28 June 2010

l'Amour en fuite (Love on the Run)

I do love Truffaut, and I do love Leaud, and I do love Antoine Doinel... and I'm glad I can now say I've seen the entire Doinel series once each (Joseph tonight shared the short Antoine and Colette with me, as well as this one), but Love on the Run feels less like a movie of its own than that episode where the power goes out and the Seaver family sits around by flashlight fondly remembering the zany adventures they've had over the years. In other words, yes, arthouse film giant François Truffaut made a feature-film clip-show.

The way Joseph tells it is, the woman who played Colette pressured Truffaut to wrap the series up with some kind of closure, and she co-wrote it for/with him. The result is a bizarrely Colette-heavy story of coincidences and easy resolutions that barely coheres into any kind of single story. To its credit, Leaud is great, Coutard's cinematography is understadedly beautiful as always, and the women for the most part are just as brilliant (especially his ex-wife and Sabine the redhead he [spoiler!] begins and ends the movie with). But the excessive dependence on flashing back to entire scenes from each and every Doinel film (The 400 Blows, Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board) begins as a clever framing device, quickly becomes a kind of hindrance and nuisance, and eventually devolves into such a baldfaced crutch for the paper-thin narrative that I started wondering what the ratio of new footage to old was. I'm guessing about 1:1.

On the one hand, it's nice and deserved to give the character his send-off with so much nostalgia and recollection, but on the other it's too bad we just had a series of mini-stories contrived solely as delivery systems for previously shot, previously edited, previously viewed moments from the preceding four films. It feels artificial, something I find ironic since Truffaut has always loosely represented the naturalistic, character-driven narrative end of the French New Wave spectrum (with Godard the obvious choice to stand at the other pole). Leaud's such an easy charmer, and his chemistry especially with Sabine (pop star Dorothee? apparently) was so good that from the first scene on I wanted more with them and less with the rest of it. This should have just been another story, one more full entry in which he finally decides to stop running and commit to someone. In fact, much of the late dialogue between them about what love means and what a relationship really is -- and how Doinel in particular had heretofore behaved both with Sabine and with every girl ever -- hit a little close to home. I've been giving some private thought lately to what "commitment" really means (in terms of the old chestnut "you have a fear of commitment, don't you?") and how it's not a time-commitment I've avoided but an investment-commitment. I've never had trouble accepting long-termness in a relationship, but I don't often give myself to a person as completely as I should, and that's hardly fair. Looking back, I've stumble into realizing that I'm a partner with someone, and felt very comfortable with the idea, but where I should be saying, "hey I love you so why aren't I giving more of myself to you?", I am instead saying, "hey I love you and I don't love anyone else and I'm comfortable not looking for anyone else to replace you, isn't that enough?" ANYWAY, new perspective on years-old personal troubles aside, there was some legitimate lesson-learnin' for Antoine to go through here, but he did it so easily and without much more than a couple of impulsive actions and their limited, sometimes misconstrued consequences to go through. All as bracketing devices to remember the shit we've already seen him go through. It could have and should have been its own story, and that would have been a well-earned piece of closure.

As it is, it barely feels like a film at all, and leaves me considering Bed and Board the last complete Doinel film. Love on the Run is just a brief reprise, a best-of. But it's not bad, if you accept it as that.

27 June 2010

The Descent

While it was kind of scary and interesting and totally worth watching, The Descent is in a way a checklist of all the things I want to avoid. Because of rushed characterizations (and pointless tragedies to make us sympathize with the protagonist), it feels populated with over-acting and over-reacting archetypes rather than dimensional, nuanced people. For the majority of the film I knew them as The Guidebook Pro, The Dykey Maverick, The Asian With Bad Judgment (And Worse Luck), That Blonde Whose Whole Family Died From Copper Tubing A Year Before The Story Even Got Going, and That Other Blonde Who Looks Like The Blonde Whose Family Died (Or Maybe That's The Pro And I'm Confused?). The only one I think I was supposed to care about (we'll call her Copper Tubing Blonde, even though I know by the end that her name is Sarah) makes the bold and questionable choice to maim her last-friend-standing (Juno, a.k.a. Bad Judgment Asian) and leave her to die based on misinformation and an honest mistake, and we are supposed to infer that prior to the death of Copper Tubing's husband and daughter, Bad Judgment was screwing around with said husband? I mean, maybe, but it never happened in the story, and the husband was dead before minute seven (I looked) and so, I'm sorry but... who cares who he was screwing? This is a story about Some Girls and a Cave.

Moving on: the first attack by the monsters (who I think of as the Gollum Family, although here they speak fluent Velociraptor) is quick and lethal -- out of nowhere a single bite to the neck and the first woman is dead. Every subsequent attack, the monsters seem less and less efficient at hunting or killing, often doing that villain-thing of pausing a hair's-breadth short of the killing blow just in case another good guy might run in from off-frame and stab them or something. So the threat that was promised by the first attack then got messier and sloppier. For example, they can't see but they've evolved so they can hear their own Velociraptorian squeals bounce off surfaces like sonar... but they can't hear the panicked breathing or rabid heartbeat (or hell, those gore-tex jackets vizzing against each other) as two girls crouch eight inches away and pretend they're invisible? Really? In short, when it comes to the Gollum Family logic doesn't enter into it, and I do think the movie would have been stronger -- and scarier -- if it had, if you could have really, just maybe, believed in these creatures and their menace. (A big example I mentioned to my roommate: the weirdo bird-dinosaur sounds are incongruous with their human bodies, which is okay I guess... but wouldn't it have been way scarier and freakier if they'd made low, gutteral human noises, just braying and barking and shrieking but in clearly human tones? I think that would have been ten times more terrifying than the traditional [and sorry to harp on this] Jurassic Park sound design of coos, caws, and high-pitched wailings.)

Third and lastly, though I'm sure I could go on: it would be generous to say that nine out of every ten scares in the movie come from something offscreen leaping onscreen, or a still object leaping to life, or some other "jump out atcha" moment, always accompanied by that old-hat piercing orchestra thing. This, as I've said before, is the horror-film equivalent of the old carnival ride where you sit in the car and get dragged through the "haunted house" but the only thing to "scare you" is the skeleton on wires that drops on you. Making me jump is, yes, an adrenaline thing that triggers my fight-or-flight response -- it can be said that that "scared" me. But it can not be called "scary," you know? I want a creeping, foreboding, real fear to enter me, not the cheap-thrill rollercoaster ride BOO! Waiting for that is always a better moment, so sucker-punches are the opposite of frightening, for my money.

To be fair, I know the film just wants to be a fun horror film, and it is, and it's scarier than most, and it's well done (and gorgeously shot), but it is full of the kinds of things I don't want my horror film to be. I think it just aims for a different target than what I'm aiming for within the broad notions of "horror" and "scary."

El espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone)

So here's the thing. I'm of the controversial opinion that Pan's Labyrinth isn't a terribly good movie. I'm of the opinion that it's very, very pretty, but the characters are one-dimensional plot-devices, and the story rendered from their drama is more cartoon than fantasy-horror. I have called it on more than one occasion "a flashier, inferior version of The Devil's Backbone," which is only partly fair and yet speaks volumes about where I stand on both. In all honesty, I kind of feel like Guillermo del Toro is the Mexican George Lucas -- in that his best work is underfunded and going against the grain, when he is challenged by either logistical and financial obstacles or the dramatic ones that come from adapting someone else's work. Given every toy in the toybox and carte blanche to create what he wants, the results become an effects house's wet dream and a dramatist's... well, "nightmare" is putting it a little strong. Suffice it to say it's frustrating as a writer to watch any film where it's abundantly, painfully clear that the director doesn't care about the story or the characters, just so long as whatever's going on is really cool.

Anyway, diatribe aside I feel vindicated in rewatching The Devil's Backbone because it's very, very good, and it's very, very strong in character-driven action. In fact, although it's clearly a ghost story with horror elements, the movie is so character driven that it doesn't feel like a horror film at all, it just feels like straight drama with some spooky-ish ghost stuff. As the characters develop into their roles and relationships, as Jacinto becomes an outed villain and the boys are left (basically) to defend themselves, the story just takes on the arc and tone of any old drama story. People's pasts haunt them; people's weaknesses must be overcome; people's fears must be faced head-on. Undead or no, this isn't a story about supernatural things. It's a story about these kids. This is an object lesson for me, no question. This is a lesson I cannot ignore.

And here's another lesson I cannot ignore: The Devil's Backbone isn't light on theme, by any means (and oh man I love love love that unexploded bomb in the courtyard of the orphanage; just the most poetic and wonderful motherfucking elephant-in-the-room ever, reminding the viewer about the world outside as well as the world inside these characters -- speaking on so many unspoken levels at once: it's perfect). But it's also not very complicated, thematically. At a certain point in the story I began to feel a little liberated from my self-imposed burden of "figuring out what my story is about" on some deeper level, because I realize I've always known, basically, but I kept looking for something more, or bigger, or bolder, to say or do with it. Now listen, I know me, and by the time the words go to the page, and by the time I am on the third or fourth draft especially, I may have come full circle on the theme thing and found complicated things my film is saying. But that's fine! I still need to remember, now at least, to relax that hold and worry more about the characters and the drama. (When I say theme I don't mean any dialectic message or brow-beating pretentious agenda; John August calls it the story's "DNA," something that makes every scene of every film feel like it belongs inside that film and no other, something that makes the film its own living thing, maybe. Call it what you will, I use "theme" as an easier to conceive handle for the idea of my story's DNA.) A story with no theme (or "DNA") is, in my mind, no good at all, a waste of everyone's time and effort. If it means nothing, says nothing, is about nothing, and has no connective meaning then it shouldn't exist. It's chewing on styrofoam for nutrients. But many, many good stories have light, breezy themes (or DNA), and focus instead on the drama. And The Devil's Backbone isn't even that breezy: it's just not wearing its "theme" on its sleeve, and it's better for it. My poorly-made point is, I know I'm already far enough down that road that I should just let go, write it out, and look back over it with an eye for "finding the DNA" and extracting it, expanding it, manifesting it. My poorly-made point is, about halfway through watching this I felt kind of elated about the state of affairs w.r.t. my script and its "thematic voice." That's not the most important part, so stop worrying about it.

Yeah, this isn't even a ramble... it's more of a jumble. Anyway, three thoughts: 1, Del Toro's carte blanche works (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy II come to mind) are so much weaker than his boxed-in, forced-to-be-creative work (like The Devil's Backbone or, honestly? the first Hellboy); and 2, character-driven stories are basically just dramas, which is liberating to realize (I'm reminded of the great genre stories ranging from Ghostbusters to 28 Days Later to Back to the Future to, hell, Galaxy Quest: they all play out basically as character-driven dramas by act three); and then 3, theme is crucial but a hint of a theme is enough seed to start growing, so stop stressin' and just start.

25 June 2010

Micmacs à tire-larigot (Micmacs)

I don't have a lot to say about this film, since it's more about whimsy than it is about story. The story is: a bunch of inventive and impossibly quirky characters with nouns for names and infinite resources decide semi-spontaneously to enact a kind of strange Rube-Goldbergian psychic revenge on the arms dealers whose products twice ruined our hero's life. The whimsy, on the other hand, is near infinite, and although a little heavy at times (it's Jeunet; you ought to know what to expect), it absolutely excels at pushing its story forward with little or no dialogue, and it's got a silent movie (or a Tati movie) charm that makes the screenwriter-schoolmarm inside me sit down and shut up long enough to enjoy the movie for what it is. To put it another way: if you think you're going to love this movie you're probably right; if you think you're sick of whimsy and quirk and you're going to hate this movie you're probably right; if you're a little bit on the fence but truly willing to give the benefit of the doubt here, as I was, you'll probably enjoy this. As I did.

All I really want to add is, Jeunet is a master at casting. Even the one-scene roles like heavies and characters in the quick one-shot flashback vignettes have the most fascinating faces, expressive to the point of rubbery. Dominique Pinon (a favorite of mine for his over-expressive face and vaguely Belmondoan features) is in good company here. Both the younger girls in this, the Calculator and the Contortionist, were adorable enough that I couldn't stop watching them (Oh those quirky French girls!), but every single face in this film is as perfect and amusing as can be. The casting and performance style goes a long way toward selling the not-quite-surreal, just-kind-of-off-kilter world of our story. I think my favorite scene? Early on, our hero Bazil is too proud to accept the free food from a shelter, and so he and the woman handing it out have a quick wordless exchange in which he assures her, no he's not hungry like these poor saps, he's merely waiting at the taxi stand -- but of course the taxi shows up and he has to then pretend to get in. It's a great silent-movie moment, practically straight out of Chaplin, and it set me up for exactly what to expect from the rest of the film.

Okay, I managed to say something after all. Big surprise, I know.


Boy, it is hard for me not to view this in the shadow of it's successor, Deadwood, which admittedly owes it a great debt. This film is so proto-Deadwood at times it's amazing. It's even got Trixie and Cy Tolliver. Actually, Tombstone has just about everyone in it, and that's a bit of a problem, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I have a couple of friends who name this among their favorite movies of all time, so I feel a little bad saying this, but this didn't really work for me. Parts of it did, to be fair, but not enough. The story just never came together meaningfully for me. For one, the story opens with Robert Mitchum telling me that the Cowboys with their red sashes are America's earliest organized crime and that they are feared far and wide, but over the course of the story they aren't much more than a ragtag bunch of drunk thugs and bullies. In fact, for the first chunk of the film they are shown as completely integrated into society, and sure they're rowdy and obnoxious, and have a tendency to fire off their sidearms for no reason, but these guys are more like Biff Tannen and his gang than Don Corleone and his. To make matters worse, Wyatt and his brothers are just as bad, bullying their way into gambling money, picking up and putting down the badge whenever it suits them and their righteous demands. They all waffle when it comes to actual gun-violence, talking a big game but hesitating to step up, but then again so do the Cowboys (except for two). Maybe there's a reason the outlaws are called Cowboys and the heroes are shown to be a gang themselves; maybe Tombstone is trying to tell me that the only difference between a murderer and a lawman is a badge. I'd accept this as a good and interesting (and revisionist) theme for a western, except that it's never played that way in the characters' stories. I'm supposed to feel terrible when Morgan Earp dies and triumphant every time Ike Clanton cowers and begs not to be killed for his (admittedly violent and anarchic) tomfoolery. The movie could not give a more triumphant reward to Wyatt Earp if it tried, but again I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Before I talk about the end, I want to talk about the proto-Deadwood thing again. This movie -- there's no other way to say this -- has too many characters doing too many things. It seems like every other character is a subplot or side story. And you can't throw a rock in Tombstone, AZ, without hitting a brilliant character actor being underutilized by the baroque script. In fact, there are so many heroes, villains, love interests, lawmen, businessfolk, townfolk, thespians and thugs that many of them are literally written out, killed off-screen to minimize the clutter as we near act three: Terry O'Quinn the mayor, Billy Zane the actor, and that girl from Fletch who plays Wyatt's unloved wife all get passing snippets of dialogue to explain their deaths, and Jason Preistley as the openly gay tagalong to the Cowboy gang who becomes a dirty lawman is so moved by Zane's death that he wanders off out of the story, declaring that the town needed "some kind of law," and leaving that fruity county sheriff to presumably die during the --

-- okay, now let's talk about the ending. This film has two main antagonists. One is the brilliant Powers Booth as the gang's leader Curly Bill (who, proving he's more Biff than Corleone, goes on an opium-fueled shooting binge and is saved from a lynching by Wyatt himself, who still insists he's not interesting in lawmaking; this is but one of many strange encounters that ought to enrich the relationships between "good guys" and "bad guys" in the story, but really only seems to muddy the waters about who's dangerous and who's an ineffectual laughingstock). Curly manages to get the drop on Wyatt and his gang (oh, and his gang? Consumption-riddled Doc Holladay and three members of the Cowboy gang who suddenly decided their gang was too mean and rather than leaving town to avoid more violence swore allegiance to the Cowboys' bloodthirsty, revenge-obsessed adversaries, the Earp gang). Then Wyatt decides, literally, that he's had enough of being locked down in a crossfire and firing helplessly into the trees, and so he stands up and walks out into the river and goes all RoboCop on everybody, dodging every bullet without even trying and killing most of the gang before shotgunning Curly Bill to death.

The other antagonist is the meaner and significantly less developed character of Johnny Ringo, played by Reese from Terminator. Ringo is so mean that only someone as late-game-Faustian as Doc Holladay (more on him in a second, and that'll be, I think, my last bit for this mega-rant) can see into the enormous hole of his soul and understand the man. Ringo calls for a one-on-one with Wyatt, but Doc sneakily fakes being even more dying than he really is so he can get there first, and Ringo tries to capitulate (especially when Doc says, "hey check this shit out I'm even a fucking cop now y'all still want a piece of this?" -- of course I'm paraphrasing) but Doc won't have it, and after fuckin' with him for a bit he puts a bullet into his skull and then challenges the dying, no doubt confounded and frustrated new gang-leader to euthanize him. (Doc is dying, remember, and earlier told Ringo that he'd be a daisy if he could be the one to do him in; when he cannot do it, Doc says contemptuously, "You're no daisy.")

So we have two villains, and each is dispatched without much difficulty. The actual scenes of their deaths are okay, but neither feels like the ultimate face-off kind of action/western showdown you expect, or that we're supposed to pretend these characters deserve. Once that's done, as there are still obstacles to take care of, like an enormous "gang" or "organized" criminals -- whom I've never seen sharing a profit or respecting a hierarchy, unlike say Wyatt and his mean -- so we have a post-showdown montage sequence, a fucking montage sequence, in which the rest of the gang is brutally chased and murdered, except that weasel Ike who denies his colors and swears tacitly he's done flying the red sash. But then the movie's not over, because we have to have a sort of triumphant-cum-tragic death scene for Doc that's not half as sad as it thinks it is but not half-bad either. Oh, and then we jump ahead to Denver, to see the sadistic, trigger-happy mass murderer Wyatt Earp cavorting happily in the snow with his actress ladyfriend, the pre-feminist who really opened his eyes up about how strong a lady can be when he spent exactly one scene with her, a chaste picnic in the flowers, before shunning her openly in the rain (in front of his wife). It is to this woman that he promises his undying love. In case you were thinking, "hey what the fuck dude, you're married and sure she's a junkie but you did kinda seem to be into her earlier plus you've got to be a rough person to be the wife of so who can blame her?", well along comes Robert Mitchum's voice again to tell us, oh right she died off screen too, so it's okay. And Ike died. But Wyatt and this woman (Dana Delaney, by the way; another great underutilized actor), they get the happily ever after, moving to LA and getting a hero's funeral 47 years later with weeping movie stars and the whole bit.

The moral here is clear: If you march into a community with superior forces, take over the government through scheming and brutality, and kill everybody everywhere who is a threat to your power, you just might die a hero with weeping movie stars.

I did say I wanted to mention Val Kilmer's Doc Holladay. I desperately wish this had been a bit more arty and a bit less actiony and had focused on the smarmy, deadly-but-dying Doc Holladay. What a character! A gentleman killer, a cad, a card shark and heistman who partners up with his old sheriff buddy (further highlighting that the good guys are the bad guys in this particular story) and, like Wyatt says to him on his deathbed, is less of a hypocrite than he pretends; he only likes to look like one. Doc Holladay's sweaty, sunken good looks were so beautifully exotic in the dusty, bearded, manly world of the Old West, and his proclivities toward education, sarcasm, and culture, while still being a fully capable and fully willing gunslinger of his own -- all make him an infinitely more interesting and attractive character to follow than the thug with the silver star named Wyatt.

Oh well. Honestly, I didn't hate this movie, it's got some very good dialogue and a couple of great characters. I just saw it as kind of a mess, with too many things going on and a seriously confused sense of morals and propriety. It's still fun, though almost every way I'd call it fun Deadwood runs farther with and has more fun with. But as for Hollywood 90s re-revisionist westerns, Unforgiven is still the top of my list.

24 June 2010

Toy Story 3 *

I generally don't like movies trying to encapsulate the "four quadrants" of moviegoers. There's just something about a movie that aims to "have everything" (romance, action, tragedy, comedy, adventure, philosophy) that makes it hard to like -- usually aiming for something so broad leads to an unfocused mess of a story with many shoehorned-in elements just to please different types of viewers -- but the truth is, when a movie actually nails all the things it aims for, even (especially) if/when it aims for a little of everything, it makes for a pretty satisfying film.

Where Toy Story 2 did it right by expanding the characters, the world, and the themes in just the right ways, 3 wraps up a trilogy-arc in a really, really satisfying way, by taking us to the inevitable conclusion: the end of Andy's childhood and the end of his need for such toys. And 3 does something I haven't seen a Pixar movie do yet, which is really go dark and a little nightmarish at parts. Sure, the "cannibals" in Sid's bedroom were a little nightmare-lite, but act two of Toy Story 3 doesn't really pull its punches in terms of pathos and visual terror, and act three ratchets the stakes up as high as they can go and then some. It's a bold move with a safe franchise to explore dark places like this, when it could have easily just spoonfed the audience something easy and unchallenging, rehashing or overcomplicating the themes and conflicts from the previous two films, and still make all the money in the world. Plus, then to acknowledge loss and maturation -- that's actually something cartoons almost never do in this country, and something Disney hasn't broached that I can remember since the glory days. People grow up. Loss happens. Sometimes there is no happy ending to choose. (Of course, the movie cleverly gives us the happy ending we all want, but only after making its characters make difficult and painful choices.)

If I had any complaint (other than fucking Randy Newman and the return of "You've Got a Friend In Me," though I found the Spanish version less painful), it's that the humans don't really make any sense. If you look at it from the toys' perspective, Andy and Mom and Molly and Bonnie all act just as they (the toys) deserve them to, but if you look at it from the humans' perspective, there's something fishy about a boy who's in love with his cowboy doll for so many years and has no human friends of his own. But like I say, the characters we care about are the toys, and how the humans treat them makes a certain kind of emotional sense from their perspective, and they are given what they deserve for their trials and tribulations, and so I can't really fault the movie too much... still, part of me wishes the humans made more human-logic sense as the trilogy unfolded over the years.

I've got to be honest, though: over all, this movie was pretty astounding, and probably the greatest third in a trilogy/series I've seen. Whereas Up and Wall-E were great with fairly major script flaws and seemed indicative of a Pixar willing to delve into broad emotion and good-old-fun at the expense of character and story, Toy Story 3 proves that the studio that made Ratatouille and The Incredibles still has it. I know Up was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won Best Animated Feature last year, but this is the movie I think deserves those accolades. If you were thinking of releasing an animated feature film this year, you might want to wait until 2011, because this is not one you want to have to compete with. It's just that good.

Seen at the Regal Lloyd Cinemas.

23 June 2010

Toy Story 2

I gotta give 'em credit, this is what a sequel ought to do. If you're going to do a sequel, I think you're obliged to go deeper into character, deeper into your world, and deeper into your themes. Here we expand on the mythology of both Woody and Buzz and while we're at it, we explore deeper layers of each character's identity and crisis from the first movie. Each has a legacy. Woody is the older, rarer, grandfathered-in toy, whose "origin" opens up; Buzz is the newer, flashier toy, whose modernity leads naturally to mass-production, newer models with fancier gizmos, and video-game tie-ins. Both get new characters to populate their little sub-worlds. And better still, both expand on the idea of what it means to be a toy (being a collectible as well as a plaything; having a zillion versions just like you). And on top of all that, the story does what a sequel has to do: it takes the first story and turns it on its head. Now it's Woody who has to be reminded he's "just a toy," but for a whole new reason, and we even get to revisit (for laughs) Buzz's arc from the first Toy Story through the eyes of the New Buzz. Pretty fuckin' smart there, Pixar.

But honestly, every time Randy Newman's god-awful song "You've Got a Friend In Me" came back, with lyrics so painfully, egregiously spot-on that it threatened to sour the movie, I hated it more than the previous time. There is no excuse for that song to exist, or for his lyrics to be a part of the Toy Story experience, and I fucking already dread the fact that this song (and surely new songs with equally blatantly expository lyrics) will be a part of 3. Other than Randy Newman, though, I've got no complaints.

22 June 2010

Toy Story

So here we are, at Pixar's beginning. On a technical level, I have the same complaint I had when I saw this in theaters 15 years ago (jesus, I'm old, when did that happen?) -- such care went into the expressiveness and mobility of the toy faces -- Woody and Buzz look great and hold up quite well -- but the human children (and that dog, Scud) look like, I don't know, freaky Sims 2 characters. Dead-eyed wooden things with curled plastic lips and marionette movements. Compared to how well the toys themselves move, it almost feels like a choice, but if so I wish they hadn't made it. A friend of mine has a serious uncanny-valley phobia, and I bet she has a tough time watching this movie.

On a story level, it's interesting because Woody and Buzz both have to make the same emotional journey, realizing they are not the centers of their worlds, but they have to do so in drastically different ways: Woody has to accept that there is room for other "favorites," while Buzz has to accept that he's not a real spaceman, that he's not one in a million (in fact, there are a million just like him, literally). For the most part it's just a story of obstacles and getting back to Andy, so much of the story is given over to adventure sequences, and so sometimes the story feels light -- it is, after all, aimed at children -- but it never feels dumb, it never feels simple, and it never feels boring. A pretty damn nice first film.

The Wire (season 1)

Boy, first watching of fifteen hours of story, it's hard to know what to say, but I ought to say something. (In retrospect, I missed the boat and should have said something about the last season of Lost as well.) People are right, it's involving and rich and tapestry-like, it's a Russian novel of a TV show about cops and crooks, and it's amazing.

Once before, years back, I watched roughly the first half of this season and lost steam (not the show's fault; sometimes life gets busy), and back then I remember thinking that the show just sort of moved naturalistically around these characters and locations with no real sharp focus or single motivating drive -- I meant all that in a good way, stressing the naturalism of the story. But this time it was amazing to see the gears work. Maybe I'm better at story now than I was then (this is undoubtedly true, actually), but it was interesting to see a master storyteller pulling strings, keeping the plot going where the plot needs to go, without ever losing sight of the most important thing: the characters. Everything stems from them, and whether it's some action that's mechanically necessary to advance the plot or whether it's just a small gesture that gloriously, unexpectedly blossoms into a major event down the road, it all comes out of who these people are and what they want.

Also, too, it's worth noting that like all the best TV shows, any single episode works as a concise pocket of storytelling, moving us through a crucial chapter in the big picture and also giving us those subplots and smaller moments, all linked together by themes and parallels. "Lessons" and "Cleaning Up" and "The Cost" become not just chapter-headings and episode titles but succinct ways of viewing the driving character forces and similarities between the good guys and the bad guys. Oh, it's good stuff.

Waiting a day or two to jump into season 2. Looking forward to it.

20 June 2010

Boogie Nights

It's almost four in the morning and I should have been in bed hours ago. But I'm not, and partly that's because Boogie Nights is such a gripping movie. You're never bored for a single frame of this film. The ensemble here works so well, but it's undeniably Eddie/Dirk/Brock's story (I love that this film has Mark Wahlberg playing Eddie Adams playing Dirk Diggler playing Brock Landers), and P.T. Anderson captures that sort of enervating patheticness with more life and energy than any other filmmaker working today. Vulnerability and strong, deeply lived-in characters. There is no question why he's one of my favorites.

I'd say more, or try to tie those thoughts together, but like I said, it's almost 4am. Cut me some slack here.

Inland Empire

I don't know if I got it from the documentary Lynch or I heard it in an interview or I merely inferred it (correctly or otherwise) from the film itself, but in my mind the story goes, Inland Empire was David Lynch working completely without a script. (A quick google/wikipedia search might clear this up for me, but I am without internet as I write this, and anyway whether or not it's true isn't the point.) In my mind, the story goes, this is David Lynch playing Wong Kar-Wai. Shooting from the hip, improvising as he goes, letting the story unfold naturally, rearranging into something intuitive and kind of free-jazz-like in editing. Letting the story be what it wants to be. It's not such a stretch to imagine a man so aggressively in-tune with his subconscious doing that sort of thing. In fact it's almost a surprise he hasn't done that before. Certainly the story behind making a feature out of a TV pilot (Mulholland Dr.) has shades of that kind of story-building. Automatic writing, as applied to a two-plus hour film.

Anyway I bring it up because I watched this tonight while building an assortment of shelving units from Ikea, and so I admit to missing bits here and there, especially any of the storyline that was in Polish -- and yet I'm pretty sure this didn't hinder my viewing of it much. (For one, it's not my first time seeing the film.) It's got some legitimately scary moments, and many more uncomfortable ones that play heavily on the soundtrack or disorienting or uncanny-valley imagery and feel aptly like unpleasant dreams. Story-wise, it's a little disappointing he didn't go from a script, only because there are a couple of storylines in here I would have liked to see fleshed out a little more. But as it is, it's still a beautiful and dark over-the-top cap on Lynch's "Identity Trilogy," including Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and this. And Laura Dern kicks so much ass, playing all the different versions of her character -- or all the different characters, depending on how you look at it.

Now I just wish Mr. Lynch would return to the world of cinema and give us something new, having (perhaps) cleansed his palate after (perhaps) exhausting this particular avenue of storytelling. Or hell, even more of the same. I think I'd welcome that too.

18 June 2010

Ils (Them)

This one was working. For a good forty minutes of its short (74 minute!) runtime, I was legitimately scared. I was even taking notes on what moments scared me -- not to list here, per se, but for my own script. The power is out, there's a threat outside the house, and things are going wrong very quickly? Yes, it sounds familiar. For a good while I was tense and feeling the horror. I enjoyed the opening scene until the strangling from inside the car... up until then you got a vibe of something spooky, maybe supernatural, certainly in control of the darkness and the woods. But the figure in the backseat strangling the girl -- it just seemed a shockingly banal way to die after so much buildup. I let go of that moment of disappointment, though, and let the movie scare me again. And it did. It was working.

But all that changed in a quick moment for me, a distinct transformation. It was a good scene, even, a nice surprise, when Clem managed to more or less accidentally knock her assailant out the window and into a two-story fall. But from that point on, the tables felt turned. The monsters could be beaten -- undone -- so easily, so banally, that I didn't understand why anybody was running any more. What followed was a chase through the woods which should have felt all the more frightening because now the relative security of the house was left behind and we were in the assailants' (presumed) natural domain. But it didn't pan out that way. Like that opening scene (a good opening scene is a microcosm of your whole story after all) the killers' nature felt undermined by a truth too mundane to frighten. It became clear very quickly that these were kids, and even if they outnumbered Lucas and Clem, the couple kept consistently outsmarting or outpacing them. With each reversal of fortune, each close-shave getaway, each conk on the head, the bad guys became less frightening. Okay, it's the Evil Lost Boys, I get it, but I'm not as scared as when I thought it might be anything -- woodland spirits, a single masked killer, the undead, the principal from Clem's school who had a Cape Feare meets Single White Female crush on her. Dirty sadistic gypsy tykes playing Manson Family is just not as scary as the horrific depths my imagination was plunging. At one point I was hoping for a Lost Highway styled Mystery Man, brutal and cruel and mocking and impossibly unreal, to be behind it all. But gypsy kids? Meh.

So Ils was for me a great study in a legitimately frightening second act but a disappointing reveal and third act conflict. But I got a lot of notes and ideas out of it. And I'm not really the kind of guy who just brushes off being scared super easily, so the effective part of the movie was pretty effective. Really made me go into a place outside my comfort zone: fear. It's perversely nice to be taken there, since it's not often I go (or let myself go), and it was plenty scary without relying on jump-at-you cheap shots. So despite the ending it still ranks pretty high so far on the Travis Scale of horror.

16 June 2010

28 Weeks Later

I've been watching movies of the scary and zombie variety lately, and this was the first one that kind of turned me off the idea of making my own horror film. The story itself was all right. The stakes were high and the cast was good, but the more I watched, the more I felt like it had sucked everything wonderful and original out of 28 Days Later and just left a hollow shell. The cinematography wasn't in aid of anything other than a "28 Days Later feel," the music kept coming and going as if to remind us of the film's predecessor, and the editing... well, honestly, I think this might be the single worst editing job I've watched in a feature film. Well now -- that's not fair; it's not "bad editing," it's just aggressively avant-garde editing that, like the avant-garde cinematography and guitar-driven orchestral score, was in aid of nothing. In fact, whoever cut this film seemed stubbornly unwilling to move fast action along fast enough or to allow the breathing moments to actually breathe. It felt like an exercise in "wrong pacing," like deliberately playing every song at the wrong tempo. And it was extremely frustrating.

The reason it felt a little discouraging is it showed me a worst-case-scenario of my own film. I felt like the structural choices -- things like who lives and who dies, what obstacles would pop up and when/how -- were transparent and, again, hollow. None of it felt in aid of any bigger meaning or larger thematic picture. The recurring antagonism of the father; the choice of showing the photo of the mother and then the mother burn up in the firebombing; the death of the adults protecting the children: all these beats felt like what the story should have, but just because that's what the story needed to move along. Ideally those beats should feel organic and resonant with the themes of the story, not just apt for the drama. I have a sudden new fear that my project will turn out like this one. It's like classical concertos: you can hit all the notes and the song can still be meaningless. 28 Weeks Later is essentially a meaningless, style-aping sequel, hitting all the right notes but lacking any of the sheer poetry that permeated every facet of 28 Days Later.

And honestly, for all the blood and whatnot (and since when did Rage zombie vomit blood like a fire hydrant?), it was tense, but never very scary.

15 June 2010


Cassavetes is a special kind of filmmaker, whose stories move with rough, invisible act breaks that are still act breaks. The dialogue sounds like -- it is -- dialogue about nothing, but so much is in there, not being said. Sometimes the characters are struggling desperately to communicate, unable; other times they are trying in vain to subsume or conceal some thought, or impulse, or reaction. Often they speak in non-sequiturs and sloppily brutal, confrontational ways to each other. Often they laugh or sing too hard, too loud, a weird unsettling hysteria edging in on their joyful sounds. This is what people do. Human beings are messy when they are emotional. Cassavetes films are about human beings and their emotions.

Faces is well named. It draws immediate attention to the number of times the camera finds a face and pushes in too tight on it, holds too long on it, forces you to look at what's going on in there. This isn't a movie of close-ups; it's a movie of extreme close-ups. Not just the cinematography, either: this movie stands far closer to its characters than most movies ever do. This is a film you either love or hate -- with characters you either love or hate -- warts and all.

Myself? Personally, I love the film -- and its messy, raw-nerved, desperate and self-destructive characters.

Life of Brian

The song "Always look on the bright side of life" helped me regroup a little after feeling grumpy. It's late and I don't have a lot to say about this film, except that it's clearly the best Monty Python film -- a charming and semi-linear story, jokes playing on many levels at once, attention to detail, and a bit of thematic message and social commentary while they're at it. Holy Grail is fun but overrated; Life of Brian is absolutely the best feature-length bit of work from the amazing team. I wish I had the series on DVD. Put that on my Christmas List, eh?

Soon my bedroom will get properly set-up and internet will be installed at home; in the meantime, my notes on films I see will probably continue to be sparser and blander. So it goes!

14 June 2010

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb *

On a personal note, I just stupidly broke my five-year-old custom-made neon sign, a relic from an early short film of mine, and the experience is surprisingly nerve-wracking and even a little depressing. I don't have much (right now) to add to my thoughts about one of my all-time favorite films anyway, but especially after this stupid moment of poor planning and sentimental loss, let's just leave it at, I got to see a film print and that was really awesome, and Dr. Strangelove remains one of the greatest films of all time. Every frame and line and subtle action is potent and symbolically charged and brilliantly played to its fullest capacity for meaning, and the humor is at times subtle and layered, at others direct and overt. I love it. But alas, right now I'm kind of bummed out, so I don't have much to add to the discussion.

Seen (on a film print!) at the Laurelhurst Theatre.

13 June 2010

In the Mouth of Madness

Boy, I've got a lot less to say about this one. In a way, it's got a lot in common with Splice: the big-picture story is pretty interesting, and some of the beats along the way are clever and good, but where Splice is pretty tightly scripted and beautifully performed, Madness here is chaotic to the point of gibberish and hammy to the point of camp. I'm a fan of Sam Neill and David Warner -- and hell, this has got Heston in a small role -- but there's just not much here to work with. It's just kind of a sloppy mess.

Once again, I like the whole Lovecraftian thing, and this, like The Mist, is almost explicitly Lovecraftian, but once again the story is so absurdly handled, badly written and acted, lackadaisically plotted, that it just wastes the clever set-up and the good ideas. It just --- it's another waste of Cthulhu-esque horror. Oh well.

12 June 2010

Splice *

I will tell you up front. I'm going to do a really lousy job of not sounding arrogant here. I'm going to write about a film that, were I a critic of some sort and were I obliged to rate this film on some kind of academic A through F grading scale, I would rate a B or a B+. I am going to write a (hopefully, please-let-this-be) brief ramble about a film that is ambitious enough and interesting enough to be a candidate for a solid A grade, and is one of the most interesting and provocative films I've seen this year. And in telling you why it didn't make that A grade, I'm going to talk about why it failed me, as though I am someone with either the status or wisdom to warrant the position of the film owing me something. In other words, I'm going to do what I always do on my little blog here.*

Splice gets right a lot of things that a lot of other films don't try to get right. It gets right the anxiety of first-time parenting and first-time pet-owning through metaphor and parallel. It develops a character from literally zero, and it (almost) never vilifies its monster with cheap black-and-white morality. And it's crypto-biologically creepy at times in an approaching-Cronenbergian way that too few films are bold enough to go for. If I were to describe to you the plot, beat by beat and in some detail, I think you'd say, that's a pretty good plot; that's smart and clever; the stakes are high and thematically interesting; I think I would like this movie and I wish you hadn't ruined every single plotpoint for me with your in-depth summary. But if you were to watch the film, and you were me (or like me in sufficient ways) I think you'd say that the three main plots (Dren's development and interaction with the scientists; Clive and Elsa's relationship to each other; the scientific thinktank backing them and expecting results) are so disconnected in tone and pacing that they sometimes feel like different movies crammed together. I think you'd site scenes like Clive playfully dancing with Dren immediately after a confrontation that ended poorly for him with his, er, handler. I think you'd point out how Elsa's constant emotional back-and-forth feels less like the mania they're suggesting she suffers from and more like a ping pong ball bouncing between maternal figure to mad scientist whenever the script calls for it.

All the beats and scenes are bold and interesting and the story does what I'd want that story to do, but the characters never feel like they are reacting to what happens so much as being shuttled into the next scene with the next set of emotional baggage, often forgetting or skewing or overdoing what they would normally carry with them from the previous scene. (This isn't the actors' fault; the three leads are pretty great, especially Polley and Brody... the script just never feels smooth and organic.) The action moves along at a pretty good clip and once the ante starts going up it never really stops, but the characters and their emotional trajectories are herky-jerky and wildly inconsistent.

That is, until act three. I have to admit, at that point I think the plot train jumped the rails onto another track altogether (or if you prefer, the needle skipped to another song?) -- very much like act three of Danny Boyle's otherwise awesome film Sunshine -- and started dabbling in a different kind of movie for a while: the plot, pacing, and tone started making the same kind of right-angle turns that the characters had been making all along. Act three needed to include [BIG SPOILERS] a gender-changing Dren, a sexual encounter leading to a pregnancy, and probably Clive's demise. But it didn't need a prolonged chase, or a couple of meaningless deaths, or a monster prowling a moonlit wood (or was that a swamp?). I kind of like the idea that we acknowledge that she/he was a monster all along, a literal abomination, and that the other shoe had to drop eventually; but I don't like the idea that we do it by changing the movie we were watching so god-damn suddenly into another monster movie.

To be fair, though, just about everything else about it I really, really liked. I know I didn't convey a lot of what I liked in my bash-heavy rant here, but I'm not here to give a fair and balanced summary or review of the film. This isn't that kind of a thing. I'm just recording my thoughts, and here my thoughts were that act three jumped the rails a bit, and that the characters felt a little more puppet-ish than human-ish -- and it's too bad because otherwise this is a really intriguing story with a cool, smart plot with very neat effects in a strangely inviting little world. I wouldn't even mind a sequel to follow, something akin to the Alien series's overarching narrative. But it's not, by any stretch, without its flaws.

Another film, other than Sunshine, about which I could have said almost the exact same things I've said here? Cube, the first film by Splice's director. For that matter, Cube also has an open-ended conclusion and did in fact spawn (heh) a sequel that I've never seen and heard mixed-but-not-all-bad things about. So whether it's deliberate or incidental, this may just be the Natali style.

Seen at the Regal Lloyd Center.

* as a sidenote, I just read half a page written by David Foster Wallace before deciding to sit down and write this, and look at me now. Complicated, multi-parenthetical and self-referential sentences, extended footnotes, rambling prologues. Holy shit, it's infectious. Perhaps you should close this page while you still can, or I can't promise that you won't start doing it, too.

10 June 2010


The thing with watching movies only when you're tired, packing, or falling asleep is you just put on movies you know and love. The thing with writing down reactions to movies you already know and love is, you're basically listing all the things you already know and love about the thing. And that's not always very interesting.

So instead I'm going to say something about what I consider a missed opportunity in TRON. The script moves quickly with a pleasing stop-and-go pace through this magical world, this gorgeous surreal realm that still, twenty-five years later, remains inimitable. As we go, there are all these little hints about the deeper social world of the System, of people's personal relationship to their Users (a wildly religious community where everybody has their Own Personal God is fascinatingly humanistic), and of strange creatures and terrains. Time passes impossibly fast, and rightly so. And programs are, well, programmed. The grand Master Control Program -- evil mortal (program) dabbling with the wisdom and agency of a god (user) -- has developed a sense of awareness and ambition. Specifically, he's developed a hunger for power -- and to a program, as to a human, the only ways to real power are energy, information, and social control.

Meanwhile there's Tron, a knight errant (specialized program) sent here by the gods (or a god, the "user" Alan-1) to defeat the dragon (to watchdog & keep in check the MCP), and as such he has a certain brashness in his nature -- but he's still just a program, and occasionally this shows in brilliant and sneaky ways. Sometimes you get these hints from moments in the story, notions sticking out, like that ideas are viral or that freewill doesn't exist, but they're always glossed over, skirted around, not really consistent. My one wish is that these themes and character development points had been given their due. Go deeper into the characters of Yori and Demond and Ram and Clu, and especially Tron and Flynn and Sark, and let us see a world where a lack of freewill is taken for granted. It is a world where the status quo is being shaken up by some new forces (a power-hungry dragon/program reappropriating other programs for games and consumption; a free-agent demigod/User roaming the planes; a hero/program made to be a wildcard and outsmart the dragon/program) and all the programs around these characters are being pushed outside their structures and boundaries -- they are being forced to adapt to new scenarios and, in essence, grow. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the heart of all drama, and TRON has such a beautiful, stripped-down, minimalistic one-time-use world for us to explore that with. The same thing is touched upon in Spielberg's A.I., a little more deftly, in characters like Teddy and most notably Gigolo Joe, the sexbot who finds himself custodian to a small boy who wants to be real, in a world where humans have begun to turn on their creations in wrath -- another series of wildcard forces causing a departure from the status quo. What happens to our characters when we rock the boat?

TRON never quite goes there all the way. It definitely dips its toes in those waters, but it really missed a grand opportunity to dive right in. I'm not saying it should have beaten the audience over the head with a sign reading "Hey, Isn't Freewill Neat? And Look On As These Sleepwalkers Wake Up And Start Living." (Dark City did that about as well as it can be done; The Matrix less so.) I don't think it needs to be shoehorned in at all. Quite the opposite, actually; the world here is such that it's almost unnatural not to have a subplot of programs adapting and evolving and becoming self-aware as Flynn and Tron journey through their midst, and with just some small notes of consistency and deeper characterization -- and no plot changes whatsoever -- the world and story of TRON might have been magnitudes richer and more wondrous. Or so I like to imagine.

06 June 2010

I Heart Huckabees

The hardest movies for me to comment on are the ones I've seen a dozen or more times before. A comedy about philosophy, that actually espouses a specific holistic viewpoint and riffs on growing political and economic issues? That shouldn't work. There is the pervasive idea that movie audiences don't like to be made to think. I don't buy it, but it's a common subtext of Hollywood's moviemaking approach for as long as there's been Hollywood moviemaking (with a brief blip in the 60s and 70s). Most certainly the last decade's worth of corporate-made tentpoles takes for granted that "asking an audience to think" is threatening. And yet, movies like this sneak by, I suspect because they're so charming.

Watching this again, though, what sticks with me is why it's a successful comedy. It's not funny because of the philosophy (it is moving, to an overthinkin' dude like me, because of the philosophy). It's funny because of the characters. They are distinct, intertwined, original, and likable. The cast is astounding. Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, and Mark Wahlberg are all actors I want to like. In practice I only like them in about half their films, but when I do I generally love them, and this is a perfect storm for those three. Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert... it's a challenge not to love them in whatever.

I don't have much to say. Like I said, when you've seen a movie so many times, it's hard to have new thoughts sometimes. But character is the heart of story, and I Heart Huckabees only works because the characters are so fucking good.