29 March 2010
When a movie is very good, it's (relatively) easy to take off the critic hat and just enjoy the movie. For me, however, it's not as easy to take off the writer hat. That's not always a bad thing; it is what it is. I just mention it because I'm returning to/beginning anew an absurdist black comedy with some fairly unlikeable main characters, and watching Greenberg inevitably felt a tiny bit like research.
Noah Baumbach excels at sympathizing with the borderline loathsome, which no doubt makes him an acquired taste and not for everybody. Roger Greenberg is an asshole. In fact, he's possibly psychotic. But I like him, because we are inside the character with him, and because I can see myself in the things he does. To say the least, I'm less of an asshole and a lot less sociopathic/manic, but his laid-bare exposed-nerve priggishness is easier to empathize with than I'd usually comfortably admit.
It feels to me like the film works only because of this. Because we laugh and feel sad or frustrated all at once, but we also go "Oh god, that's me," or "Oh man, I've had a girlfriend do just that," or at least, "He is totally acting out impulses I know well enough to suppress." As a character-driven narrative, it's pretty great, but the plot's a little thin at the end. That's okay, because it's got a slightly sweet, convenient-and-easy-but-earned ending. Ben Stiller is always best -- comedy or drama -- when he's the straightman, but I'm reminded he's also a pretty solid portrayer of assholes as well. (No judgment on the man! How would I know?) Rhys Ifans, always amazing. Greta Gerwig, a mumblecore actress I don't know, also pretty amazing. I liked her a lot. I wanted them to get together and I accepted her interest in him even though, rationally speaking, there is nothing about Roger Greenberg that a healthy human being would find appealing. But, again, her character was complex and I felt like I was inside her as well, and I guess that made it easier to accept contradictory or irrational behavior.
So, good casting, good characters, light but not unsatisfying plot. Oh, and gorgeous cinematography. Don't get me wrong. It's not the greatest film ever or anything, but I like it because there's a lot to like.
If you're the type who doesn't mind sympathizing with borderline loathsome assholes.
Seen at the Fox Tower.
27 March 2010
This gets more of an honorable mention than a full entry here. Full disclosure: I watched this while very drunk on whiskey, having been fed a hash brownie, with the Rifftrax audio commentary running, and at some point well after three in the morning.
Which, incidentally, is just about the most natural way to view this film there is. And that sums the experience up, I'd say.
All I can add is: the Rifftrax guys didn't try very hard here, and you can't blame them. Recording hilarious commentary for The Room is more often than not an exercise in keeping your mouth shut and letting the film speak for itself. (Since Rifftrax are obviously delivered separate from the actual video to you, they will occasionally speak a line from the film directly along with it so you know you're in sync. This is a clever low-tech way to keep everything moving, but I'd never listened to a Rifftrax before, and it was the fourth or fifth time they did this before I realized what they were doing. I just thought they were repeating the line because the line was funnier and weirder than any joke they could possibly make about it.)
The same night we also watched Antitrust, with some computer-savvy friends' running their own commentary over the top, but by then I was barely paying attention, so I figure it doesn't really count.
26 March 2010
I could sit and write about this film all day and never cover everything. The tone, the aesthetic, the patina of dust on a misused and neglected society, the camera that wanders handheld and unabashedly curious through an all-too-realized world of despair and disdain, exploring just like we would, letting the characters come in and out of frame. And of course the much-documented trick photography, seemingly seamless sequences through impossibly tense and hopeless situations.
All of it adds up to realism, but realism applied to dystopia is wonderful and unsettling and beautiful. The slow, tense, uncoordinated chase scenes (jumpstarting a car by pushing it in your socks while being chased by furious revolutionaries who are afraid to open fire, only one of several examples). Each time I watch I am stunned again by the density of visual exposition, the info-dump that manages (almost) never to rely on boring old "As you know, Bob," conversations to convey its story to you. I absolutely have to get my hands on the script. (On that note: five credited screenwriters, including the director; rarely is a script with that many hands in the pot so fucking tightly crafted.)
Oh, and "Lets be perfectly clear boys and girls, Cunts are still running the world." Thanks, Jarvis.
25 March 2010
I need desperately to be in bed, but I have to say something about the film I watched. For anyone who doesn't know, For All Mankind was a documentary made in 1989 collecting all the footage shot by and around astronauts and engineers during all the manned missions to the Moon and back, edited as though one long, seamless journey there and back again and set mostly to diegetic sound and recordings of the astronauts and engineers discussing their experience. It's captivating.
I don't know what else to say. I've seen it twice now, and it's just hypnotizing. Clearly I watched it this time prepping myself for some astronaut writing, but the incidentally abstract, gorgeous photography of the actual journeys... I know that one day I will shoot my astronaut love story (and if not that, another astronaut film), and this will be my prime reference material for the DP. It's just casually intimate in a way no fictional film has ever tried. Real space remains so much more mysterious and magical than all of science fiction's space somehow.
I'm betraying my bias here, clearly, but to anyone passingly curious about or excited by astronauts or the journeys to the moon, this film is the number one must-see. (And if that's you: it's on Criterion, so it's easy to get.)
19 March 2010
I have a working theory that the better Alfred Hitchcock got as a filmmaker, the worse he got as a director. The more he gained mastery over the parts he cared about, the more myopic his vision of the film as a whole got, and things like performance, pacing, and rhythm went right out the window. According to Wikipedia, Lifeboat is Hitch's 31st film, with 23 more to follow, and coming as it does roughly halfway through his career it seems to support my theory at least incidentally. The casualties of Hitch's later genius do not suffer here, with some pretty solid performances and tight pacing. The film is downright exciting from the first frame to the last, and although the camera shies from the darker moments the story definitely does not.
The anti- or pro-war message of the film is interesting, especially Hitch's defense of writing a strong Nazi character in the middle of WWII as necessary to prove his point that "the Allies needed to stop bickering and work together to win the war." That, I can handle, and watching it 60 years later with a more even-keeled view of Germans in general I definitely could not have predicted whether or not Willi was going to turn on them or prove to be their salvation after all. The women in the story are given a reasonable shake, starting out as more than just girlfriends and wives and only devolving into lovers when desperation takes hold and everybody starts looking for someone to die with. In fact, I laughed right out loud when upper-class journalist Connie and rough, tattooed sailor Kovac skipped all the little back-and-forth flirtations and went straight from loathing each other to kissing furiously when they believed death was just around the corner. "We might as well go down together, Connie," he says. I wish I could say the charming Negro was as well handled, but at least he was a noble, respectable character, even if he was a two-dimensional one who knew his place. Hell, even Casablanca fucks that one up. (To be fair, they do agree to give him a vote in their "democracy" early on, without batting an eyelash. That's a little progressive, right?)
The story had the right blend of characters, from classes and races and genders and attitudes, without feeling artificial, and the events as they unfold are pretty great. Then again, I suppose working from Steinbeck makes that kind of easy. Anyway I'm thoroughly impressed and I'm glad this was the random movie I grabbed tonight out of my pile of should-watch movies.
18 March 2010
What a pleasure. It'd been probably five years since I sat and watched this, though there was a time where I'd watched Fargo and Hudsucker Proxy too many times for my own good. Now that I'm familiar with more than just two Coen films, this is such a natural companion piece to No Country For Old Men, I'm shocked I never saw the connection before.
Three protagonists: one a cop, one a crook, and one ambiguously a crook. A suitcase of money. A deal gone wrong. A chase, madness, chaos, many deaths, and not a very happy ending for anybody. Both films even end with the cop not so much winning as playing clean-up to the trail of bodies, and lamenting the state of things. Tommy Lee Jones has a couple of wonderful monologues in No Country, including the opening ("[The boy] said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes.I don't know what to make of that. I surely don't."), and Marge Gunderson here in Fargo says to Gaear Grimsrud, "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here you are. And it's a beautiful day. Well... I just don't understand it."
The Coens' worlds are always based in a strong sense of place. No Country has Texas, and Fargo has of course Minnesota/North Dakota. But the real contrast between the two is that all three protags in No Country are hardened pros and all three protags in Fargo are rank amateurs. Although No Country has its famous third-act "missing reel" (we never see Llewelyn's fate), Fargo has several plays on that, including first the fate of the parking lot attendant and then the fates of Lundegaard's wife and Carl Showalter (in all three cases, we see the build-up and then the aftermath, but not the act itself).
I'm telling you, these movies are twins. Definitely an excellent double feature, two works that really speak to each other and about each other. I love you guys, you crazy Coens. Never stop.
On a personal note, I've been moping around the house for two days sick now, missing work, missing everything, and this is the first movie I've managed to put on and sit through. I'd never seen it. I kept putting it off. I'm toying with a new idea that's kind of horror/thrillery but involves only children, and I figured, now was the time to stop putting off the "best vampire movie ever."
So it could be that I'm still sick, but I'm kind of at a loss as to what to say about it. I went in curious but resistant (hype has that effect) and I came out in love. The tone of the story and the events in the story were perfect: this is a movie about being lonely and scared and 11 years old. This movie has no right being remade in America, where depicting things like child sexuality and innocent violence are all-but-illegal. Especially that first one. We're an uptight culture. Thank god Sweden isn't. (As a product of my own uptight culture, I am struggling with the impulse to apologize for how lascivious that sounds; it isn't meant that way. It's meant in the tone of the film, and nothing more. Look how damaging and oppressive our culture is: I can't even discuss it openly.)
Speaking of discussing it openly, my biggest questions from the story were the relationship between Håkan and Eli, and the whole scarred-crotch thing. The latter I mistook for a shot of ordinary prepubescent girl's bits that happened to have some kind of scar above it, and apparently my mind is dark enough for that to suggest some kind of rape or tearing-open before she became a vampire, some kind of brutal history. As to the former, I was guessing Håkan was a lover (or maybe even her unchanged brother) who'd aged while she hadn't. Wikipedia sheds light on both mysteries for me. Håkan was indeed a pervert and would-be lover, though this was (rightly, I think) left more ambiguous in the film. Likewise, the novel says Eli is in fact a castrated androgynous boy, so I wasn't taking the claims of "I'm not a girl" seriously enough it seems. (I thought she meant, "I'm not a little girl; I'm a kind of inhuman monster.") That, too, was left open in the film, and again I think rightly so.
The perspective-character is Oskar; he didn't know anything about her pedophile helper, any more than he knew the origins of her as a vampire or why she would have a scarred, junkless crotch. So why should we?
I can't think of any complaints about this film, at all, except that the delicate tone this gets right will be exactly the first thing thrown out when Hollywood gets through with it. And I quote, "Producer Simon Oakes has made it clear that the plot of [the retitled remake] Let Me In will closely resemble that of the original film, except that it will be made 'very accessible to a wider audience'." Emphasis mine, and you can be sure what that means.
(This post, notably longer. I just missed blogging, is all, so I wrote more. It's my blog. Deal with it.)
15 March 2010
I put it on as background, but this is one of those engrossing movies you can get caught up in. I have said before, movies about lies and lying make for fascinating drama, and the weird balance between what the character is doing, what the character tells himself he is doing, and how much we know/understand about what the character is doing -- it's really amazing.
Knowing better how it goes, if anything I was surprised by how fast the story moves, and how beautiful and economical each scene is. Nothing is wasted -- never a surprise from someone like Soderbergh, but always a pleasure to see in effect. The music cues transform staid thriller moments into vivid tragicomedy, leaning hard on the comedy.
I don't know, but I think I mark this up there with The Limey and sex, lies as some of Steven Soderbergh's strongest work.
11 March 2010
I knew it.
This is not a movie to watch as a critical adult. It's the only movie I can think of where the threat is a planet-destroying, energy-sucking alien monster and yet the stakes are this low (even the
But I'm viewing this as part of a trilogy, that's the deal here. And so, to recap:
The Wrath of Khan is the story of Admiral Kirk, a captain without a ship, unable to accept his age and position, and Spock making the ultimate (albeit logical) sacrifice to save his friends. It ends with Spock dead, Kirk bereft, and the ship limping home.
The Search For Spock is the story of Kirk, a listless man who has lost his soul, and the impossible ridiculous journey to get it back by breaking laws, disobeying orders, committing treasonous crimes and hitting control-Z on Spock's sacrifice. It ends with Kirk forced to give up what he thought was the most important thing in his world -- his ship -- for his friends and his own survival, and with Spock returned to life, a confused and newborn soul inhabiting an adult Vulcan body.
The Voyage Home is the story of Kirk, his soul restored (if the themes of III are to be taken literally and carried over) becoming again a man with a mission: save the planet from a strange alien visitor through time travel, as Spock learns how to be "human" through life lessons like cursing, lying, and valuing a friend's life more than mere logic would allow. Spock's soul matures and Kirk plays Casanova and cowboy. It ends with them returning home in a Klingon ship, saving the day (of course), and Spock insisting on standing trial alongside his friends (despite being absent and therefore innocent of all charges). Because they saved the planet they are exonerated of all charges except one, and Kirk alone stands to be punished. His punishment is a nice moment of reversal, in that it results in a demotion and the return of Kirk to the captain's chair -- of a brand new Enterprise no less (which, by my count, was commissioned and built in under three months! I don't know, is that fast or is it just me?).
As a trilogy, I think it works. The story goes: Kirk has taken a desk job and is miserable. He feels he is losing his ship (the Enterprise), his sense of purpose (a mission), and his best friend (Spock). He is lost -- half a man at best. As the trilogy proceeds, he literally loses all three of these things: his best friend (Spock dies), his sense of purpose (they won't let him go back to Genesis; they won't give him a ship to command), and his ship (the Enterprise is destroyed to beat the Klingons). He fights to bring back his best friend -- arguably the least likely of the three to recover -- and then, through other, mostly unrelated Herculean tasks (though honestly, like I said, the losses in III and the heroics in IV both play out way too easily for my tastes) he is rewarded with the recovery of his other two losses: a new ship, a continued mission/sense of purpose. The trilogy ends triumphant. And all is well in the universe.
(That is until Spock's crazy brother brainwashes the crew and steals the ship and takes them to meet God, who it turns out is an impostor alien who wants a starship and has lightning bolts for eyes. But I think everyone everywhere, fans and non-fans alike, have agreed to pretend Star Trek V simply doesn't exist. So let us never speak of that again.)
If I may be so bold: this film breaks two unspoken rules of western cinema. First, never have a voiceover sum up action that you could just as easily dramatize; and second, don't telegraph the solution to your mystery in the first five minutes of your two-plus hour film. The first one -- unfortunately, that's broken all the time (I'm looking at you, Avatar, and also you, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). The second and more egregious crime -- also occasionally broken, though thankfully a lot less often.
But here's the thing: Michael Haneke's way too much a master of cinema (watching something as austere and reserved and cinematic as this, you can't help but think of Bergman) to make these mistakes lightly. It's not lazy when Haneke does it. So what's he doing to us? Well, he's telling us who the killers are so we can instead look at the rest of the story and see how monsters are formed. I jokingly called this film The Biggest Jerk in Jerktown, and aside from just loving the title for its own sake (maybe one day I'll find a use for it) I think there's something to that. Cold, ruthless cruelty runs so deep in this German village that the moments of genuine warmth feel a little awkward and misplaced, maybe even suspect. You're just waiting for something terrible to befall the young lovers, or the cute kid with the bird.
The German title includes a subtitle, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, which Google tells me translates as "A German children's story." Take that how you will. Cynical in-joke? Challenge to your perspective? Unsubtle foreshadowing? Again, Haneke is a master: I'm going to say it's a little of each.
Seen at the Fox Tower.
08 March 2010
This is a film I've been promising myself I'd watch for about four or five years now. But before I got around to it, the Criterion version came out, so I put it off until I could get a copy. And then the Criterion Blu-Ray came out, so I put it off some more. Now I've finally seen it.
It's just like everybody said. A rich tapestry of a film, a layered story with a lot to absorb, and I'm still letting it sink in. It's such a complex narrative about family, family roles, expectations, guilt, and (it wouldn't be Sam Shepard without) being haunted by the sins of one's past transgressions. They say it's about America. I can see that. About being rootless. I can see that too.
I think it's about fear, and facing one's demons, and it's a decidedly brooding, unmelodramatic (though maybe sentimental, in a not-so-bad way) approach to facing one's demons. That is to say, it's soft-spoken and uncathartic. I think it's about the roles we play in each other's lives, especially in a family. Hunter's got two dads, a mom and a half, but rather than fighting over him they're all willing to give him up -- out of love, because they all have a different idea of what'd be best for him. In the end, he's with his quasi-stripper mother, and you are left wondering if this is for the best. But bear in mind the moral turnaround the last reel of the film gives you with Travis (what a great name for a character, by the way... really genius), learning that our sad, broken hero is in fact such a monstrous abuser his story sounds absurd, unreal, made up -- considering the man Travis is, maybe Jane's not so bad after all. The irony here is that it seems clear that Hunter should have stayed with Walt and Anne in their rich suburban L.A. house, their public school system and their stable, decent lifestyle. But the bonds of family... well, that's got a gravity all its own.
04 March 2010
Yeah, man, I don't even know what to say about this. I knew very little going in -- 1977 Japanese cult horror film, described as "like Evil Dead on acid." But well before we get to the part that might remind someone of Evil Dead it felt like Japanese television, like Happiness of the Katakuris, like Twin Peaks, like a weird episode of The Muppets, and ultimately a lot like The Room. Most notable was its Japanese TV influence/style, and I spent the first 30 minutes or so trying to tell if we were laughing at a cultural gap or if the filmmakers were in on the joke. I'm leaning strongly toward the latter, but it's entirely possible I'm wrong.
I think the only easy comparison is The Room, although that has a distinctly made-by-aliens feel whereas this has more of a made-by-weirdos feel. That is to say, I firmly believe The Room doesn't know how unusual it is, but whether or not they're laughing with us Hausu knows it's something different from the rest. It's bizarre editing, pace, and script do not belie someone thinking they are perfectly normal. (An easy example, the seven girls are Gorgeous the pretty one, Fantasy the dreamer, Melody the musician, Prof the logical nerd, Mac the "fat" one, Sweet the sweet one, and Kung Fu the asskickingest one who doesn't even need a skirt she's so bad-ass.) I don't know when I'll ever see it again, but I think like Twin Peaks, like The Room, like Katakuris, until I can it's hard to form a final opinion. The film is its own language, and I don't speak it well enough on one viewing to go very deep, or even to tell you how deep it goes. Definitely interesting. Certainly unpredictable. Never boring.
Seen at Cinema 21.
(My first repeat offender this year, not what I would have guessed, but they were playing a restored film print, how could I say no?)
Watching this again, I paid more attention to character than dialogue. I don't know why it never struck me before, but this is one of the meanest, most complex characters I've watched Bogart play, ranging dynamically from rageful to apologetic, from arrogant to self-pitying, and yeah, it's a capital-m Melodrama, but Bogart really sells the character to you. It's basically the story of a troubled-genius and the story of an abusive relationship rolled up together, plus the story of two lovers on the cusp between success and failure and the external pressure that destroys what they have. It moves fast from beat to beat (older movies tend to, and melodramas especially) but each beat feels lived in, loved, and carefully played out. Never cheap or easy, never simple or boring. The characters are contradictory and (therefore) believable, and Humphrey Bogart is still one of my favorite screen actors from Before My Time.
Seen at Cinema 21.
There is an old and commonly held belief that even-numbered Star Trek movies are inherently superior to odd-numbered ones. Khan is classic, Voyage Home is good character-driven fun, Undiscovered Country is a sharp thriller, and First Contact is the only really great Next Generation movie (sadly). The theory sort of breaks down with movies like Nemesis and the Abrams reboot, but it seemed sound for a while. And whether you buy into it or not, the theory exists, and it all started here, with the sequel to and undoing of The Wrath of Khan.
I'm viewing these three Star Trek movies as part of a "trilogy" set I bought -- II, III, and IV -- and viewed in that context you could say that The Search for Spock suffers from Act II-ism. Act I ends with the ultimate sacrifice, the loss of a loved one and a ship just as adrift as its captain. Act II begins by complicating things with obstacles and subplots -- McCoy is batshit, the Enterprise is being decommissioned, Spock's dad is pissed off and they all discover Spock's brain is still alive
The end result is just as muddled and unfocused as you'd expect, and gets a little silly to boot (the trajectory from somber to camp is actually a very distinct and easily chartable one, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture's austere 2001-ness to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier's total trainwreck). But it's only fair to add that many of the action sequences -- when summarized at least -- are quite inspired. It's fun to see the sterile-sleazy world of non-Federation Star Trek, though it's populated with an awful lot of neon lights and lava lamps, and it's fun to see what Kirk and McCoy and Sulu and the gang wear when they're not wearing color-coded velour (the answer: naugahyde, mostly, in deep earth tones and pinks). But really, all the fun of it is soiled by things like how bad the dialogue is, or how flat and incidental the characters all come off. (Even Kirk's reaction to [SPOILER] his son's death feels cheap and rushed.)
I'm no good at keeping my comments short anymore, but I can't walk away without saying two more things, one complimentary and the other critical. One: the one theme they really do play, more as an echo from the preceding film than anything else, is the idea that Spock and Kirk are really one man. Constant references are made to Kirk saving himself by saving Spock, going so far as to saying that not saving Spock would have lost Kirk his soul. I personally include McCoy in this triumvirate... Id, Ego, and Supergo? perhaps. For this reason I found it extra satisfying that it was McCoy and not Kirk who bore Spock's mind, while Kirk is burdened with a hole in his soul. What a crazy three-way symbiosis!
And lastly, back to criticizing some more: I don't want to get into it, but I kept seeing great opportunities for characterization or deeper explorations of themes, but the story was so excited by its own plot and many disparate obstacles and threats and goals that it never takes the time to stop and explore anything along the way.
Admittedly, the movie's got an awful lot of plates to keep spinning.
03 March 2010
Joseph recommended this as a possible target "tone" for my script, striking a precarious balance between humorous and dark. I'm not sure, actually, if that's what I'd call this, though I definitely see his point, and yet in another way this is a perfect film to watch to think about my story: it's about a couple of people, Jackie Brown especially, who feel cornered by a lack of options in life and decide one last big gamble is worth it: either you get away, or you go down fighting.
It's so easy to draw the parallel between this and Out of Sight; not only were they Elmore Leonard adaptations released a year apart, but they also both star Michael Keaton as ATF agent Ray Nicolet (since the tone is so different and the directors so unrelated, I've always found this little tidbit fascinating). But Jackie Brown makes a far more interesting double feature with Soderbergh's The Limey. Both are nostalgic for earlier eras in pop culture -- music and film in particular. The Limey uses 1960s icons and 1960s music in a story about people who've been moved on from since their heydays in the 60s. Jackie Brown does this exact same thing to the 1970s, using 70s icons and 70s music nostalgically to tell a story of people who've been moved on from.
And, man, for all the cool emitted by this film, all the love it has for Pam Grier (and super-charming Robert Forster), damned if this isn't Tarantino's most naturalistic, observational piece. Scenes drag on with endless witty dialogue but everything from the mundane actions to the kinds of conflicts and topics of conversation our characters obsess over -- it all seems more casual, real... by Tarantino's standards, unstylized. I'd love to get my hands on this script and look at how the scenes play out. There is a lot to cull from this for my script, actually. I'll definitely be revisiting this in the near future, which won't be hard. It's always a pleasure.