Friday, March 30, 2007

Random thoughts...

...on The Terminal (dir. Steven Spielberg)...

I think The Terminal would have worked if:

(A) It had been done like a Jeunet movie: a completely self-contained, fully-stylized fantasy world.


(B) It had been done in a rigorously naturalistic style, with lots of long takes, going for a brooding, art-house effect.

Either way, it would have needed to ditch the idea of Stanley Tucci as the "bad guy" and play up the notion that it's the bureacratic system that's the big problem and petty bureaucrats themselves only symptoms.

...on Andy Barker, P.I....

With this and My Name is Earl and The Knights of Prosperity, I have to wonder: is it too much to ask for a fully-baked "one camera" show instead of these half-hearted attempts to move out of the sitcom ghetto? Enough with the wacky ethnic characters!!!

...on Prime Suspect...

Is this the best show about institutional/departmental politics since The Sandbaggers? If so, why are the Brits so good at this kind of thing?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Movie Chat: Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle

I first saw Play Time on the big screen, so as much as I love my Criterion Collection DVD of Mon Oncle, I know I'm missing something. It's harder to pick up on the gags and a lot of the best background bits get lost. On the TV screen, I prefer M. Hulot's Holiday,, because it's scale isn't so imposing. Plus, this movie feel schematic in a way that M. Hulot's Holiday doesn't - there's too much of a thesis behind the contrast between the modern house and "traditional" living - and it never achieves a perfect moment of transcendence as Play Time does at the climax of the restaurant scene.

Paradox 1: Tati controls this movie down to the smallest detail, so that everything is functioning like clockwork, yet his message is "value spontaneity and beware the mechanization of modern life".

Paradox 2 (related to Paradox 1): Tati keeps a tight reign on everything going on onscreen, but the experience of watching the movie is extremely laid back: its approach to gags is as diffuse as Robert Altman's approach to dialogue.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

300 Wrap Up

I said most of what I wanted to say about 300 in this post and its comments section. I normally wouldn't post about it again because (a) it's not like I'm that passionate about the movie and (b) I half-suspect that Jim Emerson is right that it's popularity is driven mostly by marketing and the movie itself is no more than a blip on the pop-culture landscape (as opposed to, say, The Matrix which, even 8 years down the road seems to have marked a paradigm shift).

But I also half-suspect that 300 represents, if not another paradigm shift, then perhaps a paradigm consolidation. It became a hit even though it offered almost none of the traditional narrative movie pleasures: no stars, no twists or turns, hardly any "story" to speak of - just spectacle and digital effects and lots of it, done in a semi-facetious style that (as commenter Mega pointed out) never really earns the epic scale that the material suggests.

Vincent Baker calls it "dumb" and Dave McDougall thought it was "boring", and it kind of is by the usual standards of quality filmmaking, which is why I think, so far, Michael Blowhard has had the most incisive and perceptive take on the movie or, at least, on what the movie represents in a larger cultural context. You'll probably find your own key thing to take away from this piece, but here's mine:

Pre-computer movies often took you out into the world. As lovely as they could be to lose yourself in, they weren't an end in themselves. They were concerned finally with real experience, and they drew on culture in a broad sense: on art history, movie history, music history, and the other arts too. Becoming a moviebuff was often the first step on the road to becoming an arts and culture buff more generally. These days, the movies seem to lead at most to further experiences of cyber-pop culture.

Even though I'm able to enjoy stuff like 300, I'm enough of a fan of "traditional movie values" to find this trend a little depressing. And the fact that I can watch all the Fellini movies I want in the comfort of my home doesn't quite make up for this loss of a larger, serious, old-fashioned film culture.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

More Movie Critics


Jim Emerson is talking again about the split between the tastes of film critics and that of the general moviegoing audience.

Like the last time he blogged about this, I agree with his general point, even though I think that he leaves out an important question: why review movies for a general audience (in a daily paper, say, as opposed to writing for an alternative weekly or a high-end magazine) if you don't/can't/aren't interested in the kind of movies that appeal to general audiences? Look at all the negative reviews of Wild Hogs on Rotten Tomatoes: they're all beating the same drum - do they represent a good use of anyone's time (I mean, aside from the whole "getting paid for writing them" angle)?

I brought this up in a conversation with my brother and he suggested that reading these take downs can be entertaining. (I'd also add that for some readers they provide a nice "us against the unthinking masses" feeling.) All well and good, I guess, but, again, why so many of them?

There are some critics who are good at figuring out ways to make a review interesting even if the movie or their response to it isn't, usually by using the movie as an excuse to write about some "real world" issue. A good strategy, but not one every reviewer is that suited for. (I'm not a reviewer, but if I were, this is probably not the kind of reviewer I'd be. Of course, that's one of the reasons I like blogging: I don't have to write about anything that doesn't inspire me to write about it.)


Jim writes:

Never mind that the vast majority of movies are losers at the theatrical box office whether they get good reviews or not. Could it be (and I think I'd better switch to boldface here) that mainstream movies used to have a broader, longer-lived appeal -- to kids as well as adults, to the intellect as well as the emotions, to the heart as well as the gut -- than they do now

Broader, maybe. Longer-lived: probably, almost definitely. Although isn't this the case with culture in general - not just pop culture, by "high" culture, too. Don't today's big lit-fic novels, like Philip Roth's, for instance, have a narrower appeal and will likely have less staying power than, say, The Great Gatsby?

I've always been a supporter of middlebrow-ism. That is, I appreciate the attempt to create popular art that is accessible to a broad popular audience but that also has loftier aspirations than escapism. I think a lot of the best American popular art fits into this category: Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Duke Ellington's music, and ambitious Hollywwod movies like Citizen Kane and The Godfather.

But I'm not sure that there's much chance of any mass audience emerging that isn't also extremely narrow.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Movie Chat: 8 1/2

8 1/2

1. The part of me that likes to make lists tells me that if I'm going to be revisiting Fellini, I should do it in some kind of order. Like, working my way, one-by-one through his 1950s films, following up La Strada with The Swindle (which I've never seen) and Nights of Cabiria (which I've seen but recall hazily, at best). Heck, if I was serious, starting with La Strada was all wrong: I should have gone back to Variety Lights.

2. It is this part of me - the part that thinks I shouldn't even be watching 8 1/2 yet in the first place - that has the most negative reaction to the movie: "It's excessive. It's self-indulgent. More than that, it practical defined self-indulgence for an entire generation of filmmakers and film buffs. At best, it's an interesting historical artifact: maybe not the first, but one of the earliest, most famous, and largest scale examples of a filmmaker who has decided that of all the possible subjects for a movie, He, the filmmaker himself, is the most fascinating."

3. But that part of me doesn't get the last word. It didn't get the first word, either: after all, I did follow up La Strada with 8 1/2. First, what's wrong with a little excess? Especially when it comes to moviemaking. I mean, even a small scale movie requires large scale doses of effort and ambition, not to mention the money. We're watching images projected on a 15 foot high screen (or, in my case, images that we imagine should be projected on a 15 foot high screen): the art form itself seems to cry out for excess! Second, maybe Fellini had earned the right to be self-indulgent. Not only in terms of "putting in the time" and "mastering the basics", but also earning it that he really knows how to use symbolism in film (his images are full of meanings, but not locked into one, reductive meaning), and he has a strong enough sense of staging and composition and enough of a mastery over tone and mood to be able to pull it off. Third, really, how fair is it, in this case, to blame the father for the sins of the children? Maybe the most damming thing I can think of about 8 1/2 is that it inspired other filmmakers to obsess (narcissistically?) over themselves and to attempt (naively?) to make use of Fellini's brand of unrestrained symbolism.

4. Maybe this is a good place to bring up my first and, prior to this viewing, only experience with 8 1/2, which was also the first Fellini movie I ever saw. I was in 10th Grade, my family had just that year moved to a big city from a very small town, and for the first time in my life I had access to a truly great video store. At that point, my favorite director was (probably) Woody Allen (although that really depended on the day: Frank Capra and Robert Altman were up there, too), and after seeing (and being confused by) Stardust Memories and reading that it was his "Fellini movie", I decided I needed to see 8 1/2 itself. I remember only two things from that viewing: the early image of the people on the beach flying Guido like a kite and the final sequence where everyone shows up at the sci-fi movie set. Otherwise, I must not have enjoyed it very much, since I didn't see another Fellini movie until I had to watch I Vitelloni for a film class. Of course, I would have been 14 or 15 years old: it's not surprising that I wouldn't know what to make of something like 8 1/2 when I didn't even know what to make of Stardust Memories?

5. Does he let himself off the hook at the end? Kind of, even though, through most of the movie he seems clear-eyed about his own hang-ups and failings. Maybe that's the most damning thing about the movie, that in the end, the lesson that everyone else has to learn is to try to accept Guido as he is. But it's interesting that in what is almost the very first entry of this genre (the professional/personal filmmaker autobio, the movie-about-me-making-a-movie), its biggest "problem issue" is staring me right in the face.

6. I'm reminded in a way of Michael Blowhard's recent essay on Inland Empire. Is 8 1/2 the movie that marks the change from "we're going to this Fellini movie because we hope it will be a beautiful, moving, literary, work of cinematic art" to "we're going to this Fellini movie because we want to experience Fellini's world view"? In general, I'm ambivalent (at best) about this whole "world view" thing. On the one hand, some directors can make it work, as Fellini does here and David Lynch does in, say, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. On the other hand, when you and how you see the world becomes your only subject (or at least your dominant subject) you risk a kind of creative stagnation. After all, what's likely to provide more fertile material for arts and culture: the set of all objects that includes only you or the set of all objects that includes everything in the universe except for you?

7. I love the staging in this movie: it's not only impressive, in terms of choreographing and coordinating the large cast, but it's extremely evocative, in the way Fellini uses it to weave together the different strands of reality, fantasy, past, and present. A lot of the movie's distinctive feel - it's sense of overlapping levels of reality and fantasy - comes from Fellini's use of complicated blocking and camera movements: most filmmakers would use editing when attempting the same effects. And I love the locations and sets: the hotel, the wide-open courtyard at the spa, the "launch pad". They're memorable partly because, despite all the fantasy elements of the movie, Fellini treats them with the same kind of respect and with the same sense of place that he brought to his neo-realist movies: they aren't just a backdrop for his fantasies and auto-biographical psychodrama.

8. Despite my quibbles, I have a great deal of respect for 8 1/2: I get the sense that Fellini was jumping into the unknown and, even if he tries to hedge his bets a little (by, say, having the writer character preemptively criticize the film for its excessive and confusing symbolic flourishes), I admire his courage. So far, I'm having fun watching these Fellini movies. 8 1/2 is the latest of his movies that I've ever seen and I'm looking forward to jumping into the later movies, even though I've heard all about how the excess and self-indulgence gets even "worse".

8 1/2. But maybe, what really makes it work for me is that throughout it all, Fellini never loses his sense of show biz. End it all with a big dance number? But of course...

Friday, March 23, 2007

Movie Chat: La Strada

La Strada

I spent a weekend watching all of these Fellini movies from the 1950s during my first set of wilderness years between college and grad school, and, not surprisingly perhaps (especially for people who knew me then), they all blended together and none of them made much of an impression. Part of the problem was that I was watching them to "get them out of the way" - to check them off my list of "must-see films" to complete my education as a cinephile.

In retrospect, I can see that that was kind of a lousy way for me to watch movies. I'm not quite sure where it comes from, but I can get compulsive about these kinds of things - buying comic books I don't actually read because I want to collect a "complete set", sticking with a TV show long after I've stopped enjoying it just because I have to know how it will end (hello, Battlestar Galactica), reading an author's novels in chronological order even when skipping around would be ultimately more satisfying - and I now try to take things a bit more slowly, approaching films/books/comics not as is they were a task or an assignment to get through but as (possible) sources of pleasure and enlightenment.

So, I was glad to revisit La Strada, because I found it both pleasurable and enlightening. I'm now pretty sure that I've been underrating Fellini for years, not just because I watched so many of his movies under less than ideal conditions, but, like Ikiru, these are movies that I probably wouldn't have been able to appreciate as much when I was younger.

I really liked La Strada, although what I want to talk about here is the way me feel nostalgic for a time I never actually lived through: when a literate, artistic, sensitive foreign film like this could have been an important cultural touchstone, (at least, snob and elitist that I am, among college-educated, middle and upper-middle class adults).

I don't know: maybe I'm just depressed from reading posts like Michael Blowhard's take on 300 or the Derelict's dialogue with an "old movie" skeptic or from the fact that the only "cultural" thing anyone in my office ever talks about is American Idol. I don't even think American Idol is, itself, all that bad. What I do think is bad is the way that it has colonized the brain space of people who should know better, and, yes, snobbery and elitism again, I mean supposedly educated people. Note: not that you need to be "educated" to appreciate art/culture/etc. I'm more dispirited by the fact that "education" today does nothing to instill an appreciation for art/culture/etc.

Oh, well... Fellini's movie deserves more than my kvetching, but, for now, it's all I've got.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I hadn't seen these before...

David O. Russell vs. Lily Tomlin (from Dennis Cozzalio's blog)

The show must go on - wait, no, it shouldn't...

I don't completely agree with the specifics of this zigzigger post (I've enjoyed the third season of Veronica Mars, although it is much more wobbly than the first season story-wise and style-wise, and if it does return the idea of jumping forward a few years strikes me as the right one), but, more generally, I think he's right on:

Fans seem to want their favorite shows to be love affairs that last forever and a day... I would rather a good show have a short run than see it extend beyond its natural life into a parody or pale imitation of itself.

I know all the reasons why it will never happen, but I'd like to see a move towards the way some British shows (like Prime Suspect, for example) are produced and marketed:

  1. Conceive each season as a stand alone story. Don't leave major plot threads hanging. Get rid of the season-ending cliff-hanger.
  2. Don't try to turn a show into a brand name: rather, focus on actors and writers.

No show can make the "never-ending storyline" thing work, so it's better for a show's creators to end things on their own terms than to be forced to wrap things up due to fading ratings.

Long running shows that are successful tend (a) to be completely episodic with no real serial elements (Law & Order, although even there the formula is showing its age) or (b) to keep the central situation the same while shuffling new characters in and out (like in E.R. and, to a lesser extent, The Wire, which is one of the only shows I can think of that has consistently gotten better each season).

The creators of shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and 24 would have been much better off if they realized that the limited nature of these shows' central premises almost required that they be resolved at the end of the first season. I almost thought Battlestar Galactica had done this - that the third season would mark a complete change in the show, moving from outer-space chase to planet-bound life-under-occupation drama - but after a few episodes they were back in space, doing the same old, same old, but falling into all the traps they were smart enough to avoid the first time around.

(Plus, I agree with something he brings up in the comments: one of the reasons I like Freaks and Geeks is that it said all it had to say and then had the dignity to get cancelled.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Book Chat: The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster writes my favorite contemporary American lit-fic, probably because, unlike say Don DeLillo, he never skimps on the story, which he seems to care about for its own sake and not just as a framework for his ideas. The Brooklyn Follies is filled with incident, invention, and interesting characters, not to mention a couple of mysteries and some genuine (if momentary) thrills. It reminded me a lot of John Irving's early novels (especially The Hotel New Hampshire), but it's shorter and lot less heavy handed.

It is an English Major kind of novel though: there are references to Poe, Thoureau, Melville, Whitman, DeLillo; an important early scene revolves around a discussion of one of the character's senior thesis; the book's idea of paradise is being able to have the time to read all the books you'd want to read, and, oh, yeah, spend time with all the people you care about, too.

Like most of Auster's novels, there are stories within stories and a strong sense of approaching literature as a game to be played or a puzzle to be solved, but it's that addition of "all the people you care about" into the mix that distinguishes The Brooklyn Follies from Auster's last two novels. Those books - The Book of Illusion and Oracle Night - were more focused on the po-mo lit-fic gamesmanship and not so much on the larger world. This is a warmer book, almost a "feel good" book.

It doesn't end as well as it starts, not because Auster refuses to provide a satisfying ending a la DeLillo or takes a stab at ambiguity that feels a little bit too much like a cop out a la the recent Philip Roth novels, but because he tries to wrap everything up a little too neatly. I like that the book wears its politics on its sleeve (although at this date and considering Auster's audience, it isn't exactly an act of courage), but sometimes Auster's relatively schematic left-liberal worldview undermines his abilities as a novelist. Or rather, he's always been weakest (IMO) when it comes to creating characters, and so when filling out his casts he often resorts to stereotypes that will be recognizable to anyone who's kept up with American indie movies during the last 10 years. There's a Jamaican drag queen who's essentially a saint and a Southern Evangelic Christian who's the book's major monster. Structurally, the evil Christians show up at end, and Auster's somewhat condescending take on them wasn't enough to sour me on the book as a whole, but I wasn't as an enthusiastic fan of the book as I had been with fifty pages to go. (Also, IMO, the final paragraph was maybe a little redundant: I saw it coming from so far off that I felt a little let down that he made such a predictable move).

This lack of generosity and sympathy got me thinking about one of the few major American 19th Century Literary types who doesn't get mentioned in the book: my personal favorite, William Dean Howells. One of the things I like about a novel like A Hazard of New Fortunes is that Howells has affection for all of his characters, even if he treats their beliefs and ideologies with a bemused irony. The Brooklyn Follies could use a bit more of that, although, all-in-all, a pretty compelling, entertaining book.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Fairly Short Post on Gore Vidal's Burr and Lincoln

Gore Vidal's "Narratives of Empire" books are by no means obscure - they're in print, easily available, and Vidal is perhaps America's most prominent "man of letters" - but I can't help but feel that they're a little underrated. At least these, the first two in the series, are among the most impressive (not to mention most enjoyable) "big" novels from the last 40 years or so that I've read. (By "'big' novels", I mean novels that have a great deal of ambition in terms of scope and themes and also have a subject that is a fit match to that ambition).

Lincoln is, understandably, the more serious installment, dealing, as it does, with the most important event in American history. Vidal's take on Lincoln is refreshingly ambiguous. But the book really shines when it comes to its depictions of the other politicians in war time Washington. My favorite: Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury and Lincoln's chief Republican rival. Burr is more gossipy and, through Burr, Vidal seems more interesting in tearing down idols. It's hard to decide who comes off worse, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (right now I would say Jefferson), both of whom seem to be competing for the title of America's Greatest Hypocrite.

Vidal's take on politicians, in general, is one that I find myself nodding along to. It's certainly cynical: their great ideas and great statesmanship sometimes seem to get lost in the shadow of their even greater ambition. But, at the same time, the cynicism never turns mean-spirited. Vidal's irony is too sure and his touch too light for that. And he certainly seems to have some kind of admiration for these men and an appreciation for the feats they undertook to realize their ambitions.

Michael Blowhard floated the theory that the function of big novels like these was taken over by TV miniseries. I'd suggest that it's been taken over from those miniseries by shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood (which is Shakespearean in the same American way that these books are, but on a smaller scale and with a grungier cast). As much as I like these series, I can't help but feel that pop culture has lost something with the waning of the "blockbuster novel". These books operate on a scale and with a level of detail and intellectual sophistication that remains out of the grasp of even the best TV shows.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Movie Chat: Zodiac


I don't think I was alone among David Fincher's fans in hoping (if not expecting) that Zodiac was going to be The Godfather, or at least the Goodfellas, of serial killer movies. Instead, Zodiac is more like the All the President's Men of serial killer movies, which I found somewhat disappointing.

It seems to me that in most of his movies, all of the interesting stuff is happening on the surface - whether through visuals in Seven, through tightly controlled set design and staging in Panic Room, or spoken directly to the audience through the screenplay in Fight Club. There's not much subtext in Fight Club, because Edward Norton's voice-over lays out almost all of the major themes of the movie for us and Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls illustrate these themes in a relatively literal manner.

I think these movies are all superficial, but I don't really mean this as a criticism. Rather, I'm most interested in what's already there on their surfaces, which are densely packed with information and, in the case of Fight Club at least, ideas.

(Not surprisingly perhaps, I think the best parts of Chuck Palahniuk's early books are their essay-like sections that give Palahniuk a chance to rant directly to the reader about the state of contemporary culture. But their "story"-sections seem to me to be half-formed).

My problem with Zodiac, then, is that, on the surface, it's a couple of extremely well-directed set pieces recreating the killings, surrounded by a decent journalism/police procedural. But that's kind of all it is and it never quite convinced me why I should really care about this case. I never got the sense that the movie had anything to say outside of itself, in the way that, say, Fight Club deals with a whole bunch of "issues", and I also never got the sense of why the Zodiac investigation itself deserved this kind of elaborate, expensive dramatization. I mean, All the President's Men deals with an event that shook the country and whose effect is still being felt today.

Actually, the procedural stuff went over well enough while I was watching, but on reflection, it seems like the movie dropped the ball with lots of little nuts-and-bolts stuff. I'm tempted to read the books that it's based on, not so much because I'm interested in the material, but because I bet that they clear up some of the points that the movie passes over.

And Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt don't do anything with the Zodiac murders, like, for example, putting them in a larger context and exploring our fascination with unsolved cases like this, as Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell do with the Jack the Ripper killings in From Hell.

Nonetheless, I thought the movie was pretty engaging and interesting for the first two hours. But then the procedural stuff ends and it turns into a movie about a lone Robert Graysmith looking for the truth. These scenes at the end aren't bad, per se (although one of them - when he goes to visit the manager of the silent film theater - is badly misconceived), but they're pointless. I never really got a sense of why Graysmith let this obsession almost ruin his life. One solution would have been to have a more critical take on him, in order to get at why people become fixated on serial killers. The movie is based on his books and he was involved in the production of the movie, so it's kind of strange that the movie never bothers to get into what drew him to this story in the first place.

Given the same material, someone like Hitchcock or De Palma would have (I think) tried to get underneath it: to suggest what really drove Graysmith to keep at the case even after everyone else has given up because the answers that the screenplay offer are kind of stock.

Still, though, it's a well-made movie and the murder sequences are very creepy and very different in style and feel from anything else Fincher has done. I'll probably see it again when it comes out on DVD, just to check whether or not there's more going on there than met my eye.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Movie Chat: The Host

The Host

Like Sean Collins, I'm always a little suspicious about the way "mainstream" critics will latch onto a horror movie if they can read it as political allegory. While it's true enough - a lot of horror movies do have political commentary in their sub-or-not-so-sub-text - that tends to be the least interesting/enjoyable part (for this horror fan at least). For instance, I know that George Romero's Dawn of the Dead is meant as a critique of consumerism, etc., but it's a one-note, one-joke critique and while it adds something to the movie, it's not exactly the icing on the cake (i.e. something superficial that nonetheless holds the movie together). It's more like knowing that the baker used Splenda and egg whites while making the cake, so you don't have to feel so guilty about eating it.

(For the record: what I like about Dawn is the way it gets at the dynamics of people coming together and falling apart when they're under pressure). (Also for the record: this is probably why I was a bit "meh" about Romero's Land of the Dead, which is lots and lots of political commentary and skimps on the "people under pressure" details). (Final for the record: I think all the attention paid to the social/political messages of Romero's movies has obscured his status as one of the most interesting religious filmmakers out there). (Sorry, I lied: I feel sort of the same way about a lot of the critical takes on Carl Barks's Duck stories: yes, a lot of them (cleverly) make some (very clever) political points, but that seems (to me) to be such a small part of what makes them great, that the fact that critics spend so much time pointing that out seems (to me) like they're performing some kind of penance).

Anyway, I bring all this up just to say that though there's some political (anti-American) stuff in The Host, it seems like a relatively small part of the movie. Although maybe that's because the movie is such a mix of genre, tones, and moods that any single element is going to seem small when compared to the whole. Any element except for the creature, that is, which is everything I'd want from a movie monster.

I should also note that I usually have some trouble responding to the seemingly, wildly incoherent tones and styles of a lot of the Korean movies that I've seen. For instance, I liked parts of Welcome to Dongmakgol, but I honestly did not know what to make of its sudden shifts from the realistic military violence of Saving Private Ryan to the magical folksy sentiment of something like I Know Where I'm Going to the cartoonish slapstick of a Will Ferrell movie and then back to Saving Private Ryan for a bloody, depressing ending (which, FYI, is much more anti-American than anything in The Host). Even the Bollywood movies that I've seen - with their plots about terrorists and big romantic musical numbers and over-the-top action sequences - seem to have had a more coherent vision than Dongmakgol.

The Host is also kind of all over the place tonally, but the director manages to pull everything together by (a) keeping a coherent visual style and (b) tempering everything else with a sense of sympathetic, bemused irony.

My two "gripes" that aren't really gripes, but more like nitpicks:

  1. Structurally, there's a slight problem in that the movie's most technical brilliant and viscerally moving sequence comes really early and though everything that comes after is still really good, that there isn't more that's also breathtaking is a bit of a let down (see also The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan).

  2. This is much more personal, but my girlfriend was able to watch The Host pretty much all the way through, which means that, for me, for a horror movie, it was lacking in both the gore and scares departments. Last year's (IMHO) underrated Slither isn't as good a movie as The Host, but it's constant one-upping of the "ick" factor is more what I'm looking for from a movie about slimy mutant creatures who are trying to eat us. Also, the trailer that I saw quoted some critic comparing this to Jaws, but both Jaws and Jurassic Park are more suspenseful/scary than this.

Still, I liked it, and for those keeping score at home, currently my favorite movie of the year.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A quick note to fans of Paul Verhoeven's film version of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers

Say what you want about the film, but the novel (a) is not fascist and (b) is not racist (it very well might be species-ist, however, but that's a discussion for another time). I've written a little about this before (in fact this was one of the first things I posted on this blog), but circumstances have inspired me to bring it up again.

I'm going to spoil the book, so if you haven't read it but are just pretending that you have, stop reading now:

First, the book does celebrate the military, but it doesn't gloss over the "chickenshit" parts of military life, nor does it make war out to be anything less than Hell.

Second, the society depicted in the book is not one where you have to serve in the military in order to earn the right to vote. Rather, the vote is earned by entering into Federal Service, only a small portion of which is the military. As for being a militaristic society, the book makes it fairly clear that the Mobile Infantry is looked down upon by most citizens. It is a society that puts a lot of emphasis on civic responsibility.

Third, Juan Rico is not a blond, blue-eyed Aryan (like he is in the movie): he's Filipino, though we don't find this out until the last page. This is part of Heinlein's point, I think: all the non-Western/non-Anglo names for characters in the book are his way of suggesting that creating a functioning multi-cultural society requires something like the Federal Service, i.e. putting time in in order to become a fully-fledged citizen creates a bond among people that, if not stronger than kin and cultural ties, is at least as strong.

Movie Chat: Funny Ha Ha

Funny Ha Ha

There are some cartoonists, who despite having limited cartooning chops, manage to make a virtue of necessity through their choice of subject matter and through a judicious, thoughtful use of the technique they do possess. These cartoonists are so able to make their limitations part of what makes their work interesting and compelling that it raises the question of to what extent is it accurate to talk about "limitations" in the first place. That is, these cartoonists may not be able to pull off things that more accomplished cartoonists might, but, since they're not even trying, isn't it a non-issue?

That's kind of how I felt watching Funny Ha Ha, even though the limitations there are mostly logistical and self-imposed. Andrew Bujalski makes a virtue of necessity in that, for example, the non-actors on screen trying not to "act" are awkward in a way that adds to the movie's overall depiction of post-collegiate awkwardness instead of getting in the way (as is unfortunately the case with a lot of purposeful artlessness in indie movies, where it's often unreadable and ends up turning into something like a Rorschach blot).

I guess I can see how the whole non-technique thing might be a little grating, but I was glad I was able to go with its flow as the payoff - sharply observed moments of twentysomething self-delusion - was worth it. I'd also guess that how close you are to the material (i.e. how close you are to living the kind of life that the hipsters/slackers, nerds/dorks in the movie live) is going to loom large in your response. For instance, I thought it was a pretty accurate yet sympathetic catalog of the different ways guys and gals of my age and with (more or less) my background make asses of themselves when it comes to romance. My girlfriend, though, identified fairly strongly with the main character, and found it a bit more painful to watch. In terms of cringe-worthiness, its like Curb Your Enthusiasm without the punchlines.

But, that aside, I have a great deal of affection and good will for a project like this. I like Noah Baumbach's movies, but, as modest a filmmaker as he is, they still cost a few million dollars to make. Though the obscenity of the money spent on movies doesn't really get to me unless I start dwelling too long on something like Talladega Nights (why does a Will Ferrell comedy need to be such a gargantuan production?), it's nice to see that Bujalski has come up with a method (both in terms of making movies and in getting them out there to an audience) that thrives on not needing lots of money to make work. That is, a Funny Ha Ha remake done by, say, Baumbach and Wes Anderson, with a cast of genuine actors, would probably lose the "honesty" that makes the movie work.

("Honesty" is in quotes, of course, because the "this is real life" look-and-feel of Funny Ha Ha is, making a virtue of necessity or not, still a - I don't want to use the word "calculated" - conscious, aesthetic choice.)

Anyway, I like this movie a lot and would recommend unreservedly to people of my age and background: you either know these people or have been these people. I'd recommend it with reservations to other folks, but I can definitely vouch for its anthropological value.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Movie Critics

I meant to get to this earlier...

I was very interested in this post from Jim Emerson about movie critics which deals with some of the same issues that I've brought up on this blog.

I basically agree with Jim, although I think he raises some tricky questions which he then ignores (at least in this post, I'm pretty sure this is stuff that he's aware of and thinks about).

He writes:

[M]ost movies are also crap! Even if they're relatively enjoyable at the time, they're forgettable and disposable, like yesterday's lunch. Imagine if you had to spend more time writing about movies than you actually do seeing them. Because most reviews take longer than 90 minutes to write, which is probably why many critics prefer writing about films that give them something to write about. Something that may be worth thinking about after you pay for your parking.

Now, I know a job is a job, and if I was trying to eke out a career as a movie reviewer, I know that I'd write about whatever movies my editor wanted me to. And it can be fun to write take-downs of stuff like Wild Hogs, but I'm sure, more often, it's just kind of a chore.

But if you're a critic like Jim who knows that a lot of movies that get released are going be stuff like Wild Hogs, then I think it might be a good idea to at least try to approach them in the manner they're intended. I mean, it's not like it should be surprising that Wild Hogs is no Sideways.

Actually, I shouldn't even be talking about Wild Hogs, which I haven't seen and I'm sure is probably pretty awful, but check out the Metacritic scores for Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, two of the greatest examples of gross-out comedy (here's a terrific essay on Kingpin by Alan Dale, my favorite film critic when it comes to writing about comedy). Most movie critics don't like even the best examples of this kind of movie, so, of course, they're not going to like mediocre ones.

Sean Collins brought up a similar issue in his exchange with Jim Treacher about the critical response to 300: he questioned why Slate had Dana Stevens review the film when she's on record as not liking war movies. Now, I think it can be good to get a kind of dissenting opinion-style piece: to read a review of a movie by someone who just doesn't like that kind of thing in general. Sometimes an outside perspective can provide insight that "insiders" are too close to see. (For instance, I'd note the genre of review where "that kind of thing in general" is experimental/art films and the outside perspective is along the lines of "what obscure, pretentious nonsense".)

In general, though, I get more out of a review or piece of criticism written by someone who is sympathetic to the kind of movie being reviewed, even if not to the actual movie itself. That is, I generally get more out of a negative review of something like 300 written by someone who appreciates Peckinpah movies and wuxia flicks and war movies than one written by someone who just doesn't respond to these kind of things, across the board.

Likewise, I doubt that Alan Dale will write about Wild Hogs (although he might write about Norbit), but I'd be more interested in his take on the movie, simply because I know that he can appreciate and enjoy a good gross-out comedy when he sees it. (On the experimental/art side, even though these movies generally don't float my boat, I tend to get more out of criticism written by folks who do dig this stuff - like Michael Sicinski - then I do from that written by people who's views/tastes are closer to my own).

I don't really have a big summing up point or even a major gripe. I'll just note that this phenomenon - critics writing lots and lots about kinds of movies that they, essentially, aren't that interested in/jazzed by - plays a big part in why professional film criticism is such a wonky, wobbly thing. For instance, as Jim points out, a critic is going to be thankful for a movie that gives him or her something to write about, i.e, a movie that makes their job easier and/or more interesting. This just might mean that certain kinds of movies - those which lend themselves to being written about - are going to tend to have a better reputation among critics than an "equally good" movie that speaks for itself.

Not a big problem, by any means, but one people who write about film and read about film should be aware of.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Movie Chat: 300


The teenage goth girl who sold me and my brother tickets for this told us that it was the best movie she had seen since The Matrix. Turns out I agree with her more than I do with the film's critics, who seem to be in two camps: (1) the folks who don't like the movie because it's politically irresponsible and reactionary and (2) the folks who don't like the movie because it feels like a big, stylized video game.

My Take: that's all true enough, but, to me at least, it seemed like everything was in quotes. This is a "Pro-War" movie and there's lots of "Violence". Everything is aestheticized though to such an extent that my reaction was basically to nod along in appreciation of the choreography, the realization of Frank Miller's images, and the physiques on display.

What made me like it rather than just be impressed by it, is that it didn't feel pushy at all. On the one hand, this meant that I never really got caught up in it or had much in the way of an emotional reaction. On the other hand, it meant that I could sit back and enjoy it without feeling worked over.

I want to see Sin City again - I caught it on its opening weekend and was done in by its length, despite liking parts of it quite a bit - but what I like about 300 is that, unlike Sin City, it isn't obsessively concerned with recreating Frank Miller's images on the screen almost exactly as they appear on the page. That seemed to not only have the intended effect of flattening everything out, but also the unintended effect of being kind of redundant. And fetishizing the images seemed to take the life out of them: their pulpy charm was undermined by the millions of dollars spent to "bring them to life". However, 300 treats its source material slightly less reverently: Snyder and his crew conceive of everything in terms of space, movement, and depth. It's still like the space, movement, and depth in a video game, but there are still moments of brainless blockbuster poetry (I'm thinking specifically of the two bits dealing with walls of bodies and the first slo-mo/heavy metal sequence).

My Even Quicker Take: Yes, it is like a video game, but it gets by because it has a sense of assuredness and willingness to slow down and stand back. I think it's a lot like Hero or The Promise, the difference being that wuxia is still kind of a living B-movie genre, while Sword & Sandal is a thing of the past. Still, the formula is the same: all these movies build elaborate, spectacular, action set-pieces out of the standard B-movie tropes that grew out of economic necessity. (Hero probably goes over better with critics because of its foreign art house pedigree).

See also: Sean Collins and Jim Treacher on 300.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Movie Chat: Egged On

"Egged On"


Or, even better, "Holy shit!"

Sometimes when I put a movie on, I expect to be wowed. For instance, I really loved A Tale of Floating Weeds, which I watched last week, but liking it or thinking it's a little masterpiece wasn't surprising to me. After all, it's an Ozu movie, Ozu's one of the greats, so, yeah, no duh that it impressed.

But for a movie to be a revelation it has to catch me unaware (which has gotten harder over the years as I've seen more movies and read more about film history).

Which brings me to "Egged Up", a short from Charley Bowers, a silent film comedian and animator whom I had never heard of before reading about him in this primer on the Green Cine site. (Just as a note: Bowers never came up in any of the silent film or general film history classes that I took during the 6 years I spent studying film as an undergrad and a grad student).

Well, I watched it last week and I thought it was pretty terrific. I can't believe I'd been in the dark about this guy for so long, but I'm kind of glad that there are still surprises like this out there for me.

After watching "Egged Up", I looked around on the internet for more info on Bowers. And I noticed that a bunch of articles kept giving the same reason for Bowers's obscurity: he wasn't as strong a performer (both as a physical comedian and as an "actor") as Buster Keaton. That explanation seems kind of bogus to me: while it's true enough - Bowers can't match Keaton when it comes to physical comedy and he doesn't seem to be much of an "actor" - there are so many other possible reasons that quoting this as the primary one seems a little lazy. (And, you know, no one can match Keaton, so it's kind of a weird bar to set, as if, in something that is at least kinda/sorta "art", you have to be the best to be remembered. In reality, lots of "second rate"/"minor" artists have staying power, for lots of different reasons).

It's the way that these judgments get passed down and repeated that bugs me. I mean, reading more about silent comedy, I kept coming across articles that talk about, say, Larry Semon's current obscurity having to do with his "failure to create a comic character" (sort of like this one). I wonder, though, if luck, and, maybe even the tastes and memories of influential critics and film preservationists, have a little more to do with it. The preservation and rediscovery of these films has been something of a chancy matter. For instance, this article suggests that Larry Semon had a better reputation in Europe than in the U.S. because the only films that survived here were from later in his career when he had fallen into formula. I have no idea how accurate this assessment is, but I buy the underlying concept.

This gets into a tricky area:

On the one hand, there are simply too many movies out there not to do some reducing - it can be useful to talk about "the greats" of silent comedy (Chaplin and Keaton) or Japanese film (Ozu and Kurosawa) or Westerns (Ford and Peckinpah) simply because we don't always have the time or the need to deal with subjects in great depth. On the other hand, sometimes we do need to step back and take note of the way focusing on the greats neglects other work that can be just as vital and rewarding.

There's a dilemma that I keep coming up against: now, thanks to Netflix and YouTube and similar sites, we can experience more movies and other pop culture performances more easily than ever before. And my guess is the quantity of content and the ease of accessibility will keep increasing. At the same time, faced with all of this stuff to watch, where are you supposed to begin and how can you know that your not missing things like these Charley Bowers disks? The answer I've come up with, for now, at least: watch whatever seems interesting at the moment, keep poking around the internet for more finds, and realize that I'm not going to get around to seeing everything that I might like to.

I don't know: I try to be generous and charitable when it comes to other people's responses to movie, but, honestly, if you watched "Egged Up" and your reaction is: "Eh, pretty good but Bowers is no Keaton" then I have serious doubts about your love of actual movies (as opposed to, heh, "cinema in general"). I'm not saying that it's a masterpiece or that we need to start teaching it in Cinema Studies programs: I am saying that if you can't enjoy it for what it is - a playful short comedy full of inventive sequences - then you might want to reassess why you were drawn to watch a movie like this in the first place.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Twenty Favorites

Inspired by Dave McDougall, Michael S. Smith, and Darren Hughes (links thanks to, respectively, Michael Blowhard, Andy Horbal, and Andy Horbal):

This is the top twenty I came up with recently when I was compiling an All-Time Top Ten for the annual List Party that I have with my college film buff buddies. This is definitely a personal list, which may seem a little weird since most of the movies on it are pretty standard Best of All-Time Choices, but they're honestly the ones I like most (right now at least). I didn't want to through in some of the more off-the-beaten-path movies that I like slightly less (Shadow of a Doubt, Modern Romance, Videodrome) just to be willfully quirky. I followed Sight & Sound's convention of grouping together the multi-part epics, although, technically, that makes this a Top 23 List. And I didn't restrict myself to one film per director, which is only fair, as this list might as well show off my particular love for Kurosawa, Altman, and Hawks.

1. The Apu Triology

2. The Godfather and The Godfater Part II

3. The Night of the Shooting Stars

4. Play Time

5. Seven Samurai

6. Nashville

7. The Rules of the Game

8. Vertigo

9. Bringing Up Baby

10. Blue Velvet

11. Seven Chances

12. Sans soleil

13. Singin' in the Rain

14. Schindler's List

15. The Leopard

16. Children of Paradise

17. Intolerance

18. Shoot the Piano Player

19. Citizen Kane

20. Rio Bravo

For comparison, here's a list of 20 of my favorite films that probably wouldn't show up on very many film buffs' top 20 lists (i.e., the willfully quirky and off-the-beaten-path list):

1. Aloha Bobby and Rose
2. Modern Romance
3. Die Hard
4. Dumb and Dumber
5. To Live and Die in L.A.
6. The Hollywood Knights
7. Akira
8. Battle Royale
9. Scanners
10. Kingpin
11. Red Dawn
12. A Girl in Every Port
13. The Big Broadcast of 1938
14. Austin Powers
15. The Last American Hero
16. Thunder Road
17. Scrooged
18. Caddyshack
19. The Towering Inferno
20. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

(Someday I'll get around to writing an appreciation of Floyd Mutrux.)

Looking at the two lists, I imagine a Forager Film Series where the double features were made up of one movie off each list: To Live and Die in L.A. and Shoot the Piano Player, Singin' in the Rain and Aloha Bobby and Rose, The Hollywood Knights and Nashville, California Split and Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and The Apu Triology, The Godfather movies and Scrooged, and Intolerance and The Towering Inferno (bring your lunch to this one).

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Very Short Post on Elmore Leonard

In most crime novels (even really good ones), the criminals tend to be dangerous because they are smart or wiley or obsessed or possess some other kind of strength that makes them worthy opponents.This is understandable: writers want to give their heroes a challenge. So, if their protagonists are a cut above, their antagonists need to be, too. (A clear example of this is in the TV show Law & Order: Criminal Intent: Goren is always facing off in a battle of wits against some kind of extra-clever killer.)One of the things I like about Elmore Leonard's criminals is that they are dangerous because they are unpredictable and violent - even though they're usually not that bright. This strikes me as being a somewhat clearer-eyed take on the matter.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Will Movies Last?

Fellow film buffs - especially those of us with an appreciation for old movies - should definitely check out this dialogue at Stuff of Dreams.

The Derelict watched some old movies with a friend of his who is an "old movie novice", and he was a little disturbed by some of her comments, like:

I really just think that movies just aren't really that important. Like, who cares if people forget about Waterloo Bridge or whatever other movie? What's going to happen if they're forgotten? Nothing. Most movies have a short shelf life. I know all of the movies that I like, I'll remember and pass on to future generations, but all of the older movies I've never seen? Who cares?

The Derelict sums it up:

I’m really, I dunno, disturbed by the fact that movies are so disposable. It was something I’d been thinking about for a long time actually, in relation to old movies, to movies in general, to movies as art vs. movies as cheap, quick entertainment... Movies are pop art, for the most part, and I guess it’s to be expected that pop art will have a short shelf life, whether it’s a catchy tune on the radio, a TV show, or a movie. I would like to think that certain movies will last in some form two hundred or three hundred years from now, the way great literature of the past has lasted into our own century, but maybe that’s expecting too much.

My own take on the "will movies last thing?" is a bit less pessimistic. I think that "the Hollywood movie" is one of America's great contributions to world culture from the 20th Century. So, representative movies like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz will last as part of the popular culture. More obscure movies probably will be remembered only by a (relatively) small number of cognoscenti, but this isn't any different from what has happened with literature. Thanks to high school and college lit classes, there's still a general audience for The Great Gatsby, while a "lesser" but still interesting and enjoyable book like The Magnificent Ambersons is read by many fewer people. And, ironically, even among today's arts and culture buffs, that book is probably best known because Orson Welles turned it into a movie. And I'd love it if more people besides me and the folks in the William Dean Howells society were excited about a book like A Hazard of New Fortunes, but I bet it'd be easier to find someone to gab with about The Maltese Falcon.

But all I can do is guess about the future of "old movies". I can't help but think that the digitization of everything is going to continue.

But I don't necessarily think it's a terrible thing for "old movies" to become something appreciated mainly by film buffs. I'm more concerned with this tendency to reduce arts and culture stuff to nothing more than a choice about how to spend leisure time. (I do this myself, of course, too.) There's something appealing to me about the admittedly hokey and old-fashioned idea of "art appreciation": that is, you should spend time learning about great works of culture because doing so will make your life richer, and not simply because art and literature can be enjoyable or can offer an escape from the day-to-day.

Still, I have mixed feelings about turning to academia and the museums to conserve popular art. On the one hand, keeping these movies around, keeping them - even marginally - part of the cultural consciousness is a truly good thing. On the other hand, I'm not sure a movie like Citizen Kane is best served by thinking of it as a piece of "museum" art. I brought this up on a message board recently, but I think the problem a lot of non-cinephiles have with Citizen Kane is that they approach it with a sense of awe and expect it to deliver some kind of "high art" experience. I think the movie (to i ts credit) works at a lower level than all that: if I was introducing the movie to first time viewers, I'd emphasize its humor and theatricality, its gothic weirdness and visual invention. As much as any Hollywood movie, Citizen Kane is an entertainment.

Anyway, I also sympathize a little bit with the Derelict when it comes to the more selfish reasons for wanting to get people into "old movies": I'd like to be able to have more face-to-face discussions about old movies. (And I didn't find too many fans of old movies at film school, either.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tim and Eric, "Not Film", and YouTube

I had originally planned to write more on Tim and Eric here, but I came down with a cold last week, fell behind in my blogging, and decided to post what I had.

Anyway, I commented a little bit about the Tim and Eric show on a message board and I wanted to use one of the responses from there to anchor this post. "The Atlas Boy" wrote:
I like their live performances, but to be honest, I've never been very fond of any of their recorded material -- I see it as kind of like Napoleon Dynamite or that sort of thing without characters, structure, or (for the most part) punchlines. And you know how I am about punchlines. I think they do a good job creating an atmosphere, but either fail to or aren't interested in doing anything with that atmosphere. (They're better in this regard live, obviously.)

And they have a bit of that deliberately-grotesque-and-unpleasant edge that I've never been able to endure.

But as I said, I do like their live work for the most part (though I don't know what they're doing on this tour, or if it has any relation to anything I've seen), and Tim is a really nice guy. (I don't mean Eric isn't. I don't know Eric.)

First, Tim certainly seemed like a nice guy at the show. Towards the end of their act, Tim and Eric come out on stage in bathrobes and show a super secret behind-the-scenes clip from their first Cartoon Network series Tom Goes to the Mayor. I was impressed by how "off" they were: that is, they didn't seem to be performing and it was a weirdly comforting, in a "these are just regular guys" kind of way. That's not a feeling I generally get watching comedians.

Of course, Tim and Eric aren't really comedians. "The Atlas Boy" is right that their bits either don't have or don't emphasize punchlines. There wasn't a memorable one all evening, and, on their Adult Swim shows, any that are there seem like throw-aways or head-scratchers.

And he's also right that there is something like an unpleasant edge to a lot of their stuff. I'm not sure if I would use the word "unpleasant", but there's something willfully off-putting about a sketch like Uncle Muscles, where Tim plays an incompetent singer, sweating buckets under the lights, and the poorly lit video emphasizes the character's bad make-up job. ("Bad make-up" is a recurring Tim and Eric motif.)

What's interesting to me, though (this week at least), is the way Tim and Eric (who met in college and made their first videos for film classes) ransack the realm of performance/video art in order to find material and techniques for their comedy. And I was thinking about Tim and Eric when I read this post about "not films" on Andy Horbal's blog.

There, Andy gives as an example of a "not film" a broadcast of a basketball game that made heavy use of the instant replay in order to figure out a close call. The producers of the broadcast keep replaying - from different angles, at different speeds - a key moment of play. Andy argues that the effect - the way it calls attention to the technique of TV broadcast production - is similar enough to the effect that some avant-garde films aim at - calling attention to what is normally "invisible" in conventional, narrative cinema - so that it would make a useful teaching tool.

There's always going to be a very select audience for long-form, non-narrative films. They ask a lot out of a viewer (in time, attention, etc.) and what they deliver (an abstract, aesthetic experience) is not what most people go to the movies for.

I think the problem facing a lot of long-form avant-garde films is the same problem that Spengler diagnoses for modernist music in this article. That is, modernist painting/sculpture is more accessible (or at least bearable) than its film/video equivalent partly because you aren't trapped in the experience.

(One of my own issues with existing avant-garde films is that they're often in danger of being more interesting to think about/write about/read about than they are to actually watch. It's almost like you have to sit through them in order to earn the right to talk about them afterwards, like some kind of weird, intellectual hazing.)

But, and here I'll go back once again to this recent post from 2Blowhards and connect this seeming digression to what I was talking about at the beginning of this post, I think that the kind of "accidental" avant-garde videos that Michael Blowhard points to on YouTube and the little movies on Tim and Eric's website seem to suggest the emergence of avant-garde-ish video making as a "lively" art, one that not only Andy's hypothetical film students but actual everyday people will find (relatively) accessible.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Movie Chat: The Promise

The Promise

When it comes to wuxia, I'm not even a dabbler. For the most part, my experience with this kind of movie has been through the "prestige" wuxia flicks. Though I've also seen Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, and a couple others whose names escape me at the moment, I've responded more to relatively "mainstream" (even middlebrow) pleasures of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and The House of Flying Daggers.

I'm laying this out, because I want to put my comments on The Promise in their proper context. I'm not an expert, so I have no real idea how it fits into the genre historically or how it compares with, say, The House of Flying Daggers in terms of fidelity to wuxia's tropes and conventions.

So, my take on Crouching Tiger was that it's wuxia with all the rough edges smoothed away. Hero is wuxia used for large scale, allegorical political pageantry. And The House of Flying Daggers is wuxia as heady, heightened pop opera.

The Promise, on the other hand, strikes me as being closer to a "generic" wuxia - amped up. It's big, the effects are over-the-top, and the plot moves along with a straightforward, unapologetic arbitrariness. There's nothing in the movie that even approaches a mundane, baseline moment to gauge the high-flying fantasy against. And, related to that, there's hardly any attempt to build up these characters or get the audience to care about them in a conventional way. More than any of the other wuxia pictures I've seen, The Promise operates on a mythic level.

In a way it reminds me of Frank Miller's sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, where he tries to fit in everything that he loves about super-hero comics, even the stuff that most "prestige" super-hero books leave out - the garish circus-like atmosphere, the exaggerated but ungrounded moral struggles, loads of both too meaningful and purposeless action. The Promise has this kind of vibe: as if the filmmakers weren't going to let a proper sense of scale get in their way.

As pretty as The Promise looks, I didn't get the sense that it was trying to impress me with its seriousness. And even its prettiness isn't fussed over. Although this means that the CGI isn't as seamless as it is in Hero, it's also looser - more like a cartoon and less like Ran-lite.

All of which is kind of prelude to say that I enjoyed watching it quite a bit, and I'm a little surprised at how badly it was reviewed by film critics. I mean, I've certainly seen deeper action/adventure movies and more emotionally engaging action/adventure movies, but The Promise looks great, it moves quickly, the performances are all likable, and the set pieces are inventive and exciting. Were people let down because this movie didn't have the intellectual/aesthetic rigor of Hero or the old fashioned movie romance of Crouching Tiger? (I find it inexplicable that The Promise got panned, when Kung Fu Hustle received so many rave reviews.) Was there a secret critics meeting where they decided that they were going to be sourpusses when it came to The Promise?

Sunday, March 4, 2007

With that in mind...

I don't have the time or the inclination to write about every movie I see (or book I read) and when I do choose to post about one, it's usually because it provoked what for me at least is an interesting question. I'm not sure how clear this is from the posts themselves, but, for instance, these comments on Little Miss Sunshine were inspired by the idea that sometimes an excess of hype can spoil the experience of watching a "little" movie and when I wrote about The Queen I was really interested in the way our own take on a historical event colors our experience of watching a movie based on that event.

This means that I end up seeing quite a few movies that I like and would definitely recommend, but that I don't feel inspired to blog about. (I'm not a reviewer, after all.) Not that I don't have anything to say about these movies or that I wouldn't be happy to engage in a conversation about them: they just didn't spark the kind of internal conservation that turns into one of these posts.

That's one of the reasons I like doing lists like these: I can name off a bunch of movies I like, but I only need to comment about the ones that move me to comment. With that in mind, here's my Top Ten list for last year's movies. Note that like all these lists, it's a work in progress. I haven't had a chance yet to see, for example, Shortbus or Letters from Iwo Jima or Dreamgirls or Inland Empire, but I did end up seeing about half as many movies as my professional film critic friend. I have two purposes in posting this here: (1) these are all movies I'd recommend (with some qualifications and reservations depending on who I was recommending them to) and (2) these are all movies that I'd be interested in chatting about.

1. Neil Young: Heart of Gold

2. Heading South

3. United 93

4. The Proposition

5. The Descent

6. A Prairie Home Companion

7. The Prestige

8. The Science of Sleep

9. Children of Men

10. Something New

And I also liked: A Scanner Darkly, The Great Yokai War, Inside Man, Venus, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Queen, Slither, For Your Consideration, The Departed, and Idiocracy.

My take: There are a few movies here that I do have more to say about (The Science of Sleep, Heading South, and The Descent), so I'll save my comments on them for later.

I kind of wish I did have something to say about The Prestige beyond that it was the best time I've had watching a big budget, Hollywood entertainment all year.

Children of Men would have been up closer to the top of the list, but I docked it a few places because of its incoherence.

My girlfriend didn't think Heart of Gold should have topped the list, because she said that "it was just a Neil Young concert." Well, I guess so. It's a great Neil Young concert and it's produced, staged, and filmed with lots of thought and skill, but if you don't, you know, like Neil Young it might not do all that much for you. I do like Neil Young and I really like his Prairie Wind album (where all the "new" songs in the movie come from). Regardless, it makes a great double bill with A Prairie Home Companion: I can't recommend watching them back-to-back highly enough.

The Great Yokai War is the only Takashi Miike movie I've ever recommended to my relatives.

I already wrote about Idiocracy, but, since I've seen it, my lukewarm response has heated up a little. When I first saw Office Space, in the theater on opening weekend, I didn't think too highly of it. I thought it had some funny parts, but that a lot of it didn't work. Of course, that was back when I was still in college. Since entering into the "real world" and actually working in an office, my appreciation for the film has grown by leaps and bounds. In the case of Idiocracy, the same thing is happening, but more quickly. Just about every morning there's some story on the Today show that makes me turn to my girlfriend and say in a disaster movie hysteric's voice: "Idiocracy is now!!!!"

Friday, March 2, 2007

Movie Chat: Ikiru


Here's an experience I've had a number of times: I'll feel that I need to read a "classic" 19th Century/early 20th Century novel, I'll pick up a copy, get almost overwhelmed by how daunting I imagine reading it will be, jump in anyway, and end up being surprised at how non-daunting - how engaging, interesting, pleasurable, and, even, yes, fun - the book actually is. (The big example is The Magic Mountain). At this point, I should know better, but I may be suffering from a kind of intellectual hangover from my grad school days, where we all tried to keep concepts like engagement, interest, pleasure, and fun out of any arts and culture discussion.

Anyway, Ikiru was one of the few Kurosawa movies I had never seen and I think I was avoiding it for similar reasons to why I was initially wary of starting something like The Magic Mountain: I knew it was a serious classic, that it dealt - directly - with Big Themes (what does "living" really mean?), and that it was widely-praised by film critics and scholars who tended to write about it using a reverential tone.

I finally watched it this week and it was The Magic Mountain experience all over again. My expectations of a stuffy, fussy masterpiece were dashed within the first minute. This is a Big Theme movie, but Kurosawa's handling is sharp and specific, and the movie has an ironic tone that keeps the sentimentality inherent in the material at bay. It's like a more somber, more cynical, but, because of that, more spiritual version of a Frank Capra movie. Kurosawa isn't selling anything like Capra is in It's a Wonderful Life, although, as I was watching Ikiru, that was the movie I kept thinking of. (They're both, after all, about "little" men, facing death, looking for meaning in their life.)

A couple of other thoughts:

  1. I've always felt that, while it's definitely a masterpiece, Rashomon is a little stuffy. (I've always described it to friends as the favorite movie of English Lit. Profs). What's so neat about Ikiru is how Kurosawa takes the overt, in your face device of Rashomon - differing perspectives on the same event - and brings it to bear much more subtly. I.e., the way that different characters - and, at times, the audience - aren't able to get a handle on Watanabe's motivations.

  2. Shimura's performance is amazing. He has one of the most intense non-presences I've ever seen in a movie. I love that in the last act, once Watanabe has started taking action and giving meaning to the life he has left, Shimura does absolutely nothing physically to mark this change. Watanabe remains his small, unimpressive, cowering self. His drive, determination, and spiritual rebirth are almost completely conveyed through Kurosawa's use of close-ups.

  3. There are so many great sequences in the film, but if I had to choose a favorite: the shot where Watanabe is walking out of the hospital in silence, seemingly all alone. He steps into the street, almost into the path of an oncoming truck, and the sound comes back in as the camera pulls out to reveal the busy city life all around him. It's a showy moment, but also one full of poignancy and real insight into how people deal with awful news.

  4. I'm glad I waited to see this movie (even if some of my reasons for waiting were kind of silly). There was a time when I tried to see at least one movie a day (and sometimes managed to get through three or four), and I'd go through the film canon, checking off things that I "needed" to see. Nowadays, I kind of regret the rate at which I consumed Kurosawa, Altman, and Hawks movies, because, now, there are few left that will ever be new to me. Also, I think I have a greater capacity to appreciate a movie like Ikiru than I did seven years ago. (I'm not joking when I talk about saving Bergman for when I'm older.) And I like that I have a whole week to sit and think about this movie before I put the next classic into the DVD player.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

"Reverse" Re-makes

In honor of The Departed's Best Picture win, here are my dream "reverse" remakes - Hollywood movies that I would love to see remade by non-Hollywood casts and crews:

Collateral, starring Ching Wan Lau and Andy Lau, written by Felix Chong and Alan Mak, directed by Andrew Lau. I like the heightened, pop-operatics of Infernal Affairs and the set-up of Collateral strikes me as being similarly juicy B-movie material.

Click, starring Naoki Hosaka and "Beat" Takeshi (in the Christopher Walken role, 'natch), written and directed by Takashi Miike. A little more perversity and a little less crudity, no?

The Illusionist, starring Gaspard Ulliel, Roxane Mesquida, and Dominique Pinon, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (as long as we're dreaming, here). As much as I wanted to like The Illusionist, I was under awed by the illusions themselves - their CGI roots were showing. Also, my guess is that these guys might have a more nuanced take on the aristocracy.