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.