This is a log of movies I've seen. I've decided not to bother with ratings since, y'know, the writeup should speak for itself.
More recent reviews appear at The Ecclesiastical Revue.
This is a movie which haunted my childhood. Not the movie itself, mind, which I didn't see until quite recently, but the soundtrack, which my parents had tapes of. So as a young child I developed instant recognition of Steve Miller's "Quicksilver Girl" and the Exciters' "Tell Him" and several other less obscure songs. So when I saw the The Big Chill was on TV, I didn't know what to expect besides 60s music. It turns out that what I've been missing all these years is nothing more than 80s cinema and 70s characters. This is one of those films about people who don't actually much like one another tolerating each other's presence while nothing much happens, sort of like a grown-up version of The Breakfast Club. The people fit into 70s stereotypes (idealist stuck in the 60s, big business, drug dealer, etc.) but sometimes transcend them: I had Tom Berenger's television-actor character pegged as an oily phoney from the first scene, but he turned out to be rather honest and reasonable, and the Jeff Goldblum's geeky journalist turned out to be the sleaze. It's an OK film, but the music is still the best thing about it.
It's a delightful little flick about homeless people with hearts of gold rediscovering friendship and love. It's very much a feel-good piece, not exploring too much deeply but having a lot of fun with what it does. My main complaint is that it ends a bit too pat and a bit too abruptly. Yes, we have a lot of reconciliations and everybody going home for New Year's, but an awful lot of the loose ends seem hastily tied up, and some others (like the Latino woman trying to kill the groom) are never resolved at all. It tries too hard to make everybody come out looking good and happy and well-intentioned, and it's hard to do that when the reconciliations seem so superficial. But still, it's a really fun film.
This film is based on a Graham Greene novel, which is why I had to see it. It was on TCM, so I'm afraid it was a fullscreen rather than widescreen version. Anyways, it was fairly faithful to a lot of points of the original text (which is the completely unfair standard by which I judge a movie based on a book I've read), although it missed out on the extremely psychologically important middle third of the Greene story, and without that element to Rowe's character, the whole thing comes out seeming like a sort of inferior take on the plot of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The production was an excellent noir archetype, but the plot and characterizations it's supporting are a trifle thin.
There are three films which I have been told must be seen on a big screen to be appreciated: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Doctor Zhivago, and Lawrence of Arabia. 2001 bored me utterly, and Doctor Zhivago I enjoyed well enough but didn't feel it would be so very improved by being on a larger screen. Watching Lawrence of Arabia, however, gave me for the first time the sort of crazed consumerist lust which drives people to buy 70-inch plasma screens which cost more than a decent car. I enjoyed it a great deal on my respectable-sized TV, but it was the sort of thing which wants to be seen on a screen 3 or so times that size. Lawrence of Arabia presents us with one stunning scene after another: the vast emptiness of the Arabian desert, punctuated by battle scenes and hard riding. Add the rousing score to these excellent visuals and you've got an awful lot of spellbinding cinema. The acting's excellent too, but the actors aren't the stars of this film, in my opinion.
Whoa, what a downer. That I found this movie depressing is, I
think, a testament to the strength of the acting. Both Dustin Hoffman
and Jon Voight were terribly close to falling from their precariously
pathetic position: Joe into farce, Ratso into a finally intolerable
assholishness. Somehow they don't, and as a result Ratso's plight is
moving. Parts of it seemed vaguely irrelevant (such as the party with
socialites whatever-the-hell-they-weres), but all in
all it's a well-constructed narrative, made worthwhile by stellar
It's a well-known story, and the best-known film adaptation of that story (IMDB lists at least 17 different film adaptations, and my favorite is this one), but, despite critical acclaim and appreciation by stoners, this one feels a little off-tone to me. The critical problem, as I see it, is in the distinction between the silly and the absurd. Most of what happens in this film is silly, that is to say, it's just goofiness for goofiness's sake, and heavy on the physical humor. The book, in my estimation, is not so much silly as absurd. Absurdity has an internal logic to it, and therein lies the humor. The Mad Tea Party, for instance, involves several absurd but internally cohesive incidents in the book; in the film it's just everybody manhandling each other and eating their saucers. All in all, a fair disappointment to me.
Basing a movie on an episodic series is a kind of ticklish proposition. The options are to pitch the movie as a sequel, a prequel, a synopsis, or just a really long episode. It's kind of puzzling that the last option is so popular, although the second-to-last is even worse and fairly popular, especially with anime (see Revolutionary Girl Utena and Escaflowne for examples of how not to do that). So I guess we'd best be grateful that Knockin' on Heaven's Door just plays like a "Cowboy Bebop" episode that's 4 times as long as it has any right to be. All the right Cowboy Bebop elements are there and all the characters are as they're supposed to be, but it doesn't really feel like a movie.
Deliciously taut and suspenseful. Cary Grant is good in his harried-everyman sort of way, but Eva Marie Sant is amazing, seductive, and mysterious. The story hangs together with terrific cinematic moments — the cropduster scene is the most well-remembered, and with good reason — although I'm unclear on the particular incident drawing Cary Grant into the situation in the first place. How can he be confused with a man nobody's ever seen? Other than that slight weak link, though, it's a fine showcase of pacing, cinematic technique, and acting.
This is about two-thirds of an excellent film. A terrific situation is set up for psychological terror: Mimaru is beset by crises both internal and external as she changes her identity, and much is made of the differences between her image as a pop star and as an actress (this must be a Japanese thing; as far as I can tell, in America the two roles are equally sexualized and beset by scandal). I found the internal struggles far more fascinating, and herein is the movie's weakness: while it draws tight parallels between the internal and external struggles by combining the three worlds of reality, fantasy, and acting, the parallels diverge and fray near the end, when the external conflicts are clumsily explained away by a completely incomprehensible and unexplained insanity of a secondary character, and the internal conflicts, well... they just vanish outright. If this were a series, I'd feel cheated by the ending. As it's a feature film, I'm just disappointed, because the film up to the last two scenes had amazing potential. If Neil Stephenson made movies, they'd probably go something like this.
One can expect certain attributes from a Miyazaki film. Flying girls, clash of nature against civilization, and excellent dubbing. This movie more or less meets those expectations, perhaps too well, since it felt like Princess Mononoke redux. But it's actually predux, since it was written and released considerably prior to Mononoke, and it's only us ignorant 'merkins getting it out of order. It's a fine film, full of all the wonder and fantasy that makes Miyazaki the premier animator of our time, but it's just a pale precursor to an amazing followup. It's basically the Studio Ghibli equivalent of Sense and Sensibility.
Quite stunning, both visually and plotwise. The acting's competent but not extraordinary: the story doesn't really demand any real range. Characterization is in fact the weakest point, in my estimation: with so many characters an awful lot end up being not well fleshed-out, although in some cases we get a good feel from these sketchy strokes: Luca Brasi is well-defined despite barely appearing, but in contrast, Fredo remains a cipher (I wasn't even aware he was Vito's son until near the end) despite frequent appearance. Despite all this criticism, though, it's a nice strong story, effectively making Michael a less and less sympathetic character and everyone else (especially Kay) seem tragic.
Kim Possible is one of those guilty compulsions. I'm not sure if it's even a guilty pleasure: more moments sometimes seem to make me wince than smile. It's definitely a series with a healthy sense of fun and a reasonably free-spirited quality, but watching the Platonic ideals of teenagers at age 24 is kinda painfully cringe-inducing. Anyways, while the series is, as a whole, pretty good, the movie compresses into a small space some of the more irritating aspects of the series (such as awkward teen romance and ghastly slang), along with an awful lot of "tell don't show" exposition — for instance, we're told in ten seconds that Dad Possible is a rocket scientist, Mom Possible a brain surgeon, and the tweebs geniuses. It was far more fulfilling to see all of these things coming together. On the other hand, it was nice to figure out what the hell Rufus actually was (I had figured he was an anthropomorphism — er, musomorphism — of Ron's surgically removed competence). Basically, this is a long episode with clumsy introductory exposition tacked on and a resolution which will be awkward if it stays in continuity. Take it or leave it, I guess.
Kind of an unholy jumble. We've got two separate stories interwoven, and while they're related, they're not terribly parallel, and the jumps between them are clumsy and confusing. Add to this the fact that both stories are kind of predictable, and you don't have an awful lot to hang the talented acting and lovely set design on. This movie reminded me of a question I suppose I should have had when watching the first movie, were Fredo not such a cipher: why isn't Fredo the head of the family? He's older than Michael, and back when Michael was whinging about not wanting to get involved in the family business and Sonny was out going rabidly insane and getting perforated, Fredo seemed the obviously stable and interested choice. Maybe this was explained at some point but I totally missed it.
Good lord, but by this point in the narrative I was just tired. I preferred it to Part II, since it was less diffuse, but the plot's sort of absurd, and rendered more absurd by all the odd (and offensive to those who care) interplay of Mafia and Church. Getting an awful lot of Apollonia-nostalgia near the end just seemed off tonally: I would have liked to see Michael make a bigger deal about his wife getting barbecued two movies earlier, but at this point it just comes across as clumsy emotional manipulation.
Yet another one of those things I felt I had to do. I'd never watched a Woody Allen movie. Sure, I'd probably seen one — my parents did their best to instill me with some sort of sense of culture — but I probably wasn't paying attention. Anyways, this movie, apart from the somewhat predictable plot of Woody Allen's failure to choose and crisis leaving him with nothing, does a good job of hitting all the right points. The script balances humor and pathos delightfully, but more striking to me was the complete New-York-ishness of it all. New York seems in many ways unchanged over the years. While the glamour of L.A. had its rise and fall in the eyes of the world, New York's blend of intellect, fashion, and reality has been much unchanged by time except in particulars. This cross-section of middle-class New York society captures a lot of what New York ends up being: intellectualism, pseudo-intellectualism, liberal thought without action (the dialogue about the Nazi rally's a great example), and the need for something real. It's more a sketch than a story, since the actual story of Manhattan is nothing spectacular, but it's such a good sketch.
Wacky, weird, and a bit prescient. It's Jean-Luc Godard, so it doesn't have to make any sense. While it's billed as a sci-fi work, there are very few actual science-fiction elements, although there is of course the Master Computer, which, along with the mode of its demise, I consider more a staple of 70s films than 60s (cf. Logan's Run, Rollerball, and a handful of "Star Trek" episodes). But the underlying elements of Alphaville are noir. Very confusing noir. There are an awful lot of elements here, not all of which are satisfactorily explained (the mode of execution involving the swimming pool is just plain inexplicable), and some of which are shamelessly stolen (the dictionary conceit, for instance, is a simplification of Orwell's Newspeak evolution). But it's an intriguing and worthwhile piece of cinema, in that it does manage to work an awful lot of concepts together into a, if not seamless, at least vaguely coherent whole.
Yet another whole class of film I'd never watched is Marx brothers movies. Come to think of it, I haven't watched much slapstick comedy at all, so watching this film required me to somewhat rethink my assumptions about what movies — and in particular, comedies — should be like. In my estimation, this movie had a great many well-done moments, as far as physical humor and bad puns go, but failed to actually coalesce into a well-done movie. This may be just my prejudices talking: I'm big on seeing movies as a gestalt rather than a lot of moments strung end-to-end, and puns don't really get me going. I'm well-enough aware of the genre standards of slapstick to appreciate that this is an excellent example of it, but I personally couldn't get too excited over it (which is, by and large, my problem, not the Marx brothers').
Laura, like The Big Chill, was a film I was familiar with solely through its music, which was covered by an awful lot of big-band and jazz performers. Unlike The Big Chill, the music isn't the best thing about Laura. Many of the elements of this film were well-done, and, even if they're trite now, weren't then. I had a feeling from the start for the Big Plot Twist, but maybe I'm oversaturated with crime dramas. The characters mostly worked for me: Clifton Webb and Vincent Price were both delightfully repulsive characters, but Dana Andrews's performance was somehow unconvincing. That he seemed a bit wooden was fine — he's supposed to be like that at the beginning — but his transformation is sudden and unconvincing. We don't see him becoming more and more infatuated with her; we see him doing his job as usual up until the night he spends in her apartment. And the reciprocity of the love, while better acted, is equally unconvincing, storywise. But there's a lot of good in this film, most of it coming from the secondary male characters.
Lola Rennt is definitely an unusual film, in more than one way. I'd seen it before but never all the way through at a single watching, which is the only way to appreciate cinema. The central conceit works well when it works: compare Groundhog Day, and to a lesser extent Rashomon to see how this structure's handled. There's probably something intelligent to say about both Lola Rennt and Groundhog Day with respect to interactive fiction, but all I can come up with are fairly dim-witted observations. It's worth noting, however, that these two films have a significant difference in structure which Paul O'Brian might characterize as "non-accretive" versus "accretive". Or at least, I think Lola's supposed to be non-accretive. If she is accreting knowledge, she's not using it very well. Thematically, it's hard to know what to make of Lola rennt. Most of what happens — good or bad — is just dumb luck. Which perhaps gets back to the questions (and answers) at the beginning: the primary factors guiding human life are not ingenuity and talent, but pure happenstance.
Of course, Lola rennt is striking, for me, not in its structure or theme, but its cinematic techniques. This is very much a late 90s film: it maintains a frenetic intensity even when the action is not moving quickly. It's not just the running around or throbbing techno: there's an intensity in the acting, in the camerawork, in the odd snapshots of people's lives. Nothing really seems to have followed up on this sort of film-for-our-times; one year later everyone decided that The Matrix had redefined cinema when all it really had was flashy special effects. Too bad.
This film has not aged well, and I'm not sure it was that good to begin with. It seems to exemplify a lot of the problems with the 60s, in particular the presumption that art should be confusing and that trippy visuals are an end in and of themselves. Sorry, no. There's something to be said for this approach: confusion is a useful tool, and lunacy and incomprehensibility can have a potent effect on the audience. But first there needs to be some sort of anchor-point from which one can approach the confusion: some semblance of a plot, some idea that what's occurring actually means something. A movie can't just be one randomness after another. The randomness has to be motivated by something. Just about the only thing I knew by the end was that the guy (y'know, the one in the hospital) was from Chappaqua. And had some issue with some girl. There were some good bits (like when he wanted to dance), but they were really in search of a better movie to inhabit. A lot of iconic 60s talents were wasted on this film: Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Ravi Shankar, the Fugs. Actually, Ravi Shankar wasn't wasted (debatable about the Fugs, who weren't exactly luminaries of modern music) since the music is surely the best thing about this film.
(April 29, 2005) Dancer in the Dark is a strange movie. Unlike the many other strange movies I've seen recently, it's fairly clear at most times exactly what's going on. It's hard to know exactly what to make of it, though. Let's start by enumerating peculiarities. Björk (Björk!) and Catherine Deneuve play Czech immigrants, so every time they open their mouths we're reminded that they're Europeans (but the wrong kind of Europeans!). In fact, most of the actors in this film are European, which kind of confuses the whole Selma-as-isolated-immigrant feeling. The next peculiarity is the camera work. I'm assuming they had experienced cameramen, since the song-and-dance sequences (more on that later) are competently filmed. But for most of the film the camera bobs and weaves and zooms erratically like a home movie shot by a drunk orangutan. This is the sort of thing you expect to see with the date and the word "REC" flashing in the lower right corner. If there was a cinematic purpose to this ineptitude, it completely eluded me.
Anyways, I mentioned song-and-dance sequences earlier, which is the chief peculiarity (and central conceit) of Dancer. Björk stumbles and wisps and mumbles her way through the film (in a surprisingly effective manner), but then at intervals throughout the film (usually when something really bad is about to happen), she and her surroundings become a Technicolor musical with the singing and dancing and all. It's a very bizarre effect, not least because musical theater seems to have rather changed. I get the impression this is meant to evoke Rodgers and Hammerstein and, I don't know, Carmen Miranda? But musical theater seems to have gotten a lot darker. Blame West Side Story, maybe, which blends brilliant choreography with a fight scene and manages not to be farcical? Blame James Cameron and Andrew Lloyd Weber, for their heavy and overproduced dramatic approach? Whatever the cause, the idea that people stop and arbitrarily sing during in deep despair and that it fits that mood is no longer completely alien. But Selma's fantasy musical wouldn't be much of a fantasy if it sucked as much as her life does, I suppose.
Oh, for a second opinion I respect, check out Adam Cadre's comments on this film. I read it way back when, which was what made me curious enough about Dancer to hunt it down, a year later. All I remembered him mentioning was a witness tap-dancing during the trial. Good enough for me.
(April 30, 2005) Garden State is, eh, I dunno. I think it's trying to be an awful lot of things at once. It definitely has moments and some clever dialogue, but the actual story is a bit of a mess. We have an awful lot of folks just hanging out and doing silly stuff in a manner eerily reminiscent of those 80s teen movies in which not much actually happened. We have the "repressed guy gets involved with a cute wacky chyk who teaches him to enjoy life" subplot (complete with requisite Tough Decision in an Airport — just once, I'd like to see that scene end with the guy or girl going back to Grand Rapids or wherever and getting on with their life). We have the inability-to-talk-to-father dynamic. I feel like an awful lot of old ideas got rehashed and didn't do anything really new here. I liked the only-now-coming-out-of-a-pharmaceutical-haze aspect, but, honestly, it's an idea which could have been put in service of a less pedestrian plot.
(April 30, 2005) Harold and Kumar is a surprisingly clever movie. It's a stoner film, so that immediately drops it into the bottom 25% or so intellect-wise. But it's definitely the cleverest stoner film I've seen. Funny things happen and they're not always front-and-center. Harold and Kumar aren't just interchangeable slackers — the movie hammers home the idea that they're both highly intelligent people in spite of their dissipated lifestyle, and they have distinct and distinctive personalities. This speaks a bit more to me than the average stoner flick: I knew a lot of people not entirely unlike Kumar as an undergrad. Almost nobody I knew resembled Harold, but, hell, I did and still do in a lot of respects. The plot meanders to follow the geography, but that's OK under the circumstances. People who actually know New Jersey probably enjoy this aspect more than I did. One thing I found interesting was that, while most everybody in the film was a stereotype, they blended the more typical shallow ones (power-mad policemen, scruffy college hippies) with stereotypes of the sort one doesn't usually encounter in stoner films (black intellectual radicals, Mountain-Dew-commercial refugees, intolerable cultural-club enthusiasts). So, y'know, there's a little bit more to chew on than in the usual "guys get high and do wacky stuff" film. Oh, and there's a bong made out of a shofar. And Neil Patrick Harris playing himself. It's better than I make it sound.
(May 2, 2005) One thing I like about films from the early days of cinema is that they have less to prove. Telling a story is more important than being wacky or doing something weird with the camera. And I'm big on stories. While the cinematic technique in La Grande Illusion is primitive (rendered more so by the rather damaged print), the story told is intriguing and well-played-out. I found the interplay of nationality, class, and other status indicators in determining people's loyalties to be an intriguing primary theme, and I can see why this is the sort of film which pissed off the Nazis (even though the Germans are portrayed sympathetically as far as aggressors go, there's a central element of von Rauffenstein's incomprehension of the class-transcending loyalty among the French. That's not a message German unifiers wanted to hear). One confusing point: de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein frequently spoke English among themselves. When did English become the language of pan-European upper class? Not during WWI, I wouldn't have thought.
Another aspect of La Grande Illusion which struck me was how antiseptically war was presented. We gloss over the part where the French officers are shot down and captured, and observe them carried through a number of situations of imprisonment where they are treated respectfully by permissive jailers who admire their national pride. War isn't like this and never was: it is at its best uncivilized and hate-inducing, and World War I was less civilized than most of the preceding wars. Even behind the lines, in prison camps, it's a dirty, antagonistic tale in which few people come out looking good. In this film, nobody really looks bad (the Germans are of course the antagonists, but they're presented as sympathetically as possible). Perhaps the eponymous illusion is not the deceptions created by the French, but the belief that war — or society — is anything like this.
(May 3, 2005) I'm a monster.
Several weeks back, as longtime readers know, and those with a functioning page-up key can verify, I gave a lukewarm review to the second Kim Possible movie. The series, I'm afraid, has grown on me, as any good fungus will, to the point where I greeted the news of a television screening of the first movie with the sort of enthusiasm I used to reserve for rereleases of particularly dire Beach Boys albums. Whether it's my more fannish perspective at this point, or the better design, or both, I found this movie a lot more palatable than the other. It's recognizably linked to the series, but makes more use of secondary characters, less use of clumsy exposition, and generally transcends the usual course of the series so it feels more like a movie than a long episode. It's unfortunate that the funniest line occurs less than 5 minutes in, but it's reasonably clever and good clean fun. Lord knows it's not High Art, but it's based on a series designed for early-teen girls — you would hardly expect Citizen Kane.
(May 4, 2005) Some films have elements everybody knows about, even those who haven't seen the film. Frequently people don't even remember where these culturally ubiquitous elements come from. The Night of the Hunter is such a movie: in public consciousness, pretty much everything in this film takes a back seat to Robert Mitchum's knuckles. In my generation, I blame the Rocky Horror Picture Show for this, but, y'know, even people who haven't seen RHPS have some sort of subconscious knowledge of a guy with "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed across his knuckles.
Anyways, enough about the tattoos. There's a lot of creepiness in the rest of Robert Mitchum to go around, and he manages to skillfully present both a character the viewer instantly distrusts but can see is charismatic to the other characters. Incidentally, on that point it strikes me that watching a movie like this involves levels of interpretation: here, in 2005, I'm watching a 1955 Hollywood impression of midwestern small-town life during the depression. Some of the nuances are apt to get lost in the shuffle. The big thing which gets to me, through this long-distance temporal lens, is the credulity attached to small-towners whenever religion's involved. I find it hard to believe everyone implicitly trusts Robert Mitchum's character: he talks about Jesus a little too much not to sound totally corrupt to my ears. But then, so do television preachers, and millions trust them, so perhaps the world of The Night of the Hunter isn't as alien as it seems from my middle-class suburban agnostic perspective.
(May 6, 2005) Both a critical and a popular success, and it's no wonder. Delightfully crafted characters, ranging from pathetic to frustrating to inspiring, and brilliant acting bringing those characters, mostly by Kevin Spacey but with very strong supporting performances as well. Thematically, it's very much a late-90s/early-2000s movie — if there's a theme which was particularly popular on and right after the tech bubble, it was middle-class discontent (cf. Fight Club, Office Space). Adam Cadre (whom I'm afraid I rely on for a lot of my ideas) presented a generational theory as to why this would be so which seems pretty solid to me; in that light, though, American Beauty doesn't really fit the rule, since the generations realizing the emptiness of their consmerist, materialisting lives here are not the Fight Club generation; the parents are too old, the children too young. So instead we're dealing with a pervasive culture of middle-class discontent, rather than a generational frustration. It's an issue worth exploring, and it's surprisingly unexplored in cinema. We all hear about midlife crises, and certainly they are a real aspect of life, but somehow they never seem to occur, or at least not come alive, in film, until now. It may seem trivializing to call the central drama of American Beauty a midlife crisis, but, ultimately, that's what this is, and considering it in terms of the effect consumer society has on us may well be the right way to be thinking about it.
(May 8, 2005) Six-String Samurai is an unapologetically silly movie. Immediately from the title scroll which introduces us to a world where Elvis Presley is the king of "Lost Vegas", we know we're in for the most absurd post-apocalyptic film since Roller Blade (which I don't think was intended to be serious, but I'm not sure). It's certainly not a deep film, or a cinematically significant one, but it's a pretty fun trifle. Lots of weirdness, some reasonably well-executed swordplay, ad, of course, stellar Russian-flavored surf-rock by the Red Elvises. Once again I'm forced to admit that the best thing about a film is its music. Really, it's not that the movies are bad; it's that the music is good.
(May 9, 2005) The case of this (American-release) DVD hailed it as a brilliant romantic comedy, an description which immediately filled me with dread, since what American critics regard as "romantic comedy" is usually a synonym for "pointless saccharine". It was nice to find that Il Postino was anything but; further, after so many violent, frenzied-paced, urban flicks, it was nice to get something relaxed, laid-back, and pastoral. But it's not just good vibes; it's a film with a fair bit of meat on it, silly and poignant and generally a joy to watch. I was a bit thrown by the sudden politicality near the end, with the election, rally, etc., since up until then it was as apolitical as a film set in Italy concerning an illustrious Communist could be. But nonetheless, I found it a lot of fun, a gentle but not vacuous work.
(May 12, 2005) This was a textbook example of psychological thrill to me, at least for the first part. Everything that happened after the train decoupled was, in my opinion, rather weaker (although still good). I thought the multitude — and ephemerality — of the clues in the first part did an excellent job of drawing out the suspense, although as viewers, unlike in so many films of this nature, we never really doubt Margraret Lockwood's character's sanity. Somehow this suspense manages to stay fairly taut through a good deal of silliness: Redgrave's flirtatious, lighthearted banter; the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the other passengers. Even if the underlying spy-plot seemed a bit thin, I rather liked the handling of the situation presented over the first half or so of the movie, and it's of course (as Hitchcock films so often are) well-done cinematographally as well.
(May 14, 2005) War movies are not really my thing, and movies from the early era of motion pictures are difficult for most members of my generation. It's therefore really, really hard to impress me — or indeed any of us — with a war film from the 30s except as an artifact of its historical context. We're jaded these days, and no fight scene, no matter how well-choreographed, gets our attention unless it's at least as spectacular as the Helm's Deep scenes from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. So I prefer to consider Александр Невский in the context of a historical artifact. The battle on the ice is well-done, by the standards of the day: weirdly antiseptic, since I don't think the art of concealing fake blood had been perfected by then; but, as noted by better film-historians than myself, a fine matching of music to action (and good music, too. Why do I always end up praising the music more than anything else about films?). Outside of the battle scenes, which were well-enough done, but, for the reasons described, don't get me all fired up, I was struck by the political subtext, which was hardly a subtext, loud as it was. Russian unity, uprising against the Germans, etc. hardly need any explanation in the context of a Soviet film from 1938. I found the heavy anti-German tone a bit surprising, actually, in some ways: there's some mention made in the Novgorod debate as to how there's a treaty with the Teutonic Knights, but that the Germans are untrustworthy. This seems a rather surprising bit of propaganda to be endorsing worldwide a year before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed. Seems it'd throw a bit of a wrench into the works. Letting the Russians know that, in spite of the attempt at nonaggression, the Germans weren't actually to be trusted made perfect sense, given the events that followed. Doing so in such a way that everyone in the world knew about it was would seem rather less wise.
(May 15, 2005) To dispense first-off with the similarity of titles, this film has, as far as I can tell, little in common with the Fritz Lang classic of the same name except some (likely coincidental) visual similarities between the Ziggurat and the Moloch Machine. I found the plot and characterizations interesting and worthwhile, but I was constantly being distracted from the meat of the story by the excessively irrelevant visual and audio choices. For instance, there's the world, which is in plot suggestive of not-too-distant-future sci-fi (although lacking the network-fetishism so characteristic of cyberpunk and other modern subgenres of sci-fi), but the visuals, with the giant menchanical devices, is evocative almost of steampunk. And to accompany this world straddling industrial-revolution and robotic-revolution, we get neither gavottes nor techno, but... ragtime and blues. Is "jazzpunk" a viable genre? The overall effect of this time-space nonspecificity's a bit muddling. Add to this some odd choices in drawing characters: why do so many people have oddly-shaped noses? Why does Shunsaku Ban look like the missing third partner of Thomson and Thompson (or, as they say in Japanese, Dupont and Duvont)? And why, oh why, are all these farcical elements crowding in on what seems, at its core, to be a fairly dark story (I didn't get the impression this was dark humor, or at least not meant to be). The crowning Ray Charles musical number, for instance, put me in mind of other pairings of inapporipriate music and visuals, such as Louis Armstrong in Good Morning Vietnam and Vera Lynn in Dr. Strangelove, but those were intentional dichotomy and farce respectively; I didn't see any such purpose served here. Then there are visual choices, like the blending of CGI with more traditional animation (which I've complained about before); I found this less jarring than in Ghost in the Shell 2 until the scene in the throne room of the Ziggurat. The texture map used was fine for the walls and ceiling, but pretty much every time someone walked on the floor, my brain kept shouting "texture map! texture map!" loud enough to distract me from the action.
I would imagine the manga is a lot better.
(May 18, 2005) Unfortunately, the transfer on the DVD I watched was, quite frankly, rather terrible. The audio in particular was rather muddy, so I think I might have missed a fair bit of Cary Grant being clever. Although Cary Grant is in this movie surprisingly little, for a leading character. I liked Rosalind Russell, though, who was on-screen a lot; she did a good job of representing the archetypical lady-reporter, and pretty much everything in the newsrooms and with the phones was good: created a vital sense of confusion and pandemonium (uinfortunately, the muddy audio made it hard to make anything of this chaos). Quick-paced, exciting, and amusing, but in many ways a bit trifling: there's no real meat on this story, and the ending was sort of a let-down: Cary Grant's character is such an unforgivable scoundrel, it's hard to really cheer for him.
(May 18, 2005) This one was originally, apparently, a stage musical. I don't know much about that, so I'll talk about the movie on its own merits. I don't think it's meant to be thoughtful so much as shocking (I think most people still find trans-issues shocking), but I have enough transsexual friends who talk gender theory that it made me thoughtful. And if it does that for other people too, I guess that's a good thing, but most elements of the story seemed more designed for shock value than to stimulate reflection (for instance: most transsexuals' operations are somewhat more consensual and less brutal), but I guess without those elements it wouldn't have the pathos. The music was surprisingly good, as such things go (man, at some point I need to watch a film with really crappy music, don't I?), and the plot, as I mentioned, was enough to keep me interested. My one complaint about character and plot issues is that we really don't get to know enough about Yitzchak. For a major character, he's (I find myself wondering if I'm using the right pronoun here, but can't bring myself to use any of the cacophonous and awkward gender-neutral pronouns. Just call me a bad liberal) suprisingly ill-fleshed-out. We know about certain frustrations and dreams he has, but we don't really know much about the particulars of his relationship to Hedwig.
(May 23, 2005) That I hadn't seen this movie to this point is gross negligence on my part. It's a wonderful film, mostly light-hearted (despite being, cinematically, textbook noir) but with a touch of the dramatic. It has three of the same actors playing almost exactly the same roles as they do in Casablanca (which I like a great deal) so that's a win with me. Also, we get a lot more Peter Lorre, and Peter Lorre's schtick works pretty well on me. In short, I liked it a lot. I already knew the twist ending, but any old enough movie with a twist is subject to that.
A side observation, rather irrelevant to appreciation of the film: In The Maltese Falcon, Sydney Greenstreet plays a portly, impeccably-dressed, mannered trafficker in stolen valuables obsessed with a statue of a falcon. In Casablanca, Sydney Greenstreet plays a portly, impeccably-dressed, mannered trafficker in stolen valuables operating an establishment called "The Blue Parrot". Off the top of my head, I'm reminded of another fictional character known for his heaviness, tailoring, mannerisms, and obsession with birds. Is there a connection? Signs point to "no": The Maltese Falcon hit theaters in October 1941, and Detective Comics #58, in which the Penguin appeared for the first time, came out in December 1941. Seems a pretty fast turnaround to actually be a direct connection. And while Oswald might — theoretically — have been based on Gatman, he certainly wasn't based on Signor Ferrari, who hadn't even been invented yet. Interestingly, the direction the Penguin's character took later, especially during the "No Man's Land" crossover, was almost certainly a direct reference to Ferrari.
Another irrelevancy: For whatever reason, I seem to be tapped into a homoerotic-subtext-in-cinema knowledge-base, which means odd facts pop into my head about things theorists have said about movies. Much was made, at some point, about the description of Wilmer as a "gunsel", which I'm inclined to think is an honest misuse of the term. It sure sounds like the sort of word which would describe an armed henchman, doesn't it?
(May 24, 2005) This is superlatively odd. I found Marienbad originally offputting, as the first twenty minutes consisted of a glacially slow dolly through a salon while a repetitive voice drifts in and out of the audio: I feared I was in for another Chappaqua. Fortunately, although slow to start, this movie has a bit more meat on it than Chappaqua, but no less surrealism. The aforementioned voice, alas, stays with usthroughout the film, and becomes no less wooden or repetitive, which I guess is intentional. The characters in this story are barely there and the plot ridiculous, so what is there to get excited about? Mood, mostly. The excruciating pace, harsh lighting, and usually subtle musical accompaniment does a great job of making an ostensibly fun vacation spot seem torpid, sterile, and flat. Getting back to my qualifier on the music, there were two things worth noting: first, the organ accompaniment usually has a reasonable subtlety, but occasionally breaks into a rather over-dramatic crescendo which is rather inappropriate to the mood: despite the unreal elements and the heightened emotions of the protagonist, this isn't a horror film. The second musical comment I have is praise: there's a violin concert, and the musical accompaniment follows us there, but it's an organ playing. But it's matched to the motion, so a violininst is playing and each stroke of the bow produced an organ tone. That I found clever.
(May 25, 2005) Well, it's Marilyn Monroe, and probably her most notable performance. The only previous film of hers I'd seen was Some Like It Hot, which was less about her and more about Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. So this time we get a lot of Marilyn and a lot of the also lovely Jane Russell. It's a nice fun film, downright hilarious much of the time and with basically competent performances by all supporting characters. The music and choreography is, if a bit pedestrian, quite serviceable.
It probably marks me as a bad American, though, that I find Jane Russell sexier than Marilyn Monroe: gentlemen may well prefer blondes, but geeks prefer brains, and Marilyn Monroe's vapid character condemned herself with every word from her mouth, leading me to wonder if this film was the source, or merely a perpetuation, of the "blonde airhead" stereotype.
One final comment: at the trial, when Jane Russell threw off her coat to do an impromptu reprise of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" with all the officers of the court dancing behind her, I got the weirdest sense of déjà vu. No, no, not for Moulin Rouge, silly, but for Dancer in the Dark, which is a film completely unlike Gentlemen Prefer Blondes except for having an incomprehensible song-and-dance break in the middle of a trial. Conscious imitation, or coincidence? I won't waste any more of my mental energy on it, since the message of this film, to the extent it has a message, is surely "Shut up and watch the lovely ladies in low-cut dresses", so I think I'll do just that.
(May 27, 2005) Fairly nice, if superficial. It's a nice larger-than-life film which reminded me of The Godfather in more than a few ways: cheering on the bad against the worse. This film tries to slip the point that the untouchables don't follow procedure, and that Prohibition was on its way out, but it doesn't really come across much. They seem to want Elliot Ness to be a good guy too much that they do their best to obscure the fact that these were basically armed thugs running wild in the attempt to enforce an ill-conceived law. That Al Capone was a monster is not really in dispute, but "not the most evil people on the streets" is hardly high praise for a story's heroes.
One nitpick: in the railway scene, Andy Garcia's character couldn't possibly have done what he did. I don't care now good a shot he is; the angles andf situation basically make the likelihood that he would hit his target — much less accurately enough that his target wouldn't also shoot — absolutely miniscule. But otherwise, this was pretty damn good, in a shallow sort of way.
(May 28, 2005) Technically, neither of these belong here, since they're respectively a documentary and a concert recording, and this list is mostly fictional films. But, nonetheless, I have to review them somewhere, and this is as good a place as any.
Starting with Beautiful Dreamer: I've seen a number of documentaries (and one particularly bad docu-drama) about the Beach Boys. Like any group which has had a parting of the ways, everyone's got their own story to tell, so the first question about any documentary is "Whose agenda are they pushing?". This one is of course forwarding the agenda of the Brian Wilson camp, and doing so with a fairly blatant revisionist spin.
This particular retelling of the story divides the history into three sections with equal weight: everything before 1966, 1966-1967, and 2004-2005. Astute viewers will notice there are 36 years not covered there, which we'll get back to. The first section covers all the usual documentary points: Brian Wilson's early aptitude for music, his gathering of family and friends to create a new kind of music, his abuse at the hands of his father, his breakdown on the road and retirement to the studio, and the eventual declaration of independence at the "Help Me Rhonda" sessions (When we ask "Cui bono?", the answer's never "Murray Wilson". He's the one fall guy all of the camps can agree on).
That's when we move into the SMiLE-era, and things get weird, because this film is trying very hard to make Brian Wilson look good, and it's hard to tell the story of SMiLE in a way that make Brian not look like a paranoid schizophrenic. So there's an awful lot of footage of people talking about how brilliant it was that Brian Wilson was so enthused about organic vegetables (David Anderle even calls him "ahead of his time"), and how much putting the piano in the sandbox stimulated everyone's creativity, and so on and so forth. They admit he became distressed and nervous with the "Fire" debacle and the return of the Beach Boys from tour, but manage to spin it so that it seems Mike Love was the direct cause of Brian's collapse. Sorry, not buying it — there were obvious signs of serious mental illness even before the Beach Boys returned from tour, and Brian really was taking too damn many bad brain-twisting chemicals. And, of course, once they made it clear that Mike Love was the scapegoat, it was obvious where it was going from there, with Mike Love scaring off Van Dyke Parks (which, surprisingly, had different details than usual. In every previous telling of the story, the fight was over "Cabinessence". This time, it was "Surf's Up"). So they quickly explain away SMiLE's failure as scuttled by Mike Love, and conveniently skip over the 36 years in which it becomes clear there's something wrong with Brian Wilson's brain.
This brings us to 2004, which is basically a nonstory, which is a pity. Something very interesting happened on the inside of Brian Wilson's head, which we don't have recordings of. The story is basically, in a word, "Brian Wilson sat down at a piano at a party to play 'Heroes and Villains'." From there, the rest of the getting-the-tour-on-the-road story writes itslelf. It's everything that led up to Brian, after 36 years, deciding to finally confront his fears, that's the story. By the time he's confident enough to sit down at a piano and play the music from the darkest time in his life, the actual drama's over. But there's some cool session and concert footage, which is nice.
Anyways, that's the documentary, which was a fun watch but mostly for the valiant attempts to rewrite history. The concert itself was far cooler — I actually think in some ways I prefer this to the studio version. I found myself wondering how much the sound had been "sweetened"; the occasional lip-synch scandal aside, it's my understanding that most bands nowadays supplement their live recordings with canned sound, and I'd be surprised if SMiLE were any diffferent, especially since it's an exceedingly complex sound difficult to reproduce outside the studio. Regardless, I'm willing to believe they're actually producing most of the sound on stage. There are a lot of people up there: Brian Wilson, his backup band (which has ten (!) members), and what appears to be the better part of a symphony orchestra. Most of the odd sounds which are supposed to appear have plausible onstage causes: in "Barnyard", some of those chicken-noise boxes materialize, in "I Wanna Be Around", there are hammers, electric drills, and (non-musical) saws, and so forth. Anyways, there's a lot going on and it's a hell of a spectacle. I'd never put Brian Wilson down as a showman, and he's really not, despite his odd pantomime up there (which, taken as a whole, is still less embarassing than any two given seconds of Mike Love's on-stage routine). However, my biggest objection to the studio recording is the roughness, abruptness, and shouty quality of Brian Wilson's voice, which seems much mellowed in this performance, except near the end, when he seems to be tired. Anyways, it's a really great performance, ranging between the inspirational (the entire second movement, which is my favorite), and the silly (the first half of the third movement, when band members wave screwdrivers and zucchini). It was all a very nice matching of visuals to music throughout, and a fine performance. Could've done without the fakey cellophane fires during "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" though — either put real fires up there, which any good effects-tech can do safely, or don't bother.
(May 30, 2005) Dear God, it's a young Mike Myers. He was also this young in Wayne's World, but I'd mostly forgotten that (and I never watched Saturday Night Live much, so I missed him there too). It's fascinating how little his basic mannerisms have changed, even though he's aged a decade and change. But, anyways, the actual film is a blend of some pretty good silliness and tepid humor not really worth mentioning. If you like undirected wackiness, you'll like this. If not... well, there are worse things to do with an hour and a half of your life. One note though: it occurred to me that the basic frame of "guy has a repellant family and wacky friends" was a pretty common one, particularly since I saw pretty much the same dynamic in Garden State. And then it occurred to me that the archetype for this sort of film is really Better Off Dead. So you might as well watch that instead and spare yourself the genre of what are, for the most part, pale imitators (the fact that the others are post-high-school does not count as a significant difference, especially since the protagonists never act like they live in the Real WorldTM anyways).
(June 1, 2005) Dude. It's the creepiest comedy I've seen since Brazil, easily. I can see why it was a Big Deal when it came out. I managed to avoid seeing it for years — and in the process not understand the apparently also brilliant work of IF "Being Andrew Plotkin". But, anyways, this was really quite excitingly inventive. Absolutely nothing about this bizarre world is satisfactorily explained in-story, but it works. How a portal into someone's head can exist isn't strictly relevant as long as it's consistent, and the world presented here is not only consistent but intriguing, exploring identity, motivation, and power and head games with a liberal layer of metatextuality. Very nice. I'll never look at puppetry the same way again.
(June 3, 2005) Ooh, wow. Nicely done; very suspenseful and good at keeping us in the dark. Cinematically riveting too: Manderley manages to exude the properly sterile grandeur, and, paradoxically, only comes alive as it dies. I liked the acting too — Olivier showed the proper range, being alternatingly stiff, charming, and emotional; Judith Anderson was wonderfully severe and creepy; George Sanders was deliciously oily. Oddly, the only disappointing performance was put in by the film's star. Joan Fontaine was sort of one-dimensional and not really all that compelling.
(June 7, 2005) The problem, in this case, I think, was me. In particular, the problem is that I've seen The Magnificent Seven (and liked it) and that I'm not Japanese. So a three-hour long, somewhat technically less accomplished version of the same in a foreign language doesn't do too much for me, in spite of the fact that everyone else seems to be reasonably fond of this film. I like Kurosawa, thought Rashomon and Ran were great, but this didn't, y'know, actually do much for me. Give me a grand score, Clint Eastwood, and far too many guns any day. Sorry.
(June 9, 2005) Creepy and effective. A lot of things weren't explained — which honestly lent it a fair bit of verisimillitude, that it's a story with unexplained details around the edges. Mia Farrow was wonderful, but everyone else's performances seemed merely adequate and appropriate, which is not to say they weren't good. The pacing was extraordinary, keeping the suspense reasonably taut throughout. I feel like I should have more to say, but I'm blanking.
(June 17, 2005) One word sums up this movie: nostalgic. It's a silly work about the quest of a down-and-out working-class coach struggling to turn his second-rate team into a winner. The story is done up in a manner consciously imitative of slapstick (in particular Charlie Chaplin) and silent-movie conventions, so it really invokes the cinematic experience of the 20s, when it is set. However, the plot, and not just the production, is also suffused with nostalgia. The story's principal, the laundryman Ede, is trying in vain to recapture the past glory of his youthful days. And, of course, as seems common with Hungarian stories, the whole nostalgic collection's overlaid with a thick layer of Hungarian nationalism (probably the only sort in which self-loathing is a major component).
(June 19, 2005) Very bleak; very despairing. The story itself is an unrepentantly miserable work in which all the characters are poor, dying, imprisoned, or a combination thereof. It's grittily realistic but made somewhat fantastic by the cinematic technique: there are quick, abrubt, short cuts at key points in the film, generally to objects of luxury: János's fictitious life in America, the neighbors' black car. Repetition is also heavily used (especially in conjunction with the aforementioned collage effect), so there are a number of techniques here which (I think) were fairly adventurous at the time.
(June 19, 2005) Man. If you see one Hungarian film this summer, make it this one. I realize that injunction makes no difference to most of my audience, who hadn't even considered seeing a single Hungarian film, but nonetheless, this is one great movie. It's firmly a late-90s/early-millenium work cinematically, in particular in terms of music and camerawork. It is equally, however, a firmly Hungarian film, rife with that special pathetic humor unique to Hungary and a (somewhat less fatalistic than usual) sense of defeatism. And, of course, there's the unparalleled setting. The (poorly disguised) Budapest metro is the perfect setting for this sort of film. Grim, mysterious, and squalid, the darkened tunnels and rickety trains are a brilliantly dreary playground for Bulcsú and his gang.
Addendum (September 11, 2005): Unfortunately, the US release of this on DVD is rather disappointing. Awkward chapter stops and no extras, but the real kicker is — burned-in subtitles. Which shouldn't make a difference to English-reading folks who'd want them anyways, but it shows a lack of regard. If you can get (and use) the Hungarian release, do so — it's got a lot more stuff and better navigation. And Hungarian subtitles, which I only wish I had because I'd like to try to understand it, but can't follow the spoken language too well.
(June 20, 2005) One can see how Szabó got from this to Sunshine. There are a number of themes in common: Hungarian history and family pride, most notably. The cinematography was a bit too tricksy for my tastes — I could have done with considerably fewer panoramic shots, but the acting and plot and characterizations are believable and moving. This is the first hopeful Hungarian film I've seen: while a great deal of the joyous events depicted are illusory, the overall tone is nonetheless optimistic.
(June 20, 2005) Odd, and unsettling. The primary conceit of this film is the absence of dialogue, which might make the story dull if not for the wide array of other entities in both the plot and in the overall soundscape. Visually it's quite shocking, drawing out the horror of the everyday, focusing on the most distressing aspects of an otherwise peaceful-seeming setting. It's a real triumph of world-building, that the nameless village where this movie is set really seems to come alive and captivate with its rhythms.
(May 2, 2006) I wrote about Hukkle a while back, but that was from one viewing only and kind of rushed. So I'm redoing it a bit. All my previous comments still stand: it's at the same time delightfully pastoral and subtly disturbing, and the rhythms of modern rural life are truly mesmerizing. But one thing which struck me on this go 'round was the production values. Most Hungarian films are kinda low-budget affairs, with mediocre sound and picture. Hukkle has excellent sound and, for reasons I can only describe as completely gratuitous, two CGI sequences. One of the CGI sequences is plot-inconsequential but a very graceful segue. The other has profound plot-effect (if we can refer to the "plot" of such a wandering film) but seemed completely incongruous. It's an interesting study, as is indeed the whole film.
I would be amiss if I did not comment on one superlatively fine element of this production. Thus far, I've ended most reviews of Hungariana with bitching about the DVD quality. Not so Hukkle. Good scene control, subtitle control, crisp 5.1 sound, extras, subtitled director's commentary... basically everything I only wish other video releases had. Slightly lowered video quality from stateside films (including a kind of rough interlace), but, still, more respect than the average Magyar DVD release gets.
(June 21, 2005) I'm biased. I read the book first, which renders me unable to objectively consider a film. Fortunately, I think this film succeeds on two counts: it's a faithful adaptation of the novel, and a fine film in its own right. The setting is well-executed, creating a distinct turn-of-the-century air without being overdone, and the characterizations are strong and diverse. I still prefer the book, but the movie's a good, ohnest film, and I'd watch it again. And again and again.
(June 21, 2005) This is arguably not a Hungarian film. Yes, it's Istvan Szabó, but he's working with a German studio, in the German language, with a German star, and a story set in Germany. So it doesn't really fit into the Hungarian cultural templates, nor even really into what I've come to regard as the Szabó style. Nonetheless it's a powerful film, echoing the Faust story in the modern era with the fundamental conundrum of ambition versus principle. Although the story's engaging, and the historical scope large (setting the stage, again, for Sunshine), it's hard to really find the characterizations compelling: Höfgen's plight is recognizable, but hardly sympathetic, and the other characters in the story are either thinly drawn or repugnant.
(June 28, 2005) It's a bit of a mixed bag, in my mind. It's meant to be horror, but it's extraordinarily stylized. I realize that early cinema has to be given a bit of a pass, because cinematic technique was both fundamentally different and more primitive than it is now, but the abstractions of a town used for the sets don't really do it for me. On the other hand, the violent, expressionistic title cards work very well, and I like the twist at the end (silent film is so frequently completely straightforward; it's nice to have something a little different).
(July 1, 2005) It's textbook noir, but somehow fails to be particulalrly good. The plot is medium-absurd, although that's not the main problem in my mind. Mostly what I found deadly in this move was the acting. Somehow it never seems to really evoke — nobody reeally shows any actual emotion. Witty lines are delivered flatly (and not in a good deadpan), emotional scenes are just sort of talked through. All in all, a disappointment.
(July 4, 2005) If movies could make one queer, I suppose I'd be by now. The gender-bending thing isn't really my kink, the painted toenails and crochet and basic effeminacy notwithstanding, but I know enough people who are into trans-issues (and talk about them) to have curiosity, at the very least, about gender as a social construct (an issue on which not only transsexuals but also homosexuals are into). Alas, this film's a bit less exploratory of either the personal or the social issues than even, say Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In fact, transsexuality seems to be basically a side issue here. The tragedy is not so much "Hilary Swank hangs out with homophobes and gets raped and murdered" as "Hilary Swank hangs out with psychopaths and gets raped and murdered". There's a lot of hate in this world, but I'd worry more about the festering evil of the near-sane than the undirected violence of the mad.
(July 7, 2005) Hmm. I like the whole world-as-microcosm thing going on here, that stuck in one place you get to know it better than anything else, although so many of the characters are flat. It's well-acted, although James Stewart can never quite escape being James Stewart to me (it would help if he stuttered less). The central plot element seems to be a trope Hitchcock's fond of, namely, the truth, as observed by an individual being discounted or explained away by others (cf. The Lady Vanishes, for instance), but he does it with enough originality that it doesn't get tired.
(July 9, 2005) Another politically motivated Soviet war film directed by Sergei Eisenstein! I found it a bit more accessible than Александр Невский and the political stance less confusing. The music was, perhaps, not quite as good, but still excellent (side note: IMDB claims it was recently re-scored by, God help us, the Pet Shop Boys), and I actually thought the cinematography was better (in particular, I think the Odessa steps sequence was well-done and moving). As before, it's difficult to evaluate well, since it's a foreign film, a genre of which I'm not extraordinarily fond, and a silent film, all of which rather work to its disadvantage in my estimation, but this is really my problem, not the movie's. It's a fine film and I can see why it's an important part of cinematic history. It just doesn't give me much to really take home, except perhaps the sound advice not to give sailors bad meat.
(July 12, 2005) Lovely performances by pretty much everybody, but the plot is a bit of a mess, possibly because there are too many characters and in particular too many women and corpses. I could swear there were loose ends at the end, and I'm still not too clear on exactly what happened, but this isn't a deal-breaker when everything else about the film is pretty damn good. I'll have to read the book and see if it makes any more sense. Probably not. I'm sure I had more to say about this one right after I watched it, but I took a while to get around to updating my movielog and probably forgot important things I wanted to say.
(July 14, 2005) I really liked the beginning and end, and didn't see the middle. My own damn fault. I'd been walking around all day and not sleeping enough and just sort of conked out. I really dig steampunk, so I liked what I saw, although I didn't quite comprehend the plot by the end — but missing about half an hour will do that. Maybe I'll give it another go later, when I'm conscious.
(July 14, 2005) This is one on which I'm afraid I'm going to have to be a total dick. Much was made, prior to this film's release, about the director's dream and ambition and his visual-effects skills and whatnot. You've got to feel pretty bad panning the result of such ambition and longing, but this is proof that courage and good intentions are not sufficient to create great art. This is, in fact, one of the worst movies to see a recent theatrical release, in my opinion. The plot is ludicrous and shows signs of being made up as it goes along (presumably, the original diabolical plan wasn't diabolical enough — that is to say, not diabolical at all — so they added a fiendish and completely unexplained mechanism whereby the earth would be destroyed as part of the plan; other major plot points, like the radioactive cave, are dropped entirely), and the acting is wooden. The effects are reasonably nice, and show some grasp of the setting to which it's a homage, but pretty scenery alone can't save a film.
(July 19, 2005) Somewhat less flashy than a lot of gangster movies, but with definite highlights. Marlon Brando is good but not extraordinary, in my estimation; Eva Marie Saint puts on an excellent performance (and excellent in ways completely distinct from her extremely enjoyable role in North by Northwest). Karl Malden did an excellent job with lots of passion too, even if his character was rather one-dimensional.
(July 20, 2005) This film was insanely lauded when it first came out; I only now got around to seeing it. It's a quite good film although perhaps not equal to the hype. I found the post-war plotline uncompelling and unengaging, but the flashbacks were very good indeed. A side note: every time I've seen Ralph Fiennes, he's playing a Hungarian. Maybe it's just my choices of films. The acting was fairly workmanlike, IMO, but the story (the prewar story, anyways) was enough to support it. There's something about World War II stories set in the desert — it's just a good backdrop to hang a large-scale story on. It worked for Lawrence of Arabia and it works for The English Patient.
(July 24, 2005) I'm rather impressed. It's definitely not one of the Hitchcock films you hear too much about — not generally regarded as his top-flight — but it's subtler than most and quite strong if different from his usual contribution. Strong acting throughout, mostly by Joseph Cotten, although the kids wore their welcome out after about 5 minutes. It's a slow-paced suspense story, with very little in the way of action or confrontation, and it works well: keeping people focused when the pace is this slow is hard, but it worked fine as far as I'm concerned.
(July 26, 2005) "Don't bother with the Escaflowne movie," people told me. But I never pay attention to good advice, so I saw it. It's been a couple of years since I watched the series on which it's based, so all I remember is fragmentary: a love triangle with the sullen but "right" guy and a good guy who's not as "right"; a girl with cat ears and a tail, a big armor-suit which has a life of its own and tremendous power, and an extremely confusing ending involving Isaac Newton and desire. I don't know how people who haven't seen the series would react to this, but for me it was a fairly peculiar experience, because it includes the same elements as the series but framed entirely differently. The fundamental character traits of Van and Hitomi are radically changed, and Allen is turned from a secondary love interest into a noncharacter; Merle is made a lot less possessive and protective, and the ending is simplified but perhaps too far — it feels downright pat. So it's a weird feeling, kind of like a nonfaithful adaptation of a novel, only the media of television and cinema are a lot closer to each other than either is to a novel, so the changes are more glaring. The movie was still very confusing; I don't know if the net confusion was actually greater than the series, but the confusion density (measured in WTF/min) was definitely higher.
(July 28, 2005) There's an interesting disconnect here with the sort of crime dramas I've been seeing up until now, which is noir in which the lead is a private detective (or similar non-police-type) tangled in this mess; Dirty Harry (and later police dramas, both on TV and film) deal in a whole different set of rules and assumptions: the officer can't just walk away and has to follow rules. It was an odd sensation for me, but then again they looked a lot different too: Dirty Harry seems to be positively aggressively 70s, some of it in ways that are good. Black people are visible as members of society, for instance (even if they're still not regarded as important), which we didn't really see Back in the Day.
(August 9, 2005) There's something about surfing which makes it a perennial favorite subject for film, perhaps because it blends the attractions of sports and travel. Ever since The Endless Summer part of the attraction of the "surfing movie" has been going to exotic locales (and gawking at the quaint native customs). In God's Hands follows this basic trend, but it wants to be a drama, not a documentary, and it fares poorly in trying to do so. The dialogue wants badly to be profound, but it is at its best not-very-profound and at its worst incomprehensible. The plot is laughable, full of pointless digressions. At least the surfing is generally good, but surf-movies are better as documentaries.
(August 14, 2005) Once again, I have a feeling I've missed critical historical context. If I had to come up with one phrase to describe Stranger than Paradise, it would be "aggressively indie". That's nothing special these days, but I have a feeling that in 1984 it was rather novel. It hasn't aged well, though, because nowadays, grainy black-and-white low-budget filming with long pauses between scenes doesn't say "cutting-edge independent art" so much as "moderately derivative student film". I guess this film's artistically important, but in a way which is no longer all that amazing.
(August 16, 2005) It's got fairly distinctive and memorable characters, which is a critical part of an antiwar film, since almost all antiwar films seem to revolve around portraying the victims of war as Real People. This was a bit different, though, because it portrayed the perpetrators as Real People too, acting out ambitions and loves and hates and hurting everyone with them. There's a quite effective sense here that evil is far more personal than communal, that the men must die not because France is a nation maddened by war, but because Mireau wants a promotion and Roget feels guilty. I can work with that. It's not a side of the human equation much exposed: Catch-22 played on it a fair bit, but mostly pacifism focuses on the noble dead more than those who killed them, preferring to be vague about the blame.
(August 18, 2005) I really like Edward Albee, and I've read most of his plays. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is surely his best; A Delicate Balance resembles it somewhat but is considerably inferior. So we're already starting from a weak position with the source material here. Fortunately, the actors run about as well as possible with what they're given. In particular, Katherine Hepburn and Kate Reid, as the leading female characters, are quite spectacular. The male characters in the play are rather marginal, and this carries over to the film, which is rather a pity, since I'm fond of Joseph Cotten, but he might as well not be there at all for all the difference he makes in this film.
(August 21, 2005) It's a movie based on an American animated series. This reasonably lowers expectations, but it's OK in its way. As I've mentioned earlier, the question when basing a movie on a series (especially one without any particular episode-to-episode continuity) is what to use as a plot. Just a thicker slice of the same pie you serve every week, or some divergence from the norm? This one's at least original, inasmuch as it chooses to go with the origin story. Not much else to say, though — it's got decent voice actors and animation which is acceptable in the minimal sort of way in which "The Powerpuff Girls" is animated (aside: was this the first American cartoon to be done in a minimal, abstract style? I don't follow the aesthetics too closely).
(August 22, 2005) This is the second in a three-film cycle, but apparently they're sufficiently independent that it can be watched alone. It's cold and sterile, but perhaps intentionally. Nobody in this story was all that sympathetic, although I guess Karol was sort of supposed to be. Deftly symmetric — nice way to end the story, and moderately humorous, although in a bleak sort of way. But I can dig bleak humor.
(August 23, 2005) No, really, I'm not gay. And this isn't a film about homosexuality anyways. It's a film about the movie industry, to some extent, which means we have that whole self-referential thing going on that directors adore and the movie-watching public tolerates. The two central characters are well-cast in familiar roles: Ian McKellen gets to be dryly British, clever, and a bit raunchy; Brendan Fraser gets to be a dimwittedly honest jock. All in all, it's not too bad — the highs and lows sort of even out. I don't like films-about-films, but there are worse things to be fixated on than "Bride of Frankenstein".
(August 24, 2005) The only real connection I had to this film, having never seen it and being a child of the 80's, was that it induced John W. Hinckley, Jr. to shoot Ronald Reagan. I can sort of see why. This film is very bad medicide for the mentally ill. Masterful work, dark, disturbing, disturbed, and superlatively twisted. I'm medium-sane and have better ways to work out my antipathy towards elected officials and/or impress actresses. Robert De Niro is a surprisingly effective lunatic, but that's not surprising. He's a freaky scary guy no matter what role he's in.
Side note: it's unfortunate, but my eyes kept reading every appearance of the candidate's name, on signs and whatnot, as "Palpatine". Which would make Travis Bickle Anakin Skywalker. I'd better shut up now, because I'd imagine George Lucas is already planning the scene where Bickle cuts the pimp's hand off with a light saber. Is nothing sacred?
(August 27, 2005) One can count on Miyazaki films for a lot of things. They're very good. They're voice-acted well in whatever language (ignoring, for the moment, the unfortunate 1986 stateside release of Warriors of the Wind). They have spunky teenage girls who fly and are an inspiration to all (er, except Tonari no Totoro, where the children were pre-teen). One can count on them to be warm and fuzzy without being saccharine, and for the most part it seems like Hayao Miyazaki just has a big bag of awesome that he keeps pulling things out of.
I'm thus reluctant to criticize Porco Rosso. It has all those inimitably wonderful Miyazaki touches, with the beautiful art and the good acting and the delightful characters. But somehow it all seems a bit shallow here: it's extremely weak in plot and character-development. There are great characters, but they don't really develop at all. There's a great opportunity for a fall-and-redemption narrative involving Marco which is done as limply as possible — we're barely told of his failure, and his redemption just seems sort of irrelevant. Nobody and nothing really changes, which would be OK if this were a film playing on that sort of staticity, but it's not.
(August 29, 2005) He's an open-source bootloader, she's a fiber-artist. No, not really, but the actual film's only marginally less weird. It's rather surprising as far as Disney offerings are concerned: the animation style is a lot less angular than a fair amount of what they'd done this century, and there is mercifully little original music, preferring to lift the entire soundtrack from Elvis. It's more edgy and less insulting to the intelligence than the average Disney animated feature, so all in all, it's pretty good if not something I'd go out of my way to re-experience.
(August 30, 2005) I have nothing against pre-Hollywood Hitchcock. I quite enjoyed The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes. But somehow this one came out as limp and thin to me. There's a lot unexplained around the edges and no satisfactory plot to follow, and, quite frankly, the cinematography is pretty terrible: the camerawork is uninspired and the cuts awkward. But it's his early work, so allowances must be made, particularly as this one was apparently remade as a much superior film, which I look forward to seeing.
(September 7, 2005) Well, it was fun, and I must admit, for the era, the special effects and cinematographic techniques are pretty nifty, even if they seem impossibly clunky by modern standards. It's more Arabesque then Arabic, of course, as one might expect from an American and British production, and of course none of the actors are even the slightest bit Arabic, but I guess you can do a lot with expressive moustaches. The acting isn't deep, but the plot gives a pretty good time with what's basically a Sir Richard Burton pastiche: evil vizier, silly sultan, thief with a heart of gold, princess in a garden, deposed king, djinni, magic carpet, haggling in market-squares, shake well and serve. This wasn't supposed to be grand cinema for the ages so much as a fun way for folks to think about something besides the war for 90 or so minutes. And, hey, it worked for me.
(September 11, 2005) I've seen this one before, but as always, its a question of "seeing" versus "watching". Whenever I look at classic cinema, my question is "how did this change how people thought about film"? Kurosawa makes this a bit hard — more accurately, Japanese cinema makes this hard — because it's coming from a different tradition than American cinematic technique. This mostly shows in the acting, which is generally more expressive than realistic. If I knew more about the rich Japanese theatrical traditions, I might have something a bit more intelligent to say here, but I'm putting the acting differences down to cultural divergence and moving on. Cinematically it's excellent, since Kurosawa generally exhibits a talent for setting a scene and making it have the right atmosphere, but that wasn't a revolution as such. So what's the take-away technique from Rashômon? In most circles it seems to be the idea of non-linear narrative, and in particular the artistic value of repetition with variation. Telling a story from different angles is easy in text, since you don't have to reiterate the similarities, but in a screenplay you've either got to do it well or be intolerably repetitive. Kurosawa made it work, which opened the floodgates for Groundhog Day and Lola rennt. See, the more I watch, the more connections I get to draw, although I drew those months ago in a prior review. Let's blame Rashômon for L'année dernière à Marienbad too, just to look all erudite and stuff.
(September 13, 2005) It was on AZN and looked marginally interesting, so I stuck it in my schedule. It's the second in a series of movies based on a TV series, so there's the unavoidable sense that I got on the boat late, and, indeed, there's some background I'm missing here, like characterizations and world model. But even with those, I think this one's a big ol' bowl of weirdness soup. It's an apocalyptic cyclic-narrative high-school romantic comedy. That's a lot of adjectives for one film: can you imagine a blend of Groundhog Day and The Day After populated entirely by high-school students? Neither can I, and fortunately this film isn't exactly like that, but, damn, I'm not sure I got it at all. There's a lot of oddity going on, some of which is clearly drawing on events either in the series or the previous movie (unless all the talk about dragons and turtles and princesses doesn't refer to anything in particular), so it's hard to follow for a newbie to the franchise. The ending felt a bit of a cop-out, and, I'm not sure if it's the dub's fault or intentional, but Mujaki's voice made me want to scream. It sounded like he was reading off a teleprompter.
(September 14, 2005) I get the impression this is sort of a sequel to, or at least in the same series as, The Big Sleep. They're both Raymond Chandler source material and in particular stories about L.A. private detective Philip Marlowe. It goes without saying that this film is a lot less confusing than The Big Sleep, but I'm not sure it's a better film for it. Let's start with the obvious: Elliott Gould is simply not as good a Marlowe — or any other sort of hard-boiled noir detective — as Humphrey Bogart. This is praising with faint condemnation, or something, since Humphrey Bogart created the dissipated do-the-right-thing-in-a-jam lonely self-serving tough-guy. Elliott Gould can't really pull it off: maybe it's the hair, but he just looks too soft. Another contrast that struck me was the same one that came to mind when I watched Dirty Harry: namely, that crime dramas became more socially conscious in the 70s. This one's more intriguing because it's basically consciously imitative of those previous crime dramas, but can't escape a sense of social consciousness. Or I see social consciousness, anyways, in the cinematography: contrasts between the residents and the serving classes of Malibu Colony, and greater sensitivity to race and gender issues.
(September 16, 2005) I don't know nmuch about real estate, so about half of the business dealings in this one are mysterious to me. I presume they're selling real estate as an investment rather than for personal use. I get the impression the real estate industry (and the risky-investment industry) are kind of corrupt internally, although I couldn't say why, from a historical perspective. I didn't get much to bring away from this one. It was excellently acted and all intense with good dialogue but it felt all empty at the center, not unlike the life it was trying to portray. I have a feeling this one was happier as a stage play than as a movie. There was nothing in here that particularly needed to be film, although I guess reaching a different audience is reason enough to turn a stageplay into a screenplay.
(September 16, 2005) This film, apparently, singlehandedly destroyed the Third Reich.
I exaggerate, of course, but there's no denying that in 1942 it was probably not a good idea for Goebbels to divert money from vital losing-the-war purposes to create a high-fantasy epic. What fascinates me is how little this film has to do, directly or metaphorically, with anything impacting Germany at the time. It's difficult to divorce films created under extraordinary political circumstances from that context, but this one seems to have a very good prenuptual agreement. It's a whimsical, sensual, and glamorous adventure. For my generation, the Baron Münchhausen myth is inextricably linked to the Terry Gilliam remake of this film; while less exciting, and wacky, this film presents the story well, and has colorful details missing from Gilliam's version.
(September 18, 2005) My perennial complaint about noir: too many women and too many corpses. At least we know there's a common source for all the dead bodies. The MacGuffin's a bit less compelling than, say, the eponymous statuette of The Maltese Falcon, simply because it's so vaguely described it could be anything. I have an inkling it'll be retrieved later and end up in the trunk of a 1964 Chevy Malibu, or in a briefcase carried by Samuel L. Jackson. It's got some compelling acting, characters good and comfortable in their roles, but, my, the plot's a mess, perhaps almost as much as The Big Sleep.
Oh, two striking visual elements: first, those backwards-scrolling credits are really jarring, since they're also printed bottom-to-top. And that answering-machine is great. I didn't know there were machine-type answering services in the fifties.
(September 18, 2005) I'm quite fond of courtroom dramas, a fix I usually get from "Law and Order", but I was glad to get a chance to watch a classic courtroom-drama movie too. I've also read the script of this one, or perhaps of the stageplay, but it was years ago in school. I'm fairly favorably impressed by this one, both from an acting perspectiveand a cinematic standpoint. The latter's particularly meaningful, since from a technical perspective this one works reasonably well as a stageplay: one room, no effects, dialogue rather than body language as the primary vehicle for the characterization. Nonetheless, the cinematic technique is fairly effective, giving both the feel of a "large picture", with the jury moving around, when necessary, and using close-ups for focus at pivotal speeches. It could have used some work on some of the close-ups, when people were off-center, but overall, it had effective acting (especially by Henry Fonda, although everyone did pretty well with what they were given) well-served by the camera's eye.
(Spetember 22, 2005) What fascinates me about this film is how very quasi-Western it is. It's no wonder Kurosawa's films kept getting turned into Clint Eastwood westerns; They've got that positive vibe already, what with the lawlessness (of a tumultous period of history, rather than a new land), the definitions of honor, and the archetype of the proud, defiant, and righteous fighter. I haven't seen A Fistful of Dollars, so I have no real basis for comparison, but there are at least a few scenes which I could see transplanted pretty much identically with a change in costumes only. Speaking of costumes, one thing which struck me in this (and did not strike me in previous Kurosawa films, so I don't know if I'm unobservant or whether this was a peculiarity of the acting here) is ho often, on the verge of action, people's arms seem to be tucked into their kimonos. Wouldn't that make sudden movements sort of awkward? Of course, that's not nearly as weird to my eye as how the gunfighter holds his weapon with his hands coming out of the neckhole/slit. That too seems rather awkward, because it really doesn't look like he has much range of motion. Is that actually an effective way to hold a pistol?
(September 24, 2005) A surprise addition to the schedule! This was on PBS tonight, and it's not the well-known recent film with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, but a far older version starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave. Had I seen it in complete ignorance, I might think of it as a half-decent thriller with wooden acting (Audie Murphy, in particular, fails to exude any particular traits; Brendan Fraser captured Pyle's naïveté and earnestness far better). But I'm not completely ignorant: I've read the novel on which it's based and assess it on those grounds. It's far more literalist than the 2002 film, lifting most of the dialogue and situations directly from the book instead of utilizing pastiche to compress them, but the literalism is shown to be something they only do when convenient, since about 75 minutes into the film the script deviates alarmingly from the Greene stance. Pyle's a private citizen involved in absolutely nothing shady, Fowler's a dupe of the Communists, and the entire damn theme of the original story goes out the window. This one pissed Graham Greene off mightily, and I can see why.
(September 25, 2005) Sci-fi from the 70s is interesting if for no other reason than the increased, or at least more overt, social consciousness. Logan's Run presented the age-gap and a radical response to the perceived burden of an aging population; Soylent Green described a world revaged by poor environmental policy; Rollerball was about, um, the dangers of megacorporations (I'm making this up as I go along, of course). The Man Who Fell to Earth has at its core, essentially, the destructive nature of human acquisitiveness and fear. Layer that with an awful lot of moderately disturbing sex scenes, and you've got this film, more or less, although they don't exactly spoonfeed it to the audience. It jumps around in time and place, between the real and the envisioned, fluidly if confusingly.
And, of course, there's David Bowie. He's a striking choice for the alien: he kind of is alien, with an otherworldly sort of emotive flatness, which fades gradually over the course of the film as Newton himself becomes more humanlike. It's hard to describe, but he's an intriguing actor, carrying over a lot of the more inhuman aspects of his glam-rock persona. We don't see that so much in, say, Labyrinth.
(October 1, 2005) I'm a not-rabid sort of Talking Heads fan. I always saw David Byrne as more a songcrafter than a singer, an inspired Dadaist geek with an actually rather irritating voice. Sort of like Bob Dylan, except for the Dada part. Stop Making Sense pretty much reinforces this perception, although I've also learned that he has a lot of manic energy on stage, which manifests itself in really twitchy dancing. Anyways, I usually cut concert recordings a bit of slack, but this is a rather unusual concert recording, because it was apparently cinematically coceived, and because the Talking Heads can't do anything normally.
The music is... well, it's Talking Heads music. All the really well-known ones are there and a bunch of the better obscure ones. That aspect is pretty good in the way the Talking Heads are, so you probably already know if you'd like it. The visual elements are the highlight of the film, which, as I mentioned, tries to be cinematic. It's hard to do cinema live, even if you splice different shows together (instead of one take per scene, you get three. Somehow, that fails to lead to cinematic perfection). So one has to forgive the occasional gaffe, such as David Byrne's face being in the shadow of his microphone for a whole song. Or maybe that was intentional. The advantage of having a reputation for wackiness is that there's very little you can't claim you meant to do. I'd imagine that'd be the excuse for the half-assed choreography: this was planned — storyboarded, for God's sake — so couldn't they come up with some slightly less ghastly dance moves? Flailing your arms and jogging in place will only get you so far. I felt bad for the backup singers: at least the band had instruments which basically worked as body-motion props; the singers had to do their godawful steps without anything to hide behind, and to add insult to injury, in baggy clothes in totalitarian-state-prison-camp-jumpsuit grey. The rest of the band seemed reasonably dressed (with the infamous "Big Suit" making its obligatory appearance for "Girlfriend is Better").
The visual spectacle is generally actually pretty good, except for the band themselves. The stage is stark, the visual images projected onto the backdrop have high contrast and a weird illogical appropriateness, and the audience is cleverly avoided with the camera until the very end. If only the band was worth putting in such a scene.
Final note: after writing this, I went to IMDB and looked at what other people said. Some of the comments have spoiler warnings. How can you spoil a concert? Is "At the end, they play 'Crosseyed and Painless'" a spoiler?
(October 2, 2005) This one's actually quite brilliant. It's humorous on several levels, from the quasi-slapsticky to poking fun at the real-world political situation. The only other film I know of to accomplish such effectively multifaceted political humor is Dr. Strangelove. Of course, Dr. Strangelove had the good fortune to come from a nation where freedom of speech was valued (some times more than others, but generally we have an OK record in that regard), and where the political situation was dark and needed lightening. A Tanú's misfortune is that it was censored pretty much immediately on release (even in the tolerant atmosphere of the reformed Kádár government, it struck a bit close to home), but it makes up for that by finding such brilliant humor. '60's America was looking threatening and dire; Hungary passed through threatening and dire and come out the other side as farce. There's a reason almost every Hungarian film is a dark comedy, and this one shines as an example of the genre.
So much for the good, which is the film itself. The bad is almost all this particular release of the film. I hate to slag DreamQuest films, because they honestly seem to care about Hungarian film preservation, but their design needs a little work. Two big suggestions: make a combined bilingual menu, instead of having the top-level menu be a language suggestion, and for God's sake make sure you get the subtitles working. On films being sold to an audience that speaks the film's native language, subtitles are an appreciated bonus; on foreign films they're raised to the level of an absolute necessity, which means you really have to get it right. The idiom translation is workmanlike, but I can roll with that (and I wouldn't know the right idioms from the wrong ones anyways), but the consistent misspellings show a lack of attention to detail, and the real dealbreaker's the subtitles which are either unterminated (so they remain on the screen obscuring others) or terminated immediately (so they only remain on the screen for a single frame). I don't know the technical specifications of a subtitle track, so I don't know the particular errors here, but they're ones which should be avoidable.
(October 4, 2005) For a long time, I could only name two creators associated with anime. One of them is Hayao Miyazaki, and I'm not going to tell who the other one is, but he doesn't exactly make the short list of true visionaries. But now both lists get a bit longer, because Satoshi Kon has become a household name, at least in my household.
His name first came up in connection to Paranoia Agent, which I was and still am watching; it was only looknig at creators associated with that that I noticed I'd seen two of his films before: the flawed psychological thriller Perfect Blue and the warm, delightful feel-good Tokyo Godfathers. So I actually had a fair amount of respect for him even before I knew it. ifMUD's Jon Rosebaugh enthused about Millennium Actress, so when I say a used copy at a good price, I had to pick it up.
It's quite staggering. Start with the animation, which employs several distinct styles to match the genre shifts, and which is just generally beautiful. Then there are the thematic and plot elements: it's undeniably Satoshi Kon's work, utilizing the reality-blurring effect also seen in Perfect Blue, and the injection of bystanders into the fantasy as participants as in Episode 5 of Paranoia Agent. It was compelling and riveting even though I had a pretty good idea of where the McGuffin was going from the beginning. There's a lot floating around there: an awful lot of ideas are stuffed into a surprisingly small space here: I'm always amazed at how much character-development good anime-creators imbue their characters with. And change is a central theme here, change and time. There are a lot of parallels and symmetries easily observed, and probably more lurking under the surface. I can see why this film's so well-loved.
(October 7, 2005) This one had its high points, but most of it came out sort of limp to me. The singing was pretty good, and the tap routines were OK, but tap's never really been my thing. The setting was good, hit all the obligatory post-war Paris concepts, but the characters never came alive to any real degree. Mostly, I wish there was a lot more good dancing. The final dance number was quite fantastic; if there'd been more of that sort, along with the brilliantly Gershwinian Gershwin backing it up, then we'd be talking. Honestly, it would have been a better movie if they'd lopped off, or at least condensed, the first hour, or broken it up with a good ensemble dance number or something.
(October 10, 2005) Magnolia has a couple of good ideas trying to escape from poor direction. It starts of on a pretentious note, bringing up things unrelated to the following story, and then goes on to attempt to impress us with how clever it is by juggling a number of stories. We know how movies work, and that the stories will link up. Some of them do; some of them don't, and I suppose it's meant to challenge our preconceptions but ends up just being sort of unsatisfying. Each of the stories has some good meat on it, and doing a few of the interrelated stories rather than trying to juggle them all would give a more cohesive story. See, a lot of films do this sort of "reverse tree" structure, where seemingly unreleted events coalesce in the end. They usually stop at four on the outside. Juggle this many, and you start to see the problems with the structure.
A big problem is pacing. Now, I won't go into the fact that this is a really damn long movie, except inasmuch as that's symptomtic of the pacing problems that plague this film. It idd not occur to me it had pacing problems until about halfway through, when it was approaching the First Climax, the point where everyone reaches a primary moment of crisis or decision or action which they'll spend the rest of the film responding to. I'm not deeply into moviecraft, so I don't know the technical term for it, but you know it because it gets all tense and dramatic music plays for a while. This works OK most of the time. The problem here was that they tried to bring all these stories to a head at once, so they had to keep the dramatic tension and the dramatic music and all that dramatic whatnot going a long time. You can only keep an audience on the edge of their seat for so long, and I kind of lost interest when I saw that each of the plots was advancing at a snail's pace to the crisis.
Also, film this complex, things get lost in the shuffle. Everything which goes on with Marcie at the beginning? Disappears. Linda's suicide attempt? Unresolved. Stanley's father being a prick and told not to? Unfinished. The actual history between Jim and his daughter? Unilluminated. Bit of a letdown after sitting through so much to see a what seemed like relevant plots just get shuffled off. Also, what the hell was up with the frogs? I'm not saying that sort of absurdity doesn't have a place in a film, and even in a serious film. But you do something fairly grittily realistic, without even dry humor, and then you throw in a surreal element, then go back to life as normal, and it makes one wonder why you bother with realism if you're going to dispense with it for the sake of an incomprehensible plot point.
(October 18, 2005) I liked a great deal about this film, and can't think of anything in particular I dislike. The entire interaction with George Sanders seemed to a certain extent like an unnecessary plot cul-de-sac, but I guess it's the lever with which Captain Gregg's disappearance is facilitated. I can't actually complain, because George Sanders gave a deliciously oily performance, almost but not quite as good as his scoundrelliness in Rebecca. It's really very much a character-driven story, and the characters are well-executed. Rex Harrison (who I'm not sure I've ever seen before) was effective as well, although his role is sufficiently cliche-ridden that it doesn't seem like it takes much to make it solid. Gene Tierney is a hell of a lot better than the sort of nonentity she was in Laura, to say the very least.
One thing that bugged me a bit, in retrospect, is the character of Anna Muir. We see her in the first scene, and we expect her to be around and part of this unconventional household through the whole film, but she for the most part just vanishes except when she is absolutely necessary to the plot, which seems downright artificial.
And it's got bathing-machines. Bathing-machines! That's one of those delightfully quaint Britishisms which can make me almost forget Gene Tierney's fairly obvious American accent.
(October 22, 2005) The tagline for this film challenges us to believe that the Funk Brothers were responsible for more hits than any other person or groups of people. With all due respect to the group, I'm wondering if this isn't technically inaccurate: Hal Blaine was one of the most ubiquitous people in the LA music scene in the 60s (and into the 70s), so he might have them beat. I'm not brining up Hal Blaine frivolously:the Funk Brothers and the Wrecking Crew, separated by most of a continent, present two sides of a coin.
It's an article of faith among indie-rock geeks and other folks on the fringes of modern music that factory-produced music by stars-of-the-week are essentially negligible. This is (among other reasons) why people continued to sneer at Britney even after she put on some damn pants. I'll agree that the modern music star-of-the-week scene is sick, but not that factory-produced music is inherently uncreative: a great deal of the most groundbreaking music of the 60s was factory-produced, by either Tamla-Motown or Phil Spector. Which brings us back to the mechanics toiling in those factories, which is what this film's really about.
Motown developed a distinct sound, and produced a bajillion records exploring every facet of that sound. They did this with good production, good A & R, and one hell of a studio band. This documentary tries very hard to play up the tragedy of non-recognition of thier importance to the process. "Tragedy" is, in my mind, a bit strong, except inasmuch as it killed James Jamerson, but it is indeed a shame how little-known the Funk Brothers are, because those backing tracks are rich and imaginative, and apparently a lot of the credit for that goes to the Funk Brothers.
This is where, once again, I draw a dichotomy between the LA and Motown sounds. Some of the difference is racial, but I think a lot of it's just plain cultural: LA was all about polish and veneer and still is. I haven't heard or read about Phil Spector in the studio, but I've heard the Wrecking Crew reporting on working with Brian Wilson, and Spector must have been far, far harder on them. That scene was very controlling, very specific about what they wanted, very focused on production, whereas the Funk Brothers, talking about their role in the creative process, draw a picture of a scene where by day they basically wrap whatever sort of jam they threw down in a club the night before around someone else's song. The scene sounds very extemporaneous and improvisational, and somehow it came out right.
Those are basically my thoughts on the film's primary message, which I suppose was supposed to raise awareness of the studio band as an entity deserving of respect in its own right, but I was sort of aware of that already (although not much of the Funk Brothers, so I'm grateful to learn more there. Considering the film's delivery of that message, however, I was generally pretty pleased with the interview portions and narrative, but I could have done with more original performance footage. The Funk Brothers did tour with Motown performers occasionally, so it's not like the footage doesn't exist. The new stuff is decent in a not-really-what-I-expected kind of way: these reunion gigs are always a bit bittersweet, and some of the vocal talent was decidedly odd: Joan Osborn was a treat (both auditorily and visually, ahem) on "Heat Wave", but she seems to have stepped into completely the wrong song for "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted"; even Colin Blunstone's voice is more suited for it. I was also underwhelmed by Chaka Khan on "What's Goin' On", but although her Marvin's not too hot, she's got a decent Tammi, since "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" was well-done.
In summary, it was a nice look at different people from a different scene. 60's retrospectives are all about California, and even when they mention Detroit it's all about the vocal talent. Nice to see the underdogs finally getting the respect they deserve.
(October 22, 2005)I really wanted to like this one. It had a very promising premise: a mysterious calamity causes all people except for those under very extraordinary circumstances to lose all memories, and very promising themes too, as well as a story-frame of which I approve, namely, a road trip across America. Somehow, though, it ends up exploring everything superficially. We never get a real feel for the calamity: mankind is brutish in San Francisco and LA (where it always was), but somehow there are still a lot of well-maintained-seeming houses, bridges, etc. And the elevators work in the apocalyptic future, which is more than they do in the present. The thematic elements of the movie shift radically: prominent in the first half is the idea that mankind is but a short step from the beasts and the fragility of civilization, but musings on civilization end abruptly as the US east of Vegas seems to be completely depopulated. There's some discussion of free-will, and open-ended questions on the dangers of technology and of knowledge, but nothing terribly profound. And then, er, the Wanderer has sex with an alien, which is sort of where the story slipped off the rails for me.
On the other hand, one could view the whole story as metaphorically linked to Wataru's developing sexuality, and there are lots of hints dropped about this: talking about "wanting to learn what Johnny couldn't teach me", and his constant attempts to rescue chyx. But this take on the story kinda bugs me. A road-trip across an apocalyptic America is a monumental task, an epic in scope. Getting laid shouldn't be the point of an exercise like that. The beginning of the movie is actually not too bad, but everything after the Eternal City is kind of undirected and confusing. And that's about half of the film.
(October 23, 2005) Arsenic and Old Lace is a fine, delightful old romp of a film. It's been a while since I saw Cary Grant in a comic role. I think the last time was His Girl Friday, which I was honestly somewhat underwhelmed by. The acting's a bit hammy, with pop-eyed double-takes and all, but it's good fun. Also, I absolutely adore Peter Lorre. Every film he's in he's a credit to. Maybe it's the accent, maybe it's the general weaseliness, but there is a definite role Peter Lorre does and he does it well. Speaking of playing roles, this is one of the least hokily metaleptic films I've seen: it's far too easy to take self-referentiality and turn it into the focus of the film. But the references to Boris Karloff are merely passing; I'll admit the whole scene about how stupid people act in plays went on perhaps a bit too long.
Anyways, it's been 3 days since I saw this (I caught it on TCM on Sunday) so I've forgotten perhaps some clever things I meant to say. Except that I kept expecting someone to actually drink the wine.
(October 25, 2005) This is, above all things, a dismal movie. I was grading papers while I watched it, so there was a sort of sympathetic patheticness going on, as it were. You might be fooled into thinking it's a hopeful tale of survival in the face of adversity, except that the first ten minutes make it clear that those sunny, smiling, healthy, optimistic children are going to die sad, lonely, and in pain. It was very emotionally affecting: starkly drawn but detailed, and the children's early joy only makes their preordained tragedy more moving.
A couple of film-watching notes: it was on AZN, so it was dubbed, not subbed. Also, interrupted every half hour by commercials for the U.S. Army. Oh, the irony.
From a cultural standpoint, I suppose this film's pretty revealing. The end of World War II marked a giant change in Japanese culture, self-image, etc. 40 years later I guess they could talk about it in the terms it happened in, but at the time it was the most serious trauma a society could suffer. And, in honesty, Japan needed to suffer that sort of trauma.
I'm not talking about the atom bomb. That's a controversy that continues to rage on and on which I don't know where I stand. But somewhere along the line, Japan would've been defeated, and undergone the same necessary self-examination that their surrender did. And it needed to be done, because Japan was a seriously sick society at the time. Japanese society has always been a bit incomprehensible to Westerners—still is, too a large degree, in spite of our wholesale importation of every manner of Japanese cultural artifact—but at the time, it had been getitng progressively unhealthier, especially in terms of self-image. Which, in a microcosm, is sort of something we can see in Grave of the Fireflies. I'm not so much of a monster as to suggest that Setsuko and Seita's suffering is a necessary evil, the way the deconstruction of Japan as a nation was a necessary evil, but there are common elements both in the large-scale and small-scale tragedy. Yes, there is pathos and suffering, but there is also a grerat deal of self-delusion and pride working to bring about their destruction. The interplay of pride, duty, and the compromising of thier integrity (e.g. Seita's need to steal to survive) is, on some level, not the quandry of a boy so much as the quandry of a nation which is incapable of changing its self-image in the way necessary to survive a changed world.
But, er, yeah, if you haven't seen this film, do so. But don't expect to be happy after.
(October 31, 2005) Minority Report is actually a pretty good film. I haven't read the original short story, so I don't know how faithful it actually is to the source material, but it at least feels Dickesque. Thematically and plotwise it's strong enough, so I'll focus my attention on the setting.
Near-future sci-fi suffers from a problem I call "unnecessary whooshiness". This is when things just go "whoosh" or do other futuristic things to emphasize their futuristicness. There are a lot of short-term changes it's pretty easy to give a pass to because they will plausibly change: for instance, in my lifetime alone, the primary removable computer medium has changed appearance 3 times (three different sizes of floppies and optical discs). But a lot of the technology used in Minority Report is just plain silly: not just not within our present grasp, but in fact downright impractical. Most of this technology is the Precrime computer systems. We get an awful lot of footage of Tom Cruise whipping windows around a screen with a glove, which looks damn cool but is kind of ridiculous from an iterface-design perspective. Most real successful devices are based on some sort of tactile feedback to the user and an onscreen display. They've tried the direct route with detection of movement in open fields, and the result's terrible. It's like hooking a theremin up to your computer's mouse input. The other ridiculousness is the damn wooden balls. They sort of tried to explain this one with some folderol about the wood's unique grain corresponding to the names, but, eh, kind of pointless, and pure whooshiness. I guess it gets something of a pass since the entire functioning of the precognitives is inexplicable, but, really, it's not something which should need to be explained away as such. Oh, and the jetpacks. Jetpacks are kind of stupid. Especially for police. On a costumed hero, sure. But if you're providing mobility solutions for a policeman, why not a hoverbike or something? Having them strapped to your back is generally a bad idea.
I harp on these issues only because, in many respects, the near-future image is pretty good, and I have to find something to bitch about. The world has changed, but in ways which are for the most part gradual: the nonlethal devices the police use in various situations correspond roughly to present-day nonlethal police armaments. People live in ordinary, sometimes squalid houses and apartments: there aren't sweeperbots zipping around, and they aren't in arcologies of glass and steel. The brand names are the same as the present day too, which is actually pretty offputting, since the advertising in the film is already irritatingly enough presented without being irritating shilling for real-world products: it reminded me perversely of the persistent presence of Taco Bell in Demolition Man, which was fine on its own but really not something you want to evoke in an ostensibly serious film. But, generally, I actually found the near-future a reasonable place. But the plot and themes were better than the setting.
(November 13, 2005) I've fallen way behind, so my memories of this one are more fragmentary than I'd like. Things I particularly liked were the characterization of Max, getting to see a young pre-Dragnet Jack Webb, and of course the absolutely brutal pathos of the final scene. I was reminded, not entirely surprisingly, of a similar scene in A Streetcar Named Desire: the pathos works here too. But Sunset Blvd. isn't tonally the same throughout: there's a bleakness and a superficiality throughout, and a sense of impending doom (somewhat bolstered by the fact that we know from the first scene that William Holden is going to end up dead in the pool). It's well-done, bleakly humorous and hitting the right ewmotional notes. And, surprisingly for a Hollywood film about Hollywood films, it doesn't come across as self-indulgent.
I kinda like this one, in theory. In practice it's not as good, but it takes a lot of deliciously silly ideas and runs madcap through them. We have a thoroughly humiliating cybernetic care unit touted as a godsend to the patient. We have "old-school hackers" become not just old-school but just plain old. We have a killer robot on a destructive rampage being sickeningly cute. These are all elements which work towards making this show delifghtfully silly, but then there's a military involvement and a battle of robots and that all is very eh. But the premise is great. Rampaging killer robots is nothing new, but rampaging killer eldercare units is something you can hang a great deal of wackassedness on.
(November 16, 2005) Damn, I'm gonna need some help with this one.
I watched bits of the Utena series and bits of the movie back as an undergrad. I also got the vague impression the movie was a lot worse than the series. I can only hope so, because I couldn't figure much of anything out here. I remembered a lot of people pulling swords out of this girl's cleavage and trying to knock flowers off of each other while impeded by bizarre scenery. I remembered a girl who wore a cowbell as a fashion accessory and turned into a cow. I remembered some guy with a stopwatch. Some of these elements show up in the movie, but they don't seem particularly relevant or important, except the dueling bits.
The only real positive feature I saw in the movie was the art (and to a lesser extent the music). Scenery is lovely, and people are well-drawn if a bit wonky. There's something disturbing about the faces: they seem out-of-proportion to the body and distressingly pointed. Human figures were OK, but closeups on faces were kind of freaky, for me at least.
Anyways, move beyond the visuals, and you're looking at characterization and plot, which is where I blink and say "WTF?" On characterization I'm tempted to beleive the series does a better job, because the story's full of characters, and nobody except Utena, Anthy, and Touga feels remotely fleshed out. And even those three I'm not sure what's up with. Anthy's down for some hott lesbian lovin', and Utena's still got it for Touga, and Touga is, er, some guy or prince, or something. The rest of the characters are conspirators with funky hair who natter on about roses and princes and revolution and are all screwing each other off screen (and flirting shamelessly on-screen). When watching the series, I found myself assuming everyone was an androgynous polyamorous bisexual just to simplify my interpretation of all the flirting/sleeping around which everyone seemed involved in.
And I still can't figure out what the hell actually happened at the end of the film. Utena turns into a car, OK, they escape the wiles of their classmates, and "revolutionize the world" by escaping into the "outside world". I'd applaud the destruction of the fourth wall, except it's really damn clumsy and it doesn't seem accurate anyways, since the "real world" they escape into doesn't seem to resemble what I'd call the "real world".
I can't figure out why my peer group is so very excited by Utena. My guess is it's all the genderbending. Everyone loves genderbenders. Well, everyone I hung out with as an undergrad, anyways.
(November 20, 2005) I first saw parts of this film, for reasons
which still remain obscure to me, in religious school (Reform Jewish,
for the record, so we weren't really particularly expected to root for
one viewpoint or the other). It's of course loosely based on the real
Scopes Trial, but divergest to tell its own story, so I'm judging it
on fictional rather than documentary merit. It's really Spencer
Tracy's show, and he delivers the perhaps a bit overwrought dialogue
quite well, considering. It's a passionate play, and that comes
through, but the other characters seem barely sketched. Gene Kelly as
H.L. MenckenHornbeck seems particularly ill-placed
and irrelevant: he hangs around for the whole film just to say
particularly irksome things at the end.
Anyways, enough about the film, time for the evolution-debate screed. Really, you think I'd pass up an opporunity to go on about an Issue of the Day thinly disguised as a review? Really, I didn't pick this movie specifically for the purposes of talking about modern politics; it just came to the top of my queue. Anyways, one theme they try to work into this film (and the play on which it's based) is the compatibility between religion and science. Since the main conflict is between religious and scientific teaching, it makes sense that they'd try to make the encouraging ending a reconciliation between the two viewpoints. But for most of the film, it's the proponents of religion trying to tear down science, and the proponents of science trying to tear down religion. That does not seem to be strictly necessary.
I've never gotten the stances of the militants on either end of the religion debate. Militant atheists have a point, but they're so intolerably smug about it, while the ultrafundamentalist Christians are just out of touch with anything resembling reality. These are ridiculous extreme viewpoints, and it scares me to think (as it is increasingly hard to deny) that these stances actually represent a good part of the American population. I can't fathom biblical literalism: it's not just evolution which is oppositional to the literalist viewpoint, but pretty much every scientific discovery from heliocentricism on. I wouldn't think the viewpoint that the Bible contained allegory and poetry would be heretical. But I'm not a fundamentalist.
What bugs me about the debate, really, is that it seems like the sort of thing that shouldn't be happening. One incisive line in Inherit the Wind is that "creation took a long miracle". I'm surprised fundamentalism isn't taking on the viewpoint that scientific stances on creation are evidence of God's love too. Because, let's face it, the fact that the end result of this extremely fiddly celestial process is us is pretty damn incredible (yes, I know this is easy to say in hindsight, and if it had taken a million more years and we'd evolved from lizards, we'd say the same thing. I'm just trying to frame it in a way that looks like the Hand of God). Seems pretty likely that millions of years of the universe might produce something else. I'd say a God with the wherewithal to engineer a system which after a few million years cranks out an upright ape is a lot more impressive than one who snaps his fingers and makes man just be there. This would be a far more satisfying theological take.
In my opinion, the debate rumbling through even the new century isn't between science and religion. It's between bad scientific metaphysics and bad theology. The theological underpinnings of the hard-line antievolutionists isthe "God of the Gaps" fallacy; as we've seen, the smaller those gaps get, the smaller their God does too, but if you give God a role in the processes between the gaps, we can see its hand in everything. The bad scientific metaphysics comes from a vocal but mercifully not representative group of shrill atheists whose essential stance is "God is not described by physics, so God isn't worthy of consideration". If there's one thing 20th century physics should have taught us (especially relativity and quantum mechanics), it's that the closer you look at the world, the more things you hadn't even considered pop up. No, I'm not suggesting scientists start incorporating God into their theories. But there should be an openmindedness towards the possibility that underlying principles of the universe may be amenable to explanations not yet supported. Saying "there is no God" is shutting off an entrire realm of possible explanation.
All the wackjobs I actually know are on the militant-atheist end of the scale. But the fundie nutjobs (none of whom I actually know) outnumber them, and that sort of scares me. I don't understand that stance at all, but I think it's immune to reasoned argumentation.
(December 2, 2005) In keeping with my tradition of missing the point entirely, I'm going to focus on an irrelevant aspect of this film, namely its relationship with the TV series.
I knew the TV series was on a lot as a kid. I didn't watch it much, since it didn't seem to be terribly interesting, and I still haven't watched it because I'm lame. But nonetheless it was a pretty successful show. I've seen a lot of media with TV/movie crossovers, mostly animated. Usually the TV show comes first, and the movie is either a thicker slice of the same pie (when it doesn't have episode-to-episode continuity, like Star Trek or Kim Possible) or a prequel/sequel/remix (when the series has continuity, like Firefly or The Vision of Escaflowne). So it's interesting to see "that movie that that TV series was based on". The only other example of migration in this direction I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Buffy movie was awful.
So along these lines, I'm surprised because the film M*A*S*H might as well have been a TV show. It doesn't have a plot as such. It has a bunch of vignette miniplots. In today's brutal television world, it could easily have been the first few episodes of a series without too much plot-massaging. It'd have the Frank & Hotlips episode, the Painless episode, the Tokyo golf episode, and the football episode. But I guess you couldn't put the OT scenes in a TV series in the 70s, and I guess here you get the difference making the film moderately edgy and the series mostly fluff. The clowning around in the movie isn't just pranksterism: it's presented fairly convincing as the only escape the hospital staff have from the futility of their work, patching people up to go out and get damaged again. They slip this message in between practical jokes and wacky antics, so this isn't exactly a "horrors of war" film. But the operating theater scenes are amply squickful and effective.
Addendum: it's come to my attention that there are more successful TV shows based on moves than I'd realized. For completeness, I note Stargate SG-1, Highlander, and Lilo and Stitch as among the more noteworthy.
(December 4, 2005) Neco z Alenky had many things going for it from the synopsis I read. Lewis Carroll, central European cinema, and stop-motion animation: are those not individually the very essence of awesome? I must confess, the result was far, far darker than I would have imagined. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is whimsical and charming. Jan Švenkmajer's film has little whimsy and no charm. The result is, to say the least, different, but intriguingly so.
Two strong points in favor of this adaptation: first, the technical aspects are spot-on for a specific unconventional but clearly intended feel. The settings, and the camerawork, are bleak and, even more importantly, claustrophobic (we will revisit claustrophobia when/if I write about Tma/Svetlo/Tma). The stop-motion is a bit crude, but cut it a break: it was in the 80's and on a limited budget. The second, and perhaps more impressive positive is the extent to which aspects of the source material come through in this rendition. That the source material is recognizable at all is notable, since Neco z Alenky diverges fairly radically in tone from Alice in Wonderland; while Alice does have disturbing aspects, these are generally secondary to its lighthearted spin, and focusing on the disturbing aspects is (a) not done and (b) difficult to pull off in a non-gimmicky way. It works here: really it does. Somehow, the ghoulish trappings of each character work well and play off the actual aspects of that character. The Mad Hatter and the Caterpillar were in particular good, and I liked how the Caterpillar was introduced in what seemed to be a somewhat irrelevant sequence.
So what didn't I like? Probably more than anything else, the one thing which could disappear and make the film a lot better is every single close-up on Alice's lips. The metatextual commentary is cute at the beginning, but by the end of the film it's just tedious.
Oh, one random comment I have to make that doesn't fit anywhere in particular: I'm amused that the cards are not from a traditional 52-card deck, but a William Tell. That's so central European.
So, in short, it's not actually Alice at all, but it's all sorts of Alice-like awesomeness.
(December 15, 2005) This was a difficult one for me to really get into: the film felt like it was keeping me at arm's length from its characters and themes. Points, then, for effectively relaying the characters' self-imposed isolation effectively in the medium; but the problem with this is that the film itself, to a large extent, felt distant and unapproachable. The plot and characterizations didn't give me much to invest in: Maria and Karin are clearly damaged by their circumstances, in different ways, but we're given such a necessarily superficial view of the characters that they don't seem dramatic or pathetic, and their slow bloom from their emotional winters don't have the impact they would for characters I'm given a reason to care about.
One cinematic technique I observed and rather liked was the artifice of distance. Dialogue shots would be interspersed close-ups and personal shots rather than scenes, so the idea of distance between the two participants was blurred. This worked particularly well, I thought, in the dinner scene with Karin and her husband. I was led to believe their dinner table was at least six feet longer than it actually was.
(December 19, 2005) I read the book a year or so back (and failed to write about it, boo me), so I had a pretty good plot idea before I watched it. In addition, I'd had occasion to watch with friends previously but only through the attack on the health farm. So I had a hazy knowledge of this film, but not much.
What struck me most was the strength of the acting. In particular Malcolm McDowell's acting: the supporting characters were OK in a scenery-chewing sort of way (in particular Patrick Magee, who could've afforded to tone it down a notch or two). But McDowell's Alex catured the character right: he was sociopathic in effective ways, with facets of cold brutality, charisma, and twisted humor. That for me really made the movie. The cinematography was well-done too, unsettling and a bit off-kilter, and of course coordinated with the music. Kubrick's coordination of music to action is always good, and it served well in a film where music plays a pivotal characterizaion role. Wish I'd seen this before. It is brutal, dehumanizing, and traumatic, but it's so well-crafted.
(December 19, 2005) Ah, 1969. Back when the Rolling Stones were merely grotesque instead of deathly and a white woman could unironically shill for the Panther defense fund. A time of innocence and rebirth, or at least, that's the hype. Movements, like everything, have life cycles, and the inspiered creative movements of the 60s aged fast. They surely reached their maturity at Monterey Pop, where free spirits and creativity merged in an ideological fervor that seemed like it could burn away the evils of the world. By Woodstock the movement seemed to have lost its edge a bit: despite the tremendous "good vibes" cited in association with it, there wasn't much actual there there, ifyou will. And at Altamont, surely, is where the 60s died.
Gimme Shelter does a very effective job of portraying Altamont's many, many flaws. The most colorful of those failures was of course the recruitment of the Hell's Angels as security, but the organizational failures were legion. Essentially, none of the facilities were appropriate to the crowd. We're told about parking problems, shown sanitary and medical problems, and and the design of the stage area was obviously flawed. There was nothing intrinstically wrong with a lot of people getting together for a music festival, but squeezing all those people into too small a space is a recipe for tragedy. The Hell's Angels were certainly not a wise choice, but Altamont was doomed even without their help.
I'm surprised by the extent of the candid video of the planning, of the crowd, etc. I guess I shouldn't be, since candid/crowd shots made up a lot of the Woodstock and Monterey Pop videos, but I guess I view Altamont more as a train wreck than a festival, and it seems weird to me that there'd be so many video cameras around a disaster. The choice of footage brings up an intriguing question, as well: exactly to what extent was Altamont a greater disaster than Woodstock? Both have become their mythos, and footage used to depict them is representativeof the myth. I'm sure there's footage of major organizational crises at Woodstock, and maybe even footage of people having a good time at Altamont. But instead it's all Mick Jagger bitching out the audience and Marty Balin getting the crap beat out of him. In fact, in the end, Meredith Hunter's death comes as a downright anticlimax, although it's generally presented as the most damning physical evidence of Altamont's organizational snafus.
(December 21, 2005) This one definitely had its high points, but they got lost in the shuffle. The artwork was quite well done, reminiscent in ways of Akira, but that may just be the motorcycles in a futuristic run-down cityscape (and the fact that in the first ten minutes we're treated to a view of a team of competitive bikers whose headgear looks an awful lot like the Clowns'). The story doesn't quite live up to the potential of art and setting, though. The big problems are music (we're treated to a lot of mood-destroying Casio noodling) and theme. There's an interesting antipolitical message fighting to get out of this story, but it keeps getting obscured by the action. A typical progression contains about 3 dialogue lines of ruminaitons on how whoever you're fighting for they're in the wrong, followed by 15 minutes of battle scenes. Then you've forgotten what they said 15 minutesago, so they start over from scratch ruminating about how oppressive governments and militaries are between battles. It's a worthwhile thing to be slipping into a film, and this film plotwise can accomodate it, but it's just not actually there.This actually serves to further make the film's already abrupt ending seem inconsequential: they win a battle and suddenly, woo, Aphrodite autonomy is re-established just like that. But wasn't the fact that the Aphrodite authorities were no better than the Ishtarians a major theme early on? Is it only the good Aphrodites in power now? So unfulfilling.
(December 23, 2005) If you can't guess where I'm going to go with this one, you either don't know me well enough or don't know the one aspect of this film that I'll fixate on.
To further elaborate on my obsession, this film is set in a leather-goods shop just off of Andrássy út in Budapest. Which obligates me to wank about setting for a paragraph or two. Overtly, the setting bears a passing resemblance to Budapest, and in particular, to the southern end of Andrássy, arcitecturally and designwise. Perversely, though, it resembles modern Budapest more than pre-war, in terms of characters' styles and the climate in which they live. Any film set in late-30s Hungary seems damnably artifical without some sort of political undertones. There's some element of bourgeois/working-class interface in Margaret Sullavan's interaction with the customers, as well as with the presumably higher-class employees, but Klara Novak is no Anna Édes (probably a good thing, really). But this is all really unfair, because I'm comparing it to Hungariana whereas this is not Hungarian, nor meant to be, but is merely set in Hungary. One final comment before I shut up about setting: the vocabulary and orthography on display is generally correct, except for two things: first, I'm pretty sure the "Co." part of "Matuscheck és Co." wouldn't appear in '30s Hungarian (which was still linguistically pretty pure, and "company" is not a word in Hungarian), and second, while "Matuschek" might be a preserved German spelling, nobody in Hungary would have a Christian name spelled "Ferencz".
So, er, shutting up about the setting, and moving on to the story and acting, which I rather enjoyed. The plot was good at the time but has since become a commonplace, not least because both the original stageplay and the movie have spawned remakes. Another digression: this plot, unlike most film plots, has actually become more credible in the revision. Not that You've Got Mail was a good movie, mind, but it has a more credible underlying device than its predecessor. People hardly ever send paper mail to complete unknowns, if for no other reason than that a postal address is something of an identity, but a tremendous amount of online contact is anonymous or at least semi-anonymous. End digression, back to actors. Jimmy Stewart plays a fairly typical Jimmy Stewart role, comic, a bit madcap and jumpy with a slightly cruel sense of humor, and very American (no,r eally, this is the last time I mention that this film's supposed to be set in Hungary). The whole performance sort of orbits around him, althoguh the supporting roles are well-done too, although Sullavan comes across as a bit colorless: the male roles seem to shine a lot more, somehow.
Anyways, it was nice good honest fun, and I'm sorry that most of what I have to say about it is Magyar-fetishism.
(January 1, 2006) The Harry Potter films have followed a kind of rocky sequel arc. The first film was massively overpraised: everyone was so happy to see a movie made of it that they overlooked the fact that it was actually kind of a nothing script. The second film got somewhat ignored as more of the same (even though, IMO, it was better than the first). The third was hailed as a well-crafted cinematic work, and I've missed out by not actually having seen it. And that brings us to the fourth. Jury says: a resounding "eh".
This reminds me a great deal of the first, in that there is a great deal that is good burdened by poor design. There are a fantastic number of talents, both technical and acting, spent on this film, and most of them are not utilized terribly fully. Part of this is the plot of the book. I was struck by the film, to a far greater extent than the book, that this story breaks from the standard pacing. Normally Harry & Co. uncover dark forces at work interspersed with their seemingly unrelated academic lives, Quidditch matches, etc. Goblet of Fire is basically one long monolithic plot, which makes the world seem sort of sparse around the edges. No Dursleys, no Transfiguration classes, no angsting about the House Cup. There's little indicating that this story takes place at a school and not, say, at the Summer Olympics. A couple of plot points get reproduced half-heartedly, too, leaving one to wonder about their relevance. The Hagrid/Maxime drama, for instance, is fine getting streamlined a bit, but Rita Skeeter either needs to either retain her narrative purpose or disappear from the story.
Enough about the scriptcraft: what about the execution? With respect to effects: well-done but more-or-less in line with what we've seen before, so no bonus points there. And as for acting: another consequence of the choice to minimize scholastic appearances is that Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman get a lot less screen time, and the story suffers therefrom. Michael Gambon is no Richard Harris, but Dumbledore only gets to dodder whisperingly so the depth of his acting doesn't much signify either. So it really comes down to the kids, I guess. Having not seen the third film, I sort of missed out on their development: they've turned from children to early teens without my noticing, I guess. This is a sort of a disconnect in the books too: through Prisoner they're basically kids doing kid-type stuff, and suddenly in Goblet they're moody and hormonal and whatnot. This works pretty well in the movie, even if rather unpleasantly. Nobody is really admirable at fourteen. The boys are jerks and the girls devious, and that comes through pretty well, actually. So on that point this film wins. But that's a pretty small victory for a 2.5 hour film to have to its credit.
(January 26, 2006) Dune was a great book, full of all sorts of ideas which don't really translate into a cinematic portrayal. I've seen the David Lynch film before, but I wasn't really "watching" and it was an awful VHS transfer and all, so this time I actually did it properly.
It is full of pretty things and no expense was spared to make a vision come to life. But even that can't save a cinematic portrayal of Dune (the miniseries handled a lot of things better). Part of it was what they kept (too much inner monologue!), part was what they left out (Yueh, Kynes and the Shadout Mapes are barely there; Paul's induction into the Fremen was drastically modified), and part was what they added (what was the deal with "weirding modules" and syllables with power and whatnot).
The casting choices are, to say the least, interesting. A handful of extremely recognizable faces peer out of a generally workmanlike crowd. Sting is well-placed as Feyd-Rautha, if only because the role only demands a limited range of looking pretty and smirking. Patrick Stewart is rather appropriate as Gurney Hallack, but since his face has become recognizable and he's become a star since this film, there's a certain discomfort in seeing him in a bit role, and every time he was on screen he distracted me a lot from what was going on. Not that much distraction was necessary, mind: between the weird additions and modifications and omissions, it was hard to see the original story, or indeed any story, shining through.
(January 26, 2006) AZN has a habit of showing distinctly mediocre feature-length anime (with the notable exception of Grave of the Fireflies), but somehow I never learn, and found myself watching Gall Force: Eternal Story.
There is a lot here which should be good. Spacefaring small crew ship, intergalactic war, all-female cast: seems like it was designed to appeal to superfanboys. Too bad they couldn't wrap something compelling around all those ideas. And there is the really big problem: the plot is pretty good, the art is fine, but... the characters are, well, basically nonexistent. There are only 7 of them, and don't get too attached to them, because they start dropping like plague rats. Ideally, this would be a good thing for characterization, except that they kill off all the wrong ones. Lufy has the most assertive personality—the only one with an apparent personality, really— so she disappears about 15 mintues in. The problem is, without any characterization, nothing that happens later is motivated. Catty doesn't do anything to arouse Rabby's suspicion about her (she's aloof and mechanical, but that doesn't distinguish her from, say, Patty). Pony's sacrifice seems absolutely pointless. Patty becoming the center of the story is a big disappointment, too, since of the three survivors, she's the one with the least actual characterization, and being the plot device du jour doesn't make her develop any more personality.
Other odds-and-ends: I don't get the ending. Specifically, I don't get what dangerous thing they're doing to the planet at the end to drive off/destroy the landing crafts. I also don't get the 5-or-so-minute postscript of women walking in a city. Is that supposed to be the descendants of Rumy and Pat, or something? Two visual effects struck me: first, ship-to-ship weapons do this weird netting/focusing thing where they arc out at an angle to the ship and curve in towards a focus point. Despite the physical implausibility of such a design, I must admit it looks graceful. Second, all the text on-screen is in English, which is pretty normal. The English appears to be mostly spelled right and all, which is a bit supernormal. But then they waste all that hard work by putting it all into a script almost, but not quite, unlike Roman. It looks a bit like Cherokee, also. Numerals are also abstracted, so it's peculiar, but then, I guess it's supposed to look alien.
Parting shot: is it just me, or do the Paranoids look a lot like the Skeksis? And if you think "Paranoids" is a dumb name for a race, keep in mind that the girls belong to the "Solenoid" race.
(January 26, 2006) There was Hayao Miyazaki, and then there was that other guy. The other fellow who did Grave of the Fireflies and made up the other half of Studio Ghibli. Somehow I'd always thought of him as sort of a second-stringer to Myazaki (really, who isn't?), but he's a respectable creator and worthy of having his name remembered. So if I forget who Isao Takahata is, go ahead and thwack me with a rolled-up newspaper or something.
Only Yesterday is a pretty sweet film full of childhood vignettes and simple pastoral scenes. It's not Miyazaki-sweet, full of delightful characters you want to hug the life out of, and in fact, on analysis there's actually a kind of melancholy undertone of disappointment and sadness. Most of the vignettes center around 10-year-old Taeko over-reaching herself in an attempt to get her desires and ending up with nothing or at least disappointment. It's presented well and poignantly. For the first hour or so, I didn't feel terribly drawn in: the vignettes were too short to keep me interested, and the experiences and crises of the adult Taeko were remote and absent respectively. But emotionally the first hour is vital, building up to adult Taeko's own crisis and her own resolution of it, and that I felt immediately and profoundly moved by.
The art, of course hardly needs any explaination or apology. It's Studio Ghibli art, which means it's warm, expressive, reasonably lifelike within the stylistic conventions of anime, and detailed. The voice acting was appropriately passionate, as far as I can tell from the Japanese. It's nice to be able to see a subbed film on TV again (althoguh Ghibli dubs are also generally good, but that's usually with oversight by Disney, which only applies to the later Ghibli films). Although, looking at an online script, the subs look a little lacking, like some lines were missed.
Oh, and I absolutely loved the math lesson. Especially when it became clear that Yaeko didn't really know why it was the way it was either. Also, adult Taeko's observation: "It seems like people who could divide fractions easily would have little trouble with their life after that, too." Ah, if only it were so easy, Taeko.
And Toshio listens to Hungarian folk music, too. Score another obscurity that makes me grin.
(January 27, 2006) Last Takahata film for a while, I think, if only because I'm running out of them (he's not terribly prolific). Not the last anime or even Ghibli: I've still got Whisper of the Heart and FLCL to get through.
Anyways, this film is about tanuki, which as far as I can tell are not actually meant to be the same thing as racoons, despite the subtitles' insistence. If every raccoon was a tanuki, Super Mario Bros. 3 would've been a lot easier. So what do I know about tanuki? Well, according to the aformentioned videogame, they can turn into statues, and according to this one kinda disturbing real-estate ad I saw on the internet, they have giant testicles. Both of these properties are in evidence in this film.
This film is intriguingly more Miyazakiesque than Takahataesque in some ways, and unlike both in other ways. The central drama of the story is conflict between the human world and the sprit/natural world: if you can't name at least 4 other Ghibli movies exploring that theme, get off your duff and start watching 'em. It's a Miyazaki theme, really. although viewing it from the sprit-world's point of view's an interesting wrinkle. Takahata's influence can be seen, I guess, in the defeatism and disappointment suffusing the film. Takahara's always a bit of a downer, isn't he? The element which didn't seem suggestive of either is the idiosyncrasy of the art-style, closer at times to some of the less realistic symbolic representations of mainstream anime (such as chibi-mode) than to the generally stylistically clean art typical of Ghibli.
Anyways, I didn't find myself taking much home from this, really. It had a lot of fun but didn't seem to really measure up in plot, theme, or art to the usual Ghibli fare. It's still preferable to about 90% of mainstream anime, but it's kind of a splattery ball of ungelled ideas: it's as if a Shinto Carl Hiaasen decided to write Animal Farm.
(February 3, 2006) This is one of those classics for a number of reasons: it's all historical and stuff, chock full of famous actors acting well, and it has one visual that's burned into public consciousness even if you don't know what film it's from. So my praise for this film's acting, its cinematography, etc. are really rather unnecessary, and I'll focus on plot, which is usually more my thing anyways.
From that perspective, I dispense with the two love stories, both of which seem sort of mechanical (there's no real meeting of the minds or anything) and act as pure devices anyways. The brunt of the story is on the day-to-day life (and sudden interruption thereof) on an Army base. I'm actually eerily reminded of a key theme from another (significantly later) war film, Paths of Glory.
See, for me, one of the most striking things about Paths of Glory was its thesis that brutality in wartime isn't just between the ostensible opponents, but it oozes out into internal conflict as well. Commanders sacrifice underlings to their ambitions; grunts sacrifice their comrades to petty dislikes. This thieme is pretty strong in both films; with the only distinction really being an actual wartime situation versus that situation of a standing (and bored) army. The latter situation's more interesting, since the situation depicted is essentially that of a group of programmed killers with no outlet for their sadism, but that aspect's sort of underplayed. We see a lot of bureaucracy, a fair bit of menial labor, and some skilled labor (such as bugling) but very little of the sort of humanity-destroying exercises necessary to keep an army in fighting shape. It's would be an awfully sugar-coated view of the army if not for the petty abuse. It's weirdly non-real-seeming: perhaps because there are so few dead and the dead are such a Big Deal. I don't know, maybe the military installed on Hawaii really were that far removed from their function in wartime. Hawaii has that effect on people, or so I've been told.
(February 6, 2006) I'll get this out of the way right off: The novel Maurice, by E. M. Forster is not actually very good. It's better than most fiction, simply because even at his least subtle Forster's a good writer, but given a choice between it and, say, Howard's End or A Passage to India or A Room With a View, there'd be no contest, unless it was for a reading course on sexuality in fiction or something.
But, anyways, not talking about the book here, although there's a lot to be gone on about, such as the class-consciousness Forster displays even under a homoerotic context (which, getting back on track, is well-reflected in the film: the class-driven friction between Maurice and Alec is played out prominently). One modification for the movie I actually violently dislike—and will go on about—is the promotion of Risley from a minor character to a Oscar-Wilde-type martyr. Part of the problem is that Oscar Wilde makes a lousy martyr.
That dreadful silence you hear now is the gay-rights movement ostracizing me.
See, this sort of character wasn't in the original for a reason. The likelihood of conviction for homosexuality was, for a gentleman like Maurice Hall or Clive Durham, quite remote, and even for a laborer like Alec Scudder, fairly unlikely without a voluntary complainant. "What about Oscar Wilde?" I hear you cry. Well, Oscar Wilde was convicted, certainly, but only after making it absolutely impossible for the Crown to do otherwise. By and large the British government was too happy to ignore homosexuality. There were dangers for gay men in early twentieth century Britain, but they were social rather than criminal (which is not to make light of them: intolerance could lose someone not only their social connections but also their job). These aspects are played up too, but the spectre of criminal prosecution, in my opinion, rather weakens what's otherwise a pretty strong adaptation of an imperfect source-material.
Anime on AZN is kind of hit-or-miss: so far I've seen うる星やつら 2: ビューティフル・ドリーマー (Urusei Yatsura 2), オーディーン 光子帆船スターライト (Odin), 風の名はアムネジア (A Wind Named Amnesia), 火垂るの墓 (Grave of the Fireflies), 老人Ｚ (Roujin Z), 少女革命ウテナアドゥレセンス黙示録 (Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie), ヴィーナス戦記 (Venus Wars), and ガルフォース (Gall Force: Eternal Story). One obvious win, one pretty good one marred by a dreadful dub, a couple of promising premises with disappointing execution, and an bunch of basically forgettable stories. Poltergeist Report falls into the last category. It's a bunch of guys fighting demons, losing a lot of battles but winning out in the end (oops spoiler). I'm pretty sure I've seen that one before.
A couple of points worthy of note, before I shrug my way out of this review: first, this film is based on an episodic series which I've never seen (it's on TV, but not at an hour when I usually watch TV), so I probably missed out on some of the important characterization (the movie tries to define their characters, but I think it assumes we already know them). Second, if there's one lesson this film teaches, it's "never get distracted". The spirit and underworld agents will be fighting over a mystic site or a power sphere or somesuch, and, as is far too common, someone gets injured, or maybe just knocked over, and the spirit tream (i.e. the good guys), given a perfectly good opening to secure the site or whatever, completely forget the objective and rush to their comrades aid while the demons laugh evilly and make off with their ill-gotten gains. See, guys, if you kept some semblance of focus in the first 69,105 battles, you wouldn't have to pull out all the stops on the 69,106th.
Anyways, this one gets a resounding "meh". Urusei Yatsura made me want to know a bit more about what was going on in the UY-world, even with the crappy dub. Yu Yu Hakusho has done little to kindle my interest in continuing to follow the story of the spirit detectives.
(February 10, 2006) Lost in Translation is an interesting flick. I remember it getting rave reviews back when it first came out, but I didn't get so very fired up— maybe it was just a weak year when it came out. It was pretty good but not fabulous. I didn't feel much depth from Scarlett Johansson: she's OK at sulky, but did it so much better in Ghost World. Bill Murray plays the quirky and coyly seductive character he always does. They're both comfortable in their roles: maybe too comfortable, since the movie's about deeply uncomfortable people.
What gets me interested is the thematic element. It paints a fairly effective portrait of alienation and takes it to some unusual conclusions. For alienating elements, there's both the macroscopic environment of the story (there are few places where an American is as out-of-place as Japan), and the microcosm of social-circle alienation (played out in every single group either of the leads end up in). The problem with the thesis though is that alienated people don't actually connect too well with other alienated people, in my experience. This was given some lip service in that the two pricipals' paths cross a couple of times before they hit it off, but still, to some extent, their acquaintance seems sort contrived. Their actual relationship works out OK, but the good bit's the end: they go their own ways, happier but essentially unchanged. Maybe a bit of a downer, but that's sort of the point, that interpersonal relationships are fleeting and precious. I found the (mercifully downplayed) romantic aspects kind of dismaying, actually, because, yes, it's about a man meeting a woman but it's about friendship, not love. For the most part, the actual handling of the relationship was good: it's the existence of the connection in the first place that struck me as odd.
As a side note: is goodbye ever actually goodbye in the real world nowadays? These days everyone is connected and physical noncolocality doesn't preclude (Platonic) intimacy. But this film doesn't explore that, nor should it. It's about a moment in time and space, not to be repeated as the protagonists' lives diverge. "They dropped each other infrequent and decreasingly intimate e-mails for a year after that" isn't really a cinematic ending, is it?
(February 15, 2006) Complete irrelevancy: this one's title always gets my mental soundtrack playing that Moxy Früvous song. You know, the one about Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Moving on, it's a Tim Burton film, which means it's something of a flight of fancy. It's a bit more restrained than he sometimes is, though, and self-consciously fantastic, with the frame story being about the reality or unreality of the events depicted. It occurs to me to compare the narrative device and theme with that of Graham Greene's splendid Travels With My Aunt. They differ in key details, but share the central theme of a story's function with respect to the real world, and the central narrative device of plot progression through in-narative stories (not an original concept, as the Canterbury Tales and Thousand-and-One Arabian Nights will attest, among other works). It does lead me to wonder how Burton would handle Greene's Travels thoguh. Better than the extant film adaptation—he'd understand the plot and characterizations better—but he probably wouldn't touch it; it's too mundane.
The film was in all cinematographic respects well-done, and the stories were great, but there was a big hole, for me at least, in the characters. We never, ever really get a feel for Will's relationship with his father. It's unusual, since their relationship is really central to the story, that we know little about it. We know Will is honest to a fault and Edward apparently an inveterate liar, but this isn't a relationship, it's just a contrast. Edward's character seems like an inattentive father, and we irst see him stealing his son's thunder, but none of this really comes up in the relationship between the two. Will's resentment being solely motivated by his father's fiction/dissembling seems a bit too focused, in a way. It seems somehow his neuroses should be more complex and abandonment-based than just "I don't know the real you!".
It sounds like I'm slagging the story, but, really, I liked it a lot, even if I saw the Twist (as it were) early on. It's an American fantasy rich in folk archetypes and a sort of 20th-century symbolism. That can get me going even with the surrounding story a bit weak.
(February 16, 2006) We always hurt the ones we love.
By "we" I mean "I", and by "the ones I love" I mean "myself" (hey, we've all got a little narcissism). Yes, after a brief interlude of one American film having nothing to do with Japan, I've plunged headlong back into my world of inexplicable animation. I need to stop watching AZN movies-of-the-week habitually: life is too short to watch crappy anime.
So I guess I've let you know right off the tone of the review here. Darkside Blues is, well, kinda unimpressive. Y'know how my reviews of Yu Yu Hakusho and Revolutionary Girl Utena ended up saying something like "this part of the world wasn't fleshed out, but I suppose they expected me to watch the series"? Darkside Blues was kinda like that, only more so, and without the excuse of a series that I'm supposed to watch. The whole thing seemed kind of thin. Normally I take the world I'm given at face value, but we're missing critical information. What Persona Century does (they're some sort of capitalistic monster, sure, but do they produce anything? They apparently have the ability to turn anything into gold, but don't actually use this technology for anything except torture.), what they use the 90% of the earth they own for, when, where, and why Darkside was banished (I'm willing to accept his peculiar appearance and powers as just "he's a magical guy"), what Enji's all about, that sort of thing. It's exactly the feeling I get from a movie set in a series-established world, except that isn't the case here.
There are things about this which were... well, if not good, at least acceptable. The art is well-done. The characterization and the tone are, at their best, actually kind of vaguely reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop, which makes it sound like a pale derivative, except this predated CB. The music, on the other hand: let's just say it's not up to the Cowboy Bebop standards by a long, long shot. It's better than Casio noodlings, but just barely.
This one could actually have been pretty good if it'd been fleshed out a bit more. But it's hard to get into a story when the actual events of the story, and the central players therein, are so ill-defined.
(February 18, 2006) It's definitely a tour de force, and it's saying something, but I don't know what it's saying, other than that Quentin Tarantino knows far more about cinema tropes than anyone has a right to. But we already knew that.
What struck me about the film is its firm, intentional divorce from reality. It's an interesting stance on the function of cinema: verisimillitude is usually sought, and cinematic styling generally serves to shape the realistic purpose of the film. Kill Bill is very much not realistic; nor is it surreal, which is the traditional variety of non-realistic film. It is at the point you get when you take cinematic styling and push it past stylistic. It is stylized. Take this into consideration, and you've got an awful lot of stuff converging into a story which is more about mood than plot. It's over-the-top—ridiculously so—and it's just a riff on genre conventions: the many-on-one fights, the ponderous and posturing dialogue, the absence of obvious rational behavior (there are, AFAICT, two guns in this film, both of which appear in the first 30 minutes. In packing a piece, Copperhead shows a lot more common sense than O-Ren Ishii does; but O-Ren belongs to the east-Asian genre conventions which never, ever gun down an enemy with whom it'd be more fulfilling to have a dramatic swordfight). I like the heavy styling: it works, against all odds, and steers clear of any real cheeseball factor while still projecting the ostentatious-badass factor into a sort of ridicule. It's intriguing, but I'm still waiting to get to the delicious creamy center of this stylistic chocolate. This film is really violent: decapitations, guttings, scalpings, ocular bleeding, and amputations galore. And that's just one scene. It'd be a shame not to see all that trauma serving some sort of purpose other than reliving Tarantino's nostalgia for stylized east Asian action cinema.
Two comments: first, on blood. There is an absurd quantity of blood here. Severed limbs and heads spray forth what are quite literally fountains of blood, pumping plumes to rival the Trevi. I was going to file this under "unreality", but it occurred to me that I don't actually have the foggiest damn idea what the blood-spray pattern from an amputation actually looks like. Maybe it's ordinary everyday cinema (which usually includes a quick violent spatter, or a weak extended spurt) that's unrealistic on this point, and that bloody stumps really do spray like a firehose. It just looks farcial from a cinematic perspective by now (cf. amputations in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and UHF, neither of which are meant to be taken seriously). Second comment: y'know when the lights go out in the House of Blue Leaves and Uma's fighting all the yakuza in silhouette? I know it makes me a terrible person, but I was mentally editing iPod earbuds onto all of them. Please tell me someone's actually done this digitally.
(February 23, 2006) Night Watch leaves me conflicted. It's a film I very much wanted to like, and found promising at points, but also occasionally exceedingly irksome. At it's best, it's like live-action Gaiman, perhaps too much so (down to a character called a "vortex" whom an exceedingly powerful being has the duty but not the inclination to kill). The good parts of this include a world of rich depth with we get a small window on -- perhaps too small, as critical plot points like the inimical effects of the Gloom seem to come out of nowhere. From a worldbuilding and atmospheric standpoint I have no real complaint. My main problem is with the plot and the cinematography.
The plot's OK, in its own way, but there are two problems: major events inadequately fleshed out, and an attempt to be an epic-style story which it is not (at least not as presented). There's the aforementioned miscomprehension of the Gloom, and provisions of the Treaty brought up as convenient. Zavulon's dialogue at the end suggests that his plot was designed to exact revenge on Anton, but we never see any reason for Zavulon to particularly want vengeance. All in all, it feels like somewhere the script got cut and the gaps never got filled.
As for cinematography: I guess it's nice that Russia has the effects wizardry, even in their straitened circumstances, to do neato swooshy things, but their timings a bit off. They move stuff around fast, and there's an art to doing that. All the sudden quick cuts—and there are a lot—are just a bit too quick. At about 3/4 of the speed they were at, the brain would be able to process what's being flashed. At the rate it's presented, it might as well be white noise informationally.
It's a promising effort from a nation I'm accustomed to thinking of as basically third-world nowadays, but apaprently they have more cinematic development than I'd surmised. I'd like to see more Russian cinema, but I don't think I was drawn in enough to want to bother with Дневной Дозор.
(March 1, 2006) I have a contentious, but by no means unique, perspective on this film. I've both read the classic Roald Dahl story and watched the 1971 Gene Wilder version and enjoyed both a great deal. But this is sort of a different creature than both. Plotwise it's closer to the book (and the one major deviation was easily the film's weakest point), but tonally the '71 version was closer to the Dahl original. This film was very, very dark, and quite creepy. As always, it's all Johnny Depp's fault, as he seems to become the defining character for pretty much everything he's in. And he's good in this as a Wonka completely disconnected from reality. It's weird: offbeat is funny, until it passes a certain line and becomes scary. This version of the story definitely crosses the line. And that's really it's defining characteristic, tonally.
Vis-a-vis production values: it's Tim Burton; you hardly need ask. The fantastic is fantastic, the nostalgic is nostalgic, and the music is by Danny Elfman. The secondary characters.... well, they're hardly there, and they're such stereotypes any good actor could phone them in. Deep Roy is the only actor other than Depp to be really at all taxed by this script, and he does a good job. The actors are fine in their own ways, but it's really a one-man show. Which brings me to an interesting oddity of naming: this viersion is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the '71 one was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but in comparison that seems backwards. Charlie is hardly in this one's story: he gets snapped at by the other children and directs occasional pleasantries at Wonka, and that's more or less it, whereas in the version that's not named after him, he gets into trouble, has personal dramas, etc. Of course in both (and even in the source material) he's a Good Little Boy. Dahl was generally subversive, but his Charlie was a total tool. This film's actually more subversive than the book, if only because heavy freakassedness-exposure is purported to be bad for kids.
(March 3, 2006) Well, it's Tim Burton doing a necrofantasy stop-motion animation with a couple of musical numbers. My commentary might as well end there: either you liked The Nightmare Before Christmas or you didn't, and that probably defines how you feel about Corpse Bride. Same (fine) stable of actors as Tim Burton usually uses: the overlap between this and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is actually pretty extraordinary. It's all quite good: fine production, good voice acting, well-done music: the only weak point is the kind of superficial plot. But you don't watch this for the plot: you watch it for the pretties. And it's very pretty. About as pretty as ghuols and skeletons and zombies get, anyways.
Well. This is certainly a change from the first volume. Gone are most of the kitchy genre-homages (although, God help us, we still can't escape from the ubiquitous training montage), gone is the knee-deep-in-gore styling. It's still a nasty, vicious little show, but done in a more restrained style. Also, we get a lot more actual plot filling in the gaps. All we knew in the first part is that Uma Thurman got shot in the head at her wedding by her old colleagues, and after waking up is methodically hunting them down. This film does a lot to answer the questions raised by the first film, and does so basically satisfactorily. Thematically I'm a bit fuzzy on messages: is it that violence begets violence? Or that violent cycles can be broken? Could be argued either way by the ambiguous ending, I suppose. One quesiton about a peculiar plot device: why the bleeping of the Bride's name up until a seemingly random point? I figured there was some sort of spoilishness we were being protected from, like that the was actually Elle's sister or some wackoid plot twist like that. But, no, her first name is vaguely evocative but not actually spoilertastic; her last name is illuminating about certain conversational oddities but hardly a deep dark secret, so why all the mystery. If they'd kept it bleeped until the end, I could get it: make her the mystery woman, a complete cipher. But they drop the bomb and it's not a big deal at all.
Other than that particular wackiness, I got no complaints. David Carradine, who had previously only had off-screen appearances, is a well-balanced contradiction and reasonably effective as the "final boss"; Uma Thurman carries the show; the supporting roles are adequately done. Production remains excellent—maybe better, for being less ambitious—and all in all, I'd say, a most satisfactory conclusion to a rather enigmatic but well-crafted start.
(March 9, 2005) This one's intriguing in the way films from the early era of motion pictures often are. It's an early talkie, so the artificial explicitness of the dialogue must be excused. The characterizations were generally pretty sound, working with broad but effective brush-strokes. Probably the most interesting elements of this film were, however, its effects and its themes. The special effects were pretty much the earliest of its kind, with some fairly impressive sound effects and pyrotechnics. All in all, the sound and lights and basic cinematic technique was awfully advanced, which lead to not-difficult-to-watch experience for my modern eyes. It helps that this DVD had a really clean restoration.
So onwards to theme. There's a great temptation to read a lot of political significance into pre-World War II Eurpoean cinema, simply because it really was a continent in crisis, and everyone was working through that crisis in their own ways. So you have propaganda pieces like Александр Невский and Броненосец Потёмкин coming out of Russia, or a bit later from Germany, Triumph des Willens, for instance. But under a weakly governed crisis-ridden political and economic cloud, Germany produced some intriguingly dark film—the industrial dystopia of Metropolis; the psychological horror and expressionistic violence of Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari—this was a nation working through some pretty serious trauma. Dr. Mabuse rather resembles Dr. Caligari in several respects, the most overt being the syntactic similarity of the titles. But in addition, there is the presence and plot-significance of insane asylums, with the subordinate themes of confusion about identity and reality. "Who is Dr. Mabuse, and who is the madman?" one might ask upon viewing both. Of course, this highlights a constant facet of German confusion in the interbellum: the setback to nationalism and the loss of a central authority asserting the reality of thier political and cultural worldview. The differences between the two, to some extent, shed light on changes in attitudes in the intervening decade. Some of the modifications are purely aesthetic: thematically, Mabuse is compatible with the expressionistic and abstract design of Caligari, but with a more advanced cinemacraft, Lang opted for a realistic approach. Others reflect the encroaching of reconsolidated political power: for instance, a notable theme in Mabuse is the use of crime as means to the assertion of power. Some cinephiles read this as a direct reference to Nazi chicanery (such as the Reichstag Fire), but it might just as easily be a paranoid response to the lawlessness engendered by Weimar weakness, exploited by every scheming party, not just the Nazis. It's a fantastic look at the times, an extraordinary look into the psyche of at least one German on the eve of national catastrophe.
And, er, on top of that, it's a really good film.
(March 10, 2006) Yay! More Miyazaki! Lots of the usual hallmarks of Miyazaki films here, of course (he even manages to sneak in a flying girl, despite the surprisingly nonsupernatural setting); amazingly, in spite of an awful lot of common features among his films, each one feels like a unique polished gem. This one's more character-driven than most, which is nice, because Miyazaki does absolutely wonderful things with young girls. His protagonists are frequently imperfect—Shizuku, like Chihiro, has her moments of infuriating fretfulness—but they're so warmly drawn and so empathic that you can't help but love them. And, er, not in that way (y'know, it's Japanese, so I have to make that clear). His boys aren't half-bad either, although I wouldn't exactly call them lovable.
Anyways, to this story in particular: as I said, it's unusually realistic for Miyazaki, and extremely sentimental as well— tonally it reminds me less of the usual Miyazaki fare, and a far more of Takahata, and in particular of おもひでぽろぽろ minus the nostalgia. Even this atypical story is delivered well and warmly, although ultimately Takahata doing sentimental realism and Miyazaki doing fantastic exploraitons of the supernatural is probably the best stylistic division. Thematically it's a bit busy, with a handful of love plots and a self-determination and self-confidence character-development going on. Between those and the tonal irregularity, this movie (like Shizuku's story) seems a bit rough to my mind, but even so it beats the hell out of most other animated films.
[Edit] Apparently it's not actually directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but by Yoshifumi Kondo, which may explain some of the tonal unusualities. Miyazaki produced, though, which is why I got confused; it looks a lot like his work.
(March 14, 2006) If I didn't know better, I'd suspect that there was something severely wrong with German culture between the years of, oh, I don't know, 1918 and 1945.
Joking aside, I'm seeing an awful lot of Grauen und Angst going on. It's as if the Germans got their hands on video cameras and immediately started shooting film of the most disturbing things they could find. It took decades for American cinema to get that twisted. Anyways, silent film is generally plot-weak but i won't focus on that. Liekwise, cinematography was a fairly new art then and old films tend to have badly damaged prints anyways, which makes an analysis of the cinema-style a bit difficult. For instance, there's a great deal of image vignetting, some of it appropriate, and to what extent it was intentional, an optical artifact, or film deterioration I couldn't possibly know. But aside from vignetting, one techincal detail struck me, in particular, the use of image tinting. I haven't followed eary cinema much, so I don't remember which films are tinted and how effectively they used them: Intolerance used colors to keep its narratives distinct, but most early cinema I recal being either untinted or sepia-tone. So seeing different colors used, mostly for times of day but occasionally merely for atmosphere, was rather refreshing.
As for other details, I don't know. I don't get much emotion from it, simply because I'm from a generation which needs something to be a lot more gruesome before we regard it as scary, although, to his credit, Max Schreck was pretty damn gruesome. The actors emoted a great deal, as was proper for the silent-film acting traditions. It's definitely a solid film, but I probably wouldn't watch it again unless I was looking for something specific.
(March 14, 2006) I gave up on this one after the second "movement". I was just getting absolutely nothing at all from it. Twenty minutes in it dawned on me that it had less intrinsic meaning than Chappaqua and forty minutes in I realized there were about a million things I'd enjoy more than watching this movie, so I shut it off. So this review is really only based on seeing half of the film, but I can't imagine I'm missing much.
I'm unclear on why I ended up watching this movie, or even why the UCSD library has a copy. All the metadata I find on it is unilluminating as well. I may well be the only person in the world who has actually seen this movie, and even I've only seen half of it. I figure my thought process was that I like animation and I'm interested in avant-garde, so I'd give it a try. But I've had enough now, and I'm buying a one-way ticket on the express back to Unpretentiousville.
Anyways, I got thinking a bit about the point of media. There's the aesthetic you convey your method with, and the message you convey. My problem with Rubicon was that there was nothing there, nothing lurking behind the aesthetic. When I write down my thoughts, I usually have a word about cinematography, plot, theme, tone, that sort of thing. The computer graphics? They're reasonably good but sterile (very "uncanny valley"). Music? Servicable but bland world-music sounds. Plot? I wasn't really expecting one. Tone or theme? Nothing! I get nothing at all! It's like looking at a blank wall for all the emotional response I get! About the closest I got to responding was being bored, which is an emotional response, I guess, but there are easier ways to achieve that. The visuals could have been interesting, juxtaposed right and with greater context, but after watching the sun rise and set on a parking meter for 10 straight minutes, I can't help but wonder if I'm supposed to be getting anything at all from this. If it were a tape loop as part of a larger exhibit, or a painting of a parking meter in the desert, I might get something, but any possible interest I might possibly have in this film is kind of suppressed by the execrably glacial pacing.
Anyways, I apparently missed a lot. Here's what the film's official website has to say about the film:
There was the spark. There was the watcher. There was the keeper. There was the destroyer.
In his much-anticipated first feature-length motion picture, Simon Tarr paints a stunning, sweeping technohistory of the human race to obsolescence. Sacred geometry and ominous CGI intertwine with a retelling of the story of Noah to illuminate the illusion of authority and the nature of autonomy in the contemporary digital sphere.
I figure all that must be in the 40 minutes I opted not to watch.
(March 19, 2006) The overlap, or lack thereof, of "classic cinema" and "classic cinema actors" is interesting. Grand Hotel is perhaps a case in point: Prominent roles are played by Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford: three extremely well-known names which aren't in many films anybody actually watches any more. It's kind of a shame: they all shine in their roles here with faded luster, oily charm, and sparkling wit respectively. Lionel Barrymore doesn't do too shabby as the nebbishy Kringelein, either. This one was mostly a superstar performanc,e and it was nice to see some stars I don't know too well. My only real complaint is one of plot: we're given an impression early on of a number of different plots running oncurrently, and about half of them coalesce far too quick and the others get sort of left behind. Most notably, Greta Garbo gets the short end of the stick, since she has an extremely interesting depression-and-revitalization plot, one which at the end is played for full pathetic potential, but she disappears pretty much completely for a goodly chunk of the film while the Geigern-Flaemm-Preysing-Kringelein love rhombus plays out. Likewise, Dr. Otternschlag is made out early on to be a major character and a character with a mystery, but he basically ends up filling the role of a narrator more than anything else.
The acting makes this film fantastic, but the setting's nice too, taken int he context of its age. Nowadays you can get a shot like this in, say, an Embassy Suites, but check out the view of the central chamber of the Grand Hotel. Is that not sexy?
(March 20, 2006) I absolutely loved the source material, and this is an extremely faithful adaptation, down to the chapter divisions. Almost all the supporting roles were brilliantly done: Maggie Smith was delightfully fussy, Daniel Day-Lewis was disgusting from pretty much the moment he appeared onscreen, and Rupert Graves was believably free-spirited. In fact, only the leads were a disappointment here to me: Julian Sands as George didn't have much to go on—George is an intentionally enigmatic character in the book—but he didn't burst with quite the passion it seems he should. And, of course, there's Helena Bonham Carter, who has since moved on to bigger and better things, but was quite young when this was made (19, although to look at her in this film I'd say closer to 15), and not a terribly nuanced actor. Lucy in the novel is a romantic character, sensitive rather than sensible, to use the Regency terminology, but not moody and certainly not as fretful as portrayed here. It's a pity, because a lot of otherwise well-acted scenes were somewhat marred by Bonham Carter's indelicate performance.
On a side not I had never noted before how many E.M. Forster novels were adapted by Merchant-Ivory. They have three extremely good adaptations to their name: this, Maurice (whose source material was flawed, but whose adaptation was lovely), and the extraordinary Howard's End. Theirs is a most impressive collaboration, and maybe I should check out some of their non-Forster material.
(March 21, 2006) I read the book, but that was years ago, and I only remember bits and pieces. This is mostly a one-man show. Some generally forgettable performances are put on around a rather stunningly presented Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck I've seen a couple times before, and he always seemed a bit stiff and awkward, but in this film at least his greatest weaknesses turn out to be tremendous strengths: if you're an intellectual in a town ruled by prejudice and superstition and a widower trying hard to raise his kids right without a maternal influence, you might well be awkward and wooden. Of course, Atticus Finch isn't a marionette: he displays a range of emotions. But that's fine, because Peck is an actor, even if a somewhat limited one, and within his limitations he really makes this character work.
Anyways, this film mostly stood on Gregory Peck's performance. It maintains a pretty high level of quality throughout, but whenever he's not on-screen (especially when the children are alone) it's just not as attractive. The kids in particular deserve some mention, since they're (taken as a group) the second most significant performance in the film. There are two thigngs about putting children on camera: they're not as good actors as adults, and a little of them goes a long way. These kids all put in acceptable performances which didn't make me want to strangle them. Sounds like damning with faint praise, but, believe me, that's a lot for a child actor to aspire to.
(March 22, 2006) Yow. Most Kurosawa is all about the cinematic technique. That's in evidence here as well, with some interesting tracking and panoramic shots, but what jumped out at me was not the camerawork so much as the acting and pacing. Kurosawa, who essentially invented Japanese cinema, drew his inspiration, logically enoguh, in large part from theatrical conventions. Japanese theatrical traditions are somewhat unusual from a Western perspective: they're more expressive, and generally more leisurely, with stronger emphasis on movement than speech. All of Kurosawa's films display theatrical influence to some extent, but Throne of Blood really plays highly into these conventions, and in particular Noh dramatic structuring, so there's chanting and a lot of stately music and highly evocative acting. It works real well.
One of the reasons it works real well is Toshiro Mifune. I remember Mifune doing well in an off-center role in Rashomon, but I didn't get much to bring home from his performance in Yojimbo. But he puts on an absolutely stellar performance here, with acting that is both blatantly expressive (conforming to the theatrical tradition), and nuanced at the same time. Probably his single best scene is the one in which he's promoted in accordance with the prophesy he mocked. In his eyes, and in his motions, we see discomfort, doubt, and a valiant attempt to quash his emotions. It's hard enoguh to emote repressed feelings without lending nuance to those repressed feelings, but he does and it works. It's fantastic and let me know I was in for a treat. It also helped his character appear sympathetic through much of the film: unlike Macbeth, who at the slightest nudge from his wife turns into a monster, Washizu's every movement betrays his discomfort and guilt.
In a nutshell, this is the best acting I've seen in a Kurosawa film—even my gaijin aesthetic can appreciate this performance. And it's a take on Shakespeare, which I find at least amusing when it manages to change the context and retain the plot. Ran also did that well.
(March 23, 2006) This is a rarity for me: a movie based on a play which I saw first. Films based on books I've read previously are pretty common, but a stageplay's a lot closer to a movie than a book is. Nonetheless, you don't make a movie out of a stageplay just by sticking a camera down in the audience (usually). So it's interesting to see what changes in transition. Most of the changes are inoffensive and well-considered; we see a greater fluidity of setting, and some nice off-center closeups which effectively translate the material to the screen. During the first two-thirds or so of the film, the romance at the wake was the only thing I found forced or ill-considered: I'm pretty sure they did some cut and paste from the stage script, and the whole thing seems sort of abrupt. Also, I honestly found the implicit sex of the stageplay a lot more effective as a plot-and-characterization device than the explicit sex on the screen. BUt I guess that's the concession you make to the movie-watching public: you force some drama about math geeks on them, they insist on seeing Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal simulating sex. Or something.
I wish that was the extent of my complaints, but I got a distinct sense of cinemacraft unravelling near the end. Cinematically it got clichéd, and we got a montage, and then a scene in an airport. I hate scenes with people facing decisions in airports. We need a moratorium on people about to get on a plane changing their minds and running out of the airport. Any director that uses such a scene should be beaten about the head unitl cured.
Er, sorry. Jsut got me going on one of my pet peeves. I really wanted to like this film, and to a large extent I do. I'm glad it was made, because a screen adaptaiton of the play wanted to be made. But it had its flaws, and moving on from above, one of those flaws is Gwyneth Paltrow. I like Paltrow, but I'm not sure she was quite right for this role. She doesn't quite have enoguh iron in her: sulky Catherine she can do, but strong Catherine she can't, and it misses an important nuance of the character, in my estimation. Paltrow's Catherine is an emotional cripple; the stage Catherines I remember (Mary-Louise Parker and Dan McKellar, for the record) had a lot more fire. She is troubled, certainly; but she is not weak. The other cast seemed more appropriate in their roles: Anthony Hopkins's Robert, like Orson Welles'l Harry Lime, dominates the film in spirit despite having barely any screen-time. Gyllenhaal's Hal is generally good but with just a smidge too much oily charm, and Hope Davis does well, but in a role not demanding too much subtlety.
I harped on what I disliked above, so let me stress: I actually liked the film a great deal. Just not as much as the stageplay.
(March 24, 2006) Realism is perhaps the word of the day on this one. Neither the cinematography nor the acting are particularly distinguished, but the story and setting are effectively bleak and realistic. There doesn't seem to be much of a plot as such: plot occurs at the beginning and end, but the middle's basically slice-of-life. It wasn't gripping but it was well-crafted, showing off the basic depression and squalor of port-war Rome; and playinmg on some class-cinsciousness in the restaurant scene. I was somewhat surprised by the complete absence of Antonio's wife from the film after the beginning, which seemed sort of artificial. In fact, the whole film is awfully masculine, and inhabited largely by males.
This is a well-regarded film but it just didn't do much for me. I didn't really get much to take home from it.
(March 24, 2006) I had only actually anticipated watching one film, but I got two for the price of one: both versions of Gaslight were on a single DVD. They're both based on the same stageplay (which, confusingly enough, is not called Gaslight, but Angel Street), which means they have a lot in common, but they're hardly scene-for-scene identical. I'm unlear on why MGM remade a movie a scant four years after the origin al, but so they did. Apparently the issue of which production is superior is a touchy one, and leads to outbreaks of violence on the streets of this nation's more cinephilic cities. So I guess I'd best tread lightly in my comparison.
The 1940 version is significantly shorter, in large part because it starts further into the story. This means it doesn't explain the question of how the leading lady ended up married to this creep, but in fairness, the '44 production doesn't exactly illuminate that issue either. In terms of plot-pacing and characterization, the '44 recreation is generally better: Anton Walbrook's Mallen is unrelentingly nasty, which isn't terribly credible: his character doesn't seem like one that would actually convince his wife of anything, whereas Charles Boyer's Anton (maybe a dig at the original actor?) is sly, charming, and hides his viciousness effectively. The supporting cast in the '44 version is also stronger for the most part: Ingrid Bergman as Paula is believably sane but cowed, with shades of Joan Fontaine's Mrs. deWinter, while the mostly forgettable actress in the 1940 film just seems weak. The one role I think is better in the 1940 version is that of the leading-lady's savior: Joseph Cotten, who I usually like, did a respectable but not superlative job, while Frank Pettingell breathed a droll humor into his role completely absent in Cotten's businesslike detective.
So, on most points, the '44 movie wins in my estimation: better cast, better pacing, and slightly better cinematography. In fairness, I must confess the '44 movie had a more effective score. They're both good, though, so I wouldn't pass up a chance to watch either again. But probably not both in series, althoguh it was interesting to do so once. They're quite dissimilar for films with essentially the same plot and production.
(March 27, 2006) Yow. I got a feeling there is not a single damn thing I can say about this film that hasn't been said before. It could be argued fairly convincingly that it's the single most culturally significant, or at least culturally pervasive, cinematic work in American history. A number of quotes and schenes have entered public consciousness, and it's received both critical and popular acclaim. It's really damn long but it's not padded to fill the length, it's well acted, and it's shot in gorgeous Technicolor. What can a poor cinephile possibly say to add to the tremendous wealth of knowledge and commentary about it? There's a lot about race relations and the sanitation thereof, but that's definitely a subject that's been done to death. So I'll quit while I'm behind and leave it at a personal opinion: It was a stupendous film, consistently awesome, but in the realm of epic-length sweeping dramas, I think I still prefer Doctor Zhivago. That's just a personal preference though.
(March 30, 2006) It's rare that I can alternately think of a movie as deliciously cynical and hopelessly naïve. Frank Capra directed this one and Jimmy Stewart stars, so you can sort of imagine it's going to be an inspirational story of the plucky, ingenuous little guy fighting back against a corrupted system. I expected it to end differently, maybe because I'm too cynical. It would have been a better ending, and a more realistic one, but not a very Frank Capra one. Anyways, it manages to blend sweetness and cynicism pretty well: Claude Rains is a terrific foil to Jimmy Stewart, with his world-weary tarnished-hero 'tude. And his freakish coiffure. You can't beat it, can you? Not even with a stick.
Dunno if I'd rank it as an extraordinary film, but it'd be a fun one to show to students. Beats the hell out of that Schoolhouse Rock video about how they pass bills, anyways (before people get their hate-guns out to broil me to a crisp, let me comment that I like that song. But if Mr. Smith is naïvely idealistic, then Schoolhouse Rock is simply off the self-delusion scale).
(March 30, 2006) Somehow, I screwed this up. I wrote up my thoughts on La cité des enfants perdus and somehow managed to overwrite it with the writeup of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Too bad; I had more intelligent things to say about La cité.... What I recollect from my original article: this one's by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who brought us such peculiar comedies as Delicatessen and Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain. This is closer to the urban-grime Delicatessen end of his style, featuring an underground race with a weird idealistic agenda, madness, and a seemingly idiotic protagonist. It's a lot more twisted in some ways, though: the primary facet of this film is its visual spectacle, which is distorted in every way possible, I think. The color balance fluctuates wildly, overly vivid at times, overly drab at others, and the only scenes with normal colors are dream sequences, but those too are subjected to optical distortion. The setting and costuming is highly reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's designs, especially Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Interestingly, this film was released almost at the same time as 12 Monkeys, which struck me as peculiar. There's one visual which, if I didn't know the timeline made it impossible, I'd swear was lifted directly from 12 Monkeys.
As to anything other than the visual spectacle, eh, it's OK. It's basically a neo-Dickensanian story, with poor orphans being abused and exploited by various parties, to be rescued by a plucky heroine and a childlike man. Add a liberal dose of complete twistedness to that, and have the directorial moxie to make that come to life, and you got yourself an intriguing, if deeply disturbed, movie.
Last comment: they apparently offered Jeunet the opportunity to direct the next Harry Potter movie. He declined. That's too bad, because it would have been awesome.
(March 31, 2006) Took me long enough to get around to it. I miss out on an awful lot of movies on their first go-round, don't I? Anyways, Azkaban was heralded as a departure from the usual Harry Potter fare, and a stronger film. I'm certain of the first and less sure of the second. It's more cinematically appropriate than its two predecessors, for sure, which was accomplished via fairly hefty deviations from the book's script. While this made for what might be a more satisfying viewing experience (if only because it was shorter than it might otherwise be), it meant a lot of development of character and plot development fell by the wayside. Hermione isn't involved in Buckbeak's trial, so there's less viewer investment in his fate; the Ron-Hermione dynamic doesn't have as much tension as it should, which somewhat weakens the actual impact of Ron's belief that Crookshanks ate his rat; the mutual antagonism between Snape and Lupin isn't really played up; the backstory of the four animagus friends is left completely blank. This all actually makes it hard for me to offer an honest assessment: sure, the film's OK, but couldn't it have been a lot better if we more fully understood characters' motivations? My problem with the previous two installments was the focus on the swooshiness of Hogwarts rather than the story. Well, this installment cut down to the story and cut out a lot of the more distracting aspects of the previous cinematic portrayals, but I think it might have cut out some important development as well.
Visually, as mentioned previously, the film's well-thought-out. There's still a great deal of fantastic special-effects work, but none of it seems gratuitous. The one thing which struck me as a bit derivative is that the dementors look and sound a lot like Peter Jackson's Ringwraiths, but the soul-sucking thing they do sets them a bit apart.
Acting is another area where I'm slightly befuddled. Yes, the kids do a good job, Michael Gambon fills Richard Harris's shoes very well as Dumbledore, and Emma Thompson's Trelawny portrays the character excellently, but to me the mainstays of acting in the Harry Potter movies are Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith, and it seems we see less of them in each successive movie in the series. Why hire the best if you're not going to use them? All in all, an admirable effort, but not exactly getting me begging for more.
(March 31, 2006) I've seen Ghost in the Shell a couple times before, but without subtitles. It's a good but not superlative anime: it stands mostly on the strength of the source material (Shiro Masamune's provocative and daring manga of the same name) and on being an early herald of anime's incursion onto America's shores. It's beautifully animated and presents a compelling world, but the actual storyline moves through a kind of jerky, disordered pacing which somewhat loses the subtleties of the political realities surrounding the main plot-token (the Standalone Complex series, which has more leisurely pacing and episodic focus, fleshes out a more cohesive world, but not in the same continuity).
As one of the earliest arrivals of modern Japanese animated cinema on our shores, I find Ghost in the Shell intriguing in that the Japanese seem to have come up with a different way of looking at technology than Americans. American movie-producers don't actually seem to understand computers: watching any major Hollywood film will convince you of that. But, ultimately, I think we take a pretty shallow view of what technology, and especially computer networking, means to society. I think of computers and networks in American cinema and what I see is threat to security (The Net, Firewall), a communication forum (You've Got Mail), and occasionally an incomprehensible murder-machine (Fear dot com, Stay Alive. No, I haven't watched any of these films). And, of course, a laughable comprehension of how computers, and computer security, actually work.
Not that the Japanese are better on technical details, really, but they've protected themselves from criticism by considering computers, not by way of what they literally represent (data processing and communication), but as metaphors and philosophical abstractions. Individual identity, the collective unconscious, communication divorced from the physical realm: these are ideas the Japanese play with over and over again, as in Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Serial Experiments: lain, among many others. And they're very cool things to see kicked around. So even though the plot of Ghost in the Shell is a bit of a mess, it's worth watching as part of a larger picture of anime.
Side note: while the phrase "Ghost in the Shell" conjures up the film's outlook on the dichotomy between soul and body in a heavily cybernetic society, the Japanese title, "攻殻機動隊", really has nothing to do with ghosts or shells or bodies or souls at all (殻 can mean "shell", but also can mean "armor"—character-by-character the title is roughly "assault shell machine movement unit", which is conventionally translated "mobile armored riot police" by people who actually know Japanese).
(March 31, 2006) I really wanted to like this one. I really did. István Szabó is one of my favorite Hungarian directors, and I like his historical and family themes a lot. Both family and 20th-century history figure prominently in this film, but the result is a jumbled, disordered mess. It's ambitious, but I don't think it succeeds in its ambition. The camera-work is grittily realistic, but the actual screenplay is not terribly so: we jump from one time-period to another without warning; dead and vanished characters reappear, presumably as imaginings only. The time-shifting probably makes more sense to those more steeped in Hungarian history, but to an ignorant American like myself, the multitude of characters in a multitude of settings only confuses matters.
Note: the disc I got was cracked, so I missed the last 10 minutes. Dunno if I missed anything actually important that way.
(March 31, 2006) I was first intrigued by this by some fairly vague trailers airing on the Anime Network, suggesting it had a lot to do with love, airplanes, and war. Also, that The Place Promised in Our Early Days was the most cumbersome title to come down the pike in some time. Jon Rosebaugh recommended it too, so I took a look at it (this is what I love about Netflix: I can satisfy all sorts of curiosities). So, yes, there are love, airplanes, war, and all the beautiful artistry I can imagine over a sentimental story. As my response to Whisper of the Heart might indicate, this pushes several of the right buttons for me.
There were some aspects of the story that I wasn't exactly prepared for, either by the trailer or the Netflix summary. The summary made reference to a divided Japan post-WWII; and since the film made reference to a US/Japan coalition, I assumed it was the post-war occupation and that this was real history (I know we occupied Japan after the war; I assumed that Hokkaido being an autonomous separate entity was just something I'd missed). So I figured this story took place in, maybe, 1947, until I saw computers and whatnot and finally figured out that it was an alternative history, one where Japan was partitioned like Germany (which would, I suppose, make the "Union" a Soviet territory). I suppose this is instantly obvious to anyone who actually knows anything at all about Japanese history.
But, anyways, the first section of the story, other than the historical differences, corresponds about to what I expected: young people getting excited about flying and first love and being all sweet and whatnot. Then the function of the tower is revealed, rather suddenly, and the story changes radically. It works, but nothing I read led me to expect that twist, and I couldn't help but feel vaguely betrayed by the sudden left turn into pseudoscience. And after that twist, I expected another one: with the discussion of parallel universes and the experiments to make contact with them, I expected a clever twist along the lines as the Big Spoiler from Full Metal Alchemist. But, no, we never see the parallel universes, which is a bit disappointing, and in fact the story pans out about the way we'd expect.
I recommend this one on the strength of the lovely characters and excellent artwork (not superlative art, but pretty enough), but it's a bit flawed in, as mentioned before, the plot thinness near the end and the excessive use of monologue. The monologue is entirely Hiroki's, too, so we learn a lot more about what makes him click than either Takuya or Sayuri.
(April 2, 2006) I'm a sucker for films which take a large-scale view of history. This has sort of an epic scope, and it makes it work: centuries of history coalsce into stories abotu the violin. The acting is excellent, particularly Jason Flemyng and Samuel L. Jackson, and each story individually is strong and moving. Taking the film as a whole, it's hard to know what to make of it, though: the vignettes don't really coalesce as such, at least in my mind: the passion inspired by beauty is a constant theme, but the way the passion plays out changes as the historical context changes. Maybe that's the point, that things just happen, and that fate's vicissitudes are seemingly arbitrary sometimes. That sort of ties in with the connective tissue of this story: the tarot cards (which are anachronistic, but never mind that) each represent a discrete and distinct facet of fate.
What else to say, really? I find it surprisingly hard to write about films I like, because the qualities that make them work are so often intangible. The historical stance is awesome, the acting excellent, the cinematography unadventurous but effective, and the score is extremely appropriate (a great deal of emotionally affecting violin music: one can well believe the principal actors' passions inspired by the violin).
So, all in all, some great stories. All I can complain about is my troble rectifying the stories into a whole, and perhaps some unevenness in presentation: the third historical chapter is kind of abrupt, and the present-day section takes far too much precedence.
(April 4, 2006) I've generally had a fairly limited sense of cultural identity. I was born and raised Jewish, but I've typically thought of my cultural heritage as basically mongrel American. Of late I've been thinking more about what Judaism means to me. Maybe that's a sign of maturity. Either way, Exodus is deeply preoccupied with the meaning of Judaism in the 20th century, and particularly the formation of the state of Israel, whjich as a political playing-piece continues to have aftershock. One would like to think the best of everybody: history is by and large not a matter of heroes and villains so much as friction between cross-purposes. Certainly I get the feeling that much of the present strife in Israel and surrpounding areas is between people with equally legitimate claims among the moderates and equally inappropriate acts among the extremists. That said, Israel as an institution is pretty marvelous: a fairly progressive and modern state in a region still dominated by topheavy monarchies, naked dictatorships, and fundamentalist theocracies. But tis formation was an awfully unpleasant experience, and Exodus blames Arabs for much of the unpleasantness, which I found slightly distasteful. Granted, there's the token sympathetic Arab, and the Irgun is presented in a mostly negative light, but in the end Irgun tactics are considered a necessary evil and the evil Arabs have strung up the best among them, so the slant is distinctly pro-Jewish. I'm Jewish and appreciate this, but I appreciate a balanced historical view more.
But these political aspects are borrowed directly from the novel, so I can't fault the moviemakers too much for that. In terms of cinematic portrayal, I have very few complaints. Eva Marie Saint ennobles pretty much everything she's in, and this film is no exception. Paul Newman reminds me an awful lot of his role in Cool Hand Luke for some reason but it works, since his roguish scoundreliness, tempered with a sense of righteousness, is perfect for the role of Ari. Jill Haworth was absolutely adorable, but every time she spoke her accent distracted the hell out of me. And as for setting... well, lots of authenticity, aided by on-site filming. There are a number of grand panoramas, and this one (like that other grand "British bollocks things up in the Middle East" film, Lawrence of Arabia) really wants to be seen on a big screen.
Final, completely unfair note. Otto Preminger's impressed me; Exodus and Laura were both quite engrossing. So it's sad that in my mind his name is inextricably linked, thanks to a fairly obscure Zombies song, to his generally ill-regarded Bunny Lake is Missing.
(April 5, 2006) George Romero is one of two directors I know who actually made a successful first movie out of things you might find around the house. The other is Kevin Smith, who wandered off into progressively weirder and less funny things. For Romero, however, the formulaic beginning of his meteoric rise is still being milked decades later. So, zombies. Who doesn't like zombies? They're slow and clumsy, but make up for their lack of manual dexterity with their bloodthirsty and brainhungry determination. Romero gets what makes zombies work: it's not that individual zombies are particularly scary, but that big groups of zombies can bust into anything. It's sort of like The Birds, only with fewer lights and more undead.
On the lights issue: the cinematography on this film is not a thing of beauty. I think they spent the entire production budget on a Steadicam, so all they had left over for lighting were a couple of 60-watt lamps. So the camera usually knows what it's pointing at even if the viewer doesn't. It's easier to disguise shabby make-up jobs in the dark, anyways.
I'm running this movie down mostly because it's so damn easy. It is by no means a particularly good movie. It isn't laughably bad, and it's surprisingly cohesive and graceful for soemthing with such limited production values, but that doesn't make it any damn good. It's unusual for a distinctly mediocre work to exemplify a genre, but Night of the Living Dead does just that. They lurch. They don't talk. They swarm over buildings and vehicles and eat human flesh. You don't need flashy CGI to play out the grand epic of man's eternal struggle against the undead.
As a final odd observation, I was surprised that the film was as racially progressive as it was sexually regressive. The women range from hysterical to catatonic, but a black man gets to be the hero (and then gets 'capped by the Man—some things never change, eh?). IMDB suggests this was unintentional.
Sometimes the Netflix recommendation engine wins, and sometimes it loses. I went into Paradise Road not really knowing what to expect. I left with the vague feeling that I'd watched an upbudget, name-actor version of a Lifetime Original Movie. It has an awful lot of heartwarming and inspirational themes: music, sisterhood of women, perseverence in the face of atrocity. It has a lot of ingredients for success (solid story, talented actors, high production values) but somehow the film as a whole feels sort of hollow at the middle, more sentimental than actually emotional. I enjoyed it when I was watching it, but I just didn't feel moved.
Part of the premise of the story seemed a bit farfetched to me—how many European civilian women were there in Singapore?—but it's based on a true story, so the answer to that question is apparently "more than I realized". I don't know how closely it's based on a true story, though. One thing this movie did succeed in getting me to think about was that World War II was an extraordinarily atypical war in terms of civilian detention. War is frequently hard on civilians—if an army takes territory, all the civilians there have to find somewhere else to live—but traditionally militaries have regarded detaining civilians as a rather ineffectual use of manpower and would just as soon kill their conquests (if particularly cruel) or leave them to their own devices after destroying or possessing their hoems. But World War II saw a lot of civilians imprisoned: the Nazi concentration camps, the Japanese prison camps, and even, lest we think the Allies were saints, the American internment camps. A question which Paradise Road failed to answer, and to which I don't even know the answer, is why the Japanese were detaining civilians who, left to their own devices, would trouble the Japanese no more. That would have interested me more than a hollow-feeling inspirational story.
(April 10, 2006) I'm slowly exhausting Netflix's selection of Hungarian cinema, and I've got to say, the experiment has not been an overwhelming success. Part of this is that Hungarian cinema has received a pretty lukewarm reception on these shores, so even when it's good, its transition to DVD is usually rather shoddy. Definitely I Love Budapest suffers from this: a really rough interlace which renders fast motion a mess, and burned-in subtitles (the screenshot above is one of the cleanest frames I can get from the film). But enough with technical details—Kontroll suffered from these as well, and I'm still glad to own a copy—is I Love Budapest actually any damn good?
Not really, is my answer. It's a mundane slice-of-life with an unexplained deus ex machina fantastic ending. Pretty much none of the characters are sympathetic. One might judge it a testament to the strength of a director's art to make completely unsympathetic characters, but then we see something like Annikó visiting her mother to make her just human enough that we can't actually dislike her. But none of the characters really induce an emotional response. The men are wrapped up in stipid deals with power and money and drugs, and the women are vicious snakes who never seem to give a damn about much of anything other than bagging a "cool guy" (and why? they don't seem to care much about their mates' attractiveness or sexual proficiency; they don't get money or expensive gifts; and they never hang out with other girls to whom they can brag about their "cool boyfriend"; and all this trouble for basically abusive men). So when things happen to them (which they don't very often; actually, awfully little happens even for a film this short), why should I care?
On technical details: It's hard to judge the actual film quality, since this particular DVD release is so low-quality. The camerawork is actually pretty appropriately dark-urban, but fails to make the city feel real: then again, clubs and bars aren't the "real city" to me anyways. The music is dull and repetitive: Ágnes Incze managed to score Anima Sound System to do ambient music for her film Közel a szerelemhez, but decided to go with the more popular but less skilled (in my opinion) Yonderboi for this one.
Two final notes about the title: the international title of this film is actually I Love Budapest, or perhaps I ♥ Budapest. Móni's letter includes the phrase in English for some reason. In particular, this is a different film from István Szabó's similarly-named but earlier and probably better Budapest, amiért szeretem.
(April 15, 2006) A note on the title: my policy has been to canonicalize film titles the same way IMDB does, which is apparently by country of first release. So Once Upon a Time in the West (and every other Sergio Leone film) is not terribly recognizable from its subject-title. Sorry about that.
So, on to the actual material of this film. It is long and sweeping and very good within its genre. We don't see much character development, or even really strong plotting. What there is is a lot of straightforward acting in archetypal roles. It's somewhat one-dimensional, but it's genre work and it does a good job in it. We have the authentic black-hat villain, the bandit with a good heart, the damsel-in-distress, and the enigmatic stranger. Charles Bronson is very good as the last; the other roles seem somewhat routine, although Henry Fonda as the black-hat works a lot better than you'd expect it to. It sounds like I'm running this down, but really, it's a quite good film, just suffused enough with testosterone and machismo for me not to get super-excited (I'm ultimately a chick-flick fan). I do, however, admire the camerawork and scoring: the score is a magnificent work, with character themes and plenty of incidental music which works real well and has since become clichéd (which is one way to know it's good). The camera does a lot of close-ups on craggy, stubbly faces, but also a lot of panoramic shots, of farms and plains and railroads. It's a Western, what do you expect? But one might argue it's not just a Western, but the Western.
(April 15, 2006) This film bears a striking likeness to Szabó's next film, Tűzoltó utca 25.. It too has something of a muddled time-disjointedness and obsession with late-20th-century Hungarian history (particularly World War II and the following Soviet occupation). Somehow, this made a lot more sense than its followup did, perhaps because the age of the protagonists, and their interaction with eachother, formed a better focus for a story made of cascading flashbacks than the seemingly unrelated events at a house. So the sense of history and of coherence is a lot stronger, and it's a much better film, but it's definitely weak in some ways. One problem is the lack of any real conflict. We get a hundred vignettes in the life of these lovers, and a long stretch near the end where they sound out their true feelings for each other, but at no point in the story is there any dramatic tension. It's a series of things just happening. I liked the historical sense, and some of the vignettes were amusing or poignant, but the movie as a whole didn't feel like it came together as such. I kind of prefer the straightforward drama of early Szabó (for instance, Apa, which sticks to a specific dramatic point) or the grand sweeping historical epic of late Szabó (e.g. Sunshine).
Final points: burned-in subtitles. Why do American releases of Hungarian cinema do this to us? Not that I typically watch Hungarian film unsubtitled, but, y'know, subtitles are a separate track for a reason. Also, the childhood apartment of Jancsi and Kata is Tűzoltó utca 19. I'd never heard of Tűzoltó utca before this film, so I looked it up. Good reason I'd never been there—it's in southern Pest, rather further than I ever had reason to go. Not a terrific neighborhood, but fram what I'm given to understand, not a terrible one either. Dunno what it signifies to István Szabó though.
(April 15, 2006) Whale Rider is as charming as it is predictable. The basic story outline is that a young girl is the successor to a long line of chiefs; tradition dictates that Maori chiefs are male. From here, the progress of the story is pretty much foreseeable, although the details are occasionally surprising. Nonetheless, it's an enjoyable story, occasionally amusing, rarely deeply affecting. One note it hits very well is in the interplay between tradition and modernity. The incursion of the modern world into a traditional lifestyle is clearly thematic: Hemi's father rejects the old ways in favor of imported culture; Porourangi keeps his culture in mind but nonetheless goes abroad and marries a foreign woman. The fading of a traditional culture also works in Koro's need to explain traditional acts to the prospective chiefs (it's easy for me, an American, to find Koro ferociously sticking out his tongue ridiculous; but likewise is it ridiculous to his charges, who were raised on global-import culture. Somehow, the acknowledgment of this dichotomy makes it seem less as if the film is itself mocking Maori culture). It makes the central conflict ring truer to have these developments around the edges, since ultimately the issue ends up being cultural purity, which is an issue everywhere traditionalists encounter a global culture. So, big thematic elements, leading to a lot of conflict, but in the end the resolution's a bit pat—would that the gap between tradition and progress was so easily bridged in real life.
On non-thematic details: Keisha Castle-Hughes is delightful, believable and talented, which is good, since she's the character called upon for the most range (surprisingly, she's done almost nothing since, but then again, she's a trifle young to be a full-time actor). The camerawork is unambitious except for underwa ter scenes which might have, honestly, been better left out. The music is highly appropriate, blending some modern sounds with a number of traditional chants (disclaimer: I don't know Maori traditions, so I might be off base in my assessment of their authenicity. But they cast Maoris, and I'm presuming they got them pretty close to right.
(April 15, 2006) Yow. My response to a lot of the movies I watch is "Meh". Maybe I'm starting to get oversaturated or something. And then something like Memento comes along and demands that I think hard about it. The overarching structure is not anything terribly new: running a plot stricture backwards has surely been done before. However, the device—that in our bewilderment we are put in the shoes of the protagonist—is nothing short of brilliant. When we ask the question "However did he get in this prediciment?" Leonard asks himself the same thing. Likewise our view of the major characters fluctuates wldly,echoing Leonard's own need to reassess these people all the time. It all works very well, contributing both to confusion and an extraordinary dramatic tension. The two supporting actors are absolutely brilliant: Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss seem like complete ciphers not from insufficient characterization but from too much, and too inconsistent characterization.
This is a film that makes you think, and makes you think a lot, and even by the end it's not all sewn up (althoguh there are very few actual inconsistencies). Structurally it's brilliant, and the cinematography is spot on. Really, it all works about as well as a film can.
(April 15, 2006) I've been eying this one for a while: the film and video library was, for the longest time, unable to locate The Brothers Quay Collection. I'm glad to have finally seen it: I try to keep something of a handle on modern abstract animation, because I'm a pretentious prick who'd like to say he knows something about art. The Brothers Quay do a generally good but not superlative job in this regard: they're deeply reminiscent of Jan Švenkmajer's nightmarish desires-of-the-inanimate themes. Of course, they acknowledge the connection, as the first of these films is The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a somewhat obscure tribute of which I understood only parts. It's worth noting perhaps that Švenkmajer makes this approach work better not least because of his cultural context: early post-war Pargue was a city of dreary staticity, a city in which the implements of handicrafts were commonplace, where dreams of animated taxidermy and shears and pins could come alive. The Brothers Quay were born into a rather more sterile, technological time and place, and somehow, their golems of the commonplace seem less significant. The Epic of Gilgamesh escaped my comprehension completely; fortunately, it was quite short. Street of Crocodiles, like many short animations, gave me no plot or theme to respond to, so I considered it only as an aesthetic exercise. But it was an interesting aesthetic: unnatural camerawork marked by wipelike smooth, constant pans; haunting, obtrusive experimental music; images and actions which inexplicably reminded me of Tim Burton, or what Tim Burton might have been if he cared more about dolls and woodscrews than skeletons and music. Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies impressed me early with its choreography (if one may so refer to the rhythmic movements of strings, brushes, and barcodes), but then lost my interest. Dramolet (Stille Nacht I) was too short for me to make much of it: mostly familiar stuff, though, together with a bit of "fun with iron filings". The Comb has a good intense focus at the beginning, with monotints and title cards reminding me of prewar German expressionism, but I couldn't follow the rest of the plot or style too closely. Anamorphosis is a welcome relief: instead of completely incomprehensible surrealtic fiction we get a quasi-documentary on historical use of anamorphosis, which is nice to just appreciate the animation in without having to puzzle out what the hell's going on. Are We Still Married? (Stille Nacht II) and Can't Go Wrong Without You are fairly skillfully contrived Xanax-induced (one supposes) music videos, interrupted by the pointless and static Tales From the Vienna Woods (Stille Nacht III).
(April 16, 2006) I randomize my movie order, pretty much to avoid too much overexposure to a particular genre or style or what-have-you. But even randomness occasionally has repetitions, so I seem to have accidentally gotten myself two successive reverse-chronology films with memory-impaired protagonists. However, they're both critically-acclaimed films I failed to see at the time, so they made it onto my (rather long) list.
Anyways, it's worth mentioning that this film made me reassess my fairly uncharitable opinion of Jim Carrey. He seemed to be a madcap idiot with one good film in him (The Truman Show), sort of the flavor-of-the-month antic comic between Pauly Shore and Adam Sandler. It's nice to see that he has a bit more range, and he plays a straight man, an authentically sedate person in a serious role and he makes it work. That's a long way from Ace Ventura, and I heartily approve of the maturaiton of his acting skills.
Charlie Kaufman is of course the other talent whose hand is obvious in this film. There are shades of Being John Malkovich; in fact, the entire central part of the film somewhat resembles the scene in which John Malkovich enters his own head and is subjected to a self-referential mashup of his own thoughts and memories. This is, in fact, the film's greatest weakenss: that sort of dream-surreality works great for 10 minutes; for an hour, one starts wondering when this mess will stop and the actual plot will resume. The reverse-sequencing is good: seeing the progression of the central relationship move from the bitter end to its sweetest moments is excellent plotwise, but each sequence therein lasts a bit too long, and we know and understand what Joel's doing without his run through his memories being quite as drawn-out as it was.
Other than the pacing, though, I'm basically impressed. Kaufman's distorted realism has produced another delightfully twisted storyline, and it's well acted-out. I particularly like the subversion of a the "unremarkable repressed boy meets free-spirited girl who teaches him how to live" trope; in that pretty much the first thing we see is that, sure enough, the guy's as dull and the girl as irresponsible as their characters suggest; and later fwe find further, that she knows that trope and refuses to conform to it—and that becomes a defining characteristic of their relationship. Nice one. If you can't avoid a cliché, flip it on its head.
(April 17, 2006) Plotwise and themewise I'm seeing some synchronicity here: age everyone down a couple decades, transfer the setting from Italy to southeast Asia, and we have something not unlike Paradise Road, and like Paradise Road this is based (how loosely, I don't know) on a true story. But somehow this film worked a lot better. Maybe it's the genre: the lighthearted farcical elements of the plot kept Tea With Mussolini from taking itself too dreadfully seriously, which made its dramatic and emotional moments seem more real. Maybe it's the acting: the three grande dames of British cinema (a description both apt and truthful, since they are not only great ladies but in fact DBEs) carry the stage, with not inconsiderable support from the typecast vulgar American (Cher) and the practical and mannish archaeologist (Lily Tomlin). Anyways, most of the genius of this film—like so many good films—is its careful balance of earnest seriousness and farce. The entire situation described is farcical, from Italy's position in the war to the ladies' stubborn refusal to budge in the face of authority. But of course the situation's deadly serious too, with war and Nazis and whatnot. The great black comedy novel was also set in World War II Italy (Catch-22); maybe the setting is the perfect blend of over-the-top absurdity and terrible doom. Add the visual spectacle of Florence and some extraordinary actresses and it's very near perfect.
(April 19, 2006) I suspect I'm not the intended audience for this film. Hell, I know I'm not the audience for this film, and I knew it before I even watched it. But it's enlightening as to the basic upscrewedness inherant to some Christian groups. See, it was a commercial success and praised by several Christian groups, so I'm assuming this film is in some way indicative of the perceptions of mainstream Christianity. It also focuses on one incident in Jesus's life, so presumably that's the focal point of mainstream Christian thought. So what's this event that has inspired millions? Some half-naked dude getting the life kicked out of him, apparently.
See, I don't know. Maybe the baggage Christians bring to this film makes it seem a lot better, but I don't see much happening in terms of weighty issues, just some guy being beaten up. What amazes me is that evangelical grops have promoted Passion as a good thing to show to non-Christians to convert them. Maybe you have to be an evangelical Christian to appreciate the logic, but if you sat me down, told me "this is what my religion's all about" and showed me 2 hours of torture, I don't think I'd stick around for tea and cookies. It's weird, because I don't see the life of Jesus as devoid of inspiration: the gospels are a solid narrative, the sermons and parables poetic and incisive; but all that occurs in the first 75% of each Gospel and this film's all about the last 25%, which I guess excites Christians but doesn't do a damn thing for me. Assuming one presumes this is all meant to be inspirational, what's the message? I'm reading it as "suffering is noble and misery sacred". Which makes Christians sound like Goths with less eyeliner. I'm pretty sure that's not what the Official State Religion of Missouri (yes, I know the resolution hasn't passed yet) is actually about. Maybe this movie would've shown Christians in a better light with Graham Chapman and a song-and-dance number or two.
Buggered if I know what it is about, though.
(April 21, 2006) Rouge is a film which manages to be about a great deal with very little actually happening. This leaves the plot feeling a bit threadbare: we get only a dim sketch of Valentine's brother, and all we know of Auguste is that his fate is echoing that of the old judge. There's a hint that Auguste and Valentine might well be able to redeem eachother's fragmented lives at the end, although given the indeterminate state that leaves Michel in... well, let's just say I was left mildly unsatisfied by the ending, but all that led up to it I approved of tremendously. The two central characters are well-fleshed-out and highly realistic. For instance, Valentine is a wonderful champion for the cause of human worth: she's not a heroic figure, saving the world or touching hundreds of lives, but instead is an essentially decent person which, one might say is this film's thesis, is all one truly needs. I think red is supposed to be the color of fraternity (I'm going by the order of the films and the revolutionary slogan, so I might be off), so the central drama of this film is how people ought to relate to other people. Most people want to judge: Michel, the old judge, Auguste—but Valentine's role as the noble character in this story is that her sense of duty exceeds her temptation to judge.
Er, I think, anyways. It's a pretty heavy story, working a lot of symbolic angles and repetitive themes while maintaining an essential level of realism, so it's quite possible that I missed the main theme entirely; it doesn't help that I still haven't seen Bleu, althoguh the connections between the films seem mostly non-plot-related (I recognized the recycling woman, Karol, and Dominique from Blanc; I assume the other two ferry passengers are from Bleu). Apropos symbolism, the setting and cinematography deserve special note: since the film is called Rouge, one would expect the color red to appear prominenty, and it does, but not in a way which makes you think "damn, that's really red", except in scenarios where that would be appropriate. The red occurs in the everyday: a red Jeep, a dark pink tablecloth, brick red awnings, and so forth. Except at times when it appears to be intentional, the world of Rouge does not seem oppressively monochrome. But it's definitely got a lot of redness in it. I'd imagine Blanc had a lot of whiteness in it, too, and that I didn't notice.
(April 24, 2006) This is clearly a Terry Gilliam film in some aspects, and rings rather false in others. The settings which are at the same time more fantastic and mundane than they seem; the alternatingly snappy and dim wits of the protagonists; the mythohistorical setting... I mean, it's basically a less madcap version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. That's at best lukewarm praise, really; Munchausen derives its charm from its over-the-top and off-the-wall fantasticalelements, and a mainstream, less fantastic version of the same isn't all that desirabe. I enjoyed it while I was watching, but I was left overall with a distinct sense of unmemorability. I think it's just trying too hard. Also, Matt Damon, IMO, was an unwise choice. He's not a bad actor, it's jsut that he's always Matt Damon, and his Mattdamonocity wasn't quite right for this film.
(April 25, 2006) For the first half-hour or so I was expecting something somewhat akin to Double Indemnity with better acting. I was pleasantly surprised to see the story go beyond the somewhat clichéd "younger working-man falls in love with his old employer's wife, and the two of them kill him". This film is one of the few I can think of with a really good grasp on situational irony, and the plot is far more involved than the initial perception lets on. So from a plot perspective, I enjoyed the film. The cinematography is par for the era: nothing fancy, really. As for acting—well, it's hit or miss. Everyone hams it up a lot, but some with more sensitivity than others. John Garfield keeps his acting the most restrained, but the lovely Lana Turner is a bit over the top, and Cecil Kellaway is trying entirely too hard to be loathsome (mainly, I'd imagine, because the pretext for murder is so weak: the second attempt made some sense, but at the time of the first murder attempt, I couldn't help but think he hadn't actually done anything to merit that kind of treatment). Un-nuanced acting aside, I'm a fan of this film. Stay the course through the predictable first half hour or so: it gets better.
Apropos of nothing, Netflix reports the existence of a 1981 remake. I'm not entirely entranced by their blurb, though:
This remake of John Garfield's classic film noir goes where 1940s Hollywood feared to tread: into the realm of explicit sex.
I knew there was something missing from this film! Everything's better with on-screen simulated copulation! Actually, it stars Jack Nicholson, so maybe it's not all that dire, but I'm still in no hurry to see it. How often are remakes better than the original, anyways? The Maltese Falcon, Gaslight, The Man Who Knew Too Much... that's all I can think of.
(April 25, 2006) Stop me if you've heard ths one.
Emperor James B. Pirk, with his Plingon security officer Dwarf and cybernetic helmsman Info, declares war on the Babel 12 space station, captained by Captain John K. Sherrypie...
Half National-Lampoon-esque broad parody, half fanfic wet dream, and half intellectual property experiment, Star Wreck has 50% more descriptors than it's actually earned. Moving beyond the broad "everything is vaguely-close-to-the-original-names" parody, there are some authentically funny moments, although not really enough to bring this film into the realm of notability. Its main claim to fame is its ridiculous budget and intriguing licensing. Yes, on a budget of roughly $0.00, a group of random Finns put together an arguably respectable film. It says a lot about the state of modern personal computing and video equipment, that you can do something this good without actually getting any professional gear. Not that this is up to, say, Hollywood blockbuster production standards, but its effects and virtual sets would be pretty enviable even by big production studios 15 or so years ago. The corner-cutting is obvious in places: the actors aren't terribly skilled, and the real sets are kind of lame, but that only adds to the camp value (and why shouldn't the Babel 12's reactor room look like every HVAC machine room ever made?). Anyways, the film is released under Creative Commons and available for download, so there's reallynothing preventing anyone who has the slightest interest in seeing this film from doing so. That alone merits a recommendation.
(April 26, 2006) Longtime readers have surely noted that I miss a lot of culturally significant cinema. Rain Man definitely qualifies; Dustin Hoffman one of the most memorable (and spoofable) performances in cinema history. Also, it seems to have marked a turning poing in popular perception of insanity: traditionally people with serious mental disorders were portrayed as gibbering loons, usually murderous, basically Reefer Madness without the reefer. Rain Man seems to have been one of the earliest films to look at mental disorders in a sympathetic and vaguely factual light. No, Dustin Hoffman's performance isn't a clinically perfect presentation of autism, but it's a pretty good pop-culture first-order approximation, and it seems like people with disorders have been portrayed more convincingly, or at least interestingly, since then: Rain Man brought us extreme autism, and more functional autism appeared in The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (along with a smattering of other disorders) is brought to our homes by Monk, and I dunno what disorder Vincent D'Onofrio's pretending to have in Law & Order: CI, but he's definitely got some very mild disorder on the obsessive end of things.
What intrigues me is that modern audiences are far more interested in methodical mental disorders then in the chaotic madmen of bygone eras. Maybe we're starting to actually care about how accurate portrayals are, or maybe we just find an off-kilter but internally consistent mindset a far more interesting character than one which is a complete cipher. One thing which bugs me, though, about all of these is that they're basically comedies. Rain Man (and its aforementioned predecessors) invite us to laugh at their main characters' quirks. That's OK when the character in question is just wacky, but when they're ill too there's a bit of an edge to it, and it kind of hurts the overall tone. Anthoer rather worrisome trend is to present the methodological disorders as actually having inordinate gifts attached to them, especially gifts of memory and calculation. I don't know how typical this is, but I think it's perhaps a disservice to those who do suffer from real problems that there's an expectation that their curse will also be a blessing after a fashion. Fortunately, most of these works—and especially Rain Man—have a bit more to it than the "get a load of the freakshow!" vibe: there's cause not only for laughter and awe but also commiseration, and that works. On the subject of character rapport, let me applaud the courageous decision not to take the easy, and mawkish, way out of having Raymond learn to comprehend love. He's not a character who really can develop much, and shouldn't. It preserves the integrity of the story far more for him to change other people than to be himself changed.
As I so often do, I have a parting shot. Namely, a question. I have a vague idea of the particular dysfunctions associated with autism, and I thought one of the things they had tremendous difficulty dealing with is high levels of sensory input. Shouldn't being on the floor of the casino have caused Raymond to panic outright? Most Vegas casinos are a bit overwhelming even for those of us generally able to hold ourselves together.
(April 30, 2006) I finally finished the trilogy, and I'm left wondering if I lack the part of my brain in which one appreciates such things.I responded aesthetically, but I wasn't seeing much happening. To my eyes, Bleu suffers from a flaw akin to one in 2001: Emotional isolation is a good starting point for a story, but setting up that isolation makes for a really boring story. I understood more or less what was being gotten at, with the impossibility of isolation and the ultimate nsatisfactoriness of the attempt, but it just didn't feel cinematic to me. Which is a shame, because cinematographically, Bleu is, like the other elements of the trilogy, well-crafted, with skilled camerawork and setting and, as noted in my commentary on Rouge, ample shading and scenery evocative of the color. I just needed a greater sense of involvement, I think: The film drops us more-or-less in the middle, where we watch a character of whom we know nothing do very little for a long time. If we knew Julie before her withdrawl, I think I'd respond a lot more empathically, but as it stands, her character is just too much of a cipher for too long, and too inert for her mystery to be a compelling one.
(May 1, 2006) Being There is a funny, funny film. That it does this in spite of having retardation (or at least a similar situation) as a major theme is pretty impressive. Think of "comedies about the mentally ill", and you probably come up with Dumb and Dumber and its ilk, with a basically "look at the dumb freakshow" vibe (c.f. my comments on Rain Man). I might as well dispense right away with the shaky claim I just made that Chance is meant to be retarded. He's definitely what a previous generation would call "simple", and it's explicitly said that his mental abilities and diction are below par (said diction being brilliantly delivered by a somewhat spacey Peter Sellers), but some of that is perhaps attributable to his isolated upbringing rather than actual mental inability. Whether Chance's disability is innate or a product of his upbringing, however, is outside the scope of the film, and thus outside the scope of my analysis, really.
But, regardless of the source of his inability, how can a film about someone with a disability be so hilarious and remain classy? Simple: we're not laughing at him, we're laughing at everyone else's responses to him. It's social satire at its best, that someone whose entire repertoire is gardening maxims and regurgitated television is hailed as a visionary and a genius. It's also a very DC story, with the political scheming undertones and the worship of canned "soundbite" wisdom. All in all, it was hilarious and reasonably sensitive, at least in the context of the times. There's fairly flagrant racial stereotyping and a sexual stereotype, but, hey, we were still getting over the 70s. Actually, the part I found most offensive was not a lamentable relic of the Bad Old Days, but the unnecessarily messianic coda. I'm assuming it's meant to be messianic, anyways. One could argue that it's a testament to the film's thesis that, not knowing your limitations, you aren't bound by them, but, er, that's a bit of a stretch.
(May 2, 2006) A shameful admission: for about a decade, my main mental reference for the phrase "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was not this excellent film, but Gene Pitney's rather overblown 1962 hit song of the same name.
In discussing Once Upon a Time in the West, I praised it liberally, but it was ultimately constrained by its genre. I bring that up again because Liberty Valance was not so constrained, and is, while cinematographically less powerful, a better movie in almost every other respect. Your average Western involves grimacing stubbly guys shooting each other over treasure or land. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has, as the title implies, some shooting. And stubble and grimaces, and even a barroom brawl. But the film isn't about these things. For every scene of Liberty and Tom growling at each other, there's another discussing the future of the West, education, and regional politics. There's a lot more here than I'd been given to expect, and a pervasive theme of the progression from lawlessness to law, from individualism to community spirit. In fact, this is all so prominent that there's barely room to squeeze in the irony alluded to in the title. It's a good'un, for sure, and of course the two major characters encompass their themes so perfectly. John Wayne is, of course, himself, a rough and plain-spoken gunslinger who represents the Old West; Jimmy Stewart is, in lack of a better description, basically the title role of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all over again: earnest, idealistic, and in way over his head. Corollary to the situational awkwardness of his fame is the peculiar role a naïve outsider plays in reshaping the West; as I mentioned, there's a keen sense of situational irony which exploits Stewart's best acting characteristics. Put this all together, and you have more than just a Western: you've got a fine-tuned historical drama.
(May 2, 2006) A comment which seems to be irrelevant here, but give me a chance to tie it in: United 93 has a staggering 92% on RottenTomatoes.com. While it may well be a good film (I haven't seen it, and I'm not qualified to judge), I think an awful lot of reviewers are downright afraid to pan it, even if it were bad. As a bleeding-heart social-liberal, I feel like I'm put in a similar bind by Rabbit-Proof Fence.
See, the film's an excellent history lesson, at least for a non-Aussie like myself who doesn't know much of anything about traditional Australian-aboriginal relations. The villain of the story pretty much explicitly says his goal is the eradication of certain racial phenotypes and the destruction of their traditions. It's basically cultural genocide, and it's one of the more tragic moments in Australian history. Unfortunately, the film-makers seemed to think a historical tragedy was, in itself, sufficiently cinematic to need no additional story-telling, and the film suffers therefrom. The plot plods along with little variation, none of the characters develop at all, and it sort of peters out at the end. There's not much there to really hang a story on, and the tragic circumstances gain no particular weight through the narrative. I'm left disappointed that a weighty topic, one with all sorts of opportunity for thought-provoking conflict, ends up being transmitted through a lightweight story and a simplistic morality.
(May 2, 2006) Se7en thinks it's something it ain't. Based on the popular reception I recall it getting at the time of its release, everyone else thought so too. See, Seven (I can't bring myself to do the cutesy internumber-thing except in passwords) is a gimmick inside a genre piece, and the result can't help but be camp. I'm pretty sure this film started with the "hey, wouldn't this be a neat premise" idea and fleshing it out involved trying to legitimize this highly implausible conceit. Which means there are all sorts of ill-conceived attempts at Meaningfulness: references to Dante, Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Maugham, Chaucer, long monologues about the wickedness of the modern world, and so forth. And it's a shame, because the thematically interesting parts get shunted aside. There's an intriguing but never-fully-realized intimation about the psychically unhealthy nature of cities (which works harmoniously with the claustrophobic, dark, and dingy setting); some waffling on the nature of insanity as a function not of individuals but of collectives, and some other things which actually work well and don't come smack up against the camp barrier of the central plot element. But instead we have Kevin Spacey looking all intense (which he does quite well: Kevin Spacey's very good at making his words sound like far more than they are. Not sure why, but he really has an effective something) and talking about how his finale will be legendary. But the finale's actually a string of clichés, and pretty weak. Feh.
(May 4, 2006) Narnia is a big, popular franchise. It was one of the two series I read as a child (the other was Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series), and generation after generation of young people has undergone the personal journey of exploration and discovery to discover the eternal truth about which C.S. Lewis wrote: namely, that Turkish Delight is actually kind of nasty.
So I'm not writing about the book here: discussions of C.S. Lewis's goals, storycraft, and blatant Christian allegory can be gone into later. The question is really, how well did this particular film capture the source material? Actually, pretty well, in my estimation. A great deal of time and money as put into costuming and CG, and it's to the film's credit that a lot of it is well-integrated. There are very few effects that feel gratuitous. The acting is generally pretty good too, although there were a couple of things which grated (more below). The cinematography is excellent — really, with money to burn, you'd hardly expect them to fall down on techincal aspects. One weak part of the film experience, though, was the music. We mostly got the stirring and occasionally sad martial scores which typically accompany big battle scenes. I'm sure it was original music crafted especially for the occasion, but it sounds like Big Battle music from pretty much every fantasy epic ever.
So, all in all, good. What didn't I like? A few tonally off modifications, mostly. The biggest change I saw was the battle on the ice, which IIRC never happened in the book, but it was OK and it fit, so I can't complain. However, shortly before the battle on the ice we have a lot of fleeing, with Badger being far too quippy. This happens a lot, especially with Disney. You've got a tense party being pursued, and one member of the group simply has to be all jovial and witty. It doesn't fit. A bigger character problem, for me at least, is Susan, whose every movement and dialogue-line is drippnig with scorn and eye-rolling. Guess they're starting early in setting her up to be the one that only gets a passing mention 6 movies later.
One more bitch, and then I'll conclude, satisfied that the good outweighs the bad here. There's a scene, both in the book and the movie, where Peter has to kill Maugrim. It's a big deal, because having to take life is angstilicious and afterwards he gets all ashamed when Aslan rebukes him for not cleaning his sword. The sword-cleaning is sort of minimally mentioned (guess Disney balked at showing their hero holding a slick, gory blade, trying to keep their PG rating). And Peter doesn't exactly run Maugrim through. He holds his sword out reluctantly while Maugrim leaps on the blade. It's awfully weakening of what should be a powerful point evolving a character.
But, as I mentioned, other than a couple of dissonant points, I'm satisfied with the quality and faithfulness of the adaptation.
(May 5, 2006) Appleseed is perhaps more than the sum of its parts. We open with a Matrixesque fight scene, then move into social commentary from a world whose obsolescence concerns rest halfway between Blade Runner and X-Men, with an aesthetic atmosphere courtesy of Ghost in the Shell. This makes it sound like a warmed-over synthesis of a number of prior works, but it manages to transcend the works it evokes and take the ideas to different places. The motivations and characterixzations are totally different, and only the central conflict of humand displacement remains. Plotwise and thematically I'm left extraordinarily satisfied. Maybe less badass hopping around Matrix-style would improve this film, but that sort of ties into the Ghost in the Shell influence as well, one of the few connections here I can actually support (since both films are based on Shirow Masamune mangas).
However, the badass hopping around is actually the best part from an artistic standpoint, I'm afraid. My one main complaint about this film is its ambitious use of 3D modeling. 3D has evolved a lot, but it's still awfully distracting. The overall feel of the animation here was not "realistic 3D world", it was "watching someone else play Halo". And like a first-person-shooter, the animation detail is actually kind of unawkward as long as people are running, jumping, and shooting at things. But during non-action sequences the animation is kind of uncanny. I mentioned some time back, when I watched Ghost in the Shell 2, that backgrounds would be less distracting if they were somewhat less reflective, and that's true here as well. Far more serious, however, is some weird movement on the part of the human figures: I don't think they've got hands and necks quite down yet, and movements of them seem kind of awkward. While this sort of animation may be the way of the future, at present it's sort of distracting and unsettling, and it's a pity, because so much associated with this film is good.