31 July 2010


For the first fifteen minutes or so of this film, it felt suspiciously like Aki Kaurismäki took the beat sheet from Shadows in Paradise and wrote new scenes with the exact same impact/plot, but when it veers away it's very satisfying. On the one hand it's fun to see the same style of story with ratcheted-up tension and stakes, almost like a more commercial "bleak-comedy" about desperate losers finding love. On the other, though, it makes for an interesting what-if, as things go from bad to worse and from worse to a lot worse, only to (SPOILER?) kind of work out in the end.

I'm really focusing more on tone and style than story, though, and there's a lot to digest here. Ariel feels funnier than Shadows (though my one big laugh was very meta, when Matti Pellonpää shows up sitting in a jail cell, looking almost exactly like he did in the last film... for a minute I expected him to introduce himself as Nikander, and for us to learn that things didn't end so well for him and Ilona), but also a lot darker, opening on a suicide and having so many guns and knives, thieves and robbers, throughout. The story consistently offers sight gags and ironic twists to keep the audience from overdosing on hopelessness, and like I think I said last time, what really saves it is that Kaurismäki isn't afraid to laugh at losers suffering desperation. It's the tenet of every writer worth his salt that the hero is the one who suffers the most -- sometimes it feels like you have an obligation to make as many things as you can go wrong -- but here we are invited to chuckle every time it does. It's as if he's saying "Look how depressing... isn't that funny?"

I wonder if there's any way I can pull this off in my story. I sure hope so, because this is the tone I'm going for here.

27 July 2010

Stardust Memories

It's hard to believe this is the first Woody Allen film I've seen this year. It was picked essentially because I knew I hadn't seen it in a while and it was a mid-era piece, one of the Three Favorites (he's famously said that only three of his films turned out exactly how he wanted them: if memory serves it was this, Purple Rose of Cairo and Match Point). I'd seen a handful of Woody Allen movies over the years of course, but I wasn't in love with any of them (not even Annie Hall... though as a kid I loved Sleeper) until my first in-theater Woody Allen experience, which was Deconstructing Harry. Somehow that opened me up to the world of Woody Allen, and I began falling in love with his older films as well. To this day Deconstructing Harry remains one of my favorite and most-watched of his. I bring this up because Stardust Memories feels in so many ways like the same film.

In a way that goes way beyond mere auteurism in filmmaking, Stardust and Harry take the same approach to the same story. In the former, he's a filmmaker being celebrated at a weekend-long event, and the story is intercut with expressionistic vignettes, purportedly scenes from the films made by his fictional character (Sandy Bates), while the story explores the three major relationships in his life and the nature and value of his work. In the latter, he's a novelist being honored somewhat ironically at a university he dropped out of, and the story is intercut with expressionistic vignettes, purportedly scenes from the novels written by his fictional character (Harry Block), while the story explores the three(ish) major relationships in his life and the nature and value of his work. (Further, they're both Wild Strawberries; but Woody Allen riffing on plots by Bergman -- who'd have guessed?) The main difference seems to be that in Stardust his adoring fans are ubiquitous, an unavoidable torrent of love and awkward conversations, and the primary conflict is in his shift from bright comedy into deeper, more thoughtful dramatic territory; and in Harry his fans never make an appearance, and the primary conflict is that his work too closely mirrors his own life and constantly gets him into trouble with the loved ones whose quirks or natures he exaggerates for effect.

I know Woody Allen says his films are decidedly not autobiographical and that he hates the idea that people read them that way, but come on. In 1980, when Stardust Memories came out, it was his fourth "more mature" film, including the challenging-at-the-time Annie Hall and Manhattan, and the somber Interiors. How can there be no autobiography in a story about a well known director of comedies segueing into Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman homages as he explores issues of psychology, existentialism, and the idea of perfect love, whose fans are still yearning for the days when he made silly comedies? And then, seventeen years later, after fighting the "this film isn't about me, it's just a story I made up" battle for almost two decades, along comes Deconstructing Harry, a film about an author burning every bridge by writing a little too close to what he knows. I try to respect an artist at their word, at least about the intent of their work (even if I often disregard their intent as tangential to the value of the content of their work), but I find it impossible to watch a Woody Allen story and not view it as self-derived, and wonderfully, honestly, multi-dimensionally so. Like it or not, I don't think any other filmmaker alive approaches the themes and nature of their own life and work with the kind of candor that Woody Allen has for decades. Not every film he makes is a gem, especially these days, and dare I say it: I wish he'd stop rushing one out every year and spend a couple of years per film, really perfecting it -- because when he's on, when he does make a gem, it's an instant classic, a piece of the canon not to be ignored. For me, Stardust Memories is one of those instant-classic gems.

The Black Hole

Everything about this film feels dated, from another era -- even wistful and naive. The effects don't quite hold up, the acting is hit-and-miss, the dialogue less than nuanced, and the science... well, it's important to remember this film was made nine years before Stephen Hawking starting releasing books. They do (quite casually) use terms like "event horizon," which shows that they did their research, so that's something. Anyway, my point with all this isn't that The Black Hole sucks. I was actually trying to build up to saying, everything about this film feels dated, and yet it's pretty damn spectacular if you can overlook that. The plot is thoughtful and epic in scope and (if you disregard some unmotivated shifts in personality) very character-driven -- and it's darker than anything else I think Disney's ever done. It's brutal, Nietzschean dark, one part 20,000 Leagues and one part Heart of Darkness with Reinhardt playing the Übermensch/Nemo/Kurtz who has stared long and hard into that abyss (black hole) and found it staring back. The things he has done are fairly horrific, even by today's standards of dramatic villainy, and the portrayal of him as a man (as literally as ever) on the edge of an infinite madness is rich and frightening.

Plus, the look of it: The Black Hole's special effects don't hold up, but the art direction holds up wonderfully. The look of the shots, costumes, robot and ship designs, even the look of asteroids and black holes, as unscientific as they are -- the style of this film is fucking beautiful. The end includes a twisted 2001-esque journey through a wormhole into heaven and hell, and a somberly paced bit of mind-fucking visual poetry as Reinholdt and his nightmarish second-in-command robot Maximillian embrace in a fiery whorl of zero-gravity, only to merge into a single being that's last seen standing atop a mountain, as though victorious, overlooking the fiery landscape of hell, while a small army of mirror-faced zombie-drone-monk-bots are gathered at the foot of the mountain. And even that, the lingering image of this hybrid-creature's closeup reveals Reinholdt's eyes inside Maximillian's visor are furtive, almost panicky -- a man trapped inside a monstrous machine? That's a lot to ingest when you're a kid, and that shit sticks with you. And it's not something a movie would do with its last act now.

Every time I put this on, which is about once every three or so years, I begin with mild embarrassment and curiosity because of the odd balance of what holds up and what doesn't, and by the end I am again unnerved and invigorated by the sheer tenacity of the story and its characters and world. TRON may have the bigger following, but there's a reason that for years I've been arguing that these two films showed a bolder, more intelligent side of Disney and of science fiction cinema, than much of anything that's come since. In both these films, there are so many layers of metaphor and meaning to be found in its seeming pulpy simplicity, and both feel daring and original in their way. I keep using the word, but I really think it applies here: The Black Hole is visual poetry, and I totally love it.

26 July 2010

Varjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise)

There's a scene late in Shadows in Paradise when our hero Nikander, having won and lost his ferociously tepid love Ilona, where he's back at his night job translating English recordings into Finnish (or at least that's what I think he's doing). The snippet we catch goes as follows: "I was pretty well through with the subject. I'd probably considered it from most of its various angles, including the one that certain injuries or imperfections are a subject of merriment while remaining quite serious for the person possessing them. It's funny. It's very funny. And it's a lot of fun too, to be in love. Do you think so?" It's a strange monologue, and when he tries to play it back he finds it unbearable. He cannot face the lines, and he leaves his job abruptly, work unfinished. These lines are so awkwardly spot-on about this beautifully awkward story that they are jarring, confrontational, and yet they read like so many opaque lines of stereo instructions that you're not sure if you even got the meaning right. Maybe you imagined that it summed up the movie, but it felt like it did.

The tone here is just so delicate. I've never felt more invited to laugh at deadpan sadsacks as when watching an Aki Kaurismäki film, but it's never all that funny. What I didn't remember, and now find amazingly obvious, is how proto-Jarmuschian this is, reminding me of Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers, Limits of Control, and of course the similarly titled Stranger Than Paradise. Everything from little details like her portable stereo and the way they smoke to the general tone to the sedate way things never really boil over, and of course the more-bleak-than-black sense of humor. It's all very like where Jim Jarmusch would go, and curiously (but separately?) this film feels amazingly like a solution to a problem of tone and pacing to one of my scripts (The World of Missing Persons, only so noted in case I come back wondering). It's matter-of-fact and slice-of-life but with a tinge of absurdism. I really like it, even though on a certain level it seems (absurdly) like I'm watching cinema's first Aspergers romance. I'll have to revisit this one in the future when I get back to that script. Between Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson (Songs of the Second Floor and You, the Living), it seems like I'm constantly being inspired for my own films by contemporary Scandinavian cinema. Like I said, bleak-comic absurdism. I wonder what else is out there.

For now, sorry if my thoughts are all over the place. I had to crawl out of bed to write this, and now I'm going back to it. What are you gonna do?

23 July 2010

Män som hatar kvinnor / The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo *

Boy, it's telling that the original Swedish title of both the film and the source novel is Men Who Hate Women. I guess the more direct Sweden Is Rapeland just wouldn't have sold enough copies (or movie tickets), huh?

In short, this film is very good, a good ol' mystery story that turns fairly cleverly and pretty smoothly into a serial killer story, with a likable odd-couple as the intrepid detectives. More than one moment in the story felt almost unbearably tense, and the whole "scanning the internet or scouring old logbooks for clues" stuff was never as boring as it might have been. I genuinely liked both the protagonists and enjoyed their tense tete-â-tete, and if the film's final solutions (no Nazi pun intended) felt somewhat obvious from the get-go, the script doesn't punish you by beating you over the head with it. I get the impression they half expected you to beat the characters to the conclusions they come to, and that's okay. It's still about the drama of getting there.

I know this is a world-famous much-hyped novel series right now, and so I assume in all those extra pages they must explain the biggest nagging question the film left me with, which is why the hell did Lisbeth get involved in the case in the first place? She was hired to hack his stuff, she did that, she found him trustworthy, okay, but what drive does a girl this guarded and this dangerous (and borderline self-destructive) have to continue pursuing Mikael's remote-accessed laptop once she's delivered files to her bosses? Then to expose herself to him because she's answered a riddle he hasn't... I mean, I get that part of her just wanted to rub it in his face that she's smarter, but this is more. She puts herself out there like she never has before, and there's got to be some missing scene or chapter or pages that explains this huge bold move to us, right? Because once she's in, I am hooked right alongside her (and him), I can see why you wouldn't let up, but I can find no reason inside the story for her to cross that first threshold, and that really frustrates me.

And seriously, I think the ratio of Nazis, serial rapists, or Nazi-serial-rapist/serial-killers to nice guys in this movie is about 2:1 or maybe even 3:1. I enjoyed that Women Getting Revenge never overshadowed the interpersonal drama stuff or the main whodunnit plot, but there was a certain theme of Men Are Monsters here that felt, frankly, disappointingly one-sided. Never once were we given a deeper motive for any of the monstrosities against women except "it feels good." (SPOILER) The religious/Nazi thing was even dismissed by all but the dead father. Men simply do these things because those men are "evil," and that's less terrifying and more didactic than this film deserves.

I did, though, quite like some of the thematic repetitions throughout, like the unfortunate nature of a "photographic memory" and Lisbeth's inability to forget the minutest detail of the things she'd suffered through (echoed back to her as she videotapes her own brutal rape). And I enjoyed that Lisbeth was shown as still capable, in her own guarded way, of loving -- both physically and emotionally -- despite the trauma she'd suffered through. Often with rape-victim movies and especially with rape-victim movies where the rapists are depicted as un-nuanced forces of evil, the victim's suffering permeates every facet of their being in a way that leaves no room for character or color. Here it shades her, but she still feels like a developed and three-dimensional human being, and that goes a long way toward redeeming the story's flatness of the villains for me. In fact, I would have loved to spend more time in the conflicted and contradictory psychology of the title character, in light of where she's been, who she is now, and the kind of future Mikael's stability and quiet acceptance seems to be offering her. I found that more enthralling than the actual murder investigation, but then again like I said, it seemed clear to me from the get-go that Harriet was still alive -- and besides, I've always gone more for character than for plot, if push comes to shove.

Seen at the Laurelhurst Theater.

22 July 2010

L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)

A couple of years ago my friend Myrrh introduced me to this long-neglected French classic. This morning was, I believe, the third time I've watched the film straight through, and maybe if you count up all the fragmented times I've seen parts of it, this may have been the fourth or even fifth time I've seen most scenes, and only now is it starting to cohere for me into something of a film experience. That is to say, now I feel like I can talk about it. Now I can make something of a theory or two about Last Year at Marienbad.

Obviously it plays out in a kind of "dreamlike" surreal atmosphere, none of it meant to feel naturalistic or exactly literal. In fact, all those silly parodies of black-and-white art films set around fountains and in statue gardens of bored aristocrats repeating nonsensical phrases and looking very posed that you see in TV shows, cartoons, perfume commercials... well, it's all right here. 8 1/2 a little bit, maybe, but mostly that all comes straight from this. But here (as in Fellini's film) all that easily-mockable repetition and stiffness is to a purpose. Like the film's main characters who cannot remember what happened where, I think we are meant to view Marienbad through the filter of faulty memory. The looped dialogue, the repeated imagery and cuts from one location to another mid-turn, the circular logic and endless disorienting architecture makes remembering what happened where, and in what order, almost impossible. You remember this film the way you remember a dream, unsure of the chronology, the characters, the relationships. He was coming to run away with her, and she wanted it, but also she didn't know him, and he might have been coming to attack her, but also she'd been murdered by a jealous husband, but that couldn't be, was she even married? This is how you describe dreams when you wake from them, eventually deciding on whatever elements resonated strongest and seem to recur most often in your memory of it, but you're never completely sure if you're remembering how it "was" in your dream, or how you want it to be when you wake. This isn't very different from remembering an idyllic (or emotionally volatile) vacation a year back, is it? Or a relationship from a while ago? You start piecing it together and you realize the chronology doesn't add up, or you left out the part where you were fighting on the bannister, and when you try to reinsert a remembered element into whatever fixed narrative you've made of your memories, the whole thing crumbles. You look at the pieces of memory, the fragments you're certain of, and the more you look the less you trust those, until everything becomes a kind of memory-kipple. I know no other film that better portrays the disorientation and fragmentation of remembering (a dream, the past, anything) than this.

There's one detail that always sticks with me and both illustrates and enriches this theme. I love the recurring part of the story with the husband, the man in black, named only M (the woman is A, the man chasing her, X) playing the matchstick game. It reminds our hero -- and us -- of a looming threat, a sense of doom, by telling us that there are nearly infinite iterations possible, but all of them end with the man in black winning. He always wins. You will always lose. You can remember it seven trillion different ways, but they all lead you right here, where you've lost whatever you're trying to regain through memory. No matter which matchsticks you grab for and in which order, the outcome is always the same.

20 July 2010

Days of Heaven

Well, I've been talking about sensual filmmaking, right-brain stuff, and I felt this was a good time to finally watch Days of Heaven. After reading how it took two years to edit, and Malick couldn't find a way to put it all together until he ditched the majority of the dialogue and relied on Linda to voiceover the story with oblique narration, that certainly sounds like a precursor to how Wong Kar-Wai would work two decades later. (Of note because Wong Kar-Wai's "cinema jazz" style is one of the easiest examples of "Sensualist filmmaking" I know of. Wish I could take credit for this idea, but it's ripped directly from Salon.com's Matt Zoller Seitz.)

The way the story slides by with all this imagery and visual metaphor, never quite slipping into dream-like or merely poetic (that is to say, the imagery never falls into the abstract) is hypnotic, and the sparseness of the narrative is more than made up for by the richness of the experience. The less you tell me, the more I discover for myself, and the more I discover for myself, the richer the film has become. Glances that mean realization, framing that tells me how a character feels, a snippet in the middle of a conversation about one thing tells me that another thing has already been discussed, or is pointedly not being discussed: it all feeds a hungry audience, it all gives you handles so you can do the heavy lifting for yourself. This is classic show-don't-tell filmmaking.

One easy, concrete example of not-spelling-it-out that really stuck with me is early on, when Bill is trying to convince Abby to offer herself to the farmer, but he doesn't convince her by saying, "We could be rich and happy if you just do this one small thing," because that's so painfully direct it loses its impact -- both to Abby and to the audience. Instead he justifies it by simply saying he's sick of her struggling, not having anything, having to work in the fields all day. Already he's saying "I'm doing this for you," but we have to look for that message in his words. Then he continues, saying how much he hates that the other workers leer at her, bent over in the fields, ogling her like she's some kind of a whore. This is Bill suggesting that her current life is degrading, humiliating, and she is "as low as a whore" that she (and he) can't stop everyone from eyeing her lasciviously. The solution, the rise in dignity that Bill is suggesting, comes through actual whoring, through actually giving herself up quietly in the manner in which he fears it looks almost as though she already is. This is irony, this is commentary, this is bittersweet recognition of the human condition, and it's all right there for the plucking, all this layered meaning -- but the only thing Bill says is he's tired of her having to work, and he hates how men leer at her. The rest, the audience can easily put together, and by not having him just come out and say these things, the understanding we get is richer. It's broader and deeper and the whole experience of the film is more intimate.

Days of Heaven isn't sensual or "right-brained" in a nonlinear or surreal/abstract way. It's sensual in that it gives itself to the watcher and lets the watcher do the left-brain stuff. You just have to feel it out, live in the movie alongside these characters, fill in those gaps naturally, organically. (All of this sounds like I'm describing the recently watched Denis film 35 Shots of Rum.) In a sense, and I know how limiting (and paradoxically left-brained of me) it is to put it this way, but you could argue that Days of Heaven is "right-brained" because it never tells you a story; all it does is show you.

19 July 2010

Inception *

So after reading much of the criticism and meta-criticism and counter-criticism (and, let's be honest, meta-counter-criticism, and counter-meta-criticism, and so forth) and then seeing the movie a second time, it feels like the majority of the talk centers on Nolan being more of an engineer of worlds, an analytical filmmaker more connected to his left-brain than a poet and dreamer, connected to his right. It seems the consensus among his detractors is that a film about dreams ought only be handled by the hands of a poet, the likes of Wong Kar-Wai, or David Lynch, or Jodorowsky, say. There has been a kind of weird serendipity in almost every conversation I've had since first seeing Inception -- ranging from work conversations to writing conversations to criticism and discussions of 2001 to drunken rants in bars over whiskey, and even to a certain extent two unrelated discussions about love, sex, and relationships -- regarding the spectrum between cold analytical (left-brain) filmmaking/approach to life and less linear, sensual (right-brain) filmmaking/approach to life. I can't seem to escape the conversation, and because I find it interesting I haven't much tried. But I'll table that for now, and talk about the film, because that's why I keep this blog, right?

The thing is, within the rules of the movie, it's all very sound. It's a tight, controlled, brilliantly designed system we are given, with hard rules, specific consequences, and laws as elaborate and rigid as the laws of physics are (well, seem to be; the scientist in me won't let me declare so boldly what is) that guide and govern the real world. And sticking to Nolan's laws, the movie makes pretty much perfect sense. The sense of dissatisfaction that I admit to having on first blush, and I think the sense of dissatisfaction the detractor-camp of critics seems to be feeling, comes from the fact that, quite simply, the way dreams work in Inception is unrelated to how my dreams work, to how probably all dreams work, and this makes it feel untrue, or less real. The dreams of Nolan's fictional world feel entirely too real, too concrete, too stable. In actual dreams, you deal with fluid environments, inconsistent characters with shifting identities and roles and relationships, nonlinear events. In real-world dreams there is very specifically a lack of the physical laws which Inception demands exist. If you accept the rules Inception lays out, clearly and succinctly, even if they do not jibe with your ideas of how dreams go, then the movie runs like clockwork -- maybe even too much like clockwork. The problem is, this is the world of dreams laid out by architects and engineers -- both within the fiction of the story and within the real world. Ariadne and Cobb are architects. You have to admit, Arthur seems a touch engineery. He's certainly no poet. Eames and Yusuf seem aware of a right-brained approach to dreams, which actually shows in their approach to dreaming throughout (it's Eames who understands the psychology of the mark and it's Eames who is able to "forge" his own identity within the dream, not to mention conjure up Bigger Guns to fight off projections; and Yusuf is shown repeatedly enabling a hedonistic for-its-own-sake controlled dreaming). But they stand as a subtle contrast to the designers of the world, who clearly take after Mr. Nolan himself (Leonard di Caprio even looks like Nolan in this). The man who designed the rules that dreams "must" follow is a left-brainer through-and-through. The movie is a puzzle. It's not a dream. It's a puzzle. It just takes place in a (hard) science fiction world involving a fictional version of dreams. In that world, this is how dreams work. And to be fair: within those artificial guidelines, it has a lot to say about how dreams interact with us, how our subconscious both poisons us and sets us free, and how catharsis can be just as real in a fictional world (like, say, a movie?) as it is in real life. I'm not taking credit for that last idea, I read it in one of the many reviews/articles, but it's a pretty solid theme here, no question. One of Nolan's points with the film seems almost like a direct refutation of the criticisms of it: it's just a movie after all, just a story, and not hemmed in by the dictates of reality -- but isn't that just as valid?

Still, I'm not entirely in defender-camp, because the movie is a little dissatisfying, isn't it? The potential Pandora's box it opens up, moving through dreams consciously on a kind of action-heist mission, that could easily have been more dream-like, right? More like real dreams, I mean. Moments like the freight train barreling through the downtown metropolis, the zero-gravity and rotating-gravity combat scene, the beach with the crumbling structures like eroding cliffsides -- to my way of thinking these things actually become stronger if you don't tell me what they mean or why they exist. If you told me the hotel hallway rolled simply because he dreamed it that way, or because he was losing control of his dream, that'd be enough for me. If you told me the train was there simply because this is a dream and obstacles are obstacles, that'd be enough for me. Making the gravity directly related to the physical activity of your sleeping body's surroundings (especially when you're asleep in another dream, one layer up) is less fun than just saying, "it's a dream, and it means disorientation, fear the world can betray you, loss of control, or whatever else it might mean to you." Making the freight train a painful memory of how Dom and Mal committed Limbo-suicide is actually less moving to me than just saying, "it's a dream, and it means massive unstoppable forces, penetration of stable channels, loss of control, or whatever else it might mean to you."

If you don't literalize every little thing, your story about dreams becomes more than merely a puzzle, it becomes a poem. But as it is, Inception seems more than happy to remain just a puzzle -- albeit a fucking good puzzle, and it's actually got better drama on second watching, I must admit. Very movie-ish, very Hollywood, and very (how can I not say it?) left-brained, but not without emotional punch. Seeing Mal as only a projection redefines her in my mind, and while I can't find motivation for many of her actions (like allying herself with Saito in the opening dream) I understand how to hear her interactions with Dom and Ariadne, and it's so much more painful when you understand that this is just Dom's inner self, a sort of worst-case-scenario deepest-fears-realized devil on your shoulder, talking. It's heady stuff. But yeah, that's pretty much it: heavy on the head, light on the heart.

If you accept that, it's pretty brilliant. If you can't or don't want to, then it feels a bit like a missed opportunity. I've never been able to honestly decide if I'm a right-brained or left-brained person, leaning so heavily one way or the other in different regards (and not a fan of binary classifications in general), so maybe that's why this movie feels to me like both: brilliant to my inner engineer, and a missed opportunity to my inner poet-dreamer.

18 July 2010

Ocean's Eleven

My intention was to finish a little writing busywork and then fall asleep to this film, but Soderbergh wouldn't let me. There's not a frame out of place, not a single shot that doesn't grip you and keep you asking for more. It's the smartest dumb movie ever made, engaging and fun, clever and tricky, twisty and meta-twisty, exciting and high-stakes enough to never let you go. And it's got a non-stop barrage of brilliant, quippy dialogue, from a bunch of charming big-name actors just having a hell of a good time. What's not to love?

It's interesting how some of Soderbergh's later films have seemed a little more like hollow exercises than heartfelt artistic expressions (Che and The Girlfriend Experience are both competent and on a certain level enjoyable, but they just feel workmanlike, at best), but when put in the captain's seat of massive moneymaker commercial fare, he manages to turn the whole endeavor upside-down without losing track of what makes it commercial. Ocean's 11 and The Informant! and Out of Sight are all crime films that any big-name director could have made money with, with scripts too good to go too wrong, but Soderbergh turns each of them into clever, playful, intelligent and character-driven meta-narratives, winking at its audience without getting highbrow or pretentious. My point is, some of the man's best work is his most commercial. The man won't let up, publicly saying he wants to make a film in every genre, and sometimes it feels like he's making the film to prove he can. But when he's on, he's on, and that justifies every attempt, even the ones that turn out a little too cold or analytical.

16 July 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock

For a movie made in the 1950s, this sure has a lot of aggressive tension in it. It wraps up a little too fast, as films often did in that era, but the slow powderkeg build getting up to it, starting approximately six minutes into the film when the train finally stops and not letting up until the final confrontation about six minutes from the end, feels like a precursor to Straw Dogs, and that's saying something. Spencer Tracy is so inactive, even reactive, for a classical protagonist, and the length they go to keep us in the dark about his true motivations feels like a bold move, leaning on the morally ambiguous side of the fence. Even though you're pretty sure you could guess (and in the end it's just like you'd imagine), there's a good deal of ambiguity in not knowing just how pacifist this wounded war vet really is. The whole time, from beginning to end, you're waiting to see everyone blow up, and you're feeling just as flummoxed and disgusted with the tiny town as Macreedy himself.

Surprisingly visceral for its era! But then again, I did just recently see Bigger Than Life, so maybe the 1950s just have an undeserved and inaccurate reputation for pulling punches. Because like I said, the end is quick but the rest of it leaves me anxious, with the real feeling that violence is just around the corner, not to mention a shadow in everyone's past.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

Belatedly, I found out this film was by the guys who did the underrated one-season TV show Clone High. I missed it in theaters, but I finally got around to seeing it. The manic but controlled pace and rhythm and the style of absurdist humor and delivery is just what I'd expect from those guys, and the story here is pretty sharp. Each time there's an obstacle there seems to be a solution, but each time (usually just as that solution is about to be enacted), something else goes wrong or that solution is proven to be a misstep, which is a pretty fun way to fill a film with comic reversals that are also dramatic reversals, upping the action/stakes while keeping the laughs (or at least smirks and chuckles) coming.

The story has some elements (Baby Brent becoming Chicken Brent, for example, and the mayor's not-so-gradual transformation from midget into Jabba the Hutt) that feel too unconnected to what's really happening, to what's really important. On the plus side, each character has an arc and changes through the story, but in a more watertight, laserbeam-focused story these elements might all have felt connected somehow to the main story's trajectory. Here they weren't total non-sequiturs, but they felt loosely connected at best, tangential rather than resonant. Certainly not the end of the world, but an awful lot of time was spent with characters and actions to which I could only say, "Okay, so that happened," and wait until we got back on course. Again, with Lord and Miller's manic pacing (which they make a strength, not a weakness) we get back to the story pretty quick. Plus, if you consider the singular, strong theme that everybody's inner selves is being released as a result of this adventure, there is some degree of logic in every character's path. I have no idea how much of the story comes from the original kids book, as I've not read it, but my gut reaction to it all was that a lot of action just felt a little loopy and all-over-the-place. The script didn't feel quite as sharp as a Pixar script, though I'd say Cloudy is overall much funnier than most Pixar stories.

I can't leave without adding, this film finally did the reversal of one of my biggest pet-peeve tropes, in which the pretty girl has to take off her glasses and learn to be more stylish in order to find her true self. It goes back at least as far as The Big Sleep (the single worst scene in one of my favorite classic movies, when Bogart casually makes the cute girl with glasses take them off before he'll flirt with her), and has been mocked in countless 90s/00s teen comedies, but still. This was the first film I can think of in which the female lead puts on glasses and un-styles her hair and is rewarded for being bookish, dorky, and intelligent. Oh, but that's sexy, and thanks, guys, for acknowledging it without making a big self-aware parodic thing out of it.

15 July 2010

35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum)

Interestingly, this film had me thinking at various points that it takes real bravery and confidence to sit and watch a shot, or a scene, long past the point when we've understood what it's about. It's the strength of the filmmaker to look straight into those emotional moments and live there, rather than setting it up, feeling the gist of it, and moving to the next scene. Living there, sensually, being there -- there's no denying there's something to that. But on the other hand, this film also had me playing catch up and wondering if I missed something because it went too fast through moments. The trick here -- and it's not a fault but it keeps you on your toes -- is that Claire Denis isn't showing you any of the big dramatic moments in these characters' lives. Instead she's giving you the moments around them, the build up to the big decisions, the waiting for the change, and then the reaction to the change, or living with the decision. To put it in the movie's own vernacular, we see Lionel driving the train, and we see the train in commute with many passengers aboard. We do not see the stations, the embarking or disembarking of those who ride, nor the beginning or end of Lionel's many journeys within. And that's okay, because it works. It gives you time to think, to ruminate and be pensive. Time to wait. Time to realize. Time to feel aftershocks of minor and major moments even if we did not see them play out before us. It's nice. And for a story of sadness and coming (slowly, in no hurry) to the end of a line, seeing that end on the horizon but knowing its some way off, this is exactly how you want to feel about it. Linger where the feelings are, don't rush to get to the next station. These moments only happen once, and sometimes they're special, and that's why, according to Lionel, they deserve 35 shots of rum.

13 July 2010

Inception *

SPOILERS below, no doubt...

The more I think about this film, the more it sits well with me, which I think is a good sign, but the truth is, my initial response was a little more mixed. The truth is, my very first reaction was I felt some of the action sequences were way too actiony at the expense of moving the story along and that some of the exposition sequences were way too info-dumpy at the expense of the drama. My first thought was, this film is top-heavy, spending the first third or half with nonstop telling-not-showing, just so many expository conversations (and a couple of "as-you-know-Bobs" in there, too) and the second half was nonstop running around shooting guns and stuff. The actual plot was pretty good, no question, and the concept was decently explored for the most part -- very post-Dickian even if it kind of shortchanges some of its deeper thoughts, like cramming one of the major themes of (both versions of) Solaris into a couple of lines of near-passing-but-still-crucial dialogue. But the balance between delivery of ideas and delivery of action felt kind of off, and the balance of show vs. tell likewise, despite some special-effect kickassery.

But like I said, that's my initial reaction, and a couple of hours later it's already starting to settle pretty well. I had the privilege of talking to a couple of film critic friends about this movie immediately after seeing it, and in addition to noting that they didn't seem to have any of the problems I did with it, it also turned out that four of us (two critics; two movie-lovers) couldn't quite piece together a crucial point in the story's chronology on first viewing; we all remembered it slightly differently. (SPOILER!) The point in contention is when exactly during the fifty years they spent living together in Limbo did Dom Cobb implant the idea that reality wasn't real in his wife's subconscious? I thought it was very early on, as a way of making the inevitable fifty-ish years of entrapment more bearable; the others seemed to think it was at the end of the fifty years, to convince her to leave Limbo behind and rejoin the real world. The more we discussed it, the more validation seemed to arise to support both points. Like all Nolan films, this is one with clues throughout and a complicated backstory, and most likely a self-deceptive, somewhat self-destructive protagonist who is already, at the beginning of our story, living within the damage he's done to himself. The fact is, we couldn't reach a consensus, and the more we discussed it, the more the richness of this story seemed to present itself to me. No matter who is correct, there's no questioning this story isn't just some failed attempt at cerebral action: there's something there. I feel obligated to point out that on first viewing I was more critical than praising of The Dark Knight, and while that's not exactly a perfect flawless film, it's definitely an amazing and special one, more great than flawed.

The other thought I kept having as we watched was, this film has so much story I would have liked to see the exact same details, twists, layers, and chronology applied to a one- or two-year story arc in some kind of sci-fi drama TV series, where these crazy ideas and reveals and deeper layers (both to the dreams and to some of the characters' backstories) would have had more time to flourish and thrive, spread out a little. The exact same story felt rushed at every point in a two-ish hour film; I wanted these ideas to breathe a little, the reveals to feel less forced or less expository, and that could only have been done if Nolan had crafted a ten-hour story set in this world. But would that have been so bad? TV needs the new cliffhanger sci-fi series, right? So even though this was a good film, I kept wondering, how fun would it have been if Inception had been given the breadth of a TV series?

Bottom line is, I'll need to see this again to pass final judgment on the plot and all, but it's got way too much going for it for this to be anything less than great. So far, top three films of the year are Winter's Bone, Toy Story 3, and this -- in no particular order. Which, so far, is about as I would have predicted. This may not beat The Prestige, or maybe even Memento, but it's a hell of a lot better than almost everything else 2010 is offering us.

Seen at the Regal Lloyd Cinemas.

12 July 2010

The Wire (season 3)

Man, there's so much closure at the end of this season I almost don't want two more years... Season 1 felt a little like that. Season 2 definitely didn't, not in a meaningful way. I guess if Season 2 was there to show that each season could be a different case, a different set of problems within the same universe, then Season 3 is there to expand to higher levels of the hierarchy and at the same time, wrap up all those Season 1/Season 2 loose ends. A short and probably incomplete list of characters whose arcs came to a reasonable (or definitive) close at the end of the third season include major characters like Stringer Bell, Avon, Omar, McNulty, Daniels, Bunny Colvin, Commissioner Burrell, and Bubs, not to mention smaller players like Johnny, Brother Mouzone, Calcetti (or whoever; the white boy running for office, whose story is just starting but you could call this the competent wrapping up of that chapter if you had to), the boxing coach whose name escapes me now, and arguably even Bodie and Poot (the smallfry that used to run with D'Angelo). That's a hefty list of threads wrapped up. I guess Kima, Freamon, Carv, Herc, Prez, Beadie and Bunk all left without a strong wrap-up everything's-changed "closure" moment, but none of them (maybe Prez... and I guess you could make a case for Kima) feel like they have unfinished business ahead of them. (Yeah, I'm good with character names. So sue me.)

So I guess, knowing there's two years left, I'm looking forward to exactly what I was looking forward to from Season 2, which is an entirely new chapter in an even bigger and broader arena, and seeing how the threads and new beginnings from Season 3 play out as we move into Season 4. What I'm dreading is what I was quietly dreading after Season 2, which is the mostly-well-done-but-still-necessary-and-obvious shoehorn work to get all the players, spread out to the wind, back together again, "The Whole Gang Rounded Up For A New Adventure," which the show seems deadset to do fresh every season. I guess that's how policework goes, from case to case, but from a dramatic standpoint the first couple of episodes always feel like reshuffling playing cards and then explaining why I've got the same hand as last time, or damn close to.

Anyway, so far my verdict is obviously glowingly positive -- I'm definitely a lover of The Wire -- but I may have to take a controversial stance and say that, so far, though it'd fall in my top ten TV drama series, probably top five, it wouldn't be my #1 spot. So far it hasn't dethroned Deadwood, and though it's clearly, clearly a smarter and richer show, highbrow and all that, it's not quite as guilty-pleasure fun as Lost. But hey, it's got two years (thirty hours, give or take!) of story left, and that's plenty of time to sway my opinion, so I'm hopefully optimistic and staying open to the possibility of changing my position drastically. Here's hoping.

And I still love Omar best of all. As far as non-key players, it's all Omar and Bubs for my money.

11 July 2010


The notorious Todd Solondz film I've been putting off for years for no good reason... I finally sat and watched it. It has such a reputation, for sympathizing with pederasts and dirty phone call makers, and so I was ready for some squirm-inducing scenes, but still, the degree to which it looks unblinkingly into the eye of some extremely uncomfortable moments and challenges your reactions -- do you laugh? do you flinch? do you judge? do you sympathize? -- is, well, bold. Nobody ever said Solondz wasn't a provocateur.

It feels like a pretty complete spectrum of people lacking -- and generally not deserving -- happiness, and it's full of some really beautifully put together moments (a subtle touch, for example: Ben Gazarra loading up his meal with salt at the end; the one thing his doctor said might prevent him from living to be a hundred). The film certainly has strong opinions on the amount of fakery that goes into middle class notions of success, and an almost Lynchian glee in pulling back layers to reveal something darker underneath. Plus, just like the very, very different Pusher I watched just before this, both can be seen as dramatizations of desperation, only here the desperation is a more First World Problem variety, and more open to derision and mockery.

Black comedy is when you tell a story with "dark" or "tragic" things happening but you paint them in a comic light -- people die but we are meant to laugh at it, for example. There is even a thing people call "pitch black comedy," where the dark stuff is darker than most. This goes well beyond that, giving us a black comedy of the blackest things we have: rape, pedophilia, predatory sex, incest, and the fear of dying alone. Plus, often black comedies look down on their characters (or at least their transgressive, "bad guy" characters) as dopes and lunatics, monsters and clowns. In Happiness, though, Solondz kind of flip-flops that formula. Here, the sisters are looked down on as pathetic, self-deceptive, judgmental monsters, complicit in the sins around them and even longing to transgress themselves (one sister desperately wishes she were raped as a child; another doles out judgment like she sat on high, and wants nothing more than to gossip with her psychologist husband about his patients' troubles) -- but the actual "bad guys" are the sympathetic characters, the ones with genuine human feelings and needs. Their monstrous sins are merely flaws they struggle with, whereas the suburban mom, the successful author, and even to an extent their listless, lonely younger sister who is without career, family, or love, are shown as the creeps of the story. That's an interesting perspective to take, no question, kind of a John Waters view of the world, but without the camp. Or at least without so much of it.

It's a pretty great film, I have to say, though about a dozen scenes throughout had me scrunching up my face in fear and wondering what I was sitting through. I expected Philip Seymour Hoffman's phone harasser to be the worst, but the exchanges between Dylan Baker as the pedophile father and his confused son were, in retrospect, obviously the most squeamish. Both actors were amazing, but those scenes were excruciating, and I'm someone who normally laughs pretty easily about stuff like that. But this... with the exception of one early punch-to-the-arm you-go-champ moment where Dad assures his son he'll come one day, not to worry -- with the exception of that moment it's all played so goddamn straight-faced, even I blanched.

Speaking of, you think I'm reading too deep into it if I notice that Hoffman's character has many (rape-centric) monologues about cum and coming, and uses his own cum as adhesive to keep postcards stuck to his wall, and that Baker's son looks a lot like a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, and is equally obsessed with his own ejaculate and ends the film with his first triumphant squirting -- for both characters we see the sperm hit the wall/pole; both characters talk about it the whole film every chance they get; both look alike. I think that son is meant to grow up to be Alan, the Phil Hoffman character. Anybody else see something like that, or am I just crazy?


At first I was hesitant to put this on, since I've been going through The Wire for a while now, and after such a complex view of the drug trade I was fearing a more simplistic, stylized perspective would come off cheap and flashy, but the Pusher trilogy has such a good reputation I figured it was worth the risk. In fact, it doesn't come off as a glossy version of the kind of story The Wire stretches out over fifteen hours at all. Where The Wire is a sort of Threepenny Opera view of how both sides of the system work the same and are flawed in the same ways, Pusher sticks to one man, and is a story about desperation and greed, and how slippery the slope is from being in control to being totally out of control of your own life.

Frank really didn't do anything to wrong his dealer and friend, except perhaps he was sloppy out of greed in setting up a meeting. When backed into a corner he took the only way out he saw: dump the drugs in the lake and surrender. In Pusher we get to see a lot of what you can (or can't) do when backed into a corner. Mostly it's Frank, over and over again, still in the corner, but one scene that sticks with me is when Frank and his dealer's muscle (also a friend; names escape me) go to collect a debt owed to Frank from a weaselly whimpering junkie. Having no money and no means, the muscle says, hey no problem, here's a shotgun and a plastic bag, go rob your bank and bring us the money. This hard-as-nails you-do-what-you-have-to-this-isn't-our-problem approach to money collecting is intense: your choices are, cross another line or lose a kneecap. Backed into the corner, the junkie tries another approach: he turns the gun on the muscle threateningly. But this guy lacks the nerve, clearly, and the muscle pounces on him, beats him. He points out, even if he'd pulled the trigger, Frank would have shot him, and nobody would win, so buck up and go rob the bank, bring us our money. Frank isn't happy with how this is going down, how hard the junkie is being pushed (eh? eh?) by the muscle, but it's him or Frank, so he keeps his mouth shut. The junkie has no other options. Only, the junkie finds one: two barrels in the mouth and painting the walls with his brains. The message here is clear: you think you're desperate now? We can push you even further. What's your limit? We will find it. Where the "we" in question can be drugs, power, authority, or good old-fashioned fate.

The end, then, is beautiful, as Frank's options are reduced for the umpteenth time to zero, he's pissed off his dealer friends, beaten his cohort senseless, and betrayed his downtrodden semi-girlfriend for the last time. She takes his stash, his lifeline to getting his name and security back, and disappears into the night. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no money to do it with, and nobody to help. Through a painful chain reaction of events starting from one simple choice, Frank has been thoroughly undone. He's a reactive protagonist for the most part (the end is preempted by him making one choice: he can either get out now or go back in for more, and his choice to walk away from his girlfriend and climb back into the ring is what leads to his drifting helplessness when she steals his cash and disappears) -- but that's the world Pusher sets up, and it never feels cheaply done. He's doing his best to stay out in front of the chaos and disaster, but like the police chase at the beginning, he's out of shape and he can only run for so long.

10 July 2010


I don't know. Something about this just didn't work, but enough parts come close that it's an interesting film nonetheless... I think. The truth is, I respected a lot of what was happening, the recurring motifs, the complex familial relationships, the photography, the operatic plot -- but none of it ever felt right. I think all I can say is, Coppola didn't push it far enough into operatic surrealism for true operaticism, and he didn't keep it grounded enough in realistic characters and scenarios for it to feel like good, solid drama. For my money, he straddled a line and missed both targets. I never really cared about the characters enough to feel for them and their struggles, and the story just kept escalating and inflating into a bigger and bigger scope... nothing kept me anchored to what was happening (or kept it anchored to where I felt I was, on the ground watching it) so it felt more like it was just floating off away from me.

A thought I kept having throughout this story -- as it dealt loosely with themes of mortality, identity, creative pursuits, authorial voice, chronology, and family secrets (and did them all in Spain, mostly in Spanish) -- is this felt a lot like Francis Ford Coppola trying to make a Pedro Almódovar film, and lacking exactly the thing that makes Almódovar's films so magical. Even though you could see how this particular story has copious layers of soul-searching and personal inspiration to Coppola's life and family, it still felt more like Almódovar than Coppola to me.

I applaud him making a film that felt so loosely structured and European, but the result just doesn't hold up for me. I reiterate: it never felt real or true enough to be good drama, or firmly mad enough to be good melodrama.

09 July 2010

The Wire (season 2)

A couple of my friends, if memory serves, call the second season the best season of the best TV show in the history of both seasons and TV shows. I'm not really willing to go that far with it, but it's pretty fuckin' good.

Seems like all I ever do with this blog is come on here and answer a quick checklist -- does the story advance through character? does the story have a unifying theme that is explored smartly? is the structure smartly put together without feeling inorganic? and so forth. I usually write down thoughts in a bit of a hurry, more interested in whatever the next thing I'm going to watch is, or else I'm writing hours after the fact if I wasn't near something to write with when I saw the thing in question. So instead of delving into any kind of clearly thought out, brilliantly written and researched piece on any of the films I watch, I revert back to checklist, answer yes or no, use a lot of adjectives, say what I like or what I would have done differently, and then leave it as such. Well, hell, I guess I'm going to do it again, aren't I? (It's my blog, after all.)

Compared to Season 1, the plot here seemed driven by an awful lot of coincidences and cases of very lucky (or very unlucky) timing. For something so procedural, so detail-oriented and plot-driven, I can't lie: that's a little dissatisfying. The first half of the season has our heroes split apart, each working unrelated cases, each getting lucky with clues, and it all dovetails into a single case in a way that just smacks of television writing. Maybe I'm remembering it wrong, but Season 1 never felt like that to me. From the get-go it was more focused on D'Angelo Barksdale, and anything that came into the case was icing on that cake. Season 2's D'Angelo was Frank Sobotka, and the number of things that all happened at once to draw attention to him, the Greeks, the stevedores' union, and the drug and human (and fenced goods) trafficking were too numerous to get into. It was all over the place, and things wrapped into a single package too neatly for my money, even if the show's smart enough not to wrap up all the plotlines and criminal cases nearly as neatly. The second half of the season, once the story had legs, was for the most part smoother -- though not without an awful lot of coincidences on both sides of the fence. Maybe that's part of it, maybe there's a theme here that so much of investigative work is luck -- I'd buy that, but when it keeps happening and nobody seems to become aware of how lucky they are or how many coincidences factor into the investigation, it still ends up looking an awful lot like -- dare I say it -- kind of sloppy plotting, maybe even lazy writing.

Now, in defense of Season 2, the characters and the themes from the first season are expanded on here nicely. The villains from last season evolve and splinter in complicated and interesting ways. The new villains come in the same two flavors we remember from last year, giving us variations on a theme: they are either cold businessmen with the triumph of will on their side, or they are desperate, cornered people with moral centers bent and twisted by years of self-rationalization and a lack of good options. In other words, they are either "evil" out of greed and self-preservation, or they are "good" and believe that the sins they commit are in aide of something better than themselves (family, unions, community, love). Naturally its this second category that makes the show special, as intricate and three-dimensional relationships develop around and between intricate and three-dimensional players. How bent can your moral compass be? The Wire suggests to us that the answer is pretty damn bent, and since I'm inclined to agree I find that part of the show pretty brilliant. So while the plot feels all around more contrived this season, the characters were at least as fun to spend time with, if not more so.

I'll take a couple of days off, if I have the willpower, and let this one settle before I jump into Season 3, about which I know even less than I did about Season 2. Though it looks like Daniels got his detail permanent, and the merging of Proposition Joe and Stringer/Avon's powers is going to bring the action back into the drug trade in the towers. It'll be interesting to see which seeds from this season continue to grow and evolve into the next, if any -- and I'm hoping some do. Now that I'm two years into this and getting a feel for the way it moves, I don't want any season to feel like it exists within a vacuum. It needs to keep rippling forward, with characters moving in the background (and eventually back into the foreground) of each year's "new" storyline or investigation. After all, it's the Russian Novel of TV shows, right?

One last thing: I love the shit out of Omar. He's such a fearless wildcard free-agent character, just a ball of rage and barely concealed hurt, but he's also the closest thing the "bad guy" players have to a noir anti-hero, a man who transgresses all moral codes except his own. He's one part Robin Hood, one part Holy Avenger, one part Tormented Lover. And nothing scares that motherfucker. And all for a fallen boyfriend, which only adds another interesting layer to this laser-focused character. Where else is there a broken killer of a man who's an openly gay black thug? I love it. More Omar! Thanks.

07 July 2010

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Maybe it's that I'm upright for the first time all day and the pain meds are wearing off, meaning I'm in pain, but this film was a little frustrating for me. It just felt too direct and forthcoming for me to find it very scary or thrillery -- though it builds to a decently intense and depressing third act. I may also be thinking of my criticism of A Scanner Darkly, but I really wanted this story to be more subjective in its point of view. Every betrayal is shown to us before it's shown to the characters. I like the idea that the pod people seemed flawed, imperfect and fallible, but they kind of never felt logical to me. Why were they returning to work as health inspectors? Was it just some sort of leftover going-through-the-motions from their human memories (because that's tragic and eerie and interesting; but I never got that idea exactly). Anyway, like Scanner (and maybe this at least was a product of its era of thriller genre tropes) I wanted a more first-person narrative and I got more of a third-person narrative. I did like the ending though, and the alienness of plant people who scream like that (especially Donald Sutherland's ice-cold gaping maw at the end) is wonderfully creepy. So it wasn't bad.

Oh, and what the fuck was up with bearded-man-with-dog's-body, exactly?

A Scanner Darkly

The difference as I remember it between the film and the book is, the film takes a very externalized view to the proceedings. You see and witness Bob/Fred's breakdown, but you don't live through it with him. You get that it's happening, you see he's confused and disoriented and desperate, but you don't feel confused and disoriented and desperate.

I like the cast, I like the effect and the cinematography, and I like the world and the paranoia -- both the fun of it and the terror of it -- and I think it all got captured great. It's a very good adaptation in that sense, but I have to agree with the consensus of some recent A.V. Club articles I read. This feels like an addendum or supplement to the novel more than it feels like a whole new piece of stand-alone art. So depending on what you want from it, this is either perfect and genius, or a half-empty piece of intellectual art. It certainly says a lot about the pitfalls of adapting too closely to the source material, though.

Star Trek

I've just been through two days of dental torture procedures and so I may be light on commentary for whatever I watch; so it goes. Star Trek is maybe the best series reboot I can think of (second place, as far as I can think of, is Battlestar Galactica). This film is so smart and sharp and fast-paced. Everything comes from the characters, and the story does such a credit to respecting a group of characters with an awful lot of history. Surprisingly, then, as I am reminded each time I watch this, it does such a discredit to Nero, Eric Bana's interesting tragic villain. I actually think Bana does a great job, but the script shortcuts all the scenes where we could sympathize or see layers to his obsession, and his crew of henchmen come off even flatter still, as they are given no agency or personality of their own. The idea of the non-miltary working-class men (answering communications with a charmingly awkward "Hello") being in control of the most technologically advanced machinery in (that part of?) the galaxy and using it for obsessive Ahabesque genocide is a really interesting set-up that deserved more attention. Sure, the story's got tons going on already and manages to eke out a sensical and dramatically satisfying time travel story while putting everybody together and giving them stuff to fight that never feels hackneyed, shoehorned, or artificial, but I would have liked to see Nero get a little more due. Star Trek movies are notoriously soft on villain characterization (exceptions: Khan and VI's General Chang; I feel like I've made this same point before). So it goes. I'd say it's not as good as the original in some pretty major ways, but it's still one hell of a good reboot/remake, and an exciting and moving film, even after I've seen it half a dozen times or more.

06 July 2010

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

When this came out in theaters, I had been snarkily (but also seriously) accusing Wes Anderson of making cartoony films with flat, two-dimensional characters for years (all the way back to The Royal Tanenbaums, which I like quite a bit), and I remember saying I had more hope for "that Roald Dahl film" he's working on than I did for Darjeeling, because live-action cartoons are kind of annoying and animated cartoons are obviously less so. Although The Darjeeling Ltd. isn't unwatchable, and like all Anderson's film (even The Life Aquatic) it has charm in its creation and a handful of pretty excellent moments, it's not what I'd call an excellent film.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox gets away with a lot more, though, for the reason stated above, and because Anderson's stilted art direction and choreography gives the very, very good stop-motion animation a fun, kind of experimental feel. The film really plays on some meta levels, teasing you and your expectations or understanding of the genre of kids' action movies, using a visual shorthand to rush through some stuff in a flat, perpendicular-to-the-camera tableau that (literally) any other filmmaker would have turned into an interesting and dynamic setpiece of its own. Chases, the fox ball-game, tunneling montages -- they're delivered more like dioramas than staged dramas (how's that wordplay? it was the best I could come up with). And yet, because the tone is so clever and the stakes remain high and all of the characters are likable, intelligent, and flawed (credit where its due: Anderson excels at likable, intelligent, and flawed characters), I'm never bored. I actually like this movie. In fact, I actually like the stiff, undynamic approach and the "you know what we mean" setpiece shorthand. The film is incredibly fun and wants you to have fun, too. The stuff that in a live action Wes Anderson picture I sometimes roll my eyes at or wish wasn't sticking out like a sore thumb in the place of genuine action or drama or pathos, in this it feels like a strength. And as to the animation itself, and the set design and cinematography, its all just hand-made gorgeous. I could watch that waterfall scene a million times and never get tired of its beauty.

05 July 2010

Winter's Bone *

Missouri Noir. Ozark Gothic. Are those things? They are now. I do like a good genre mashup, and one of my favorite types of stories is the noir detective story, which beneath all its layers of Ozarkian grime and poverty, this totally is. Plus it's got two Deadwood alumni, the fantastic John Hawkes and the creepy-chameleon Garrett Dillahunt. Plus it's got Laura Palmer, and Sheryl Lee still looks good, even in a sad messed-up warts-and-all role like this. Acting credit really has to go to Jennifer Lawrence the lead, though, who carries such a tough and uncommon role for an American film: the believably strong girl, the survivor. She walks the moral line just like a good detective must, skirting between the law and the lawless, remaining tenacious, tight-lipped and smart-mouthed.

One thing that struck me is how the narrative kind of got away from our protagonist at the end, how the further into the story we go the more we realize that not only are events unfolding over her head, but they're unfolding ahead of her and she's playing catch-up. By the climactic end, no punches are pulled for emotional involvement or intensity, but the events aren't caused by choices Ree makes; instead it's a series of events happening to her, or information brought to her. The thing is, none of this hurts the drama of the film or the primary brunt of this story. After all, this isn't a story of Ree reuniting with her father or coming to terms with his life and death; this isn't a tale of her revenge on those he got mixed up with. This is a smaller story: Ree staying afloat barely, keeping her family together, not succumbing to the shit she's swimming through. And it's goddamn tragic-beautiful from its first frame to its last.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

Monsters, Inc.

Since Pixar is about to launch a series of (sigh) sequels, and after (big sigh) Cars 2 is about to be Monsters, Inc. 2, I figured I'd give the first one another chance as my relax-don't-think movie of the night. It stands up pretty well on second viewing. Sure, it's a pretty straightforward kid's film with a lot of action, but all of the action revolves around the themes and the sci-fi-ish advancement of the world's technology, and it's fast-paced without ever losing sight of those story elements. It's actually kind of fun to see how we use, for example, Celia's outrage at Mike to "accidentally" give information to Randall to advance the plot (now the villain knows who has the kid and he can start threatening them directly, leading to our first major confrontation). It all moves along very conveniently, yes, so that no moment feels wasted, but it comes out of the characters and what they want from each other. Sometimes it's nice to watch a smart movie for children because it tends to be a little more direct, obvious even, and easy to pick apart, but so long as the story keeps firing on all cylinders there's nothing wrong with that.

As to a sequel, well, the "changed world" at the end of Monsters, Inc. seems to be a solid conclusion, but the film is pretty rich thematically and the emotional core of these characters is solid enough that I could see Pixar doing to this film what they did with Toy Story 2, both expanding and exploring the world, the characters, and the themes. It certainly promises a more interesting and watchable film than the sequel they'll be spitting out between now and Monsters, Inc. 2's release.

Honestly... is anybody anywhere interested in a Cars sequel? Ugh.

03 July 2010

Blue Velvet

I had no idea how much this film has gotten under my skin over the years. Lynch is truly an artist in touch with the subconscious; he's not just accessing his own with unusual focus but he's apparently communicating to mine very directly as well. The more I watched the more I started to recognize shades of Blue Velvet in four or five different stories I've been working on -- and in different ways. I don't feel particularly bad about this, since I'm hardly ripping off David Lynch with my stories, but I find it interesting that so many disparate ideas may have been tinted unknowingly by this one film, which I've only seen a handful of times over the years.

The obvious is Jeffrey's quixotic journey down a rabbit hole into conspiracy and criminality, the desperate and slightly unmotivated obsession with discovering clues and uncovering something darker and bigger than himself and his world. Right there, that could describe three different characters or stories I've got locked up in my brain wanting out. But a more interesting one is one I hadn't consciously noticed in Blue Velvet before tonight: the use of parallel worlds bridged more by contrast than anything else. It seems obvious, but I hadn't been thinking so literally in these terms before tonight's viewing. Jeffrey straddles the line between the "good" side (Sandy, Detective Williams, his family) and the "evil" side (Dorothy, Frank Booth, Frank's "family") of the world, and each time he makes strides forward in one he makes the same strides forward in the other.

The easiest example is the obvious Sandy/Dorothy parallel. Jeffrey flirts with Sandy despite her having a boyfriend; Jeffrey ingratiates himself to Dorothy despite her being involved with Frank (and married!). Jeffrey confesses his love (the "good" expression of romantic feelings) for Sandy; Jeffrey fucks Dorothy (the "evil" expression). Jeffrey gets caught by Frank and beaten badly by him and his gang for his transgressions; Jeffrey gets caught by Sandy's boyfriend Mike and might have gotten beaten less badly (and less expertly) by Mike and his drunk friends, had the dark side not bled over and Dorothy wasn't standing naked and bruised on Jeffrey's lawn. Each of these events helps us chart the emotional difference between the two worlds, but more than that it shows us that these are both sides of one man: Jeffrey willingly pursues Sandy with feelings of love less than ten minutes of movie time before forcibly kissing (and eventually rolling around naked with and punching) Dorothy. These are both Jeffrey. One man, two sides, straddling two emotional worlds, having his cake and eating it too.

This duality of emotional worlds is the exact same territory Lynch explores in Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and arguably Inland Empire. So it shouldn't be much surprise that it was here first. It also shouldn't be much of a surprise that I picked up on it more this time, as I sit with my "doppelgänger story" in front of me, the story of a man coexisting in two different emotional worlds, one which could be called passive or "light" and the other aggressive or "dark." Just one more story I'm working on that owes a great unconscious debt to Blue Velvet.

おとし穴 (Otoshiana / Pitfall)

It's funny that the first time I saw this the doppelgänger element stuck with me so well but I'd forgotten entirely about the ghost-story element. In fact the Criterion essays describe this more than once as an "anti-ghost story."

Man, Hiroshi Teshigahara's trilogy of Criterion-released films -- this, Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another -- are films I'm always trying to convince others to watch. Seems like nobody knows about this guy. Japan had their own Kafka (Kobo Abe), and that guy wrote some films, and those scripts were directed by a master of low-key surrealist-drama! Of course they're amazing, and of course I love them.

It's great how our hero seems at first obsessed with justice for his murder -- and how the other ghosts wave this off coolly, saying everybody thinks like that at first, and warning that the more he learns the more troubled he'll be -- but in the end all any of the ghosts want is some kind of explanation for the cruelty and suddenness of their own demise. But there are no answers for them, no concrete ones; life is what it is, and forces bigger than you and tangential to your life will one day brush up against you and snuff you out, and there won't be any reason for it that you'll ever understand. Plus, as the other ghosts point out, once you're dead what does it even matter what the reasons were, or if the living discover some kind of truth about you? My friends, this is textbook absurdism right here, and I love every existentially cynical moment of it. Admittedly, that's not everybody's flavor, but for those it is, it's a wonder they haven't seen these films.

There is also the wonderful recurring theme of doubles here, binary pairings throughout. Ghosts to their bodies, the man and his double, the two unions at war, the man and his son. Almost everybody in this movie is partnered up so we can chart a continuum between poles. The three notable exceptions I can think of are the boy at the end, cut loose from his father (and his father's double: how confusing that must be, plus then to witness four murders!); the woman for much of the story, and look how psychically adrift she was for being without the "friend" she expected to write her a letter and save her from purgatory; and of course the man with the white gloves, the agent of chaos, the true killer and schemer. I could postulate all day about what or who exactly the man in all white represents, but the very point of the whole thing is -- all mysteries and wonder aside -- I can never know.

02 July 2010

Koruto wa ore no pasupoto (A Colt is My Passport)

Picked at random as I think about a script involving gangsters, I knew little about this except it starred the hard-ass baby-faced Joe Shishido and it was part of Eclipse's "Nikkatsu Noir" series, but with a title like A Colt is My Passport how wrong could I go?

In fact, it's the perfect title, because this is 100% pure pulp. The score sounds like a spaghetti western, and though this isn't that it sets the right tone: this isn't here to make you think. It's here to keep the bullets flying. The story actually has some sneaky things going on -- hired by one crime lord to assassinate another, the first crime lord then sells him out to the dead boss's successor (his son) in order to seal a pact and merge the gangs into one, so from the very beginning Shisido's character is a pawn in a savvy and savage power-play -- but it breezes right over it without getting bogged down in any kind of machinations or remunerations (though [spoiler] Shishido does kill pretty much everybody). The story isn't so much the point, and the characters in it all have fairly stock motivations. This is any pulp noir story from any country who was putting out pulp noir stories. However, it's pretty good for just pulp, and snazzily shot too.

I don't have much else to say. What can I say? Joe Shishido is cool, a favorite actor from 60s Japanese cinema. It looks pretty. It moves along with a series of obstacles and resolutions. Most of the obstacles are men with guns. Half of them are resolved through hiding or fleeing; the other half are resolved through showdowns. In the end our hero proves himself absurdly noble as well as ingenious and obstinate -- and unkillable. It's good-ish drama, but it's light. I imagine looking deeper may be rewarding, but on first viewing you just let the action all happen. It's pulp. It works. Good job, guys.