27 February 2010

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

It's interesting to note that Nicholas Meyer was completely unfamiliar with the series when he wrote and directed this game-changer, just like Abrams with the new Star Trek. And on an even geekier note, it's impossible for me to watch this without seeing how influential it was on the world of Star Trek, in building a franchise out of a series (as I argued previously). All from a guy who hadn't even seen the show. This is the first part in a trilogy about the death and rebirth of Spock (and Kirk, and inversely the Enterprise), and when the closing chapter of the trilogy came out, so too did The Next Generation, and Star Trek was officially a franchise nerds would forever consider in direct competition with Star Wars. (It's a good paradigm: Wars represents space-opera or fantasy; Trek represents a somewhat harder, concept-driven science fiction.)

The movie is about age, aging, dying, and feeling useful. Nicholas Meyer is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and compared Kirk to Holmes: Holmes without his cases becomes half a man; Kirk without his starship likewise. Anyway, it's a brave and good choice for Shatner, famously vain, to portray a man fearing his own age. Even so, I have to point out: William Shatner was 51 when this was made, and he looks amazing. I honestly would have believed you if you told me he was 40, perhaps even late thirties.

Two quick final thoughts: One, I recently saw Krull again, where James Horner recycles his gorgeous score pretty much piecemeal, and it's tainted the soundtrack for me with images of flying horses, solemn cyclops, and really bad acting. And two, Spock's death and Kirk's eulogy both still kind of get to me. They're great scenes. Easily one of the best screen deaths I can think of.

The Muppet Movie

Every once in a while, someone asks me what my favorite musical is. Not that there aren't a couple of good choices, even for a musical-skeptic like myself, but I always forget the goddamn Muppets.

This movie is fucking nutso genius. It's emotionally deep, heartwarming and sad and incredibly funny in an unironic, unhip, oldschool funny way. Henson was such an earnest storyteller, I just don't see how you could tell this story in today's vernacular. This is a heart-on-your-sleeve movie. And you know how I'm always on about character? Well this is a ninety-minute episodic road movie in which it's almost impossible not to care about a bunch of felt puppets. To quote a song from the film: Can you picture that?

I don't want to dwell on it, but I have to mention: I've always felt there was a strange leery-of-love Yoko Ono vibe to Miss Piggy. She bullies her way into the life of our noncommittal-at-best hero. She consistently looks out for herself and nobody else, and is touchy to the point of outright hostility. The others grumble openly and barely tolerate her (except Gonzo, who loves her, but he's "weird"). Kermit seems downright resistant to the idea of giving in to her bullying ideas of love, but too passive to ever say no (he comes close once, telling her "he doesn't give a hoot" after she ditches him when their date ends in a kidnapping and nearly torture). It's all very unromantic, kind of brooding, somewhere between cynical and pathetic. Miss Piggy, the one and only lead lady Muppet, is as unappealing a character as the show has. I'm not accusing them of sexism or anything else -- I love the Muppets as much as I did as a kid, but with the appreciative eyes of a sad-hearted adult -- I'm just saying: Miss Piggy is a strange study, and I wonder what it says of Jim Henson's views of love and sex.

(Yikes, another long tangential rant. I've got to watch myself. The "brevity" spirit of this blog is slipping.)

The Crazies

I'm hardly a Romero scholar or anything, but it sure seems to me like he isn't interested in the individual. He tells stories on a more macroscopic scale. It's not that they lack characterization, though it's usually pretty straightforward and unsubtle; it's more like the characterization doesn't even much matter. The story, like maybe all Romero stories, is about groups rather than individuals. It's heavy on the anti-bureaucracy anti-military bent, but it's not black-and-white about who's to blame or even how whoever is to blame is to blame. So that's nice. It reminds me of his Dead films with their lack of explanation or easy resolution.

Naturally I watched this because of the remake coming out. A movie that kept being bumped down my to-watch list got bumped back up. It's a real shame it's been remade as a standard zombie movie, because the concept of a virus that makes people alternately delusional or raging violent monsters is a really great set-up. I mean, everybody's yelling at everybody the whole time. All that stress-induced infighting and frustration with the collapsing system just ends up looking symptomatic of the Trixie virus. And every time someone gets confused or disoriented, they descend into a paranoia of "I've got the bug, don't I?" Who should the military kill becomes who shouldn't the military kill? Nobody seems entirely free of the virus because the symptoms are just exaggerations of natural reactions to situations this crazy. Personally, I think that's so much more interesting than another killer-zombie film.

In other words, this movie is begging for a tightly scripted, character-driven, tragically paranoid remake, and I'm 99% sure that's not what's playing in theaters right now.

24 February 2010

Shutter Island *

I've never made any promises to be spoiler free, so if you haven't seen this, thanks for stopping by but come back when you have. Also, I anticipate this'll run a little longer than usual. So sue me.

The thing with any story where a part or whole of the "reality" is a fabrication of an overactive imagination (or a character's "insanity") is, you absolutely have to have credulity in the unreal parts. In the case of Shutter Island, if I don't believe for half a second that "Teddy's" perspective might be accurate or real because none of it feels remotely real to me, then there is no tension or surprise in telling me it was not real. An easy example is the premise: a super-lockdown Arkham-style asylum wherein the guards are paranoid and cops have no rights or authority sounds like a pretty good set-up, only why on earth would they call in a Federal Marshall to investigate a disappearance, especially if they have no intention of even pretending to cooperate? Yes, it all makes sense when you find out what's really happening (sort of, more on that in a second) but you never had me convinced it made sense from Teddy's perspective, so you never had me engaged in the story. Instead, about fifteen minutes in I had realized there were two possibilities: this was all flimsily constructed and unrealistic because it was all in his head, or this was all flimsily constructed and unrealistic because it was lazy, poor writing. Before act two, my two possibilities were bad script and "it was all a dream!" And I wasn't wrong. On either count, unfortunately.

And then there's the reveal. I don't really mind if I guess a twist early on and it proves to be right. In all honesty I try not to guess twists because I want to experience the movie. I want to ride the ride, not outsmart it. But hey, I'm an overanalyzer and a writer and these things happen. So I can forgive it for that -- others have said they didn't see it coming, so all right. But all that aside, the reveal is that he was a patient all along! And his partner Chuck was really the mysteriously departed Dr. Sheehan! The reason they've been running all over the island and exploring all the wards and climbing cliff-faces and so on is because see, there's this guy, Dr. Cawley. And in a desperate attempt to test a radical new humanitarian therapy technique and to avoid lobotomizing a trained killer who's gone nutso, Dr. Cawley has said, "Maybe if we told him he really was a cop, we gave him a toy gun and a fake partner, and if we let him live out his vengeance-seeking wounded-soul federal marshall fantasy with carte-blanche access to the whole asylum, maybe he'll get better on his own! We'll stop giving him his medication and we'll get all the orderlies and guards to pretend he's a cop, and we'll tell all the other inmates to play along, too, heck they're all dangerously insane themselves, why would they mind? Anyway maybe after two days of this, he'll be healed. And if not, then you win, you can scoop his frontal lobe out, call him cured." Does any part of that plan make any kind of sense? Early on "Teddy" says the guards act like insanity is contagious. Well, with a boss like Cawley I'd start wondering myself.

It's not that this was the worst movie I've ever seen or anything (though in a way it was worse than that: it was boring). It's just that it's confoundingly amateur in its storytelling, and it's a film by Martin Freakin' Scorsese. That shouldn't happen. The follow-up to Gangs of New York and The Departed is this? Really? The editing and continuity is such a nightmare I couldn't help but joke that (multiple-Oscar-winning editor) Thelma Schoonmaker had gone senile, or blind. The script felt heavy on info-dumping and unmotivated action. That it had a "secret" motivation revealed with the twist doesn't save it -- like I said above, it doesn't make sense without the twist and the twist itself doesn't make sense if you stop to think about it. "Teddy"/Andrew is standing in a corridor looking into a cell and he keeps lighting matches to see -- only the corridor has spots of light so bright his highlights are blowing out. It's the best-lit darkness I've ever seen. (There's also a scene during an interview when a patient takes a drink of water and in the close-up she's clearly holding nothing in her empty hand, air-drinking from a pretend glass. I have to assume this was intentional? But heavy-handed and awkward, at best.) Somehow, you know what all this reminded me of? Bringing Out The Dead. Maybe it was the backward smoke in the dream sequences. Either way, now I'm afraid to rewatch Bringing Out The Dead.

Anyway, long story short, it's sloppy and the script was pretty flimsy. You have to build a cohesive false-reality if you want to make your reveal of its falseness mean shit to your audience. It doesn't have to be as real as real, but it has to feel logical, even to an internal logic. This never did.

After recently seeing Raging Bull, I think Martin Scorsese is one of the best visceral filmmakers we've got, but I don't know, maybe cerebral just ain't his bag.

Seen at the Pioneer Place Regal Theater.

Star Trek

I thought they were cheating the ol' act structure paradigm by tacking on that twelve minute prologue (10-minute mark: Kirk is born, an interesting "inciting incident"), and we don't even meet our hero Young James Kirk until minute 17 -- but Orci and Kurtzman bring it around lickety-split, and smooth as butter we're entering Act Two right on time, between minutes 25 and 28. Nice work, fellas! I'm struggling to get a lot less info into my first act, and I am suddenly shamed.

Now, here's where I get geeky:

I've been a fan of Star Trek forever, and now they've gone and done this whole "rebooting" thing. But here's what they've done: they've made a whizbang show-stopping summer-movie door-opener. They've done the miraculous, they've respected a long and convoluted history (even an unnecessary nod to Star Trek: Quantum Leap Enterprise; classy) and at the same time they've thrown open the doors to newcomers. I would argue that the initial Star Trek series wasn't anything until Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Before that, it was just a series and a movie. After, with a trilogy of tightly-connected movies and the launch of The Next Generation on its heels (TNG and Voyage Home both came out the same year), it was a franchise. Likewise, I will argue that right now, the franchise hasn't been rebooted. Right now, it's a franchise and one outlier new movie.

Whatever they do next, it's all riding on Star Trek 2. Only then will the franchise have been rebooted and set in motion fresh and new. There is, in my opinion, way more pressure on 2 than there ever was on this one, and this one had a lot of pressure. Curious to see what happens next.

21 February 2010

A Serious Man

I try to be critical and not just blindly praising in my thoughts, but the Coen Brothers make that difficult. Not because their films are flawless (at least not all of them) but because they are so engaging, so enjoyable. I've seen A Serious Man four times now by my count, and it's still hard to distance myself from it and break it down objectively because I'm having such a good time watching the shit pile up around poor Larry Gropnik.

I want to talk about structure, trajectory or character but I still really can't. All I can say is how much I love the scenes and the build, and how that last moment just kills me. Just kills me!

20 February 2010

Panique au village (A Town Called Panic) *

What a manic film! Despite being nonstop fast-paced (like, short-attention-span paced) action, both Megan and I were kind of antsy through parts of it, waiting for something to happen. The reason is, there's no throughline or main plot tying together all the wacky adventures. Well, sort of there is, but it's so late in the game that the many competing subplots in the first two-thirds feel overwhelming, bordering on white noise.

Still, Panic is inventive and very funny at parts, and it smartly plays to the strengths of its limitations rather than letting them hold it back. The tiny plastic figures and their erratic stop-motion movement are consistently surprising and the storytelling is witty, if slapdash. It makes sense that this was a series of five-minute episodes first. I was going to add that the story style and the humor (though not the animation technique or look of it) remind me of Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit) stuff, and then I see that Aardman Animations distributed the original series. So there you go.

And boy, those Belgians love their waffles... apparently.

Seen at the Broadway Multiplex as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

19 February 2010

마더 (Mother) *

I'm a picky audience when it comes to genre, especially when it comes to mystery stories -- which, at its heart, is what Mother is. Don't get me wrong, I'm tough on mysteries because I love a good mystery. And having seen a lot of them, I'll be honest with you: nothing raises my hackles quite as quickly as the old trope of "I don't remember the pertinent information... oh wait, now I remember it all exactly. Just in time, too!" That's a rough hump to get past.

I like when the movie is driven by its characters, but between this and The Host I wonder about Bong's use of quirkiness. I'm of the school of thought that quirky characterization should be the medium, not the message. But still, you felt right along with the characters in this, and in The Host. I liked the convoluted backstory wherein everybody's current predicament is the fault of the main character's previous actions -- felt very Almodovar. I didn't like the convoluted foreground-story that was one big, labyrinthine red herring. I just couldn't connect the dead-end theory to the real story in a meaningful way.

To put it succinctly (something these posts never quite achieve), if I broke this film into an objective pro/con list, I think the cons would weigh out, but there's something in the tone and style of the film that saves it. It's not great, but it's good. I think I like both Bong's other films more, is all.

Seen at the Broadway Multiplex as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

Fish Tank *

On the one hand, the protagonist here is hostile, aggressive, petulant, and generally kind of unlikeable. On the other hand, she's amazingly easy to sympathize with, because she has dreams -- and partially because her dreams are just so pathetic. I challenge anybody to watch Mia's dance moves and not cringe a little inside, but she is so earnest, she wants it so bad, you want it right along with her. She's chasing idiotic dreams with all her heart and she still kind of looks like a poser who doesn't really get it; she's right up there on the screen being what every human being fears they are. Of course she's got our sympathy!

Jon pointed out, Andrea Arnold never goes quite as far as you think she will or feel like her world is capable of going. It occurs to me that this is actually more challenging to the audience than if the events were more extreme or dark. Coming to that precipice and backing away just before the tipping point deprives her stories of any easy moralization. Nobody faces dire black-and-white life-and-death consequences, so instead the story hovers in a moral limbo where sometimes bad deeds go unpunished, but good ones don't. It's messy and it makes you decide for yourself what was too far, or who was to blame, or if people acted rightly or not.

Mmm, that's good ambiguity!

Seen at the Whitsell Auditorium as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

18 February 2010

La fille du RER (The Girl on the Train) *

I think I've set the bar pretty high lately, especially for contemporary French films. It's not so much that this was bad -- it wasn't -- but that it was only okay, whereas everything else I've watched lately has been no less than great, and a couple have been inspiring, game-changers.

Some of the characters in this were very real to me, and many were likeable (unfortunately, not our protagonist, but I've sat through less winning characters, so I won't grip about that too much). None of the complex action feels unmotivated, not even the somewhat outlandish centerpiece of the story, in which Jeanne half-heartedly fakes an anti-semitic attack on herself. The problem isn't characters and motivation; for my money, the problem is that it never seems to amount to anything bigger than a collection of scenes. It's based on a real event, and maybe it falls into the all-too-common still-inexcusable trap of so many other films based on real events. That an event really happened isn't enough justification to build a film around. You need to have a reason to tell me this story.

In the end, I left very much with the reaction of "okay, so that all happened." And frankly, that's the worst reaction of all. Deadened, unmoved, unprovoked, and ready to turn away and talk about something else or go do whatever's next. Hate's not the opposite of love, everybody; indifference is.

Seen at the Broadway Multiplex as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

17 February 2010

Raging Bull *

Funny enough, I'd only ever seen the first fifteen minutes or so of this. So now that I've finally seen it, I have to say: it was amazing to witness the gradual and profoundly convincing transformation from Robert De Niro into Albert Brooks.

No, but seriously. This is the antithesis of much of the cinema I've been watching lately -- of much of the cinema I am drawn to in general. The only word for Raging Bull is visceral. It's not a movie you're supposed to think about; it's a movie you're supposed to feel. Both emotionally and physically, this movie is about feeling. Man is an animal, and De Niro's Jake LaMotta moreso than your average man.

Interestingly, I'm not sure I have a lot more to say about it. I guess I can point out how it struck me that Scorsese seems to work from a lot of biopic or life-story types of scripts, that begin and end decades apart. Or that De Niro and Pesci have a very similar dynamic here as in Goodfellas and Casino, and that something really profound could possibly come from analyzing the three as one evolving relationship. Other than tangential stuff like that, it's easier to pay the film the respect of feeling it more than thinking it, and that doesn't lend itself to much in the way of insight.

I'm sure it says something about me that I find my lack of a thoughtful response to be food for thought.

Seen at the Academy Theater as part of the Beer-and-Movies Fest.

16 February 2010

Le fils (The Son)

Not to say this wasn't very good, but I'll always remember this movie as That French Film About The Back Of The Balding Man's Head. What a tight, claustrophobic way to shoot every shot. Obviously to a purpose -- one thing I'm liking about the Dardennes is that for all their pseudo-realism everything is to a purpose -- but still, that's a lot of the back of a man's head. Subjective viewpoint or opaque perspective? I guess they're pretty much the same thing here.

Boy, first Police, Adj., then Lorna's Silence, then Under the Sand and now this. I've been on a real roll with slow, observational, procedural-style storytelling. It's been good for me, after so many bigger, broader Hollywood style films, to watch this stuff and see the same levels of artifice and careful construction now sublimated into a story that at least feels like the real world. Whether or not that's how my writing comes out, it's inspiring to see it done.

For the record, though, both films explored very unique and difficult emotional terrains, but I liked Lorna's Silence quite a bit more than this one on an aesthetic level. I guess I still like my crime stories more than my slice-of-life dramas. No surprise there, huh?

15 February 2010

Sous le sable (Under the Sand)

It was hard not to compare this film to The Vanishing or even Frantic, only this plays out exactly the opposite: what if your loved one suddenly disappeared one day and you never looked for them, ever?

Since I've been watching understated, observational dramas and thinking about writing, I was really focused on the way we see (or don't see) the choices and actions our protagonist makes. For the most part we only see Marie avoiding confrontation and living with the consequences of her unconscious decisions. The only times we see her step up and make decisions are whenever she gets backed into a corner -- and invariably these are the best, most memorable moments. By skipping over her first initial decision and letting us slowly acclimate to its aftermath, we have a really different experience watching her reinforce that decision later on, with increasingly bolder and more desperate decisions. That is to say, we see her stand by her unconscious choice from the beginning in the face of mounting obstacles and higher stakes.

It gives me something to think about, as the story I'm working on is all based on one crazy decision made by my joint-protagonist couple.

14 February 2010

Le silence de Lorna (Lorna's Silence)

Instantly I knew this was something like how I want my script to feel. Dardenne films move along quietly but efficiently, and the characterization comes through observation of detail rather than from elaborate set-ups or snuck-in exposition. Little moments tell us everything.

As to the story itself, it certainly had some twists I didn't anticipate, and I was left unsure about the ending... in a good way, I think. I mean, was Lorna a little crazy or what? Two movies in a row that feel straightforward but with a highly ambiguous end. In Pontypool it was just the very last beat; here it was the entire third act, but either way: Movies that give me that much to mull over and leave me with questions instead of easy answers? Yes, please.


There's that moment in horror films, especially in zombie films, where you have to get from "What's happening?" to "This is what's happening and what now?" It's the info-dump scene, the exposition, the reveal, the As You Know, Bob. Anyway, that moment in Pontypool feels a little bit weak, kind of glossed over.

But the rest of it, right up my alley. For the most part it's legitimately creepy and scary, and the acting is solid (Stephen McHattie is amazing, and that voice: perfect!) and the story mostly works. It's scarier being trapped in the booth with our heroes than it would be running around in fields wielding torches and chainsaws. I'm a big fan of word-salad, dadaism, cut-up technique, all that stuff, but I also have an overdeveloped respect for the power of words that maybe borders on fear... so word-salad zombies really works for me.

I have to admit, though: I don't know how to interpret the end. I think I'll go read some online stuff and see if I'm the only one who was left a little confounded.

12 February 2010

Poliţist, Adjectiv (Police, Adjective) *

The police procedural is such a commonplace genre these days, but this... this took "procedural" so literally that the result borders on surreal. Its painstaking attention not just to detail but to the very notion of detail makes what might have been a simple story into something absurd, and ultimately absurdist. The degree of effort one man puts into such a small case and the weight of a system pressuring him to just arrest someone and move on is balanced by every character's obsessive attention to the minutiae before them. Entire setpieces are devoted not just to debating the meaning but also the intent of the meaning behind pop lyrics or dictionary definitions. The main obstacles in Cristi's path are petulance and indifference, but they are enough. And ultimately, his best-case-scenario end-game will have almost no impact whatsoever: it will just appease our hero's conscience about which of two kids gets sentenced to three-to-seven years for a petty offense he doesn't even believe is wrong. And yet, it feels very much about a real person, a human character. Like I said: absurdism.

But what really wowed me was the economy of the filmmaking. For a film with so many long, slow takes of people standing, or walking, or watching nothing happen, no opportunity is missed. It all looks banal and mundane, but every frame is filled with visual metaphor. Every meaningless conversation resonates thematically. A speech midway through challenges you to ask what the banality means, and what the writers mean by what it means. And so: wry observation of very human moments, self-referential critique, circular logic and low-key absurdism? Of course I liked it.

Seen at the Whitsell Auditorium as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

(On a side note, if I may vent: the Whitsell is easily the least comfortable film-screening venue in the entire city and I will unfortunately be seeing a good number of films there in the next two weeks. I turned down a chance to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo tonight partially because of the line but mostly because another two hours in those cramped seats craning my head around others to keep up with subtitles sounded absolutely miserable. It's such a shame the Art Museum and the NW Film Center are stuck with such a poor theater, but what are you gonna do. You want to see these films, they got you by the balls.)

싸이보그지만 괜찮아 (I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK)

Boy. I must be in comparing mode lately, but nonetheless: this struck me as a little bit Wong Kar-Wai (specifically Fallen Angels and 2046), a little bit Terry Gilliam (the asylum scenes from 12 Monkeys and Fisher King, but also Tideland), and a little bit overblown-whimsy (say, Amélie or The Happiness of the Katakuris maybe).

Every five minutes or so, my opinion of this movie changed. I loved moments; I was a little bored at others; sometimes I got what it was doing but didn't like it; other times I had no idea what was going on but liked it anyway. In the end, I liked it okay. It feels uneven and heartfelt. It is hard to imagine this as a follow-up to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. And yet, here it is.

11 February 2010

괴물 (The Host)

What a bizarre combination of tones! Not just scary but brutally dark at times, blackly cynical, broad and maudlin, but also adventurous, tragic, hilarious, awkward, and just plain silly. It's a slapstick with really hefty stakes. The closest western film I can think of off the top of my head to the tone of The Host is maybe The Goonies. A ragtag team with a lot of comic relief get in over their head and the stakes are high and the setpieces are actually kinda scary. This film goes both sillier AND scarier than Goonies, but I don't know what else to compare it to. If I was describing this to someone who'd never heard of it, I guess I might say it's like the Griswolds from Vacation vs. the monster from Cloverfield.

Really surprised with a lot of the twists in this story, the team-protagonist thing, and the tragic elements at the end (which I won't give away). A little confused on the timeline of when the Bronze-medal archer sister and the unemployed grad student brother pass out and wake up, or even how many days or hours are meant to pass throughout this story... on first watching my gut tells me they're playing a little loose with the chronology of events here, but otherwise it's a totally engaging, fun movie. I'm going to have to go back and rewatch Memories of Murder sometime soon. It's been years.

10 February 2010

La mala educación (Bad Education)

As I rewatched this, at first I wondered if it might play out more dramatic if told chronologically, or without the framing mystery of Ignacio/Juan... so much flashing back left me a little dizzy (alternately: so much flashing back made me feel like I was watching a Spanish episode of Lost). But by the end I had to concede, the story only coheres with the framing mystery intact.

Walking out of "FILM NOIR WEEK" at the cinema after having just committed murder, Manolo/Berengeur says to Juan, "It's as if all the films were talking about us." Bad Education feels like the most neo of neo-noir stories I can think of: like all the noir tropes have been turned inside out and upside down.

09 February 2010


I don't speak Spanish, but online translators tell me volver translates alternately as return, go back, come back, and turn around. When Raimunda is singing "Volver, volver," the subtitles tell me it means "Come back, come back." The revolving windmills outside their village is a repeating visual motif. My point is, this movie isn't being subtle with its theme of returning, of things coming back.

But boy, it's being layered with that theme, isn't it? Everybody's got secrets, everybody's lying about the present (or recent past), and everybody's distant pasts seem like inexhaustible mysteries. Never dull for a moment, with characters so... human! If Hollywood wrote women like this, I think we'd have a very different cinematic landscape.

08 February 2010

Miller's Crossing

Now that I'm logging every movie I watch, I'm curious how many times certain movies will show up on this list, and this is definitely one you'll see pop up again and again, I'm sure. I'm focusing on what each character wants per scene, and this one's a wonderful puzzle. In any scene it's as plain as day what Tom wants, but it's almost impossible to know his endgame, even when it's all played out.

I can't watch this now without thinking of screenwriter Todd Alcott's great analysis of it. All the hat references, the jungle, the "matter of ethics," the weird and pervasive homosexuality in neo-noir prohibition gangster-land.

It's practically a truism to say the Coens deserve the epithet of "genius" or that their films are dense and brilliant, so instead I'll just say: this particular Coen Brothers film rubs me just right.

07 February 2010

Bottle Rocket

"Dignan, you know what'll happen if you go back there."
"No I don't. They'll never catch me. 'Cause I'm fuckin' innocent."

I know Wes Anderson has gone to this well a couple times too many, but I don't know any better tribute to delusions of grandeur and self-delusion in general than his first film. This was my first time rewatching it since... oh, I'd say since just around The Royal Tanenbaums. Before that I watched the hell out of this, so I remembered it pretty well.

Watching tonight for structure, I enjoyed the act two switcheroo from heist movie to laying low at the hotel, but the second half of act two (or act three if you want to break it into four parts, which sort of suits this better) with Mr. Henry and the build-up to the frozen food factory heist... it's pretty sloppy. Picks back up for the heist itself and the fantastic end with Dignan in jail, though. It's true what the fictional McKee says in Adaptation: if you nail the ending your audience will forgive a lot.

Also: for someone so well-known for his soundtracks, it's odd that the credits music for Bottle Rocket sounds like some royalty-free version of the Sims soundtrack or something.

Out of Sight

Watched this to help me write (same with Collateral) -- watched it with a focus on scene construction, crime-drama stakes, and especially characterization and subplots. The idea is, every scene ought to advance character, plot, and theme, and if it doesn't you should really take a look at it. Without question, Out of Sight passes that little test.

Every single character is so distinct and has such a distinct trajectory... this is what I'm aiming for. This is what I'm trying to learn how to do... or how to do naturally. How to make it look as effortless as these guys do here. (Okay, this post comes more from the writer in me than from the moviegoer in me. These things happen.)


I think I wrote off this movie the way I tend to write off every Michael Mann film, which is totally unfair considering how much I like Heat and how much I usually respect Michael Mann. So when I finally sat down and watched it, lo and behold: it's a pretty great crime film. It's mostly just two characters with two philosophies clashing -- and take it as you will, but Tom Cruise is pitch-perfect casting as a sociopath, even if he has fascinatingly but distractingly stolen Richard Gere's scalp and put it on as a hat.

I will say the third act isn't quite as stellar as the end of Heat. In fact it's a pretty generic final confrontation/climax for such an otherwise clever film. But getting there was gripping fun.

06 February 2010

The Searchers

For such a simplistic depiction of cowboys and indians, this sure is a morally complicated story. At first it felt a little too gooey, too sugar-coated to be "the best western of all time," but the further in you go... boy, it sure gets dark. The scene where Marty and Ethan find the rescued white women who've basically been driven insane or feral? Disturbing.

My only criticism is that the end felt entirely too convenient and cheerful. I don't know which seemed more out of left-field: Ethan's sudden decision to save Debbie or Debbie's sudden ecstatic desire to be saved. Probably watching it again I'd find better context for these moments.

05 February 2010

Fahrenheit 451

An interestingly stiff film from Truffaut, and I can't decide if that's deliberate or incidental. Part of me wants to follow this up with some Doinel and Day For Night; another part of me wants to follow it with 1984 and... I don't know, The Running Man or Logan's Run or something. This film is the venn diagram of French New Wave mastery and by-the-numbers dystopian sci-fi.

But the truth is, it's not the very best of either category.

Near Dark

The story goes, Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red couldn't get funding for a western, so it was recommended they try mixing with another genre. While I think the idea of a vampire western seems pretty neat, putting your hero in a cowboy hat and having him ride a horse in one scene isn't really what I had in mind. It's an interesting modern-day vampire story, but someone will have to explain to me how it's a western.

Plus, as genres go, westerns and vampire stories are two of the most ripe for metaphor and social commentary, but here (my first viewing) I couldn't latch onto any major theme. It's definitely got a sort of functional-vs-dysfunctional family thing going on, a sort of anti-runaway, anti-punks-in-love story. It has moments, definitely, but it's no Strange Days or The Hurt Locker, is all I'm saying.

04 February 2010

The Departed

I've said it before. They're both amazing, but I like The Departed more than Goodfellas. I like undercover cop stories more than gangster stories, maybe. Everybody lying is more interesting than everybody stealing. This is the last role with teeth for Nicholson so far, isn't it? Jack's still got it. And: I keep meaning to sit down and watch the Infernal Affairs films. Gotta do that sometime.

On a side note, I've been using the title card of films on video or poster images for films in theater (or that I can't find title card images for), but looking over the list so far, I'm getting bored with white text on black. Not enough movies do anything interesting with title sequences these days. I may come up with a Plan B for the boring ones.

Crazy Heart *

Surprisingly light on drama and conflict, but refreshingly heavy on three-dimensional characters. I want to comment on its trajectory but I don't want to drop spoilers on here (this isn't a twist-ending kind of film; I'm just paranoid about ruining other people's moviegoing experience. Would but the old woman who sat two seats to my right felt likewise!), so instead I'll just say that my favorite thing here was the lack of black-and-white in painting the relationships. Especially notable in Colin Farrell's hotshot former protege role.

Seen at the Fox Tower.


Tonight has a theme: family lives disrupted by a man's dark past catching up with him. Caché spends much more time developing characters, though. In fact, that's almost all it does, and it does it interestingly: unlike a Hollywood film, Haneke doesn't seem to care much whether or not you like his protagonist. I found that refreshing.

Man, that scene, though? I have a notably different reaction on second watching, but it's still a serious kick in the gut.

03 February 2010

A History of Violence

I normally don't dig melodrama, but I love this one, partially because it really embraces the melodrama, rather than pretending to be anything like "realistic drama" (I'm looking at you, Mr. Eastwood). Violence as a transformative and contagious power is a pretty great theme. Like Kill Bill or The Brown Bunny, this is a film that saves everything for the final act/confrontation, and then really earns it. Sometimes it is about the destination.

Also: Viggo, Ed Harris and Maria Bello really give amazing performances, but it's William Hurt I can't get enough of. Fucking hilarious and frightening. Probably my favorite William Hurt character ever.

01 February 2010

The Year of Our Lord 1974

I can't even remember what I'd heard about the Red Riding Trilogy specifically that made me think it was a big deal, but somehow it developed the reputation of an unfound gem, a trio of hot British crime films that hadn't surfaced in the states yet, so when my roommate Martha got a copy I was keen to watch. I'm sorry to report that I was severely underwhelmed.

At first I was open-minded, admiring how English cinema seems to embrace a genre's archetypes instead of spending half a movie trying to reinvent the wheel; then I started to think, You know, this reminds me of the worst parts of the BBC series Life on Mars, the hackneyed, too-obvious plot and the simplistic characters; and by the end... well, to be honest I was complaining out loud and throwing my hands up in surrender. And with that cast, it's a real shame. I may try 1980 someday. We'll see.