15 July 2011

Incident at Loch Ness

The idea of a mockumentary about a film crew trying to capture the crazies who believe in the Loch Ness Monster is a good one, but taking it to its mockumentary logical-extreme and casting Werner Herzog as the documentarian in question elevates this from a good idea to a great one. Standing on the shoulders of Herzog's mystique and living-legend status and skewering himself as a baldly (if incompetently) narcissistic "Hollywood producer" is pretty brilliant. He exploits everyone: he willfully sabotages and undermines the legitimacy of Herzog's art, repeatedly risks the lives of his entire crew, and even in life-and-death situations has no capacity for honest confession or anything but a self-serving, paranoid and cynical nature. But instead of making that character a villainous one-dimensional scoundrel, Penn turns it into a buffoon, a moron incapable of distinguishing between real and fake (the film repeatedly mentions the difference between truth and fact).

Sidenote: By coincidence, I first saw this film a week before I saw Grizzly Man in theaters. I therefore had a very, very hard time taking the story of Timothy Treadway at all seriously, and in that light much of Herzog's self-aware-but-un-self-conscious narrative style and editorial choices struck me as hammy, melodramatic, even a little vaudevillian. But back then I hadn't seen many Herzog films, so I just assumed his thing was to skirt the line between fabrication and fact, looking for realer truths than a straight documentary might uncover. (Which, by the way, I was completely fine with. Not to get pedantic, but facts reveal nothing, and fiction often reveals many truths.) Now I know better, and while Incident is still a beautiful turn-it-on-its-head story of real and fake, I know that Herzog himself is generally far more intensely earnest than the tone of this film. Which really, is why it works in the first place.

09 July 2011

Taxi Driver

Again, another film I wish I'd had more time when I saw it to talk about, because there's so much to say. I guess there's nothing I might say about Taxi Driver that six million college kids haven't already said before, but still.

This is a film I have only seen a handful of times, actually. All the major plot-points and sequences stuck with me pretty well, but I'd forgotten the permeating sense of melancholy the film has. I remember it makes you a little uneasy, and you never quite know if you should like/side with Travis Bickle or loathe/suspect him, but I don't remember feeling this sorry for him last time I watched it. More than anything, Taxi Driver strikes me as one of the saddest films I've seen in a long time -- and it actually reminds me even more of Observe and Report than I expected it to -- a film that, when I saw it, I tried to convince people wasn't a farcical comedy, but a disturbing black-comedy/character-driven absurdist tragedy in the vein of Big Fan or Taxi Driver).

Not scary (I mean, it has its moments). Not thrilling (again, same). Not funny (I could go on). This film is sad. Bickle was so broken from before this starts, there was nowhere to go but down, and we have no choice but to watch him lose it.

Dead Man

It's tragic that life got so busy I couldn't blog about two amazing and blog-worthy films I saw recently. So it will have to suffice to say I watched them, a couple of days ago.

Dead Man is almost certainly my favorite Jarmusch film, and one of my favorite films in general. It is everything about a western upside-down. It is the transcendent poetry of Blake turned pensive and existential. It is one of the best examples of true Absurdism in film that I can think of. And it's dark and poetic and funny as hell.

27 June 2011

Godfather, Part II

Of course I want to talk about this one for hours, but I can't and won't. I've only seen Par II once or twice ever, and the most recent was more than five years ago, so I got to come at it with reasonably fresh eyes. And I'm sorry, hardcore fans, but The Godfather (Part I) is an undeniably better film. It's a matter of bias (though what do you expect?), but the first film has a sharp focus, a single journey for an entire family, a sense of larger-than-life tragedy as many lose their lives and others lose their souls to grander causes.

Part II seems in every way the best-case scenario "smart sequel." It expands the world by showing us what happens next (and what came before), and it deepens the existing themes and crises as it goes. But apart from some really strong drama and really smart filmmaking, I'm not sure it says a whole lot more about the themes or crises than the first film said. Kay's crisis (which really represents Michael's sacrifice of his humanity and compassion) is more forefront, and the drama of what she goes through is darker throughout, but it never felt surprising or revealing in any way beyond the expected. Michael's relationships with Tom Hagen and Fredo are similar: they expand in scope and develop as plot points, but they are built from the same basic building blocks that shaped the relationships of the first movie. Tom is more at ease with his position, though he shows several times an emotional sensitivity to being shut out or misused; Fredo is less at ease with his, having now been more formally overstepped by his little brother, but he is basically the same well-meaning, weak-willed, marginally incompetent tragic character he was in the first story. There he never betrays the family directly, but he seems to insult them by betraying their philosophies and way of life (when he gets in with Moe Green); here he betrays them more directly (in scenes we are tragically never witness to, but then again it's not Fredo's story) but only because his wounded pride and desperate need for respect (mostly self-respect, but also the respect of his brothers and peers) are manipulated. It all works, and it tells a really good story that deserves the kind of respect it got, but it's a more fragmented continuation of Part I.

Actually, to put that another way and give it a little more credit: it's the kind of rich, robust, true-to-the-original-themes storytelling that we see more now, in serialized television than we saw then, in feature films. I'm sure it was no coincidence that this film doesn't bear any title other than the original's, it is merely Part II, not Part II: Michael's Mafioso Adventures or whatever. This is simply a continuation. It could be viewed best (and perhaps only) as the same story, not a new one.

One last thought I'll keep brief: I thought the Vito backstory was beautiful, and well-performed, and pretty well-written, but it always felt a little like Vito telling his own story. He was always just a little too noble, a little too beyond reproach in his actions. I'm not sure he shows a single weakness in any scene, and he never makes a misstep or mistake, never loses a thing in his journey. It was nice to see the rise of the man (and Empire), but it almost seemed a little too Yin and Yang, with Michael's consistently tragic (and surprisingly messy) story.

I want to go on, but other matters demand my attention tonight.

26 June 2011

Buck *

(Time barely allows me the luxury of movie watching, let alone long writing blathery blog entries about what I watched. That may be for the better. It means the thoughts will get a lot briefer. Case in point...)

Buck is a pretty ideal character study documentary, in that it takes a character with a really concise and distinct hook, is clear about who he is and what he does and where he's come from -- and illustrates an insider's world with total clarity, such that a total outsider like myself is brought in. It's light on dramatic arc or sense of "journey," but it captures the character in a complete-feeling way, and it even allows us to see him fail (he was unable to tame the oxygen-deprived "predator" horse Cal), though I wouldn't have minded seeing more reaction to that failure -- nothing shows character like how one deals with a crisis, and outside of life-and-death scenarios, few crises are as big as the inability to do the one thing you're best at.

Mostly, though, Buck feels like it's a story about emotions, and how we channel what we're given or who we are into those around us. It's a story about paying it forward, and being aware of that cycle. Buck's dad abused him terribly, but Buck transforms the feeling of being a victim into compassion for another creature. Buck's clients are told repeatedly that how they treat their horses mirrors who they are as people. I've held that theory about household pets for years as well -- that the "personalities" of your cats and dogs are echoes back to you of who you are. Whatever aspect of you you show them that resonates with whoever they already are, that is what amplifies and reflects back from them. So much more so with more intelligent creatures like horses.

Seen at Cinema 21.

21 June 2011


Holy shit.

Look, I know a movie is a product of its times and all, but this seems like the kind of thing you show to a bunch of Reed-graduate women's studies majors to see if you can give one an embolism. The plot basically boils down to: hard-nosed extremely successful career-minded lady is CEO of an automobile company and the only one with the cajones to keep the company afloat through hard times. She blatantly abuses her power as head of the company to invite salesmen and execs and engineers over to her palatial home for dinner and "private business meetings," in order to aggressively seduce them, only to snub them brutally (and in some cases, transfer them to Montreal for not being quick enough to get the signal that they'd been blatantly used by their boss) the next morning at the office.

Before you start thinking this is a pretty awesome role-reversal with a sexually empowered and voraciously predatory woman who knows what she wants and takes it, hear out the rest of the story. All she's looking for is a man who can love her for herself, and when she finds one she not only leaps into his arms, literally transforming her entire personality three times in short order to be what he wants, but she makes repeated attempts to quit her successful job to be his wife. In fact, the story wraps up (very quickly, in about an hour actually) with her having tracked down Mr. Dreamboat Industrial Engineer and promising that she'll never set foot inside the automobile company again; she wants him to run her business now because she's "no good at it," and she's adamant about staying home and raising the nine children she promises to bear him. This is presented unambiguously as a bow-on-the-package ending to the romance movie.

Woman is dominating and kind of a bitch, only successful at the job because she pretends to be something she's not; woman finds the right man for her; woman gives up the powerful, lucrative job (to the man) and declares herself a homemaker, lickety-split. All she wanted was to be a docile wife. She finally got what she wanted. Happy ending! Look, I'm not touching that. I'll just leave it as it lay.

I will say, though, that though there was nothing outright bad about the direction or filmmaking, the performances were all a little hokey and forced in a way that -- if I'm really honest with myself -- makes me re-evaluate some of the characters and performances in Casablanca. But mostly, Female had none of the inspired or inspirational dynamic-energy, shadows-and-light (literally in the camera work; figuratively in the elements the story brings together) that makes Casablanca such magical cinema. This was a weirdly misogynistic treatise posing only barely as a light-hearted not-quite-screwball romantic comedy. The truth is, I think this film might offend more people than Lars von Trier or Gaspar Noé films. It's a weird one.

20 June 2011

Dick Tracy

Time got away from me so I don't have as much to say about this as I might like to. The world-building and unreal comic-like artificiality is beautiful. The characters, especially the villains, are so entertainingly strange and so like the Dick Tracy comic strip that it's almost distracting. (To borrow a thought from Ebert's four-star review of the film, this is a world where everyone's personality flaws are written plainly on their unusual faces.) My friend says he vaguely recalls Beatty having to really convince Pacino to take the part, and while that may be true, so much of the character of "Big Boy" Caprice reminds me of Richard III and specifically, Pacino's own pet-project documentary Looking For Richard, that I can't help but wonder if the hunchbacked body-suit and the weird desperate-for-love vulnerability and misunderstood nature of the villain wasn't a contribution of Pacino's own, or at least teased out and exaggerated to suit his proclivities toward that Shakespearean character. On the other hand, much of the sexless earnestness of Dick Tracy himself reminded me almost too much of Beatty in Bonnie & Clyde, and made me wonder what the significance of such a flipside-of-the-same-coin parallel might mean.

Even all these years later, it's pretty much impossible not to see this film as living in the shadow of Tim Burton's first Batman (it came out the summer after; it uses a similar-but-less-hooky Danny Elfman score).

This isn't a flawless film -- in fact it's pretty sloppy in a lot of ways -- but what works about it really works. The characters are so flat and weirdly arbitrary that it can't be a mistake (someone find me a reason why Breathless Mahoney is so madly in love with Tracy?). It's a strange and flashy passion project that maybe wanted to be an early franchise builder, and while I keep reading rumors that Warren Beatty still intends to make a sequel (and if he does I'll go see it, no question), I'm kind of glad this didn't become a franchise after all. The thoughtful(-seeming) cardboardness of it all is amusing and entertaining once. I don't think it could have sustained a series. This story didn't have any room to grow. (Especially with "The Kid," who was just a hair shy of irritating, and any more with him -- as "Dick Tracy, Jr" and mysteriously as a certified police detective [??] -- would have proven absolutely unbearable.)

15 June 2011

Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope)

For as long as I've been alive, in every format of recorded video I've ever had access to, this has been my go-to movie. I know it so well I can fall asleep to it, sometimes before the droids get to Tattooine (~0:08:50), and if not then, then almost always before we meet Luke Skywalker (~0:16:30). It's also been my go-to for discussing story structure, as it hits all the right beats clearly and concisely, and is one of the most written-about screenplays in the history of cinema. (It's also my go-to cautionary example, how the constraints George Lucas had to face brought out the kind of ingenious problem-solving that made this film everything it is; versus the obstruction-free environment of the prequel trilogies [and even as early as Return of the Jedi] which led to a squandering of talent and resources and hard-won goodwill in an uninspired sloppy cash-grab.)

But it's that second thing that made me sit through the movie tonight. Like Magnolia and Dr. Strangelove before it, I went through and did a beat analysis breakdown of the whole story, noting even roughly when each scene-cut took place. Just to get my head back into thinking about big-picture stuff so I can give a good hard push on my script this weekend. That's the only reason I could tell you how many minutes in certain scenes happen. Act Two begins after Luke tells Ben, "There's nothing for me here. I want to go with you to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force." The next scene (~0:42:45) has Ben and the gang standing on a cliff face, describing the first gauntlet they must beat: Mos Eisley Spaceport. ("You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy," after all.)

The Midpoint (or call it Act Three, if you prefer thinking of a film as four equal-length acts; screw Syd Field, man) comes when their mission changes, from waiting for Ben to deactivate the tractor beam so they can all get away (their first mission of delivering R2-D2 to Alderaan having already been rendered null when their destination evaporated) into trying to rescue the captured princess from the black knight deep inside the well-protected castle (~1:08:18). The turn into Act Four (or Act Three, you Fieldians) is even easier to pinpoint: after having won a minor dogfight and escaped the castle/Death-Star, they deliver R2's plans (and the princess) to the Rebel Fortress (which is where they were headed all along, before the battle over Tattooine that sets everything in motion. From there they plan the attack (~1:41:00) to bring the whole thing down, and the majority of the final act is the big Death Star Trench sequence.

There's nothing I can't say about this film that hasn't been written before, probably. But I could say enough to fill ten blogs. I've seen this movie too many times. I admit it. I'm not a fanboy, exactly, but I'm not exactly not one either, if I'm being honest. Anyway, I grew up on it, with the toys, the t-shirts, the Pizza Hut drinking glasses, the bedsheets and bedroom curtains. The truth is, yesterday I was wearing some weirdo vintage Star Wars t-shirt my parents bought me for Christmas. So whatever. Anyway I'm mostly excited by it at this point as an exercise in combining and "modernizing" (if you will) Joseph Campbell myths and universal story elements. Even the ways it diverges from the screenplay formula are perfect examples of how to do so. And returning to it is often, at this point, a way of meditating on the relationships between scenes and sequences, sequences and acts, acts and story.

That's what I did. That's what I'll keep doing. The truth is, I've seen it too many times to look at it and just see another movie. This is a thing in my blood, a story embedded in my DNA when I was still learning how to view movies and stories and heroes. I can tear it apart and dismantle it and I can see all the parts and how they work and why, and I can marvel that they do, and occasionally I'll see through the rose-colored lenses and suddenly catch on a flaw (especially when fine-toothing like tonight) but throughout it all, there's something more than sum-of-the-parts in this bastard, and it's both magical and comfortable. It's childhood adventure, escapist fantasy, and clockwork perfection. No amount of looking under the hood is going to undo that. Seems like that's about as good a testament to its power as anything I can think of.

13 June 2011

The Tree of Life *

I don't have a lot to say about this one. Malick isn't a guy whose films you watch once and walk out with concrete, fully-formed opinions readymade for a blathering first-response movie blog. They have to sit with you a while and you have to give them some space to breathe. It sounds all lofty and hoity-toity, but I tried to give Jen a sense of what she was getting into (having not seen a Terrence Malick film before), and I said they were something like cinematic transcendental poetry.

It was beautiful and evocative and forced patience and open-mindedness while watching. The complicated emotions were never lost on me -- and I found a surprising amount of my own childhood echoed in the story of Jack and his father -- but some of the nitty-gritty plot details escaped me. (SPOILERS) For one, I was unclear for a while which son Sean Penn was portraying the adult-version of (he was Jack; by the end it felt obvious) and which son died (the musician boy, whose name I'm not sure they said). And mostly I had trouble linking the story of Adult Jack, in his world of glass of steel, to the idyllic/anti-idyllic past of Young Jack -- specifically, I couldn't find any specific impetus for him to be having such a rough time of it, and thinking back to his dead 19 year old brother (who we only meet as a child, incidentally; implying his death was not Jack's fault or perceived as such). Jen and I gathered it was an anniversary, but still. Adult Jack could barely keep his shit together, and the strength of his emotions felt disproportionate to the time and distance that separated him from the events. But this isn't a movie about its plot, and I didn't actually find those questions very pressing or important to the story. This is about the feelings, and the relationships, and the world, and the abstract impressions there aren't words for that come from the long sequences of nature and grace colliding.

The beautiful montage of images of the universe forming -- nebulas, planets, asteroids, early life, dinosaurs -- may have no literal use in this story, but it wouldn't have been The Tree of Life without it. But whether or not Adult Jack has a reason to suddenly miss his brother so much, that's not really the kind of thing that trips up the watching of this. I only linger on it here because, what else can I say? The rest of it needs a lot more time to digest.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

10 June 2011

Super 8*

I saw the teaser once, then I went into ostrich-mode on this one. J.J. Abrams has a good track record so far (even Cloverfield is kind of a gem in that over-done genre), and teaming up with Spielberg for an homage/return to '80s-Spielberg -- that was enough for me. It already had my money. The less I knew about it the better.

Basically, it doesn't disappoint. It's got some DNA from E.T. and Close Encounters, and a lot of The Goonies, and although if you stop and think about it I'm not sure the story makes very much sense, it smartly sticks to the kids, and their story makes sense. It's fun, it's emotionally rewarding, it's smart, it's exciting, and it's legitimately scary. It's a little hamfisted more than once, but it's an 80s movie -- it really is more of a "return" than an "homage," because almost never does it tip its hat or modernize sensibilities; it feels like someone uncovered a film from about 1985 that has impossibly good effects for the time (and passingly good for now, though a little heavy on the CG) -- so hamfisted goes with the territory, and anyway the not-quite-subtle moments at least feel earned. Overall I enjoyed the hell out of this.

My biggest criticism of Abrams films is that he doesn't have the eye for iconic images and design that Spielberg has. I'm thinking of the Abrams-produced Cloverfield (which I have read Super 8 is supposedly not a prequel to, but I remain skeptical and unconvinced) and Star Trek, mostly, and now this. Compare those to any Spielberg film -- then or now, but especially then. Spielberg embeds his films with characters, costumes, ships, framing of shots that stick with you decades later. The look of E.T., the red hoodie, the fly-past-the-moon, the dinosaur in the rearview, virtually every frame of Raiders of the Lost Ark (the perfect storm of Lucas and Spielberg). Abrams doesn't really have those moments. [SPOILERISH] His characters are great -- nuanced takes on the archetypes of their genre -- and his stories move along at just the right pace, and are full of exciting, brilliant scenes, but his sense of iconic imagery feels lacking. The alien in Cloverfield, Big Red from Star Trek, and the monster here, all vaguely Lovecraftian tentacle-things, but almost the opposite of iconic or memorable. Messy, alien things. In a sense it's neat, and definitely consistent, but it's also a tiny bit disappointing. It lacks the "cinematicness" of Spielberg's design without adding any level of "realism" or "verisimilitude" in its place. And sometimes it comes off as functional without formal beauty. The same is true with his ship designs and character looks, I think. Nothing stands out, begs to be remembered. Very few shots leap off the screen and scream "this could be your poster, but even if it's not, you'll remember me forever."

I only even think of this because of the odd consistency in the alien design (also reminiscent of The Mist and Monsters... clearly a trend), and because this is "Abrams doing Spielberg," which begs that sort of comparison. Still, a lack of iconicness (iconicism?) doesn't detract from the film's enjoyment. And this one was fun.

If you're reading this and you haven't seen it yet, stay for the credits. It's not a spoiler/twist kind of thing. It's just fun.

Seen at Regal Lloyd Center Cinema.

09 June 2011

十三人の刺客 (13 Assassins) *

Jen (the girlfriend) put it best when halfway through the movie she leaned over and whispered, "Now these are real Tough Guys." The Japanese are not, in modern times, thought of as a particularly tough people, but boy, what a history. They weren't fooling around. The stakes don't get higher than a hero (or band of heroes) who have willingly committed to giving their lives to a cause, to a leader. In movies the hero says that kind of thing all the time -- I would die for you, for that belief, for her, for my country -- but it's all talk. The hero is in no real danger of dying, and he might as well know that when he makes these oaths, because we know it when he makes them. Sure, it sounds so cool, but the men and women who swear by it don't mean it -- or if they do, they don't mean it with the kind of brutal "I will cut my guts out with my own knife on a matter of principle" way the samurai meant it in Feudal Japan.

It seems to me like Miike is making a real case here for just what that kind of oath means. He's exploring the reality and the gravity of swearing an allegiance so powerful you would die for your boss unflinchingly. He pits two old comrades against each other, and though they remain bitter adversaries to the very end, their rivalry isn't borne out of some ethical or philosophical difference -- in fact both men repeatedly imply that, but for the twists of fate that make up their lives, they could easily have ended up on the other's side in all this. The chase- and battle-to-the-death that Shinzaemon and Hanbei see to the end (and arguably beyond) is borne out of literalizing the samurai's oath, notoriously in a time of peace. A sadistic evil lord (Miike also takes the usually-all-talk ivory-tower cruelty that goes along with that notion to new extremes) is Hanbei's master. Therefore, it doesn't even matter that Hanbei opposes him philosophically, is disgusted by him personally and morally, or that he literally fears for the future of Japan if his lord succeeds; he will fight to his dying breath savagely and furiously to protect him and to help him succeed. That's what a good samurai does.

13 Assassins doesn't flinch or hold back in the morality of this -- or the mortality. It's Takashi Miike, after all. And actually, if anything, apart from some early-on imagery that was hard to take, I found most of the action and drama remarkably subdued, character- and plot-driven and never shock for its own sake, or envelope-pushing because he can. There was very little zany or madcap in the story (though the amusing Kikuchiyo-homaging 13th assassin certainly has elements, as does the villain himself). It was more about the idea of honor and nobility and sacrifice than about visceral pleasures. In other words, it felt "mature." (I feel like I'm painting Miike as some looney-tunes shuckster rather than a seasoned director. It's somewhere in-between, and I mean that with respect.)

Also, I don't know my Japanese history or political climate nearly well enough, but I got half the sense that there's some commentary here about good men blindly following lunatics to their deaths, eyes wide open. But don't ask me to translate that metaphor.

Seen at Cinema 21.

08 June 2011

Snake Eyes

I keep trying to find a nice way to say this. Structurally, this film is tightly-wound clockwork. But no character in it has a single moment that feels motivated or like something a real person would ever say or do. Gary Sinise and Nicolas Cage have so little chemistry as "best friends" that twice in the story I started looking for tell-tale signs that the two were shot in different locations and cut so it seemed they were across a table from each other, or whatever. The ending is so complicatedly pat for no reason that I don't even know what to say about it... after everything seems to have come to some sort of head -- a purely by-the-books and soulless dovetailing of androids lurching from scene to scene and saying the kind of thing needed to get to the next scene, whether or not it made any sense to say -- suddenly about six random events happen all at once -- the Daily Planet-style giant metal globe rolling down the street, the hurricane, the gunshot triggering (?) the electronic doorlock, the news man running with his camera for shelter, the police van hydroplaning into the opened garage just as our heroes are about to be shot point-blank by Kevin Dunne (that is, Gary Sinise's character, who inexplicably shares a name with Kevin Dunn, who stars in this same film as a different character, who is sadly not named Gary Sineese) -- anyway it's all too much.

To its credit, the first twenty minutes, even though they're completely artificial feeling, are incredibly fun and gripping. The camera work and visual motif/theme of What the Eye Sees vs. What the Camera Sees (also playing out in the story as What the Memory Sees vs. What the Camera Saw) is innovative and provocative. But none of it ever makes up for how soulless and hollow the film remains. De Palma has always been an affectionate Hitchcock impersonator, and he and Zemeckis seem to occupy the artificial, cinema-fetishizing end of that New Hollywood spectrum, and I thought Blow Out kind of felt like "pinnacle De Palma," but if that's an example of all the fun parts of his movies-for-their-own-sake repeating-the-masters'-steps-precisely style, Snake Eyes stands as counterpoint. Here the artificiality and navel-gazing doesn't help. The Hitchcockian clockwork-thriller/tragedy-of-errors just feels like it exists to exist. The story doesn't mean anything or do anything, the characters never seem to feel things (anybody anywhere, watch this movie and tell me you really believe Nic Cage's character being heartbroken, hurt or shocked at any of the nineteen times he is surprised or betrayed by Sinise; or that the curtain-close romance between Gugino and Cage feels genuine or motivated by any previous scene in the entire story).

As someone who generally (but skeptically) enjoys and respects and deeply admires Brian De Palma, this is the film that makes me see what his detractors see when they look at his best works. This is a De Palma film, not "warts and all," but maybe just warts.

24 May 2011

Noises Off

I put this on specifically because I remembered it being harmless and funny, and I thought it would be light enough and silly enough that I'd likely fall asleep to it. Unfortunately, it's well enough paced with enough charming nostalgia-inducing faces (Reeve! Ritter! Mark Linn-Baker and Julie Hagerty! Carol Burnett and Marilu Henner! even Denholm Elliott!) that I never quite drifted off. It was a foolish idea -- something as clockwork choreographed as a stage farce was never going to let up long enough for me to turn away. It's not hilarious, but it's funny enough to work. And it's not brilliant, but it's clever enough to stay with.

Ultimately it's too stagey. For one, it's obviously a 4th-wall-challenging stage play trapped in the 4th-wall-less world of cinema, so it loses a lot of its punkish energy. But for another, it never quite feels like the actors want to be any more involved than they would be if this were the goofy, breezy play-within-the-play. I know it's a light-hearted comedy and about as far from character-driven material as you can get, but there's a lack of investment or nuance to any of the characters or performances here that feels a little... winking. The physical parts are brilliant -- and the timing is impeccable -- but the actors are maybe acting a little too much like actors playing actors actings, if that follows.

Anyway, it's a fun cast. It's a silly play. It's an amusing movie. It means almost nothing, goes almost nowhere, and wraps up in the most horrid "oh shit it's over, well here's a happily-ever-after capper because why not" way. But apart from that last bit, the cleverness and physical comedy and the joy of seeing some underrated comedy actors from my childhood era made it all a more pleasant than unpleasant experience. Is it a great movie? nah. A good one? maybe, just. But I liked it. It wouldn't let me sleep when I wanted to. That's something.

22 May 2011

Sweet Smell of Success

I'd heard a lot about this film for its dialogue, for being a famously left-wing script that didn't pull its punches. I knew it was a noir about newspapermen. I knew it got compared to Network. I hadn't really thought about that, though, in the terms this presents them: anti-heroes that are newspapermen, as basically slick-talking amoral schucksters and underworld power barons. Actually, I've been reading about other stories that do this, like two Fritz Lang films, While The City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, so it's not like there's not precedent here -- and in fact, those films were 1956 and 1957 respectively; since Sweet Smell is 1957, clearly something was in the air.

But this isn't really a noir at all. For one thing, the story pointedly lacks femme fatales, and the only woman I can remember in the entire film who wasn't a cowed victim or means to an end (which, in this world, is worse than merely being a "cowed victim") was an older woman long since accustomed to her dubious husband's wandering penis. For another, the anti-hero of the noir is almost always someone able to step through the muck of the underworld and come out clean -- a man whose principles and convictions allow any number of questionable deeds because he knows the ends justify those means. Here the ends are the dirtiest part, the protagonist has to have a last-minute "change of heart" because he hasn't had a straight and true noble purpose from the beginning. This is a story of moral awakening, with innocent people (noir stories generally don't even have innocent people) hurt by terrible people, and that's all good. I'm not disappointed that this isn't a noir -- I don't think it should be -- but it seems to have been miscategorized, if you ask me.

So, sharp-as- and fun-as-hell dialogue, check. The city at night, seething with corruption, check. Fascinating anti-heroes and an alluring world of ugliness, check. Noir trappings -- well, no, but that's okay. But what isn't covered in all of that, that I hadn't expected, was the nuanced and exciting kind of antagonist/villain that this film has. Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker is wonderful. His introduction is beautifully orchestrated, giving him a practically mythical element (coupled by his story of loving-his-sister-just-a-little-too-much). He's intimidating and every bit believable as a powerful man with the power of will and the ivory-tower separation from the common man that makes him both a pitiable king and an amoral monster.

[SPOILERY NOTE: There was a point very late in the film after Susie had attempted to throw herself off a balcony and Sidney had managed to wrestle her back in. J.J. attacks Sidney, seeming to misconstrue the situation, in fact perhaps knowingly choosing his beloved sister's obvious lie over his dirty-handed minion's more feasible story. (Sidebar: Lancaster is intimidatingly huge; it worked so well for the character in general but it was also great to see that physical threat made manifest, especially on such a deserving scoundrel as Sidney but for all the wrong reasons, fittingly.) In his defense, shouting anything he can to stop the attack, Sidney blurts out that J.J. is behind the framing of Susie's lover. There is an eerie moment -- Susie stands with J.J., no longer sure which side to take here. J.J. turns to her and says, "It's a lie, Susie. Just as I know he lied to me about your suicide attempt, you know he's lying to you about my involvement." Susie obviously knows her suicide attempt was genuine, and for just a moment this invitation to exchange willful ignorances hangs there, and part of me really wanted Susie to agree to it, to sink into the quicksand and say, "Yes, of course Brother," and together they would destroy Sidney, put it all behind them, and rewrite their history fully. That end -- Sidney dying (or being run out, or locked up, or whatever) and Susie selling her soul to stay at her brother's side -- would have been so dark I think it would have been unsatisfying, ultimately, but there was a moment there where I wanted to see how it would play out, how dark could this dark story get, and would it dare?]

I don't think of the 50s as an era with layered characters exploring moral gray areas (or at least making your audience sympathize with characters firmly entrenched in the black, say). I guess audiences didn't either, from what I read about the initial audience response to this. Critics loved it, though, for all of its sharp-tongued intelligence and emotional messiness, and, not surprisingly, so did I.

16 May 2011

Blow Out

The A.V. Club repeatedly cites Blow Out as the unofficial king of De Palma films, and I may have let this one get a little too built up in my excitement to see it. (It didn't help that they were writing about it in such celebratory terms a full six weeks or so before the film was finally re-released by Criterion, or that it took me almost a full month after that to finally find the time to sit and watch it.) It's definitely engaging, and it's fun, and it's smart, but I'm not sure off-hand where I'd place it between good and best. But there's no denying that it's a very good film -- and man, it's surprisingly tense at parts, in both a good and bad way. On a personal note, I'm starting to feel some stressed-out anxiety about deadlines and projects and time budgeting, and this movie was probably a poor choice for the ninety-minute Relaxation Session I was sort of hoping for.

But enough with the audience's apologies and outside influences. I don't have a lot of time and I should really be at least mentioning the film's influences that struck me if I'm going to blather about anything. You can't really talk about De Palma without talking about what films influence him, can you? No wonder certain kinds of critics are in love with him and others are... less-than-in-love with him. I haven't seen Blow-Up in too long to compare the two, but I did pretty recently watch The Conversation, and it's pretty much impossible NOT to compare those films. (Note: I distinctly remember watching The Conversation about two months ago, but checking previous posts I realize I never wrote anything on it, because I think circumstances got in the way and I never finished it. Alas.) Blow Out is such a visceral ride and The Conversation is so cerebral. Both are uncomfortable in their paranoia. Harry Caul has a much more developed and three-dimensional paranoia than Jack Terry's, but both stem from being too good at their jobs and hiding from a past that involved getting someone killed. And in my memory, both films star Dennis Franz, but a little research proves that The Conversation starred Allen Garfield as Bernie the slick competitor. So let's say both films star Dennis Franz-types.

There's a lot of really striking shots here that I couldn't quite put my finger on the intent behind -- other than being striking. Similarly, there is a lot of really overt symbolism here, like driving your jeep willy-nilly through the parade of firefighters, policemen, and Uncle-Sam dressed paraders, and crashing through a storefront window into a mannequin-reenactment of a revolutionary-war era hanging. Sally screaming for help and being murdered in front of a massive American flag. The number of times telephones appear when someone is being betrayed or killed. The repeated motif of the bell icon, providing a crossover between Liberty, Telecommunications, and the city of Philadelphia. But I don't know what, specifically, to make of any of these, to be honest. I do know I haven't given them enough thought yet, and so maybe with more time or repeated viewings a connection will come to me; but with Brian De Palma, whose scenes sometimes feel like they come with neon signs reading CLEVER SET PIECE, it's also possible that the repeated motifs are there so that a motif can repeat, because that's what films do. It's entirely possible that he's built all the thematic structure he can into a piece without any of the thematic content. I kind of think there's some of that in Body Double at least, and possibly Carrie. I think that's part of why his films work so well for some and so poorly for others. The man tells interesting, excessively self-conscious stories set in excessively self-conscious movie-centric worlds, but he doesn't really say much. It's not like he says nothing, or that his films are meaningless -- far from it -- but he definitely doesn't make films whose primary intent is to say much of anything, or explore an idea very deeply. He makes films to echo smartly, and add layers and voices to pre-existing text.

Maybe Brian De Palma is the starkest, most obvious example of that phenomenon I just babbled about recently, the man who touched-up millennia-old cave art in Aboriginal Australia and said he wasn't painting, that the spirits were painting. Maybe De Palma is repainting those lines, continuing an artistic process that's still in its infancy. Remaking a film could certainly be called an example of this, but maybe a more interesting and almost as obvious example is what De Palma does -- which, for the record, isn't so novel: off the top of my head Tarantino, Scorsese, Haynes, Jarmusch all do variations of the same. "Homages," right?

It's possible there's some interesting thought there. Or it's possible I just rattled off a stream-of-consciousness game of free association through ideas and said almost nothing at all about the film Blow Out itself. Then again, it's possible that in doing so I've done exactly what De Palma would want me to: I've used this film to springboard into a talk about Film. There's an hour-long interview between De Palma and Noah Baumbach on this disc that's supposed to be pretty great. One of these nights I'll watch it, and maybe I'll have a better idea then what De Palma intended with non-specific filmic homages like this.

12 May 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams *

It took me longer than usual to get around to blogging this one, so my reactions aren't as fresh or as sharp as I like, but sometimes that's how it goes. There's a lot to recommend about this film, but most of it you can almost guess before going in. It's a gorgeous and unusual (and totally beautifully appropriate) use of 3D. It's narrated by a madman poet who is singularly able to remain completely unironic and earnest when asking scientists if numbers in a phone directory have souls, or if we are all mutant albino alligators staring at our own doppelgangers through glass. It's profoundly moving and, honestly, a little existentially shaking to be in the presence of 32,000-year-old art and religion. And I think Herzog is completely right to ask bold and awkward questions about the soul: art and religion are inarguably the arenas of the soul, they are our expression of the soul today and their birthplace, whenever that happened exactly, would be the soul's birthplace as well. At least in any meaningful way, as far as this atheist/secular humanist is concerned.

But all of that feels like what almost anyone would say after seeing this film. Some more personal thoughts/reactions I had are to two of the little Herzog tangential thoughts, the notes and anecdotes on the fringe of the cave story. One: I'm surprised, somehow, to find that musical scales haven't changed in 32,000 years -- that the flutes found in other caves use the very same notes and scales we use today. I don't know, I'm not a trained musician but I've taken a class or two, and I know that Eastern musical scales for example are (or were, historically) very different from Western (which I believe is "pentatonic," but rather than look it up I'll just expose my ignorance and half-education here -- I'm just that lazy). I think a lot of people just thought it was a very silly moment when the archaeologist played "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the caveman flute, but the very fact that you can kind of impressed and amazed me.

And two: the story of the aboriginal cave-wall painters touching up thousand-year-old art, and the European anthropologist who asked him why he was painting. The man's answer was that he wasn't painting, that a spirit was painting. It was difficult to determine (or maybe: it is difficult for me to remember) if he literally meant the spirit of the original painter or not, but I took it more as the spirit of the art, or the spirit that inspired the first art, or "the spirit" in a more holistic, non-individualistic sense of spirits -- and that idea I found kind of profoundly moving. In a weird way, that's all (we) artists do with art today, with paintings and narrative and mythology and religion. We see a piece of The Same Old Legends in disarray -- atrophying from lack of attention, from cultural entropy or whatever -- and something moves us to revive it, and paint new lines to fill in the old. Sure, there's more to it, there's that western individualism kicking in, and we feel the vital imperative to season the stew just a little bit, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that adding my voice to the grand story isn't an appealing part of why (we) artists make art. In fact, the ego-centric drive to create art is so strong that I think (we) artists need moments like the aborigine story in Caves to reminded of something grander and far simpler -- that all human art could be viewed as a single tapestry being continually touched up by new hands channeling old spirits.

What struck me strongest in the film was simply the presence of the walls, the caves, the freshness of the art, the profoundness of a window into ancient human history, Herzog's mad-poet voiceover with his matter-of-fact exposition sprinkled with stark humanistic philosophy, and the exciting and justifiable-beyond-merely-dazzle use of 3D, but that all seems like everybody's reaction. Commonalities with our ancestors in music and a connectedness in our storytelling and art that makes me go all Jungian -- those reactions were smaller, more compartmental, but they felt more specific and more fun to rant about.

Seen (in 3D!) at Cinema 21.

10 May 2011

In The Loop

I finally got around to seeing this, and I knew I would like it. I have vague memories of critics comparing it to Dr. Strangelove, probably for its depiction of government and war policy as being dictated by petty tension and paranoia between allies. I can see a reason to compare the two (satire of the government which is both outlandish and frighteningly plausible? Overt sexual tension, frustration, and gay panic channeled inappropriately into policymaking? No line between personality quirk and philosophical stance?), but it actually felt more like The Office meets Traffic, or something, to me. It's funniest when it's meanest, which is a lot like being funniest when it's angriest.

I expected, considering the first six minutes or so and Simon's continual similar fuckups throughout, that this was going to quickly turn into a comedy of errors and misunderstandings like some geopolitical Shakespeare farce, and although I was ready to laugh and enjoy just that I'm relieved it didn't go there. Too many coincidental blunders and conveniently misheard mutterings creates a story so tightly wound and artificial that it's hard to sustain itself, a dramatic Rube Goldberg machine. Instead -- apart from main characters Simon and Toby -- In The Loop hinges primarily on petty, small-minded characters lashing out in bitterness or undermining each other through paranoia and the assumption of corruption, deceit, and self-centeredness. It's almost like an answer to Ayn Rand's philosophies in that most of the people here, even the loathsome ones, aren't terrible or evil, but they assume that everyone else is, and that causes them to act terribly or evilly. But mainly it's just satisfying when the characters are driving the story instead of being driven by clever contrivances for ninety minutes.

I know I rant about this very same thing pretty much all the time, but a story driven by its characters means they are making the decisions, means the story matters to them and to us, and means the characters matter and who they are and how they are constructed matters. Otherwise it's just a series of plotpoints, a connect-the-dots, a clever piece of architecture -- or as I just mentioned, a Rube Goldberg machine. A story where the characters matter and the decisions matter that also manages amusing and clever twists and turns and surprises is always going to be more satisfying.

09 May 2011


Poor Howard Beale. The guy never really had a chance. From the first minute of the story we're told he is a once-great now-faltering anchor who has devoted his life to television news. He snaps, and then they encourage him to spiral downward, and he does. And then they encourage him to spiral further downward, and he does. And then when the execs and the President no longer agree about his usefulness, they exploit him for one final ratings explosion, and that's that.

There's so much written about Lumet lately, his style of directing and the kinds of stories he told. And plenty has been written about Network over the years -- its prescience, its clever raving dialogue, its heart-in-the-right-spot heavy-handedness. I don't have much to add to either debate right now. Here are some disconnected reactions: I love Ned Beatty's scene. I'm consistently impressed with the whole case -- Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway especially -- for making such mealy-mouthed writerly speeches feel natural, or at least real, in an emotional sense. But of course the dialogue is great, and I want to watch or read more Paddy Chayefsky scripts. William Holden re-telling his bridge-report story reminds me of Brad retelling the Shania Twain/tuna story from I Heart Huckabees. Duvall is fun to watch get pissed off. Faye Dunaway is one of the most beautiful portrayers of damaged goods cinema has ever had.

The Mikado

I surprised myself by procuring and watching this fairly unusual-for-me musical based entirely on a review of Topsy-Turvy that off-handedly suggested Gilbert and Sullivan used The Mikado and the new-to-the-west Japanese culture/world as a screen to openly deride the bureaucratic buffoonery of the government at the time, and since one of the more difficult aspects of my script is governmental buffoonery I gave it a try. It was helpful, I think, mostly because the dialogue and plot is so brilliantly off-kilter absurdist that it's like a proto-Catch-22 in its genius recursive nonsense.

The music is bizarre and operatic and catchy as hell (not a big surprise) and the lyrics seem like they were written by the man who wrote the Thesaurus (also not a big surprise), and both seemed, like I said, outside my typical wheelhouse but fun. But the world of the story... the Japan presented here... what a strange cultural artifact! White people in colorful foam costumes and practically clownish makeup portraying a world as consistent and fantastical as Brazil, only this world was ostensibly "Japan." It's a little like watching anime movies "borrow" from elements of western storytelling or legend and repurpose them into some unidentifiable hodge-podge. Taken as representational of contemporary view of eastern culture, it looks pretty racist at first -- but it doesn't take long before you realize it isn't trying to be representational. It really is setting up a strange and bureaucratically obsessed world. It really is a spiritual ancestor to Brazil. With Gilbert and Sullivan songs. And a convoluted operatic plot.

Really bizarre. Very silly. But a lot of fun.

08 May 2011

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

As it turns out, we couldn't have picked a better Mother's Day movie if we'd tried. Rewatching A.I. got me ranting about the intersection of Spielberg's sentimentalist exploration of the nature of family and Kubrick's analytical exploration of the nature of humanity (though not in those exact words), and about just how emotionally complicated the end is. (I mostly just read this article by Todd Alcott to Jen and then blathered for a while in the same vein.)

When I first watched this I kind of hated it, mostly for the seemingly endless parade of "final moments," which at the time I attributed to Spielberg trying to stitch a happy ending onto a crushing tale of Pinocchio learning that not only can he never be human, but that humanity's pretty rotten anyway. I now know the "2000 years later" ending was more or less exactly how Kubrick intended it, and when I watched the movie again later I started to see more and more how it had to be there.

A.I. is the story of the first robot who can love. It addresses the moral stickiness of making an immortal child, an immortal dependent who can never stop loving you, and it doesn't shy away from how hubristic, and uncompassionate humans can be, and how even our sentimentality is actually cruel, ruthless narcissism. It address the relationship between man and God, between art and artist, between parent and child, and it even boldly (and rightly) reverses those roles as we go.

But one of my favorite things is simply that it takes three interesting characters who are hard-wired into extremely specific functionalities (David the boy who loves Monica; Teddy the discreet conscience of his owner; and Gigolo Joe the sex-bot) and it takes them away from their worlds and forces them to adapt. Joe becomes ward of a child, and David grows in a strange sense from monomanic lover to obsessive dreamer. The end shows us that after humanity's extinction, robots will continue to evolve and adapt without us. In the slice of time we see within the rest of the story, with those three characters, we see it beginning to happen. The humanity displayed by the inhuman and the inhumanity displayed by the human makes an interested and sort of cynical-optimstic story.

The beginning works so well. The end, even, works so well. But David's journey through the World of Violence (the Flesh Fair) and the World of Sex (Rouge City) are too toothless and cartoony; both sequences begin disturbingly but soon collapse. Spielberg goes to some unusual and uncomfortable places here, but he isn't the right guy to go far enough with the sex and violence of an ugly world to really give it the kind of impact it should have had. Joe's sexbot-ness is well-portrayed but no more racy or sexual than a Hayes Code film, and apart from some lewdly shaped buildings, Rouge City comes off more like a polished-up Blade Runner Los Angeles with more neon and less ethnic diversity. And the Flesh Fair -- the visceral desperation and torment of the broken bots scavenging and being hunted by a madman in a giant Moon is wonderful, but the "violence and savagery" of the actual fair feels more like a Monster Truck Rally with suspiciously un-entertaining-looking robot-torture than it should have.

There's also a lot of really beautiful visually poetic moments and repeated imagery throughout. In fact I suspect every element, plot-point, and dramatic metaphor encountered along the way (including the crazy future-robot-architects) can be seen visually foreshadowed around Monica and Henry's house in the first hour of the story. It almost gives it that Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass feel, one of those stories where the hero crafts a twisted universe out of the elements around him. I want to say more about this, but as I said, it's Mother's Day, and now I'm running late to go spend time with mine.

06 May 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Boy, 2010 really was the high-water mark for the documentary/mockumentary/hoax ambiguity, wasn't it? Between Catfish and I'm Still Here and this, it seems like the best way to make a doc was to make it meta and question not just itself but the viability of the medium. The documentary genre has seemed muddied up by a confusion of facts versus truth (or worse, factoids and opinions and soundbytes versus truth), and if we've hit a point where we can bust that journo-evangelistic style wide open, I'm all for it. But whether or not it's the genuine article, that's not what Exit Through The Gift Shop is aimed at.

Exit busts wide open a different pet issue of mine: the disparity between art, artists, and the art scene. It posits that there are those who make art, that there are those who call themselves artists, and that there are those who land on the art scene, and is shows us really clearly that we are wrong to assume a natural crossover between any of the categories. At first the film was gripping and engaging, but when Banksy turned everything upside down -- when he disappeared behind the camera and Thierry took the role of underground sensation -- the film suddenly felt like some kind of personal-artistic-integrity agitprop, and I found myself more and more aggravated by the bland, voiceless shit "Mr. Brainwash" was selling the world.

Someone (Shephard Fairey, maybe? or actually I think it was Banksy himself) pointed out rightly that Mr. Brainwash is the 21st Century Andy Warhol. He has a team of artists mass-producing his half-baked ideas, which are basically just juxtapositions of recycled pop-cultural iconography. The difference then is that the 20th Century Andy Warhol was semi-knowingly making a statement about the nature of scenes, fame, celebrity, and popularity, and he was selling the idea that he could sell art as much as the art itself; and the 21st Century equivalent, the post-postmodern, the post-information-age, post-meta Mr. Brainwash, seems to be exploiting the now-commonplace abusably tenuous nature of scenes, fame, celebrity, and popularity.

All art scenes are full of half-assed, idea-less recyclers in love with themselves or just desperate for a scene. And whether or not the film has been scripted for our benefit or caught and cleverly cut to tell the story it does, it still does a wonderful job of not just exposing that, and deriding it, but steering (mostly) clear of a holier-than-thou attitude about it. The line between what Mr. Brainwash did on the streets and what Shephard Fairey did is largely a matter of who got there first and who made the bigger splash doing so. Fairey seems infinitely more aware of his position and of his statement-of-purpose, but there's some fuzzy area in there, and it's hard to know for sure if Thierry Guetta is being edited to make a point or if he's truly a moron. The line between MBW's art show and Banksy's LA art show again seems to come down to a matter of awareness and who got there first with regards to controlling and riding one's own hype. Again, it's hard to say for sure editing doesn't play a part here, as we linger on the selling-a-hollow-man aspects of Brainwash's promotion but emphasize the successful celebration that was Banksy's show. (The two shows are demonstrably very different; but how different is difficult to know.)

Mr. Brainwash is every bad artist, aping what he's seen and skipping from art fan to would-be art giant without taking the time to hone and develop, and the film does seem to vilify that attitude (which I happen to agree with). What it doesn't touch on, probably smartly, is the nature of artistic voice, intent, or talent. Fairey and Banksy seem to have things to say, and (lesser artists?) Invader and Swoop and Borf and most the others have at least the distinction and singularity of style. The film doesn't try to tell you why what works works. It just shows you that the fact that it works doesn't necessarily mean shit. Art scenes and art critics are capricious mobs, racing each other to the next big thing. That kind of desperate fickleness leads to a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality, the opposite of a steady, discerning eye. In other words, it's not very surprising that someone like Bush or Linkin Park might become huge rock stars, and it's not very surprising that someone like Mr. Brainwash might sell a million dollars worth of street-art knockoffs. At least a couple of other, "more real" artists like Shephard Fairey and Banksy can help us laugh at it while they exploit it, right?

04 May 2011

Meek's Cutoff *

This is seems at first to be a movie just about being there. We've romanticized the old west, and pioneering/exploring/colonizing -- it's the core of American mythology -- and here is a film that makes us live it, in a reasonably straightforward, no-frills, struggle-and-suffer kind of way. We barely know our characters, and what we do know we learn from the outside: any clues to where they came from or where they are headed specifically, or what they hope for when they get there, or why they left behind whatever it is they left behind must be inferred through observing closely a bunch of stoic travelers. In a lot of ways it feels like the film adaptation of the old Oregon Trail game (it opens with three wagons ever so slowly fording a river, after all; though SPOILER nobody dies of dysentery, and nobody shoots more buffalo than they can carry), and that seems appropriate and maybe deliberate. In the game, there is only the bare details of the journey, the facts and figures. Apart from buying supplies and naming your wagon-mates after your classmates, there's no history or character arc to the game, or to the idea of the Oregon Trail.

But as we go, I found that the anonymity and obtuseness, the patience and meticulousness of the story, became meditative. The story's minimalist approach may be perfectly suited to the emptiness of the terrain; the paucity of passion in our bible-quoting, hard-working white european pilgrims; and even the sparseness of their belongings, but I think there's more to it than that. At first there was the opaqueness of the pioneers. Then there was the opaqueness of their hired guide Mr. Meek's motivation and expertise. And then the opaqueness of their captive The Indian. Somehow I felt led down a path without a single line of dialogue directly pointing me there, and I spent most of the movie contemplating how alien the Indian seemed to them, his ways, his beliefs, his language, his motives. Was he helping? Was he leading them in circles, or into a trap? There was a point where I honestly wondered, could be be suffering dementia? What would happen if you met a single Indian, assumed he was representative of the whole, an expert of his land, a survivor, a wise man in touch with a larger world, but everything he said and did was confounding and beyond translation to you -- how would you ever know that you weren't being led by a madman, or a senile fool?

But of course the Indian wasn't the alien here, and I think that's part of the story's point: the pioneers were the aliens, who didn't speak the language, who took for granted that their elaborately developed paradigm was the right and only one to filter the world through. They weren't bad people, not even Meek with his hardness and bluster, or Millie with her paranoid hysteria, or Millie's husband (Paul Dano; I missed his name) with his milquetoast dependence on conflict resolution and capital exchange. But they were intruders. Like the Indian who may or may not have represented his tribe, or all native peoples, the pioneers were just individual well-meaning soles that may or may not have represented America, or all European colonialists.

None of that's very deep, really -- just a list of comparisons and contrasts, I admit -- but it's what I sat and mulled over as the film moved. The ideas of the film weren't complex, but the simplicity of the story and the pace and tone and style all allowed me to relax and experience two worlds simultaneously, to pull the rose-colored glass away from our mythologized history without getting nasty or ugly or liberal-guilty about it, and to wonder what it must have felt like for both sides in such a strange and naive time.

Meek's Cutoff is in my mind kindred spirits with Dead Man and The Proposition, but after emptying out all the commonly held myths and assumptions, Jarmusch fills the void with poetry and gallows humor, and Hillcoat fills it with starkly contrasting beauty and violence. Reichardt keeps the needle steadier; she doesn't indulge in playful extremes or exaggerated experience. Instead she fills it with fly-on-the-wall "realism" and a smartly tight-lipped narrative that trusts the audience to do most of the heavy-lifting. Actually, I'd say each film's hero is a perfect illustration of that film's merit. So it's not as darkly fun as William Blake in Dead Man, or as movingly intense as Charlie Burns in The Proposition, but Meek's Cutoff goes down similar roads, with the same understated elegance and hard-edged grace as Emily Tetherow.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

30 April 2011

Time Bandits

There's something imperfect and fun about this. It's hard to look at it not as a really, great, amazing film, exactly, but as someone with really amazing potential stretching and trying something new -- it feels a little like looking in a master's sketchbook and seeing the seeds planted, ideas that would blossom in later works. It's not a bad film as a standalone, but it's messy, and it's tough to pin down. It feels like it waffles between frivolous madcap Monty Python-light and something deeper, darker, more philosophically and morally rich, but I can't decide if the vacillations feel like the filmmaker is unsure himself, or if he's daring me to believe both simultaneously. It's both extremely thoughtful (Evil insisting he wasn't created; recurring themes of parenting from a child's perspective) and extremely thoughtless (Palin and Duvall's recurring characters; Evil's topsy-turvy pain-is-pleasure idiot thugs). I mean, it's episodic, sure but the tone shifts so wildly that in retrospect it's hard to place Sean Connery's scenes, John Cleese's scenes, Michael Palin's scenes, David Warner's scenes, and Ian Holm's scenes are all inside one film.

I will say this, though. Something that has stuck with me from the very first time I saw this as a child, and continues to haunt me and my own work today, is the very end, after the (let's face it) extremely easy, peril-free literal deus ex machina of God (the Supreme Being, anyway) stepping in and cleaning it all up. Yes, there's a weird/nice little exchange where He is indifferent to the dying and suffering caused just because he wanted to test his new creation (Evil) and that works on so many different levels (a child's disillusionment of his parents' infallibility; modern society's exuberant lust for gadgets and knickknacks at the expense of a great many things; philosophical and theological debates about the nature and being of both God and Goodness), and even if it's a cheap-shot scene it's a good one. But what really sticks with me isn't any of that; it's when he goes home and finds his house on fire. His parents and him barely escape, and then Mom and Dad, negligent and borderline loathsome as they were, brazenly touch the last scrap of Evil and explode. Kevin is left standing alone calling out for a Mom and Dad that aren't going to return -- and the credits roll. Aside from an odd scene of Agamemnon (Kevin's would-be adoptive father) winking at him as a modern-day fireman, there's not even a trace of hope in this ending. I mean, it's not like the fireman hangs around and says, "What's the matter, little boy?" He winks and drives away, and Kevin is alone in the world, eleven years old, standing outside his house, two dead parents and nothing else. That haunted me as a kid -- partially because in my kid brain I was trying to work out if somehow Kevin deserved this (I think instinctively we all expect characters, especially in kids films and comedies, to get only what they deserve at the end of the story), but partially because I couldn't think of many things more terrifying than the tetherlessness that we leave this story with. He didn't ask for any of it (in fact, my gut wonders if this even works as a traditional narrative; I'd have to watch it again to even determine what Kevin wants as a main goal throughout the story... he's a very reactive character, around for the ride and sometimes trying to help/sometimes trying to stop/sometimes trying to flee our title gang) and what he gets for all the trouble he goes through -- I suppose much like the theological knowledge that God allows Evil and suffering to exist only as a way of exercising something we call freewill -- is nothing but the helplessness of spiraling in a void.

I'm somewhat aquaphobic; I can't swim and my body freezes up beyond my control if I'm floating in a body of water without touching a wall or the floor. This film, when I stop and take it seriously (which I did very much as a child; and which I have a harder time doing as an adult, without caveats), leaves me with the same kind of free-floating existential panic. So I guess I'll concede that for all of its flaws, the parts of it that hit at all, hit very hard. And that's definitely something.

29 April 2011

Forbidden Planet

I am going to go old-school on my comments tonight, keep it very short, because I expected to fall asleep to this and didn't. The story is really talky, and the science is really hokey, but the plot is pretty interesting, the acting better than typical B-movie, and most of the effects really are pretty astounding. It's a very cerebral story and, admittedly, you can see the end coming a mile away, but for the most part they make getting there entertaining and the reveal satisfying.

And oh, young serious Leslie Nielsen, and your proto-Kirkian love affair with the first lady living on another planet that you meet. How earnest you are, and yet how dashing!

26 April 2011


I don't have as much to say as usual. I put this on to end another long night of writing. Mostly I put it on to see one scene very early -- Max Fischer seeing Miss Cross for the first time, since so much of the movie is carried by his ridiculous, unrealistic, unrequited love for her. Rushmore is about a precocious dreamer who really doesn't understand how real people act in a real society, but whose tenacity is an unstoppable force. His inability to grasp that he can't get his way is the main ingredient of his success. There's something similar in the hearts of Max Fischer and my script's main character, though I'm not sure which is the more exaggerated version.

As Wes Anderson films go, this one feels more emotional than the rest, and in a weird way probably his most personal -- there's something honest and self-deprecatingly two-sided in the depiction of Max's insularity and the limitation of being so sure of your own dreams that might speak to the filmmaker himself and the nature of his output.

I also noticed a lot of odd cuts in this film, sloppy cuts on action to too-similar framings that on the one hand smacked slightly of a filmmaker still finding himself and not quite mastering his craft, but on the other hand came off as refreshingly uncontrolled and raw compared to the too-tight artificiality of his later projects, which added a right kind of plucky Max Fischerness to the film.

Last quick, disconnected comment: I do believe we get to watch Bill Murray actually act here, something I know the man can do but I tend to think he doesn't like to unless he has to -- he seems perfectly comfortable to coast through a film "being Bill Murray" (something he's very good at doing) when he can get away with it. But Rushmore was one of the first out of a slump, wasn't it? And as such, he maybe had less leeway to ride the wave of his own cool factor.

20 April 2011


The world of Brazil is complex and rich, but for all its über-Gilliamesque intricacies that fold in on themselves, it never feels arbitrary, or odd just for oddness's sake. Maybe the best thing about the world of Brazil (and probably what makes it such a lasting and resonant film) is that for all the deep weirdness -- weirdness that goes far beyond just the surface of this world -- it's ideologically consistent. It's a study in bureaucracy that takes itself seriously enough to build up a layered world and it applies the skewed philosophy to every layer. It's populated with characters just as "ideologically consistent" as the world: petty and small-minded, people who can only see their corner of the puzzle, but who sympathetic and layered enough to be more than just props or fill-ins for necessary roles.

Actually, the characters here remind me of what I've been saying about science fictions films I've seen lately: it seems to me an easy (read: lazy) mistake to create the perfect character for the role you need him or her to fill just so your story can move along the beats you want it to. Seems like it would always be better storytelling if you put the wrong person for the job and then find a way to make them the right person, though their choices and actions. Instead of a washed-out astronaut hero with nothing to lose, why not make him a guilt-ridden alcoholic who can barely keep his shit together and has three kids back home he's ashamed of himself for neglecting? Now, when the Martian Almond Aliens ask him to join them on a crazy adventure to the center of the galaxy, you have your hero faced with an extremely difficult decision rather than a no-bainer.

In Brazil, Sam Lowry is a pointedly unambitious, keep-your-head-down man who not only believes in the bureaucracy of the system, but is perfectly happy to be nothing but another cog. His old friend Jack Lint is one of the main antagonists in the story (the true antagonist here is The System, with Jack as a common stand-in) not to mention a torturer and murderer, and yet Jack is the nicest, warmest man in the Ministry, an ambitious ladder-climber but also a capable husband and father (in a detached, working-dad/yuppie sort of way). Sam's old boss Mr. Kurtzmann, head of the Department of Records, isn't the right man for the job, traditionally speaking: he's a sniveling coward who can't control his work force, doesn't understand half the equipment in his office, and is so absolutely terrified of the culpability that comes along with committing any kind of action whatsoever that he fakes an injury to get out of signing his name to a document (arguably, in the world of Brazil these things add up to make him the exactly right person for the job of Head of Department of Records). Harry Tuttle, Jill Layton, Ida Lowry, and even the two mean-spirited bunglers from Central Services are just as good examples of the not-perfect person for the role they play. In each case, it's not as simple as choosing the polar opposite of what the role ought to require -- it's messier than that, and that's the point. But each character either struggles with himself or contradicts himself and his nature and that keeps the story dynamic, entertaining, and somewhat more nuanced.

I also went through the first act and did a beat analysis, studying how we move into the story and get the necessary exposition out there. Not shockingly, Brazil fares somewhat better than the other films I've watched this month. First, the exposition delivery systems (the method by which they dump all that info on us) are original and dynamic; second, they're entertaining and humorous; third, each moment and shot manages to work on a minimum of two levels (e.g., backstory and world-building; theme and characterization). It's just -- it's a classic. A tight, beautiful script, completely madcap but firmly controlled, directed by the right guy.

I didn't get into the visuals or the dream sequence or the art/effects/framing, but all of those are just as inspired and multi-layered as the stuff I did rave about. And the visuals! the flying-through-the-clouds dreams, the bizarre ducts-and-wires Rube Goldberg-meets-Orwell nightmare world, the miniatures throughout -- they're all so fucking pretty! Like I said, a classic. Hardly news to anybody: it deserves its reputation.

19 April 2011

Red Planet

Red Planet came out to ride the coattails of (or "compete with," if you want to be generous) Mission To Mars, and I remember both being fairly sloppy, disappointing, with pretty hokey dialogue and hokier plots, but this is by far the lazier of the two movies -- the story seems lazy, the science seems really lazy, and the themes feel more like they were added to the dialogue the day of the shoot. Clunky editing doesn't help either (like flashing back to deleted or extended scenes to let a couple of characters have superfluous character moments).

Plus, as a study in the Act One world-building exposition-delivery stuff, this was lazier and stiffer than The Angry Red Planet, which at least gave me characters talking for a reason. Here we get a big (mostly unnecessary, as it turns out) infodump from Captain Bowman, who is neither our main character nor our most important. Something interesting could have maybe been done with her as their eye-in-the-sky (kind of an inverse man-in-the-hole), an overseer to the heroes' adventures and struggles -- almost as if she was the Computer Voice in all those space operas and starship adventures, but of course Bowman has her own computer voice here, which sort of muddies up that analogy -- but they never really do. Instead, she's (I guess) more like Penelope to Gallagher's Odysseus, except a) the closest thing they have to a romance is he sees her naked and later we see a flashback to an earlier scene where they almost kiss (which apparently wasn't important enough to leave in the movie except as a flashback), and b) Gallagher is a far cry from Odysseus going on a voyage (again, that's a direction they might have taken things, were this a very different story).

Part of the problem with the story is that no time is spent building up the urgency or need of the characters. We're told Earth is overpopulated, running out of clean air and water, a dying crowded mess of a planet, and that all the international organizations have banded together to send five white Americans (well, one vaguely Latino guy and an old Brit among them, to be fair... plus isn't Val Kilmer Native American or something? I'm kidding) to find out why the long-distance terraforming efforts like algae-bombs and habitat-landers seem to be missing.

Along for the ride, the old Brit mentioned above, is a tragically, preposterously wasted Terence Stamp as a "former scientist" (?) named Ch'something, not worth looking up, whose clever little exposition-tag our narrator-captain offers us is "the soul of the mission." He hasn't found God, exactly, but apparently he's given up science because he is looking for God, and so he turned to... philosophy? It's all a little sloppy and confusing, but from a dramatic standpoint I guess he's there to suggest that some things can't be explained by your precious science. The movie then goes out of its way to make sure you see that, yes, everything can be explained by my precious science (even if that means all of the mysteries of the planet can be explained by secret Martian bugs ["nematodes," a fun word] that eat algae, and also metal, and also love human blood the most, and are extremely combustible, but when they aren't termiting you they produce breathable oxygen and are slowly terraforming Mars all on their very own).

Once they've explained to you in detail how it all makes perfectly logical scientific sense, within the confines of the fantastical story anyhow, Captain Bowman wraps things up with another bit of voiceover (or maybe it was a mission debrief to Houston? I forget, to be honest) in which she says "Ch'whatever always said there was more to the universe than science could account for, and I'm just the captain here who doesn't know what happened down below, but that sure seems to sum things up for me." Okay, it's a lousy and snarky paraphrase, but basically she suggests that hey, maybe it was all God's will after all, because of all the miracles we saw or something. The only miracle I can think of that we witnessed on Mars was the random upcropping of Martian life (about which we are assured "where there's air and water, there's life"); or maybe she meant the sudden self-awareness of the combat robot AMEE they decided to bring along (about which we are assured "her processor's been damaged"); or maybe it's the fact that no telemetry or telescope from Earth or Martian orbit could locate the glowing green or orange algae fields, or identify an oxygen-rich atmosphere (they couldn't even identify the oxygen-rich atmosphere when they were standing in it, until they almost died -- a fine moment for Gallagher to take a "leap of faith," but instead it was played as the grasping-at-straws backwards-thinking flailings of a desperate and dying man).

Anyway, it's silly and it's not very well thought out, nor very well executed, but it's a Martian Astronaut movie, so it's kind of fun. Actually, I wanted more astronautness here, more like Mission To Mars. Once they got there it played out more like a crashland-in-the-mountains kind of story than an astronauts-on-Mars kind of story. There's air, there's gravity, there's some kind of (robot) cougar stalking you, there's a horde of (alien) insects, and there's the same kind of mysteries and puzzles, obstacles and solutions that could have been told in some remote Antarctican or Andes Mountain story, with only a couple of tweaks.

Still, spacemen, am I right? And lessons in what not to do. Don't breeze over too much world-building set-up in verbal exposition. And don't bring Terence Stamp onboard to read a couple of embarrassingly hippie-ish lines and then give up and die without an ounce of gravity (heh) or punch. Lessons, noted and learned!

16 April 2011

Star Trek: Insurrection

I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation lately, just cycling through from season 3 all the way to season 7 in my downtime or vegging-out nights at home. It's spotty but generally very good, and I guess I just felt recently like continuing that trend by revisiting one of the more generic Next Generation movies over the last few nights as a fall-asleep-to choice. I remember it being pretty bland, a little too new-agey for its own good, and more about the actors and writers having fun with the characters than it was about developing them in a meaningful story. (Unequivocally, this falls into that recurring theme of late, plot-driven science fiction stories that don't give enough attention to characterization [for my tastes], just like this and this and this.) It's also an odd-numbered Star Trek film, the ninth, and we all know what that means.

But for all of that, it's actually surprisingly watchable. Especially when stacked up against the last few episodes of the TV series and not the other, admittedly better Star Trek feature films (it follows the mostly very good First Contact, for example -- though it's worth noting that it's succeded by Nemesis, which is basically the X-Men 3 of the Next Generation movies/universe). To geek out for a moment, Insurrection is basically a recap of several decent episodes, off the top of my head it steals major plot-points from "Who Watches The Watchers?", "Brothers", and "Homeward" -- and to be honest, aside from combining elements to keep the story moving, it doesn't even offer a very original take on these ideas. It also insists on making Picard a Kirk-style action hero -- though I suppose both Generations and First Contact had already started pushing us down that road, it's still weird when comparing him to the stoic diplomatic Picard of the TV series (and frankly, hard to believe as a natural development of the same character). But it's not bad. It's reasonably smart, and the fan service paid is neither pandering (exactly) nor totally out of character -- Data's awfully smarmy-human in most scenes but I guess by now he's experienced emotions so many times I can't even keep track, so why not; and Riker's gotten awfully soft and well-fed for a dashing new ship captain, hasn't he?

The only other comment I have is, it's always been my opinion that the difference between an okay Star Trek movie (which I'll generously lump this one into) and a great Star Trek movie is the villain. Star Trek II had Khan; Star Trek VI had General Chang (plus, insidious conspiracy); First Contact had the Borg Queen. Even The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV had interesting non-human/truly-alien adversaries. Hell, Christopher Lloyd cut a decent Klingon villain in Star Trek III, for that matter. But F. Murray Abraham falls into an unfortunate pile with Malcolm McDowell, Tom Hardy, and Eric Bana: fine actors who just can't salvage uninteresting, kind of cheesy villains. Like Batman, like James Bond, like any number of action movies or thrillers: without a good villain, it doesn't matter how cool your heroes are.

In my mind, this was more like a ridiculously expensive reunion episode more than a feature film. I'd say that's how III and IV and Generations feel, too. (Star Trek V wants to feel that way, and the not-unbearable parts of it definitely do, to a fault; but it's easier to just pretend there never was a Star Trek V.) So in a way it almost feels silly to blog (rant) about it here, where I generally don't write-up every TV series I watch (I've made exceptions when I felt I had something I wanted to say). But it's a movie, so I gave it the full service. And I more or less enjoyed it, even the weak parts (oh, and a side-note: now that I've seen all of TNG's successor and this film's contemporary, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I do want to say I found it satisfying that there were references to the galactic-political situation of that show, giving a sense of consistency to the continually expanding world). And since I enjoyed it, I figured it deserved a little bit of blather. And so there you go.

15 April 2011

Source Code *

I feel mixed about this film, but more positive than negative. It leaves you a little dissatisfied, doesn't it? (Everything else I say is blatant SPOILER territory, so don't blame me if you keep reading!) It comes on so goddamn strong and fast, an on-the-train thriller where you have eight minutes to explore alternate histories before the moment collapses on itself. Every eight minutes a brutal explosion; then you flash back to a mysterious chamber and get a new piece of the puzzle; then you have another eight minutes to abuse the consequence-free nature of your impending death while you hunt for the bomber, and then another brutal explosion. The first half moves so fast and smart -- Captain Stevens even begins bucking the rules about as fast as we can infer them -- and the the midpoint (when the hero's quest traditionally evolves and changes directions) is such a sharp and unorthodox shift, veering away from "catch the bad guy in a contained space (and time, no less!)" thriller into a much vaguer, existential dilemma of causality and possibility. It's an interesting direction, and comes naturally (almost inevitably, really) out of Stevens's character and situation, but the stakes and pacing and emotional weight of it shift so drastically, it's easy to feel like the story veered away and left you cruising on an untaken path. (Confession: I struggled to work that weak-ass metaphor around not making any kind of a train pun/analogy.)

I think the reason this feels odd -- apart from some slippery metaphysical and existential questions the end brings up, but one thing at a time -- is because the whodunit chase that starts the story off with a bang gets wrapped up tight somewhat easily and sooner than you expect, and the second half of the story (Stevens hoping to get back onto the train one last time, to set everything right; and Goodwin deciding to honor Stevens's last wish and euthanize him) feels a little like an extended denouement. Once the authorities have Derek Frost in their hands, it feels like there's a missed beat, a moment where the stakes and the urgency drop too steeply, and even though it's still Stevens's life at risk and even though there's still the chance of saving everyone who died in the first, "unstoppable" train explosion, it just feels kind of arbitrary -- I guess I just didn't buy that Stevens wanted it enough? I buy that he insisted he could change the past, and I certainly buy that one more eight-minute try, in a more real-feeling body and world, would be preferable to chilling in that weird chamber and knowing you weren't really there, or waiting to cease existing altogether. But I don't buy that he had any chemistry with Christina (for all the natural chemistry Michelle Monaghan shared with Robert Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, there was none of that here... none at all) and I don't think he made a compelling enough case for Captain Goodwin to go against protocol so boldly in his favor.

Which I guess brings me to my last real "beef" with the story, which is that, aside from Colter Stevens, nobody in the story seems to react like real people at any point, especially Christina. I kept waiting for the explanation to be that Stevens wasn't visiting actual pasts but some distortion based on the teacher Sean's recollections or perspective, or something. I kept waiting for it to be deliberate, another clue to the truth of his situation, that she kept reacting so oddly and passively, that others kept allowing him to dominate with only a passing gesture toward resistance -- the way it feels when you suddenly realize you're dreaming and you begin acting accordingly, and "people" resist a little, and then go with it, whatever "it" is. So the further in we went, as we learned that it was all real, more or less, the more that kind of "disconnect" felt off-putting. And outside the Source Code, Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge didn't feel much more "real" in their development, either. They both had subtle character moments, tells that were nicely understated but still filled in some story, but they just never felt fully dimensional or real to me, which hurt the story a little.

Mostly, that all boils down to a story that's plot-driven, where the characters were designed to suit the needs of the story and to keep the story moving where it wanted to go, rather than the story going where the characters wanted it to go. The arbitrariness of the last half which should have felt natural and organically unpredictable; the disconnect and detached passiveness of everyone except our hero throughout; these people were who they needed to be and made the choices they needed to make so that we could tell this specific story in this specific way. (It's the exact same thing I've been seeing in other half-dissatisfying science fiction films I've watched lately, both newer films and older ones.)

But despite all of this, I did kind of like this movie, and I'd definitely consider seeing it again. It's smart in its selection of detail and paucity of exposition (and what exposition the story does have boils down to unnecessary and unscientific silliness, like a scientist talking to a child rather than a lot of distracting technojargon and arbitrary rulemaking), and it doesn't waste time going through the motions just so the audience can get comfortable in the world: it assumes you're smart enough to keep up, and it knows you'll be one step ahead of the confused character, because this isn't your first rodeo. You've seen virtual worlds, time travel, train-thrillers, ticking time bombs, and Quantum Leap; just because Stevens doesn't know what's going on doesn't mean you don't, and that's smart of the story to acknowledge. By comparison, I think I like Source Code a good deal more than Inception -- though both films feel a lot more engaging in their first half and a lot more dry or sparse in their second (Source Code loses the lit-fuse urgency and strays into "what's it all mean?" territory; Inception strays from the surreal and unpredictable into the too literal and unimaginative, which runs counterintuitive to what you expect a "dream within a dream" to be like).

That was a lot more than I expected to say. I didn't even get the loose existential ends the story leaves us with. So, briefly: If Stevens gets to keep going in Sean's body just because he changed the timeline, what happens to Sean's consciousness? Where is Sean? Further, if Stevens's consciousness is being transmitted into the past from several hours in the future, and he creates a parallel timeline where the body he's transmitted into doesn't die, and he can continue in perpetuity in this new body, is his consciousness still dependent on his crippled, barely-living body in the Beleaguered Castle labs? The film seems to imply yes, but does that mean his mind is technically living perpetually x hours behind his body -- that, effectively, his body is in the future? More complicated: is "his" body, his version of his body, in the unaltered timeline, still continuing? Is Stevens's mind tethered to a different reality, at a different temporal point, and both are moving along their permanently-distinct paths until one or the other dies? Will Sean return to his body if they shut off Stevens's body, or will Sean's body drop dead -- or will that parallel dimension collapse upon itself? (Is it "stable?" or is it dependent on a perceptual agent and a stable tether? Do infinite universes coexist or is there a single universe capable of creating other quantum universes but only when they are being perceived by someone from the "real" universe?) I could go on and on.

The end -- the train not exploding, Stevens continuing as Sean, Goodwin receiving the email and choosing not to initiate the program in the first place -- all circles back on itself in a way that's interesting and a little mindbending, and it asks a lot more questions than it answers. And I do think it's smart to leave those things unaddressed, but it's hard to say whether I should be generous and praise it for a wildly open-ended conclusion, or be critical and call the ending inconsistent and messy. I guess, as a fan of open-endedness and ambiguity in storytelling, I fall into the former camp, but skeptically so.

Moon was a balls-out unimpeachable example of thoughtful, character-driven "hard" science fiction, a tight package and a closed-circuit of a story that implied a much richer world beyond every edge of the frame. In a similar vein, Source Code is more of a tricky, slippery idea-driven/plot-driven piece of entertaining science fiction that splits the difference between "soft" and "hard." It's nowhere near as simplistic and over-literal as Avatar or Inception, but on the other hand it's not as elegant and sharp as Moon or District 9, for example. Basically, it's a story that seems fun to think about, but you get the idea that, unlike Stevens, if you stray too far outside the frame, the whole thing actually will collapse very easily.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.