rest of you, read on.

Maggie is thirty, from the wrong side of town park, certain that she wants to be boxer and certain that Frankie Dunn is the one who should train her. Frankie is seventy, owner of a boxing club, and certain of only one thing: he doesn't want to train Maggie. But Maggie wins him over with perseverance and charm, and, with Frankie in her corner, begins an amazing ascent to the top of first her class, and then the sport of women's boxing itself. meanwhile, the father-daughter bond between the two grows ever stronger.

Boxing movies like to pretend that they are really relationship movies, that the sparring is metaphor for the struggle we must all fight to communicate with others. But for most, this facade is fairly superficial. Million Dollar Baby turns out to be an honest-to-goodness relationship movie, even going so far as to drop the boxing analogy about two-thirds of the way through. I didn't know this was going to happen, and even after it did I kept waiting for the boxing movie to resume. When it finally dawned on me that film had completely metmorphasized from one genre to another, I was pleasantly surprised, and walked out of the cinema thinking it had been one of the best movies I'd seen in a spell.

But here's the thing, folks: I strongly suspect that if I'd known that this was going to be a relationship film from the get-go, I wouldn't liked it nearly as much. I may have hated it, even. Because, I retrospect, it occurs to me that the whole thing was freighted down with lots and lots of cliched sentimental clap-trap, the sort of stuff you found in every relationship movie ever made. I even recognized this at the time, but, thinking that I was watching a boxing movie, gave it a pass -- much as you might excuse the execrable love scenes in The Matrix: Reloaded, thinking, we'll, it's an adventure movie, not a romance. (The rest of Reloaded was, alas, inexcusable.) Were I to see Million Dollar Baby a second time (and I won't), I'm guessing I would have much the same reaction to this film as I did to Mystic River: "I've seen all of this before, and Eastwood hasn't improved it a smidgen."

But all that is speculation. What I know for a fact is this: I expected to like Million Dollar Baby because it was a boxing movie, and wound up loving it because it was not. I'm hesitant to recommended it to anyone who knows more about it than I did going in (e.g., anyone who read this whole review), but if you are one of those people who (like me) just reads the first paragraph and last line of reviews to avoid spoiling movies you have yet to see, check this one out.

January 28, 2005

DIY Oscar Pool Page

By popular demand (yes! there was actual demand!) the Make-Yer-Own Oscar Pool Page has been updated for 2005.

If you notice any bugs, or if you just have suggestions to make it better, don't hesitate to let me know.

November 15, 2004

Movies: The Incredibles

Ask me to name my favorite movies of all time and I will start with the classics in an effort to impress you: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, Casablanca, etc. Then, when I think you're stopped paying attention, I may slip in The Iron Giant.

"The Iron Giant?" you might reply, if my efforts to sneak the title past you fail. "Dude, isn't that a cartoon movie for little boys?"

Pffffft! No! No, it is totally not a "cartoon movie for little boys!" It's a, y'know. An animated movie. For the, um. For the young at heart.

Anyway, I was so impressed with The Iron Giant that I found myself anxiously awaiting writer / director Bard Bird's next film. And waiting, and waiting. Finally, five years later, I heard that he was making a superhero movie with Pixar. Brad Bird and superheroes and Pixar, all in one movie? That's, like, the goodness trifecta! Of course, with expectations that high, the film would have to be fantastic not to leave me disappointed. And it's a testament to the quality of The Incredibles that I left the theater feeling exhilarated instead of let-down.

Bob Parr is Mr. Incredible -- well, he was, until he married Elastic Girl, retired, and started raising a family. Now he has three kids (older of which have superpowers of their own) and spends his evenings hanging out with Frozone (or, rather, the guy who used to be Frozone, until he, too, retired) reminiscing about the glory days of rescuing kittens and punching out bad guys. Needless to say, Bob eventually finds an excuse to resume his superheroics, and before his adventures are through the whole family is in costume and fighting evil.

Comic book aficionados will recognize that almost no aspect of the plot is original, from the reason behind Mr. Incredible retirement to the the origin of the villain to the superpowers of the characters. (Violet's special abilities, in particular, seem like a copyright infringement lawsuit waiting to happen.) Surprisingly, this actually works to the film's advantage, as employing comic book archetypes let's them skip over the tedious exposition that bogs down so many superhero movies. (It's never explained, for instance, how Mr. Incredible, Elastic Girl and Frozone got their powers.) And this, in turns, allows them to focus solely on the story.

The story, incidentally, is a bit more sophisticated that you might expect. Yes, this is still a film geared primary for kids, but it makes an obvious effort to steer clear of the typical Disney movie claptrap. ("Everyone is special," says Elastic Girl to her son at one point. "That's just another way of saying nobody is special," he retorts.) And the action sequences and violence, while not overboard, earn the film its PG rating.

The one aspect of the film that I was worried about was the animation, as even Pixar hasn't quite gotten CG human beings to look right. Thankfully, they don't try and make the characters look photorealistic, and they don't shoot for full-on cartoons, either. Instead, they hit a happy medium, making Mr. Incredible and his brood look like they've been sculpted out of putty. It's somewhat ironic that the most advanced animation effects in the world are being used to emulate the primitive art of claymation, but it was a wise choice, and it looks great.

So: a hearty recommendation for The Incredibles, which may very well wind up as my #1 pick for the year. And do yourself a favor: catch the film in a cinema. You might be tempted to wait for the DVD, but seeing the movie in a theater full of kids adds immeasurably to the experience.

September 27, 2004

Movies: Shaun Of The Dead

The typical American zombie would find slim-pickings, brains-wise, behind the scenes of the typical American zombie movie. With the possible exception of the "underdog practices and practices and practices and eventually goes on to win the big championship" sports movie, no other category of film seems to have to have so little variation between individual entries. The undead are always slow, the heroines are always buxom, the protagonists always get picked off one by one. Not that I'm complaining -- I like buxom heroines -- but after seeing 28 days Later, the British "reinvention of the genre," my interest in the typical American zombie movie pretty much evaporated. I mean, how sad is it when you can reinvent a whole genre just by realizing that zombies that run are scarier than zombies that mosey?

I therefore passed on the Dawn Of The Dead remake, and didn't even consider going to see Resident Evil: Apocalypse. But when I heard that another Brit had "reinvented the genre" yet again, my interest was piqued. So I once again headed to the theater to see what new bottle they could pour this old wine into, and once again I loved the results.

Director and screenwriter Edgar Wright describes Shaun of The Dead as a "Zom Rom Com" -- that's "zombie romantic comedy" to the uninitiated. The premise is so commonplace that it hardly bears repeating: a virus is sweeping through the country, killing citizens and animating their mindless corpses. The undead stagger about the city in search of victims to eat or infect, and, within days, the bulk of the population has been converted, with small bands of survivors desperately trying to fend off the zombie hordes.

How can you cram a "romantic comedy" into such a bleak storyline, you might ask. As it turns out, it's not as difficult as you might imagine -- Wright certainly makes it look easy, at any rate. In essence, he just took the standard "guy strives to get his girl back" romance, plunked it into the middle of the standard "living dead are taking over the world" universe, and let the comedy take care of itself.

In fact, what's impressive about Shaun is how little it deviates from the conventional romantic comedy or conventional zombie movie -- if you were to divorce the plotlines you'd be left with two very mediocre films. What makes the movie shine is the skill with which Wright blends the disparate elements. He also has a knack for taking very routine "horror movie" scenes and changing their focus just enough to point out their absurdities, eliciting belly-laughs from moments that otherwise have otherwise produced winces (or yawns). And it doesn't hurt that his sense of comedic timing is grand.

Which isn't to say that Shaun isn't scary -- there are actually quite a few startling moments in there. In fact, there's a enough of each of the components -- zombies, romance, comedy -- to satiate the viewer's desire for each without letting any single motif overwhelm the rest. Shaun Of The Dead ain't the best film I've seen all year, but it's cquite possibly the most enjoyable.

September 09, 2004

Movies: Garden State

Much as "alternative" music has become the mainstream, "quirky" movies are now so common that they have become a genre unto themselves. That's fine by me, as many of my favorite flicks are those by the quirkmeisters: Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch and the like. But for every Spike Jonze there's a dozen filmmakers who woo guys like me by shoehorning a dozen non-sequiturs into a mundane storyline and then showcasing them all in the commercials. When watching trailers, I am chary of any film that wears its zany on its sleeve.

So despite the fact that the preview made Garden State look like exactly the kind of film I enjoy, I was fairly certain that it was all an elaborate trap. Surprise! Garden State is exactly the kind of film I enjoy.

All the capsule reviews describe the film like so: Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) has been on antidepressants since childhood, but goes cold turkey while home for his mother's funeral and visiting with his childhood friends. This makes Garden State sound very high-concept: man stops taking his meds, wacky hijinx ensue! Fortunately, the film is considerably more low-concept than the one-liner would have you believe -- while hijinx do ensue and there's no shortage of wacky, everything is muted by Braff's deadpan and almost somnambulistic performance.

And much of the film is devoted to character studies, albeit of oddball and somewhat superficial characters. The most important character quickly becomes Sam (Natalie Portman), whom Andrew meets while having his leg humped by a companion dog in the waiting room of a neurologist. (It's that kind of movie.) There's no great chemistry between the two, but they are both so idiosyncratic that it seems clear that each is the only person who could possibly stand the other for long periods of time. Throw in a couple of Andrew's kooky high school friends (one is a gravedigger, another lucked into a bajillion dollars), give the whole kit and caboodle a slightly hallucinogenic feel, and you have a film that can be described by the word "comedy" preceded by any of "ensemble," "romantic," "screwball" or "stoner."

Shortly after the film began, The Queen leaned over to me and whispered, of Zach Braff, "This guy is really funny -- he's on that TV show I like, Scrubs." My first thought was "even if he's fabulous, how does a guy on a b-list sitcom wind up as the star of a major motion picture opposite Natalie Portman?" The answer, I discovered afterwards by looking up Garden State on IMDB, is that the guy on the b-list sitcom writes and directs said movie himself. Much as I enjoyed Garden State I don't think it was perfect -- I'd give it three-and-a-half stars out of four -- but as directorial debut it's about as impressive as they come.

(One last comment. I'm not one to rave about a movie's music, since I generally consider the whole CD-to-motion-picture tie-in aspect to be little more than a cynical marketing scheme, but the soundtrack for Garden State can only be described as "crazy great": Zero 7, The Shins, Thievery Corporation, and a Postal Service cover that almost improves upon the original. By the time they got around to playing Frou Frou I was convinced that the person who had assembled the music for the film was, in fact, me. )

Note: The comments for this post got deleted. Sorry, all.

[ link | Movies]


August 13, 2004

Movies: The Manchurian Candidate and The Bourne Supremacy

I so infrequently get to the movies these days that it was something of a minor miracle that I saw two films in two days last week. Unfortunately I squandered this historic opportunity by kind of going to see the same movie twice.

The first time it was called The Manchurian Candidate. When Angela Langsbury was told that Jonathan Demme was remaking the classic 1962 film in which she starred, her reaction was "What a shame -- it was perfect the way it was." Frankly I was inclined to agree, but my curiosity was piqued when the rave reviews started trickling in. Plus, I was was interested to see how they would drag the exceedingly dated piece into the 21st century.

Candidate is a nightmare of a movie, but I mean that as description rather than as criticism. The action takes place 20 minutes in the future (to borrow a phrase from Max Headroom), in a world that's a slightly exaggerated version of our own. As in the original, the plot centers around a conspiracy to infiltrate the US Government, although this time the Big Bad is corporate America rather than the Communist party. The story begins during the first Gulf War, when we meet Ben Marco, the leader of a unit doing reconnaissance in Iraq. When the squad is ambushed and Marcos is knocked out, Private Raymond Shaw bravely assumes control and manages to get the men to safety with minimal casualties. That, at least, is what Marcos has been told -- because he was unconscious at the time he has no independent memory of the event. But the recollections of the other soldiers are highly (uncannily) specific about Shaw's heroics, and even the US Government acknowledged his extraordinary actions by awarding him the Medal of Honor.

Fast-forward to today, where Shaw is a Vice Presidential candidate and Marco is stuck giving pep talks to Boy Scouts. As Shaw's political viability is predicated on his wartime heroics, Marco decides to use this opportunity to resolve a few niggling discrepancies that mar the otherwise perfect description of what took place during the gap in his memory. But even more troublesome to Marco is not the flaws in the legend, but the fact that, in his dreams, he "remembers" a completely different account of events, one that's as sinister as it is outlandish.

The second film I saw was The Bourne Supremacy, a sequel the surprise hit The Bourne Identity. (Actually, I don't know if the success of Identity was really unexpected, but it was a hit with me, and that was something of a surprise.) It's Matt Damon again as the titular Jason Bourne, a guy the CIA trained as a perfect killing machine and then tried to snuff after he lost his memory and went all "rogue agent" on them. As in the previous movie, sinister forces are again pursuing Bourne and he has no idea who or why -- and, thanks to his amnesia, doesn't even know if he should know who or why.

The tagline for the film could have been "This time it's personal." Pissed that he has again become a target after setting his affairs in order at the end of the first film, Bourne decides to seek out his attackers and take the fight to them. This gives the film a bit of a different dynamic than the prior installment, but there's still no denying that The Bourne Supremacy, is, at its core, a two hour chase scene. Because Bourne's CIA training apparently didn't include seminars on disguise how to change clothes, the baddies have little trouble locating him and, consequentially, he is always on the movie.

(The other thing always in this movie, alas, is the camera, to the point where I sometimes felt like I was watching The Blair Witch Supremacy. Most of the time I found this frenetic style is tolerable, but some of the action scenes look like the directory tied a rope to the camera and twirled it over his head. I know of at least two people who said Supremacy's "shaky camera syndrome" made them nauseated, and even I left the theater with a low-grade headache, so buyer beware.)

The Bourne Supremacy is an exciting and well-made movie, and contains one of the best car chase scenes ever committed to film. Still, about halfway through the film I had the disheartening realization that I had just seen this movie, albeit it a different guise. The protagonists of both Supremacy and Candidates are ex-governmental officers who are rushing to decipher conspiracies that are somehow linked to their memory problems. The directors of both films attempt to convey the paranoia their heroes suffer by giving the movie a "fog of war" feel, with assorted chronological and cinematic tricks employed to jumble the linear story. And at the end of either the viewer is left with the realization that there was considerably less plot in the film than the convoluted narrative structure would have had you believe.

Still, both films are quite enjoyable and either is suitable for an evening of light entertainment, so I'd happily recommend one or the other. But not both.

August 12, 2004

Hows Your News On DVD

My favorite movie of 2002 (well, excluding The Two Towers, which was in a class by itself) is finally out on DVD

[ link | Movies]


August 11, 2004

There Can Be Only One

Apparently they are making an Alien vs. Predator movie, perhaps because of the success of last year's Jason vs. Freddy. That's cool, I guess, but there are so many other matchups I'd rather see.

In fact, I think they should just go whole hog, pair up all the movie villians March Madness style, and settle the issue once and for all.

Click for larger, office-pool sized sheet.

Go Anne Wilkes -- I got five bucks on ya!

Update: Good gravy, how did I forget the Deliverance hillbillies?! Added them at arto's suggestion.

Also: Jason went ahead and filled out the sheet; Mr. Grooism wrote something similar to this in January.

August 04, 2004

Movies: Spider-Man II

Holy smokes, I went and saw a movie.

As I've mentioned before, I was primarily a DC man in my comic-book reading days. I liked my heroes simple and my stories uncomplicated by the angst and social commentary that Marvel employed. I read The Amazing Spider-Man of course, because, duh, you were practically required to read at least one Spider-Man title if you wanted to keep up your end of a conversation at a comic store. But I can't say that I was ever a huge fan of Peter Parker and his woebegone adventures. It seemed like every issue his best friend would turn into a super villain and kill his girlfriend, or Aunt May would fall down a well, or whatever. And even when things went right, when Spidey defeated the bad guy and saved the day, he would invariably get pelted by garbage thrown by bystanders who had read the most recent Daily Bugle editorial. Sure, all this was to make a point -- that with Spider-Man's great power came great responsibility -- but it often left me wondering why Peter Parker even bothered. More to the point, it left me wonder why I bothered to read it. Hell, I was living the life of a junior high school student, so it's not like I needed any more grief. So perhaps it's no surprise that I was a bit lukewarm on the first Spider-Man film.

Still, I was excited about the sequel, because my favorite villain in Spidey's rogue's gallery has always been Doctor Octopus. Possibly Spider-Man's most lethal and powerful enemy, Dr. Oct was also a complete loser, an overweight schlub whose plans for world domination were as often thwarted by his own insecurities than by the efforts of the wall-crawler. Every match between the two was essentially "Guy Who Can't Get A Break vs. Guy Who Can't Get His Act Together," and I looked forward to seeing this brawl on the big screen.

But the first hour of Spider-Man II was a veritable primer on everything I disliked about the comic book, with Peter losing his job, behind on his rent, bummed about his non-existent love life, and agonizing over Aunt May's penury. And yet, for some reason, I found myself sympathetic towards Peter rather than simply annoyed by him. I'd love to cite my newfound appreciation for complex character studies as proof that I have matured in the 15 years since I stopped reading comic books, but since I know for a fact that that hasn't happened, there must be something else at work here.

If I had to guess, I'd say that "something else" is Michael Chabon, author of my favorite book of 2002 and one of three Spider-Man II story writers. Chabon has a gift for writing about both heroes (The Escapist in Kavalier and Clay) and regular down-on-the-luck schmoes (the professor in Wonder Boys), so it seems like he'd be a natural for tackling the Peter Parker / Spider-Man dichotomy. Chabon or no, I bought into the whole "tortured teen as superhero" backstory this go-round, where, in the previous installment, it left me unmoved. And it's a good thing, too, since the story was more "Spider-Man vs. Peter Parker" than "Spider-Man vs. supervillian".

And when it got around to those "Spider-Man vs. supervillian" scenes, the film did not disappoint. Okay, maybe there was a little disappointment, plotwise. For one thing, I like my Bad Guys bad, not just conflicted. And there were certain aspects of Doctor Octopus origins and motivation that were introduced in the unmistakable style of "well this doesn't really make much sense but HEY LOOK OVER HERE!!" But once the two superdudes started pounding the tar out of each other, all was forgiven. I wouldn't call the special effects in S-MII a vast improvement over those in the first film, but they had at least advanced enough that I wasn't sitting in the theater wondering why I'd paid $9 to watch an X-Box game. And at least one sequence, a lengthy brawl upon a train, ranks among the best fight scenes in recent memory.

(Better still, Doctor Octopus's tentacles look a lot like the "squids" the Neo and Morpheus fought. So if you squint your eyes just right while during Spider-Man II you can kind of pretend like you're watching a sequel to The Matrix that doesn't totally suck.)

Spider-Man II has been hailed by some as the best superhero film since Superman. I dunno if I'd go that far, but between this film and X-Men United I'd definitely say the superhero genre is hitting its stride. S-MII not only reminded me of everything I liked about The Amazing Spider-Man back when I was a reader, but even made me retroactively appreciate that those things that I disliked at the time. It's a rare superhero movie that actually makes me wish I'd spend more time during my formatives years holed up in my bedroom and wasting away the days with a stack of comic books.

P.s. See, this is the kind of meticulous backstory that makes Spider-Man such an intriguing character.

May 31, 2004

Movies: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Ah, Memorial Day. What better time to review Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

In the weeks after The Squirrelly was born, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Wracked with sleep deprivation, my memory -- which barely ranks an "adequate" even under the best of circumstances -- essentially packed up and went on sabbatical. It got to the point where the only thing I could remember from one moment to the next was the fact that I couldn't remember a thing. I went out a bought a big whiteboard for my kitchen so I could write down anything of relevance; when people told me things I'd politely request that they retell their stories some day in the future when I emerged from my fog. It was odd to be cognizant of the fact that all these momentous things were happening to me as I struggled through the first days of fatherhood, and to be equally aware that I would soon recall almost none of them.

That's thing about memory: it defines you, yet it's so damn fickle. Many films have grappled with this paradox -- Memento, The Bourne Identity, Total Recall, etc. -- but few have done so as thought provokingly as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It's a retelling of the classic story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl visits Lacuna Incorporated to have all memories of their relationship purged via a high-tech neurological procedure. The next time the ex-lovers cross paths, Joel (Jim Carrey) is astounded to discover that Clementine (Kate Winslet) has no recollection of their time together; when he's clued in to what she has done, he resolves to visit Lacuna and have the relationship excised from his head as well.

Here I expected the film to fast-forward to the aftermath of the operation, when Joel and Clementine, neither able to recall their previous life together, cross path again and wacky hijinks ensue. That just demonstrates the folly of trying to predict anything in a film written by Charlie Kaufman, he of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Where any other film would have glossed over the details of the erasure, using it simply as the means to an end (wacky hijinks), Eternal instead embeds the bulk of the story right into the procedure, cutting between the recollections in Joel's head that have been targeted for elimination, and assorted concurrent events in the outside world.

Thus, the audience learns the history of the relationship via Joel's memories, even as they are being eradicated from his mind; every advance we gain in our understanding of the couple is matched by a corresponding loss in Joel's . This has the effect of making these scene especially poignant, as if these memories are being taken from Joel and entrusted into our care. And, surprisingly, wacky hijinks never ensue. Although the script is plenty bizarre and there is no shortage of funny moments, the subject matter is, by and large, treated with respect and sobriety.

What's interesting about Eternal is that the central story is not the science-fiction premise of memory erasing, but the very traditional love story at it's core. It's a credit to the skill of Kaufman and director Michel Gondry that the mind-bending aspects of the framing device enhance rather than detract from the telling of Joel and Clementine's story. Absent the unusual premise, Eternal could have been a frightfully dull mediation on the very time-worn tale of human relationships: passion + time = boredom and irritation; instead, the filmmakers pull off a masterful slight-of-hand that, like Lacuna Incorporated, makes us forget that we've seen this story a dozen times before, allowing us to enjoy it as if seeing it for the very first time.

May 06, 2004

Movies: Kill Bill Vol. 2

Note: Minor spoilers for Kill Bill Vol. 1 herein. Also, the comments to this post are not spoiler-free, so, like, caveat emptor, and whatever.

Kill Bill is a fantastic movie. I'm not speaking here of Volume 1 or Volume 2, or even the two films watched back-to-back. No, I speak here of the mythical, single-movie Kill Bill that director Quentin Tarantino first set out to make, before it was decided to rive the film into two. I am certain that that movie, despite the fact that it does not and may never exist, is wonderful, with a sum much greater than it's parts.

Not that the parts are bad. Indeed, I loved Kill Bill Vol. 1 in spite of myself. And I'm please to report that Kill Bill Vol. 2 is also quite good. But my enjoyment of the second half was somewhat diminished by my wish that the whole kit and caboodle had been one three-and-a-half hour motion picture.

The problem, to my mind, is one of packaging. In splitting the movie into two they had to make each a self-contained unit, and he did so by putting almost all of the exposition into one movie and almost all of the action into another. Of course, as we all learned in ninth-grade English class, exposition goes at the start of a story, which exactly where Tarantino puts it; But then, having never been a slave to linear chronology, he goes on to put the beginning of the story in the second movie. Here we learn the history of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, the background to the wedding-turned-massacre, and where The Bride learned to kick so much ass. In other words, we learn everything that puts the events of the first film in context.

But, see, here's the thing -- I liked Kill Bill Vol 1. plenty despite the lack of context -- because of it, even. For a revenge fantasy to succeed, all you really need is a wronged hero(ine) and a roster of baddies for the protagonist to work over. And this goes double for a film as action-packed as Volume 1. While I left the theater curious about the backstory, I honestly didn't expect Tarantino to devote two-thirds of the sequel to explication -- especially insofar as The Bride only tacked two of her adversaries in the first film and had three left on her list, leaving me to believe that the second would have even more mayhem than first.

So maybe I'm (again) a victim of false expectations, but I couldn't help but feel that Kill Bill Vol. 2, while a fine film in it's own right, was something of a letdown in comparison to it's predecessor. I entered the theater wondering "how on Earth is Tarantino going to top the epic fight between The Bride and O-Ren?" and only realized 90 minutes in that he wasn't going to try. It's a bit of a bummer of have the climax of a two-film series come before the middle mark.

Curiously, even though much of Vol 2 is spent providing answers, I came away from this film with even more questions than I did after the first one. While O-Ren's biography was exhaustively sketched out, we really don't learn anything about the background of Budd or Elle Driver in this one For every loose end this installment ties up, it merrily unravels two others. By meticulously detailing some aspects of the backstory, the film inadvertently calls attention to those that go completely unexplained. I rather preferred the first film's "comic book mentality," where Uma could wield a samurai sword and will her paralyzed feet to move simply because she could, end of story.

I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, but it seems to me that if the two movies had been merged, the chapters shuffled around a bit, and an hour excised from the whole shebang, Kill Bill would have been a masterpiece. Instead, we got two pretty good movies. Some might argue that two is better than one no matter who you slice it, but, personally, I'll take the former over the latter any day.

March 31, 2004

Hit Of The Year

Also, I heard actor Jim Caviezel will reprise his role for the next film in the series. Hopefully he'll only appear in flashbacks sequences or play his twin brother or something. I mean, the whole "bring the lead character back to life in the sequel" thing is so played.

[ link | Movies]


February 19, 2004

Movies: Lost In Translation

When I named my favorite movies of 2003, there was a caveat. "I somehow never got around to seeing Lost In Translation," I wrote after listing the top five, "but I have a hunch that it might have been up there."

Once in a great while one of my hunches turns out to be correct -- although rarely as resoundingly correct as this one turned out to be. Not only would Lost In Translation have made my Top Five, it would have placed squarely in my Top One.

Indeed, Translation crossed the magical line that divides, in my mind, the very good movies from the great: it left me feeling completely ensorcelled by the time the closing credits rolled. This happens to me from time to time, but only rarely, and only with the most extraordinary of films: the first two Lord of the Rings movies, Memento, How's Your News and a handful of others in the last few years. In theater the term is "transported": to be carried away with strong and often intensely pleasant emotion. And the beauty of Translation is such that I not only felt transported emotionally, but physically as well: it was if I was actually visiting Japan.

Set in Tokyo, the whisper-thin plot revolves around Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a washed up action star in town to film a whiskey commercial for two million bucks. Estranged from his wife, resigned to his fate, and unable to get a good night's sleep, Bob bumbles about his surroundings like a bee in a jar. Meanwhile, in the same hotel, the recently married Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is realizing that her husband of two years is largely a stranger to her. Her spouse is a photographer of rock bands and she has accompanied him to Japan for a shoot. As the husband is slowly drawn into the superficial world of celebrity, Charlotte begins to consider herself as essentially on her own.

Like two somnambulists bumping into one another in the dark, Bob and Charlotte eventually cross paths in the hotel lounge, and the remainder of the movie is about the unusual bond that forms between them. After Charlotte's husband leaves Tokyo for a weeklong business trip, the two begin spending their sleepless nights together: watching TV, partying with friends, or simply conversing about topics big and small. Befuddled by the local culture, the two rely on one another to stay sane and keep a looming cloud of depression at bay.

The acting in Translation is astounding -- or, rather, would have be astounding if both Murray and Johansson weren't so skilled at making the audience believe that they aren't acting at all. The scenes of intimacy between the two are so uncannily authentic that, at times, the film feels like a documentary. And every time you think the screenplay is going to take a turn for the predictable, it doesn't.

I would have loved Translation for these reasons alone, but two other factors put the film into the class of my favorites. First, the sense of dislocation expressed so eloquently by the two leads was hauntingly familiar to me, and recalled to mind my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia. anyone who has ever been stranded in a foreign culture owes it to themselves to see the movie.

But here's the real reason why this film moved me like few others. The Queen and I had decided to go see our Last Movie Ever as a childless couple on Saturday, and Lost In Translation was our mutual pick. We'd all but forgotten that it was February 14th (expecting a baby to arrive any moment will do that to you) and, knowing nothing of the film, we didn't realize that it was a romance of sorts, so we sort of stumbled into the perfect Valentine's Day date by accident. Then, halfway through the film we were treated to this dialog:

Bob: It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids.

Charlotte: It's scary.

Bob: The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.

Charlotte: Nobody ever tells you that.

Bob: Your life, as you know it ... is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk ... and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.

Standing, as we are, on the precipice of parenthood, this is exactly what we needed to hear.

And this exchange neatly encapsulates the essence of the film: life -- and relationships -- are hard. But ultimately worth the effort.

If Lost In Translation is still playing at a nearby theater and you haven't seen it yet, please make an effort to do so. It's wonderful, wonderful.

February 18, 2004

Make-Yer-Own Oscar Pool Page

Okay, the 2004 Make-Yer-Own Oscar Pool Page is up and running. Sorry I got it out so soon before the awards this year, but, until yesterday, I didn't realize they'd moved the ceremony all the way up to February.

If you find any bugs or have any suggestions, please let me know by email or in the comments to this post. Thanks.

February 02, 2004

Movies: The Triplets of Belleville

I want animated movies for adults to become viable form of entertainment in America. When I become king, I will simply issue a decree stating that, for every Treasure Planet churns out, they have to match it with a Waking Life or two. But until that time, the only thing I can do to advance my cause is to see each and every adult animated movie that comes to town and hope that my pocketbook vote somehow translates into more of them being distributed.

And thus I went to see The Triplets of Belleville. It had been getting rave reviews (rottentomatoes.com has it at a phenomenal 95% -- just one point lower than Return of the King), so my expectations were dizzyingly high. Maybe this, thought I, was going to be the film that made America wake up to the extraordinary possibilities of animated entertainment.

So, really, how could I not wind up a little disappointed, holding it up to such an impossibly high standard? And it didn't help that, before going, I'd read a review comparing it to both City of Lost Children and Delicatessen two of my all-time favorite flicks. Triplets is a fine movie to be sure, but it ain't gonna revolutionize the motion picture industry, alas - and it's no Delicatessen.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around an old woman whose son is kidnapped while competing in the Tour de France. [Update: Sorry, I meant "grandson," here -- this was a typo, not me completely missing a major plot point.] She follows the culprits to the titular Belleville and joins forces with the titular triplets to free her offspring from an underworld that's as nefarious as it is bizarre.

Honestly, the story is fairly inconsequential compared to the animation, which is a wonder to behold - for a spell, at least. But clocking in at 80 minutes, Triplets actually had fidgeting in my seat for the final 20. Yes, it's meticulously hand-animated, but I felt like I'd seen all the beauty and grotesquery it had to offer in the first hour. When the realization came that there would be no real plot, I was pretty much ready for the wrap-up.

Despite all that, I commend it to you(and not just because the more people who go see it, the more money it will gross, and the closer my dream of a adult animation revolution will come to realization). It's actually quite a wonderful movie if, unlike me, you go in knowing that story is going to be in short supply. I strongly suspect that if I saw it a second time - this time knowing what I was getting into - my estimation of it would skyrocket. It's not of Spirited Away caliber, true - but it's better than Finding Nemo by an order of magnitude, and that's good enough for me.

January 08, 2004

Movies: Return of the King

I was a little apprehensive about The Return of the King. I mean, I knew it would be great -- it was, after all, filmed concurrently with the other films, with the same cast and director and source material. But Peter Jackson was passed over for the "Best Director" award in the last two Academy Awards ceremonies, and I was worried that, if the final installment was not as over-the-top great as the first and second, he might not get his due.

I needn't have feared; The Return of the King lives up to the astounding precedent set by The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and Jackson will almost certainly get his statuette.

And yet, I couldn't help but be ever-so-slightly disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was fantastic -- my favorite movie of the year, even. But after investing so much time into watching and rewatching the first two films, I wanted a Big Finish, I wanted the last movie to be even grander and more sublime. But, honestly, how could it? With the characters and cinematography showcased in Fellowship, the war scenes and the eerily realist Gollum on display in Two Towers, Return was left with little new ground to break. And I knew that, even before entering the cinema. But, still. When RotK failed to exceed the films before it, a little voice inside of me kinda went "darn."

My enjoyment of the film was also vaguely sullied by the fact that I didn't rewatch The Two Towers before going to see RotK. I had honestly intended to do so in the weeks before the premiere, but I never got around to it. Consequentially, I spent much of the first hour of the film trying to remember all that had happened before. As with TTT, Return gives viewers no "Previous On Lord Of The Rings" recap --which, frankly, is how it should be -- so those who didn't refresh their memories before heading into the theaters may have found their transcendental viewing-experience occasionally interrupted by thoughts of "wait -- who's that guy, again?" So if you're the one guy in America who hasn't seen RotK yet (Brent Wilson of Gerbil Junction, Iowa,) and you happen to be reading this, take my advice: rewatch the first two films now.

(Return of the King also contains the only deviation from the books that I object to -- a matter, for the sake of Mr. Wilson, I will discuss in the comments, so as to keep spoilers off this page.)

Well, enough carping -- Jackson gives me three of the greatest movies I've ever seen and all I can do is bitch. Seriously: Return of the King is, like its predecessors, a wondrous and enthralling experience. Even at three-and-a-half-hours I never felt it to be overlong or ponderous, and at times I found myself marveling that such a lengthy film could move at a breakneck pace. And, having read the book, I knew how things wrapped up, so I had no objection to the plethora of endings.

The Fellowship Of The Ring will always be my favorite of the three, simply because I vividly remember the moment when amazement washed over me halfway through the film as i realized they weren't going to screw it up after all. And then Two Towers came along and somehow managed to be every bit as good. Return of the King didn't exceed my expectations, per se, but it was every bit as good as I'd hoped. And taken as a whole, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is surely one of the finest achievements in the history of cinema. Jackson deserves ever single award he is bound to receive.

Note: The comments are not spoiler-free.

November 25, 2003

Movies: Intolerable Cruelty, School of Rock, and Mystic River

Movies I've seen in the last month or so:

Intolerable Cruelty: I knew from the trailer that I wanted to see Intolerable Cruelty. After all, the film was made by one of my favorite creative teams (the Coen Brothers), stars one of my favorite actors (George Clooney), and features one of my favorite people to look at (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Admittedly, the preview looked a little zanier than I might have preferred, but my mind was already made up. Besides, I knew this was the Coen Brother's first film with a mainstream producer, and I figured the marketing guys probably just zany-uped the trailer to make it more appealing to average moviegoer.

Nope. Intolerable Cruelty was every bit as wacky as it seemed in the ads -- perhaps even more so. But I probably laughed more during this movie than I had during any other film this year.

The plot is pure screwball-comedy. George Clooney plays a divorce lawyer so renowned that there's a prenuptial agreement named after him. He meets his match in Zeta-Jones, a crafty gold-digger and the (soon-to-be-ex) wife of Clooney's current client. Clooney (a) becomes smitten with Zeta-Jones and (b) takes to the cleaners nonetheless. From that point on the movie becomes a contest of wills, with the two shysters maneuvering and counter-maneuvering as they struggle to either destroy one another or fall in love -- even they don't seem to know which one they're working towards.

I've always been a little out of sync with other Coen Brothers fans: where most put Fargo or The Great Lewbowski at the top of their lists, my favorite has always been Barton Fink. (This is, of course, excluding Raising Arizona, which is obviously #1 for everyone.) And while a lot of Coen Brothers' aficionados didn't much care for The Hudsucker Proxy, I thought is was hilarious. And I liked Intolerable Cruelty quite a bit, despite its lukewarm reception by the Coen Brothers faithful. In fact, I think Hudsucker serves as a pretty good litmus test for Intolerable: as both are over-the-top genre pieces, if you liked one you'll probably like the other.

School of Rock: While I knew immediately that wanted to see Intolerable, I didn't realize that I wanted to see School of Rock until I was actually sitting in the theater, watching the opening credits.

When it was released, all I knew about it was that it starred Jack Black, an actor I only find moderately funny. Then I started hearing rumors that SoR was "a great, family film" -- my secret weakness. (Much as I like the Kill Bills and the Y Tu Mama Tambiens, I'm always gratified to see good, clean fun in the form of a Galaxy Quest or Finding Nemo. ) Then I discovered the film was penned by Mike White, who's written several of my favorite movies (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl). By the time I found out who the director was (Richard Linklater), I was sold. Still, it wasn't until I saw Sarah Silverman's name in the opening credits that I really started to get excited about this film.

So let me start with the bad news: Sarah Silverman is not a reason to see this film -- she is cast against type and pretty much completely wasted. (Note: I don't mean "wasted" in the sense of "drunk and offensive," -- which would be closer to the Silverman I enjoy -- I mean the role she inhabits could have been played by anyone.) Plus, she's wearing makeup! What kind of idiot puts makeup on Sarah Silverman? It's like putting toothpaste on a Picasso.

Furthermore, School of Rock -- let's be honest, here -- is Dead Poets Society. Seriously, plotwise it the same flick: inspiring teacher rallies students to fight against conformity through art. I'm not saying Dead Poets was a landmark of originality, either, but that's the version of the story I was raised on, and SoR is its soul brother.

But SoR has a huge advantage over Dead Poets: it doesn't take itself seriously. While Robin Williams was expanding his pupils' minds with Latin phrases and Keatings, Jack Black forces his twerps to listen to Metallica and The Who. Nobody breaks down in tears in School of Rock, and nobody commits suicide. The message here less "rebel against conformity because it's philosophical imperative that you do so" and more "dude: rockin' out kicks ass!!!" And while I found Black's mugging to be a little tiresome, but there's no disputing that he makes the movie work.

Overall, I agree this a nifty family film: clean enough to bring the kids, adult enough to keep the parent entertained, and subversive enough to put it a notch or two above the typical PG fare.

Mystic River: I knew I had three movies to review in this post, but I couldn't remember the third for the life of me. Finally I asked The Queen. "It was that movie we saw in Texas," she said. "What was it?" After a few minutes' thought she said "Oh, it was Mystic River. No wonder you forgot it."

Oh, yeah. Mystic River is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, its parts are really quite excellent: great acting by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins, crisp direction, beautiful cinematography, and script chock full o' plot. But the sum of those parts just didn't do it for me. For one thing, Mystic River is primarily a character study, and I never really cared much for the characters. Worse, nothing in the film struck me as particularly novel. In fact, I was constantly reminded of the 1993 movie Sleepers, which also starred Kevin Bacon and dealt with child abuse at the hands of clergy. Sean Penn, meanwhile, plays his "mobster tough guy" role well, but I feel like I've seen it a dozen times before.

Mystic River is getting rave reviews and, honestly, it seems like one of those movies you should review well because so much of it is superb. But, overall, the movie struck me as not particularly compelling. And, frankly, forgettable.

October 20, 2003

Movies: Kill Bill Vol. 1

When Pulp Fiction came out in 1994 it was Required Viewing for my circle of acquaintances. It was also presupposed that you would love it, what with Quentin Tarantino reigning as the Hip New Director in the wake of Reservoir Dogs. But you certainly wouldn't have any queasiness or misgivings about the carnage in the film. After all, we were Generation X, too cynical to view gratuitous violence as anything but ironic, and too apathetic to feel a visceral reaction to anything, least of all the sight of some guy having his head blown off in the backseat of a car.

Today, however, I find myself older, married-er, a father-to-be, and largely uninterested in movies that showcase violence for violence sake. Intellectually I find such enterprises to be morally troublesome. In practice, I just find them to be dull. Seriously, how many times can you see one guy shoot another guy before the whole thing becomes so routine that you don't even notice it any more, like a grocery store checker asking if you "found everything okay?" Movies with a good mix of plot and action (The Matrix) still float my boat, but films which do little more than string together one "exciting" fight scene after another (The Matrix: Reloaded) do nothing for me these days.

So I had no real desire to catch Kill Bill, Vol. 1. At least, not until I read this review in the San Francisco Chronicle which called the film "a 90-minute orgy of endless sword fights, multiple severed limbs and gushing blood" and concluded with "let's just call it pornography, and let's just admit it's indefensible." The rational part of my brain agreed with most of what the reviewer was saying, but I was curious to discover what kind of emotional reaction I would have to yet another exercise in the exaltation of violence. I decided to see Kill Bill and find out how far removed I'd become from the 23 year-old who revered Pulp Fiction a decade ago.

The answer appears to be "not very." And my emotional reaction to Kill Bill was something along the lines of "Holy shit -- that was awesome!!"

At various points during the film I tried my darndest to become incensed by the completely unnecessary and wildly excessive gore, but my efforts were consistently undermined by the sad fact that I was thoroughly enjoying myself. [This is the part of the review where I would recap the plot, but as Kill Bill has no plot we'll just skip this section.]

The film is homage to the samurai films that Tarantino grew up with. That's what all the real movie reviewers say, at any rate. As I am not much of kung-fu film buff, pretty much every reference went over my head. But even so, while watching Kill Bill I felt like I did when I saw my very first Jackie Chan film, or when a friend talked me into going to see Akira and I entered the theater having no idea what to expect. Honestly, Kill Bill took me even farther back: it reminded me of riding my bike to the comic book store after a hard day of Junior High and spending the rest of the evening gorging myself on Wolverine and Punisher. Kill Bill may be intended as a tribute to chop-saki flicks, but it feels like watching the most violent (and enjoyable!) Saturday morning cartoons imaginable.

So there you go: I loved it and I'm ashamed. But not too ashamed to admit that I'm counting the weeks until Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Three final notes:

  • Pay special attention to that "Vol. 1". This is only half a movie, and not a self-contained half, either. At minute 111 the film simply comes to a halt, making no effort to tie up loose ends (and, in fact, introducing some brand new loose ends even as it draws to a close). As the final credits rolled I heard more than one person in the theater exclaim "What tha --?!", clearly unaware that they had only purchased a ticket to a single installment in a two-part series.
  • This film should not be rated R -- this is what the NC-17 rating was designed for, folks. So don't let your 14 year-old nephew sucker you into taking him to see it.
  • After I saw it, I read this in a review: "Don't leave until the final credits finish rolling or you'll miss what many are considering Kill Bill: Vol. 1s best bit." Sadly, I know not of what they speak. Oh well. I guess I'll have to see it again. Update: In the comments, Cambo says there is nothing after the credits -- the scene that was at the end during the pre-screening version was moved into the body of the film for the final release. Now I guess I'll have to see it again to, um, verify his claim.

August 29, 2003

Movies: Seabiscuit and Pirates Of The Caribbean

The Queen and I went to go see Pirates of the Caribbean. Twice, actually. The first time we entered the theater and found it packed to the gills, so we wandered down the hall and caught Seabiscuit instead.

In retrospect, watching Pirates from the first row might have been preferable. This became apparent early in the film, when Jeff Bridges rises at a dinner party and says "As corny as it sounds, I'd like to propose a toast. To the future!" Attention screenwriters: if even your characters are worried about sounding corny, you are probably writing a corny movie.

Also: if you want to screw up the adaptation of a best-selling book, try taking a real and inherently inspirational story and making it even more inspirational. So it's not enough that Seabiscuit -- a horse that had been written off by everyone but nonetheless went on to win the Triple Crown a buncha races -- serve as an inspiration to a nation shaken by the Great Depression; now every character has to rise from humble beginnings and overcome adversity to reach Greatness. And in case you don't get the analogy, Jeff Bridges periodically gives impromptu monologues wherein he explains to a large and nodding crowd how the horse is symbolic of the country as a whole. Seriously: he gives this speech, like, three times.

A side-effect of this relentless inspirationilzation is that nearly every scene is a little too emotional and significant. Conversations 30 minutes into the film are accompanied by the kind of Overbearingly Sad But Heroic Music that is usually reserved for the finale. Every phrase uttered by the characters has some deeper portent. Things can't just happen, they have to happen for a reason. Seabiscuit even has my least favorite Required Hollywood Movie Moment -- you know, where The One Guy says something pithy to The Other Guy, and then later in the film, when The One Guy has lost his way, The Other Guy says the exact same phrase back to him, thereby enabling him to remember what's Really Important In This World Of Ours? You know that moment? It's in there.

So even though I knew that Seabiscuit is based on a true story, I spent much of the film rolling my eyes and muttering "c'mon -- that didn't happen!" whenever the filmmaker couldn't resist interjecting some tried and true Screenwriting For Dummies inspirational gimmick. Which isn't to say that Seabiscuit is bad -- objectively I'd probably give it 3.5 stars out of five. But I can't stand it when moviemakers mess up a true story with fictitious enhancements. This is why I'll choose a documentary on a subject over the dramatization each and every time.

Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (which we managed to see on the second attempt) is equally the Big Hollywood Spectacle, but at least it has the good sense to not even pretend to be grounded in reality. It unabashedly throws every Adventure Movie Staple (state of the art special effects, over the top fight scenes, big name actors) and pirate cliché (parrots, planks, and numerous references to "Davy Jones locker") into the mix and brews up the best summer blockbuster I've seen this year.

Alas, at over two hours, Pirates is a bit too much of a good thing -- by the finale I wouldn't say I was bored, but I was more than ready for it to end. Sadly, those extra minutes are packed with extraneous action and unnecessary exposition, while the fundamentals of the plot are given the short shrift: the specifics of the titular curse -- how it got started, how it is reversed, and when happens when it is removed -- are all given, like, one line of explanation a piece. At some point it occurred to me that they were dwelling on trivial details to disguise the fact that the underlying plot was threadbare, a realization that did not me to the overlong running time.

Still, if you're willing to overlook the fact that it doesn't make a huge amount of sense, the plot does have some very inventive moments. And Johnny Depp alone makes the film worthwhile -- he takes what could have been a marginally interesting character and plays it over-the-top loony. They should have carved half an hour out of Pirates, but it's still a very fun ride.

(And speaking of rides, there was a preview for Disney's The Haunted Mansion before Pirates. I guess they are just going to movie-alize all of their theme park attractions, now. Hoo boy, I bet It's A Small World: The Motion Picture is going to break some box office records.)

August 01, 2003

Movies: Bend It Like Beckham, Finding Nemo, and Capturing the Friedmans

What say I just get all my belated movie reviews over at once, eh?

Although I make a point to post reviews for every movie I see in the theater, I somehow never got around to writing about Bend It Like Beckham, despite having seen it over two months ago. When the film left the theaters several weeks ago, I shrugged and assumed that it would be my first omission since defective yeti's inception. Today, however, it appears that Beckham has returned to theaters across the nation, thereby negating my excuse. Dad gummit.

Maybe I'm reluctant to review Beckham because I feel like I have already covered this movie a couple of times. It is, in fact, That Movie -- you know, the one that comes out every year, where some strong-willed youngster decides to go against tradition and follow his dream, much to the annoyance of his parents who vainly try and thwart his ambition but, in the end, recognize the importance of their offspring's happiness and reluctantly relent. A couple years ago That Movie was called Billy Elliot, and then it was East Is East, last year it was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, etc. This year it's Beckham, and apparently he can Bend It, apparently.

Bend It Like Beckham focuses on a strong-willed youngster who decides to go against tradition and follow her dream blah blah blah. The youngster here is Jess, the only Indian (that's the "from India" flavor of Indian) on an all-girls, British soccer team; the dream is Jess's ambition to make it to the finals. Unfortunately (and predictably), her parents don't approve. In particular, her father recalls the racism he faced as an Indian in a British cricket league, and urges his daughter to quit before she encounters the same brand of ugly discrimination. She refuses, the come to loggerheads, and I could keep telling you the plot but there's probablyy no need.

I can enjoy That Movie once a year, so long as it's funny, well directed, and at least covers some new ground. Bend It Like Beckham succeeds so marvelously at the first two criteria that I was willing to overlook the fact that there was really nothing new here whatsoever. Beckham is also a perfect Mom Movie. (I know this for a fact because my Mom wanted to take me to see Down With Love, but I talked her into this one instead and she quite enjoyed it. Whew -- I dodged a bullet, there.) I wouldn't recommend it per se, but I can assure you that you won't regret seeing Beckham if nothing else at the Cineplex floats your boat, as it's a film that's almost impossible to dislike.

Another genre of film that I can see once a year and enjoy is the Big Animated Movie Ostensibly For Children, and this summer it was Finding Nemo. I've been a big fan of Pixar dating back to the days when you could only see thier flicks at The Festival Of Animation, and I have enjoyed every movie they have ever made. Finding Nemo was no exception, although I'll confess to it being my least favorite in thier repertoire.

As with all Pixar films the animation is gorgeous, the plot is clever, the voices are well-done, etc., etc. But I couldn't get over the fact that the protagonists were fish. I mean, I had no problem sympathizing with inanimate playthings in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, the critters in A Bug's Life, and even the beasts in Monsters Inc., but, I dunno: fish! I had to practically will myself to care about them. (I should acknowledge that, even in real life, I have no affinity for fish whatsoever. I don't understand the allure of having them as pets, for example. Personally, I am only interested in fish when they are accompanied by chips.) It also didn't help that within the first 10 minutes this film racked up a higher body count than most horror movies, which kind of made Nemo's perils seem trivial by comparison.

Still, the worst Pixar movie is better than just about any other American kids' film out there, so you can still chalk this review up as a rave. Even without getting all worked up over the protagonist (fish!) I still enjoyed the story, and Ellen DeGeneres does some fantastic voice work. Certainly worth seeing in the theater -- doubly so if you can muster up the slightest enthusiasm for our fine finned friends.

And speaking of Feel Good Hits Of The Summer, Capturing the Friedmans documents the harrowing story of a family torn apart by allegations of pedophilia and sexual assault.

The story begins in the late 1987's, when Arnold Friedman, a teacher and father of three, is arrested for the possession of child pornography. After Friedman confesses to being a pedophile, students from a computer course he taught in his basement begin alleging that Arnold, along with his son, Jesse, turned the classes into orgies of child molestation and rape.

The claims seem wildly improbable -- parents who picked their children up after these supposed orgies noticed nothing amiss, and many of the "victims" enrolled in the class year after year -- but the late 80's were the heyday of child molestation witch hunts in the United States, so the case is brought against Arnold and his son all the same. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasing clear that while the most lurid and outlandish of tales concerning what went on in those computer classes are certainly false, it's not entirely clear that something didn't happen.

What sets Friedmans apart from the run-of-the-mill "What really happened?" news-magazine stories you'd see on tv is the use of film footage shot while the events were actually taking place. As things began to fall apart, David Friedman, the oldest son, took to filming his family as they discussed, argued, and pondered the charges against Arnold and Jesse. So while Capturing the Friedman makes use of many modern-day interviews (most notably with David and his mother, Elaine) where participants recollect how they felt and reacted to developments in the case, it also incorporates the scenes that David shot on the given day. Some of David footage is painfully intimate, such as one soliloquy by David himself where he looks at the camera and says "This is private, so if you're not me, you shouldn't be watching."

Also setting Capturing The Friedmans apart from the standard news-magazine tv shows is the fact that it doesn't take a stand as to the truth of the allegations. Each time I was convinced one way the other -- Friedman was guilty, Friedman was framed -- the film would introduce a new fact or witness who would cast doubt on everything I though I knew for sure. I appreciated this even-handedness, but I occasionally wondered if the filmmakers weren't bend over backwards to make things as ambiguous as possible, purposely blurring the line between the credible and the outrageous. Still, I'd rather the director err on the side of neutrality than come in with a bias and slant the coverage to bolster a pre-held conclusion. Capturing the Friedmans is one of the most thought-provoking legal documentaries I have seen since Brother's Keeper, and the best films I've seen all year.

Hey Seattlites: Capturing the Friedmans is still playing at the Metro. All three of 'em are, actually.

July 15, 2003

Movies: 28 Days Later

Curious as it may seem, some people, when in the mood for an "exciting movie," are more interested in those that involve shotguns instead of spelling bees. Here's a movie review for you for that crowd.

But first, an apology to M. My friend M. dislikes "scary movies," and will flat out refuse to see films like The Ring or Hannibal. But I somehow convinced her to accompany me to a showing of 28 Days Later. I did this by employing my preternatural ability to Not Know What The Hell I Am Talking About. "Oh no, it's not a scary movie," I reassured her, despite almost complete ignorance about the film's subject matter. "I think it's, like, an old fashion zombie flick, more of a shoot-em-up action movie than anything else. You'll like it."

Ah, no. 28 Days Later is, in fact, a Scary Movie, and a fairly good one at that. That's because it takes its cues not from Day Of The Dead (as I had assumed), but from Steven King's The Stand. As with King's novel, the story begins just as civilization ends, as a super virus rips through society leaving only a few survivors in its wake. Well, actually that's not true -- unlike The Stand's Superflu, the pathogen in 28 leaves plenty of survivors: the handful of those who never contracted the disease, and thousands of the afflicted who have been turned into mindless rageaholics (see "zombies," above). The former group tries to live through onslaughts on the latter and, well, there's your movie.

Plucky bands of humans beset by relentless hordes monsters, you say? Why isn't this a shoot-em-up action movie? Well, for one thing, it is set in London where stricter gun control laws have left people at the mercy of roving bands of savage automatons, just as the NRA has always predicted. Second, these guys are, like, the Marion Jones of zombies. No more fumbling around with the car keys while the zombies slowly lurch towards you -- here it's flight or fight -- and "fight" ain't lookin' so good.

But what really prevents 28 Days Laterfrom becoming Quake: The Movie is that, like The Stand, it doesn't assume that humans would become a unified front against a post-apocalypse menace. As in our current, pre-apocalyptic world (assuming your reading this before the upcoming North Korea debacle), the characters in 28 are motivated by different things -- survival, greed, lust, fear -- and not all of these motives are harmonized. Those who band together are not simply trying to get to the helipad or infiltrate the lab to find an antidote, they are struggling to come out on top in this Brave New world, and that takes them into conflict with their companions as often as it does the Infected.

28 Days Later is one of the better horror / psychological thrillers I've seen in the last few years -- certainly better than the aforementioned Ring. My only big complaint is the lousy film quality. Director Danny Boyle said he chose digital video to give the film a gritty feel -- and it does, admittedly. But a friend of mine, who saw 28 before me, summed it up best when he said, simply, "Whenever I see a movie in the theater that was shot on digital video, I feel ripped off." Nine bucks to see a movie that looks crummier than an episode of Everybody Love Raymond is kind of a drag, even if the film turns out to be unexpectedly enjoyable. In other words, 28 ain't going to lose much in the transition to DVD, so maybe you'll just want to wait and rent it. But if you do, here's a tip: don't watch it with anyone with a stated aversion to "scary movies," or you'll be in trouble afterwards.

July 09, 2003

Movies: Spellbound

Note: I have a bevy of movie reviews to get to this week, having put off nearly half a dozen of them. But although this is the one I saw most recently, it is also the one I'm going to cover first, because (a) it ain't gonna be in theaters long, and (b) you should see it while it is.

As anyone who has read more than four paragraphs of this website knows, I'm not much of a speller. But it's not my fault. I was handicapped as a child by having a sister who was a whiz at spelling, which meant that I would just demand that she spell giraff for me rather looking it up in the dictionary myself. (I swear to god that I didn't just intentionally misspell "giraffe" for comedic effect.) Cursed with a grammatical crutch, I never learned to spell stuff on my own.

Consequentially, I consider spelling, like all things that I can't do well (playing softball, making home repairs, performing neurosurgery, etc.), to be Not Terribly Important. I mean sure, it's great if you can pound out "cacophony" on the first try, but, if not, that's why George Washington Carver invented SpellCheck, right? A corollary of this is that I am fascinated by those who, on the contrary, find spelling Terribly Important Indeed. This was true of Word Freak, the book profiling professional Scrabble Players, and even more so in the documentary Spellbound, a film that follows eight kids and their parents as they train and compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee.

In the first half we get to meet the contestants, see glimpses of their family and personal lives (which seem to revolve around flash cards with "sarcophagus" written on them), and watch them trounce their peers in the regional semi-finals. Like the Scrabble junkies, these kids are largely uninterested in what the words mean, except insofar as that knowledge helps them get the right letters in the right order. But unlike the characters in Word Freak, who all seemed to be of a similar mold (i.e., social maladapted borderline-savants), the octet of kids in Spellbound run the gamut from the totally geeky to the, well, slightly-less-but-still-pretty-darned-geeky. They come from a wide variety of geographical regions, communities, and families. Each claims that winning isn't important and all are lying on this point, but some clearly have more emotional investment in the outcome than others.

Almost stealing the limelight are the parents, each of which supports his child in a different way and to a different degree of intensity. Some exhort their child to excel, while others constantly remind the speller (and, by extension, themselves) that success in a spelling bee is ultimately unimportant in the largest scheme of things.

The ample time lavished on exposition pays off in the second half of Spellbound, which covers the highlights of the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Now that the audience relates to the eight (of 248!) kids as people rather than as freakish spelling machines, watching them compete is as riveting and stressful as anything you are likely to see a cinema this year. On more than one occasion I had to look away from the screen in agony when one of my favorites was given a word like "cephalagia," and people in the theater where openly cheering when one of the kids narrowly avoided elimination. Plus: boys that talk like Musical Robots! All of which makes for one of the most inspirational, gut-wrenching, and exciting films I've seen in a spell.

Attention Seattleites: Spellbound is currently playing at the Guild 45.

June 20, 2003

It's My Job ... To Freeze You!

The Queen had an engagement yesterday evening, leaving me with the house all to myself. So I did what any wild-at-heart, red-blooded male would do, given a night of unexpected bachelorhood:

  1. Had Grape-Nuts and beer for dinner;
  2. Watched Logan's Run on DVD.
Matthew Baldwin: married but not domesticated.

I was surprised by how good it was. The beer, I mean. Logan's Run was a calamity. I picked it up after a few people expressed mystification that I had never seen it. When I mentioned this to The Queen, for example, she reacted as if I had told her I was missing a lung. Everyone emphatically urged me to correct this historic oversight. "It's just so, so, so very, very, very bad," they would say. "You must rent it immediately."

And I did. And I watched it. And I learned some astounding facts about the future.

  • We will live in a domed city, which, judging from the opening shot of this film, will be seven inches high and surrounded by Hi-Ho Train Model trees.
  • Criminals will try to escape the law by going to the most public place in town and hiding behind a potted plant.
  • We will be so technologically advanced that, every seven minutes or so, loud "Bee Boo Boo Beep!" noises will echo throughout city.
  • Even the most mundane conversation will be filled with exposition:
    A: I wish I knew who my seed-mother was.

    B: What's wrong with the Incu-droids? And, besides, you know that even thinking thoughts like that is will get you in trouble with the Conformity Council.

    A: I know. But I'm 29 years old, and since all citizens of Galatropolis are killed at the age of 30, what do I have to lose?

  • Apparently the whole "Death with Dignity" movement will have collapsed by 2274, since shuffling off the mortal coil in Logan's Run entails the wearing of Stupidest Costume Ever, flying into the air, and exploding.
Even the credits of this movie are bad. I mean, if you made a motion picture predicated on the idea that all people die at 30, would you put "And starring Peter Ustinov as Old Man" in the opening? Um, spoiler, dude.

And don't even get me started about The Robot Scene. Oh brother, The Robot Scene. Where did that come from? Still, I can't say that I wasn't warned. Last month some friends and I were discussing 80's Ending, and I said "my favorite part was how they stuck that robot scene in there for no reason." And then my buddy said, "You mean like The Robot Scene in Logan's Run?" After I confessed that I had never seen Run, he said "It's this bizarre scene where ... well, they must have really wanted to get a robot in there somewhere, right? So they filmed this robot sequence that doesn't have anything to do with anything? And then just spiced it on in there." I said that I though that was a pretty good idea for any movie, frankly, and that I wanted to start a business that took mainstream movies and turned them into movies about robots. Like, you know how porn movie guys take popular films and remake them into adult pictures like Terms of Inrearment and For Your Thighs Only and E-3: The Extra-Testicle, where they use the plot outline from the original movie to string together a bunch of sex scenes? Those are the kind of movies I would make, except that instead of sex scenes it would have robot scenes, and the movies would have titles like My Big Fat Greek Robot or 2 Fast 2 Robots or West Cyborg Story or Saving Private Ryan's Robot or whatever.

ANYway! I did like the ending of Logan's Run, simply because it was exactly the same as every 70's-era science-fiction movie ending: somebody blows up the computer by making illogical statements. You can't beat the classics. It's a shame they don't use that any more. Wouldn't it be awesome if that's how the Wachowski brothers ended Matrix Revolutions?

The Source: Your journey ends here, Neo. I am The Source, the self-aware synthetic intelligence that controls the Matrix and all of mankind.

Keanu: Up is down! Black is white! Cats are squirrels! I can act!

The Source: D0ES N0T C0MPUTE <crashes>

I'd pay nine bucks to see that.

June 11, 2003

Movies: Matrix Reloaded

Matrix Reloaded is so-so. As "middle chapters" go it's sure no Empire Strikes Back, and it ain't no Two Towers either. And that's understandable, I guess. But what's really disappointing is that, when you get right down to it, Reloaded isn't even on par with The Matrix itself.

What The Matrix did so well was to reveal just enough of its secrets to be interesting, but not so much as to give everything away. It's clear, for example, that Keanu Reeves can act about as well as I can kickbox, but they disguised this by giving him almost no dialog whatsoever. Furthermore, the philosophical mumbo-jumbo that permeates the script doesn't hold up to any intellectual scrutiny, but every time you thought "hey wait a minute, that doesn't make any ..." they would cut to an action scene and leave you admiring the gunplay. And then, just when it dawned on you that the fight scene doesn't make any sense either, they switched back to the Buddhist hoohaw.

Matrix Reloaded, unfortunately, blithely exposes what The Matrix so craftily concealed. Reeves is given entirely too much to say. The philosophical monologues go on well past the point where your bullshit detector has kicked into overdrive. The fight scenes go on and on and on until you become so bored that you start thinking about the them (never a good thing), and you realize that there is no logical reason for the combat to be occurring in the first place.

Worst of all, Reloaded cavalierly reveals the biggest secret of all, the thing that the Wachowski Brothers worked so hard to obscure in the script to the first movie. It's the answer to question at the very heart of the series. It's the question that drives us. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did: "What is the Matrix?"

What is the Matrix? Ladies and Gentlemen, the Matrix is Tron.

This didn't even occur to me in the first movie, but here it is painfully obvious. Characters walk around describing themselves as "programs" that fear "deletion." Agent Smith might as well be named Agent Sark. Neo seeks out the heart of the computer world in an attempt to take down the Master Control Program (or whatever it's called here). And the CEO of ENCOM shows up under the pseudonym "The Architect". It got to the point where I kept expecting a "bit" to show up.

Okay, so I'm joking around a little bit, here, but surely you see my point. The Matrix seemed startlingly original at the time, but much of that was smoke and mirrors: the "life in a computer" thing had been done (Tron), the "war between machines and man" thing had been done (Terminator), the "wire-fu" had been done (Iron Monkey), the whole "he's The One" thing had been done before (Bible, New Testament), and so on. But a tight script and crafty direction kept things moving at such a fast pace that you never really caught wise to this fact. Reloaded, unfortunately, lacks such subtly. In fact, everything about this movie seems half-again too much: the fight scenes are half again too long, the speeches are half again too lengthy ... indeed, the whole movie could have been trimmed by a third.

This excess not only makes for a movie that's slightly dull, but also a chapter in the Matrix Trilogy that feels like a stall for time. Despite all the sound and fury in Reloaded, not a whole lot has really happened by the time the end credits roll (and much of what does happen takes place in the last 30 minutes). Like the kind of video game this movie emulates, much of the story revolves around the characters receiving and completing self-contained Quests ("Now you must locate ... The Keymaker!") which don't really get them any closer to their objective. Matrix Reloaded fulfills its primary duty (i.e., gets us from part 1 to part 3) but doesn't do a whole lot else.

By the way, The Queen wins Quote Of The Week with this comment about the Zion scene: "Apparently life in the future is going to be one endless rave. No wonder the machines want us dead."

End Of Line.

The comments of this review are not spoiler-free, so caveat emptor.

May 16, 2003

Movies: X2: X-Men United

(For real this time.)

To any of the many kids I argued with in eight grade that are reading this blog: I guess you were right after all.

You know those lunkheads who get all worked up about the whole Ford / Chevy thing? When I was in middle school, the crowd I ran around with was kind of like that. But instead of arguing about auto makers, our big schism centered around a debate that rages in schoolyards around the nation to this very day: which is better, DC Comics or Marvel?

Me, I was a DC man myself. If the "Calvin Peeing On The Marvel Logo" sticker had been around in 1984, I probably would have owned one. The Flash was my favorite superhero, followed by Batman, Superman, Green Lantern -- pretty much the entire Justice League was on my reading list. (Red Tornado four-part mini-series? Bought it!) Sure, I read a few Marvel titles, but they were just filler, something to tide me over until the next issue of "Blue Devil" arrived.

What I wanted in my comic books was simple: wisecracking guys in costumes beating the crap out ridiculous supervillians. And that's pretty much all the DC Universe provided (at least until Alan Moore and Frank Miller and Neil Gaimen showed up and, like, made everything sophisticated and stuff). A typical Flash comic book would go like this: Captain Boomerang (no, seriously) would escape from the Central City Penitentiary in a giant flying boomerang and then he would rob a boomerang factory and throw boomerangs at a bunch of people and then The Flash would show up and they would fight and Captain Boomerang would unveil his new Super-Speed Homing Boomerang that he carved out of soap or something while in the pokey but then The Flash would vibrate his molecules at a special boomerang frequency or some shit and win, the end, woo!

Marvelites regarded these kind of comics the way Roman Polanski regards "Becker". They were forever going on and on about how much better the Marvel Universe was, because it grappled with "real issues". Peter Parker was a introverted dweeb. The Hulk had rage issues. Iron Man was an alcoholic. Daredevil had a disability (the kind that allows you to jump off buildings and make-out with Black Widow, apparently).

And the X-men -- oh brother. Why not just call them "The Angst-vengers" or something? Every time I accidentally read an X-Men comic book it was all like:

Wolverine: Magneto is going to blow up Switzerland, bub! Let's go!
Kitty Pryde: I can't! Because I'm an outcast! With menstrual cramps!
Storm: Wolverine, let's slow down and talk about this for a really long time. I mean, saving the world is important, sure. But it's equally important that I spend the next 47 panels pontificating about diversity.
Wolverine: *Snikt!!*
Holy crap, who would want to read this stuff?! Why not just wear a sign that says "I'm a girl who likes to read soap operas written for girls??!!!!"

Anyway. Seventeen years went by...

I finally got around to seeing X2: X-Men United last night. Catching this particular flick wasn't exactly my top priority for a couple of reasons, even in addition to those mentioned above. First, while I enjoyed the original X-Men movie just fine, it didn't leave me burning up for a sequel. Second, have you seen the X2 poster? It has, like, 49 faces on it. It looks like one of those wedding-photos-gone-awry, where the photograph says "okay, now let's just have the bride and the groom and their cousins" and then someone asks "what about the spouses and children of the cousins?" and the photographer says, okay, cousins and their spouses and children, and then someone else says "what about the spouses of the children of the cousins?," and then, 18 months later, you're looking at that picture and wondering why the caterers are in it. That's what the X2 poster looks like. And the reason the whole Batman movie series imploded, aside from the fact that Batman Forever was apparently "written" by sea cucumbers, was because they were introducing four new characters per film, complete with back stories and alter egos and side romances and blah blah blah. And it looked to me like that's all X2 was going to be: 120 minutes of new character exposition and back story, with maybe a seven minute fist-fight wedged in the middle somewhere.

Not so! X2 hits the ground running and never lets up. For example, a brand new character, Nightcrawler, is introduced in the very first scene of the film -- except that he's not really "introduced" at all, he just shows up and, without further ado, starts kicking every ass in his path. Who is he? What is his power? Why is he blue? They don't tell you -- not for a while, anyhow. Instead they just hand you a spectacular opening sequence and move on. Now we're with Wolverine, out in the middle of nowhere, looking for some military compound. Hey wait, military compound -- didn't they talk about this in last movie? Who knows? They never bother with a recap. If you remember X-Men, great; if you don't, well, so what? Rent the DVD next weekend, we don't care.

Some of the reviews I've read since seeing the film lament this very aspect of X2. "Literally, for the first hour of this movie, you have no idea what it's about or what's at stake," writes Stephen Hunter from the Washington Post. "This is what happens: First they run over there, then they run over here." Memo to Mr. Hunter: duh! It's a superhero movie, dude -- what we're you expecting X2: My Dinner With Andre? Two of the things that make comic books so appealing is that (a) they generally have, at any given moment, 913 subplots for diehard fans to keep track of, and (b) if you're not a diehard fan and don't give a rat's ass about the subplots, that's perfectly okay because there will also be lots of punching.

Instead of squandering our time with recaps and backstory, X2 plunges right into a sinister and eerily contemporary conspiracy story. As in the first movie, a number of Inter- and Intra-governmental forces want all mutants registered or incarcerated. (Hello John Ashcroft!) Professor X, as usual, seeks a peaceful solution to the crisis, while Magneto instead advocates his pet solution to every social ill (i.e., "kill everyone!").

What makes the X-men so interesting is that there is no sharp division between Good Guys and Bad Guys -- although Magneto plays Malcolm X to Dr. Xavier's Martin Luther King, the two are pretty much on the same team when it comes to "The Mutant Problem." This paradox -- the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy -- is a hell of a lot more interesting than your standard "Flash vs. Captain Boomerang" comic book balderdash.

Which is a long way of saying, okay, you win. I finally get it. The Marvel Universe and its whole talking-about-contemporary-social-problems-through-allegory methodology really does make for a better story. And working with this model, X2 provides the best of both worlds: non-stop action and something to think about afterwards. The film isn't afraid to ask some hard question, and doesn't cop-out by coughing up a bunch of facile answers. In fact, it respects the audience enough to suggest that there simple remedies may not exist for fear and intolerance. And in that, X2 pull off a pretty neat trick: it creates a four-color, comic book universe that doesn't paint the world as black and white.

Also: Mystique is hot and Wolverine turns a bunch of people into deviled ham. Recommended!

May 09, 2003

Movies: The Pianist

I figured I was done with Holocaust movies. Actually, I figured I was done with Holocaust movies after Schindler's List, but I had to concede that "Life Is Beautiful" was astounding. After that, though -- after seeing a freakin’ comedy about the Holocaust -- I was certain that I was totally, completely, 100% done with the whole genre. And then came The Pianist by Roman Polanski.

The story begins by recounting the travails of one Polish family; later, when they become separated, the film focuses on just one member of the family, musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoirs the screenplay is based. Although The Pianist covers some well-trod ground, it does so in a way unlike any other Holocaust movie I've seen.

First, The Pianist does not take the "bird-eye" view of the war that so many WWII films adopt. There is no omniscient voice-over giving the audience month by month updates on what was transpiring elsewhere in Europe. Instead, we see things through the eyes of the Szpilman family, who only know a tiny fragment of the whole, whose knowledge of what’s occurring is confined to what they hear on the radio. This gives the entire first half of the film a very claustrophobic feel, and is more dread-inducing that having the entire story told. When someone insists that the Nazis would never try to exterminate the Jews and waste such a huge labor pool, Polanski trusts that the viewers are sufficiently educated to know that this will not prove to be the case.

Secondly, everyone in The Pianist behaves like a real human being rather than Symbolism On Legs. When I was in 11th grade Lit, we were taught that symbolism is when a writer uses a small, fictitious thing to represent a large, real thing. The turtle in Grapes of Wrath, for example, stood for the Oakies: slow, earthy, and almost impossible to kill. The two pigs in Animal Farm are analogous to Stalin and Trotsky. The flowers outside Hester Prynn's jail cell represent freedom. Get it? Here's, James Cameron to the contrary, what's not symbolic: the Titanic hitting a iceberg and sinking. Rather than being an enormous symbol for man's hubris, the Titanic was an actual ship that hit an actual hunk of ice and took an 1520 actual people to their grave.

Likewise, the Holocaust is not a giant symbol for Man's Inhumanity To Man -- it was a real event involving real people. But Holocaust filmmakers tend to make every Nazi The Incarnation Of Evil, and every Jew an Example Of The Indomitable Will Survive, and every event A Dark Hint Of Things To Come. While I'm sure it's easier to make a film filled with symbolism and caricatures, a movie like The Pianist -- where the Jews are portrayed as human and the Polish are portrayed as human and, yes, even the Nazi are portrayed as human -- is infinitely more interesting, and much more enlightening than one that simply chants "Nazis bad!" for 120 minutes. Polaski recognizes that the story is powerful enough without romanticizing the victims or demonizing the, well, demons.

Adrian Brody, as Wladyslaw Szpilman, is simply marvelous, and more than earned his "Best Actor" Oscar (and his Halle Barry French kiss). And the academy chose well when opting to give Polaski "Best Director" -- he takes a simple approach to The Pianist, but it's this very unassuming style that transforms the unthinkable enormity of the Holocaust into something so intimate that every person in the audience can relate to it.

I swore I was done with Holocaust movies, but The Pianist proved me wrong. And if anything this good comes out in the future, I'll be happy to be wrong again and again.

May 01, 2003

X2: X-Men United

I caught the midnight sneak preview of "X2: X-Men United" last night at Seattle's Cinerama theater. Overall I thought it was pretty good. I like the director (Bryan Singer), the special effects have vastly improved since the first film, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was fantastic. I don't want to talk too much about the plot, but the story was believable (in a comic-book-universe kind of way), and although I saw the ending coming a mile away it still made for a satisfying finale.

My only real beef with the film was the egregious product placements. I know there were a few in the first X-Men movie and that product placements are becoming more common and acceptable in major motion picture, but I thought X2 really went overboard. I didn't mind the smaller stuff -- the fight scene in the Wal*Mart, Storm using Visa to buy training equipment, Cyclops wearing Addias, etc. -- but the addition of Dr. Pepper (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the X-Man team was just too much.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the fact that X2 introduced new heroes such as Nightcrawler and Shadowcat. But those two were taken from the original comic books, and were well integrated into the story. Dr. Pepper, on the other hand, is a brand new character, and (according to Entertainment Weekly) was added to the X2 screenplay after filming had already started. The worst thing was how they restructured the whole plot around him, with lots of flashback sequences that showed his previous life as mild-mannered Jonathan Pibb M.D. and the "freak carbonation accident" that gave him his powers.

And what's up with his powers, anyhow? Does Dr. Pepper's mutant ability to "quench" really add anything to the X-Men team? I mean, I guess it came in handy in X2, since Magneto's master plan was to team up with Drought (another new character) to attack New York with a "Thirst Ray," but I still thought the whole character was pretty gratuitous. Plus, Hoffman looked ridiculous in that dark-purple leather costume.

So, in summary: I liked X2 overall, but found Dr. Pepper hard to swallow (ha!). In fact, the only thing cool about Dr. Pepper was his catchphrase: he would twist the heads off enemies and shout "You're not a winner! Please try again!" That was pretty badass.

April 09, 2003

Marks The Spot
Triple-X Syndrome: A rare chromosomal aberration characterized by the presence of three female chromosomes. May result in learning difficulties, delayed acquisition of certain motor skills, and inhibition of speech development.
Well, that would certainly explain Vin Diesel's performance in xXx.
[ link | Movies]


March 28, 2003

Blog Entry

Opened last week: Boat Trip!

Opening next week: Phone Booth!

What the hell? Is the International Society Of Guys Who Come Up With Clever Movie Titles on strike or something?

Coming Soon: Movie: The Motion Picture!

[ link | Movies]


March 24, 2003

I'd Like To Mock The Academy

Every year my friends and I gather to watch the Academy Awards and see who among us can make the best, ad lib, smartass comments as the events unfold. Some of last night's contenders:

Scene: Steve Martin's opening monologue.
Comment: "I'm glad to see that, out of respect for the war effort, they decided not to use funny jokes this year."

Scene: Catherine Zeta-Jones rises after being announced the winner of the "Best Supporting Actress" award.
Comment: "Holy smokes! That thing should be named 'Best Supporting Dress'!"

Scene: Catherine Zeta-Jones, in her acceptance speech, says "This is to my husband, who I love and share this award with."
Comment: "Actually, she has to share the award with him. It was in the pre-nup."

Scene: Adrien Brody makes out with Halle Berry before receiving his "Best Actor" award.
Comments: First Male - "Is it just me, or was that wholly inappropriate?"
Second Male - "That was was wholly inappropriate."
Female - "Oh come on. Given the chance you'd do the same thing."
Second male - "That's true. And it would be wholly inappropriate."

Scene: Elliot Goldenthal is announced the winner of the "Best Score" award for Frida, and the Academy Awards Band plays festive, Mariachi-style music as he approaches the stage.
Comment: "Oh, I'm glad he won. I love his work on those Azteca commercials."

Scene: Roman Polanski is named "Best Director" for The Pianist.
Comment: "Booyah! Like I always say: never bet against the Holocaust movie or the actor playing a disabled guy!"

Scene: Nicole Kidman concludes her acceptance speech for the "Best Supporting Actress" and steps away from the microphone.
Comment: "Wouldn't it be great if she was all like 'Oh yeah, one more thing: Tom is gay'."

March 07, 2003

Movies: City of God

I told my friend to go see City of God. he asked "Is that about gangs?" When I told him it was, he said "I dunno, I've just about had it with organized crime films."

I told him not to worry. City of God is about crime, but it's about the most unorganized crime imaginable.

In fact, even labeling the groups of criminals show in the film -- thugs ranging from the petty to bloodthirtsty -- might be giving them too much credit. They are more like amoebic mobs, swallowing up lives, subdividing into factions, and completely lacking in anything approximating a brain or a central nervous system. Set in the slums of Brazil, the story focuses on a young boy named Rocket (one apparent upside to living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro is that you get a cool nickname), who lives life in orbit of some of the nastier elements of the neighborhood. Like all of his peers, the options available to Rocket are limited: do nothing and live in abject poverty, get an honest but low-paying job, or make some quick cash by engaging in the multitude of nefarious opportunities available.

While Rocket opts to do a little of all three, some of his friends specialize in one track or another. One such specialists is Lil' Dice, who we meet as a nine year old child and watch evolve into one of the most brutal drug lords in the game. Indeed, we get to witness the evolution of all the characters (those that don't get killed, any how), as the movie spans a dozen years of time. In this respect, City of God is reminiscent of Goodfellas, a film that clearly played some inspirational role in this, director Fernando Meirelles debut film.

But there are no "made men" in the City of God, no honor among thieves, no "mafia corporate ladder" for a wannabe gangster to climb. The gangs in this picture are manifestations of anarchy rather than hierarchy. The sheer randomness of the lifestyle is chilling, and violence is depicted as brutal, ubiquitous, and arbitrary. All this makes for a film that portrays the "gangster lifestyle" in the least romantic light possible.

City of God is the movie Gangs of New York should have been (and would have been, if Scorsese had stuck to the book instead of Hollywooding it up): a powerful portrayal of the destructive lure of crime, one that makes you thankful that the life depicted is one you can escape by simply leaving the theater.

March 06, 2003

Movies: Talk To Her

IMDB categorizes the new Pedro Almodóvar film Talk To Her as a "Comedy / Drama / Romance".

Well, I'll give 'em the first two. It's a drama that's often funny. And it is a movie about love. But, at it's core, it sure ain't about romance. Romance, to my mind, is the interaction between people in love: the flirting, the courting, the emotional ties. You'll find none of that in this film -- not after the first half an hour, at any rate. Talk To Her, if anything, is a film about the logic of love in the absence of romance. It's not that the men in the movie aren't romantic -- indeed, they seem overly so -- it's just that the women they love are in no condition to return their affection.

Early in the film, freelance journalist Marco interviews Lydia, the most renowned female bull fighter in Spain, and the two are soon making googly eyes in the backseat of a car. The film then fast-forwards to the point where they are an established couple. But this phase of their relationship is abruptly truncated after Lydia is gored in the ring and falls into a coma. Here endth the romance.

This is also the point where the love story begins. While wandering the halls of Lydia's hospital, Marco meets Benigno, a nurse who is caring for a comatose woman that he loves. The unique nature of their shared predicament causes the two men to form a close bond, and they become fast friends over many discussions about the difficulties of loving someone unable to reciprocate.

What makes Talk To Her so moving is that Marco and Benigno are very different people, men who almost certainly would never have met (much less become buddies) under any other circumstances. As a result, they tend to view things from completely different perspectives. Marco, for example, views Lydia's condition as a curse, something that has interrupted their love affair; Benigno, on the other hand, has idealized his "relationship" with his patient, pointing out that he and his comatose sweetheart get along much better than most married couples.

Many "romantic comedies"use absurd situations to fuel one-dimensional storylines -- take, for example, While You Were Sleeping, where Sandra Bollock pretends to be engaged to a comatose man and hilarity, as always, ensues. Talk To Her, on the other hand, takes an unlikely premise -- dissimilar men brought together by tragedy -- and uses it to showcase aspects of human emotion that are rarely explored on film. By focusing on love, and the difficult decisions that friendship demands, Almodóvar has created a work that is an order of magnitude greater than your run-of-the-mill "Comedy / Drama / Romance".

February 12, 2003

Movies: 8 Mile

After a week of listening to me rave about Spirited Away, my wife resolved to go see it for herself. She and a friend trekked to the local dollar theater to see the seven o'clock showing, and, after checking the listings, I figured what the heck: I'd tag along and catch 8 Mile, which was playing at roughly the same time. Granted, I'd be seeing it by myself -- my efforts to recruit a companion for The Eminem Show were met with flat refusal by all I asked -- but, even solo, I expected it would be a adequate way to kill two hours while waiting for for The Queen.

As it turned out, 8 Mile was exactly that: nothing great, nothing original, nothing worth even recommending per se. But if you ever find yourself at a $3 Theater with 120 minutes on your hands, it's about as fine a time-killer as you're likely to find.

Eminem stars as, well, Eminem, I guess. I mean, he's called "Rabbit" in the film, but I am led to understand that the character he plays is loosely based on his own life: young, vaguely psychotic kid, living with his single, screwed-up Mom in Detroit, makes good -- or, at the very least, makes less bad. I could go on about the plot, but if you've seen Hoosier or Over the Top or Searching For Bobby Fisher or any movie that revolves around a competition of some sort, you already know how 8 Mile plays out. Suffice to say that the film opens with rap contest, ends with a rap contest, and spends much of the middle getting you from one to the other.

So rather than telling you what's in the movie, let me instead tell you what I was pleasantly surprised to find absent from this film.

Eminem songs: For a movie starring Eminem and telling the story of a thinly-disguised Eminem, there are remarkably few Eminem songs in the flick. Sure, he raps during the competitions, but throughout the rest of the story he breaks into rhyme only a handful of times. There are no moments contrived to feature his new hit single (Rabbit: "Hey, who wants to help me clean out my closet?"), no Eminem songs playing over the car radio as they drive around, etc. Why, you'd almost think they were more interested in making a movie than showcasing a celebrity. Likewise ...

Eminem PR: Eminem is not a likeable guy in this flick -- which is to say that the character, Rabbit, is not a likeable guy. He's pretty much a complete loser, actually. When he gets beat up, you're kinda rootin' for the assailants. In other words, 8 Mile is not an attempt to aggrandize or whitewash the career of Eminem. You may come out of the theater a little more sympathetic towards him, but you still won't want him to date your daughter.

High stakes: The "big contest" that Rabbit works the whole movie to win is, in fact, nothing more than a pissant little neighborhood "rap off". Unlike Rocky, he's not gunning for the World Championship; he just want one thing -- one tiny, insignificant thing -- to go right in life, for once. This makes the movie much more realistic, and, paradoxically, a lot more powerful.

Race politics: Eminem is white; the guys he raps against are black. So? The movie makes very little of this -- so little that this aspect of the plot is a little unbelievable, frankly. But it's a lot better than the alternative I'd feared: the filmmakers urging the audience to cheer for Rabbit because it would be cool for the white guy to beat all the minorities at their own game. (Here, let me put all that in scare quotes so that no one accuses me of advocating this view: it would be "cool" for the "white guy" to beat all the "minorities" at "their own game".) Screenwriter Scott Silver did a good job is divorcing race from the central story, and although this strips the plot of a lot of depth, it
also steers it clear of some philosophical landmines.

8 Mile will be on DVD soon; you should rent it. If it's still playing at your local theater, you might even want to catch it there. It's difficult to endorse because it's so forgettable, but you won't regret having seen it.

January 30, 2003

Movies: Chicago

After nearly thirty-two continual years of football apathy, I decided that, this year, I was going to take Not Giving A Rat's-Ass About The Superbowl to the whole next level. Instead of simply not watching the Big Game, I was going to seek out and engage in some activity that no true SuperBowl fan would even dream of undertaking.

So, last Sunday, I went to see Chicago.

(I later discovered that my father had trumped me by spending Sunday at -- this is true -- "The Superbowl of Poetry VI". He's always trying to one-up me, that dad o' mine.)

I'll admit to having a second motive as well. I will almost always go to see a movie in a cataegory that I fear is on the brink of extinction: Old Fashioned Murder Mysteries (Gosford Park), Animated Movies Made For Adult Audiences (Spirited Away), Contemporary Comedies That Don't Involve Flatulence (drawing a blank, here), and the like. I often go into these films more out of a sense of duty than out of any expectation of quality. This often leads to disappointment (did I mention Gosford Park?), but can also lead to pleasant surprise when a movie turns out to be more than just a excellent example of a particular genre. Such is the case with Chicago, which went well beyond the realm of Great Musical into Damned Fine Motion Picture territory.

Based on a play of the same name, Chicago tells the tale of three publicity hounds living in an era when even double-homicide only earns you six minutes of fame. That's bad news for those who make a living on the stage or aspire to one day make it big, because attracting and keeping the public's attention has become a Herculean feat. Fortunately for Velma (Cathrine Zeta-Jones) and Roxy (Renee Zellweger), they have more than just their good-looks and long legs to keep them in the spotlight, they also have several counts of murder between them. And their efforts to dodge execution bring in yet another Fame Attractor, defense attorney Bill Flynn (Richard Gere) who is one-third lawyer and five-fourths showman.

Chicago is two movies, show in parallel. The bulk of the story unfolds on death row, where Velma and Roxy navigate prison life and dream of using their publicity as a springboard for superstardom. But the scenes advancing the plot alternate with song-and-dance numbers which take place in a vaudeville setting. When Roxy meets the prison matron (Queen Latifah), for example, we first see the wardeness laying out the law in harsh, spoken-language, but the scene then abruptly switches to a cabaret, where Latifah, now decked out in a sequined gown and singing on-stage to a crowded nightclub, belts out a showtune entitled "When You're Good To Mamma, Mamma's Good To You". This very clever method of segregating the plot for the singing avoids what often annoys me the most about musicals -- the premise that, in real life, people are prone to breaking out into arias in the middle of everyday situations.

Furthermore, everyone gets a song -- this isn't just the Gere, Zellweger, Zeta-Jones show. The ladies accompanying Velma and Roxy on death row get to tell their tales in "Cell Block Tango," and even John C. Reilly gets to do a little soft-shoe. For a movie about folks jockeying for the limelight, Chicago does an admirable job of making sure no one actor dominates.

Throughout most of 2002 (until Das Experiment, anyway) I was bitchin' and moanin' about how few good movies I had seen that year. Now here we are, less than a month into 2003, and I've already seen two that would have made last year's Top Five list. Having gone to see Chicago just to avoid watching football, I certainly hadn't expected to enjoy myself to such a degree, but I can't deny that I came out of the theater feeling more energized and elated than I have after any movie in recent memory. Indeed, it looks as though I have no choice but to describe Chicago with the most unSuperBowlie of superlatives: absolutely fabulous.

January 28, 2003

defective yeti ¢ent $aver Tip!

Want to "rap" with your friends for two hours, but don't want to pay for a full-price movie ticket? Here's a defective yeti ¢ent $aver Tip: many theaters offer "matinee" showings earlier in the day at a reduced cost, allowing you to talk with your buddies for as little as $5. You could even rent a movie and chat in the comfort of your very own home.

And although it's not widely known, it's even possible to carry on a two-hour conversation without a movie playing in the background! Next time, try going to a Starbucks or strolling through a local park and talking there --not only will you save the eight dollars you would have spent on a ticket to Chicago, but you'll also spare me the trouble of having to glare at you every ten minutes, you fucking jackass!

Now that's an idea that makes ¢ents!

[ link | Movies]


January 24, 2003

Movies: Spirited Away

Standing in line to see Spirited Away at the dollar theater last night, I skimmed a Seattle P-I review posted in the box office window. "Japan's 'Spirited Away' has the makings of a breakthrough" read the headline, with the critic later wondering "Will [this] be the spearhead of the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America?"

Apparently not. If you look at international 2002 box office grosses, Spirited Away comes in fourth, due, no doubt, to the fact that it's the biggest hit of all-time in Japan. But I can't even find it on the domestic lists -- not even this one which bottoms-out at #150 (but not before listing Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Juwanna Mann, Jason X, and Sorority Boys).

Which is too bad, because, if ever a film was going to bring about "the long-expected anime breakthrough in mainstream America," this would have been it. Spirited Away has an engaging storyline, a seamless blend of traditional and computer animation, excellent voice work, and not a single goddamned pony or jet-powered skateboard in sight.

Furthermore, the film opens with what could be easily mistaken for a typical American family: they are recklessly cruising along in their SUV, the father boasts about his "cash and credit cards," and the daughter comes across as sullen and whiny. They are en route to a new home, but take a wrong turn along the way and quickly [fall down the rabbit hole / travel through the wardrobe / get carried off by a Kansasian twister] and find themselves in [Wonderland / Narnia / Oz].

So, yeah, the premise isn't the most original we've seen. But once the protagonists wind up in the Otherworld, the similarities to traditional Western "through the looking glass" tales evaporate. The parents are soon transformed into hogs. The young girl, Chihiro, is besieged by specters and seeks sanctuary in a bath-house. It soon becomes clear that we have passed into a land populated almost exclusively by spirits, and where humans are as rare as they are disliked. And then the real weirdness begins.

It's important to realize that, despite the sometimes cartoony nature of the animation and the presence of a 10-year old girl in the lead role, Spirited is decidedly not a children's movie. For starters, it's long: two hours of story, with no songs or dance numbers to pass the time. It's also, at times, frightening, disgusting, and bizarre enough to ensure that your kid has months of nightmares featuring giant, walking, obese turnips. That's bad news for the many Americans who automatically equate animated films with "kid's stuff" (pity the poor chump who brought his daughter to this expecting a sequel to Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron), but a godsend to those of us who don't immediately dismiss the concept of "mature fantasy" as oxymoronic.

Daveigh Chase, the young woman who provides the English voice for Chihiro, is fabulous; this is the first time I've ever watched an animated movie and thought to myself "Wow, the person doing the voice work for this character is a damned fine actor." The music is also superb. And while the foreground animation is of the traditional "big eyes, small mouth" anime style, the backgrounds (landscapes and parallax shifts) are breathtaking. All this makes for a movie that should be seen by anyone who enjoys a good story well told. If I had caught this a month ago, it would have easily made it into my "Top Five For 2002". As it stands, 2003 will have to be a helluva cinematic year to keep Spirited Away off the top of this year's list.

January 09, 2003

Movies: The Gangs of New York

The last movie I saw in 2002 was a wonderful, sprawling epic that clocked in at 180 minutes. The first movie I saw in 2003 was also a three-hour, sprawling epic. But unlike The Two Towers, The Gangs of New York was less "sprawling" in the sense of "grandiose" and more in the sense of sprawling on the living room floor after tripping over the coffee table.

Maybe it's because they came at it from different angles. Tolkien, in writing the Lord of the Rings, started with a strong narrative and then crafted a vast and exhaustive world in which to set it, filled with larger-than-life characters and steeped in history. The screenwriter of Gangs, on the other, began with the history -- as documented in Herbert Asbury's (mostly) nonfiction Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld -- and had to add a narrative to string the people and events together. Too bad he elected to just pull Plot Number Four off the shelf and use it as his framing device. Plot Number Four is perhaps better known as Standard Revenge Fantasy: Boy has Father murdered by a Powerful Figure; Powerful Figure takes over Father's kingdom; years later, Boy (hereafter "Young Man") joins Power Figure's inner circle in the guise of an ally; Young Man is consumed by his lust for vengeance, Young Man takes on Powerful Figure, everything goes to hell in a handbasket, the end.

Where have we seen this before? Oh, that's right: Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark, though, is at least contemplative, stopping every few minutes to wonder aloud about morality and mortality. The Young Man in Gangs, meanwhile, goes about his assigned role rather perfunctorily, as if he too has seen Plot Number Four in action, knows how it's going to end, and therefore opts not to expend any energy on introspection. In other words, we have Hamlet minus the philosophy, which you may have enjoyed when it was entitled The Lion King.

(I wonder how many different movies I can compare Gangs to in a single review. Let's explore.)

There's nothing inherently wrong with using a hackneyed plot to tell a historical tale; James Cameron, for example, turned Plot Number Two ("Forbidden Love") into a Best Picture award. But Titanic succeeds because it uses the plot to explicate the backstory: Leonardo Di Caprio, in the role of Jack, serves as a primer on early 20th century class distinctions, and guides us through one of the most shocking disasters on record. Yeah, you had to sit through a few love scenes, but the focus of the film was always on the history. Gangs, on the other hand, lavishes so much time and energy on its one-dimensional characters that the real story, the setting, is eclipsed. The Leonardo Di Caprio role doesn't showcase the history so much as obscure it.

Gangs of New York isn't bad, but it sure ain't no Two Towers. By staking out the middle ground between Titanic and Hamlet, it gives neither the world nor the characters enough depth to be of much interest. That adds up to a three-hour bore -- and there, as they say in Plot Number Four, is the rub.

December 31, 2002

Movies: The Two Towers

Boromir dies at the beginning of The Two Towers. Not the beginning of the movie, but the beginning of Tolkien's The Two Towers novel. So when director Peter Jackson snuck Boromir's frantic-grab-for-the-ring-cum-noble-death into the last act of Fellowship, Ring purists howled. "Why, " they lamented, " is he messin' with the source material?!".

Those who got all worked up over this bit of cinematic slight-of-hand probably had seizures when they saw Jackson's The Two Towers, where he takes even more liberties with the original storyline. But for the rest of us, the decision to shuffle things around, emphasize some aspects of the tale while omitting others, and, in general, encapsulating each film so that it stands on its own, is cause for jubilation.

I had gone into Towers expecting to be disappointed. Well, perhaps not disappointed, per se, but I had no hope to reaching the the apogee of wonder I felt while watching the first film unfold. Towers is, after all, a "middle chapter," and such installment tend to feel vaguely useless, like they only serve to get you from the Part I (exposition) to Part III (finale). So was was surprised to find that The Two Towers is a complete film unto itself, and a spectacular one at that. Granted, it starts with a scene lifted (and extended) from the prior movie, but uses that as springboard for the events to follow. Now imagine if Boromir had entered stage left at the beginning, given a big speech, and keeled over -- suddenly you'd have to mentally reconstruct the entire Fellowship narrative to make sense of things. Furthermore, Towers occasionally stops to unobtrusively explain bits of backstory, so there's no need for the casual viewer to keep Ye Olde Entire History Of Middle Earth in his head at all times. In short, Jackson has done a wonderful job of making Towers more than just a bridge between The Start and The End. I suspect that someone who had neither seen nor read Fellowship could watch Towers and enjoy it as much as the next person.

There's little point in recapping the plot -- you either know it, you don't want me spoiling it, or you don't give a rat's ass. Suffice to say that The Two Towers is every bit as good as Fellowship, though the two movies are quite distinct. Towers is, at its heart, a war movie in the best possible sense -- not simply an endless stream of fight scenes a la Windtalkers, but a film that delves into the philosophy, morality and strategy of warfare. It also largely avoids romanticizing war, which is surprising for a film set in the fantasy milieu. Yes, there are plenty of heroics and, yes, each protagonist dispatches 107 foes before taking so much as a flesh wound, but the conflict in Middle Earth is shown to be as horrific as it is unavoidable. By emphasizing entirely different aspects of the saga (Frodo and Sam's journey is relegated to the back-burner for most of the story), Jackson has not given us a second helping of the first meal, but an entirely new buffet.

Also, as far as computer animation goes, Gollum makes Jar-Jar Binks look like Pac-man.

The Two Towers is three hours long, but it doesn't feel like a moment is wasted; I, for one, was enthralled throughout. I had some minor qualms -- I did not care for Gimli-as-comic-relief and got a little bored with Smeagol-as-Two-Face -- but overall the film exceeded my expectations, which were high to begin with. Peter Jackson is the King of the cinema, and I can't wait for his return in December of 2003.

December 27, 2002

Movies: Adaptation

There's an old piece floating around the Internet that purports to describe the Lifecycle of Mailing Lists. A list begins when a bunch of people get together to discuss a topic: beekeeping, say, or perl programming. And that works fine for a while. But some people soon get bored or cranky or both, and they begin commenting not on the subject, but on the quality of other posts. "Read the FAQ before you post!" they might write in response to a newbie, or "No one on this list appreciates your use of vulgarity." And sooner or later, some other folks start talking about the people talking about the posts: "I don't see why you get so freaked out at a few swear words. We're all adults here!" And then some folks start commenting on the people commenting on the people commenting on, on ... uh, hmm, I got lost, there. At any rate, after the list has reached its nth-level of meta, the whole things starts to come unraveled.

So too with Adaptation, a film both by and about Charlie Kaufman. The ostensible topic of the movie is John Laroche, a roustabout from Southern Florida who routinely swiped endangered orchids from state preserves. Laroche was profiled in a New Yorker article entitled The Orchid Thief, and the author, Susan Orlean, was soon asked to expand the piece into a full-length novel. In doing so, Orlean -- perhaps sensing that the orchid thief alone couldn't fill a 284-page book -- inserted herself into the narrative, serving as a foil to Laroche's roguish ways. This is the work that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is asked to adapt for Hollywood. He, like Orlean, can't seem to find enough material to fill an entire screenplay, so he too inserts himself into the story, making Adaptation a movie about a guy writing a movie about a book about a woman writing a book about a guy who steals plants. And to make things even more ethereal, Kaufman (or, rather, Nicholas Cage, in the role of Kaufman) spends much of the film fretting about the fact that he's so bereft of ideas that he's resorted to writing about himself, adding even more layers of meta to the mix.

Like mailing lists, all this abstraction eventually causes the whole thing to come unglued. Unlike mailing lists, however, Adaptation is finite in length (114 minutes, to be exact), at the end of which Kaufman tries to extract the audience from the whole mess before they get fed up. Sadly, he's not entirely successful at this -- I was ready for the closing credits a good 20 minutes before it finally arrived.

Adaptation has been getting crazy-good reviews (it's at 90% on Metacritic), but at least one critic has declared this to be an emperor without clothing. "Adaptation is the most overrated movie of the year by people who should know better," says Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer. He's kinda right. But, on the other hand, there's no denying that it has cleverness up the ying-yang. For example, one of the central conceits is that John Laroche only provides One-New-Yorker-length article's worth of material to work with. And as it describes Kaufman's difficulties, Adaptation actually devotes half an hour to telling the full Orchid Thief story. That half an hour is time well spent, but if the whole movie had been about this subject it would have involved about 80 minutes of padding and filler (which Kaufman realizes right from the get-go). So you get to see your Orchid Thief movie and, as a bonus, you get another hour of mostly interesting meta-story.

Where this meta-story really works is when it's taking quick jabs at itself, such as when Kaufman, in voiceover, ruminates about how hackneyed voiceovers have become. There's a lot of that going on: whenever a tenet of screenwriting is mentioned in the movie, you can be sure that it's going to be followed or flouted soon thereafter. Sadly, one of the tenets Adaptation opts to ignore is: don't belabor the joke. The last 20 minutes of the film are essentially one long "voiceover dissing voiceovers" gag, which continues well past the point where you want to shout "Right! I got it!"

Oh well, it was almost great. Charlie Kaufman is clearly a genius, and director Spike Jonze is clearly a genius, and the majority of Adaptation is clearly genius -- it's just too bad that the three spend so much of the movie cheerfully pointing out these self-evident truths.

December 20, 2002

Bilingualism

Check out the "Language" entry (under "cast overview") on the Two Towers IMDB.com page.

[ link | Movies]


December 10, 2002

Movies: Solaris

I was quite the Sci-Fi buff in high school. Not to the point of learning Klingon or memorizing the serial number on the Star Wars trash compactor (3263827), but I would rent any video that had anything remotely futuristic or astronomical on i's box. It was this lack of discrimination that led me to one day rent the original Solaris, a film hailed by critics as "Russia's answer to 2001" and hailed by me as "unbelievably boring". No lasers, no acid-blooded aliens, no Carrie Fisher in a bikini -- what's to like?

Now, as an adult, 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie of all time. So I was eager to give the film another chance, especially since this new version was by one of my favorite directors (Steven Soderbergh) and starring one of my favorite actors (George Clooney). And what's the verdict? Solaris is a beautiful film, full of interesting characters, engaging ideas, and philosophical quandaries around every turn. And it's a little boring.

As the film opens, it's unclear when the film is set -- it certainly doesn't look like the far future. But just as the viewer gets comfortable watching Clooney live his early-21st-century life, a couple of guys show up and ask him to go visit a space station. Something screwy is going on up yonder, and Dr. Chris Kelvin, as a profession psychologist, has been chosen to go straighten things out.

So the next thing you know, Clooney is in a space suit, tramping around space station Prometheus, and discovering things to be in complete disarray. One guy has committed suicide, another was killed by security; the remaining crewmen are loopy, paranoid, and unwilling to explain what's going on; there's even a kid running around the ship, a kid who shouldn't be there at all. It becomes immediately clear that whatever is causing the mayhem is as much physical as it is psychological. Worse still, Clooney becomes another victim of the -- whatever -- even before his first day is through.

Solaris is a ponderous film: every event and speech is pregnant with meaning, and Soderbergh gives you plenty of long, quiet pauses to mull things over. It's also, thankfully, a movie devoid of Good Guys and easy solutions: Clooney, for example, rapidly becomes as screwed up as everyone else on board, and even ups the ante a bit. This isn't one of those stories where the characters know what's going on but the audience doesn't, or vice versa; everyone seems to be stumbling around in the same fog. At no point does a scientist in a white lab coat announce "we've figured out the source of the problem, and I shall now explain it in layman's terms". If you like your films cryptic -- and I do -- Solaris is a must-see.

And Clooney is terrific, of course. Can we all just agree that he's a fine, fine actor? Yes, I know all about E.R. and that godawful Batman movie, but look at Three Kings, look at Out of Sight, look at Thin Red Line. And if you remain unconvinced, look at this film, which he (and along with co-star Natascha McElhone) pretty much carries. When Clooney acts confused and terrified in Solaris, the entire audience feels confused and terrified.

Solaris is a riveting film, mostly. I must admit that the final fourth of the film (that's secret code for "The Ending") left me cold, although I can't put my finger on why. Perhaps simply because the director had to provide resolution to a story that was so aggressively open-ended. As Soderbergh chose some threads to tie up and left others dangling, it was if I could hear the grinding as he tried to downshift the movie to the point where he could put it in park. But even so, this is one of the finest science-fiction flicks to come down the pike in a while, and I recommend it to anyone in the mood for goregous special effects and some deep, deep thoughts.

December 03, 2002

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I recently saw the live action Scooby Doo movie on DVD. And although I generally don't write about DVDs here on the yeti, this is how I would review it:

I didn't have high hopes for this movie, and it lived down to my expectations. The hero and his friends have a mystery to solve, and do so by tracking down a series of clues scattered throughout an exotic location. Unfortunately, the films is entirely too linear -- the gang simply waltz from one adventure to the next until they crack the case and reach the Big Finale. The director apparently assumed you are already so familiar with the characters that further development is unnecessary. But the real problem with the film is that it can't decide if it's for adults of for kids, and its attempts to please folks of all ages make it a mess of contradictions. And the occasionally great CGI effects do little to prevent the picture from becoming a crashing bore. I have no doubt that another film in the series is already in the works, but, as of now, I have little interest in seeing this franchise continue.
And hey look: I just reviewed Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as well!

At least Scooby Doo had the good sense to keep its running time below an hour and a half -- at 161 minutes Chamber of Secrets is too long by an hour. This is mostly due to the fact that, like the first Potter picture, Chamber of Secrets isn't so much a movie as it is a book-on-film. In other words, rather than taking the essence of the novel and making a movie out of it (as Peter Jackson did so masterfully with The Fellowship Of The Ring), writer Steven Kloves seemingly loaded the book up in Microsoft Word and then selected "Save As [Screenplay]".
No doubt the reason they opted to preserve nearly every paragraph of the book is because kids would howl if any major scene was omitted, even those irrelevant to the overall story (as many are). But this is essentially my beef with both the Potter films and books: they can't decide if they are for kids or adults. J.K. Rowling fills her stories with tons of backstory and exposition to lend credibility to the narrative, but then resorts to cartoon logic at seemingly random moments. (In one scene, Harry and his friends encounter a seemingly bottomless pit and gamely leap into it without a second thought.) Now, I have no objection to "cartoon logic" movies -- heck, Iron Giant is one of my favorite flicks -- but inconsistency drives me crazy. Rowling oscillates between the historical style of J.R.R. Tolkien and and logic-free style of Lewis Carroll.
Also! (I'm on a roll, now.) At one point I swear Harry Potter said "I only know one spell!". And Ron Weasley goes through the entire year with a wand that doesn't function. I thought American schools had gotten lax, but apparently in England you can be in your second year of a Witchcraft and Wizardy School and still not know your ass from a leaky cauldron.
(Okay, I think I'm done ranting now.)
(Nope, apparently not.)
And another thing! What the hell kind of middle name is 'Marvolo'?!! Funny how we never heard it until Rowling needed to do some ridiculous anagram mumbo-gumbo!
(I'm done.)
Many critics have said that Chamber of Secrets is "Better than the first film". That's true, but also damning with faint praise. I liked the first Potter movie, but that was largely because it was the first film -- like Star Wars: A New Hope, The Sorcerer's Stone is not great, but at least it's new. But Chamber of Secrets ain't no Empire Strikes Back, that's for sure.
The third Potter book is my favorite, so perhaps there's hope for this series yet. But Prisoner of Azkaban has 435 pages, so if they film #3 as they have #1 and #2 (i.e., using the novel as the screenplay) the film is going to be seven weeks long. Frankly I doubt I'll see it and find out, since I found this film to be such a yawner. Chamber of Secrets isn't terrible, but it's about as far from spellbinding as a movie about magic can be.
November 15, 2002

Movies: Punch-Drunk Love

When I first heard that P.T. Anderson was making a movie starring Adam Sandler, I thought I was faced with a dilemma of "unstoppable force hits immovable object" dimensions. What's a guy to do when he's vowed to see every movie a certain director makes, and then discovers that the director has casts an unwatchable actor in the lead role? Fortunately, P. T. Anderson also put Phillip Seymour Hoffman in there, which settled the matter: two "must sees" beats a single "can't bear".

So let's cut to the chase: yes, Sander is fantastic in Punch-Drunk Love, the newest film by the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But even so, Sandler-loathers need not worry: with the exception of this aberration, you can go right back to disliking him, because he'll never again have a role so perfectly suited to his marbles-in-the-mouth, rageaholic, soft-in-the-head schtick.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a mess of a man who is unlucky in love and nearly everything else. Barry seems nice enough, but it's pretty obvious that he's a few croutons short of a salad. For one thing, he was raised with seven sisters, and they have left him a nervous wreck. For another, he seems rather obsessive: he's currently buying thousands of cups of pudding in an elaborate scheme to get a bunch of Frequent Flier Miles that he has no intention of using. (This aspect of the plot, by the way, is based on a true story). All this makes for a guy that you wouldn't really want to hang out with, much less date. But then lovely, charming Lena shows up and somehow falls in love with him. It's hard to tell what Lena sees in Barry; but it's also hard to tell if she isn't just as loopy as he. While Barry oscillates between introvertion and aggression, Lena emits a perpetual, low-key, vaguely insane vibe.

And there you go: two charismatic screwballs = one romantic comedy. There's a whole lot of other stuff going on -- miniature pianos and phone-sex chat lines and decorative toilet plungers are all featured prominently -- but it's essentially the Barry & Lena show. Furthermore, Anderson has a habit of tossing completely random and inexplicable stuff into his films, and this one is no exception. The first 20 minutes of Punch-Drunk, in fact, play out like an extended dream sequence. Now, I'm a complete sucker for nonlinear storylines, but I could understand why some might find Punch-Drunk Love pretentious. Hell, it is pretentious, make no mistake, but, like I said, I groove on non sequiturs. What's interesting, though, is that The Queen, who has a much lower tolerance for pretension than I (she hated Mulholland Drive, I loved it) also quite enjoyed Punch-Drunk, and that's saying something.

I spent the first nine months of 2002 bitching about how few good movies I'd seen; now, in the last month, it's been bang bang bang: Das Experiment, How's Your News and now Punch Drunk, the top three films I've seen all year. My only regret is that I can no longer use the name "Adam Sandler" as a synonym for "talentless hack". Oh well, I still have Eminem. I'll just have to make a point of not seeing 8 Mile.

November 08, 2002

Movies: How's Your News?

How's Your News is the best movie you'll probably never see.

I'd been wanting to see it for months (ever since reading this MetaFilter thread), but never expected to do so. The film had received critical acclaim at the few festivals that showed it (and won the audience award at the Comedia festival in Montreal), but there were no plans for widespread (or even limited) release. Luckily, I happened to skim a local weekly's movie listings just in time to discover that it was playing in Seattle's aptly-named Little Theater for four days only. I had the great fortune to catch the premier last night, and am pleased to report that my eager anticipation was entirely justified.

The documentary follows five adults with mental and physical disabilities as they travel across America in a RV and interview everyday folks for a show called How's Your News? Ronnie Simonsen and Susan Harrington are the two most active reporters, conversing with everyone from homeless men to women at grocery stores. Both conduct their interviews in idiosyncatic ways: Ronnie steers almost every conversation to the celebrities he is obsessed with; Susan is prone to bursting into song and ends every segment with a well-rehearsed sign-off. Sean Costello, who has downs syndrome, also speaks to a variety of people.

The other two members of the How's Your News cast are unable to speak intelligibly, but conduct interviews all the same. A speech impediment renders everything Robert Bird says as gibberish, but he can communicate quite effectively through written notes and by accompanying his "words" with gesticulation. Larry Perry has severe spastic cerebral palsy and can neither walk nor speak, but is able to hold a microphone and interview subjects by allowing them to talk freeform.

The interactions between the How's Your News team and the general public are always interesting, sometime awkward and frequently hilarious. The reactions to Bird's gibberish-talk are especially varied and telling: some vainly ask him to repeat himself in an effort to understand, others respond with generic uh-huhs and okays, and some "play along" by guessing at the questions he might be asking and gamely providing complete replies ("I'm doing great. How are you?").

It's hard to read about this movie and not think the whole thing smacks of exploitation. The director, Arthur Bradford, addresses this concern right on the film's home page:

All of the people associated with How's Your News?, including the reporters and their families, are extremely proud of the work which has been put into this movie. The How's Your News? reporters may not look, act, or speak like traditional news reporters, and the news which they gather may not be traditional news, but we stand by it all the same. In fact, we feel that to deny these reporters the chance to express themselves freely, travel the country, and communicate with the people they meet would be a real shame.
What's even more shameful, in my opinion, is that there are a plethora of well-promoted fictional movies about developmentally disabled people (Forrest Gump, i am sam, The Other Sister, etc.), but a movie showing actual developmentally disabled people winds up with no distribution whatsoever.

Furthermore, I have long felt that Hollywood's practice of lionizing the developmentally disabled does more harm than good. While some films (notably Rain Man and Who's Eating Gilbert Grape) portray those with disabilities as everyday people with everyday lives, many others reflexively elevate their protagonists to the status of "hero" for having been born with a handicap. The problem with such aggrandizement is that it prevents us from relating to the characters as fellow human beings; we are instead urged to look upon them as role models and metaphors. Worse still, we are admonished for laughing at (or even with) anything they do, because to do so would be "insensitive". In short, filmmakers try to have it both ways: they want to present the disabled as human (or, in some cases, the very essence of humanity), but they also insist that we not treat them as such.

But humans are funny creatures. The right to laugh, and the risk of being laughed at, comes with the territory regardless of who you are. To disallow this very fundamental interaction is tantamount to dividing us into camps. How's Your News does an excellent job of avoiding this "us" and "them" demarcation, and you feel like you're watching a home movie made by friends.

It's exhilarating to see how much fun the cast is having throughtout the film. Perhaps it's all the shows and movies that insist on depicting life as a disabled person as a deadly serious enterprise, or perhaps reality television has conditioned us to expect people on camera to be humiliated and degraded, but How's Your News?, just by showing folks enjoying themselves, comes across as remarkably upbeat and refreshing. At one point during an interview, Sean Costello tells his subject "This [trip] is my dream. What's your dream?" and everyone -- the interviewee and the audience -- finds themselves stumped by the question and envious of the asker.

Halfway through the travelogue the crew is seen playing Scrabble in the RV. The tiles have been placed onto the board any-old-way -- upside down and sideways -- and it's unclear if they are even making real words. But who cares? They're determined to have a good time, and they don't seem to mind if they have to break the rules to do so.

If you live in Seattle, you still have three days to see "How's Your News" at the Little Theater; if you live anywhere else, keep checking their webpage -- maybe you'll luck out. There are a few video clips from the movie available over yonder (scroll to the bottom of the page), but you will need Quicktime to view them. The "How's Your News" crew was also featured on "This American Life" earlier this year; you can hear that segment here

October 16, 2002

Movies: One Hour Photo

(Vague Spoilers for Signs herein.)

There are two types of thrillers: Thrillers that depend on plot, and thrillers that depend on atmosphere. (I'm fully aware that the preceding statement is, like, 400% incorrect. But stick with me, here -- I'm making a point.) Movies like The Usual Suspects and, more recently, Signs keep you on the edge of your seat because the plot is so elaborate that you never know what is going to happen next. But movies like Psycho are almost completely atmosphere-driven -- you grind your teeth because you know exactly what's going to happen next, and that "next thing" ain't gonna be good. What you don't want to see, though, is a thriller start out in one vein and keeps lapsing into the other. This was essentially my objection to the ending of Signs: The whole movie was plot driven, and then, in the last five minutes, it turned into "And then God saved them, the end. P.s. don't think too hard about the rest of the movie." If you're going to pitch your tent on plot, I expect you to stay camped there for the duration of the movie.

On the other hand, One Hour Photo is all atmosphere. Or, at least, it should be. Instead, director Mark Romanek keeps ruining a perfectly fine movie by tossing in handfuls of plot as seemingly random moments. The story centers around Sy Parrish, a clerk in a Wal*Martesque photo lab. Sy takes his job very, very serious -- so seriously that you're pretty sure that it's all he has to live for. As it turns out, Sy also has his family -- except that it's not really his family, technically. In fact, it's someone else's family entirely. But Sy has been developing this family's photos for so long that he has come to feel like an Uncle -- the intense, unhinged Uncle Sy. The family in question knows nothing about Sy's fixation. And Sy, truth be told, knows much less about the family than he seems to think. He believes them to be the very model of the happiness, and when he begins to learn otherwise his obsession spins out of control.

That's enough of the plot for you to get a feel for the film. And, frankly, that's enough plot to carry the film. Robin Williams does a fantastic job as Sy, making the character entirely believable. Sy is one of those people that's a little "off' -- not so much that you don't feel sorry for his not having friends, but just enough so that you don't especially want to befriend him yourself. That right there is enough to make anyone uncomfortable while watching Photo, and when Sy begins to slide into madness the film becomes downright scary.

The problem is, every time you start to become immersed in the atmosphere of One Hour Photo, it suddenly switches gears and throws some plot at you -- and it's often plot that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Having jarred you out of your reverie, the plot disappears and the atmosphere resumes, but getting back into the groove is like falling back asleep after being awakened by a phone call.

If the movie had stuck to what it was good at -- namely, sitting back and letting Mork from Ork creep the pants off you -- it would have been excellent. But the decision to try and liven things up with some completely unnecessary plot twists was a big mistake, in my opinion. Maybe if the screenplay had gone through another revision this would have been corrected. As it stands, Photo, while enjoyable, feels somewhat undeveloped.

October 02, 2002

Movies: Das Experiment

About once a year I urge all my cinemaphilic friends to go see a movie on my word alone. I just say "Go see such and such without reading anything about it -- the less you know before you walk into the theater, the more you'll like it. Assuming you like it at all. Which I don't guarantee." Two years ago the Blind Faith Movie was Run Lola Run. Last year it was Memento. This year the movie to see "cold" is, without a doubt, Das Experiment.

And because I consider every member of my faithful yeti-readership to be a friend (albeit a friend in a no-I-don't-want-to-'cyber' kind of way), I'm not going to tell you a goddamned thing about the plot of this movie. (I'm not even going to link to the movie's "Rotten Tomatoes" or "Metacritic" page, because I don't want you skulking off and reading about it). I will instead limit my reflections on Das Experiment to these five items:

  • This is easily my favorite movie so far this year, beating out The Good Girl by a country mile. So you'll be pleased to know that my "Wah-wah, there are no Mulholland Drives this year" bleat endth here. Furthermore, I don't foresee any movie on the horizon knocking this out of my "#1 for 2002" spot, save only, perhaps, The Two Towers.

  • I don't want to classify Das Experiment as either a "psychological thriller" or a "horror movie," but I will say that the overall atmosphere of the film falls somewhere in between Memento and The Blair Witch Project.

  • During this movie my heart was pounding. And by "my heart was pounding" I'm not talking about that mamby-pamby "The Tuxedo is heart-pounding excitement!" Gene Shalit crap -- I'm telling you that I could literally feel my own pulse throughout the latter half of the film.

  • At various points during the film, the audience in my theater audibly gasped with surprise and horror. Not just the woman with hypertension sitting behind me, the entire, collective audience.

  • Moritz Bleibtreu -- the hottie boyfriend from Run Lola Run -- is stark naked on several occasions. (If you haven't seen Lola, imagine a burlier Keanu Reeves with approximately the same command of the English language.) I dunno if "naked Bleibtreu" motivates you -- I'm more of a Franka Potente man, myself -- but I believe the world would be a better place if all movie reviews mentioned the good-lookin' naked people. That said, I should point out that, despite wanton male nudity, this movie is not even remotely erotic. If erotic was Ackron, Ohio, Das Experiment would be Neptune. In fact, this may well be the worse date movie in recent history.
Lots of people won't like Das Experiment. You may be one of them. It's actually kind of agonizing to sit through. And critics are pretty divided: the Rotten Tomatoes page (which, I'll remind you, you're not to read) gives it a composite score of 64%, which puts it just one percentage point above Blue Crush. The Village Voice liked it and The New York Times didn't -- that may tell you something right there.

Is this a recommendation? Sort of. I am telling you to go see it, make no mistake about that. I'm also saying that you might hate me for having done so. But (and if this review has any point, this is probably it) no matter what your final opinion, you will get more out of Das Experiment if you don't know any more than the above when you purchase your ticket. You'll just have to take my word for it. Consider it a little experiment in trust ... one that might go horribly wrong.
October 01, 2002

Movies: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Halfway through my book on The Evils of Consumer Culture I got in the car, went to the mall, ate at Taco Time and watched America's #1 movie, an utterly predictable piece of formulaic Hollywood "feel good" entertainment that I nonetheless enjoyed quite a bit. Take that, you socialist hippies!

[Dear Mom: please don't read this paragraph, thanks. Love, Matt.] I've known I would wind up seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding for some time, as I had long since picked it out as my current Mom Movie. Back before I learned the value of pre-selecting Mom Movies, my parents would sometimes propose a Movie Night, and my mother would inevitably suggest we see the romantic comedy du jour: Notting Hill or The Wedding Planner or whatever. This puts me in a ticklish position, as the only thing more painful that snubbing your own mother is actually sitting through Kate & Leopold. So one day I decided to get all proactive 'n shit. I started keeping a mental list of all the movies that I thought both my mother and I would enjoy -- or, rather, the films I was certain my mother would love and that I thought I could endure. And Greek Wedding has held the title of #1 Mom Movie ever since Ebert and The Other Guy, Mr. Roper Or Something, both gave it their ringing endorsement. So when the family went to the movies last weekend, Greek Wedding was a foregone conclusion.

Usually I don't like to discuss movie plots in my reviews since my abhorrence of spoilers borders on the pathological, but, honestly, if you have seen even one "romantic comedy" in this lifetime then you already know every key element My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Boy meets girl, girl feels inadequate, girl embarks on a campaign of self-improvement, boy meets girl again and is smitten, boy and girl decide to get hitched, and everything would be coming up roses were it not for that wacky, wacky Greek family! And yet -- somehow! -- you have this crazy suspicion that everything is going to turn out okay in the end. [**MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD!!**: you're right.]. In fact, as soon as you figure out what a character in the film Really Wants -- not what they say they want, mind you, but what they capital-R Really Want -- you know they will get it before the film is through. Dad says he wants his daughter to marry another Greek, but he Really just wants her to be happy; daughter says she wants to elope, but she Really wants to spend this special occasion with her family; and so on.

Yeah, I know -- I can hear your eyes rolling from here. So how could I -- a guy how insists he loves Mulholland Drive for it's nonlinear chronology and not just the hot girl-on-girl action -- possibly enjoy this? Simple: whereas most screenwriters would have lazily plugged some unremarkable dialogue into this generic framework and called it good, Nia Vardalos (writer and star of Greek Wedding) instead opted to pack this blazingly unoriginal storyline with barrels of genuinely witty banter and a even a couple of hilarious sight gags. Trust me: no one tried harder to dislike Greek Weddings than I, but after 40 minutes and my third belly-laugh I had to admit that I was liking it just fine.

It's no Memento, that's for sure. And even knowing what I know now I wouldn't have opted to see it without a a matriarch in tow. But it was about as good as a Romantic Comedy gets, and, frankly, more entertaining than whatever pretentious hunk of art-house crap I would have dragged the tribe to if the decision had been left to me. (Which is why the decision if never left to me -- not since Mulholland Drive, anyway.) Judged on it's own merits it gets maybe 3/5 stars, tops, but put a Mom in the seat next to you and My Big Fat Greek Wedding becomes a freakin' Citizen Kane.

P.s.: I saw this film with my Ma-In-Law, despite the fact that the Emergency Mom Movie is kept in reserve for my mother. When I spoke to Ma Baldwin a few moments ago and guility confessed that I had gone to see "Greek Wedding" without her, she replied "Oh that's okay, I've already seen it three times."

P.p.s. I am now taking nominations for my next "Mom Movie".

P.p.p.s. Anyone who suggests "Sweet Home Alabama" will be banned.

September 17, 2002

Free Willy 4: Seriously, Willy, Get The Hell Out Of Here

MEAN AQUARIUM SCIENTIST: What are you doing? Get away from that big red button! That opens the underwater gates to the killer whale holding tank!

JESSE: You can't hold Willy, Mean Aquarium Scientist! Willy needs to be free!

[JESSE presses button. CUT TO: underwater shot of gates opening. WILLY passes through gates to ocean.]

Jesse: Go Willy!

[WILLY leaps into air while JESSE pumps his fist. WILLY continues out to sea. WILLY stops and reconsiders. WILLY returns to holding tank.

JESSE: Go Willy! Go!

[WILLY leaves holding tank, circles around twice, returns.]

JESSE: C'mon Willy! Go! You stupid whale. Go!

[WILLY looks at JESSE, doesn't move.]

MEAN AQUARIUM SCIENTIST: Willy's not going anywhere, you fool.

JESSE: But animals need to live their lives in the wild, they way nature intended!

MEAN AQUARIUM SCIENTIST: Uh-huh. Yeah, I'm sure your parents spend their days hunting elk and digging for roots the way nature intended. Tell you what, we'll let Willy decide. Hey Willy, do you want to live your life "the way nature intended" or do you want free fish and unlimited medical care?

[WILLY looks thoughtful. CUT TO: JESSE looks frustrated.]

JESSE: Go Willy!

[WILLY makes bored whale noises.]

[ link | Movies]


September 05, 2002

Movies: The Kid Stays in the Picture

There's nothing worse than getting trapped on the wrong end of a braggart's soliloquy, getting the rundown on all of his accomplishments and listening him recount every disappointment like it was the most important event in the annals of history. There's just nothing worse. Unless. Unless said braggart (a) has enough charisma to make his own biography enthralling, and has (b) accomplishments and (c) disappointments worthy of boast. Robert Evans has all three in spades.

The Kid Stays In The Picture is a documentary -- unless by "documentary" you mean "an objective examination of a subject", in which case it's not even close. The Kid is necessarily subjective, because the focus of the documentary is also the guy who wrote it, and is also the chap who narrates the events as they unfold before our eyes. In other words, the guy has practically made a movie about himself. And yet, somehow, he pulls off this monumental bit of self-promotion. It helps that, if Robert Evans knows anything, it's how to make movie.

Evans started out a nobody, an actor with extraordinary good looks and very little else. But good looks go a long way in Hollywood, and he eventually wound up in a few films of note. Well aware of his limitations as a thespian (i.e., he couldn't act), Evans made the jump to movie production, and soon wound up with Rosemary's Baby on his resume. From there he rocketed to the top, eventually funding a string of blockbusters including Love Story, The Godfather and Chinatown. Everything went swimmingly until the 80's, when he got hooked on cocaine and found himself ensnared in a series of scandals. But Evans managed to crawl his way out of even this cellar, and continues to produce films to this day.

It's impossible to tell which aspects of his own life Evans has embellished (or which elements he has downplayed -- funny how he doesn't dwell on his productions of Popeye and The Phantom). But after a while you find it hard to care: the story is so masterfully told that you eventually just shrug your shoulders, decide that it's all "true enough," settle back and enjoy the yarn. And to his credit, Evans seems acutely aware that much of his success is attributable to dumb luck. I spent the first 30 minutes of The Kid resisting Evan's charm, wondering why the hell I had blown eight bucks on this when I could have gone to the local pub and, for the price of a Bud Lite, listened to some random sot at the bar recount his life story. The difference, I finally realized, is that Evans isn't some random sot -- he's an extraordinary sot and a first-rate storyteller. The whole thing comes across as one of those urban legends told to you by a savvy friend: you suspect it's mostly bullshit, and you're pretty sure the teller himself suspects it's largely bullshit, but the story's so good you want to hear it anyway. Full of humor, drama, and Hollywood glitterati, The Kid Stays in the Picture may also be largely bullshit, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

[ link | Movies]


September 03, 2002

Movies: The Good Girl

Oh, so you don't wanna see The Good Girl because is stars Jennifer Aniston? Well, I got three rebuttals for that argument:

Three movies, each starring an actor I don't particularly care for, each excellent in its own way. (Yes, even Galaxy Quest. It's hilarious. Seriously.) Plus, we've already seen a preview of Aniston's performance, as the put-upon waitress in Office Space. This, combined with the fact that Good Girl is by the same team that brought us Chuck & Buck (Mike White, writer; Miguel Arteta, director), got me into the cinema.

Like Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl is not a cheerful movie. In fact, the word "bleak" sprung to mind about halfway through and stuck around through the end. Which isn't to say there aren't some laugh-out-loud moments -- a couple of times my guffaws echoed in the near empty theater -- but I was chuckling mostly because I was surprised that they managed to cram any humor into this story at all. Aniston plays Justine, a run-down clerk at the Retail Rodeo, a woman who hates her job, hates her husband, and isn't too keen on life itself. She probably shouldn't be flirting with her 22 year-old misfit coworker -- both because she's 8 years his senior and because he is consumed by sullen melancholy that he calls himself "Holden" in honor of Catcher in the Rye -- but Justine sees him as a kindred soul, someone as unhappy as she. They eventually wind up together, but they never seem to especially like each other -- they've just joined forces to dislike the world as a team. The problem is that they are coming at their misanthropy from different angles: Holden is overly idealistic, viewing himself as a tortured genius and others as dullards who don't "get him," while Justine is utterly pessimistic, convinced that life has already passed her by. Well, the real problem, I suppose, is that depression and adultery are not the world's solidest foundations for a fulfilling relationship.

Both the clumsy affair and its muddling consequences feel achingly real. Aniston is as far removed from her Friends persona as possible, with an expression of perpetual exhaustion and a voice filled with weariness. Even her motions seem bereft of energy. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal (who starred in Donnie Darko and looks like a store brand Toby Maguire) manages make Holden come across as both wild-eyed and sedate. And John C. Reilly, in the role of Justine's husband Phil, stumbles blearily through the film as a poster boy for those warning that pot will renders you witless. Only the character of Bubba -- Phil's workmate and best friend -- seems contrived. But in a movie so unrelentingly realistic, the offbeat buddy is not an unwelcome addition.

I've been wondering where this year's knock-me-down-fantastic films are, the Mementos and Mulholland Drives. Everything I've seen in 2002 has been "good but not great," and The Good Girl is no exception. That said, it's the best I've seen all year (tied, perhaps, with The Endurance). Last year I might have dismissed it and pointed you to Ghost World instead. This year I recommend it highly.

August 09, 2002

Movie: Signs

The following contains very mild spoilers for Signs, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

Previously I have mentioned that, after spending money to see the dismal Phantom Menace, I felt like Lucas owed me a movie. This feeling goes both ways. After the magnificent Sixth Sense and the terrific-in-an-entirely-different-way Unbreakable, I feel like I owe M. Night Shyamalan. I will therefore see anything he writes and directs. Unless he keeps writing and directing movies like Signs, in which case I may reconsider.

Signs is 97% fantastic. Unfortunately, the remaining 3% constitute the Big Ending. Now, if a movie has a Big Ending, I usually refrain from even mentioning this when I talk about it, as foreknowledge of a Big Ending is a spoiler onto itself -- if you'd known that The Sixth Sense had a Big Ending, the twist probably wouldn't have been nearly as powerful as it was. But Shyamalan is now a victim of his own success: people know, going into his films, that there's going to be a Big Ending, and, to judge from his previous efforts, it's going to be a Great Ending. Furthermore, Signs spends its first 97% essentially setting up and then putting off the revelation of facts over and over again. You know of the existence of a Big Ending well before you reach it, because you know that, at some point, he's going to have to explain what the hell is going on. This is different from his other films, where you think you know what's going on throughout, and The Ending serves to demonstrate that, no, in fact you didn't. You could have lopped the last five minutes off either The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable and still had a mighty fine flick on your hands, albeit it one with an entirely different meaning.

So there are two independent forces at work, here, each ratcheting up excitement for Signs' Big Ending: expectations carried over from Shyamalan's other films, and the narrative structure of Signs itself. That's a lot to live up to. And, I am sad to report, that the Big Ending didn't quite do the trick for me. Signs doesn't sprint across the finish line so much as stagger. Even half an hour before The Ending you can already see it start to stumble.

So should 3% of so-soness negate 97% of greatness? Maybe, when so much of that 97% is geared towards building up tension for the three. But, on the other hand, up until the Big Ending I was enjoying Signs more than any other film I'd seen this year. And it therefore gets a recommendation with a caveat: enjoy the ride, because the destination is something of a let-down.

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July 26, 2002

Movies: Home Movie

I heart documentaries about quirky people. So does Chris Smith, apparently, because he keeps crankin' them out every year or so. He also seems to have an affinity for the word "American," as in American Job, his first major motion picture, and American Movie, his second. It was the latter that got me interested in Smith. American Movie documented the struggle of Mark, a goofball would-be director trying to film a 30-minute horror movie named Coven. (That's "COE-ven," because "CUH-ven" rhymes with oven, Mark informs us, and therefore sounds stupid.) Although the audience is definitely encouraged to laugh at Mark rather than with him, American Movie still managed to portray the protagonist as someone worthy of respect.

So too for the subjects of Home Movie, people you manage to chuckle over and envy at the same time. Each of the five live in bizarre homes, houses that reflect (or amplify) their personalities: an alligator wrangler who on a houseboat in the Louisiana swamp, a Hawaiian woman who lives in a treehouse, a pair of hippies who inhabit an abandoned missile silo, a man who has created an electronic "hope of the future" , and a feline-crazed couple who have customized their home for their 17 cats. The range from the pragmatic (Bill Triegle, lives in the Bayou because of his occupation) to the fringe (Ben Skora, the electronics whiz, intends to return from the dead and inhabit the body of a robot), but each has tailored his home to fit his lifestyle, or vice versa.

Spreading the movie out over five people was a wise choice, as the charm of any given personality would probably wear thin quickly. And the whole thing clocks in at just over an hour, as Smith recognizes that it's better to make a short movie than one that overstays its welcome. To make up for the main feature's brevity, Home Movie is followed by Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a 15-minute "documentary" of a bunch of kids partying before a 1986 Judas Priest concert. Many people had told me ahead of time that this was hil-AIR-ious, but I'll confess that, while I quite enjoyed it, it was overlong even at 15-minutes. Really, as soon as the first shirtless, tattooed lunkhead screams "JUDAS PRIEST RUUUUUUUUULES!!!!!" at the camera, you've pretty much seen the whole film.

Some movies were meant be seen on the big screen. Home Movie is not one of them. The low-budget quality of the flick makes it entirely suitable for a rental. But the audience adds a lot to the experience (especially to Parking Lot ), so you may want to catch it in a theater if it's still lingering in your area. But don't tarry -- in the unlikely event that it's still around, I assure you it won't be for long.

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July 12, 2002

Tips For Enjoying Anime

defective yeti's Tips For Enjoying Anime!

  1. Anime films should be viewed in the privacy of your own home, unless it's possible to see them in one of those "Cinema Grill" theaters where you can drink throughout the movie.
  2. Drink throughout the movie.
Tomorrow: defective yeti's Tips For Enjoying Pudding.

[ link | Movies]


July 10, 2002

Movies: The Bourne Identity

Good Lord, when did I start liking Matt Damon?

Several people had told me that The Bourne Identity was enjoyable. Several other people told me it was so-so. No one said it was bad, which is good enough for me when it comes to action movies these days. So I saw it. My verdict? Not a great movie, but lots and lots of fun.

I liken it to last year's Ocean's 11. Neither film has a shred of originality, but both do a great job of stringing together a bunch of classic "action movie" scenes and making them look good. Bourne Identity could have been created using a "Make Your Own Action Movie" kit -- it's got the gun fights and the car chases and the shady government figures and the European locales and, yes, even amnesia -- but director Doug Liman does a remarkable job of assembling the thing and covering the finished product with a lovely coat of paint.

It certainly helps that Bourne Identity is one of the increasingly rare "thrillers" that's actually thrilling. Moments before the story begins, the main character is essentially killed (he survives by sheer luck) and he therefore seems refreshingly mortal through the entire film. Everything else about the movie seems equally as believable, and although the plot has its has its share of twists, I was never left thinking "Oh puh-leeze" (as I was in, say, Panic Room).

Franka Potente (of Run Lola Run does a good job of playing the hapless tourist caught up into the web of intrigue. Damon and Potente don't seem to have a whole lot of overt screen chemistry, but, here again, that seems more plausible than the idea of two strangers (albeit two attractive strangers) falling madly in love while running for their lives.

I actually enjoyed The Bourne Identity a smidge more than Minority Report (and not only because of Franka Potente, despite what my wife may tell you). Spielberg ultimately turned M.R. into a morality play, while the Bourne Identity is a straight-forward, amoral, roller-coaster ride. That's just the way I like 'em.

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July 08, 2002

Regal Cinemas = Bad

[Lost Cause of the Week]: Here's an email I just sent to Regal Cinemas.

My wife and I went to an evening showing of "The Bourne Identity" at the Crossroads cinema in Bellevue, WA. The sheer amount of advertising we were subjected to has convinced us to avoid Regal Cinemas for the foreseeable future.

We were frankly astonished at the quantity of ads shown before the picture: 10 minutes of standard commercials (for Coca-Cola, AT&T, etc.) followed by another 10 minutes of trailers. Others in the audience were equally disgruntled: after 15 minutes people were loudly groaning as each new preview began, and several people announced that it was "about time" when the film finally started.

I understand that it makes economic sense for you to pack more and more advertising into your showings, and that you will continue to do so until you begin to alienate your patrons. On the other hand, I also think you should know when that alienation has begun. Regal Cinemas is currently last on our list of theater chains we will patronize in the Seattle area.

Next up: long, rambling letters to The Seattle Times warning that use of the Gregorian calendar will lead to communism!

Seriously, I can't remember the last time I was moved to write a complaint letter, but this was what we in the business refer to as "really, really, really, really bad". And apparently I am not alone, because a quick Google Groups search for "regal cinemas" gets you a bevy of ticked off movie fans.

And here's a tip for the seven of you who have read this far: you can find out what theaters in your area are owned by Regal Cinemas by entering your zip code here and hitting 'Submit':

     
More fun.
  • Captive Audience dislikes Regal Cinemas as much as I do. Far out.
  • Here's an ambitious but sparse site: Stop Pre-Movie Ads!.
  • Badads.com hates ads regardless of venue: in theaters, by phone, in schools, etc. That makes them cool.
  • Hey look, even Ralph Nader got all worked up about movie theater ads. I'm sure he'll crack down on them when he's finally in the Oval Office.
Okay, I'm done.

[ link | Movies]


July 02, 2002

Movies: Minority Report

This has been, like, The Summer of Redemption. First George Lucus atoned for Star Wars: Albatross I by cranking out the pretty good summer movie Attack of the Clones. Now Spielberg gives us Minority Report, a movie that, while not perfect, is good enough to serve as an apology for the abysmal A.I.

And although I have, at various times, sworn never again to speak of A.I., let's review why that movie was so darned bad. Problems #1-10: the lack of a consistent tone. The movie was a much ballyhooed "collaboration" between Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg -- which, if you think about it, ought to be a match made in cinematic heaven: Kubrick is often accused of making frigid, sterile movies, Spielberg is prone to making over-sentimental touchie-feelies, so staking out the middle ground would have been a great idea. But instead of blending the two styles, it seemed like they just took a glue stick and gummed 'em together: the first hour of A.I. was emotional codswallop, the second hour was vintage Kubrick cynicism, and the third terrible hour was pure Spielberg syrup. (I dunno if the movie was actually three hours long, but it certainly felt like it.) Furthermore, Spielberg obviously hadn't decided ahead of time if he was going to make a science-fiction movie with philosophical undertones or a philosophical movie set in a science-fiction universe, and the flick switches from one to the other about every seven minutes.

Not so with Minority Report. Here Spielberg has made a full-on science-fiction opus, and although he just can't seem to help himself from sermonizing now and again (and, alas, again), the atmosphere is at least consistent: dark without being gritty, exciting without being mindless, intriguing without being overly complicated. It certainly helped that the author of the screenplay, Scott Frank, is an old hand at writing tight thrillers. (He penned the fabulous Out of Sight, as well as the enjoyable Get Shorty). Minority Report also boasts a great cinematographer by the name of Janusz Kaminski -- the same guy who did the cinematography for A.I., true, but then the cinematography in A.I. was its one redeeming feature.

Tom Cruise does what he always does with considerable aplomb: he runs around and jumps over things and climbs up walls like Spider-man in khakis. He plays a fairly intelligent police officer and, to his credit, Tommy a good job of furrowing his brow at various points to give the illusion that there's something rattling around upstairs. Although there are lots of supporting characters, this is pretty much a one-man show (think Mission Impossible --- of the future!), and Cruise carries the 120+ minutes admirably.

As far as Phillip K. Dick adaptations go, Minority Report is closer to Blade Runner than to Total Recall. It helps that the screenwriter didn't confine himself to the short story, and threw in lots of extra stuff cribbed from William Gibson (e.g., "The Sprawl") to keep things on an even, cyberpunk keel. Yes, the last thirty minutes falter, but (sadly) I've come to expect that of a Spielberg movie. But despite my mild disappointment with the ending, Minority Report gets a hearty recommendation.

** Spoilers (for both the movie and the short story) Below **

Although I'm glad Minority Report didn't stick to the original story (which, frankly, had a pretty muddled plot), it's a shame that it didn't at least incorporate all of the interesting ideas therein. In the movie, it turns out that there is no "Minority Report" for Anderton because he has been framed. In the story, however, two of the precogs agree that he will murder someone, while the third says that he won't. Seeing his name come up, Anderton realizes that all he has to do is evade the police until the time of the murder has come and gone, and then he will be scot free -- after all, they won't arrest him for a precrime that never occurred. But then, at the last minute, he decides to go ahead a murder the guy anyhow. Why? If he declines to commit the crime he is accused of, he reasons, detractors of the Precrime system will seize upon it and question how many of the other "criminals" in detention would have opted not to commit the crimes they were accused of. So rather than undermine the entire Department of Precrime -- a Department he has worked his entire life to build -- Anderton chooses to fulfill the precogs' prophecy. At the end of the story it is revealed that there was no majority report after all -- there were, in fact, three separate minority reports. The first precog saw Anderton kill his victim; the second precog saw the future where Anderton went on the lam and never killed anyone; the third precog saw the last future, where Anderton decided to kill the guy anyhow to preserve the system. In other words, the "majority report" was an illusion: two of the precogs agreed that Anderton would kill this man, but they saw this in completely different time-lines.

What a great twist! Unfortunately, Spielberg couldn't use it, because he wanted The Department of Precrime discredited to further the "anti-Big Brother" message of the film. Yes, that message is relevant in this time of Bush & Ashcroft denouncing folks as "potential terrorists," but what a waste of a perfectly good ending. Phillip K. Dick wasn't the greatest of writers, but people love his work because he used science-fiction to fully explore the philosophical ramifications of technology. Spielberg, on the other hand, is too busy advocating his ideals to fully utilize Dick's ideas. And that, my friend, is a shame.

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June 07, 2002

Directors, and Their Bad Bad Movies

After this entry, a friend wrote to tell me I had to include more Movie Trivia Posts. So, here you go ...

Orson Wells' first film, Citzen Kane, is widely regarded as the finest motion picture ever made. But not all directors have such copious quantities of beginner's luck. Match each of the "Best Director" Oscar recipients below with the film they made early in their careers.

1. James Camereon [Titanic]a. 1941 -- Hysteria grips California in the wake of the bombing of Pearl harbour as an assorted group of defenders attempt to make the coast defensible against an imagined Japanese invasion in this big budget, big cast comedy. Members of a Japanese submarine crew scout out the madness.
2. Frances Ford Coppola [Godfather] b. Caged Heat -- A girl is caught in a drug bust and sent to the hoosegow. The iron-handed superintendent takes exception to a skit performed by the girls and takes punitive steps, aided by the sadistic doctor who is doing illegal electroshock experiments and raping drugged prisoners. After a while the prisoners put away their petty differences and plan the Big Prison Escape.
3. Jonathan Demme [Silence of the Lambs]c. Foxfire -- The Soviets have developed a revolutionary new jet fighter, called "Firefox". Naturally, the British are worried that the jet will be used as a first-strike weapon, as rumours say that the jet is indetectable on radar. They send ex-Vietnam War pilot Mitchell Gant on a covert mission into the Soviet Union to steal Firefox.
4. Clint Eastwood [Unforgiven] d. The Hand -- Jon Lansdale is a comic book artist who loses his right hand in a car accident. The hand was not found at the scene of the accident, but it soon returns by itself to follow Jon around, and murder those who anger him.
5. Ron Howard [A Beautiful Mind]e. Night Shift --A nebbish of a morgue attendant gets shunted back to the night shift where he is shackled with an obnoxious neophyte partner who dreams of the "one great idea" for success. His life takes a bizarre turn when a prostitute neighbour complains about the loss of her pimp. His partner, upon hearing the situation, suggests that they fill that opening themselves using the morgue at night as their brothel. Against his better judgement, he gets talked into the idea, only to find that it's more than his boss that has objections to this bit of entrepreneurship.
6. Barry Levinson [Rainman]f. Pirahna II: The Spawning -- A sunken US supply ship off a Caribbean island resort is the focus for a series of mysterious piranha attacks. Investigating the death of one of her son's companions after a scuba-diving trip, Anne Kimbrough breaks into the morgue with holidaymaker Tyler Sherman, only to discover that the fish have wings and can fly. But the hotel manager refuses to call off the annual fish fry on the beach, with inevitable consequences.
7. Steven Soderbergh [Traffic]g. The Playgirls and the Bellboy -- This sixties sexploitation teaser concerns a bumbling bellboy who takes an amateur detective course and sets out to prove that the lingerie models in his hotel are really hookers.
8. Steven Spielberg [Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan]h. Schizopolis -- Fletcher Munson is a lethargic, passive worker for a Scientology-like self-help corporation called Eventualism. After the death of a colleague, he is promoted to the job of writing speeches for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the founder and head of the group. He uses this as an excuse to be emotionally and romantically distant from his wife, who, he discovers, is having an affair with his doppelganger, a dentist named Dr. Jeffrey Korchek. As Munson fumbles with the speech and Korchek becomes obsessed with a new patient, a psychotic exterminator named Elmo Oxygen goes around the town seducing lonely wives and taking photographs of his genitals.
9. Oliver Stone [Platoon, Born on the Forth of July] i. Used Cars -- Jack Warden stars as Luke and Roy L. Fuchs--feuding used car-selling twin brothers who square off in an outrageous, all-out attempt to put each other out of business. Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), Luke's star salesman, is doing all the lying and cheating that he can in the name of the cause, but only in preparation for what he feels is his true calling--a career in politics! You'll howl at the proceedings, which involve strippers on television and a 200-car chase that turns into a full-on demolition derby.
10. Robert Zemeckis [Forrest Gump]j. Young Sherlock Holmes -- Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet as boys in an English Boarding school. Holmes is known for his deductive ability even as a youth, amazing his classmates with his abilities. When they discover a plot to murder a series of British business men by an Egyptian cult, they move to stop it

Answers [highlight to view]: 1-f, 2-g, 3-b, 4-c, 5-e, 6-j, 7-h, 8-a, 9-d, 10-i

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May 28, 2002

Movies: Attack of the Clones

Hey Lucas, here's the one-line summary of my review that you can use in your Attack of the Clones newspaper ads: "Holy crap, this movie didn't suck!" raves Matthew Baldwin of defective yeti!

I hated Phantom Menace. Hated it. Hated it. Hated. And I swore I was not going to go see Attack of the Clones in the theater. The way I saw it, Lucas owed me a movie after tricking me into squandering my eight bucks on that first heapin' pile of Jar-Jar infested crud, so there was no way I was going to spend another dime on this saga until I got a free pass and an apology from Georgie.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I of course went to see Attack of the Clones last week. Resistance is futile. But here's the thing: I liked it! Which isn't to say that Clones is a good movie. It could be good. It could be great, even. Or it could be awful. I haven't the foggiest idea. By the time I actually got into the theater my expectations were so low that had Attack of the Clones been a shot-by-shot remake of Beaches it still would have exceeded my wildest hopes.

Most of the Clones criticism is dead on. The dialog is usually stilted and sometimes atrocious. The first half of the movie is mostly exposition and drags. The plot is much more convoluted that it needs to be. But what most reviewers seem to be willfully ignoring is that this stuff -- dialog, exposition, plot -- is just the packing peanuts around the real movie: starship combat, lightsaber fights and 87 gazillion alien races running around like termites on a log. Plus, the romance between the protagonists is much more palatable than you'd expect based on the trailers and the reviews. Yes, it's maudlin and over-wrought, but these are teenagers fercrissakes -- who amongst us, at the age of 17, wasn't prone to uttering syrupy garbage in an effort to bed a galactic senator?

When the movie works it works surprisingly well. Ewan McGregor's impression of Alec Guiness is downright eerie, a scene blatantly ripped out of Gladiator is exciting, and Yoda kicks cosmic ass. Best of all, I think Lucas has finally got most of the backstory out of the way, which means that the next installment should be nothing but fun. Attack of the Clones may not be the best movie I've seen, but it did manage to do the impossible: it got me excited about "Star Wars" again.

[ link | Movies]


May 06, 2002

Movies: Spider-Man

Well, after, like, 15 years of anticipation I finally saw Spider-Man. And I give it a resounding "ehhhhh ...." (Note: I'm gonna drop a few minor spoilers in this review.)

It was pretty good, let me be clear about that. But I didn't really think that Spidey successfully made the transition from comic books to the big screen, and I think this is due to the nature of the character rather than any lack of skill on the part of director Sam Raimi. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Raimi has made the best possible movie about Spider-Man. It's just that it's now apparent (to me, at least) that the web-slinger is particularly ill-suited for the silver screen.

The characters that seem to do the best in live actions movies fall on the extremes of the superhero spectrum: exceptional humans with no superpowers (Batman, Zorro) and full-on demi-gods (Superman). To portray the former on screen, you just need to round up a bunch of accomplished stunt men; to do that latter, you can rely on digital special effects since you don't need to make the character look realistic. But Spider-Man's abilities fall right in the middle: he isn't just really agile, he's really really agile; he's not just fast, he's amazingly fast. This is doubtlessly the toughest kind of superhuman to put on film, because you have to make him look both "super" and "human". Unfortunately, to my eyes the Spider-man in the flick either looked like one or the other, but rarely both: when brawling he looked human but not especially super; when swinging through downtown Manhattan he looked super but not even remotely human. Only the scenes where he was scaling walls managed to successful combine the two halves of the character.

Furthermore (and now I really am going to give away some plot points, so stop reading now if you haven't seen it), the tone of the movie was darker than I would have preferred. The Spider-Man of the comic books was aware of the responsibility he shouldered -- both because of his power and because of his negligence that resulted in his Uncle's death -- but this never stopped him from wisecracking his way through every fight and dating any girl who would give Peter a second glance. But the Peter Parker of this film approximates Bruce Wayne -- a psychologically tortured soul who's a loner by choice rather than because of social ineptness. And the movie is remarkably violent. Early in the film a crook falls out of a window while Peter makes no move to save him, something that would have never happened in the comic book; Instead, Peter would have saved the thug even while secretly wishing for his demise. You may see this as a fanboy nitpick, but it's actually a considerable shift in tone from the source material.

I did like the movie (although if there was no sequel I wouldn't be disappointed), and overall I give Spider-Man a hesitant recommendation. That said, if you're a fan of the comic books you must see the film, if for no other reason that to witness J.K. Simmons's absolutely uncanny portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson. Truly the high point of the film, for me.

[ link | Movies]


May 03, 2002

Movies: Overlooked Superhero Movies

All jazzed up for "Spider-Man" but don't want to brave opening weekend crowds? Fire up the DVD and enjoy one of these fine superhero movies that you've probably overlooked.

  • Mask of Zorro According to legend, Martha and Thomas Wayne were walking home after a seeing Zorro with their young son when they took an ill-fated detour through an alley; years later it was the memory of his parents' death -- and the movie that proceeded it -- that inspired Bruce Wayne to adopt the identity of The Batman. The 1998 retelling of The Mask of Zorro demonstrates why the tale of the swashbuckling hero is one of the crucial building blocks on which the modern superhero is built. A thoroughly entertaining flick which will unearth latent "gee! wow!" feelings in even the most jaded of moviegoer.
  • The Rocketeer When I went to see The Rocketeer in high school, I was soundly mocked by my fellow comic book afficionado who said that the film would be little more than a tame and cheesy piece of Disney fluff. But this derision (which turned out to be spot on) didn't stop me from having a blast. The Rocketeer did an admirable job at capturing the spirit of the old Saturday afternoon serials, and managed to tell a charming story almost completely free of cynacism (no small feat coming, as it did, in the era of The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen). Have popcorn on hand.
  • Blade So the niave innocence of Zorro and The Rocketeer doesn't float your boat. Then have you seen Blade? Lord knows I'd understand if you hadn't -- if fact, I can't for the life of me remember why I rented this one. But to my surprise both my wife and I quite enjoyed it. Your willingness to suspension your disblief may be a little overtaxed by the end, but the director does such a good job of setting the "comic book" tone that you'll happily overlook a lot of logistical flimflam. Blade succeeds where The Crow fell short. (P.s. If you've seen "Blade II," drop me a line and talk me into or out of seeing it, would'ja?)
  • Unbreakable Just by listing Unbreakable under the heading of "superhero film" I've already told you too much about it, so here endth the discussion of plot. But I will say that this film, the second by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, was (in my opinion) unfairly dismissed by many as "not as good as The Sixth Sense". This insistance on comparing Unbreakable to its older brother ignored the fact that it was a very fine film in its own right. That said, I offer no guarentees that you'll like this one: it's one of those flicks that you either love or hate. I am firmly in the former camp.
  • Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Fans of the animated Batman series should check out Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the first full-length feature film by the creators of the show. Even those Batman fans who have not seen the show should give this one a try -- despite the G rating it's a sophisticated story, and better by half than any the live actions Batman movies. Perfect for watching on a Sunday morning over waffles and coffee.

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April 26, 2002

Jason X

Jason X, the followup to Spike Lee's ambitious 1992 film "Malcolm X," is as lazy and hackneyed as sequels come. Rather than build on the story of the first motion picture, director Jim Isaac has simply poured some old wine into a new bottle, essentially rehashing the original film's plot with some additional bells and whistles (such as setting the story on a spaceship and playing up the more violent aspects of the Black Nationalist leader). Worst, it's apparent that they couldn't get Denzel Washington to reprise the title role, so they hired some other actor to play the lead and kept his face hidden throughout the movie to disguise this fact. A sloppy and disappointing work all around.

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April 01, 2002

Movies: Panic Room

[Movies: Panic Room] In my defense, let me state upfront that I was lobbying for Monster's Ball. But one member of our party stated her unwavering oppositions to all things Halle Berry, so we had to find something else. Finally we settled on Panic Room as a movie which, while not necessarily something we were all eager to see, was at least something that none of us refused to see.

Now, this was a switch for me. Up until that day I had been refusing to see Panic Room because it had run afoul of my Movie Trailer Ubiquity Rule ("If the total amount of time I have spent involuntarily watching a movie's trailers equals or exceeds the running time said film, it shall be removed from my Must See In Theaters list.") But then I had the misfortune to stumble across the Panic Room page at Rotten Tomatoes where I discovered two things that changed my mind. First, the film was directed by David Fincher, he of Fight Club and Seven. Secondly, it was actually getting favorable reviews: the consensus seemed to be that the excellent direction more than made up a mediocre script.

So we saw it. And the critics were right on the first count: the direction was great. But this script was so mediocre that Hitchcock himself would have had a tough time regaining the lost ground. As I'm certain you've gleaned from the trailers (now showing every 14 minutes on a tv station near you), the premise of the movie is that Jodie Foster moves into a new New York Apartment / Mansion, and discovers that it contains a "Panic Room": a sanctuary with reinforced steel walls, it's own phone line and a dozen security cameras that can be entered and sealed in case of a "home invasion". And so, of course, on the first night in her new abode three men break into her home, so she scurries into the panic Room, along with her daughter. The problem -- and the crux of the film -- the three burglars know what they want, and they know where it's located: inside the room that Foster now occupies.

What follows is like a Road Runner cartoon, with the criminals in the role of Wild E. Coyote: they cook up a scheme to capture Foster, and then she (meep meep!) foils them. Annnnnnd repeat. This could have been exciting, but the pace of the film is entirely too languid, and the paper-thin premise is spread out over two-hours. Worse, the plot is rife logical inconsistencies. Ordinarily I don't mind plot holes in a thriller -- hey, I can willingly suspect my disbelief with the best of them -- but Panic Room moves so slowly that it doesn't give you anything better to do than sit in your chair and think "hey wait a minute: why didn't she just use her cell phone in the first place?"

It's not terrible and plenty of folks will enjoy it -- the cinematograhy is nice, and the audience is treated to a plenitude of overhead shots of Jodi Foster in a tight tank-top -- but when it comes to "thrillers" I prefer a bit more sass in my sasperilla, thank you. You know, the kind of movies that actually thrill.

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March 21, 2002

Academy Awards Quiz

Academy Awards warmup. For each tagline, name the corresponding motion picture which won an Oscar as "Best Picture".
"His Triumph Changed The World Forever."[answer]
"A Nervous Romance."[answer]
"The first casualty of war is innocence."[answer]
"The shadow of this woman darkened their love."[answer]
"... look closer."[answer]
"It's all about women---and their men!"[answer]
"Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."[answer]
"A Thousand Hours of Hell For One Moment of Love!"[answer]
"In memory, love lives forever."[answer]
"His whole life was a million-to-one shot!"[answer]
"All it takes is a little confidence!"[answer]
"The loverliest motion picture of them all!"[answer]

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March 11, 2002

Movies: Startup.com and Moulin Rouge

Saw both Startup.com and Moulin Rouge this weekend, and much preferred the former to the latter. Start.com is a documentary about two ambitious young entrepreneurs who decide to start a Internet-based business during the heyday of the "Dotcom revolution". Now, having gone through the dotcom wringer myself (I spent three years at Amazon, starting in 1999), I expected to find little of interested here, but focus of the film isn't on the operation of the business but of the hopes, dreams and schemes of the founders. In fact, the first half of the film takes place even before the company gets off the ground, showing the two guys hustling for VC (Venture Capital) and fantasizing about being billionaires. By the time they finally scrape together the necessary funds and launch their site (the now defunct govworks.com -- uh, I kinda gave away the ending, there), they are already getting trounced by a competitor and at each other's throats.

I don't know what the arrangement was between the founders and the documentarians, but the filmmakers are present at some very personal meetings and critical junctures. But the portrait painted of the two men, while sympathetic, doesn't pull many punches: we not only see them at the top of their game, but also at their most arrogant, irrational and stubborn. It's the focus on the people. and the well-rounded approach at presenting them, that make this one of the best documentary's I've seen in a spell.

Moulin Rouge, on the other hand, I could have done without. Now, I should begin by saying that had I seen it in a crowded theater I would undoubtedly have a much more favorable opinion. But watching it, alone with my wife on a tiny TV screen, the whole thing seems a bit gaudy (which I guess was the point, but still). Despite the fact that the film is set in 1900, the entire story is told via contemporary songs: Madonna, Nirvana, The Beatles, etc. I had known this in advance and the whole thing sounded a little silly to me, but while watching it I found myself ultimately disappointed at how few songs they actually used. Really, if you're going to build a movie around a gimmick like that, better to go whole hog, I say. The remainder of the plot -- which was so dog-eyed that they essentially parody themselves within the film -- was too campy to take seriously and too maudlin to laugh at. And I have long known that I had a violent aversion to any live-action film which employs cartoon sound effects.

I though Moulin Rouge was moderately entertaining, but I'd stop shy of recommending it. But how it got nominated for Best Motion Picture, while Startup.com was overlooked in the category of "Best Documentary" is beyond me.

[ link | Movies]


February 23, 2002

Movie: The Endurance

You know that scene in Fellowship of the Rings where Gandalf 'n' Co. are traveling over the Misty Mountains while Saruman drops lightning bolts and avalanches upon their heads in an attempt to kill them? And even though you've just spent an hour watching hobbits converse with wizards and dead guys ride around on horses, you're still sitting there in theater watching the gang trudge through the snow and thinking "Yeah right - no one could do that!" Well, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition is a lot like that scene. Except it's a documentary of an actual even, which means you don't have the luxury of dismissing the whole thing with a "No way, dude!?

The story begins in 1914, back when a guy hankering for adventure would plan an expedition to Antarctica rather than just climb the rock wall at REI. The South Pole had already discovered, so Sir Ernest Shackleton assembled and crew of men and dogs and headed south, intending to traverse the ... well, see, it really doesn.t matter what Shackleton had intended to do, since he never came anywhere close to achieving his goal. Instead, his ship became trapped in pack ice, thereby stranding he and his mates on the continent of Antarctica with no hope of rescue. He did, however, have a movie camera and a cameraman, which is what makes this film so fascinating: actual footage of the ordeal.

I won?t say more, because the litany of calamities that befalls the men as they attempt to get back to civilization is staggering and makes the film as exciting and tense as any artificial 'thriller'. If it?s not still playing in a theater near you, at least make the effort to see this extraordinary tale on tape or DVD - it's a fairly low-budget film, and will lose little in the transition to the tv screen. That said, I?m glad I saw it in a theater filled with other people, where, by the end, people were audibly groaning and gasping in disbelief each time the narrator (Liam Neeson, by the way) introduced a new obstacle to Shackleton's survival.

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February 18, 2002

Movie: Black Hawk Down

[Movie: Black Hawk Down] In 1982, the blockbuster "Top Gun" was directed by Tony Scott, brother to Riley Scott. In 1986, James Cameron directed the blockbuster "Aliens" -- the sequel to Ridley Scott's own "Alien". Now, in Black Hawk Down, Ridley tries to one-up everyone, attempting to outdo Top Gun in patriotism and Aliens for breathtaking scenes showing endless waves of attackers. While he's at it, he also tries to usurp the Most Gutwrenching War Movie throne held by Saving Private Ryan. All this ambition makes for a movie that's well above-average, but tries a little too hard.

By now you know the story, either by because you've read countless Black Hawk Down synopses, seen the Frontline special or recall the details of the actual event. In 1993 a simple "extraction" mission in Somolia went from frying pan to fire, resulting in scores of US soldiers trapped in Mogadishu, surrounded and beseiged by Somolian milisa. Scott does an excellent job at conveying the out-of-control, chaotic nature of this event, but he just never seems to know when to quit. The first third of the movie centers of the soldiers before the mission, showing their relationships and dedications to the cause. This does a good job of stirring patrotism in the auidence, but he keeps it up until the whole thing begins to tilt towards jingoism. In the firefights sceens -- where a handful of American soldiers defends themselves against hordes of oncoming Somolia gunment -- you are at first mesmersized by the overwhelming odds, but Scott continues until you feel like you are watching someone play "Black Hawk Down' on a Playstation 2. And the "fog of war" is well documented by showing conveys driving around aimlessly through town as the officers try to make sense out of the deteriorating situation, but these scenes go on for so long that I found myself getting bored by the confusion rather than unnerved by it.

In these instances (and other), less would have been more. Scott continually orchestrates the action and suspense until they reach their peak, but then feels the need to drive the point home a few more times, ultimately weakening the power of the imagery. That said, there's no denying that those scenes or incredible and indelible power exists in Black Hawk Down, and they make this a movie well worth seeing.

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January 25, 2002

Movies: City of Lost Children

Upon seeing the delightful Amelie, and having fond memories of the bizarre Delicatessen, I decided I was going to watch each and every film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Luckily, this is an entirely achievable goal: aside from those mentioned above, he only has two other major motion pictures under his belt. One of them is The City of Lost Children, which I spent yesterday evening enjoying.

My review in a nutshell: <low whistle>. That there is one fine movie. The plot centers around a Frankensteinian monster who kidnaps children and siphons off their dreams for his own amusement. The problem: kidnaped children tend to only have nightmares, so our antagonist never gets the beautiful dreams he's searching for. But this plot is little more than an excuse to string together two-hours of breathtaking visuals and neato special-effects. Midgets, clones, strongmen, trained fleas, de-bodied brains and large machines with large red levers -- this movie's got it all. For sheer hallucinogenic hijinks, The City of Lost Children ranks up there with best of Terry Gillium, Tim Burton, and David Lynch.

Now all I have to do is see Jeunet's other film. Which, unfortunately, turns out to be Alien 4: Resurrection. Wish me luck.

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January 23, 2002

Movies: Gosford Park

Last week I mentioned seeing In The Bedroom, a film which would have been great had it not seemed like two different movies clumsily glue-sticked together. It's a drama for the first three-fifth, and then it has some kinda mid-life crisis and decides that, no, what I really wants to be is a thriller. The end result is that it doesn't entirely succeed at either.

A few days ago I saw Gosford Park, and I have the exact same complaint: it's like a two-hour treatise on class relations wrapped around an unrelated one-hour murder mystery. (It's not actually three-hours long, mind you, but it feels like it). People: if you have a good idea for a movie, make a movie; if you have two good ideas for a movie, make two movies. Is that really so hard?

That said, I'd still give it a seven.

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January 14, 2002

Movies: In The Bedroom

Perhaps my expectation were too high, but I thought In The Bedroom didn't quite live up to all the superlatives which have been heaped upon it. Yes, it was a fine film, but I found it to be a little too shallow to be an effective philosophical drama and a little too ponderous to be a convincing psychological thriller. They should have picked a genre and stuck with it. I recommend it, but don't go in anticipation of "The Best Movie of the Year!!" In the category of Actor in the Movie Who Has an Bit Role And Yet Nonetheless Kicks Ass, the award goes to Celia Weston playing the part "kid's father's best friend's wife". In one scene you just hear her voice echoing down a staircase (i.e., she's not even on screen) and she's still terrific.

Speaking of movies (when am I not?), it looks like David Lynch's fabulous Mulholland Drive is finally getting it's due. Best movie I saw in 2001, surpassed only by "Lord of the Rings" and "Memento".

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January 12, 2002

One Day In September

We recently received One Day in September from The Only Internet Commerce Site That Really Makes Any Sense Anymore, NetFlix.com. After reading the capsule description ("A documentary about the terrorists who held 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Olympics") I suddenly realized I had no interest in seeing it. Why watch a DVD about terrorism when I can just flip to channel 5 and watch Dan Rather yammer on about it any day of the week?

Yesterday day, though, with nothing else good on TV, we finally watched it. And boy howdie: it was goooood.

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